Story by William Stiteler
Illustration by Carol Wellart
After she lost eighty-three head of cattle and sixty acres of good pasture to fire, Trilby Booker went into town. She needed help, and she needed a drink, and while the town of Peridot wasn’t much of a place to find either, it was the best she had that was readily available. Fortunately, the Dancing Pig, the town’s only saloon, was where she was most likely to find either, which saved her some walking around.
A quick glance around the interior of the Pig while her eyes adjusted revealed a scattering of patrons slumped at the bar or over rickety tables, folks who had nothing better to do in the middle of the day than lounge around a tiny shack of a drinking establishment, lit mainly by what sunlight filtered through the cracks in the dusty walls.
She kicked at the legs of the chair the sheriff was in, leaned back and dozing, on her way to the bar. She didn’t even have to slap the bar to wake up the barkeep since the sound of the sheriff crashing to the floor behind her had done it.
“Whiskey,” she said, and turned. The sheriff was still looking around like he wondered how he’d ended up on the floor, but as Trilby’s glass hit the bar he started to pick himself up. Trilby took her drink and walked back to his table as he righted his chair. He looked none too happy when she strode up to his table.
“Miz Booker,” he said. “What brings you to town?” He looked her up and down for a moment. “Come in for a new dress, did ya?”
Trilby slapped her glass onto the table and looked down. She hadn’t changed before leaving the ranch, and she still wore an old flannel shirt and worn britches, both streaked with soot. She gave the clothes a brushing, sending up a cloud of ash, then slapped her battered hat onto the table in another cloud before yanking back a chair and sitting opposite the sheriff.
He’d already tipped his own hat forward in preparation for getting back to his nap, and he sighed as he settled it back into place.
“Got some trouble, Sheriff,” Trilby said.
“What sort, Miz Booker?”
“Handful of bad men rode through my ranch this morning.”
“What made you decide they were bad, exactly?”
“Killed one of my hands–Jake Turly. Set fire to the north pasture and burned better’n eighty head of cattle.”
The sheriff stared at her for a moment, blinking. The only sound in the saloon was a loud spang as one of the patrons behind them hit the spittoon
“That’s bad all right,” the sheriff said at last. “How many of these bad ‘uns were there?”
“Four, I think.”
“Hell, Sheriff, me ‘an the boys was occupied with trying to put out a brush fire and save as many steers as we could.”
“But you’re sure they were the ones started the fire? Wasn’t just a branding fire got out of hand?”
“It’s the middle of summer, Sheriff–we ain’t branding now.”
“Well, you got your own way of doing things, Miz Booker, I don’t know what-”
“Can we get back to these fellas that killed Jake Turly?”
The sheriff sighed. “Reckon we should. You bring him into town?”
Trilby shook her head and took a sip of her whisky. “Burned up in the fire. He was shot down right where it started.” She paused and took another sip, trying to sort out what had happened in her memory. “Happened all at once. The one of them–tall one, dressed all in black–gunned him down and his gun…kinda threw off some flames. Started up the grass fire.”
The sheriff frowned but didn’t say anything for a time. There was another loud clang from the spittoon in the silence, and Trilby turned in her chair to glare at the man doing all the spitting. He was short, from what she could tell with him leaning back in his chair–compact. He wore a revolver, and had a lean, watchful face, shaded by a wide-brimmed hat. He met Trilby’s glare with a placid expression until she turned away again.
“You’re sure Turly was shot?” the sheriff asked. “Didn’t just die in the fire? Maybe it was an accident?”
“Yeah, I’m sure,” Trilby snapped. “I was working on a fence with some of the boys and we saw them riding through the herd like they owned the place. Jake rode over to talk to them, and we saw the whole thing from a hundred yards off. Heard the shot, saw the flames spring up.” She paused again for a drink, thinking of the way the fire had come to life at the same instant as the shot. Had seemed to, anyway. It had been downright unnatural, how fast the flames had spread.
“You didn’t get after them? You and the boys?”
“We had our hands full with a stampede and a brushfire, sheriff. But they rode off to the north.” She drained the last of her drink, thinking about how it had looked like the fire would cut off the outlaws, until it had seemed to make a lane before closing in behind them and rushing toward her cattle.
The sheriff grunted. “North, huh?”
Trilby gritted her teeth. “Dammit, sheriff-”
“Well, now, you know dang well my jurisdiction ends just north of your spread. They was probably outside of it before you even got the fire handled.”
“Well, goddammit to hell, sheriff, what do you suggest I do?”
“Wait for the U.S. Marshall to come through, I guess. Or light out after them with your ranch hands.”
