Eric J. Guignard

   
 
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Last Days of the Gunslinger, John Amos
 
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John Amos had five children. None were his by birth, but every one of them called him Pa.

In younger days, John matched shot against other men for a bounty or a bottle, and he tried not to think of such times he was called a murderer. But he’d been raised a gunslinger, and because of skills honed over thirty years of quick draws he’d been able to keep himself and the children alive, while the rest of the territory around Elmore, Arizona were killed off screaming by the hoppers.

Now times were different, quieter in their own way.

John and the oldest boy, Lee, crouched at the edge of a cliff littered by tall ocotillo and mesquite, looking down on those hoppers. Though John saw the increasing horror of what lay below, he couldn’t help but reflect: Whereas once a man’s life wasn’t worth a nickel to him, every living person now had become a precious blessing.

John and the children had carved out a life in the high mountain caves—if being trapped on the mountain could be called much of a life—while the creatures abounded in the valley below. Whether the insect-like hoppers were monsters of the earth, aliens from beyond, or demons from Hades, John didn’t know. What he did know was that they died like anything else. Either by his bullets or the desert heat, their number had been slowly diminishing. John’s hopes had lifted at that, calculating the odds month-by-month of escape from this infested region. But suddenly, five years after the hoppers mysteriously appeared, their mating urges seemed to kick in. They bred for the first time, and John knew the whole affair of calculating odds now levied a terrible disadvantage against him and the children.

For the creatures were busy laying eggs.

Those eggs towered in great pyramid-like mounds, each bulbous shell spotted pink and purple as garish candy drops, but sized larger than a county fair pumpkin. Whereas John had prior estimated there remained only a few hundred adult hoppers in the area, that number would soon swell to the tens of thousands once the eggs hatched.

“Jesus,” Lee said.

John snapped and slapped him hard across the face. “We don’t take the Lord’s name in vain.”

Tears slipped from the boy’s eyes, but John didn’t know if it was the sting from his whack or if Lee just wept from the despondency of what they saw. John immediately felt guilt; he struck Lee as an outlet from the dread below, just the same as Lee sought his own outlet by cursing. Both of them were impulsive.

Nothing else was said, and they gazed across the distant desert chaparral. The hoppers couldn’t sense them up on the cliffs and, even if they did, couldn’t scale the sheer granite face the way a man could, climbing with hands and feet. On flat land, though—the very kind of wandering, broken desert that surrounded the mountains—it was another matter. The creatures hunted scent like a bloodhound in heat and leapt faster than a jackrabbit over burnin’ coals. Years before, when the townspeople of Elmore first tried banding together, they were overrun and scattered by the creatures, then caught and peeled apart like plucked fruit. There seemed no way to outrun or outmaneuver a hopper, and the best one could do was hide or hope their bullets didn’t run out.

Lee spoke, breaking the silence. He was thirteen years old, and his voice sounded a tone too deep, as if trying to talk while holding in something that hurt. “What’ll we tell the others, Pa?”

“The truth,” John replied. “We always tell the truth.”

Far off, a desert storm began to erupt, though it was hard to believe the clear morning could be tainted by downpour. The sky shone blue as polished turquoise, but John Amos heard the thunder echo across the valley like beating war-drums of the Hualapai tribes. The spring air was warm, and the wind—often breezing through the pass—had stilled, a respite from earlier pounding squalls. Instinct told him if the faraway storm kept up, it would arrive from the east. It was the sort of peculiar weather that John once welcomed, the whisper from Mother Nature that change was coming, and not just in ways of the seasons. A long time ago, when weather like this broke, he saddled up his chestnut mare and rode far across the land searching for the things restless men dream of.

Now there was no place to ride.

John backed away from the cliff’s edge on hands and knees. Lee rose to follow and knocked loose a rock that crashed into other rocks, sending several far down to the valley floor.

A hopper startled at the small avalanche. It saw them and jumped up, but was too far below to pose any danger. It let out a cackling chirrup, sounding like a cricket—amplified—and mixed with the howl of a wolf. The hairs on John’s arms rose every time he heard their call.

“Careful,” he said. “You’ve stirred them up.”

