Iron Horse, Mythic Horn

Iron Horse, Mythic Horn
from The Seed: Stories from the River’s Edge

They was all four of them sitting in a cantina in Lordsburg when I found them, the queerest group of heroes you ever seen: a white man, in his forties, wearing a battered old slouch hat pulled low over his clear blue eyes; a priest, looked to be Italian, Jesuit I reckoned from his robes and three-cornered hat; a shorter, stouter fellow with a pork-pie, probably the rabbi I’d heard tell about; and the Celestial, his braid and robes a familiar sight to me. A Mexican barman, probably the owner, too, looked up at me as I walked in, raised his eyebrow a touch. Can’t blame him; after that strange crew, to have a Chiricahua Indian gal in Celestial get-up push through the batwings, well, there’s only so much oddness people can just accept without stopping to wonder what the hell is happening in the world.

Me, I seen a few sights would make that bartender do more than just raise an eyebrow. Things that would drop any fragile mind in a dead faint and make even strong men run screaming for the hills. So I really didn’t pay no mind to his staring. It was New Year’s Day, 1881, and I had a magical creature to transport all the way to San Francisco. Problem was, I needed protection. That’s why I was in this small dusty town of the New Mexico Territory, a shabby chunk of desert kept alive by the new railroad—I had heard these gents was the best in their field.

I walked up to their table, and first thing, that Celestial bowed to me and muttered something I only half-understood. I thought my Chinese had gotten pretty good, but I was at a loss with him, and said as clear as I could in that language, “I do not quite understand you.”

“Ah,” he answered in words I knew, nodding. “You speak Mandarin, not Cantonese. Where did you learn it, if I may ask?”

Here the white man interrupted, in English. I was pretty sure he was the Kindred fellow of the stories I’d heard. “More importantly, ma’am, who are you? What’s your business with us?”

“Mr. Kindred?” He nodded. “Y’all are the Hounds of Heaven, ain’t that so? Ones who fought and beat the demon army over to Fort Union?”

“Well,” said the Rabbi with his queer German-sounding accent, “they weren’t demons, exactly, but yes. That’s us.”

The Jesuit muttered in Spanish to Kindred, and the white man smirked. “Well, you’ve found us, if you were looking for us. I don’t figure you just wanted to ‘see the elephant,’ or you’d just be gawking at us like others have. So why don’t you tell us what’s on your mind, Miss…”

I realized I was bungling the job, and I felt my face flush. “Gosh, I’m sorry. Name’s Katy Whitmore. I need to hire your services.”

The Jesuit grunted some more Spanish, and Kindred answered kind of irritated, “Ya sé, Pietro.” I knew what that meant, and now I knew the priest’s name. I also knew that him and Kindred probably didn’t always see eye to eye, and that the other two was less hot-headed. But now Kindred was talking. “Problem is, Miss Whitmore, our services aren’t exactly for hire. We do the work that needs to be done.”

“Oh, well I have a right unusual job, and y’all are about the only ones can get it done, I figure.”

They just looked at me quiet, waiting. They made me nervous with those calm blank faces, and I swallowed heavy. “We are transporting some real important freight clear to San Francisco, but we expect problems of the sort y’all are expert in handling. Of a supernatural sort, if you get my meaning.”

Pietro narrowed his eyes like with suspicion or doubt. “Exactly what type of freight you are transporting, Miss Whitmore?”

I took a deep breath and looked Kindred right in the eyes, knowing that he was the one I needed to convince. “I guess you’d call it a unicorn.” Flicking my eyes over to the Celestial, I simply added, “A ch’i-lin.”

His face stayed impassive, but it was obvious from him tensing up his body that I’d done startled him good. “Why,” he managed to say with faked calm, “would a ch’i-lin be on this continent, much less this particular stretch of desert?”

“Well, it’s not too easy to explain, but let’s just say he come to stop the evil treatment of Chinese workers laying railroad track. He was accompanied by,” I had to stop and think of how to say this in English, “by five, uh, seng?”

“Monks.” His jaw was still tight like a coyote trap.

“Right. All sigung, uh, masters. From a temple in China. O-mei Shan.”

“Shaolin monks, from the great school and library of the North. Here in America.” There was like wonderment or something stronger in his eyes. I could feel him getting even more wound up. The air was shaking with it.

