The woman's scream was heard by the early morning hillside and across the valley scattering every bird around. Talesman stopped what he was doing and scanned the terrain, then changed direction and made for the campsite marked by the tuft of smoke.
Off the trail, the ground was rough, but he was dressed for it and rugged enough. His incessant wandering through the difficult mountainous terrain of the gold rush west had made him lean and hard. Sometimes he thought of settling down to an easier life. He could do it easily by publishing the stories he collected. The stories of hardship and survival, sudden success and total failure, love and hate, life and death. The stories that lay quiet enough in the leather bound book in his pack. He thought of it but he couldn't do it. For it was not the task assigned to him. But answering this call was part of his task, and maybe there was a story there for him.
The clearing he found himself in was littered with mining equipment, supplies and garbage. The far side ran up against a hill, part of a mountain range and it was blasted through in the typical manner of a small operation gold mine. The woman was crouched near the mines' maw franticly attempting to minister to an indistinguishable mass sprawled on the ground. Talesman dropped his bag and ran to her side.
"His leg's hurt real bad mister. I can't stop the bleeding." Talesman quickly knelt down beside the thirtyish weathered freelancer and ripped away the pant leg to expose the wound more. The femur was badly broken and the bone fragments had ripped the artery. The woman had applied a tourniquet upstream of the flow, but it had not stopped the bleeding completely. From the looks of it, the man had lost a lot of blood.
Talesman examined the area around the wound with his hands in an exploratory, and unhurried way. He was feeling inside the leg. He could sense the damage and the way it spread it's chaos. Once he was certain that he understood the way the leg should be, he began to repair the damage. Closing his eyes he started with the bone and mended it. Next he repaired the tissue around the bone, cell by cell and finally the muscle and skin that surrounded that. He was sweating and exhausted when he was done and the woman ministered to him. Though Talesman had repaired the damage, he was confidant that he could not save the man's life. He had simply lost too much blood. But only time would tell. And he fell asleep there by the camp fire.
He slept the dreamless sleep of the dead. A state he knew very well.
After a while he was aware of soup being fed to him. The sun was high in the sky and the woman blocked it as she leaned over him, creating a halo around her golden head. He noticed the miner lying next to him, still breathing in a labored way. He drifted off again.
Talesman sat up with a start. It was dusk. He could feel the warmth of the raging fire and he looked to see the woman feeding the unconscious man next to him. She turned to him, her pale blue eyes and fair skin flushed. She returned to her work. When she finished she joined him by the old tree stump he was using to support his back while he slowly chewed at the dried meat that he had retrieved from his pack. She didn't say anything at first. Then:
"Is he going to die?" Talesman studied her for a moment to gauge the degree of truth he could speak.
"Yes. I'm sorry. I did all I could."
She turned away from him and caught her breath. Sobbing silently. He gave her time busying himself with eating and divining what he could from the dancing flames of the campfire. At some point she finished. She had accepted the truth and grieved. And now she collected herself. Talesman had judged her correctly.
"What's your name?"
"Folks call me Talesman."
"Is that what your mama calls you?" He smiled at that and dropped his head in a coy way.
"My mama don't call me anything anymore." She nodded unwilling to press the issue. They watched the fire and listened to the dying man's labored breathing. Finally she said:
"My name's Kate and this here is my husband Jack Lee. We been mining this claim since the spring and Jack Lee says we're close." She stopped, thinking of the simple trail that took her from her home in Virginia to follow a man with a dream to this place and this time.
She knew it would be a hard life, but she was a tough woman. Tough enough to be unsuited to the life of a Southern wife. Or maybe not tough enough. In any case she had come as much allured by the thought of freedom from stifling convention and protocol as by the thought of gold.
"He was blasting this morning and deep in the hole. I had to drag him from under a boulder that caught his leg." She looked at Jack Lee and sobbed quietly once more then caught herself. She turned to Talesman, looking straight into his light green eyes that were framed by his black mane.
"Can I ask a favor of you?" He considered her for a moment.
"Would you bless his soul before he dies? He's a good man, and a good husband. But he done an awful deed and I don't want him to die with that."