Lee looked down and spat at the creature. The hopper resembled a feral ball of teeth and purple thistles as it flailed and jumped against the rise of the mountain. They grew larger than a man, and their rear legs were bulging springs of muscle and sinew, taut like the recoil of a grizzly trap. The hoppers could leap upwards of forty feet in one bound, but John and Lee and the others were well over a hundred feet above, safe in the caves.

“I wish we had more ammo,” Lee said, not for the first time. “I could sit up here all day long and plug away at those things.”

“I wish so too, son. But we’ve got to conserve what we have.” John flicked a green fly off Lee’s shoulder. He wanted to put his arm around the boy and apologize for slapping him, but couldn’t find the right words for amends.

Instead, John whipped out his revolver and fired a single bullet into the valley. The hopper that had leapt at them shrieked and fell backwards, the top of its head burst open. Amber blood spilled out like glistening honey, and one of the hopper’s purple legs twitched to the heavens.

Lee grinned so big that John thought his teeth might fall out. They walked back up the winding path to the caves, and more of the hoppers’ cries echoed from behind.

The caves stretched deep within the Crooked Top Mountains, providing shelter and a source of food for the group who daily caught and cooked the mice or bats that lived in the crevices. There was even loose soil along one short plateau bordering the cliff’s ridge, and John had taught the children how to grow vegetables.

John and Lee returned to the cave entrance where the eldest of the children, Missy, waited. At fourteen, she could hardly be called a child anymore, but adolescence just didn’t seem fitting to a girl that John still remembered as holding a tear-stained doll close to her heart when he first found her.

She asked, “Anything new?”

Lee didn’t reply, but took her hand and looked solemnly into her alert eyes. John knew Lee carried puppy-dog feelings for her, probably something that kept him up at night with questions and wonder. To Lee, Missy was the only eligible girl left in these parts, and maybe in the whole state of Arizona. She wore the pants of a young boy and the wool shirt of a large man—one of John’s—to allow for femininity that had begun to swell from her chest.

“What’s the matter?” she asked.

“Gather the others,” John answered.

He scratched at sun-burnt whiskers that covered his jaw while Missy cupped her hands to her mouth and hollered. Her voice was a command the other children respected as much as John’s own.

John Amos had tried to protect more of the townspeople—and for awhile he did—but the other adults always seemed to get it into their heads they could run things better than himself. Without exception, those decisions got them killed.

Children just have a different way of thinking, and that’s what kept them breathing. When John told them to hide, they did it. When he told them to shut up, they did that too. And when John said to run, he could just about see sparks licking at their boot heels as they bolted. Children did what they were told. The other adults didn’t and so they were dead.

By doing things his way, John had kept them alive for half a decade. But now, as hard as he tried to figure otherwise, he knew they wouldn’t live much longer if they stayed on the cliffs.

The remaining children emerged. Lee’s eleven-year-old sister, Ruth, carried an axe with an obsidian-blade head. Little Grace followed, freckled with the smile of golden sunrise, and holding hands with the youngest, Josiah. He clung to her like a scared nestling, unable to spread its wings and attempt flight.

“Children,” John said, shifting his gun holster while the sun spilled fire onto his shoulders. “It’s time for us to leave.”

A wind picked up, and the hoppers’ distant howls carried past.

“We’ve been safe here, high up, while the valley’s infested with those things. We’ve watched the hoppers die off lately, and it’s been easier to sneak down for food, even haul up more supplies from the wagons, biding our time and hoping to decamp once their number depleted. That plan won’t work anymore.”

The children looked around, realizing they’d be saying farewell to a home that some of them had known longer than any other residence. They’d lived in the caves for years and grown used to its musty shadows and damp earth. Besides Missy and Lee, the others hadn’t left the cliff’s edge since they arrived, having ridden up on wagons that stuck at the base of the mountain.

“Maybe they’re on a five-year life cycle, but those things have reproduced in mass,” John continued. “They’re just eggs now, but they’ll mature soon, and a whole new generation is going to rise. If we’re here after that happens, we’ll never leave this place.”

