Comic book writer Steve Ahlquist (Oz Squad, Strange Eggs) re-imagines a lost classic for a modern audience, creating an outrageous adventure story crossed with a tale of redemption and forgiveness.
To see Harold now, dirty, rail thin, shirtless, his back and face sunburned and peeling, his lips cracked and swollen, was to see a boy desperate and in pain. He bore both his external misery and his internal guilt with a detached sense of purpose. He walked every morning away from the rising sun, and walked every afternoon towards the sun as it set in the west. His ragged pants were belted at the waist with a short length of rope, and in his right hand he held a brand new Winchester pump-action shotgun, fired only once.
Harold had a dollar coin in each pocket, two dollars in all, which made him feel like a millionaire. The coins had originally been in one pocket, but each step caused the coins to softly clink together, and the soft clinks became magnified in Harold’s mind until all he could hear was the clink-clink-clink of the coins. When he could stand the accusing song no longer Harold separated the coins, silencing the chorus but in no way lessening the guilt he bore.
Every evening, as the sunset, the Painted Desert came alive for Harold, showing him colors he never new existed back at the work farm. Here, lining the tall plateaus were glowing violets and golds, lustrous reds and metallic blues layered on top of each other as if God had taken His mighty paintbrush and decided that in this one place He would show His hand and add horizontal stripes to Creation. It was the most beautiful thing Harold had ever seen in his short life, and he took comfort in the idea that when he died and went to his punishment in Hell, the memories of the beauty around him would provide some small consolation to his eternal torment.
This desert was killing him. He had no water, and there was no food. The Navajos lived here, somehow, but Harold had no idea how they lived, and he had seen no sign of them. He doubted they would help a white boy, and feared that if he met any natives out here, they would simply kill him and take the rifle, the boots, and the coins in his pocket. Beyond help, out of his mind with pain and thirst, Harold missed the spectacular colors brought on by the setting of the sun, retreating into his mind and into his past, sharing secrets in the dark with his younger brother who slept in the bunk bed above him. His mind thus engaged, his trudged into the darkness.
One mile behind him, two men on horseback watched Harold as he staggered forward, more dead than alive. The tall man, dressed like an undertaker with a tall, crooked, stovepipe hat, was perched atop an ancient broke back gray mare. The horse strained under the old man’s weight, but the man gave the horse no thought as he glared at the boy in the distance, and drank deeply from the half full canteen in his hand.
“How fare’s the boy, Mr. Fox?” asked the old man, wiping his chin on his sleeve.
“He’s done for, Mr. Crow,” said Mr. Fox. Fox was a man in the middle of his life, a tracker, and a Native American. He rode a well cared for tobiano paint, a horse with white legs and mane that contrasted with its brown coloring. He was observing Harold through a long brass telescope, and recognized the signs of approaching death.
“Will he survive until morning, Mr. Fox?” asked Mr. Crow, squinting his eyes and straining to see the boy as more than a blurry spot in the distance.
“The boy is young, and strong, and used to suffering, Mr. Crow. He might live so long, but not much longer.” Mr. Fox slapped the telescope closed and placed it in the leather case that hung from his belt.
“Then I see no reason to pursue him into the darkness,” said the tall man, “Let us make camp for the evening, Mr. Fox, and pick up the boy’s trail in the morning.”
“It would have been better to merely shoot the boy, Mr. Crow,” said Mr. Fox, dismounting from his paint, “This is torture.”
Mr. Crow unfastened a sleeping roll from the side of his horse. He did not raise his voice, or in any way allow his emotions to show as he said, “I watched my brother take three days to die, Mr. Fox. And I swore as he died that Harold Fredericks would suffer for twice as long. Tomorrow, that promise will be kept.”
Mr. Fox removed his wide brimmed black hat, adorned with a single eagle’s feather, from his head and wiped sweat from his brow. He said nothing in response to Mr. Crow. Fox was a tracker, paid to follow desperate men through dangerous terrain, or to lead the uninitiated through areas that should by rights kill them. He knew what kind of men Mr. Crow and his brother were, and wished the boy no ill will, but he was being paid, extremely well, and so humored the vile man.
As if reading his mind, Mr. Crow laughed, “Don’t worry, Mr. Fox. This ends tomorrow and in less than a week you’ll be through with me.”
Mr. Fox unfurled his bed role, put his hat over his face, and welcomed sleep, as Mr. Crow laughed mirthlessly to himself.