“Yessir. But they was attacked by demons ‘fore they could even begin their mission. Only one lived, and the… the unicorn was hurt bad. We—I stumbled across them and helped them heal up—we been biding our time for nigh on five years now, but we got to get him back. He won’t make it much longer in this country, that’s what he says. K’uei, that’s them demons I mentioned, are all over. Bad times coming. So I’m asking y’all… help us. Help us ‘fore it’s too late.”

From the look the Celestial gave Kindred, I knew I had them.

An hour later we met back up at the train platform, where Kindred made arrangements with the ticket master for the transport of all the heaps of baggage them demon fighters had brung along. One crate was some nine feet long and took all four men plus a couple local boys to move onto the knotty planks. Dozens more boxes, carpet bags and valises were arranged around it, containing the accouterments, I guess, of their supernatural profession.

I knew all their names now: Sun Mu-pai was from China, expert in Tao magic; Father Pietro Baccalini was an Italian exorcist, real good at casting out demons and the like; Moshe Loew was a rabbi, though I didn’t know for sure what his talents were. Master Sun made it real clear that their help was going to depend on them seeing the beast, but I wasn’t too worried. My job was to get them to this point, and my master had assured me the rest would take care of itself.

Master Sun walked over to me as the stuff was being piled up. He give me curt bow, the slightest of formalities, then asked me in Chinese, “It falls to me to devise a strategy for repelling any attack that may be made on us. Please, clarify for me— the k’uei of which you have spoken… are they full jiang shr?”

“No, sir. My master, K’ung T’u-yi, has told me of those drinkers of blood, but the thing that attacked the monks six years ago was pure spirit, not animated flesh. A demon, I am told, a revenant of some dead person’s p’o soul.”

“Such demons are typically hungry for justice, for revenge: how came one to attack a being as holy as a ch’i-lin?”

“We don’t know, but the Book of Changes warns of a great number of these spirits, searching for us. We are blessed to have your protection.”

Sun Mu-pai took his leave, musing on what I’d told him. Before too long, I caught the sound of the Rogers 4-4-0 engine, tooting its whistle as it come chugging toward us, coal smoke popping out in slower and slower bursts. My palms sweated and ached with fear, but I swallowed hard and focused like I was learned to do.

Once the train had stopped, my master disembarked. Before I could get to him to confide what all had been agreed, Sun Mu-pai walked up and muttered who knows what. My master thrust up the sleeves of his robe, revealing the mantis and crane burned into the insides of his forearms. The Taoist wizard seemed satisfied, bowing low. I was about to gesture him over before Kindred or anyone else snatched him up, but he glided toward me without any prompting. My heart started beating a little quicker. No matter how hard I tried to ignore it as disrespectful and ridiculous, I felt more alive when he was around.

“Wu Kai-tan,” he said, addressing me by my celestial name with a smile in his eyes. “It is good to see you, shigoo mei. You have convinced them, I see.”

“Yes, Master K’ung, though they insist on seeing the ch’i-lin before actually boarding the train.”

“Understandable. Here,” he drew a leather pouch from within his sleeves. “It served us well, but I am glad you found the Hounds of Heaven, as I doubt your small magic will suffice for the longer journey.”

“I agree. Shall we begin, Master?”

I introduced him to the Hounds as quick as possible, and the porters set about loading all the gear into the car we’d set aside for us humans. Meanwhile, K’ung T’u-yi led us all to the other padlocked one.

“Y’all are about to enter the presence of something holy,” I translated for him. “I imagine I ain’t got to instruct y’all on your manners, but be aware. Step light; don’t go disturbing the circle of salt and rice.” At the mention of that barrier, the four of them looked at each other and gave approving nods. Seems my master had gone up a notch in their estimation.

He unlocked the door and slid it slightly open. A pleasant odor of cinnamon and cloves drifted out. One by one we squeezed in, me last of all. Ahead of me I heard the rabbi whisper all hushed and reverent, “Truly a re’em such as the ancients described. I’ve held that horn to my lips many times, but I never thought to see beast itself.” No idea what he meant, but I figured re’em to be some Hebrew word for unicorn. I reckoned I understood part of why Loew was so amazed. Hell, I’d lived near the ch’i-lin for half a decade now, and I was still overcome by it. It was about the size of a deer, with a shaggy tail and cloven hooves. Its fur was multicolored, a white ground with intricate runes and symbols swirling about in black, blue, yellow and red. As it looked on us with its golden eyes, burning and eternal like two suns, its small horn—not bone but something like cartilage—seemed to point into our hearts.

