Winter Lake

Originally published Wednesday, September 01, 2004

Winters in Montana were never mild when I was growing up there. The snow always threatened to bury the house, or at least cover the windows on one side of the house. One of my earliest memories of winter in Montana was that of a small Franklin stove. God bless Benjamin Franklin for his invention. Actually, to be technical, God bless David R. Rittenhouse who took Franklin’s flawed design of a freestanding cast-iron stove and made it work. Good ol’ Ben had originally designed his stove so the smoke would exit from the bottom, failing to realize that smoke rises and fire needs oxygen. His design did produce a stove that radiated a lot of heat, but wouldn’t stay lit for extended periods of time. Rittenhouse redesigned the stove with a pipe on top.

I loved that stove. I would awaken in the cold morning well before the sun broke over the mountains to the east and hover near the stove. It was on these mornings I would cherish the cinnamon toast and hot chocolate my mom would make for me. My dad would have already left for work. Often his would be the first tire tracks out on the long dirt road that lead to the main paved road.

As I grew up, winter was more than just cold and snow. The hill that led down to the lake became an ultimate sledding course. The lake itself would freeze over with ice sometimes two feet thick and would become the largest ice skating rink I have ever known. I loved ice-skating on that lake. At night, the frozen lake would speak and sing. The ice was always under some form of stress and that stress would result in cracks erupting. Each crack was a voice and sometimes the voices gathered into choirs. As spring approached, the ice would get more talkative. On a good day I would skate from my house, to Kim’s Marina, into Chinaman’s Campground, over to Yacht Basin, around Cemetery Island, back to home. That would take me about three hours. I would do this alone, which wasn’t without risk.

I never fully realized the risks involved until that one winter when I was skating along and hit thin ice and fell in. I sank with the weight of the skates on my feet and struggled to get my arms on the ice, but the ice kept breaking. Turning towards shore, I kept breaking the ice until my feet touched bottom and then continued moving towards land. I don’t have a recollection of being cold, I think fear and adrenaline kept me warm enough. As soon as I hit the beach, I ran the best I could with my skates on towards the house. I was luckily over an area that was called ‘the point’ which was a stretch of beach on the north side of Magpie Bay, which wasn’t too far from home. The run home was cold, that I do recall keenly. My fingers and toes were numb and I was shivering like mad. The frostbite was minor, but to this day, a good blast from the air conditioner will make my ears, fingers, and toes burn and ache.

I understood from that moment on, the true treachery of that area of the lake. It didn’t take much warmth in that are for that section of the ice to melt away when the rest of the lake was still several inches thick. Unfortunately, not enough people knew this. One winter’s night when I was in high school, I was getting a hair cut from my mom. I noticed a light flashing from the lake. On closer inspection, it was coming from a man stranded out there. I grabbed an orange water float that was meant to be pulled behind a boat and ran out to the point to help guide the man ashore. He had been following the tracks of his father’s homemade snowmobile when he got to this section. The ice was cracking around him and he was unsure of where to move to get back to safety. Luckily he had been on foot and was able to hear the sounds and sense the fragility of the ice. His father who had been out on the snowmobile much earlier in the day, didn’t have that notice and plunged through the thin ice. His father had fallen into the iced over lake a dozen yards away from where I fell in. I only had to move several feet to find footing, no one knows what conditions under which that man was struggled.

As the lake thawed with the approach of spring, the ice would melt away from the shore, leaving a giant tantalizing raft of ice floating out in the center. The air would be warm, the ground was wet instead of frozen and talk among my brothers and sisters would turn from winter things to who would be the first in the lake. If there were any Rites of Childhood for me, attempting to be first in the lake had to be one of the most cherished. How hard could it be, in March and sometimes April, when the lake was shedding it’s icy crust, to take a dip. The water was crystal clear and so tempting. The lake was cold, but feeling it with your hand, you couldn’t see how it was so cold as to prevent you from taking that quick dip and thus earning the title First In The Lake.

Dressed in bathing suits a few would line up and make their attempts. Some would get to their knees, few would get to their waists, and I dare say that I have no recollection of anyone going in all the way. As the ice disappeared completely and the sun was out longer, eventually someone would get in, but by that time the boaters were already on the lake and the title was a bit more meaningless because summer was around the corner.

The Scott Dialogues: Aesthetics Part I – Is Art Beautiful?

