This was the first story I managed to get published. It’s a bit rough around the edges (I’ve written quite a bit since then) but a good tale nonetheless. If you like it, you should definitely check out Tex Thompson and her new novel One Night in Sixes for more weird west intrigue.
The Precarious Perch of Lookout County
by Russ Linton
Marshal Byron Ellis stomped on the wooden step kicking free a clod of dirt and horse manure from his heel. He nudged the pungent lump off the step and into the strip of bare earth some might call a street. Main Street, of the frontier town of Lookout, population 186. Soon to be 185 by Ellis’ count.
Several squat buildings rose along the dirt street, their sides alternately splashed and scoured by the crimson dust. Beyond lay an endless expanse of prairie, feathery grass nodding rhythmically to the return of the swollen sun stirring low on the horizon.
Silently, Ellis watched as light crept out across the prairie. Cattle bellowed somewhere east of town and a bell clanged at the nearby slaughterhouse. Ellis gave a strangled cough as the prairie wind shifted carrying the stench of rotting flesh. With a stray pat on his horse’s sinewy shoulder, Ellis bounded up the steps toward the jailhouse.
Reaching down, Ellis let his hand hover over the .36 caliber Navy revolver holstered at his side. The gun sprang forward into his hand. Using his thumb to trace the runes etched into the grip, he flexed his wrist and twisted the weapon left, then right, settling it on an outstretched palm. He could swear it was a bit off balance. He hated using cold-iron shot. He hoped there wouldn’t be a need.
Ellis knocked on the door. A familiar creak issued from the other side followed by the tromp of boots across the wooden sub-floor. He stepped back, holstering his pistol and hooking his thumb on his belt, his open hand perched warily. A voice intoned an incantation on the far side and the air shimmered. The door edged open.
“How’s he been?” Ellis called out, his voice clear and steady. The door swung open further.
Ellis’ deputy emerged, casting a wary glance over his shoulder. Colton Conroy was a decent kid by Ellis’ judgment. He was an all around steady hand with a keen eye. Didn’t seem the type for taking initiative, though he was sharp and picked up the duties of deputy quickly. Then there was the most important thing – he took orders well. Thinking too much could get yourself killed out here on the Frontier.
All that being said, it was enough that Colton volunteered for the job; he needed some extra income after the recent drought wiped out his crops. The salary for a Deputy couldn’t quite cover the loss, but it would help him make ends meet.
“He’s been good, far as I can tell. Slept most of the morning then woke up and just started, well, floatin’.”
“That so?” Ellis pursed his lips and held out a hand to his deputy. Colton took the hint and passed him the golden Marshal’s badge. “He make any hand motions…gestures…verbal incantations?”
“Nothin’ like that, no sir. One minute he was sittin’ on the floor, the next he’s floatin’ mid air. I kept a close eye on him, just in case it got out of hand.” Colton reached down and secured his own pistol.
Something struck Ellis as odd about the way Colton answered the door, badge in hand. The five pointed star of gold was bound in a silver circle etched with ancient runes of power. Telling folks who you were was only part of the badge’s purpose. Warded by the powers in the shield, a lawman could expect to know the exact moment eldritch forces were summoned nearby and even had protection if those forces were directed his way. But it wouldn’t do a damn thing carried in his hand. Thinking too much can get yourself killed, but not thinking at all could get you worse than dead.
Ellis kept his chin down as he slid the pin in his shirt. “That’s good. You didn’t get him anything did you?” He let his eyes wander up to his deputy’s face, “Speak to him? Make eye contact?”
“No, no sir, not a spoken word between us. I even skipped the normal meals. Shoot first, ask questions later. That’s what you said.”
“Good work son, good work.” Ellis let a fragile smile peek out from underneath his graying mustache as he sized up Colton. The man looked played out. Face haggard, eyes dark. Nothing easy about this task, especially for a greenhorn called away from his family and a failing farm. He’d talk to him about the slip up later. “Why don’t you head on home now. I hear your boys have been drivin’ their Mama crazy lately.”
Colton half smirked, “Molly’ll clean their plow if need be, but you’d be right, they can be a handful when I’m gone. I was out in the fields when your message got to me.” Colton looked out toward the horizon, “We’ll both be glad when this is all said and done.”
“Yep. I best be gettin’ in there. See you two days from now, alright?”
“I’ll be here.”
With a nod, Ellis brushed the brim of his hat and stepped into the jailhouse. Closing the door behind him, he kept his eyes fixed on the room ahead. The jail was a simple building, one room, oak subflooor and wooden walls. The duty officer’s low bunk sat next to the door, horseshoes decorating each of the four rudimentary posts.
Across from the bunk was a rickety wooden chair, smooth and frayed by years of use. Ellis reckoned the knotty pine and cowhide perch had seen more backsides than a whorehouse on nickel night.
Out here on the Frontier, being Marshal was a job with an exceptionally high turnover rate. There were a number of reasons for it, but the sheer risk involved was the biggest factor. If you didn’t die protecting the claim holders from one another, you would at least be guaranteed to trade not so friendly words with the Reaper at some point. That was usually enough to prompt a career change.
For five years Ellis had managed to hang on to the seat, mostly because he was cautious, partly because he enjoyed cheating death, and not a little bit because he could never get used to the smell of the slaughterhouse. He’d need a job if he weren’t collecting the monthly salary – the offal drenched structure was the only place around.