A sound like a thousand chimes seemed to fill the air, but I knew from experience that the music was just in our heads. It wasn’t language, not really, not even pictures. Just feelings, like right now thankfulness and joy. I looked round at the men and was a mite startled to see tears on Kindred’s cheeks. He nodded.

“Yes,” he whispered, though it wasn’t real clear what he was responding to.

Sun Mu-pai turned to Master K’ung and muttered something I couldn’t catch. The Shaolin priest nodded his agreement, and the Taoist spoke to his fellows. “The monk and I will travel in here, readying a last defense if you are unable to keep the k’uei from entering.”

“Good idea,” Kindred nodded. “I’ll bring your bags over in a moment.” Reaching out to place his hand on Master Sun’s shoulder, he added, “We’ll do our part, my friend.”

 

Not long after, the train got a-moving, and I found myself sitting in the Pullman across the aisle from Kindred. My window faced south, and as the train began to pick up steam, I stared out at the Peloncillo Mountains, trying to make out the distant purple peaks of the Chiricahuas where I was born. I guess I got a mite wistful looking, for Kindred spoke, yanking me from my reverie.

“I noticed the medicine bag, Ms. Whitmore. I take it you’re Apache?”

“Well, yessir, but I wasn’t raised by them. My real parents, far’s I can figure, were part of Cochise’s band. Seems I was born round about 1860. Sometime in the winter of ‘61 Cochise ordered women and children back up into the mountains while his braves and him dealt with some soldiers coming onto the band’s territory. I must’ve got separated from my ma as a rancher found me huddled in the snow up to Apache Pass, not far from the Butterfield station house, this here pouch clutched in my little hands.”

I had to pause for a moment because that maggot’s face was leering in my mind, his broken teeth and draggling mustachios… A deep breath, my eyes closed. The shortest moment of tso-ch’an, and I continued.

“Man’s name was Frank Whitmore. He took me back to his ranch, a spread near the Santo Domingo River, and his wife was just tickled to have her a girl, her own children being mostly boys ‘cept for a daughter that had died of the smallpox.

“I remember my childhood as mainly happy. Ma Whitmore learned me all sorts of domestic skills, made me dresses and dolls, read the Bible to me. My ‘brothers’ were considerable older than me, and when I was little, they give me candy and treated me like a princess. But along about my tenth year, all that commenced to change. The boys was all men; they went off to find their own fortunes down Tombstone way or to marry or fight the Indians…”

Kindred gave a sort of grimace. “A bit ironic, that last occupation.”

“Yeah, well, didn’t hardly nobody think of me as an Apache, not when I was just a wee thing. But as I got older, Frank Whitmore started a-cursing me for a red-skinned devil and whatnot. He for sure saw me as an Indian… among other things.”

Kindred’s eyes went soft, and I could kind of feel what was coming next. I didn’t expect pity from him nor nobody, to be honest, but his look of compassion was sincere, and I could see the Buddha-nature my master had learned me about shining through the illusion of his flesh.

“He tried to rape you, didn’t he?”

I ducked my head, feeling shame color my cheeks. Didn’t have no reason to be ashamed, but there was the feeling anyhow. I had struggled long and hard to clear my heart of the desire to harm him, once I learned how craving such things, craving anything, in fact, kept me a slave to my suffering. But the shame… I couldn’t be rid of it. “He didn’t just try, Mr. Kindred. But you can bet I didn’t stick around for more of that horrible life. No, sir. I high-tailed it out of there. Wound up in the Sierra Diablo—you know, the Black Mountains, a ways north of here—and that’s where I come across my master and the ch’i-lin, both of them wounded.”

For a moment, Kindred glanced toward the other end of the railcar, where Baccalini and Loew were readying their odd gear with practiced silence. They seemed to feel his gaze, and they looked up.

The priest asked, “What they were doing in the Black Mountains?”

“Well, like I said, the monks brung the ch’i-lin across the ocean so it could stop the horrors being perpetrated against Celestial railroad workers. They’d heard all the way to China about how they was being made to work in real deplorable conditions. What struck them as most worrisome was the many deaths and the way the bodies was just being buried in shallow, unmarked graves, without the proper rituals and with no one to remember those poor souls. Sure, lots was dug back up and shipped home for respectful burial, but too many was forgotten, left behind, with no one to ease their passing—a surefire way to create demons, though white folks be too ignorant to know it. So the monks, they come on a boat to Mexico, planning to cross the New Mexican border and head northwest into Utah, far’s I can tell. But up in them mountains, they was attacked by a k’uei; I reckon the p’o soul of some dead worker that was drawn to the ch’i-lin’s magic. What it was doing so far from the railways, I still don’t understand.”

