Exploring the Life and Works of Edgar Rice Burroughs
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FAN FICTION CONTEST
Copyright © 2000
Tangor and Jake
In the old days pulp magazines often had an outstanding image from their stable of artists and sent it out to their stable of writers. "Write me a story that fits this image!"
Tangor's Pastiche and Fan Fiction is thrilled to offer Kurt "Jake" Jacobson's pastel sketch as inspiration for the first ever fan fic story contest.
Copyright © 2000
There has long been a legend among my people of the Mirror Winds of Kinishba. What is a Mirror Wind? And who is Kinishba? Listen to my fireside tale, prairie friend, and I will tell you what I know. What I know is not much – it is only the spark that is carried in a nut full of tinder from one camp site to another when our warriors are out hunting, but what little knowledge I can pass on to you that too will be like a spark which will gnaw at your heart until you have learned all the whys and wherefores.
You have looked at me and your eyes will have told you – if you have the eyes to see it, of course – that I am a full-blooded brave of the Apache. If you know anything about my people, of course, you will know that the Apache is the name given to us by our enemies. We have always been T’Inde, "the people". I will not tell you my name, for I have been warned by medicine men and philosophers alike that giving a name to a stranger is like setting your toe under a rolling cartwheel. Only the foolish or those heedless of consequences would do such a thing.
Let it be known that I was the son of a chief, who in his turn was the son of a great chief. The feathers in my headdress do not speak of my lineage, any more than the scars on my flesh will tell you which kind of blade it was that broke my skin. My grandfather, great chief that he was, also told stories of the people from whose loins my own people have sprung. These are the Anasazi people – the builders of cliff-dwellings and bakers of pots. And the makers of secrets. One of the secrets they made and unmade was the secret of the Mirror Wind.
A Mirror Wind is when a piece of mirage is detached from itself and snakes its way down to us blood and flesh fellows. In the old tales it is like a ride in a canoe that floats on the currents of air as easily as its birch bark counterpart rides on the river eddies. That has not been my experience, however. When I encountered my Mirror Wind, it felt more like a portal opening. Yet I did not step through willingly. I fell through, in fact – a fall that saved my life. – No, more than saved it, extended it, so that I can sit beside you today and tell you the tale of my adventure.
I was one of Cochise’s men when he was hiding from the white eyes in the Dragoon Mountains of Arizona. We would ride out as raiders from our mountain strongholds. The white eyes call that year 1871, but I remember it as the year that Cochise gave up his honour and surrendered to the white eyes. I took my men west into the Mojave Desert, to the Cosos range, where we were led to secret places by the paintings of the warriors, placed on the rock canyons there by our ancestors, the Mogollon people.
The land there is desert, dotted with Joshua trees, crawling with tarantulas.
My men made a camp in one of the abandoned pueblos there, deep in the canyons of the desert. That was where I met Chatch Guerero Meru, the half-breed ghost-dancer; some of my men had heard of him as a medicine man; the others regarded him as a drunk with an evil spirit in his head.
I spared his life, for I did not believe he would betray us to the white eyes. In gratitude he showed me the secret canyon.
‘What makes this canyon so secret?’ I asked him, my eyes challenging.
‘The pictures of the little men,’ he replied, pointing to the petroglyphs that line the canyon walls in these regions, painted there hundreds of years ago by our Mogollon ancestors.
‘I have seen many of these pictures, these little men as you call them. Why is the secret canyon so special?’
‘You are aware of the long-knives of the white eyes?’
‘I have killed many and broken their long knives over my knee. I do not fear the white eyes or their long knives.’
‘Once, long ago, before the white men came to this land, there was another race who carried long knives. The secret canyon is the entrance to their happy hunting ground.’
I laughed to hear his words. I had laughed like this when the Christian missionaries tried to tell me that God had planted a garden in the east and placed the first man and the first woman there. Why is it that people are so eager to believe in fairy-tales?
I thought no more of Meru’s strange words until the day when the U.S. Cavalry observation balloons came floating over our campsite. The baskets carried men with telescopes, who sketched the canyons from the air and thus learned the means to penetrate the maze that protected us from their guns and strategies.
Two days later, 3,000 California volunteers flooded the Cosos range, determined to flush us out. I withdrew my men from their pueblos, and drew deeper and deeper into the canyons. Meru guided us. He said the time had come to seek the secret canyon and enter the world of the ancient swordsmen.
