Prophecies, Libels & Dreams (Excerpt)

Prophecies, Libels & Dreams is a collection of seven stories by Ysabeau S. Wilce—available November 11th from Small Beer Press. These inter-connected stories are set in an opulent quasi-historical world of magick and high manners called the Republic of Califa.

The Republic is a strangely familiar place—a baroque approximation of Gold Rush era-California with an overlay of Aztec ceremony—yet the characters who populate it are true originals: rockstar magicians, murderous gloves, bouncing boy terrors, blue tinted butlers, sentient squids, and a three-year-old Little Tiny Doom and her vengeful pink plush pig.

By turn whimsical and horrific (sometime in the same paragraph), Wilce’s stories have been characterized as “screwball comedies for goths” but they could also be described as “historical fantasies” or “fanciful histories” for there are nuggets of historical fact hidden in them there lies. Read an excerpt from the story “Quartermaster Returns” below!

 

 

 

 

Quartermaster Returns

 

“…That he escaped that blow entirely is due to the consummate good luck which enabled him to steer clear of that military maelstrom… he never had to be post quartermaster.”

Trials of a Staff Officer
Captain Charles King, 3rd U.S. Cavalry

 

I. Wet

 

When Pow walks into the hog ranch, everyone turns to stare at him. At the whist table, the muleskinner gurgles and lets fall his cards. The cardsharp’s teeth clatter against the rim of his glass. The cowboy squeaks. At the bar, the barkeep, who had been fishing flies out of the pickle jar, drops her pickle fork. On the bar, the cat, a fantastic mouser named Queenie, narrows her moon-silver eyes into little slits. At the pianny, Lotta, who’d been banging out Drink Puppy Drink on the peeling ivory keys, crashes one last chord and no more.

Even the ice elemental, in the cage suspended over the whist table, ceases his languid fanning. He’s seen a lot of boring human behavior since the barkeep brought him from a junk store in Walnuts to keep the hog ranch cool; finally a human has done something interesting. Only Fort Gehenna’s scout doesn’t react. He wipes his nose on a greasy buckskin sleeve, slams another shot of mescal, and takes the opportunity to peek at his opponents’cards.

The barroom is dead silent but for a distant slap and a squeal—Buck and the pegboy in the back room exercising—and the creak of the canvas walls shifting in the ever-present Arivaipa wind.

Pow wobbles over to the bar—just a couple of boards laid across two empty whiskey barrels—leans on it—the boards creaking ominously at his weight—and croaks: “Mescal.” His throat feels as though he’s swallowed sixty pounds of sand. The barkeep stares at him, her mouth hanging slightly ajar. Against her garish blue lip rouge her teeth look as yellow as corn.

Pow licks his lips with a cat-coarse tongue and whispers: “Come on, Petty, give me a mescal. I’m powerfully dry.”

“You’re dripping wet,” the barkeep answers. Pow looks down, and yes indeed he is dripping, brown water seeping from his dirty uniform, turning the ground he stands upon to mud.

“Sorry,” he says. “Is it raining outside?” He looks back toward the door, which is a blazing rectangle of sunlight, bright enough to blind—it’s not raining outside. Arivaipa is a goddess-forsaken wilderness of a desert, where it only rains occasionally, and then usually in the dead of night. And anyway, if it were raining outside, it would be raining inside too, for the hog ranch’s roof is made of brush and is not watertight. The last good downpour was two weeks ago, and it had almost swamped the hog ranch out.

“Lotta—get the lieutenant a towel,” the barkeep says, but Lotta does not spring to the order. She shrinks back behind the wall of the pianny and wishes she were invisible.

“Lotta!” the barkeep repeats, “Get Lieutenant Rucker a towel or I’ll kick ya in yer hinder.”

