The following short story is a new version of an already published project of mine titled, “Warm Wood”. The title as well as a significant part of the story has been re-written. I hope you enjoy and please feel free to comment.
Warm is the Wood
“Long ago the West was a wild place. Back when to be called wild meant so much more. It meant you were free. Free as the fertile land that stretched to the setting sun beyond the horizon. Without boundaries, without rulership, it would kill as easy as it gave life. So man set out to tame the West. To trek across the expanse of the continent bringing with them a chain made of railroad lines and uprooted earth. The West lashed out against the encroaching man with lightning, wind, rain, and ice. But man had dug into the world with their biting teeth and claws of steel and burning wood. It was then that many said that magic left that part of the world.”
“What’s that? You lookin’ for a ‘73 Winchester?” Harold snorted behind the bar and went back to clean the same glass he had just put down.
“THE GUN THAT WON THE WEST!” A man yelled in a slur near the end of the bar, his raised mug spilling beer on the floor next to him.
“God dammit Jim! Quit yer yelling and go back to sleep.” Harold waited for the drunk to put down his head on the bar before starting again, his voice low as if he forgot about the stranger in front of him who asked him the question in the first place. “Was never sure when this fine nation began to refer the 1873 Winchester repeating rifle by that name. I remember as a boy watching whenever those lone rider type fellows would come into town-you’d be sure he was sporting a Winchester.” He said with a small smile brought to him a fond memory. “Men made them personal too. Tassels on the end and crude names carved in the stock. Name seemed to always belong to a pretty lady.” Harold snorted again in amusement, “Stands to reckon that the silent strangers had relationship issues. Or at least held onto some of the strangest forms of affection that’ll ever be seen.” Harold’s voice drifted off in memory, remembering a sweet voice that seemed to linger in the oak timber of the bar long after it went away. The stranger placed a fray dollar note on the counter for another drink. Taking it Harold started up again, “Either way one thing you can be sure of mister. Man may have discovered the West, but it was a woman who won it.
The stranger in front of looked up suddenly, his eyes shimmering with a moment of rich color, “Why do you say that?” His voice was younger then Harold expected for his looks but thought nothing more it. He poured two beers from behind the bar and handed one to the stranger.
“Ever hear of the story of the ‘73 Winchester that could turn into a woman?”
Her name is Olivia. The ageless man had given up his own name a long time ago. Longer than any man in his line of work should be alive. Though it’s difficult to average a man’s lifespan during those days. Almost no one made it to even see wrinkles or feel the brittleness of bones. The man once said if he made it to old age he would thank the Lord. Days of peace and quiet might ease the splintering voices in his head. He chuckled to fan away the wisp of fears. It was the faintest of sounds, yet enough for his companion to hear it.
“What?” she asked him.
“Hmm? Oh nothing to bother your sweet little head with.” She glared at him in slight frustration from the obvious joke. He chuckled a little louder this time, adjusting himself in the saddle. His thigh brushed against the butt of a sheathed Winchester rifle. He thought finding peace in this world was a foolish dream. He chanced a glance at his partner as she braided a section of dark hair from her horse’s mane. Something intangible. He realized it was around then that Olivia collided into his life. Well, collide is wrong word. Better said, he had “stumbled” upon her on a long and lonesome road.
The two travelers stopped at the bank of a river as the sun settled behind a distant range of mountains, its rays shining brightly against the far off peaks.
“Look, there is snow on the peaks.” The man did respond to her words at first, more interested to watch his partner sit eloquently at the end of a slim branch of the tree that they had pitched the horses to. Her legs kicked ever so slightly, on verge of portraying childish enthusiasm. He then allowed himself to look up into the summits. The snow that she had seen was barely visible to him and simply colored the tips in a light grey.
“Most likely the last of winter. You should expect nothing but heat from here on out.”
“I do hate this place you have taken me. It is far too warm for my liking.” She let out a yawn and stretched out on the branch like a cat, her weight showing no strain on the slender limb.
“I seem to recall you mentioning how wonderful the sun is on many occasions.” The man circled the tree for fallen sticks to use for a fire. Suddenly he felt a sharp pain as something struck the top of his head. He looked at the small twig that was just thrown and then up at her.
“I think that one should suffice to tend the flames. And do not think I am so simple as to like or dislike the temperatures of the day. Do not forget that I am-”
“Impossible.” The man was able to dodge the second twig with a quick tilt of the head.
