They Walk Among Us, Chapter Twelve: The Mammoth Riders

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She will never understand.

I stood at our bedroom window, staring northward, coffee cup in hand. The wall clock, last time I’d checked with a flick of the flashlight, had said 2:59 a.m. Tania snored softly as was her wont, never enough to bother anybody. Matter of fact, it was kind of a cute habit, reassured me on many a night.

Not so many nights of late, though. Not since I’d started seeing the Mammorth Riders, going about their business in the long, sometimes steep Montana mountain canyon.

“Mammoth riders?!” She’d snorted in derision, finishing with a cut that ended the conversation once and for all. “Man o’ mine, you been spending too much time in that shop, got yourself one too many welding flashes!”

Then she’d turned from me and walked away, her back stiff with disapproval. Walked. Away. From. Me.

Prior to that moment, I’d never have thought such a thing possible. Sure enough did not see that one coming, no siree Bob!

There was a wall between us now, a wall that kept my non-physical experiences on one side, her rigid view of the world firmly on the other. Not a wall that would destroy our relationship. No, never that. Or at least, so I fervently hoped. We were as good as ever between the sheets, we still tended to finish each other’s sentences, and the bond between us–forged as a way for her to survive the dangers of the gang-laden ‘hood in Hartford–was still solid.

Not stainless steel, though. Not stainless at all. That bond had now been tagged, marked with mile-high, John Deere green paint in black outline, a message that said,

DO NOT SPEAK TO YOUR WIFE ABOUT STUFF SHE CAN’T SEE!

There was a sorrow in me now, one that I suspected would destroy a lesser man. It would not destroy me; I was certain of that. It was hard, though. Very hard.

My Mom? Yeah, maybe. If she made it across the mountains for Christmas. It wasn’t a topic I’d ever broach over the phone, or–God forbid–in an email. Couldn’t you just see that?

Dear Mom,

I’m starting to see invisible people. I mean, they’re apparently invisible to everyone else, but not to me.

It happens usually late at night, when Tania’s asleep, out in the canyon on the other side of our mobile home, away from Jack Hill’s main house. The canyon didn’t have any trees then. I’m convinced I’m seeing into the past–or else into a supra-physical level of existence, somewhere between what we think of as the real world and the astral plane.

Anyway, there are no trees, but there is an awful lot of snow and ice, yards deep on the slopes, just giving way at the canyon mouth to what seem like tundra grasses, like you might see in Canada or Alaska. It feels like the end of the last Ice Age….

Yeah, that would work really well. Mom was none too sure of my sanity when I was stealing stuff left and right as a teenager. No telling what she’d have to say about this. I’d risk opening up face to face ’cause I could always read the woman. You know, head the conversation in a new direction if she started looking edgy.

But not until we could get together, and Christmas was still nearly five months away.

I wasn’t sure I could hold out that long. Couldn’t talk to uncle B.J. about it, though. Nothing on Earth scared the big man, but unearthly stuff? The guy couldn’t even watch a vampire flick without having nightmares for a month after. Telling him his nephew was seeing a clan of Mammoth Riders from thousands of years in the past…no.

Definitely not a good idea.

Which left, no surprise there, one person and one person only: The long-lived Protector and our landlord (as well as volunteer Wolf War soldier), Jack Hill. Nothing fazed Jack, or at least nothing I’d found so far. We hadn’t discussed the supernatural beyond sharing a ghost story or two, but without doubt he could handle a few dozen Mammoth Riders–

–There! Down the canyon’s center trail, where dozens if not hundreds of similar journeys had packed the snow down to something both solid and slick, they came single file. Had to come single file; the packed portion of the trail allowed for no more than that. To my eye–my third eye, no doubt–it was broad daylight, with blue sky and fluffy white clouds alternating overhead, sunlight bouncing off the snow enough to blind those who didn’t know better.

The Riders, of course, did know better. The mammoths had their own natural eye protection, lids closed nearly to slits. The humans–and humans they were, no question about it, though no scientist alive had ever recognized the coexistence and cooperation of mammoth and man–the humans wore long scarves of some ultra-lightweight furred leather, their own vision limited to slits even narrower than those of the mammoths.

Me? I figure, if man can ride elephants, why couldn’t he have ridden mammoths at one time?