While Lotta reluctantly follows the barkeep’s order, Pow wipes his face on the mustachio towel nailed to the bar; the towel,  none too white to begin with, comes away black with dirt. The barkeep hands him a sloshily poured glass; he drinks it in one draught and bangs his glass down for more. The mescal is bitter and burning but it washes away the taste of mud in his mouth. He feels very clammy, and from the itch, there is sand in his drawers. The barkeep  pours him another.

“Thanks, darling,” Pow says and bolts his second drink. The whist game has not resumed; the players are still staring at him, and he returns their glance, saying, “Ain’t you people never seen a man drink before?”

No one responds to this quip, and then the canvas curtains over the doorway to the back room part. Out staggers Buck, laughing, struggling to get her sack coat back on. She’s got her right arm in the left sleeve and that’s not going to work no matter how much she pulls. The pegboy follows her, grinning and snapping his galluses up over red-checkered shoulders. An air of satisfaction hovers over them both.

Buck outranks him, so Pow wafts a salute at her, and she waves at him drunkenly, collapsing in a chair at the other rickety table. The pegboy sticks a cigarillo in her mouth, another in his, and lights them both.

“Where the hell you been, Pow?” Buck says. The barkeep has already anticipated her desire and plunks a bottle of whiskey before her.

Pow licks the dirt from his lips and realizes that he has no idea.

 

II. Desiccated

 

Arivaipa Territory, where the sun is so hot that it will, after dissolving your flesh into grease, melt your bones as well. A territory of bronco natives and bunco artists, wild religiosos and wild horses, poison toads and rattling snakes. A hard dry place, an endless expanse of Nowhere. Why the Warlord wants to keep a thread of authority in such a goddess-forsaken place is a mystery, but the army doesn’t question orders, just follows them. Thus Fort Gehenna, and a scattering of other army posts, sown like seeds across the prickly rocky dusty landscape of the remote territory.

The hog ranch sits on Fort Gehenna’s reservation line, just beyond the reach of military authority and technically off-limits to army personnel. There are no hogs at this ranch, just cheap bugjuice, cheap food and cheap love, but these three attractions make the hog ranch a pretty attractive place to Gehenna’s lonely bored hungry soldiers. So a well-worn track starts at the hog ranch’s front door and wends its way through the desert scrub, up and down arroyos, by saguaro and paloverde, across the sandy expanse of the Sandy River to terminate behind Officers’ Row.

Down this track, known as The Oh Be Joyful Road, Pow zig-zags. His feet kick up dust, and the sun hits his shoulders, his bare head, with hammer-like intensity. The heat has sucked the wet right out of his uniform, which now feels gritty and coarse against his skin. His sinuses tingle and burn. He feels in his sack coat pocket for his bandana, but the pockets are full of sand. So he blows his nose into his sleeve, but only a thin gust of dust comes out.

His boots are full of sand too; near the cactus priest’s wikiyup he sits on a rock and pours them out. Were his toes always that black? They look like little shriveled coffee beans. His brain feels thick, as though his skull is full of mud. Pow marches on, his eyes slits of grittiness; his eyelids scrape at his eyeballs like broken glass. He can hardly see where he is going, but the urge to go is strong, and he can’t help but follow it.

Pow reaches the Single Officers’ Quarters and staggers up the steps into the blessed shade of the porch—a few degrees cooler and the air slightly moist from the water olla hanging from the porch eaves. He pulls down the olla, hearing his muscles crackle like dried cornstalks. The olla is fat and round, beaded with moisture, but almost empty. He licks the droplets off the clay, oh delicious wetness, and then throws the pot on the ground, where it shatters.

As a first lieutenant, Pow’s only entitled to one room, and this room is now empty of his gear, its only furniture a steamer trunk and an iron cot. Pow collapses on the iron cot, unable to take another step. His thirst is sharp and pointed, it’s overwhelming and all encompassing, it leaves little room inside him for anything else. All around him he can sense moisture, but he himself is parched.

