CRAZY SNAKE AND THE CIGUANABA, by Eric Atkisson
The horseman froze. He could not be certain if he had heard a voice at all–little more than a gentle whisper above the murmur of the falls, the branches rustling overhead in the night breeze, and the soft crunch of his pony’s hooves as it grazed in the thick undergrowth nearby. At length he shrugged it off. After several weeks of weary travel in these densely wooded mountains, he was in need of a long rest. And a cold bath.
His bare chest and arms, freshly scoured in the swift current, bore the myriad scars of war and wilderness, man and beast. Such was the lot of his people, the Nermernuh, or Comanche, whose enemies named with awe and trembling the Lords of the Southern Plains. But in truth those plains were far to the north now, and Crazy Snake, who was only half Comanche, was further south than any of his tribe had ever ventured before, or ever would.
He sank beneath the stream’s surface and rose again, throwing his head back and running his hands through his thick mane of wild, black hair.
This time there was no denying the voice, though where it came from he could not tell. Aahtaqui would surely have nickered at the approach of a stranger, so Crazy Snake turned his attention to the thick woods on the opposite shore. At first he saw nothing and was about to turn away, but then his eyes caught something there in the darkening gloom: the faint shape of a head and slender shoulder peeking from behind a tree.
“Hello?” he called out.
The shape withdrew with a single, soft sob.
Crazy Snake looked to the near shore, where his buckskin breeches and moccasins were drying on a boulder, alongside his few other earthly belongings—among them his weapons and medicine pouch. The wisest course would be to grab his things and leave, swiftly, for he was a stranger in this land and an unwelcome one at that. And even were the reputation of the Comanche not known this far south, his appearance alone was enough to invite unwanted attention, which is why he traveled so cautiously, avoiding people and settlements in favor of remote trails and wild game.
Better to err on the side of caution once more, he decided, and turned to go, but a forlorn wail stopped him fast. Where before he had seen a head and shoulder stood the source of sorrow in her full form now—a stunningly beautiful form, in a thin white shift that accentuated the contours of a shapely body. Her face was concealed behind a veil of long, dark hair that seemed not to have been touched by hand or comb in weeks.
“Are you lost, woman?” he called in Spanish.
At first there was no answer. Then, like a whisper of wind, he heard her voice: No. I… I have lost someone.
The woman retreated a step.
Please. I need your help.
Her voice, like the sight of her body, pulled at the horseman, and he discovered that he was already striding toward her, fighting the stream’s current. The woman stayed where she was, watching, her face still obscured by the veil of hair.
Crazy Snake emerged from the water like a creature freshly born unto the world, wet and naked as the day he was pulled from his mother’s womb. The stranger took a tentative step toward him, hesitated, took another. Just as he thought she might turn and flee back into the forest whence she had come, she reached for one of his hands and seized it gently, her touch sending a pulse of desire through the horseman’s body. He drew her gently against his chest and felt her body softly shaking.
“Shhhh,” he whispered. “You are safe now.”
The woman’s presence was intoxicating. They might have stood there for the span of a few heartbeats or an hour for all that he could tell, and only gradually did he sense an unwelcome interruption of his bliss, a sound that years of familiarity had conditioned him to hear even through the din of battle and chaos. It was the sound of a horse, he remembered–his horse–urgent, even frantic, as it had sounded in desperate situations before. As in a dream he lifted his gaze slowly toward the far shore, and there, prancing along the edge of the stream, was Aahtaqui.
At that moment whatever bewitchment had fallen upon the horseman lifted, and he thrust the woman away. From the mass of wild hair protruded not the face of a woman at all but the nightmare visage of a horse’s skull, random patches of dead skin still clinging to bleached white bone, and twin orbs of hellish light for eyes. Across the river Aahtaqui stamped and screamed impotently along the shore.
Crazy Snake stepped back and tripped, scrambled away as the creature approached him. He could see now that her nails were long and sharp, her hands flexing in anticipation.
You cannot help me. You are unfaithful… like all the rest.
He felt the world spinning, his mind teetering on the brink of insanity. But still he was moving backward, and as soon as his hands felt water he twisted and plunged into the stream like a wild animal in blind flight.
Half running, half swimming he fled, the creature’s words pursuing him like shrieking birds of prey. Whether it was her sharp nails that slashed his skin or branches and rocks he could not tell, but still he pressed on, letting the swelling current take him as far and as fast as it could. What had been the distant murmur of falls now seemed a dull roar, and the current quickened, sweeping him forth with little effort.
And then he fell.
One moment he was soaring through open air, the next he was plunged into a tumult of foaming water and shaken violently, like a bauble in the hands of an idiot child, before being tossed out, gasping for air and thrashing wildly toward the nearest shore.
Soon he felt rocks beneath his bare feet again, and he stumbled to the shore. There he collapsed and lay for many long minutes, panting, attempting to quell the raw terror clawing its way back. When he felt that he could move again, he rolled onto his back and stared up at a swath of moonless night above the stream. His eyes drifted toward the falls and the rapids below it, and then to the water at his feet.
And there, amid the swirl and foam, something stirred. First emerged the long hair, followed by the horse’s skull on a woman’s half-naked body, her arms spread wide as if to greet a long lost lover.
Unfaithful. Like all the rest! Unfaithful!
Crazy Snake screamed, and he did not stop screaming as he fled through the forest, night and day, hounded by the hellish voice.
“Well I’ll be damned. He ain’t got no tomahawk, no clothes, and no horse, but this’n here’s Comanche all right. Or at least half Comanche. I’d recognize one a these brown devils a mile away.”
Crazy Snake opened his eyes. He lay in a small cell enclosed on three sides by old stone walls and on the fourth by iron bars. Before him knelt a sullen-eyed white man with a thick, reddish beard sporting dark stains and a wide-brimmed sombrero tilted back from a balding forehead. A holstered pistol and long Bowie knife hung from the leather belt around his ample, bulging waist. Beside him stood an older man in a black wool robe, holding a key and gazing impassively at the horseman beneath sharp eyebrows and a thin mane of silver hair. Beyond the two visitors and the cell door, flickering torchlight illumined a narrow stone passage.