The storm from the east moved in, and the blue sky turned gun barrel-gray.

“How are we gonna leave, Pa?” Grace asked. She wrung at the hem of her dress, pulling on loose threads between delicate fingers.

“I don’t know yet,” John replied, “but I’ll figure it soon enough.”

The children nodded, as if silently agreeing that John’s words were satisfaction enough. If John Amos said he’d do something, they knew it’d get done.

That night it rained, and the next morning it rained harder than he’d ever seen.

John stood on the edge of a bluff and looked out over the hoppers and their eggs scattered across the valley floor. It reminded him of once finding a dead deer in the fields; from a distance the carcass looked black, but up close he’d seen the color was really just swarms of flies crawling across its pale hide. He wondered again at the creatures’ origin, and then he wondered again at his and the children’s future.

There was life and death and conflict everywhere. Even the land around them seemed a symbol of struggle, where cacti and sparse pine trees sprouted next to each other, jostling for resources amongst the steep adjustments of elevation. It was a strange terrain from which strange stories sprouted like wild summer weeds, and he reconsidered how much truth to them he should have heeded. Indian curses and biblical prophecies and tall tales shared by toothless old prospectors had reached his ears ever since he was old enough to hear. The legends and lore were countless, and one never knew if they were late-night fancies or moored in the experiences of those that settled the area in ancient days past. After the arrival of the hoppers, nothing remained that John thought impossible.

He heard Missy coming, but didn’t look back. The rain masked most sound, but long-ago he’d learned to tune in any noise that sounded out-of-place, such as approaching footsteps from behind. John’s wide-brimmed hat drooped under the heavy downpour, and he lifted it off and flicked away the water as best he could, handing it to her when she was close enough.

She took it. “Sure is coming down.”

He nodded, feeling like they’d moved beneath a waterfall.

“You come up with a plan yet to leave?” Missy asked.

“No, but I prayed on it. The Lord will give us a sign.”

A fork of lightning flashed across the morning sky, followed by the crack of thunder.

“We always thought we’d be rescued, Pa. The cavalry or some posse would come riding in and clear out a path for us. What if the hoppers aren’t just in the valley? What if they’ve taken over everywhere?”

“There’s no creature that can take over everywhere, not folks, and not those things. There’s safety out there somewhere, and we’ll find it.”

“I believe it. You’ve always kept us protected.”

“You can’t count on me forever,” John said. He turned to face her, and she held his gaze. Her eyes shone green as dew-touched leaves and reminded him of his wife, Belle, from long ago. The only time he ever thanked God for Belle’s death was the day the creatures appeared. It had been terrible enough watching tuberculosis slowly eat away her life, but he couldn’t fathom seeing her get torn apart by the hoppers, as what happened to most everyone else from their small settlement. He patted Missy’s arm. “The other children look up to you. If anything should happen to me, you’ve got to watch out for them.”

“Ain’t no hopper gonna get you, Pa.”

“I can only handle what I can handle.”

The rain fell harder still, like hammering fists, and the wind picked up, slapping waterlogged sagebrush across their legs.

“Guess we should tie tarps over the garden?” she asked.

“About that time.”

“Maybe the rain will wash those monsters out of here.”

John smiled at the thought. He was about to respond when a low, steady rumble erupted. He recognized the sound, and his brain started calculating, like the greased-cogs of a wound clock.

“Missy,” he said. “Go tell the others to get ready. We’re leaving.”

She looked around. “Now?”

“Now, child! The Lord has given us his sign!”

She turned and ran up the path to the caves.

The rumble grew louder, and John closed his eyes, listening to where it came and the direction it headed. The valley below was a channel, surrounded by mountains on both sides. Roughly four miles west, it emptied out like a funnel onto the desert plains, southwest of the mining town of Florence and twenty-five miles from Phoenix. It might be a running fight from there, but it was a start.

A flash flood was headed their way, and John knew the only way through the hoppers was to jump in and ride it out.

He returned to the caves and found the children grouped together, waiting for him.

“Weapons only,” John said. “And the clothes on your back. There ain’t nothing else we can afford to bring.”

