A casual hike in the early 1980s changed the course of my life. I was a meteorological technician stationed at Alert, a Canadian military site on the upper tip of Ellesmere Island—just a few hundred miles from the North Pole.
I’d persuaded an army buddy to accompany me on a prospecting trip for some of the unique black crystals that were on display at the base. We spent a few hours working our way through a maze of gullies, fording ice-rimmed streams, even crossing paths with a herd of reindeer. Another thirty minutes of walking over relatively level bench land saw us arrive in a narrow valley formed by the bases of the twin mountains we’d chosen as our destination.
Unaccustomed to such treks, I found myself winded and loath to take another step. I set down my pack, lowered an aching body to the ground and tried to put my focus elsewhere. It wasn’t long before I noticed the face of the smallest mountain was covered with ugly scars.
“Those are holes left by people who were digging for crystals,” my friend said.
“What about the other one?” I asked, indicating the unblemished surface of the larger sister.
“No one goes up there,” he replied. “No crystals.”
We turned our attention to laying out a lunch of sandwiches, fruit, and hot coffee. Then, sitting with our backs against the foot of Big Sister, sheltered from the wind yet able to enjoy the sun, we studied the mountain in front of us and contemplated our next task.
My companion wanted to work some of the existing holes on the lower slopes, but something about those excavation marks didn’t sit well with me. I bit into a sandwich, turned my gaze away and looked up at the pristine slopes of Big Sister.
It came to me then—an old Robert Frost poem entitled The Road Not Taken. The implication seemed obvious: Two roads diverged, and I was going to take the one less travelled. Still, I invested a few moments to make sure I really wanted to give up my chance to acquire the rare stones I so admired. In the end, though, I chose to persuade my friend to change targets, to join me in climbing the mountain no one visited.
And what a climb it was! You’d take a step, sink at least ankle-deep into loose shale, then struggle to keep from slipping backward. Two steps up, slide a step back. Sweat poured. A stitch developed in my side. Lungs clamoured for air. Both of us questioned my intelligence.
Until, that is, we reached the summit and found a cairn that couldn’t be seen from the ground. About four feet wide at the base and just as high, the unexpected mound of rough stones made quite an impression.
“Built to last,” my friend commented.
He and I caught our breath. Then, both being convinced the structure served a special purpose, we began to poke and prod the thing. Our excitement was palpable and justified. Within minutes we discovered a metal pipe protruding from one corner of the cairn’s foundation. In a hollow behind the pipe was a metal box which contained, written on scraps of paper, the names and comments of adventurers who’d come before us. Some dated back to the early 1960s.
After adding my name to the cache, I walked to the northern edge of the mountain, leaned into the wind, and stared out over the partially frozen Arctic Ocean. To the east, the mountains of Greenland rose upward out of the sea. Inland and to the west, the sun glinted off Ellesmere’s peaks. Some forty years later, I still consider it one of the perfect moments of my life.
An important lesson was offered to me the day I left my name on that mountain at the top of the world. I learned to walk the unbeaten path, began to understand the importance of taking unique, purposeful actions. And over the years, as this lesson became an ingrained part of my life, it slowly evolved into a guiding attitude I’ve often referred to as The Philosophy of The Road Not Taken.
The investment world has developed a similar convention known as Contrarianism. Advocates of this path pursue success through views and actions that tend to contradict prevailing wisdom. Sounds about right. Just call me The Contrary Canadian.
Copyright © 2022 Clayton Clifford Bye
The Nettle Tree
“I’m a cowboy, on a steel horse I ride.”
He was a tall man on a tall horse. Stepping down out of the saddle, he walked up to the police cruiser, nodded to the woman at the wheel.
“I reckon you’ve been expectin’ me,” he said.
“It starts about two clicks ahead and straddles the highway for about one click. We’ve got a car on the other side, but nobody who has gone in has come out.”
The officer wiped the sweat from her brow.
