The following is an excerpt from my short story, “Brimstone” which appears in the Predators in Petticoats anthology.
Chaha’oh moved through the night like she was a part of it—until she reached the first body.
A woman lay in the dirt. Blood stained the fabric of her shirt from a bullet hole in her back. Long black hair covered most of her face. A brown eye stared sightlessly into the night.
She knelt, brushed a lock of hair forward, covered the eye. The strands were soft under her fingers.
She stalked into the ruined camp. Bodies littered the ground. Her fists clenched—they’d even slaughtered the horses.
A man lay in the center of camp, a hideous burn covered his face in the shape of a hand. Rawboned, he looked like he’d been on the verge of starvation. She frowned, looking at the other corpses. They all looked well fed.
She inhaled. The bitter reek of smoke and charred flesh hit her like the kick of a mule. She forced herself to focus, drew another breath.
A trace of Power, like brimstone on the wind—sour and ashy, coated the back of her throat. She turned and spat.
A coyote sat at the edge of camp, watching her. Lush, reddish-brown fur covered a sleek and powerful body.
She stilled. Her ears sought the pack that should have been there. A gentle breeze, laced with insect Song, whispered past.
“Where is your Family, Sister?” Chaha’oh said.
The coyote’s mouth opened in a pant. Intelligent, yellow eyes regarded her. Sharp, white teeth gleamed in the moonlight.
Chaha’oh turned back to the burned man. Power coated him like dust. She glanced at the coyote.
“What happened here?” She stepped over the body, walked to the far end of camp. Here the tracks were clearer, headed out into the desert. Horses.
She crouched, her fingers brushing the tracks, and closed her eyes. Tingling echoes of the beast that left each mark itched up her arm, called her to follow.
“Eight, maybe ten.” She exhaled, shook her hand to stop the tingling. “Though your nose is wiser than I am.” She opened her eyes. “What do you—”
The coyote sat in front of her. Close enough to touch.
A chill washed down her. Muscles coiled, she slid her hand to the knife at her belt.
Two Crows had taught her to never run from Coyote—they would always chase—but she would fight if she must.
The coyote stared at her, yellow eyes drawing her into their depths.
What do I think, Sister? A voice danced through her head, a trickle of mirth beneath somber tones. I think you have a trial before you. One that you will not survive.
She swallowed, gathered her feet beneath her. She held the coyote’s gaze and edged back.
“Are you a Spirit?” She asked. “Or are you Coyote from one of Two Crows’ stories?”
You will need my help, the voice said. I offer it freely—yet not without price, Chaha’oh. Become my Shadow.
She licked her lips. Coyote knew her name? She inclined her head without breaking eye contact.
“I thank you for your offer, Coyote.” She backed away, stepped over the bodies of the slain. “But I must bring word of this to my Family.”
Your time grows short.
Her fingers trembled. Coyote sat at the edge of camp watching her over a scene bathed in blood and Power. She backed until she was well away, turned, and ran into the night.
Chaha’oh ran until she reached the Split Tree. Two Crows had told her of a storm, long ago, that had split the tree. He’d taught her how Spider Woman, who was fond of that tree, had used her Power to save it. In exchange, the tree would ever point the way to her People.
The smell of woodsmoke came to her. It tasted bitter, wrong. The wind brought it from the East—from Running Elk’s Family. She followed the scent.
Bodies lay scattered, open to the sky. Homes lay in their own ashes, smoldering.
“Lookee here!” A voice burst from the remains.
Chaha’oh crouched in the shadow of a boulder. Shapes moved among the wreckage.
Cold fury settled over her. She strung her bow.
“Don’t seem like much.”
Two figures stood over a body. One of them held something that glinted in the moonlight.
“That’s cuz you don’t know what you’re looking at. That’s gold right there.”
“Fool’s gold. You mean. You really think those—”
An arrow exploded from the speaker’s chest. Chaha’oh drew and loosed. The other man crashed into the dirt, an arrow through his eye.
She prowled forward, eyes searching. With her boot, she shoved the looter’s corpse off the body.
Familiar eyes stared past her into nothing. Running Elk hadn’t been Family, but they were related by the Diné blood that stained the ground. She closed her eyes, head bowed. He had traded her first knife to her for—
A sharp yap split the night. Chaha’oh whirled. A man crouched several steps away, a long knife in hand. A feral smile split his face.
“Guess we missed one.”
She dropped her bow, slid her knife from its sheath.
“Scavenger,” she said. “Your kind have no stomach for a fight.” She circled around, forced him to turn. “And I will not be easy prey.”
“Lord, I hope not.” The blade flashed as he shifted it from one hand to another. “It’s so much better when they put up a fight.”
They stalked each other, feinted, withdrew. Each testing the other’s defenses.
Nearby, a coyote leaped up on a boulder and sat. Chaha’oh’s eyes flicked to it.
He shot forward, uncoiling like a rattlesnake. She dodged back, but his reach was longer. His blade left a stinging trail across her arm.
