The Precarious Perch of Lookout County

This yarn of mine first appeared on the Wily Writers’ Podcast. It was an early story to see publication and had the added bonus of being read by a voice actor for the podcast! The theme, Weird Western, wasn’t a genre I’d ever read much of, but my fantasy/wild west mash up apparently met the editor’s expectations. Happy to share it here again on my site.

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.

“Thirsty, too.”

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.

#

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.



Categories: Free Fiction

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