Thursday, October 28, 2010

Guns of the Border Region -- Chapter Eight


[Here it is at last, the wrap-up. And, of course, all the previous installments can be read by scrolling down. What I've tried to do here was to create a pulp adventure novel that wasn't retro, ala Indiana Jones. And the novel is autobiographical in the sense that it concerns my homeland of Southwestern Pennsylvania --not as it is, or was, but as it pleases me to imagine it. Copyright 2009 by Charles Hoffman.]

The following afternoon a small group gathered for Arthur’s funeral. Pops, Shadow, Leon, Christian, and Cathy Gorman were in attendance, along with some allies from the previous day’s faction fight who wished to pay their respects. They were assembled in the small forest glade on Pops’ property where Pops had buried Steffy.

“Room enough here for a few more graves,” Pops told Leon, “Steffy and I never had a son. Arthur is more than welcome here. I guess I’ll be joinin’ `em ere long.” He paused and looked about. Sunlight parted the clouds and slanted through the mostly-bare trees. A passing breeze rattled the boughs. A few brown leaves drifted down. “Yep,” Pops said thoughtfully, “This will be a nice little cemetery.”

In the glade a fresh grave had been dug. A simple pine coffin had been lowered into it. Arthur rested within the coffin with the Arkansas toothpick he had borne in battle.

Pops gave the eulogy.

“We lay to rest a man of the Border Region. The compass of his soul guided him here, to his home. This land will be stronger with his bones in the ground.”

Afterwards Christian led Leon, Cathy and some of the others in a prayer. Pops and Shadow stood nearby with bowed heads.

When all was said, Pops and Leon picked up shovels and began to fill in the grave. Cathy Gorman burst into tears as the first damp clods struck the coffin lid. She sobbed more loudly as each shovelful of dirt fell. Shadow remained silent, her face as immobile as a stoic Indian’s, but tears streamed freely down her cheeks.

Shadow lingered after the others had departed. The last words uttered at Arthur’s graveside that day were hers.

“Fare thee well, friend. Your love was not wasted.”


Shadow found Pops seated before his fireplace. Pain dozed at his feet. Shadow took a seat on the floor next to the dog.

Pops contemplated the flames for a moment before saying, “I guess you’re pissed at me for not letting old Pain here tear that boy’s throat out.”

It was the first time they had spoken of it. Shadow looked up and said, “No. Not actually. I just wish I understood things better.”

“I had to put an end to it,” Pops explained. “You dealt Mad Dog two terrible hurts. You took away his favorite son and crippled him for life. Now he’s physically handicapped and doesn’t have Sailor to back him up. His power is broken and so is he. I saw the fire go out of him, which is sad in a way, but it took the bitterness with it. He became a changed man before my eyes. Yes, it can come over a man just like that. I’ve lived a long time. I’ve seen it happen before more than once.

“But Clanton has friends. They wouldn’t look on it too kindly if I had taken Joel from him after he had begged and pleaded with me for his life. It would be seen as an act of cruelty, me tearing the last pitiful remnants from weak grasping fingers. It would have prolonged the feud, whatever the outcome of the faction fight.

“As it is, Clanton is forever in my debt. Everyone sees him as beholden to me. No one would back him in a move against me. Not that he would attempt such a thing now. He is not without honor in his fashion. And he may be hobbling on a stick from now on, but at least he can rightfully boast that he once used it to best Connor O’Rourke in single combat. No one can take that away from him.

“Arthur sacrificed his life to save you,” Pops concluded, “And by dying in your stead he bought us the peace.”


After hearing Pops’ explanation, Shadow went in search of Christian. She found him out back by the still.

“I’ve been looking for you,” she told him, “We need to talk.”

“About what?” Christian asked.

“About what you’re doing here. I want to know why you really came to the Border Region. And don’t give me that lame routine about looking for the girl. Anyone with more than two brain cells would have to know how futile that was. I didn’t care because I was getting paid. But now I want the real story.”

“I was going to tell you anyway,” Christian said as he began his tale, “I’m an accountant from North Carolina, like I said. I was working in Liberty’s City as a low-level bean counter for the Confederate government. And I really was engaged to Angel. That much was true. But I did deceive you about her whereabouts. I’ve always been pretty sure she’s in New York. I didn’t lie when I said she left me. She ran off with a Muslim from the Islamic States.”

“I suspected something of the sort,” Shadow informed him, “Go on.”

The whole story came out. The other man was an ISA diplomat who came to Liberty’s City on a state visit. Angel met him at a party and had been swept off her feet by his debonair charm. When he returned home, she went with him. Christian had been left heartbroken and humiliated. He was plunged into a deep depression and his work suffered. At this point he was approached by a government intelligence agency, the heir to the Old Union’s CIA.

High government officials were concerned about the possibility of a growing Muslim presence in the Border Region. The New American Confederacy, the Free Republic of Alaska, and the Border Region all formed a loose-knit confederation. In addition to utilizing a common currency, Alaskans and Border Regioners could serve in what was referred to as the American Military. The main purpose of the alliance was mutual defense. Though not a part of the New American Confederacy, the Border Region remained connected to it in certain respects. Therefore any encroachment upon the Border Region on the part of the Islamic States of America could be viewed as an indirect threat to the Confederacy. Muslims from the Islamic States might emigrate to certain areas of the Border Region and in time achieve majority status there. Then, theoretically, sections of the northern and eastern Border Region could be subsumed into the ISA county by county. For this reason, the number and location of Muslims residing in the Border Region was of concern to the Confederate government.

Unfortunately, Confederate intelligence resources were meager compared to those of the Old Union. This was where Christian came in. He was tapped to play the jilted lover wandering the Border Region in search of his runaway sweetheart. Enough of the story was true that he could act the part convincingly. The plan was for him to get far into the rural reaches of the Border Region to scout out Muslim enclaves, if any. The Confederate spy masters had little doubt that Christian would agree to take the mission. Assuming the role of a daring secret agent would act as a balm to his injured male pride. And if he helped thwart the designs of the Islamic Federation, he would gain a measure of revenge. He was the perfect cat’s-paw.

“You Border Regioners are suspicious of outsiders,” Christian told Shadow, “A trained agent attempting to infiltrate would be spotted a mile off. But a rank amateur like me just might be able to get away with it. Anyway, that’s what the people who recruited me thought. And that’s the whole story.”

Shadow punched Christian in the mouth. “And that’s for lying to me in the first place,” she said as she stormed off.

Christian rubbed his jaw and watched her ass sway as she walked away from him. He grinned sheepishly. He knew full well that if Shadow had nailed him with her best shot, he’d be flat on his back, out cold. Still, it was probably best to stay out of her way until she cooled off. That evening he unrolled his sleeping bag on Pops’ porch and slept outdoors.


Christian awoke early the next morning to the smell of venison sausage cooking inside the cabin. Shadow came out with some breakfast.

“Rise and shine, Churchy,” she said cheerfully, “I brought you sausage and eggs.”

“Uh, so you’re not still upset with me?” he asked.

“We’re good,” she replied. “I just needed to be mad for a little bit.”

They sat on the steps and ate breakfast together. When they finished she informed him, “I’m pulling out of here this morning. Have you had enough of the New Settlements?”

Merciful Lord, yes! he thought. “Where are you headed?” he said.

“Tionesta. That’s up north. Northwest, actually. It’s a couple days’ ride. I have family up there. I think you’d like it. It’s in the middle of some real nice country. And the community there is thriving. It’s a little city-state, almost. They have solar and wind electricity, and a lot of modern conveniences. It’s not like here at all.”

“Then I’m for Tionesta!”

After breakfast they said their goodbyes to Pops. Not long afterwards they were on the road again. Shadow rode Incitatus. Christian was astride the horse formerly owned by the late Sailor Clanton.

Their route took them down from the mountains and back onto the main roads. The trip proved uneventful. They passed the time in conversation. Shadow mentioned looking forward to the big Halloween festival in Tionesta.

“Halloween is not that widely celebrated in the Confederacy,” Christian informed her, “Most people tend to look on it as a pagan celebration. It’s not unheard of, but it’s sort of frowned upon.”

“Well, Halloween is the biggest holiday in the Border Region. Hands down,” Shadow said. She went on to explain its historical and cultural significance in the Region.

The Pennsylvania Uprising that ultimately led to the formation of the Border Region had its beginning in the Pittsburgh area. The Westsylvania secession movement started small, with a series of peaceful demonstrations. However, when a local congresswoman disparaged movement leaders as losers and misfits, things turned ugly. On the night of October 31, 2081, secession sympathizers retaliated by firebombing the congresswoman’s upscale home. This became known as the “Halloween Hellfire” incident. It was the first documented episode of violence associated with the Westsylvania secession movement. Things snowballed from there. Cities and counties erupted in rioting, open rebellion, and finally armed insurrection.

“And today Halloween is celebrated with wild partying all over the Border Region,” Shadow concluded, “I’ve been to some really big blow-outs in Wheeling and Pittsburgh. And, as you might expect, they do it up big in Transylvania. But usually I enjoy getting back to Tionesta for the celebration.”

It was also during the journey that Shadow filled Christian in concerning the Muslim population of the Border Region.

“I’ve traveled all over the Region. I’ve probably wandered over more of it than most. And I really haven’t encountered all that many Muslims. You probably have just as many, or more, still residing in the Confederacy. There are no Muslim ‘enclaves’ that I know of. Just a family here and there. And these tend to be free thinkers looking to practice a less strict form of their religion. As long as they just want to live in peace and do their own thing, they’re welcome. But if they were to try and proselytize and gain converts, they would be made to feel most unwelcome. That sort of thing doesn’t go over well here.”

Christian questioned Shadow concerning the specifics of where and when she had encountered Muslims in the Region. Finally he felt satisfied that he had enough information to put in his report when he got back to the Confederacy.

“Why even go back?” Shadow asked, “You should stay here. You belong here. Think about it. You killed your first man before you fucked your first woman. That makes you Border Region in my book, son.”

Christian didn’t have an answer for that one. He rode on in silence. But he did think about it.


Tionesta was an isolated community up north in Forest County. Throughout the 20th and 21st Centuries the town had been frequented by visitors. Surrounded by woodlands teeming with game and adjacent to a large lake suitable for fishing and boating, it was a popular getaway destination. Many of the residences were hunting cabins and vacation homes unoccupied for most of the year. A small permanent population provided various goods and services.

Following the Westsylvania secession, the character of the town began to change. Counties to the north including Erie, Crawford, and Warren remained in the Pennsylvania commonwealth by treaty so as to furnish a corridor linking the Northeastern and Midwestern Islamic states. Non-Muslim residents of those areas faced the choice of abiding by Islamic authority or relocating. Many displaced residents came to resettle in and around Tionesta, swelling the population. By the early 22nd Century, Tionesta had become the model of a vital self-sufficient community. It was the northernmost outpost of the Border Region.

Shadow and Christian arrived in Tionesta at about noon on the 31st. They headed for the center of town. There holiday festivities were already underway. The whole downtown area had been transformed into an enormous street fair. Lively crowds milled about everywhere. Handcrafted items and food of every sort was being sold at open stalls. Smoke from the grills scented the air.

“It goes on all day and well into the night,” Shadow informed her companion, “Right now there’s feasting and dancing. After dark there’ll be masquerades.”

After stabling the horses they joined the crowds. Before long Shadow was greeted by an old friend. At the sound of a melodic voice calling her name, she and Christian turned to see a stunning blonde coming their way. The newcomer looked to be a year or so older than Shadow and was roughly the same height and build. Christian watched the two women embrace. Then Shadow made the introductions.

“Christian, this is Anime, or Anna Mae if you prefer. She was my partner in crime during my younger, wilder days. We used to perform in Pittsburgh clubs as a trash dance combo called Filth.”

Christian didn’t ask what a trash dance combo was. Anime warmed him with a smile that would make any man do her bidding. “Pleased to meet you, Chris.”

“She used to be cool,” Shadow said tartly, “Then she settled down and married my blockhead brother.” To Anime, “Where is Hondo, anyway?”

“He’s down in Clarion visiting your parents and your kid sister Penny,” Anime replied, “Any plans to go see them?”

“Maybe at Thanksgiving. I’ve been thinking of going down to Pittsburgh. I could book some sessions at Madame Irene’s and be back up here in time for deer season.”

Shadow noticed the look of sick horror on Christian’s face. She set him straight. “Will you fucking relax, already? I just do domination.”

Turning back to Anime, she asked, “So where are the kiddies?”

“I left them with my friend Sophie to watch while I came over to see you.”

As if on cue two little girls, perhaps four and five, came scampering out of the crowd. They ran straight to Shadow.

“Aunt Tam!” they squealed in unison.

Shadow cast a sidelong glance at Christian. “Not a word out of you, Church-boy.”

Shadow knelt and hugged the children. Straightening she said to Christian, “These are my little nieces that I told you about, Lois and Margo.”

The kids were clearly excited by a visit from their aunt. One of the tots looked up and asked, “Can we ride Incitatus?”

“You sure can!” Shadow promised.

Christian was moved to inquire, “Will Incitatus like giving pony rides to children?”

“I’ll bust him in the snoot if he doesn’t,” Shadow said, then added meaningfully, “You have to show big dumb animals who’s boss.”

Sensing something unspoken between the man and woman, Anime laughed. “You guys must be hungry,” she said.

The group left the street fair and strolled over to a nearby park. There were more crowds of people, and more stalls selling food. Beer, wine, moonshine and cider were sold and consumed in great quantities. From a central pavilion, a band entertained the crowd. Christian remarked that the Halloween celebration seemed to have incorporated elements of Oktoberfest.

For lunch the companions dined on pierogis at one of the picnic tables. The adults drank 33 while the kids enjoyed draft root beer. Following the meal the women got caught up. Shadow narrated her recent adventures, glossing over some of the gorier details. Anime wiped away a tear when told of Arthur’s sacrifice.

Christian proposed a toast --”To Arthur.” He and the women raised their drinks.

The adults sat in respectful silence for awhile. The children played nearby. The youngsters’ laughter proved infectious and the mood at the picnic table began to lighten once more.

“You have to come up to the house and get your vampire costume,” Anime said to Shadow, “You can change before it gets dark.”

“Great,” Shadow replied, “What about you? Are you wearing yours? It’ll be the return of the toothsome twosome.”

“No, I’m afraid not. I’ve agreed to play Sandy this year.”

Shadow laughed loudly and raised her beer in salute. “Halloween Hellfire!” she declared.

From the context Christian assumed this to be a popular toast for the occasion. The reference to “Sandy” puzzled him, however. Anime filled him in.

Sandra Popplevich was the name of the congresswoman whose home had been burned in the Halloween Hellfire episode back in `81. Over the years she became the basis for “Sandy,” an evil witch character in tales told to children. Now on Halloween in communities throughout the Border Region a local woman would dress as Sandy. The children would chase her around and she would pretend to hide. A dummy in similar attire would then be brought forth and set ablaze.

“It’s become a big tradition,” Anime concluded, “And all the kids love it.”

Later that afternoon the group adjourned to Anime’s home. It was located in a semi-rural area not far from the center of town. Shadow and Christian rode there on horseback. Anime and the kids drove in the family horse-and-buggy.

