The Ballad of the Blind Hunt
We'd been on that boat two weeks, Chelo and I, winding our way up the mighty Sangre de Dios, watching the Sierra fill the sky ahead of us. Upriver, the air was thinner, and the traffic on the river had slowed down. The hawkers of the lower waters had gone, along with their skiffs selling corn cakes and clean-gene meat skewers, and now we passed only an occasional vendor at the waterside, silent and dressed in the hill-country fashion. That was until we went by one -- a tall and ragged man in a log canoe moored at the waterside -- who started hollering at us and waving his arms like crazy. No doubt he recognised us for Freakers just by our looks: Chelo, a finely dressed city woman with a patch over one eye; and myself, a tall gringo with a long rifle around my shoulders.
We stopped the boat, and the tall man paddled over frantically, talking all out of breath -- three killings in Morales, three goatherds dead with their eyes eaten out. That got my attention, but the final detail made my heart beat quicker: In the fields around the village, the half-eaten bodies of crows had been showing up, eyes taken out too.
She was here - the enemy that had haunted our dreams for two hundred nights.
Chelo and I both smoked warp-root a lot - occupational hazard of being a Freaker - which makes you dream real clear and crazy. This dream we'd been having was particular, however, and it was always the same -- the sky turning red and black, and above me the face I'd never seen with my real eyes - the monstrous face of the prey we'd been hunting for so long. The one they called Tia Cuerva; Aunty Crow.
I pressed a few copper coins into the hand of the boatman as a reward. He counted them twice, then shot us a smile full of plague-rotten teeth. As he paddled away, he counted them again.
"She's here, Mac," said Chelo, "Right under our noses. We can be in Morales in an hour, with a whole day of sunlight to hunt in. She won't get away this time."
We'd been on Aunty Crow's trail for months, but every time we got close she'd be just out of reach - slipping through the poison scrub and darkness where we couldn't follow. I felt an unfamiliar dullness creep over me. Now we had to deal with the difficult part.
Since the Doc had died, it was just Chelo and me around the campfire at night. We would wake from dreaming at the same time, and look at each other across the fire, then at the spot where he would have been laying. Chelo, having been brought up with some half-forgotten faith from before the Die-Off, would wrap her hands around the icons she carried, and mutter a prayer. I preferred a shot of mash tequila to even things out. Sometimes, as we tried to sleep again, we would edge a little closer to each other, but never too close. Chelo and the Doc had loved each other, and as she prayed, she would mutter curses, swearing colourful vengeance on Tia Cuerva. I didn't disagree with those sentiments, but that dream of Aunty Crow felt like it meant something else. Like all my fate was tied up in it.
The Doc had taught me almost everything I knew, and I'd never thought I'd see him brought low. A lifetime of hunting the meanest freaks of New Texas and the Southlands had left me with a mark or two, but I'd always slipped clean of the killing blow. Morales might be where my luck ran out.
Now, I'll bet you that even before everything -- The Poison Wars, the End Plague, the Great Die-Off and all of that -- Puerto Morales was already one hell of a dump. In fact, I can't imagine it looked much different before the downfall and destruction of human civilization. Just a few shacks propped up, no pattern to them as such, and a river of mud that they called a main street just sloshing right through the middle of things. The kind of place the Doc would have called a dying-dog town.
A man in a long smock, plague-wards all strung around his neck, sat by the pontoon as we brought the boat in. He was upset to leave his spot, but a couple more coins got him to lead us into the town. In the square, three small, misshapen human skeletons hung from a gibbet, above a crude circle of stones and candles. When freaks start killing in the hill country, any kid with a touch of the warp-gene can end up paying for it. Chelo said something about savages. For me, it was just the kind of cruelty I expected from the world, but she always saw more sides to people than I did -- the bad sides, and the good.
Around the square, the townsfolk were gathered into what a charitable onlooker might call a militia. They were carrying whatever weapons they could get their hands on -- machetes, farm tools, and one or two busted old scatterguns. Their headman wore a patterned woollen jacket and a wide-brimmed hat, presiding the best he could over the panic and jabbering. We presented ourselves.
