(Chapter song ‘Achilles Come Down’ by Gang Of Youths)
1215 B.C. ISLAND OF CRETE, GREECE
“One more push, Cleo. He’s almost out. One more…”
The father monitors his loves knees as she screams to the starry night. She holds her swollen belly as the pain rips her insides.
“I can’t…Artemis, I can’t.” She sobs and gasps for air.
“Please, my love. One more. You’re strong.” He encourages. He wipes the sweat off her wrinkled brow. The pain of labor showing on her face.
The beautiful mother grits her teeth. With a loud, excruciating whine, she cries out her last push.
“Yes, Cleo! He’s here. He’s out. Our son…” He breathes as he coddles the boy that entered the world from his mother’s body.
The mother rests her head in the rickety wooden market cart. She pants heavily as her love rips his shirt and swaddles the newborn. The boy cries as his first breath exits his lungs.
“Cleo. He’s wonderful. My love…”
The mothers face changes from relief to pain. She screams and holds her still pregnant stomach. “Artemis…” She grinds. Her eyes slam shut.
“Hold them back, Cleo. The temples not far. Do not let them go.” The worried father takes the boy and lays him on the splintered driver’s seat as he picks up his reins. “HA! HA!” He cracks his whip on the backs of the two large, white cart horses.
The baby screams beside him. His love screams and begs in the back as the horse drawn cart races down the empty cobblestone road that leads to the Celestial temple. The place that would protect the mother from the children that she’s to birth.
The wind whips hair and clothing. The old farmers cart bounces and threatens to topple as the horses hooves slam the road. The father puts his hand on the boy to prevent him from falling off. The horses lungs huff breaths with every gallop. “FASTER! HA!” He cracks his whip to get more speed out of the beasts. Their muscles flex and fur streams in sweat. Their eight hooves sound like thunder as they run even faster with whinnies and grunts.
The moon crosses the sky as the mother’s wails echo around the turn heading to the hill that leads up to the silver white temple.
“ARTEMIS! THEY’RE COMING!”
“NO CLEO! WE’RE ALMOST THERE!” He looks back. The scared newborn boy continues to cry.
“I CAN'T HOLD THEM! PLEASE. MY LOVE…”
He pulls back on the reins and stops the horses. The cart jolts as the hitches hit the back of their legs. Jumping in the back, he grabs his mates hand, shaking his head. “No. You can’t. Cleo, please.”
She sobs as she places her hand on his cheek. “I’m sorry, my love. This was a risk.”
“No! Cleo, I won’t allow it!” He grits as tears stream down his cheeks.
“Artemis. I love you. Take care of Yishai. Love him as you would me.” A star shine covers her soaked skin and her eyes glow.
“No, don’t! NO, CLEO!!” The father cries out. He pulls her head to his chest.
The mother screams one last time as bright white light cracks through her body. Her cries fill the night as her body is torn apart in the father’s arms.
“CLLEEOOOO!!” He cries as his love is torn apart piece by piece by the offspring in her womb.
The light consumes her. She screams and bursts apart with a force that throws the father out of the cart and onto to the road.
“NOOOOO!!” He wails as he rolls to his hands and knees. His head hits the road and he cries uncontrollably. His love is gone and the heart break in his chest is worse than death.
He lifts himself to his knees and looks at the cart.
Where the mother once laid, six balls of white light now float just a foot above the cart.
The fathers love turns to hatred at that moment. He stands as he cries. “I HATE YOU!” He sucks in a pain filled breath. “I HATE ALL OF YOU! I WILL KILL YOU ALL!”
The balls float up in the air.
The father rushes to the side of the old cart. “YOU GIVE HER BACK! GIVE HER BACK NOW!” He throws fists out and strikes the cart.
The balls float around in a circle and turn to the boy who is still crying on the bench.
They form a tight circle just above his face. The boy watches them spin around him with his bright blue eyes.
Still covered in his mother’s birth, he tries to move his hand to them. The balls spin up high in the sky.
“COME BACK! YOU CAN’T KILL HER! YOU CAN’T!” He runs under them and watches them rise. “You can’t.” He leans on the cart and cries for the death of his love.
The balls fly higher and higher into the sky. They stop briefly and like someone shot them out of a canon, they fired off in six different directions. Off to find the elements they will control. The night sky dulls as their light disappears into the world.
They were the lucky ones. The boy? Yeah, that’s me. This is how my life started.
The father wipes his face. The boy still cries on the seat. The father stands and walks slowly to the infant. His face twists into disgust and anger. “This is all…your…fault.” He clenches his jaw. “You will feel the pain I feel. I promise you that.” His threat is drowned out by the screaming child.
