What secret is powerful enough to keep a broken man from fixing himself?
|The wind descended into the valley with ill intent. Rafen's scraggled, unkempt beard did its part to keep his lips from turning an awful shade of blue as he stumbled into the saloon. While the harsh winters of the untamed Dakota Territory didn't seem to agree with the old war vet, his stubborn nature was determined to see it through. As long as he had his whiskey, he'd be fine.
Rafen was carried into town by his horse. Many of the townfolk thought he was the victim of some kind of attack until they got close and the reek of whiskey assailed them. Rafen barely managed to guide his horse to the nearest saloon for a drink and a room. That was back in July. Now it was getting into February and Rafen hadn't left the saloon since. He'd come down from his room to drink himself into a stupor, crawl back up to his room, then start over again the next evening.
"All night? That sure doesn't sound like Major Rafen. Never really knew him to drink to excess ever. You sure you're talking about the same person?"
"Pfft. He sure don' ac' like a Majuh. Always broodin' and starin' at people. Won' be long a'fore he gets a whoopin' but good."
The young soldier shuffled his feet and coughed slightly as he stared at the old codger's outstretched hand and asked, "Do you know where I can find Major Anthony Rafen?"
The old man flashed a toothy grin as he cackled and pointed to his palm, "Sho' do! But i'll cos' ya!"
The young man rolled his eyes and sighed heavily, pulling out a coin and tossing it to the man, "Now tell me where he is, I haven't time for this!"
The old man looked at the coin and scowled, glaring back at the young soldier and asked "Hey now! Wha's this? Thi' grayback money!"
"It's silver, it'll do as such."
The old man scowled and bit the coin. Happy at the results, he jabbed a thumb towards the middle of town. "Saloo' at town cen'er. Reckon thar pro'ly a figh' goin' on down there!"
The young soldier flipped another Jefferson dime to the old man and steered his horse toward the center of town. It took him no time at all to find the saloon the old man was obviously talking about. Loud music poured forth from the saloon and the sound of glass crashing could be heard from the end of the street.
He stopped by the livery and paid for a night in the stables, then walked the rest of the way to the saloon. By the time he'd gotten to the doors, some drunkard was stumbling out with a gash in the side of his head, blood flowing down the front of his shirt. The young soldier averted his gaze as he walked past and into the saloon to find his old commander.
The saloon was much like any other he'd seen. Tables and chairs and a lot of lights. Men sitting around talking and drinking as well as a table playing poker. Off in one dark corner, the young soldier spotted what he was looking for: Major Rafen was sitting alone, scowling at everyone with a bottle of whiskey in his hands. The young soldier started walking towards Rafen when their eyes met. Recognition flashed in Rafen's eyes, then went away, as though the Major was trying to forget him. But the young soldier persisted.
"Major Anthony Rafen of the 14th Regiment Infantry of Arkansas?" The young soldier approached slowly, open hands in front of him.
"Sergeant Lucas Danielson of McCarver's Regiment. You have permission to go the hell away." Rafen pulled a swig from his whiskey bottle, looked Lucas up and down, then turned away from the young soldier.
"No, Sir, I can't do that. I'm not here on official business, I just heard you were in the area and wanted to catch up with you." Lucas gestured to a chair at Rafen's table.
"Why the hell would you wan' do that?" Another pull from the bottle disgusted Lucas further.
"Because, Sir, I'd always respected you as an officer and a leader. Nobody could fault you for what happened in the Ouachitas."
Lucas saw Rafen wince at the mention of the Arkansas forest. He couldn't fault Rafen for feeling bad about the situation, but it was high time to forgive himself for it. It happened several years ago.
"I don't give a damn why you're here, I only care that you stay the hell away from me. Whatever I was previously, I am not him, anymore. You take that to heart and get the hell away from me." Rafen glared intently at Lucas, then away quickly, as if kicked in the side of the head.
Lucas thought about arguing more, then decided against it and walked up to the bar and ordered a drink. He sat there and drank, looking back at Rafen from time to time. It wasn't much longer before a small group of people came in. At the center of the group was a large blonde man who acted much like the leader of a small gang. He clapped the other men on the backs and spoke the loudest and when he laughed, everyone else laughed as if on cue.
The group wandered straight to Lucas and the big man sneered at him. "You're new here, aren't you?"
Lucas nodded, standing his ground.
"I can tell, because you're in my seat and you're not moving fast enough out. Now, I hear ol' Barnabus here has already had to throw a couple fellas out for fightin' so to save him and you the trouble, I'm goin' to be nice and let you walk out of this saloon and never come back. Hear me?"
The other men laughed while the barkeep walked over, "Please, Gustov, not in the bar. I've no other tables or chairs to replace them with."
The big man turned to the barkeep then back to Lucas, "Hear that? If you start a fight, you're going to cost this man some business. That's not very polite. I'd get out of here if I were you."
Lucas kept looking the big man in the face, determined to not back down. As he opened his mouth to reply, the big man's arm swung around quickly, trying to catch Lucas's jaw. Instead, another arm caught the big man's. Rafen's.
"You leave him alone. He'll be out of this town by sundown tomorrow, and he won't be back to the whole town ever again."
The big man's face turned a violent shade of red as veins bulged out his neck and forhead. For a moment, Lucas thought the big man would kill Rafen until he spoke a bit calmer, "Very well. He lives. Until sundown. If he's still anywhere near this town this time tomorrow, he dies. Barnabus, we're leaving." Gustov scowled as he turned and walked out the saloon.
After the big man left, the quiet that had fallen over the saloon was replaced with the loud din of new conversation. Hushed murmurs carried all over the place. From the fragments of thoughts Lucas could piece out, this Gustov guy was the guy in charge of not just the town, but the entire area. Not even the sheriff, it seemed, would get in his way.
