Some Things Are the Same, Some Different

character fiction for Breaker of The Sultans campaign

April 14, 2007
As he rode on the freeway, the wind blew his hair like old, abandoned spiderwebs fluttering in the summer breeze. The hills to the left and right were green, filled with pine tries overlooking a thick carpet of wild grass. Beyond, to the west, was the vast azure platform of the Pacific Ocean studded with crests, some capped with white.

Around the bend, the city, more pleasant than its northern neighbor, was still quite busy. Cars, trucks, and motorcycles zipped over the freeway and entered it and left. The tall buildings stood watch like abrupt plateaus over the harbor.

San Diego had changed a lot since last he was here. That had been a lifetime ago. And in many ways, it was Sam Sable that had visited one of the newest acquisitions to the Union. Ruled by men who made their own laws, not all of them were best for all people.

Even among the noises of the traffic and the speed-borne wind, Tse Tsahaszih could hear the sputtering noise emanating from below him. He merely shook his head and, after switching over two lanes, took the offramp without even looking at the signs.

When he went by a different name long ago, it even seemed as if he were a different person. It seemed that some things were different, but some things were still the same.

May 3, 1868
Riding hard into the town wanting to make an impressionable entrance, Sam spurred the flanks of his horse. He cursed loudly at the beast as it suddenly slowed from a strong gallop into a light trot.

He dug his heels into his mount, cursing at it, but not trying to realize what had caused it to slow. And then, the horse stumbled, toppling over and nearly crushing Sam as it rolled across the dirt road, slamming into the hitching post of a two-storied building.

Still cursing, Sam got up and dusted himself off, adjusting his hat and shining the turquoise on his boots. Already the people on the street began to talk and point at him. He looked around at them, but deemed them all harmless. So, he examined the horse, coaxing it to stand.

But as it hobbled forward, the beast didn't want to put any weight on its right front leg. Sam checked it with light pressure, which, when applied to the knee, nearly sent the animal wheeling.

The horse was lame and he had no money to pay for fixing it up let alone buying another. He drew his Colt and cocked the hammer, raising it to the horse's head. It was better to put the beast out and he hated to do that because this horse was agile and good in a riding fight. He looked up at the people who were watching the event. And he disarmed and reholstered the weapon. He couldn't put the horse down, not when that young woman looked on with that sort of dreadful look.

He shrugged, and walked the horse up to her, then shouldered the saddlebags and handed her the reins, "you want it? Miss?..."

"Bess... Bess is my name," she said.

"Well, Miss Bess, he's yours then."

"Thank you, kindly, sir," the young lady beamed.

Tse squatted on the sidewalk examining his Vulcan cruiser. Nothing seemed wrong with the engine itself. Perhaps there was something with the ignition or the throttle.

"Hey, bro," came a call from across the street, "nice Harley."

He looked up at the quartet of street hoods sitting on a doorstep of a drab looking tenement apartment building. Likely, it was made mostly of wood and concrete, but the siding was vinyl and the grafitti on it was fresh. Likely someone would wash it off sometime during the week. It didn't look to him like the boys were up to no good. Most likely, it was a hot day and they'd rather be outside. Otherwise, they'd probably be inside playing videogames. Whoever designed the building didn't worry too much about its ventilation for days like this, just that it could take some abuse and any grafitti could be easily washed away.

Tse merely shrugged. It didn't matter that it wasn't a Harley. Most people thought that any cruising bike that they saw was a Harley. Some street punks - the ones that were into sideshows and the like were more knowledgeable about such things, but not these ones.

"Is it broke?" another asked.

"Yeah," replied Tse, "any of you know of any shops around here?"

It looked to him as if they all were going to give him directions to various autoshops in the city, perhaps many of them chop shops. Or perhaps not. In any case, as they began spouting off names and directions, the door of a small, run-down house opened.

A man stepped out taking care not to let the spring-loaded door bang as it closed. He was of moderate build and wore a plain shirt and jeans. His straight black hair was greased back and showed a few strands of gray. Perhaps he was in his mid-fifties. His face bore the visage of seriousness and years of hard, honest work. And he seemed to pay no attention to the hoods across the street.

As he walked up, Tse greeted him, "buenos noches, senor."

He smiled pleasantly, a few lines like think webs spreading from the corners of his eyes and mouth, and replied, "I couldn't help but overhear that you are looking for parts for your motorcycle."

"Yes, sir," he nodded and returned the smile. "Do you know of a good shop around here, or may I use your phone book?"

