The Knights of Naclurita, Mike Ruchhoeft

The Knights of Naclurita
by Michael Ruchhoeft

    Bob Dietrich shook his head. Some days it just didn’t pay to get out of bed. But Ray was a citizen and he was the sheriff so he had to hear him out.   
    “I’m tellin ya the damn thing just swooped down and snatched up ol’ Duke and flew off. He was a howlin like nobody’s business ‘til it reached down and bit his head off.”       
    That was enough. Bob came around the desk and started backin Ray toward the door. “Horse-feathers. You been drinking again. You stink of that rotgut of yours. Duke just ran off and you got this thing in your head while you were sleeping it off.”           
    Ray stumbled on the rough uneven floor but caught himself in time to avoid cracking his tail-bone. “I spilt some of my brew while I was dumpin it out. Honest, Sheriff, I ain’t had a drop since I woke up next to Stella and that’s the truth.”
    Next to Stella? Bob turned to hide his grin from Ray. Well, that’d put him off his feed too. “Okay, Ray, what’s this thing look like?”
    “An Iggle, only with big sharp teeth. Like I said, it bit poor old Duke’s head right off.”
    “Will you stop with that?”
    Ray turned on his heel and walked out the door. He came back in carrying a burlap sack, slammed the door, stomped over and plunked the thing in the middle of Bob’s desk smearing blood all over the West End Weekly Report.
    Bob snatched up the bag and held it away from him. It hung there like a sack of spoiled fish. “What’s in the bag, Ray?”
    Ray sneered, his lone front tooth protruding at an odd angle from tobacco stained gums. “Reckon you’re gonna have to take a look and find out for yourself.”        
    Bob opened the sack and peeked inside. The dry eye of Duke stared back at him. His tongue lolled out to the side and his lips were pulled up in a snarl. Ragged tatters of meat from the stump of a neck clung to the burlap. “Jeepers Ray, what’d you use on him, a buck-saw?”
     Ray puffed up  and thrust his jaw out. He grabbed the bag and tucked it under his arm. “I done told you, that big bird thing bit it off.”
    Bob brushed past Ray, opened the door and waited. He was done. Killin your own dog wasn’t against the law, neither was being stupid. Just as well; if he arrested the old coot he’d have to listen to him jabber nonsense from the cell. Though not much older than Bob, Ray looked to be seventy as he shuffled out. Booze could add twenty years to a man, and make him kill his own dog. He’d ease off it some himself from now on.
     He clapped Ray on the shoulder and steered him out onto the boardwalk. Ray’s head hung and his lip quivered.
    “Look Ray, I don’t know what happened. I don’t even know if you remember killing old Duke, but making up stories ain’t no way to deal with it. Go on home and bury him.”
    “I told you...”
    “I ain’t buying it. Some big bird come and carried him away, then bit off his head? That’s the biggest load of crap I ever heard.”
    Bob glanced up the block as the mayor’s dog came tearing around the corner by the bank. It ran past him and Ray tail tucked and neck stretched. Mud flew up with every stride and the whites of his eyes showed big against the dark fur of the frightened animal’s head. Hell, his horse couldn’t run that fast.
    He turned to Ray, who had one eyebrow raised, then looked past him.
    The white under-belly and black wings first caught Bob’s eye as it came around the bank. One wing almost touched the ground and the other was backlit by the sky above the buildings.
    It leveled off. The tips of its wings almost hit the posts holding up the roof over the boardwalk on both sides of the street.
    Its talons came forward as the head, like an alligator’s he’d seen down in New Orleans once, tracked the hapless dog. Jeepers, the thing was longer than his horse, twice as long if you counted the head and neck. Three with the tail, a long feathered affair with a knob on the end.
     It snatched the dog on the fly, like an eagle grabbing a trout, and climbed high. Too late, Bob drew his gun and cracked off six. Not much hope of hitting it at that distance, but he had to do something.
    He kept the gun trained on it until it disappeared in the distance.
    Ray cleared his throat. “So, what do you think now?” 
    Bob walked into the town hall as the Mayor banged his gavel. “Everybody, settle down. We won’t get a thing done with everyone talking at once.”
    The crowd quieted some but then got twice as loud when someone noticed him. “Sheriff, what you gonna do about this?”
    That was all he needed, the crowd looking to him in the middle of the Mayor’s emergency meeting. Old Fussybritches and him didn’t get along as it was. If the town-folk weren’t careful, the Mayor would throw his gavel again.
    Veins on Fussybritches’ forehead cast shadows and spittle flew when he spoke. “You people need to keep still until I recognize you or I’ll have the Sheriff eject you.”
