The Precarious Perch of Lookout County – Part 2

Missed Part One? Read it here!

A knock at the door and Ellis started. Annie had already delivered lunch and dinner from the Red Eye saloon a few doors down. He thought for one bleary, sleep filled minute it had been two days and Colton might be back. No, this was only the first night. Ellis looked toward the table, checking the cage out of the corner of his eye.

The elf floated motionless, eyes open and fixed on the door. It was even smaller now, half the size, and the linen clothes hung like willow boughs. Skin had turned brown and rough, but it was difficult to tell much more without a dead-on stare. Ellis wasn’t about to risk that. He’d already broken his own rules by speaking to it. Casually, he eyed the four bedposts; horseshoes firmly attached, boundaries intact.

The door rattled once more.

“One minute.”

Ellis stood, stretching at the edge of the bed and adjusting his holster.

“It’s here.” Jack Pearson’s voice was completely gone now, replaced by a deep grainy rumble that had worked its way out through a hollow stump.

Grabbing his hat off the table, Ellis walked to the door and called out, “Best stand back a minute.” He waited to hear the sound of feet shuffling and placed a hand on the door knob. A brief incantation, the shimmer of a distant horizon, and the threshold was once again safe for passage. Ellis opened the door, the thumb of his free hand hooked on his belt.

Standing on the porch, covered head to toe in dust and mud was a boy no older than Jack. He stared out from beneath the broad brimmed, tasseled hat of a cavalryman looking more than a bit like a rabid raccoon. His face was mud stained, with the exception of the perfect outline of the goggles which hung around his neck. Ellis glanced out at the horse tied next to his own, a coal black Arabian with Eldritch energy steaming off the hooves in clouds of fiery white motes.

“Delivery sir, from Fort Constance.” The boy thrust out a package the size of a hat box, neatly wrapped and tied.

“That it is. Didn’t figure this for an emergency,” Ellis glanced again at the black charger.

“Oh, no it’s not sir. Your package got diverted to the fort on account of the storm. Midnight here needed the run and Colonel Jessup agreed to it sir. “

Ellis smiled and took the parcel, “That’s a real six-shooter of a horse there son.” He turned his attention to the steed, “A little bit of training, eh?”

The horse whickered and the boy smiled, crimson dust and mud cracking in the corners of his mouth. “Yes sir, and Midnight thanks you sir, for the kind words and all.” A textbook salute and the boy was back in the saddle.

Ellis tipped his hat to the horse, then the boy, and walked back into the jailhouse closing the door behind him. He did not bother to reset the protective ward. The sooner he got this done, the better.

Placing the package on the table, Ellis removed the buck knife from his hip and cut the fuzzy twine that held the paper. He was aware of the elf watching intently. Without looking up, Ellis unfolded the wrappings and opened the box. A faint silvery glow bathed the room. Inside rested a neatly coiled rope, the corded surface writhing like living mercury. In the center of the box was a single iron stake.

#

Gazing out across the plains from atop his horse, the dusty streets of Lookout far behind, Ellis felt like a fool. He wasn’t sure what possessed him to ignore common sense for what he thought was the second time in as many days. Bad things come in threes and bad was the only thing that could happen out here.

It had occurred to Ellis that waiting for Colton to show up the next morning might have been the smartest thing to do. But sending out a rider to the farms would take time. Dragging Colton away from his family again wasn’t necessary either.

In theory, all the precautions should hold up – the bindings, the cold-iron shackles. Failing that, the badge would warn him if the elf tried anything. He would be fine without Colton here. In theory.

Ellis muttered a curse.

“Everything alright Ellis?”

“Keep walkin’ not another word.”

The slight figure in front of him never looked back. The size of a young child now, the brown skin was rough and veined, the linen clothes left at the jail house. Grassy hair waved in rigid strands from the creature’s head. Maybe it never was Jack to begin with.

Once they turned, the elves were not allowed back in town. Frontier Code covered that thoroughly. The more they sank into their fey personalities, the less predictable they became. Most of the time, the fey nature would take over and the elf would head out into the wilds in search of their people. On a rare occasion, like with Jack, they’d keep coming back.

A few towns tried to show charity. Most that did disappeared, swallowed up by the plains and the hidden worlds of the fey. There was a constant negotiation for human souls among their kind that overrode any of their ties to humanity. For the fey, mortal souls were a commodity; power in the purest form. Ellis wasn’t sure where Jack’s soul figured into things.

