My second Weird Western ebook comes out in just a couple of weeks. Unlike the short tales in the first volume, which both focused on more-or-less typical heroes in the cowboy mode, GIVEN NAMES is a novella that tells a single, strange, Native American coming-of-age story.
The stories in the previous book were also more obviously fantastical than this one. Thirteen Bullets was sci-fi horror in the vein of Alien or Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and although The Lying Room featured “a zombie” it was styled after a traditional ghost story, with a wronged man returning from the grave to take revenge.
Here the weird in the western is more subtle. It’s about how we see ourselves and how others see us. So, with no more ado, the beginning of…
River Stones and I crouch against the trunks of trees, watching each other to see who will look out at the prey first. He jerks his head, I jerk mine, he grins, so do I.
“One of you should do something,” calls the Deer. “If not River Stones behind the crooked tree, then Circling Bird behind the straight one.”
We hear wood hitting wood, and something small drops in front of River Stones. Another sounds over my head, I look up and catch what falls: a segment of branch, smoothed to fit the palm, its underside carved with the pads of a deer’s hoof-print. We slump, defeated, and look around our trunks together.
Prairie Wind, who is just as good a hunter here in the woodland as on the plains that give him his name, is playing the Deer. He beckons with a curt flick of one hand, and looks unimpressed at the breaking of the brush beneath our feet as we come.
“Noisy hunters are hungry hunters,” he says, “unloved by their hungry wives.” He turns to look at the forest with solemn eyes, a strong, serious figure, handsome and tall. “Silent hunters,” he continues, “eat well, and their well-fed wives love them noisily.”
We blush and laugh, and he smiles. “It is better to be well-fed, little boys.”
“And well-loved!” River Stones shouts, for he is never one not to repeat a joke he likes before the echoes of the first telling die away.
“Learn your lessons or you’ll never know,” his father barks back, then points at us both. “Tell me, without looking at each other: which hoof do you hold, foreleg or hind?”
We look at the print-makers in our hands, the tools Prairie Wind used to lead us here, and say “foreleg” in perfect unison. River Stones smirks at me, and I know that he will be right—he is better at the tracking game. The Deer would still be waiting had I been tracking him alone.
Prairie Wind shakes his head. “The day you bring down a deer with a foreleg like that is the day everyone eats two meals at dusk. River Stones, you are the Deer. Make a trail, lead us back. While we follow, you can chase the girls hopefully.”
I throw the print-maker to my friend. He taps them together with a favourite rhythm, stamps his feet in the dance of the hunters.
Prairie Wind snorts. “Get running, Deer! If we catch you before you reach home, the girls will eat, not love.” River Stones hoots and jumps and trots to the edge of the clearing.
Prairie Wind clicks his fingers and I turn my back on the Deer’s departure. Our teacher sweeps clear a patch of ground and sits cross-legged. I sit opposite, the bare earth between us. Behind me, the Deer is brushing through the undergrowth, moving away.
“Concentrate, Circling Bird,” Prairie Wind tells me. “Close your eyes, and picture deer prints.” Head down, eyes closed, I do so, as well as I can. “Now draw them in the earth.”
I do so, as well as I can. Then I draw the hare, the wolf, the hog, the bear, and when River Stones has his lead we hunt the Deer again.