The Bruja and the Ferryman
by Kenneth Mark Hoover
Magra Snowberry walked past the cairn of stones and down to the swollen river. She stood on the sandy bank. Long halms of grass bent in the breeze while the ferryman looked at her and waited.
“This ferry go across?” she asked.
The ferryman had a sagging paunch and tangled hair like sheep scut. He wore gray wool and back leather, and his boots were soled with tree bark.
“Cost ye some,” he said.
Magra opened the leather bag of possibles around her neck.
“Hold on a minute,” the ferryman stopped her. “River’s up, and pulling her reach won’t be easy. I ain’t taking you across for no one dime. I can’t make my meat on that.”
Magra studied the flat bed ferry with its broad bow of mahogany and a gunwale inlaid with yellowed ivory.
“How much you take to ferry me t’other side by myself?”
The ferryman leaned and spat. “Make it two bits for both our trouble.”
“You are crazy.”
“Then you ain’t goin’ across,” he told her.
“Is there another crossing?”
“Clemson is downstream about fifteen miles,” he said. “They got an iron bridge. But I don’t like that sky. It’s liable to dark up on you. This ain’t a safe road.”
Magra watched the roiling water beat the stern of the ferry and crop the cattails and arrowheads on the far bank.
“River’s up a lot,” she said.
The ferryman nodded. “Still raining up north. No way you can swim her, if that’s what you are thinking.”
"I can't do nothing but dog paddle. How long you figure until another fare shows up?"
The ferryman studied the red clay road outside his river camp, and the swinging tops of the trees, and the rushing water.
"Hard to say. Why are you in a hurry to cross?"
"I got business t'other side."
The ferryman watched her. "I'm asking because I don't see many people walking this dark country alone."
"I am headed home, if that is any of your business."
The ferryman removed a quid of coarse tobacco from his vest pocket and pushed it into his jaw with his thumb. His salt and pepper whiskers moved like oiled quills.
"Where might yore home be?" he asked.
"Out west. New Mexico Territory."
"You are a ways from hearth and fire, ain't ye, gal."
"I will allow I am out of my way some little bit," Magra admitted. "Look, are you sure you can't take me across?"
"I'm sure." He spat a long brown stream into the water and knuckled his mouth. "What time you make it out?"
"I'd say half past, give that sun."
"I'll have another fare by sundown," the ferryman promised. "Several, in fact. I will take everyone across then. All right?"
"I don't want to wait on nothing."
"This here day's a special one," the ferryman explained. "These people come regular."
He shoved his knotted hands in his back pockets and rocked on his boot heels. "Meantime, I'd take it kindly if you share my fire. You look dragged out. This country will do that."
"Well, I don't know."
"I promise I won't bite ye."
Magra walked up and stood beside the camp fire burning low in the center of a ring of stones. The shore camp had a line of yellow wash slung between seep willows. The ground was covered with scrap iron and potsherds. Thick skeins of spider silk cobwebbed the tree limbs, trapping leaves and twigs.
The ferryman measured her with his eyes. "You headed home to see family?"
"No," she said. "I got me a man to find."
"He leave you on the hook, did he?"
"No, some other kind of trouble."
The ferryman took in her figure and her legs. The river water rushed along the wide bank.
"I have lived here a long time," the ferryman said. "The river hides many secrets."
"I told you it weren't like that." Magra's face flushed. "I never had a baby, and if I did I wouldn't river bag it like you are thinking. You are a sinful man."
"I am that," the ferryman said. "I don't mean to pry into your personal cares, Miss. It's just we have to wait until my other fares get here, and you seem to be in trouble."
"He let me know I had to come back," she said, "Now I'm going back."
"I can't remember the last letter I got," the ferryman said. "Seems I always catch people coming, never going."
"I never got no letter from him, neither. I night-walked his dreams and he told me he needed me. That's all there is to it."
The ferryman looked at her askance. "You ere a strange one. Even for this country, and I should know."
As they waited, the sky began to darken.
"Ye hungry?" the ferryman asked.
"I'd allow as I could eat a bite," she said.
"They's a pan of johnny cake and buttermilk on that cottonwood stump, if ye think ye can stomach it."
"I thank you, kindly."
"Shoosh, it ain't nothing."
Magra lifted the cover of a Dutch oven with wedges of cold cornbread. A demijohn of buttermilk sat in the river mud to cool.
"There's a jar of corn down in that stump hollow if you want a sup," the ferryman said.
"Thanks, but I never took up the drink."
"Well, I have," the ferryman said, "so pass it over." He accepted the Mason jar from her and unscrewed the lid.
Magra ate the cornbread and drank most of the buttermilk. When she finished she knelt by the river and washed her face and hands, using handfuls of grass to dry off. She rose to her feet, brushing her ragged doeskin with calloused fingers.
