I've always been fascinated with Mark Twain. In fact, I wrote two stories about him and my undead Texas Ranger, Samuel McCord. Here's the beginning of the second story, A DEBT TO PAY :
From the moment we draw breath, we owe a debt. Only for a time do we get use of the earth, rain, and the other assorted odds and ends that go into our making. Like the leaves, we bud and grow, drawing life from the sun and its tears, gathering capital on the investment they have put into us. Then, like the leaves, we grow brittle and drop to the dark and bloody soil, returning its loan for the next soul round the pike. Debt paid.
Or is it?
No, in my mind, there’s replacement, then there’s payment with interest, for what else would the world be investing in you but to get some good out of the giving?
You think such thoughts when you ride the high, lonely mountains. There is something to them that reminds you that man is but a recent add-on to the world, that there are things older, wilder, more awesome than the puny critter that swaggers about like a child waving a crude wooden sword, the hero of his own delusions. And all the while, closing in on that deluded child is the embrace of the Eternal, that final night of all life.
I glanced over at the fitfully sleeping Sammy Clemens.
I ran my gloved fingers along the volcanic soil beneath me. This mountain was new if such a monstrous, high place could be called such. I looked over to Sammy, still tossing in an uneasy sleep on his bedroll, his unruly red hair looking like nothing so much as a fiery lions’s mane. Or a wig made from the feathers of a dozen of those parrots that dozed above us.
Damn, but I felt ancient. It seemed only yesterday that he had been twelve years old and close to being murdered as his father had been. I had saved his life then. And cursed it, too. I had meant well. But we both know what road is paved with those intentions.
Now he was nearly thirty-one. I still couldn’t get used to that moustache he had taken to wearing. I felt my face go tight. I remembered the hollowed-out look to his gray-blue eyes back in San Francisco. I had crept into his hotel room to surprise him with the receipt for the outrageous sum he had let the unpaid rent get to. The sight of him with that Colt pressed up against his temple was burned into my mind. Had I been but a heartbeat slower, Sammy would now be dead.
Hell of a friend I would have been. But I could only be in one place at a time. And some of those places were certain death for a human. I had been so sure I had left him secure. But Sammy had a way of sailing from safe waters into treacherous, deadly ones. I had taken to calling him Mark Twain, the name river men used to denote the place where the Mississippi went from secure to deadly.
The smoke of our campfire began to tickle my nose. Sammy stretched. I waited. No. He didn’t awaken. I kept on watching. Good. He kept on snoring. He still slept-walked. I didn’t need him wandering, addled-minded off into the deadly blackness after all the hard work this trip had cost me. I had jury-rigged this newspaper reporting of the Sandwich Islands to save his life, while salvaging his pride at the same time.
I sat in the far shadows of the fire. Being a Texas Ranger for over forty years had taught me caution, for even the undead could die the final death. That was how I spotted the native woman creep up soundless from out of the darkness and sit in front of our fire. Her odd white dog sat beside her silent as a shadow’s passing. I had never seen the breed before. But he sure was big. He looked as if his father might have been a bear -- if those critters had roamed these islands. But it did make me wonder what his parents actually had been. Elephants maybe.
She stared at Sammy, the fire playing odd shadow-games on her dried walnut face. Her dog, however, turned and looked right at me in the blackness I had carefully wrapped around me. Apparently not carefully enough.
Sammy stirred and half-rose on an elbow, muttering to me as if I still sat by his side, “I tell you, Capt. Sam, these islands have the most magnificent, balmy atmosphere in the world. Why I swear I am surprised it does not rouse the dead from their moldy graves.”
He stiffened as he noticed my absence and the presence of the aged woman and her monstrous dog -- both of whom had neglected to bring their shadows along with them.
He cleared his suddenly thick throat. “Ah, speaking of which -- why, hello, madame. If you had just sent us a telegram, a letter, a carrier pigeon even, announcing your state visit, you would not have found me in so disheveled a condition. Ah, did you know that you and your delightful horse seem to have misplaced your shadows? Ah, Cap --- CAP!”
“Right behind you, Sammy.”
“H-How far behind?”
I smiled. Same old Sammy. When we were alone, it was always Capt. Sam. But in front of others, even something supernatural like now, his pride would only let him call me Cap.
He kept on, his voice trying, and failing, not to shake. “Cap, I have ransacked this island until I cannot walk for the saddle sores. I have surf-bathed til I nearly drowned. I have ridden by moonlight through a ghostly plain of sand strewn with human bones and contested with the shades of slain warriors there. But, Cap, I positively insist that all our visitors must have shadows!”
The old woman said nothing. The crackling embers reflected odd in her glittering eyes as it did in her dog’s , if dog was what it truly was. I drew in the night. I suddenly knew her.
She was death. Not the Angelus of Death. My blood would have burned had she visited. No. She was just my promissory note to life coming due.
Not that it bothered me over much. I breathed in the night breeze, the still of it, the life of it. In this wilderness there was no greed, no vanity, no hypocrisy. Only a lasting throb of green growth. And the eternal quiet. I always knew that this was the way I would go. A knife or a gun in hand, my teeth bared at the enemy like an old wolf falling away into the endless void, defiant and fighting to the end.
But not quite yet.
Sammy depended on me. And I would not let him down. I would save him. Then my spirit could be caught up on the wings of the night. It even pleased me a little to think of myself drifting at peace into the endless depths between the stars.
The old woman turned towards me and croaked, “Your time is not yet come, MoonHair.”
I smiled. Now that was a first. Though my hair was indeed the color of the moon and had been since I had seen my family butchered at fifteen, I had never been called by that name.
Sammy chortled, “Moonhair? Cap, is that your Injun name?”
The old woman’s eyes stabbed into him. They were dark waters over whose black liquid surface only the breath of hate stirred. She smiled. It was not a pretty sight.
“That would be Dyami, prattler.”
Sammy flicked unsettled eyes to me, and I whispered, “It means eagle.”