Harold walked through the darkness, in his mind he was with his brother, at the work farm, hauling a cart or reciting his prayers. Here, at the edge of the Painted Desert, he walked, relentlessly, towards the sound of flowing water. Step by step, Harold merely shuffled one foot in front of the other; inside his shoes Harold’s feet were soggy with broken blisters. He was beyond pain.
On the work farm Harold let a cart slip sideways into a ditch, and the axle broke. The Crow Brothers were of course beside themselves with anger, and Harold was beaten and denied dinner, a thin, tasteless gruel that tasted like dirty warm water, and probably was.
The next morning all the boys at the work farm who had eaten were sick, including Harold’s brother, Marcus. The Crow Brothers ranted and raved, forcing the sick boys out of their beds. Those who could not work were beaten. Harold’s brother was unable to stand, but Harold held him up, and took the lashes from the Crow’s leather swatches on his own back. As the day progressed, several boys fell. One died. Marcus got sicker and so Harold demanded that the Crow Brothers fetch the doctor from town. Harold was beaten.
Eventually, however, the Crows relented, and Harold was sent off, well after midnight, to fetch the doctor. Harold traveled barefoot all night, and well into the morning. Harold found the doctor, and managed to sleep, exhausted, in the doctor’s horse drawn wagon on the way back to the work farm. Despite his efforts, Harold was too late, his brother, Marcus, had died.
Harold found himself in the dark, on the bank of the Colorado River, drinking greedily from the fast moving water. His stomach knotted, and he threw up, but the water was delicious, and he removed his shoes, waded into the water, and soaked in the cool current. Slowly he felt better, and slept until sunrise on the riverbank.
When Harold awoke he looked at the horrible shoes, and debated as to whether he should simply leave them where they were, or take them with him. A few steps with his damaged feet on the uneven rocks along the river’s edge convinced him that he was better off with the shoes than without them. Since it provided such a ready source of water Harold resolved not to let he river out of his sight, and kept the river to his left as he continued his trek to where God only knew.
Mr. Fox was quiet as Mr. Crow ranted and raved at the edge of the riverbed. Mr. Fox had miscalculated both the determination of the boy and the distance to the river, and now the boy survived.
“No small expense was spared in procuring your services, Mr. Fox,” ranted the tall thin man in the stovepipe hat from atop his weary horse. “‘I need a tracker!’ I say, and the townsfolk reply, ‘Find old Mr. Fox. He’s an Indian, but a straight shooter and almost white in his honesty.’ So I hustle to the abode of one Mr. Fox, and tell him of the injustice done to my brother…”
“The boy follows, is following, the river,” interrupted Mr. Fox, “He’s healthier now. The young have much in the way of strength.”
Mr. Crow dismounted and made his way to the river, refilling his canteens. “So when do we catch him? Running him down in the desert has not panned out the way my dreams conspired, so I’ll have to satisfy my vengeance with a bullet in the boys back.”
Mr. Fox betrayed no emotion, but looked at the horses that drank deeply from the river, satisfying a desperate thirst earned in the Painted Desert. “The horses are tired. It will take two days to catch the boy.”
Mr. Crow gritted his yellowing teeth and his eyes seemed to burn red. With great effort the man reeled in his emotions, and said, “Very well, Mr. Fox. Two days.”
It was a week later that Harold reached the Grand Canyon. He early on had crossed the Little Colorado River and trekked along the Colorado River, following the tributaries and streams until he came to a view that took his breath away. He was looking into a deep hole that seemed to stretch to the horizon, the cliffs were layered like the painted desert, lacking the vibrant colors there, but no less beautiful.
Harold was hungry, and bemoaned the fact that he had wasted two of his five shotgun bullets on a small squirrel too quick for him to get a bead on. Harold subsisted on small nuts and grasses, and thought wistfully of the thin gruel back at the work camp. Here, at the rim of the Grand Canyon, looking out over nature’s beauty, Harold could momentarily forget his hunger, forget the pain of his feet, and forget his past. He felt a cool breeze up here, a relief from the uncompromising heat he had endured all his life, and he had goose bumps. He felt very much alive.
