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Tuesday, November 8, 2011

The Filigreed Key

The wind blew sand over my eyelids as I slept, tickling me gently and rousing me from my slumber. Before I could think twice, I opened my eyes and let a dusting of fine grains seek the crevices beneath my lids. My hands raced to my face, my voice suddenly a hoarse cry. As suddenly as it had started, the irritation was gone, slight traces of tears meandering down my cheeks through my week-old whiskers and my vision returned.

OK, I probably wasn't sleeping in THIS canyon...
The sun was still rising, a pale glimmer above the canyon wall. It was time to wake. It was time to drink from the cold stream, while the water was still fresh and before the sun withered it into dust. It was time to check the traps for a fresh hare, and to check my boots for scorpions; either would keep me alive for another day. Either would get me a step closer to the filigreed key.

The stream was chilled but full of silt. My teeth crunched through the grit when I had taken my fill and weighted my skins. My traps were empty, as were my boots. I still had a few bites of jerky to get me through the day, but then I would be on my own. I wouldn’t miss the taste of the old salted beef when I’d seen its yesterday; I definitely wouldn’t miss the way its fine strands managed to become lodged in my teeth for days at a time. I wouldn’t miss the way my mouth became dry and desert as the ground I’d slept on the night before. I would miss the cow, though.


She had looked up at me when I opened the gate, lowing long and loudly as if to request a tribute for her company. Had I any wild flowers, perchance? A satchel of fine grasses? An old bale of hay would do, though you could be sure she might be slighted. No, sadly, I had none of those things to give her. She looked up at me with her large unflinching eyes and sighed. I had disappointed her. I had that way with women of all walks of life, with all manner of hoof and heel. From the depths of my subconscious, I could hear the voice of my mother telling me not to compare a lady to a cow but it was too late.

Jesse didn’t care about wild flowers nor satchels of fine grasses. He didn’t care about bales of hay, neither. Jesse wanted his money back, or my bullets, or both. I was the means to his end, a stranger looking for something that nobody seemed to have. Jesse hadn’t seen the filigreed key, the lady who wore it around her neck on a black velvet ribbon, nor the horse she rode out on. Jesse saw the brothers who sold him the solution to his problems, the cow that laid golden calves, the cow that would keep him alive.

He got the cow for a steal: ten bucks and an acre. He didn’t need the land so much, being that it was just him out there. He wanted to mine the gold out of the cliffs above his ranch; he didn’t need the weed-covered valley. The Tillsons brought the cow out to Jesse, carefully pointing out that the cow would easily survive on the water from the creek and the weeds. Jesse agreed and laid out his money on the barrel head. The Tillsons passed the cow’s wizened rope to Jesse and smiled; the elder Tillson shoved the paper money into his sweat-stained shirt. Jesse asked them which acre they wanted. That was Jesse’s mistake.

The younger Tillson pulled a scrap of paper from his own sweat-stained shirt and passed it to Jesse. It was a crudely drawn map, one which didn’t even have ‘creek’ spelled correctly, but it got the point across. The Tillsons smiled wider and more cruelly until Jesse couldn’t bear to look at them. He threw the map on the ground and the cow’s rope at the elder Tillson’s face. Being attached to the cow, it didn’t meet its mark. Jesse demanded his ten dollars back. The Tillsons strolled away, leaving the cow behind, making promises to return the next day. Jesse was left with his cow who mooed disquietly.

The Tillsons returned the next day aboard a wagon carrying timber and wire. They spent that day erecting a small-but-effective fence along the creek bed. The day after, they returned with more timber and wire and erected a small-but-effective fence along the thickest of the scrub. When they were finished, they knocked on Jesse’s door. Jesse had watched them for the duration of the two days with scorn and anger, and most of all, envy that he hadn’t thought of the Tillsons’ plan first. He opened the door with a scowl on his face and a shotgun in one hand.

The elder Tillson smiled at him and extended another parchment, this one a contract for water and grazing rights. Jesse spat in his face. The younger Tillson smiled at him and extended his fists: one outstretched for Jesse’s shotgun, the other for Jesse’s stomach. Jesse spat again, from the ground, though he missed his target. Both Tillsons offered Jesse a hand; one to his lower back, another to his face. When Jesse had received all the welcoming hands that he could take, the Tillsons set the contract on the floor and left.

Jesse wrung his hands and pulled his hair and fumed. He shouted and kicked over his chair and made a mess of his small, simple shack. When he was done, he put things back into their places and sat quietly in the darkness. In the morning, when the sun was as red as his eyes, Jesse rode into town with his own piece of parchment. When he returned home, he felt better, though he was exhausted. He slept.