Superstition kept men from simply finishing off the elves once they revealed themselves. No one wanted to declare war. Fey wars in the Old World had been some of the worst ever seen and taking the blood of a fey was not a trivial thing. Here, on the frontier, the fey were more feral, dispersed. Some argued it meant they could be eradicated with impunity. Of course, it also meant that there was no one to negotiate with if a war did erupt.

There was only one thing left to be done. According to the Frontier Codex, he was to take the elf well outside of the settlements and bind it with the ethereal cord. Tethered to the cold-iron stake, the elf would be unable to use magic to escape – it would be at the mercy of the land. Its people should find him soon enough and might even be able to release him. If not, well…it wasn’t Ellis’ business what happened.

It could have been worse. Jack could have been like the girl in Sterling. When she was found out, she went crazy as a loon. Used her family for human shields in a shootout at their farm.

Luckily, Jack had come along peacefully. When Ellis arrived to check up on things, he was almost relieved that Jack’s parents were entranced and staring slack jawed at their weeping son. Jack confessed he put them that way when they started asking too many questions. He didn’t know how, but he knew he’d done it. Listening to that broken boy sob, too wary to look him in the eye or even put an arm out to comfort him, was the toughest thing Ellis had done in his years as Marshal.

“You ever think about Jack?”

Ellis loosened his gun in the holster.

“He’s still here you know, that farm boy. We’re both here.”

Despite Jack’s claim, Ellis felt more alone than ever but his instincts twitched again as the elf continued to speak.

“He can’t believe you’re gonna do this to him, Marshal. Leave him out here to die.”

With the barest whisper of steel on leather, the .36 caliber pistol was in his hand. He clicked the hammer back. The elf’s steps momentarily lost their cadence.

“I mean to end this day with you where you belong and me where I belong.” Ellis kept one hand on his reins and sighted the pistol at the elf. Looking down the barrel, he saw Jack Pearson firmly in his sights and his heart skipped a beat.

“I can’t help what I am Ellis. Why can’t you just let me be? I miss Ma…Pa…even my little sisters, the darn brats.”

Jack began to turn and Ellis swallowed hard. Jack’s eyes met his, forlorn and red rimmed like the day Ellis marched him out of his family farm house in irons. Unable to look away, Ellis could hear his well-honed sense of self-preservation rattling like a caged animal somewhere in the back of his skull. He squeezed the trigger intent on putting a bullet down the barrel.

Or so he thought.

Unable to move, Ellis could feel his finger tense on the trigger, the hammer hovering, waiting impatiently to slam down. He continued to hear Jack’s voice even as the boy’s mouth stayed firmly closed. It echoed inside his head like the distant call of a stranger.

“Pull in your horns, Ellis. Untie me and let’s head back to town. I need to get Ma and Pa. Jackie and little Beth too.”

 Every nerve in his spine tingled, crying out to deaf limbs. His heart hammered madly and frantic terror clawed at his throat emerging as nothing more than a strangled whimper.  He could only watch as his finger released the tension, thumbing the hammer back to rest. His hand holstered his gun and he slid out of the saddle, the fear contracting and dropping like a lead ball into his stomach.   

His mind’s eye raced to the previous day, seeing things with perfect clarity – the straight face, the unmoving lips. He had been vulnerable the minute he set foot in the jailhouse. That otherworldly voice had been inside his head all this time. His continuous lapses of judgment. The conversation with the elf, the hasty departure. Not a spoken word.

Colton.

Desperately, he cast his eyes down toward the badge. Buried in the fold of his shirt was a common hat pin.

Helpless to stop himself, Ellis approached Jack and began to undo the bindings.

“I made a deal, Ellis, a deal with Deputy Conroy. I’ll take care of you, don’t you worry. We’ll just go get my family and we’ll all be goin’ home for some introductions.” Jack Pearson smiled as Ellis watched himself coil the rope neatly and drape it across his saddle. “You’ll see Lookout again, don’t you worry about that either. Deputy Conroy’s a sharp one, but a lick and a promise ain’t a real deal. He’ll learn that.”

As the fickle prairie breeze shifted, Ellis could almost hear the creak of that old pine chair.

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