The children nodded at his words, but their eyes were dumb, unable to imagine escape. Rain fell harder, pelting them like needles, and the wind whipped their faces. John waited to tell them until a tremendous roar rushed past. When it broke, Josiah flinched and covered his ears. Water crashed across the land below, and the screams of hoppers mixed with pounding thunder.

“It’s a flood,” John said, “and the valley’s filling. I don’t know how long it’ll last, and I don’t know if it’ll get us past the creatures, but it’s a chance, and we’ve got only one.”

Grace shivered. Lee gulped. John turned his palms up, fingers splayed. “Gather and hold hands.”

The children obliged, and he called up to the wild sky, “Lord, deliver us from these sons of bitches. Amen.”

“Amen,” the children repeated.

Missy held his Winchester rifle. John asked, “You got that loaded?”

She nodded.

“Good girl.” He motioned to Ruth. “Hold on to Grace and Josiah. Keep ’em tight.”

“Yes, Pa.” The two youngest moved to her, clinging at each leg.

“Lee,” John said. “Get the axe. We’re going to the wagons.”

The wagons were a pair of pine buckboards that John and some other men had managed to drive partway up the mountain until the incline became too great. This occurred years before, during their dismal escape from Elmore, when the hoppers first began hunting. Of course John and the others didn’t understand what was happening then, only that they were surrounded and the creatures couldn’t climb, so they sought the mountain top for escape. Only afterward did they realize they’d trapped themselves on an island of refuge surrounded by a stormy sea of monsters. John doubted they would have made it through the valley anyway during their flight, but sometimes he wondered what the purpose of their escape had been. The horses they used were gone—as were the other men—taken as food by the creatures. The wagons had proved invaluable though, filled with the trappings of society. Clothes, blankets, guns, food, seed, and loose trinkets that reminded him they weren’t reduced to savages. Most of it had been carried up to the caves, and the buckboards had since settled from disrepair, leaning against each other.

Fighting the downpour, John and the children climbed down a network of ladders and footholds to the shelf of land the wagons sat upon. The flood already rose to lap at the wheels. The mountain descended another twenty feet beyond to the valley floor, but now it was only a raging gray river, foaming like a rabid beast and filled with the debris of land.

A hopper rushed past, caught in the powerful current. It shrieked and struggled against the deluge, but was helpless. Like a rabbit, it could not jump in water, for there was no solid surface to leap off. It splashed and screamed and sank.

John took the axe and positioned himself next to the wagon closest to the water. With a mighty strike, he cleaved one wheel off its wood axle, then moved to the others and severed them, until the buckboard fell flat to the ground. He chopped off the two front shafts used to harness horses, then shortened each shaft to lengths of eight feet apiece with another round of swings.

“Push!” he ordered.

They lined up at one edge and shoved the wagon into the water’s shallows.

A thunderous clamor sounded, and John turned to it. Upriver, a side of the mountain peeled off, crashing into the flood. The whole valley shook, and boulders dropped all around, tumbling past on waves before sinking into the darkness below. For years, the mountain had been their refuge, sheltering them from the monsters’ reach. Now that haven was crumbling. He imagined the caves above shifting until their ceilings collapsed, the home they’d built returning to that shapeless mass of shattered granite they first discovered. Though John was desperate to flee, he felt a twinge of melancholy, too; the time spent living in the caves had not been completely awful—he’d enjoyed a sort of fatherhood in looking after these children, an experience he never had with Belle. But they were cut off now, and there was no going back.

“Get in,” he said.

The rising water picked up the wagon and he struggled to hold it in place while each child climbed inside. Without wheels, it resembled a low-lying box, rectangular with three-foot-high side walls. A bench and single chair mounted on the front, where once John rode, driving a team of horses. He would ride it now as a captain, trying to navigate the churning currents. He pushed the buckboard from its rocky perch with one horse shaft, while Lee pushed from its back with the other. The battered wagon was built of white pine, a light wood that could float while dry, but once enough water soaked through the grain, that’d be the end of their sailing.

And it wouldn’t take long, John guessed, for the unsealed wood to become waterlogged as such. But neither, he also reasoned, would it take long to sail out of the valley.

