Creed sailed through the air. He landed hard on the table. It collapsed under his weight, sending shot glasses, cards and chips flying in all directions.
Goodness but this negro brute Kule, was strong. Creed was no small man, and sturdily framed. The hulking savage-browed man had lifted him like a rag-doll, and flung him two yards or more across the taproom of Reingold’s First and Last Chance Saloon. Nika swallowed down her heart again. This time, the brawl was her fault.
No, she had to admit, that was not an entirely true statement. The negro was the real culprit. He’d lustfully referred to her as “a filly fit for breeding,” and ogling her with bulging eyes, proffered, “what nice mulatto babbies me’d have de pleasure a makin’.”
How completely rude, and such a shame to his race.
And of course, that kind of talk set Creed off like a match to a powder keg. It would anger any decent man. But most men would have shrunk back from such a bully. The brute was an ugly, dark mountain.
But not Creed. It didn’t matter that the town of Burning Bush called their resident pugilist, ‘The Mighty Negro, Killer Kule.’ Nor did Creed care if the antagonist was a mean, slope-browed, stocky black every inch of seven feet tall and half again as wide. Creed was a step above the rest, and simply couldn’t let such disrespect to a lady pass. Doubly so because the object of the bully’s attention was she. That was simply his way. Nika smiled and felt a little flush at the thought. Her heart had leapt to her throat in terror at the negro’s pronouncements, and remained there in excitement, and fear for Creed’s safety.
A crowd was now gathered outside the old-timey bat-wing doors to the saloon. Gawkers lined the wooden walk outside, and peeped and peered through the windows, hands along their cheeks, shading out reflection from the harsh, hot afternoon sun. Inside the taproom, which smelled of alcohol, smoke and urine, patrons huddled in corners, scrambling out of the way when the melee came near. Some were using the stairway bannister as screen against the violence. As if those spindly posts could protect the noggin-heads. Nika herself was using the much more substantial oak bar to partition herself against the rumpus.
Creed stood now, his dukes raised in the traditional fisticuff defense. He bobbed and weaved with excellent skill, and dodged a powerful sweep of the black man’s pulpy mitt. Three blows hammered into Kule’s stomach in quick succession, then Creed was once again out of the hulk’s reach. Those hearty jabs landed solidly, but were as effective as if they’d struck a side of beef, suspended from a butcher’s hook, for all the good they did.
Kule merely twisted up his smile, white piano keys against his polished ebony face.
Creed was expert at getting himself into scrapes, and equally expert at maneuvering within them. Therefore, for a time the brawl became more an exercise in chase and dodge. The onlookers hooted and cheered, some favoring Creed, some hooraying for the negro. Some didn’t care who won, as long as somebody got hurt.
Kule, by account of his size and bulk, was by far the slower of the two men. Creed took every advantage of it: overturning tables to block the brute; playing duck-and-dodge around the fancy turned posts that supported the ceiling; and feigning side-to-side to throw Kull off his direction. The negro bellowed in frustration. Some of the spectators threw in complaints, urging Creed to stand up to his opponent. Nika’d like to see any of them stand toe to toe with the big black behemoth.
Presently, Creed leapt up and grabbed hold of the big brass chandelier. He swooped in and kicked Kule square in the jaw. The big man stumbled back and tripped over a caddywhompus chair, shattering it to kindling. Nika felt her cheeks tightening in a smile, completely caught up in the excitement, cheering for her mentor. She was her father’s daughter, none could deny it.
As Creed rushed forth to monopolize his advantage, his square jaw met with a table leg, sending him sprawling, slamming him against the back wall of the saloon, giving Kule time to stand. As the black ogre rose, Nika saw he still clutched the make-shift cudgel, and was now going straight for Creed. The impromptu club was larger than a baseball bat, but in the negro’s hands, it looked like he wielded an English Bobby’s billy-club.
Nika’s eyes shot back to Creed and she gasped. Creed’s normal sharp, piercing eyes, were distant, unfocussed. He blinked and shook his head. It was plain to see that he hadn’t yet cleared the fog from his head, and Kule was upon him.
She screamed, “Creed, mind the club! Look up!” But it was too late.