He shakes his head, feeling the tendons in his neck wheeze and burn. There a rattling sound inside of his skull—his brain perhaps, now shrunken to a desiccated nubbin. That would account for the thickness of his thoughts. Something falls into his lap; at first he thinks it’s a piece of jerky, then he realizes it’s his ear. He tries to stick his ear back onto his head, but it won’t stay, so he puts it in his pocket for safekeeping.

A shadow slinks in the corner of the room; two silver eyes glitter. Freddie, Pow’s pet gila monster, which he raised from an egg, is peeking out of its den, a hole in the adobe wall. The lizard waddles across the floor and nips at the toe of Pow’s boot, its usual method for requesting a treat. Lacking anything else, Pow gives the gila monster his ear—his hearing seems fine without it—and Freddie nibbles daintily. Pow reaches for the lizard; Freddie spits a shiny squirt of silvery poison at him. Pow licks the slippery venom off his fingers—it’s lovely wet.

The lizard is fat with moisture; underneath that scaly skin, it’s heavy with wetness, its meat saturated with blood, bile, venom, juice. Pow makes a dry clucking noise with his splintery tongue and reaches for Freddie again. As if sensing his intent, the gila monster scuttles away, but desperation makes Pow quick. He snatches.

 

III. Dry

 

Pow’s retreat from the hog ranch to his quarters did not go without notice; indeed, when he had staggered onto Fort Gehenna’s parade ground, a long file had straggled behind him. In addition to the habitués of the hog ranch, who gave him a respectable head start before following, the brigade included the herd guard, a couple of privates who were loitering in the shade of the sinks watching an ant fight, the tame broncos (as the soldiers call Arivaipa’s natives) who live behind the remuda corral, and the dog pack, tempted out of the arroyo by Pow’s smell, which, now that his clothes have dried, is quite strong: a meaty kind of decay.

This crowd now stands outside the SOQ, and it has attracted the attention of Lieutenant Brakespeare, Gehenna’s adjutant and current acting quartermaster, and Sergeant Candy, Gehenna’s ranking noncom. When they arrive to investigate, a multitude of voices in several languages all begin to babble at once. Lieutenant Brakespeare ignores the shouting and enters the SOQ, only to find Pow’s room empty. The contents of his trunk are strewn about the room and every item packed therein that once contained anything moist—boot polish tin, a bottle of Madama Twanky’s Sel-Ray-Psalt Medicine, fly ointment—lies wrecked upon the floor.

The destruction continues across the hallway and into Lieutenant Brakespeare’s quarters—the lieutenant swears horribly when she sees the mess—and on into the kitchen beyond. There Berman, the lieutenants’striker, stands surveying a battlefield of crumpled tin cans, smashed sauerkraut crocks, broken wine bottles, and the splintered remains of a water barrel.

“He went that way,” Berman says, that way being into the back yard. There Lieutenant Brakespeare and Sergeant Candy find Pow facedown in a laundry tub, sucking up soapy water, while the laundress stands over him, whacking at his shoulders with her wash-board. They heave Pow out of the almost empty tub. He burps a giant soap bubble, which pops into an appalling stench of sweet-sour decay, and shakes the soldiers off. He feels deliciously waterlogged, heavy and solid. He feels much much better.

The crowd has rushed around the back, and now a rotund figure—Captain de Poligniac, Gehenna’s commanding officer—pushes through, almost invisible underneath a huge black umbrella, an item that officers in uniform are strictly forbidden to carry. When he reaches the SOQ back porch and lets drop the shade, Polecat (as the good captain is called even to his face) reveals that he’s not in uniform anyway, just a pair of dirty red drawers and a white guayabera. He’d been in his quarters, riding out the furnace of the afternoon on an herbal haze, and he is annoyed at being disturbed.

“What’s all that infernal racket, Lieutenant Brakespeare?” Polecat complains. He catches sight of Pow, and his voice trails off. His lips pucker in puzzlement, and he stares at the rapidly dehydrating lieutenant.

“Pow!” Polecat says. “I thought you were dead!”

