An Explosive Shout Cracks the Great Empty Sky
rating: +33+x

“Only the hand that erases can write the true thing.”

Meister Eckhart

Lightning briefly illuminated the night, creating a snapshot of the scene in the doctor's eyes. Hide huts, tepees she had heard them called, stood on the great plain. No fires burned. The cloying stench of dead flesh hung in the air. She recognized it all too well.

Lightning crashed again as she pushed her way into the nearest yurt. Another snapshot. This one of Hell. The boy knelt beside the bodies of his parents. He had turned to look at her as she opened the tent flap. Ten. Eleven, at the oldest. He was contorted with grief and confusion, tears pouring from his eyes. His face was smeared with crude warpaint; a childish recreation of his father's powerful symbols. A red arrowhead pointing upward covered his face, flanked by a pair each of green circles above and black circles below his eyes. The symbolism was lost on her.

For the first time in her miserable life, however, it seemed she was in luck. Their breaths were ragged and labored, but most importantly, they were still being drawn. They could yet be saved. If she worked quickly enough, perhaps this entire tribe might yet —

One thing at a time. The boy clutched a wickedly sharp stone knife. She remained still, studying him. She knew only a few words in a language another tribe had taught her. She spoke them.

"I am a healer. I know this sickness. I can cure it."

She hoped he understood. There was no further time to hesitate. She walked to the dying pair and knelt down, resting her black bag on the ground. The boy dropped the knife, watched unmoving from his knees as she ministered to his dying parents.

It was then that she heard it. The distant retort of a rifle. She felt her heart fall into the acids of her stomach. Never lucky. She stole a glance at the boy, whose trembling froze at her gaze. Quickly, she moved to the far hide wall, sliding a steel scalpel from her surgical bag and using it to slice a thin, vertical slit, through which she peered.

Lightning turned night to day. Smoke. Soldiers. They had come upon the other side of the village. They pulled the sick from their homes, burned the tepees, and shot anyone who tried to resist. Her mind shrieked in rage. If only she had more time!

It made no difference now. Even if she cured them, she knew the soldiers would never let them escape. She shuddered as her gaze fell over the three people in the room with her. The boy displayed no symptoms. She would save at least one life tonight, goddamn it.

She knelt by the heads of his parents, and reached out to touch the boy's face. She felt his eyelids close beneath her gloved hand and turned his head to the side. Then, she turned her attention back to the boy's parents. She would offer them the scant mercy she could.

Crack!

Snap!

Wordlessly, she settled their now-still heads to the ground. Silently, she grabbed the boy's hand, and pulled him out of his home. Away from his parents, with their twisted, broken necks. Away from his burning, dying village. Away to the relative safety of the vast, open plain.

By dawn, she was alone. He had run from her the first chance he got. She couldn't blame him, could only imagine what kind of grim specter he must think she was.


She awoke covered in cold sweat. The same dream. The same memory that found her every night these past few weeks. Specks of dust danced in the shafts of sunlight streaming through the wooden window shutters. Judging by their angle, it was nearly noon. She pulled herself from the warm bed, letting the rough, scratchy blanket fall from her. She stretched, bringing her hand to sooth an itch on the scarred skin of her face.

She stood for a short time, letting the late morning air wash against her bare skin, pondering her situation. The sounds of the town streamed through the second-floor window. The clatter of hooves, the chatter of townsfolk, the distant whistle of an arriving train. She crossed the small room to the wooden end-table, pulling a folded telegram from within her black bag.

ANOTHER OUTBREAK OF ROTTING DISEASE STOP
WHOLE MINING TOWN DEAD WITH BROKEN NECKS STOP
NO SUSPECTS AND TOWN HAS BEEN ABANDONED STOP

Sent from a town called Virginia City, Nevada. This town. She'd been here only a day, and was already sick of the place. Most of the people that lived here were crude and stupid. The few that weren't were too clever for their own good. She pulled her aquiline porcelain face from the end table and put it on, thankful for the smell of lavender as it muted the stench of the frontier town. Her hand pulled her black leather robes from the back of the wooden chair she'd laid it on the night before, pulling it on. Her gaze fell once more over the small room she'd rented. She hoped it would be the last time.