“My boys ain’t gunslingers, you know that. Hell, Jake was probably the best shot I had.”
“I don’t know what to tell you then, Miz Booker,” said the sheriff. “My job is protecting the town. I can’t go haring off after every bad sort making for Canada.”
He tipped his hat forward and leaned back in preparation for getting back to his nap, and Trilby was considering buying another whisky, just so she could throw it in his face when the spittoon rang again.
“I could maybe see what could be done about those fellows,” said the man behind her.
The sheriff looked up under the brim of his hat, staring past her shoulder, and she turned to look at the man, in the same position he’d been before. “That something you do, is it?” she asked.
He nodded slowly. “On occasion. The tall fella you mentioned, sounds like a man by the name of Hanekin. He robbed a stage or two down Texas way, on his own, but he coulda picked up some help.”
“Well, mister, I see you can hit a cuspidor at about five yards, but how are you with a gun?”
“Good enough,” he replied. “Thing is, Hanekin’s got $1,000 on his head, but I’m passing through ’cause I’m after the Hoakley brothers. That’s a $2,000 reward–fifteen-hundred for Zeke and five-hundred for Johnny.”
Trilby eyed the man for a few moments. “So, you’re saying you’d like me to make up the difference if you deal with my problem.”
“That’s what I’m saying. Is that something you could put together, ma’am?”
“I could,” Trilby said. “It ain’t right I’d have to, what with paying the salary of certain lawmen in these parts with my taxes anyway, but I could.”
“Miz Booker don’t have a man,” the sheriff said. “Her husband passed on in ’84. Stepped on by a horse and his leg broke and festered up.”
“You ain’t part of this conversation no more, Sheriff,” Trilby said without looking at him. “No one needs your contribution.”
“I’m just explaining to the man why you’re able to make decisions about all that money,” the sheriff said in a wounded tone. “Not that I think it’s wise.”
“I ever get to where I care what you think is wise, sheriff, I’ll be sure to let you know,” Trilby said, still watching the other man. His gun belt was worn at least, and something about him made her think he might not be just talking. Possibly the way he seemed like he’d just as soon keep after the Hoakley brothers like it didn’t much matter to him which band of outlaws he went after. Trilby had always appreciated a businesslike attitude. “I could pull together $1,000, mister,” she said at last, “but I’ll want to come along with you, make sure it’s well-spent.” She held up a hand as she spoke, just to keep the sheriff from weighing in again.
“Might have to ride hard to catch these fellas,” the man said after a moment.
“I’m happy to ride hard,” Trilby said. “Hell, I’ll supply the remounts so we can ride a little harder, stranger.”
The man slowly rose and walked over as Kilby stood. “You got a deal, Mrs. Booker,” he said, holding out his hand.
Kilby shook. “Then let’s get going, mister…”
“Landis,” he replied.
— ♦♦♦ —
Hanekin stood over the railbed for a time, hands clasped in front of him and head hung in thought. “Looks like a preacher,” Arkansas Bob muttered behind him. There was a noise as one of the other boys, Jack Scatter most likely, shoved him, but Hanekin just smiled to himself. It was about time someone noticed. He wore a long black coat and a round black hat after all, mostly because he liked the notion of looking like a holy man. But then, he hadn’t chosen the people following him for their imagination, and the color of his coat was more or less theoretical, thanks to the coating of fine gray ash ground into it.
He turned his back on the bent and twisted section of rail to regard the boys with a smile. They all looked back at him with a little less awe than they had when he’d first brought them together a few weeks back, down near Texas. Hanekin was used to making people nervous, and it was good to keep the boys on their toes. But it got old after a while, trying to work with people who started glancing around and twisting their hats in their hands every time he looked at them.
Jack Scatter was the only one who seemed at all out of sorts now, and it was all in the eyes with him. Arkansas Bob just looked excited, ready as a hound dog for the action that was coming, and Big Luke was staring around with the bovine expression that was about the only one he had. Hanekin was looking down at all of them, even Big Luke, who was a touch over six feet tall.
Hanekin took off his hat and mopped his forehead with one arm before slapping the hat against his long coat to knock off some dust and ash. He’d probably left a smear of ash across his forehead, he realized, given the state of the coat.
“Well, we’re all set,” he said, settling the hat back onto his head to protect the pale skin of his face. He drew the big Colt Navy revolver from where it hung at his hip and opened the cylinder to check the load. The boys drew their guns and did likewise, engaging in the little ritual out of respect for him, if nothing else. The sound of a train whistle drifted in from the distance, and Hanekin grinned. “Right on time.”