Originally published Wednesday, August 18, 2004

The following is a transcript of a conversation recorded October 8, 2002 at a diner on Clark Street in Chicago. The person who made the recording prefers to remain nameless as his or her actions may actually be deemed criminal. What you are about to read is in fact one of the many conversations involving an enigmatic individual called Scott, the entire collection being called ‘The Scott Dialogues”.

When ever possible, the person’s real name, if known through the conversation is used. Otherwise a fictitious name has been assigned to the person’s voice for sake of clarity.

Michael: I was at the North Halsted Market Days and there was this guy there selling painted sea shells with tea light candles in them. He was calling his creations art and billed himself as an artist. I know art and that wasn’t art, that was crap, which makes him a crapist at best.

Megan: Crapist? Is that your latest attempt at being clever? Michael, just because you don’t like something doesn’t mean it isn’t art.

Michael: Jesus, Megan, give me a fucking break. Why do you always question everything I say. I’m just commenting on this guy’s seashell candles.

Megan: Maybe if you weren’t such a clueless opinionated asshole I would have less reason to doubt what you say.

Michael: You get off on being a bitch.

Scott: It looks like I stumbled into another Michael-Megan fight. What is it over this time? Some person whom you don’t really care about and how much he weighs? Or is regarding the year Reagan was shot? What miserable assertion has been put forth that has created such ire and animosity?

Michael: Very funny, Scott. I was just telling Megan about this guy at a street fair who was selling crappy candles and calling it art.

Scott: It isn’t art? Out of curiosity and boredom, just how do you define art?

Megan: Yeah, how do you define it? This should be good, Scott against Michael.

Michael: I’m sure you’ll love it. What is art? Art is something that takes skill to create. Those seashell candles didn’t take any skill or creativity for that matter.

Scott: Art is, correct me if I am misstating your definition, something that requires skill and creativity?

Michael: Exactly!

Scott: Okay, that may be a viable definition. Let’s analyze it a bit.

Megan: No it isn’t. That isn’t what art is at all.

Scott: What do you think it is?

Megan: Art is beautiful. It comes from the soul and it makes you feel something or reflect on life in some meaningful way.

Scott: Quite the dilemma. Those are not necessarily mutually exclusive definitions.

Michael: Those seashells weren’t beautiful and the only thing it made me reflect on was who in hell would pay five bucks for one of these crappy candles.

Megan: Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

Scott: Does that mean Art is in the eye of the beholder as well?

Megan: I guess.

Scott: Then doesn’t that mean there isn’t an objective criterion for art? So when Michael says something isn’t art he is correct, by your definition.

Michael: Hah!

Megan: No. Well, maybe.

Scott: So the first question that needs to be resolved is can we define art objectively?

Michael: No. It is as you said; it is up to the viewer.

Scott: I never said that, I was just interpreting what Megan said.

Megan: It seems reasonable. If we agree beauty has something to do with art and beauty is subjective, than an element of art must be subjective.

Scott: Then we have to also ask; is beauty truly subjective?

Megan: Of course it is.

Scott: Really? Is it possible that everything has an intrinsic beauty and certain people are better skilled at seeing it than others?

Michael: That is ridiculous. Are you saying that a crushed bug on a car windshield is beautiful? You are sick.

Scott: Let’s run with my assumption for a second and use your gross example. What could be beautiful about it?

Michael: Nothing.

Megan: One less bug in the world, that’s beautiful.

Scott: Talk to me in artistic terms. Could there be a pleasant color scheme in the squashed bug guts? Think of it not as a squashed bug but as a painting, or a sculpture. Maybe even as just a shape. Can you honestly say that there isn’t some perspective that could be taken which won’t reveal something beautiful?

Megan: This is sort of like being attracted to someone who isn’t physically beautiful because you find his mind and heart beautiful. When you look at the right angle, you can find the beauty inside everything.

Scott: That is essentially what I am saying. Sometimes you may have to find a very specific angle to look at something to see the beauty, but if we believe that everything is beautiful, than we will find it.

Michael: I don’t understand why everything has to be beautiful. Why can’t things be ugly?

Scott: That is the corollary. If everything is beautiful if looked at from certain perspectives, everything is ugly as well.

Megan: Dang, that’s kind of depressing.

Scott: It isn’t depressing or uplifting, it just is. Don’t let emotional attachment to things like beauty and non-beauty cloud your thinking. What we have established is beauty is in the eye of the beholder, not because beauty is subjective but because some eyes can see the beauty that exists in certain things while other eyes lack the proper perspective to see it.

Michael: Isn’t this a cop out? Everything is beautiful; everything is ugly. That frees us from having to make distinctions or worry about comparisons.