The Mighty Negro Killer Kule pumped his ham-hock arm roofward and brought the table leg crashing down onto Kestrel Creed’s temple. The resounding ker-ack of the blow silenced the crowd. Nika’s solitary shriek lanced through the acrid air of the saloon. Her body trembled, for fear of what he’d done to Creed. But the shivering doubled, tripled, at what happened next.
For Killer Kule whipped around. With his opposer now disposed, the monstrous menace’s lustful attention was fixed solidly upon Nika.
* * *
Wind rippled past outspread wings. The blue sky above was fierce with glorious heat, exceptional conditions with which to soar on the afternoon thermals. The countryside below was the color of dusty hay, lined here and there with copses of dark green trees.
Wings. Soaring. It took Creed a moment to realize what was going on.
His spirit must have gone a-walkin’ again. It was disorienting. This time he was inside a bird, flying over the countryside like nobody’s business.
Ace, but this felt good. And thank the heavens the bird’s instincts had taken over. The bird knew its business, just like all the times with all the ground walkers. There was no sense going on and doubting that it wouldn’t be the same now. Creed surely didn’t want to go and take a dive for lack of the ken of flying.
The world here was such a crisp place, stretching out below. Not so much vivid, but the details… crikey but could these birds see! Little shifts of movement on the ground below were downright blatant, even from way up here.
But where was here? Creed took in the horizon, tying to place a familiar landmark. For all it looked, he could have been fifty k’s south of Woop Woop. But wait, down there… closer. Look at that, a grouping of buildings.
Creed shifted the birds wings – his wings for now, he reckoned – ever so slightly. The thermal lifted him, and he soared in the direction of the homestead.
He didn’t recognize the place, but then how could he. Even if he were familiar with it from the ground, he’d never seen it from this vantage.
How’d I get here? he wondered. Creed realized he was, in fact, having the devil of a time remembering what led up to his wing-about. It felt like he’d been whacked upside the head, his thoughts all a’kilter. But that didn’t matter none. Not while he was soaring high, jubilation exalting his spirits.
Movement below caught his eye. There were two men down there. Them, in the yard before the main house. The one, hefting buckets. The other… The other man… he was a horse of a different color. There was something wrong with that one. There was red hue about him. Not the color red, but a glow, an aura.
Oh, this can’t be good, he thought.
In fact, a deep, instinctive disquiet began to boil in Creed’s stomach. It was overwhelming. Dreadful. This man was trouble. He suspected why and how he knew it. And it was directly connected with why his spirit had taken flight in this here bird.
The red aura, Creed suspected, was evil, and what he could see of it was only the bit that was leaking out. That man had murder inside him. Worse.
The rubicund villain sensed Creed as well, for at that very moment, he turned his face skyward, and Creed felt his stare. His birdie bowels twisted. This was more than a mere man, and more than a mere stare. He had felt Creed’s spirit, of that he was sure. And he probed the sky, looking, searching for Creed.
Anger rose inside Creed. It was a spirit anger, a primal rage that Creed knew very well.
With a challenging screech, Creed folded the wings of his avian host and plummeted in a death-dive. This maneuver was instinct to the bird. But such a dive was reserved instinctually for hunting, for gathering food to preserve life. Creed felt the spirit of his host rebelling. What he’d asked of it was beyond its nature, and it would not attack for the sake of violence.
The loss of control filled Creed with even more rage.
Where Creed would have raked the villain below, torn out his eyes, the host refused and the raptor’s spirit took over. Such a falcon, of course, would never attack as large a target as a man. And it was that error that caused Creed’s walking spirit to be expelled. As his avian vision dimmed, however, Creed was satisfied to witness that his intended target was forced to dive upon the ground, hands thrust up to protect his face from rending talons.
* * *
Creed opened his eyes. A panoply of stars floated before him. They were the stars of home. Southern Hemisphere in summer. He closed his eyes and took in the world. He felt the supple earth beneath his back. He was lying on heavy sand, from the feel of it. Inhaling, he detected a heady smell of the plateau on the breeze. Its dry earthy quality was comforting. He heard the small popping of a fire, and took in the signature smell of burning gum wood. The warmth of the camp fire beside him felt nice. He was home.
Creed opened his eyes and sat up. His mouth widened into a smile, despite himself. Directly on the other side of the fire sat Murrobo, the flickering light reflecting off the old Aborigine’s sparkling eyes and gap-toothed smile.