“Where am I?” Crazy Snake croaked. His lips and tongue were parched, and his naked body felt like it had been dragged through miles of prickly pear by a pride of quarreling mountain lions.
The squatting man chuckled and spat a stream of tobacco at the floor, drawing a reproachful scowl from his companion.
“See. He even speaks Comanche.”
“Where am I?” said Crazy Snake again, this time in English.
“You ain’t in Texas no more, chief, that’s for sure. I can’t for the life a me figure how you made it so far south, but you’re in Nicaragua, and this here is El Castillo. Your prison for now, until President Walker gets wind of you. I reckon he’ll be mighty pleased we bagged ourselves a Comanche. Yessir, mighty pleased.”
Crazy Snake could make little sense of the man’s words, nor could he reconcile his Texan drawl and talk of a president named Walker with the fact that he was as far from such white men as he had ever believed possible.
How had he come to this place? He had no clear recollection, though memories of his encounter with the creature in the forest were slowly clawing their way back, unbidden. He had a dim impression that he had fled for days and nights through forests and fields, as if in a nightmare, but nothing more.
“Course, I had my way,” said the man, standing with a grunt and resting a hand on his knife’s hilt, “we’d just take your scalp and send it to Walker instead. I reckon it’s no less than what you done to plenty of decent white folk before, ain’t that right, chief? Huh?”
Crazy Snake didn’t answer, and the Texan kicked him.
“Well, least you’re not babbling like a madman no more. Drink some of that water and get your strength back. I have my way, you’re gonna need it.”
He spat again and withdrew, and the older man—whose opaque, expressionless eyes lingered on the horseman a moment longer—closed the door, locked it, and retired as well.
Crazy Snake took stock of the room. He saw a rusted bucket of water next to him and gratefully scooped handfuls of fresh water to his lips, though his wrists were bound to the wall by chains and he could not move far. He could see now the scratches covering his body from his mad flight through the wilderness.
His thirst at last slaked he stood slowly, wincing at the pain.
“You’ll want to put these on,” said a voice in Spanish, and a pair of clothes landed at Crazy Snake’s feet. “It can get cold in here at night.”
When Crazy Snake turned, he found not another white man, but a short, heavy, cherubic-faced Mestizo boy, or perhaps a young man—his age difficult to discern in the dim light—wearing a striped poncho over plain pants and shirt and standing on crooked legs. He raised a half-eaten banana to his mouth.
“Who are you?”
“Cipitio,” the boy mumbled, chewing. “At your service.”
“You’re a guard?” asked Crazy Snake skeptically, as he put on the clothes, hissing at the sting of the coarse fabric on his raw cuts and scratches.
Cipitio swallowed the last of the banana. “No, nothing like that. I work for the old sourpuss who was just in here. The castellan.”
“The castellan. Lord of the castle.” He made a theatrical bow whose meaning was as lost on the horseman as the word castle, and seeing this, Cipitio shrugged and added, “The guy who runs this place.”
“He lets you talk to prisoners?”
Cipitio tossed the banana peel over his shoulder. “I can do whatever I want as long as I don’t leave the keep or lift a hand against him. Besides, you’re the only prisoner here. Except for the slaves.”
“You haven’t heard? Slavery is legal again, courtesy of General—excuse me, President Walker.”
“Walker is a white man’s name.”
“White as the man himself,” Cipitio agreed.
“And the other who was just here, the one with the red beard and foul stench?”
Crazy Snake grunted, eying the strange boy curiously.
Cipitio held his hands up with an apologetic smile. “His name is Vance. Jeremiah Vance. A hired gun in Walker’s army. When some villagers found you and brought you in, Vance said he recognized your kind from his days as a Texas Ranger.” He grabbed the bars and leaned closer. “Is it true?”
“Is what true?”
“Are you really Komantcia?”
Crazy Snake grunted, and Cipitio’s eyes widened. “Fascinating. And what happened to you out there, to drive you to such madness?”
The horseman said nothing.
“I don’t blame you for being suspicious, my friend, but believe me when I say that you can trust me. I’m the only one you can trust here, in fact.” Cipitio pressed his face between the bars and lowered his voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “It was the Ciguanaba, wasn’t it? A creature with the body of a beautiful woman, but a horse’s head and long nails? Ah, it was her,” he said, noting the reaction on Crazy Snake’s normally impassive face.
“How do you know this?”
Cipitio shrugged. “Everyone has heard of her in these parts. Some believe she is real, some think she is just a myth. Every once in a while a man is found, crazed out of his mind and babbling about her. As far as I know, you are the only one who ever recovered your wits. The others just stayed crazy.”
“You seem to know a lot for a boy.”
Cipito chuckled. “I’m older than I look. Besides, I have nothing else to do in this dirty old keep but run menial errands for the castellan and watch the world go by.” His smile faded slightly. “What did she say to you, the Ciguanaba?”
Crazy Snake closed his eyes. He had no desire to remember that night, but this boy, or young man, or whatever he was, seemed harmless enough, and it was a waste not to learn what he could from him. “She was looking for someone. When I tried to comfort her, she said I was… unfaithful. What does that mean?”
Cipitio was silent himself for a time. “It means you betrayed or abandoned someone close to you. A spouse, a friend, a country… that kind of thing. I suppose you are in good company, then. Aside from the slaves and the castellan, there are nothing but mercenaries and womanizers in El Castillo.”
Crazy Snake nodded and opened his eyes, but the boy was gone. The horseman frowned, wondering if he had dozed off while Cipitio was talking.