Scott: No, it doesn’t. It just means we have to define how we are judging beauty before we make our pronouncement. For example, the beauty of a swimsuit model does not compare to the beauty of a balanced mathematic equation, but both are beautiful. The beauty of Sandra Bullock does not compare to the beauty of Hamlet. We don’t think twice about considering these things beautiful but in our minds we know we are applying different perspectives to these things to see their beauty. This is why beauty pageants set up different segments to judge beauty: poise, talent, swimsuit, and formal wear. They very well could create a different perspective, like complexion, bust size, teeth color, and disease resistance.

Megan: You’re odd.

Scott: But it is the truth. And that is what we are trying to sort out. The truth about Art. If Art is beautiful, we have determined that everything is beautiful, so if someone is squashing bugs between glass and calling it art, we know that it is at least beautiful.


Originally published Thursday, August 19, 2004

He dangled, in midair, his right arm stretched skyward.

Pain burned through his hand, down his outstretched arm and into his bare torso. Nothing was actually visibly wrapped around his wrist, but he felt it. Whatever it was obviously suspended him, within a darkened void. No walls, no floor, no ceiling around him at all. Only a faint bit of light from far below him gave any indication that there was anything else around at all.

He struggled against the pain for conscious thought.

‘What is my name? Fucking pain! No. Nothing like that.’

Tears left him long ago. Tears don’t heal this kind of pain. He felt his heartbeat in his wrist, each beat causing a jolt of pain.

‘I must be a tortured hero. I must have delivered fire unto humanity in defiance of the gods.’

Once in a while a cold draft would blow pass him, sending a shiver through his naked, dependent body. A particularly strong wind would start him swaying, increasing the pain that his body could never quite adapt or adjust itself to. Each moment was like experiencing the excruciating pain for the first time. The muscles, ligaments, and tendons that held his arm and should together were slowly pulling apart. His shoulder would soon become dislocated.

‘Jacob. No. That’s my dad’s name. Thomas begets John. John begets Jacob. Jacob begets Mark. Mark. My name is Mark.’

Eternal pain. How long has it been?

Mark winced and breathed deeply which caused a slow spin. With his head hanging listlessly, he forced his eyes open, like he had done before, to see what he could see. A dark room, a void. Mark rolled his head to the side to look at his wrist. He squinted and though he could see the tether. A forged iron chain, each link covered in thorns, a hellish rose stem, twisted into binding links. The thorns pierced his flesh. In the dim light from below, Mark could make out dried blood all down his forearm.

‘How did I get here? What hell is this? What god have I offended? Forgive me my daily trespasses… my hourly trespasses… forgive my ignorance and my malice… if I had known this would be my punishment I would never have committed whatever sin it is I did that warranted this punishment.’

Mark thought of a scene he had read in the book Dune a thousand years ago, in the beginning of time, in the beginning of the pain. A young man was tested for his humanity by putting his hand in a box that caused pain. Dune. Paul. The test was to see if Paul would pull his hand from the box or if he would withstand the pain. Only a human would endure the pain. An animal would flee it.

Mark bowed his head trying to see through the darkness below him, trying to see what caused the dim light to shine. He could see nothing. With his remaining energy, he twisted his arm violently. The pain paralyzed his ability to scream, but he kept twisting his arm. Gashes appeared around his wrist, blood gently flowed. Mark struggled against his bond. He felt his flesh shred, but he didn’t stop his frantic thrashing. Mark looked like a fish caught on a hook, being lifted from the safety of the water.

He was an animal, not a human. The pain must have an end. A coyote would chew its own leg off to escape a trap. Isn’t that better? Escape the pain. Does it take courage to inflict a greater amount of pain upon yourself in hopes of ending all pain?

Mark didn’t care anymore. The chain ground against his bones now. He feared the fall, the descent into the darkness, the descent towards that dim light. The light of hope, or the light of a hell worse than this one.

‘Put a frog in boiling water and the frog jumps out. Put the same frog in a pot of water over low heat and it will remain there until it is cooked to death.’

Mark hoisted himself up, trying to grab hold of the chain with his left hand. His hand only touched air where the chain should have been. Tired from his efforts and overwhelmed by the pain, Mark slipped from consciousness.

All around Mark’s dependent body, drafts of air and winds whispered to him.

‘Don’t fight it, Mark,’ whooshed the winds.

‘The pain of hanging here isn’t so bad.’

‘Why trade a known for an unknown? The pain of hanging could be much better than the pain of falling, unsupported, into the void.’