“We had traffic backed up for miles until we got orders to reroute all vehicles through Kenora, down into the States and then back up into Manitoba. There’s no other way. Highway 17 is the only highway that traverses this part of the country. Used to be called the Trans Canada.”
He could tell she was nervous. Nervous people talked too much.
“You know why they sent for me?”
“I heard you looked after something like this in Montana last year.”
His head dipped almost imperceptibly.
“Guess I’ll get to it.”
The man walked over to his horse, and she heard him say, “Ares report.”
A rumbling voice that sounded like it came from everywhere replied, “It’s some kind of unique energy-based field. Could even be a transport gate. There’s no way of knowing what’s on the other side.”
“Any similarity to the Montana or Colorado cases?”
Had the horse shook its head? Was it really talking? The woman was suddenly quite sure she didn’t want to know.
The stranger swung up into the saddle, tipped his hat, and nudged the horse into a slow, steady walk.
* * *
The tall man and his tall horse stepped through the energy field. The heat hit them as if they had opened a furnace door. Barren, desert-like terrain stretched off toward a small range of mountains. Immediately before them was a pileup of cars and transport trucks that had driven through the barrier before the OPP (Ontario Provincial Police) had figured out what was going on. Groups of people huddled here and there in the shadows of the big rigs, doing their best to stay out of a merciless sun that beat down from a clear blue sky. The man could see tracks heading westward. He approached the closest group of people.
“Has anyone who headed for the mountains returned?”
A few people said no. Some just shook their heads.
“How about back that way?”
“The highway’s not there, mister,” said an older man. “Some of the young people tried to find it, but all they saw is more desert.”
“Do you have any water?”
“We got lucky. There’s a fully loaded Pepsi™ truck up near the front of the line.”
“Nothing serious, except we’ve got two dead.”
The tall man nodded and kept moving westward.
* * *
He found the town about an hour later, the long ride reinforcing the fact that the outside barriers demarking this place weren’t indicative of its size.
“Where do you think we are, Ares?”
“The closest match I have is the Chihuahuan Desert in Texas.”
The pair made their way into town and stopped in front of a saloon.
“Stay on alert,” the man said.
Inside, eyes adjusted to the dimness of the room, he made his way to the bar. It was a large room full of a collaboration of customers—cowhands (he could smell it on them), Mexican field workers in their traditional garb and, of course, a nervous bunch of modern-day people huddled around a table at the back of the room against the wall.
The bartender brought over a bottle of whisky and a glass. He looked down at the tall man’s holstered pistols and said, “The sheriff will be wantin’ those. There’s an ordinance.”
The tall man shook his head. The big frame handguns loaded with center-firing .44-40’s never left his side, even when sleeping.
“Just tryin’ to be friendly, mister. Don’t want no misunderstandings and such.” He held out his hand. “Tom Grady’s the name.”
Watching closely for a reaction when he spoke, the tall man kept his hands to himself and said, “Brent Maston.”
Nothing from the bartender, but a man at one of the tables got up and strode out the back door.
“Strange happenings lately?” he asked the bartender.
You can see for yourself,” said the man, indicating the table at the back of the room.
“Notice anything else.”
The man started to sweat a little.
“Don’t know what you mean.”
Maston smiled. It went as far as his ice-blue eyes and stopped.
“No witches or wizards?”
The bartender’s shirt was now showing sweat stains.
“Nothin’ like that.”
“You mean there is something?”
The man actually began to wring his hands.
“You’re twistin’ my words!”
Maston let him off the hook, took the bottle and his glass, and moved to a table that allowed him to see the establishment’s front and back doors.
He didn’t have to wait long. The batwing front doors swung inward, followed by a muscle-roped man wearing a star.
The lawman peered into the gloom, then made his way straight to Maston’s table.
“I’ve heard about you,” he said.
Maston noted the tied-down, worn holster.
“Can’t say I’ve had the pleasure. Texas is a bit out of my way.”