— ♦♦♦ —
Trilby and Landis arrived at the derailed train late in the afternoon. They’d been riding hard, but it had taken longer than Trilby liked to get moving. They’d stopped off at her ranch, so she could pick up spare horses for Landis and her, along with a rifle and her husband’s old Schofield. Landis had refrained from comment as she strapped on the massive revolver, which she appreciated. He’d also remained placidly silent as her foreman had peppered her with a dozen questions and demands for things that needed to be settled or decided before she rode off, but she’d felt every minute of delay like added weight on her back. They’d barely gotten an hour of travel in before they’d had to make camp the night before, and Trilby felt like they’d given up a lead they couldn’t afford.
Landis had seemed confident that he was following the trail, at least, and now they’d arrived at a train robbery, which seemed like a sign he’d been right. The train looked to have derailed almost gently, staying mainly upright as it slid along, cars turning side to side like accordion pleats, but it must have been a hell of a ride. There were workers hauling new sections of rail from another train that had pulled up behind the damaged section of track, where others were replacing burned ties. Trilby and Landis stood near where the old sections of rails had been tossed.
Landis spit a stream of tobacco juice that soared a good ten feet to splatter on a damaged section of rail, a hunk of iron that had bent back on itself until it was almost in a loop, and lost some of its shape, going soft on the edges. “Hanekin, all right. He’s fond of fire, that one.”
“How hot did he have to get that rail for it to bend like that?” Trilby asked.
Landis shrugged. “Pretty damn.” He scanned the area again, taking in a few bodies lined up along the track and covered with blankets, off in the distance.
Trilby wondered idly why they hadn’t been taken away with the surviving passengers. Not that she knew how those folks had been hauled off, exactly. “I expect that reward on Hanekin’ll be going up after this,” she said.
Landis eyed her as he fished his twist of tobacco from his pocket. “You planning on canceling our deal?” he asked as he cut off a piece.
Trilby glared at him for a moment. “Give me a piece of that, if you’re going to be chewing it day and night.”
Landis raised an eyebrow, then handed over the plug he’d just cut off. Trilby chewed furiously for a few seconds. It had been years since she’d chewed tobacco–it had always amused her husband when she had some of his–and it made her eyes water.
“I ain’t going back on the deal,” she said around the plug in her cheek. “I want to be part of the reason that son of a bitch goes down, for Jake Turly’s sake. So, don’t you worry.” She spat out a stream of tobacco juice, that splattered all over her britches and boots.
“You gotta watch the wind,” Landis said mildly.
“We’d better get going, if you want my thousand dollars anyway,” Trilby said, brushing irritably at her clothes. “After this, the railway’s likely sent someone after him.”
Landis spat a stream of juice that again arrowed its way more than three yards to the bent rail. “Don’t reckon they’re going to get him.”
— ♦♦♦ —
Hanekin looked up from the fire as Jack rode up. It was a good fire–no smoke, heat directed just so, in order to boil up a pot of coffee during a short break while they waited for Jack to check out their backtrail. Arkansas Bob and Big Luke lounged well away from the fire in what shade they could find under scrubby mesquite branches, but Hanekin was good and close to it.
“Well?” he asked as Jack reined in.
“Posse following us, about two miles back. Looks like they’ve got someone who can read a trail.”
“Too bad for them,” Hanekin said. He stood and stretched. “Take me to them.”
“You want us along, boss?” Bob asked, without rising from his relaxed pose.
“No,” Hanekin replied. “You just keep an eye on the fire.”
They rode for less than a mile before finding a good spot to wait, out in the open, with a good view of the way they’d come from the train. There wasn’t much cover, but that didn’t matter. Jack took the horses a short distance away to keep them from getting too nervous, and Hanekin stood and waited.
It was only a short time before the posse rode into view, squiggly dots over the sagebrush at first, gradually resolving into men on horseback. Hanekin could tell when the posse finally spotted him because there was a moment of confusion in their ranks before they came on again, only slightly slower. He couldn’t make out much about the men, but it was clear they had little concern about two men and horses standing in the open.
He drew his pistol when they were still several hundred yards off. Out of the corner of his eye, as he began to chant, he saw Jack working to control the horses. He shuffled a few steps right and left and used two fingers of his left hand to tap his gun and various points of his body as he muttered, and the posse rode closer.
The horses were growing more frantic as he finished and raised the pistol, now glowing red. He thought someone in the posse must have seen the gesture even though they were still out of effective pistol range, because there was another moment of confusion among the horsemen, and several reached for rifles in saddle scabbards. Too late though.