Upon arrival Shadow treated Lois and Margo to the promised pony rides on Incitatus. She then stabled her horse with the others in a small barn to the rear of Anime’s property. After providing the horses with some feed, she rejoined her companions in the house.

Anime was entertaining Christian in the living room. As Shadow came in she was telling him more about life in Tionesta; “As far as essentials are concerned, we’re totally self-sufficient. If we were cut off from the outside, we’d be okay. All of our power is wind and solar. People have been experimenting with wind and solar energy since the late 20th and early 21st Centuries, but it wasn’t produced on a large scale. Advances in the technology finally made it feasible. With communities that are energy self-sufficient, the power doesn’t have to be transmitted over long distance. So you don’t have this vast complicated infrastructure that can collapse like a house of cards.”

Shadow yawned loudly to get their attention. “Glad to see you’re fascinating our guest. If either of want me, I’ll be upstairs getting changed.” So saying, she disappeared up the stairs.

She came down a short time later. Christian turned at the sound of her footstep on the stair and actually caught his breath at the sight of her. Time seemed to slow and she appeared to drift down the stairs in slow motion.

Shadow was dressed to impress. She wore a tight black merry widow corselet. Its heavily-wired cups lifted the ivory globes of her breasts, thrusting them out. Garters from the corselet extended past black panties to uphold stockings woven in an intricate spider-web pattern. On her slender feet she wore open-toed shoes with high stiletto heels. Long satin opera gloves of a deep burgundy hue extended past her elbows. Draped about her shoulders was a black velvet hooded cloak with a red satin lining.

When Christian found his tongue he stammered, “I-I thought you were supposed to be a vampire.”

“I’m a sexy vampire!” she said playfully.

“You look great,” he admitted.

“Thanks. But I still have some bruises on my face make-up won’t cover. So I’m wearing this.”

Shadow produced a mask from somewhere. It was a grotesque affair constructed of several segments of stiff molded leather fastened together with small brass rivets. The segments --smooth domed forehead, cheekbones, upper jaw-- fitted together seamlessly to form the face of a glossy black leather skull. Christian watched uneasily as Shadow slipped the mask on. An elastic band encircling her head held it in place. Most of her face was covered by the skull mask. Only her eyes, nose and chin remained visible. She raised the hood of the cloak.

“I can’t see your face,” Christian objected.

“So look at my tits.”


After dusk they all headed back to town for the Halloween masquerade. The whole group managed to fit in Anime’s buggy for the ride down. Christian thought the kids looked cute in their costumes; Lois as a ghost and Margo as a black cat. Anime wore no costume, but a bag at her side contained her Sandy outfit for later. Shadow rode in silence. It was as though in donning cloak, hood and mask she had adopted a more somber, mysterious demeanor.

The center of town was closed to vehicular traffic due to the street fair. Anime dropped Christian and Shadow off at the outskirts of the festivities, then drove away to corral the horse and buggy. The children waved goodbye as they departed.

Night had fallen and most people at the fair were now cavorting in costume. Shadow said nothing but took Christian by the hand and led him deep into the crowds of revelers, Here there was food and drink, music and merriment. The only thing resembling this anywhere in the Confederacy was the New Orleans Mardi Gras. This seemed different and darker, however. Christian noticed that there were no funny costumes, but all the familiar figures of folklore and Gothic horror were present. And then there were the women, flaunting themselves in all manner of provocative attire. Christian, accustomed as he was to women modestly dressed, was soon sporting an erection. With an effort he avoided looking at them, and gradually it subsided.

Shadow led Christian to the town square. Here a stage had been set up and the community’s children, including Lois and Margo, were being entertained by a puppet show. In the middle of the performance a strange costumed figure came skulking onto the stage. Christian recognized Anime despite her ragged robes, pointed witch’s hat and fake hook nose. She now began to lurch about making menacing gestures. The puppet master reacted in mock horror. “Oh no, it’s Sandy!” he cried, “Help me, kids, help me!”

Dozens of laughing, screaming, jumping children rose up en masse and stormed the stage. “Sandy” was forced to retreat. The crowds parted to allow the youngsters to pursue the robed figure through the streets. She eventually took refuge in one of the shops along the main drag. The door locked behind her and she vanished into one of the back rooms.

Presently two large men in devil costumes emerged bearing a dummy garbed as Sandy on pitchforks. They went forth into the streets brandishing the dummy aloft. The children followed them through the cheering, jeering throngs as they returned to the town square. There a noose had been thrown over a lamppost. The neck of the dummy was placed in the noose and the mannequin was hoisted upwards. A third man in a devil costume stepped forward holding an upraised torch and set the dummy afire. Cries of “Halloween Hellfire” echoed through the crowd.

“A bit gruesome,” Christian observed.

“Let’s take a walk through Pumpkin-Land,” Shadow said in response, “It might calm your nerves.”

He did not question her as she took his hand once more and led him away. The din of the crowd faded behind them as they entered the park where they had eaten lunch that afternoon. In a meadow and along the slope of a hill the townsfolk had placed hundreds of glowing jack-o-lanterns. Pumpkins large and small had been carved into an assortment of frightful and mournful visages. The candles flickering within them cast a pale unsteady illumination, like that produced by scores of winking fireflies. Shadow and Christian were not alone. Other couples sauntered about. The total effect of the scene was one of strange, eerie, peaceful beauty.

Christian was deep in thought. This land, this Border Region, was a land a man like Arthur had watered with his blood. Christian now felt that he could make a home here. He thought of Anime. Had she not once been as wild as Shadow? Now she was wife to some lucky man.

When he was ready, he spoke.

“Shadow, will you take off your mask?”


“I want to kiss you.”


She lowered her hood and removed the mask. The couple embraced and kissed passionately. Shadow was impressed; the boy was learning.

After they disengaged he said softly, “I’m planning on moving to the Border Region. I could probably make a good living in one of the city-states. I still have to go back and make my report, but then I’ll be free of obligations.”

He paused, hesitated, and then continued, “And there’s another thing. I want to marry you.”

Shadow was a little surprised, but only a little. I’ll bet you do, she thought, We screwed out of wedlock, and that would give it a kind of retroactive legitimacy. Nice try, Church-boy.

“Not so fast,” she replied. She preferred doing things her way and she wanted to test him, so she said, “You can start off being my personal fuck-toy and we’ll work it from there. How’s that?’

He had to think about it, but not for long. “That’ll be fine.”

“Good. So when do you think you’ll be heading home?

“I’ll be heading down the to the Confederacy in a day or two. Once there I can give my report and get my affairs in order. Then I’ll be back.

“But as to when I’m heading home, I’m already home. Home is here. In the Border Region. With you.”

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Guns of the Border Region -- Chapter Seven


[Copyright 2009 by Charles Hoffman]

This isn’t over by a long shot. Such was Pops’ assessment of the situation when informed of the gory details of Shadow’s encounters with Karla and Sailor Clanton. He kept his thoughts to himself for the time being, however. There would be time enough to deal with matters and make future plans on the morrow. For this evening, he busied himself preparing a hearty supper. He knew Shadow and Christian would sleep better with a good hot meal in their bellies. He wanted them to be refreshed and rested when they drew their plans for the trouble that lay ahead.

Shadow and Christian retired to Pop’s bedroom once again. There Christian unrolled his sleeping bag by the bed. So we’re back to that, Shadow thought.

“It’s better this way, at least for now,” Christian said by way of explanation, “I know I let you down.”

At first light, Pops set out for Leon’s cabin. Leon and Arthur had returned there on the same day Shadow and Christian had gone to Eden. Pops needed to inform them of recent developments and to learn if they had caught wind of any news that might have come drifting down the trails from the north.

Back at Pops’ cabin Shadow and Christian took turns freshening up in the bathhouse. Shadow went first.

While Christian made use of the facility, Shadow selected a change of clothes from a trunk of her belongings left in Pops’ keeping. Standing before a mirror she admired her reflection clad in the late Sailor Clanton’s red mesh tank top. This thing shows pretty much everything I got, she mused, It would look just hot enough if I wore it over one of Steffy’s black bras. But there’s no way I could fill one of those out. Upon further reflection, she just decided to get rid of it. She really didn’t need any reminders of Sailor Clanton after all.

She also decided that it was getting a little chilly for crotch-huggers. She switched those for a pair of waist-high leather pants. The top she selected was a simple black sleeveless t-shirt with a scoop neck. Shadow completed her ensemble with a new pair of unadorned wrist gauntlets that covered half the length of her forearms, furnishing protection and stability for her gun and knife hands. Now she felt ready for business.


It was late afternoon when Pops returned with Leon and Arthur. Pain’s bark alerted Shadow as they rode up. She greeted Leon and Arthur with warm hugs. Christian couldn’t help but notice that she seemed especially glad to see the latter. Presently they all gathered around Pops’ table to discuss matters. Leon and Arthur had already been given a summary of events. Now Shadow related a fuller account.

“This touches us all,” she told the group, “So you have a right to know everything, and that means the ugly stuff.” She then proceeded to narrate her recent misadventures, omitting only the tryst with Christian. As she told of her abduction and rape by Clanton, she felt the mood in the room grow grim. She noted the firm set of Leon’s jaw and the outrage blazing in Arthur’s eyes. Most of all, she was acutely aware of the tremor of Pops’ tightly clenched fists. It was as though he was fighting to control their independent urge to rend and smash. Shadow hastened to the part of her tale that concerned her bloody revenge. She sensed the group’s mood shift again in light of that revelation and their growing awareness of her ability to give payback with liberal interest. All the men, except for Pops, grew very quiet and still after glimpsing this frightening side of her.

“Anyway,” she concluded, “There’s more trouble on the way. Sorry, guys. The shit-storm about to come down is all my fault.”

“That’s bullshit,” Leon objected, “This started when Clanton trespassed on my property, shot up my home and wrecked our still. He might not have actually been trying to kill Arthur and me, but it could have happened real easy.”

“Maybe so,” Shadow admitted, “But there was no actual bloodshed until I got into the act. I went up the trail and left five bodies on the ground before I came back down.”

Christian didn’t hesitate to correct her, “That’s just four bodies, actually. One of them was my doing, God forgive me.”

Shadow favored him with a warm smile, “Thanks, Quick Draw.”

“And Karla got dead by her own choice,” Leon added, eager to offer encouragement, “We heard about that the next day. You didn’t go for a weapon until she did. There were any number of people there who saw it and will swear to it.”

“That’s all well and good, Leon. But what I did to Sailor Clanton’s boys was sheer murder.”

Christian spoke up again, his voice uncharacteristically stern, “Shadow, I was there and didn’t lift a finger to stop you. If you’re guilty of something, so am I. But I’ll never forget how I found you.” He vividly recalled the sight of her bound, raped, flogged and pistol-whipped. The others could see the gun barrel-shaped bruise that marred her face. “They would hang in any state in the Confederacy,” Christian concluded.

Now it was Pops’ turn. “Sailor Clanton has been running amok for years. There was bound to be a bullet with his name on it sooner or later. I say good riddance. The world becomes a little more like Hell every time an asshole gets his way.”

“Who actually knows that you killed Clanton?” Arthur asked Shadow.

“Just you guys,” she said, “But everyone in Eden knows I was looking for him. And somebody would have investigated the burnt cabin. The smoke could be seen for miles.”

“So what kind of trouble are we looking at now?” asked Christian.

“Feud,” Pops said simply. And to Leon and Shadow, that one word spoke volumes. It told of bloody ambushes, of furtive shapes skulking through the night, shots in the dark fired at silhouetted figures in cabin windows, men treading softly and looking ever over their shoulders. It told of creeping paranoia, fear, suspicion and death.
Once started a feud could drag on for years, even decades. Many people could be drawn into it before it was all over. People in isolated frontier regions grew to depend on one another in ways inconceivable to those dwelling in a more civilized milieu. Ties between members of large extended families remained strong. Bonds of friendship were forged of steel. Therefore, if someone on the periphery of a feud --say, the friend of a relative of one of the main combatants-- were to fall, then one of his friends could take up the vendetta and the whole bloody business would ripple outwards. Pops, Leon and Shadow had all spent enough time in the New Settlements to be familiar with such strife, but none of them had actually become embroiled in a feud. Until now.

Pops explained the grim nature of mountain feuds to Christian and Arthur. They both sat silently and absorbed it all. After digesting it all for a moment, Christian asked, “So who’s going to be on the warpath?”

“Mad Dog Clanton,” Pops grunted. The words seemed to hang in the air like the rumble of distant thunder. “That’s Sailor’s old man,” he added after a meaningful pause, “And he is one nasty son of a bitch.”

This was an understatement. Mad Dog Clanton was a veritable devil. He had been likened to a walking mass of muscle and rage. The elder Clanton was not quite as tall as Pops, but more broadly built and decades younger. Though powerful, his physique was not comely and symmetrical like that of his son Sailor or his rival, Pops O’Rourke. In places he looked almost grotesquely overdeveloped, his terrible thews bunched and knotted like those of a gorilla. Adding to his bestial appearance was the unkempt shock of thick black hair and a bristling black beard. Wiry black hair covered his massive chest, broad back and wide shoulders as well. When his face was contorted by rage, as it frequently was, it was enough to make demons take fright. Mad Dog Clanton would not have looked out of place lurking in a cave and wielding a stone axe.

Pops thought of Mad Dog Clanton as an atavism, a throwback to some dark lost age. He was an outcast from civilization. Even in the wilder towns such as Weirton he would have been shot dead had he chosen to linger there. The more organized criminal elements would have scant tolerance for such a loose cannon rolling around on their deck. In areas and communities still struggling to rebuild atop the ruins of war, he would be even less welcome. But the New Settlements were home to those who, for whatever reason, had chosen to turn their backs on everything that had come before and hew out a rude new world in the midst of virgin forest.

It was in this backwoods setting that Mad Dog Clanton had made his home. A grim, towering figure, he could win a dominant position in such a society. He assumed the mantle of a lord and raised his eldest son, Sailor, in the manner of a prince. Sailor’s Adonis-like good looks had been an immense source of pride to his brutish father. Mad Dog especially enjoyed basking in the reflected glory of his son’s sexual conquests. He had egged Sailor on, had urged him to take what he wanted, had fostered a sense of entitlement in his son by asserting his “God-given right” to this or that. Mad Dog had no small hand in making Sailor Clanton the monster he became.

Pops said little of this to the others, but was careful to emphasize just how tough and dangerous the elder Clanton was. “They don’t call him Mad Dog for nothing.”

“So how much trouble is this guy going to be?” Arthur asked, “I mean, who would side with someone like that? Who’s backing him up?”

“The bad elements mostly. The McCleans, the Martenses, the Wolanskis.”

“Anybody on our side?” It was an innocent enough question, but it evoked a strong response from Pops.

“I’ll be damned if there ain’t!” Pops replied testily, as though his integrity had been impugned, “I’ll walk right out of here and head straight into Hell if my name doesn’t carry more weight in these settlements than some piece of psycho scum like Mad Dog Clanton.”

“So who can we count on for certain?”

“The Woods, the Nixons, the Parkers. The Gormans for sure.”

The latter were distant kin of Shadow’s. Centuries earlier the Gormans had drifted south and west and finally settled in West Texas. After the War, most of the Southwest seceded from the Old Union and rejoined Mexico. The Gormans then relocated once again, this time to the Border Region.

“So what do we do now?” Christian asked.