Chelo introduced us in her usual fine fashion -- here was Doña Maria Consuelo de Larrañaga y Ruíz, and her associate Captain Allen McKenzie, both licensed by the Generalissimo in Ciudad Concordia to practice the distinguished profession of mutant-hunting. They didn't look as impressed as I might have hoped at the sight of us - a big old paleface like myself and a fine-looking lady like Chelo -- but they knew what we were looking for. I guess Chelo's eyepatch added something to the dramatic effect. "Ah, los mutanteros. Vengan," said the headman, beckoning us with the back of his hand to inspect the bodies.
The goatherd and his son were fresh corpses, swaddled in cloth and draped in pitiful yellow flowers. They were two out of three - they'd buried the goatherd's brother already. Chelo marched in and whipped the covering off the boy's head like she was hoping to surprise him. His mother was quietly weeping in the corner. Chelo confirmed what we knew.
"We've found her, Mac. No doubt about it."
There were two bloody holes where the boy's eyes should have been. There were other parts missing too, and it wasn't an axe or a blade that had taken them off. After a while you get to recognise what a bite mark in human flesh looks like. From what remained of him, I'd guess the boy was about twelve. If I wasn't before, him and his dead daddy sure did put me in a foul and vengeful mood.
Next to the boy's mother was a girl - his sister, by my guess. She wore black too, and was silent. She stared straight ahead, blank, numb, robbed. I'd got to know that look, too.
We stepped out again into the town, and a little rain had started coming down, so the militiamen had dispersed to occupy their fortifications -- a couple of tin-and-paperwood shacks, an old covered wagon, and a curious looking place right in the middle of the square, next to the grim display of the cages. I guessed it was their temple, although I didn't get the sense any god had more fondness for the place than I did.
When we walked out of there, I knew we were going to have to decide what to do next, and I wasn't looking forward to the conversation.
"Bodies were fresh. Reckon they died early this morning, just as light was coming up," I said.
"She won't be far away." Chelo scowled at the grey clouds curling overhead. "If she's fed, she'll rest a while. Day or two at most. But she'll move on quickly. She knows two kills will bring the cavalry down."
"That us? I don't see any horses."
She frowned. I guess she wasn't in the mood for it. She set off marching back through the town, boots crunching in the damp earth.
"It's got to be today that we do it. We've never had this good a start on her a clear ten hours." She sped up, as if saying the words gave her extra resolve.
I lengthened my stride to match. "We don't know the country, Chelo. Could be we find her. Could be she finds us. She's smart, and she knows we're coming."
She spat on the ground. It was a curious habit for a lady like her, but I'd gotten used to it. "Bullshit, Mac. She's a freak like any other. She's running from us, isn't she? So, she's scared. We let up now, she goes further up-country. Places we know even less. We could lose her trail for good."
In the old days, I'd seen her and the Doc have this fight time and again. Back then, it was always him who wanted to push on, take a risk, and her who would counsel caution. Seemed now like she was filling the old man's boots. I had a feeling what she was going to say next.
"Don't give me any nonsense about premonitions," she said, "and don't tell me what the Doc would have done, neither. He would have come up with a plan, but he had brains that we don't. Not meaning to offend, but we don't."
I let out a sigh. Truth was, now that we'd caught up with Aunty Crow, the thought of throwing down with her brought me a chill feeling. The vision of her from my dream was forefront in my mind.
"I've seen it, Chelo, and I know you have too. Two bodies, lying dead on the dark ground."
She stopped short, rounding on me like a wounded beast. Her good eye glinted like a gun barrel. "Just dreams, Mac. Too much warp-root, and sleeping in too many rough beds. That's all it is."
The Doc had always been the leader of our band, and the two of us would pretty much always fall in line behind him. Since he'd been gone, things were less clear. Chelo was a few years older than I was, and had received an education of sorts from her grandmother, who'd owned three hundred head of cattle on a fine estate in Jalisco before the plague eventually brought her down, along with the cattle. That said, I reckoned I'd been hunting freaks the longer, and I guess you might say I was proud. In any case, we tended to just feel things out between us. I could tell that this time there'd be no holding her back.