The wagon shot into the flood like a greased arrow.

“Yee-haw!” Lee shouted. “Like breakin’ in a new horse!”

John was about to warn off his arrogance when the wagon slammed something underneath, knocking John’s legs out from under him. He struck his head on the bench and landed in a tangle of limbs with the children, and found all he could do was curse.

More of the mountain fell around them causing the river to rise and sink in giant walls of water. The buckboard lifted and turned all the way around in the currents, so the back became the front. Lee pushed his pole against an outcropping, and they spun again.

Grace screamed, and Josiah followed suit.

“Pa, look out!” Missy lifted her rifle and fired.

A hopper collided against them and the waves almost shoveled it inside. Her bullet went wild as the wagon dipped, and water poured in over the lip. The hopper’s teeth snapped, and its legs flailed, trying to dig claws into the wood to climb inside. John whipped out his pistol and shot a round through its face spraying amber blood in a great arc. The creature tumbled backwards, and the river took it away.

“You three,” John said to Ruth, Grace, and Josiah. “You’ve got to bail out water. Use anything you can, your hands, shoes, hats.”

There was a sharp smack, and a saguaro cactus snapped against the wagon’s front, its razor arms swinging wide overhead. “I can’t shoot and steer,” he added and motioned to Missy. “You’ve got to cover us, Lee keep steering from the back.”

Hauling himself into the bucket seat, John poled them away from a spiraling whirlpool that formed amongst broken trees. Bulging hopper eggs bobbed up from the water and shattered against the mountain walls. A grin crept over his face in spite of their circumstances; fragments of spotted pink-and-purple shells showered the water. The creatures wouldn’t be multiplying anytime soon after this. The air stank of wet creosote, and the valley boomed in rolling thunder. John’s grin flipped as the buckboard lurched, then sailed faster through the current, gaining momentum.

A crack sounded from Missy’s rifle, then another, but he didn’t look behind to see what she shot at. Ahead the valley narrowed between shaking mountain outcrops, and he saw a dozen hoppers crawling up the broken rocks like soggy beetles. The wagon aimed to sail right amongst them, and he imagined the things leaping down into the buckboard as they passed through.

He pulled his revolver and fired. Two of the hoppers fell in noisy somersaults, showering purple thistles to mix with the rain.

I can’t shoot and steer, John remembered saying. Well, I guess I’m learning.

Missy stumbled to the front and fired the rifle alongside him. Another pair of hoppers were picked off.

The buckboard tilted and shuddered, and John began to feel doubt it could hold up long enough to ride out the flood. The wagons had been left to the elements for five years at the mountain’s base and there was no telling how the bolts and joinery would hold up under these conditions.

John and Missy fired again at the creatures on the rock face, but the river spun them, and the craft tilted, taking more water. The shots flew lost into the rain. More cacti erupted from the river, their spines lashing in all directions. A dead hopper floated by, impaled on a saguaro’s limb. The youngest children bailed frantically, but it was a losing effort. Already, gray floodwater sloshed above their ankles.

The valley trembled and the mountain outcrop broke free, collapsing in great explosions of rolling granite. Slabs of rock beat against the river, and the flood grew more frenzied. The hoppers shrieked as they fell, sliding off the boulders into watery depths.

At least timing is on our side, John thought. If we’d been any earlier, the collapsing rocks would have dropped right on us.

Dust billowed up from the avalanche, filling the air, though John still heard things breaking and falling around them. They sailed blind through the murky grit hoping the river would carry them through safe. Half a dozen rapid heartbeats later, they were on the other side, roaring along at breakneck speeds.

The flood had risen farther, so the towering pine trees now looked stunted; only their tops were visible above the water’s surface. The buckboard skipped across curling whitecaps then crashed down into a black eddy. Josiah flipped in the air like flicking up a coin on your thumb and forefinger. He came down at the same place he’d gone up, but the wagon had already been carried away. The boy dropped smack into the river’s frenzy and vanished. Ruth howled, and John scrambled to the back. The wagon bounced off a submerged boulder and almost flipped up too, the way Josiah had.

