Fiction: The Stronghold
By Sean Jacques
I didn’t take losing Susie very well. It had dragged me down to a hell I’d never been before. I went through a long stretch of drinking and moping and crying, I lost my job at the garage, and I became such a sad sack of shit that nobody wanted to be around me anymore. And I really couldn’t blame them. Whenever I looked at myself in the mirror all I could see was a pathetic loser with a broken heart and no glue.
Then one night at a dive bar on a not-so-glamorous strip of Hollywood Boulevard, I got to retelling my woman woes to an old barfly named Garrett. He suggested I go talk to God. I told him that I’d been talking to myself quite a bit lately, and if God was everywhere, like the Good Book says, then He’d heard enough of me already. Then Garrett went on to say he’d once met The Almighty at a special place meant for such meetings, and he claimed his life had changed. Of course, I took it to be aload of bullshit from a lifelong liquor-head who looked like he was only one more drink away from dying on his barstool. Still, he kept insisting that his story was real and true, and he even drew a map on a bar napkin. So to calm him down and veer that topic to another matter, I took his map and bought us both more rounds of bourbon until closing time.
Then over the next couple of weeks, Garrett’s notion wouldn’t leave my mind, and it had gotten me to thinking that maybe escaping from my shitty life might do me some good. So a little before midnight on a Tuesday in July, I hopped in my Silverado and took off toward the Arizona-Mexico border. I left my cell phone behind, figuring it would be better to go full-bore off-the-grid, and since I’d been on a six-month bender, I didn’t bring any booze along either, though I did pack some joints to take the edge off.
After seven or eight night hours of sober driving in darkness, I hit Tucson just as the sun was peeking up from the purpling eastern sky. My head was aching and my hands were shaking, and as I continued along Interstate 10 with a convoy of truckers, I got to watching the world pass by. Not much life in this desolate part of the country. Nothing but sand and prickly plants strapped with enough spikes to kill a man. It was then I figured it was time to light up some dope and put my mind on cruise control for a while, and try my best to steer my thoughts away from Susie and the reason she’d left me.
Looking back, I should’ve put my foot down and said no, Baby, you can’t go.
But I didn’t.
You see, Susie had been aching to go down to Cabo for nearly a year with her favorite gal pal, a short redhead troll named Joanne, but they had to keep postponing their trip on account of Joanne’s weak kidneys. Then miraculously, Joanne received a transplant from an unknown donor, and after the successful surgery, Susie kept hounding me to fork over the dough for their airfare and a hotel for them to celebrate.
Granted, I was never keen on this plan to start with, but since I was already paying Susie’s means of living anyway--the rent, the food, the car insurance--I figured playing Sugar Daddy for their week-long vacation really wasn’t no big deal.
That was my first mistake.
Truth be told, I’d never liked Joanne. Not a bit. But it wasn’t her hideous physical features that bugged me, no, the real cause of my dislike was her personality. An intolerable bitch, really. I say that not because she’s a woman, but rather she’s the type of person who turns combative whenever you spout any opinion on any subject, no matter which side you’re on. She even used to criticize me about the way I worked on cars, as if it wasn’t my profession, and she didn’t know jackshit about cars. But still, whenever Joanne would start raising a ruckus, I’d just go along with it because I didn’t want to ruffle Susie’s feathers. You see, we’d been hatching wedding dates, and I sure as hell didn’t want to do anything to upset their girly-girl relationship for fear it might interfere with my marriage plans.
Anyway, the gals went off to Cabo on my dime, and they were supposed to return after a week. Then I got a phone call. Susie said they’d decided to stay a while longer, and she needed me to pay for their extended vacation. Well, that sure enough pissed me off. But because Susie had a hold on me like nothing else, and since I’d promised what was mine was hers, there wasn’t much else I could do but say, okay Baby.
Well, seven more nights without Susie’s curvy body next to mine made me toss-and-turn with the dirtiest of dirty dreams, and so when I picked her up at LAX and saw how the Baja sun had lightened her auburn hair and bronzed her pearl skin, my mind went to devising schemes for a quickie in my Silverado. But all of those lusty thoughts were for naught, because Joanne needed to hitch a ride home, and as usual, she asked me in a tone of more demand than plea.