“Now first things you need to understand about winchesters is they can be sorta picky.” Harold scrapped off the suds of the freshly poured beer and slung it down the bar without a second glance to its anticipating customer. “You could only use two types of wood in the stock. Myrtle and Walnut.” He explained, pulling two stubby fingers up from his clenched hand. “The wood has got to be strong enough to not crack, but needs to also be supple. Feel like smooth skin resting on your shoulder. See it was important that the recoil didn’t knock the shot of center.” He continued to talk as he went down the bar with his damp rag, wiping the dribbles from past customers. “So Mr. Winchester specifically ordered the lumbering of those two trees. Myrtle and Walnut. The color wasn’t bad looking either. Was usually dark, full of secrets and mysteries. Nice look for a gun.” Using the same rag, Harold started to polish a shot glass. Out of the corner of his eye he watched the man at the bar continue to turn his glass, a ring of suds showing how little he had drunk so far. “Course, there were exceptions. A few guns were made where the stock came out all light n’such, like the color of untouched sand.” The man suddenly looked up in interest and Harold noticed how wild his eyes looked. Like a stray dog, searching for something. “Probably came from some random maple,” Harold said with convincing ease, “probably where the rumors started about Mr. Winchester using an olive tree.”
The man took a deep drink of his beer and spoke with a voice that still sounded dry from the trail, “Why would he do something like that?”
Harold smiled, “Well the story goes- There was ancient magic in that there tree.”
The nameless man wondered what she dreamt about. The fire snapped one last time and slowly died into embers. He ultimately decided that her dreams were at least better than his own. In the fading glow of the fire, the man couldn’t help but watch as his companion slept.
He felt she was the most beautiful then. Eyes closed, the long eyelashes were even more distinct against the smooth background of her fair skin. Her lips slacked slightly in slumber’s peace. He gave up trying to draw her sometime ago in the raged pages of his notebook. It never came out right, the nose not slender enough and her chin never as distinct as in reality. The worst was the hair. He could never sketch every wild strand of the messy crop. And the color; it reminded him of his childhood somehow. Where the seasons actually changed, and in the fall there was an explosion of reds, browns, and of course his favorite color, gold. He loved those trees. Far in the distance he heard the distinct cry of a hawk.
It’s cry was his signal for the approaching dawn. He got up and swiped the dust of the saddle he had been leaning on. He was half through strapping it to his horse when she woke up.
“It can’t be morning already.” She rolled over and covered her whole head with her wool blanket. The man shook his head and walked over, and after getting a tight grip, tore the blanket away.
“Hey!” He gave no response as he folded the blanket twice and placed it on her horse. “Why are you so cruel to me?”
“Now don’t start that again. It may have worked every other time, but not today.” He fastened the rest of the straps as she warmed her fingers in the coals of the previous night.
“You didn’t sleep again, Red.” Her voice was low and sounded ancient in tone. He stopped fastening the horse’s harness.
“I slept like a babe.”
“There’s no need to lie to me. Or have you forgotten that I already know everything there is to know about you.” The last knot tied, Red looked back at Olivia. She met his gaze and stared through the last wisps of smoke. The shifting grey did nothing to hinder the fierce green of her eyes as it ensnared all his senses.
“Everything huh?” Red felt himself slowly walking back towards her, away from the horses.
“Oh yes. Every little thought that passes between your ears.” The voice now changed into the rustle of wind between the leaves of a forest. The horses blasted out hot air through flaring nostrils, restless to move on.
“I apologize for the vacancy then, not a lot happens up there.” Red stood just across the dead fire, near the point of falling in. The horses could feel it now, a presence far exceeding that of their own.
Red ignored their distress, or rather failed to notice it.
“Not at all. I am fascinated with what I find in there… it’s simply delicious.”
Red blinked quickly as if a haze had just been lifted off his eyes. “W-what? Hey! What have I told you about that!?” Olivia whipped her head to the side and crossed her arms in disappointment.
Her stomach growled loudly a second time, “When we will be eating some decent food. It’s tiring to eat dried meat.”
“Don’t change the subject! Or would you like to just butter me up like some steak!”
“Tsk.” she clicked in distaste, “I would not dare eat something as foul as you.”
Red scratched his head before adjusting his hat. “Then why-” he stopped as he watched her hold the same position on the ground. Legs and arms crossed, head tilted away and eyes closed. She’s pouting he realized. Though he could not fathom how she could be pouting when she had just lured him in like some cattle.