She set off again, in silence. I inspected my pistol as I followed.
"So, how are we going to do it?", I said. We reached the docks and boarded our boat. The old man in the smock was back there, staring all silent at the water. I wished I found it as interesting as he did.
"We've got the trap, and we've got the bombs the Doc bought." Chelo pointed to the relevant crates as she named them. "There's no point in fucking around. We lure her in, then blow her up. Just like we did with that eye-eater clan in Cardenas."
I was shaking my head before she finished the sentence. "Those were demi-freaks, half-bloods. We were doing them a favour by putting them down. You know what we're hunting now. There's no way we're catching a pure-strain alpha freak like Aunty Crow in some bear trap. She's too tough for that."
She didn't look at me.
"And if she doesn't go for it?" I said. "What then?"
Her fists clenched. "Then we do it the simple way. I'll guide you to her, then you shoot her down blind."
I winced. "Haven't taken a blind shot in a while."
"Please, Mac." She turned to me, something vulnerable in her eye. "You're probably the best shot in the Southlands. If anyone can do it, it's you."
I did my best impression of a gentlemanly voice. "Why thank you, señorita, you really are too kind."
She smiled a little. "Who are you calling señorita? Come on - let's get moving."
"Alright then," I said. "I'll get us packed up. I say we head to where the herders died, and track her from there.'
Old Aunty Crow had a lot of blood on her twisted claws, and she'd brought us on one hell of a chase, but I was sure that day we were going to end it. One way or another.
The Doc, Chelo and I had hunted all kinds of freaks -- leechers, lurkers, crab-jaws, diablitos del bosque, even a bull snaketongue in the Louisiana Black Marshes. I guess you could say we were both born into it. The Doc used to say his Momma bore him on the day the final Poison War ended, when the last government of the old civilization wound up its business. When I came into the world, a few years later, things were falling apart even worse -- the plague flaring up again, and the freaks growing in numbers. We were lucky to be born healthy and clean-gened, but we had a time of it surviving. The Doc taught me everything I know about my profession how to hunt, how to shoot, how to get high on warp-root so that we could speak without speaking. We got to be pretty well known Freakers up North -- took down some nasty poison-blooded killers. Things got tougher when that sonofabitch Walker started taking control, setting up his New Texan Republic'. Wasn't a friendly operating environment for freelancers anymore, so we moved down South and continued our trade. A man needs a trade, even in times like these.
That was when we met Chelo, fending off an army of freaks from the ruins of her family's ranch. Boy, she was something we didn't have women like that up North and the Doc fell for her hard. He wasn't too concerned by what lay under that eyepatch, and her abilities were certainly a useful asset to men of our profession. She saw something in him too, as it turned out. Her and the Doc didn't bother me greatly - I guess I figured I'd run into a girl who could stand me too one day, long as I didn't end up at the bottom of a lurker's nest.
There's a lot of folk calling themselves Freakers these days, and I'd say if you took ten of them, there'd be nine that were no more than hard, desperate men with a weapon in their hand and hate in their hearts. Hunting an eye-eater, though -- that was real specialist work. That's why the Generalissimo Valdez had hired experts like us to take care of Aunty Crow, to smoke her out of the sewer tunnels beneath Ciudad Concordia.
The Doc and I had been hunting Freaks since forever, but that was the first job that really went wrong. Neither I nor Chelo even got close to Aunty Crow, but the Doc did, or so it seemed he had when we fished his eyeless, lifeless body out of the city canal.
The memory still makes my blood rise and my mind cold. Chelo wouldn't speak for three days after, even as we tried desperately to pick up Aunty Crow's trail. I guess he'd been the only man she'd ever loved.
That was nine months back, and we'd been hunting her ever since. But there was no way Chelo and I were giving up on chasing her, as long as we'd got a hand to shoot and a leg to hop on between us.
We were a mile or two out of the town, trying to pick up Aunty Crow's trail best we could. Chelo was up ahead, and I was sweeping the trail, rifle in my two hands.