Hanekin fired, and a jet of flame shot out of the barrel of the Colt. Too fast to make out, the flame coalesced into a ball of fire gathered around the bullet, which grew as it flew toward the distant men. The bullet and fireball traveled slower than a bullet should have, but still almost too fast to see but for the fact that the sphere grew as it went, until it was nearly eight feet across as it hit the group of men. Hanekin cocked the hammer back and fired again as men and horses screamed.
Five more fireballs hurtled into the posse, the last carefully aimed to take the lone man who’d escaped the initial carnage. Hanekin began reloading the caps and balls on his now ordinary pistol as Jack struggled to calm the two horses. He and Jack were upwind of the posse, so the smoke and smell of burning corpses drifted away from him, but he could hear the crackling of flames. Jack almost lost control of the nervous horses when one of the former posse’s pistols got hot enough for the ammunition to explode in a series of reports. As tempting as it was to go for a closer look, it seemed as though the scattering of flaming corpses might be an unhealthy thing to examine. He turned to Jack.
— ♦♦♦ —
Trilby occupied herself trying to calm the horses–it was better than looking at the burned corpses. She’d thought poor Jake Turly was bad, but this–six blackened corpses scattered where they’d fallen as they fled, curled up tight by the heat–was much worse. They’d heard the shots some time ago, caught the smell on a freshening breeze shortly after that, so Trilby had had a notion what they might find. She hadn’t been ready for it, though.
“You don’t think one of them is Hanekin, do you?” she asked. “Maybe got caught in his own fire?”
She didn’t think that had happened, but if Landis had gone along with it she would have turned the horses around, gone back to the ranch and given him $1,000. Jake wouldn’t blame her for not wanting to end up like the men scattered around them on the scorched plain.
“I don’t reckon Hanekin’s the type to get caught in his own burn,” Landis said.
Trilby took a breath. “Landis, you should know…” she began and trailed off. Landis looked up. “You should know, there’s something…unnatural about this Hanekin. When he started that fire on my ranch…it was too quick, too…something. I still don’t know what he did, exactly, but I think he’s more dangerous than a normal outlaw.”
Landis nodded slowly. “I reckon,” he said and turned to spit, respectfully sending the stream away from any corpse. “We’d best ride, we want to catch him.”
Trilby stared as he swung into the saddle of his horse, the only one of the four that didn’t seem spooked. “Hell,” she muttered after a moment, and scrambled into her own saddle.
— ♦♦♦ —
Hanekin was in a fine mood, pushing the others to partake in the bottle of whiskey as the sun neared the horizon over their campsite. Arkansas Bob didn’t need much convincing, nor did Big Luke, though the liquor didn’t seem to affect him. Jack was sullen, though, as he always seemed to be after seeing men burned. It wasn’t right, for someone who was supposed to be a right-hand man, and Hanekin was beginning to think he’d need to make a few changes in the gang. Big Luke was too dumb to promote, and Arkansas Bob too squirrelly, but there’d be plenty of others who’d be happy to join with a group as successful as his. He didn’t really need a gang, of course; a man like him didn’t need help robbing trains. But it was good to have someone watching his back in case some passenger decided to be a hero, and more importantly he liked an appreciative audience.
He was about to tell Jack that he’d do well to be more respectful of the wonders he was being allowed to witness when a sudden gust of wind made the flames of his fire lean eastward. He was sitting on his saddle where it lay on the ground, he slid off to lean close to the fire, peering at the flames.
Rock and sand next to him suddenly leaped into the air, and for just a moment he froze as the sound of a shot registered over the wind. Then he was throwing himself flat as another shot sounded and Big Luke fell flat on his back, the vacant expression on his face barely changing. Hanekin began crawling quickly toward a nearby cluster of rocks. Jack and Bob bolted for the same area, Bob cursing and staggering just as he fell behind the cover. A moment later, Hanekin made it himself. He tensed, waiting for a shot to come from behind them, but none came. Gradually, the wind died.
“Aw, Christ,” Bob said. “I’m hit, Hanekin.”
Hanekin glanced over to where Bob was slumped against the rocks, hands over his stomach. Looked like he’d been shot clean through his middle. Done for, most likely. It was strange that he’d been mulling over getting rid of Jack, and now he was suddenly the only member left in the gang.
“How many, you reckon?” Jack asked. It reminded Hanekin why he’d liked Jack in the first place–now that they were in it, all traces of sullen doubt were gone from his voice.
“Can’t be many,” Hanekin said. “If there were a whole posse some them could have hooked around there.” He gestured to the east, where another patch of rocks would have provided the perfect spot for someone to wait while they were flushed into the area where they now sat.
Jack nodded. “What do you think? It’ll be dark in about an hour.”