One by one my men were picked off. There were but twenty of us, against the hordes they pumped into the region to clean us out. Finally, only Meru and I were still alive, still going, still forging towards the secret canyon.
An observation balloon has a kind of stealthy beauty. Meru and I had been on the run for 36 hours by the time we reached the secret canyon. It was midday and the desert flats of the plateau shimmered in a haze of heat mirages. To my eyes it was like treading the waves of a sea – although I have never seen the ocean. To my feet, however, it felt as if I was trudging through mud, my leg muscles leaden under the burden of fatigue. Meru kept going, although he was much older than I, so my T’Inde pride refused to allow him to run me into the ground.
Then the darkness fell over us. At first I thought I had strayed into a vision quest, but then Meru looked up and pointed with his gnarled wooden staff.
‘They are coming within rifle range, amigo. They want to know if you have any ammunition left.’
‘I’m saving my bullets for men who will fall at my feet when I shoot them through the heart.’
‘And, what if they shoot first?’
As if on cue, the flat crack of a rifle shot sounded. I knew from the sound of it that it was too far away. Besides, if you hear the shot, then the bullet fired has already missed you.
I scanned the way forward, and the mirages danced like spirits before my eyes. The Joshua trees were parading at the edge of the horizon, bending and stepping to the beat of an inaudible drum, or else they danced to the sound of my pulse in my ears.
Meru turned, unhurried, his brass-shod staff clacking on the desert stones. ‘Come, the secret canyon is not far. We can make our stand there.’
‘I hope there is water there, Meru, otherwise we will bequeath our posts to two tired skeletons, looking to have their bones bleached in the desert sun.’
‘I have been a skeleton, amigo. It is a hardship to the flesh but a refreshment to the spirit.’
I decided to save my breath. Meru occasionally spoke nonsense such as this – it was part of his medicine man routine, which is why my men had been divided in their opinion of him.
The ground fell away at our feet.
‘The secret canyon,’ murmured Meru.
I looked up at the observation balloon. The wind was still on the ground, but up aloft, I could tell that the wind was stronger. They were several miles away, but no doubt watching us through their spyglasses.
‘Is there a way down?’
‘Yes, indeed. Follow the sound of the water.’
I listened, and borne on an errant breeze I heard and smelled fresh water. The noise it made was like the laughter of my sisters when we were all young and heedless.
Then another puff, little more than a sigh and I could smell wood smoke and – cooking!
I seized Meru’s staff to halt him from going further. ‘We are betrayed! There are people ahead of us!’
‘Sí, amigo. Of course there are people ahead of us. They are your men. I had them brought here that they might greet you in the manner that befits a great chief and the son of a line of chiefs.’
‘What do you mean? Have you led me astray that my men could reach here before me? I will be disgraced!’
‘No, no, amigo. There is no disgrace. I stayed awake with you and led you here on foot. No other man has walked the secret trails for the last three hundred years. Your men were – brought here.’
‘Brought here? Talk sense, Meru, no more tales of skeletons and happy hunting grounds.’
‘Each of your men struggled to the best of their abilities, but they are mortal and cannot stand the pace that you have set. When each man flagged, they succumbed to sleep and I… I summoned companions to bear them here that they might be refreshed and prepared to greet you.’
While Meru had been talking, my eyes had been scanning the lips of the canyon. The walls looked sheer. And they leaned out in perilous overhangs. There didn’t seem to be an easy way down. At least, not from this vantage; perhaps along a bit, I might find a way down.
Meru smiled. ‘I can tell what you are thinking, amigo. There is no way down. At least, not one that you can climb down. Instead, I have a means of transport.’
He struck his staff on the lip and before my eyes, a wooden platform rose up, bobbing as if it was a wooden raft that had been tethered beneath water, and newly released.
It was large enough for two men to stand comfortably on it, perhaps the floor plan of a high watchtower. I knelt and looked beneath for the silent mechanism that had raised it. I coughed in surprise. There was nothing beneath it.
‘It floats,’ murmured Meru. ‘It is wood from the runring tree –’
‘The runring tree? I’ve never heard of such a tree – or of wood that floats on air!’
‘That is because you have never visited the Kingdom of Kinishba.’
‘Kinishba. Now that is a name I have heard before – but, where?’
