Weapon in the Hills
by K.R. Hager
“This,” Lieutenant Ezra Cooper muttered, “is one of the dumbest things I have had to do.” Suppressing a roll of his eyes, he tugged on the reins to pull his horse’s head from the stream. Giving a petulant snort, the horse raised his head and the young lieutenant turned his attention to his troops. He had caught several murmurings about “damned ranking officers” already and he admitted to himself that he agreed. But it was not his place to agree openly.
“All right, that’s enough time for water. We’ve places to be,” Ezra called and ten other men pulled reluctant mounts away from the stream. Then, with a shouted order from Sergeant Wallace, they set back out at a trot. The April sun spread its warmth thinly across his back, and Ezra struggled against the afternoon drowsiness. They were not riding in enemy territory, but he had learned early that a man could not drop his guard. The men who dropped their guards were the ones who ended up stretched beside the road with that wild-eyed look of the surprised dead.
“How much further you reckon until we reach the town?” Ezra asked Sergeant Wallace.
“Can’t be too much further, I s’pose,” the sergeant said. “Seems a funny errand though, don’t it?” Ezra took “funny” to be the sergeant’s thinly diplomatic attempt at saying “pointless”.
“Yes, ‘funny’ is a good word for it,” Ezra said. “All the captain told me is that somebody from town sent word to the General that they’ve got something that could help us whip the rebs.”
Sergeant Wallace did not bother hiding his rolling eyes. “This town barely makes it on the map, but by God and by hell, they have got the answer to the war. Lucky us. But, I can tell you now that if it turns out we’re riding into a town full of secesh sympathizers, I’m going to be one damned unhappy fellow.” He paused for a moment and then grinned, adding, “ ’Course, a town full of rebs to shoot at would at least be useful.”
“Lunatic,” Ezra retorted.
Within the hour, Ezra spotted a few farm houses and beyond that, he could see the ramshackle attempt at a village rising up beyond fields of fruit trees. Approaching the village, they slowed their horses to a walk but still kept their eyes roving across the bucolic setting. Outside of a dusty building marked as Josiah’s Mercantile, a man sat with a burlap sack resting beside him. The man rose as Ezra and his patrol approached and the lieutenant wagered from the rough overalls and from the weathered skin on the man’s face that he was a farmer.
“Sir, I’m Lieutenant Ezra Cooper. We’re supposed to meet with a fellow named Lionel Harper.”
“That’d be me, son,” the man said with a grin and polite tip of his flop-brimmed hat. “We sent a messenger out to our good general sayin’ we had somethin’ that might interest alls y’all.”
“Yes, that’s what I was told, although my captain was a bit, er, vague about what you thought would be interesting,” the young man replied.
“Ah now, I don’t s’pose as I can rightly explain it to ya, Lieutenant. But let me get my horse here and I’ll be more than willing to show ya. Words don’t really do right enough for an outsider, ya see.”
Ezra and Sergeant Wallace exchanged glances as the man began lashing the burlap sack to a rawboned work horse.
“May I ask what you’ve got there in that bag?” Ezra inquired as the man settled himself on back of his animal.
“In here? I got some coils o’ rope and a bit o’ leather,” he replied and gave another friendly smile.
“Look here, Mr. Harper,” Ezra began, “I want you to be level with us about what you’ve got in mind.”
“Oh, I want to, Lieutenant, I really do. But if I just told y’all what I’m talkin’ about, y’all would think I was talkin’ horsefeathers. Seeing is believin’, the sayin’ goes.” The smile left Mr. Harper’s face and he gave his horse a nudge with his heels.
The unease that hung about Mr. Harper brought an edgy alertness to Ezra and the young lieutenant found himself resting his hand on his pistol for the duration of the ride. Now and again the older man would try talking to Ezra who would just nod with required politeness as he wandered his eyes across the landscape.
“It ain’t much further, Lieutenant,” Mr. Harper said. “It’s actually on the far edge o’ my land, that’s why they all thought I should be the one to guide y’all, ya see. We’re right proud of it, ya know. But y’all will see what I mean. Then ya can stop fingerin’ yore weapons every time I move. I tell ya, Lieutenant, I’m as true to the Union as Lincoln himself. I was in the army back when we all fought against Mexico.”