“We assemble our allies,” Pops told him, “I expect that’s what Mad Dog Clanton is doing even as we speak. So there’s no time to lose. I’ll be on the road first thing tomorrow. I’m going to travel through the Settlements and talk with those people I mentioned, and some others. There are plenty who are spoiling for a fight with Clanton and his ilk. Others will offer support and backup. I intend to bring as many as possible into the fold. Leon and Arthur will accompany me. Christian and Shadow will stay here with Pain to guard the cabin. I suggest we all turn in early. It’s going to be a busy day.”


Pops slept in his own bed that night. The others bedded down in their sleeping bags. Before retiring, Pops took a moment to reflect.

I swear I don’t know if the New Settlements will ever amount to anything, he thought. What have we wrought here? A log-walled, dirt floor hell? Why did we do it? There was plenty of challenging work to be done in the years after the War. Most anywhere in the Border Region, in the city-states, in the rural areas, a man could carve out a niche for himself in any number of new societies springing up from the ashes. Why take to the deep woods with axes? Why take it all the way back to frontier days?

“A clean break with the past” was an expression that had been bandied about often. But Pops had been well aware, even at the outset, that Americans had always tended to romanticize the frontier life of the early pioneers. Yet such a life must have entailed no small measure of dark, grim, primitive squalor. Perhaps that was why the New Settlements drew dark, grim, primitive men like Mad Dog Clanton. As for Pops, he had been a restless giant seeking to grapple with the greatest challenge a brave new world had to offer.

Still had plenty of juice back then, even though it was only twenty-odd years ago, he recalled. Can’t believe Steffy went along with it, considering the world she came from. Still, she had that adventurous spirit.

The trouble was, Pops mused, that the New Settlements may have started as crude clusters of log cabins, but they shouldn’t remain as such. Maybe if certain undesirable elements --for instance, Mad Dog Clanton-- were taken down, the Settlements might yet amount to something. But a bloody protracted feud in these hills would only make matters worse. Pops did have a plan for ending the feud before it really got rolling. The only problem was that it probably wasn’t going to be pretty.


Pops arose during the darkness that foreruns the dawn. He, Leon and Arthur set out shortly after the first glimmer of daylight.

Christian and Shadow remained behind with Pain. At first a tense awkward silence hung between the man and woman. Christian attempted to engage in idle conversation. Shadow remained sullen. Gradually, however, she warmed to his boyish charm. She relaxed and began to engage in some small talk. It still seemed like something was bothering her, but he didn’t ask what it was. Following a lull in the conversation, she let him know.

“Christian, I want you out of here,” she said bluntly, “This is no place for you. Bad shit is about to go down. It could make the trouble you’ve seen so far look like a church picnic. You can get yourself killed or really, really messed up.”

Christian paused for a moment to digest this before raising any objection. At length he said, “But I’m a part of this too. The blood isn’t only on your hands. I killed that guy Chester.”

“Chester was a nobody. No one will give a shit about him. The riff-raff around here shoot and stab each other all the time. You saved my life. You’ve done more than enough.”

Another pause. Christian seemed to choose his words carefully before he spoke. “That may very well be true. But I can’t leave you. I cast my lot with you when I came to the New Settlements. I would not have left you before, and now, well…honor demands that I stay.”

Shadow rolled her eyes at the last part. “Okay Galahad, have it your way. But don’t say I didn’t warn you.”


It was early afternoon when Pops and the others came riding back at the head of a dozen men on horseback, all heavily armed. Shadow recognized members of the Nixon and Gorman clans. The men dismounted. The newcomers began to unload gear from some spare horses and to pitch tents here and there on Pops’ property.

Pops briefed Shadow and Christian concerning recent developments. “These men are solidly in our camp. Still others are out on the roads spreading the word. I’m hoping to herd as many as possible on our side, packing as much heat as possible. It’s not that I’m preparing for slaughter. On the contrary, I hope to avoid or minimize bloodshed. But it’s advisable to negotiate from a position of strength. It’s the only thing a man like Clanton understands. I mean to confront him with a really formidable show of force. My plan is to set up a meeting with Clanton. Douglas Parker is riding up to his territory under a flag of truce, with some tough hombres to watch his back. Doug’s a good man, respected by all. Leave it to him to arrange the meeting. Once it’s set, we’ll ride up in force. These men will go with us, and our other allies will muster at the location point.”

“And where might that be?” asked Christian.

“Jericho. That’s in the place we around here call Heaven. Neither side will hold any special advantage.”

For Christian’s benefit, Pops explained the significance of those place names. Jericho was a log cabin settlement similar to Eden, only bigger. Its largest structure was sufficient to serve as a meeting hall. Because of its central location, Jericho was utilized as a gathering place for residents from throughout the settlements to address common concerns.

Both Jericho and Eden lay within the area locals referred to as “Heaven.” When Westsylvania seceded from Pennsylvania, the old Commonwealth fractured along county lines. Heaven was a notable exception. It was carved out of the southwestern corner of Centre County by mountaineers who refused to abide by the county’s Islamic majority and refused to locate further west. Authorities in the sparsely-settled county eventually abandoned the area. One mountaineer referred to their new domain as “a little piece of Heaven” and the name stuck. The New Settlements were lawless enough, but Heaven was wholly without legal authority.

Christian was incredulous. “And this is where you hope to avoid a bloodbath? I’m sorry, Mr. O’Rourke, but this all sounds like a blueprint for disaster.”

Pops chuckled in spite of the gravity of the situation. The lad had a point. There might have been a very slim microscopic chance that Mad Dog Clanton could be persuaded to reason had both sides suffered casualties. But the bloodshed had been one-sided --thus far. The best Pops could hope for would be to get Clanton to agree to settle the matter by single combat or one pitched battle between groups of chosen warriors. At least that way the strife would remain small and short-lived.

Pops admitted as much to Shadow and Christian. The latter remained skeptical. “I still don’t think this meeting or council or whatever you care to call it is a good idea. You’ll have all these angry men waving guns around. One shot and the whole thing turns into a massacre. I mean, what’s to stop it?”

“The Amish,” Pops replied, smiling once more at Christian’s look of astonishment. “We’ll be arranging for some of the Amish Elders to preside over the meeting. This is customary when arbitrating disputes. The Amish are held in high esteem in rural Westsylvania. They were instrumental in teaching folks to become self-sufficient during those horrible years just after the War. You’re too young to remember. A good bit of the eastern part of the Old Union was buried in rubble back then. Just ruin and utter devastation. But it was the Amish that helped survivors get back on their feet. Today, they’re untouchable. None will raise a hand against the least of them; the person who did so would be totally ostracized, even by family members. Now by tradition the counsel of their Elders is sought. Even a fiend like Mad Dog Clanton will respect that tradition.”


A messenger came riding into the O’Rourke camp at daybreak the following morn. The rider dismounted. Pops strode forth to greet him. The men clasped hands.

“Good to see you, Doug,” Pops said warmly. He introduced the man, Douglas Parker, to Christian and Arthur. “So what’s the good word?” Pops asked.

“It’s all been set up,” the man replied, “The meeting will convene in Jericho as soon as everybody’s there. The Amish have agreed to send a couple of emissaries.”

After breakfast, the O’Rourke faction broke camp and prepared for the trek to Jericho. Leon and Arthur loaded the wagon with provisions and some items Pops supplied. The dog Pain rode in the wagon. When everything was in readiness they all moved out. Pops rode at the head of the column.

They rode north to Jericho passing through Eden. In Eden the sullen residents peered silently from cabins or stood about on the unpaved streets to watch the horsemen go by. Along the way the column was joined by others who had come up separate trails.

The O’Rourke party arrived in Jericho early in the afternoon. Unlike Eden, where dark woodlands pressed in ominously on all sides, Jericho stood in the midst of a wide clearing. Its rough-hewn buildings were more numerous and better constructed than those of the smaller communities. There were several corrals for horses. Pops led his riders towards one of these. He saw another group assembling at a corral on the other side of the settlement.

“Those would be Clanton’s men,” Pops informed Christian and Arthur, “But I don’t see Clanton himself.”

Before long O’Rourke’s group was joined by other allies who had come down from the north. These included members of the Wood and Nixon clans and their kin. Still others had come to Jericho. These were of old Pennsylvania German extraction like the Huffmans and the Holcrofts. They were sympathetic to O’Rourke or neutral, but definitely no friends of the Clantons. When all were assembled, the O’Rourke faction numbered almost a hundred men and a few women. All were heavily armed, toting M-16s, Uzis, AK-47s and various other assault weapons including some very advanced models that had seen service in the War. This was in addition to the sidearms that all wore on their belts. The Clanton group was similarly outfitted. To Christian it seemed like half the guns of the Border Region were in the hands of these men.

By Pops’ reckoning his group outnumbered Clanton’s people about three to one. Well, that’s good, he thought, Makes it less likely that Clanton will try to turn this into a gun battle.

Pain leapt down from Leon’s wagon and trotted over to Pops. The beast growled as Pops forced it to submit to wearing a chain and collar. “Easy, boy,” Pops said soothingly while stroking the animal, “We just don’t want anyone around her getting antsy.”

Elsewhere in the corral Shadow was introducing Christian and Arthur to a young girl of perhaps nineteen years. This was an attractive redhead named Cathy Gorman. Though not quite in Shadow or Karla’s league, Cathy could hold her own in most any kind of a brawl.

“You’ve been holding out on me,” Cathy said cheerfully, “Keeping all these handsome men to yourself.” Cathy seemed especially attracted to Arthur, but he was uncertain of how to respond to the girl’s flirtation. “I hope to see you again soon,“ she told him, offering encouragement when they parted. It was the only light moment of a very grim day.

Pops’ conversation with other of the newcomers was of an altogether more somber nature. As he had suspected, Chester, Mike and Lyle were as completely forgotten as though they had never existed. On the other hand, the popular Sailor Clanton and Karla were already being accorded the near-mythological status of Tristan and Isolde, Antony and Cleopatra, and other such star-crossed lovers. This did not bode well.

“Still no sign of Mad Dog,” Pops muttered as he scanned the enemy camp. Probably waiting to make an entrance when things gets started. And he’s probably been told that I’ve arrived. It was then that he noticed some activity. The man had started to file out of the corral and head towards the settlement’s large central structure.

“It’s on,” Pops informed his allies, “Let’s go.”

The O’Rourke contingent now left the area about the corral where they had been congregating. A few men were left behind to guard the horses. Pops left Pain behind with Cathy Gorman, who had known the dog since he was a puppy. Everybody else began to make their way towards the central building. They moved slowly and warily, keeping pace with the men approaching from the opposite direction.
Jericho’s central building was a massive structure solidly built of sturdy timbers. Even from the outside it was apparent that the structure housed a single large room intended to serve as a gathering place for meetings, celebrations and other communal events. The building was rectangular in shape, with sets of double doors on either of the longer sides. It could hold about a hundred people. That meant that a number of those who had arrived in Jericho today would have to wait outside and observe the proceedings through windows and open doorways.

Clanton’s men had already begun to enter the hall by the time O’Rourke’s group reached it. Douglas Parker insisted on going in first accompanied by some formidable companions to make sure that none lie in wait to bushwhack Pops or Shadow. Pops saw the wisdom of deferring to his friend’s prudent judgment. A large number of his party preceded Pops into the hall.

Inside the hall local residents had made arrangements for the meeting. Two rows of benches had been set up with an aisle running between them. Clanton’s group had already taken seats on one side of the aisle and O’Rourke’s people were now filling the opposite row. Locals and other neutral parties occupied standing room in the rear. At the front of the hall a table had been placed on a raised platform along with two chairs reserved for the Amish Elders.

Pops O’Rourke entered the hall flanked by Leon and Arthur, followed by Christian and Shadow. Muttering in the Clanton section died down as the giant O’Rourke strode in, but started anew when Shadow glided in after him, clad all in black, her duster billowing out behind her. A slender man rose and pointed an accusing finger.

“That’s her!” he cried. It was Danny Martense, a high-strung youth with a reputation for being a hothead. “That’s the witch! That’s the witch that slew Sailor and Karla! Devil spawn! Devil spawn!”

This was bad. It was just the sort of thing that could turn an already irate crowd into a howling mob shrieking for blood. One spark in that tinderbox could ignite a conflagration. This had to be stopped, and fast.

In the space of a second O’Rourke stepped up to confront the youth, covering the distance with a few long strides. A single mild blow from Pops’ sledge-like fist was sufficient to knock Danny Martense back onto his seat with a fractured jaw.

“Sit down and shut up!” Pops roared. He raised his clenched fists high. The gesture was a signal, understood by all, both that he held no weapon and that he would take on any of them mano a mano. He transfixed the crowd with his volcanic gaze. Pops didn’t know what to expect, but at least he had shifted the focus from Shadow back to himself. For a tense moment the tableau held. Then another spoke.

“Let everyone settle down and be seated.” It was a rich, clear solemn voice laden with calm authority.

All heads, including Pops’, turned toward the speaker. Two tall old men clad in the somber garb of the Amish stood framed in the doorway. Both were ancient, with long white beards reaching to their waists, but stood as straight and sturdy as oaks. They assumed their appointed place behind the table on the platform. The Elders had arrived.

Pops and his companions seated themselves in the front row of their section. “My God,” Pops said in a hushed tone, “That’s Abner and Ebenezer.”

Catching the note of awe in his voice, Arthur asked, “So are they, like, pretty big?”

“There are none bigger.”

Pops knew whereof he spoke. Yet his simple statement to Arthur failed to do justice to the true stature of Abner and Ebenezer among the Amish of Westsylvania. They were much more than community elders; they were patriarchs and living legends. Each had taken on the mantle of Moses during a latter-day Exodus.

After the War, the Special Election of ‘81 established Islamic law in Pennsylvania. This in turn sparked the Pennsylvania Uprising that led to the secession of Westsylvania. However, the Amish of Lancaster County and environs remained isolated in the midst of what had been the eastern half of the old Commonwealth. If they remained there they would be obliged to accept Islamic rule. Abner had taken the initiative in planning and successfully orchestrating their relocation. He led his people westward into the mountains.

Ebenezer had assumed a similar role, only in his case the circumstances were more complicated. In addition to those in Lancaster and the eastern part of the state, there were Amish enclaves in northwestern Pennsylvania as well. Most were centered around Spartansburg in Crawford County. Had Westsylvania come to include all the western counties of Pennsylvania the Amish there would have been able to continue to dwell there as before. Their brethren from Lancaster might even have joined them there. But as fate would have it, the northwestern counties became the subject of controversy.

Westsylvania secession was ultimately achieved without bloodshed, but not without compromise. Secession leaders met with government officials in the state capital of Harrisburg to hammer out an agreement allowing for a peaceful separation. A major point of contention concerned the northwestern counties of Erie, Crawford, Warren and McKean. Political and religious leaders were already looking to the day when the Islamic States would achieve full independence. It was important to them that those four counties remain part of Pennsylvania to form a corridor linking the eastern Islamic states with those in the Midwest. In this way the future nation would encompass a single geographically contiguous area. Secession leaders agreed to this compromise in order to settle the matter while they still held a strong position.

