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.”



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