He pondered Cipitio’s final words. By now, his fellow braves would have long since returned from Mexico with news that Crazy Snake was gone, swallowed by the jungles of the Yucatán, presumably dead. His quarrelsome wives Weakeah and Chonie had no doubt cut their hair in grief, divided his share of the raid’s spoils, and quickly found new husbands. Such was his hope, in any case. Marriage had never suited him. To lay with a woman was one thing, he had often reflected, to live with her quite another. And to live with two in the same tipi, well… if he had to court death, better to do it on the open trail and the warpath.
Nor had he ever felt completely at home among his tribe, any more than with his own wives. “You are more than Nermernuh. Never forget that,” his mother had told him more than once. Her blood flowed in his veins as well, but where it came from or what it meant he knew not. She had been captured in Mexico and traded to his father as a girl, but had always told Crazy Snake her ancestors came from further south–from a land of great medicine and power, high among the mountains. She herself was a powerful bruja who could speak with spirits and sometimes see the future. Before she died she gave her son and only child the talisman she wore around her neck, and he had sworn to himself that he would one day find the land where it came from. Perhaps even the people who had fashioned it.
But now it was gone, along with the medicine pouch he had carried it in, left by the banks of a stream he could not possibly find again on his own. He had failed his wives, failed his people, and now it seemed he had even failed his mother. Perhaps he had been unfaithful, to everyone in his life, and the Ciguanaba had seen fit to punish him for it.
For the first time in as long as he could remember, imprisoned and cut off from the things that gave him his puha and his sense of purpose, Crazy Snake felt truly naked. Vulnerable.
* * *
From the darkness of his cell he could hear the muted work of picks and shovels by day, punctuated by the occasional crack of a whip and cries of a slave. At night the sounds gave way to drunken revelry as the American mercenaries consumed whiskey, danced to fiddles, and fired their pistols and rifles. On one such night Vance returned with two other men like him—one tall and moon faced, the other shorter and thicker than Vance himself, with an ugly crooked nose—to gawk at their prisoner and taunt him with useless insults, but aside from a few clumsy kicks and blows there was no great violence; even drunk, Vance seemed to appreciate Crazy Snake’s value as a gift to Walker, something that might earn him a promotion in their makeshift army.
On the next night, Crazy Snake awoke to the sound of a woman’s voice in the corridor. Though she spoke in a language he had never heard, her words sounded unmistakably frantic and pleading, fraught with terror.
“There, there, my child,” said the voice of an older man, in Spanish. “Look into my eyes. Look deeply. That’s it. Calm yourself. Focus on my eyes, only the eyes…” His voice trailed off into a strange chant. Although the horseman did not recognize the words, they sounded similar to Spanish. Older perhaps. It went on for about a minute, until the voice spoke again in Spanish. “Now, step inside of this cell, where the candles are. You see the star drawn on the ground? Lay down in the middle, with your arms and legs spread into the points of the star. There, very good, lass. Very good.”
Crazy Snake heard more quiet chanting and then a sound he recognized all too well, of a knife striking flesh, hard and fast, followed by a short cry and a long silence during which he could hear very little but the occasional swish of a robe and the soft pad of feet on stone.
“Cipitio!” the voice snarled, minutes later. “Cipitio!”
“Here, master.” There was an edge of weary sarcasm in the voice.
“About time. Now clean up this mess while I take these to my chamber. Then dispose of the remains in the usual manner.”
“As you wish. Master.”
Crazy Snake did not sleep well the rest of that night.
Cipitio returned the following afternoon, limping on his crooked legs and carrying a plate of food for the horseman. Although Crazy Snake had even less reason to trust the boy now and picked at the food suspiciously, he listened without comment as Cipitio chatted idly about the fort, the mercenaries, and the slaves, chewing on bananas as he did, as if nothing strange had happened the night before.
“Tell me more about this Walker,” Crazy Snake interrupted, tired of everything to do with El Castillo.
“What would you like to know?”
“To start with, how did white men come to rule this land?”
“Which white men? The Spanish or the gringos?”
“You know what I mean.”
Cipitio smiled. “Of course.” Walker had come a year ago, hired by the previous president to help defeat a rebellion against his government. The American filibustero quickly became a powerful chief, capturing the capital and fighting several battles against neighboring countries. Now he had declared himself president, reintroduced slavery, and was appealing to white men in the United States to join his cause. It was all very confusing to Crazy Snake, but he understood enough. It was much the same as he had seen since childhood. Always the white man wanted more land, and would drive out or enslave those who resisted.
Finally, on the fifth night, Cipitio brought Crazy Snake news that he and several slaves were to be transported by river to the capital on the morrow, now that Vance’s men had commandeered a suitable means for the journey.
“I will be sorry to see you leave,” he added, with what sounded like genuine regret.
The horseman studied him. “Will you?”
“So I won’t be murdered in my cell like the girl?”
Now Cipitio studied the horseman. “You heard that, did you? Good. Don’t forget it. The castellan is a dangerous and wicked old man, and the sooner you are gone from this place the better, my friend.”
“Then why not free me now? The two of us can escape, together. Surely you have a mother or father who would like to see you again?”
Cipitio smiled sadly. “I have no idea who my father was, and my mother… well, she was never cut out for the role. And I would free you if I could, but the castellan has the keys and I cannot disobey him, much as I would like to. I have often wished he would slip on one of my banana peels and break his neck, but alas my prayers have gone unanswered.”
Again the boy seemed sincere, but Crazy Snake felt he was hearing less than the full truth. The news of his delivery to Walker was not entirely unwelcome, though. He had no desire to remain in this accursed cell a day longer, and an escape might be easier outside than it would be here, with so many armed men around. After bidding Cipitio a grudging farewell, he cleaned himself as best he could from the bucket of water, sat in a cross-legged position, and began to chant to the spirits for their blessing and good fortune. They had answered his prayers before, and might yet again if he proved himself worthy.
