Jens Rushing brings us a Space Western/Fantasy, in three parts. In this final installment, Dixie O’Dell is captured by Gomez. How can she escape, bring Gomez to justice, and thwart the Aztec invasion of Earth? — ed, N.E. Lilly

The throbbing in Dixie’s skull was a drumbeat guiding her through the night and back to consciousness. Her eyes didn’t want to open, but Dixie made them, and saw that she was in a large, very gloomy cell. A wooden grate in the ceiling, far out of reach, permitted light and just enough air to stir the stench around. The stench came from the dozens of Oalli crammed into the cell with her. Rafael was beside her, groaning and rubbing his head. He seemed only half-conscious. He must have taken quite a hit, she thought.

Her pistol was gone, of course, and so was the corazón. “Well,” she said, “at least they left my clothes.” And, thank God, Bat’s badge.

Rafael moved his mouth. “Thirsty,” he said.

Someone shouted and pushed through the crowd. Dixie recognized Cualli, the chief. His feather was gone, and he seemed angry about it. He grabbed Rafael by the arm and hauled him up, shouting and snarling in Nahuatl. Rafael was limp in his grip. The chief, frustrated by his weakness, slapped him across the face. Rafael’s eyes flared with fury. The chief reached back for another blow; Dixie caught his hand.

“Let’s parley it over, boys,” she said.

“He says I brought the Aztecs down on them,” Rafael said. “Says I have their blood on my hands. He’s right, of course.”

“You’re as useless as a one-handed schoolmarm at a quilting bee,” Dixie sighed. “No one’s got anyone’s blood on anyone’s hands. Yet. We’re still drawin’ breath, ain’t we? Now, are we gonna lay down and wait for our gizzards to be cut out, or are we gonna fight like Kilkenny cats?”

“I don’t know what that is...”

“Fight like hell. Fight like mad Injuns, fight like Texans, like Mexicans, like Oalli men than scared old ladies!” She laughed to herself at the irony of saying this to a man — but, she thought, you can’t argue with success.

Rafael snapped at Cualli in Nahuatl, and Cualli unhanded him. Rafael stood his full five and a half feet, looking again like the educated son of a wealthy merchant rather than a wretched slave. “Uh, please translate that for the Oalli,” Dixie whispered. “They might find it a mite inspirin’.”

Rafael spoke to the Oalli, embroidering Dixie’s words significantly, judging by the length of time he spoke. He poured into it his Latin passion, giving every sentence the weight of the world, until Dixie, even though she couldn’t understand a word he said, felt able to batter down the heavy door and tear apart Tenochtitlan with her bare hands.

“Okay,” he said, “they’re mad with rage and ready to act. What is the plan?”

“I was hoping you had one!”

The crowd parted to let a screaming woman through: Patli, with some shallow cuts on her limbs where the birds had grabbed her, but otherwise none the worse for wear. Hysterical with joy (perhaps), she embraced Rafael. “Oh, how fortunate,” Rafael said flatly in Spanish. Patli cradled his head in her hands and assaulted him with kisses.

All looked upward at a rasping from the ceiling; the grate was removed. A rope with a loop in the end dropped down. Someone spoke in Nahuatl, and again in Spanish, and she shuddered at the sepulchral voice. Gomez. He said, “White woman, take the rope. If anyone else touches it, he will be killed instantly.”

Dixie set her jaw. She would face him and be unafraid. She grabbed the rope and stuck her foot in the loop. Gomez hauled her upwards and out of the cell.

Gomez and a half dozen guards hurried her through cool stone corridors and into a small room with a curtain rather than a door. Gomez sat on a stone bench. “Kneel,” he commanded. His voice brooked no argument.

“Where I come from, gentlemen stand up in the company of ladies,” she said.

“Kneel, or I will kill an Oalli child right now.”

“They’ll die anyway.”

