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Merit, Part One

by T.S. Luikart

Merit found the corpse that was destined to change his life forever just before first light, staked out in a cave. It had been carefully concealed beneath a stone facade that most would’ve walked past without a second thought. Many would’ve called the discovery mere chance, but those folk wouldn’t have been ones who ever knew Cleave Merit.

He’d roused early that day, sensing the unease in the court’s booming whoops. His range-cat Ripper had already been awaiting him, her green-gold eyes luminous in the pre-dawn darkness. As he set out, she had sprung up behind him and settled down into her accustomed perch braced against the back of his saddle. He rode northwest, towards what he perceived as the heart of the thunderbirds’ disturbance. The bulk of the court was still asleep, gathered in clusters for warmth, which made the going easier and gave him more time to ponder as he went. Wolves, maybe, or grep? The bulls hadn’t been calling out challenges though. Certainly not a tiger or a dragon; the court would have been alert and ready to stampede, not simply edgy, he’d thought.

Merit eventually worked his way through the court to a very awake and agitated bull. The huge male thunderbird had clawed a rough circle out of the ground where he had paced about. The massive bird’s head and elongated neck were snapping up and down searching for threats, but swiftly settled on Cleave as he drew near. The wrangler’s approach was rightfully cautious; he reckoned that the enormous male weighed in at well over 100 stone and his running claws looked like long ivory daggers in the starlight.

Merit slowly dismounted and drew a lantern out of his largest saddlebag, every action deliberate. After stoking the lantern’s fire, he paused to regard the partially dozing Ripper in the wan light. “No grep, huh girl?” Ripper was justly famed across the range for her grep-slaying prowess and could invariably scent the poisonous lizards from hundreds of paces off. One of Cleave’s groepero friends from the Thousand Mesas had dubbed her, “Muerta Elegas Diminas” – the “Graceful Little Death”. A Steam Baron’s agent once offered Merit two hundred silver dollars for her, literally ten times the going rate for a range-cat. He’d turned the Easterner down flat.

Merit walked towards the bull warily, lantern held high. The thunderbird continued to emit a series of relatively soft uneasy whoops as Cleave slowly approached, but the wrangler was relieved to see that the huge bird didn’t seem to perceive him as a threat. The bull persisted in shifting nervously, his head occasionally bobbing down towards Merit, but at least he hadn’t emitted one of the deafeningly loud challenge whoops which thunderbirds used to warn their court of danger, as well as signaling their readiness to fight. Cleave was squatting down inspecting the bull’s legs, searching for signs of a rattler bite or anything else out of the ordinary, when he caught the faintest hint of something foul on the wind.

Merit rose, turning the smell over in his mind. Rot and rust, blood once spilt nearby? He went back to his horse to retrieve his pistol. While he routinely carried a repeater over his shoulder while on the range, it was better used two-handed and he didn’t want to give up the lantern. Ripper was fully awake by then, easily picking up on his agitation. Her tail lashed back and forth in sympathy, causing the large furry tufts at the top of her ears to sway about wildly. She leapt down to the ground and stalked off a few paces, before turning to look back up at Cleave expectantly.

“Yeah, girl, I know.”

They set out away from the bull, Merit carefully inspecting the ground as he went, his eyes occasionally flicking to Ripper as she picked her way over the rough terrain. They hadn’t gone far when she went still, her hackles rising. A plaintive, uncertain sound escaped her. Cleave set the lantern down and lightly stroked her back.

“It’s alright, Rip. I can smell it too.”

Sickly sweet decay, the iron tang of blood far stronger now. They were kneeling at the base of a steep hill, the summit of which was crowned with a jagged tor. Merit considered the jumbled rocks in the light of his lantern, the way they were piled… Cleave’s father had put him on a horse before he could walk, his entire life had been spent on the ranches and the ranges of the Far West; he never could’ve put it into words, but it came to him that the rocks were wrong, their placement strange.

Merit left the range-cat behind and made his way up the slope to get a better look at the piled broken stones. He couldn’t make out any marks on the rocks, but the way they had settled struck him as to regular, to… deliberate. As he reached the top of the hill, Cleave realized that part of the mound had eroded away along a crack running through its northern face leaving a small cavern behind. A broken stone slab appeared to have been laid across the fissure, forming a roof of sorts, which looked as if it had been covered with rocks to conceal it.

Merit carefully lowered himself down into the cleft, a difficult task while maintaining a good grip on both lantern and pistol, only to nearly gag from the stench. He swiftly pulled his bandana up over his face, blinking back tears. A tarp had been fixed beneath the stone slab, coated with dust, and pinned in place in such a way as to make it resemble the surrounding hillside. The reek came from beyond.

Cleave steeled himself and pushed the tarp aside. His lantern illuminated a small cave, some six or seven paces deep and as many wide. A body was lying in the center of the cavern and clearly the source of the terrible smell. The rest of the cave was empty, though the remains of a fire were visible in one corner.

Merit forced himself to approach the cadaver for a better look. The body was naked, but the thunderbird wrangler could barely tell that it was a male, so great was the ruination along the thighs. The remains of many cuts and burns still showed clearly on the skin… and he had been staked to the cavern floor, railroad spikes driven through his palms, nailing him down into the dirt floor where his fluids were still soaking in.

A whisper of motion made Cleave snap about, gun leveled. Ripper blinked at him from the cave entrance. Merit smiled in spite of himself and lowered the pistol.

“Found your courage, eh? You stay over there, girl.”

Merit kneeled back down by the corpse. Cleave had seen more than a few bodies in his time, and had been forced on occasion to make a few himself, but he had never before witnessed the clear aftermath of such brutal torture. “Somebody surely did not like this fella, Ripper.” He gazed about the walls, trying to gauge how warm the cave would be during the day, and how long the body could’ve laid there. Three or four days at most, he figured.

Cleave rose, shaking his head. “Well, Mister, at least I’ll build you a pyre.” He started to turn away, then stopped, frozen and staring. The skin on the corpse’s right arm was unblemished, clearly left untouched purposefully. A complicated symbol was inked there, one Merit hadn’t seen in over thirty years.

Cleave rode back to camp as the sun rose, one hand holding the reins, the other steadying Ripper against his chest, as a tarp wrapped corpse occupied her normal seat.
 
 
 
 
You can read the other parts of Merit’s tale here:


 
 
 

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  1. […] You can read Part One of this story by clicking here. […]

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