“It ‘bout time ya woke,” said Murrobo. “I was wondrin’ when ya’d be getting around to dreaming. Ya not yet finished your chores, have ya?
Creed looked around. They were on a riverbank, the gum trees dark and comforting as they rose to the heavens. The place was idyllic. Of course it was. This was the dreamland, after all. It had taken Creed a few moments to get his bearings. But now he was sure.
He eyed the old blackfella, the medicine man. His aged cheeks pulled up, dragging the edges of his scraggly beard along with it, and collapsing the folds of skin at his temples. The tendrils of Murrobo’s tangled hair poked haphazardly from under his big, floppy bush hat. He was bare-chested, save for his ever-present bone necklace.
“The bird,” Creed asked, “that was you as well?”
“You know well as I… it is your dreaming, not mine.”
“But… well, yes. I am dreaming. Obviously…”
“Obviously,” chuckled the medicine man. “But if it so obvious, why the jaw lagging?”
Creed clapped his gaping mouth shut, and thought about it for a minute. “I don’t recall initiating the dreaming, is all.”
“It could be you jus’ don’t ‘member doing it.”
“I don’t,” Creed agreed. “I remember spirit-walking in a hawk. But then, I don’t recall initiating that, neither.”
“None of that matters.” Murrobo gave Creed one of his fatherly smiles. Damn how he missed the old shaman.
“No, I guess it doesn’t,” Creed nodded. “I’m here for a reason, and I bet as sure as water is wet that you’ll be making me guess what it is. Am I right?
“This be your dream, my son. This be your thorn to pluck.”
“I am thinking it has something to do with the man I saw, when I was inside the hawk.”
Murrobo smiled, closed his eyes and nodded. The fire popped, and a spark flew out and landed in the sand. “This be big, my student. And ‘dere not much one old man can do from down under. But we be in luck! You and your sheila, you are close. You right…”
“She aren’t me girl, mate.” Creed corrected. “I made a promise to her dad, that’s all. Old Silbersichel’s dead now, and I vowed I’d take care of her. But that don’t mean I’m sweet on her, or she’s sweet on me.”
Murrobo laughed, a huge and boisterous hooting. “Look who jumps to conclusions. I say your sheila, you assume I mean amatorialy.”
Creed frowned. “There’s no such word.”
“Of course there is, I just said it, so it be a word. And I see how ya go to ducking the subject. What’s important is ‘dis badfellow. He be a volcano, building and heating and waiting to explode.”
“What is he? I mean, what’s caused this evil in him? What’s driving him?”
“That is your fish to catch! What? You think Ol’ Murrobo knows everything? You be across the world, maybe? You be closer to him? You might be ‘da only one what can noggin’ out what he’s fixin’ ta do. If I were in your boots, Creed, I’d get to doin’ the noodle work, and right snappy.”
The scream came from beyond the campfire, past the old medicine man. It was feminine, and familiar.
The campfire flared, mirroring the flashing pain in Creed’s temple.
Again came the scream.
In a flash, too quick to notice, Murrobo had stood and was lumbering away from the fire. Creed shook his head and clenched his eyes shut. When they opened, the camp was gone. The riverbank beach had vanished, the world went from night to day. Creed found himself back in the taproom of Reingold’s First and Last Chance Saloon.
What he’d thought was the old blackfella medicine man, his former mentor Murrobo, was now in fact the terrifyingly huge, broad backed brute, the Mighty Negro Killer Kule. What’s worse, the villain was going after Nika.
The brute dropped the table leg he’d been carrying, the very same that he’d clubbed Creed with not moments before. Creed spat. He had been lucky that the club had hit more wall than his head. Despite the extended dreamland walkabout he’d just been on, Creed had only lost consciousness for a moment. A fact of which he was glad.
The girl pulled out her Colt M1911, and brandished it menacingly. Good for you.
Kule took a step for her.
She pulled the trigger. The .45’s report cracked loud and sent a plume of blue smoke into the air. No girl, not a warning shot!
“The next one’ll go between your eyes,” she yelled, and someone outside the bat-wing doors yelled “Do it! Shoot the niggah!”
The big black got to her in a single stride, and batted the pistol aside before she could come honest with her threat. The gun flew across the floor and skittered to a halt at the feet of a clump of bystanders.