Then for a brief instance she chanced a glance at him before shutting her eyes. Red placed his hand over his eyes and hoped he was wrong about the hint she hasnt just given away, “Is this about the blanket?”
“… It was cruel of you to wake me up like that.”
“Don’t Olivia me. You should be more considerate next time.” Red shook his head. He knew it was futile to argue. He would lose. Better to finish up and continue on their way. They couldn’t stop
“My apologies- Miss Olivia. I’ll be more considerate next time. May I help you up now?” He offered his hand out to her. She stared up at him in awe. Mostly because it was the nicest gesture she had witnessed from the ageless man. To anyone. Red leaned in lower, his worn and dusty hand gripping her lightly, “Time to get moving.”
“Alright.” She took hold of his hand, and at the horses he hoisted her up before getting onto his own. “You know Red,” she looked away hiding some emotion form view.
“I could never bear the thought of eating you.” She turned back smiling for moment before tapping her heels against her horse’s sides and beginning to trot off, “You’re far too sweet for a Nymph like me.”
“Jim- Hey, Jim. Time to head home.” Harold grabbed the empty bottles from the drunk’s table, clattering the glass together. The noise was enough to wake Jim, drool and snot sticking to the table from where he had fallen asleep.”
“Is Fiona here?” He asked, like some small mouse.
“No Jim, time to get home, otherwise Annabelle will be running to the marshall looking for ya. Now get.” Harold grabbed his arm and walked the recently widowed man to the front door, pushing him out. He watched Jim stumble down the road towards his store, the room on the second floor still lit even though it was the dead of night. Satisfied, Harold locked up.
“I’ll take another.” The voice was like sand and Harold turned back towards the bar. The man was still there, his one and only glass finally empty.
“Not if you take as long as the last one. It’s late mister.”
Without a word, the man put down the glass and reached into a pocket on his large coat. The movement made Harold feel tense, especially while he was so far away from his stagecoach shotgun that he kept under the bar. The man drew out a large bank note and Harold smiled in relief.
“Still interested in the rest of that story?” Harold asked.
The man twisted in his seat to look at him, “Very much so.”
“It’s important to know that the ‘73 rifle is like a relationship.” He started as he made his way across the room, placing chairs atop the tables. “Most other companies tend to care too
much for the cash revenue and less about the quality of the gun. Reason none of them are a Winchester.” He ended in a wheeze as he shifted a large oak table to its original place. “See, once the wood has been picked out you need to find the proper steel to match it with. That may sound simple, but the finest of steel is a complicated mix of iron and something else.” Harold started rattle off the variety of combination he knew that could make good steel. By the time he made his way back behind the bar, he was starting to get warmed up and dove into the details while the man remained motionless, save his eyes that followed Harold everywhere he went. “Whatever it is, add some heat, and you got yourself a metal that is unbreakable. Which is why you need the strong wood.” Harold pulled the lever and the bar was filled with the sound of pouring beer. “See, the steel needs an encasing that can handle the violent action. Sure it’s the metal that delivers the shot, but the wood makes it bearable to hold. And looking the other way, without the steel, the wood might as well be used to stoke a fire.” Harold placed the new glass in front of the man, who traded it for the whole note he had shown him. In the pass he noticed the scars on the man’s fingers and wondered what happened in his past to produce them.
“Those look mighty painful. What line of work did you say you were in?”
The man took as small taste of his drink before answering, “I didn’t.”
Red’s hat lay next to him as he inspected the parched trail ahead. Shallow pits and scratches was all that remained of those that passed by before. And from the looks of one certain pair of tracks, he knew they were heading in the right direction. “Looks like he’s been here.” He said with a groan, his knees and back aching in the awkward position, “Well what’s your guess?” He stood up and asked his partner, her fair face shaded by a loose hood. She leaned in slightly over to get a better look of the road before answering.
“It would seem that the last time that rain has touched here, was close to a year. It is a very dry.”
“No objection there.” Red nodded his head and kicked up a small cloud of dust. Suddenly a small wisp of wind caught the sand and blew it off into the wilderness, like a miniature flock of sparrows.
“However, our human bounty went this way.” Olivia stated, pointing in the same direction as the flight of dust, veering clear off the trail they had been following so far. Red squatted back down and looked at the tracks.