The next morning, Vance returned with the castellan and the same two surly companions who had taunted Crazy Snake before, this time sneering down the barrels of muskets. The castellan unlocked his manacles while Vance placed new chains around his wrists and ankles. As the three mercenaries led the horseman shuffling out into the light of day, the castellan remained behind with the hint of a sardonic smile.
The sky was mercifully overcast, but after days in the darkness of his cell Crazy Snake still blinked and squinted at the harsh glare. The door from which they emerged was at the base of a small keep in a larger rectangular fort with diamond-shaped bastions at each corner, situated on a high bluff above a bend in the river with a commanding view of a wide valley. Mountains loomed behind them to the east, while to the west lush fields and forests stretched for many miles toward a more distant mountain range. In the central courtyard before them and along the surrounding ramparts about twenty slaves toiled, improving the fort’s defenses under the watchful eyes of a nearly equal number of white men armed with pistols, muskets, and knives. The slaves themselves were dark-skinned, of mixed African and Indian ancestry; Cipitio had called them Garifunas, a people normally given to singing and dancing and colorful works of art. Nearby, one of them—a man no older than Crazy Snake himself—was tied to a post, shirtless, the skin of his back welted and bleeding, while one of Vance’s men whipped him for some offense.
His captors led Crazy Snake down a long stone ramp over which people, animals, and wagons passed in and out of the fort’s main entrance, while bored mercenaries ambled upon the ramparts, watching the river and the countryside with muskets propped lackadaisically over their shoulders. As he glanced at the fort one last time, Crazy Snake saw Cipitio watching him from a balcony in the keep, a banana in one hand and the other waving at him in farewell. Though it may have been a trick of the horseman’s imagination, the boy seemed to vanish from sight as quickly as he had appeared.
A dirt road led downhill from the fort to a cluster of wooden buildings by the riverside and a strange sight that drew a sharp breath from Crazy Snake. It was a boat—that much he could tell, since it floated on water and carried people within it—but it was no simple canoe of wood and pitch, as he had sometimes seen on the shallow rivers of Comancheria. This was a great white behemoth, two decks high, with a room and two giant pipes protruding from the upper deck and a strange wooden wheel at the ship’s rear, as wide as the ship itself. Large English letters were painted on its side, though Crazy Snake had no idea what they said, for he had never learned to read or write in any language. Men were at work loading a variety of goods and supplies on to the boat, including three shackled Garifunas, while Vance strode upon the deck cursing lustily for greater haste. When he saw Crazy Snake and his armed escorts, he spat into the river and joined them.
“Never seen a steamboat before, huh, chief? Be careful. They’re known to bite, and they’re awful fond of Injun flesh.”
Moonface and Crooked Nose bellowed with laughter, and Vance permitted himself a smile, though his eyes remained fixed on Crazy Snake with a hint of cruelty that no amount of mirth could seem to extinguish. When the others had stopped laughing, he gave curt orders to ensure their prisoner was secured with the three slaves, and to keep a watchful eye on him at all times.
“Comanches’re devious little devils,” he said. “And they ain’t afraid to die. Remember that. You get this’n and them three Garifunas to Walker, I promise you can have any one of the women slaves you want when you’re back.”
This seemed to have the desired effect, the two men slapping each other on the backs and promising they wouldn’t fail Vance. He simply nodded with a final glance at all of them, Crazy Snake included, before returning to his duties supervising the loading of the boat. The men followed him on board, and Crazy Snake was lined up with the Garifunas—two men and a woman who were similarly chained, wearing tattered clothes and looking mistreated and ill-fed, but otherwise in their prime—and told to sit silently with their backs against the low bulwark near the ship’s bow, on the bottom deck, while Moonface and Crooked Nose leveled their muskets on the prisoners and made idle bets about which one would fetch the best price on the auction blocks “back home.”
Crazy Snake closed his eyes and attempted to relax, conscious of the Garifunas’ curious stares. Thus he remained for the better part of an hour, savoring the fresh air and the warmth of the sun as it began to emerge from the clouds. In spite of the unfamiliar smells and the sounds of activity around him, the horseman let his thoughts drift back to the dry plains, hidden canyons, and cool river valleys of his youth. He could almost hear the beating of the drums and the whooping of braves around the campfires, could almost smell the sizzling fat of buffalo meat and taste it on his lips.
And yet, he had to admit, part of him did not miss it. It was as if the further he traveled from the land he once called home, the more some other part of him stirred, always looking to the south. Even now, when he had no reason to expect that he would live to see them, he could only imagine what strange new lands lurked just beyond the horizon, awaiting his passage.
The laborers had almost finished loading the boat when a commotion interrupted their work and the horseman’s reveries.
Two Mestizos under the supervision of a haughty, finely dressed merchant with an impeccable, straight mustache were cautiously leading a hooded brown horse with white spots over the ramp to the boat’s deck, and it was not making their work easy, jerking at its reins and snorting and squealing irritably.
“Whoa, where the hell you taking that thing?” demanded Vance, blocking their way.
“Please, Señor,” said the merchant, reaching into the folds of his coat and deftly producing a colorful bill. “I cannot afford to wait for the next steamboat, since your army has disrupted travel from here to the coast.”
“Not my problem.”
“But Presidente Walker said he needed as many good horses as he could get, no?”
“Then please, have your men present this horse to him as a gift, compliments of Juan Rodriguez. He will recognize its worth as the best he can find anywhere within hundreds of miles. Tell him my sympathies and my fellow merchants are with his cause, and the sooner full commerce is restored, the better.”
Vance spat and took the bill in his grubby hands, then slapped the horse’s rump to get it moving again. It kicked a hind hoof at him, which he just barely evaded.
“Ornery bastard, aintcha?”
The horse snorted beneath its hood and jerked a little, but let the handlers pull it forward.
“All right,” Vance called, stepping off the boat and pulling the ramp after him, with the help of another mercenary. “You heard the man. Make sure Walker gets the horse and the message. That’s it. Boat’s full and ready to take off. Bon voyage, amigos. Don’t nobody let me down, or there’ll be hell to pay.”
