We continue our ride through Wild Frontiers with an extract from Patrick Winter’s ‘Absolution’, a tale that reminds us that the desert is just as hard as the people in it.
The sun was hot. The day had been long. The ride had been longer. Still, the man spurred his horse on, huffing and puffing and grunting through the expansive country that sat beneath a godless sky. The Texas border now lay an untold number of sprawling miles behind him, along with a fair portion of the Chihuahuan Desert. The remainder of the arid land and all the rest of the state lay before him, waiting for his and other nomads’ arrival. At mid-day, the sun sat straight overhead, bathing the landscape in yellow-gold light that shone with a greater blaze than even Holy Fire could burn. Waves of heat wove and shimmered with scintillating ebbs and flows in the middle distance and would not part nor abate for any traveler. They rolled shifted and flowed on, always near but ever out of reach.
Brush sprouted forth from the dusty, dry earth in hues of green and red. They grew with hesitant life, their branches and twigs reaching up to the heavens like worshipers before the pulpit. Still, others were dead or well on their way to being dead. Bare and withered and colored in odd grays. Their roots did not delve deeply enough or spread far enough to drink from whatever water lay within the secretive earth underfoot, and they were dying for it. A stiff breeze could topple them or uproot them or disintegrate them, to be blown into so much dust upon the zephyr, if only such a wind could be mustered on this desolate day. But the land did not breathe; it let the sweltering heat have its way with whom or whatever dared to trek its many miles.
He dared, and the horse he rode followed under his compulsion and his reigns. He lifted a crud-covered hand to his stubble-covered cheek, scratching at a heated itch that had become persistent. The skin of his cracked fingertips swabbed at the sweat slipping down from his brow, stirring the dirt that had gathered on his face and turning it into a thin muck on his cheek. He was in need of water, himself, and would dig down into the earth and take what little there was from the brush and weeds, if only he knew where to dig. His canteen had dropped its last little drop hours before, and his limbs felt as weak and brittle as those of the bushes and brush about him. The tedium of travel had long-since set in and he’d made his way further and further through the country like a pilgrim who’d long since forgotten the site they sought.
Miles passed. Hours passed. He came upon no towns. No life.
More miles passed.
Turning his eyes to the skies, the man saw dark shapes whirling and twirling about against the deep blue heavens. Though at first indefinite, their feathered forms came into better view as he drew closer to where they hovered. Three large vultures swooped and spun in slow, broad circles in the sky, straight ahead. Their long, full-dark wings stretched out like those of fallen angels as they gradually lowered themselves down to the ground, bit by bit. The man saw them touch down and ruffle their wings in anticipation. They hobbled about an indistinct form, laid sprawled on the dusty earth. He heard them chitter and squawk to each other. One gave a shrill screech to offend the ears, and which came back to them as it echoed through the vast country.
What has attracted the vultures and will it be enough to turn our hero from his wandering? Who else will join our daring author on his journey into uncivilised places? Tune in tomorrow to find out.
…or pick up the anthology from your favourite retailer today.