Downstairs, the parlor was in full swing. A pianist played, women danced, and poker was dealt. She had never been in a saloon she liked, but she needed a fresh lead, needed to find this mining town. Looking around the room, she saw something like a scene out of a painting.

A dog sat with four men at a round table, who were drinking whiskey and playing cards. All but one turned to watch as the black-robed stranger sat among them. Her gaze went to the one that didn't turn, who quietly wore a sly smile, his eyes hidden behind jet-black round-rimmed sunglasses. He idly played with the two cards pinned between his finger and the table.

The rest of the dogs, and there was no mistaking it; they were all dogs, even if only one walked on all fours, watched her intently. She saw the men's mustaches twitch, the golden retriever's head tilt inquisitively.

"We don't need no gravediggers fouling up our luck here, miss." An overstuffed man pulled a cigar free from beneath his gray, walrus mustache and wrinkled his nose at her. "Why don't you just get on up out of here, y'hear?"

The man wearing sunglasses leaned forward, cleared his throat. "No gravedigger. A surgeon, by the sound of it." His voice was soft but clear. The dog licked his hand, the other men turning to give him puzzled looks. He gave a wily grin. "Five dollars says the cards agree." They grumbled, and a harrumph or two was formally lodged, but in the end, twenty dollars more were laid out on the table.

The bespectacled man's smile never faltered. He pulled the top card of the deck, tossing it aside, still face-down. The next card was flipped. Ace of diamonds. Another burn. Three of spades. Burn. Ace of clubs.

One by one the men turned up their hands. Jack, queen off suit. Pocket deuces. The third smiled, his teeth rolling his cigar around his mouth, and revealed an Ace, king high. He moved to pull the pile of bills towards himself until the man with sunglasses turned his hand up.

Ace, three. Air hissed through teeth.

"Now, correct me if I'm wrong, but a full house beats a pair, doesn't it?"

"Wait just one minute here, just how did you know what was in your hand without us telling you this time, stranger!?" the grey mustache challenged him, a beefy hand slamming down onto the wooden table to punctuate his question.

"Ah, well, why else would you gentlemen have reacted with surprise?" The man pulled his dark sunglasses from his face, breathing on the lenses before taking a white cloth to them. His milky white orbs stared out, unseeing. Among the other three men, a grumbling was brewing. "Besides, you boys don't seem the type to get upset by a little lost pocket change. Especially," he raised his voice, waving a five dollar bill at the bartender, "When it's used to buy three bottles of whiskey for these fine gentlemen!"

Their grumbles turned into a ragged cheer as the men rose to go collect their consolation prize. The cigar smoker's meaty paw clapped the scrawny, black-suited man on his back, nearly knocking the neat bowler hat from his head.

The dealer laughed and adjusted his spectacles and hat back into their proper place, pressing the bank note into the portly older man's calloused hand. He collected the deck back together with a wide sweep of his arm, riffling the cards together to shuffle them. The dog laid its chin on the man's wrist after several long seconds of shuffling, its big brown eyes studying the woman.

"Game of cards?" he offered her finally.

"Thank you, no. I don't leave things to chance." She sat her neat black bag on the table. "You are more capable than you let on. You heard the tools in my bag, and inferred my line of work." He opened his mouth to reply, but her gloved finger rose up to halt him. "You discerned the nature of my tools just by hearing my movement. You must hear all sorts of things."

His eyebrows arched. His dog jumped down from its chair to frantically chew its own asshole. He pretended not to notice. "Might do." He let the deck rest on the table, gathering his winnings and slowly straightening the bills, running his fingers over them. "Might do. What's on your mind, miss?"

"I'm looking for a town. Mining town, not far from here." She pulled a ten dollar bill from her black bag, placing it on the table and sliding it to him. "There's been an epidemic, and I need to make sure it doesn't spread."

