Brakes screeched, and the train car lurched. Slowing to a stop, a thick cloud of steam from the engine rolled over the station. Dozen’s of people bundled against the cold stood on the platform waiting for friends or family members.
Ben Wayde didn’t have any friends or family here on the frontier. Only a client and a story to tell.
“Wash City,” the conductor called over the screaming wheels. “Last stop, end of the line.”
End of the line indeed. Ben gazed out into Wash City and could tell he was seeing all of it from where he sat. A general store, stables, a couple of saloons, printer’s, and a physician’s practice line either side of a single muddy street. A drift of filthy snow lined a boardwalk down the right side. There must have been more to the city, but this pitiful sight was its center. The saloon on the northern end of the street must have also been a brothel because several women stood outside, not dressed for the cold, beckoning men inside. Business must be slow on Tuesday evenings.
Pulling on the back of the seat in front of him, Ben stood and grabbed his suitcase from the rack overhead. The pistol bounced against his ribs, reminding him it was there. Cynthia had made him bring it. She worried, which Ben could understand. He worried too, but he could never imagine using the damned thing. Better to have it and not need it.
Ben stepped over the gap and onto the platform, pulling his coat tightly around him. Slowly, the other passengers found their loved ones and trickled into the city or town. It could hardly be called a city. Pulling his pocket watch out, Ben clicked it open. The train had arrived on time. Four-o-clock on the dot. So, where is my greeter?
“Mister Wayde,” a deep voice boomed from up the street.
A large man sat tall on top of a shining black horse, walking down the center of the street. Two other horses followed behind. Ben gave a polite wave and walked out to meet him. When he drew closer, Ben realized the man had no eyes as if the skin on his cheek and the skin on his forehead had fused over the sockets. A sorcerer.
It didn’t take long to find one out here. Magic had been prohibited in the states for some time. Of course, some practiced illegally, but always in secret. Mafias, crime syndicates, and the like. Out here in the frontier territories, magic was not illegal and practiced openly. Ben knew this, but it still came as a shock.
The blind man dismounted and wordlessly took Ben’s suitcase, shifting a wad of chaw from one cheek to the other. He lashed the case to the packhorse and gestured to the saddled, black and white appaloosa.
“I was hoping for some time in town to freshen up, maybe get a drink.”
“We got drinks in camp,” the blind man said.
“I’m not dressed for a winter ride,” Ben said.
He didn’t look directly at Ben but still seemed to be able to see. Then Ben remembered reading something about some sorcerers choosing to sacrifice their eyes for the ability to see through the eyes of animals and impose their will upon them. Ben glanced into the black eyes of the appaloosa and quickly looked away.
“You can ride, cant’ye?”
“Well, yes,” Ben stammered, glancing up into the surrounding mountains. “I’ve only ever ridden over level terrain. City streets, country roads, that sort of thing.”
“I won’t let Maggie throw ya,” the blind man said. “Hop up there.”
Ben put a foot in the stirrup and swung his leg over. He patted the side of Maggie’s neck, wondered if the blind man could feel it, and jerked his hand back. The blind man’s horse turned around without any physical guidance, and he mounted.
“It’s all right,” he said. “Ye’ ain’t pattin’ me when you do that, and Maggie likes it.”
So Ben patted Maggie again as she followed the blind man’s horse.
“I didn’t get your name,” Ben said.
“Name’s Carter,” he said over his shoulder. “I’m Mister Slayter’s scout and journalist fetcher.”
“Nice to meet you, Mister Carter.”
“Likewise.” Carter spat dark tobacco juice into the mud. “Drop the ‘mister’ off the front ‘o that, and it’ll work just fine.”
The gun thumped against Ben’s ribs as they rode through the town, and Ben noticed Carter didn’t carry a gun. At least as far as he could tell. Slayter’s outfit was supposed to be some of the best fighters on the frontier. Ben couldn’t imagine any of them going unarmed.
“You don’t carry a gun, Mist... eh, Carter?”
“Gun wouldn’t be much use in the hands of a blind man, don’t ye think?”
Ben nodded, feeling stupid. One of the prostitutes placed her finger and thumb between red lips and whistled to the passing pair.