‘Once you fall, you cannot return.’

‘Some actions cannot be undone.’

Mark didn’t know how long he had been unconscious. Time was meaningless in the void. When he finally woke, he noticed the skin of his arm had started to heal over the chain. He begged for death. Why wouldn’t he die from blood loss at least?

Without hesitation, he began in earnest to free himself. The sharp chain worked its way up his hand, peeling the skin along the way. Mark lifted himself up and let himself drop. Each drop peeled more skin. Each drop sent shockwaves of pain through his entire body. Each drop was closer to being free, closer to death, salvation, or damnation.

Another drop and the chain sliced through the bone of his thumb, which now tumbled into the darkness. Mark could feel the chain slipping up along his hand without his help. He was afraid now of the fall. He curled his fingers to catch the loop and to hold on tightly. Who was he to question the will of the gods?

There was no strength left in his hand and his fingers couldn’t hold onto the chain. Mark tumbled into the void. There was no scream.

He fell in the void.

Little-Known Facts About Giants

Originally published August 10, 2004

There are many little-known facts about giants. Did you know that giants never stop growing? Giants came into this world slightly larger than a normal child but where a normal child stops growing, the giant continues to grow. When the earth was created so were all the giants and since giants are immortal they are still alive today.

Oh yes, that is another one of those little-known facts. We know the stories of how some giants were killed. Goliath was felled by David. A fairy tale once told often to children, now nearly forgotten tells the story of a giant who had a magic harp and a goose that laid golden eggs and how one day a fellow named Jack climbed a beanstalk to this giant’s castle and stole these items. The giant chased Jack, but Jack cut the beanstalk and the giant came crashing to the earth, dying from the impact. Immortality guarantees a long life, if death can be avoided.

What of those other giants who did avoid death? Where are they now?

Since a giant never stops growing, so long as the giant continues to eat – was that mentioned before? Eating. A giant must eat to continue to grow and you don’t want to be around when a giant needs a meal. Once, one of the older and more giant of the giants sat down for a meal and a drink. Entire lakes were sipped dry. Great swathes of land were stripped clean of all vegetation and most animal life. The area is now called the Sahara desert.

As long as the giant eats, the giant grows. Unfortunately for the giant, the larger it becomes, the more effort it takes to move. Eventually, a giant can become so large that it can’t really move anymore and it lies down upon the earth to sleep.

Look now to the horizon and you may actually see one sleeping. Sleeping giants are often mistaken for mountain ranges.

While sleeping, giants’ hearts slow down and beat maybe once every twenty or twenty-five years. Sometimes they are mistaken for earthquakes, but more often, the giant is so covered with dirt, trees, and rocks from the centuries of sleeping, that the heartbeat only causes rockslides. The noise of it is dismissed easily as thunder in the mountains. For all who care, never attempt to wake a sleeping giant. Even if they are so large they can barely move, if a giant were to roll over, entire cities could be squashed. A simple cough could produce winds powerful enough to topple tall buildings. Even a simple deep breath could create a vacuum that could suffocate thousands of people.

Let sleeping giants lie.

Parable of Sam

Originally published Tuesday, August 10, 2004

Belief creates reality. Argue all you want, pick all the nits you want, it is a fact. If you don’t believe in the fact, well, you are just trying to be difficult and are missing the point. That’s perfectly fine by me, I have nothing to gain by relating the following story to you, but you may walk away with a bit more understanding of what this world is all about. At the very least you may have a moment of entertainment and be able to laugh about that old man who sat on the park bench and told you an outrageous tale of Gods and Heroes in America.

Pardon me if I make an assumption, but you look to be like a standard American Christian. I know, I know, you don’t go to church; you don’t even know what denomination your Mother was when you were growing up. You have friends who are Catholic, but you only know that because on Ash Wednesday they have a gray smudge on their foreheads. One of your friends is a devout atheist and goes purple in the face anytime anyone bases a moral decision on the Ten Commandments or Sermon on the Mount. We all know those types. And lest I forget, you also have that ex-lover who was into banging drums, burning incense, in an attempt to be a Druidic-Wiccan Pagan New Age Shaman Magician, or something. All you really cared about was the fact the sex was good.

If anyone asks you though, you say you are a Christian. It is the way you distinguish yourself from Muslims and that couple that run the magazine stand down the street who may or may not be Hindu, but you aren’t sure because you don’t really care. Ganesha to you sounds like something you eat with hummus. You are secure in your beliefs, so long as no one forces you to defend them. That’s just fine, this is America, you are allowed to believe whatever the hell you want. Remember what I said, though, belief creates reality.

