[Note: It was hard to pick an excerpt that both A) can be comprehended without TOO much explanation, and B) I like well enough to share. I didn't really want to post the first chapter without first editing it (this being from NaNoWriMo, a lot of the writing is fairly sloppy). However, I do think the scene(s) I chose turned out all right, and it happens fairly early in the story (plus, it introduces one of my favorite recurring characters ). At this point in Ray’s journey to the Southwest (seeking an explanation for his peculiar inability to die), he has just met Ma’ii, the son of Coyote, and promptly managed to get him shot in the leg. They are stumbling their way to the nearest town in search of a doctor…]
In a small, sleepy town invariably overlooked by the mapmakers of the region—a town known as Allerton to its inhabitants and precisely no one else—a woman swept the floor of the General Store.
Everyone knew her; there weren’t really enough people living in or around Allerton to constitute as an “everyone” in most cases, but everyone still managed to get away with it. Everyone knew her and she knew everyone back.
They all called her Gracie.
“Good morning, Gracie.”
The thin, washed-out woman in her thin, washed-out dress didn’t miss a methodical beat as she continued to push dust about on the floor, but she spared a glance for the man who had stepped through the doorway and was now crossing the store toward her. “Yer early, Doc,” she greeted tonelessly. “Ain’t filled up them penny candy jars yet today. It’ll be another minute 'fore I can get to 'em.”
The man stopped before he reached the counter, his round face flushing a mild pink. “That's not why I'm here.”
“No? I'll be takin' my time, then.”
“I thought I would check in on you, by reason of the severity of that bilious affliction of yours,” he said, concern—genuine or not—undercut by his stilted address. “Are you in need of any more subnitrate of bismuth? I'll be heading out of town for much of the day, so now would be the time to inform me if you require anything further.”
Gracie turned, placing a hand over her abdomen and nearly smiling. “I'm feelin' much better, Doc, thank ya kindly.” She conveyed the broom to its corner, speaking over her shoulder. “Where you off to? Someplace special?”
Dr. Terrence Luterman, a plumpish, clean-shaven man who seemed to hover perpetually between youth and middle age, often dressed like he was expected somewhere a sight nicer than the gritty town of Allerton, and this day was no exception. His matching suit of rich brown broadcloth nearly replicated the hue of his smartly combed hair, sun streaks aside. His shoes were always clean, his collar and cuffs liberally starched.
Polished as he often appeared, Gracie had known the doctor long enough to recognize something turbulent churning beneath the placid waters of his outward presentation. In the years since he had moved to Allerton (presumably from a much larger city, and presumably much further to the east), she kept a wary, knowing eye on these indicators of discontent—the deepening lines on his forehead as scowls increased in frequency, the heavy bags under his curiously colored eyes, the self-conscious and self-loathing grimaces when his indulgence resulted in an ever-tightening waistband, the sarcastic and dour commentary when a subject ran south of his patience—and waited for the inevitable explosion.
It would likely not come today. Dr. Luterman repaid Gracie's almost-smile with interest. “Not as special as all that, but not especially near,” he said somewhat evasively. “In fact, I may need to pick up some provisions for the road.”
“Well,” said the shopkeeper, slapping her hands on the skirt of her dress and sending more dust to the floor, “you know where ev’rythin’ is. I’ll be fillin’ the jars.”
Luterman did not protest aloud, but proceeded to make one or two of his famously unpleasant faces as he wheeled around and began perusing the shelves. Gracie calmly disregarded this as she set about replenishing the counter’s supply of gumdrops, jelly beans, taffy and other sundry confections. For all his bellyaching in the long run, she knew his mood tended to improve with sugar, and a purchase was all but guaranteed every time he set foot in her store. Sure enough, when he had gathered his salt pork, biscuits and dried fruit, he sidled close to the jars and requested a goodly amount of jelly beans and butterscotch candies.
“Don’t be out too late, now, not if you can help it,” Gracie advised blandly as she negotiated the novel mechanics of the store’s newest acquisition—a noisy cash register that, with time, she supposed, would hasten transactions rather than halt them. “Boyer says there’s bin one too many robberies ‘tween here an’ Santa Fe fer comfort. He was goin’ on an’ on about it yesterday; had to boot him, Mrs. Calvin and the Richter boys out so I could close up. Kept talkin’ even after they was out on the stoop.”