This is how my pain started. When I wasn’t with the wet maiden, my father, Artemis, made his pain mine.
Everyday, I met his fists. Year after painfully long year. I took them. I absorbed every hit. With each pounding, I cried a little bit less. My heart turned to stone. I bared the blame for my mother’s death. If I didn’t come when I did, they would have made it. I take that. I’ll own it. I let him mold me. He shaped me. He didn’t realize it then, but he created me into what I am now. I’m not repairable now. I accept that.
I stayed until his beatings had no effect. I was dead inside. He’d whip my skin and I didn’t feel it. I was numb. My demon was set. Ready to go. So, I left with nothing but the shirt on my back. I left and never looked back.
You’d be thinking, how did you live?
Pretty easy actually. I’m a little special. What’s known as a Shapeshifter. I can turn to anything I want as long as it exists. Sorry, folks. No Hydras.
We shift at three months of age and learn real quick that we can retain the genetic material for past shifts. Meaning, I’m a walking storage box of people. We can pretty much live forever. We steal years by shifting to younger people and killing them. If we don’t use our original form, it won’t age.
With this skill, I can get in anywhere and I did. Everywhere I went. I travelled the world for centuries. I didn’t have a plan. I didn’t have a home. I was free. Like my six sisters, I finally grew my wings and flew. It took 15 years, but better late than never.
I saw multiple wars and even fought in a few. Just for fun. I didn’t care for the side as long as I had food in my belly and clothes on my back. When things got tough, I got the heck out of dodge.
Which landed me here in Idaho.
Through the ages, the America’s became a fun place to hang around. When Chris called for sailors, I jumped on board. He was great at first, but then he went a little squirrely. I think it was the isolation of being in a brand new land. It wasn’t the entertainment he was looking for. It played with his mind and he took it out on the people that lived here. It didn’t sit right in my gut, so I let him to it and went my own way. Shifting from person to person until I was clear from him.
I bounced across the pond a few more times before settling on this side of the ocean. The scores a lot higher here.
I hung around Mexico for a while. Drinking and living the life, then people started getting suspicious. There were tales of shifters and people were arming themselves. The Cupacabra, they called it. Well, time to move on before a bullet landed in my brain.
I played around the Civil War. Hung out with General Lee and saw some great things come out of it. Like presidents, the gold rush – that was great – and the railroad. The towns that turned up were always good for a romp or two. At first it was nice to be someone different everyday. I didn’t want to be myself for a long while.
Eventually, I just stayed in my natural form. After 600 years, other peoples faces got boring. That was when I met Dakota. He’s touched, so he says. He says he can feel things others can’t. Like bad omens. I thought, that’s a pretty good skill. I have an intuition of sorts. I also seem to have a calming touch. I can settle a man down with the stroke of one finger. A gift from my mother. My father was the shifter.
Dakota came with friends. All human, save for one.
Justice Wright. Outlaw. Bad hombre. Once killed a man for sneezing. Though, I think it’s a crock a shit.
Arlen “Mutt” Torrent. He’s a shifter. A wolf shifter. The only one I’ve met in 600 years. He says there’s more, but I think he’s just in denial. He calls himself a rogue. A lone wolf. He says he was part of pack, I think he killed them. He's not exactly right in the head.
Harley Washington. He used to be a banker. He knows all the banks and how they operate. He’s knocked off four banks in his time, though they were dirt town banks. I like to aim a little higher.
Last, but not least, Bill Bennet. The youngest at 16. He’s been tagging along with Dakota since he was 8. He’s turning out to be quite the gunslinger. Now that I’m here, I can sharpen him up and make him the best damn outlaw this West has ever seen. Aside from me, of course.
No one out guns The Ghost. Quick draw and sneaky as hell, there hasn’t been a score I couldn’t settle.
We pick up bandits here and there, but our crew is just us and that’s all we need out here in the badlands. We trust each other and have our asses backed. We don’t need anyone coming in and messing that up.
I puff my rolled up cigarette as I rest my hand on the horn of the brown leather saddle I stole in Texas. The horse I’m sitting on is stolen too. In fact, everything on me is stolen. That’s what I do. I’ve never done anything by the law. Never seen a need to. Why buy what you need when you can turn another face and take it? This is what my daddy taught me. You look out for you the best way you know how. Seeing as how he refused to show me honor, I figure, why give it back? This world is just itching to fill you full of lead, might as well make it worth dying for.
I look to my right as Dakota rides up beside me. “Yup.”
The desert winds blow and kick up dirt around the shuffling horse hooves. My black riders jacket slaps against the powerful brown chest of the horse.