    Like hell. Sheriff was an elected county official and he answered to no mayor. Especially Fussybritches. But that settled the crowd some anyway.
    “Now, by a show of hands, how many of you saw the monster?”
    Bob stuck his hands in his pockets. If he raised his, they’d all start jabbering again and asking him about it. Four hands went up, including Ray’s.
    The Mayor sneered in Ray’s direction, then pointed to Doc. “What did you see, Doctor Kirstatter?”
    Doc stood and cleared his throat. “Well, I didn’t see it until the shots rang out and by then, it was pretty far away. Just looked like a big bird.”
    Fussybritches threw his hands up and rolled his eyes. “If you didn’t have more than that to add, why’d you raise your hand? Anyone who didn’t see it clearly, put your hand down.”
    Doc took his seat and the only hand still up was Ray’s.
    The Mayor slumped and ran his fingers through his oiled hair. What he put in it was a mystery, but Bob wouldn’t try on his hat for two good horses and a side of beef.
    “Very well, Mr. Schnell. Were you sober at the time?”
    Ray stood. “Yes sir, I ain’t had a drop in two days.”
    “That’s a little out of the ordinary, isn’t it? To what do you attribute this sudden temperance?”
    Ray took off his hat and scratched his head. Bob wouldn’t be trying on his hat either. The thought made his head itch.            
    The Mayor leaned forward on his elbows. “What made you stop drinking?”
    “Stella said she’d whup the tar out of me if I didn’t”
    Laughter rippled through the meeting and Fussybritches banged his gavel some more. “Quiet! Can we please allow Mr Schnell to relate his experience?”
    Again, Ray scratched his head.
    Bob cleared his throat. “Ray, just tell what you saw and don’t put in a bunch of stuff we don’t need to know.”
    Fussybritches glowered. “Please, Sheriff Dietrich, I’m conducting this meeting. Now, Mr. Schnell, if you would be so kind.”
    Ray squared his shoulders and licked his lips. “A big, black and white bird with lots of teeth grabbed the Mayor’s dog and flew off. Did the same with mine only the bird bit off Duke’s head.”
    A few gasps and murmurs could be heard. But, for the most part, the people sat in silence.
    The Mayor cleared his throat and held up a hand. “Please, no condolences or other platitudes. There will be time for that later.”
    The Mayor motioned to Ray. “Pleaser continue.”
    “Well, the wings was about thirty feet tip to tip and head to tail was about that too. Biggest damn bird I ever saw.”
    The Mayor shook his head. “Now, clearly, it is not a bird. Birds do not have teeth.”
    Ray pointed. “Ask the Sheriff. He was right there with me. He saw it.”
    The room erupted and the banging started up again. The mob pressed toward him, shouting questions as he backed out the door.   
    Bob sipped a beer in Harris’s Saloon and Dance Hall. All the men, even Reverend Riley sat around telling lies and bucking one another up. Tomorrow they’d get the thing.
    Stuff happened fast once he got them organized. They rounded up an old stray dog and built four blinds in Claffin’s pasture to keep the sun off the shooters and hide them from the bird.
    Some of the townies objected to killing the thing; said they should capture it live and find out what it was. Who gave a damn what it was? It killed two dogs, kids could be next. They’d have their chance to ponder it once the thing bled out.
    Sam put another beer down in front of Bob. “You know, we ought to build a big cage and catch it. Publicity from this could put Naclurita on the map.”
     Bob shook his head. He didn’t want Naclurita on the map; he liked it the way it was. “Publicity from what, a big bird?”
     “Wyvern.” Richard Hamilton sat a few stools down. He’d gone to some university back East and had something to say on most everything. Nice enough though, just a little out of his element. What he was doing way out in Colorado, nobody knew.
    Bob leaned over the bar to see him better. “What?”
    Richard took a sip of his beer. “A wyvern, not a bird.”
    What the hell? The thing had a name and he never heard of it?  “What’s a wyvern?”
    “A feathered dragon with only two legs. Not as common as the standard dragon of medieval Europe but common enough.”
    “A dragon, like a fire breathing dragon?” He’d heard of dragons, a lot of old time bunk if you asked him.
    “Yes. Some say Saint George actually battled a wyvern because the four legged variety was already extinct by that time.”
    Who was Saint George? Maybe it wasn’t all bunk. “So, this thing might breath fire at us?”
    “Perhaps, though I don’t lend a lot of credence to the fire breathing part. But then, until today, I didn’t lend much credence to dragons in general.” Richard set his empty glass on the bar and stood. “Good luck slaying your dragon.”