“Hell, mister, this ain’t hardly Texas. The sand drifts one way, and we’re in Mexico. The wind blows it back, and we’re in a part of Texas no one ever willingly visits.”
He took a plug of tobacco from his pocket and took a bite.
“That brings us to the problem at hand. What’s an assassin doin’ in my part of the country?”
Maston sat quietly for a moment.
“You know why I’m here. The question is are you going to help or hinder me?”
The Sheriff laughed, Maston noticing how confident and relaxed he was. It made him wonder if he was too late this time.
“Mister, the only help you’ll get from me is directions on how to get out of my town. Go right now, and I’ll even let you keep your weapons.”
The tall man stood up, facing the sheriff, clearly seeing the all-blue eyes for the first time.
“You sure you want to try a shoot-out in these close quarters?”
The sheriff didn’t bother to answer. His hand streaked downward to retrieve his gun. It was already clearing leather when Maston went for his guns. Two holes appeared in the sheriff’s chest, halting his uncompleted draw and sending him to the floor.
Smoke swirled up around Maston as he silently slipped his pistols back into their homes on his hips.
“Does someone in here have the guts to tell me where the Soul Eater is?”
A soft voice came from the table of refugees at the back of the room. It was a boy of about 12 years of age.
“They said there was a witch in the hotel if that’s what you mean. Third floor, I think.”
Maston walked over to the boy. Then he knelt and looked him in the eyes.
“The sheriff was already dead, son. That’s what this witch is doing; she’s collecting souls. And a man without a soul? Well … he just ain’t human. He’s dead to us.”
The tall man let what he had said sink in for a moment, then said, “Have you seen many more like him?”
The boy shook his head.
“Just the sheriff,” he said.
“That’s good, son. I’ll go see if I can’t make her let all of you go home.”
The tall man stretched up, turned on his heels, and headed for the front doors. It was hotter outside than when he came in. Maston turned to his horse.
“Need any water, Ares?”
“No,” rumbled the creature. “But you should know that there are men posted all along the street and on the roofs.”
“I’ve got to go to the hotel. There’s a soul-eater in there. This one appears to be a witch as well.”
“That’s a twist.”
“You’ve got that right.”
Maston turned away from the cyborg. But low on his breath, he said, “Been nice ridin’ with you, Ares.”
Maston stepped into the street. He placed at least three of the waiting men immediately. His guns spoke before anyone registered that he had drawn his weapons. Two men fell into the shadows between buildings. A third retreated onto the roof he occupied.
Someone stepped out from an alley some 50 yards away and lifted a rifle to his shoulder. It was a difficult shot with a pistol, but Maston hit him.
“I’m dying boys,” he heard the man yell. “Run this devil down.”
An eerie silence followed, and then came a sound like rolling thunder. There wasn’t a cloud in the cerulean sky, so Maston knew what was coming. Running back toward Ares, he angled the massive beast into the oncoming storm and used its length as a barrier between him and the stampede of Texas Longhorns. Then, moving like lightning, the tall man shot through the last of the raging cattle, leapt up onto the boardwalk, and dove through the open hotel door. Inside, he rolled to an upright position, his guns drawn and ready for trouble.
The lobby was empty save an old man whose wrinkled skin reminded Maston of ancient leather. He strode to the desk, his icy stare giving the old-timer a case of the shakes.
“I hear you have a witch in your hotel. What room is she in?
The desk clerk, voice as trembling as his hands, said, “I ain’t supposed to give out that kind of information.”
“I know she’s on the third floor, and I’m not going to ask again. Do you want to risk finding out what I will do?”
The clerk shook his head. “Th … Th … Three … Three Twenty One.”
Maston nodded his head and stepped toward the stairs.
He was under no illusion that his pistols would be of use against his prey, but they might dispense with her minions. And sure enough, waiting in the stairwell at the door to the third floor was another gunslinger. Maston didn’t give him a chance, announcing his presence with a pair of blazing guns.