“Come inside, Carter,” she said. “Show ye an’ yer frien’ a good time.”
“Ye always do, Lilly,” Carter called back. “Another time. We got somewhere t’ be.”
“Everyone’s got somewhere t’ be, sugar.”
Lilly winked at Ben. He gave a polite wave and half expected Cynthia’s purse to smack the back of his head. Lilly had been branded between her collarbones. A circle with a verticle line through the center. Ben had read something about these. A ward against disease. Well, it’s good to know they aren’t passing the rot around.
Near the edge of town, several tall poles had been erected. As they drew closer, Ben realized there were bodies hanging from them. Dozens of bodies had been strung up by their necks, but hanging was not their mode of death, it would appear. Most had been shot or stabbed. Some had been burned to a crisp. One of the bodies looked like it had been skinned, or the skin had dissolved away. Several had been torn to shreds.
“Marauders,” Carter said. He must have been watching Ben through the pack horse’s eyes. “Each one deserved what he got.”
Ben hooked a finger into his collar and tugged at it.
Once outside of town, the horses began to canter. Well, Carter made them canter. They climbed steadily into the mountains, over snowy meadows and between boulders that radiated cold. He opened and closed his hands, working warm blood back into his fingers. His gloves were not thick enough for this.
A flash of motion drew Ben’s attention to a woodline uphill. Four black wolves lept from the trees and ran downhill to intercept the horses.
“Carter,” Ben gasped.
The blind man waved a hand dismissively. “They’re mine. S’all right.”
The wolves fell into place, trotting alongside the horses. They were much more significant than Ben would expect a wolf to be. They indeed weren’t dogs. Maggie wasn’t afraid, so Ben decided not to be, but his eyes kept flashing down to the massive beasts.
After an hour ride, a thin wisp of white smoke waved over the treetops ahead.
“Almost there,” Carter called over his shoulder.
Good. My face is getting numb, and the sun is going down. They rounded a stand of tree’s and several squat buildings came into view. Several men stood on a long, covered porch at the front of a log cabin. One of the men stepped off the porch, and the wolves took off at a sprint, yipping happily. The wolves knocked the man over in the snow, licking his face with wagging tails.
“The wolves love Jerome.”
Apparently. Ben couldn’t help but think a mauling might look similar to what he was watching. Two more men stepped off the porch and strode out to meet Carter.
One looked like he could fill a whole doorway so that one could not pass a sheet of paper to the other side. He had a bushy beard and wore a wide-brimmed hat. A thick bison skin kept the snow off of his shoulders. Two bandoleers crossed on his chest full of shotgun shells. He rested the gun on his shoulder with his finger hovering over the trigger. Carvings seemed to glint in the waning light up and down the shotgun’s barrels. Runes. Many of them gave off just a hint of yellow light.
The other gripped the stem of a corncob pipe between stained teeth, and he smailed under a drooping mustache. He was a short man, but he carried himself like his stature didn’t matter much. He hung his thumbs behind his unpolished belt buckle. His gunbelt sagged lower on his hip with a six-shooter holstered. His jacket and pants had dozens of little cigarette burns all over them, but he smoked a pipe.
“Welcome to winter camp, friend,” the shorter man said. “I’m Clem, and the big, ugly one is Earl.”
Earl gruffed, juggling a second chin under his thick beard.
Clem pointed. “That’s the barn, there’s the bunkhouse, there’s the cabin, and there’s a crapper around back.”
Carter dismounted and stripped Ben’s bag from the packhorse. Ben dismounted, and the horses walked to the barn.
“Come on inside.” Clem spat around the pipe stem, and a flash of bright flame bloomed in the snow where his saliva hit. “Warm ye up.”
Earl scoffed. “You gotta do that?”
“No,” Clem chuckled. “But it’s fun, ain’t it?”
On the way to the cabin, Ben passed the man who was playing with the wolves. He appeared to be native American, but he didn’t wear much of the garb one might expect by reading dime novels. No feathers, bones, or war paint.
“The injun’s Jerome.” Carter pointed without turning his head. “He’ll be along when he’s done wrestlin’ them wolves.”