“Boyer will say anything if he has an audience,” Dr. Luterman said dryly, popping a butterscotch into his mouth. “I’m sure he was exaggerating.”
The cash register drawer sprang open with a sound that evoked a miniature cathedral. Gracie didn’t flinch. “You keep yer head down, hear? Only thing Allerton’s got goin’ fer it is the best damned doctor in the West livin’ here. Don’t you take that away from us.”
Dr. Luterman looked pleased. “I wouldn’t dream of it. I’ll be fine, Gracie. Good day to you, and don’t fret. I’ll stop by tomorrow morning to let you know whether or not I’ve survived my parlous journey.”
“Pah.” Her drab hair escaped its bun and swung into her face as she bent over the till. “Git outta here, Doc.”
Still as close as he ever came to smiling, the doctor obliged, stepping out from the protective awning of Gracie’s shop and squinting against the climbing sun. The storefront faced east, and he turned his head to relieve his eyes, looking down the street.
Boyer approached at an earnest trot, his gait suggesting that he would like to be running faster, but not at the cost of attracting too much attention. When he called out to Luterman his voice further reflected this conflict, caught somewhere between a hushed shout and a stage whisper. “Doc!”
The doctor’s smile all but capsized. He feigned deafness and, feet carrying him stiffly into the road, set off in the opposite direction.
“Doc! Dr. Luterman!” Boyer easily caught up and drew alongside his quarry, though he knew better than to make a grab for his tailored sleeve. “Yer gonna have a new patient in a minute!”
Luterman focused stolidly ahead, sparing the other man little more than the corner of his downturned mouth as he spoke. “I know you fancy yourself the town crier, as it were, but unless you’ve miraculously acquired second sight I can’t see how you could possibly predict when—”
“There’s two men just outside of town!” Boyer burst out impatiently. “Strangers. One of ‘em hobblin’ along, other one helpin’ him.”
The doctor stopped walking; his shoulders drooped. “Strangers? Here?”
“Like a couple hunnerd pounds of trouble, if y’ask me! Got a pretty good gander ‘fore I came to find ya, too. One fancy city-boy—uh, no offense, Doc—and one shot-up Injun, from the looks of it. Real bloody from the belt on down.”
Luterman rounded on Boyer abruptly, startling a flinch from the taller man. In this light, his eyes practically glinted red. “An Indian, you said?” he demanded, narrowing those odd eyes intently. “An injured Indian is being brought into Allerton as we speak?”
“Well, yeah, they was close enough fer me to—whoakay!” Boyer hopped out of the way as the doctor shouldered past, hurrying back the way they had come. “You git right on that, Doc!”
“You can stop carrying me anytime, now. If you can call it carrying.”
“You can’t, because I’m not carrying you,” Ray gasped out.
“Then why are you winded, Dead-Man?”
“I’m still supporting you, you ungrateful creature. And I’m not dead. I do have to breathe, you know.”
Through his lingering pain, Ma’ii’s golden eyes sparkled with amusement. “You will need a doctor more than I do at this rate. Stop hanging onto me and let me walk on my own before you fall over.”
“I’m fairly certain that even if I did (gasp) succumb to the heat of the sun it wouldn’t be too bothersome for (huff) someone such as myself. A doctor wouldn’t know what on Earth to make of me, anyway (wheeze), I expect.”
“Well, it can’t be pleasant,” the other man pointed out placidly. “And it’s making you very slow. That town has been in the same spot for the past ten minutes; it’s as if we’re standing still.”
“Look, I’m (pant) trying to be helpful, here…”
“And last time I tried to be helpful you got me shot in the leg. Thanks, Dead-Man.”
This marked approximately the sixth variation of this conversation. Previous installments had seen Ray more eloquent in his defense and Ma’ii less tolerant of the situation as a whole, but a gradual shift in attitude had begun to suffuse their rote dialogue with comfortable sardonicism. In spite of Ray’s mounting exhaustion and Ma’ii’s continued pain (or perhaps due to it), the pair had managed to transform their complaints into almost enjoyable banter.
“We’re almost there,” puffed Ray.
“And no one’s come out to chase us away yet. Good sign.”