    Bob raised his glass. “You’re not going to bring your rifle to the pasture?”   
    “I think not. If I had a broadsword, I might join you. Firearms hardly seem the sporting choice for a noble dragon.”
    Sporting, hell. He’d kill the damn thing and be done with it.
    Sam rapped on the bar with his bat. “Richard says what we’ve got is a kind of dragon. One round on the house for The Knights of Naclurita.”
    Bob made the rounds of the ‘dragon hunting shacks’ as they’d been christened, no doubt after much drunken discussion. He’d left as the foolishness started, everyone calling each other ‘Sir somethingorother.’ Just went to prove there was no such thing as a grown man. A few of the idiots showed up to the hunt wearing sections of stovepipe on their forearms, probably the closest they could come to armor on short notice.
    The poor old dog they’d named Gallahad slept, staked in the middle of the pasture. If the hunt went past noon he’d have to find some shade for the mutt. Hell, if it went past noon, they’d give it up for the day.
    If the thing showed, it’d be a miracle. Ten, sometimes twelve men to a shack, most standing outside. If they had to do it again tomorrow, he’d pick eight men for the shacks and not a one would be sporting stovepipe. He’d tell the rest to get on with their lives.
     The Mayor waved at him and picked his way across the pasture. You’d think a little crap wouldn’t bother him, as much as came out of his mouth. “Jeepers criminey, Bob! What the hell is Kay doing out there by the dog?”
    Bob turned and sure enough, Kay Stewart sat with the dog’s head cradled in her lap. He was in for it now. “She seems to be petting it.” It was a good day if he could get Fussybritches’ eyes to bug out.
    “I can see that. You’ve got to get her out of there or the dragon won’t come.”
    Not if the dragon was smart. Snatching a poor old dog from Kay’s lap was dangerous business. Hell, anything with her was dangerous business. “You’re the Mayor. Go tell her to git.”
    Fussybritches took a step back and eyed Kay as though she might have heard. “Go tell Jim to take her home.”
    “Jim’s still limping and his lip’s still scabbed over. He’s in no shape to take on Kay.” Jim should have known better than to try and show Kay who’s boss. Goes home from the saloon after a night of listening to an old blow-hard sheriff tell how to handle women and tries to give his wife a spanking. Bob shook his head and smiled. Hadn’t worked with Mary either.
    Fussybritches put his hands on his hips and looked around at  the men watching. “This is your show, Bob. Get her out of there or call it quits for the day.” The Mayor stomped off, right into a pile. He continued on, mumbling and dragging his foot through the grass.
    The old frog had a point. If it weren’t for everyone watching, he’d drag the Mayor out there and tell Kay he said she had no business interfering. Then he’d turn him loose and watch him run with Kay hot on his tail. Trouble was, if she caught His Honor the U.S. marshal would arrest him for assault with a deadly weapon.
    If he was going to get her out of there, he’d better get started. Everyone watched him. Tension built with each step. The hair stood on his neck as murmurs went through the crowd. Kay’s blue eyes narrowed under pale blonde brows and her delicate pointy chin thrust out. If a person didn’t know better, they’d think she was just working up to a good pout. But she was building up a head of steam; the crowd could feel it too. Maybe he should just shoot her in the leg or something. He was about out of time; three more steps and he’d be there.
    Kay stood, stepped in front of the dog, and picked up one of her daddy’s bats. If he’d seen she had that, he’d have let her be.
    Behind her, there it was. Coming in low. “Get down.”
    She shook the bat at him. “You get down.”
    Bob pointed. “Behind you.”
    Kay turned as the thing’s talons reached for the dog and its neck stretched toward her. She swung the bat. A horrible crack sounded and the thing crashed, rolling him in as it tumbled.
    Bob oofed as it rolled over him. His hands went deep into the down of the breast as he pushed against the body trying to get loose before the next roll. He went under, then came out on top again. But the wing, with its six foot feathers, scooped him back in.
    The head lay next to him as they came to a stop. Hot breath blew on his chest from silver dollar sized nostrils. The top of the snout faded from red to pink as it’s tongue lolled out between pointed teeth as long, longer than his fingers. Crap! He was pinned and laying on his holster. The thing was out but might wake up any time.
    “Hold your fire! You might hit Bob or Kay.”
    Bob wriggled, rolled onto his back and jerked his gun free, pressed it to the side of the dragon’s feathered head, just behind the eye....
    The gun fell from his hand and his arm went numb. Kay stood over him with the bat. She’d cracked him one on the wrist. What the hell was she doing?