Gomez arched an eyebrow and nodded. “Yes, I suppose so. You seem strong, for a woman. I can’t believe you followed me through the Ghost Trail. It doesn’t make sense — you had the courage to walk the Ghost Trail, but not to shoot me when you had the chance.”

“Maybe you’re headed for Boot Hill, Gomez, but it’s the law that’ll see to that. It’s not my place. I just aim to bring you in and let a judge handle you from there.”

Gomez snickered, then burst into laughter, long, rolling laughter. “Oh, pobrecita, your lunacy astounds me.” He wiped tears from his eyes. “I’m glad I spared you at the pyramid. Every day I spent on your world was a torture to me, but certain members of your race endeared themselves to me, just as certain dogs might.”

“Is that really how you think of the people of Earth? Animals?”

“Si, pobrecita. That is what our scholars teach us, and I found nothing on your planet to convince me otherwise. Your lands and possessions are no more yours than a pasture belongs to a cow. Likewise your lives. They’re ours to take, for the glory of Aztlan.” He shrugged. “Some of your race could be described as half-human, with a certain nobility that comes with simplicity, but in the end — all savages. Beasts on two legs.”

“That kind of thinkin’ lets you do anything,” Dixie said.

“Of course,” Gomez said. “My people have conquered six worlds, and soon we’ll take another.” He let his hand open. The corazón dangled from it. “I was surprised that you took this,” he said. “Poor Matlal is Earthbound forever, it seems.”

“I knew it’d be important. I could never find the words to use it, though.”

Gomez laughed again. She hated his laughter. “No words. Our magic is more subtle than that. You simply squeeze it twice, like the pumping of a live heart, and coax it from its slumber. Then — if your will is strong enough — the door to the Ghost Trail opens. It’s perilous, for if you enter by this method, rather than a doorway, and lose your jewel on the Trail, you could be stranded — well, forever. Useless knowledge to you, though. No non-Aztec has ever been able to use one, and soon you are to die.” He pocketed it.

Gomez’s eyes flickered over her. She shuddered. “Perhaps it would amuse me to tell you how your husband died. Why don’t you guess? Did he die pitifully? Or like a man? What do you think?”

Dixie tilted her chin upward. “You’re a bug, Gomez. You’re a scorpion who killed a man and thinks he’s almighty.”

“My name is Xiuhcoatl. I want you to guess. How did your husband die? He had a rare opportunity. He saw his death coming and got to prepare for it.”

Dixie said nothing.

Gomez tapped his foot. “I’ll tell you. Not like a man at all. Not like a strong man, accepting or angry. Not even like a weak man, begging and wailing for his life. He died like an animal. He growled, snarled, twisted in my grip like a dog while I tore his life from him.”

Dixie’s heart was a furnace.

“He stopped thinking. Fear shut down his brain and his heart. He died without dignity, without humanity, without a name.”

Dixie spat. It hit Gomez on the cheek and dribbled down his face. “You ain’t even a bug,” she said. “I’ve swatted mosquitoes with more humanity than you.”

Gomez backhanded her across the face. She reeled from the blow but did not fall. She summoned all the strength in her coiled body and launched into him, slamming him against the wall. Her hands pummeled his huge, muscular body. She tore at his clothes and shrieked in anger. Gomez shrugged off the blows, recovering from his surprise at her attack. Dixie slashed him across the face with her nails, leaving three bloody cuts from his forehead to his cheekbone.

“Putal!” he hissed, catching her hands above her head. He hit her twice for good measure, and threw her roughly to the floor. He called for the guards. “Your death will be the first to please the gods tomorrow,” he said. “I’ll perform the service myself. Adios, pobrecita.”

The guards rushed her back to the cell and dropped her through the hole. Rafael helped her up, his face grim at the site of bruises welling on her cheek and jaw. But she grinned through them and opened her fist. In her palm lay the red stone; in his fury at her attack, Gomez had failed to notice when she lifted it from his pocket. Rafael’s face lit up at the sight of the corazón, then fell. “But, señorita, we don’t know how to use it. And only one person can use it at a time.”