Meru pointed his staff towards the distant observation balloon. I could see the sun glinting on the glass of their binoculars – and then the balloon exploded. It blossomed for a second into an orange bloom of flame and then it collapsed in on itself and drifted down, gently, like the airborne seeds of desert thistles. I saw the men jumping from the basket, their garments on fire. They were too far away for me to hear their screams, but I had heard men scream before, their garments blazing, their limbs tread-milling as if to escape the pain by the simple effort of leaving their flesh.
Meru gestured towards the floating platform. ‘It is time you greeted your men, and found a new purpose in life.’
Meru stepped forward and stood on the platform. It wobbled under his feet, like a raft on a lake. He rapped the platform with his brass-shod staff and it rose up to the height of my head. Meru smiled down at me, then slowly began to circle. I turned and kept my eyes on him, my hand warily on the hilt of my dagger.
After several circuits, he paused and began to advance the raft towards me. I knew if I backed away too much I would be over the edge of the cliff. I wondered if this was some sort of test.
Dropping to a crouch I rolled forward and came up, my rifle cocked, a bead drawn on Meru’s forehead.
‘Let me see how well you can fly your wooden raft with no staff in your hands!’
I squeezed off a shot and sent the wooden staff flying from his fingers. The bullet sent shards of wood flying, but along with the rifle shot echoing in my ears there came a resounding metallic twang. There was metal inside the wooden staff.
The raft dropped a foot or two, enough for me to rise and leap aboard. I pressed the breech of my rifle up against Meru’s throat, our eyes separated only by inches, showed him that I meant business.
‘What is your business with me and my men, half-breed?’
I deliberately chose that insult to goad the truth from him – I guessed he had been playing me for a fool ever since encountering me.
Meru merely smiled. ‘Well done, my chief. You will make a fitting war-leader. Come, your destiny awaits. Give up this land to the white eyes – it is merely desolation that you give to them. Come with me and I will show you where there is a land worth possessing – no deserts, no desolations, but infinite horizons.’
Suddenly a bullet spat chips of rock at my feet. I whirled, still gripping Meru in a paralysing death-grip. Two hundred yards away, I glimpsed dusty ponchos and wide sombreros ducking out of sight. The California volunteers had been closer to us than we thought. Either that, or a small contingent had been dropped nearby from a balloon, for there was another observation balloon in the air, a mile or so to the south.
I growled to Meru, ‘Take me down!’
‘I need my staff, amigo.’
Another bullet whined through the air, plucking at my poncho. Then I heard the flat crack and the puff of smoke from a sniper amongst the rocks. The volunteers had half-surrounded us.
I dropped to the ground and grabbed up the staff. Bounding back onto the floating wooden platform, I thrust the staff into Meru’s hands.
He stiffened in my arms and I could tell from the sudden weight of his body against me that the rifle I heard a second later had scored a direct hit.
We both fell to our knees to present smaller targets, but Meru’s raspy breathing warned me that he was mortally wounded.
His fingers clutched at the staff and the flying platform lurched out over the dim abyss of the shadowy canyon.
‘It feels bad, amigo. I had hoped to present you to the warlord of the fifteenth moon myself, but it seems that we will meet in another incarnation.’
Already we had descended some twenty or thirty feet. The ride was smooth; I was barely aware that we moved at all.
‘Who is the warlord of the fifteenth moon?’
‘He is the one who sent me forth to find him a war chief, to lead his people against the Yrux Hordes. Long and long my people have been dreamers and poets, painters and sculptors; now they must re-learn the arts of war if their prehistoric idyll is to survive the testing time.’
‘What are you talking about, Meru? Talk sense, hombre!’
‘Hombre? I think not… I think I must be something else…’
Then, before my eyes, Meru’s face wavered and his wind-burned features blurred and shrank until they resolved themselves anew into the withered lineaments of a sand-withered mummy. I had seen plenty of these in dried arroyos, where men had died of thirst and not even the buzzards had found their bones.
By the time the wooden platform reached the floor of the secret canyon, Meru had crumbled to dust and rags and bones. The only thing that I still had that was unchanged was his staff, nicked where my bullet had torn away the wood; and a ring of lapis-lazuli and gold which he had worn about the ring finger of his left hand. #
A shout aroused me from my surprise. I looked about and saw my men running towards me, delight on their faces. The canyon was shadowy down here, barely lit by the desert sunlight. No plants grew, but there was a trickle of water nearby, and the gleam of several cooking fires alleviated the gloom.
Naiche, my strong right-hand, came up and grasped me in a warrior’s embrace.