Stepping over the dead gunman, Maston went through the door onto the third floor. The hallway was empty. He checked the door numbers closest to him and discovered that the witch was on the other side of the building.
When Maston arrived at her door, he found yet another man without a soul. This one, however, was wearing no guns.
“She’s expecting you, sir,” he said, opening the door.
Maston hesitated momentarily, summoning up what power he could find. Then he stepped over the threshold. The force within her was so strong he could feel the evil before he saw her. She had taken many souls, this one.
“I am Noru,” the woman said as he turned toward the couch on which she rested.
The tall man wasn’t expecting her to be beautiful. Such beauty as to take your breath away. Such beauty as to distract, if only for a moment. And that was all she needed. Maston’s arms went heavy at his sides. He tried to lift his guns, but it was like he was pulling against an angry, icy mountain river. Maston watched helplessly as Noru rose, crossed the room, and pulled the heavy pistols from his hands. Dropping them to the floor, she snuggled up close to him and drew down his head.
“I should make you kiss me,” she said.
Then she muttered something, and Mason’s will began to melt away. Desperately he let loose the power he had gathered when coming into this den of death. The witch was blasted backward into the far wall. She got up quickly, but Brent had broken the spell and was diving for the floor. He filled his hands and fired in her direction, using instinct rather than taking time to aim. A bullet drove her back once more, and this time she didn’t get up. He holstered his weapons and strode across the room. Unfortunately, she was still alive. Maston knew this because her lips were moving again.
He drew his guns.
There had never been a faster draw—not in the old west, not even in the days of Roland of Gilead. But it didn’t help. The spell was cast, and it was faster than heart-drawn guns; it was as fast as the light of the sun. Brent Maston could feel himself falling into darkness, a darkness that didn’t end, darkness where he fell forever.
* * *
The tall man was a long time gone before the witch brought him back. She had him stretched out beneath a shade tree. But it was a type of tree he had never seen before. And definitely not in the desert.
“It’s native to Europe, Mr. Maston,” said a familiar voice.
He pulled himself up to lean against the smooth, grey skin of the tree. Noru was sitting across from him, near where the shade stopped and the burning sun began. Maston’s guns were in her hands. There was no sign of any wound.
“The leaves are narrow and sharp-toothed,” she said. “Quite like its cousin, the stinging nettle. Except that instead of a bush, it matures into a terrific shade tree. It also grows a small, darkly purple berry that all living creatures love. It’s thought to be the legendary Lotus, don’t you know.”
She looked at him for a moment to see if he was paying attention.
“The nettle tree hates the desert and thrives half the world away, yet here it is. That made me wonder, gunslinger. It didn’t take me long to discover this is a place of power and that something or someone had grown an impossible tree to guide people here.”
“Why the time-slip?”
“I wore out my welcome in the period they call ‘the old west.’ So I carved out a piece of it and came forward. Much is possible in this place.”
Maston’s brain was working at light-speed.
“But how does this solve your problem?”
“A moveable sphere I can take anywhere that lets new blood in and binds them effectively? Who could ask for anything more?”
“You could have gone anywhere. Why this time and place? It’s an extremely well-documented era.”
“That’s right. If I did one thing wrong, it would show up on the viewers.”
“So, you must have known they would send someone like me to investigate the bubble.”
“All part of the plan. You see, I figure that in capturing and returning a valuable piece of property such as yourself or that cyborg that ran off, I can negotiate a better place and time to live.”
Maston shook his head and stared off into the distance where giant, red pillars of rock rose into the sky.
“You mean all of this was a trap?”
Her eyes gleamed.
“They won’t negotiate.”
“I’ll take that chance.”
Maston nodded his head and reached deep into the tree.