“I’m comin’ now.” Jerome stood and brushed the snow off his pants. “It’s too cold to stay out.”
They opened the door and Ben followed them into the cabin. It was warm with a fire blazing in the hearth. Something gently bubbled in a kettle hanging over the flames. A black woman stood nearby, stirring it. Her head snapped to Ben, jingling beads in her hair. The woman appeared young, but her eyes seemed so much older. Ben couldn’t pinpoint why. She didn’t wear a dress. It might be challenging to ride in the terrain in one, Ben thought.
“Hector,” Carter called up a steep staircase.
A boy of about twelve flew down the stair’s thumping on the floorboards beside Carter.
“See to them horses, boy,” Carter said. “Unsaddle ‘em, feed ‘em, git ‘em put up for the night.”
“Right away, Mister Carter,” Hector said as he slipped his arms into his thick jacket and rushed out into the cold.
“That was Mister Slayter’s apprentice, Hector.” Clem pointed over his shoulder to the door with a hitched thumb. “He’s earnin’ a place on the crew, so we put ‘im to work.”
Ben wondered how Carter could see inside until he noticed a horned owl perched in the rafters overhead. It cocked its head at Ben and let out a soft coo. The other crew members settled into the room, kicking their feet up.
“That’s Mama Ga’al over by the fire,” Clem said. “She cooks food almost as well as she cooks hexes.”
“It smells delicious,” Ben said.
“Come an’ get sometin’ t’ eat.” Mama Ga’al scooped some of the aromatic dish into a bowl and brought it to the table. She waved her hand over the food insistently. “Sit. Eat. Warm ye bones.”
“That’s a unique accent, Mama Ga’al.” Ben pulled the chair out and sat. “Where are you from?”
“I was born in Haiti, fought for my freedom in de Haitian Slave Revolution, sailed t’ New Orleans, made my way up the Mississippi t’ Saint Louis, an’ followed the railroad here. I’m from a bit o’ everywhere now.”
“The Haitian Slave Revolts?” Ben asked, scooping some of the delicious stew up to his lips. “But that was about a hundred years ago.”
“I know,” she said.
Ben sipped the broth and an explosion of flavor rippled across his tongue.
“Then you would be about a hundred years old.”
“I know,” she said again. “The mountain air keeps me young.”
Ben sipped another spoonful, trying not to look so surprised. “You look great.”
Mama Ga’al nodded graciously. Ben glanced around the room committing the names to memory. Carter, Clem, Earl, Jerome, Mama Ga’al. Where’s Mister Slayter?
“He’s out back, fetchin’ wood,” Mama Ga’al said. She pointed to the depleted stack of split wood beside the hearth. Only four logs remained on the rack.
“Did he have to go far?” Ben asked. “I’d like some clarification as to what I am to do here as soon as possible.”
“Won’ be long now,” she said. “The wood’s already arrived.”
She gestured to the woodpile again and it was stacked high with split logs, snow melting into a puddle underneath. It would have taken one man six trips to bring all that in from outside, but it had appeared here in an instant.
A moment later, the back door swung open and a tall, thin man strode in. He stripped off his jacket as the door closed behind him. He pulled a coonskin hat off his head revealing him to be bald. His goatee had been styled into a long point hanging from his chin.
“I’m Edmond Slayter,” he said, holding out a thin hand for Ben to shake.
Ben stood from the table and shook the man’s hand. Once they released their grip, Slayter insisted Ben retake his seat with a wave of his hand. Then another wave for him to continue eating.
“What did you need clarifying?” Slayter asked.
Ben swallowed and nodded. “Your letter was rather vague. You said you wanted me to tell your story in exchange for five hundred dollars.”
“Is five hundred not sufficient?”
“Yes,” Ben said. “The money is more than enough. It’s actually quite generous. I’m just unsure what you want of me. A biography?”
“Of sorts,” Slayter said, leaning back in his chair and stroking his goatee. “I would like you to spend time with me and my crew and report what you see.”