Not a moment after the Coyote-Man spoke these words did he spot a lone figure emerging from the ramshackle collection of buildings—a stout man in a brown suit who bridged the gap between them with sure steps. Ma’ii, who knew his eyesight to be far superior to that of a normal man, warily acknowledged the approaching stranger’s expression.
“Never mind,” he mumbled under his breath. “Brace yourself.”
Ray, meanwhile, who could not see the ill-humored scowl clouding the new man’s face and missed Ma’ii’s warning, expelled a relieved sigh with as much gusto as he could muster. The resulting wheeze doubled him over and brought Ma’ii along for the ride.
Fortunately, the third man arrived on the scene in time to bear the two travelers up with surprising strength. “What happened?” he asked, more a brusque demand for information than a sympathetic inquiry.
“He’s been shot,” Ray rasped out, each word tearing at his arid throat. “His leg. He needs a doctor—”
“I’m a doctor,” the other man cut in curtly, “and you are dehydrated. Drink this before you help me carry him to my office.” Ray had noticed that the man had a few packages tucked under one arm, but the flask that suddenly appeared under his nose might as well have been produced from thin air. More surprisingly, it did not contain the expected burn of alcohol, but the purest, coolest water he’d ever tasted.
“I don’t need to be carried!” Ma’ii said indignantly, and promptly stumbled sideways when Ray released him in favor of the flask.
The doctor caught him again. “Stop fussing. You can’t possibly walk, let alone stand on your own. Once you’ve finished with that, if you could lend me a hand, Mr…?”
Ray realized, with a guilty start, that he had indeed gulped down the doctor’s supply of water. At least he felt much better for it, and he hastened to support Ma’ii with renewed vigor and a vivified tongue. “Stone, Ray Stone,” he said apologetically. “So sorry to barge in on your little town like this—looks like a lovely place, uh, very rustic—it’s just we were on our way to, uh, Santa Fe when these blasted bandits rode up out of the blue and shot us both and it was only thanks to a fortuitous change in weather patterns that we managed to—”
“You were also shot, Mr. Stone?”
“No,” said Ma’ii with a poisonous glare. “No, he was not.”
“O-oh! No, of course not! Just Ma’ii, just Ma’ii was shot. What I meant say, of course, was that we were both shot at—shot at us both and only hit one out of two targets, thankfully! But they stole our horses, those scoundrels—because why would we be traveling without horses?—and made off with them just as the weather turned south—did I mention the dust storm? I’ve never seen a dust storm like that, but I expect they’re a lot more common on this side of the Mississippi, or at least down here with all this sand, we don’t have a lot of sand up where I’m from unless it’s along one of the lakes—”
Ma’ii closed his eyes, silently bidding Ray to shut his indefatigable mouth.
The doctor’s own umber eyes were skeptically sweeping up and down the nervous, chattering banker, from the discolored smudge on his forehead to the cut of his waistcoat to his incongruous boots. “Might I assume that you hail from the Great Lakes region?”
“Yes!” Ray confirmed. “Chicago, to be exact! Now, either that’s an educated guess or, if I’m not mistaken, you sound as if you’re from my neck of the woods, as well, Dr…oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t catch your name.”
As far as Ma’ii could judge with his eyes squeezed determinedly shut (as he mentally chanted the words for “shut up” in as many languages as he knew), the silence that met Ray’s words could have been inspired by either bewilderment or irritation. He certainly couldn’t blame the doctor for choosing his words carefully in the face of Ray Stone’s protracted monologues, not if the man had any inclination to be polite.
As it turned out, courtesy did not take precedence. “Terrence Luterman,” supplied the doctor in a slow, dubious tone. “I’ve practiced medicine all over the country, in fact, but before you open your mouth again to ask me where, I’d like to point out that the only location that should interest you is right—” he paused to grunt as he hoisted Ma’ii up a short flight of wooden steps, and Ray, who had not even noticed how far they had walked, belatedly followed suit “—here.”
Ray proceeded to open his mouth and close it.
Ma’ii grinned. “I think I like you.”
“You may change your opinion of me when I prize that bullet out of your thigh. Mr. Stone, I’ll require your subdued assistance in one further matter before I must ask you to leave me to work on your friend.”
