The sound of thunder

 

“Do you know the sound of thunder?”

 

The question caught me off guard, I will admit. Did *I* know the sound of thunder? Well, of course I did. How could I not? I was the brother of thunder. Thunder was my constant companion. But, surely, this long-haired gentleman sitting across from me at the poker table, he couldn’t know that.

Even if he were a legend. “Wild” Bill Hickock was everything the stories said – imposing, cold in the eyes, a gruff voice, and a wry sense of humor. And a damn fine card player. Already he’d raked in several hundred dollars, and forced several of the players to leave the table, leaving only Bill, myself, and Curly Joe.

Curly Joe was a fat, older man with poor complexion. Not that most people didn’t have poor complexions, out in the west. He suffered a receding hairline, drank far too much (as was obviously by his bloated eyes and nose), and didn’t take care of his teeth. But he was an able card player.

“Wild” Bill was tall, lean, with a sharp nose, and angry eyes. His hair was long, past his shoulders, and seemed to be cared with the dedication that a woman gave to her tresses. Even in this dusty climate, his hair was meticulously groomed and less dusty than most women’s.

Myself, well, I was dark skinned, being half Sioux, half Irish. My father was a would-be prospector, my mother raised by missionaries when she was left for dead after the slaughter of her village by the US Army. I wore my hair in a long braid that reached the lower part of my back, wore simple clothing – loose white shirt, coarse pants, a duster draped over the back of my hair. My complexion wasn’t perfect, but far better than Curly Joe’s, to be certain.

I was also the only one at the table not sporting a heater. That’s western parlance for a pistol. I didn’t need them, you see. But, that’ll come later. It all has to do with my knowing the sound of thunder more intimately than I felt “Wild” Bill was implying.

So, instead of jumping to conclusions, I nodded to “Wild” Bill, indicating that I did, in fact, know the sound of thunder.

“Ah’m sure you do,” he drawled in that affected accent of his. “Bein’ that you grew up in the dust west here.”

Whatever point “Wild” Bill was intending to make, I didn’t discover, as our card game was interrupted by the sound of a brouhaha outside. Horses whinnied as they stormed through the dusty road that passed for a main avenue. Guns were being fired, and that was a sound that all knew well, but perhaps most of all, “Wild” Bill was most intimate with.

“Whut in tarnation,” grumbled Curly Joe. He was a man of few words, Curly was. The door all but exploded as a horse came barreling through, before collapsing to the floor, the side of its head split open with a bullet.

Well, let me tell you, I’ve never seen such a mess in my life. The saloon we’d been playing in wasn’t the fanciest place I’d ever set eyes upon, but it was far from the worst. The floor was fairly clean – the keep actually had a young boy run a broom across it every hour – and the tables were nice.

But now… now, it was a madhouse. The horse had taken out no less than five tables, injuring four guests. Glasses went everywhere, cards and chips flying about. The four of a kind (Jacks) that I was holding in my hand wasn’t going to win the hand (I later found out from “Wild” Bill, that he was bluffing with only a pair of queen’s). The game was done for, in fact.

“John, be careful, somethin’ peculiar’s afoot,” “Wild” Bill said to me, as he headed to the doorway, a gun in each hand. “Wild” Bill always had a way for stating the obvious. I’d learned that in just the two days we’d known each other, sitting across the poker table during the evening, and shooting the shit during the day.

I nodded, and followed him, pulling my trusty knife out of its sheath. It was rather cliché, I know, but I was good with the knife, and my other talents helped in a pinch, and people tended to underestimate you if you didn’t sport a gun.

“Wild” Bill led the way, pausing briefly at the doorway to glance both ways, before calmly walking out. A few shots were still being fired, but the volley had subsided in the thirty seconds since the horse barreled through the door. Behind us, I could still hear Curly Joe fuming about the mess, as he collected his (and likely mine and “Wild” Bill’s) chips from the floor.

Southern Cross was the name of the hellhole we’d been parking our rears for a few days, “Wild” Bill on his way to his next show, and myself heading back to my mother’s homelands to learn more about my gifts. We’d met over the poker table two nights prior, and taken a liking to each other’s company. Southern Cross claimed a population of three hundred, but there were easily twice that once you counted all the prospectors, ranchers, settlers, missionaries, and other wayward souls that were passing through.

The main road, which divided the center of town, was now filled with an unholy mess. Two wagons were turned onto their sides, and from what I could tell, somewhere between six and nine men were settling their differences with firearms. The closest bunch to the Aces High Saloon were Pinkerton agents. The others I couldn’t tell, but appeared to be of some cowboy gang or another.
“Wild” Bill spat, seeing the Pinkerton boys. He didn’t have much of a liking for those mercenary lawmen. I shared much of the same opinion, but suspected they were the lesser of two evils in this situation. I almost voiced my thoughts to “Wild” Bill, but saw he’d already drawn the same conclusion.