The two Mestizos led the horse between crates and bags of goods to the open-aired deck near the bow, with the prisoners. From their cursing conversation, Crazy Snake learned to his joy that Aahtaqui—loyal as always—had been found not far from the fort and captured unharmed by employees of the merchant, but not before biting one man’s arm to the bone and staving in the knee of another.
“That horse is bad luck,” one of the Mestizos grumbled.
“No. That horse is the devil himself,” replied the other.
But to Crazy Snake it was nothing less than a sign from the Great Spirit, and it made his heart soar like a hawk.
Somewhere within the steamboat an infernal racket commenced, and the great wheel in the rear began to turn. Smoke churned from the tall pipes, and the ship began to move, slowly at first. Soon enough they were in the middle of the wide San Juan River, gently cleaving against the current. From what Cipitio had told him, the river meandered many miles west before connecting with a great water, Lake Nicaragua, beyond whose far banks the capital sat. It would be a journey of several hours upriver—time that he would have to use profitably, before they reached the open water of the lake. True to their word, Moonface and Crooked Nose kept a vigilant watch on their prisoners, and there was no opportunity to move or speak without being sharply rebuked by a pointed musket.
Close to an hour passed. There was little Crazy Snake could see but the tops of trees and crests of distant mountains, for Aahtaqui and the other bulwark blocked much of his view. Some of the mountains were strangely shaped, as if their peaks had been sheared off. These he guessed must be the volcánes, or mountains of fire, his mother had once spoken of, and which Cipitio had mentioned during his rambling descriptions of the land.
Crazy Snake’s eyes wandered to the upper deck, which started about fifteen feet back from the ship’s bow. Another mercenary stood sentry up there, a black-haired man with sharp cheekbones and close-set eyes, gazing at the surrounding countryside. As he had since they first left El Castillo, Close Eyes would stand in that location for about a minute, disappear, and reappear around five minutes later. By now the horseman was certain he must be the only one of Vance’s men up there, making a continuous, slow circuit of the upper deck. In addition to the two guards here, that made three armed men, plus about a half dozen Mestizo workers who did not appear to be armed with more than machetes, and who may or may not feel any loyalty to Walker’s army.
Crazy Snake casually stretched his head right, toward the rear of the boat, and then to his left, where the first Garifuna sat next to him. He was not as tall as the other, but more thickly muscled, and with a wilder head of curly hair. His eyes stared ahead over pockmarked cheeks. “If you speak Spanish, nod,” the horseman said, too softly to be heard by the guards over the engine and the lapping of the waves against the hull. “Slowly.”
The Garifuna tensed. And nodded.
“Good. If you want your freedom, move when I do.”
When Close Eyes left to continue his circuit of the upper deck, Crazy Snake closed his eyes and began a silent count. As two and a half minutes approached, he opened his eyes slowly and took in the scene one last time. Nothing had changed that would alter his plan. He cleared his throat and looked at Moonface.
“Aahtaqui!” Crazy Snake spoke sharply, in the tongue of the Nermernuh. “Come!”
A moment of questioning anger on the mercenary’s face quickly vanished as the horse behind him squealed into motion, ripping the reins from the Mestizos’ hands, veering toward the unexpected sound of its master’s voice, and plowing obliviously into Moonface, slamming him backward against the bulwark and knocking his musket from his hands. Crazy Snake leapt to his feet and smashed the man with his chained hands, sending him over the edge and into the water. Crooked Nose, blocked from sight by the horse, shouted but was silenced as the male Garifuna on the far side of the three tackled him to the deck and attempted to wrest the musket from his hands. Crazy Snake grabbed Moonface’s musket and stepped out of the horse’s way, aiming toward the upper deck, where Close Eyes quickly appeared, drawn by the commotion. The horseman pulled the trigger, flinched at the blast and the recoil, and Close Eyes disappeared with a scream, clutching his throat.
No other gunmen appeared, and the Mestizos who had been handling Aahtaqui fled toward the rear of the boat. For a moment, the only souls on the forward section of the lower deck were Crazy Snake, the three Garifunas, the horse, and Crooked Nose, who was being bashed senseless with the stock of his own musket. Crazy Snake grabbed a hold of the hood covering Aahtaqui’s head and gently pulled it off. The horse bobbed and shook its head, nickering excitedly, and nuzzled its master’s face.
“Good boy,” said Crazy Snake, stroking its side, and then to the Garifunas: “That guard! Does he have any keys?”
“No,” cursed the female, who had quickly searched the now motionless Crooked Nose. “Maybe the one you knocked overboard had them?”
Crazy Snake grunted. “Or maybe Close Eyes has them.”
“The one up there.” He nodded to the upper deck.
With the chains binding their ankles, it would be a long shuffle to the rear of the boat to get to the stairs, and then up and across the upper deck, and there was no telling who else might be up there, armed and ready to shoot.
As he considered those difficulties the boat began to turn, ponderously, in a long arc.
Downriver. Back toward El Castillo.
“Lift me up!” he shouted, and the two Garifuna men quickly came forward, stooping and offering cupped hands for footholds. Once Crazy Snake had his feet planted firmly in each, they boosted him high enough to grab the upper deck’s railing. With his ankles bound, there was no easy way to swing a leg up for purchase, so the Garifunas continued to lift until their arms were high above their heads, and Crazy Snake was able to heave himself over. Close Eyes lay dying next to him, blood pumping steadily from his throat, and the horseman quickly searched his pockets, finally locating a single key. He fumbled it into the keyhole on the manacle around his left wrist and was relieved to hear a promising click. He took the manacle off and then the other, followed by the ones around his ankles. Then he tossed the key down to the waiting Garifunas, who, at his beckoning, tossed one of the muskets up to him. He turned toward the pilothouse, aiming the musket at the window. Within was an older man with flecks of grey in his dark hair and beard. He took his hands off the wheel and raised them in the air. Crazy Snake nodded, keeping the musket pointed at him as he circled around the pilothouse to its rear. He grabbed its handle and was about to pull it open when the door burst open, slamming into his hands and knocking the musket to the deck. A younger man jumped out with a pistol aimed at Crazy Snake and pulled the trigger.
