The sun rose over the morning hills in the east, warming the sky in vibrant pinks and yellows. Bright as a field of flowers.
Jerocobish stood over the stake that marked Ma Jeans grave. Head bowed. Hat against his chest. Lost in an abundance of memories, good and bad, happy and sad: their life had been a journey, he knew.
"I'm uncertain how I'll go about it alone," He whispered. "But I'll do my best...until we meet again in the prairie."
Jostice stood behind him holding quiet while Grotknot stood soaked in tears.
"Thank you, Gentlemen." Jerocobish turned towards them. "For being here." He took a breath...the air was too fresh and cold, he thought, and tasted of the fall right before winter; not like the cherry tobacci that warmed his lips and lungs. Time for a change...
"Straddle the horses."
It was quite the morning ride down the hillside. Jostice mounted the mare, Wildwind, who was normally calm yet felt tense between his legs, nervous from the golden hawk that squawked on the man's shoulder.
"Can you get that bird to settle down?" Jeroco asked. His head throbbed.
"I've tried…" Jostice raised a finger and the bird snapped, nearly making him pay the price. "This feathered bitch is as stubborn as that colt you're on."
Jasper yanked and pulled in every direction. His head bobbing like an enthused dog. Eyes watching everything except the road. Trust the horse, Jerocobish always said though it was easier said than done when riding the young buck.
"He'd be fine if you just shut that bird up...Gonna give our position away." Jerocobish shifted in the saddle, countering his weight. He pulled the reins and caught himself before spilling over. "Why'd you bring that damned bird, no how?"
"It's the only way she'll learn...to ride along with us."
"Remmiron had a thing with birds—you had a thing with ladies—what are ya gonna do...swoon her?"
"If that's what it'll take." Jostice said, tilting his head in time to keep his ear from being bitten. "Besides, I always win them over."
Jeroco heckled, "the uglies, sure."
Grotknot chuckled and his cheeks bleed red. "You both wine like the whores in Stablerock...If you two put on a skirt and a wig I'm certain you'd find your pockets full of buckbacks."
"Ain't no man paying buckbacks for a rock whore."
"They would if they heard you lot." He chuckled. "There'd be a line from one side of town to the other."
"Well, hell," Jostice said. "Too bad you don't have our chops...you've already got the braids and wig on your head." The hawk screeched and Jostice's ear rang. "Damn, I don't recall Beatrice ever having so much to say."
"Did you feed her?" Jerocobish asked, as Jasper pulled sharply around the next bend. "Whoa, now!"
The two men riding along with him laughed.
Jostice thought for a moment. "I'm not certain last she's been fed—"
The man's right shoulder dipped and the hawk took flight, darting through the trees; it hit the ground and rolled. A gray ball of fur between its talons. The bird screeched then tore into flesh.
"You see that," Jeroco pointed. "you won't swoon her over by neglecting her." He gave the colt a pat and felt his firm muscles beneath the silk-fine hair; Jasper leaped and trotted, head shaking. "God forsaken, Mule." The old man fought the reins and the horse settled.
"It's better for her to hunt than to be hand fed." Jostice said. "And that horse of yours proves me right."
"This is all you need," Grotknot lifted a horned-flask strapped with leather around his shoulder. "Gutrot...The horses take a liking to the froth." He chuckled. "Ain't that right, Mhram."
The horse trotted sluggishly looking near old as the dwarfed man sitting upon it. Jerocobish remembered when he got it...Nearly three years ago yet the stallion looked to have been drained of all his youth.
Jeroco shook his head.
After another hour, he saw wooden webs, twisted and misshapen, hanging from the trees like oversized dreamcatchers.
"There," Grotknot pointed, "where the spider's den lies."
"Tie down the horses...we'll go by foot," Jerocobish said. He looked to the ball of dim-golden feathers perched on Jostice's shoulder. "And leave the bird…"
Jostice didn't argue. He strapped a line around the bird's leg. "Now you two play nice," He looked between the horse and the bird who both stared back with a hint of annoyance. Jostice turned to the men. "How do we know he'll be there?"
Grotknot smirked. "A spider always returns to his web...if not to shit, then to be fed." He chuckled. "Thought that one up meself."
Jerocobish didn't smile. There was truth to the words. The witch doctor had gained his trust, and like a spider, weaved his trap—and he fell right into it���like a fly with no wings.
"Stay focused. The witch doctor has many eyes and ears—"
There was a scream and a holler; a black blur swung down from the trees. Jostice rolled, Grotknot fell back, Jeroco stood his ground. The old man side-stepped and his leg popped; the black blur swung past, flying through the air; it disappeared into a canopy of green.
"Tree feathers," Grotknot grumbled, climbing to his feet. "Fight on the ground like men!"
"Backs to me, boys…You see one don't hesitate to shoot."
There came another pair of of screams and hollers like chicklets between a dog's jaws.
"My side," Jostice said,
"And mine…" The short man warned.
Jeroco shifted left; a spark of silver caught his peripheral. He readjusted and spun right, whirling the revolver up into his hand. A click, fire, and flash…Missed. Two black blurs fell from the trees. Grotknot shot blind. Jostice kicked the dwarfish man and drove the old man to his knees; the blurs swung near the ground, blades hacking the air; another second and they formed to the trees and were gone.
"Twice to the ground," Grotknot said angrily, pulling branches from his beard. "There will not be a third."
"They are trying to seperate us." Jostice looked between the trees. "Catch us alone..."
"I've got a plan, Grotknot said. "Let them come…Don't shoot until I say."
The two men gave him an odd look then nodded. They regrouped, backs turned, guns raised and ready.
The tree people dove down again and again. Attack after attack. Three at a time. Two at a time. Four at a time. Six at a time. Striking with killing blows; swinging and throwing their sickled blades.
"There," Jeroco said, in time for Jostice to fire, shattering a flying stone-edged tomahawk.
After three more ambushes the men stood breathing heavy; smoking the morning air while their limbs ached from ducking and dodging.
Jostice spat. "What're you waiting on, a full moon?"
"Just a little longer, Laddy."
Jeroco eyebrows furrowed. "You better make it quick...I think I've dislodged a hip."
There were two more strikes and a twinkle found the Boarman's eyes.
"Ok, Lads." Grotknot slipped a yellowish-jagged rock from his pocket. "Keep your heads down, your eyes closed, and drop to your knees when I say so," he whispered, "got it?"
They didn't have time to respond, the natives chants soared from the trees; the branches shaking and rattling like the forest drew life.
Grotknot took a breath, "three…" Jeroco and Jostice tilted their heads downward. "Two," The tree people positioned themselves. "One," Grotknot hurled the stone and dropped to a knee. "Get down!"
Ten natives soared through the air…
...Grotknot raised his gun and fired.
The rock shattered, projecting shard pieces in every direction; there was a golden glow that flared for several heart beats while thuds came from above; the tree people collided, dangling like bugs caught in a web. Their eyes blind from the bright light.
The glow faded...
"Now!" Grotknot said.
The men stood to their feet with guns drawn. It was like shooting fleshy targets. One bullet after the other zipped through the natives skin, leaving them hung and draining blood like cows after the slaughter.
The men holstered their weapons surrounded by corpses.
Grotknot looked over their half-naked advisory; olive skin, dark hair, and exposed breasts. They were skinny as the limbs in the trees, with large hands and feet, made for climbing.
"Women?" Grotknot scratched his beard.
"Every last one of them…" Jostice said, grimly. He turned to the old man. "Did you know about this?"
He could feel their eyes boring through him. There's no sense in lying. "They had no mercy when it came to Ma Jean," He replied, and that was all that was said about that.