    She kicked the gun away and straddled the neck of the beast, slapping the bat against her palm. “Any one of you shoots this thing and you’ll never walk right again.”
    She hadn’t busted anything with that bat of hers. That’s what Doc Kirstatter’d said. How the hell could he tell anyway? She might’ve cracked something. You couldn’t tell if something was cracked by pinching and poking at it. His arm sure as hell hurt.
    Kay had the Doc looking at the dragon, laid out in Bloomquist’s barn, trussed up like a Christmas goose and it’s head tied to a post. Doc said he wasn’t going near it ‘til it was tied up. It looked for a minute like they might have to send for the doc from Westwood to take care of Kirstatter, but Kay backed down. After they tied it up, she chased everybody out.
    It’d taken eight men to get the thing in the wagon and Kay rode with it the whole way, stroking its head and cooing to it like it was a newborn babe. Kay had a soft spot for animals of any sort but not people. If Doc suggested putting the thing down he’d better get to running or he’d get some bumps on that red head of his.
    Kirstatter came out and motioned him over.
    Fussybritches and a few others followed but Kay stepped out. “Just the sheriff.”
    They grumbled but shuffled back to the knot of knights under the cottonwood. He should hire her. With her as deputy, he’d never have to break up a saloon brawl again. Just the threat of Kay showing up would keep everyone in line. It wasn’t that she was big, though she was pretty tall, she was just plain mean, and ornery, and there was no give-up in her. Yup, she’d make a fine deputy.
    Kay went back into the barn and Doc fell in beside Bob as he passed. “It’s awake. Got a goose-egg on its head but doesn’t seem any worse for the wear.”
    Great, the thing woke up and, if it got loose, he’d have to shoot it. Then Kay would bust his legs. Kirstatter should’ve killed it with a shot of something. Why hadn’t they worked that out before?
    Kay pulled the door closed as they passed. He couldn’t see a damn thing, coming in from the sun like that. But something scratched at the dirt.
    It was standing. He could see it now. “Doc, why didn’t you tell me it was loose?”
    “It wasn’t when I came out to get you.”
    She’d turned it loose. Was she crazy?
    The thing turned toward them.
    He froze. Doc froze. And Kay barred the door.
    The thing shook like a dog and clacked its teeth like a bear, then bent down to look him in the eye. Even so, it towered over him. A row of bright red feathers running from head to tail stood up like a stiff mane and the bare skin on top of the snout turned the same color as the mane. It sniffed and snorted, then turned to Doc.
    Kay slapped the bat against her palm as his hand came to rest on his gun. She grinned. She was crazy alright. As if he hadn’t known that from her turning loose a twelve foot tall dragon with teeth and talons that could shred a man in no time. “Kay, what the hell were you thinking when you untied it?”
    “He asked me to.”
    Yup, crazy as a loon. The only question was which one of them to shoot first. He couldn’t do anything until it backed away from Doc, who seemed to be holding up pretty good for having his hair licked. The thought of it licking his head gave him the willies. Thank God he had a hat on or it might have licked his head. Big old snakey, sticky looking, blue-black and covered with dragon spit. He’d keel over if that tongue came at him.
    “Well, Kay, if you can talk to him, tell him to stop getting Doc’s hair all slobbery.”
    “He didn’t talk to me in words. I just knew. Not sure he understands me though.”
    “What’s got him so interested in Doc?”
    She shrugged. “He likes the color of Doc’s hair. Reminds him of his brother.”
    Yup, crazy. Bob took a step back, just in case. “You think you know what most animals want. You always have, ever since you were little . . . but this might be all in your head.”
    She raised an eyebrow and tapped the bat on the side of the post she leaned against. “I’m telling you, I can feel him. Now take your hand off that gun before I crack you one.”
    “Kay, if that thing tries to take a bite out of Doc, I need to be ready.”
    “He won’t.”
    “How do you know?”
    “He just likes Doc’s hair. I think he’s an idiot.”
    “Who? Doc?”
    “No. The dragon. Others been taking care of him, like we would someone who couldn’t do for himself.”
     Well, that was a comfort, the dragon was an idiot. So now he had a crazy person teamed up with an idiot dragon. A recipe for disaster if he ever heard one. “So, what’s he doing here?”
    “He got loose and now he’s worried because they’re not supposed to let us see them. The others are going to be mad. At the moment though, he’s preoccupied with red hair. His brother must have feathers that color.”
    “Sooner or later it’s going to get bored or Doc’s gonna bolt. Then what?”
    “We get it in one of Clyde’s big old freight wagons, haul it up into the hills and wait for his brother, or whoever, to come get him.”