"He kilt a man in cold blood. It was murder pure and simple and he knowed it and I knowed it. He murdered to get this claim we're workin'. And now I suppose the claim has kilt him too. So the way I figure it, it's even. But I don't want him to die with the sin all over him. I know he can't let it go hisself. It's been eatin' at him since he did it." Silence. "Will you do it?"
Slowly Talesman eased himself up to his full length and ambled over to the coffee pot sitting suspended over the fire. He found himself a cup and poured some. He sat down again next to Kate.
"It won't be that easy. He will come for him. He will want to claim his own if I try."
"Will you try?"
"Yes. I will try."
Talesman tossed the remaining coffee into the fire and retrieved his pack. He pulled out a small bag of dried leaves and a pipe. He packed the pipe full with material from the bag and lit the top from the fire. It was full dark now. Sitting on a stump close to the dying body of Jack Lee he smoked the whole bowl slowly then set the pipe down. Talesman then dragged Jack Lee's body to a clear area a little away. Moving around the body, he scooped ten pits into the dirt, filled them with oil from his bag and lit them. Jack Lee was now completely enclosed in a ring of fire.
Talesman sat at the head of the man and chanted quietly to himself, then he refilled the pipe and sat there smoking. Soon he heard movement from somewhere outside the illumination provided by the fire. A well dressed and handsome man approached from the direction of the mine.
"Hold it right there, mister," Kate announced leveling a Winchester at the man's chest. The handsome man stopped and smiled. "Now madam, you don't want to do that. As you can see, I am unarmed and quite at your mercy." He opened his well tailored suit coat.
"It's alright, Kate, put the gun down." She did and the man fixed Talesman in his gaze, noticing him for the first time. His pleasant smile receded and was replaced with a stern looked that hinted of confusion.
"And who are you, Sir?"
"My name is unimportant."
"Oh is it, now?" The well tailored man shifted his gaze once again this time sweeping over the body of Jack Lee. Slowly he drew his eyes away and settled once again on the countenance of Talesman.
"I know you," the well cultured man said, finally. "we have met before." And considered him for another moment. "You are much older than you appear."
Talesman said nothing.
"Why have you done this," the stranger asked waving his hand theatrically. "You can not stop me. You can not prevent me taking what is mine."
Ignoring the question, Talesman said: "I hear you're a gamblin' man."
"Perhaps. What are the stakes?"
"The man's soul."
"And what's the game?"
"They say you can tell a good story."
"That I can," answered the man with great pride.
"Then I pose we have a dual of stories. Your stories get mine. The one telling the last story wins."
The cultured and impeccably tailored man appeared to consider the offer for a long time.
"I never gamble with a man whose name I don't know."
"Today my name is Talesman. If you win, you'll know my true name soon enough."
"Talesman." Laughter. "All right Talesman. If you win, I'll leave Mr. Jack Lee be. But if I win, I'll take you both. Do I have the deal right?"
Talesman nodded and took a seat on the stump, the well spoken man a took a similar perch on the opposite side of the fire. Kate sat between them.
And the duel began. The well-tailored man began with a tale of wealth, and power. A story of success and fame. Talesman countered with a story of a lonely and weary knight seeking to accomplish one last heroic deed before he died.
When he finished his opponent related a legend of a battle. A battle that took a week to fight and left all who participated dead on the field, their blood flooding the earth.
Tale after tale was told. Each man reaching deep into his knowledge of folklore and mythology. The night passed and day dawned. They told stories throughout that day and into the next night. Kate watered the men and fed the fires. She sat amazed at the tales the men told, of the places both modern and ancient. Stories of civilizations long forgotten by men and beast. Stories of heroes on distant planets and under the seas. Stories of creatures fowl and noble; knights and queens, knives and sorcerers. Increasingly, the stranger's stories grew more grotesque with stories of greedy dragons, or pitiless rulers. For three days the men dueled and then, on the third night the well manicured man stood.
"I have a story for you Talesman." He spat the name into the fire and it flared in response. "Be prepared for it's a Tale of greed and murder. It's a story of obsession and cruelty. The kind of story, in fact that makes you sick and my mouth water."