"Well, then we have on our hands a rather fortuitous coincidence. I have been waiting on my employers to send an escort, but seeing as we have the same destination, and I," he patted his breast pocket, "have the directions, maybe we can both make better time than expected." His smile spread to his eyes. "Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Dr. Crow. And this shining example of canine dignity is Pathos."

She offered a polite laugh, depositing her money on the middle of the table. He shook his head. "No need for all that, miss. I prefer to let the cards decide, and I'm just sure you're in luck." He dealt one card to each of them in sequence, until each held a hand of five. Setting aside the deck, he flipped his hand over with his forefinger. Two, four, six, eight, and ten of diamonds. He gave her his best best approximation of a meek shrug.

She eyed him curiously, turning over the cards she'd been offered. Royal flush, hearts.

"I don't leave anything to chance either, miss."


"Let go over a cliff, die completely, and then come back to life — after that you cannot be deceived."

Zen Proverb

"Wherever he goes, it's gonna turn to shit. Death and rot, those are his environs, no matter where he might be." The pair rode a single horse, the dog trotting alongside happily. She was telling him about the last time she'd been this far out west, about the boy she'd met those years ago.

"What makes you so sure of that?" Dr. Crow sat behind, his arms crossed over his chest, or braced against the back of the saddle; anything he could do to avoid wrapping them around her. Because he was a gentleman, of course.

"He had blood on his face. A few droplets." She felt him twist behind her, inquisitively. She elaborated. "In the late stages of the disease, bleeding into the lungs is not uncommon. A simple cough can aspirate the disease; a single drop can carry the infection for weeks."

"Then surely this boy would be long dead by now?"

"I had assumed as much as well, until I received that telegram. It is now my suspicion that he was infected the first time I laid eyes on him, but is asymptomatic. A carrier, unaffected by the disease." Her hands tightened on the reins, halting their mount. She spotted squat, wooden buildings in the distance. "Anyways, we're nearly there."

"You really think our killer is your boy, huh?"

"Broken neck prevents the disease from establishing control over the body. He… would be aware of the method." She felt his eyes burning into her and turned in the saddle, but no, they were still hidden behind those black discs. "He was in the room when I—"

"Yeah, yeah," she'd already described the procedure she had used on the boy's parents. "Let's assume you're right. So, he finds a way to get the whole little town here infected. How's that happen, when the infection spreads through bodily secretions?" He felt her weight shift as she shrugged. She started their rented steed again towards the town.

"There appears to be a well in the square," she noted, eyes scanning the town as it came more clearly into view. "If I were a betting woman, I'd wager he tainted it."

"Figure he just strolled up easy as you please and had himself a nice piss in the middle of town?"

"One does not survive long in the wilderness without becoming skilled at moving without being seen. He may well have done just so. Or used his blood." She shifted, the rotting stench of the town thick in the hot late afternoon air, permeating even the herbs in her porcelain countenance. "Or feces."

"Pathos is the lucky one," Crow remarked as he covered his nose and mouth with a perfumed kerchief he had recovered from his pocket. "There isn't a smell on Earth that can make a dog gag." The dog perked up at the mention of his name, throwing his rump into the air like an idiot a few times, before taking off at a run to investigate the sources of the mysterious, potent new odors.

The town wasn't much. Some wooden barracks, a storehouse, and a bar were the town's only attractions. A wagon-worn trail led up a hill to the mine. A fence post made for a serviceable hitching rail. They dismounted as the golden-furred dog ran from building to building, pausing only to pry his snout intently into doors for a mighty sniff.

Pulling her attention from the sprinting dog, she saw her companion pull a cleverly constructed wooden contraption from an inner coat pocket. With a snap of his wrist, it unfolded out into a slender cane. It shot back and forth in front of him as he paced slowly around the town, turning his face this way and that.

The surgeon left him to his own devices, and made her way to the barracks, to investigate the putrefying corpses.


Has a dog the Buddha nature?
This is a matter of life and death.
If you wonder whether a dog has it or not,
You certainly lose your body and life!