The story I’m going to tell you is about how American belief created new gods. I can see the confusion on your face already. New gods? How can there be new gods if there is only one True God? Just sit down and learn something, won’t you? Gods derive their power from the belief people put in them and to think any one of them is Truer than the next is sheer folly. Your god today has no more or less meaning than the god of the Neanderthals who marched across Western Europe in the Ice Age.

So the story starts with a fellow named Sam. Sam was a respectable man, mature yet not a curmudgeon like myself. He stood tall and had a terrific work ethic. Up before sunrise and wouldn’t get into bed until all the cows were accounted for, all the gates closed, and all the tools put away. Sam was a farmer, a carpenter, a poet, an engineer, and an explorer. As time passed Sam sometimes was forced to pick up a gun and become a soldier, but he did it because he had to, but he didn’t like it. Sam was that kind of guy; he always did what he had to do. Sometimes a fire would have to be lit under his ass, but when he started something he finished it.

Somewhere along the line, Sam started seeing a new guy around who went by the name Bill. Bill wasn’t a bad guy, didn’t seem to work as hard as Sam and over time seemed to become more important around these parts than Sam. Sam was fascinated by Bill and even started referring to him as the All Mighty. Sam seemed to find less reason to work and more reason to follow Bill. It is an odd thing when a god begins worshipping another god, but that is exactly what happened with Sam.

Understand, this really isn’t Sam’s doing. Sam was a product of the belief of the American people. Sam, was the patron god of America, an ethereal representation of what this land was about. Sam had two friends, two beautiful women named Liberty and Justice, but Sam was lured away by the temptress Media. Media had this ability to affect the beliefs of the people and to a god who is controlled by the beliefs of the people, this is a most tempting power. Sam took to Media like she was his lover since the beginning of time. Liberty and Justice were after thoughts. First Media got what she wanted, and if anything was left over Liberty and Justice would get their share. Bill didn’t care one way or another. That was probably what intrigued Sam the most about Bill. Bill could have his way with Liberty, Justice, and Media. There wasn’t anything that could oppose Bill. And Bill had no sense of morality about it.

See, my friend, these are the gods that are in the American pantheon right now. We have the venerable elder god, Sam. A father figure, no one could argue with that. Liberty and Justice, both are maternal, protecting types, though they are at odds with each other at times, quarrelling over what is more important. Bill, the Almighty Dollar, is a trickster god, caring only about self-aggrandizement. There is nothing inherently evil about Bill, but Bill doesn’t care if people do evil in their pursuit of him. Media started off as a naïve woman, a workhorse delivering news and information to the people, until a few found a way to corrupt her, turn her into a prostitute. She became a Siren, luring the unsuspected to her altars, asking them to sacrifice to her and Bill. Unlike Sam, Liberty and Justice, she doesn’t care about America as a concept, only as a means to a greater end, her own power. I would be wrong to omit that Sam has a dark side, a villainous side that rarely is seen but needs to be mentioned. Sam, upright citizen of the world, delves into the dark arts often enough to have a corrupted soul. Part of this was due to his obsession with Bill, but it is mostly due to his desire to set upon the world a certain sense of order.

Look about you right now and you can see the dark side of Sam. The Sam who completely ignores Liberty and Justice. The Sam who willingly sacrifices Liberty out of fear. The Sam who puts a cloak upon Justice out of fear. The Sam driven in a monomaniacal rampage out of fear. Sam does this in hopes of creating a new god, Security. Many have tried to build and maintain enough Belief in Security as to allow him to come forth, shield in hand, as a Cavalier of the Land, protecting all. Security often comes forth on feet of clay, though and cannot be sustained long enough to do any real good. The sacrifices made in attempt of creating the belief in security stay with us for a long time, unfortunately.

That is your fear that is driving Sam to be like this. It is your fear that encourages Sam to torture people in hopes of birthing Security into America. It is your insistence that Media isn’t a lying wench that allows you to believe the other lies in your life. Stand against your fear and believe in the Sam who was the farmer, the Sam who was a worker, the Sam who was an engineer and explorer, believe in the Sam who cared for the world, not about Bill. Believe in the Sam who had the strength to carve out a nation from wilderness, who had the wisdom to bring Liberty and Justice to all. Sam knew, way back then when this nation was crowning from the birth canal that the only real protection comes from these two fine ladies. Sam knew they would be at odds with each other at times and the country would swing back and forth between Liberty and Justice, but that was fine because Sam didn’t know which one was more important. No one does. So it is right to allow them to fight it out between themselves, because deep down Liberty respects Justice and would never harm her and Justice adores Liberty and protects her whenever possible.

