Slipping Into Darkness: Conclusion
Sundown found Zeke setting up camp three miles away from the town near a clump of trees not far from the Pecos. Zeke sat before his fire, chewing on salt pork and sipping on coffee. He figured he’s get as close to the Duvals’ mission as he dared to study the building. It was most likely heavily guarded, but on the other hand the Duvals might be so confident in their control that they didn’t pay attention to such details. Still, it would do him good to be cautious. He felt guilty taking a rest; every moment not looking for Josué increased the chances that he would never find his friend dead or alive. But he wouldn’t be any good to anyone if he was tired so he had to rest. He finished his meal, put out the fire then set up a place to sleep within the trees. First thing in the morning he would set out on foot to the mission.
It was the mule that woke him. The agitated beast braying alarmed Zeke. At first, he thought it might be under attack by a puma or coyotes, but the voices he heard soon afterwards revealed the source of its annoyance. Zeke rolled onto his stomach, grabbing his Henri. Looking toward the sound, he spotted the light of three torches near the river. He placed the Henri down then picked up the machete. If shots were fired he had no doubt the sound would carry to the mission he would have a lot more trouble to handle. Three men would be tough, but he could handle them. This would have to be wet work.
Zeke rustled about loud enough for the men to hear then scampered away from his position. He watched the men creep toward the woods and heard the click of revolver triggers being locked into place.
“We don’t know who the hell you are,” a gruff voice called out. “But you’re on private property. Best you come on out now before things get ugly.”
Zeke responded by tossing a stick to where he’d slept. As soon as the stick hit a tree the men rushed into the woods. Zeke rushed as well, his footfalls masked by the interlopers’ movements.
Zeke slammed his machete hilt into the man’s head before he could finish his word. The man crumpled to the ground as Zeke leapt over him, slamming into the other two. One man, fell and Zeke kicked him across the jaw, knocking him unconscious. The third man was raising his gun when Zeke chopped down on his wrist. There was a clanging sound; the man’s arm dropped but his hand was still intact.
The man grinned as he raised his gun to fire. Zeke sidestepped then grabbed the revolver with his free hand. He snatched the gun away then struck the man hard across the jaw. To his dismay the man swiveled in a circle at his waist, striking Zeke across the jaw with a backhand. Zeke fell against a nearby tree then barely avoided a punch that split the tree in half. Zeke ducked and dodged the man-thing’s onslaught, looking for the right moment to strike. He stopped before a thick tree, feigning exhaustion. The man grinned as he swung at Zeke with a knife hand. Zeke ducked then watched the hand lodged into the thick tree trunk. The man grimaced as he tried to jerk his hand free. Zeke swung his machete and cut off the man’s head. The sound of hissing filled the trees, the man’s body collapsing to the ground as steam whooshed from its neck.
“I’ll be damned,” Zeke whispered. He’d seen advanced escorts before, but nothing like this. Whoever created it managed to merge man and machine. Everything below the man’s neck was mechanized metal. A sick realization came to him. He tied up the unconscious men then broke camp. He had to reach the mission as soon as possible. Zeke tied up the unconscious men then gathered his horse, mule and provisions. Despite his better judgment he worked his way up the road in darkness, urgency overruling common sense. Providence was on his side as he reached a steep rise in the trail. He led his beast to the crescent then hunkered down when he saw torchlight below. He assumed it came from the mission, but he wouldn’t be sure until daybreak. With nothing left to do, he secured the animals then attempted to rest until daybreak.
Zeke was wide awake as the sun eased over the horizon, painting the sky with reddish hues. The light revealed the contents below him and a grim smile creased his face. Zeke stared down from the hilltop at the Duval mission. The building sat out in the open, its stucco walls matching the surrounding sand. A cemetery occupied the ground before the entrance. Most of the tombstones were withered from age, but a good number were recent. There was no way he could approach the old building without being seen. One guard patrolled the grounds, occasionally stopping to take a pull from his cigar. The other leaned against the adobe wall on the second floor. Neither seemed diligent; they worked for the Duvals, and according to the bartender no one in their right mind would dare attack their stronghold. But Zeke wasn’t in his right mind.
He folded his telescope then tucked in his pocket before crawling behind the summit. His horse munched on a clump of grass, oblivious to the role it was about to play. Zeke did a self-inspection one last time. He wore a Colt on each hip, his waist belt rimmed with bullets. Two ammo belts of shotgun shells crisscrossed his chest. His shotgun rested in his leg holster and his machete rested in its sheath across his back. Strapped to his right calf was a dagger; on his left calf was his Derringer. He sauntered to his horse then took his Henri from the saddle holster. He had the least number of rounds for it, but didn’t plan on using it once he got inside the mission. If he reached the mission.
“Got dammit Josué,” he said. “Damn you to hell!”
Zeke took the whiskey flask from his saddle, twisted off the cap then drank it dry. He wiped his mouth as the liquor burned its way to his stomach. He considered walking away, but he’d come too far. He couldn’t leave a friend behind, especially if he knew what would happen if he did.
Zeke grabbed the horse’s reins then led it to the hillcrest. He slapped the horse’s flank as hard as he could. The horse whinnied then bolted over the hill toward the mission. Zeke darted to his right, keeping as low as he could and praying that the horse would keep the guards’ attention until he was close enough. If he could reach the cemetery before he was spotted he’d have some kind of cover once the shooting started. But that wasn’t to be. A shot rang out a Zeke heard the bullet buzz past his head. Thank God for bad shots, he thought. He lifted his Henri, working the lever furiously as he gunned the man down, the extra shots just in case the man was an automaton. He wasn’t. Bullets streaked by him and peppered the dirt around his feet as he dodged through the tombstones. A bullet grazed his shoulder as he reached the walls, spinning him around. Zeke would have fell if not being so close to the wall. He grimaced as he slammed against it, his hand going to the wound. He bled, but the wound was superficial.