“Lee,” John shouted, “take the front!”

He strained to see sign of the lost boy. A tree top whipped across as they sailed past and slapped John’s face. He saw flashing stars instead, and then he saw a hopper pop up from the water like a cork that’s pulled down and released. Josiah’s arm shot out from the torrent behind it.

John dropped his pistol and dove in, immediately buffeted in cycles the way it might feel in the midst of a Kansas twister.

He thought for a moment he should have pulled off his boots and belt, but knew there wasn’t time. Just as quickly, he sank under the crushing waves, then struggled back to the surface. The flailing hopper lurched at him with spiked claws, but didn’t have any better control in the water than did John. The creature was pulled under and John thought he could swim past. Something horrible sliced under the cap of his knee and he screamed until he was sucked under again, the icy rainwater filling his mouth and lungs.

Underwater, the black shapes of trees and rocks and moving things blurred in an aquatic nightmare. John felt he might pass out right there from the pain in his leg, but he managed to force himself to swim under the current, his limbs weighted by clothes and burning from the strain. The river seemed to change directions at impossible angles, and he recalled a time long ago, when he was once caught in a stampede: The sensations were alike, unseen things cutting and pounding him as he got pulled along. He was dragged faster and faster downstream, but finally broke surface gasping for air, then coughing out water, then gasping again. A massive tree trunk sailed past and John grabbed hold, using it as a float to regain his senses.

“Pa!” Missy shouted.

John turned and saw he trailed only a few feet behind the wagon.

“Grab the pole!” She held out the wood shaft, and he reached for it.

Then Ruth bawled and pointed, “Josiah!”

John swung his head the other way and saw the boy’s arm again rise through the river right behind as if he’d been the one chasing after them all along.

John tried to turn the tree trunk perpendicular to slow it against the river’s flow, hoping the boy could catch up. Something rattled like clattering dry beans, and even over the roar of the storm, he recognized the sound.

A huge rattlesnake rose from a knot in the tree, its copper snout only a foot from John’s face.

He cursed three shades of blue and eyed the snake as it rose closer.

Another sound, a cackling chirrup, as if a monstrous cricket mixed with a wolf’s howl, rushed toward him. The flood pulled a hopper along, its cry growing louder like a boiler riding the tracks straight at him.

The rattlesnake struck at John’s head and he dodged out of its way more by luck than anything else. He let go of the trunk as the hopper collided against him. Its force struck him so hard that John felt his ribs nearly cave in, and he rebounded back against the tree. A bullet whizzed by before he realized a shot sounded, then a wave covered them all. John would have been sucked back under the water, but he grabbed onto a limb from the tree with one hand and held on as they all spun around in a swirl. The hopper gnashed its teeth and tilted its head to snap at John. Another gunshot, and the creature was knocked aside with a hole in its shoulder.

Missy’s aim was getting better.

The snake swiveled and lashed out again. In the matter of survival there wasn’t much John Amos wasn’t willing to attempt. Never though, had he considered snatching up a rattler by bare hand. One wrong move and a snake bite would send him to Belle quicker than he would’ve preferred. But he let that ghostly guide of reflex take over, and when the snake struck, John reached up and caught it under its neck. The serpent’s rattle went crazy like a chain of Chinese dynamite ripping through the earth. He sensed movement and turned, seeing the wounded hopper surge forward again, its jaws stretching open to tear John apart.

In that instant they could have kissed, their heads drummed so close to each other. The hopper snapped its teeth shut twice, and John came an inch to being decapitated, but he knew the way the monsters lunged, head-first in a corkscrew motion with neck extended, and he ducked underwater just in time to avoid it.

Along the way down, John pressed the rattler against the hopper as hard as he could. The snake caught the beast’s mandibles and sank its fangs into that wiry purple fur lining the hopper’s jaws. The hopper shrieked and sank under the tree trunk taking the snake with it.

Clinging to the trunk, John pulled himself hand-over-hand to its furthest point just as Josiah soared past. He caught the boy under one arm and pulled him tight to his chest, feeling how icy-cold they’d both become.

“Josiah,” he said. The boy was limp and his eyes rolled up.