Firing both his guns at the far wagon, he made his way to the Pinkertons. I noticed a fellow atop a nearby roof, with a rifle pointed “Wild” Bill’s way, and yelled, “General store, Bill!”

In a lightning fast (and I should know) motion, “Wild” Bill put a bullet through the sniper’s face. The man dropped dead, his rifle falling to the street. I took a thought to collecting it, but realized I was now target practice for the cowboys behind the far wagon, so I hastily moved to join “Wild” Bill and the Pinkertons, sure to keep my speed to a safe level. Didn’t want to tip my hand.

“Wild” Bill was already in discussion with the Pinkerton in charge, who I later learned to be Jason Meadows. Jason was in his mid-to-late thirties, almost ancient for a lawman, mercenary or no.

“Jason here says that these boys are part of the Iron Hand gang,” “Wild” Bill informed me as I came up aside him. Especially in a gunfight, I made a point never to come directly up behind someone I wasn’t planning on being a little rough with.

I nodded, “Those boy’s have a bad reputation.” Meadows just nodded, and addressed “Wild” Bill, “That they do. Especially their boss. Word has it he’s as strong as ten men, and can punch holes through stone with his fist.”

“Thus the name, Iron Hand,” I contributed. I was playing a little dumb. Seems folks expected me to be a bit slow, being of Sioux blood, so I liked to play up to their lowered expectations.

Again, Meadows nodded, and said to “Wild” Bill, “If you and your red friend are here to help, that’d be mightily appreciated, Mister Hickock.” Without even checking with me, “Wild” Bill nodded his assent. That was “Wild” Bill’s way, and since I was here to help, I didn’t mind so much.

Turning to me, “Wild” Bill smiled. It wasn’t a pleasant smile, but the anger behind it wasn’t directed at me, either. “John, I’ll be needin’ you to circle around behind the saloon and see if you can catch them by surprise. I’ma goin’ to wait for you to distract them, then I’ll come a shootin’.” Turning back to Meadows, he instructed, “Wait for that to happen, and while they’re worryin’ about John and myself, you boys come around the other side, and we’ll pinch them in but good.”

With a wary nod, Meadows acknowledged his understanding. I could tell by the look on his face that he didn’t much care for the taste of “Wild” Bill givin’ orders, but the man was a legend, where Meadows, was just a Pinkerton.

I turned from “Wild” Bill and Meadows without a word, and headed back to the saloon. I knew there was a back door from the storeroom just behind the bar, and planned to take that way, just in case there were any of Iron Hand’s men lurking in the alley.

Passing through, I nodded to Curly Joe as he sat at the bar, three piles of chips in front of him.

“I separated our chips,” he explained. I couldn’t help but note, with some amusement, that his pile was a little larger than the other two.

“Good man, Curly Joe. Take five dollars of mine for yourself,” I said, my tone of voice betraying my suspicions. Curly Joe just grumbled, “Yer a fine man, Lightning John.”

I shot him a glare that shut him up fast. I didn’t much care for that name. Curly Joe was one of the few who knew something of my gifts. I trusted him not to intentionally give away what I preferred kept quiet, but he was known to love the whiskey a bit too much, far too frequently.

However, I didn’t have any time to deal with that issue now. With a quick glance, I noted that everyone was still tending to the wounded, cleaning up, or staring in amazement at the horse, which I had to step over to cross to the bar. Larry, the barkeep looked up at me, curiously, as I slipped behind the bar.

“Need to run out back, Larry.”

Nodding, Larry stepped out of my way, “Be careful, John.”

“Always am, Larry.”

I slipped out the back, quietly opening the door, to find my suspicions were correct. At the end of the alley, by the street there was a man with a shotgun. I imagine his intent was the same as “Wild” Bill’s – wait to the proper time, and then get a cheap shot in.

That wouldn’t be a good idea, so I crept up behind him, rather quickly, and brought the butt of my knife down across the back of his skull, knocking him out. Several seconds later, I’d bound and gagged him, and deprived him of his shotgun.

Done with him, I returned back down the alley, circling to the far side of the saloon, where I indeed had a good view of the cowboys. There were five of them; “Wild” Bill had taken care of one on the rooftop, I’d gotten the one in the alley – that made seven. I didn’t think there’d be too many more in the area – probably one at the edge of town, on a horse, waiting to report back if things went awry.

That was something I couldn’t worry about just then. As much as I dreaded using a gun, I realized I had not much of a choice. So, I moved quickly, with the speed and grace above those that men were supposed to possess – one of the gifts I possessed – to the corner of the saloon, and took aim with the shotgun.