This development did not go over well in some quarters. Although the secession movement originated in the southwestern portion of the state, it had ardent supporters in the northwestern counties. The most militant resided in the town of North East, located in the northeastern portion of the state’s small panhandle that extended to Lake Erie. Secessionists there complained that the movement’s leaders had betrayed them. Both state officials and movement leaders pointed out that the majority of Western Pennsylvania’s Muslims resided in or near Erie; therefore the compromise made sense. In any event the disgruntled numbered too few to mount an effective counter-movement. They ultimately had little choice but to relocate. A number of them opted for the hardy frontier life of the New Settlements.

Thus the Amish of Crawford County faced the same dilemma as their brethren far to the east in Lancaster County. Ebenezer took on the leadership role in their subsequent migration. During the following years Ebenezer and Abner worked together to establish new Amish enclaves along the eastern fringe of the Border Region. As patriarchs they became the stuff of legend. It was as though Pharaoh’s daughter had plucked twins from the bulrushes.

The significance of their presence here and now at this meeting was not lost on Pops. It meant that the Amish Elders were taking the recent turn of events very seriously indeed. They knew as well as he did the potential of a protracted feud to rob the Settlements of some of their best blood, leaving women and orphans to wail for their dead.

When all were seated Abner said, “Let the proceedings begin.”

Already there was an objection. “But they cain’t begin,” someone shouted from the Clanton section, “Mad Dog …I mean, Mr. Clanton… ain’t here yet.”

As if on cue a ruckus suddenly arose in the rear of the meeting hall. Heads turned towards the source of the commotion. A small group of newcomers was making its loud way through the rear entrance. At the group’s center was a massive bear-like man clad in buckskins. A wild tangle of thick black hair hung to his shoulders and his heavy beard was split by teeth bared in a perpetual snarl. His small bloodshot eyes darted about, habitually scanning for enemies. The man bellowed curses as he strode down the center aisle. Mad Dog Clanton, for this could be none other, had arrived.

“Where be the bitch that murdered my boy?” he demanded.

Shadow shot to her feet; she hid from no man. “Right here, asshole!” she spat back, “Your ‘boy’ kidnapped me and raped me.”

“Is this true?” Ebenezer the Elder asked sternly.

Clanton growled but held his temper. He was outnumbered and outgunned by his foes, and the authority of the Elders was almost tangible. “We have only her word for that!” he snarled.

“Not so!” A new voice rang out. It was Christian. He rose and took his place alongside Shadow. “I saw Sailor Clanton take her away. I found her tied to his bed after he violated her. I swear to it by God and my Lord Jesus Christ, and I do not make such an oath in vain!”

Christian’s voice carried the ring of truth. His tone of righteous sincerity evoked nods among the listeners, including some in the Clanton camp. Even Mad Dog himself was taken aback slightly. He was far from mollified, however. He switched to a different tact. Grasping the first thing that came to mind, he stabbed an accusing finger at Shadow.

“You took the law into your own hands!”

Some of Mad Dog’s supporters had to stifle cynical laughter. Shadow grew visibly angry. She seemed ready to launch herself at Mad Dog Clanton despite being physically outmatched.

“There is no law in Heaven!” she roared, “And what passes for it in the rest of the Settlements is a joke. And you know it.”

“What I know is that you’re a mass murderer. You murdered that fine woman Karla as well as my boy!”

“That’s a lie!” This was shouted from one the neutral factions standing in the rear of the hall. “It was a fair fight!” exclaimed one of the men, “I was there and saw the whole thing. Shadow didn’t go for her bowie until Karla did.”

“Enough of this.” Now it was Abner who spoke. At the sound of his voice the others fell silent. He turned to Pops. “Mr. O’Rourke, it was you who arranged this meeting. What is it you hope to accomplish?”

Shadow and Christian took their seats. Pops rose and addressed the Elders. “I hope to forestall further bloodshed,” he told them, “It seems insane to me that this began as a dispute over whiskey. As all know, there are no laws pertaining to the home manufacture and sale of spirits in these parts. Sailor Clanton wrecked a still on the property of my good friend Leon Jackson and fired shots into his home. His goal was to eliminate competition in the moonshine trade. He admitted all this to Miss Lane while she was his captive. Miss Lane was Mr. Jackson’s partner. She went in search of Sailor Clanton in the hopes of talking things out. For her pains she had to defend herself in a fight to the death, then was kidnapped and raped.”

The Elders mulled this over. Ebenezer addressed Mad Dog, “Mr. Clanton, death is harsh but so is the outrage of a woman. Would ye be willing to forego vengeance?”

“I’ll be damned if I will!” Clanton thundered, “Beware, Connor O’Rourke! I mean to have your hide and that of your girl.”

Pops face betrayed no emotion, but inwardly he felt relief. Had Clanton readily agreed to a truce, the situation would have been decidedly more dangerous. There was no chance whatsoever that Mad Dog Clanton would keep such a promise. O’Rourke and his friends would be in constant peril. Their lives would be spent looking over their shoulders. None would know when shots would be fired from the dark. Blood would call for blood, and on it would drag. The feud would cast its gloomy pall over all. No, it was better that Clanton declared his intentions openly. This gave O’Rourke the chance he had been hoping for all along. As he saw it, his best option lie in settling his differences with Clanton with one quick, decisive bloodletting.
In response to Mad Dog Clanton’s wild oath, Pops said simply, “I’ll not have my people dragged into endless feuding. I propose we settle this once and for all, the way our ancestors in the old country did.”

Clanton eyed Pops warily. “Are ye callin’ for a faction fight?”

“I am.”

Faction fights were common in 19th Century Ireland. These were pitched battles between rival clans, gangs or communities. A faction fight could erupt over property disputes, debts or various sorts of grudges. Weapons usually consisted of sticks, stones and similar primitive implements, although the use of swords and even guns was not unheard of. There was a certain structure to the battle, the main rule being that the sides be evenly numbered. Hundreds or even thousands of combatants could be involved. The largest faction fight on record took place in County Kerry in June 1834. Three thousand fought that day. When it was all over two hundred of them lie dead. Irish immigrants to America were known to engage in faction fighting. In old New York the Dead Rabbits and rival gangs fought for turf in the Five Points section.

Mad Dog Clanton readily agreed to a faction fight. Ever the schemer, he saw a rare opportunity to utterly crush his rival O’Rourke. Then, unopposed, he could pretty much call the shots in the New Settlements. He would be a king ruling from a palace of logs.

Pops addressed the Elders once more. “There can be no peace between me and Clanton. I see long years of feuding ahead. That’s something to be avoided. I propose to settle it once and for all in a day. Clanton’s people will fight mine. All will abide by the outcome.”

Abner conferred briefly with Ebenezer. It was Ebenezer who spoke. “It would be a vain hope for you to forsake your blood-mad ways. If violence there must be, let it be as a summer storm that passes swiftly. Better that than unending feud.”

Pops turned back to Clanton. “We will have our battle. How many can you field?”

“There be only thirty I can count on for sure.”

“Then I’ll meet you with thirty of my best. Weapons?”

“Blades and bludgeons!”

“Very well. I call time and place. Bender’s Field. Noon, the day after tomorrow.” Bender’s Field was a central location not far from Jericho. Both parties would travel an equal distance to reach it. A full day would give them plenty of time to prepare.

“I will meet you on Bender’s Field,” Mad Dog Clanton growled, “And then I will see you in Hell!”


Two days later the factions gathered on Bender’s Field. A fog hung over the field as the hosts assembled throughout the morning. As the noon hour approached the fog cleared and the clouds parted. The day was warm and fine.

The factions had formed staging areas at opposite ends of the field. In O’Rourke’s camp, Christian found Shadow practicing with a curious looking weapon. It consisted of two hardwood sticks just over a foot long joined by a short length of cord. Apparently it was designed to be used as a flail. Shadow held one of the sticks and used it to whirl the other about. She whipped the sticks around faster and faster, switching from hand to hand. Christian asked her what the weapon was called.

“This? It’s a nunchaku,” she said, “It’s an Asian weapon like the manriki-gusari I gave you. Haven’t you ever seen old Bruce Lee movies?”

Christian explained that in the Christian South the Asian martial arts were associated with pagan religions like Buddhism and therefore not widely taught. As for movies, his parents had frowned upon violent entertainment.

“What in God’s name are you doing here, Church-boy?” Shadow exclaimed in exasperation, “I told you before to stay the hell out of this.”

“I don’t recall you asking Arthur to leave,” Christian replied.

“Arthur’s Border Region. He lives in the Settlements. He has a stake in what goes on here.”

“Well, so do I,” Christian said. He looked at her meaningfully.

Shadow rolled her eyes. “Oh, all right. Go see Pops and get outfitted with a weapon. And if you get your head bashed in, don’t come crying to me.”

Christian wandered over to a wagon where Pops was standing with some of the Gormans and the Woods. O’Rourke was clad as Christian had first seen him --grey tank top, jeans, knee-high leather moccasins. With his massive physique and long white hair, he once again reminded Christian of some pagan god of mythology.

“Good morning, Mr. O’Rourke,” Christian said casually, as though they were meeting for breakfast, “I guess I’ll be needing a weapon.”

“Glad to have you with us, son.” Unlike Shadow, Pops made no attempt to dissuade Christian. That meant a lot to the younger man. “We’ll try to make short work of this.”

Pops rummaged through an assortment of weapons he had in his wagon. He presented Christian with an axe handle.

“The axe handle is a more versatile weapon than the axe itself,” Pops explained, “Better balance. Much easier to wield. You can strike with either end. Also, you can thrust with it as well as swing it.”

Christian practiced with the axe handle for a few minutes and seemed to get the hang of it. Curious, he asked, “What sort of weapon will you be carrying, Mr. O’Rourke?”

Pops showed him a stout black walking stick with a knobby head.

“This is a shillelagh, cut from an Irish blackthorn stem. It’s light, but hard as iron. I actually have several. Originally a shillelagh was a short cudgel about the length of a police baton. It was the traditional weapon of rural Ireland. In time it evolved into the blackthorn walking stick, which was socially more acceptable. Be that as it may, taking a hit from one of these is like getting hit with a piece of pipe.”

Christian watched as Pops hefted the stick and whipped it about as though striking at imaginary foes. Satisfied, Pops turned to the younger man and said, “Come. I’ll introduce you to some of the others who will be joining us today.”


Across the field, Mad Dog Clanton observed his enemies making their preparations. Near him stood a sallow youth of medium height and nondescript appearance. This was Mad Dog’s second son Joel, upon whom no one had bothered to bestow a nickname. Dull, timid, and sad, Joel had withered in the shadow of his adored older brother.

“Do you think we can whip ‘em, Pa?” Joel asked.

“Shet up!” Mad Dog growled, “To think that Sailor’s gone and you’re still here. Just do your part when it comes to avenging your brother.”

“I will, Pa,” Joel said meekly.

Mad Dog wasn’t listening. He was focused on the battle looming ahead. He had stripped to the waist, exposing chest and arms as hairy as those of a gorilla. In his eager hand he gripped his weapon of choice. This was a tomahawk cut in one piece from a sheet of steel, the handle wrapped in strips of leather. Mad Dog customarily carried it on his belt in place of the bowie knife usually worn in those parts. Now he practiced smiting blows with it.

“Today will be a day of reckoning!” he vowed, “I kill O’Rourke and that girl of his loses a man who was like a father to her. Or I kill her and O’Rourke loses a daughter. Either way one suffers a loss like the one I’ve suffered. But not for long. No, not for long. Before the day is done I’ll see both of ‘em dead!”


As the sun neared its zenith the battle lines began to form. Each faction fielded thirty combatants chosen from volunteers. Other allies of either faction retained their firearms and formed a loose perimeter about the field. Beyond the perimeter some of the frontier physicians had set up a triage unit using military field hospital equipment. Here the wounded would be received and treated.

Christian noticed Arthur standing in the O’Rourke lines, but Arthur did not seem to notice him. Arthur had a far-away look in his eyes, as though fixated on something no one else could see. He was prepared for the battle ahead. His clothing looked padded, the better to absorb the shock of blunt instruments. He wore a heavy leather jacket with metal strips attached to the left sleeve to afford him some protection against edged weapons. In his right hand he gripped a broad-bladed knife as big as a bowie, but double-edged like a dagger. The blade tapered to a diamond-sharp point. Christian had heard such a weapon referred to as an “Arkansas toothpick.”

The dog Pain remained behind with those who formed O’Rourke’s part of the perimeter. Cathy Gorman held the dog’s leash. The slim girl had no trouble keeping the beast in check even though the great hound outweighed her; she had doted on the animal since it was a puppy. Just before the battle commenced, Pops told her, “If anyone pulls a gun or does anything dirty…unleash Pain.”


At high noon the thing got underway. There was no pre-arranged signal; everyone just knew it was time. The lines advanced towards one another slowly at first, stalking grimly forward, then began to pick up speed as they closed distance. There was no yelling yet. The factions closed on one another in stony silence.

It was Arthur who drew first blood. He abruptly broke from the pack and ran to the nearest foeman as though rushing to a long-separated sweetheart. Arthur collided with the man, who rebounded roughly from him. As the man staggered off-balance, Arthur drove the deadly Arkansas toothpick home. The man groaned and pitched headlong. Before he had even struck the ground, Arthur was already lusting for a fresh kill. Demons drove him. He now sought to drown a lifetime of repressions in blood.

When the first man fell, the field erupted in a dreadful cacophony of screams and shrill battle cries that chilled the blood of those on the perimeter. The lines crashed together like waves and broke into small clumps of combatants.

Christian found himself in the midst of a swirling chaos, but did not lose his bearings. When a foe leapt to confront him, knife in hand, Christian struck first with the axe handle. A glancing blow to the head stunned the attacker. Christian followed through with a hard smash to the thigh that sent the man down, his nerves screaming in pain. He was relieved to have put the man down without doing him grievous harm. But any such relief was short-lived.

Another foe instantly sprang to the attack. Christian recognized him as Danny Martense from the Jericho meeting. Martense came right at him swinging what looked like a small aluminum bat. Christian raised the axe handle to block. Stung to fury, Martense struck at the axe handle again and again. Christian felt his arm growing numb under the repeated impact. An especially hard blow broke his grip. The axe handle flew spinning from his hand.

Fortunately Christian had spent too much time with Shadow to dumbly watch his weapon fly away. His eyes never left his opponent. Thus he was able to avoid the follow-up swing of the bat with a desperate backward leap. Hard-pressed, he was at a loss as to how to counter. Then he remembered the ninja chain.

With a practiced motion his hand flashed down and yanked free the manriki-gusari. As Martense chambered the bat for another swipe, Christian surprised him by suddenly rushing in and closing distance. Swinging the manriki-gusari up and about, Christian struck Martense a vicious blow across the face with both weighted ends of the chain. Martense was momentarily stunned, enabling Christian to grab the arm that held the bat with his free hand and hold it immobile.

With a flick of his wrist Christian wrapped the ninja chain about his hand and used it like brass knuckles as he punched Martense repeatedly in the face. A blow to the jaw previously fractured by Pops caused Martense to howl and drop the bat. With an audible sigh of relief, Christian kicked it away. A few more stout blows caused Martense to sag and drop to the ground. Christian kicked and stomped him to make sure he stayed there.

