Judgement Valley

A story of the Dark West

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Jane doesn’t care about the war that Hell won against Heaven. It happened centuries ago. She made her deal with one of the demons who rule over what remains and lost everything, so now Jane is crawling alone through the desert of Arizona in search of the Verde River and its promise of a new life. But unless someone stops on the road – to help Jane or rob her, it doesn’t matter to her anymore – none of her guilt or regret is going to matter for very much longer…

Jane Cassidy lay beside the road and wished someone would at least try to rob her. After her horse took that fall down into a crater – still burning with terrible incandescent fire centuries after the angels lost their war – Jane had to carry everything herself. She had left a trail of her worldly possessions behind her like a snake shedding its skin.

Jane didn’t have much anymore… but she didn’t have nothing, damn it. The smithy was doing well before Sytri took her husband and daughter. Jane still had gold.

But you couldn’t eat gold and you couldn’t drink it. At least, Jane couldn’t, though she was certain there was a demon lord or two out there who dined on unimaginable riches every night. There was a demon for everything, and the demons had everything.

Jane ran out of food nearly a week ago. The water was gone… sometime after that. She didn’t remember exactly when. Her headache was a few days old, though, and looking to settle in permanently. Or at least for as much time as Jane had to live, which probably wasn’t long. She hadn’t been able to walk since yesterday and just trying to sit upright made her dizzy enough to throw up. If there were anything left in her stomach to throw up.

The relentless sun leeched all color from the desert. Rocks and sagebrush were ground down to pale, bleached-out skeletons. There was no shade out here – the sun scorched even the shadows away to nothing. Jane didn’t see any snakes or lizards slithering across the stones, and the only movement was the ceaseless heat shimmer on the horizon. But she knew better than to chase that shine. The mirage was just another demon, promising what Jane desperately needed for a price she couldn’t pay.

In the last three days, Jane had seen two riders pass. Maybe three, but even counting was getting hard and Jane’s eyesight was too blurry to rely on her fingers anymore.

Fingers. Fingers and hands… Jane tried to regain control of the thought and managed a weak grip on it. She figured someone would at least try to roll her for the gold in her pockets. But none of the riders had stopped and Jane supposed she could hardly blame them.

Anyone out in this desiccated, dusty part of Arizona had to be looking for something far better than gold. The same thing that Jane rode out west to find: the Green Valley and the Verde River that ran through its heart. Folks said it was a hidden place, a safe place. A fresh place to start a new life. Jane couldn’t imagine anywhere like that, but after Sytri took her old life, she had to try to find a new one.

Jane lay in the dirt for a long time. She might have slept, but maybe not. Dehydration filled the dry cracks in her mind with dust and it was getting hard to think. Sleeping and waking might have been the same thing by now. But the great flaming wheel of the sun had rolled west across the colorless sky when Jane opened her eyes once more. They were too dry, too small in their sockets and everything seemed to rattle around inside her skull.

Time to try again. Jane would have groaned if there were anything wet left in her throat to move the sound along, but she managed to roll herself over onto her belly. Jane worked her hands under her body, fingers scrabbling nonsense symbols into the dust, and pushed herself up. Slowly. So, so slowly.

Her jeans had been heavy with sweat a day ago, but now they were stiff and dry. They resisted her every movement. But Jane moved. She had to get to the Green Valley. Anyone who reached the shore of the Verde River hidden there could wash away their old life, their old sins, and start again. That was all she wanted.

Jane heaved herself up to her knees and swayed there on all fours. Limp black curls of hair hung heavy with dust around her face and stuck to her cracked lips. Could she get all the way to her feet? Being off the ground at all was higher than Jane had been in… She didn’t know how long. An eternity. She squeezed her eyes closed to shut out the vertigo. If she fell now, she would never be able to get up again.

Hands and knees would have to do. Jane began to crawl, the toes of her boots dragging zigzag trails through the dirt. It was like being a baby again… but that was alright. That was just what Jane wanted, wasn’t it? To start over. She crawled along the road.

Published 07.13.2017 by Loose Leaf Stories