The rain had stopped, and I guess it would have been a pretty fine old day for a walk, were it not for the business at hand. There was that cool smell of fresh rain off the tree-leaves, and the air was light and wet. The old oaks and bushes either side of the trail jumped with black shapes of birds and bugs, screeching, hollering and chirping. The trees up here were straight and healthy-looking, unlike the twisted and sickly poison scrub of the lowland forest. By the side of the road, a vulture with two heads sat perched on a stump, watching us closely with its four beady eyes.
I gave him the same greeting I always give his kind: "I ain't dropping yet, friend, but you're welcome to me when I do."
The bird let out a screech and flapped away.
We were walking like that for a good while, a good span of hours, stopping to check the trail every few minutes. After a while, Chelo held up her hand, and we stopped. "She's near," she said. I began to prepare myself, running my hands up and down my gear.
The trail led us to an old homestead. Chelo held up the body of a crow, eyes pecked out. We could see the broken path that our prey had beaten through the brush, recently made. We were very close. The homestead wasn't more than a bunch of falling-down sheds and buildings of rotting wood and crumbling stone, but it would do for an ambush. I found a clear spot, and laid out the bait; some warp-gene meat we'd picked up in the town. It didn't smell too good to me, but to old Aunty crow the scent of that flesh would be as sweet as frijoles straight out the pot. I rigged the bomb where I'd put the arm, and ran a wire to the spot where I'd wait for her.
Chelo beckoned me into one of the buildings at the centre of the set of houses. She'd taken her eyepatch off now. I never did quite get used to seeing her like that. Her entire right eye was black as a starless night. It was through that eye that she could see without seeing.
"Alright, Mac. It's time. Hand me your pipe."
I dug into my pocket, and pulled out the old clay smoker. Chelo reached into hers, and revealed a tightly wrapped wad of purple plant matter alongside her own pipe. Even as she pulled it out, I got a strong dose of that cloying, sugary smell. She tore a chunk off the wad, plunged it into my pipe, then did the same for herself. Her hands were shaking, and I looked up at her.
"It's the place, Chelo. I didn't realise when we walked up here, but it's the place I've dreamed of."
"I know. We're in the hands of fate now. She'll be here soon." She took her hand in mine. Her skin was soft, and I gripped it tight. "Just shoot straight, Mac, and don't look up. That's all you've got to do." She looked at me in both eyes, and I looked her in hers, one brown and one a lightless black.
"Stay alive, Mac. You're all that's left," she said.
"I guess that feeling's mutual. I'll keep you safe as best I can." Once she went into her seeing-trance, her body would give out and I'd be the only thing between her and whatever came our way.
One match lit us both.
We pulled hard drags of the warp-root, and in a couple of minutes we started to feel our vision blurring at the edges, and hearing everything there was to hear. Chelo started to drop herself into the trance. Her head drooped, and I could see the power go out of her legs. From now on, she was our eyes and ears, and I was everything else.
She's coming, Mac. She's turned back towards us. She's smelled the bait.
I never really got used to hearing her voice in my head. Of course, it only happened when I had the warp-head on me. Now that I could see things different, her right eye wasn't black, it was filled with colours, fiery shades of red and orange.
There's not too many ways to hunt an eye-eater - a comedor de ojos as they're known in the Southlands, or an Opthalmophage as the Doc might say - Hunting the Opthalmophage is a discipline which rewards consistency over experimentation.' Eye-eaters are blind, in the sense that they've got no eyes. I always reckoned that's why they're so hungry for those they take from the sockets of their victims. Now, if you never look at one, they'll probably never find you. Trouble is, the second you do look at an eye-eater, your head goes black, your arms fall limp, and it's on you, slashing those claws, and lashing with a tongue the length of a man's arm, sharp and jagged like an old knife. Only way you can get a straight look at one is if they're dead - or, if you're a freak-seer, to look at them without looking, like Chelo did. It was a task that required partnership, as the Doc would have put it.
Chelo was fully in the trance now, and sat propped against the wall of the hut. I pulled my hat down over my eyes, then walked blindly out of the hut over to where I'd left the trigger for the dynamite. I just had to wait for Chelo to say the word, and boom -adios, Tia Cuerva.
I reached out to Chelo in my mind. Where is she?