He gathered himself then edged toward the gate. As he expected the wooden barrier swung wide, unleashed a half dozen guards. Zeke ambushed them, killing all six in a matter of seconds. He ran to the door, entering the mission sanctuary. He ducked behind the closest pews as the guards released a storm of gunfire. Zeke dropped the Henri then snatched the revolvers from his holster. He preferred the Henri, but it was too bulky for close quarter fighting. He’d be stupid to try to work his way through such a barrage, so he would wait for them to come to him. And come they did. The first guard leapt over the pew, guns blazing. Zeke rolled away and fired back, striking the man in the torso. Zeke burst from cover, sprinting up the left side of the pews, shooting every step of the way. His goal was the doors behind the sanctuary. Luck and speed got him to the closed doors; he kicked near the lock but the door refused to give. Zeke holstered his revolver then snatched out his shotgun, firing both barrels and blasting the lock away. He kicked the door again and it flew open, revealing a long corridor with rooms on either side. Zeke ducked into the first room. A stench assailed his nose; he looked about and nearly vomited. The room was filled with rotting body parts, legs and limbs strewn over tables and benches. He fled the room, barreling into the guards that pursued him. A close quarter melee ensued, guns firing and fists flying. It was over in moments, with Zeke staggering wounded down the hallway, leaving a pile of dead and wounded men behind him.
“Josué!” he shouted. “Where the hell are you?”
“Zeke?” Josué shouted back.
Zeke sprinted into the room from which Josué’s voice emanated. As he charged through the door he stumbled to a stop. Josué, or what was left of him, sat on a bare table. His body was gone, replaced by a metal assembly similar to the guard he’d killed. Two figures stood beside him, draped in white coats, their faces covered by surgical masks. They removed the masks, revealing the man and woman Zeke assumed were the Duvals.
The man snarled as he spoke.
“You are a dead man,” he said. “You’ll never leave this building alive.”
“Never,” the woman said.
“You two first,” Zeke answered.
He blasted the man and woman into the wall with his shotgun then turned it on Josué.
“Zeke,” Josué said, tears streaming from his eyes. “Do it.”
Zeke hands trembled.
“I…can’t,” he replied.
“Do it!” Josué shouted. “I can’t live like this. I can’t.”
Zeke aimed the shotgun at Josué’s head. Josué smiled.
“Merci, mon ami,” he said. “Merci.”
Zeke closed his eyes as he pulled the trigger. The blast jolted his body inside and out. When he opened his eyes, what was left of his friend was sprawled on the table. Darkness settled into Zeke, a blackness that covered his heart and infected his thoughts. He reloaded his guns then emerged from the room with morbid intentions. Zeke walked from room to room, hunting for any person in the mission. Those he found alive he killed; those that were dead he put another bullet in them for good measure. When he was done he sought and found the storage room. There were two canisters of kerosene; he emptied the contents throughout the building. He exited the structure, lit a match then tossed it inside. He waited for the fire to catch before closing the doors then trudging away. By the time he reached the hilltop the mission was fully ablaze.
“Goodbye, Josué,” he whispered.
He gathered his horse and mule then rode away.
* * *
Zeke rode into the camp mid-afternoon, two days after his encounter at the mission. Two airships occupied the landing fields, their ride back to New Haiti. His comrades looked at him warily as he trudged by. Hitching his horses, he made his way to the commander’s
office. Saint Fleur looked up to Zeke’s grim face and frowned.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
Zeke plopped into the chair before the commander’s desk and took off his hat.
“Did you bring back his body?” Saint Fleur asked.
“Wasn’t much to bring back,” Zeke answered.
Zeke told Saint Fleur everything. The commander’s face reflected his horror and revulsion.
“You did the right thing,” he said as Zeke finished. “I’ll write a letter to his family. “We’ll say it was combat related. Best to spare them the details.”
“That’s kind of you, sir,” Zeke replied. “If you don’t mind, I’d like to deliver that letter. It’s the best I can do.”
“Of course,” the commander replied. “Like I said, you are a good friend, Zeke Culpepper. If you ever decide to come back to your senses and rejoin the Grand Army I’d be happy to serve as your commander.”
“Thank you, sir, but that won’t happen,” Zeke replied. “I’m done with killing. Think I’ll go back home and try my luck at farming.”
“I don’t see you as a farmer,” Saint Fleur said.
“I don’t either. But there’s a farm waiting for me in Georgia, so I might as well give it a try.”
The commander nodded.
“Gather your gear. We leave within the hour.”
Zeke returned his bunk. He stripped out of his civvies then took a long shower, all the while trying to shake the image of Josué lying on the white table, his blood dripping over the edge. He returned to his bunk then donned his uniform as the other soldiers left the room for the airship field. Zeke glanced at Josué’s empty bunk and the grief hit him all at once. He sat hard on his bed then covered his face with his hands, hiding the tears escaping his eyes despite his best effort.
“God damn it Josué!” he shouted. “God damn it!”
He let the tears flow for a few minutes more before wiping his face and straightening his uniform. Zeke threw his duffel bag over his left shoulder, his weapon case across his back then strode to the field. The airships had arrived, the armored dirigibles completing their final approach. As the craft eased down to the field, Zeke managed to smile as he remembered his friend. Josué was the last person that would want him to brood over his death. He’d done what his friend asked him to do. Josué was at peace. In the end, that was all that mattered.