Get off my bench, now, and go do something that makes Sam snap out of his dark mood. Do something that empowers Liberty and Justice so they can help Sam come back to his senses. And if you still don’t believe that belief creates reality, then to hell with you, because it does and your belief that America should be afraid and America should ignore Liberty and Justice is only hurting Sam. And when Sam hurts, the world hurts.

Road Bandits

Originally published Monday, July 19, 2004

Tizzle sat on the stump and rubbed his foot through his mudcaked, hole-filled sock with his scabbed and scarred hands. Tizzle glanced up the road and saw Rigger striding quickly away. “Wait up, will you?” Tizzle shouted to Rigger getting no response. Tizzle picked up his beat up leather boot with a large hole that ran through the bottom and top of the shoe and poured out equally large pebbles.

Tizzle thrust his foot in the boot. The laces of the untied boot flapped about his ankle as he jogged to catch up to Rigger. In contrast to Tizzle’s raggedy clothes, Rigger wore a fine country suit made of durable cloth, though it had seen better days and was patched in several places. A bowler hat hid Rigger’s bald head and her swung a long stick as thick as a man’s forearm about nonchalantly, sometimes using it as a walking stick and sometimes using it as a club, knocking the heads off of dandelions.

Rigger looked over to the panting Tizzle and asked, “Why are you out of breathe?”

“I got some rocks in my boot that I needed to take care of,” Tizzle said in between breaths.

“If you are going to take shoes from a dead man, you should make sure the shoes are worthy of being worn.”

“They were good shoes, until you shot him in the foot. You knew I needed boots, I don’t know why you had to shoot his foot. Wouldn’t the shin or thigh have served your purpose? Why the foot?”

“Everything is about you, isn’t it? I wasn’t thinking you needed boots back there. I was only thinking that he was getting away. I guess I could have just shot him in the head, but then we wouldn’t know which way the carriage went, now would we?” Rigger addressed Tizzle in a patronizing fashion, using the large stick to punctuate his speech.

“Besides,” Rigger continued, “at least now, one of your feet has a shoe.”

“Always the optimist, aren’t you?” Tizzle mumbled to himself. The two men walked down the road for an hour in silence. The sun had fallen low enough that it was hidden behind a large copse of trees. The two men walked in the long shadows, as the air cooled around them.

“Should we build a fire tonight?” Tizzle asked.

“Guess we better. I was hoping we’d stumble across a cottage or some travelers and set by their fire this evening,” replied Rigger.

Tizzle wandered to the side of the road and began collecting bits and pieces of wood as Rigger continued to stride forward. Once Tizzle had a full load of wood in his arms, he hurried up the road. Night was quickly coming and Tizzle had lost sight of Rigger. Tizzle finally came to a turnout in the road, a site of many campfires from the look of the blackened earth. Rigger sat on a rotting log gazing up at the stars in the clear sky.

Tizzle took a rag from his coat pocket and unrolled it, revealing a small knife and a few stones. He took the knife in his hand and began widdling at a piece of wood, creating as small pile of tiny flecks of wood. Though he wielded the knife as if he had done this countless times before, every once in awhile the knife would slip and he’d knick his hand.

After one particularly painful slice, he yelped. Rigger turned his head to Tizzle and in an unconcerned voice said, “If you’d just get the thing sharpened, you wouldn’t cut yourself so much.”

“If it were sharper, I’d take my finger off when it slips.”

Rigger turned his head back to the sky. He’d attempted this argument too many times to try it again tonight.

Tizzle gathered his little pile of wood chips and then took one of the stones in his left hand. In a quick motion, he struck the knife blade against the stone, sending out a little array of sparks. Tizzle did this several times until a few sparks landed on his pile of woodchips. He bent over and gently blew on the spark. The spark burned the wood, creating an ember. From the ember a tiny flame grew. The flame took life. Tizzle carefully set twigs on the flame. Twigs became finger thick branches, until the flame was able to engulf the chunks of dead wood he had collected alongside the road.

“Good work,” Rigger said, looking at the warm fire Tizzle had crafted. Tizzle pressed his bleeding hand against his dirty trousers and beamed at the praise.

“It is a shame we don’t still have some of that quail from last night, isn’t it. I guess we can savor the memory of it though,” Rigger said, moving closer to the fire.