Christian stepped free of his fallen foe. Gripping one weighted end tightly in his palm, he let the ninja chain play out at full length as he spun it to generate centrifugal force. Then, with the manriki-gusari whirling in a deadly gyre, he waded back into the fray. Enemies on the receiving end of a head blow from the chain went down as though struck by a bullet, or were rendered easy pickings for Christian’s comrades. Christian was now part of the madness that swirled about him. When one of the Nixons went down yowling, Christian instantly stepped into take his place.

Christian and Arthur were both fighting on fringe areas of the battle. Pops O’Rourke was in the thick of it. He held a blackthorn stick in either hand, wielding them simultaneously in the Filipino style. Pops moved through the enemy host like a juggernaut, striking down foes like a reaper cutting grain. He was working his way inexorably towards Mad Dog Clanton.

Clanton awaited him. He stood to the rear with his son Joel. Mad Dog was hanging back deliberately. He knew O’Rourke was coming for him and was positioning himself as bait. He wanted to draw O’Rourke into his own lines where he’d be surrounded. However, surrounding O’Rourke proved to be no simple task. Shadow guarded his back with a flailing nunchaku.

Mad Dog Clanton saw that there would be no trapping O’Rourke. That was fine; he was loath to leave the work of dispatching his rival to minions in any event. Hefting his tomahawk, Clanton strode forth to meet his foe half-way. An O’Rourke ally who tried to bar his way went down with a split skull.

Pops battered his way through a final group of foemen to stand face-to-face with Mad Dog Clanton, who awaited him with dripping tomahawk. He threw back his head and roared, “Let the fighting cease! This is now between me and Clanton!”

The booming voice of Connor O’Rourke swept across the field like a thunderclap. Even the most frenzied combatants were arrested by its power. Struggle ended within moments. All eyes turned to the two giants in the center of the field.

“Single combat, Clanton,” came Pops’ challenge, “No more need shed their blood this day. All this can be settled between you and me.”

It was a challenge Clanton could not ignore even if he had wanted to. And he didn’t want to. He felt certain he could best O’Rourke in any form of single combat.

“I accept,” Clanton snarled.

“Let these be the weapons!” Pops declared. He brandished both blackthorn sticks aloft in one mighty fist. With his free hand he unbuckled the belt that held the big Alaskan bowie and let it drop to the ground.

Mad Dog Clanton cast his tomahawk aside. “Shillelaghs it is!”

Bataireacht, or Irish stick fighting, was the first martial art Pops had ever trained in. He had learned it from his father when only a lad. He knew that Clanton was versed in the art as well. He also knew that Clanton would be caught up in the drama of moment.

Pops tossed one of the blackthorn sticks to Clanton, who gripped it in eager hands. Oh, this will be epic, Mad Dog thought. They will tell of my vanquishing of O’Rourke for a hundred years!

Pops and Clanton squared off. The others stepped back to give them room to maneuver. Each man held his stick horizontally in front of him, gripping it with both hands spaced shoulder-width apart. Held in this manner the ends of the stick could be used as extensions of the fists to deliver sharp blows while infighting. Or one end of the stick could be released and snapped out to strike at greater range.

To the stunned spectators it seemed that less than the space of a heartbeat had elapsed from the time the fighters squared off before they erupted into violent action. There was no circling about to take each other’s measure. The fight was on in an instant.

Mad Dog Clanton launched himself at Pops, swinging and snapping his stick in a blinding blur. He came in fast and furious, hoping to smother his opponent and force him into a defensive posture from the outset. His aim was to overwhelm Pops’ superior technique. Mad Dog laughed maniacally as he came on, but there was method to his madness. That laughter was meant to rattle Pops and psych him out. Nor was Clanton by any means lacking in technical skill and discipline. Despite the fury of his attack, he was always in control.

Though not exactly caught off guard, Pops was forced to give ground before the suddenness of Clanton’s assault. He backed up a few steps. Emboldened, Clanton sought to press his advantage and redoubled his exertions.

Pops wielded his own stick to fend off Clanton’s swings and thrusts with icy precision. Clanton was unable to penetrate his defenses. And when Clanton left an opening, Pops instantly went on the offensive to exploit it. Clanton dared not let himself grow reckless.

Clanton realized that he had lost the initiative. Now he and Pops were fighting on more or less equal footing. The sticks flashed out and back, cracking against one another. They were driven by sinewy arms that never seemed to tire or falter. Thrust, parry, riposte; so it went for many long minutes. Those closest to the battle noticed a slight scent of burnt wood hanging in the air. It was from the friction caused by the rapid, repeated contact of the two blackthorn sticks.

There was no laughter now as Clanton strove against O’Rourke in deadly earnest. Each sought some way to break the stalemate. Pops tried lulling his opponent into a pattern, but Clanton proved too wary. Clanton offered what appeared to be a convenient opening in order to tempt O’Rourke into a trap. However Pops refused to take the bait.

Clanton felt his energy begin to flag, but could detect no loss of precision in O’Rourke’s technique. He sensed victory slipping from him. Desperate, he threw caution to the wind and staked everything on a bold gambit. God help him if it backfired.

Clanton feinted a low blow, as though striking at his opponent’s thigh, then abruptly went high with it. O’Rourke caught the move and raised his weapon in time to check Clanton’s stick as it came humming at his head. He got his guard up a split-second too late to deflect the stick cleanly away, however. Instead Clanton’s stick merely slid past O’Rourke’s. Owing as much to luck as skill, Clanton managed to angle his stick towards his rival’s face. The point of the stick struck O’Rourke’s chin with enough concentrated force to dislocate the jaw of a lesser man.

O’Rourke reeled back, momentarily stunned. It was all the break his enemy needed. An instant later a white flash exploded inside Pop’s skull as the knobby end of Mad Dog Clanton’s shillelagh crashed sickeningly into his temple.

Dazed and semi-conscious, Pops struggled to remain on his feet. He saw the ground rushing up at him and dropped to his knees to avoid crashing headlong to the earth. He raised his stick to ward off further blows, but a brutal hand-smash caused the weapon to slip from his fingers.

Mad Dog Clanton now began to rain heavy blows about O’Rourke’s unprotected head, back and shoulders. He struck gleefully as though attempting to pound his enemy into the ground like a tent peg.

Pops saw the world spinning and growing black. He knew he was about to go under.

“Too old,” he muttered, “Too old…”

With those words Pops slumped to the ground in defeat. Darkness overcame him.

Mad Dog Clanton howled in savage glee. With both hands he raised his shillelagh on high like some angry god’s war club. He stood poised to bring it down on his fallen enemy’s skull with bone-crunching impact.

He was but a second from delivering his coup de grace when Shadow flung herself across Pops’ prostrate form. Clanton stayed his hand due to stunned amazement rather than any impulse to mercy. He stood bewildered as Shadow dropped her nunchaku and looked up at him. She raised her open hands in a wordless plea for a time-out. Curious, Clanton lowered his stick. He glared down at the pale upturned oval of her face, but said nothing. It was her move.

Around them, the ring of spectators awaited the next development in the same tense silence they had borne witness to the battle between Clanton and O’Rourke. The crowd seemed to hold its breath.

With slow deliberate movements, Shadow picked up the blackthorn stick Pops had dropped. Just as slowly she rose and backed away from Pops’ fallen form. As she did so she looked Clanton in the eye, holding his gaze, and issued a challenge.

“Finish the single combat with me!” she said boldly, “I’m the one you want. I killed Sailor. I killed him, then I cut his balls off!” Her bearing was deliberately haughty. She was going all out to provoke him.

Mad Dog Clanton snarled as though livid with venomous rage. But in his black heart there surged a savage joy. His most blasphemous prayers were being answered.

Already he had decisively beaten Connor O’Rourke in single combat, for all to see. Now he would kill his girl and avenge Sailor. She would lie dead at his feet and O’Rourke would be a broken man.

Clanton brandished his stick in a menacing fashion, swiping at empty air to put the scare into his new opponent. Then he began advancing on the girl.

Shadow backed away, but not in fear. She was ready for the fight and just needed more room to maneuver. Shadow had only a little training in Irish stick fighting, but was thoroughly versed in the Filipino stick fighting art of kali. She knew she was physically outmatched by the hairy giant who now stalked bellowing towards her. Her plan involved delivering a hand-smash to Clanton’s weapon hand, using a snake disarm to pluck the weapon from his loosened grip, then wielding both sticks to batter him down as she had done to that guy in Wheeling.

Mad Dog Clanton did not know what skill the girl possessed, and did not much care. He was confident that his greater size and strength would easily vanquish her. He aimed to smite her down with one blow, just like swatting a fly.

Clanton swung his stick up and over in a great swooping arc with the intention of bringing the knobby end right down on the girl’s head. Shadow instinctively raised her own stick in a roof block to defect it. The impact of his stick on hers nearly broke her grip and tore her weapon from her grasp. Clanton’s stick barely glanced off hers and went whistling past her head, missing it by inches.

Shadow had nearly lost the fight right then and there. Even so, Clanton’s reckless move provided her with an opening that she was quick to exploit. Swinging her stick out and back, she delivered a swift solid blow to Clanton’s unprotected side. Clanton winced as the hard stick impacted against his ribs.

Now it was his turn to back up. Not even Mad Dog Clanton could take too many clouts like that. Adjusting his strategy, he now strove to match his opponent’s technique while bringing his superior strength to bear.

Clanton went right back on the offensive with a speed belying his massive bulk. Shadow found herself hard-pressed to counter his moves. He came in and out so fast that there was no opportunity to strike his hand and secure his weapon. Clanton knew he held the advantage. He taunted his smaller foe.

“Ha ha, girly! O’Rourke himself could not stand before me. What chance have you?”

Shadow was all too aware of her imminent peril. She could not withstand Mad Dog Clanton’s power and ferocity for long. She had to find some way to take him down, and fast.

In the back of her mind there flashed the old maxim, “The bigger they are the harder they fall.” That was the plain truth of the matter. One could not afford to play games with a bigger, stronger enemy. Physically outmatched in a life-or-death struggle, one had few options. The most viable was to attack the enemy’s most vulnerable spots --eyes, throat, groin, knees. As Pops had once told her, “It doesn’t matter what kind of badass some joker is if he can’t walk, see or breathe.”

Shadow got her chance when Clanton took a swing at her head. Instead of blocking with her stick she ducked under it. As she did so she lashed out with a side thrust kick aimed at Clanton’s knee. The unexpected move worked. The kick connected right on target. There was a sickening crack of splintering bone as Clanton’s knee bent opposite the way it was designed. Clanton toppled like a dead tree blasted by lightning.

Clanton hit the ground with a heavy thud. There he writhed helplessly on his back and howled in pain. Shadow strode over to him and raised her blackthorn stick. She stood poised to bring it down in the center of Clanton’s face.

Before she could do so, Clanton raised his hand. “Quarter!” he cried.

Shadow looked down at her fallen foe. She had dealt him a terrible injury. A break like that could never fully heal. Clanton was going to be permanently disabled. He would never fight again.

“All this ends now,” Shadow said sternly.

But before Clanton could respond, the harsh voice of another grated in her ears.

“You witch!”

Shadow whirled to confront what could only be a new source of danger. She found herself looking down the barrel of a revolver held by Joel Clanton, Mad Dog’s forgotten son. The spindly youth’s body trembled with rage and tension, but his gun hand held steady. There were tears in his eyes as he said, “You killed my brother. You crippled my father. Now you’re going to hell.”

Shadow saw his finger tighten on the trigger, saw the chamber of the revolver begin to turn, saw her death upon her. But then, as the hammer fell and the gun boomed, there was a blur of motion as another hurled himself into the space between Joel and Shadow. It was Arthur. Shadow could only watch in sick horror as Arthur fell, stuck by the bullet meant for her.

Joel had no chance to try a second shot. Before the echo of the first one died, a huge dark canine shape came hurtling through the air and struck him like a cannonball. Joel was bowled over and borne to the ground by a great black hound. He dropped the gun, freeing his hands to fend off the slavering jaws that came a mere instant from tearing out his throat. Following Pops’ instructions, Cathy Gorman had unleashed Pain.

Shadow ran to Arthur and knelt beside him. Joel strove with all his desperate strength to keep the dog from his throat. And at the sound of the gunshot, Pops had begun to stir. He shook his head, lion-like, and began to rise. Onlookers could only marvel at his toughness and resilience. Pops straightened and stood erect. He was a little wobbly, but his fierce blue eyes were clear. He took in the situation at a glance.

Pops had barely gained his feet when he heard someone calling out to him. It was Mad Dog Clanton, writhing on the ground and clutching his ruined leg. “O’Rourke… O’Rourke,” he croaked, “Call off your dog. Please, O’Rourke! Spare my boy!”

Pops glowered down at him, his face grim. “It looks like your boy shot down a good man.”

“To both our everlasting shame!” Mad Dog wailed passionately, tears flowing from his eyes, “But he’s all I have left! Spare him.”

Joel was now shrieking as though he were being chased by devils. The dog’s fangs had already mangled one of his arms.

Mad Dog continued his impassioned entreaty, “I beg of you, O’Rourke. I’m going to be a cripple. I can trouble ye no more. For the loss of your man I forgo vengeance for Sailor. It’s over. I swear it on my dead wife’s grave.”

Pops took a somber moment to reflect, then said, “Pain. Heel.”

Instantly, as though a switch had been thrown, the great hound broke off its attack and glided over to its master.

Shadow looked up from where she knelt cradling Arthur’s head in her lap. Her face was an expressionless white mask. “Pops…” she hissed.

O’Rourke shook his head sadly. “This must end somewhere.”

Joel rose unsteadily and staggered over to his father. One arm hung uselessly at his side dripping blood. He raised his father into a sitting position. With no little difficulty, Joel gradually managed to help his father to stand. Mad Dog placed one arm about his son’s shoulder for support. With his other hand he gripped the blackthorn stick he had so recently fought with. Now he used it as a cane.

Together Mad Dog and Joel made their slow painful way off the field. They headed towards the triage center where other participants in the day’s big fight had already gone for treatment.

“Lean on me, Pa,” Joel said, “I’ll take care of you. We’ll be okay.”

Watching them go, Pops mused, “This could be the best thing for both of them.”

Shadow paid them no heed. All of her attention was on Arthur. She cradled his head in her lap and stroked his hair. Shadow had seen enough gunshot wounds to know he was done for and sinking fast.

Arthur looked up at Shadow and spoke softly. “I don’t regret a thing,” he told her, “Couldn’t stand to lose you. Shadow, you are… I found a world where someone like you can be…” With an effort, he focused his thoughts. “This is where I truly lived, finally. Glad to die here. Become a part of it.”

His eyes closed but his lips continued to move, whispering now. Shadow realized he wasn’t talking to her anymore. He had gone somewhere else.

“Sabrina. Oh Sabrina. You’re a good woman. Don’t listen to those assholes. You help people. They don’t…”

And then he died.

[Next: "Homecoming" --the conclusion!]

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Elements of Sadomasochism in the Fiction and Poetry of Robert E. Howard

[The following was originally published in The Dark Man: The Journal of Robert E. Howard Studies, Volume 4, No. 2 (June 2009), The Department of English, University of La Verne.]