Along the drive, neither woman volunteered much detail about their trip, and my casual questions about it were met with sparse responses. I figured it was only that they were jet-lagged, but I could still sense Susie was carrying a queer distance-toward me, and I could only speculate on the possibilities of why. It wasn’t until after we’d dropped off Joanne, and we’d made it all the way home to our sweet little condo, and were alone in bed, and I was ready to get down to some serious business, that Susie dropped the bomb.
She said that she and Joanne had taken up as lovers during their girly-girl getaway, they were head-over-high-heels, and were set to start a lesbian life together.
And I was being cut out of the picture.
Fifty miles after I’d sparked up the first joint, my head was now floating, so I snubbed out the third roach and tried to snap myself back into driving shape. I glanced at the rear view and saw the temperature outside was a whopping 108. It then dawned on me that the last sign I’d paid any attention to was twenty miles ago, but it had only told me that I was in the Coronado National Forest. I whipped out Garrett’s hand-scrawled map, and from what I could tell, it indicated that my next turn was Dragon Road. But then when I came to an exit that said Dragoon Road, I figured his drunk ass had failed a few lessons in spelling, so I turned.
For the next ten miles I saw no other cars or trucks. Nothing but heat shimmering across the empty blacktop, a few jumping jackrabbits, and a lone hawk picking the guts of armadillo roadkill. So when another junction came, I went right and headed south on a narrow county road for a short while, but still found nothing but dry land growing granite domes and jagged cliffs. Then just about the time I’d decided to turn around, I spotted the makings of a trailhead, and sick of driving, I told myself that Garrett’s vague directions clearly stated that I was here.
When I hopped out of the cab, my steps were wobbly, so I rambled to the tailgate and sat back down to get my bearings. I surveyed the bleak desert surroundings from behind my dark shades, it was like landing on Mars. There was no wind, the only sound was the buzz of a fly, and the heat was frying my whiskers.
I then prepared myself for the hike, stuffing my belly with sunflower seeds and jerky, and pounding two bottles of Gatorade. After that, I shed my shirt and doubled-knotted the laces of my hiking boots, and thinking smartly, I tossed four more bottles of Gatorade and a dozen oranges into my backpack, certain it was all the fuel I’d need.
Then primed to meet whatever mysterious power was awaiting me, I began hoofing it down the narrow path to find whatever it was that I was supposed to meet.
Before I’d gone even a couple of miles, my lungs were spitting fire, and since I’d been crammed into the truck seat for eleven hours, my legs were screaming to stop. Worse than this though, the day-long lack of booze was now messing with my perception of time and space. Sure, I knew that I was somewhere in the Arizona desert on a Wednesday in mid-July, but my brain circuits kept flashing stockpiled images of Susie’s lovely naked body. In the shower. In bed. Bouncing on mine.
By some miracle, my legs kept pumping like pistons and carried me all the way up the steep incline, and damn if I didn’t reach the crest of a tall toothed cliff. Judging by the hanging sun, I guessed it was around three in the afternoon, and while standing there at the top of the world, I swear I felt my spirit lift from my bones. But man oh man, was it hotter than any hot I’d ever felt before. Then as I went to dig out an orange from my backpack, I noticed that my fingers were swollen up like plump hotdogs on a grill. This should’ve served as enough warning to me, but making it to the top of that cliff had sparked a dangerous degree of confidence in my abilities of adventure, so of course, I leisurely started hiking down the other side.
Before I knew it, I’d reached the bottom again, and there I was, standing on a desert floor of dust and lethal cacti, beneath a blue cloudless heaven. Then just as I looked at the wall of rocks enclosed around me, a piercing pain stabbed my temples, and I saw that my bloated hands now resembled a matching pair of catcher’s mitts. I also noticed that my pinkish skin on my shoulders and arms was growing tiny white blisters. Now suddenly concerned that I might be roasting to death, a severe case of stomach cramps came calling, so I unhitched my shorts and let loose a runny pour.