“Yeah, it sure would sit well with my empty stomach. When do you think someone will find the body of the guard back there?”

“By now, I’m sure the animals have had him for their dinner. My concern is why was the guard back there in the first place. I certainly hope Ardur isn’t aware we are behind him and left the guard there to do us in.”

Tizzle laughed. “One guard? For us? That would be a true underestimation of who we are and what we are capable of. I’d be insulted if that were the case.”

“You are right, chum. Most likely he was a straggler. Probably sent back with a message for someone. It doesn’t much matter. If Ardur is aware we are coming up behind him, there is very little he can do about it.”

Tizzle cackled as he tossed another chunk of wood on the fire.

Rigger laid down on the ground, still staring up at the stars. The fire warmed his face and gave everything about it an orange glow.

The morning was gray and damp. No rain had actually fallen yet, but the clouds were like children carrying full cups of water. They were going to spill, it was just a matter of when. Rigger awoke slowly, the chill of the morning air making his bones hurt in a most unnatural way. Tizzle awoke earlier and gathered berries from nearby bushes. One of Tizzle’s rags sat near Rigger, heaped with various types of berries. Rigger reached for the berries as Tizzle popped up from behind a rock. Tizzle’s face was splotched with redness and he seemed pained.

“Don’t eat the small reddish ones. They’ll give you the runs something awful,” Tizzle said before squatting behind the rock again and making some obscene noises.

Rigger flicked the berries from the rag and sampled the others. “Good thing you told me,” is all he had to say over Tizzle’s moans.

The clouds finally spilt their rain as the two men trudged up the road. Rigger had pulled out a short pistol and looked it over. “I’ve got two shots left and my powder is wet. It looks like Ardur might get an even chance today.”

Tizzle looked worse that before, as a rash had overtaken his entire body. A very nasty reaction to the red berries. All efforts to quell the itching had failed, but the evidence of the attempts was still noticeable. Tizzle smeared mud on his face and he had tried to scratch his back with a branch, leaving twigs and leaves poking out of his jacket. The rain only added to Tizzle’s misery. “I’m in no mood for fair fights today. If we don’t have the pistol, then I say we try to get ahead of the carriage and ambush Ardur and his guards.”

Rigger walked several steps in silence. “Often I question your intellect, Tizzle, but you surprise me. I should learn my lesson. You are right. We’ll cut through the brush when we spot them and take them by surprise. No reason to have a fight on fair ground if it can be avoided, eh chum?”

Tizzle wasn’t paying attention to Rigger as he battled an itch that couldn’t be itched. “Feels like ants crawling on the inside of my skin, Rigger. My empty belly is a traitor to my well being!”

Rigger chuckled at Tizzle.

The two walked through the dreary rain, following the muddy road. Eventually, they caught sight of the carriage. A large armored wagon pulled by four oxen. A teamster on each side of the oxen team and one on top of the carriage drove the vehicle forward. Two guards walked in front and three walked in back. The carriage itself was fifteen feet in height and twenty feet long. Six large spoked wheels carried it along the uneven road.

“We are lucky, chum,” Rigger said in an instinctive whisper in spite of the distance from the carriage and the amount of noise it was making. “The rain has slowed them down even further.”

Tizzle paused and sniffed the air. “Also smells like they need to get some fat on those axels. They won’t be able to move too fast or else the wheels will burn right off that behemoth.” Tizzle was giggling in delight as he bloodied his skin with his filthy fingernails.

The two men trudged through the trees and brush, moving as quickly as they could to get ahead of the slow but steady carriage. Rigger swung his stick haphazardly at bushes, frightening fowl at times. Tizzle scurried behind him, ducking under branches, and hopping over fallen logs. Rigger stopped once and took his bowler hat from his head, wiping sweat and rain from his face. Tizzle caught up to him and collapsed against the trunk of a tree.

“How much further?” Tizzle whined.

“Another hour should give us plenty of time to prepare ourselves and be rested enough to make it a good show.”

As Rigger had said, the two did. Another hour in the forest gave them plenty of time to set up their ambush. The carriage was still a long ways away and the rain had stopped. The mud would still slow the carriage and the lack of water on the axles would also be a factor in how fast the large wagon could go.

Rigger went off an embankment and started throwing stones up onto the road. Tizzle, now mostly over his itchiness, took the stones and started lining them up to form a wall along the road to block traffic. The road was in such bad condition that it didn’t take much to make it impassable.