 

IV. Arid

 

Of course, 1st Lieutenant Powhatan Rucker is dead. Not just dead, but drowned. How can you drown in a desert? In an Arivaipa thunderstorm, all too quickly. One minute the sky is as blank as a sheet of paper; the next minute it roils with quicksilver clouds, from which lunge enormous purple-silver prongs of lightning. And then rain bullets down, water floods into the arroyos, and anything not on the high ground is swept away. Ten minutes later the desert is dry as a bone again, and the sky empty.

He died a hero’s death, Lieutenant Rucker did, trying to save, not another comrade, but rather the hog ranch’s entire supply of beer. The story is short and tragic: the freight train dropped fifteen cases of beer at the hog ranch, before proceeding on to Rancho Kuchamonga; an inexperienced drover off-loaded the beer in the arroyo below the hog ranch; when the storm came up, Pow organized his fellow whist players into a bottle brigade and supervised the shifting of fourteen cases to higher ground; the water was already foaming when Pow went back for the last case—refusing to allow the others to join him in harm’s way; Pow heroically managed to shove that case up the bank, just as a wall of water twenty feet high came roaring down the ravine.

After Pow’s battered and soggy body was found tangled in an uprooted paloverde tree, he was borne off to Gehenna’s sandy cemetery, where he was given a full military funeral and toasted by the entire garrison with bottles from the fateful case that killed him. But now that sandy cemetery has spit Pow back up, a circumstance that no one in Gehenna can ever remember occurring before.

“If Pow is dead, how can he be alive?” Polecat says in bewilderment. They’ve retired to his office for privacy, although the crowd still loiters outside, hoping that voices will be raised enough to facilitate eavesdropping. Considering that the walls of the office are mud-covered brush, and the ceiling more brush, under which hangs a piece of canvas which keeps centipedes from falling on your head, the voices do not have to be very loud. Polecat plops behind his desk, trying to look official, while the Lieutenants Brakespeare and Rucker stand before him in semi-respectful stances. Lieutenant Fyrdraaca, retrieved from the privy, isn’t quite as drunk as she was before, but she’s not sober enough to stand at attention, so she has sprawled upon Polecat’s well-used daybed.

Polecat puts his spectacles on to examine Pow more closely; the lieutenant is still crusted with a fine silt, but the few bits of skin visible look downright shriveled. He is twenty-two years old, but now he looks a hundred.

“I think alive is stretching it a bit, Polecat,” Buck says. “I mean, Pow is animated, but he looks a bit rough to actually be alive. I would say he’s definitely dead.”

“Then what am I doing here?” Pow asks, bewildered.

“I called you back.” Lieutenant Brakespeare says. She sounds rather smug.

“You brought him back from the dead?” Polecat moans. “Why in Califa’s name did you do that, Azota?”

“His quartermaster accounts were a mess—and short, too.” Lieutenant Brakespeare purses her mouth into a small knot. “I’m not going to be responsible for his shortages, or pay for his mistakes.”

At the time of his death, Pow had been Gehenna’s quartermaster, and thus responsible for all of Gehenna’s rations, uniforms, equipment, ordnance and equipage, for the previous three months. During that time he’d not done a lick of paperwork, preferring instead to while away the days playing mumblety-peg with the QM clerks. To say that Pow’s QM accounts were a mess was being charitable. Actually, they were a catastrophe.

When Lieutenant Brakespeare (only shortly graduated from Benica Barracks Military Academy but already well on her way to being a properly stuck-up yaller dog, as staff officers are called) assumed the QM duties upon Pow’s death, it had taken her fourteen days of non-stop paper pushing to complete the QM returns properly, and even then she couldn’t account for all the shortages in the QM inventories. Since officers in the Army of Califa are personally responsible for items on their inventory returns, someone is to going to have to pay for these shortages. Lieutenant Brakespeare has no intention of being that someone.

Polecat complains: “But you shouldn’t summon someone back from the dead just to make up a shortage.”