“So were some of those secesh scoundrels,” Sergeant Wallace replied. “Bobby Lee himself cut his teeth shootin’ Mexicans.”
“Sergeant,” Ezra warned, his voice sharp enough that both Mr. Harper and Sergeant Wallace went quiet for the rest of the ride.
“Well now, here we are,” Mr. Harper announced, reining his horse near the edge of an overlook. Scraggly pine trees sprouted amid rocks all down the hill side, green points emerging from amid the scree. “It’s a good time o’ day to see him, too.”
“Him?” Ezra repeated.
“Yep. Afternoon time. He’s usually out sunnin’ himself now that winter’s gone. I s’pose that -. Oh-ho! What did I tell y’all? See him? Right there down among those rocks! Can’t miss the big feller!” There was undeniable pride in the man’s voice and Ezra followed the outstretched, pointing arm.
Despite himself, Ezra gasped.
“What the hell is that?” he asked as he pulled out his field glasses. Down below across a small valley, a pile of rocks stirred and stretched. No, it wasn’t rocks. It was something that blended with the rocks so completely that it appeared to be one with the craggy hills. Like a massive granite statue, the something rose to its feet and sunlight sparked off veins of pyrite tracing through the skin. As Ezra watched and his troopers muttered and exclaimed, the rocky creature spread out a pair of wings with skin so light that the lieutenant could almost see through the granite-colored membrane. It flapped the wings a couple of times like a restless bird and then settled itself back among the rocks.
“Well, want to imply that I’m a traitor now, son?” Mr. Harper grinned in triumph. “If I was a traitor, why’d I be showin’ alls y’all our town’s pride? Beautiful feller, ain’t he? Maybe the only one o’ his kind left in the world: a real dragon.”
“This isn’t possible,” Ezra breathed, not relinquishing his grip on the field glasses. But it had to be possible because there it sat among the rocks below, yawning and stretching with all the contentment of a sated wolf. “H-how long have you had this?”
“Well, he was here when my granddaddy got the land, but I reckon he was callin’ this place home long afore then,” Mr. Harper admitted. “He was a nuisance at first, that he was, what with eatin’ the cattle all the time. But granddaddy thought he might come in handy, so he convinced the people that we should start raisin’ cows and bringin’ them to the ol’ lizard. Ha, now we treat him like a prince; he gets a nice fat cow all tethered up for him down there and he leaves us alone.
“But he’s a fierce one, ya understand. He’ll eat a wanderin’ outsider in his huntin’ ground sure enough. But we feed him and he seems happy as a clam and we’re right proud of him, ya can wager on it.”
“And you want us to,” Ezra paused for a moment as the dragon stood up and shook itself and stretched some more, yawning to show teeth longer than the heads of pick-axes, “you want us to take him?”
“Well, we don’t ‘want’ y’all to, but we all decided that y’all have got to take him. See, look at these,” the old man withdrew several shards of rock from his overall pockets and handed them to Ezra. “Those ain’t chunks o’ granite, Lieutenant. See how they bend a little? But ya won’t be able to snap them, no sir. Those are a couple o’ his scales.”
They felt gritty like rock in his hands, but Ezra found he could flex the scales with some effort. Light too, far lighter than pieces of rock that size ought to be. Absently, he thumped his finger against a scale and it made a noise like thumping a piece of damp leather.
“Bullets go right off o’ him. I’d tell y’all to let yore men give it a try, but he don’t take kindly to that. And I s’pose that cannons will go right off him, too, like on those ironclad boats we’ve heard about.”
“I don’t know,” Ezra hesitated as he handed back the scales. “He’s not going to be easy to transport.” That was an understatement if he’d ever said one. Damnation, that beast was going to be a logistical nightmare. How would he and ten cavalry soldiers manage it all the way back to camp? And what would they do with it when they got there? How would they feed something like that? And what if it got loose?