Something scraped his arm, and he looked to see blood seeping from a gash that had suddenly formed there. The wound was not serious, but mysterious. An instant later he heard the gunshot, small and distant, and with a sudden sense of rising panic he realized someone had just shot at him. Harold turned towards where he thought the sound of the gun had come from, but could see little through the sparse trees and scrubby vegetation behind him. There was another pop as the gun fired again. Absently Harold realized that the bullet had just careened off a rock behind him. Now Harold saw a cloud of smoke and two men on horseback. One wore a tall stovepipe hat…
Fear gripped Harold and without thinking he ran. There was what seemed a thin, manageable path below him that led into the canyon. It was a sheer cliff drop, but Harold managed to lower himself enough so that he could drop to the two-foot wide ‘path’ below. Dropping down put him temporarily out reach of the bullets fired by Mr. Crow. From this path Harold could inch along, and then drop to another, lower path. Harold made his zigzagging, hang and drop way into the canyon, until he came to a wider path, almost a road, and could now run full tilt away from his pursuers.
“Damn it!” said Mr. Crow, his hands shaking with rage, “I missed!”
Mr. Fox said nothing. He knew that if he had made the shot, the boy would be dead, but Mr. Crow wanted the kill for himself. In truth, Mr. Fox was relived. He was a tracker, not a murderer for hire, or so he kept telling himself. I will lead men where they want to be and what they do when they get there is up to them.Still, the idea of gunning down a defenseless boy sickened him.
Mr. Crow fired again, but this shot was worse than the last. Emotion ruled the man, and he had little chance of hitting his target the way his hands shook with rage. Mr. Fox watched as the boy, panicked and now aware that he was being pursued, jumped into the canyon, and out of sight.
“Damn it damn it damn it!” yelled the man in the stovepipe hat, “Two days my horse’s ass, Mr. Fox! Two days indeed! We’ve been after the boy two weeks now! I think I overpaid you, Redskin.”
Mr. Fox regarded the old man with no trace of emotion. He considered shooting Mr. Crow, but as an Indian living and working alongside whites, he was used to such language, and did not want to risk a hanging. In a measured voice Mr. Fox said, “Had we merely shot the boy in the desert, it would be over, but you wished the boy to suffer, which he has.”
These calm controlled responses from Mr. Fox were beginning to annoy Mr. Crow. No matter what happened, no matter how great the set back or how delayed the justice, the Indian merely shrugged his shoulders and delivered his statements with the same neutral, emotionless voice. No amount of insult could move the man, and it rankled Mr. Crow that he was left alone with his consternation and frustration.
“The boy has entered the canyon, and if he does not break his legs, he will make his way to a path, a path that we can reach on horseback if we are quick enough,” continued Mr. Fox.
“Another ‘two days’ Mr. Fox?” asked Mr. Crow, with great sarcasm.
“We will have the boy by sundown, Mr. Crow.”
Mr. Crow smiled.
Harold ran along the path until he was out of breath, then he walked as fast as he could until he caught his breath, and then ran some more. He was panicked and more scared than he had ever been in his life. Mordecai Crow, the brother of Uriah Crow, had pursued him across the desert, and wanted him dead. His heart racing, Harold imagined that there were some sins that you could not escape from. Judgment was coming, and it rode and old gray mare.
Hours later Harold’s panic faded, to be replaced by deep thought. Harold knew that if he had been pursued this far, then Mr. Crow would not give up now. Eventually he and the other man would catch him, in the open or in his sleep, and that would be the end. Harold would be killed, and sent off to that Hell he knew he so richly deserved to spend eternity in.
Harold stopped in his tracks, and looked behind him. There was still no sign of pursuit, but that meant nothing. He knew with a certainty that they were coming. Harold began walking backwards; matching his footprints to those he had recently made, backtracking, and hoping to fool the tracker. For almost a hundred yards he did this, then he dove into some bushes and secured himself there, hoping that he was completely hidden.
Nestled away, Harold ignored the bugs that crawled over him and his own weariness, and tried to calmly rationalize his plan. The two men would walk by, and Harold would rise from the bushes, and kill them with the shotgun. It had come down to either his death or theirs, and Harold doubted that Hell was much worse for those who had killed three men than one.
He heard the horses, and then saw the men astride them. Harold did not move, he barely breathed. The men came closer, they seemed gigantic, larger than possible, but they were only Mr. Crow, and an Indian tracker. Harold moved ever so slightly, and aimed the shotgun at Mr. Crow. From his hidden position Harold would not have to stand and fire, he could kill the man from where he was hidden, and maybe cause enough confusion to kill the Indian before the tracker pulled his gun.
Harold looked at the man who hunted him, an evil, vile man who with his identical twin brother forced children to work as near slaves in their work camp, a man who routinely beat the children in his care and who had caused the death of Harold’s brother. Harold took careful aim, and all he could see through his suddenly tearing eyes was the man he had killed so recently, the man he had shot with the very gun in his hands.