The rabbi cleared his throat and broke in. “A dybbuk—k’uei—looks to attach itself to a live person. It had probably followed prospectors who came into New Mexico on the rails but then had taken wagons south to hunt for silver in the mountains. We’ve been hearing about similar attacks for some seven years now, but we’ve not experienced any activity first-hand.”

Kindred sighed. “None of this surprises me, however. More than a hundred thousand Chinese workers have entered this country over the past decade, and despite the fact that our present ease of travel has been purchased with their lifeblood, we continue to treat those men and woman abominably. President Hayes has just signed the Chinese Exclusion Treaty, which reverses the open-door policy set in 1868 and places strict limits both on the number of Chinese immigrants allowed to enter the United States and on the number allowed to become naturalized citizens. In fact, Congress is considering a complete moratorium on Chinese immigration. In essence, the US has used the Chinese to build its railroads, but doesn’t want them to stay, and certainly doesn’t want them to have its gold or silver. That the tortured souls of dead Chinese want revenge is to be expected, as far as I’m concerned. But the ch’i-lin and its guardians must be protected, as must be any person innocent of the destruction of those lives.”

“Amen to that. After five years of living in those mountains, the presence of the ch’i-lin drawing more and more k’uei to us, Master K’ung and me realized that protecting the unicorn meant getting it away from the US. So I got us a rig at Silver City—where I also heard bout y’all’s outfit—and we split up, my master heading to Deming to ride the rails, and me taking a shorter route through the mountains to catch y’all in Lordsburg. And that, as they say, is that.”

“I see.” Kindred pulled out a wooden case, unclasped it, and pulled a strange pistol from within. He pored over it real careful, checking the mechanisms, taking it apart piece by piece.

“You don’t mind me asking,” I put in, “How’d y’all form the Hounds of Heaven?”

“Oh,” he replied, “we didn’t quite form anything, ma’am. Each of us was doing similar work in his own part of New Mexico, particularly in the area of Las Vegas. Trying to ameliorate the evils that our people had brought to this land or to struggle against forces that had amassed themselves long before our arrival. We were drawn together, you might say, again and again over the course of the last decade. Finally we came to realize we were a team. A group of warriors, staving off the darkness.”

“Hounds of Heaven.”

Kindred smiled, but he didn’t say anything else, just took to cleaning his odd pistol, looking over at me from time to time with kindly eyes. I was all sorts of tuckered out, so I pulled down one of the beds and clambered up into it, pulling the curtain part-ways closed. Maybe ‘cause nary a one of these men batted an eye at me being Indian and all, my mind wandered onto the figure of the Sixth Patriarch, Dajian Huineng, who my master had talked to me about a lot, given that he also was a poor person of a disrespected race, like me. Eventually all China, Master K’ung told me, learned to respect him, but when he first come upon Huang Mei mountain, the Fifth Patriarch like to run him off. Called him a barbarian. Huineng allowed as how he surely was a barbarian, and unschooled, but he told the Ch’an leader, “Our physical bodies may look different, but our Buddha-nature is the same.” Hearing them words was my first step toward freedom from my earthly situation, from the pain of my past and the confusion of the present.

My master, he would recite to me some of the more famous kung-an, cases that us students is supposed to reflect on as we move toward enlightenment. As I laid there, waiting for sleep, one case that had to do with Huineng come to mind, and I pondered it a spell:

The wind was flapping a temple flag, and two monks started an argument. One said the flag moved; the other said the wind moved. The two of them argued back and forth but they couldn’t reach no compromise.

Huineng said, “It ain’t the wind that moves; it ain’t the flag, neither.

“It’s y’all’s minds doing the moving.”

The two monks was awe-struck.

Meditating on the implications of that case, I drifted into a dreamless sleep.

 

A few hours later, a voice pulled me from the near-Nirvana of slumber.

“Ms. Whitmore. We’ve stopped for coal and water. It may be a good time to stretch your legs and so forth.”

I pulled back the curtain and was greeted by Kindred’s kindly face. He gestured with a tilt of his head toward the door at the far end of the Pullman, and feeling the call of nature, I slipped out of the bunk, folded it away, and headed into the cool twilight air. Sign on the platform indicated we was at Cochise, and I give a little smile at the irony. A depot agent, frowning mightily at the need to talk to a Chinese-dressed redskin gal, pointed me in the direction of the privy, and after dealing with my various necessities, I washed up at the pump beside the depot.