“Here, I brought these,” Mr. Harper said as he began removing the coils of rope from his sack. “My granddaddy made ‘em. He wove ‘em out o’ hemp and silk ‘cause he said that only those two materials together would hold a dragon.” Right, and I’m a leprechaun, Ezra thought as he looked from the thin ropes back down to the dragon. But then Mr. Harper removed something else from the sack: a tangle of harness leather interspersed with a couple sets of brass buckles. “It’s a muzzle, son,” Mr. Harper explained. “Granddaddy oiled it on a full moon with the blood o’ a young deer. Said it’ll hold a dragon’s jaws tight as the devil.”
“Mr. Harper, I’m not so sure,” the lieutenant faltered.
“But I am sure,” Mr. Harper answered, his voice suddenly firm. “We don’t want to give up our dragon, do ya understand? Do ya think we want to hear about him getting’ all shot up and torn apart? After all these years o’ feedin’ him and feelin’ proud about him, do you think this is something we want? ‘Cause it ain’t. But we’re tired, Lieutenant. We’re tired o’ letters about our sons, letters written by boys like yoreself sayin’ things about duty and courage. So I thought to myself, ‘Lionel, if ya can give up yore boys, ya can give up a dragon.’ So we’re givin’ y’all our dragon ‘cause we know he can whip those rebs. One sight o’ him with his jaws full o’ fire and the bullets and the shells bouncin’ off, they won’t stand, Lieutenant. No man would stand. So take yore men, go down there and get that dragon and win us this damned war.”
Looking back at his men who were standing there with fidgeting hands and faces flushed with bravado, Ezra picked up one of the ropes. “All right, men. Let’s wrangle ourselves a dragon.”
Tying the ropes into lassos, Ezra picked two of his troopers, Buck Hupwell and Joshua Smythe, who had done some time out in the western territories working with cattle before the war.
“Buck, I want you to get that rope over its head. Joshua, I want you to go for one of the front legs; when you get it roped, we’ll move in and get it around the other front leg so he can’t try and run.” Eyes wide and hands clenched on their ropes, both men nodded. This is a terrible plan, Ezra thought as he glanced again at the dragon. But I’m not sure what else to do. “All right, I’ll go down first and distract it.” Well, that’s the least I can do. If I’m going to have them trying to rope a monstrous lizard, I ought to be the one playing bait.
Sergeant Wallace gave a quick glance at the dark harness-leather muzzle and whispered to Ezra, “Now you just try not to get any of that precious deer blood all over you. If it ain’t oiled right, how can it hold a dragon?” He finished with a wink and gave Ezra a hearty clap on the back.
Down the hill they went, sliding on the loose rocks, their sabers clattering at their sides. So much for any hope of surprise. Stumbling, Ezra reached the rock-strewn valley not twenty-five yards from the tremendous beast. Eyes like balls of quicksilver, the dragon set his head to one side and parted his jaws as he seemed to focus on the lieutenant. “That’s right,” Ezra breathed, “keep steady on me, big fellow.” The dragon took a slow step forward, paws big enough to snatch horses crunching amid the rocks.
Slowly flanking the dragon, Buck and Joshua came closer, lassos at the ready. All our hope is on this, Ezra thought as he jangled the muzzle to distract the creature. He could win us the damned war. C’mon fellows, throw those ropes! At that moment, Buck and Joshua nodded to one another and let loose their lassos. Buck settled his neatly over the head which caused the dragon to rear back; Joshua snagged his rope around a front leg.
“We got ‘im, Lieutenant! Hot damn, we just roped an honest-to-God dragon!” Joshua crowed as he scrambled back to keep the rope taut.
From the flanks, the other troopers rushed in with the remaining ropes and tossed them across the body, each man holding fast to an end, to keep the wings pinned. The dragon roared out once and vomited a stream of fire into the air that blasted out across the trees, scorching the tops of some of the tallest pines. He gave his head a powerful toss that almost threw Buck, but Sergeant Wallace had moved in to help hold the rope. With a series of violent yanks, Buck and the sergeant played out the rope like they were working a trout. The dragon flopped and roared and thrashed, his tail catching another trooper and tossing him back among the rocks. Through it all, one thing remained constant – the dragon’s silver-white eyes. They did not stray from Ezra’s face; they appeared uncannily calm for an animal struggling for its life.