I woke him with my raps on the door and my halloing. Jesse gave me a half-second appraisal before offering me the job. I gave him a half-second appraisal before accepting. I was hungry. It didn’t take long for the Tillsons to return, though they brought some pointed friends of their own.

They provided their own raps on the door. Jesse opened it slowly as I stood behind, in the shadows of the corner. He was supposed to draw them in; I was supposed to get the money. Neither happened quite the way it was supposed to. As the door opened, Jesse invited them to enter and then grew quiet. The next sound was his knees rapping against the hard ground, louder than any door. I peered through the hinge-space of the door but the Tillsons were too close and blocked my view. I stayed quiet and listened. A pair of boots quietly made their way across the threshold, over what I presumed was Jesse’s body. Slowly, the first Tillson eclipsed the open door into my line of sight.

He stood still, taking in Jesse’s humble abode, hoping in vain for something of value to take; Jesse’s dignity was the only thing left after those ten dollars, and he had traded that in for indignity. The first Tillson slowly turned, examining every facet of every wall until at last his face reached the open mouth of my pistol. His brow creased and mouth slackened, a bead of sweat running down his cheek. For a moment, the only sound in the valley was that of the cicadas. That moment passed when the first Tillson’s hand jerked to his waistband, setting in motion a jerk of my own. The first Tillson fell backwards. The second Tillson ran forwards, through the doorway, shoving the door hard into my side.

My gun flew from my hand through the open window, leaving me as defenseless as Jesse and the first Tillson. The second Tillson slammed the door closed, giving himself enough room to give me a most undelightful kick. He turned back to the first Tillson and moaned, one hand on his head as if to keep it on, his other on his mid-side as if to keep from loosing sick. Meanwhile, I was on the ground, rather stymied by the latter Tillson’s attacks.

The second Tillson, whether elder or younger I’ll never know, looked back at me with hatred. He unsheathed his own pointed friend from his belt and raised it towards me. I would have audibly gulped, had I been in greater control of my faculties. After a moment’s consideration, he lowered the knife and sheathed it in Jesse’s table. Instead, he lifted Jesse’s chair above his head and with slow deliberation, moved towards me. My eyesight had returned by this point and the numbness of my extremities had begun to give way to a rather large amount of pain. As Tillson leaned back with the chair, my eyes widened, knowing that I was about to be brained.

I sighed, and with all the strength I could muster, closed my eyes. I didn’t need to watch myself die. I heard Tillson grunt and with every ounce of his own strength, bring the chair down upon my head. I can’t be certain, but I think that Tillson may have closed his own eyes when I closed mine, for the chair did not make it to my head. With all his strength, Tillson smashed the chair into the wall, exploding the chair into small fragments and sending Tillson backward with a mighty shock wave. My eyes flew open, just in time for bits of wood and leather to rain down upon me. Despite the echoes of pain through my body, I rolled towards Jesse and found the first Tillson’s knife and leapt at the second Tillson.

He saw me coming and leapt for his own knife, still sheathed in Jesse’s table top. By the time he wrenched it free, I was already too close. I sheathed the first Tillson’s knife in the second Tillson and staggered back against the wall. If Jesse had a second chair, I would have sat in it. Instead, I sank down to the ground for a good few minutes before walking out to the creek to drink deeply.

I slept the sleep of the exhausted that night, and in the morning I buried them all in one of Jesse’s mine shafts. When I returned, I was alone again but for the cow, who lowed at me once more. It occurred to me, then, that I was supposed to have recovered money from the Tillsons. I considered going back into the mine, digging up the Tillsons, and searching them for that ten dollars. I considered what I might do with ten dollars: the food I might eat, the whiskey I might drink, the sweeter company I might enjoy. In the end, none of that seemed like it was worth going back into the mine, digging up the Tillsons, and searching them. They might not have even had it with them.

Instead, I smiled lovingly and longingly at Jesse’s cow. I had been a means to Jesse’s end, ultimately, but his cow would not be the end of my means. By the end of the week, I had a full belly and a pack full of jerky. I was ready to move on. I was ready to find that filigreed key.


With my boots on and my pack readied, I made my way to the lip of the canyon; the sun was already reminding me that it was my only companion on this tour in the obnoxious way that sole companions can be to the desperate. I tipped my hat forward over my nose; it was already burnt and seething, but at least I could shield it from further insult. With each step towards the top of the canyon wall, I left the quiet solitude of the valley’s embrace behind. With each step, I was less and less myself, more and more a grain of salt in the ocean. I was part of nature that morning, a fixture no less real than desert driftwood or tumbleweeds.

That’s when I saw the shimmer of the town on the horizon. And with that, I was no longer part of nature. I was no longer something greater than myself. I was just me. And she might be in that town, she with the filigreed key on a black velvet ribbon around her neck. She beckoned for me, in the depths of my mind, and I followed.

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