“To the people of the United States.” Slayter let that hang in the air between them. “As you know, It is just a matter of time before the frontier territories are granted statehood which is good. That’s progress. However, by joining the union, the practice of magic will be outlawed. The marauders would be free to do as they like and we would be criminals if we stopped them.”
“Yes.” Ben took a sip. “Any magic-user would be a criminal.”
Slayter leaned in, steepling his fingers on the table. “You might know that we are the only law out here. If the United States government gets rid of us, there will be no one to stand against the marauders. The citizens of the frontier would be helpless.”
“Well,” Ben said. “That’s not true. There would be army garrisons, constables, sheriffs, deputies.”
“Have you ever seen what some of these sorcerers can do?” Slayter asked severely, narrowing his eyes. Ben shook his head. “One group of marauders could take out an entire cavalcade. We are all that stands between the marauders and the citizens of Wash City and other outfits like ours protect other towns all over the frontier.”
“So, What? You want the use of magic to remain legal and in use?”
Slayter nodded. “Those people back east don’t know who we are past what the dime novels tell them. They don’t know that what we do has been a long-standing tradition and a vital part of everyone’s survival out here. I want you to show them that we are doing good out here.”
Ben sat back, pushing the bowl away. “I write what I see, Mister Slayter. I’ll write about those bodies hanging along the road out of Wash City. I won’t tell your story through rose-colored lenses for you.”
“Precisely why I chose you, Ben Wayde. I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
“They’re here,” Carter said, jumping from his seat. Everyone burst into motion except Ben.
“Who?” He knew, but he still needed to ask.
The crew took positions on either side and under the front windows. Pistols, shotguns, and rifles appeared in their hands. Mama Ga’al began to chant under her breath.
“Where?” Slayter asked.
“The barn,” Carter said. “They got Hector.”
“Slayter,” a grating voice called from outside. “I got yer boy, Slayter.”
Ben peered over the windowsill. A rugged man held the boy in front of himself with a pistol pressed to his temple.
“Send out your fancy reporter an’ I’ll let ‘im go. I got a side of the story to tell.”
“Get your own Journalist,” Slayter called. “This one’s mine. And you’ll let the boy go if ye know what’s good for ye.”
“I should go with them,” Ben said. “They’ll kill the kid.”
“They came here to capture you. If they can’t do that, they’ll kill you. They might kill you as soon as you leave that door.” Slayter cocked two pistols. “They don’t want any of this getting back to the states. They want the frontier and what’s happening here to remain only a myth.”
“But we can’t let him kill the boy.” Ben’s hands shook as he pulled his pistol from inside his jacket.
“I don’t intend to.” Slayter turned to Mama Ga’al and nodded.
She lifted her hands to either side and her chanting grew louder. A fog formed outside. It rolled in and blotted out the moonlit forest.
“Stay here.” Slayter waved his hand over the front and back door thresholds. Two runes burned into the floor planks.
Then he whipped the door open and rushed out into the night. Ben glanced around the cabin and found himself alone. They had all disappeared. Ben kept low and moved to the table. He blew out the oil lamp and moved to the corner of the room. Crouching in the corner, he checked the bullets in his gun.
Firelight flickered around the room. That wonderful aroma still hung in the air from Mama Ga’al’s cooking. A gunshot sounded from outside causing Ben to jump. Several more gunshots followed. The sound of someone choking and coughing reached Ben’s ears and his stomach turned.
Someone screamed in agony as snarling, snapping wolves tore into him. Another gunshot and a wolf yelped. Carter was shouting something, but he was too far off to understand. Then all fell silent.
Ben crawled to the closest window and peered out. Someone was out there. Another Indian but this one kept half his head shaved and his face painted. He carried a tomahawk in either hand. When he saw Ben peeking out at him, he whooped and ran for the window with a grin from ear to ear.
A gunshot sounded and a bullet tore through the native American’s side. He turned to face the person who shot him and snarled exactly like a mountain lion. Ben pressed his face to the glass to see the other person. Clem stood there with his pistol in hand and his pipe between his teeth.
The Indian charged him and Clem fanned the hammer on his pistol. Five more bullets ripped through the Indian’s torso. He paused and staggered for a moment as he bled onto the snow.
