Tag Archive for NaNoWriMo

Still Here

So, it’s been a while since I’ve added an update. That’s because a personal tragedy brought things to a grinding halt from the end of November all through December. But work has resumed on the Untitled Fantasy Western (seriously, anybody have any title ideas?). I’m still going to finish posting the draft here on the website, so picking up where I left off here’s a four thousand word update. That’s like four updates in one!

 

“Speaking of timing,” he muttered, and kicked the horse into a run. “It’s about time we got out of here.”

“Is it safe?” she asked, peering around him at the ground ahead. It was hard to see much in the dark, but there didn’t seem to be any sudden upsurges of rock trying to swat them.

“Safer than letting the goyles get us,” he told her.

“Lonesome, I’m not falling into another one of those pits.”

“Don’t worry about that, I think I got those spirits calmed down for now. No telling how long they’ll stay that way, but… look, you just worry about any goyles that get too close.”

Katherine twisted around in the saddle so she could look behind them. It was hard to make out details between the movement of the horse and the dark of night, but she was certain they were being followed. Having lost them once it looked like the goyles were making a concerted effort to keep up so they didn’t get lost again. Her revolved tracked back and forth, looking for a target, and she wished she’d been able to get her rifle before it fell into the chasm that had almost claimed her.

“I’m not going to hit anything like this,” she told Lonesome. “I’m good, but not that good. Won’t be a problem if they get closer, but if more than one gets that close we’ll be in big trouble. If you’ve got a plan of some sort now would be a good time to tell me.”

The horse jerked this way and that, racing around the boulders, hills, and craggy rock formations that characterized the Badlands. Instead of answering her, Lonesome started speaking First Words. That was good enough for her. If he was calling on the spirits it meant he had something in the works. As he spoke she watched the goyles. They were gaining, using the terrain to their advantage. Every time the horse had to slow down to navigate around an obstacle they got a little bit closer.

All those little bits were starting to add up, and Lonesome was still carrying on a hurried conversation with things she couldn’t see. Normally she knew better than to interrupt him in the middle of his Spirit Talking, but something was going to have to change, and soon.

“Lonesome,” she said insistently, “I don’t mean to rush your little gossip circle, but faster would be better. Those goyles are getting so close I can smell ‘em.”

After a few more clipped First Words Lonesome switched back to a language she could understand. “Kat, there’s a canyon coming up. When we reach it,  you’re gonna have to trust me.”

“Not that I don’t,” she replied sincerely, “But would you mind telling me why?”

“Cause we’re gonna jump into it.”

“Lonesome, that is certifiably insane.”

“Kat-”

“Just tell me when,” she cut off the beginnings of his justification. She didn’t need an explanation, and there probably wasn’t time for one anyway. She was right about that. Before she knew it Lonesome was pulling the horse hard to the left, and the yawning emptiness of a canyon suddenly opened up to their right. The sight of it made her guts clench and brought back the very recent terror of falling into empty air.

Lonesome pulled his feet from the stirrups and swung sideways in the saddle. “Now!” he snapped, and then she was alone as he disappeared into the dark. A second later she followed. It wasn’t as clean a move as she would have hoped. The heel of her right boot caught the edge of the cliff, and instead of sailing down feet first she went sprawling head first into the dark.

She learned the hard way that the side of the canyon sloped out after a bit, bruising her hands and forearms as she started tumbling down it in a wild and uncontrolled fashion. Whatever plan Lonesome had, she didn’t think it was working. Her head bounced off of something hard and unforgiving, and after a brief flash of light behind her eyelids she slipped into unconsciousness.

 

**********

 

“Shit, shit, shit,” Hawkins repeated the word like a mantra as they raced away from the stretch of earth that seemed dedicated to killing them. Somehow he’d made it out alive, as had Deputy Walsh and a hired gun whose name he didn’t recall just now. As far as he knew they were the only three men left alive. He’d seen Sheriff Wade plow right into an uplifted slab of rock, and seen too many others fall into sinkholes that opened right underneath them. How they’d made it out alive was beyond him.

They kept riding, blind and desperate in the night, until they came to a small river. “I haven’t seen any goyles follow us,” Walsh spoke as they all looked nervously around.

“Doesn’t matter,” Hawkins shook his head tightly. He was relieved to know they weren’t in any immediate danger, but that didn’t change the facts. “We don’t have a Spirit Talker with us to cover our tracks. Without Lonesome it’s only a matter of time until they catch up. Then that’s it, we’re done.”

“We don’t need a Spirit Talker,” the hired gun spoke up. He pointed at the river with one hand. “We can lose them the old fashioned way. Ride up or down the river for a bit, then find a place to hole up nearby until they’ve stopped looking. Maybe we can sneak out then.”

“Better than any plan I’ve got,” Walsh shrugged. He looked to Hawkins. “Walter?”

“Yeah,” Hawkins agreed. “Let’s find a way in and get going. The longer we sit around the closer they get to finding us.”

They followed the river for the rest of the night. It was shallow enough that the horses didn’t have any trouble, so they made good time. When the first rays of sunlight started peeking into the sky the group left the river, taking care to conceal the horses tracks as best they could. Nearby they found a place where frequent flash floods and river swells had eroded the softer rock behind a boulder into a low, cozy hollow. It was just big enough to fit the horses, though that made for some very unpleasant close quarters. Walsh and the hired gun did the best they could to cover the entrance from casual notice, but there was only so much you could do with dead brush and tree branches.

“So,” Walsh started awkwardly as they all sat facing the entrance to their little hideout. “I don’t think I got your name,” he told the hired gun.

“Carter,” the man supplied. “Carter Wates. I worked at the mines back in Red River. Thought the reward for capturing those bandits sounded too good to be true, but I couldn’t pass up the chance. Guess it was.”

“We’re not dead yet,” Hawkins told him. “You help us get out of here alive and I’ll make sure Haversham & Black give you something for the trouble.”

“No offense, Mr. Hawkins, but that’s looking like a real long shot right now.”

The day passed restlessly and uncomfortably. The horses didn’t like being cooped up in such a small space, and neither did the three men when the horses decided they needed to relieve themselves. Still, they stayed. Each took a turn watching outside, looking for signs that the goyles had found them. “I’ve been thinking,” Walsh said after several hours. “What if somebody else got away? If anybody could survive that it would probably be Lonesome.”

“So what?” Carter asked. “If he’s smart he’ll be doing what we’re doing. Hiding and trying to find a way out with his skin intact.”

“I don’t know, I just thought… maybe we should try and find him?” Walsh shrugged. Hawkins and Carter shared a skeptical look. “Look,” the deputy continued, “I was just thinking we’d have a lot better odds of getting out alive if we had him around.”

“Aaron,” Hawkins tried to sound as understanding as possible, “I want to think somebody else is out there, too. But the fact is we can’t be sure. And if we go looking for them we’re hurting our own chances, not helping. If we’re lucky, and Lonesome is out there somewhere, we’ll just have to hope he finds us.”

 

**********

 

As luck would have it, not all canyon walls were sheer drops. This particular wall gradually sloped inward, making for a canyon that was narrower at the bottom than it was at the top, and it was this geological feature that Katherine could thank for being alive. Whether this had been Lonesome’s plan all along or they’d just gotten lucky she didn’t know, mostly because the Spirit Talker wasn’t awake to ask. He’d taken a nastier tumble than she had, and while he hadn’t broken his neck he’d managed to break a few other things instead.

With a heavy sigh she grabbed the rope she’d tied under his arms and started dragging again. The area where they’d come to rest was out in the open, with no cover from any goyles that might be looking down from the top of the canyon. And once the natives figure out the horse didn’t have any riders, they’d come looking. She could almost understand Lonesome’s reasoning when she thought about that. The last place any sane person would have jumped off a galloping horse was into a canyon. But that didn’t mean the goyles wouldn’t look, especially if the spirits pointed them in the right direction.

It was hard to tell how long she’d been dragging Lonesome through the canyon, but it was long enough that she’d run through every curse she knew twice over and had started inventing new ones. Her back ached from pulling him along, and from the brief time she’d tried to carry him over her shoulder. That hadn’t worked out particularly well, and she was getting mighty thirsty to boot. The sun beat down on her mercilessly, always seeming to find a way to shine between the canyon walls and right down onto her head.

A guttural barking noise echoed off of the rocky walls. She stopped dead in her tracks, clearly recognizing it as the sound of a goyle and trying to figure out if it had come from ahead or behind. Beneath the brim of her hat she squinted her eyes, looking first one direction and then the next. Maybe it was the lack of water, or the heat, or the fact that she was dead tired, but there seemed to be goyles in every direction.

“Shit,” she grumbled. “I just left this party. I’m not doing it again.”

Not that she had a choice. There was nowhere to go, and even if she could’ve run she wasn’t going to leave Lonesome. So there was only one thing left to do. She pulled her revolver, checked to make sure it was loaded, and waited. The goyles didn’t leave her standing alone for long. In a matter of minutes they were to either side of her, advancing slowly without bothering to hide or find cover, as if they didn’t think her revolver was a threat. They were probably right. She could take down one, maybe two if she was lucky, but that was it. There wouldn’t be a chance to reload.

She sighted on the closest of them, and was surprised to see it actually stop moving. But others continued to close, so she aimed at the next closest. It also stopped, and looked over at one of its compatriots as if looking for guidance. She followed its gaze and saw a goyle carrying a spear over one shoulder in a very nonchalant sort of way. She switched her aim to it, and the Badlands native grunted something. All other others stopped where they were, but it continued forward, looking down the barrel of her revolver with the unflinching resolve she’d come to expect from its kind.

The urge to pull the trigger made her finger itch, but she held the impulse in check. Something was going on, she just didn’t know what. Did goyles have a thing for single combat? She couldn’t remember. Still, she didn’t want it getting close enough to use that spear. With one quick motion she pointed the revolver at the ground and fired a single shot at the goyle’s feet before returning her aim to its head. The message must have gotten across, because it stopped coming forward. Its eyes met her, dark and unblinking.

Slowly, gracefully, the spear traced an arc from the goyle’s shoulder until the tip was pointed at Lonesome. The goyle uttered something in its own language. Did it want Lonesome? She supposed that wouldn’t surprise her. The goyles had a certain respect for Spirit Talkers, after all. But that didn’t mean they wouldn’t kill him anyway.

“I’m not giving him up,” she told the goyle. “You want him, you come through me first.”

It wasn’t much of a deterrent, Katherine admitted to herself. There were more than enough of them to make it happen, but at the moment there didn’t seem to be much else to do except put on some bravado.

The goyle seemed to consider this for a moment. Abruptly it thrust the tip of its spear into the ground and left the weapon stuck there like a post. Then, with the hand that had once held the spear, it pointed at Lonesome and growl-spoke something else. It was an interesting gesture, not least because she’d never seen goyles get this close and do anything but try to kill her. No, that wasn’t true. There had been the one when she was hunting Lee Caswell… the one that had called her Arbiter.

With an exaggerated motion she used her thumb to uncock the revolver’s hammer. Then she lowered the weapon to her side, but stopped short of putting it in it’s holster. With one steadying breath for her nerves and a tightened jaw, she stepped aside. The goyle took a step closer, dark eyes searching her face. What it saw there she didn’t know, but the mountain of leathery muscle grunted in what seemed to be a satisfied sort of way. It stooped to grab Lonesome by the front of his shirt, and with one arm lifted him from the ground. With the Spirit Talker slung over one shoulder like a sack of flour the goyle started ambling back the way it had come. Katherine followed, palm slick with sweat against the grip of her revolver and eyes nervously watching for any signs of attack. But the goyles didn’t stop her. The one carrying Lonesome only looked back at her once, and that was all.

They led her out of the canyon and into the confusing geography of the Badlands. It would have gotten her completely lost if that hadn’t already been the case. Through the trek she stayed close to Lonesome like a tick on a dog. It was one of the longest, hardest walks she’d ever taken, and coming off of a tumble down the cliffside at that. The goyles didn’t stop for anything – not to rest, not to eat, not to drink, not even to take a crap as far as she could tell. Their stoic persistence was more than a little unnerving, especially as she felt herself starting to flag with exhaustion. Through sheer will she forced herself to keep walking, unwilling to show weakness among the goyles and afraid they would simply leave her and carry Lonesome off somewhere she’d never find him again.

As the light of day began to wane they came within sight of their destination, an isolated butte that rose tall and proud over the surrounding landscape. Its face was pockmarked with caves of all shape and size, and by their long shadows she could see goyles climbing from one to the other across the rock face. Katherine wondered if the caves ran all the way through the butte. Could it be a giant hive of goyles, like a nest of insects only far more terrifying?

There was one large cave that opened at ground level, and as they neared it was obvious that their approach had been watched. A small crowd of goyles had gathered to watch, speaking amongst themselves in their own harsh language. But none interfered.

The inside of the cave was far more ordered than Katherine would have guessed. Rough, uneven walls had been smoothed by some unknown method. She could see no tool marks on them, no gouges to suggest they’d been dug out. Yet the tunnels were more like hallways in a castle than the constantly changes spaces of a cave.

The light from the entrance faded rapidly as they moved deeper into the stone hive. When they came to a turn in the passage Katherine was afraid she would lose the ability to see where she was going altogether. But even though she expected the goyles to exist in the dark, like burrowing animals, they quickly proved her wrong. The tunnels were illuminated by a soft golden glow, dim but more than enough to see by, which was produced by veins of some strange mineral in the rock itself.

Curious, she reached out a hand in passing to brush her fingers against one large deposit. It had a different texture than the non glowing rock, smooth but pitted like old glass which had been at the mercy of the elements for ages, and it was no warmer than the rest of the wall. Had they done this themselves? She knew goyles could speak to the spirits, and that spirits were capable of a great many things. Was this one of them?

They took her to a chamber with rounded walls and a slightly higher ceiling. The goyle carrying Lonesome made it clear she was meant to stay there, using the blunt end of its spear to gesture first at her and then at the room. Without further elaboration, it turned and started walking again. It was taking Lonesome away from her. A surge of something akin to panic gripped her stomach.

“No,” she protested, “I’m coming with you.”

But that was obviously something they didn’t want to happen. One of the other goyles put itself in her way, blocking the tunnel and grunting in a pointed fashion. Her first instinct was to raise her revolver and force the goyle to move or get shot. But her hand only had time to twitch before the rest of her brain caught up to the idea and tackled it firmly to the ground. She was deep inside what could be considered an enemy stronghold. There were who knew how many goyles in the butte, and who knew how many between her and the way out. She couldn’t do Lonesome any good if she was dead.

So she clenched her jaw, swallowed the lump in her throat, and nodded. “Fine,” she told the goyle in front of her. “I’ll just… wait here.”

The room was as well lit as the rest of the tunnels. To Katherine’s surprise it also seemed to feature something akin to furnishings. There was a deep pile of blankets piled against the far wall. With nowhere else comfortable looking to sit she sank into them and sighed, one hand running idly through the long fur of the blankets as the other rested lightly on her revolver. The blankets were made of some sort of animal skin, and she took to wondering what kind it was. Rumor from the wars had it that huge herds of shaggy beasts roamed through the Badlands. Something akin to cattle but bigger, bulkier, and meaner.

At some point she made the mistake of laying down. When she woke again it was with a surge of adrenaline. It didn’t take any time at all for her to remember where she was, and the idea that she’d fallen asleep among Gargoyles was something akin to terrifying. She wasn’t dead though, so that was a good sign.

To balance out the good she found her revolver was missing, along with her duster, hat and boots. A quick sweep of the room found the clothing piled nearby, though the revolver was nowhere to be seen. And to make matters worse, she realized there was a goyle in the room with her, sitting against the wall near the entrance and watching. She only noticed it because of how it’s silhouette blocked out the glowing veins of light in the rock.

“Where’s my gun?” she demanded, sitting up straight and reaching for her boots.

<You do not need it here, Arbiter the Wildcat.>

Katherine froze, boots in hand. The goyle had spoken, but it had done so in it’s own growling language. Understanding came to her half a second later, whispered in her ear by a voice she recognized as her own.

Under her breath she grumbled, “I swear, Cooper, I warned you.” More loudly she corrected it, “Arbiter Bishop. Katherine if you have to.”

The goyle tilted its head ever so slightly, but remained otherwise motionless. <Some things do not change well from one tongue to another, even when passed through the Spirits. Arbiter will do?>

“Yeah,” she agreed. In the dim light of the room she took a moment to study the goyle across from her. It was different than any she’d seen before. Most goyles were a mountain of muscle and mean, but this one was slimmer, smaller. For the first time she wondered if there was such a thing as girl goyles. As far as she knew everyone always assumed they were just one gender and reproduced by laying eggs or being spontaneously spawned by the Badlands itself.

<Welcome then, Arbiter. I am Hevak the Speaker.>

“Where’s Lonesome?” Katherine demanded.

<The Lonely One is resting after being healed. I wished to speak to you alone before he wakes.>

Katherine grimaced on Lonesome’s behalf. She remembered what getting healed by spirits had done to Hawkins. Effective, sure, but damn. “Well, I suppose I should thank you for that, but I’ll admit to being damn well confused. Your people were trying to kill us. We wouldn’t have jumped off that cliff in the first place if it hadn’t been for that. So why – and again, I’m not ungrateful – but why pick us up and put us back together after all that?”

<As you and the Lonely One are not the same as those who marched on our lands in times past, neither are we the same as those who chased you that night.>

“I get that,” Katherine allowed. “Though I thought you were all pretty much on the same page when it came to keeping people out of your territory. Doesn’t explain why you’d bring us here and help us out. Unless,” she drew the word out a little as her mind focused around the idea. “It’s all Lonesome, isn’t it? Or Spirit Talkers in general. They’re the only ones your people tolerate. They have some sort of special status. I just don’t know why.”

<The Spirits talk to them, listen to them. Do things for them when they ask. That is enough for us to do the same, and the Lonely One carries many Spirits with him. But that is not all of why we help. Gravik, who brought you here, knows why you have come. To follow the Rogue One. To claim what she and her minions carry ever deeper into our lands.>

“Yeah,” Katherine admitted, “That’s pretty much it, assuming Clementine is the Rogue One you’re talking about. Which is an interesting name to saddle her with, but we won’t get into that just now. And we’re not just after the box. I couldn’t care less what’s in it, honestly. I’m more interested in bringing the lot of them to justice, alive or dead, and keeping Haversham & Black from doing something stupid.”

 

NaNoWriMo Update Twenty

Missed update? What missed update? Here, have a 1969 word update. Running total is 37146.

The fight went downhill quickly, and the posse learned the same lesson that the army had during the Frontier War. It wasn’t that there were overwhelming numbers of goyles, or that they’d caught the group unaware. It was the fact that it took several bullets to bring one down unless you were lucky. The goyles knew it, and attacked with a fearless and reckless abandon. A handful of them made it through the broken rock perimeter within minutes and were quickly gunned down.

“Hawkins!” Katherine shouted above noise. The Haversham & Black man was wielding both revolvers with calm detachment. When she had his attention she pointed back at the tower, where Walsh was still sniping goyles as fast as he could work the lever on his rifle. “Go get Walsh and get him to a horse! We’re gonna need to get out of here, and quick!” Hawkins nodded tersely and sprinted back up the hill. A goyle burst between the rocks and started to chase after him. It didn’t get far before Katherine emptied her gun into, and another nearby man finished the job.

“Lonesome!” Katherine hollered, one thought on her mind as she reloaded. If they were going to get out of this alive they were going to need spiritual intervention. “Lonesome, where the hell are you?!”

She peered around the stone and sighted down her revolver. Goyles still seemed to swarm across the hillside, but something else was going on. The hill itself looked like it was moving, writhing and changing in the dark. Watching it she feared that some fresh new Badlands terror was emerging, some terrible brand of desert snake that the goyles controlled. Thankfully this was not the case. Instead, the undergrowth and scrub around the hill was coming alive, growing and expanding at a phenomenal rate. The goyles backed away from it, barking and growling. Eventually there was a thick, intertwined wall of vegetation between them and the posse.

There was a scattering of gunfire as goyles caught on the posse’s side of the wall were gunned down, then things calmed down. Katherine didn’t waste any time taking advantage of the lull. Her first act was to find Lonesome on the other side of the hill. “That was you, wasn’t it?” she asked. “Tell me that was you.”

“You see any other Spirit Talkers around?” he quipped back. “Now, I don’t mean to rush you boss, but that isn’t gonna hold for long. You still need to get us a way out of here.” He clapped a hand on her shoulder. “No pressure.”

“What do you mean I need to get us a way out? Just do what you did last time.”

Lonesome made a pained face. “Yeah, that’s… that’s not gonna work this time.”

“What do you mean it’s not gonna work? Make it work,” she snapped. Anybody else might have missed the edge of fear that was creeping into her voice, but to Lonesome it was clear as a bell. He could well understand why it was there.

As calmly as possible he tried to explain the situation. “Kat… it doesn’t work that way. I already tried talking them into it. The spirits just won’t listen. I think there’s another Spirit Talker about there, telling them not to listen. You’re lucky I got us what I did.”

“Another Spirit Talker? You mean Clem?”

“No, no, not her,” Lonesome shook his head. “This is one of theirs. A goyle, probably a shaman or chief.”

“Alright,” Katherine took a breath and chewed on her lip a little. “First thing’s first. We need to know what kind of shape we’re in before we go trying anything. Dead, wounded, how we’re doing on ammunition. Go ask around. We’ll meet up here when we’re done. Tell Hawkins and Walsh if you see them.”

When the group came together again she could tell without asking the news was grim. Lonesome started with the bad news first. “Four dead, three hurt pretty bad – bad enough I wouldn’t want to put ‘em on a horse. Everyone else is either cuts and bruises or won’t fess up to being hurt.”

Katherine drew a little air in between clenched teeth. She’d known it was likely that people would die out here. She could deal with that. But leaving wounded men to the goyles? That was something else entirely. “Can you put ‘em back together? At least enough so they can ride?”

“Given lots of time I don’t have, sure. But right now? One, maybe,” Lonesome said apologetically. “And then it’s even odds whether it’ll be done before the goyles tear their way through that wall out there.”

“Then we’ll tie them down to the saddle if we have to,” she decided.

“Kat, those men might die if you put them on a horse.”

Sheriff Wade, who’d come to stand at the fringe of the meeting, spoke up. “They’ll die if you leave them here,” he said gruffly. “If it were me I’d want to take the chance. Wrap ‘em up as good as you can and put ‘em on a horse.”

“We’ll double ‘em up with someone who isn’t hurt. That way they at least have a fighting chance. What about ammunition?” Katherine asked.

“We burned through a lot keeping the goyles back,” Hawkins told her. “But it looks like most of the boys packed for trouble. We should be fine, as long as we don’t make a habit out of this sort of thing.”

“So what’s the plan?” Wade asked. “I trust you’ve got one.”

“Just give me a minute,” she told him, and pulled Lonesome aside. “Alright,” she sighed. “We’ve got enough bullets to make a fight out of it, but I’d rather we didn’t. I know you can’t pull off what you did before. What can you give me instead?”

“Well,” he pondered the question. “The plant spirits I’ve got listening could be useful. If we made a break for it they could tangle up some goyles. Couldn’t use a wall trick again. We’d be moving too fast, and doing it ahead of time just lets the goyles know where we’re going. I’ve got an earth spirit here,” he indicated one of the many knickknacks that adorned his clothes. “Could maybe muddy things up a bit, slow ‘em down.”

“Then let’s do that, and anything else you can think of along the way. How long do you need?”

It wasn’t long, but to Katherine it felt like forever. Down to almost half their original fighting strength, the posse prepared to move. “Walsh,” she asked as they waited for Lonesome to give the word, “How’s that crack shot of yours from horseback?”

Walsh rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “At night, on a horse galloping hell bent for leather, with a bunch of things around trying to kill me? Never tried it before. Guess we’re about to find out.”

“Everybody get ready,” Lonesome called back. He faced a gap between two of the hill’s jagged rocks, staring intently at the overgrown vegetation beyond. Katherine peered past him at it as well. To her eyes there was no change, but Lonesome must have seen something different. With an enthusiastic “Hya!” he slapped his mount’s flank. It took off like a shot, and everyone spurred after him. Katherine wasn’t sure what she expected to happen. Perhaps that section of plant wall would shrivel away, pull back into the ground leaving a clear path, or perhaps it would turn to dust, or burst into flame, or… something.

None of that happened. Lonesome and his horse hit it head on and tore right on through, branches tearing away as if they were made of paper instead of wood. The goyles on the other side were clearly taken by surprise, but it wasn’t long before they started to give chase. It looked as if everything was going to go just as well as their first breakthrough. Then it all went wrong.

The first sign of trouble was Lonesome’s hastily rising voice, shouting First Words into the night as he attempted to convince the spirits to do something. Or rather, as they quickly found out, not to do something. “No, no, no!” he broke back into an understandable language. “Everyone watch out!”

The ground in front of the posse seemed to suddenly explode. Jagged shards of bedrock lifted up to block their path and sinkholes collapsed down into the earth around them. Horses unable to stop or turn suddenly enough were swallowed whole, animals and riders alike screaming in terror. Others slammed headlong into immovable stone with sickening crunching noises.

The posse scattered, each going their own way to try and ride out of the trap. Katherine found herself alone, frantically trying to guide her horse around the obstacles that were forming around her. She went around one jagged rock as it rushed up before her, urged her horse into a jump over the next sinkhole, and thought she saw safety up ahead, a place where the ground was behaving itself. If she could just get a little further she might leave it all behind.

The hole that opened up in front of her was unavoidable. Her horse’s hooves came down on ground that was already falling away into the abyss. But the other side wasn’t all that far away. In a motion so swift and fluid she surprised even herself, Katherine pulled her feet from the stirrups, planted them on the saddle, and pushed off in one of the wildest jumps she’d ever made.

Time seemed to slow to an excruciating crawl. She could feel herself weightless, her stomach lifting as she began to spin just a little from the awkwardness of her launch. She willed herself forward. Just a little more. Just a little further. All she needed was a handhold on the other side. The thought that she wasn’t going to make it was the most terrifying thing she’d ever experienced.

She hit the other side of the chasm almost sideways, and she could feel ribs bruise against the rock. But she had an arm on solid ground. Her hands scrabbled around looking for something to hold onto, and found only soft dirt that gave way beneath her fingers. She started to slip down into the dark, boots furiously digging at the side of the sinkhole and finding only unyielding rock.

Suddenly a horse was skidding to a stop next to her. “Kat!” Lonesome’s welcome voice shouted down at her, “Grab hold!”

She didn’t know what it was he wanted her to grab, but she went for it. With hands still slipping across the dirt she pushed with every ounce of desperation she had and flailed out for something to hold. Something slapped against her palm and her fingers tightened around it. Without wasting a moment Lonesome’s horse started moving, dragging her up out of the hole. Both hands gripped her lifeline. Now that she was holding it right next to her face she could see it was a belt. The thought of Lonesome’s pants falling off of him as he rescued her was almost enough to make her laugh.

“You couldn’t find a rope?” She asked, hastily getting to her feet once her boots found solid ground.

The crazy distortion of the landscape had stopped, but the pause to rescue Katherine had given the goyles time to catch up. Lonesome reached down and grasped her forearm. He hauled her up into the saddle behind her and spurred his horse into a run once more. “You’ve been wanting to get my belt of for years,” he tossed back at her.

“You’ve got to work on your timing,” she insisted, wrapping her arms around his waist and gripping the horse with her knees. The last thing she wanted to do was fall off again.

NaNoWriMo Update Nineteen

Keeping pace with a 3389 word update from the weekend. Running total is still a bit behind at 35177.

“I don’t get it,” Morgan admitted. “We robbed a train and tromped all the way through the Badlands to bring you that? A bunch of sun bleached, rotten old bones?”

“Precisely that,” Dorean told him sternly. “Do you have any idea what these are? What they mean? Haversham & Black were willing to send men to their deaths to get these bones. Do you think the expedition which brought them back was the first? No! It was merely the first to succeed. Had these bones found their way to Haversham & Black’s headquarters they would have been studied by that company’s finest minds! Scientists and Spirit Talkers alike would have stopped at nothing to unlock the secrets of these remains – secrets which I cannot allow them to have.”

“What secrets?” Brodie scoffed. “They’re just bones. Dead men tell no tales, they say.”

Dorean’s gaze lifted up from the box to spear Brodie with a wild eyed look. His nostrils flared, and for a moment Clayton thought he would begin raving like a madman. But after a moment Dorean calmed himself, and in that calm and resonant tone he said, “The proverbial they would be wrong, Broderick. Look more closely at these bones. Their very existence tells a tale.”

“They’re not human, are they?” Clayton guessed. “But they’re not goyle, either, are they?”

“Indeed, they are not,” Dorean acknowledged. “They are the bones of the people who built this city. The people responsible for the existence of the Badlands itself, in its current form. A people who did not merely speak with the spirits, but who commanded them. They created untold wonders and accomplishments to make this hall pale in comparison. Then they vanished, leaving their triumphs in ruin!”

“Well that’s nice and all,” Brodie shrugged a little, “but pardon me if I don’t really care about all that. You’ve got your bones. Just give me my money and I’ll leave you to ‘em.”

“Hmm,” Dorean gave Brodie a measured look. “Very well. I suppose you have earned your payment. Wait here.” He strode back past the throne and disappeared through a door in the wall behind it.

“You and I need to have a chat,” Clem said, grabbing Clayton by the arm and directing him away from the others.

Unnerved he tried pulling away, but her grip was firm. “What’s got into you?” he demanded.

“Shut up and listen,” Clem told him. “I need to do this quick.” She fished something from one of her pockets, a loop of cord with a small oval disk hanging from it. Speaking softly in First Words she put it around Clayton’s neck, making sure to tuck the disk inside his shirt so it was hidden from sight. “There,” she said after a moment. “You keep that with you, you hear?”

“Why?” Clayton asked, confused. He felt the stone disk through the fabric of his shirt with one hand. It was cold against his chest, so cold it almost hurt, like it had been fished from a frozen creek in the middle of winter. “What is this thing, Clem?”

“Look, I’ve got a bad feeling,” she told him levelly. “Call it woman’s intuition, call it a Spirit Talker’s sense, but something ain’t right here. I’m telling you and not them ‘cause I like you. Don’t go running your mouth about this, either. Last thing I need is Brodie losing his head over nothing. Understand?”

“Alright, sure,” Clayton agreed, though he still wasn’t sure what the pendant was all about. He didn’t have a chance to ask as Dorean returned with a number of small bags.

“Here is your reward,” he proclaimed, and dropped the bags at Brodie’s feet. One opened when it hit, and small chunks of gold spilled out onto the floor.

“Merciful Mother,” Morgan proclaimed, “Is that… where did you get so much gold?”

“I have my ways,” Dorean assured them stolidly.

Each of the group retrieved a back and opened it. Ever suspicious, Brodie took one of the smaller pieces and started scraping at it, perhaps suspecting that it was merely painted. The others did their own checks, and though there was often dirt or other minerals mixed in, the gold was real.

“How about that, Clay?” Morgan asked. “You could buy your own ranch for this!”

“Yeah,” Clayton agreed. “This is… way more than you said we’d get, Brodie.”

“It’s way more than I was promised,” he admitted, looking up at Dorean. “Not that I’m one to look a gift horse in the mouth, but what’s this about?”

“An additional fee, to cover the extra time and effort you put into traversing the Badlands.” Dorean returned to his throne and sank into it, adopting the same slouched and brooding posture he’d had when they entered. “And an assurance,” he added. “To keep me in your good graces and ensure that Haversham & Black don’t hear of the bones final destination.”

“Yeah,” Brodie nodded slowly. “I wager this is enough to make sure they never hear a peep about it.”

“Excellent. Now take your reward and go.”

They didn’t need to be told twice. The group hustled out of the Great Hall and out into the blazing Badlands sun. It hadn’t occurred to Clayton until just now, but the inside of the hall was a lot cooler than outside. He kind of missed it, but going back in with what was almost certainly a madman just didn’t seem worth a few degrees of comfort. After carefully packing his gold in a saddlebag he mounted up alongside the others.

The group rode out the same way they’d come in, laughing and in a good mood. They talked about what they’d do with their newfound wealth, all thoughts of scouring the city for loot forgotten. Nobody thought twice about the dangers of the Badlands. They’d made it here just fine under Clem’s guidance. The return trip, they assumed, would be just as easy.

Despite the group’s joviality, Clayton didn’t so much as breathe a sigh of relief until they’d passed through the city’s massive gatehouse. Even then he was a little nervous, put on edge by Clementine’s warning. Clem herself rode where she always had, at the front of the group, with her back to everyone. They were halfway between the city and the cliff in a field of rocks that seemed like the jagged ends of broken bones pushing up through the earth. It was there that Clem slowed her horse to a stop. Everyone took notice and followed suit, their jokes and light hearted conversation suddenly silent.

“What’s up, Clem?” Brodie asked. “Something wrong?”

The Spirit Talker turned her horse in a tight circle so she was facing the group. “Brodie,” she addressed him in the manner of someone about to reveal a clever joke. “You remember when I said I liked you too much to let you die out here? Well, that might’ve been a lie.”

The group’s immediate reaction was shocked silence, split only but the whisper of metal on leather as Brodie pulled his revolver clear of its holster. He kept it pointing off to the side, barrel down, but ready enough. “I don’t know what you think you’re doing, Clem,” he warned, “But it doesn’t have to be this way.”

“Yeah,” she sighed, “It does.”

Clayton caught sight of something moving nearby. As he turned to look, Slim cried out “Goyles! Son of a bitch, it’s an ambush!”

Everyone went for their weapons as Gargoyles swarmed out of the rock formations, surrounding the group on all sides. Without pause the Badlands natives charged in to attack with a series of ferocious war cries. The first crack of gunfire came from Brodie’s revolver, fired not at a goyle but at Clem. She flinched back as the bullet snapped abruptly off course, diverted by a spirit she’d had more than enough time to call up beforehand. Seeing that his efforts to kill his betrayer would come to nothing, Brodie turned to firing at goyles with the others.

Clayton had time to fire a few wild rounds before his horse reared and threw him. He hit the ground hard with one shoulder, and a whole new world of pain blossomed into existence. Through it he gritted his teeth and thought of just one thing – the gold in his saddlebag. He had to get it, or this would all have been for nothing. With his good arm he pushed unsteadily to his feet and looked for his horse. Just as he found it the poor animal was taken down by a goyle, high pitched cries abruptly silenced as the goyle ripped the mount’s throat out. Then, blood covering it’s face and claws,  it turned to Clayton.

If there was anything Clayton knew it was that going head to head with a Gargoyle was going to end only one way. Amid the gunshots and shouts from the rest of the gang the resolve to go down fighting took hold. If he ran it would just catch him and kill him from behind, and that was no way to go. His revolved lost in the dirt he went for the only weapon he had left – his boot knife.

The goyle charged forward, easily knocked aside his feeble attempt at stabbing it, and threw him to the ground with one solid hit to his chest. He landed hard on his back, his head hit a rock, and everything went black.

He was surprised to wake up again. For a moment he thought he might be dead. Maybe this is what it was like before the spirits took you? Laying on your back, staring up at the sun? But if he was dead he figured he probably wouldn’t hurt so much, and boy did he hurt. His shoulder was still dislocated and he had a hell of a headache. With a groan he sat up and looked around. The site of the ambush was a mess. All the horses were dead. Several of them looked like they’d had meat taken from them in a less than precise manner.

No goyles lay dead in the sun, though wet patches of dirt spoke to places where some had died. They must have collected their dead when they left. What they’d left behind were the bodies of their enemies. Clayton forced himself to count, just in case someone else had survived. There was Brodie, facedown in the dirt and missing an arm. Over there was Morgan, laying face up on the ground with a lot of his chest missing. And there was Thomas. Clayton knew it was him because of his clothes. It would have been hard to tell otherwise, what with his head caved in like it was. Slim was missing, though. Or was he? Now that Clayton considered the battlefield, he saw a shallow crater with chunks of flesh strewn around it. The man had a fondness for his dynamite. Right up until the end, it seemed.

There was no sign of Clem, but then, Clayton hadn’t really expected to find her here. In a pained daze he found an intact saddlebag and pulled the bag of gold from it. Another he emptied, leaving the yellow nuggets in the dirt. Then he filled it with what supplies he could find. When he found some rope he rigged together a rough harness to hang the bags from. Weighted down with as much as he dared try to carry he found his pistol and book knife. Then, with one last look back towards the city, he pulled his hat firmly onto his head and made for the cliff.

 

**********

 

“How’re we doing, Lonesome?” Katherine walked up next to the Spirit Talker. The group had dismounted for a moment, giving the horses time to rest after their latest push.

“We’re catching up pretty quickly. And so far the spirits have done a good job of erasing our physical tracks. I’ve tried to convince them to lie to the goyles about where we’ve gone, but there’s no way to know if they will or not. Honestly,” he took his hat off and wiped a hand across his forehead, “I’m surprised they haven’t caught up already.”

“We’re pushing hard,” Katherine sat gingerly on a nearby rock. “I wager we’ve put a lot of distance between us and them. Even more if they’ve got to stop and take the time to find our trail. The only problem now is getting spotted by goyles who aren’t out here just to chase us down.”

“You think we oughta start moving more slowly?”

“Couldn’t hurt to be careful. Besides,” she looked out over the posse. “We’re going to have to get some real rest soon.

“The ones chasing us are going to go night and day,” Lonesome thought aloud. “If you want to avoid running into any just wandering around, you’ll want to avoid sunup and sundown. And maybe night, took. I dunno… maybe it’s best to find someplace isolated and hole up at night. That way we avoid the most active goyles, and we ride during the day when there’s fewer about. This far into the Badlands they’re less likely to have sentries awake during the day. Unless, of course, they got the word to watch for us.”

“On the other hand,” Katherine suggested, “We might want to have everyone awake and ready to fight if we do run into trouble. Sleep a bit during the day when there’s less of a chance of them coming across us, ride during the night so we can fight if we have to?”

“Honestly, Kat, there’s no good way to do this.”

“I guess we’ll see how it falls out,” Katherine told him, rubbing at her eyes. “We’ll just keep going until we need to stop. If that happens in the day, we’ll stop and sleep a bit in the sun. If it’s night we’ll hole up then. I just want to get as close to Clem and her people as possible.”

Once they’d rested a bit Lonesome had the spirits soak up the pool of water they’d brought to the surface some minutes before. If nothing else the tired horses weren’t going to die of thirst. Then the group pressed on. After a while, it all started looking the same to some of them. Hawkins, for one, could swear they’d passed the same rock at least a couple of time, though he would never bring that up with Lonesome. One thing that stood out was the ruined tower they came across a few hours before sundown.

“That’s new,” Hawkins commented as they approached it.

“Looks like some kind of fort,” Katherine suggested. “Those rocks make a kind of wall. Lonesome, is this goyle work?”

“Goyles don’t build with stone like this,” he said, brow furrowed. “And the cavalry never got this far out during the war. This is… something else.”

“Question is, is it a good place to hole up for a bit?” Sheriff Wade asked. “I don’t know about you, but me and some of the others are on the ragged edge. We need to stop before we fall off our horses.”

“I’m one of ‘em,” Walsh agreed tiredly. “Sorry Arbiter,” he added.

“Don’t you worry about it, Freckles,” Lonesome told him. “We can’t all be as tough as she is,” he tilted his head towards Katherine. “That said, I don’t think there’s room enough for all of us in there.”

Katherine pointed at the wall like ring of rocks around the hill. “Not in the tower, maybe, but there’s plenty of room around the hill. Everybody stay with your horse and find a spot behind one of those big rocks and we should be fine. Spread out, cover all the approaches. No fires. Hawkins, Frec- Deputy Walsh, Lonesome and I can take turns watching from inside the tower there. Anything comes along trying to sneak up on us, we should spot it. And if a fight breaks out we’ve at least got plenty of cover.”

The hired guns spread out on the hill while Katherine and her deputies entered the tower. “Looks like they were here,” Hawkins pointed out the remains of a fire in the center of the structure.

“Was there ever any doubt?” Lonesome smiled wearily. “I’ll talk up a spirit or two,” he turned to Katherine. “See if I can convince them to give us a warning if any goyles come around.”

“That sounds like a good plan, Lonesome. You and I can take first watch. Hawkins, you and Walsh will get second, so get some shuteye for now.”

The posse settled into the hill as the sun sank below the horizon. They ate cold food and huddled under blankets, every one of them within quick reach of a weapon. There was little conversation, and those few that spoke did so in hushed voices. To all outward appearances, it would have looked like any other night on that particular hill.

Lonesome had been asleep for a little while when a spirit started whispering insistently in his ear. He stirred, frowning in a state somewhere between sleeping and waking. Then he realized what that whisper was telling him, and he sat bolt upright. “Freckles,” he hissed into the night, “Hawkins.”

“Easy, Lonesome,” Walsh whispered from nearby. “I think I see something moving out there.”

“Damn right you do.” He got to his feet and joined Walsh at the arrow slit he was peering through, rifle at the ready. “There are goyles out there,” he told the deputy. “Lots of them. Where’s Hawkins?”

“Walter went to get a closer look,” Walsh looked concerned. “If you’re sure there’s goyles out there, maybe we should wake the Arbiter?”

“I’m already awake,” Katherine joined them at the window. “You two whisper louder than two half deaf old ladies gossiping. What’ve we got?”

“Can’t get a count,” Walsh told her.

“At least a dozen, probably more,” Lonesome added grimly.

“We need to get people awake,” Katherine told them urgently. “Lonesome, let’s you and I get to it. But quietly. If the goyles know we’ve seen ‘em they might come at us early. Freckles, stay here and cover us with those sharp eyes of yours. You see any goyles make a move, take ‘em out.”

Katherine and Lonesome scampered out of the tower together, keeping low and moving quickly. Katherine went right, Lonesome went left. Moving in different directions they went about waking up the posse as quietly as possible. “Goyles,” Katherine told them softly. “Get your gun and get ready, but stay quiet.”

She went one after another until she ran into Hawkins doing the same. “Arbiter,” he greeted her. “Good you see you’re up and about.”

“Walsh said you went to get a closer look,” she recalled. “What did you see?”

“Couldn’t get a good count,” he shook his head, “But there’s a good handful. Looks like they’ve got us surrounded. They’re moving slow, though. Maybe waiting for more to show up?”

“Could be,” she allowed.

“So what do we do?” he asked, glancing out into the night. “Make a break for it before the rest show up? Or wait for them to come at us?”

The hired gun whose rock they’d met at spoke up, “I’d like to vote for running.”

“Noted,” Katherine told him. “I’m going to find Lonesome,” she told Hawkins. “If he can get those spirits of his to lend us a hand we just might be able to pull the same trick we did before.”

“Worked the first time,” Hawkins agreed.

Katherine had only gotten one rock further down the line when the sharp report of Walsh’s rifle rang out. A cacophony of howls, roars, and other assorted war cries rose from all around the hill. Lonesome had said at least a dozen, but to Katherine’s hears it sounded as if there were hundreds of goyles out there. The sound got her adrenaline flowing, and her heart pounded in her chest.

“Here they come!” someone shouted in the dark, and gunfire erupted like popcorn on a hot skillet. Katherine looked out into the night and saw a mass of goyles headed up the hill, their numbers both hidden and exaggerated by the dark of night. She fixed her eyes on one, brought her revolver to bear, and squeezed off a shot.

 

NaNoWriMo Update Eighteen

Here’s a 1552 word update for you, in which we meet the mystery man who set all this in motion. Running total is 31788.

 

What they couldn’t tell from a distance, and what became clearer the closer they got, was that the city was in ruin. Not merely decayed, it looked as if the walls had been torn down in spots, and some of the taller buildings looked to have collapsed as a result of damage rather than old age. Everything was made of stone that was, or had been, polished smooth and fit together almost seamlessly. It was obvious that the builders of the old tower had come from this city.

Though there were plenty of holes in the wall through which they could have ridden with ease, Clem took them right in through the front gate. The gatehouse was a thing of beauty, easily a match for any castle fortress from the old world, though none of the group would have known. Clayton shuddered a bit as they rode through, imagining what sort of enemy the fortifications had been designed to defend against. There were slits in the walls to either side, through which arrows or firearms could be shot at any attacker. He peered into a few as they rode past, but saw only dusty stone in the dimly lit rooms beyond.

Clayton also noticed holes in the ceiling above, and his imagination took to devising various fluids that could be poured through them. He was glad when they passed through the interior gates and entered the city proper, leaving the gatehouse and its murder holes behind.

Even the streets were paved with smooth interlocking stones, and the sound of the group’s horses upon them echoed eerily through the empty ruins. “Clem,” Clayton spoke into the echoes as they rode on. “Those gates back there were made of stone.”

“Looked like, yeah,” she agreed easily.

“Who builds their front door out of rock?” Morgan muttered.

“Somebody who really doesn’t want anybody getting inside,” Brodie told him.

“Yeah, but… how would you close them?” Clayton asked, amazed. “Or open them? Or move them at all?”

“That’s easy enough,” Clem answered him. “You get the spirits to do it.”

He looked back over his shoulder at the massive stone gates and wondered what kind of people used spirits as doormen. “Who lived here?” he asked, and though he’d spoken softly some quirk of acoustics made the words all but boom off of the nearby walls.

“Couldn’t say,” Clem shrugged, looking uneasily around as the question continued to echo.

“There must be clues,” Clayton suggested. “Things that got left behind. You haven’t looked around?”

“Now there’s an idea,” Slim spoke up, eyes alight. “A city this big, there’s bound to be something left to loot.”

“You really want to go poking around in here, with who knows what wandering about?” Brodie asked.

“What… what do you mean?” Slim asked.

“I mean I don’t know what the hell lives out here. If something as nasty as the goyles avoid this place I wager it’s gotta be pretty bad.”

“You seen something?” Slim wanted to know.

“I did,” Clayton spoke up. “Last night. Got up to take a leak, and saw… I dunno, some kind of big angry dog thing.”

“Well it didn’t eat you,” Thomas pointed out. “So maybe they aren’t all that mean.”

“Yeah,” Morgan chuckled, “Or maybe Clay just doesn’t look all that tasty.”

“Either way,” Brodie growled them into silence, “Nobody’s running off anywhere or poking their nose into anything until after we get paid. We can maybe take a look on the way out,” he allowed.

“Besides,” Clem added, “Dorean will probably have something to say about that.”

“What’s he care?” Thomas wanted to know.

“He’s been out here a while, is all. Calls it his city, from time to time. And he lives in there,” she added, indicating a large, ornate building they were coming up on. Though it was made the same as everything else in the city, the architects had taken special care of the building ahead. They’d made the interlocking stones to seemingly impossible things, building patterns into the walls and giving the whole thing a wavy, flowing appearance, as if the stone had been molten and malleable. It was one of the few structures that didn’t display any outward signs of damage, despite its intricacy.

“Damn,” Brodie admired it with raised eyebrows. “And, ah, what is that, exactly?”

“Dorean calls it the Great Hall. Other than that, I have no idea. Now grab the box, boys. It’s payday.”

They left their horses in the open courtyard outside and went in on foot, Slim and Thomas carrying the lockbox between them. The doors to the Great Hall were swung wide open, but rather than seeming inviting they reminded Clayton more of a giant maw ready to devour the unwary. Easily fifteen feet tall they were made of stone, just as the main gates were. But while the main gates were plain and unadorned, these were intricately carved with scenes depicting something Clayton couldn’t quite make sense of. As the group passed through the open doorway he reached out to touch one. To his surprise it swung open easily as his fingers brushed against it, as if it weighed almost nothing and was attached to the world’s most well oiled hinges.

Inside was equally extravagant, at least where the architecture was concerned. Any furnishings or decorations that may once have been were gone, but the building itself still gave an impression of majesty. Here, as on the outer walls, patterns had been worked into the interlocking stone blocks. Columns rose in twisted spirals to the arched ceiling, branching near the top to form a lattice of support that looked almost organic, like a great stone plant.

And at the back of the hall, where the floor rose into a set of broad stairs, there was a chair that Clayton couldn’t have mistaken for anything but a throne. It too was made of stone, but numerous blankets and bits of cloth had been piled upon it to make it more comfortable. Sat upon it, slouched and brooding, was a man in a stained and worn cavalry uniform. A hat just like Clem’s sat on his brow in place of a crown, an unkempt mess of red hair spilling out from underneath to settle on his shoulders. A wild and aggressive beard started an inch below his eyeballs and grew to a respective length below his chin. Streaks of grey patterned both the hair on his head and on his face, and his pale blue eyes shone like sapphires as they lit upon the gang.

“Broderick,” the man’s voice rolled across the hall, deep and sonorous. Just from that one word Clayton could pick out an old world accent. “You’ve come at last.”

Brodie walked up to the foot of the stairs, beckoning Slim and Thomas to drop the lockbox there next to him. The rest stopped short of getting that close. As the box thumped to the ground, Clem came to stand just off of Clayton’s right shoulder.

“Yeah, I came,” Brodie told him. “And it was much further than I planned on, so this better be worth it. Here’s your spirits cursed box,” he gently kicked the lockbox. “Now where’s my money?”

Dorean straightened in his throne. “Patience, Broderick, patience. I trust Clementine took good care of you and your fellows? The gang’s all here, as it were?” He spoke slowly, every word measured.

Brodie looked back at Clem, then nodded. “Yeah, she got us here all in one piece. Talked us through the goyles and kept us from falling down that damn huge cliff. She’s earned her share.”

“Good,” Dorean nodded, fingers steepled. “Good. One more thing remains before payment is rendered. I must verify the integrity of my delivery.”

“You want to do what?” Brodie asked.

“He wants to open the box,” Clem clarified, coming forward so she was standing next to it as well. Dorean nodded.

“It is, after all,” he told them, “Such a large sum in payment. I must be certain.”

“Well you didn’t tell us to steal the damn key,” Brodie complained, clearly exasperated. “In fact, I think I recall you saying you wanted it here unopened.”

“Indeed. And if it has arrived in such a condition the odds are good that the prize is unspoiled. Clementine?” he turned his icy gaze on the Spirit Talker, “Would you mind?”

She sat cross legged on the floor next to the box. From a pouch at her waist she fished out an old and worn metal padlock. Holding it in the palm of her hand, she started talking to the spirit that lived within. As she did her work, Dorean’s steady gaze studied each man in turn. With one hand he ran his fingers through the knotted hair of his beard. It was hard for Clayton to tell what the crazy looking cavalryman was thinking. Just as well, he figured. He’d probably rather not know. Even Brodie was squirming a bit under the scrutiny.

There was a series of clicks from the lockbox, which mercifully regained Dorean’s attention. With her free hand, Clem reached out and pushed open the lid. Everyone edged in a little closer to see what all the excitement had been about. Dorean himself stood and came forward, gaze fixed upon the contents.

NaNoWriMo Update Seventeen

Apparently I’m a fan of late night conversations. This update is 1740 words, putting the running total at 30236.

“It’s more than just my promises,” Clem reminded him. “It’s the big pile of money at the end, remember? Now settle down. We’ll be there soon enough.”

The question of where they were going was soon settled. The group crested a rise, and there it was. The ground sloped away from them then suddenly dropped off sharply. To Clayton it looked like you could fall forever if you went over the edge, but way down there somewhere the ground started up again. He could see it stretching to the horizon, broken and cracked and chaotic. It was like the whole of the Badlands confusing geography all brought together, and in the middle of it was a city.

“Aw no,” Brodie was the first to react to the sight. “Aw hell no! No way I’m riding into a cursed goyle city, I don’t care how much I’m getting paid!”

“Goyle city?” Clem asked, looking over at him and grinning. “That’s no goyle city, Brodie. Goyles don’t build cities.”

“Then… then there are humans out here?” Clayton asked, awestruck. “How? For how long? Why haven’t we seen them before?”

“Woah, slow down now,” Morgan cautioned. “I don’t know what’s going on here, but I don’t like it.”

“Neither do I,” Brodie agreed. “Clem, this is where you chime in with some answers.” He fixed the Spirit Talker with a fierce glare. “If it’s not goyles down there, then who?”

“No one,” Clem told him simply. “Whoever or whatever lived down there, they’re long gone. All that’s left now are ruins like the ones you’ve been seeing on the way in. But hey, the goyles avoid the place like the plague, so that’s something.”

“And he’s in there?” Brodie pressed suspiciously.

“That’s right. Take that damn box down there and we all get paid.”

“And you’re sure there’s no goyles down there?” Thomas asked.

“Dead sure,” Clem nodded. “It’s the one place in this whole cursed area they won’t go. That’s why he’s down there, I suppose. Someplace where no one and nothing can get to him.”

“Except you,” Clayton pointed out.

“Yeah,” Clem cleared her throat a bit. “Except me.”

Morgan urged his horse a little closer to the edge and peered along it, first one way and then the other. “Well how are we supposed to get down there?” he asked. “Don’t tell me you’re expecting us to climb down.”

“There are a few paths down a ways from here, where the drop isn’t so sharp,” Clem told them. “They’re steep though. Lots of switchbacks. So make sure you take it slow when we get there.”

She wasn’t kidding. The part of the cliff face that angled out enough for them to traverse was just barely something Clayton would have considered possible. As it was, they had to get off their horses and walk – slowly – leading the animals after them in single file.

“Damn, but this goes on for miles doesn’t it?” Morgan complained. “Clem, can’t you just Spirit Talk a bit and get those invisible little bastards to, I dunno, fly us down or something?”

“Doesn’t work like that,” Clem replied, her voice clipped as she concentrated on the path ahead. “But don’t worry, if I talk fast enough I can probably convince one to keep you from falling to your death if you trip.”

Somehow they made it down without any major problems. A few of them tripped a time or two, and true to her word Clem convinced a spirit to raise up a small mound of dirt or rocks to arrest their fall. It left them bruised and often bleeding, but alive. By the time they reached the bottom of the path Clayton’s whole body was vibrating with fatigue. The moment his foot hit level ground he collapsed into a puddle of aching misery and tried to force tense muscles to relax. Everyone else did about the same, and the horses weren’t in much better shape.

“I think,” Brodie huffed, “We oughta stop here for a while.”

Slim, gasping nearby, made a gurgling noise that might have been intended as a laugh. “Gee boss, ya think?” he asked.

“Just cause I can’t do anything about your sass now doesn’t mean I won’t smack you for it later,” Brodie wheezed.

Though it wasn’t near nightfall they made a hasty and haphazard camp at the base of the cliff. Clayton quickly fell asleep, and remained dead to the world until he woke shivering after dark. Nobody had bothered to make a fire and he hadn’t covered himself with a blanket, leaving the chill breeze free to sap the warmth from his tired body. Every shiver that rippled through him to generate warmth only aggravated sore muscles. He sat with a groan and felt around him for his blanket. Eventually he found it. Firmly wrapped in wool he settled in to fall back asleep. It was at this point that he realized he needed to pee.

He lay there weighing his newfound warmth against the pressure in his bladder. The bladder won, and with many and varied curses spoken under his breath he got up and staggered towards some nearby brush. He’d just finished his business when he heard something move nearby. His first thought was a goyle, and his second a wild animal (probably the hungry meat eating kind). Only when his hand found the empty space where his gun should be did he realize he’d left it by his bedroll. This presented a problem. His body had decided on the fight part of the fight or flight response, only to be stymied. That had unfortunately given him enough time to realize that just blindly running away could end in any number of bad ways. So he stood rooted to the ground, breathing hard, wondering what was going to happen next.

A pair of animal eyes briefly reflected the moonlight in front of him. Now that he knew where to look he could just make out a dog like shape, low and hunched, but bigger than most dogs he knew. Those eyes considered Clayton for a moment, then abruptly dismissed him. Whatever it was stalked away into the night, leaving him to relax.

“Good job, that,” Clem said softly from somewhere just behind him. Clayton nearly jumped out of his boots, but managed to strangle the cry of surprised before it passed his lips.

“Spirits take me, Clem,” he hissed, “You scared me more than that demon dog. Thing. Whatever it was.”

“Didn’t seem that scared to me,” Clem told him softly, keeping her voice low so they didn’t wake the others. “Seemed pretty cool and collected, in fact.”

“Only reason I didn’t piss myself in fear is ‘cause I was fresh out,” he told her, heart still hammering.

“You must be new to impressing women,” she commented. “The right answer there was to say ‘why yes Clem, I was cool as a cucumber, stared it right down’. But I’ll give you points for honesty.”

“I’ll, uh, try to remember that. You know, next time you’re out here watchin’ me in the dark. Which, by the way, isn’t off putting at all.”

“Calm down,” Clem said, her voice holding all the amusement it could without being a laugh. “I wasn’t trying to sneak a peek at anything. You know what I get up to at night.”

“Oh, right,” Clayton tried not to sound too embarrassed. “Talking to the spirits some more?”

“That’s right.”

“What about this time? Find out anything about what’s in the box?”

“Nah, they still don’t want to talk about it. Hey,” she abruptly changed the subject, “Can I ask you something?”

The question took Clayton by surprise, but he wasn’t against it. “Sure,” he shrugged in the dark. “What about?”

“About you,” Clem told him. “You wanted to come out here because you said you needed the money, and you seem to know the rest of them over there. But you don’t fit in… somethin’ about you just ain’t right. You’re not the type to go robbing trains and killing people, not like Brodie. I can tell. So what gives?”

“It’s personal,” he evaded.

The answer didn’t dissuade Clem. “It always is, one way or another,” she observed.

Clayton thought about ending the conversation there. He could have just told Clem it was none of her business and left it at that. But there was something in him that needed to talk about it. “It, um. It’s a girl,” he approached the topic uncertainly. “Millie. I’m going to marry her, or I was. I was working as a ranch hand, saving up everything I could so I could give her a wedding she’d be proud of and buy her a place that would be ours. And then the ranch went under, and I thought I could make what I had into something more, but instead I lost it. I lost it all, and I couldn’t tell her. I just couldn’t see the look on her face. So Morgan and Thomas… I knew them from way back. I knew what they did, so I asked if they had anything I could get in on. My cut from this would have been enough to… it wouldn’t replace everything I lost, you know? But it would be a lot. It would be enough. And I guess I didn’t realize that robbing the train would mean blowing it up, or that I’d have to… that I’d…” he stumbled to a halt, remembering the Haversham & Black man he’d gunned down.

“You’d have to what?” Clem prompted quietly.

“I killed a man,” Clayton wrestled out the words. “Shot him dead.”

“You’re hardly the first,” Clem said in what she meant to be a comforting manner. “What matters is the why of it. Did you have a choice?”

“I told him to just go,” Clayton recalled. “But he kept coming at me. I think, if I hadn’t shot him, he would’ve killed me instead.”

“Then you did good,” she told him firmly. “This life of ours ain’t fair, Clayton. None of us get out alive in the end. Bad things happen, and sometimes they happen to good people whether you want them to or not. All you can do is make sure you’ve got good reasons for what you do. From where I stand, you’re still light enough the spirits’ll take you when the time comes. And I oughta know.”

 

NaNoWriMo Update Sixteen

Making progress! Here’s a 2080 word update. Running total is 28496. Clunky dialogue is clunky, but it can stay until editing.

“Well?” Katherine asked as he morosely rejoined the group. “How did it go?”

“Better than it could’ve, worse than I wanted,” he told her as he got used to the saddle again. “You were right, Kat. Clem’s been talking to the goyles. Something’s up here and I don’t like it.”

“We gonna have trouble?”

“More than likely,” he told her grimly. “That pile of skulls is their line in the sand. They’re willing to let us go peaceably if we turn around and leave right here. But if we pass those skulls we’ll be in enemy territory, and they’ll do to us what they did to the army during the war.” He didn’t look pleased at the reference.

“You know we can’t do that.”

“I know it, and I told ‘em that. I tried my best, but like I said, something’s up here. That goyle I talked to didn’t like that they’d let Clem and her boys pass on through any more than he liked the idea of us going ahead. There’s a deal been made somewhere, somehow. I just wish I knew what it was.” He sighed and looked back towards the skulls. “Anyway, we’re in for a fight if we keep on going. Question is how you want to handle it.”

“I’d like to avoid a fight as much as I can. If they figure we’re going to ride past anyway it makes sense they’d set up an ambush right near here, don’t you think?”

“Makes sense to me,” Lonesome agreed. “They won’t want to let us any further than they have to.”

“So we could make like we’re leaving, turn around, and double back somewhere else,” she suggested thoughtfully.

“Probably won’t work,” Lonesome told her. “They’ll have us watched right up until we leave the Badlands. We turn back around and they’ll know.”

“Right,” Katherine agreed. “So how about this. Goyles are fast on four legs, but only over short distances. A horse at full speed could easily outrun them. If you can cook up some spirit intervention we could just race on through here, maybe lose the goyles that are watching us.”

“It might work,” Lonesome said slowly. “But what then, Kat? We’ll be in the middle of goyle territory. They’ll find us again, and quick. Especially with there being so many of us. I can hide tracks, but a whole herd of folks like this? Even with the spirits helping it’ll only be a matter of time before we’re face to face with some angry locals.”

“Then we’ll just have to work fast once we’re through. Ride hard, stop only when we have to. We’re not that far behind. If we can overtake Clem and her people before the goyles catch up to us we might have something to bargain with on the way out.”

“That’s risky business, Kat,” he warned her. “We go in there, odds are we might not come back out even if we get Clem and the box.”

She turned a hard eye on him, face set with determination. “I’m not letting them get away, Lonesome. I don’t care what kind of deal they’ve got, if outlaws figure they can ditch the law by running into the Badlands things are going to get out of hand.”

“What about Red River?” Lonesome asked, beginning to argue more forcefully. “You were afraid of those bandits riling up the goyles. Now we’re set to do the same. However this ends it could come back on them.”

“Lonesome,” Katherine said, her voice just shy of annoyed, “I get that you don’t want to go in there-”

“Damnit Kat,” the Spirit Talker snapped, “I don’t want you to go in there.” There was a second of silence as Katherine’s expression changed from surprise to confusion to anger. “No,” he told her before she could speak again, “I know. You’re an Arbiter. You’re tough as nails and you’ve lived through things that would’ve killed someone less cursedly stubborn. And I know you don’t want to hear it from me or anyone else, but if you go in there you’re gonna get killed. I’ve seen it happen, more times than I care to count.”

When he’d finished Katherine took a slow, deep breath. She trotted her horse forward so she and Lonesome were side by side, and spoke in a lowered voice. “That’s real sweet of you,” she started, and was gratified to see a blush creep through his deep tan. “But you said it yourself, I’m stubborn. So let’s skip the arguing and get down to facts. I’m chasing down Clementine and the rest of them. That’s just the way it is. You can go or you can stay, but I’d feel a whole lot better if you came with me. I’d have a better chance of living through it if you did. You want to keep me breathing so bad, you’d better come along.”

“You don’t get it. I know how this ends, Kat. You want facts? During the war-”

“This ain’t the war, Lonesome,” Katherine interrupted him. “Though it might look an awful lot like one if things go wrong. Hey. You and I have been through a few things, remember? Some of those I didn’t get through because I was stubborn. I got through because you were there to back me up. You come with me and I know we’ll pull this off. I need you.”

It wasn’t a plea, nor a flirt. It was a statement of fact, and it hit Lonesome right in the stomach more than either of the other two things would have. “You don’t make things easy, do you?” he growled. “Fine, Kat. If you’re pig headed enough to go through with this then I guess we’re going in together.”

“Glad to hear it.”

“I was gonna go in on my own anyway, you know,” he muttered. “Whatever’s in that box… I need to know what gets that sort of reaction out of the spirits.”

“I figured that was the case,” she sat back a little and shook her head a little. “And you say I do crazy things. So are we doing this, or what?”

“Give me some time to get things ready. Spirit Talking ain’t like snapping your fingers or whistling over a dog.”

She left him to it and headed back to the rest of the posse. Hawkins, Walsh, and Sheriff Wade had come together to watch her and Lonesome converse. “What was that all about?” Hawkins asked. “Everything alright?”

“Just talking strategy,” Katherine lied. “We’re gonna have goyle problems, boys. The plan right now is to run right past ‘em. If we can get enough of a lead Lonesome might be able to cover our tracks a bit, buy us some time to track down Clem and the rest.”

“You think our volunteers are gonna be up for that?” Walsh asked, looking over his shoulder at their hired guns.

“They knew where this was headed,” Katherine dismissed the concern. “Besides, if any of them get cold feet they’re gonna have to get back to town on their own. Given the option, I’m guessing most of them will want to stick with the well armed group rather than be out alone.”

“That’s the truth,” Wade grunted. “Alright then. Let’s go give ‘em the pep talk.”

When everything was ready the posse stood tense and eager, handkerchiefs and rags covering as many faces as possible. Lonesome was out front, ready to lead the charge. He took in a few breaths and tightened his grip on the reins. “Ok friends,” he said in First Words. “Just like we talked about.”

A heavy wind kicked up around the posse. Driven by supernatural forces great mounds of earth rose up to greet it, darkening the sky and creating a near instant sandstorm. Only this wasn’t mere sand – chunks of soil and even small rocks began to whirl around, providing a screen between the humans and any lurking goyles. Lonesome kicked his horse into a full out run, and the posse followed. They tore past the pile of skulls and kept right on going. At first it seemed that either no Gargoyles had been in position to ambush them, or that their plan was working perfectly.

A huge spear flew through the dirtstorm towards the group. Whatever aiming had been done was ruined by the wind and dirt, and the weapon fell short of hitting anyone. But it was only the first of many as the goyles threw one after another blindly into the storm. Then, out of nowhere, a goyle barreled into view. It was clearly disoriented, allowing most of the posse to race by before it had a chance to react. As the last rider neared it crouched, ready to leap at the passing horse’s throat. With a burst of movement taught muscles untensed, and the goyle launched up from the ground. Or it would have, had its feet not been stuck in soil that had softened into a thick, sucking mud. The last rider thundered past unmolested.

More goyles appeared. Having thrown their spears to no effect they were now throwing themselves into the storm, howling with rage and anger. Each met a spirit that gently but sternly made sure the goyle’s aggression came to nothing but close calls. And through it all, not a shot was fired. That was a special order from Lonesome himself. Any man who fired on a goyle during the run would forfeit the protection of the spirits, and everyone had taken that threat seriously.

They were only under attack for a minute or two, but to many of them it was the most terrifying few minutes of their life. And then it was over. The dirtstorm collapsed, leaving not a goyle in sight and every rider accounted for. Katherine resisted the urge to let out a victory cry. They weren’t out of trouble yet, she knew. In fact, they’d just willingly jumped from the frying pan into the fire. But it was a good start, and they’d keep riding hard until the horses needed to stop. Up ahead Lonesome was already working on the next stage of the plan, talking First Words to spirits and trying to convince them to erase signs of the posse’s trail.

 

**********

 

“There’s another one,” Morgan pointed out across the Badlands. The others looked, and sure enough Clayton saw what was obviously the remains of a stone structure. They’d been seeing more and more of them ever since the night at the broken watchtower. All were ruined, with no sign of habitation by anything.

“It can’t be the goyles,” Clayton picked up the argument they’d been having earlier.

“What’re you, an expert on goyles now?” Thomas asked. “How do you know?”

“Have you ever seen a goyle?” Clayton asked. He hadn’t himself, of course, but that wasn’t something he was about to admit. He’d heard enough about them to form an opinion. “They’re huge. Bigger than people. Those buildings are too small.”

“He’s not wrong,” Clem threw in. “Besides, goyles live in caves or make these tent looking things with wood and animal skins. Never seen ‘em build anything out of stone.”

Thomas was not about to admit defeat. “Well maybe they used to be smaller, huh? Could be they were more civilized a long time ago. I’ve read some books. There’s a place back in the old world where they’ve got old castles and stuff, but nobody lives in them anymore. All the people live in little huts made out of mud now.”

“Merciful Mother,” Slim chuckled. “You read one book in your life and now you’re educated.”

“At least I can read,” Thomas cut back acidly.

“Ah, you don’t need to know how to read to get by in life,” Slim shrugged. “I’ve been doing just fine. All you need to know is which end of the gun to point which way.”

Clayton rolled his eyes and caught Clem looking back at them. And at him, specifically. He gave her a questioning look, but she shook her head and turned forward again.

“Clementine,” Brodie talked over the continuing argument, “How much further is this meeting spot of yours?”

“Close,” she promised, though to Clayton’s ear she sounded distracted.

“It better be,” Brodie rumbled. “When we left Red River you said a couple of days. It’s been more than that, and I’m getting tired of riding out into the middle of nowhere on just your promises.”

NaNoWriMo Update Fifteen

Slightly shorter update that I’m not entirely happy with, but at least it’s something. 1230 words with a running total of 26416.

Lonesome left his horse tied to a scrub bush some distance away from the skulls. If the goyles were here he didn’t want to be riding when his mount spooked. He usually preferred walking, anyway, and he’d gotten a bit sore from being in the saddle. It felt good to stretch his legs. There were spirits aplenty around, he could feel it even if he couldn’t see them, so he called one over as he approached the skulls. He asked it where it lived, and it told him it lived in the rocks nearby. “That’s a good home,” he told it in First Words. “A nice, solid boulder that won’t wash away in a flash flood or burn down in a fire. Too big for something to pick up and carry off. Bet you get some right friendly lizards living under it, too.”

A few feet away from the pile of skulls he stopped and looked around. “There’s Gargoyles around, aren’t there friend?” he asked the spirit. It whispered back in his ear, the meaning of the words going straight to his brain without him stopping to think about it. The guardians patrolled, it told him. “Hmm. Well, friend, I’d like to ask you a favor. I don’t want any trouble, but you’ve been around long enough to know how these things can go. If trouble starts I’d like you to help me get out in one piece. The ground around here is softer than the rock you live in. I wager a spirit like you could make it even softer if you put your mind to it. Shift it around a bit, you know? That way if one of the Gargoyles puts his foot down in it, he’ll sink a bit. Slows him down, gives me time to skedaddle. Won’t hurt him any. We don’t want that. What do you say?”

The spirit considered his words for a moment, but agreed readily enough. “My thanks,” Lonesome told it. “Just hold that thought. I’ll give you the word if it needs to happen. Now,” he looked around and tipped his hat up a bit. He made sure to pitch his voice a little louder, “Where are you hiding out at? I see your message, I know what you want. Since you bothered to warn us off I figure you’d rather we just turned around without a fuss. But we can’t do that. We’ll keep on through unless you come have a talk with me.”

A goyle emerged from cover. It had been hiding a safe distance away, but was close enough to have heard Lonesome’s demand. He noted with interest that it carried a spear, something he hadn’t seen since the war. Far behind him, Walsh noted the goyle’s arrival as well. Though the deputy didn’t raise his rifle he held in a way that would let him bring it to bear quickly, and through squinted eyes he was already judging distance and wind. Every detail mattered. If he had to take the shot and missed he doubted he’d get a second chance.

“Hello there,” Lonesome greeted the goyle but didn’t move an inch. Drawn up on two legs, using the spear as a staff with which to walk, the Gargoyle came closer. It sniffed the air a few times, taking in deep lungfulls before snorting them out.

<Spirit Talker,> the goyle growled. Though it spoke the native tongue of its people he could understand it easily. It was an interesting coincidence that the goyles used the same term for what he did as humans. They did it for completely different reasons, of course. Humans called them Spirit Talkers because they talked to spirits. Goyles used the term because they sounded like spirits, using the same First Words to communicate. <Talk,> it invited tersely.

“No introductions?” Lonesome asked it. “That’s not very polite. Your people south of here know me as The Lonely One. I’ve spent time with them, I know a custom or two. I’d like to know your name.”

The goyle tilted its head a little, and its dark eyes narrowed. It looked as if it was reassessing a few assumptions about him. <I am Gravik the Longspear,> it told him. He didn’t need to ask where the honorific had come from. Introduction made, it left the conversation for Lonesome to pick up.

“It’s an honor to meet you, Gravik. My friends over there, and I with them, have come looking for others that passed this way. We want no trouble with your people. Let us take care of our own, and I promise you we’ll leave as quickly as we can. As you can see, we’re willing to work with you if we can.”

<Your trackers are inept, Lonely One. No others came this way.>

Despite the bald faced lie, Lonesome couldn’t call it. Not outright, and not if he wanted to keep his chest spear free. So he went for something the goyle couldn’t argue with. “The spirits tell me otherwise,” he asserted.

There was a moment of calculating silence as Gravik mulled over that information. Lonesome could guess at what it was thinking, and when its answer came he wasn’t terribly surprised. <There were no spirits here to say what was or wasn’t,> it pronounced.

“I know,” he fought hard to keep from sounding too haughty. “That’s exactly how I’ve been following the people I’m after. They’ve got with them a box, a box that the spirits dispise. They leave when it draws near and then return when it’s gone. All I have to ask is if they’ve done that, and why. The box was here, so the people were as well.”

<Rah,> Gravik made a noise like it was enthusiastically clearing its throat. <Just as well,> it said. <Falsehoods taste sour. Those you seek came this way, Lonely One. But you will not be allowed to follow. I was told to turn you away. To allow you a chance to leave without violence. This is that chance. Leave now. Pass the marker and suffer the same fate as those whose heads went into making it.>

“But you let them pass,” Lonesome protested. “Why them? Why with that box? I know the connection your people have to the spirits. How can you abide something they can’t stand?”

<That is not for you to know or judge,> Gravik rumbled. But the towering goyle looked irritated, its nostrils flared and a dozen other signs showed through to Lonesome’s trained eye. Was it possible that even Gravik didn’t know why? Or if it did know it didn’t agree with the reasons? That would be something new.

“I can tell you don’t like this,” Lonesome tried. “You know as well as I do that letting humans wander freely around your home is going to end in trouble. Let us stop them. Let us take that trouble on ourselves.”

<I’ve done what was asked,> Gravik told him. <Leave. Don’t. You know the consequences.> The goyle turned to leave, but Lonesome held up a hand to stop it.

“Hold on. Just… one more thing. Did Clem ask that you turn us away? The Spirit Talker that was with the others?”

<The Rogue One asked that we give you the choice,> Gravik revealed. <We agreed to do this for her.> It turned and stalked away, and this time Lonesome let it leave.

NaNoWriMo Update Fourteen

Extra long weekend update here. Managed to keep pace, if not gain a little ground. Count for this update is 3656 and the running total is 25186.

 

Once they came across signs of a campsite there was little doubt they were on the right path. Hawkins pulled his horse up next to Katherine’s as they rode. “They’re well ahead of us,” he commented, concern creasing his brow. “Think we’ll catch up to them before they make it to wherever it is they’re going?”

“Hard to say, Mr. Hawkins. In my experience, folks move slower if they don’t know they’re being chased.”

“Given how they left Red River they just might expect it,” he noted.

“Could be,” she allowed. “But even so, we’re on their trail a lot sooner than we would have been otherwise thanks to you. Might be they think they’ve got more of a lead than they do. Either way, they’re headed into the Badlands. That means they’re gonna have to slow down. It’s easy to get lost out there, like the ground itself moves stuff around to confuse you. And that’s not even taking into account the goyles.”

“I’ve heard a lot of stories about the Badlands,” Hawkins recalled. Out on the coast the Frontier Wars had sold a lot of newspapers and dime novels. The Gargoyles had taken on a ferocious mythology, most of it made up on the spot. They were the living demons people loved to hate, and the place where they lived developed an equally dangerous reputation. “Is it true they turn to stone?” he asked. “The goyles, that is.”

“Nah,” Katherine looked amused. “That’s just talk. I suppose I could see how they got to that idea, though. Goyles have skin that’s really rough and pebbly, kinda seems like rock if you don’t know what you’re looking at. Some lizards have got the same, though, so not like it’s something otherworldly. A goyle gets caught out away from their homes during the day they dig little pits in the ground, curl up inside and go to sleep. Their backs sticking out like that, they look like a big rock. I imagine somebody got a hell of a fright first time they sat on one.”

“Plenty of people back on the coast think goyles don’t sleep,” Hawkins mentioned. “Plenty of stories about how they favor night raids, but any army walking into the Badlands during the day finds them just as awake.”

“Oh, it’s a little of both. Left on their own they like sunup and sundown the best. Lonesome tells me they like night better than day, but they’ll be awake for either if they have to be.”

“I hope you don’t mind all the questions,” Hawkins apologized. “It’s just that I’d like to be prepared for what’s ahead.”

“I don’t mind any,” she said simply. Truth be told she’d rather the people she was with knew what they were in for. Getting taken by surprise out in the Badlands was usually one of the last things to happen to a person. “Ask away.”

“Well, I hear they’re half again as tall as a man,” Hawkins started. “That they can tear a horse in half with their bare hands, that their skin is made of rock so you have to shoot them in just the right spot… there’s a lot of stuff like that.”

Katherine laughed a bit and shook her head. “My, they do have a reputation, don’t they? Well, let’s see. They’re taller than most men by a head or so, but that’s only when they’re on their back legs. They can run on all fours for a bit, real fast too. And while they could tear your arms off without a second thought I doubt they could do the same to a horse. They’d kill it and eat it, though. As for shooting them… well, it’s like shooting any other big animal. Either you’ve got to have yourself some damn big bullets or it’ll take a lot of them. Doesn’t particularly matter where they get shot, unless you manage to get one in the head.”

“What about Spirit Talkers? I hear the goyles treat them differently.”

“Hmm.” Katherine looked ahead, to where Lonesome rode in front of the rest. “Far as I can tell that one’s true, but the why of it isn’t something I’ve ever been able to figure out. Lonesome won’t talk about it any.”

“The men we’re after have a Spirit Talker,” Hawkins pointed out. “Do you think she can get them through without any trouble from the goyles?”

“Might be,” Katherine recalled her last foray into the Badlands and Lonesome’s “understanding” with the local goyles. “If she knows the area she might be on good terms with the goyles, which is really something I should’ve thought to ask.”

Wade was riding a little ways behind her, so Katherine slowed her horse until he caught up. “Arbiter,” he said as she matched pace on one side and Hawkins the other. “What’s the word?”

“I need to know how often Clementine Baxter left town for long periods of time, and if she came out to the Badlands much.”

“Yeah,” Wade recalled. “She’d leave for some pretty long spells from time to time. Never knew where she went, but she always came back. Why?”

“Just had a thought,” she said by way of explanation. Without another word she spurred her horse forward, aiming to catch up with Lonesome.

“What’s that all about?” Wade asked Hawkins. “Something up? I’d rather know if there was.”

“Clementine might’ve been coming out here to make nice with the Gargoyles,” Hawkins revealed. “If she did, it sounds like things could be more trouble than we thought.”

Lonesome turned around in his saddle. Most of the group had given him a respectable lead, which was fine with him. But now Katherine was closing the distance. It wasn’t a full out gallop, though, so he didn’t slow down any. “Kat,” he nodded to her as soon as she was within earshot. “What’s the hustle about?”

“I’ve gotta ask you a question I’m kicking myself for not asking you sooner,” she told him. “That understanding you had with the goyles back near Kormac’s Bluff, would that extend out here?”

“It’s a bit far from my usual,” Lonesome told her. “So probably not. But goyles talk to each other, so there’s a chance. I wasn’t going to count on it any. Why do you ask?”

“Clementine has been coming out here to the Badlands from time to time. I figure she’s been doing the same thing as you, talking to the goyles and getting on their good side. That could mean trouble for us, couldn’t it?” She looked Lonesome in the eye, wanting a straightforward answer.

They were almost out of the plains now, into the rocky landscape that marked the leading edge of the Badlands. He looked away from her, out over the rocks and scrub and gnarled trees. “If she can talk her way in, so can I,” he said at last. “You sound like you expect her to set the goyles on us.”

“Can’t she?”

“It doesn’t work like that, Kat.They’ll come after us because they want to, not because she said so. You try to tell a goyle to do anything and things are gonna go a bad way. Most you can do is convince them that it’s best for everyone to leave you be.”

 

**********

 

The steady click-click-click of a revolver’s cylinder slowly being turned echoed off of the rocky hills. Brodie winced at each turn. He’d been trying to ignore the sound, but it was unnaturally loud and had been going on for what seemed like forever. “Curse it, Slim,” he finally snapped, “Knock it off before I take that thing away and beat you with it.”

“I can’t help it,” the outlaw complained, voice a little higher than usual. “I’m nervous. This place makes me itch. Like there’s somebody watchin’ all the time.”

“Just be glad he’s not fiddlin’ with the dynamite,” Morgan added.

“You know he’s right,” Thomas muttered. “We’re being watched. I can feel it. Hell, any one of those boulders could be a goyle.”

“Yeah? And what do you expect you can do about it?” Brodie asked. “You just gonna go shootin’ random rocks, just in case?”

“Would you lot be a little quieter?” Clem, who’d been riding in front, turned around and gave them an exasperated look. “You’re like a passel of school girls back there. Yeah, we’re being watched. Yeah, it’s the goyles. You don’t get this far into the Badlands without them noticing. Just shut up and don’t do anything rash or stupid. I’ll handle it.”

“You’ll handle it, will you?” Brodie asked. “How’re you gonna do that?”

“It’s a little thing called diplomacy, Brodie. Once they decide to make something out of this I’ll have a word with ‘em.”

Clayton, riding at the back with the pack horse, tried to tune them out as they continued their back and forth. He watched the boulders and hills around them, and every now and again he thought he saw something move. The goyles continued to keep pace with them until near sundown. It was then, backlit by the setting sun, that one of them broke cover and started down a nearby hill. Another followed it, and Clayton felt his heart jump into his throat.

“Clem,” he said as calmly as possible, “Clem, I think they’re making something of it now.”

About a half dozen goyles had come down behind them and were keeping pace on four limbs. Clementine turned her horse around and the others stopped, nervously handling their weapons as Clem held up a hand for them to hold steady. More goyles came out of hiding to finish surrounding them. Clem turned her horse in a tight circle, looking for the one in charge. Clayton didn’t know how she picked it out, but she settled on one goyle in particular and trotted over to it. When she was close enough she dismounted and approached on foot. The goyle straightened up onto two legs to greet her, snarling and grunting something in its own language.

Clayton couldn’t hear much of the conversation that ensued, but he was certain that’s what it was. Somehow Clem was talking to the goyles. Not in their own language, but with words that sounded an awful lot like the ones she’d used back in Red River to try and call up the spirits during their standoff with Wade.

Whatever she said it seemed to work. The goyles backed off and disappeared back into the scenery, leaving the group free to go. Clem hopped back on her horse and smirked at Brodie. “There,” she said with a little sass, “You feel better now?” Brodie just scowled in reply.

Clem had another surprise up her sleeve when the light of day had finished fading away. She’d been quiet ever since their encounter with the goyles, and they were talking about where to make camp when she spoke up once more. “There’s a place a little ways from here,” she told them. “We’re moving a little slower than I thought. Figured we’d make it before sundown, but it’s still close enough.”

They followed her to where the land rose into a small hill. Shards of rock pushed up through the ground around it, harsher and more angular than most of the boulders they’d seen. If Clayton hadn’t known better he’d have said they formed something like an irregular wall around the hill. As they wound their way through the rocks he could start to make out something atop the rise, something that looked too regular for a rock formation. His suspicion was borne out when they got close enough to see it in detail.

It was clearly a wall made of interlocking stones, so precisely put together that the outside seemed smooth. All in all it was about two stories tall, though from the ragged outline of the top it used to be higher. Morgan whistled softly into the night as Clayton ran a hand over it’s cold surface. “Well ain’t this something,” Thomas said thoughtfully.

“Damn strange is what it is,” Brodie told him. “I didn’t think we made any forts this far in.”

“We didn’t,” Clem told him. “This ain’t a fort.”

“Nah,” Morgan agreed, “Too small for that. It’s like a lookout tower. Or it used to be until half of it got torn down.”

The inside of the old tower was empty, but had more than enough room for them to make a camp. The floor was a little uncomfortable, covered as it was by worn stones that interlocked in the same manner as the walls. But at least they could see the stars. Whatever second floor had once been must’ve been made of wood, and had long since rotted or burned away. They made spaces for themselves along the walls and built up a small fire in the middle, leaving their horses tethered to scrub trees outside.

Clayton wasn’t sure what woke him during the night. The fire had died down to a pile of glowing coals, and everyone else was still asleep. No, not everyone. On a second look he saw one person was missing – Clementine. Normally he wouldn’t have thought anything of it. Everybody had to answer the call of nature from time to time, after all. But this far into goyle territory, and with everything Brodie had said about Clem leading them out here only to let them die? He wondered if he should wake the others, hemming and hawing about it for nearly a minute before deciding not to. It could just be something innocent. No need to get everybody riled up if it was nothing. But he needed to know one way or another, so he got up and headed outside with one hand on his sidearm.

Nothing seemed amiss outside. There were no hordes of Gargoyles waiting to attack their camp, and the only sounds were the breeze rustling the trees and the insects making their strange music. A quick check of the horses told him Clem hadn’t taken off somewhere without them. She was nearby, somewhere. The breeze brought a snatch of sound different from the rest. It caught Clayton’s ear, and he followed the direction it had come from until he heard more of the same. It was Clem’s voice, speaking the strange language he’d heard twice before.

The Spirit Talker was sitting cross legged, her back against one of the jagged rock outcroppings a little way down the hill. For a moment he thought she might be talking to a goyle, but he could see no sign of one. He stood there silently, gripped by uncertainty. She didn’t look to be doing anything sinister. There was no need to disturb her, was there?

Clementine made the decision for him. Abruptly breaking out of her strange speech she called out to him. “You just gonna stand there and watch me all night, Clay?”

Clayton felt a blush spread up his neck at having been caught. “I didn’t mean to intrude,” he said. “Or stare,” he added. “I was just… well, I woke up and I…”

“Don’t try too hard,” Clem told him. “You saw I was missing and you got suspicious. I don’t blame you.”

“Don’t you?” Clayton asked, walking down the hill towards her. “It doesn’t bother you any that Brodie doesn’t trust you?”

“Oh, I’m sure it’s not just Brodie,” Clem said, her tone knowing. She was still wearing her cavalry hat, but as Clayton got closer she took it off and set it down in her lap. “Hell,” she said, one thumb running over the brim, “I wouldn’t trust me much either.”

Clayton sat down across from her and asked, “Who, or maybe what, were you talking to just now?”

“There’s no goyles around, if that’s what you’re worried about,” she assured him. “I was just talking to the spirits.”

Clayton looked around curiously, as if he could see them if he knew what to look for. “What about?” he asked.

“Remember when I told you they didn’t like whatever was in that box you lot are draggin’ along with you?”

He nodded and looked back at the wreck of a watchtower. They’d brought the box in with them so they could keep an eye on it. “Yeah?” he said uncertainly.

“I was trying to figure out why that is. I had to come all the way down here just to find a spirit that would talk to me about it.”

“You mean you don’t know already?” Clayton was honestly surprised. He’d figured that Clem knew and was just playing coy with them.

“I wasn’t lying when I told you I had one job to do. The boss says to get your boys and that box to the meeting spot, that’s what I do. I know better than to ask questions about it.”

“You know,” Clay said thoughtfully, “Brodie never did tell me who hired him for this job. Said I didn’t need to know. But you do.” The suggestion that she tell him was not so subtly applied.

Clem gave him that measuring look again, like she had before she’d told him about her time in the cavalry. “His name is Dorean. You don’t need to know more than that.”

“You know him,” Clayton guessed. Clem looked surprised for a moment, but covered it quickly.

“Yeah,” she admitted. “He and I… we were friends, way back. That’s why I’m doing this. That much money just to drag a handful of outlaws and a box through goyle territory? Anybody else I’d think the deal was sour. He’ll keep his word though, don’t you worry.”

Clayton nodded. “Sorry to bother you, Clem. I’ll let you get back to talking.” He got up and walked back to the camp. Clem pressed her lips together a little tighter as she watched him go, and rubbed a little harder at the brim of her hat.

 

**********

 

“Hold up,” Lonesome raised a hand. The posse behind him ambled to a stop, with the exception of Katherine, who rode up to speak with him.

“What’ve you got, Lonesome?”

“See that up there?” the Spirit Talker asked, pointing out ahead of the group.

It took her a moment, but Katherine followed his direction and caught sight of a small mound of stones. Once she realized it was something that had been deliberately put together it was easy to figure out why it had caught Lonesome’s attention. “Are those what I think they are?” she asked, keeping her voice pitched low so the others wouldn’t hear.

“Yup,” Lonesome sighed. “That’s a friendly reminder that we aren’t welcome here.”

“You’re telling me the goyles are using a pile of skulls to warn us off?”

Lonesome gave her a frank look. “Can you think of any other message something like that’s meant to send?”

“Hmm,” she chewed her bottom lip thoughtfully. “Could that be what’s left of men we’re chasing? Maybe this is like Lee Caswell?”

“Sorry to shoot holes in that fine idea, but there’re more than five skulls in that pile, Kat. I’d say more like a dozen. Probably left over from the war. And if this was something like Lee they’d give us the whole body. No, this is them telling us to mind our own. They’re giving us a chance to turn around, probably because there are so many of us.”

“What about Clem and her group?” Katherine asked. “They would have gotten the same warning, wouldn’t they?”

“I imagine so.”

“Then we need to know if they made it through or not. We know they didn’t turn around, otherwise we would’ve found ‘em by now. So either they got a pass, or the goyles took care of them. If it’s the first then you said it yourself, Lonesome. If she can talk her way past the goyles so can you.”

“And if it’s the second?” he asked, not looking pleased with that outcome.

“Then we need the bodies, if possible. The box at the very least. We get that and we can go home and leave them be.”

Lonesome heaved sigh and looked at the pile of skulls again. “I guess that means you want me to go have a word with them.” He sounded resigned to doing it, even though Katherine hadn’t answered.

“There’s bound to be at least a couple watching to see what we decide,” she guessed. She took a moment to look around. She didn’t see any, but then she knew from experience that if a goyle didn’t want to be seen in the Badlands it would take a lot more than a cursory glance to spot it.

“Fine, fine. You all just hold tight here. Make sure they don’t get jumpy if any goyles show,” he indicated Wade and the rest of the Red River group with a tilt of his head.

As Lonesome headed for the stack of skulls Katherine went back to the group. She picked out Wash and Hawkins and gestured for them to come have a word. “Freckles,” she addressed the deputy, adopting Lonesome’s nickname for him. “You said you were good with a rifle?”

“That’s right,” he said, straightening a little with pride.

“Good. Cover Lonesome. Spirits know if he were a fox he could talk his way into a henhouse with not much more than a smile, but I don’t like the idea that Clementine might’ve been doing some talking of her own. Any goyles to show make a move on him, I want a bullet through its eye. Don’t stop to think twice.”

Walsh’s smiling demeanor turned serious, and he pulled his rifle from it’s saddle holster. “Yes ma’am,” he nodded dutifully and set his horse trotting away.

“Mister Hawkins,” she turned to the Haversham & Black man. “Let’s you and I spread the word. There might be goyles showing up here soon, and we don’t want anyone to start shooting unless it’s necessary.”

NaNoWriMo Update Thirteen

Somewhat smaller update tonight, on account of a nasty head cold that makes me all fuzzy. Word count is 1290 with a total of 21530.

Hawkins watched them stagger into the saloon from across the street. When they’d gone inside he walked away from the shack he’d been using as cover and headed for the jail. There were no lights on, but his insistent pounding on the door woke whoever was inside in short order. There was the sound of a lock sliding back. The door creaked open, revealing the barrel of a shotgun. Sheriff wade loomed behind it. “Oh,” he said once he made out Hawkins’ face. “It’s you.”

“Mind if I come inside?” asked, nodding to the shotgun.

“Sure, sure,” Wade lowered the gun and opened the door wider. “But it’s a bit late for a social call, isn’t it?”

“Oh, this is no social call,” Hawkins pushed through the door and walked to the center of the room. “This is all business. Haversham & Black business.”

The door closed solidly and Wade made sure it was locked. When he turned to face Hawkins he wore a suspicious expression. “Do tell,” he invited.

“Where’s your telegraph?”

“Ain’t no telegraph poles coming into this backwater mining town,” Wade told him. “You shoulda noticed that on your own.”

Hawkins leaned against the sheriff’s desk and crossed his arms. One hand dangled just above a holstered pistol, gloved fingers brushing the weapons grip. “What I know, sheriff, is that you heard about the reward on those train robbers before they’d even gotten to your town. Even if a rider got sent out the moment I made it back to Blackoak, how would they have known to come here?”

Wade’s eyes narrowed, and the shotgun lifted just a fraction of an inch before going back down. “The Arbiter send you?” he asked.

“I told you this was Haversham & Black business,” Hawkins stared him down. “So how about a little professional courtesy, from one employee to another?”

Wade sniffed in an exaggerated manner, but he put the shotgun down next to the door and pulled out a chair. “Lines are buried,” he admitted. “The boys back east wanted to keep it all low key. A lot of the towns along the edge of the Badlands have ‘em. For a modest fee we keep ‘em updated on goyle activity. Maybe they knew the bandits would head out into the Badlands, maybe they were just hedging their bets. Soon as you wandered into Blackoak their man in the telegraph office sent word to headquarters, and headquarters fired off instructions to us. I reckon every town they have an arrangement with got the same message. They want that box back real bad.”

“I can only imagine,” Hawkins replied. “Now where’s the telegraph? It’s time I checked in.”

Wade led him to a back room of the jailhouse, where a complicated looking machine sat. “Puts the dots and dashes on paper,” Wade explained. “So somebody doesn’t have to be here listening all the time. You use it like a normal one.”

Hawkins asked for privacy, and Wade withdrew. It had been some time since he’d actually used a telegraph, but after a slow start it all started coming back. His message was short and simple.

Employee WH3E4S

Location Red River

In pursuit of lockbox

Am accompanying Arbiter

Instructions requested

With the missive sent he sat back and waited for a reply. He didn’t have long to wait. The machine whirred to life, almost silent except for the tack-tack-tack of the mechanism putting dots and dashes to a small strip of paper. He followed along with his eyes, one hand holding up the strip as it churned out. When it had finished he ripped the paper off, folded it neatly, and put it in his vest pocket.

“Get what you needed?” Wade asked when he came out.

“More or less,” Hawkins told him.

“Don’t look too happy about it.”

Hawkins stopped at the front door. He turned his head to look back at Wade. “Good night, sheriff,” he said simply, then walked out into the dark.

Roughly a dozen men showed up in front of the jailhouse come morning, each and every one of them carrying a weapon. Two were Wade’s deputies, here because he’d told them to be, but most looked like miners who worked at pulling up the cynnabar near the river. It was more manpower than Katherine had expected to see, and she wondered just how much Haversham & Black was promising as a reward. Or how much Hawkins had inflated it to get more people. Not that she was going to ask, of course. She stood on the jail’s porch, next to Wade’s rocking chair, and let the sheriff do the talking.

“Thank you all for coming,” he told them, thumbs hooked in his belt. “I know most of you are here for the money, but that don’t change that you’re doing this town a service. The men that came through here a few days ago are the same ones that derailed a train near Blackoak and made off with H&B property. They’re headed into the Badlands now, and if they’re half as much trouble out there as they were at Blackoak we’ll soon have goyles knocking on our door for some payback. None of us want that, so we’re going after them. You already know Mr. Hawkins. This here is Arbiter Wild Kat Bishop,” he gestured back to Katherine, who managed to suppress the urge to glare at Lonesome. “We’ll ride with her people to do it. Some of you may have heard that Clementine Baxter is with the the men we’re after. Don’t let that give you pause. Bishop has a Spirit Talker of her own here, Lonesome Cooper. He’ll be more than a match for Clem. Arbiter, you got anything to add?”

“Just a few,” she stepped forward. “Starting with this. I don’t care if the H&B bounty says alive or dead, I want these men alive if possible. Anybody who kills one of them when you could’ve taken him in still breathing not only forfeits your part of the reward, you’re gonna wind up in jail yourself. And remember, we’re going into goyle territory but our aim is to not piss them off if we can avoid it. We run into any, you let me or Lonesome here handle it. Last, each of these men has been deputized by me. If Hawkins, Lonesome, or Walsh tells you to do something, treat it like it comes from me. Now let’s get to it.”

Tracking fugitives when you didn’t have an actual destination in mind was by necessity a slow operation. There were a lot of signs you had to look for, some of them easily missed, and if your quarry took a sudden change in direction you might have to backtrack to pick up on where you’d missed it. Dogs helped, if they were properly trained, but that was a luxury Katherine didn’t have. Luckily she had something better. She had a Spirit Talker, and while Lonesome had to pause occasionally he could do a lot of his talking from the back of a moving horse. Weather and time could erase physical signs of someone’s passing, but there was little you could do to silence spirits who’d seen you go by.

Clem could have tried, of course, being a Spirit Talker herself. As luck would have it she didn’t seem to have been expecting pursuit by someone with her own particular talents, and so she hadn’t bothered. But then, the box she was towing behind her did half that job anyway. Most of Lonesome’s pauses were to try and figure out if the spirits hadn’t seen anything because there was nothing to see, or if they hadn’t seen anything because they’d left and then come back.

NaNoWriMo Update Twelve

This update is 1808 words, which means I’m still catching up on that deficit a bit. Running total is 20240. Also, this one got a bit more sentimental than I thought it would. But hey, I managed to keep it from becoming an all out romance story! At least, I think I did. Guess we’ll see how the rest of it goes.

Lonesome wasn’t using his glass either, but that’s because he wasn’t there. Katherine hadn’t explicitly told him to come see her when he was done collecting supplies with Walsh, but she’d thought he would wander in to have a talk without prompting. With darkness descending it was looking more and more like that wasn’t going to happen.

“Damnit, Cooper.” The glasses clinked together as she took them both in one hand, picked up the bottle in the other, and pushed to her feet. If Lonesome wouldn’t come to her, she’d go find him. While that sounded like a good plan it turned out to be a bit more difficult than she’d reckoned. Her first guess, the jail, was a bust. Hawkins and Walsh were out back of it though, the Haversham & Black man trying his best to teach the deputy to shoot with his off hand. She leaned against the corner of the building and watched for a spell.

“It’s all practice,” Hawkins was saying. He cut quite a figure against the backdrop of the dying sunlight, in his pinstripe vest and bowler. He’d put on a pair of tight black leather gloves for shooting practice, which added another touch of dapper to the overall image. “Stand like this,” he told Walsh, and adopted a stance that put Katherine in mind of gentlemen dueling with flintlock pistols at dawn. One hand held at the small of his back, spine straight, left arm out to the side as he aimed downrange. Walsh attempted to mimic the posture, but it just didn’t have the same impact.

“I don’t even shoot like this with my good hand,” Walsh complained.

“It’s just to get you used to holding the gun in your off hand. You have to get your muscles trained. When you shoot right handed you hardly think about it, don’t you? That’s what we want to get to. Once you’re used to it you can go back to standing how you normally would.”

They both fired off a few rounds at the empty bottles Hawkins had set up against a dirt mound. Some struck home, shattering the glass, while others went wild into the dirt. It was easy to guess which bullets were fired by whom.

Katherine left the support of the jail’s wall and made sure they could hear her coming. She knew better than to surprise anyone with a gun in hand. “Well done,” she told the both of them with an encouraging, if lopsided, smile. “You’ll get that down in no time, Walsh.”

“No need to lie to me, ma’am,” the deputy told her dourly. “I know when I’m no good.”

“Fair enough,” she allowed. “Just keep practicing. You’ll get it eventually.”

Hawkins dropped his revolver neatly into its holster and asked, “What’s the news, Arbiter?” She saw him look at the glasses and bottle of whiskey, but he didn’t say anything about it.

“Just checking in on things,” she lied.

“Well, everything’s going fine right here,” he assured her. “I think having me around to promise that reward got us some more volunteers, but we won’t know for sure how many until tomorrow. If you wanted to check in with Lonesome about the supplies, I think he went down to the river,” he added.

“Oh, I helped with that,” Walsh started, only to have Hawkins cut him off.

“You’ve still got some practicing to do. Lonesome’s off thataway, somewhere,” Hawkins gestured with one gloved hand.

“But it won’t-” Walsh started. Katherine saw Hawkins give him a downright mean look, and the deputy raised both eyebrows. “Won’t… be light out for too much longer, so maybe I should just get to it?”

“That sounds like a good idea,” Katherine agreed, telling herself it must be the alcohol to blame for her cheeks feeling warm like they were. “I’ll see you boys tomorrow.”

Once she was out of earshot, Walsh scratched his head. “I don’t think I know what all that was about, Walter.”

“Did you see what she was carrying, Aaron?”

“Looked like a bottle of whiskey and some glasses,” Walsh recalled.

“That’s right,” Hawkins nodded. “Two glasses. Now, I haven’t known Arbiter Bishop for much longer than you have, but if I’ve noticed anything about her it’s how she gets on with Lonesome. And you recall she didn’t offer to do any drinking with us. Which leaves who?”

“Oh,” Walsh caught on. “I got it now.”

Katherine found Lonesome right where Hawkins said he’d be, sitting cross legged by the side of the river with his hands folded in his lap. She dropped down beside him, one leg folded underneath her and one knee raised so she could rest an arm on it. She set the glasses and the bottle between them.

“Katherine,” Lonesome greeted her. It had almost become too dark to see, but she could just make out that he had his eyes closed.

“Lonesome,” she completed the ritual. The sounds of the plains at night filled the silence that followed. It had been a long time since they’d sat under the stars, just the two of them.

“I think I’ll have some of that, if you don’t mind,” he said at last.

“Brought it to share,” she told him. He opened his eyes at last and poured himself a drink, then filled the other glass for Katherine. “Been talkin’?” she asked as he sipped his.

When his lips were free he shrugged slightly and said, “Only a bit. Mostly just enjoying the solitude.”

“I thought you Spirit Talkers were never alone.”

“We could be, if we wanted. All it would take is asking them to go away for a bit. I wager they’d listen. But that’s different. Different being around just them than being around people, I mean.” He set the glass in his lap and gazed down into it.

“Don’t make me pry it out of you, Lonesome,” Katherine prompted.

He shifted his weight and took another drink. “There’s still a lot you don’t know about me, isn’t there Kat?”

“I reckon so. Believe it or not, Lonesome, you’re not the most talkative type. And I know better than to dig. Most of the time, anyway. But this I’ve got to know.”

“I rode with the third cavalry back when the territories were trying to push the goyles out of the Badlands,” he told her. “They liked to put Spirit Talkers out as scouts when they could. There weren’t many of us, but we could track things no one else could. We could mask the passing of an entire company if we needed to, and for some reason the goyles weren’t as keen to kill us as they were any other human. The scouts got to know each other pretty well, and not just on account of how there were so few of us. That war was… there was no way we could win, Kat. The goyles knew the Badlands like we never could. But the powers that were just kept raising companies and throwing them out there to die. Time after time the only ones to come back were the scouts, and most of the time it was just the ones that knew First Words. It got to us, leading men out there to die. We knew they would, and when it happened there was nothing we could do to stop it.”

Lonesome set his glass aside and rubbed his face with both hands. “I think… I think we just started giving up. Some just blew their own brains out. Some deserted. Some rode out into the Badlands and never came back. I was one of the few that actually stuck it out to the end, and I’m not even sure why I did it.”

“I don’t mean to judge, Lonesome,” Katherine said into the dim light of the stars, “But you’re on awfully friendly terms with the goyles for having watched them kill so many people.”

“Could you blame them? We marched into their home and tried to kill them first, Kat. I’m just trying to keep any more people from getting killed,” he almost snapped, but managed to keep his tone just this side of civil. “That’s how I’m dealing with it. Clem… hell, I don’t know what she’s up to. Last I heard she died out in the Badlands on some damn fool rescue mission. Some decided to go out that way, you know. With the people they led into the jaws of death rather than living through it again.”

“Any idea why she’s tied to the robbery?”

“Back when I knew her there was no way she’d be involved in something like this. Not for any amount of money. But these days, after what she went through and whatever she’s done in between? I don’t know, Kat. I just dont know.”

“Fair enough,” Katherine accepted his answer. “I’ve just got one more question. You and her… were you ever…?”

“I thought you knew better than to dig.” He sounded more bitter than she’d ever heard him before, and it twisted something in her gut just a little.

“Sorry, I should’ve known better than to ask.” She pushed to her feet and dusted off her pants. From the looks of it he needed some time alone, and she was more than willing to let him have it. But she hadn’t so much as taken a single step when he spoke again.

“Hey, Kat?”

“Hmm?”

“You leavin’ already? I don’t want to finish that bottle alone.” There was a strain in his voice, just beneath the surface.

“No, Lonesome,” she said softly. “I was just stretchin’ my legs.”

They sat looking up at the stars, hardly talking until the last of the whiskey was gone. When it was time to head back Lonesome helped Katherine to her feet. He held her hand just a second longer than was necessary once she was on her feet, but pulled it back soon enough that she could attribute it to the alcohol. “We never were, you know,” he said as they started their walk back to the saloon and their rooms.

“What?”

“Clem and I. We were never… you know.”

“Oh. You didn’t have to say anything about it. I never should’ve asked.”

Lonesome shrugged. “I just wanted you to know. If we run into her out there you don’t have to worry about me chasing old flames. Comes down to it, you know where I stand.”

“And where would that be?” she asked. It was a leading question and she knew it, but there was a pleasant haze just now that made it so she didn’t really care.

“The same place I always stand when you’re around,” Lonesome followed the lead like he hadn’t seen it. “Right by you. And maybe a touch behind, depending on if we’re getting shot at.”