“Damn- your right. That puts you ahead.” He grumbled trying to figure out what had happened. He was sure the bounty was heading up the trail, though. He had long ago given up disagreeing with Olivia’s judgment on tracking, quickly understanding how connected to the natural around her she truly was. Though that didn’t mean he couldn’t still test her from time to time. The game happened to be one of her favorite pastimes. She giggled in amusement, “Shall I give you a hint?”
“Don’t be mad. I am after all part of the land. It speaks to me in ways you could not imagine. Whispers from the gurgling brooks and swaying trees, and when-”
“He sold his horse, didn’t he?”
“H-how… That was simple luck.” She turned away to ignore Red’s smile as he stood up again.
“Luck has got nothing to do with it.” He scratched the tracks with edge of his boot. “Look how shallow these prints are compared to those a few yards back. There’s almost no shadow along the ridges. This horse is not carrying a large weight anymore. He must have gone on by foot.” Red guessed the bounty had sold his horse and decided to risk traveling the wild on his own. If they hadn’t noticed the difference they would have followed the tracks clear into the next town. It was a good trick.
“How very clever of him, though it seems it was not enough to fool such sharp eyes.”
“What makes you think I was speaking about your eyes.” Olivia said with a devilish grin. Red only smiled slightly, looking out into the wild terrain in the direction of their bounty.
“We have a problem though.”
“We’re hunting a weasel.” Red got back on his horse and directed it off the trail. “Back when I was a boy, my father would tell me to stay clear of weasels. Said they were far too clever for their own fur.” Olivia giggled again.
“Why yes. What a wonderful thought it is to picture you as a child. I’m sure your hair was much better kept than it is now. Tell me more about your childhood.” Off the trail, what little commotion it brought was muffled now in the complete wild. Even the sound of hoofs was silenced by softer sand. All that could be heard was a constant drone of insects, so constant that it too seemed silenced in the ears of the two riders.
“Not now.” Red pushed the edge of his hat down masking as much of his face as possible. Anything to shadow himself from her sharp eyes.
“Oh… alright then.” She accepted, a tinge of regret and disappointment in her voice. Red said nothing hearing above all else a tone of sympathy and it felt like a hot brand on Red’s heart.They had rode for some time before she spoke again, “Red, I am sorry to have upset you. I would never mean to harm you.”
The sun was setting and Red rested his hat now on the stock of the sheathed rifle. “There’s no need. In truth I think you would be the one to best understand my past. It’s pretty complicated.”
“More so than a certain tree nymph?”
Red chuckled, “No just a different kind of complicated.”
“I see. Is your life still complicated?” Olivia began to fiddle with the mane of her horse.
Red smiled, “Very. See I happened to be chasing this one bounty all the way past the border when I was still pretty new at it.” Her fingers twirled the strands of hair still they formed a larger grouping. “He had killed the whole livestock of a farmer he had a grudge with. He was also a damn good thief.” Looping over than under, the braid began to form. “Somehow, he was able to rob this special stagecoach. Apparently it was delivering the first order of Winchester repeating rifles, going past Yuma and then on to California.”
“What was so special about these rifles?” She started on a new braid.
“Oh nothing really.” Her fingers twitched momentarily. “They were great rifles, heck I’ve never shot anything so well, but still, just rifles.” The braids had become tighter with every word and the horse shook its head in discomfort. Red could tell he needed to move the story in a new direction.
“However there was one rifle that happened to be resting at the very top of the crate and it was different from all the rest. My thief took one look at it and made it his.”
The sun now almost completely down, the two stopped and prepared a fire. Red passed Olive some jerky and sat next to her. Uninterested in the tough meat she set it aside, and asked instead, “So what happened to the thief that stole this gun?”
“I finally caught him when he was trying to cross a dried river bed near Bisbee. I would have shot him on the spot but that’s when I saw there was someone traveling with him.”
Olivia moved a little closer, “Really?” Red swallowed his piece of jerky, well aware that he had
not chewed it long enough.
“It was strange though, it seemed that he didn’t see her. He just stood there pointing the Winchester at me. From that distance I knew he could pick me off and I had little chance to hit him with my colt.”
“But you didn’t move. You stood there strong and tall, with the burning eyes of a hunter.” She inched even closer. “Your prey shook in fear at your figure looming above him, and frantically loaded the rifle with a shot.”