"You don't believe me when I said I night-walked my man," she told the ferryman.
The ferryman hooked the spent tobacco from his mouth and flung it into the river with a plop before he drank.
"Don't matter what I believe." He screwed the lid back on. "Don't make a world a difference one way or t'other. Sun will come up tomorrow same as ever."
A cold, black rain started to fall. They sat under a tarpaulin while the ferryman sipped his whiskey. The sheets of rain obscured the river. When it lessened, and the clouds parted to reveal bright stars. The ferryman got to his feet and swayed. His eyes shone like coins.
"Here they come," he said. "Now you can get across and not drown trying to swim her out."
In the darkness shadows detached themselves from the main road, descending to the little river camp. Three riders and four big horses traveling single file. The clink of metal accompanied them under the cold starwheel overhead.
Resplendent and barbarous they rode, with ruffed beards and clothes more animal skin than polished armor, and primed weapons, and faces and eyes blacked with gun powder, and dark inks and pine resin marking the backs of their hands, and hair, until their very countenances were cold masks of brutality, and determination, and power.
The harnesses and saddles and tapederos were sewn from pale man leather, thick, uncured, reeking. As the horses followed the trail their iron-shod hooves stuck flint and sparks jumped the cold night like startled fireflies. The nostrils of the strange horses smoked like fumaroles while their eyes reflected the camp fire which burned in their black hearts collective.
The riders pulled rein. One of them, Magra saw, was a woman, but dressed no less savage than her companions. It was she, of long pale hair like thin gauze, who held the reins of a riderless horse. Her face was a sword, and her eyes razors, and she watched Magra as the first rider spoke to the ferryman.
"We have come," he said.
"One of ye is missing, Adam," the ferryman said.
"Yes. We lost him a ways back. Can't be helped none."
The ferryman shook his head. "I ain't but to take the four of you across. Never three."
"Our fourth is lost," Adam said again, "and the world awaits. Three we are, and three you will take."
The ferryman kicked the toe of his boot in the river sand, leaving a half-moon mark. He lifted his eyes. "There has to be four, or none."
Adam looked at the webbed trees above and let his breath out through his nostrils. "What is your asking price?"
"Two bits for horse and rider."
"And that we will pay, leaving you twelve cents to the good for the man who is not here."
"But you are asking me to do something what goes against law. I ain't set to do that."
"The law is what we make it," said the second rider. His eyebrows were so long they were tied back and threaded the long black lanks curling below his ears. He had four Cavalry pistols thrust in equidistant angles along his saddlebow, and a double-barreled shotgun with a brass stock canted on his hip. "That is the way of things, ferryman. If we say a thing is, then must it be so."
The ferryman frowned. "That ain't the way of it, Khul. You can't change what is into what was. Ain't nobody got the right to do that."
Adam's saddle creaked when he leaned forward, arms doubled on the white bone pommel. "We will cross this river tonight, ferryman," he said low. "We will not miss our appointment."
"Not crossing three you won't. Take it or ride back whence you came, Adam."
"Who is this girl," asked the woman. "Why does she stand among us?"
"She is headed home," the ferryman said. "She is crossing this country to get home. She ain't nobody to concern yourself about."
The woman stared at Magra. "What is your name?"
"I am Magra Snowberry, daughter of Black Sky."
The three riders looked at one another. "Will you be our fourth?" Adam asked.
"I don't understand."
"You heard the ferryman. We need a fourth to cross this river. Once we reach the other side we will set you free and you will be no worse for wear."
"Now wait a minute," the ferryman started.
Adam held up his hand, thumb crossed into his palm, fingers spread wide. "Four riders, four horses. What say you, Magra Snowberry, daughter of Black Sky?"
"I will ride," she said.
Adam grinned. His teeth were white and straight. "So have we our fourth. Galaufer, give Magra the reins of our dispossessed."
The woman spurred her horse forward and dropped the empty reins into Magra's uplifted hand.
Adam opened a black leather purse and counted out the necessary coin. He tossed them into the mud. "Thus are you paid, ferryman. Now take us across before I shoot you in the goddamn head."
The riders dismounted and led their horses onto the ferry. The hooves clomped heavy on the wooden deck boards. Once they were aboard the ferryman raised the boarding planks and latched the gunwale gate.
"Been raining up country." He prepared the cable so it would run through the iron eye-bolts along the bow and stern. "Liable to be a rough passage."
"We will be taken across, ferryman."
"I ain't saying different about that, Adam. I'm telling you the river is up."
The ferryman made his way forward and stopped beside Magra. He bent to whisper, "You don't need to do this."
"I must get across," she said. "I have to get home."
"Let me take them across first. I will return and take you by yourself. I won't charge ye none."