From time to time, mention is made of a “homoerotic” aspect to Robert E. Howard’s work. A critic may cite the many descriptions of powerful, muscular warriors and boxers that abound in Howard’s writings. Of course, it would hardly have been plausible for Howard to describe weak, puny warriors and boxers. To my mind, Howard was not intending to describe what he desired, but rather what he and most of his male readers desired to be. I have no wish to censure the critiquing of Howard’s work from a homoerotic perspective, and feel that such criticism does have its place in Howard studies. Still, it seems to me that this homoerotic perspective lies mainly in the eye of the beholder. The same cannot be said, however, of sadomasochism in Howard’s work. The purpose of this essay is to cite explicit instances of sadomasochism to be found throughout the Howard canon, and then review the evidence that this did indeed represent a personal interest of REH.

Sadomasochism, of course, is an erotic passion that involves the melding of pleasure and pain in order to achieve a heightening of sensation. It finds expression both in actual practice and in art. Real life practitioners indulge in bondage, flagellation, and similar activities as an erotic pastime, utilizing costumes and other theatrical trappings to enhance drama. Sadomasochism is commonly abbreviated as “S&M,” but actual practitioners prefer “S/m.” Most lifestyle sadomasochists adhere to the “safe, sane, and consensual” rule.

In art, however, we find a different story. Since the reader of a literary work is engaging vicariously in a wholly imaginary experience, the fictional adventure is apt to be more extreme than anything the reader is likely to encounter in the course of everyday living, so as to make a more memorable impression. Thus sadomasochistic episodes in fiction tend not to be consensual, so that the erotic aspect is mingled with other extreme sensations such as fear and suspense. Moreover, since sadomasochism has long been disdained as deviant behavior, these episodes are likely to be conservatively cloaked in standard villain / victim scenarios.

Robert E. Howard was a visionary artist who endeavored to transcend his drab, small town life by creating larger-than-life spectacles in his fiction. His work is characterized by violent action, bizarre situations, brooding menace, and unrelenting emotional intensity. The erotic aspects of his work also tend towards the extreme or edgy. Elements of sadomasochism, or dominance and submission, are noticeable in Howard’s fiction from the very dawn of his career. They are particularly prominent in one of his earliest stories, “The Hyena.”

“The Hyena” was written in 1924 when Howard was just eighteen, and was the second story he sold to Weird Tales. However, editor Farnsworth Wright held onto the story for four years before publishing it. It did not appear until the March 1928 issue. Given the number of notable tales Howard would compose over the next dozen years, it is no surprise that “The Hyena” is regarded as a minor, fledgling effort. It has been underappreciated because Howard had yet to fully develop his distinctive artistic voice, but more so because of its deceptively simple plot. Set on a ranch on the East Coast of Africa, the story concerns a native witch doctor who can assume the form of a hyena. The witch doctor attempts to incite a native uprising and wipe out the local whites. This plot element, plus the story’s undercurrent of racial and sexual tension, would be utilized more memorably in a classic tale from much later in Howard’s career, the controversial “Black Canaan.”

“The Hyena” is narrated by a young man from the American South named Steve. Many “Steves” appear in Howard’s writings, among them his fictional alter ego in the semi-autobiographical Post Oaks and Sand Roughs. The narrator of “The Hyena” describes himself as “a stocky youth of medium height” (“The Hyena” 70) much like REH himself.

Steve’s nemesis is “Senecoza, the fetish-man.” (67) Howard uses the term “fetish-man” to describe Senecoza throughout the story, rather than referring to him as a witch doctor or, more typically for Howard, “conjure-man.” Used in a different context, of course, the term “fetish” refers to an erotic fixation, a subtle irony given the story’s subtext.

As a narrator, Steve displays remarkable candor. He is quick to admit his inherited racist bias: “Because I came from Virginia, race instinct and prejudice was strong in me.” (67) But even more remarkable is his unabashed disclosure of personality traits that S/m practitioners would recognize as characteristic of a male submissive, making Steve an unlikely protagonist from the future creator of Conan.

Steve frankly confesses that “doubtless the feeling of inferiority which Senecoza constantly inspired in me had a great deal to do with my antipathy for him.” (67) At “Six inches above six feet,” Senecoza towers over Steve, who wistfully notes, “he was all muscle — a lean, black giant.” (67) Similarly, Steve describes how, on a visit to the ranch, Senecoza “would stand before us, a naked bronze giant” whom he felt was “mocking us.” (67) Of course, the supposed virility of the black man has long been a source of anxiety for insecure white males.

Even as he extols the attributes of Senecoza, Steve berates himself throughout the story. On safari, he admits that “I was an execrable marksman; I could hardly hit an elephant at close range.” (68) Moreover, he expresses a reluctance to kill animals for sport. In this respect Steve resembles Howard himself, who could abruptly launch into searing misanthropic diatribes but remained more kindly disposed towards the animal kingdom. Steve tells how the “native boy who served as my gun-bearer began to suspect that I was deliberately refraining from shooting, and he began in a covert way to throw sneering hints about my womanishness.” (68) Steve beats up the bearer to reestablish dominance, but immediately after admits that “still I felt inferior when in the presence of the fetish-man.” (68)

Steve has several encounters with a strange hyena lurking about the area that reminds him of Senecoza. However, the story really gets interesting with the arrival of Ellen Farel, a New York socialite who vacations at the ranch for some undisclosed reason. Steve describes her in glowing terms while dismissing himself as “an ordinary, unhandsome youth.” (70) In the course of their conversations, Ellen laughs at Steve and mocks him with quips like, “`I guess you’re my boss, mister man?’” (72) Steve is moved to confess, “I was her slave from the first. Somehow the idea of becoming a lover never entered my mind…Simply, I worshipped her; her presence intoxicated me, and I could think of no more enjoyable existence than serving her as a devoted slave.” (71)

Ellen, on the other hand, is less interested in Steve than in Senecoza, whom she prattles about as “`the most romantic looking savage’” (71) and “`a fine specimen of a savage.’” (72) When Ellen places a friendly arm around Steve, he describes how he was “maddened by the touch of her soft body –such mad devotion as a slave feels. I wanted to grovel in the dust at her feet and kiss her dainty shoes.” (72) To show his devotion, Steve timidly kisses her hand (rather than her feet), but within minutes Ellen is asking him to “`Tell me more about this Senecoza.’” (73)

Steve finds himself in a submissive position not only to Ellen, but to Senecoza as well. Making eye contact with the fetish-man, Steve steps back involuntarily. Later, Steve is outraged to find Senecoza scrutinizing Ellen with a lustful gaze. He draws his gun to shoot Senecoza into a “shredded heap.” (71) (Unfortunately, many white Southerners in 1924 would not have considered this an overreaction.) However, Steve finds himself paralyzed by Senecoza’s penetrating stare. It is hinted that this is due to some hypnotic power, rather than simply personal charisma. Still, Steve seems humiliated by his admission that Senecoza then “turned and strode away, a magnificent figure, while I glared after him and snarled in helpless fury.” (72)

Events reach their climax when Steve and Ellen are out riding—“she challenged me to a race. Her horse easily distanced mine, and she stopped and waited, laughing.” (73) Suddenly, Senecoza and twenty native warriors attack and begin their uprising. Senecoza captures Ellen, ripping her clothes into strips and using them to tie her up. Steve battles Senecoza in both human and hyena form. A good marksman when it counts, Steve sends a bullet through the hyena. Ellen is rescued and the uprising is put down. Steve and the other whites track the hyena to Senecoza’s hut where they learn the secret Howard telegraphed to the reader pages earlier—that the black man Steve found so threatening was a beast in a literal as well as a figurative sense.

On the surface, “The Hyena” is an unremarkable supernatural vignette, just another story in the March 1928 Weird Tales. Yet to a reader even a little knowledgeable about such things, the sadomasochistic subtext is very obvious. Steve’s referring to himself as Ellen’s “slave” three times is a dead giveaway, and his brief but feverish fantasizing about himself in that role leaves no doubt. This undercurrent of sexual yearning and anxiety makes “The Hyena” worth a second look.

The period between 1924, which saw Howard’s first professional fiction sales, and 1929, when his career kicked into high gear, was his most prolific era as a poet. Naturally enough for a youthful poet, some of Howard’s verse contained erotic themes. A portion his erotic poetry dealt with so-called deviant sexuality, or to use a less judgmental term, kinky sex. Howard’s treatment of such topics ranged from light and playful to dark and passionate.

The spanking of adult women seems to have been of special interest to him. He wrote several naughty limericks collected under the heading “Limericks to Spank By.” Longer poems such as “Good Mistress Brown” and “The Harlot” also describe corporal punishment applied to women by both men and other women. The spankings are administered as a comeuppance to some uppity wife or rebellious young “flapper.”

In tone, the spanking verses are lightweight and amusing. The spanking of a headstrong woman often figures in “taming of the shrew” scenarios found in various works of fiction. In the movie “McLintock!” John Wayne spanks Maureen O’Hara, who is clad in soaking wet undergarments, in front of the entire town, and the film is regarded as wholesome family entertainment. I also seem to recall an episode of “I Love Lucy” in which Desi spanks Lucy. So these spanking verses of Howard’s would seem to be fairly innocuous; pretty tame stuff.

However, they are just part of a larger picture. Other poems by Howard that make use of related themes are darker and more compelling. “Lesbia” is a lengthy poem of fourteen stanzas in which a hot-blooded woman narrates her sexual yearnings for other women. The encounters she describes are both consensual and forced. In “Altars and Jesters,” alternately titled “An Opium Dream,” we find an instance of mild female domination.

A dark girl came from the mists and silence,
Her eyes were oceans, dusky and slow,
And her hands were ice as with still cold violence
She stripped me naked and let me go. (“Altars and Jesters” 28)

Elsewhere, Howard is more explicit. The revealingly titled “Strange Passion” recounts episodes of sadomasochism, bisexuality, and exhibitionism. These encounters take place among the “black queens” of darkest Africa. Howard’s erotic attraction to black women has generally been acknowledged, and in his day distant places like the Congo were all the more remote and mysterious. The narrator of “Strange Passion” describes himself spanking women, and also being spanked by them:

I lay across her slim, brown knees,
My firm young buttocks bare upturned.

Each time she shook in passion’s hap
With greater strength she gripped and held,
Stretched me stark naked o’er her lap
And beat me till I fairly yelled. (“Strange Passion” 20)

In addition to working in the more traditional poetic formats, Howard also dabbled in a more obscure form, the prose poem. Prose poetry, as the term suggests, fuses elements of prose, such as narrative structure and discourse, with elements of poetry, such as metaphorical and florid language. It was originated in 19th Century France by poets such as Baudelaire and Rimbaud, and adopted by British Decadents such as Oscar Wilde. In America, prose poetry was composed by George Sterling and his protégé, Clark Ashton Smith. Smith, of course, is better remembered today as a colleague of Howard who contributed many fantasy stories to Weird Tales.

Howard composed a cycle of five prose poems, plus a preamble, that he grouped under the heading, Etchings in Ivory. One of the poems, “Skulls and Orchids,” deals directly with male homosexuality. Howard is able to broach the subject tactfully by setting his vignette in ancient Greece. “Skulls and Orchids” is narrated by a young Athenian woman whose Spartan lover has jilted her in favor of a comely boy. Trouble ensues.

Another “etching” is titled “Flaming Marble” and depicts a sadomasochistic encounter. The opening informs us that, “This is a dream that comes to me often. Not in the lazy, illusive haze of day-dreaming, but clear and vivid to my sleeping soul.” (“Flaming Marble” 5) If we take Howard’s words at face value, he is describing an actual recurring sex dream. Another possibility is that he is revealing a sexual fantasy he has indulged in at more than once and is embellishing here.

The dream takes place in some ancient metropolis that the dreamer’s waking self is unable to specifically identify. The dreamer’s ancient alter ego is, not surprisingly for REH, a powerfully muscled barbarian. The scene unfolds:

…Save for the sandals on my feet and a loincloth of silk, I was naked.

A woman reclined on a luxurious couch before me…lounging like a slim and supple leopardess on the furs and silks…

And in my waking hours I wonder –in what lost empire, in what ancient city was that room in which I stood? Who was I? And who was this woman? Was it Athens or Rome? Was it Aspasia, Thais, Messalina or Lais who lay before me? (5)

The dreamer describes how the woman “lashed me with words like silver daggers” (5) and that she looked “like a goddess in her wrath.” (6) He then reveals that “I was her slave…” (6) When he displays a defiant attitude, things take an interesting turn:
The cold eyes flashed with a fiercer light, and suddenly, with the lithe volcanic suddenness of a leaping tigress, my mistress was on her feet and her round white arm swept on high a slender whip with a jade hilt. But before its stinging lash ever touched my great shoulders, I tore it from her hand with a laugh that roared like the singing salt sea, and crushed her to my breast.

She fought like a wild woman as I swept her off the floor and held her, cursing and helpless…A moment she fought against her fate, and then the marble limbs caught fire from my passion, and the round arms went around my massive neck…(6)

There are a number of highly charged elements at play here. A man is being subjected to verbal abuse by a beautiful woman. Verbal humiliation of this sort is frequently a component of sadomasochistic activities. The mistress wields a whip to administer a flogging to the slave (even though the flogging is prevented). The rape of an aristocratic woman is attempted by a man of a much lower caste. The aristocratic woman yields herself sexually to a social inferior. The dreamer several times refers to his past self as “slave” and the woman as “mistress.” The most striking aspect of “Flaming Marble” is that it portrays one of Howard’s brawny barbarians and one of his sultry sex goddesses in a mistress/slave relationship.

Howard’s poetry and prose poetry were written primarily for private self-expression; a mere fraction of it saw publication during his lifetime. However, Howard also incorporated sadomasochistic motifs into his commercial fiction throughout his professional career.

Such motifs are evident in the longest of his Solomon Kane stories, “The Moon of Skulls.” In this adventure, the Puritan swordsman journeys to the heart of 16th Century Africa in search of a kidnapped English girl named Marylin. His quest leads him to the lost city of Negari. The city is ruled by its resident femme fatale, Nakari, who could be one of the “black queens” alluded to in “Strange Passion.”

From a hidden vantage point, Kane first glimpses the queen in her throne room:

…There, dwarfed by the ponderous splendor about her, a woman reclined. A black woman she was, young and of a tigerish comeliness. She was naked except for a beplumed helmet, armbands, anklets and a girdle of ostrich feathers and she sprawled upon the silken cushions with her limbs thrown about in voluptuous abandon.

Even at that distance, Kane could make out that her features were regal yet barbaric, haughty and imperious, yet sensual, and with a touch of ruthless cruelty about the curl of her full red lips. Kane felt his pulse quicken…(“The Moon of Skulls” 114-115)

Kane soon gets a closer look while spying on Nakari as she visits her white slave, Marylin:

…The black woman was clad as she had been when he had seen her on the throne, and the colored armlets and anklets clanked as she closed the door… She moved with the easy sinuousness of a she-leopard and in spite of himself the watcher was struck with admiration for her lithe beauty. Yet at the same time a shudder of revulsion shook him, for her eyes gleamed with vibrant and magnetic evil, older than the world…

…Nakari halted by the couch, stood looking down upon her captive for a moment, then with an enigmatic smile, bent and shook her. Marylin opened her eyes, sat up, then slipped from her couch and knelt before her black mistress—an act which caused Kane to curse beneath his breath. The queen laughed and seating herself upon the couch, motioned the girl to rise, and then put an arm about her waist and drew her upon her lap. Kane watched, puzzled, while Nakari caressed the white girl in a lazy, amused manner. This might be affection, but to Kane it seemed more like a sated leopard teasing its victim…(128-129)

Kane is repelled by Nakari, but also aroused by her. In addition to this hint of interracial lust, an element of female homoeroticism is introduced as Nakari toys with Marylin. This was all very provocative for a story published in 1930. In fact, “The Moon of Skulls” was bowdlerized when first reprinted for book publication in the racially conscious 1960s.

