I’ve always found the idea of a story within a story fascinating. I also like the brutal, wild-west style post apocalyptic setting, and so I wrote this as an experiment.
It’s a dark setting by our standards, but I like to think that people are hardy enough that someone born in it would easily adapt to it.
Let me know what you think!
“Did I ever told you the story of Shachanee?” mister M asked.
Willa looked up at him sitting on his stool, a wide-brimmed hat shading his weather-worn face and him chewing on a piece of grass. He was old—gaunt, sun-baked and wrinkly—and though he couldn’t say quite how old, he was probably older than anyone in the village. Older than the village, certainly.
“Yeah,” she said, shielding her eyes against the sun. She had heard it hundreds of times. All the kids knew the story.
“Oh,” he said, pursing his lips, grass moving from one side of his mouth to the other. He looked off into the distance, scanning the flat scrub land and the distant mountains, chewing. “Well, did I ever told you I met him?”
“Naw!” Willa said. She put her palms on the hard dirt and leaned back, uncrossing her legs. When the sun hit her face she wrinkled her nose and shifted to get out of its light. “Forreally?”
“Mm-hmm,” mister M said, making an exaggerated nod. “Did so. You want to hear it?”
“Yeah,” Willa said, grinning.
“You know,” he said, “I ain’t told nobody this before. Oh, I did so, a long and long time ago, but nobody did believe it. Said I was a larr.”
“Naw,” Willa said. “I believe it, grampa. You ain’t no larr.”
Mister M chuckled. “Oh, you so sure about that?”
“Yeah, trust me. I know a larr when I see him. Billy’s all the time larring. Said he caught a rat in his snare the other day, cept it was a yellow one, and big as a dog. Only, he ain’t able to show it to us cause it got loose and run away.”
“Maybe he did caught it?”
“Naw,” Willa said. “Billy can’t tie a slipknot for shit. And who ever did heard of a yellow rat?”
“I seen one, once,” Mister M said. “Long and long ago, far off in the south.”
“Naw,” Willa said. “Now you larring too.”
Mister M chuckled and set his rifle—a rusty old automatic with a wooden stock—down on the ground. He lifted his hat off his head and ran his hand through his thinning grey hair.
“You really met Shachanee?” Willa asked.
Mister M put his hat back on and nodded, looking off into the distance.
“It was a long and long time ago, as I said. Was a young man back then, and big. Oh, believe it, little sister, I was big. I had big muscles and a broad chest, weren’t all wiry like now, and didn’t have no stoop nor limp neither. Was back when I still did wander, back before the village. Back before I met May-Beth.”
Willa crossed her legs and leaned in to better hear him.
“Now, you know Shachanee, you heard the stories. Guess everyone has. Was the very best of all the horses there ever did be. Was three men tall—and I did seen him, mind, so I know it’s true—and all covered with a beautiful brown fur. Had a golden mane too, thick and strong, dancing in the wind. Looked like a fire when he run. And he run fast.”
“Did you rode him?”
“Naw,” Mister M said. “Shachanee was no ordinary horse. He was their king. You didn’t ride no king. Weren’t proper.”
Willa brushed some dirt off her foot and then plucked a blade of grass out of the ground. “What’s a king?” she asked, twirling the blade between her fingers.
“King’s like a sheriff, only other sheriffs listen to him too, like they was just deputies. Like he’s the boss of all the sheriffs. And believe it, sister, Shachanee was the boss of all the horse sheriffs.”
Willa cocked her head and looked up at the old man, her left eye shut against the sun. His hat was dusty and sweat stained, and the brim was tattered on the left side where a bullet had torn through it. Still, it didn’t droop, and that made it a good hat.
He was smiling, but only slightly. Not the broad smile adults got when they were pulling your leg. And he weren’t drunk either. Papa Anderson had cut mister M off the other day—Willa had overheard her folks talk about it—but she could smell hooch a mile away and she didn’t smell it now.
Just thinking about that disgusting and overpowering stench made her wrinkle her nose. She couldn’t fathom why adults liked drinking it so much. It smelled awful and the one time she had sneaked some with Billy she almost threw up. It tasted like fire, made your head hurt.