While I sat there with the drizzling shits, I began considering what a goddamn stupid idiot I was for thinking that rushing to a desolate hellhole was somehow going to cure my heartache, and all I could do was turn to the sky and laugh.
“You out here, God? Got any toilet paper handy?”
Then I spotted the outstretched wings of three large buzzards circling above.
Taking them as a bad sign, I stopped laughing, and rose and pulled up my shorts and refreshed myself with my dwindling supply of Gatorade.
Time to get back to the fucking truck, I decided.
However, I found that going back up the side of the cliff wasn’t nearly as easy as coming down, and after a quarter-mile, my vision went dizzy and my body went to weaving.
After another quarter-mile, I stumbled and fell forward. My face smacked hard into the rocky terrain, and as I rolled over and lay there tasting blood from my nostrils and lips, I saw the circling buzzards gliding lower upon me.
“Jesus Christ, I ain’t dead, fuckers!”
With my face now busted, I also accepted that my legs weren’t going to balance me upright longer than a few minutes at a time. Still, I got up and tried it again, and again, but each time measured a shorter distance until I collapsed into a heap and couldn’t get up again.
There was no shade to speak of, and as I quenched my thirst with the last swigs of the last Gatorade, I estimated I’d gone maybe two miles since turning around.
“Fuck me! I am so fucked, man! I am so fucking fucked!”
“God doesn’t forgive suicides.”
Hearing the voice, I spun around, straining to see from the dust in my eyes, and saw that one of the buzzards was no buzzard at all. Yes, it bore sharp talons and greasy black feathers and broad-shaped wings of a scavenger bird, but it also had a pair of saggy tits.
And its face was the face of Susie.
“Do you really believe dying out here is the trick to winning me back?”
“I told you he was a pussy,” said a second buzzard. It too carried the same bird-like shape as the first one, except its face was that of that intolerable bitch, Joanne, but even worse, her beakish-nose resembled a flaccid cock.
“What the fuck?!” I screamed, trying to wiggle away.
The ghastly she-birds cackled then squeezed their saggy tits with their sharp talons and licked their nipples with their forked tongues.
“Come on, Baby,” the Joanne-buzzard said. “We got some time for a little nibble between us before we include him on the menu.”
“You dirty bird,” squawked the Susie-buzzard.
Then she pecked her lips on the Joanne-buzzard’s cock-nose.
The kiss must’ve carried some supernatural spells because the cock-nose stiffened, and it kept growing, up to the size of a Louisville Slugger. Then the Joanne-buzzard dove headfirst and shoved that hard cock-nose straight into the Susie-buzzard’s tail feathers.
As the profane event unfolded, I stayed in a stupefied silence on the ground, bearing witness to a remarkable hybrid of human-buzzard-lesbian fornication. It was all together frightening and foul and morbidly disgusting, yet little did I know that it was only the prelude to something even more bizarre to come.
By now the sky was turning purple-dark and it was growing even more tricky to see, but I clearly made out as a third buzzard waddle up on its claw feet. There was no mistaking it, its face was the face of me, and the only positive attribute I can say about its startling appearance was that it didn’t have saggy tits or a cock-nose like the other two.
I averted my eyes from the nastly-looking me-bird, terrorized by the thought that I must’ve died and this sick horror was my reward in hell, and as the two she-birds kept up with their depraved fucking, the one with the face of Susie looked at me and gave a devilish grin.
“You can come with us now,” she whispered.
With that, the me-buzzard shuffled toward them, while the Joanne-buzzard withdrew her hard cock-nose out from Susie-buzzard’s tail feathers and smirked.
“Aren’t you going to say, ‘eat me’?”
Then they both pounced on him.
Feathers flew as the two she-buzzards molested the me-buzzard, ripping away chunks of meat and viscera. The Susie-buzzard seemed to be taking great pleasure in chewing his blue-greasy guts, burying her whole head into his chest and lifting out his beating heart, and then spitting it out on the dirt. Meanwhile, the Joanne-buzzard raised her blood-soaked head to the darkening sky and croaked a wicked laugh, right before she rammed her cock-nose straight into the me-buzzard’s mouth. And all I could do was lay there as an immobile witness, and wonder why I’d listened to that goddamn barfly Garrett, and wonder why I’d come to this cursed place only to meet the god of my own death.