Harold wanted to pull the trigger, wanted to end the nightmare of his existence, end the pain that wracked his soul, but he found that he could not do it. Mr. Fox passed by with his tracker, and Harold let him go. The two men continued up the path, and Harold wiped tears from his eyes.
Then Harold remembered that he had backtracked here, and that the two men would soon discover that his tracks ended, would discover his trick, and come back for him. Harold rose from his hiding place and crossed the thin road and peered into the Canyon. Below him was another path, through scrubby vegetation and ragged, uneven rocks. Harold had no choice but to pick his way down.
Mr. Crow was yelling now, and Harold heard the gunshots. He had been discovered, so he leapt down the steep, rocky incline, slowing his descent by grabbing and uprooting the sparse vegetation.
Harold tripped, and rolled, and fell. He landed on the path below, and rocks, kicked free during his hasty descent, rolled onto and over him. Winded, Harold looked up and could see the old man Crow, firing his revolver at him. A bullet hit Harold squarely in the back, but a rock that had landed there split neatly in half when the bullet hit, and deflected the bullet away. Harold lived, bruised but otherwise alive.
Harold dove deeper into the canyon, and was soon obscured by the cliff face. Mr. Crow fired more bullets in frustration, because Harold presented no clear shots. The boy found a scraggly path, and ran. He had no goal and no destination other than to get away and far away. He hoped that then men pursuing him would search for another way down into the canyon, so that Harold could further the distance between them.
Harold ran until his chest hurt, and he was forced to slow to a walk to catch his breath. Far up the path he saw something moving towards him, something so large and unexpected that it was difficult to focus his eyes and get his mind around what he was seeing. There was a large, gray elephant walking briskly down the path towards him. The elephant’s trunk swayed with every step, it flapped its large ears, and marched briskly towards Harold, blocking the path.
Harold had never in his life seen an Elephant, but he had seen a picture once, and he thought the creature somewhat fanciful and preposterous. Here, now in the flesh, the Elephant scared him. It was bigger than he imagined, and faster. The bulk of the creature took up the entire path, and its feet pounded the earth, raising clouds of dust and sending vibrations that Harold could feel in his legs.
Harold looked side to side to find a way out of the Elephant’s path. To his left was a sheer, unscalable cliff wall, to his right a drop too high to risk jumping. Harold backed away as the Elephant approached, but doubted his ability to outrun the creature. In seconds it would be upon him. His options rapidly dwindling, Harold brought up his gun and aimed. He had no wish to hurt the Elephant, but saw no way out of this. The Elephant’s eyes stared directly at him; Harold read angry determination in them.
Harold fired his gun. The Elephant continued its march as if nothing had happened. Harold knew that there was no way in which he could have missed, but could see no damage to, and no reaction from, the Elephant. Harold fired again. This time the Elephant was close enough that Harold could see his shotgun pellets all harmlessly bounce off the creature, to no effect. Harold backed away as the Elephant approached, and was about to turn and run, when suddenly the Elephant’s eyes brightened and looked right at him.
Harold hoped the Elephant was not too angry with him for shooting at it twice. The Elephant slowed, then stopped, turning ever so slightly on the narrow path so that Harold now had a view of the left side of the Elephant’s body. The Elephant shuddered slightly, and became more dead than alive. Silence gripped the path. Harold had not realized how loud the Elephant was, when it was trundling directly at him. Cautiously Harold approached the Elephant, examining the creature for signs of hostility or life, but the Elephant’s eyes stared straight ahead, unseeing, and the only sound Harold could hear came from inside the creature.
As Harold watched, a door opened in the side of the Elephant, and a small set of stairs dropped out on cleverly designed hinges. Harold gaped at the view, because the Elephant was essentially hollow inside, and lit up with what Harold could only assume to be electric light bulbs, which he had heard of but never seen.
From within the Elephant came a voice, an old and weak voice that said, “Come closer boy, and enter.”
Harold stood rooted to his spot, unwilling to venture forth, so strange was this entire experience.
It was only when the voice pleaded, “I need help,” that Harold was suddenly compelled to step forward, and stare into the hollow Elephant.
What Harold saw inside was an elaborate, lighted control panel towards the Elephant’s head, and an ornate fancy couch built into the wall opposite the door. Lying on the couch was an old man, with long white hair dressed in a fine black suit. The man’s skin was wrinkled and nearly as white as his hair.