As fast as he was with his guns, so did he hurl a bolt of power at the witch. And yet, he still missed. This was no witch; she was a full-blown mage. Maston immediately cast himself as far from the damnable tree as he could. Surprisingly … or perhaps not … she didn’t follow.
Checking the sun, he turned back toward the tree and began to move. His boots clocked upon the hardpan of the desert, stamping out the seconds of his long walk back to almost certain death.
* * *
By the time he reached the nettle tree, Maston had an idea. He would challenge her to an old-fashioned duel for his freedom and the release of the souls she had collected. The question was how to talk her into it. Her pride, he thought. Noru was a formidable woman and proud. It wasn’t going to be easy, but she had been like a cat playing with a mouse—enjoying some entertainment before a meal. Maybe he could take advantage of that.
The sun was hanging low in the west and showed blood red on the clouds. He stopped to take in what was perhaps his last sunset, sitting on a boulder until the light began to fade and the coldness of the night desert started to make itself felt. Then, out of the darkening desert came the only hope he had experienced during this long and arduous day. It was but a dark blotch on a dark canvas, yet no blotch had ever moved this fast. Ares!
Maston felt like running, but he stayed still. He could see no warming fire beneath the nettle tree, so he knew the witch would be able to see movement on the desert just as clearly as he did. He only hoped she wouldn’t notice Ares’ arrival.
When his companion came near, Maston walked ever so slowly to him.
“She’s at the tree, my friend, and she’s got my guns.”
“You’re slipping, Brent,” the cyborg said.
“Perhaps I should have paid more attention in magic classes. She’s a master, this one.”
“How about a duel?”
“Because we’ve got her outnumbered?”
“Exactly! And because you’re going to tell me you have a pair of spare pistols in that war chest you carry.”
They got down to planning.
* * *
Sometime later, Maston walked into the ring of power that circled the nettle tree.
“Noru,” he said.
She stepped from behind the trunk of the tree, his own guns trained upon his chest.
“Tell me why I shouldn’t kill you outright,” she said.
“Because you’re curious. Curious about a gunslinger who is also a mage. Curious about a cyborg warhorse. Curious about why I came back. And … you still want a bargaining chip.”
She nodded her head.
“We’ll talk of these things to you if you agree to one thing,” Maston said.
“Why should I agree to anything?”
“Because you no longer have the upper hand.”
A red dot appeared on her chest. In the blink of an eye, she was upon him, plunging a pistol into his ribs.
“So, you really aren’t from the past,” Maston chuckled.
“You’ll be dead before that thing can fire.”
“True. But you would be dead, too, and where’s the fun in that?”
“I don’t have to kill you, Noru. The peacekeepers will be just as happy having you where they can keep an eye on you.”
“I’m never going back,” she hissed. “I’ve found my way, and I’m never going back.”
“Then, I suggest an old-fashioned draw. Your magic against mine.”
“And that monster out there—will he stand down?”
“You have my word.”
She studied him for a moment, then threw her guns aside.
Maston unbuckled his holsters, dropped them to the ground, and signalled Ares with a wave of his hand.
“Any time you’re ready, Noru.”
The soul-eating mage stared at him with unflinching eyes and let the seconds march on for what could have been an eternity. Then, without seeming to move, she sent forth a bolt of red lightning that blew Maston off his feet. He flew a great distance into the air before bouncing on the dusty ground and moving no more.
There was silence. Not even a rustle of wind in the nettle tree. And a strange feeling began to writhe deep in Noru’s gut. She could sense the darkness coming for her, yet her eyes still widened in surprise as the red dot reappeared upon her chest and hot metal tore through her evil heart. By the time the sound of the rifle shot reached Noru, she, too, had fallen dead upon the plain.
Ares galloped to his fallen companion. White lightning arced from the bit in his mouth and into the chest of the fallen hero. Nothing. He tried again. Nothing. This time a red bolt amazingly similar to that of Noru’s speared into Maston’s chest.
And he breathed.
Copyright © 2022 Clayton Clifford Bye