The monstrous Kule reached over the bar behind which Nika had been hiding. He grabbed ahold of her shoulder and wrenched her up. As he pulled her over the bar, turning to the room, his other hand dove down her shirt, between her bosoms, and he ripped off the front of her blouse with a mighty tug. Kule’s wild-eyed face was twisted with lust. A giant pink tongue thrust through black lips, drool visibly crawling down his ebony jaw.
Creed reached for his own gun, the M1917 revolver. Blast. How dag-headed. He’d given over his gun belt at the start of the brawl. The barkeep was safekeeping it, to keep the fight fair. What a dunderhead he’d been. He glanced around, but didn’t see the barkeep, and time was running out.
His temple was still throbbing where Kule had clobbered him. Certainly no good excuse for inaction. Something had to be done, and fast. He made to stand, but his knees wobbled, and the spinning room deposited him on his keister.
His eyes cut over to the group who was standing above where Nika’s Colt had skittered. Creed caught eyes with one of the patrons, a tall fellow who’d been a fair cardsman. They’d wagered a few hands just before the fight broke out. The fellow nodded understanding, and with his boot, slid the pistol across the room towards Creed.
About halfway through its proposed journey, the pistol’s barrel got caught up on debris from a busted chair, and was deflected – right under the feet of Killer Kule.
Nika, still in the grasp of the hulking black man, was kicking and punching for all she was worth, no thought to modesty whatsoever. The onlookers got an eyeful, to be sure, for her brassiere was fully visible, the pale orbs of her upper breasts shaking like gelatin. If Creed’s precise and terrific blows had been useless against the giant, surely, unless she scored a direct hit to his genitals, her tirade was nothing more than mere annoyance.
Setting his jaw to the pain – resolved to stop this rapist – Creed rolled over to where the pistol rested beneath the negro. But as he reached for it, Kule scuffled backwards, and the heel of an enormous boot caught the gun and sent it sprawling away. The Colt shuffled out the door, between the bat-wings above, and clattered to the wooden walkway and out of sight between the feet of the ogling onlookers.
There was another great ripping sound, and Nika’s skirt billowed down onto the floor, within Creed’s view. She was screaming and cursing, and fighting for all her life. Were this any normal man, Creed was sure that he’d have more than a handful with her. She knew how to fight, Nika did. Creed had made sure of it.
Creed grabbed ahold of the big man’s belt, intending to use it to drag himself up, then deliver a decisive blow to the base of his neck. But the belt, along with his trousers, came loose and dropped to the floor. The bastard had unfastened them in preparation for the rape.
Creed let go of the belt and stumbled onto his knees. The room swirled like an underwater whirlwind. His hand landed on something hard, and he realized it was the very same table leg which which his jaw and temple had made earlier acquaintance. He grabbed it, and, using it as a prop and stabilizer, pushed himself to his feet.
He staggered a pace, but soon found his legs. Nika was raking her assailant’s face, and had managed to get a leg propped up into his chest. She was pushing and kicking, but the giant was simply too strong for her. His face and mouth were seeking gratification in her bosom, and he was roaring lustfully.
But then, she managed to get her other foot against his chest. With her back soundly braced against the bar and using both feet and the strength of her legs, she managed to push the man away with a mighty heave.
At that very same moment, Creed, cudgel in both hands, hewed at the negro’s neck with all his considerable might. Under most circumstances, he would have offered his opponent a warning. But not this man. Such a fiend deserved no such courtesy. His monicker of The Mighty Killer was well earned, and Creed would have placed an added tag of ‘raper,’ as well.
The table leg impacted, but not with the man’s neck as intended. On account of Nika’s thrust, Creed’s blow solidly struck Kule’s lower skull, near the base and close to the jaw. The crack resounded louder than had Nika’s Colt. Sweat and blood flew across the room as Kule’s head snapped around, facing a direction never intended by God.
Like Goliath, the giant fell. His impact reverberated through the pine boards, snapping more than a few of them beneath his tremendous weight. The assemblage of onlookers spouted a mixture of jubilation and disgust. They got the spectacle they’d wanted, didn’t they?
A widening pool of blood seeped from the dead man, who’d been felled in one blow. Creed didn’t pay any more attention to the fallen foe. For in his arms, clutching him as if her life were in the balance, was Nika, his prótegé and ward, weeping and shaking all the while. Creed could not remember, in his entire life, being held so tight.