The old man lifted a hand towards Harold and said, weakly, “Do not be afraid, my boy, but help me. In that cupboard to your right there is a glass vial of a medicinal nature. Retrieve for me, will you?”
The obvious need of the old man did much to mollify Harold’s sense of fear, so Harold found himself climbing the stairs and entering the Elephant. In a small cabinet to the left of the stairs Harold found a glass vial filled with a cool, clear liquid. Harold was surprised to find that the inside of the cabinet was cold, it was some sort of miniature icebox, but there was no ice to be seen.
Harold held the vial up where the old man could see it. “Is this it?”
“Yes,” said the old man, smiling, “Aqua vitae, the water of life. Another sip of that and I’ll be almost as young and healthy as you are, young man.”
Harold was too overwhelmed by the strangeness of this entire experience to maintain any doubt in the old man’s assertion. Harold moved ever so slightly to deliver the so-called water of life to the old man, when suddenly the vial exploded in Harold’s hand. Distantly it occurred to Harold that vials do not explode for no reason, and that something must have caused the sudden explosion. Harold saw the old man, a look of pain and disappointment on his face, reach for a control knob on a wall above the couch. The old man was looking past Harold and out the door. Harold followed the old man’s gaze and with a shock realized that the old man had activated a mechanism that was closing the door and raising the stairs, effectively trapping him within the Elephant.
As Harold focused outside the Elephant, however, he saw Mr. Crow and the tracker a short distance away, and a cloud of white-gray smoke slowly wafting away from the barrel of the Crow Brother’s gun. Mr. Crow fired a second time, but the Elephant was closed, and Harold heard the bullet strike the exterior door with a light tap.
Time seemed to resume its normal speed, and Harold looked back from the closed door and to the old man on the couch.
“Don’t worry, boy,” said the old man, “the assembled hordes of Genghis Khan couldn’t get in here now. You’re safe from the men outside.” The old man looked with unconcealed disappointment at the broken glass and rapidly evaporating puddle from the broken vial of aqua vitae. “Is that my water of life?” he asked, knowing the answer.
Harold looked at his hand, slightly cut from the exploding glass. He pulled a sliver of glass from his palm, and watched as the wound healed almost instantly. Harold wiped his hand on his shirt, he had bled from multiple cuts, but all the wounds were already gone. “Yeah…” said Harold, confused.
The old man explained, “The water of life has healing effects. Kind of a waste to use it on a couple of shallow cuts, but most of it has soaked into the carpeting anyway.”
Outside the Elephant Harold could hear Mr. Crow, shouting and cursing. Harold felt trapped inside the Elephant. The old man on the couch seemed to sense this.
“The men outside, they don’t seem to like you very much.”
“I don’t know the Indian,” said Harold, “but the tall one is Mr. Crow. I escaped from his orphanage.”
“Looking at you, I can imagine the kind of orphanage you mean. But, surely they didn’t track you across the desert and through this amazing canyon because you simply ran away…”
“How did you know I crossed the desert…”
“I am very observant,” said the old man with a wan smile.
Harold looked away from the old man, and towards the ceiling of the Elephant, where a coil of wires that ran along the spine of the Elephant were held in place by a net, affixed to the ceiling by a curious collection of knives and swords of every shape and size. Harold felt deep shame and regret.
“I killed his brother,” said Harold, “When I made my escape, I shot him.”
The old man nodded, and Harold summoned the courage to look the man in the eye. The old man was looking at and into Harold, summing him up and judging him. Finally the old man said, “You killed a man, but I don’t take you for a murderer.”
Harold did not understand the distinction.
“Your Mr. Crow has killed me,” continued the old man, “Without that miraculous water I am doomed to die, within minutes, possibly seconds.”
Summoning most of his remaining strength, the old man reached under the couch and slid out a small drawer. Inside were two leather-bound journals. The old man gestured at the books, and then fell back onto the couch.
His voice was weaker now. The old man struggled to speak, and Harold moved closer, and knelt by the old man’s side. The old man gripped Harold’s hand and said, “My will, and an instruction manual for the Elephant. You can read, can’t you boy?”
Harold recalled his bible study classes, every Sunday for the last nine years. “A little,” he said, “the Bible.”
The old man nodded. “Good enough, I suppose. What is your name, by the way?”
The old man closed his eyes, and smiled slightly. His final words were, “Yesterday, you were a murderer, Harold. Today, you can be anything you want.”
The old man shuddered, and died.