“I know how to use it.”

“Then at least your escape is sure.”

“I ain’t goin’ anywhere, Rafael! Should I go back to Earth and get ready to share it with the Aztecs? Leave you and the Oalli here to die?”

Rafael said nothing; she knew what he was thinking — I would— and that the thought shamed him.

Dixie squeezed the stone twice; there was no oval of light. Her vision blurred, and a green glow suffused the cell, with the rays of sunlight underscored in black lighting. “I think it’s working...”

The Ghost Trail was less terrifying this time. Dixie slipped from boulder to boulder, hoping to avoid the notice of the denizens of this ethereal non-world. She crouched in the lee of a column while a flock of tentacled bats tumbled past, squealing and tearing at each other in midair. Nearby was an arch. She headed for it. At the back was a sheet of solid white light. She squinted and the sheet broke into several patches, the patches into dazzling clusters of stars. That wouldn’t do at all. She needed a gunsmith’s workshop, or a smithy with racks of knives.

The stars disappeared, the image wavered like the air above a hot road in summertime, and she recognized Beauchamp’s General Mercantile on Guadalupe Street in Austin. It was night, and the store was empty. Above the counter was a fine pair of pearl-handled pistols. She saw a crate of Bowie knives packed in straw. Dixie went through the arch. Everything turned green and black, and back again.

Back on Earth! She’d only been gone a little over a day and a half, but the familiar smells of sawdust, kerosene, chewing tobacco, whiskey, and gunpowder were almost debilitating. She could leave; she could walk through the door and forget about Aztlan, Rafael, Gomez...

No.

Dixie wrote a quick note: “Dear Beauchamp, I.O.U. $50. D. O’Dell,” and gathered the pistols and a box of knives. She took another pistol for Rafael and a box of ammunition. Better not give the Oalli guns, she decided. They might end up hurting themselves more than the Aztecs. She squeezed the corazón...

The Ghost Trail was terrible and haunted by fearsome beasts, but the ability to exert some control over the malleable plane made it less scary. It had an eerie beauty. And the arches could lead anywhere. She glimpsed fantastic worlds, some fearful, some incredible and alluring, but all new and exciting. The girl who had grown up on a ranch was attracted by this, the biggest range of all. Riding the range of South Texas was nothing beside the prospect of walking through the cosmos... She could do it, if only she dared.

She clutched the corazón. Since she had entered the Ghost Trail without a proper door on a pyramid, she was fairly sure that her entry was random. Without the corazón, she guessed, she wouldn’t be able to control where the arches led. She didn’t relish the idea of being lost on the Ghost Trail forever.

Dixie found an arch that looked cooperative and conjured up the cell in Tenochtitlan. She was back. Rafael shouted in surprise or joy at her sudden reappearance. “You vanished!” he said. “I feared you were dead!”

The Oalli crowded around her, jabbering and asking questions. Dixie opened the box and a hush fell over them. She distributed the knives and gave the pistol to Rafael. “It’s been a long time since I held one of these,” he said. “My hand welcomes it. Now, why didn’t you get some dynamite? We could blast the walls down, and be at their throats!”

“A few dozen of us with knives, against their thousands with spears, axes, and clubs? No way. They’d knock us into a cocked hat lickety-split. I got a plan, or at least part of a plan, to dry-gulch these rascals. We can hide these weapons on ourselves — you gotta have room for at least a pistol in that loincloth of yours — and wait for the big moment. I reckon this is a big show tomorrow. The tlatoani, the king, the bigwig, wouldn’t miss it for the world. And the top of the pyramid’s gotta be pretty crowded. Not room for hundreds of slaves and an army up there, probably just the king, the captives, and a decent-sized guard to keep everyone in line. We grab the tlatoani, and maybe we can persuade him to order the army over the hills or something. It’ll be in Cualli’s hands, then, because I’ll grab Gomez and head back to Earth.”