The shot went wide, blasting a small hole in the deck. The horseman seized the fallen musket by the barrel and swung it like a club, smacking the man’s head with the stock. He stumbled toward the railing, dazed, and Crazy Snake gave him a shove as he passed by, sending him over the railing and into the water, where like Moonface he was heard and seen no more.
“Turn this thing back or I kill you now,” said Crazy Snake in Spanish, reversing the musket so it was pointed at the pilot.
The old man nodded vigorously and turned the ship back upriver.
Crazy Snake called out to the Garifunas, and the one who had been beside him earlier came up with a musket of his own.
“What is your name?” said the horseman.
“Watch him, Madal.”
“Gladly,” said Madal, cocking the musket’s hammer.
Crazy Snake took the stairs to the lower deck. Below were a few terrified Mestizos, cowering in the rear of the boat with their hands up and the other two Garifunas guarding them. Several others had jumped overboard and were swimming toward the nearest shore.
“Is there a place upriver to let us off? Somewhere far from any people?” Crazy Snake asked the Mestizos, who all nodded. “Good.”
“You have a plan?” asked the male Garifuna, who introduced himself as Nakili and the woman as Hayá.
“Yes,” said Crazy Snake. “Land this boat somewhere safe and take to the woods where no soldiers will be able to find us.”
“And then what?”
The horseman shrugged. “Go wherever each of us will.”
“There is another way,” offered Hayá. “Friends and family of ours are still held prisoner at the fort. We could gather others and attempt to free them.”
Crazy Snake shook his head. “It is strong and well-guarded, and they may expect an attack after they learn of our escape.”
“Aye,” said Nakili. “And they will most likely take revenge for our escape on the ones still held there. We must do something to help them, and fast.”
“Do what you must. Aside from the boy Cipitio, I have no friends or family there.”
Hayá began an angry response, but caught herself, only now realizing what Crazy Snake had just said. “Boy? What boy?”
“Cipitio. About this high and this wide. Walks with a limp. Eats bananas. Works for the castellan.”
Nakili and Hayá looked at each other. “I never saw any boy there, and no one by that description,” said Nakili. “Perhaps you were still… delirious from whatever madness afflicted you in the forest.”
Before he could reply, Crazy Snake noticed the Mestizos talking quietly among themselves. Cipitio’s name had been mentioned.
“You there,” he said. “What know you of the boy?”
The one he had addressed swallowed. “Forgive me, Señor. There is a local legend about a boy named Cipitio. Someone who looks as you described.”
Crazy Snake frowned. “Legend?”
“A story we tell our children, passed down by our elders before us.”
“I know what a legend is,” the horseman snapped. “Tell me the story.”
Nodding eagerly, the Mestizo continued: “They say he was born of a queen named Ziquet, who was unfaithful to her husband. When the king found out, he prayed to the god Zeotl to curse his wife and her bastard child. So Cipitio was born with crooked legs and doomed to live as a child forever, while Ziquet was cursed to wander the forest in search of him, never to succeed. They say Cipitio only appears to children, or sometimes to holy men or the mad.”
Crazy Snake felt a growing sense of disquiet. “And what stories do your people tell about El Castillo?”
The Mestizo shrugged. “The locals have feared the place since the Spanish abandoned it many years ago. There is a legend that a Spaniard remained behind, a man who worshipped the Devil and could bind spirits to his will. People sometimes disappear, never to be seen again. Some believe the man is still there, or that the place is haunted by the ghosts he commanded.”
The disquiet had grown and begun to take full form as Crazy Snake considered the Mestizo’s words. A question formed in his mind, one that he was afraid to ask for he believed he already knew the answer.
“Cipitio’s mother. This… Ziquet. You said she too was cursed. What became of her?”
The Mestizo touched his forehead, chest, and two shoulders in the same reflexive motion Crazy Snake had seen from Catholic priests in their missions along the edge of Comancheria. As the Mestizo answered, the horseman’s skin tingled and the hairs on the nape of his neck stood straight. Indeed he had guessed the answer, and it was not at all to his liking. But all the same, a new plan began to form in his mind.
“Perhaps I can help you after all,” he said to Nakili. “But first I need your help. There is somewhere I need to go. A place I cannot find on my own.”
It took the better part of three days, but at last they found the waterfall. It was not yet dusk, and leaving Nakili and Aahtaqui behind Crazy Snake took the trail that led uphill and back to the same part of the stream where he and Aahtaqui had first come, almost two weeks past, oblivious to the terror that awaited them.
His weapons and gear were still where he had left them near the bank, damp but otherwise no worse for the wear. Discarding the musket and machete he had taken from the boat, he gently lifted the Mayan necklace and Nermernuh medicine pouch from the rock where he had set them and–finding his mother’s amulet still within the pouch–tied them back around his neck where they belonged, along with a breastplate of white bones bound by rawhide straps and decorated with brass beads. He then settled himself into a comfortable cross-legged position on the boulder with the buffalo hide war shield strapped to his forearm and the tomahawk in his lap. Ignoring the fear of the place that still lingered, like a bad taste, Crazy Snake breathed deeply and exhaled, eying the far bank. At length he began to chant, a song he had often heard from his mother’s lips when communing with the Spirit World on lonely, barren hilltops.
An hour after night had smothered the dying embers of the western sky she appeared, her hair again hiding her face. This time there was no sobbing, no pleas for help; only the soft, strangely melodic cadence of Crazy Snake’s song, which finally trailed off and was swallowed by the sound of the gently rushing stream.
Crazy Snake nodded.