John sensed his own strength fading fast from the broiling water and debris hammering at them. His legs weren’t working right, and he was trapped against the tree, unable to let go and swim in the river while holding Josiah. A crash jolted him and, looking up, he saw the wagon. Lee had maneuvered it alongside the trunk, and Missy leaned over.

“Hand him to me,” she said.

He lifted the boy up with one arm and Missy caught and pulled him in. John followed, pushing off from the tree and grabbing the buckboard’s side. A hopper’s egg bounded through the waves next to them. Even in desperation to get out of the water, he couldn’t help but feel disgust at the thing. Part of the shell was cracked, and something was trying to push its way out. An ebb of strength welled within, and John reached over and punched the egg. The shell shattered, and its contents were taken by the water.

He began to pull himself over the side of the wagon and paused. Something was wrong. His arms trembled, his vision was darkening around the edges. He couldn’t get in.

Lee caught him under his arms and heaved, and John finally tumbled back inside. The buckboard rose high in the air on a wave, then sank just as quick, and he felt his guts get left behind. The wagon was half-filled with water and the two youngest girls tried desperately to bail it out, but they could just as easily have been swimming in it. Everyone’s eyes were on different things.

“How is he?” John asked wearily.

Missy held Josiah over her knee and pounded on his back. The boy vomited gray water and coughed. “I think he’ll be okay.”

“Where’s my gun?” John asked.

Ruth had it tucked into her belt. She pulled it loose before looking at him, then shrieked.

Half of John’s left leg was gone. Below the knee—where he’d felt the hopper slash him in the river—there was nothing attached, just hanging red streamers of flesh and ligament.

“Pa!” Missy cried.

Blood poured from the stump, mixing with the wagon’s rainwater. John glanced down at it and was almost relieved to at least understand why he felt steadily weaker. The adrenaline rush while fighting in the river had kept him going, but now he just wanted to close his eyes and dream of a life gone by. An avalanche of rock and pine trees collapsed behind them with a thunderous peal. A hopper’s howl chased after. The wagon spun again, though lazy, as a spinning top begins to slow.

“I said, where’s my gun?” His voice had gotten quieter, but it was still not to be argued with.

Ruth handed it to him, her eyes growing big. John checked the chambers. She’d loaded it with the last of his spare cartridges, five in total.

“Good girl,” he said.

The darkening of John’s vision spread until his peripheral sight was gone. He looked at the world as if through a pair of opera lenses; everything seemed larger than it should and focused only on small circumferences.

But it was enough.

He swung the revolver and fired once into the water. A hopper’s head split in two.

Ahead, the mountains opened up, and the flood waters dispersed into the plains. The river slowed and shallowed.

The rain began to lessen.

Lee took off his leather belt and wound it around John’s upper leg, cinching tight. Like the river, John’s blood flow slowed, but it still pulsed in spurts. “You’re going to make it, Pa. We’re almost there.”

“Less talking,” John said. “You need to steer us through.”

Already the flood level had dropped to five or six feet deep, and the wagon descended halfway into that, sinking steadily lower from the waves breaking over its sides. Had he two legs, John would have jumped out and pushed them along. Now though, he wanted only to lie there, floating. His eyelids weighed half a ton each, and his head drooped like his neck didn’t work any longer.

At the final mountain pass, and before the flood poured onto the empty badlands, a tight bottleneck had formed of trees and rubble and drowned hopper copses. Lee steered the buckboard past shattered cacti and pine limbs. Egg shells covered in mud broke to pieces, oozing amber residue like rotten molasses.

Josiah sobbed. His eyes were bloodshot and puffy. He attached himself to John like a layer of sad clothing, chanting, “Don’t go, don’t go.”

Something moved under the mud, and the buckboard tilted. Missy swung the rifle toward the muck, but the movement subsided and they passed over.

“Get out, stay together, and run,” John said. He lay back so the water flowed over his hair.

“You’re coming with us,” Missy told him. She spoke it as an order, though the question of her own words was plain across her face.

“I’m not.”

“We’ve got wood, I’ll make you a crutch or stretcher,” Lee said.