Teeth gritted, she backed away.
His smile grew wider. “Only a matter of time darlin’.”
The heel of her boot struck something and she pretended to stumble. He rushed her, leading with his blade. Chaha’oh ducked under his arm, thrust her knife beneath his ribs.
Hot blood washed over her hand. His breath exploded from him, his eyes full of surprise—and fear.
They were close enough for her to smell the alcohol and tobacco on him. She twisted her blade, yanked it free. He crumpled to the dirt and lay still.
She turned a slow circle, calmed her breath, listened. The coyote was gone. A smoldering piece of wood popped.
She bent, cleaned her knife on the dead man’s shirt, emptied his canteen over her hands to wash away the last trace of him. She straightened, sheathing her knife.
A woman stood across from her, watched her over the bodies. Sleek and powerful, she held Chaha’oh’s bow like she’d been born with it in her hands. Reddish-brown hair fell to her shoulders, framed a deeply tanned face and mischievous yellow eyes. She wore soft boots and supple leather skins. A smile revealed sharp, white teeth.
“No welcome for me, Sister?” She stepped forward, her boots silent on the Earth. “After all my help?” Her voice held enough mirth that Chaha’oh couldn’t tell if she was being mocked.
Again, she felt the urge to run.
Coyote stopped before her, the thin length of wood between them. She held it out.
“This is a fine bow.”
Chaha’oh raised her hand. As her fingers brushed the wood, Coyote’s fingers wrapped over hers and she leaned in close. Chaha’oh tensed.
“You are clever.” Coyote spoke into her ear. She smelled of wild grasses and warm stone. “Yet he would have had you if not for me. Again, I offer: Become my Shadow.”
Her hair brushed Chaha’oh’s cheek. “What do you mean ‘become your Shadow’?”
“You will lose your life, but gain power enough to put an end to what begins tonight.”
A sharp crack split the air. Chaha’oh jerked. The sound was followed by several more.
She turned away from Coyote. Instinct pointed her in the direction of Home. A finger-thin plume of fire streaked into the sky some distance away. A sour, ashy taste crept down the back of her throat.
Gunshots and screams filled her ears. Men on horseback raced through her Home like a poison, killing her Family.
Chaha’oh crept closer, missing the bow she’d left behind. She let her quiver fall, unsheathed her knife.
In the center of the destruction, two men hauled a figure into a cleared circle.
Two Crows. He struggled in their grip.
A third man stepped forward, the dull red of a campfire glowed in his left hand. The two men faced each other for a long breath, then Red Hand punched Two Crows.
Two Crows rocked back, lashed out with his foot. Red Hand slapped it aside and hit Two Crows again, and again, drove him to his knees.
Chaha’oh stepped forward. Someone crashed into her back and she fell onto her chest. A weight settled on her. It smelled of wild grasses and warm stone.
“You seek your death in this place.”
“I do not fear them.” She struggled. Coyote fought to keep her still. She got an arm free. A growl, and the sharp clack of snapping jaws sounded in her ear. She turned her head.
Firelight painted Coyote’s face in flickering shadow. Yellow eyes bored into hers, gleaming teeth within easy reach of her throat. Chaha’oh went still.
“See through my eyes,” Coyote said. “Learn what it is you face.”
Chaha’oh blinked. Her vision shifted in a dizzying blur. When it cleared, she could see as if she stood before Two Crows.
His head sagged forward. Blood stained the Earth in front of him. Red Hand was gaunt, his canvass duster hung on him like it was held up by sticks. Patchy hair, the color of dying scrub, covered his jaw. His eyes burned from within a skeletal face.
She stared. Red Hand wasn’t holding anything that glowed. His hand glowed.
Two Crows raised his head. His face was bloody and burnt, one eye swollen shut. He fixed Red Hand with his good eye, dipped his head, spat blood.
Red Hand cursed. Chaha’oh tensed, expecting him to hit Two Crows again. Instead, he raised his arm. His hand burst into flame. Wide-eyed, she watched the flames dance around his fingers, consuming nothing.
Red Hand looked down at Two Crows, made a motion like grabbing at a rope. He clenched his fist and jerked it back.
Two Crows screamed.
The men holding him recoiled, curling their hands against their chests as they backed away.
A brilliant white light bled from Two Crows’ eyes and mouth. Red Hand repeated the motion and light streamed from Two Crows. It flowed into the flames.
Red Hand changed. He stood straighter, grew in size until his body filled his coat. His eyes, no longer sunken, burned bright with Power.
Two Crows shrank. His once powerful arms withered until they resembled brittle twigs. The skin of his face grew taut, hollow.
Tension thrummed against the World. The strand of light between Two Crows and Red Hand grew tighter until it vibrated in the air between them. Her vision blurred. Coyote’s hands tightened on her arms.
The strand snapped with a sound like a lightning strike. Two Crows flopped to his side and lay still.