He paused for a moment. Talesman knew what was coming.
"It's the story of Jack Lee Tanner, soon to be deceased. A man who left family and friends and dragged his lovely young wife from all she knew to come here to this god forsaken mountain for gold. No, not just for gold. For wealth and fame. For power and status. And what would he have done had he attained his goal, Talesman? Do you know?" He was nearly shouting now as he paced animatedly around the fire.
Then he stopped dead at the edge of the division between the dark night and the fire's light. "I know." The stranger whispered. "He would have gambled and whored until all his wealth was gone. He would have made many children but provisions for none. And when he died at the hand of some gunslinger or a jealous husband there would be nothing left for those he left behind."
He moved back to his seat. "Oh yes I know. Because I would have been with him. Every step of the way. You see, he was mine from the beginning. He was mine because he wanted what I had to offer. He took everything I gave him and asked for more. And when he shot old Melvin twice in the heart he became mine forever. You can not have him now. He is rightfully mine."
Kate was sobbing. Talesman sat still.
"That is my last story. Answer it if you can, Talesman. Tell me why this man should not be mine."
The stranger waited. The night burned the fire low and Kate was crying. Talesman said nothing for a long time. Then he raised himself to his full height. Both sets of eyes were on him, expectantly, as he moved to fuel the fire. This done, he slowly returned to his seat.
"Well? Do you have an answer or not."
Talesman looked straight in the other's eyes and said,
"So why is Jack Lee dying?"
The well groomed man was stoic, but Talesman felt him waver. "What? What does that have to do with anything?" He acted indignant.
"You know what I mean, liar. If he was such as you say, why is he dying? You weren't through with him. You had plans for him. You had just set your hooks firmly in him and he was going to be very productive for you. So why is he dying?"
It was the stranger's turn to sit quiet. Talesman, without taking his eyes off his opponent, said "Kate, tell him."
Kate looked confused, uncertain as to what needed to be said. She knew her husbands very soul depended on her words. She started feebly, "Jack Lee was a good man at heart." She stopped, nodded to herself then stood.
"He was a good man. And he regretted what he done to the old man. It was eating him up, inside. I guess he knew, somehow that he was lost and that he couldn't get back on his own.
"He was a man that slept well until he did that. Then he couldn't anymore. He'd wake up in a sweat every night. And when he couldn't get back to sleep, he'd work the mine some more. Sometimes he'd work all night. I think," she broke for a minute then she looked at the stranger again.
"I think he kilt his self. Prob'ly not on purpose, but he knew you were there and this was the only way to fight you."
Silence. Even the fire made no noise.
"He kilt his self to get away from you."
Talesman, in a low voice said,
The stranger tore his eyes away from Kate and glowered at Talesman, his body rigid. Then all at once he relaxed, slapped his knees and stood. Talesman rose in unison.
"Well that's it then, eh?"
"Yes. That's it." Talesman was tense, alert.
"No!" the stranger shouted. "That's not it."
"You must go." Talesman said quietly.
Then the stranger howled, and grew like a shadow in a rapidly sinking moon. He raised his arms and from his hands erupted a ball of fire that engulfed Talesman. A loud clap shattered the night and both were gone. All that lingered was the echo of the unearthly howl, and it rapidly faded into the cold night air.
Kate heard a moan. She tore her eyes away from the now empty space where the two men stood and turned towards Jack Lee. She rushed to his side.
"Water," he croaked. She fetched it and helped him raise his feeble head. He took a few small sips then laid back down.
"Kate," he whispered. She bent close to hear him. "I found it." He swallowed. "I found the vein. Use it well." Kate started to cry.
"Thank you, Kate." He said, "I love you." Then he was still.
Kate stacked the fire. It raged hungry. She struggled with the litter that contained the now deceased body of Jack Lee, former miner, murderer and husband, and placed it on the pyre.
Kate patted her womb as the body of Jack Lee Tanner was committed to the dark universe. And when this was done, she sat by the fire and opened the leather-bound book she found in Talesmans backpack and began to read.