“I didn’t,” Lieutenant Brakespeare says primly. “Officers are forbidden by The Articles of War to attempt or achieve any magickal acts. Article 3, Section I, Sub-section 2.”

Buck, from the settee, observes: “Maybe forbidden themselves, but there’s nothing in The Articles of War about paying someone else to attempt or achieve magickal acts for you, eh? Who’d you get to do it?”

“The curandero,” Lieutenant Brakespeare admits. The curandero is an elderly bronco who, having decided he was too old and wise to fight, made peace with the Califians and moved into a wikiyup near the river, from which he dispenses charms, foul-smelling ointments, and philosophical advice, in return for rations. “Anyway, Lieutenant Rucker can go back where he came as soon as he either produces the inkwell or pays for it. I don’t care which.”

“Inkwell?” says Polecat.

“Ayah, so. Pow signed a receipt for fifteen glass inkwells, shipped from Fort Ludwig to here—” Lieutenant Brakespeare fishes a sheet of paper out of her sack coat and consults it. “On Martes 12. One arrived broken and was dropped from the inventory. One was issued to Corporal Candy on Martes 15; one was issued to the AG, and one to the CO. Leaving eleven on the return. But there were only ten in the QM store. Where’s the missing inkwell?” She looks accusingly at Pow.

“I don’t know,” Pow says. He has no idea where the missing inkwell is, but there’s a burning feeling in his throat, a scratchy roar that is extremely distracting. The dry Arivaipa air has sucked his moisture away, and his thirst has returned with a vengeance. Something wiggles on his neck; despite the canvas a centipede has fallen from the brush. Pow pops the flailing bug into his mouth and it squishes wetly between his teeth. The others don’t notice.

“How much is the inkwell valued at?” Polecat asks.

Lieutenant Brakespeare consults the receipt again. “Fifteen lisbys.”

“Fifteen lisbys!” Polecat reaches for the cigarillo box on his blotter, which does not contain cigarillos. “Fifteen lisbys! That’s pocket change!”

“You always gotta do things the hard way, Tiny Doom,” Buck chortles, and Lieutenant Brakespeare gives her a poisonous look.

“Have you got fifteen lisbys, Pow?” Polecat asks.

Pow feels in his pockets, but if he ever had fifteen lisbys, the Arivaipa desert has them now. He tries to answer; his jaw creaks like dry wood, and no words come out, only a puff of dust.

“I’ll take that as a no. Here, I’ll give you fifteen lisbys, Pow, and you can pay Lieutenant Brakespeare, and that will be that,” Polecat says, his head now wreathed in soothing herbal smoke. He fishes around in his top desk drawer. “Buck, do you have two lisbys?”

There’s an ink bottle sitting on Polecat’s desk, half-full of ink. Pow can smell the dark delicious wetness—

“I don’t want your money, Captain,” Lieutenant Brakespeare complains. “It’s Lieutenant Rucker’s responsibility, and he should either find that inkwell or pay up—”

Pow’s entire focus is now pointed at that ink bottle and the promise of liquidity within. His thirst burns; his blood has long evaporated, and his veins feel like rawhide thongs, taut and stretched. He reaches a claw-like hand toward the bottle. The ink tastes thick and dark; but most deliciously, it tastes wet.

The others have stopped their squabbling and are staring at him. Pow licks his now black lips and sets the empty bottle back on Polecat’s desk.

“Anyway, it’s not just the inkwell,” Lieutenant Brakespeare says triumphantly. “There’s also a small matter of the paymaster funds, which are also missing, and which Pow, as QM, is responsible for.”

Polecat blanches. “How much?”

“Five thousand divas.”

“Paper or gold?” Polecat asks faintly.

“Gold.”