A sideways look at the cage on the far side of the room told Ellis that the smell might be downright pleasant comparatively.
Sitting cross-legged and floating six inches off the ground was a young boy. A young man really, Ellis had to remind himself. His face was narrow, ears elongated, they’d begun to taper even more since Ellis last saw him. The expression was a mask of neutrality, eyes closed. His hair had grown and taken on a wheaten appearance, mingling with the coal black of a few days ago. Most dramatically, his farmhand stature had begun to melt away; limbs elongating, size dwindling.
It was hard to imagine he had known this young man before. The transformation had happened so fast. It was a shock to everyone.
Jack’s mother, Ada, shamed by the whole ordeal, hadn’t left her house for days. No one wants to admit they were seduced by a fey. Doesn’t matter the extent of the sorcery, the deception, the mental control a sylvan being can exert. Marriages don’t survive such infidelity if you want to call it that. And Jack’s father did. The townsfolk, they like gossiping more than pity. She’d be a grass widow soon enough, alone on the borderlands between the civilized world and the vast unknown reaches of the Other.
Ada stopped to visit only once after Jack was taken into custody. She wanted to know it was true. The fact that the boy had been seen lying on a hay stack making lazy motions with his hand while stalks of wheat threshed themselves wasn’t quite enough for her. It could have been Old World sorcery she said. This despite the fact the boy hadn’t been apprenticed, hadn’t ever trained, hadn’t shown an inkling of arcane inclinations.
Then there were the physical changes. The eyes, eyes Ellis refused to make contact with from the day the rumors started. Eyes of hazel brown replaced by the true green of spring’s first day and pupils that were tiny dots in anything more than candle light.
At the time Ada made her visit, Jack had started to change physically and what was left of the human boy mentally was also slipping away. He often stared off into spaces man wasn’t meant to go. Like any mother though, she wanted to say goodbye. She told Jack she’d be back, but Ellis could tell through the tears she wouldn’t. She couldn’t. Jack knew too, Ellis was sure of that. Tough thing to watch, a mother losing her son, but Ellis had a job to do.
Walking forward, his eyes to the ground, Ellis examined the white circle on the floor around the cage. The carefully traced runes and sigils remained unbroken, the herbs undisturbed. Inside the circle of coarse salt was a neatly outlined triangle of powdered iron. At the apex rested a clay pot brimming with water from the font of Saint Augustine’s Mission south of town. The cold-iron bars of the man sized cage appeared unmolested. Satisfied, Ellis turned toward the door behind him long enough to utter the necessary incantations and strode toward the small table and chair.
“I’m mighty hungry if you must know.” Ellis’ hand dropped reflexively toward his gun. Jack Pearson’s voice had cracked into manhood with a low timbre that might have been an asset in a barbershop quartet. Now it rumbled with an airy, ominous quality. With heavy motions, Ellis sat down and propped his feet on the table, the old chair creaking in protest.
Ellis felt the next two days growing longer.
“The mail run yet, Marshal?”
Not yet, but Ellis held his tongue. He had checked the post office just prior to coming here. Storms out east had travel land bound for now. When the spring storms rolled in across the plains you could bet no Wizard worth their weight in salt would be in a Wind Saddle. If Ellis could will the parcel here faster, he would.
“I ain’t done nothin’ wrong Marshal.”
With a sigh, Ellis rose from the rickety chair and moved closer to the cell. The boy, man, no, elf, he was an elf. The elf watched curiously and Ellis studiously ignored his gaze. Reaching into a pouch at his waist, Ellis started dredging out handfuls of salt, reinforcing the boundaries of the protective circle.
“Even if it broke, I ain’t sure I could get out them bars Marshal.” For a minute the voice shifted, sounding a bit like little Jack Pearson. “Them bars make me nervous; my skin itches ’round them.”
That was interesting to note. Mystery surrounded the New World fey despite the three centuries that had passed since the arrival of civilization. Cold-iron was a well known bane for fey back in the Old Country and everyone had been a bit surprised when it worked here. However, it wasn’t thought to cause discomfort over any sort of distance. Of course, the elf could be lying. That’s something else they were well known for.
Ellis continued his check, visually inspecting the rest of the circle and the inner triangle which extended into the cell around the boy. Nothing alarming, at least nothing worth opening the door for.
“I’m tellin’ ya Marshal, I ain’t done nothin’ wrong.”
Continuing to avoid eye contact, Ellis stood and dared to mutter under his breath, “Ya keep comin’ back son.”
There was a dead silence like a tornado had sucked out all the air in the little room; a precursor to its hellish fury.
“This is my home, Marshal. What do you expect me to do?”
“I don’t write the laws. I make sure folks follow them, plain and simple.” Ellis knew it was a mistake to talk to it. The circle would contain any magic, but even so these critters were crafty. Their silver tongues were the downfall of many a man and woman. He placed his hand across the golden star on his chest, pinned directly above his heart.
“What kind of law keeps people from their home?”
“You ain’t home anymore, son.” Ellis turned back toward the little table and the stubborn chair, “You never were.”
The old chair moaned plaintively into the silence as Ellis sat. Uneasy, he glanced at Jack. The boy’s eyes were closed, a wet smear appearing beneath delicate lashes.
Ellis cursed beneath his breath and settled in for what would be a long two days.