Comments on the Mumonkan

The surgeon walked back outside. Stormclouds had blown in, stealing their daylight from them hours early. Her companion and his dog waited near the well, both turning as she approached.

"From the smell of things, you were right about the well. Water's septic," he told her. The blanketing darkness didn't faze Pathos or Crow in the slightest, while she found herself struggling to see them not two paces in front of her. She was briefly relieved when lightning flashed, bringing the man and his dog into sharp relief.

That was until she noticed the collapsed body of their horse, and the silhouette of a man in the doorway of the bar they'd hitched her at. "Fuck!" she informed him. "He's here." she clarified. Her bag fell to the ground and darkness returned.

There was a cacophony of movement. Pathos began emitting a low, vicious growl, which transformed into bloodthirsty snarls. She heard Crow run to his aid. She heard a loud yelp, then a heavy thud as the dog was thrown hard against the billet wall. She heard Dr. Crow's enraged yell. As she listened, her hands searched her surgical bag for the particular cure she needed.

Lightning crashed. Dr. Crow clutched his chest, kneeling, his cane missing. She recognized the face that sprinted at her. Recognized the crude warpaint. Recognized the enraged, confused expression. His eyes caught hers in the flash. He froze; In his mind, he was on his knees, begging his parents to live, witnessing death herself for the first time.

She pulled her prescription from the bag: Two doses of lead, applied with a Smith & Wesson Model 3. The light faded as her gun roared twice. She didn't hear a thud.

"You clipped him, he's hurt! He ran into the barracks!" She heard Dr. Crow pull himself to his feet. She leveled her gun towards the hut's doorway, slowly, blindly walking towards it.

Crow nearly bumped into her from behind before she heard his footsteps. He gave her a light pat on the back. She steeled herself, tensing at the threshold, waiting for the next flash. Long moments passed, her heart pounding as time seemed to stretch on interminably.

A firebolt split the heavens, pouring light through the doorway. She breached the entrance, her pistol pointing around the briefly visible room. Her blood ran cold with horror. She didn't see him.

The light faded. She didn't see the killer drop from the ceiling, landing in front of her with a muted thud. His hand found the side of her head. She briefly wondered what she had expected to happen.

The explosion that sounded next wasn't thunder, but the derringer in Dr. Crow's hand. She felt her attacker lurch, shoving her to the ground. His footfalls lost their grace, stumbling heavily as he fled through the back door of the barracks.

She pushed herself up, trembling, her heart and breath racing. Dr. Crow's hands found her, helped pull her to her feet. "Are you hurt? I didn't hit you, did it?"

"No, the worst I got was some of his blood from the shot." She rubbed it from her eye, her glove squeaking slightly against her ceramic visage.

"On your face?"

"In my eye."

"Oh God, no. I… I—"

"I appreciate your concern, but it is misplaced. He can't infect me with anything I don't already have. I'm asymptomatic. A carrier, like him."

"Only, you spend your days stomping out epidemics, not starting them. That makes you a few thousand times better in my book." The levity slowly returned to Crow's voice. "Even with that winging I gave him, we'd never catch up to him. What's say we gather up Pathos and beat feet out of this ghost town?"

She took a deep breath, but couldn't disagree. "Will he be ok?" she asked, as the man knelt by his dog. A tail started smacking the ground rhythmically.

A few moments passed, she heard the dog get to his feet and take a few steps. "He's favoring his right front paw, but I've seen him take worse spills without complaint. Hell, down in Boulder City, he fell down three flights of stairs, got right up and started chewing his butthole like nothing happened."

The storm eventually gave way to the moonless night sky, the three travelers limping back the six miles to Virginia City, more following the dog's nose than any of their senses.

"We'll get him." Crow broke several hours' silence. "My employers, that is. We make sure guys like that wind up rotting in a cell."

"What did you say your employer's name was?"

"I didn't. If you're looking for work, I've got men needing a skilled pathologist sooner than later."

"I see. Same disease?"

"From the sound of it."

"Where?"

"It's a little slice of heaven. Lovely place called Riddle, Wyoming."

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