 

V. Parched

 

Suddenly Lieutenant Brakespeare’s actions no longer seem quite so drastic. Fifteen lisbys is nothing; even a private can probably scrounge up fifteen lisbys, the price of a beer. But five thousand divas in gold—Fort Gehenna’s entire payroll for the entire year! If the troopers find out their pay is gone, they’ll riot, they’ll mutiny, they’ll desert. They’ll raise a howl that will be heard in the War Department back in Califa, a howl that, since Pow is dead, will thunder down upon the shoulders of his superiors: Polecat and Lieutenant Brakespeare. They’ll be court-martialed for sure, and lucky to escape cashiering. And they’ll still have to pay back the cash. Five thousand divas in gold is a pretty good reason for raising the dead.

Polecat and Lieutenant Brakespeare pounce on Pow, but their berating questions get nowhere. He can hardly hear them; they are distant mirages in his parchedness. The ink has only whetted his thirst—not quenched it—and now his only interest is in moisture. He can smell the wetness; not in the air, which is as dry as dust, but in the living bodies around him—wet blood, wet bile, wet sweat, wet saliva. They are soggy with wetness, fair dripping, and he can feel himself shriveling for the lack of it.

Pow stares at Polecat, upon whose white brow stand little drops of sweat, whose rosy cheeks are flushed and bedewed. Polecat’s lips are moving, opening to display the moist cavern of his mouth—the desire to lunge toward that wetness—tear Polecat’s tongue out by the roots, suck out all its moisture—is rising like a dust devil inside of Pow, twisting and turning and—

“Hey,” says Buck. She’s now standing next to him, a bottle in her hand. “Have a drink, Pow. You look like you could use it.”

His hands are too gnarled now to grasp the bottle; creakily he leans back, and Buck pours the coarse whiskey into his mouth; as it flows down his throat he feels his flesh expanding, reconstituting itself, plumping out. Delicious delicious wetness.

Lieutenant Brakespeare turns on Buck: “You could be helping. You signed the receipt for the paymaster. This will hit you, too.”

Buck protests: “I am helping. While the two of you shriek like owls, I’ve been thinking. You know, the night Pow died, I was at the hog ranch, too.”

“Where else?” says Lieutenant Brakespeare bitterly. She’s never set foot in the place.

Callate, Azota. I wasn’t feeling so well, so I left early—callate, Azota!—and thus missed Pow’s heroism, but I do recall now that when I left Pow was playing cards with the scout, Lotta, Pecos, and some other guy. Pow was losing, and losing in gold, too.”

“Who was winning?” Lieutenant Brakespeare asks.

“The scout,” says Buck triumphantly.

So Polecat puts his sack coat on and orders Lieutenant Brakespeare to arrest Pow, which she does. Then they all march, under colors, down to the hog ranch to demand the return of the payroll. They find the scout eating pickles and playing mumblety-peg with the ice elemental. He freely admits that he won the divas off Lieutenant Rucker, but he refuses to return them. A bet lost is a bet won by someone else, fair and square.

While Polecat dithers, and Buck and Pow have themselves another drink (or two), Lieutenant Brakespeare puts the screws on the scout. She starts out politely persuasive, then turns to choleric threats, but neither attitude makes the slightest dent. The scout is part-bronco, part-coyote, rumour has it, and a shavetail lieutenant don’t scare him at all. Lieutenant Brakespeare sends a detail to search the scout’s miserable shebang. No gold. Another detail holds the scout down and searches his greasy-buckskin-clad person. No gold. She’s urging Polecat to allow her to tie the scout to a wagon wheel and set his hair on fire—Ill wager hell cough up the gold then!—when Buck offers a lazy solution.

“A wager,” Buck says. “Let’s make a wager.”

Arivaipa Territory is arid and dull; the soldiers must make their own fun and what’s more fun than a wager? At Gehenna, they’ll bet on anything. Ill stand you four divas, five lisbys, six glories that you cant: leap a prickly pear cactus; eat six jars of jalapeño pickles; stand on your head for six hours; ride that strawberry roan; stay in bed two weeks; walk from the hog ranch to the flagpole blindfolded. The inhabitants of Gehenna have bet on ant wars; mule races; tennis matches; foot races; marksmanship; whose bed sheets are whiter; whose corporal is fatter, and whether or not lightning is attracted to a picket pin dangling from the flagpole. (Yes.)