“I’m bleedin’ out. Those creatures are still around, and I’ll slow you down,” John replied, then gasped. He cleared his throat and his voice cracked. “There’s not much left for me... I just want to know you’ve got a chance. Get out of here and hope the hoppers haven’t infested the next town.”

“We’re not leaving you here!”

“How do you stay alive?” John asked. He looked at each of them hard as he could.

Grace whispered, “We do what you tell us.”

“And I’m telling you to leave.”

A splash and howl clattered toward them. A hopper was trying to jump through the water, but unable to get far enough above the surface to leap; it looked almost like it bounced in place. John shot it through the neck, and it sank.

The wagon rocked against the bottleneck, unable to move forward, just bobbing up and down over debris. Dozens of eggs floated against the pine board sides, and hundreds more seemed to be riding the flood straight to them. Many were cracked or punctured, but there were enough eggs that seemed preserved to give John great worry. Some of those eggs pulsed, like something inside was getting ready to break out.

A hopper lay tangled in cacti and boughs only twenty yards away. It was alive and moaning, but unable to jump. One leg was snapped, jutting at an impossible angle over the hopper’s head. It clutched a single egg with insectile claws against its abdomen, the way a mother holds a bundled baby.

Missy raised the Winchester to it.

John gently pushed her arms away. “Save your ammo,” he said. “That one’s no danger.”

No one else said anything; they didn’t have to.

“The Lord will guide us all,” John said. “Now get the hell outta here! Go!

He took one of the poles and smacked it against Lee’s head, prompting them to move. Each child embraced John Amos and said they loved him. He promised he’d find his way to meet up with them another day. For the first time, none of them believed it. The pooled water in the buckboard was crimson, and John was pale white.

“I’d give you the pistol, but there’s only three bullets left. I’ll put them to better use keeping those things from following you,” he said.

The children nodded, and finally they left, picking their way over the bottleneck dam. Missy led, holding the Winchester. On the other side of the river, John saw them find footing on the beginnings of solid ground, wending from mud to desert sand. They walked slow at first, as if a terrible pressure fought to hold them back then, as they moved farther away, that pressure seemed to lessen, and their pace quickened. Except for Missy, each one looked back.

John watched them go with mixed feelings of pride and loss. His senses were dulling, like being under a bout of three-day drinking, and the sorrow of his circumstances was only a distant sensation, though the stump of his leg screamed fierce.

He lay on his side and used the wood pole to smash every egg within reach. As the broken shells sank, more eggs took their place, pushed against the wagon by the current, and he broke those too. John’s strength dimmed like his sight, but it didn’t take much energy to whack them.

The last of the rain stopped. Though the sky was still murky as the river, he watched a single shaft of late sunlight break through, and it was enough to feel satisfaction.

Movement to his right, and John rolled over. It was the hopper with a broken leg struggling to rise. It still clutched the egg, which seemed a strange thing to him. There were thousands of eggs, and each female creature seemed able to lay hundreds. Was that the sole survivor of this hopper’s clutch that it cared for so desperately? Did the monsters love their brood the way John loved his own children? He remembered thinking how his perception of life had changed after the hoppers’ arrival: now every living person was now a precious blessing.

Did the creatures feel the same way about their own kind? Maybe that flood completely destroyed them... at the least, they were gravely weakened. This hopper must have watched in frenzy as John smashed the eggs one by one. As the creatures’ numbers decreased, did they consider each of their own remaining to be a precious blessing?

The wounded hopper gave up its efforts to stand and fell back, half-submerged. John contemplated it for a long time: that one-legged, half-drowned horror, and that he and it were similar, just wanting to survive, to see their offspring persevere.

Only he wanted it more. The shaft of sunlight vanished.

And to hell with it all, he thought.

John shot a bullet into the last egg, and it burst in a runny mess. The hopper tried to rise again, howling, and John shot his second bullet between its eyes.

The world turned black, and he didn’t know if night had fallen, or his vision gone out. He prayed for forgiveness of all he’d done wrong, and he hoped he’d find his way home to Belle.

The third and last bullet John Amos turned on himself.

 

The End

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