    It quit licking Doc’s head, walked a few steps and settled down into the straw like a duck settling into its nest. It curled its tail around, laid its head on its back and went to sleep.
    Doc wiped at his head with the sleeve of his shirt and kept mumbling. “Dog eating. . .head licking. . .son of a. . .”
    Bob chuckled. It wasn’t funny, he was just glad it wasn’t him. “You okay Doc?”
    “I will be soon as I get a bath.”
    “What do you think we ought to do with it?”
    “What she said. It ain’t mean. It’s just a big dumb lovable critter wanting to lick you to death. This is going to sound crazy but I felt the same thing Kay did.”
    Bob sat at the table right next to Fussybritches’ raised desk. He couldn’t lurk in the back this time because it was his plan they were going to discuss at the emergency meeting. Actually, it was Kay’s plan. But she wouldn’t leave the dragon to attend and the Mayor wouldn’t let her bring it to the town hall. Bob had to agree with Fussybritches this time. But where the Mayor got the gumption to tell Kay she couldn’t bring the dragon was a mystery.
    Of course Fussybritches had the full backing of The Knights of Naclurita; that may have been part of it. He was not only Mayor, but he’d been elected, The Grand High Exalted Mystic Sword of the Mountain Realm. Things could get stupid in a hurry.
    Bob leaned back and propped his feet on the table. Seemed like the more titles a man had, the more long winded he got. They were a half-hour into the meeting and Fussybritches hadn’t got to the point yet.
    “Now, we all know the thing is dangerous and I think we ought to do away with it. But Kay, Doctor Kirstatter and Bob think otherwise.” Fussybritches sat down, crossed his arms and looked over at him.
    They all started talking at once. So much for the Mayor helping smooth things along. Bob stood and gave a whistle. The crowd went quiet. “Everybody just calm down.”
    Bob picked up his chair and walked from behind the table. It was stupid to sit up there next to Fussybritches as if he needed the Mayor’s authority to make his case. He sat on the chair backwards, resting his arms on the back. “You all know me. I’ve been keeping the peace in this county for twelve years now and I always try to do what’s best with as little fuss as possible.”
    There were nods and murmurs.
    The Mayor banged his gavel. “Order! I say order. Everyone be quiet.”
    Bob stood, turned, made the three steps to the Mayor and snatched the gavel. He tossed it to Doc on his way to his chair and sat down. “Now, Doc and Kay both say they feel something from this critter, like they’re smart. Not this particular one, but others like him.”
    Matt Miller, the blacksmith, cleared his throat. “What do you mean, this one ain’t smart?”
    “This one’s an idiot and they’ve been taking care of it, like we all do your uncle since he got hit by the lightning. Anyway, Kay and Doc think it wandered off and the others will be looking for it.”
    “So, if they come looking, they might come here.”
    “That’s right. And if we’ve killed it, well, they’ll probably be cranky. I was thinking too, it might just be a youngster that don’t know no better. What would you all do to a pack of coyotes that killed a little kid?”
    Stella stood up. “If that one’s a kid, how big do they get?”
    Bob shrugged. He’d hoped someone would think of that. “No telling.”
    Stella put her hands on her ample hips. “What are you going to do to protect us?”
    “Well, I’ll need the help of the Knights, but I think we ought to see if we can get it back where it belongs, with its family.”
    Fussybritches slapped his desk. “Now you all just wait a minute. It killed my dog. As Grand High Exalted Mystic Sword of the Mountain Realm, I forbid The Knights of Naclurita to help in this folly.”
    Matt stood. “All due respect Mayor, I don’t think you’re the one to lead the Knights. I nominate Bob as Mystic Sword. All those in favor?”
    Twenty-five years he’d been Mystic Sword. Time to pass the torch...engraved, lead crystal encrusted broadsword actually. Things still got stupid sometimes, though he’d tried to keep it to a minimum.
    He circled the round table in the Great Hall of The Keep. Richard designed Castle Naclurita as a replica of one in England, but smaller, much smaller. It had a dungeon though, a big one. Just in case they ever caught a dragon on their annual hunt.
    The hunt, a huge costume party really, was the one bit of foolishness the whole town participated in. But only Knights in good standing were allowed at the shrine, the spot where the dragons had come to collect their own. Three had landed but a dozen more had circled overhead. They’d come and gone so fast, he hadn’t time to crap his pants. Good thing too, because he surely would have.
    They never saw the dragons again, but he’d managed to hold the Knights together. The knights had been helpin folks for a long time, built Doc a little hospital, built a library and a school. Sometimes you could turn stupidity around. And the armor wasn’t so bad once you got used to it.