The last thin rays of sunlight had left the sky by the time I climbed back on board. The three men were moving about the car, affixing to the windows yellowed strips of paper with what looked to be Chinese characters and some other squiggles, maybe Hebrew writing. I can read English well enough, and my master had been trying for years to get me to learn his people’s queer pictographs, but whatever was on them slips was beyond me. Didn’t matter none; I knew they was wardings of some kind or another.

The car lurched as the train begun to move again. The priest and the rabbit pulled two heavy stone tablets out of a box and dragged them to either end of the car, right in front of the doorways. I recognized the pa kua inscribed on them, the eight sacred symbols, all arrayed geometric-like around a yin-yang circled.

“Taoist magic,” I muttered to Kindred, who’d been checking the vents or whatever-they-were that run across the top of the coach’s walls, just above the folded-up beds. He had been anointing them with something, maybe holy water or oil or somesuch.

“Yes, ma’am. This sort of revenant can be formed after the death of a person of any creed, but it helps to use the symbols in which the dead had faith when living. Likely the poor workers whose energy was twisted in this way were believers in feng shui and other Chinese manipulations of ch’i. As much as we can, we’ll use those systems to keep the revenants at bay.”

“But each of you has his own particular sets of weapons, ain’t that right?”

“That we do. Our ability to manipulate virtus is dependent to some degree on our own faith, and our tools reflect the roots of that faith.” He touched the handle of his revolver. “Rex here, well, I… my people taught me to believe in the strength of firearms, so you could say that Rex has fallen to me as a result. There are times when that fact shames me, but I am what I am. The religious training of Pietro and Moshe has afforded them less violent means for combating chaos. Mu-pai falls between these two extremes, having both ritualistic and aggressive means of manipulating virtus.”

“You keep saying that. ‘Manipuating virtus.’ What’s virtus, anyhow? Is that like ch’i?”

“Exactly. Every culture has its own term for the energy that imbues the universe, that flows from love, understanding, creation, knowledge… all the positive actions that build rather than destroy. Your own people—the Apaches, I mean—call it diyí. The Comanche use the word puha. The Maya called it ch’ulel. But this energy, virtus, ch’i—it can be blocked, distorted. The Navajo, who call virtus hozho, term this distortion hochxo. Chaos. Entropy. Destruction. And there are forces that would marshal all the hochxo they can in order to see our world sundered to its roots. I suspect that the attraction of the k’uei to the ch’i-lin is driven by those forces.”

The rabbi, dusting off his hands and beginning to deck himself out with the fancy doodads of his position, made a sound of agreement. “Yes. No other explanation for the desire to hurt a re’em—dybbukim should be reluctant to even approach such a powerful, holy creature.”

“I reckon that must be so. I have had to run off a passel of them demons, and it ain’t been easy.”

“You used your pouch?” asked the priest, also draping yokes of cloth and rosaries and such about himself.

“Yessir. It happened by accident, really. First attack that come, my master was chanting and so forth, and I was so scared that I just clenched my hand ‘round my medicine bag, closed my eyes, and begun whispering the only words in Apache I still could recall… something my mama must’ve sung to me when I was itty-bitty. I felt a cold, dark, angry force try to butt itself ‘gainst my soul, but I kept clinging to this here pouch and saying them words till it went away. Later I found that I could put my hand on another and keep him from being attacked, as well. So it’s only good for protection.”

“That is sufficient,” the priest told me with a smile. “We shall take charge of the rest, my child.”

As if on cue, the Pullman rocked a little. Any other time, you might’ve sworn it was the wind, but I knew it weren’t. Through the window I could see how dark forms flitted ‘cross the stars, blocking them out from time to time. We were under attack.

Communicating with little gestures and glances, Lowe and Baccalini stood together at the center of the coach, back to back in the narrow aisle, lifting up their respective books of scripture. At precisely the same moment, the two begun to read, one in the harsh but angelic sounds of Hebrew, the other in cold and liquid Latin. The combination should’ve been frightful ugly, but it weren’t. It was comforting and harmonious, and despite the looming danger outside, I felt transported for a second, hearkening back to when I first come ‘cross that cave in the mountains, me all emptied out from the desert and the endless sky, faced with them two strange beings, one of them chiming like a cherub in my mind while the other went on reciting the Lotus Sutra in his transcendent voice. Even though they was wounded and far from home, I felt safe for the first time in ages.