In mid-thrash, the dragon lowered his head and Ezra lunged forward. The dragon made a fierce snap in his direction, but the efforts of the men at the ropes held him back. Again the dragon thrust his wide jaws towards Ezra as the lieutenant tried to close distance with the rigged muzzle, and this time the young man shot out his fist, catching the dragon on the tender scales beneath a nostril. The dragon pulled back, but not quickly enough as Ezra slid the leather straps over the dragon’s muzzle. A quick flick of his head, and the dragon nearly threw Ezra to the ground, but the man held fast and, with a growl of determination like a terrier among rats, fumbled his way to securing the buckles. At last, Ezra leapt aside as the dragon tossed its head and tried to rub the muzzle off on the ground, burrowing its face amid the rocks. Only for those moments did its eyes leave the young man.
When the leather held against his efforts, the dragon fixed his eyes back on Ezra and curled his flews to show the gleam of now-restrained teeth. From the nostrils bubbled a liquid that dripped thick and orange-white like melting iron; when it spattered on the ground, the rocks steamed and hissed. Still the muzzle held. Maybe there’s something about deer’s blood and full moons after all, Ezra thought dryly as he caught his breath.
“I gotta say, he’s something,” Sergeant Wallace called. “But eleven of us just managed him. What you s’pose an army of secesh would make of him?”
“I’m not sure,” the lieutenant admitted softly. He took a couple steps closer and the dragon lowered its head and Ezra noted that the silver seemed to swirl all through the eyeball, showing no trace of pupil or iris. “You could have taken us, couldn’t you, ol’ boy? You could have roasted us right through. Why not?”
The silver seemed to swirl faster as the dragon peered at him, and Ezra felt a heat rising in his skull behind his own eyes, shoving back into his brain like a wall of fire pressing into a forest. He stumbled backwards from it, but the burning enveloped his mind and he pressed his hands to his eyes as if to smother its smoldering advance. Light appeared then in his mind, red-hot and flickering, eerie against an acrid darkness that stung his nostrils. At first he thought he was on fire, but then the screams rose up around him and he saw people running. Women and children shrieked as the smoke wrapped around them, transforming them into wraiths in the crackling light. It was a house that burned – a once elegant mansion that was collapsing upon itself as men in uniform scrambled from the flaming wreckage and a hot sickness boiled in Ezra as he saw the deep blue uniforms running through the smoke, arms laden with silver and jewelry. Men – God, perhaps his men – looting the roaring inferno that had been a home.
Then he saw fields, endless fields, now charred and wasted as the remnants of crops smoldered and smoked. Gunfire cracked across his mind and he saw bodies falling. He saw city streets burnt and twisted and as desolate as the fields, all life vanished in the wake of tremendous flames. He had seen a dozen battlefields, but he had not seen that sort of destruction, that thorough of a horror. Open your eyes, Ezra! he screamed through the smoke and the pain and the raging heat. Open them!
Sunlight pierced away the nightmare scene and Ezra found himself looking into the dragon’s eye. There was feeling there in that eye, a palpable depth that Ezra could sense as though the dragon knew what he had seen. But of course it knew. “What was that?” he asked of the massive lizard but it only studied him further. “What did I just see? Those flames and those fields and the cities, is that because of you?”
“That,” answered a thick, husky voice, “was a possible future.” It almost surprised Ezra that the dragon spoke, but then he figured, he’d already seen one impossible thing that afternoon, why not go ahead and make it two?
“If we take you, you mean,” the lieutenant pressed. “If we take you away from here, that’s the future?”
“That was a possible future,” the dragon repeated. “It need not be the one that happens, but it is possible.”
Taking a deep breath to steady his nerves, the lieutenant looked out over his men as he faced his decision. “I’m only a junior officer, this choice should not be mine,” Ezra said to himself. But it must be. If we take him back to camp, it is too late. Iacta alea est. Do we cross the Rubicon? I don’t know, but I must decide. How would they handle this creature? The fact that the dragon hadn’t eaten them didn’t mean it couldn’t. He closed his eyes and the ghosts of flames still flickered. If they loosed this creature on the rebs, what would be the cost? No, he thought, we want one nation again. What can we go back to if we use him on ourselves?