I raised my coffee cup in silent salute to their leader. “Hola, Three Killer!” I threw the thought out there at him in both recognition and friendship, and he caught it. Raised his heavy, tip-weighted spear. Despite the distance between us, which amounted to half a mile or more, I sensed the twinkle of dark eyes behind his bright-snow scarf, felt his response.

“A good day to hunt, Snow Runner! Come ride with us! There is room on Berry Picker’s mammoth!”

“Another day! Today I must run the trails of no snow!”

He threw back his great head and laughed. “That is what you always say!”

“True!” I admitted. “And so far, it is what I must always do!”

We mind-spoke no more. The mental (spiritual?) connection was fading just a bit. But I kept watch as Three Killer and his band reached the open grassland on the valley floor, turned to the east, and followed the snowline on their great hunt. Berry Picker, I knew, was the Mammoth Rider on the fourth mammoth, three behind the headman. Picker lifted his spear at me in salute, and I raised my fast-cooling cup in return.

None of the others seemed aware of me, unable to see or mindspeak the black man standing behind the window in a darkened room. T.K. and B.P. (Three Killer and Berry Picker) were, perhaps, the only two men in the band capable of spanning the gulf of Time between us.

A sudden thought struck me, the first time it had ever surfaced in more than a dozen of these sightings. If I was in communication with the Past…and even two of those men could sense me…they were in communication with the Future.

That thought brought me up short. Unthinking, I drained the rest of my coffee, barely noticing either the taste or the lack of warmth. I’d always believed–always believed–that we could access our past lives, should we have the determination to do so.

But this…if I had it right, then we could access our future lives as well. Somehow.

Seventy-three Riders in the column today. A big hunt, this one.

More questions than answers, that was for sure. Clearly, the hunters left their women, children, and old men behind, in camp or whatever served as their home abode(s). But where? A green valley, over the top of that drainage and down some other canyon? And how did they dwell? Tents, igloos, some gigantic structure or a cave so huge the mammoths could be safe out of the wind and weather right along with their people? Did they eat mammoth meat or only ride the huge beasts? And if they ate them, what did the mammoths think of that?

How did they train their steeds? Capture them as newborn calves, raise them in the company of humans? Surely no wild-grown bull mammoth would be a cooperative beast of burden or steed for war….

“Honey? You’re up?”

Tania. “Yeah, babe.” I turned from the window, leaving the curtains open. Gray light was starting to bring birdsong alive among the pines on this fine summer morning, and she loved this time of day, the harmony of nature with nary a city siren to be heard. “Jack and I are heading out on our sales run right after breakfast, so I figured an early start couldn’t hurt.”

I wasn’t fibbing to her. Not exactly. Jack and I did have a jam-packed week of sales calls ahead of us, all up and down the highline. This was Monday morning, and we wouldn’t be back home till late Friday night.

“Did you make coffee?”

“You know it.” I moved to the bed, gave her a good morning kiss that nearly got me undressed again–like I said, still nothing wrong with the chemistry between us–and tore myself away with some reluctance. “Drained the first pot already, but the second one’s ready to go. Let me go hit the button and start some eggs and bacon. I hear that new batch of pig strips calling my name.”

Which was weird, since I’d never been able to tolerate pig meat of any sort until a few months ago. I was changing, though I’d have been hard pressed to tell you just how.

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In the kitchen, busy with breakfast preparations, I found myself shaking my head. Here I’d be gone for five days and four nights, missing the hottest little piece of loving this side of the planet Mars…yet the thing I’d miss most was the late-night visions of a distant past. Obsessed? Yep. I was obsessed with those fur-swaddled, no doubt stinky men waving point-weighted spears (good for throwing down with great force from atop a mammoth, I thought) and traveling on big, ugly beasts nobody in the world would ever believe had once been domesticated.

“You,” I muttered under my breath, “are one f****d-up dude.”

“What’s that?” My little hottie trundled into the kitchen, stuffing her work shirt into her already well-stuffed jeans, yawning as she sank into a chair and accepted the mug of coffee I handed her way.

“Nothing,” I lied. “Just reminding myself to get the eggs off the burner before they stick to the pan, and the toast is up, too.”

Thankfully, I wasn’t married to a psychic, batsonic-eared redhead. Jack tells me his friend Ghost, down in Arizona, has a wife who can hear you talking a mile away and read your mind if that doesn’t work.

Don’t think I could survive that.