“How do you intend to do that? The corazón only works for one person.”

“Maybe. I brought these knives through, and they weigh a good bit. I think if I touch something or someone, maybe we’ll get through together.”

“Señorita, that means...”

“Yep. When we’re done, I’ll take you to Monterrey on the O’Dell Express.”

“Señorita — words fail me — ”

“That’s fine. No one needs to say a thing about it. Now, tell the chief my plan.”

Rafael translated, and Cualli listened closely, casting admiring looks at Dixie from time to time. “He says it’s a good plan,” Rafael said. “He says he will negotiate safe passage with the tlatoani. He says that they may be cruel and bloodthirsty, but the Aztecs will keep a treaty. With no slaves to sacrifice, the attack on Mexico is at least forestalled.”

“Do you think it’ll work?”

“I think I’ll be glad not to be here and find out.”

Dixie shook her head. “I suppose if Cualli’s happy with that, that’s the best we can do. It’ll be out of our hands.”

Cualli approached Dixie and stooped so his head was even with hers. He took her hands in his and squeezed them, then placed them on his scalp, and laid his hands on her own head. He met her eyes and spoke in Nahuatl, his voice flat and unemotional.

“What’s he saying?” Dixie asked.

Astonishment was evident in Rafael’s voice. “He says he’s very grateful. Though they may be prisoners now, they were little better than quimichin, rats, before, and, if successful tomorrow, they stand to gain everything. He says you are to be known henceforth as Zintli Nal Oalli — the Deliver of the Oalli.”

“Thanks!” Dixie said.

Cualli added something in a stern tone, and Rafael translated. “Oh. Unless tomorrow ends in defeat, in which case you will be known as the Xihaucoatl, the Destroying Serpent.”

The chief bellowed something and the Oalli echoed. Then he dropped his hands and walked off. “They aren’t very demonstrative,” Rafael said. “I’ve never seen Cualli so excited.”

“I haven’t done anything yet,” Dixie said. “Just fetched some weapons.”

“You’ve mastered the Aztec blood-magic. You’ve defied them. Most Oalli just lay down when the Aztecs come for them — why fight when you will always lose? You’ve shown them that victory is conceivable. They see your strength and follow it. In just over a day, Señorita O’Dell, you have roused emotions in me I thought long dead: compassion, fear, hope. I see beyond death for the first time in seven years.”

“You’ll make a girl blush.” Dixie felt something knotting in her throat, and she didn’t want to keep talking, because she knew she’d cry: not for any wonder she had worked in Rafael, but for the sorrow in his eyes, now fading, and the resignation in his frame that was now succumbing to fire and defiance. “Tell me about your wife,” she choked, slumping against the wall.

Rafael sat beside her. “Very well. Her name is Melosa, and in spring she wears a white hibiscus in her hair. She sings in the kitchen and there is magic in her hands...”

The fantastic city of death was lively on the day of their execution. Children ran alongside the procession of captives, and Dixie winced at the possibility of pickpockets finding the hidden weapons.

No matter how many aces in her sleeve, though, her heart quailed at the foot of the pyramid. It was five times as high as the one in the Sierra Madres, and her legs were uncooperative. She slipped on the ancient coating of blood on the steps, and the pistols almost fell out of her pockets. Rafael caught her.

From the top they could see the entire city. The slaves filled the stairway. There were hundreds of them, not just the Oalli, but several more tribes. Behind them, filling the main street the length of the city and snaking miles into the countryside, was the army, set to rush into the door as soon as it opened.