When I woke it was dark save for the glow of the moon. The air had cooled. I tried to swallow, but my bone-dry throat wouldn’t allow it. I fingered my mouth and found a gummy gap where my upper teeth should have been. I tried to sway upward, but I crumbled with soreness. So I lay there for a longer while, sensing the ground beneath me soaked by my own sweat and piss.
After a few more minutes of attempting to shake the chaos out of my brain, a second struggle to rise rewarded me with the ability to sit, and as my head flopped forward I saw the chrome of the Silverado gleaming in the blue moonlight. I rubbed my puffy eyes with the heel of my hand and studied real hard to make sure I wasn’t seeing a mirage.
The Silverado was still there.
My fingers had shrunken to normal size, but they couldn’t bend, so it took a short while to tunnel through the backpack to grab the truck keys. Once I got the door unlocked and open, I hefted my body up and inside the cab, and twisted the cap off a two-liter of water and poured all of it down my mouth.
A hammer was running loose in my skull and armies of needles were stabbing the length of me, so I sat there like that until the sunlight was rising brilliantly through the windshield. I then leaned to the rearview and met a stranger, sort of a look-a-like distant relative, who appeared to have met some tragic accident with his face. His two front teeth missing, and his nose was scarred and askew. Then after wetting my mouth with more water, I cranked on the motor and high-tailed it out of there.
While backtracking on a string of lonely desert roads, I kept contesting my mind not to mull over what I’d just gone through, but my mind couldn’t stop rewinding what had happened to me out here. There was no sensible explanation for seeing half-human-half-scavenger-fowls fucking one another, and certainly there was no explanation of how I’d watched them dine on a buzzard-version of me, other than maybe chalking it up to a heat-induced and liquor-void hallucination. Still I didn’t have a clue over how I’d climbed back over that cliffside and made it to the Silverado. Maybe I was now a full-blown nut job ready to be fitted for a straight-jacket. But whatever the case might have been, there were a few things that were more crystal clear to me now, like I was goddamn happy to be alive, more than ever, and any thought of Susie now made me want to puke my guts. Most of all, my remaining sanity said that I needed a fucking drink, pronto, and I saw where to get it when I passed by a road sign that said Tombstone was thirty miles ahead.
It was noon high when I arrived at the legendary western town. After leaving the Silverado in a five dollar lot, I limped to a nearby public park and slipped into the restroom to wash the filth off my busted face and sunburnt shoulders. The warm water and soapy bubbles on my scrapes and blisters caused enough sting for me to bawl, so much that I scared off a couple of old geezers from coming in to take their dribbling pees. Then I staggered back outside, clean-smelling and dirt-free, and hobbled along the city sidewalks in no particular direction.
I soon found myself on Allen Street, a wide and dusty thoroughfare lined with bars and merchandise stores. It was as if I’d somehow stumbled back in time, and fittingly, a red stagecoach rolled by, pulled by a pair of white horses and piloted by a bearded and portly man adorned in western garb. I slow-footed along the wooden sidewalk, passing by the touristy families, keeping my busted face low into my chest as to not frighten anyone, and I came upon the OK Corral, where a dozen more chatty folks stood gawking under a banner that said Wyatt Earp and his brothers had gained fame for gunning down a bandit gang of cowboys.
My eyes peeled across the way to see a pinkish-colored saloon, which caused my tongue to tingle, and so I paced across the wide street and came to the duel front doors. Above the entrance hung a wooden sign indicating this old-time drinking hole was coined in honor of Doc Holliday’s girlfriend, a fine-looking woman named Big Nose Kate, and judging by her painting portrait, her nose was not her only big characteristic.