"Why did you do that?" Lucas asked Rafen, not sure what kind of answer to expect.
Instead of responding, Rafen was clutching his head, apparently in immense pain. Blood trickled slowly down his nose and he breathed heavily, "Because he was bein' an ass."
People were still staring at Rafen and Lucas when Rafen turned to the young soldier, "Come, let's go to my room and get away from these people."
Lucas nodded as Rafen grabbed another bottle and led Lucas up to his room. Rafen turned the key in the lock, let Lucas and himself in, then closed the door, securing the lock behind him. Rafen then pocketed the key and offered the bottle to Lucas who politely held up his hand to decline.
"Major, I came-," Lucas started until Rafen held up his hand to silence him.
"I don't care why you came. I just want you to go away. Now you have every incentive to. Gustov Hysjulien is not a trivial man, nor is he of trivial means. I have no doubt that if you're not plenty away from town before sundown tomorrow, you will be dead."
"Sir, I understand your trepidation. It cannot be easy to deal with the loss of so many men in that forest. Many of those men were my friends and no fewer than three were my own relations, so I do apologize for pushing the issue but I must know, for my sake and that of kin, what happened in that damned forest?"
Rafen glared at the young man, then swigged down a long pull from the bottle. He took a small leather strap from a nearby table and placed it in his mouth, clamping down hard. Through clenched teeth, Rafen spat his story.
"You remember we were marching to Fort Smith?"
Lucas noded as he leaned forward in his chair. "We got word the Yanks were lookin' to take the fort, so we were sent as reinforcements."
"Right. But we saw something fall in the Ouachitas and heard it explode with such force, so I made the call to divert the unit to check it out." Rafen said as he pulled a swig of whiskey through his clenched teeth.
"Sir, are you okay? Do you need a doctor or something?" Lucas asked and started to get up.
"No, we haven't time for a doctor, nor could one fix what ails me. All will be made clear by the time this story is over, I assure you.
"Now, we'd just gone into the forest, and I left a small detachment behind in case this was a blue-belly ambush so you's could send word back home. Turns out it was an ambush, but not one I was expecting." Rafen choked hard and spat some blood on the floor, his face twisted in pain. Lucas swore as he got up and reached for a kerchief to hand to Rafen. Rafen spat the piece of leather out his mouth and took a pull longer than Lucas had ever seen any man take.
"Sir,-" Lucas began as Rafen pointed to the other chair in the room.
"In time, Sergeant, in time.
"The rest of us marched through the forest and up the mountain. When we got to where the explosion was, we found a small metal carriage. In it,-" Rafen tried to say the rest but instead he leaned forward and began to vomit up blood and whiskey, crying out in pain.
"This story can wait, I'm fetching you a doctor." Lucas stood and turned to the door, but it was locked. Lucas turned back to Rafen who patted his pocket and again pointed to the chair.
"You sit down, Sergeant, or you will never hear the end of this story." Rafen coughed again and breathed heavily, trying to regain his composure. Rafen squeezed his eyes shut to close out the pain. The young soldier waited patiently for Rafen to recover when a flicker of movement in the corner of his eye caught his attention. He looked over in time to see Gustov Hysjulien seemingly materialize out of nowhere!
"How-?" Lucas started to ask, but before he could get the words out, Gustov reached out and snapped Lucas's neck like it was a twig. Lucas fell to the floor, lifeless and limp.
Rafen opened his eyes at the sound of Lucas's initial cry and then looked down at Lucas's body. Gustov gave Rafen a look of mock pity, "I guess he never will hear the end of that story. And you will never tell it. You had the look of a dead man before you insulted me, now I will simply hurry your fate along. Oh, and no worries. Whatever ails you will not affect me. You don't live for 800 years feeding off the blood of humans without being immune to their diseases."
Rafen watched with astonishment as Gustov opened his mouth, his incisors elongating to fangs the size of a wolf's. Gustov then pulled Rafen's head to the side and clamped down hard on his neck. Rafen felt the blood drain from his body through the neck and into Gustov's thirsty mouth. Rafen felt the life and energy drain from him until he felt what he'd longed to feel since that bitter night in the Ouachitas.
Gustov's face, twisted in anger as he clamped his fangs into Rafen and began to drain the drunkard of his blood, now twisted into surprise and then he bacame dour. Gustov released Rafen and slumped down onto the nearby bed, his face slowly becoming more and more sullen. Rafen, on the other hand, did something he'd never done since that night in the Ouachitas. Rafen smiled.
"Surely, you have done the deed and I'm going to die, but I will finish my story, you sorry son of a bitch. Because what I found that night in that metal carriage was a small glass vial. When I touched it, it broke open and cut me. I felt something worm its way into my head, much like what you most certainly felt a moment ago, am I right?"
Gustov nodded dumbly as Rafen continued, "Uh huh. Soon you won't be able to talk about it. Won't be able to acknowledge it. You'll be miserable until the final day of your existence and will never be able to end it yourself. It will strangle your thoughts and your happiness. It will extinguish everything you are. And now I can't think of a more fitting end to someone like yourself."
Gustov could only nod as the meloncholy took hold of his head and wrapped itself around him, like a crown and robe of deep sadness. Gustov could not muster up enough energy to care about much, in fact, while Rafen started to laugh. The blood still poured from his neck as Rafen looked at Gustov's face darkening much like he'd felt his own darken just before he slaughtered the men under his command, driven by the parasite that was now in Gustov. Now, however, Rafen was free of its hold, and even if it was for only a brief moment before he died, Rafen was going to smile and die happy.