Red couldn’t tell if it was another one of her tricks, finding it impossible to look anywhere else but her green eyes. “I saw the smoke and heard the crack of the shot. And before I could even blink, I watched as his head snapped back and his body crumple into the dust.” Red blinked. Olivia had turned away from him and stared into the fire. “I never fired a shot at the man. The only cartridge came from the rifle.” Red finally said, expelling his breath.
“… I hated that man.”
“He couldn’t see you, could he?”
Olivia laughed only slightly, “No, though I doubt he noticed anything of value… I will never permit another man like that to touch me.”
The fire took over for a moment and filled the air with its cracks and whistles.
“I went down into that riverbed than.” Olivia looked quickly at Red as he continued on with the story, “I had forgotten about bounty by that point, and was more worried about other things… The girl was on the ground next to him, and I hoped to God that she was alive.”
“And was she?”
“She was sleeping. And I rushed to get her out of there, but I couldn’t pick her up. She was tied down to the earth by some power I could never undue.” They stopped to listen to a coyote cry in the distance. “Not sure why I decided to pick up the rifle then. But the moment I wrapped my hands around it, I knew I could go back for her.”
Olivia leaned up against Red and rested her head on his shoulder.
“She’s glad that you did.”
“Warm is the wood of a gun well used.” Harold said, closing off the last oil lamp, leaving the large fire at the side of the saloon as the only light. “I’ll never forget those words.” But the memory of the person who spoke them was cut short as Harold listened to the metal click of a pistol cocked. The man stood at the far end of the room, near the fire, casting a long shadow that met Harold in the darkness of the other side of the saloon.
“Where is she?” The man said, the calm of his voice slightly shaken.
“Now I don’t want any trouble. Get out of here now before I go and fetch the marshall.”
“I won’t ask a second time.”
Harold looked at the man, his hand steady on his pistol. He chuckled with his reply, “It’s just a story son. Fairies and demons, the monster beneath your bed, all just stories to frighten you as a child. To lure drunk men off to asleep and forget the sorrows-
“You got the words wrong.” The man said cutting off Harold, who was walking slowly behind the bar, always remaining in the shadows.
“I’m not here to argue with you. Get out now of there will be trouble.”
“The words are,” The man continued, “Warm is the wood of a gun used to kill.”
“That’s all that guns do-” Harold said darkly, the light of the fire reflected in his eyes like a predator of the night, “KILL!” and with that he threw a glass at the man and it exploded in mid-air as it was shot. Another set of shots rang out as the man fired across the bar, Harold staying low as he made his way to the end where he kept his concealed shotgun. The man shot all 6 rounds, and in the silence and smoke, he could hear the bounty laughing behind the bar.
“I have to admit, I’m disappointed in you Red!” Harold shouted, his lips in a snarl. “I heard all the rumors about you, and your abilities as a hunter.” He had made to the end of the bar, and grabbed hold of his shotgun. “After everything they said, you just walk in here thinking you could kill me and take her back? What do you take me for!”
Harold dived out from the bar landing on his side and taking a clean shot. The spray of bullets smashed in the far wall, hitting nothing.
“DAMN IT!” Harold howled, and he clamored to get up. Somehow the pest of a human and figured out the gun was upstairs. Harold ran towards the stairs, his eyes glowing yellow, losing control of his human disguise. He howled in frustration, leaping of the wooden steps. It had taken many lives to build up enough magic to hold this form. Years to convince the townspeople that he wasn’t a wolf in sheep’s clothing. He should have never tried his luck, never take that bet, win a rifle, a prisoner, and untapped source of magic. It was too good to be true. He had been tricked, plain and simple. And now he would have to start all over. Harold’s dark mind was in chaos as he burst into the bedroom. Then suddenly with a flash, the chaos was gone. The last sense he had was the smell of burning wood.
Red looked upon the remains of the demon’s shell. A frail elder man, his skin like ash, lay before him. Near him stood a young woman, her green eyes shining in the darkness.
“Is he dead?”
“No, the shade was nowhere near strong enough to face me.”
“This was a terrible plan.”
“I had told you that from the very beginning… did he have any answers?”
“None. Though he did tell me a story.” Red ran his fingers across the 1873 Winchester Rifle. It lightly colored wood was warm to the touch. As he did so he felt the smooth arms of Olivia wrap around his like vines. He was ensnared, and knew she would never let him go.