The moment I wandered inside, my head started spinning from the kaleidoscope of gaudy-dyed Old West knick-knacks and sepia-tone photos of killers and thieves and lawmen and whores. An arsenal of pistols and rifles and shotguns hung on the walls, alongside spurs and chaps and lassos. Most prominent were two massive stain-glass mosaics of Doc and Kate, with a head of longhorn bull suspended between them. There was also one multi-painted wall with the words “Vigilante Justice” stenciled above a small stage where a skinny man was plucking a banjo and singing, “Skip to My Lou.”
All the tables were fully occupied by more family tourists, chewing their grub, and clapping their hands to the music, while whirling around and taking their orders were curly-haired waitresses in satin dresses and black nylons. The sight of the lusty-looking women aroused my long-dead loins, which was another good indication that I might finally be cured from Susie’s sex-hex on me.
I ambled to the long bar and saddled down onto a stool, then a busty barmaid came over and wiped down the wet spots and crumbs in front of me.
“Howdy honey, what can I get for you?”
Rather than return a polite glance at her face, my eyes were stuck on her massive cleavage declining down her blue satin dress and black lace bra. I was wishing I could fall asleep in there.
“Three shots of Jack.”
“This is a family establishment, honey, I can only serve one at a time.”
“Can I at least get a Budweiser back with the first one?”
“That I can do.”
“And burger and some fries, I guess.”
She spun away with the skirt of her blue dress bouncing in tune with the banjo man’s strumming of strings, and the spring in her big ass cheeks made me go woozy.
To my left was a tall dandy man, biting into a Rueben sandwich. He wore a black felt cowboy hat, a black vest with white-collared shirt, and a red bandana was wrung around his neck. A silver star with Marshall carved on it was pinned to his chest, and a pair ivory handled six-shooters were strapped in his holsters.
The busty barmaid set down the shot of whiskey and the bottle of beer in front of me, and I double-fisted them with my sore hands and raised them to my broken mouth and chugged both of them straight down.
“Ready for the next round,” I yelled out, grinning.
“You alright there, cowboy?” the tall dandy man asked. His handlebar mustache moved up and down as he chewed his Reuben. “You don’t look so good.”
“Just thirsty, is all.”
Though I was too much of a wreck for friendly conversation, I was still finding it sort of a relief to chew the fat with someone.
“So who are you? Wyatt Earp?”
“Virgil. The older and more handsome one.” He nudged his chin toward a photo of the Earp brothers on the near wall.
I squinted to see that the dandy man carried a spot-on likeness to the real Virgil Earp posed in the tintype. “Damn, you’re a dead ringer.”
“So they tell me.”
“You know, I just came from across the street over there, where you and your brothers are supposed to gundown some bad dudes. You ready?”
He turned and squinted at me and tapped the handle on one of his six-shooters. “I pray tell you’re not calling me out, cowboy.”
I chuckled. “Damn. You take your reenactment stuff serious, don’t you?”
The busty barmaid delivered my second shot of Jack and another bottle of Budweiser, and as I wet my whistle slower this time, the dandy man went back to his Rueben.
“How’d you get that busted beak and those cat scratches? Woman troubles?”
I choked on my gulp of beer and coughed suds out my nostrils.
“No. No woman troubles. Just took a bad fall.”
“From what? A wagon with a lead of galloping horses?”
“I’s just out in a place a little east of here, it’s called something stronghold.” I don’t know why I felt compelled to explain this to him, but I did. “Tripped on a rock and landed bad.”
“Yeah, I think that’s how you say it.”
His expression fell into a severe gaze.
“Me and my lonesome.“Lord, son, what were you doin’ out there alone?”
I didn’t have an answer for him. Not a good one.
“Some guy told me that it was a cool place to check out.”
“That Apache boneyard can change a man. I suspect you may not be the same as you were before you went there?”
An eerie sense came over me. It was as like I was sitting next to a Biblical prophet dressed in a western clown suit, and he was getting ready to tell me something important.
“Well, I’m still me as far as I know.”
The dandy man leaned back on his barstool and picked up a toothpick from his plate and began plucking food from his teeth. “They say Cochise was the fiercest of all them Apaches. Including Geronimo.”
“I don’t really know that much about them.”