And I felt safe now.

Kindred didn’t say nothing; he just stood beside me, his hand on his pistol grip, his hair all unruly as if was glad to be out from under that slouch hat he usually had on. The coach was buffeted something fierce—the windows rattled so hard they like to pop right out—and a horrible, raspy moaning come from all ‘round us, the sound of hundreds of animal souls—the human spark long gone to another loop of rebirth—clinging blindly to the night air. Those driven bits of spirits rocked that Pullman back and forth so hard I figured we’d be throwed off the track any second, the train crashing into the rocks and sand, ripping open the other car and exposing the ch’i-lin to all them groaning scraps of darkness.

I squeezed my medicine bag tight in my right hand, feeling the bits of turquoise, shell, feathers and bone that rested there since I was a wee child. Hesitating a mite, I joined my voice to the protective clamoring of the two holy men, reciting words I wasn’t sure I understood no more, repeating what I heard my mama’s voice croon in the deepest parts of my memory: “Gòdìt’ ó’ bàsxà’ híljìj tc’ ìndí; gòdìt’ ó’ bèbìk’ è nà ìst ‘ ó tc’ ìndí; hí tsát ‘ ùl bìt’ ùl ‘á lzà tc’ ìndí.”

Kindred pressed his face against the glass of the door that looked out on the other car, where I reckoned the two celestial masters was struggling to keep the k’uei from busting in. He shook his head and turned back to us, a harrowed look upon him. I could see through the tall window beside the door how the silhouette of the boxcar was wavering wildly.

“I’m going out there before those damned things derail the other car and kill us all. Keep her safe.”

Drawing his strange pistol, Kindred stood on the stone tablet and opened the door. He stuck his head out, pointed at angle toward the sky, and fired. A blood-curdling, spectral scream split the air, and I reckoned whatever special ammunition he was using had gone and hit its target. Then he was out the door, and I could see his worn boots through the window, climbing the ladder up to the roof of the Pullman. I scooted down the aisle till I was in front of the door. From above us come shot after shot, and the howls of k’uei beat at my ears like the flailing arms of a drowning man.

The shaking of our coach stopped pretty soon; the rabbi and priest stopped their recitation, and in the silence a nerve-wracking squeal come, and I saw what seemed bits of flame leaping through the darkness. Kindred begun shooting again. The others come up beside me, and we all three saw in the muted light of muzzle fire and winter stars how the wheels of the other car come up off the track on one side, then slammed down onto the rail again in a shower of sparks and that agonizing squeal.

Baccalini looked at Loew. “I think that you should get your shofar, my friend. His gun is not the answer this time.”

“Is it ever, really?” the rabbi responded as he hurried to the other end of the coach to retrieve whatever-the-heck a shofar was. He come a-running up the aisle again, unwrapping cloth from ‘round an object. When he tossed aside the cloth, I recognized what he held in his hands: the horn of a ch’i-lin, shiny and ancient and hollow.

“Time to climb, Pietro. Are you going to be okay?”

Though the priest went a mite ghostly-looking at the idea of climbing atop the coach, he nodded. “Ms. Whitmore,” he said, a mite shakily, “probably you should remain here.”

“Probably. But I ain’t going to, Father. I done faced these here things enough times that I might as well be there at the end.”

Neither one of them argued with me, which was a surprise. Loew opened the door, and we stood on the small deck right outside the coach, the cold January air flapping at our clothes. Part of me wanted to cross the planking between the Pullman and the boxcar, see if I couldn’t lend Masters K’ung and Sun a hand, but the black wraiths were all over it, thick as fleas, howling and writhing and pushing like a force of nature.

One by one we climbed up the iron ladder to the rooftop, where Kindred was reloading his gun. The train was chugging along at about twenty miles an hour, and the wind pulled at you like an insistent child. I crouched low, my stomach queasy with fear of falling. Kindred and Loew was exchanging words, but I just kept looking at the boxcar, yanked to and fro by them crazed revenants, and I suffered because I could not bear to think of K’ung T’u-yi dead, though I put my own enlightenment at risk by my overwhelming desire that he live. Then it come to me: it ain’t the k’uei that’s moving; it ain’t the car that’s moving—it’s my mind that’s moving. It weren’t clear to me how that could help my master, but it eased my pain some.