We’d loaded the big horse trailer on Saturday, towing it over from the welding shop to Jack’s place behind the one-ton Ford dually the boss had purchased for just that purpose. B.J. had grinned at Sam when he’d handed me the keys, asked him, “What, no Dodge Ram?”

Turned out Sam Trace hated Dodge trucks near as soon as he popped out of his mama’s womb. Ford man all the way, except for the big rigs, where he preferred Internationals with Detroit 60 engines. Told me once that if I’d been driving a Dodge instead of a Pontiac Grand Prix when I’d asked him for a job, he never woulda hired me. Said there might be hope for a General Motors guy, but them Dodge lovers were just plumb hopeless.

He mighta been joking. Or maybe not. With Sam, there were times when you just couldn’t tell.

With the sun up and country to cover, it didn’t seem quite so urgent to talk to Jack about the Mammoth Riders. Besides, we’d be running the roads all week, calling on retail outlets for Rodeo Iron day in, day out. There was no rush.

There was a little bit of a reason to sweat the small stuff, though. The horse trailer was loaded way over the legal limit. We’d be running the back roads for much of the way, but even one chicken coop open at the wrong time would bring all sorts of doo-doo down on my head.

The old hands, Jack and Sam both, told me that was Situation Normal for anybody who ever delivered a load. Get used to it.

If we could just skate by till we hit Great Falls, we’d be in the clear. Three big stops in the Electric City would relieve us of more than half of that welded steel, bring us back well into the parameters of law abiding citizens.

What? Why was Jack in on this?

Well, now, there’s two ways of looking at that. Jack’s excuse was the leather work his women were starting to produce. They’d come up with little miniature reproductions, especially of saddles, that were downright realistic and scaled to fit right in with the toy-sized versions of Rodeo Iron.

But I kinda thought Jack was losing money on the deal. He had to buy them gals all sorts of leather working tools and equipment, and there was no way they were in the black yet…although I had to admit, a miniature saddle with a two-inch seat scaled to look exactly like one with a sixteen-inch seat, complete with a hand-carved tree and decent swells and cantle for either barrel racing or bronc riding… Yeah, that did look pretty cool, slung over a toy Rodeo Iron rail.

The other way of looking at it? Maybe Jack figured he needed to hang out with me. You know, like he sensed I was his project for however long.

Or maybe he was just a restless sort, never able to stay put in one place for too long at a time.

At any rate, neither of us spoke an unnecessary word till we were just a few miles from our first stop at Lincoln, two hours out from the ranch, and even then the subject I broached had nothing to do with visions in the night. I was keeping a sharp watch on the tall evergreens lining the sides of the road, paying attention to my driving, so I never looked at him, just asked it straight out.

“I been thinking, Jack. You said you served in the Civil War?”

“Yes. That I did.”

“Mind telling me which side?”

“Both.”

“Huh?” Whatever answer I’d expected, it wasn’t that. “How’d you manage–”

He took a deep breath, let it out. For a moment, I thought sure he was going to tell me it was none of my business, but that wasn’t it. He was just setting himself, so to speak.

“I was born in the deep South, Tree. Can’t tell you the exact year, nor even the exact state. My old man was a gypsy logger, went wherever there was a tree to cut, and my mother died birthing me, or so I was told. Few orphans in that situation back then were ever lucky enough to grow up with their natural father, but Pa was determined, and he had a younger sister who stayed with him. Plus a nanny goat, which was where he got the milk to keep me going till I grew some teeth.

“Aunt Jenny was retarded, more’n a century before they called it developmentally disabled.” The disgust in his tone caught my attention. I risked a quick glance over his way. There was real fury in Jack’s eye, gone as quick as it came, but real enough for all of that.

Jack Hill, I was guessing, did not much appreciate the pussification of the English language we’d seen in recent politically correct days.

“Jen was retarded, but good hearted, and safe enough with me while Pa was out sawing down trees–by hand, you understand; there weren’t no power saws in them days.”

I could picture it, though it took me a bit to realize Hill’s way of speaking had slipped back to an earlier time as well. Not as early as the Mammoth Riders, duh, but….

“By the time the War come, I was a man growed, more or less. Still had some to fill out, and maybe an inch or two of height to go, but I was whang leather tough and bobwire mean. Had to be, or I’d never have lived to tell about it. I’d even learned to read a bit, taught myself, but all that got you in the logging camps was laughed at unless you were the boss or responsible for the tallies”

“So,” I ingterrupted, “you first fought as a Confederate.”