“They say when he was a young buck, he went on a warpath because a greenhorn Army captain had hanged some of his Apache kin. He went to scalping so many damn heads, every white man who’d come here to settle started skedaddling from the territory.”
As the dandy man spoke his wild west myth, my attention fell back toward the jostling of the busty barmaid. “Can I get my third shot?”
She tossed me a look of annoyance, then I went back to keeping a slight interest in the dandy man’s words to appear sociable.
“So this Cochise was a real badass Indian, huh?”
“Baddest of the bad. They say not too long after he started up his personal war against the white man, the cavalry came in with howitzers and shot down jus’ ‘bout every Apache there was. ‘Cept Cochise. He and around two hundred braves hid out in those Dragoon Mountains. Helluva place to live. Nothin’ but miles of twisted pinnacles and crags.
“Don’t I know it? I didn’t see nothing out there but rocks.”
“Took ten years ‘fore the cavalry could convince him to stop his raidin’ and killin’, and they offered him a deal so that he could stay there instead of bein’ hauled off to some horseshit reservation. He took their offer. But by this time, he’d become an old man who’d outlived everyman who’d ever come after him.”
“Guess there’s a whole lot of crazy old western stories in this neck of the woods.”
“Well, that’ ain’t all of this one. They say when Cochise died, two of his braves carried him away on his best horse, and took along his favorite dog and his weapons. They dropped his body into a deep ravine somewhere in that stronghold, then pushed in his horse and his dog so’s he’d have them in the afterlife, then they leaped in themselves so that no living soul would ever know where the burial place is. And wherever that burial place might be out there, they say it’s the place where men go to die.”
I huffed a fake laugh and waited for the dandy man to give his punchline. But all he did was toss his toothpick back into his empty plate and suck air between his teeth. “Sally. Pour mi amigo one of your finest,” he bellowed. “Put it on my tab.”
The busty barmaid tossed him back a smiley nod. “Sure thing, Virgil.”
Then she grimaced at my beat-up face.
“Be careful,” he whispered. “She’s another one that’ll eat your heart out.”
“What?” my voice sprang.
“You’ll have to excuse me, now,” he stated, wiping his bushy mouth with a napkin one last time. “Gotta go round up my brothers. ‘Bout time for the showdown.”
“Wait… What do you mean?”
“Mean ‘bout what, cowboy?”“About…” My whirling mind couldn’t fix on what question to ask. “What do you mean she’ll eat my heart out?”
“You seen the buzzards, didn’t you?” He patted my shoulder and walked away with the silver spurs on his black leather boots jingling every step.
“Hey! Wait, man! How’d you know about…?”
Then he vanished out the saloon door.
The busty barmaid placed a shot glass in front of me and poured whiskey from the bottle. My gaze was now on her face and I saw mirrors of myself screaming inside her black pupils. Perfect twins of me stuck in a pair of matching dark pits.
“Where am I?”
“Tombstone, honey. Where’d you think?”
“I mean... Is this real?”
“As real as you want it to be, darling.”
Then she winked and bounced away.
My head wilted down to the bar. All I could do was stare into my whiskey. And listen to the banjo man keep singing his everlasting tune.
Lost my partner, what'll I do? Lost my partner, what'll I do? Lost my partner, what'll I do? Skip to my Lou, my darlin!
I'll find another one, prettier, too. I'll find another one, prettier, too. I'll find another one, prettier, too. Skip to my Lou, my darlin!
Can't get a red bird, blue bird'll do.
Can't get a red bird, blue bird'll do.
Can't get a red bird, blue bird'll do.
Skip to my Lou, my darlin!
Sean Jacques is a fifth-generation native of the Missouri Ozarks. His wayward career includes bartender, bank teller, stone sculptor, public relations director, creative executive for the Weinstein Company film studio, and scriptwriting in various development hell ventures in the movie business. Currently, he teaches English Literature in Los Angeles while continuing to write new tales; his most recent work can be found at Across the Margin, Dead Fern Press, Cowboy Jamboree, PunkNoir, and will soon be appearing in Flyover Country and 34 Orchard.