Unexpectedly I saw the door on the south side of the boxcar slide open a bit, and Masters Sun and K’ung swung themselves up onto the roof. Smoke—most likely from strips of paper they’d wrote their spells on and then burned in the Taoist way—clung to their robes and curled through the opening they’d left. Each of them yielded a sword: my master one of pale wood, probably peach, lent to him by the wizard, I reckoned; and Sun Mu-pai himself one of metal that glittered with the sparks, revealing seven stars etched into its blade. They commenced to hacking away at the k’uei; my master’s blows ended in a curving arc, sending the demons into clay jars that I could just make out, lined up inside the boxcar.

But when Master Sun’s blade sliced into a k’uei, the demon would burst into ebony fire and disappear.

“Destroying them isn’t the answer,” I heard Kindred say, though I didn’t know if was talking to anyone in particular. I turned a little and saw the rabbi lift the shofar to his lips. He begun to blow, and the deep, clear sound washed over me like some kind of balm, cleansing my soul and clearing my mind. Loew continued to sound the shofar in a kind of rhythm or pattern, and I could feel how it was directed at the k’uei, forcing them to release the boxcar and be still. Kindred lowered his pistol; the masters sheathed their swords. Hundreds of k’uei slowly drifted toward us, held by the music of the unicorn’s horn. As they neared, I was able to make out the familiar features, etched in ghostly gray ‘gainst the black miasma—the face of beasts, each with horns and claws and a single leg that tapered off into nothingness.

Loew lowered his shofar and begun to speak. “Lost souls. You are clinging to a life that is no longer yours. You are attacking those who can help you find release. Turn from this course of action, now. What you have become is an abomination.”

The k’uei seethed, silent but unwilling to heed nary a word.

Kindred touched Loew’s arm. “You’re the Baal Shem, Moshe. Use the Name.”

The rabbi sighed and nodded his agreement. “You are revenants, nefesh or p’o souls. I entreat you to release your rage and indignation so that you can be guided to your ruah, your hun, that vital, human part of you for which you so violently yearn. In service of the Creator I entreat you by his secret Name, Yehavoah. Yield!”

For a moment, the k’uei seemed to fade, their fury subdued, but some begun to snarl and hiss, and soon the entire legion of them turned all enraged and dove at the boxcar. I could hear the voices of the masters trying to reason with the demons, telling them in Chinese that they didn’t want no more violence, that the k’uei should let them help ease their suffering and whatnot. The demons paid no mind; they just went swirling around the car, preparing for a final onslaught.

Then the sound of chimes filled my head, and I knew the ch’i-lin was trying to communicate with me. It sent images to me, one after another, quick and insistent. My eyes teared up as I realized what it wanted. “No,” I muttered. “No, better to destroy them all.”

But it was one of the five sacred animals, and when it sent feelings of disappointment into me, I begun to openly weep. It reminded me how the clinging of them k’uei to this world was the root of their suffering and that Dharma directed us to help such creatures let go and move toward enlightenment. Finally, the ch’i-lin revealed to me its own Buddha-nature, reflected in my own heart by the same. “Alright. I’ll do as you ask. But these men ain’t gonna like it.”

I stood, bracing myself against the dizziness, and called to the demons in Chinese. “I hear you, displaced spirits. You demand to possess the ch’i-lin. You want it to surrender itself to you. And I understand why, even if you do not. This is the sacred earth beast, and your need for proper burial draws you like fireflies to a flame.

“So heed my words. The ch’i-lin cedes to you, on a single condition—each of you will fly to it and enter it, passing through its horn. Within its flesh, you will find the peace and rest that was denied to you.”

Master Sun, who I never seen show any extreme of emotion, crumpled like a bereft child on hearing my offer, his head in his hands. With a dark, oily laugh, the demons went streaming into the boxcar, a river of black hate that I couldn’t hardly bear to watch. Kindred shouted, lifting his gun, but I stepped in front of him.

“It’s what the ch’i-lin wanted,” I muttered, touching his trembling arm. “And it’s what Dharma demands. You’ll understand in a spell.”

I felt the train begin to slow, heard the hollow piping sound that announced a coming town. As the last demon slipped through the door, we all looked at each other with somber expressions, and then we climbed down the ladder and gathered in the Pullman. K’ung T’u-yi had gotten a hold of himself again, and he very calmly asked me to explain myself. Respectfully and quietly, I did, while the others put the coach back in order.

Once the train fully stopped, we descended. It was nearly 9 pm. We’d reached Benson, Arizona. A good twenty-four miles to our south lay the town of Tombstone. All around us stretched the desert, strewn with forgotten bones.