He pulls on his reins and stops his quarter horse beside mine. He wraps the reins around the horn, reaches into his saddle bag and pulls out a paper. “Hardin’s dead.”
“Let me see that.” I snatch the newsprint from him and open it.
‘John Wesley Hardin, notorious murderer and outlaw, was killed by an off-duty lawman in El Paso, Texas.’
I drop the paper. “Didn’t he just git outta prison?”
“Yup. I knew he’d git it in Texas.” Dakota spit on the ground, lifts his tan hat and runs his dirty fingers through his black, messy hair. He fixes his hat, scrubs his black beard and points to the print. “I guess you ain’t gettin’ yer 5 bucks.”
“Damn.” I slam the paper closed and hand it back. “He better stay dead.” I grit.
I look around. “Where’s Harley at?”
Dakota tosses his thumb over his shoulder. “He polished off the moonshine before we got here.”
“What?” I twist in my saddle and there’s the drunkard watering a twig bush with last night’s supper. “Harley! You dumb shit! I told ya that piss was gonna bite ya!”
He holds his stomach, waves his arm at me and yaks more while his horse grunts and shakes his head beside him.
I shake my head, fix my hat and turn back. “If I didn’t need ‘em I’d leave his ass to the diamonds.” I adjust my myself in my saddle and lean on it.
Bill rides up on my left. “What are we doin’?”
I sit up in my saddle. “We are scoping out this pretty little town.”
Down at the bottom of the foothill we’re parked on, sits Lochlane, Idaho. Home to 200 humans. The wooden buildings still have their colorful paint even through the grit of the red sand beats on them sun up to sun down. They keep it up nice. It’s easy when you got gold money flowing. The carriages roll through town and the people go about their day. To this day, Lochlane Bank has never been hit. No one can get by the Sherriff. He’s never met me and he never will.
“Why?” Bill looks at me with young blue eyes. His face barely covered in a beard and his brown hair is messy around his ears. He fixes his brown riders coat that’s a size too big because he stole it.
I lean back down again. “In that town, is the largest bank in the territory.” I turn to Dakota. “We’re gonna clean it out.”
“Is that a good idea?” Mutt rides up beside Dakota. His white hair sticks out beneath the brim of his black hat. His cowhide jacket flaps around his brown leather chaps and his ice blue eyes squint in the dust.
I adjust my black leather chaps and fix the holster around my waist. “It’s a damn good idea. There’s at least 50, 000 in that bank. That could buy a lot of whiskey.” I bounce my brow.
“And women. Don’t forget women.” Bill says with a the usual enthusiasm a boy of his age has. We bought him his first saloon girl a few weeks back. He had a good time even though he barely lasted a minute. Ever since, it’s all he can talk about.
“Yes, Bill, you’ll git your damn girls.” I sit up. “First we need to git this done.
“I don’t like it. It don’t feel right.” Dakota says.
“Ya haven’t even heard the plan.” I hold my hands out.
He crosses his arms. His sheepskin coat pulls at his thick muscular arms. “Ok. What’s the plan?”
“I go ghost.” I tick my lip up.
Mutt throws his hand up at me. “Ah, come on, Jesse. So we just sit back while you git all the fun?”
“It’s the safest way. I take the bank manager and I git in the vault. Y’all wait ‘n the back and I throw the cash out to ya. It’s simple, clean and quick. Then it’s off to the border.” I drag my roll-up and flick it into the desert wind. “’Course if you want to hang back and give up yer cut…”
“Hell, nah.” Mutt growls.
“Then quit yer bitchin'.” I side eye him.
I click my teeth and turn my horse. His back bounces me in the saddle as he walks away from the edge.
I turn my head. “Harley! Git up, ya saphead!” He’s sitting on his ass in the dirt with his arms on his knees. The others join my side as we walk past him. He takes off his hat and groans, rubbing his short brown hair.
“Hold up at the ranch, and wrestle some grub. I have to scope things out. I need to watch the manager for a few days and git his likeness. Then we hit it.” I turn my head to my boys.
“Three days." Dakota tips his hat.
I tip back. “Three days.” I slam my boot spurs into my horses ribs and give a whistle. He grunts loud and breaks into a gallop. I lean forward and turn him east while my boys turn west to our hideout.
Dust clouds rise from the horses hooves as he runs to an area where I will sit to get what I need for this job.
I need this. After this job, I’m done here, I think. I’ll take my cut and find myself a beach somewhere. Just sit under a palm tree and drink.
I feel something coming and it feels bad. If it’s what I think it is, I better skedaddle before it shows up.