“This changes everything, you know,” Sergeant Wallace said as he stepped next to Ezra and inclined his head toward the dragon.
“Yes, but everything is already changing. You’ve seen that with the weapons we have and all that entrenching we’ve heard about,” Ezra answered.
“Changing, yes, but not like this,” the sergeant replied. “Not like him.”
And do we want to be the ones bringing that change? “I’m going to unmuzzle him,” the lieutenant announced. “Hold him tight while I unbuckle him.”
The dragon grinned as Ezra unfastened the leather straps. “Thank you. I have never wanted to be involved in your petty fights. You would have found me to be a most disagreeable ally,” the dragon said. “And tell that idiot on the ridge that he owes me another cow for all of this.” The lieutenant could only nod.
“So,” Mr. Harper said as Ezra and his men crested the ridge, “take my sons, but not a dragon, huh?”
There was bait in those words, but Ezra merely said, “Thank you for bringing us out here, but there’s not much we can do with an unwilling dragon. And, um, he wants me to tell you that he would like another cow. I can reimburse -.”
Mr. Harper shook his head. “No, ya boys all move along. I’ll see to it he gets his cow. Although I wonder what y’all gain by leavin’ him here. We offered ya the best we have, Lieutenant.”
“Yes, I know. Thank you, Mr. Harper, but your dragon belongs here.” Ezra handed the harness and the ropes back to the man and then tried to surreptitiously wipe the rusty stain from the harness off his palms.
They set back out onto the road in quiet except for the jingle of tack and the clop of hooves. Even Sergeant Wallace did not speak until they had left Mr. Harper back in town and had begun to trot away down the road. Sergeant Wallace patted Ezra on the shoulder.
“You must think I’m an idiot, don’t you?” Ezra asked, trying to keep his voice just loud enough to be heard over the horses.
“No, no I don’t. I s’pose even I knew that ol’ beast would eat our own men first chance he got. I don’t take well with the idea of secesh shooting me from up front and dragons frying me from behind. Hell of a way to wage a war.” The sergeant gave a humorless laugh and they went on in silence back across the countryside.
Night had descended by the time the lieutenant went to make his report to his captain.
“So, how’d the ride go, Lieutenant?” the captain asked with an expectant grin as the two men stepped into his tent.
“Nothing but a disappointment, sir,” Ezra said and emphasized the point with a shake of his head. “Just some local rumors and mumbo-jumbo. Everybody thinks they’ve got something to show that’ll put them on the map. This time folks said they had a cave with a dragon.” The disdain in his voice felt like a betrayal, but it burned less than the memory of the smoke and fire.
“A dragon? Oh, god, lieutenant! What an utter waste of a day!” the captain laughed. “What in the hell is wrong with people? But, boy, would I have loved to see your face when that little town told you they were donating a dragon. Ha!” He pulled a flask out and held it before Ezra. “Here, if a man ever needed a drink, I’d wager it’s you. I can’t wait to read your report, though. Wish I could see the General when he reads it, too. Ah well, too bad it wasn’t anything. I’d like to see this all done and over.”
Ezra swallowed and nodded his agreement.
“Still,” the captain continued, “you know General Sherman. He’ll find a way to finish this mess. He’s going to make the South howl one way or the next, and I imagine he won’t be needing dragons for that.” The captain gave another laugh and took a pull from the flask before putting it away. With a nod, he dismissed Ezra who walked back out into the cooling night air.
Well, at least we avoided that nightmare, he thought. Then, taking hold of his horse’s reins, Lieutenant Ezra Cooper walked back across the camp and to whatever future actually awaited him.
K.R. Hager is a graduate of the University of California, Davis with majors in history and classical civilizations. After spending a year in law school, she set out to see the world - or at least corners of it. Some of her other works have appeared in Cicada, Absent Willow Review, Orion's Child Magazine and Midwest Literary Magazine. She currently lives with her husband and their dog.
Where do you get the ideas for your stories?
I suppose essentially I draw on my interest in history because it is a subject that offers so many interesting personalities and events. When I create a story, I take a person and see how he's going to react to whatever terrible or fantastic event befalls him. If my character transcends mere reaction and strives to control his fate, then I have the foundation for a story.