"Better than that," he said. He depressed something in his pocket and a garage door opened loudly with a grinding and clicking sound. "Why don't you bring your motorcycle in?"

"That bag of flour and that one of dried fruit... and a fill for all our canteens," Sam said as he wiped the sweat from his brow before it dripped into his eyes. "No salt. We don't need salt, Julio."

The worn copper-brown face of Julio, the camp boss frowned, replying, "this is a salt mine. We have a lot of salt. That makes it cheap. The provisions, those are digging into our own stores... The Winchester, twenty rounds for that, and the two Army revolvers, forty rounds for that... Maybe..."

The boss and the two miners nearby eyed Bess once again, but Sam said, "she's not that type. Not anymore. She's good with my horses."

"The guns and bullets for the supplies, then. And you're going to need it," added the camp boss. Sam looked about. The Cahuilla Valley or Salton Sink, some said - the best one could call the land around here was drylands, most called it badlands or desert. Yeah, they'd need the food. Sure, Sam and Bess could live off the scattered birds and ubiquitous cactus. But, it would slow them down and they needed to put some distance between them and the San Diego posse. Those men didn't take kindly to Kid Boots freeing one of their favorite girls, not to mention theft of the posse's armory.

Sam just nodded. He removed the firearms from his saddle bags and placed them in the hands of the boss as Bess counted bullets and put them into two bags before tossing that to one of the other salt miners.

While Bess secured the food in the saddle bags, Sam took a length of twine and pieces of old shirt, tying them under the hooves of each of the three horses.

"When the posse gets here," Sam said tossing a tiny turquoise and silver charm to Julio and pointing to a trail heading south, "we'd appreciate it if you tell them that we followed that track over there."

The pair rode east, but not in the usual way. For the first half mile, they rode the horses backwards. It wasn't an easy task, but Bess handled her horse and the wounded one fairly well, perhaps even better than Sam. Once beyond a small hill, they cut away the twine and removed the cloth. Turning the horses around, they made their way through a field of rough pebbles, the hot wind hitting their backs.

"The county sheriff's men took notes and were polite and all, but there weren't any leads for them to follow," Maria said. "The sergeant, he said that they'll do their best. But then he said, 'some times teenagers will be teenagers.' He'd heard of enough from these lonely parts that wind up on the streets in Hollywood or Las Vegas looking for adventure or fast fame or fortune."

"And what makes you think that I have a better chance than the cops, then?" Tse asked, setting down the menu.

"Me, I don't know, really," she started as she set the pad and pen back in her pocket, "but Dad seems to think that you can. Or at least his friend has convinced him. I... can't really afford a private eye."

"Let's table the money thing for now. As you can tell from looking at me, I'm not exactly a rich man."

The waitress let out a little giggle, perhaps some of it nerves, but it was an honest laugh. He was dressed fairly plainly, and upon close inspection - the cuffs, the elbows, the knees - his clothes were beginning to fray a bit and fade.

"I try to do right. Sometimes I can make a living of it. Your father gave me food and a clean bed for two nights. He also let me choose whatever I needed from all the old gear that he had in his garage. I wasn't able to completely fix the problem, but I was able to install a kickstarter and even add a CD player and speakers to my cruiser. So we'll call that the down payment," Tse looked directly in the woman's chestnut eyes. "Sometimes I can find things that others can't... Tell me, has anything unusual happened to Caitlin recently - anyone talk to her or give her anything."

"No, not other than the usual - you know kids and teachers from her school..." Maria paused a moment and then added, "well, she has been having strange dreams of a man and coyotes. Not just once, but it seems like for several nights."

Tse's eyes perked up at that, and the waitress noticed his reaction, too. "Now that is interesting. Tell me. Is your daughter just a normal kid, or is there something special about her."

"Well... she... ummm... she's something of an artist. I think more so than other kids her age..." It was clear to Tse that she was trying to tell him something, but not to tell him something important. As Maria thought about what to tell him, Tse merely stared into her eyes until she blurted out in a whisper, "Caitlin can... make sand change color... just by touching it..."

There. She said it. Tse just nodded to her. He stood up in a fast but smooth motion, but said nothing.

"She really can, Mr. Tsahaszih, I've seen it myself-"

Before she could go on further, Tse motioned with his hand and firmly said, "I believe it ma'am. I am going to leave right now because I think that I might be able to find your daughter. But I need to look for... more clues."

Maria's demeanor changed, from a mourning despair that she had held since two nights ago when Caitlin had gone missing. There was a sparkle of hope in her eyes, which the woman tried to hide.