After some instructions to the depot workers, we shuffled solemn-like to the boxcar. Master K’ung pulled open the door, and there stood the ch’i-lin, turned to clay, like the terra cotta statues I hear they used to bury the emperors of China with. A smell of cinnamon lingered in the air, mixed with the ashy stink of sated rage. When I got a whiff of that, something in me twisted. I was still just a young gal, after all. I could understand with my mind that none of this was real, that the ch’i-lin had plumb dispelled the illusion that there was a difference between it and the k’uei—when in reality the demons and the unicorn and the Hounds was all one. But in my heart, the ch’i-lin was the magical beast that had taught me how to live again, to raise me up above all them bad things I experienced as a child. And I couldn’t hardly breathe because of the sorrow that squeezed my chest.

“We got to bury him,” I explained to the Hounds of Heaven through gritted teeth. “We’ll wrap him in hexes and spells and bury him deep in the desert sand. He holds them all inside, y’all understand. It’s the only way to give them the proper rites. Over time they’ll start to let go, and finally the ch’i-lin will crumble and melt into the earth, returning to where he come from.

“Do y’all understand this?” My heart was like to break at any moment. “He’s gonna share in their shame at dying in this land, far from home, unable to receive the respects of their families. He’ll keep them from harming the people of this nation, but that’s the cost: the last ch’i-lin will lay there, in the desert, forgotten, like the bones of the railway workers.”

Kindred without warning climbed up into the boxcar, put his arms around the clay unicorn, and muttered, “We will not forget.” Then he wept, baring his grief while we stood watching. After a couple of minutes, the others went to him, touched his shoulders silently.

But I didn’t want to comfort him. In that moment, I figured he just would have to bear the blame, even though he was never involved. His people done the crime, and he was the kind of man what would try to make amends. That, it seemed to me, was justice of a sort.

 

A couple hours later, we’d unloaded everything from the train, got the Hounds squared away at the hotel of this brand-new boomtown, and rented a wagon from a sleepy hostler to ride about an hour’s journey to the north, where we buried the ch’i-lin deep, warding him with ever bit of magic we knew. We all stood round the grave, for that’s what it was, quietly reflecting on the events of the day.

Kindred finally spoke. “What did it tell you to do next?”

I wiped my hands on my robes, but I couldn’t be rid of the sensation of ground-in dirt. I imagined it would be there a long while yet. “Said for me and Master K’ung to search for another sacred animal. Said it sensed another group of masters that was likely sent after the monastery didn’t hear back from the ch’i-lin’s guardians. They brung a phoenix with them, a fire beast more appropriate to the task of stopping injustices done to the living. Whatever forces stopped our team’s mission ain’t gonna hesitate to interfere with theirs. So Master K’ung and me, we’re gonna have to bid y’all a fair adieu. We’re heading south, to Mexico.”

“Did it say anything about us?”

I felt Kindred’s gaze search my face, but I couldn’t bring myself to look him in the eye, afraid of seeing his Buddha-nature and wanting to show him compassion. “Just that y’all should do as your conscience tells y’all.”

Kindred looked questioningly at his three companions, and each of them made a sign of agreeing to whatever silent request he was making. He slung his spade over his shoulder and adjusted his slouch hat a little more snug on his head.

“In that case, though we’ve been heading steadily west, I think it’s time we went north. It’s my understanding that Chinese workers in gold and silver mines are being mistreated up in those territories. Though it’s not completely our line of work, there is a debt to be paid here. Perhaps we can, uh, lessen the task your phoenix needs to do. At the very least, we will protect whomever we can.”

We rode back to Benson together, and at the hostler’s we shook hands and embraced. Kindred’s hug was gentle, and he whispered two words close to my ear: “I understand.” As we pulled apart, I give him a little smile, just to let him know that with time my sadness would fade. If we met up again to fight off the dark, I reckoned, we needed to be on decent terms.

Finally the Hounds walked away, toward the hotel, and Master K’ung and me, after buying a pair of mares from the hostler—who liked our gold more than he disliked our race—rode south into the deepening night.

As we all went our separate ways, it come to me in a flash: they wasn’t separate ways at all. We are all walking the same path, though it ain’t some road scored in earth or sky or sea. It’s the path of easing suffering, both ours and that of others, and we walk it till ever creature stands free of pain and lies, in unity with truth and peace, at last enlightened and made whole.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.