Clem pulled his pipe from between his teeth and pointed the stem at the Indian. “Yer finished. Just go to sleep.”
The Indian gave another wildcat roar and charged Clem one more time. Clem inhaled deeply, inflating his chest, and then exhaled forcefully. A cone of flame erupted from his mouth and engulfed the Indian marauder.
Ben gasped and threw himself back into his corner as screams from the burning man filled the night. The back door flew open, lock splintering the frame. A massive man stepped over the threshold. First, a sound like breaking glass as the rune shattered under his foot, then the sound like thin wires whipping through the air. The big man fell apart in seven or eight bloody chunks.
Someone kicked in the front door but did not step through right away. Ben lifted the gun, shakily training the muzzle on the door. A face peeked through for an instant. Ben shot, but the bullet struck the door frame. The gunshot made his ears ring. The marauder waved a hand over the rune springing the trap. There was that whipping noise again and the marauder cursed through his teeth. Four fingers fell to the floor.
Still muttering curses, the marauder stormed through the doorway and toward Ben. The reporter pulled the trigger. Bang. The marauder grunted and lurched. Then he kept coming. Again, Ben pulled the trigger. Bang. But the marauder kept coming. Again. Bang. Again. Bang. Again. Bang. Again. Click.
The marauder chuckled as he stepped closer and closer to Ben. Blood leaked from five bullet holes in his chest. Ben tried the gun one more time. Another click. I’m empty.
“Need more o’ these?” The marauder cocked his pistol and pressed it to Ben’s forehead. “I got one for ye.”
Ben clenched his eyes shut and waited for the gunshot. Maybe I won’t even hear it. But he did hear it. A blast of icy cold particles bounced off his cheeks and forehead. He gasped and opened his eyes. The marauder was frozen solid from head to toe. Earl stood behind him with his engraved shotgun. Blue smoke swirled from the left barrel.
Scrambling to his feet, Ben edged around the frozen marauder. “Is he dead?”
Earl kicked the marauder in the back, sending him face-first into the wall Ben had been crouching against. The frozen man shattered into a million shards of ice.
“Now he is,” Earl said.
Jerome crawled up through the floorboards with a knife clenched in his teeth as if breaking the surface of a lake. Earl gave Jerome a short nod as he cracked his shotgun, extracted an empty shell, and slipped another in its place.
“Hoooey!” Clem whistled through his front teeth as he stepped over the marauder who lay in bloody chunks at the door.
Mama Ga’al followed Clem in the back door. Slayter and Hector came in the front. Slayter picked the door up and placed it back in its frame. Like it hadn’t been laying in splinters.
“Where’s Carter?” Slayter asked.
Ben gazed up into the rafters to find the owl, but it wasn’t there.
“No,” Mama Ga’al gasped. She stood over the owl on the ground. It was dead.
The crew rushed out into the night, calling Carter’s name.
“He’s over here,” Earl called from further up the hill.
Ben trudged through the snow toward the light of Earl’s lantern. He passed the frozen corpse of a wolf, and then another one. Then a human body that had been ripped to shreds. Soon after, Ben reached Earl. Jerome was on his knees, singing low, tears streaming down his face. Mama Ga’al and Hector arrived and she turned the boy away.
Another wolf lay curled up beside her master. Both of them were frozen solid. Carter’s jaw hung slack and a deep slash across his throat bit deeply into his windpipe. Slayter walked up to stand beside Ben. He hung his head reverently over the body of his friend.
“I’ll do it,” Ben said. “I’ll let the people know what you and your people are doing out here.”
Thank you for reading. I hope you enjoyed the story. I enjoyed writing it. Feel free to explore the blog and read my other short stories if you haven’t already.
Be sure to pick up a copy of my novel and part one of The Forgotten Ways trilogy, Well of Bones, by clicking here. Join the adventure soon because part two of The Forgotten Ways trilogy is on track for a late November release. You won’t want to miss it.
In an earlier blog post, I mentioned that my time would be uncertain for the foreseeable future, so I will not be able to promise a short story next week. However, I will post something, so be sure to stop by around next Friday for more content.
Until next week,