Once done, Tizzle climbed a nearby tree and sat on a thick branch. Rigger tipped his hat over his eyes and dozed alongside the road.

The carriage made such a racket coming up the road, squeaking and grinding. The sounds of whips and men urging the beasts ever forward, and the good natured conversation between the guards all announced the arrival of the much awaited carriage.

Tizzle gave Rigger a nod indicating that he was prepared. Rigger took cover in the tall grass along the road and continued to wait.

As the carriage pulled forward, the leading guards came across the stones in the road. “Hold up!” one of them shouted. “There’s an obstruction in the road. Come on, men, let’s clear this quickly!”

The three guards following the carriage rushed to the front. The teamster who sat on top also climbed down to lend a hand at moving the rocks.

Tizzle jumped down on the roof of the carriage as Rigger leapt up from the side of the road to the carriage door. The two moved swiftly and in unison. The carriage door was opened and Tizzle swung inside. Rigger still on the ground swung his stick into the carriage and with his free hand pulled at the unconscious guard inside. Tizzle helped eject the second guard.

Those clearing the obstruction turned quickly to see Rigger climbing into the carriage using the bodies of two guards as a stepladder and closing the door behind him.

Tizzle crawled over the lap of a finely dressed man who had an intense look of fear plastered on his face. Rigger took the seat next to the door. “Hello, Ardur,” Rigger said.

“What in the name of storms do you ruffians want?” Ardur shouted in a panic stricken voice.

“Why Ardur, you should know. We only want what you took,” Rigger responded.

“Took from you? I’ve taken nothing from you.”

Tizzle laughed as he explored the immense compartment they were sitting. There were all sorts of little doors, chests, and drawers. One drawer was a larder and contained fresh fruits and smoked meats. Tizzle grabbed a thick slab of black jerky and tore a chunk off with his teeth.

The shouts from outside movement of the carriage indicated time was running out for Tizzle and Rigger. The guards and teamsters would soon pry open the door. “We’ve little time for games, Ardur. The gems. Two weeks ago you and your merry band trapsed through a village and demanded the gems from the church altar.”

“Those were taxes! Taxes owed to the crown!”

Tizzle swallowed his salty meat before speaking, “The church isn’t supposed to pay taxes.”

“Who are you two? You aren’t churchmen!” Ardur shouted. The door to the carriage was now being pried open. The tip of a pike poked into the compartment and pushed the door away from the frame. Rigger slammed his boot against the flat of the pikehead, tossing the guard holding it into the side of the carriage.

“Churchmen? Gods no. We are help for hire. That village was rather upset at your robbery and posted a reward. My chum and I aim to collect that reward, see.” Rigger said as he readied his large stick.

“So where are the gems?” Tizzle asked, drawing out his dull knife.

“Here! Here they are!” Ardur shouted, opening a small chest filled with gold and six perfect sapphires. Tizzle plucked the gems from the box and reached back for a handful of gold. Rigger rapped Tizzle’s hand with the stick. “Only the gems. Our reward will come from the village.”

The two of them got near the door, which was now cracking and creaking with the force of several pikes prying at it. “Are you ready, chum?” Rigger asked.

“As ready as I’ll ever be,” Tizzle responded.

Rigger lifted his booted foot and smashed it into the door of the carriage. His strong kick sent the door flying off its hinges. It also provided a shield for the two men as the followed it, tumbling to the ground.

Ardur was already shouting for them to be killed. Rigger pulled out his useless pistol and aimed it at Ardur’s head. “I can hit a fly at this distance, Ardur, and your head is much bigger than a fly.” The guards hesitated. Tizzle fled into the woods and Rigger backed away slowly before turning and diving into the brush after his partner.

The guards ran after them. Tizzle and Rigger sprinted but did not exert themselves too much. The forest was large and they knew all they had to do was get out of sight and lay still until the guards were called back. Ardur wouldn’t like to sit there without all his protection around him.

The two found their opportunity in the form of a giant tree that had fallen many years earlier. Rot had hollowed out most of the trunk. Tizzle uprooted several bushes and used them to hide the hollow Rigger and he could barely fit in. In as much silence as two men crammed in a tight space could maintain, they sat there, listening to the guards trudge to and fro in the forest. The sun had moved from morning to afternoon before the guards gave up and made their way back to the carriage.

“Well, chum,” Rigger said, “It looks as if you’ll be able to get a new pair of boots after all.”

Tizzle nodded enthusiastically as he checked on the six sapphires he had wrapped in one of his many rags.