Chaha’oh fought, tried to get free. Her fingers clawed at the dirt and her breath exploded through gritted teeth. Tears flowed down her cheeks, dust on her face turned to mud.
“He is already gone,” Coyote said.
Rage bled into grief and she wept as Red Hand stared at the unmoving form of Two Crows, flames coiled about his fist. He thrust his arm forward and a blast of fire streaked from him, engulfed Two Crows.
She closed her eyes. Cries and screams tore at her ears as Red Hand and his men finished what they’d begun. It took a long time.
Coyote held her until the last of them were gone. Chaha’oh scrambled to her feet and raced into the destruction. Bodies lay everywhere—her Family. Memories pierced her like arrows. She came to the spot where Two Crows died.
The taste of Red Hand’s Power turned her mouth to sour ash. Thankfully, his work left nothing to replace her memories of the old Shaman.
He’d been like a father to her. She closed her eyes, head bowed.
“I am…sorry. For your pain.”
She spun, her hand fumbled at her empty sheath. “Why?”
Coyote tossed the blade at her feet. “You saw. He needs Power to sustain him.”
“Why did you not let me go to them?”
Coyote shrugged. “You would be dead. And I would have to find another Shadow.”
Chaha’oh retrieved her knife and stalked toward Coyote. “You don’t know—”
Instantly Coyote was several feet away. She raised her hand and a gout of fire screamed toward her.
She shrieked, covered her face, crouched. Fire roared around her, howled in her ears. Her clothes caught fire and the ground blackened—yet she felt no heat. As suddenly as it appeared, the fire was gone. She looked up.
Coyote stood where she was, hip cocked, one rust colored eyebrow raised. “I do not know what, exactly?”
Chaha’oh stood, looked at herself. She was untouched. The Earth beneath her feet was as it had always been.
“I am the stuff of dreams, Sister.” Coyote walked to her. “And nightmares.”
She brushed a lock of hair away from Chaha’oh’s face. “You have talent but, as my Shadow, you will be more. You will need to be more to prevent this from happening again.”
“I…” Chaha’oh stepped back. Striking down Red Hand while he killed her Family was one thing. Seeking him out was another.
What do I want?
She closed her eyes, saw Red Hand draw the life out of Two Crows, saw him burn her teacher—her friend—to ash.
She knew one thing she wanted. Her jaw tightened.
And when you have killed him? Two Crows’ gentle voice seemed to speak across her thoughts. Would it change anything?
She looked at the carnage surrounding her.
This would never happen again, she thought. And those responsible would pay.
That may be so, Two Crows said. But what price will you pay for your vengeance?
“Three times I ask you, Sister, before the Moon and Stars.” Coyote stepped forward. “Become my Shadow and stop the Red Hand from burning a bloody trail across the land.”
Chaha’oh turned. The stench of death surrounded her, mixed with the taste of Power. She swallowed, blinked away fresh tears. She looked at the place where Two Crows died.
Rage and loss coursed through her. She fought to decide.
Two Crows would never condone vengeance, even against his own killer. She could almost hear his voice.
The Home built upon foul land will not offer shelter.
Yet, she thought. We will slay a diseased, or wounded animal to prevent suffering.
If you seek out disease to slay, soon you will see it everywhere.
Anger flowed through her. Which doesn’t make the task less necessary.
She turned to Coyote. “I accept.”
Forgive me, Father.
The wind, and the soft crackle of embers, were her only answer.
Coyote’s sharp teeth flashed white in the moonlight. “Good.” She raised her hand, brushed a tear off Chaha’oh’s cheek.
Warm fingers brushed her eyebrow. Pain from an unnoticed cut flared briefly and was gone. Coyote’s fingers ran through her hair until both hands rested on either side of her throat.
She drew closer. “Close your eyes, Sister.” Her breath warmed Chaha’oh’s skin. The scent of wild grasses and warm stone wrapped around her.
Chaha’oh swallowed, her breath caught in her chest. Coyote’s yellow eyes were inches away, insistent. She closed her eyes. Coyote’s hands trailed lightly over her shoulders, down her arms.
Pain blared through her leg. She cried out, her eyes flew open. Coyote had shifted form and sunk her teeth deep into her calf.
Power shot into her like lightning. She gasped. Coyote filled her until her skin burned and she felt like she would burst.
Clouds raced before her eyes. She tasted smoke and dust and rain. The wind blew past, caressed her like a lover, then scoured her with sand, left her bare, raw, and clean. Fire spread from where Coyote still held her, streaked through her and was gone.
Chaha’oh fell, spitting dust from her mouth. She turned. There were holes in her leggings but, underneath, the skin was unbroken, though it ached.
Coyote sat, mouth open in a smile. Yellow eyes gleamed at her, and the wind ruffled her fur.
“You.” Chaha’oh coughed. “You bit me.”
Of course I bit you. The words danced through her head. Now come. You have much to learn and far to go.
Like what you saw?
You can pick up a copy of this story and many others in the Predators in Petticoats anthology from: