We continue our ride through Wild Frontiers with an extract from my story ‘Through Dry Places’, a tale of the darkness that presses at the fringes civilisation.
Orlin rolled out of his saddle just before it dropped from under him. Seemed his horse’d finally gone the way of an honest man in court: staggering along for a while then getting tangled up in itself and falling. Barely mid-morning and the heat already melted the distance. It was times like this he missed the East; good scores were fewer and escapes harder, but you never sweated your drink away before you’d even put the canteen down.
He patted his horse on the nose. Its eyes met his for a moment, then it quivered and stilled. Judgement for the prosecution.
Picking up his derby from the ground, he dusted it off and set it back in place.
A turn on the spot revealed a whole lot of nothing much. No point waiting for a Good Samaritan. On the bright side, he’d almost certainly lost the previous owners of his gold.
Gold that weighed him down but he wasn’t finished owning himself. The way things were going, if he left it someone dishonest’d pass near and notice the dead horse. Bury it then? If he spotted a fresh hole, he’d investigate so that had a similar problem. Old holes though… the sort no one’d poke around in even if they noticed it. He untied the first bag of gold and sidled toward the rattler sunning itself on a pile of rocks.
Cold eyes glared at him and a rattle cut the air.
Stopping, he snapped his arm forward and released his hold.
Fangs punched through leather, but didn’t stop the bag sliding into the shadows.
A second trip, made harder by not wanting to approach an irritated rattler but not have the bag land short either, added the rest of the gold to the improvised stash.
He unfolded his sketch map and aligned himself as well as he could. Canteen and saddlebags slung over his shoulders and derby pushed down, he trudged on in the direction he’d been riding.
Close on an hour later, something poked up into the oppressive bowl of the sky ahead. After some squinting through the haze, he made out a sort of spire. Must be Stillbellow. It’d worked. He’d almost ended up Orlin jerky. But cutting across’d worked. Even tepid, his celebratory swig of water tasted great.
Reminding himself distances got tricky in the west, he resisted the desire to start running. The added time’d be useful for thinking anyway. Stillbellow was a scratch on a map. So, what was likely to work best on some out-of-the-way townsfolk? Only survivor of an Indian attack? Indians round here weren’t known for raiding, and it’d raise questions why he wasn’t injured at all. Mustered out and heading home? Might make the horse tricky to explain. Unless he claimed to be an officer; that brought its own problems, though. The sun pressed down harder, opening cracks in each new idea.
Thanking whatever kept the good folks of Stillbellow from ranging wide today, he crested the final rise. Low buildings clustered along two streets with a tall church at the middle. The feeling of wrongness that’d whispered for a while was loud in the silence. He stumbled to a halt. Where was everyone? This wasn’t just staying close to home; there was no one. No old men on stoops, no children shouting, no blacksmith hammering, and no animals.
Is Stillbellow really empty? Will it prove a refuge or a tomb? 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.