"Good night, ma'am. I'd like to promise that I'll bring her back. I will strive to do so. Destiny can be persuaded sometimes but doesn't take kindly to being pushed." Gathering his helmet and jacket, Tse walked out of the diner. Maria watched the man, he seemed to have neither an overly proud stance nor an uncertain one. Instead, he seemed a man ready to accept whatever fate had in store for him, and at the same time, a man that could choose from among several paths that fate laid out.

Leaving the diner, Tse looked to the east first, and then to the north as he straddled the saddle of the motorcycle. As he looked to the north, the dream threatened to intrude once again. Before the dreams became more than a nuissance, he set the choke, folded up the footrest, and gave the lever a hard downward kick. It rumbled to life after a few unsettling gurgles.

Bess poured two pints of the remaining precious water into the leather bag and held it for the horses to drink. "Which way now?"

Kid Boots looked to the north and then to the east. Both paths were relatively unused and the desert wind seemed to have erased the track, blowing dirt and tiny rocks over each. Of course, the flickering light of the campfire didn't provide clear lighting. "My mother taught me long ago how to read the night sky. The stars form patterns and the patterns can tell you things. That one there, that's Ursa Major, and it includes the North Star. Those stars that make the crooked line were called Cassiopeia. Those two are pretty much up there every night even though they move a bit as the night progresses. That one with the three bright stars in a line and some other stars, is called Orion the Hunter. There's a bunch of other constellations that change with the month and season."

Bess took out her blanket and set it down next to the campfire, laying down so she didn't need to crane her neck so hard. Sam peered into the distance in the direction of a coyote's call, then lay on his blanket, too. "The Indians, they call the constellations differently. The Navajo call the North Star, the Central Fire. The rest of the great bear, they call Turning Man, and by the time that it's almost dawn, he's just about standing up. Cassiopeia becomes Turning Woman. The hunter is still a hunter by the Navajo, only he's called First Slim One, or maybe he's a warrior that protects the Navajo."

"Let's head East. The Navajo will help us. They've been good to me so far. We're doing pretty well, too, in terms of time," Sam said, suppressing a yawn. "You've picked up to riding real quick. Heck, just a week and you're a better rider than me."

Maria turned around, her face a mixture of fear of the unknown and loving concern for her daughter. After a second of hesitation she made a quick sprint, not wanting to leave room for herself to turn around again, and in a deep, serious voice, she said, "I'm coming, too."

Jumping onto the rear saddle of the cruiser, the waitress fumbled with her small purse. With one hand she clutched his left side in a death grip. With the other, she handed him some sort of nut/grain/fruit bar and a CD, before gripping him with equal strength on his right flank.

"Your choice," Tse replied handing his helmet to her. The motorcycle lurched forward and they headed down the street, the cool desert air broke against his face. He had tried to buck fate too many times and the last time that a woman joined him for a ride, she turned out to be both a better shot and a better rider than him. As he chomped voraciously on the bar, he muttered, "thanks."

He wasn't much of a music connoisseur. But, perhaps Maria was. Besides, the dream was starting to intrude again as they left the town. It wouldn't do to lose concentration with his driving. So, he popped the unlabeled CD into the player. The tune was familiar, but old. The opening arpeggios on a steel guitar seemed to calm Maria and ease her tight grip. Very little of it was lost to the sounds of the night air rushing by as they made their way along a lonely highway in the desert. She gently leaned forward against Tse as the arpeggios became chords and Jon Bon Jovi began to tell the story...
It's all the same,
    only the names will change
    it seems we're wasting away
Another place
    where the faces are so cold
I'd drive all night
Just to get back home

I'm a cowboy,
    on a steel horse I ride
I'm wanted
    dead or alive
Wanted dead or alive

Sometimes I sleep,
    sometimes it's not for days
And people I meet
    always go their separate ways
Sometimes you tell the day
By the bottle that you drink
And times when you're all alone
    all you do is think

I'm a cowboy,
    on a steel horse I ride
I'm wanted
    dead or alive
    dead or alive

I'm a cowboy,
    on a steel horse I ride
I'm wanted
    dead or alive
    dead or alive

I walk these streets,
    a loaded six string on my back
I play for keeps,
    'cause I might not make it back
I been everywhere,
    still I'm standing tall
I've seen a million faces
And I've rocked them all

I'm a cowboy,
    on a steel horse I ride
I'm wanted
    dead or alive
I'm a cowboy,
    I got the night on my side
I'm wanted
    dead or alive
    dead or alive