"No, we will go together."
"You don't know what you are doing," he hissed, coiling a rope preparatory to leaving. "Damn fool girl. Do you not know what you are about to unleash upon the world? Do you not know the danger you have put yourself into?"
Without waiting for answer the ferryman walked between the horses and untied the main hawser from the terminal. He took up the dripping cable and pulled, and the ferry swung into the river. The taut cable rasped through the eye-bolts and shivered beads of water on his outstretched arms.
The water beat against the broad bow of the ferry. The craft yawed back and forth as they traversed the river. The iron bolts in the wood creaked and the cable sang. Adam stood with the reins in his hands, watching the far bank. Galaufer tightened the latigo on her saddle. Khul checked the loads in his Cavalry pistols and snapped the gates closed.
Twenty minutes later the ferry bumped the far terminal. The exhausted ferryman looped a hawser over a wood piling on the landing and made fast. He clamped down the wheel cams so the cable would not slip and opened the bow of the ferry and laid down the planks. The riders led their mounts off the wet deck.
There was a smaller, temporary camp on this side of the river. Adam told the ferryman, "Gather wood and pile it in the middle of your boat."
The ferryman started forward, his eyes wild. "No, you can't mean that."
"We are not returning." Adam took a step nearer and lowered his voice. "Go on, before I kneecap you with a rock."
Muttering under his breath the ferryman piled dead wood onto his ferry. Adam struck a lucifer and lighted the shavings. As the fire took hold he used a Bowie knife and severed the rope cables and hawser.
The ferry drifted free in the middle of the river. When the current caught it broadside it spun end around end, and burned.
They all watched it burn from the river bank. The pyre followed the swirling current around the bend. They could no longer see the ferry, but noted its passage as it traveled the winding curves of the river and lighted the tops of distant trees. Shreds of smoke lay like snow rags between the muddy river banks, and all the world was quiet.
"You had no right to do that." There were tears in the ferryman's brown eyes. "You had no right."
Adam stepped into leather. He sat far above the ferryman. Khul and Galaufer swung into saddle.
"Be grateful I did not put a ball through your heart, ferryman."
Adam reined his horse around, and the others followed. They disappeared, dark shapes into the gathered woods. Magra hesitated.
"You don't have to go with them," the ferryman said.
"Maybe I can get them to come back."
"They will never come back," he said. "They cannot. There is no ferry."
The ferryman collapsed on the river bank, small and bent and alone. The warp and weft of night fell around him. "I cannot leave the river." He paused, as if the thought astounded him. "I have never tried."
"I'm sorry," Magra said.
"Get out of here."
She climbed into the saddle of a tall blood bay. She didn't want to leave him, but she rode into the woods and caught the other riders.
They looked back. Together they rode the moon down and the sun up. Magra drank water from a canteen. She fought to stay awake, her mind lurching with want of sleep. The sun passed its meridian. Clouds of dust tailed up from their passage. They rode on.
They made dry camp while the long light of the west flamed the sky. Galaufer and Adam unsaddled the horses. Galaufer unwrapped a brace of large skinned squirrels from her saddlebags. She fried them in an iron skillet with onions and peppers while the men sat like gargoyles with wide, hungry eyes blasted hollow in their faces.
When the meat was cooked they ate, cutting strips with their knives and chewing with open mouths.
"Go ahead and get some of this tug," Adam told Magra.
She looked inside the pan at the blackened meat swimming in grease fat. No, not squirrels.
Her heart slammed hard and she tasted iron on the back of her tongue. Khul tore a strip of meat off the end of his knife and chewed.
Magra sat cross-legged on the opposite side of the fire. She supped water from her canteen, stoppered it with the heel of her hand.
She stared at her empty lap.
"I was just trying to get home," she whispered.
Adam wiped his knife blade on his patch-worked trousers. "More like a person belongs where he's needed, rather than where he ought to be," he said.
She met his gaze. "You didn't need me to cross that river."
"We needed a fourth rider," Galaufer interjected.
Magra watched the jaded horses cropping grass. "It ain't me you needed to cross that river," she said. "It was those horses."
Adam leaned forward. "How do you figure that proves out?"
"My being here proves it. The riders can change themselves out, but not the horses."
Adam leaned back, smiled. "You are a fast study, Magra Snowberry."
"I don't know who you people are, but I know you are tied to those horses in a way you can't escape. The horses don't need you, but you need them."
Adam picked his broad teeth with a cactus thorn. "Yes, a right quick study."
"That's why you burned the ferry," she went on. "If the horses can't return from whence they came, then you might be able to gain power over them."
Adam's smile did not reach his eyes. "You know an awful lot about our business."
"I know power when I see it, and it's in them horses."
"You think you have power to match ours?"