A coldness hit me square on. I had thought she would take longer. I stared at my boots and the hard mud. By my right boot was the body of a crow, its eyes missing. I heard Chelo in my head again: She's a hundred paces away.
Is she moving? What's she doing?
She's not moving. She's bent on the ground. It's like she's looking for something.
I lifted my hat up for a second, and checked the dynamite. It was still there - of course it was still there. There was sweat on my head and neck. I gripped the bomb trigger tight.
She's moving again, Chelo said in my head.
Fifty paces. She's coming towards the bait.
I closed my eyes. Come on, I thought. Come on. Just walk right over that bomb, like a good old girl. I started to hear a faint, shuffling sound, scraping in the brush. It was her - Aunty Crow's twisted shape dragging itself along. She was moving, slowly, towards our bait.
She's twenty paces away, I heard in my head, and I heard that slow shuffling, shuffling. . .
What's she doing, Chelo?
She's stopped. She's moving away.
I cursed to myself. Where's she going?
Damn. She's moving off. She's headed round the other side of the building next to you.
That wasn't supposed to happen.
I could hear the shuffling closer to me now. I could even, faintly, hear her broken breathing as she hauled herself along. The bomb had always been fifty-fifty; there was always the blind shot. I made up my mind. I'd waited too long to put Doc's killer in the ground. Shooting by ear isn't the best way to take down an eye-eater, but it's the simplest, and I was a decent hand with a rifle.
I stepped around the white wall of that long, narrow, house, and started creeping down. I'm going after her, I whispered in my head. When I get around there, don't you wait none. When I'm ten paces away, you say shoot.
She didn't say anything back for a moment. And then, Be careful, Mac.
We'd run out of time to talk tactics.
She still there?
She's there. The monster's right ahead of you. Fifty paces. I could hear the fear in her mind now. Aunty Crow was getting close.
I walked, and counted. Forty-five paces. Thirty-five. Now I was treading real quiet, quiet as I could, because an eye-eater can hear you if you get close. Twenty-five. Twenty. I measured each step on the ground, placing each boot all tender like I was putting a baby to bed. Fifteen. I gripped the shaft of the gun and started to wrap my finger around the cold trigger. I could hear her clear enough now, well enough for a blind shot. Thirteen.
Wait. Stop. Chelo. She's moving again.
She looks awful strong. Awful hungry, too. She's coming around the corner now. Come on, Mac.
I wiped a heavy layer of sweat from my face. In my head, I could hear her mouthing a silent prayer. I set off again, creeping around another corner. Chelo was close now, in the building across the alley. I needed to shoot real careful.
I moved to the left. I pinned myself against that white wall on the corner, and reached out to Chelo again. Now you count down, and tell me go around'. And when I go around, if it's good, then you say shoot'.
I heard her count.
I stepped from behind the wall, and swung the rifle up. My mind's ear was silent.
The words were like ice.
. . .now what the blue hell?
Looking up, there was nothing. Didn't take me long to realise what had happened -- but it wasn't quick enough.
I was standing next to a window. Now just as I figured it out -- that the eye-eater had gone into the Church, not around -- that window smashed, and something came through it and lashed across my shoulder, knocking me back. If I'd figured it out a second later, I'd probably be dead, but my senses saved me. I jumped back, and as I did I brought my rifle up, breathed in, and fired.
Well, I put a bullet through some part of that twisted body -- because then I heard a screaming, like nothing you ever heard. She was wounded. As for myself, I was pacing backwards, quick as I could, desperately trying not to look up. Chelo had gone all quiet. With the warp-sight on me, the world was all red.
I realised the direction the screams were headed - further towards Chelo. I reached out with my mind, desperate now. Hold on, Chelo, I'm coming up.
She'd gone quiet. I guessed she was trying to get away, moving as well as she could with the warp-sight on her, which wouldn't be much, just dragging herself limply along the floor.
I didn't know how that creature had figured out where Chelo was, but once it got near her it would rip her apart, just like it had the Doc. I grasped out for a plan.
That's when I thought of it - not something that would have fit on the Doc's list of approved methods, and something which certainly broke his rule against experimentation, but sometimes I guess you've got to close your eyes and hope. It was time to end it.