Butt too. They had gotten a good walloping for their trouble from Dad.
“So what happened?” she asked.
“Was wandering at the time,” he said, looking out over the plains again. “Was far from here, but it looked kind of like. Lots of flat land, bit more grass, bit less cactuses. Trees too, though not many. I was on the trail of… hmm… I don’t remember his name. Joe? Joe something-or-other.”
“Who was he?”
“A right prick,” said mister M. “He was a thief. Oh, so was I back then, and me and him had actually run together for a while. You know, Willa? I ain’t proud of it, but you know what I was back in my wild days.”
“Yeah,” she said. “A bandit.”
“Yeah,” he said. He closed his eyes for a moment, took a deep breath. “Wasn’t anything good about my life back then. Was a couple of us just like me. Young, dumb, brutes. We took from folk—hell, we hurt folk, and sometimes just because we could. But Joe—yeah, I think his name was Joe—he was even worse. See, I said you he was a thief, right?”
“Well, we all was, but he was a worse thief. See, we all just took from other folk, but Joe, well, it weren’t enough for him. One day he stole from us.”
“Oh, he did,” mister M said, nodding gravely. “He took our loot and he tried to take our lives too. He killed the other three, but I had been out scouting a road. Saw his mess when I came back. Well, he left in a right hurry and I followed his trail.
“Ten days, Willa. Ten days I followed Joe.”
“That’s a long time,” she said.
“It is. But you know, it’s not just that he stole from me. He killed our kind too, and those others, well… I know we weren’t good people, but I liked them. They were my friends back then, and he took them from me.”
Mister M licked his lips and let out a flat whistle. He unstoppered his canteen and took a drink. Willa’s nose wrinkled at once. Oh, that weren’t no water. That was hooch all right.
She spotted a scorpion wandering nearby as he replaced his cap.
“Did you find him?” she asked.
“Yeah,” mister M said. “And barely survived it too. See, I was angry as hell, but it was a right dumb thing I did ever following him. I was tired and parched, and all I had with me was my knife. But Joe had stolen from us, and not just our loot. He had our food, our water, and our gun too.”
Willa’s eyebrows rose.
“Yeah, sister. Gun on knife. Now you tell me, was that a smart thing?”
“Naw,” she said. “But…”
“I’d a did the same.”
He grinned. “Why? You ain’t no dummy like me. You’re the smartest ten year old I know.”
“Yeah, but it weren’t right what he did. Deserved to be justice for your kind.”
“Even though they was bandits?”
Mister M’s grin widened, crawling all the way up his cheeks and wrinkling his whole face. “Yeah, I reckon you’re right. Was what I was thinking back then. Justice.”
“So what happened?”
Mister M’s grin faded and he licked his lips, his eyes running over Willa’s swath of freckles but seeing a day that had come and gone many lifetimes ago.
“I don’t recall all of it. Not well. But I came upon him one day, just after high sun. He was camped out in the plains, just like these ones as I did said you. I got the jump on him and that’s probably the only reason I’m still here to tell the tale.
“His eyes had grown all big and white when he saw me. I don’t believe he knew I was following him. Probably thought I got scared, ran away. Dumb on his part. But he still had a gun and I only had a knife, and that was dumb on mine.
“We fought. I don’t recall the details. Alls I know is I stabbed him, twenty or thirty times. My arm was tired, that I remember. And my side hurt like a hell fire. There was blood everywhere, and a good part of it was mine. See, the sumbitch got a shot off and hit me.”
Willa swallowed. “Did it hurt?”
“Yeah,” mister M said. “Not at first, you know? But after the fight, yeah. Hurt like nothing else I ever did feel. Hurt so much I just lay down after the fight, and I knewed it, I was done.”
“You just lay there?” Willa asked, her eyes wide. “Why?”
“You remember a couple years back, you had that fever?”
Willa nodded and paled. A sickness had hit the village, brought by one of the traders. He had been coughing up a fit when he came, and three days later they laid him in the ground. Then the first folk started sweating and coughing, and coughing up blood. And then Willa started too.