On the platform was an altar like the one she had seen in Mexico. The stone was stained a dark red-brown from many years of use. Gomez stood behind it, loinclothed, painted, holding a huge obsidian knife. The slashes across his face were still red. He slipped a smile at Dixie. Beside him were two other men in red robes, with shaved heads, probably the sorcerer-priests. Gomez must rank high indeed, if he were permitted to take part in this ceremony. Ten feet or so to the left a fat older man sat on a stone stool, naked from the waist up, decked in feathers, cushioned by jaguar skins. A corazón dangled from his belt. He had guards on each side, Aztecs as big as Gomez, armed with wooden swords edged with obsidian blades. They looked bored. To the right stood twelve more guards, similarly armed. They seemed unconcerned, and were surprisingly few in number. Dixie recalled what a great honor it was to be vivisected for the gods, and wondered if they ever had trouble during the ceremonies. Did captives actually submit to this?

Gomez brandished the knife in the air and spoke in Nahuatl. It was no doubt the beginning of a fine, inspiring speech. Rafael stepped forward, grinning murderously, and raised the revolver. Gomez saw it and hit the ground before the hammer clicked. Rafael shifted his aim, the pistol boomed, and a sorcerer-priest went down with blood spouting from his throat. Rafael fired again, winging the other priest on the arm. The guards, after a moment’s shock, rushed at Rafael. Cualli shrieked, a long ululation, and the Oalli met them halfway, the knives coming out and going to work.

The wounded sorcerer-priest waved his uninjured arm at Rafael. “Cae. Ume. Yeyi!” he grumbled. “Atl, Metzli, Tonantzli!” Green light gathered around his hand, rippling around it as if he stirred his hand in water. A small bolt of black lightning crackled; the air suddenly tasted metallic. Dixie acted without thinking. She shot the priest through the chest.

The king’s guards engaged two Oalli on her left. The Oalli killed one; the other guard slashed sideways with his absurd wooden sword and cut the first Oalli in half at the navel and sliced halfway into the next. He pulled out his sword and advanced on Rafael, who put a bullet in his eye.

The tlatoani was still seated, and croaking like a bullfrog. Perhaps six seconds had passed since the first gunshot. Suddenly Gomez appeared at the king’s side. He tore the corazón from the king’s belt. Rafael ran at him, pistol raised. “You’ll not escape justice, murderer! You’ll answer for her husband’s death!”

Gomez closed the distance between them in the blink of an eye and pressed his hand to Rafael’s cheek, squeezing his neck with the other. Rafael’s eyes widened; he dropped his gun. Gomez didn’t even look at him. He was looking at Dixie. Green light flared from beneath his palm and Gomez dropped Rafael. As Dixie watched, the skin on Rafael’s cheek glowed and curled like paper in a fire, exposing bloody flesh, then bare bone. Rafael screamed, mindless with pain.

“That’s two men I’ve taken from you, pobrecita,” Gomez said, as he clenched the corazón he had stolen from the king. “And still you can’t shoot me.” A flash of light, a snap of lightning, and he was gone.

Rafael’s screams ended; he was dead, and she was paralyzed. Patli knelt by Rafael, weeping the widow’s lament that Dixie knew too well. The battle raged around her. The Oalli were cutting down the few guards around the tlatoani, and the slaves on the steps of the pyramid had turned against the soldiers. Rafael was dead, Gomez was gone. As she watched, old Cualli slew the last guard. The king was captured, the battle won.

She squeezed the corazón. Cualli’s shout of “ Zintli Nal Oalli!” rang in her ears.

The Ghost Trail was soundless. There were no footprints to follow.

“Gomez!” she shouted, and the wind whipped her voice away. Let the bats come. “Gomez! Don’t hide from me!”

She was in a long narrow canyon formed by the fantastic stone ridges and columns. Gomez stepped from between two columns about thirty feet away. “Come near me and I’ll kill you,” he said. Lightning crackled around his hands.

“I know how to use these stones,” she said. “See that arch? I’ll make it lead straight to the Travis County hoosegow, and you’ll march yourself through it.”

“Your law is no law to me. When you kill a dog, do the other dogs hold you for murder?”

“I wouldn’t kill a dog.”

“You killed the hell out of that priest.”

“That was battle. I wouldn’t kill in cold blood, like you do.”