Her eyes were steady. "Adam, do you think I would be in this country if I did not? Unlike you, I came into this country, and to the river, without a horse."
He paused before laughing. "I admit you are more entertaining than the fourth we lost. You will be a sturdy companion as we travel this broken land of Canaan."
"What happened to your other man?"
"I cut his throat," the feral woman said. "He came to my bed unbidden and I made my mark. His body was a bright canvas for my knife."
"You killed the body," Magra said. "But I would have killed the very essence of the man."
"There ain't no way to do that," Galaufer said. "Killing is only killing."
"That's where you are very wrong," Magra said.
No one spoke for a space. Adam crooked a finger at the skillet and the meat therein. "This is who we are and how we live. You must understand that, being a woman of power, a bruja, yourself."
Magra again watched the horses crop grass and saw the long terror stricken face of the ferryman fade upwind, pale and ghostlike between tall trees.
"You think you have power," Magra told Adam, "but you do not. There is a story with my people. A scorpion wanted to get to the far side of a river and asked a frog to ride his back. The frog said, 'No, you will sting me, and we will both drown.' The scorpion promised he would not sting the frog. The frog believed him. When they were halfway across the scorpion stung the frog and they began to drown. The frog cried, 'You promised you would not sting me,' and the scorpion answered, 'Fool, did you think I would stop being a scorpion?'"
Khul snorted and rose to his big feet. "Bullshit," he said. He wiped his greasy hands on his leather breeches. "I'll see about hobbling those horses for the night, Adam."
Adam would not take his eyes off Magra. He was no longer smiling.
Khul took a step past the camp fire. A wooden shaft thumped in his chest and wobbled like a dowser rod. A second transfixed his throat, and while he tried to tug it free a third arrow entered his eye socket and he fell into the fire upending skillet, plates, all, and there he burned.
Magra kicked dust toward Adam's eyes and crawled away on all fours. But Adam had no thought for her for another arrow went past his head and he went flat. Galaufer leapt to her feet, fanning her gun into the dark, and from the erupting screams therefrom, expertly hitting her mark. Adam brought his own pistol around to cover the feral woman, but checked his fire.
Galaufer ran for her horse. Adam holstered his pistol and followed. They mounted bareback and flew across the raddled plain, twin silhouettes entering the house of a horned moon lying low on the horizon.
Magra walked out into the black field and found the ferryman. She squatted beside him. An ebony bow lay next to him. "I left the river," he said. "But I ain't going nowhere no more."
"Let me get you a doctor."
"There ain't no helping me, only fixing what went wrong. You know you have to do that."
"I won't leave you again, old man." She cradled his head.
"Why did they burn my ferry." He looked like he was going to weep. "There was no call for that." He didn't speak again.
Magra walked back to the camp fire and the crisping man and she watched him burn and blacken while she dug through Galaufer's saddlebag and found a rope. She noosed it and went after the blood bay she had been riding. Khul's horse was already gone.
She led the bay back to camp and bridled it and threw a pad saddle across its back. She swung up and rode back out to the ferryman's body and stopped.
"I'm sorry for what I did," she said, softly. "I will make it right."
She rode out the night. In the gray light of morning she found them camped at the base of a bald hill crowned with black midden stones. As lost horses often do, Khul's mount had rejoined its fellows.
Magra dismounted, waiting for nightfall. Her power was ever the darkness, and as it came, she felt it grow in her open hands.
Adam and Galaufer slept, taking turns to stand watch. When late afternoon arrived they brought their horses back through the broken country. Magra followed them. Sometimes Adam or Galaufer would turn to skylight the horizon. Magra made certain she was not seen.
Full night came at last. Adam and Galaufer turned back on their own trail. Magra figured they wanted to retrieve the gear left behind at the ferryman's ambush.
Riding their horses abreast they walked right up on Magra hidden within a weave of shadows linked around her like withy lathes. She stepped out of them and the ground rose up and the night fell in darker skeins and wrapped the throats of Adam and Galaufer. Adam tried for his gun but the shadows were thick and syrupy and his hands and arms could not move fast enough through them.
Magra reached through the shadows into their open mouths and deep into their bodies and brought forth all there was that ever made them alive. This final energy crackled off her fingertips like St. Elmo's fire. The two bodies tumbled out of their saddles and the night retreated back to the safe womb of its world embrace, and the desert breathed again.
The four horses gathered around Magra. She lifted her hand and they turned as one and galloped into the dark, free and wild and untamed.
Magra was exhausted. She curled beneath a boulder and slept out the night. When she awakened the dark rain storm up north had moved away and the morning was bright and clear.
She looked at the dead bodies lying in the open.
"Did you think the scorpion would not sting?" she asked them.
She turned her face west and started the long walk home.