I ran quick as I could to where the dynamite was, and scooped up a stick. I pulled my hat back down over my head, then headed back towards that pair of noises - Aunty Crow's screaming and shuffling that I heard with my ears, and Chelo's cursing and grunting that I heard in my mind, as she tried to drag herself away, desperately trying to break her trance.
I heard claws scraping at wood. The eye-eater was trying to smash the door to Chelo's cabin. Wouldn't take her long. If there ever was a time to do what I was going to do, this was it.
I struck a match, and lit the stick of dynamite. I counted one, two, and then I tossed it, half way to where I figured Aunt Crow was. Then, I looked at her, and the whole world stopped.
Can't be too many others who've seen an eye-eater moving and have emerged from the experience with parts still moving, so I'll describe it best I can. She had the dimensions and general appearance of a lady, dressed in black rags, apart from a few things. First, there's the claws. In place of fingers, she had talons -- black daggers like a gator or a cougar. Second was the way she moved -- all hunched up like a begging widow, but fast as a striking rattler. The real messed up part, though, was her face. Where a normal person would have eyes, there's just nothing. No holes or empty sockets, just nothing. Then a huge, jutting jaw, and out of that jaw flickers the long old tongue -- black and jagged, like it was for sawing wood.
I didn't have too long to look, of course, because she came straight for me, lashing at me with that long, awful tongue. I was fixed cold, but I was thinking all the time about that stick of dynamite. That five seconds went by like a long, slow day, as I strained every damn wire and bone in my body to move, shoot, anything. One, two, three, four, five.
Then a bang, and everything went up in fire and smoke.
I came to with blood pouring out of my head, my body frozen and my eyes seeing nothing but black. Very slowly, I opened them. There was still a sky above me.
I remembered I was alive. I went for my other gun -- the six-shooter I kept in my boot, carefully. It was quiet, but my ears were ringing. I stood up, and looked around. My whole body groaned.
There was a black mark in the soil where the bomb had gone off, and all over the place were bits of what had used to be Aunty Crow. Well, Doc, I thought, we got her in the end. Wasn't the neatest job, and it could have messed up real bad, but we pulled it off. I thought of Chelo.
She was lying on the floor. I guessed she hadn't gotten her legs back yet. When she spoke - with her real voice now - I could tell it was hurting her just getting words out.
"Is she. . .?"
"Yep. Blown to pieces. We got her, Chelo."
She nodded. I slowly lowered myself down next to her. I could see that there were tears coming from her brown eye, and I draped an arm around her. We sat there for a good while. When we'd got our strength back, we stood.
Chelo fixed up the bleeding from my head, and we could just about walk. I picked up the biggest piece of Aunty Crow I could find as a trophy, and we tramped back down to the town, slow as lame old donkeys. On the way, we passed the graveyard.
I thought about the Doc. We'd got our revenge. I can't say if he was resting more peacefully because of it. I wasn't sure if I was expecting myself to.
Neither Chelo nor I wanted to linger in Morales, so we took a boat straight back downriver. We'd got some coin from the villagers as thanks, so we treated ourselves to a stay in a posada by the river. They had uncontaminated water, clean-gene meat, and tequila. Normally, we took separate rooms, but this time, we took one. We didn't need to talk about it, we just did. I walked in, kicked off my boots, and lay down on the bed, and she lay down next to me. For the first time, I held her in my arms. Even hours later, as we both lay there, feeling the breeze against the sweat on our bare skin, we didn't say much. What was there to say? We wanted to be with each other that night, and I guess we both figured that now we'd avenged Doc, he'd give us his blessing.
In the morning, Chelo left. Said she had business back in Las Casas, and that she'd meet me in a week in Concordia to pick up her share of the bounty. In the end, it would be another year before I saw her again.
Sometimes, I can still feel the darkness and blindness of that day when I close my eyes, and see that face, eyeless and full of jagged teeth. Just like I'll always remember that night with Chelo, in the posada by the Sangre de Dios. I'll never forget, and I guess that's just part of what being a human is, on this toxic heap we've made of a world.