The story’s undercurrent of sadomasochism reaches its peak when Kane himself becomes the queen’s prisoner. Captured, Kane is chained hand-and-foot in Nakari’s dungeon. Kane is kept in helpless bondage as he is interrogated by the queen. Nakari attempts to entice Kane into joining her by offering him her kingdom and her own voluptuous body.

In this scene, Howard treats his reader to a most lurid tableau. Solomon Kane is a religious fanatic whose life is dedicated to stamping out evil. He is not merely a puritan in some figurative sense; he is an actual 16th Century English Puritan. In his world, women are customarily clothed from neck to foot. Totally committed to working God’s will, Kane is presumably celibate. Now he is bound in a dungeon while a luscious, semi-nude black vixen attempts to ensnare and seduce him. It is hard to imagine a situation more fraught with sexual tension. And when the iron-willed Kane rebukes her, Nakari tells him that Marylin “shall be punished as I have punished her before – hung up by her wrists, naked, and whipped until she swoons!” (137)

Such a scene of girl-on-girl whipping is not actually depicted in “The Moon of Skulls.” Howard corrected this oversight a few years later when writing the adventures of his most famous character, Conan. Women are flogged by other women in two of the Conan stories. Interestingly, both of these stories are, like “The Moon of Skulls,” set in lost cities. Howard believed that civilizations carry the seeds of their own destructions, and was moved to portray decaying societies in his fiction. The occurrence of lurid sadomasochistic episodes in such stories serves to heighten an atmosphere of sinful decadence. Metaphorically, the lost cities are shadow realms removed from the everyday experience of the protagonist, and twice removed from that of the reader. The reader follows the hero into a dream world where anything can happen.

In “Xuthal of the Dusk” (originally published in Weird Tales as “The Slithering Shadow”), Conan and his female companion Natala discover a lost city where they meet another beautiful but deadly woman, Thalis. One of the most striking aspects of the story is the contrast between the two women. Natala is a slave girl who has been liberated by Conan, while Thalis is the most powerful woman in the city of Xuthal. The blonde Natala is meek and demure, but good-hearted. The black-haired Thalis is bold, haughty and sensuous, a she-cat who has been steeped in vice. Reminiscent of De Sade’s virtuous Justine and her depraved sister Juliette, they represent two sides of the same coin; top and bottom, dominant and submissive. In due course, they are joined in a highly charged sadomasochistic encounter:

…As in a nightmare Natala felt her tunic being stripped from her, and the next instant Thalis had jerked up her wrists and bound them to the ring, where she hung, naked as the day she was born, her feet barely touching the floor. Twisting her head, Natala saw Thalis unhook a jewel-handled whip from where it hung on the wall, near the ring. The lashes consisted of seven round silk cords, harder yet more pliant than leather thongs.

With a hiss of vindictive gratification, Thalis drew back her arm, and Natala shrieked as the cords curled across her loins. The tortured girl writhed, twisted and tore agonizedly at the thongs which imprisoned her wrists…Every stroke evoked screams of anguish. The whippings Natala had received in the Shemite slave-markets paled to insignificance before this. (“Xuthal of the Dusk” 237)

Howard later reworked elements of “Xuthal of the Dusk” to create his masterpiece, “Red Nails.’ In contrast to the demure Natala of “Xuthal,” the heroine of “Red Nails” is the dynamic Valeria of the Red Brotherhood. Natala and Valeria are both fair-skinned blondes, but there the comparison ends. The pirate Valeria is a formidable and renowned warrior. And in the whipping scene in “Red Nails,” Valeria is the dominant female who administers the flogging. When a serving woman of the lost city of Xuchotl attempts to drug her, Valeria demands to know whom the woman is working for:

Yasala made no reply. She crouched, watching her captor with eyes baleful as those of a basilisk. Stubborn silence always fans anger. Valeria turned and tore a handful of cords from a nearby hanging.

“You sulky slut!” she said between her teeth. “I’m going to strip you stark naked and tie you across that couch and whip you until you tell me what you were doing here, and who sent you!”

Yasala made no verbal protest, nor did she offer any resistance, as Valeria carried out the first part of her threat with a fury that her captive’s obstinacy only sharpened. Then for a space there was no sound in the chamber except the whistle and crackle of hard-woven silken cords on naked flesh. Yasala could not move her fast-bound hands or feet. Her body writhed and quivered under the chastisement, her head swayed from side to side in rhythm with the blows. Her teeth were sunk into her lower lip and a trickle of blood began as the punishment continued. But she did not cry out.

The pliant cords made no great sound as they encountered the quivering body of the captive; only a sharp crackling snap, but each cord left a red streak across Yasala’s dark flesh. Valeria inflicted the punishment with all the strength of her war-hardened arm, with all the mercilessness acquired during a life where pain and torment were daily happenings, and with all the cynical ingenuity which only a woman displays toward a woman. Yasala suffered more, physically and mentally, than she would have suffered under a lash wielded by a man, however strong. (“Red Nails” 254)

In addition to the flagellation and bondage, this scene contains a hint of the humiliation that is also frequently a component of sadomasochistic erotica and activities. The element of humiliation becomes more pronounced when the proud Valeria herself is dominated by both a man and a woman. Valeria, accustomed to holding her own in a world of men, is physically overpowered by the abnormal strength of one of the city’s rulers, the bull-like Olmec. However, she is quickly appropriated by Tascela, a black-haired sorceress possessed of preternatural strength and hypnotic powers:

[Valeria] turned and sprang toward the door, but with a movement that would have shamed a leaping panther, Tascela was before her. Valeria struck at her with her clenched fist, and all the power of her supple body behind the blow. It would have stretched a man senseless on the floor. But with a lithe twist of her torso, Tascela avoided the blow and caught the pirate’s wrist. The next instant Valeria’s left hand was imprisoned, and holding her wrists together with one hand, Tascela calmly bound them with a cord she drew from her girdle. Valeria thought she had tasted the ultimate in humiliation already that night, but her shame at being manhandled by Olmec was nothing to the sensations that now shook her supple frame. Valeria had always been inclined to despise the other members of her sex; and it was overwhelming to encounter another woman who could handle her like a child. She scarcely resisted at all when Tascela forced her into a chair and drawing her bound wrists down between her knees, fastened them to the chair. (270-271)

Valeria is subsequently stripped naked and pinned to a sacrificial alter. In “Red Nails,” Howard treats his reader to the spectacle of a dominant woman being dominated herself.

A briefer passage hinting at sadistic sexual abuse occurs during this exchange between Olivia and Shah Amurath in “Iron Shadows in the Moon:”

“Let me go!” begged the girl, tears of despair staining her face. “Have I not suffered enough? Is there any humiliation, pain or degradation you have not heaped on me? How long must my torment last?”

“As long as I find pleasure in your whimperings, your pleas, tears and writhings,” he answered with a smile that would have seemed gentle to a stranger. “You are strangely virile, Olivia. I wonder if I shall ever weary of you, as I have always wearied of women before. You are ever fresh and unsullied, in spite of me…” (“Iron Shadows in the Moon” 187-178)

Olivia is a slave girl strong enough to take what her master dishes out, but gleans no pleasure from it. She is tough enough to survive where Natala, in “Xuthal of the Dusk,” would have perished, but does not allow herself to become jaded like Thalis.

It is also in the Conan series that we find a depiction of sheer sadism so extreme that were it to be adapted faithfully to film, the filmmakers might well find themselves facing jail time. This scene occurs in the brooding Gothic tale, “The Black Stranger.” In the story, the fear-haunted Count Valenso has retreated with retainers and entourage to an isolated fortress on a desolate coastline. The Count lives in mortal terror of a mysterious demonic black man who pursues him, and has fled to the most remote area he could reach. Among Count Valenso’s entourage is a girl child named Tina, first seen running naked along a beach. When Tina mentions having seen the black stranger, Valenso erupts in an insane fury of enraged horror:
Valenso reeled as if he had received a mortal blow. He clutched at his throat, snapping the gold chain in his violence. With the face of a madman he lurched about the table and tore the child screaming from Belesa’s arms.

“You little slut!” he panted. “You lie! You have heard me mumbling in my sleep and told this lie to torment me! Say that you lie before I tear the skin from your back!”

“Uncle!” cried Belesa, in outraged bewilderment, trying to free Tina from his grasp. “Are you mad? What are you about?”

With a snarl he tore her hand from his arm and spun her staggering into the arms of Galbro who received her with a leer he made little effort to disguise.

“Mercy, my lord!” sobbed Tina. “I did not lie!”

“I said you lied!” roared Valenso. “Gebbrelo!”

The stolid serving man seized the trembling youngster and stripped her with one brutal wrench that tore her scanty garments from her body. Wheeling, he drew her slender arms over his shoulders, lifting her writhing feet clear of the floor.

“Uncle!” shrieked Belesa, writhing vainly in Galbro’s lustful grasp. “You are mad! You can not –oh, you can not--!” The voice choked in her throat as Valenso caught up a jewel-hilted riding whip and brought it down across the child’s frail body with a savage force that left a red weal across her naked shoulders.

Belesa moaned, sick with the anguish of Tina’s shriek. The world had suddenly gone mad. As in a nightmare she saw the stolid faces of the soldiers and servants, beast-faces, the faces of oxen, reflecting neither pity nor sympathy. Zarono’s faintly sneering face was part of the nightmare. Nothing in that crimson haze was real except Tina’s naked white body, criss-crossed with red welts from shoulders to knees; no sound real except the child’s sharp cries of agony, and the panting gasps of Valenso as he lashed away with the staring eyes of a madman, shrieking, “You lie! You lie! Curse you, you lie! Admit your guilt, or I will flay your stubborn body! He could not have followed me here—”

“Oh, have mercy, my lord!” screamed the child, writhing vainly on the brawny servant’s back, too frantic with fear and pain to have the wit to save herself by a lie. Blood trickled in crimson beads down her quivering thighs…(“The Black Stranger” 127-128)

“The Black Stranger” was the only Conan story to be rejected by Weird Tales after the series had become popular with the readers. However, this was most likely due to the fact that Conan himself is offstage for much of the lengthy tale. The story was not published in its original form until 1987. Interestingly enough, even in the version of the story heavily edited by L. Sprague de Camp (“The Treasure of Tranicos”), the whipping of Tina by Count Valenso is presented as Howard wrote it, except for name changes for some of the characters. The sequence is horrific in the extreme, rather than evocative of erotic sadomasochism. I do not believe that Howard intended it to be in any way titillating or expected his readers to view it as such. Its placement in the story was more likely meant to emphasize the depravity of his unsavory characters. Even so, it must be admitted that a passage in which a crazed aristocrat whips a naked prepubescent girl with a riding crop hard enough to draw blood, in front of other leering men, is an episode that would be right at home in the works of the Marquis de Sade himself. While I would not care to meet the sort of person who would be aroused by Tina’s whipping, such people do exist.

Between the Solomon Kane and the Conan stories, Howard tried his hand at writing Lovecraftian horror. “The Black Stone” has long been considered his best story in this vein. The narrator of “The Black Stone” travels to a remote area of Eastern Europe to examine a mysterious monolith of unknown ancient origin. There he has a vision of the dark rites that had been performed at the site centuries earlier by the strange people who once inhabited the region:

The rhythm of the swaying bodies grew faster and into the space between the people and the monolith sprang a naked young woman, her eyes blazing, her long black hair flying loose. Spinning dizzily on her toes, she whirled across the open space and fell prostrate before the Stone, where she lay motionless. The next instant a fantastic figure followed her –a man from whose waist hung a goatskin, and whose features were entirely hidden by a sort of mask made from a huge wolf’s head…In his hand he held a bunch of long fir switches bound together at the larger ends…

…Coming to the woman who lay before the monolith, he began to lash her with the switches he bore, and she leaped up and spun into the wild mazes of the most incredible dance I have ever seen. And her tormentor danced with her…while incessantly raining cruel blows on her naked body…

Blood trickled down the dancer’s limbs but she seemed not to feel the lashing save as a stimulus for further enormities of outrageous motion…she dropped suddenly to the sward, quivering and panting as if completely overcome by her frenzied exertions. The lashing continued with unabated violence and intensity and she began to wriggle toward the monolith on her belly. The priest –or such I will call him—followed, lashing her unprotected body with all the power of his arm as she writhed along, leaving a heavy track of blood on the trampled earth. She reached the monolith, and gasping and panting, flung both arms about it and covered the cold stone with fierce hot kisses, as in frenzied and unholy adoration. (“The Black Stone” 130-131)

The purpose of the ritual is to summon a monster the people worship. The monster is possessed of evil intelligence, and is presented with “a young girl, stark naked and bound hand and foot” (130) to ravish. This “unhallowed ritual of cruelty and sadism” (132), with its frenzied flagellation, causes the naked dancer to collapse in orgasmic ecstasy and then embrace and kiss a phallic monolith jutting from the earth. In “The Black Stone,” Howard takes Lovecraftian horror to a realm where H. P. Lovecraft himself never tread.

Another notable instance of sadomasochism can be found in one of Howard’s regional “piney woods” horror stories, “Pigeons from Hell.” Set at an old abandoned Southern plantation, the story tells of the curse that destroyed the once-illustrious Blassenville family. At the root of the curse was the cruelty displayed be Miss Celia Blassenville toward her mulatto maid, Joan. (“Joan,” like “Steve,” was a name Howard employed with some frequency. Joan is the name of several of his beguiling heroines, and also occurs in his erotic poetry.) Decades later, a character recalls how Miss Celia “used to whip her mulatto maid just like she was a slave” and would “tie this girl up to a tree, stark naked, and whip her with a horsewhip.” (“Pigeons from Hell” 278) Though it is somewhat muted by being a secondhand account, this is yet another episode of woman-on-woman flagellation such as we found in “Red Nails” and “Xuthal of the Dusk.” This account of a haughty Southern belle whipping her servant also brings to mind the numerous scenarios involving aristocratic women and their maids that abound in S/m erotica.

Both the supernatural and sadomasochistic elements in “Pigeons from Hell” can be traced back to a childhood acquaintance of Howard. As a boy living in the “piney woods” area of East Texas, Howard heard many African-American ghost stories from an elderly former slave named Aunt Mary Bohannon. Nor were those the only tales she told. Howard informed H. P. Lovecraft that, “old Aunt Mary had had the misfortune, in her youth, to belong to a man whose wife was a fiend from Hell. The young slave women were fine young animals and barbarically handsome; her mistress was frenziedly jealous. You understand. Aunt Mary told tales of torture and unmistakable sadism that sicken me to this day when I think of them.” (Howard to H. P. Lovecraft, 9/30, 58)

In the final phase of his career, Howard entered the lucrative “spicy stories” market. Magazines like Spicy-Adventure Stories and Spicy Detective Stories published fairly standard genre fiction with an added erotic element that was considered quite racy for the time. In a letter to Novalyne Price, Howard explained some of the editorial requirements:

…A nice balance must be maintained—the stuff must be hot enough to make the readers bat their eyes, but not too hot to get the censors on them. They have some definite taboos. No degeneracy, for instance. No sadism or masochism…(Ellis, One Who Walked Alone 262)

Nevertheless, Howard did occasionally succumb to the temptation to include sadomasochistic elements in stories written for the spicy pulps.