With a thunderous roar, I got the attention of the cowboys, as well as the life of the closest one. I then found myself target for the other four’s guns, and even with my speed, I wasn’t liking my odds. I ran back down the alley, zigzagging like my life depended on it (which it did – I was fast, but amongst my gifts I did not possess skin that deflected bullets.)

It was at that moment I was introduced to the feeling of a bullet tearing through my flesh. Prior to this point in my life, I’d never been shot. Shot at, yes. Plenty of times. But actually hit with a bullet? Pshaw.

However, it happened. My left knee had been hit by one of the cowboys’ bullets, ricocheting up into my thigh. Now, let me assure you, that was quite painful. Looking back, I have to say it wasn’t the most painful experience (far from it – the time I was tortured by the agents of the Yellow Fang most assuredly ranked first in that category. But, I digress), but it was more than enough to drop me.

My scream was cut off as my face impacted the hard wood of the saloon’s outer wall. Blackness threatened to overcome me, but somehow I was able to fight it off. My recollection of the next minute isn’t the best, but I can piece together what happened from what “Wild” Bill and others told me.

I surely would have heard rapid gunfire, had my head not been pounding with the pulse that was sending blood out the hole in my leg. I later found out from the doc that my quadriceps muscle had been nearly torn asunder. It was only my tendencies to heal fast that kept me from being lame the rest of my life.

Taking advantage of the distraction I’d provided, “Wild” Bill and the Pinkertons stuck to our plan, catching the cowboys with their collective guard down. Three of the five cowboys went down while I was leaning against the wall, trying to get my feet under me. Apparently, I wasn’t quite coherent of my situation.

All that I know I knew was that there was this fellow coming down the alley, a gun in his hand and malice in his heart. I wasn’t ready to let him unleash that malice, or more specifically, a bullet, upon me.
One of the cowboys ran down the street, doubtlessly heading towards the (expected) rider sitting at the edge of town. “Wild” Bill strode down the street after him, slowly taking aim.

Now, this I recall with great and vivid detail. I saw “Wild” Bill, standing still, slowly raising his arm, pointing his pistol. However, the man with malice saw my eyes widen, and he turned to see where my gaze was directed.

And, then, with horror, I watched as he turned his back to me, and pointed his weapon at “Wild” Bill. I was powerless to do anything – my leg wasn’t going to let me get to my feet, and the shotgun was down by the main road. I opened my mouth to scream, but all the pain I’d suffered had robbed me of my voice.

I watched as the man took careful aim, as “Wild” Bill was doing the same, his gun pointed at the fleeing cowboy.

I tried screaming, but to no avail. I knew I’d only had a second before the malice-inflicted man shot “Wild” Bill as I watched.

This was one of those times, where time seems to stand still. Where a second goes by, and you’ve all the time to debate a great issue in your heart. I weighed keeping my secret against the life of a man who I’d learned to respect, albeit in a short time.

And before I knew it, the decision was made. As the man’s finger began to squeeze his trigger, as “Wild” Bill was still aiming at his fleeing target, I raised my hands, clasping them together.

My eyes closed in concentration, as I focused the energy that ran in my veins, gathering it, calling it up, feeling it travel towards my clasped hands, only my index fingers extended. And, with a horrible yell, I let the energy out.

For the first time in my life, I directed the terrible energy at another man. I’d used it on inanimate objects, plant life, and the occasional animal, in my youth. But, never before, had I used it on another human.

As I yelled, I later learned, “Wild” Bill’s attention was interrupted from his target, and he turned to look down the alley, just in time to see lightning leap from my extended fingers, arcing through the alley, to strike the man whose gun was about to take “Wild” Bill’s life. The walls of the saloon and adjacent buildings shook with the thunder that accompanied the lightning bolt.

I collapsed to the ground, blackness overtaking my senses. The last thing I recall from that afternoon was “Wild” Bill peering down at me, with a genuine smile.

“Well,” he said in that famous drawl of his, “I reckon that answers my question, John.”

“What…” I am told I stammered, “What question was that, Bill?”

“I reckon you do know the sound of thunder.”

And that was the story of how “Wild” Bill Hickock met “Lightning” John, and their escapade that would set up a most bloody encounter with the boss known as Iron Hand.

But, that, like the story of the Yellow Fang, or even the mysterious tribe of the Samedi, are stories for another day.

FIN

[Author's Note: This is supposed to be the first installment in a series.  Sadly, it's been several years since I wrote it.  But I'm trying to get serious about writing again, so maybe if you read it and like it and let me know, I'll get back to it.]

last updated: 7/22/07