The scout’s eyes, deep in red-painted sockets, gleam. “A wager?”

“Ayah,” Buck answers. “A bet. You won the divas off Pow, now give him a chance to turnabout fair play. A contest of skill.”

“What skill?”

“Who can hold their breath longest?” Buck suggests.

The scout shakes his head. “He’s dead. He don’t breathe. A foot race?”

Even in life, Pow was pokey; in death, he’s moving at a snail’s pace. Buck quickly counters: “Who can stay on Evil Murdoch the longest?” Evil Murdoch being the most notoriously un-rideable bite-y mule ever seen in Arivaipa.

The scout shakes his head. “Evil Murdoch kick me in the head, I’m dead. The lieutenant, he’s already dead, why should he care? Not good odds.”

Lieutenant Brakespeare suggests: “How about a penmanship contest?” This suggestion is so boring that she is ignored.

“A drinking contest, then,” says Buck, grinning. She knows that the scout takes particular pride in his ability to consume large quantities of bug-juice, with no outward effect. Only last year he drank the barkeep under the table, and she’s a professional.

“Done!” says the scout quickly. “I got five thousand divas in gold. What is he going to put up?” This question is a legitimate stumper. The cumulative value of everything at Fort Gehenna, from Polecat’s silver cigarette case to the hay in the hay yard, probably isn’t worth five thousand divas in gold. What can Pow wager that even remotely begins to match the value of the gold?

“How about his soul?” the scout says.

“Done!” says Buck.

 

VI. Drink

 

By now, night is falling. To the northeast, in a clichésuitable for a yellowback thriller, a storm is forming up over Mount Abraxas, garish purple and pink lightning splitting the iron-blue twilight sky. A dust devil spirals across the parade ground; the howling dog pack chases after it. Fort Gehenna is now mostly deserted; every soldier not currently on duty is at the hog ranch, along with every one else for miles. A drinking contest between the scout and a dead man is probably the most exciting thing ever to happen at Fort Gehenna. The hog ranch is standing room only; slits soon appear in the canvas walls, each rent accommodating an avid pair of eyes. No one wants to miss the show.

The officers have had a whispered conversation regarding Pow’s stake, which Pow has objected to. With his body liable to crumble to dust any minute, Pow’s soul is all he’s got left—he doesn’t want to chance losing it And besides, he doesn’t care about the five thousand divas, why should he? He’s dead. They can’t courtmartial him or cashier him. No, Polecat agrees, they can’t. But they can confine him to the guardhouse, which is a dry place, where the water dipper is offered only twice a day. Here, they are offering Pow an opportunity to drink all he can, set me up another round, keep em coming. Suffer thirst or quench it. When it’s put like that, Pow agrees that getting the money back is his responsibility after all.

As for the value of Pow’s soul, how can it match the value of five thousand divas? Strictly speaking, it does not. Pow, in life, was an affable fellow, always good for a laugh and a loan, but he wasn’t a famous magician, or a holy man, or anyone else who might have accumulated great animus, a weighty powerful soul. No matter to the scout. He has a little collection of souls; he keeps them in a leather pouch he wears on a cord around his neck. He’s got the soul of a baby who died at birth; a dog that could read; a woman who lived to be one hundred and four; a coyote with two heads; a man who was hung for horse-stealing; and a woman who changed into a flamingo during the dark moon. The soul of a man who drowned in the desert would be a nice addition to this collection.

The rumble of thunder is growling nearer, like the distant approach of cannon fire, when Pow and the scout sit down across from each other at the whist table. The peanut gallery—no peanuts, no gallery—crowds around.

The rules, as Buck explains them loudly, are simple: whoever quits drinking first loses.

 

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