Why have you returned? Did I not say you were unfaithful?
“You did. And I was.”
She vanished, and for a moment the horseman feared he had failed. But then he felt a presence beside him. A horse’s skull leaned into view, and a long nail pointed at him, while the other hand settled on his shoulder with a tight, piercing grip. Then why have you returned?
Crazy Snake looked the Ciguanaba in her blazing red eyes.
“Because I know where you can find your son.”
* * *
Jeremiah Vance stalked the ramparts of El Castillo, checking his men and their muskets for the third time in an hour. Gone were the nights of fiddling and heavy drinking. Since the Comanche and the three Garifunas had killed his men on the steamboat and fled into the countryside, rumors were rife of an imminent attack on the fort. The castellan had berated him for a careless fool, and though Vance held no loyalty to the old man he needed his knowledge of the fort’s defenses and the surrounding area now more than ever. Something about the Spaniard unnerved the hardened mercenary, who had seen his share of cruelty and bloodshed—much of it at his own hands. He knew of the slaves the castellan had taken into the dungeon in the darkest watches of the night, never to return, and there were the odd times, too, when the castellan thought he was alone, that Vance had seen him talking to himself, or to imaginary companions. It was unnatural.
The Texan had almost completed his circuit when one of his men—Cadwallader, a lanky Mississippian with a fondness for lashing errant slaves—called from the gate that a stranger was standing without. That was unusual enough, but something about the man’s tone piqued Vance’s interest, and he descended the stairs to the inner courtyard, then crossed toward the gate to see for himself.
“Would you look at that?” said Cad, nodding toward the gate with a dumbfounded grin. Standing just beyond was a shapely young woman clad only in a white shift, her face concealed beneath a thick tangle of long, dark hair.
“What does she want?” Vance looked past her to see if she had brought company. But the ramp was otherwise empty and the guards had seen no others—in fact, had not even seen her approach, Cad admitted sheepishly.
I want to come in. The woman’s soft voice seemed to carry on the night breeze. There is someone here I wish to see.
“Which lucky devil is that, I wonder?” said Cad, winking and nudging Vance with his elbow. But Vance only looked at him with a cold stare, and Cad swallowed nervously. “Sorry, boss. What say? Should I let her in?”
Vance didn’t like it. Having a half-naked woman in the fort would only undermine the fragile state of order he’d drilled into his men, even if she was crazy. On the other hand, the creepy old castellan might have some use for her. One that could buy Vance some good will with the man.
The Texan nodded. “Let her in.”
Cad gave the order, and the gate slowly creaked opened on its rusty hinges. The woman made no move, standing eerily still with her hands hanging at her sides, face still hidden. Cad looked at Vance, and the Texan just shrugged. “We ain’t got all night. If she’s done forgot how to walk, just grab her by the hair and drag her in.” He turned to go, thinking to let the castellan know about their new visitor… only to find the woman blocking his path to the keep. The men behind him gasped and cursed in disbelief.
Where is my son? Where is Cipitio?
Vance staggered backward, speechless, and began to fumble for the pistol at his side.
Where is he? she demanded, a horse’s skull now protruding from her hair and long nails extending from her fingertips.
The fort erupted into chaos. Vance and Cad fled toward the open gate, screaming madly. One of the guards upon the ramparts fired in terror at the creature, and in the blink of an eye she appeared before him, wrenching the musket from his arms and tossing it into the night. Where is he? Other mercenaries poured out of the barracks, drawn by the screams and the gunshots, and at first no one had any clear idea what was happening until they caught a glimpse of the Ciguanaba, appearing before some hapless soldier, who would drop his weapon, scream, and flee in terror. Where is he? Where is my son? Within five minutes, every one of Vance’s men had either disappeared through the gate or leapt from the ramparts, breaking legs and crawling in the dirt as if the hounds of Hell were howling in pursuit.
But a more earthly menace waited for them that night: small bands of dark-skinned Garifunas armed with machetes and waiting to finish the job the Ciguanaba had started.
Among them was a Comanche brave with a grim smile.
He, Nakili, and Madal had hidden from sight not far beyond the rear of the fort, where the keep was closest to the ramparts. When the screams of Vance’s men began to pierce the night and the guards disappeared from their stations, the three men picked up their burden—a long siege ladder, lashed together from local timber—and carried it toward the wall, where they planted one end in the ground and slowly raised the rest of the ladder until the far end was leaning against the stone wall just below the top of a rampart.
Crazy Snake went first, climbing fast. His face was smeared with stripes of black war paint, his hair neatly braided and festooned with the brilliant feathers of eagle and macaw. His bow and a quiver of arrows were strapped to his back, and his tomahawk bounced at his side. His black companions bore muskets and machetes and followed swiftly behind.
* * *
The castellan had been deep in study among the old, yellowed tomes and jars of human organs within his inner sanctum when the first sounds of commotion interrupted his concentration.
“Cipitio! What is happening outside?”
The boy appeared at his side. “It seems we have an unwelcome guest, master. Would you like to have a look?”
The castellan frowned and rose from his desk. “Stay here.” He opened a door, crossed a torchlit hallway to his austere bedchambers, and strode through to another door that led to the keep’s balcony. There his eyes raked the scene below; the last of the American mercenaries were fleeing through the gateway and leaping from the ramparts, and standing in the center of it all, staring up at him with hellfire eyes in a horse’s skull, was the Ciguanaba.
Where is my son?
“Cipitio?” said the castellan, stepping back. He smoothed his robe and stood straighter. “He is here, with me, where you cannot touch him.”
“I think not.” The castellan began chanting, and when his voice at last fell silent, the Ciguanaba disappeared without a sound. Leaning against the wall, the old warlock rested a moment before turning back toward his inner sanctum.
To find an unwelcome intruder blocking his path.
“You,” he snarled.
Crazy Snake nodded. “And others.”