“He’s not—” Ray stopped himself with a confused frown. Ma’ii, while certainly not someone he would call his friend, could not be shuffled into such an impersonal category as “acquaintance”, either. At any rate, this Dr. Luterman fellow, with his peculiar demeanor making it difficult for Ray to differentiate between a severely dry sense of humor or a distinct lack of one, was clearly not in a chatty mood. If he wished to work in peace, he saw no reason to deny him that appeal. “He’s not…not in any danger of losing his leg, is he?” he amended with a bit too much pride.
Dr. Luterman arched an eyebrow. “I shouldn’t think. Considering the state of the wound, he is in far better shape than one would expect. Also, he is now in capable hands. You were lucky,” he added doubtfully, “that you happened across the town of Allerton. There isn’t another doctor closer than Santa Fe, and certainly none better than myself.”
Ray shrugged, neither agreeing nor disagreeing, and summoned a cheerful smile. “So, what do you need?”
“Merely for you to help me take him inside and get him into the operating chair.”
“Operating?” Ma’ii echoed, grin falling away. “Who said anything about operating? I don’t need operating. Just use a knife to dig it out and bandage up what’s left.”
“My methods are a bit more delicate than that,” Luterman said.
“Your methods? You mean your medicine.” Ma’ii squirmed a bit in the grasp of the other two men. His tail, which had until that moment been hanging as limp as the decorative accoutrement that most assumed it to be, began to switch anxiously. “I don’t want your medicine, white man.”
The doctor’s face was barren of emotion as he spoke. “Mr. Stone, if you would assist me?”
Guiltily, Ray obeyed, tucking his arm around the Indian’s back and lifting. “I’m sorry,” he said fretfully, “but the doctor knows best. It’ll be fine, Ma’ii, really.”
Ray’s assurance did little to calm the increasingly agitated Coyote-Man, but the pain from jarring his leg prevented him from struggling too terribly. Without a great deal of difficulty, Ray and Dr. Luterman hauled Ma’ii across the threshold and into the doctor’s quarters.
Luterman’s office, Ray noted, smelled like licorice. He’d not been too fond of licorice as a boy—in fact, he had violently disliked it—and the smell filled him with an intense, irrational urge to turn around and march right back out. He berated himself silently. It would be unfair to hold something so petty as a smell against the doctor, particularly as he forced himself to look around and saw nothing but evidence of Luterman’s obvious competence: heavy medical textbooks, carefully polished instruments, meticulously labeled jars and bottles tucked into glass cabinets, and hardly a speck of dust in sight.
“Just to be clear, I am going to be a nuisance,” Ma’ii spoke up through a pained grimace as Ray helped him climb onto an adjustable operating chair. “I will fight and kick and bite if you so much as point one of your needles at me, azee'ííł'íní. ”
“As long as you don’t damage the chair,” Luterman intoned. “It was quite expensive.”
“Cost him an arm and a leg,” Ray joked, immediately backpedaling when Ma’ii threw him a furiously terrified glare. “Oh, sorry, sorry! But honestly, Ma’ii, you’re acting like a child! There’s nothing to be afraid of here!”
“I’m not afraid, Dea—Ray.”
“Then I don’t see what all the fuss is about! Just sit back and the good doctor will take care of you in a jiffy!” Ray caught sight of Luterman’s tapping shoe and, turning with a contrite smile, stuck out his hand. “Thank you very much for your help, Dr. Luterman. I’ll get out of your hair and let you get down to it, how’s that sound?”
The faintest trace of relief registered in the other man’s eyes as he stepped forward to shake Ray’s hand. “Yes, fine. Head on over to Gracie, at the General Store. She’ll keep you out of trouble while I—”
Their hands touched, and something peculiar happened. It was so brief as to warrant only a passing, concerned glance from Ray, who felt little more than a faint tingling sensation that swept from his fingers to his shoulder before dissipating so quickly that it might not have happened at all. Luterman, however, blanched and quickly withdrew his hand, stuffing it into the pocket of his trousers with such dispatch as to suggest self-preservation.
Ma’ii sat up, eyes glittering.
“Gracie,” Ray repeated after an uncertain moment dragged into several successive moments of awkward silence. Telegraphic phrases spilled out of his mouth to fill the disquieting hush that had fallen over the office. “Uh, sure. I’ll find her. I’m sure. Thank you. Again. And, uh. Good luck. Of course.”
“Yes,” Dr. Luterman said, jaw rather tight.
Ray showed himself out, chased by the stink of licorice.