“Ship in Mutiny” is one of a series of tales about the roguish adventurer, Wild Bill Clanton. In it, the villain describes his plans for Clanton and the story’s heroine: “We’ll find the girl and make her watch while I skin him alive! I’ll make a garment of his hide and force her to wear it always about her loins to remind her how her lover died!” (“Ship in Mutiny” 34) This brief passage is the extent of the sadomasochism in the story, but once again it embodies a sadistic fantasy worthy of the Marquis de Sade.

Howard indulges in lurid S/m fantasy at greater length in another spicy story, “Daughters of Feud.” As the title indicates, the story concerns feuding hillbilly families. The hero is Braxton Brent, the new schoolteacher. Brunette bad girl Ann and blonde good girl Joan engage in a catfight in the middle of class. To maintain discipline, Brent must administer corporal punishment to his nubile nineteen-year-old students. Howard returns to a familiar theme of his erotic poetry, spanking, in a scene too good not to quote in full:

…She was strong and supple as only a mountain girl can be, and she fought like a wildcat, but Brent was an athletic young man, and he was mad clear through. There was a brief whirl of struggle, and then his superior strength made itself evident. Crushing her resistance, he sat down on the bench and imprisoned her, cursing and kicking, across his knee, and pulled up her skirt. He had already learned that the girls of Whiskey Run wore no underwear. Ann was no exception.

“Now, you little devil,” he swore grimly, “I’m going to show you who’s the boss here!”

And firmly grasping his raging captive, he employed the strap on her bare, squirming, upturned hips with a vigor inspired by his determination to assert his authority once and for all. He didn’t want to have to repeat this scene. At each resounding smack, a broad crimson weal appeared on her olive-tinted hips, and before he had completed his discipline, the entire surface was reddened, and Ann’s curses and threats had changed to shrieks of pain and frantic pleas for mercy. When he released her, she slipped to the floor and groveled at his feet, weeping stormily and contorting her supple body ludicrously with the smarting of her crimson hips. (“Daughters of Feud” 151-152)

Things get complicated when Brent suddenly falls for Joan. (The name of the hero’s love interest is another indication that “Joan” was a feminine name REH was especially fond of.) Joan is spared a spanking when she and Brent make love instead. Later, to protect Brent from charges of favoritism, she displays self-inflicted whip marks on her bared buttocks. The story ends on a cheery note of love and romance. Brent spanks Ann only reluctantly; he is no more a dominant “top” than Solomon Kane, languishing in Nakari’s dungeon, was a submissive. The sadomasochism in this story, as in the others, is an undercurrent flowing beneath the surface.

Another interesting motif is the recurrence of a blonde heroine and a brunette bad girl in “Daughters of Feud,” as in “Xuthal of the Dusk” and “Red Nails.” It serves as a clear simple physical representation of the light and the dark, and is by no means limited to Howard. In Chapter 7 of Love and Death in the American Novel, Leslie A. Fiedler explores the symbolism of the light and dark sisters, Alice and Cora Munro, in James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans.

Neither “Ship in Mutiny” nor “Daughters of Feud” were published in Howard’s lifetime. “Ship in Mutiny” was the only story in the Wild Bill Clanton series to be rejected by Spicy-Adventure. This probably owed little to the story’s sole sadistic passage, but rather to editorial preference for stories with an upbeat tone as opposed to the somewhat grim atmosphere that prevails in “Ship in Mutiny.” In “Daughters of Feud,” however, the kinky aspect is very pronounced and went well beyond what the editors would have found acceptable.

So what, then, are we to make of all this? Howard’s use of sadomasochistic elements ranges from mildly titillating spanking limericks to instances of horrific cruelty. A mad count whipping a naked, crying ten year old girl, or a villain planning to make a woman wear Wild Bill Clanton’s skin, exceed the limits of erotic S/m and take us into a realm of sheer nightmare and madness. I personally do not believe that Howard viewed the whipping of Tina as arousing. The imagination is unruly, however, and sometimes takes us to darker places than we meant to go. Therefore, in pondering to what extent Howard’s use of sadomasochism is indicative of creative self-expression, or contrived, or representative of his sexual interests, we have to accept a certain amount of ambiguity.

In the past, commentators have dismissed instances of flagellation and bondage in the Conan stories as a purely commercial contrivance, examples of Howard “pandering” to his readers. Possibly, some commentators arrived at this conclusion because of the many lurid depictions of torture to be found in the “weird menace” magazines, or “shudder pulps,” that became popular late in Howard’s career. Publications like Terror Tales and Horror Stories offered “chamber of horrors” torture scenarios inspired by the Grand Guignol Theatre of Paris. In 1935, Weird Tales inaugurated the “Doctor Satan” series in a bid to remain competitive.

Howard did indeed dabble in the weird menace genre, contributing “Graveyard Rats” and “Black Wind Blowing” to Thrilling Mystery. Additionally, the horror stories “Black Hound of Death” and “Moon of Zambebwei,” published in Weird Tales, were originally intended for the shudder pulps. “Black Wind Blowing,” “Black Hound of Death,” and the posthumously published “The Devils of Dark Lake” all feature scenes depicting nude women in bondage, two of whom are named Joan.

However, “Xuthal of the Dusk,” with its girl-on-girl sadomasochism, was published (as “The Slithering Shadow”) in the September 1933 issue of Weird Tales –one month before the first shudder pulp, Dime Mystery Magazine, adopted the weird menace format with its October 1933 issue. In weird menace stories, villains typically indulge in outré forms of murder such as covering women in gold to create incredibly lifelike statues or freezing them into “corpse-sicles.” This is a far cry from an erotic S/m fantasy such as the dominatrix-like Thalis whipping the naked, writhing Natala in “Xuthal.” Moreover, to the best of my knowledge none of the star contributors to the shudder pulps like Hugh B. Cave or Wyatt Blassingame ever wrote any poetry concerning sadistic practices. Howard’s S/m themed poetry, as well as “The Moon of Skulls” and the horror stories “The Hyena” and “The Black Stone,” predate the weird menace pulps by several years.

A stronger case can be made that Howard was following the lead of Seabury Quinn, a fan favorite of Weird Tales readers since the mid-1920s. Howard complained bitterly to Lovecraft, “I don’t know how much slaughter and butchery the readers will endure. Their capacity for grisly details seems unlimited, when the cruelty is the torturing of some naked girl, such as Seabury Quinn’s stories abound in --no reflection on Quinn; he knows what they want and gives it to them” (Howard to H. P. Lovecraft, 8/9/32, 52).

At the time of Howard’s remarks, Quinn had been chronicling the adventures of the occult investigator Jules de Grandin for seven years, to the exclusion of other work. I have recently read all of the De Grandin stories available to me that Howard would have also read, over thirty tales, and have found them to be, for the most part, not nearly as lurid as Howard’s comments would lead one to believe. No naked girls are tortured onstage, much less in “grisly detail.”

The roughest of the De Grandin stories I read was “The House of Horror” (Weird Tales, July 1926), which concerns a mad doctor’s hideous experiments on kidnapped women. The experiments are done offstage, but the results are depicted. In “The House of Golden Masks” (June 1929), girls are forced into white slavery, adorned with golden masks attached to their faces by piercings, and compelled to participate in degrading performances for the benefit of wealthy degenerates. The other stories with prurient elements are: “Children of Ubasti” (12/29) -- ghouls kidnap girls and eat their flesh, and feed them human flesh; “The Dust of Egypt” (4/30) -- threat of flagellation; “The Brain Thief” (5/30) -- forced nudity; “Bride of Dewer” (7/30) -- attempted rape by demon; “Daughter of the Moonlight” (8/30) -- man’s face mutilated by witch. That’s seven stories out of thirty-two. The sadistic elements, which far from “abound,” are more than balanced by the cheerfulness and good deeds of the kindly Dr. De Grandin. Both De Grandin and his sidekick Dr. Trowbridge are middle-aged bachelors with lost loves in their pasts; their adventures frequently center on their efforts to aid a young couple. This lends the stories a sort of bittersweet quality.

On the other hand, Seabury Quinn’s only novel-length tale of Jules de Grandin, The Devil’s Bride, is much stronger than the typical De Grandin short story. In it, infants are sacrificed by Satanists, a nude woman is found crucified, and an innocent girl is blinded and mortally wounded. Again, most of the atrocities occur offstage. The Devil’s Bride was serialized in six issues of Weird Tales, concluding in the July 1932 issue. Therefore it would have been fresh in Howard’s mind when he made his remarks to Lovecraft in early August. Even so, I think, in bashing Quinn, Howard protests too much.

Howard made passing mention of sadism and masochism in other correspondence, to Novalyne Price as well as to Lovecraft. The former was a proper young woman of the era and the latter was virtually asexual, but both were important figures in Howard’s life. Concerning sadism, he told Lovecraft, “I’ve read what Havelock Ellis and other leading psychologists have had to say about it, and have in my possession a very good work on sadism and masochism by a noted German scholar” (Howard to H. P. Lovecraft, 5/12/35, 68). This appears to be in reference to Algolagnia: The Psychology, Neurology and Physiology of Sadistic Love and Masochism by Albert Eulenburg.

Howard also owned several books of flagellation erotica, specifically A History of the Rod, Curiosa of Flagellants and History of Flagellation, and Experiences of Flagellation (Eng, Robert E. Howard’s Library 189, 198). Glenn Lord expressed the notion that the presence of these books in Howard’s library may reflect his interest in writing for the weird menace magazines. The amount of research essential for writing for the shudder pulps notwithstanding, the sort of Grand Guignol torture depicted in magazines like Terror Tales bears little resemblance to actual S/m erotica. I suspect that Glenn Lord may have wished to avoid confronting the possibility that REH harbored any “pervert” tendencies. However, Howard’s possession of such books does suggest that he knew what he was doing when he included the whipping scene in “Xuthal of the Dusk,” for example.

A list of erotic titles available for purchase was found among Howard’s papers. The titles listed were: A History of the Rod, The Merry Order of St. Bridget, Curiosa of Flagellants & History of Flagellation, Painful Pleasures, Nell in Bridewell, The Misfortunes of Colette, The Strap Returns, Tracts of Flagellation, The Rodiad, Tender Bottoms, Sadism and Masochism (Eulenburg), Presented in Leather, and Girdles of Chastity. The prices of the titles are included, and notes indicate that most were illustrated and privately printed for subscribers.

Need I add that it was extremely rare for someone to simply stumble upon material of this type back in the 1930s? It may have been more widely available during the Roaring Twenties, but one would have still needed to go out of one‘s way to obtain it. The extent to which Howard pursued this interest way back then –long before John Norman, before Penthouse Forum, before Eric Stanton, before John Willie’s Bizarre, before Irving Klaw, before Bettie Page—is revealing. Most people in Howard’s day were only dimly aware of erotic sadomasochism. Prior to the composition of “Red Nails,” Howard remarked to Novalyne Price that he planned to make it one of his “sexiest, goriest” tales. In reaction to this, Novalyne noted in her diary, “…I couldn’t see that the Conan yarns Bob had brought me to read had any sex in them. Gore, yes. Sex, no.” (Ellis, 201) Frankly, this statement had me puzzled. Then it dawned on me that, in 1935, Novalyne would probably have not even recognized the flagellation, bondage, and assorted sadomasochistic trappings in stories like “Xuthal of the Dusk” and “Red Nails” as “sex.”

The presence of sadomasochistic elements in Howard’s poetry and fiction, viewed in light of the S/m erotica in his collection, does seem to indicate that Howard’s sexual interests extended beyond a simple taste for vanilla. REH was a physically vigorous young male with no regular sexual outlet, and possessed of one of the most vivid imaginations on the planet. It would actually be surprising if he had no kinks whatsoever.

A common thread running through all of Robert E. Howard’s work is a craving for more intense experience than there is to be found in ordinary, everyday life. The sadomasochistic elements in Howard’s writings are a reflection of this, as far as his libido is concerned. Hearts and flowers and Cupid and the moon in June weren’t enough for him. Or as Howard himself put it:

“Mine are the lusts of hoofs and horns,
“Of the he-goat and the loon
“And the naked witches that demons deflower
“On the dark side of the moon.

“No common sin may fire my eyes,
“Glutted with excesses fell—
“My lust is stained with the dung that stirs
“On the stinking streets of Hell. (Howard to Tevis Clyde Smith 61-62)


Robert E. Howard works cited:

“Altars and Jesters,” in Night Images (The Morning Star Press, 1976), pp. 28-31.

“The Black Stone,” in The Best of Robert E Howard Volume I: Crimson Shadows (Del Rey Books, 2007), pp. 121-136.

“The Black Stranger,” in The Conquering Sword of Conan (Del Rey Books, 2005), pp. 103-173.

“Daughters of Feud,” in The She Devil (Ace Fantasy Books, 1983), pp. 147-167.

“Flaming Marble,” in Etchings in Ivory (Hall Publications, 1975), pp. 5-6.

“The Hyena,” in Shadow Kingdoms: The Weird Works of Robert E. Howard, Volume 1 (Wildside Press, 2004), pp. 67-78.

Howard to H. P. Lovecraft, ca. September 1930, in Selected Letters 1923-1930 (Necronomicon Press, 1989), p. 58.

Howard to H. P. Lovecraft, 9 August 1932, in The Last Celt (ed. Glenn Lord, Donald M. Grant, 1976), p. 51.

Howard to H. P. Lovecraft, 5 December 1935, in Selected Letters 1931-1936 (Necronomicon Press, 1991), pp. 65-73.

Howard to Tevis Clyde Smith, ca. September 1930, in Selected Letters 1923-1930 (Necronomicon Press, 1989), pp. 60-62.

“Iron Shadows in the Moon,” in The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian (Del Rey Books, 2003), pp. 187-216.

“The Moon of Skulls,” in The Savage Tales of Solomon Kane (Del Rey Books, 2004), pp. 99-170.

“Pigeons from Hell,” in The Black Stranger and Other American Tales (University of Nebraska Press, 2005), pp. 264-292.

“Red Nails,” in The Conquering Sword of Conan (Del Rey Books, 2005), pp. 211-281.

“Strange Passion,” in Risqué Stories 1, March 1984, p. 20.

“Ship in Mutiny,” in The She Devil (Ace Fantasy Books, 1983), pp. 22-42.

“Xuthal of the Dusk,” in The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian (Del Rey Books, 2003), pp. 219-247.

Other works cited:

Novalyne Price Ellis, One Who Walked Alone: Robert E. Howard, The Final Years (Donald M. Grant, 1986).

Leslie A. Fieldler, Love and Death in the American Novel (Scarborough Books, 1982).

Steve Eng, Robert E. Howard’s Library in Don Herron, ed., The Dark Barbarian: The Writings of Robert E. Howard, A Critical Anthology (Greenwood Press, 1984), pp. 183-200.