‘My chief! I feared the worst! But I see Meru has been discovered.’
I rose slowly, the rags of Meru dropping and his bones clattering to my feet. ‘You knew about this?’
‘Only what the Princess Non-La has told me, my chief. Come, let us go to her. You are the only reason we have delayed for so long here.’
‘Non-La? Princess Non-La?’
Naiche nodded vigorously, urging me from the flying platform. ‘All has been made clear to us, my chief. Meru has informed you also, I’ll be bound.’
‘You’re mistaken, Naiche. I know nothing of a princess, named or unnamed.’
My men had gathered around me now, and I saw that they carried new garments. They appeared to be the traditional garb of my people but arranged in strange and unusual colour, fabrics and patterns. All men carried a sword at their belts – not like the curved sabre, the long knife of the U.S. cavalry, but a straight, two-edged blade, with strong hilts.
One of my other men had retrieved Meru’s staff from where his lifeless fingers had dropped it. It was pressed into my hands, and the flying platform responded, acting on a level that was below my conscious wishes.
It bore me above the heads of my braves and led me to the darkest corner of the narrow canyon. I saw by the flickering firelight on the stone walls of the living rock that the surfaces were thick with the drawn figures of the petroglyphs. Except that these petroglyphs were like nothing I’d seen before. They were depictions of warriors who carried swords, and their foes were the terrible winged messengers of T’Inde legend, the ferocious and tricksy Ravens, and they bore on their backs the dog-headed men who have come down in our legends as Coyote, the Trickster.
Unlike the other canyons, where the figures appear with no background, this gives a panoramic view of the struggle between humans and Coyote-Men. They also demonstrate a kind of perspective which is not displayed in any other rock art. The foreground figure is of myself.
I gasped to see my own features depicted there as plainly as if it was one of the white man’s magical photographs. Over my shoulder, like stepping stones in a troubled lake, except I knew – I knew – although I knew not how I knew – were other worlds.
Other worlds. Not moon, not mere planets. But, worlds.
They were orbs that hang in the night sky, like the old Moon that is gnawed by Coyote until Coyote makes his belly sick and has to vomit the Moon all up again, month after month, this is how the Moon is reduced to a crescent to a full disk each and every month.
In all there were twenty-eight such moons in the sky, each with a different map drawn on its face. And between each moon was a figure to show the way to the warrior – the enemies he must defeat, the monsters he must overcome, the spirits he must seduce in order to show him the true path to his Vision Quest.
Then a voice sounded out of the shadows, and the face of the rock wavered, like a mirage in the desert heat of noon.
‘So, my chief, you have seen fit to be reborn as the war leader of our people. The stars are right, the moons are in alignment, the War Cosmic is ours once more.’
I knew that voice!
I turned, and a face smiled up at me out of the shadows.
‘Non-La?’ I husked.
‘None other, my love.’
She too was aboard a flying platform, which I suddenly recalled were named iritsav. I recalled this word and it was like a key that turned in a door and the door opened, releasing – not light – but memories, sensations, plot and counter-plot.
I remembered that Non-La and I had lived before, lived and loved. Our destiny was one that would rise and fall, turn with the turning of the heavens, the precession of the equinoxes.
I took her in my arms and her upturned lips lavished kisses on my dusty cheeks.
I heard a shout from overhead. A California lieutenant, shouting to his men in Spanish. There were shots and then shouts from my men as they drew their swords and rose up into the daylight to seek revenge upon their tormentors.
Then a grenade from overhead, and my men were blown from their perilous perches aboard the iritsavki.
My heart withered in my chest as I heard my men die, but within that withering heart burned the flame of another war chief. Chatch Guerero Atlan. The name I remembered from the generations before this world of the T’Inde was made – aye, and unmade by the depredations of the white eyes.
And I turned and Non-La led me through to her world, to Kinishba, Kinishba the Beautiful, and my faithful Apache warriors died at the hands of the Californian volunteers, ignorant of the higher calling, the greater war, the clash of destinies that was my eternal due.
So, you see, that is why I am in the desert, here, with you tonight. Those lights on the horizon, amigo, are globes of ball-lightning, the energy harnessed by my people to whisk me from one world to the next. This world is my sleeping den. I come here to recuperate between incarnations.
Those lights in the distance tell me that Non-La has gathered her acolytes. The stars are coming into alignment, the worlds turn, like the tumblers in a cosmic lock, and my destiny is about to be… revealed.