“Nope. As it happened, we were up North when I got conscripted, slung me right into the Union Army.”

“Wha–?”

“You had to been there, Tree. When they come around to nab me fer the infantry, Pa was feeling poorly and poor ol’ retarded Aunt Jen was down with the whooping cough. It carried her off that time, too, or so I heard. Wasn’t there for the last of it, ’cause I was by that time a f***ing Yankee soldier, blue to the bone they thought, ready to go be cannon fodder or shoot my southern brothers if I’da had any.

“Don’t know what happened to Pa. Heard he was there for Jenny, but then he disappeared. Coulda died, coulda run and hid. Got me. Whatever, I wished him well then, and I wish him well now.”

Jack rolled down his side window and spit. Not tobacco–he didn’t chew–and not phlegm, either. Mostly just old memories, most likely whipped back by the wind to decorate the side of the truck cab. His voice, I realized, had been kind of…ragged. Made me wonder if he’d ever told this tale to another Soul.

“So…” I ventured, kind of timidly.

“So.” His voice changed, evened out some. “Long story short, I come up on the losing end of a battle along with a lot of my fellow bluebellies and wound up in Andersonville. Now, I dunno if you’ve heard about Andersonville–”

I shook my head. “Don’t think so.”

“–But it was the worst cesspit prison camp the South had. Men died there like flies, fast and ugly. The history books say you couldn’t get out of that place, go anywhere near the Dead Zone and that was it. But I can tell you for a fact, some got out. At least one, anyway.”

There was a pause. I wasn’t sure if Jack would have time to finish his tale, since I was starting to grab gears, downshifting on the approach to Lincoln.

He managed, though.

“They let you out ’cause you were a southerner?”

“Oh, Hell no! They never woulda done that. Once you wore the uniform, you were the enemy. No, I got out ’cause I managed to make a cutter out of a shard of glass I found half-buried in the dirt one day. I got out ’cause I was able to get one guard to trust me just a little, tiny, stupid bit…and then one night I cut his trusting throat, swapped uniforms with him, put him in my clothes, messed his face up so bad they couldn’t identify him, and I walked right out. Kinda sorta.”

“Kinda sorta?”

“Well, that uniform wasn’t going to get me all the way outa there. But it was deep in the night, I’d studied his voice till I could impersonate it some, and it got me close enough to the next guy to kill him, too. That and one more murder got me outa there, but I was no more’n twenty miles gone when a Reb outfit scooped me up as one of their own. Didn’t figure I could fake an outfit, so I just acted like I’d been conked on the head and couldn’t remember where I belonged. They needed shooters, and I could shoot, so they invented a name for me and shoved me right back into the firing lines.

“And presto-change-o, that’s how I ended up serving on both sides in the Civil War.”

“Huh.” I pondered that for a bit, swinging off the highway into our customer’s parking lot and shutting the Ford down. “Bet they don’t have that in the history books, do they?”

He snorted. “Would you admit it, if you were the Confederate commander who’d messed up and let your people be taken out by an unarmed, half-starved, louse-ridden Yankee prisoner?”

I thought about Watergate, and more recently, Fast and Furious. “No. I reckon not. But the Union prisoners….”

“They knew nothing. As far as they understood it, one of their own was lying in the muck face-down, messed up and slaughtered by who knew who. Happened all the time.”

“Ah,” I nodded. “Well, we’re here. Guess it’s time to get to work.”

It was like that with Jack and me. We could be talking about the most serious stuff imaginable one second, hitting a toally different topic the next, and never miss a gear. It did occur to me to wonder how rough it had been, making the switch later on from a stone killer in the Civil War to the long-lived spiritual being who was riding shotgun with me today. Couldn’t have been easy.

Or, the thought suddenly hit me, right smack between the eyes, maybe he didn’t change. Maybe the sugary types who claimed you had to be all non-karmic sweetness and light to serve the Creator were full of it up to their sugary ears.

It was a good thing Lincoln Ranch Supply was an establshed customer. My head was spinning way too fast to be on top of my sales game. By the time I stepped out of the truck, my throat was tight like maybe it was remembering being sliced wide open with a jagged shard of dirty glass by a man I’d thought was my friend.

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