Bitter winds disturbed the bare branches, which creaked and muttered and hissed. Samuel had smashed his hat on his head so tightly the wind couldn’t budge it, but he felt the cold even through his long fur-lined coat. He trudged forward across the hard ground, breaking sticks and turning autumn leaves to ash. There was the faintest shimmer of snow on the wind that a cold metallic glint over the land.
Samuel’s pistol hung heavy in its holster. The knife on his belt pressed cold against his leg even through its sheath.
This was a barren land of thick forests and mountains beyond the edges of civilization, beyond even where the frontiermen like Samuel trod. If anyone lived in these parts, he lived as solitary as a man on the moon. Samuel had seen perhaps two birds in his journey, but neither squirrel nor rabbit nor deer in the last two days. Just dark leafless trees and the occasional evergreen surrounded by a thick mat of dead needles.
His path would take him to a deep ravine, a chasm of sheer walls. A river once ran white at its bottom, long ago. Now only sharp rocks lay tumbled in the dry bed. A man in town, a self-proclaimed explorer, had gone that far and returned. It seemed to Samuel the perfect location for the fruition of his many years of planning.
He reached the ravine’s edge. It gaped before him, and he was moved by its depth and breadth. The sky was low and gray. It was neither night nor day, but a colorless inbetween.
He inched his feet forward until his toes hung over the edge. A gust blew hard against him. He wavered uncertainly and smiled, his gun hand twitching. His prey was near now. He edged farther out.
Another blast of wind swept down and struck him. He had been waiting for it. He turned. For a moment only the toe of one boot rested on solid ground as he lifted the other foot and pivoted. He had drawn his gun and fired. He heard the dull impact of a body hitting the ground. Stepping toward it, the man appeared, thin and white-haired. He did not bleed. His arms lay pinned to the ground, and he seemed unable to lift himself.
He stared wide-eyed at Samuel as the other towered over him, holstering his gun. “Please, I’ve had an accident,” the man said. He wore a tattered coat and no hat. A pair of round spectacles lay cracked nearby.
“Stop with the playacting,” Samuel drawled. “I know what you are.”
“I can’t move. I’ve been injured. Help me. Please. Be kind to your fellow man.”
“That bullet was enchanted to pin you.” Samuel unsheathed his knife. “And this was forged to get me what I want.”
He knelt and with effort flipped the man onto his face.
“Why are you doing this?” the man asked, his face plastered against rock.
Samuel placed the knife flat against the man’s back, between the shoulder blades, and began to draw it toward him. Something unseen resisted the edge. Samuel worked at it with slow, steady strokes. The man tensed and trembled in pain.
“Because I’m my own man. I came to the frontier for freedom, but as long as you’re followin’ me, I ain’t free, no matter where I go.”
With a final effort, the knife finished its work. In Samuel’s hands appeared a large white mass of feathers. He placed it nearby and set to work on the other side of the back. “Eyes on me all the time. I noticed. Tryin’ to work me this way and that. No more. Eventually everyone is gonna wanna be free. I’ll show them how. I’ll show ‘em. And we won’t stop with your kind. We’ll keep goin’ up, to the very top. Then we’ll be free. Then everything will be frontier in every direction for everyone.”
He finished the second amputation. The wings were huge on the black ground, like piles of fresh snow.
“I served you. You would have fallen if I hadn’t—”
“I knew that, didn’t I?” Samuel snarled. “I didn’t ask for your help. This is my life. Mine. And now I know you’ll leave me alone.”
Samuel removed his coat and then his shirt. Flecks of ice stung his skin. He took up one wing and, holding it by the joint, pressed it against his back. It melded into his skin. He screamed with the pain of it. He no longer felt the cold because of the burning. Panting, he took the second wing and did the same. Finally, he stood, his skin flushed, and opened the wings until they spread wide and brilliant against the gray world.
“You will fall,” the man said. “If you do this, you will fall and no one will lift you up.”
“I’m already fallen. That’s what the priests say.” Samuel flapped the wings tentatively.
“What is it all for? What will you do?”
Samuel smiled. “Whatever I want.” He lifted himself into the air and crossed over the ravine into lands where nothing lived.