Outside, Garifuna men were beginning to enter the courtyard, laughing and cheering. Nakili was among them, and when he saw the castellan glaring down at him from the balcony, he threw a mock salute and bowed deeply before gathering several others to break into the shack that housed the remaining slaves. Another group of Garifunas began to tear down the whipping post with zeal.
“Savages! You are all savages!” cried the castellan, turning to Crazy Snake. “You think you can defeat me? You have no idea who I am. What I can do.”
“I know enough.”
“And what is it you think you know, Comanche?”
“That you are as old as these stones and have some control over spirits. What I don’t understand is why Cipitio, and why you murder slaves.”
“No, you wouldn’t,” said the castellan with a sneer. “The dark arts of my people are as far beyond the primitive magicks of yours as the stars from the earth. They require experimentation. Sacrifices. Victims. Mortal subjects like those worthless slaves”–he gestured at the grisly contents of the jars–“but they will only get you so far. Creatures like Cipitio, on the other hand, hold within them the key to true immortality. In time I will find it and free myself of his place.”
“No,” said Crazy Snake. “You won’t.” He lunged at the castellan with his tomahawk, but it passed through empty air. The Spaniard had vanished.
“You see?” He stood behind the horseman now. “I may not have learned all their secrets, but I’ve picked up some of their parlor tricks.”
Crazy Snake circled the castellan warily, flexing his grip on the tomahawk.
“Would you care to try again?” said the old man.
The horseman lunged again, and again the castellan vanished, but this time Crazy Snake felt the sting of a blade across the back of his arm. The Spaniard stood behind him, a long stiletto in hand, smiling. Crazy Snake touched the spot he had cut. His fingers came away with blood.
“It’s poisoned, in case you were wondering,” said the castellan, tapping the blade with his other hand. “Within a minute or less you won’t have enough strength left to swing that crude axe of yours. Want to try your luck once more? No? Then let’s make it more interesting.” Four more of the castellan appeared, all five surrounding Crazy Snake. Each of them held an identical knife and moved in unison with the rest, circling closer toward the horseman. He swung at the one he thought had spoken last, but it too proved to be just an illusion. Again the knife slashed him, this time across his back. He turned with a snarl, stumbled a little, and the five castellans laughed.
“Getting tired, are we?” they said. “Come on, one more try. And then it will be all over.” They raised their blades and stepped closer, the circle tightening around Crazy Snake like a noose. He pivoted, facing each one in turn, the poison weakening him. He didn’t know how much longer he could stand, much less swing the tomahawk. Only one more shot.
“Farewell, savage,” said the castellans.
Crazy Snake dodged the blade and swung.
The castellan dropped to his knees, eyes crossing in disbelief at the tomahawk protruding from his forehead.
Crazy Snake planted a foot on the old man’s chest and pushed him backward. The Spaniard crumpled to the floor, the last breath of his unnaturally long life rattling like a snake in his throat. The horseman slumped against the wall and slid to the floor himself. His eyes were heavy, and he wanted only to sleep. Yes, sleep…
But he felt a vial pressed to his lips, and a liquid trickling into his mouth.
“Drink,” said Cipitio’s voice. “Drink, my friend.”
Crazy Snake did as he was told. Gradually, he began to feel his strength return. Cipitio helped him up, and the horseman steadied himself against the wall.
“Thank you,” he said.
“It’s the least I could do.” Cipitio fished another banana from somewhere beneath his poncho, peeled it, and was about to take his first bite when he paused to admire it, as if it were the last he would ever see.
“Does the old man’s medicine still bind you to this place?”
“His magic? No,” Cipitio mumbled, his mouth full. “It’s dead now, with him.”
“Then there is someone waiting outside to see you.”
“So there is.” He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “I am greatly in your debt, my friend, one that I fear I can never repay. But tell me, how did you know which one of the five was him? A lucky guess?”
“Their knives,” said Crazy Snake. “Only one had blood on it.”
Cipitio snorted. “Parlor trick indeed. The old warlock never was half as smart as he thought. Burn his body and scatter his ashes in the river as soon as you can. His books, too. And tell your friends that the remains of those he murdered are buried in the keep’s old cellar. The key is hanging there on the wall, and I have marked their graves with their names.”
“You are going?”
“Yes. My time in this world is at an end, thanks to you, and at last I can know peace. Goodbye, Crazy Snake, and good luck to you. One day you will find what it is you seek.” He tossed the half-eaten banana onto the castellan’s body and disappeared.
Crazy Snake grunted, looking about the place with disdain. The castellan’s sanctum reeked of bad medicine. He had seen enough of its macabre jars and strange sigils and was ready to be rid of the fort, though first he would help Nakili and the others loot what they could, then do as Cipitio had said with the castellan’s body.
As he joined a cluster of hugging and dancing Garifunas in the gateway, a movement on the road beneath the fort caught the horseman’s eye. There he saw Cipitio, held tight in the arms of a kneeling woman. Gone was the monstrous visage that had driven Crazy Snake and so many other men mad. In its place was a beautiful, slender face that gazed upon her long lost son with love and regret. Tucking her long hair behind her ears, Ziquet stood at last, and taking Cipitio’s hand in hers, they turned toward the river, walking as any mother and child might have walked through ages past, until finally they were swallowed by the night.
“What do you see?” asked Nakili, following Crazy Snake’s gaze.
Crazy Snake turned and withdrew his hand from the medicine pouch around his neck, where it had strayed. “Nothing. Now let us leave this place. I have a horse that needs riding and a score of arrows for as many white men as I can find—maybe even this President Walker himself—before I turn south once more.”
A writer, photographer, veteran and history enthusiast, Eric was born in Texas, grew up in Wisconsin, and now lives in Northern Virginia, where he writes speeches for a living and fiction for fun. You can find his most recent stories at Every Day Fiction, Frontier Tales and Heroic Fantasy Quarterly. Follow him on Twitter at @ENAtkisson.