She remembered laying in her bed, just dizzy and weak and tired and sore and hot, crying. Coughing and vomiting and shitting. They told her it was a week, but it had felt like forever to her. But she had come out of it. Most of them had. Not everyone though.
Not Jimmy. Jimmy had been her and Billy’s younger brother and she still missed him. A pretty smart kid, always made her laugh, and never larred like Billy did.
“Well,” said mister M, “I felt kind of like that, like you did. Like I just didn’t have any strength no more. I saw the sun high in the sky, and I saw it falling down, going to sleep. I remember seeing the death birds in the sky above, just waiting their turn. Me and Joe, that was dinner. But then the strangest thing happened.
“Just as the sun was setting and things were getting dark, I heard someone approach. I heard hoofs, and I thought, ‘Maybe it’s a traveller. Maybe they can patch me up, help me out.’ I thought that, but part of me knew it was bullshit. I was done for and no traveller would help a bandit. Easier to just kill me and take our things. It’s what I’d a did.”
“Who was it?” Willa asked. When she glanced around she saw the scorpion had wandered further away, resting by a stone now.
“I turned my head and I saw horses.”
“Horses? Wild ones?”
“Yeah, wild ones. And leading them, the biggest damn horse I ever did saw.”
Mister M grinned. “Yeah, it was him. And he weren’t afraid of no man, not like his kin. He walked right up to me and looked around the camp, like he was studying what happened. He saw Joe, he saw our loot and he saw what I had did, and he nodded. It’s like he knew what I had done and why, and he approved. See, horses are just creatures. They’re wild, but they have laws too, and there ain’t nothing they hate more than thiefs.”
“They do?” Willa asked.
“Mm-hmm. All animals do. It’s just man that’s dumb enough to steal. It’s a rotten thing to do, Willa, and not a day goes by I wish I weren’t no bandit, but ain’t nothing I can do to go back and change things. All I could do was change myself from then on, and I think Shachanee knew that.
“See, he saved my life.”
“How?” Willa asked, sitting upright, her back straight. “How’d he do that?”
“He bent his head down, right to mine, and for a moment we just looked at each other. It was like he was looking into me, like he was judging me. And I reckon he liked what he saw, cause then he got to licking my bullet hole, and you know what? I started feeling better.”
“Yeah, forreally. The pain went away and the bleeding stopped. I felt stronger. I don’t know what he did, but some folk think that horses have magic and it must have been he did some on me. A while later I was back on my feet. Then he just looked at me, nodded, and started walking. His whole herd went with him, and I followed too. By the time the sun had gone down, we came to a stream. See, he had led me to water. And there were berries there too, growing on bushes. Shachanee healed my wound and led me to food and water.”
“Wow,” Willa said.
“And that’s not all.”
“It’s not? He did something else?”
“Oh, yeah, he did. He must have really believed in me. See, he gave me one of his daughters.”
Mister M smiled a big, toothy grin, and nodded. “I loved that horse. Twenty years I rode her, and I never once did put a saddle on her. Was out of respect, you see? She was a horse princess—er, a princess is like a king’s daughter, important cause her dad’s a king—and she was my best friend for all those years.
“Well, you know the rest. I rode around trying to right my wrongs, and in time I met May-Beth, found this place. All that’s ancient history.”
He grew silent.
Willa looked down at her feet, wiggling her toes, processing the story. She ran a thumb over a smudge, wiping dirt off her sole.
“So what do you think?” mister M asked finally. “Good story? You believe it?
“Am I a larr?”
Willa looked up at him, left eye shut against the sun.
“Naw,” she said. “You ain’t no larr. I believe it.”
He chuckled. He looked over the open fields and then back at the village.
“Say, things are looking quiet today. I don’t reckon we’ll get visitors. Not traders, not bandits. What say we go back and get us some lunch?”
“Yeah,” Willa said, and she rose and dusted off her shorts.
Mister M picked up his rifle and then stood up with a groan. He stretched, one hand on the small of his creaking back.
“Can we visit Shachandra’s grave on the way?” Willa asked.
“We sure can,” mister M said.
They started walking home.