“Murder is murder, on the battlefield, in the night, by disease, by conquest. Murder makes the world go round. The priests are right on that account, but not for the reasons they think. Sacrifice doesn’t keep the sun from falling out of the sky, but blood sates the tongue, soothes the liver, and eases the heart. You want to ease your heart with my blood. I accept it. Man was meant to devour, be it mammal, reptile, insect, or fellow man. Spill my blood, if you can. But I will not go to any jailhouse. You make the decision to kill me now, or I will take your life.”

“Do you want me to shoot you? Why?” she cried.

His smile displayed all his jagged teeth. “I am interested in the corruption of individuals.”

“I won’t do it.”

“There is no choice.” He took a step forward. Her guns came up by reflex. She lowered them by will.

“There’s always a choice.” The king’s corazón hung from Gomez’s hand. Dixie fired. The jewel shattered. “And you’re already in the jailhouse.”

Gomez howled his wrath. He sprang for her, but Dixie was already running for the arch. She squeezed her corazón and jumped.

Colonel Woodrow was surprised to see her so late at night, without warning. “Not too long ago I was standing on your porch,” he rumbled.

“Feels like months,” Dixie said.

Woodrow spread his hands, looking for words. “Where have you been, Mrs. O’Dell?” he said.

“Here and there. I came to tell you that Gomez won’t hurt anyone ever again.”

“What? How do you know that?”

Dixie didn’t say anything. She was very, very tired.

“Well,” the Colonel said. “Bat would be proud to know that, and proud to know the person who put him away.” He did not expect that sentence to make Dixie cry, but it did. “There, there,” he said, offering her a handkerchief and a chair. “You want some lemonade?”

“Yessir.” Dixie fished in her pockets. She pulled out Bat’s badge and looked at it while the Colonel got Mrs. Woodrow to squeeze some lemons.

“Still got that badge, I see.”

“Yessir.”

“Well,” Woodrow said, searching for something to say, “Where you off to next?”

“I don’t rightly know.”

“You got people somewhere? Your mother or something?”

“No. But don’t worry about me. I’ve got plenty to do.” Dixie felt better; her heart raced at the idea of the Ghost Trail, and the hundreds, thousands of worlds for her to explore. “I think first I’ll take a trip down to Mexico. I left my horse there, and there’s a woman in Monterrey I want to meet. Also a man in Laredo I want to visit.”

Woodrow didn’t ask why her horse was in Mexico. Dixie was a different woman than the one he had seen ten or twelve days ago, and they both knew it. She had been through the fire.

“Obliged for the lemonade, Colonel.” Dixie stood up to go.

“Hang on a second,” Woodrow said. “Sit on down.” He fetched the family Bible. “You had something to do with Gomez. Four Texas Rangers, one of them a by-God Colonel, couldn’t bring him in. Gimme that badge and put your hand on the good book.”

“Colonel — ”

“That’s an order, doggone it.”

Dixie did as she was told.

“Now, repeat after me. I swear to be alert. To defend the weak. To never desert a friend. To never take unfair advantage of even my enemies. To be neat and truthful. To uphold justice, live cleanly, and have faith in God.”

Dixie repeated as if in a trance. Woodrow pinned the badge on her flannel. They stood and he shook her hand. “Good to have another Ranger O’Dell on duty. Go forth and make Texas proud.”

“Yessir,” she said. “I’ll do my best.”

Dixie left, bursting with joy. “Oh, Bat,” she said, “my poor love, if you could see me now. But I guess I gotta let you go now. It don’t suit a gal to carry such a hurt in her heart. Maybe we’ll see each other again on the Trail or some other far-off world.” She lifted her head and studied the velvet vault of diamond-bright stars. “Now, which of these chiming spheres is next?”

Jens Rushing Jens Rushing is a native Texan living in South Korea with his wife and dog. He was hatched from an egg. Visit his website for his journal, some stories, and nightmare bursts of galimatias.

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