“Oh, boys, I can’t wait an hour,” Bob said, peeking under his bloody hands. “You got to get me out of here.”
“I need you to draw his fire,” Hanekin said to Jack. “When I give you the sign.”
He began to chant under his breath, tapping the ground and his own body as he did. When the time was right, he nodded to Jack, who moved fast, grabbing Bob and hauling him to his feet. Bob let out a shriek as he came up over the rocks, cut off as another shot sounded.
“Sorry,” Jack muttered as he dropped back behind the rocks and Bob fell flat with a good chunk of his skull missing. “You were done for. Better this way.”
Hanekin barely heard him, too busy using his spell to follow the trail of hot air back to the source of the bullet. He peeked over the rim of the rock, finding the patch of mesquite the spell pointed toward.
“All right, then,” he said to himself.
There wasn’t a whole lot of vegetation between their pile of rocks and the cover their assailant was using, but what was there was dry, and would burn nicely. Besides, Hanekin was mad enough to burn sand. He began to craft the spell, not bothering with any finesse now, simply drawing in enough power to create a massive fire. He could feel the heat at his back through the rocks as the spell built and the fire came to life, and worked to push it away, in the direction he wanted it to go. There was no need to peek and direct it carefully–the fire would burn through twenty acres before it was done.
He glanced over at Jack Scatter, who was checking his pistol. He was about to tell Jack to go find a rifle in their baggage when one of the nearby horses broke free of its picket and ran off. Whoever was shooting at them didn’t take a shot at it, which Hanekin took as a good sign. Hopefully, they were already trying to flee the approaching flames, not that they’d be able to outrun them.
Smoke suddenly blanketed them, and Hanekin frowned. Other than the one gust of wind just as the shooting started, it had been a calm day, and the smoke should have been following his flames. He had just begun a spell to give the fire another push when Jack screamed. He looked up to see a smoky whirlwind, some twenty feet tall and dotted with glowing embers, come over the rocks. Jack stood, and for a moment, seemed to be trying to feint, fake the whirlwind into thinking he was going to run in one direction before dodging in another. It didn’t work, and Jack was swept screaming into the air and carried off in the tunnel of burning air.
Hanekin looked away just in time to see another whirlwind coming toward him and reflexively cast a spell to push the hot air away. He’d never seen this sort of effect from one of his spells. The sheer strength of the flames must have caused the heated air to act oddly.
He stood cautiously. The air was swirling crazily, but it was thick with smoke. No one would be able to see him from more than a few feet away. The man who’d been shooting at them was likely dead, but even if by some miracle he’d survived now was the time to make a run for it. He made his way through the smoke toward the panicking horses, groping for a bridle but ignoring his saddle where it sat next to their old fire.
— ♦♦♦ —
Trilby glanced over at Landis. They were both on the ground, rifles propped on rocks, though there was nothing left to shoot at across the plain with the raging wildfire and billowing smoke in the way. Landis had finally spit out his tobacco just before they’d begun the ambush, apparently so he could make a series of low, eerie whistles as he worked. Trilby could barely hear the whistling now, even crouched next to Landis, because of the roaring of the wind that blew back toward Hanekin’s camp, shoving the smoke and flames that direction.
It looked like Hanekin was done for, being in the middle of a wildfire that was whipped toward him by the powerful wind, but Trilby wasn’t sure. She swallowed and licked her dry lips. “I’m not sure we want to assume Hanekin’s gonna be killed by a fire,” she said, raising her voice over the wind.
“Nope,” Landis replied, “don’t reckon we do.” He stood, letting his Winchester dangle at his side. “Be ready.”
He bowed his head and began to whistle again, a strange trilling noise, and the wind changed a bit at their backs, becoming confused, swirling. A tunnel of clear air opened through the smoke in front of them like a mineshaft, and Trilby saw a tall figure in a black coat at the other end, wrestling with a frantic horse. He seemed to feel the change in the air, because he turned to look back at them. Trilby swore and leaned back over the sights of her rifle. She thought she could make out a surprised expression on Hanekin’s face as she squeezed the trigger and he dropped.
The tunnel of clear air collapsed, and the wind died a bit, until it was just enough to keep the fire and smoke from them. Landis pulled out his tobacco as Trilby stood. He offered it to her, and when she shook her head, he cut off a piece and began to chew. After a few seconds, he spit. It was into the wind, but Trilby was no longer surprised at the way it came nowhere near splattering back onto him.
“I don’t know why these sons of bitches always assume they’re the only ones who know how to cast a spell,” he said.
— ♦♦♦ —
By Mark Bilsborough, Art by Sheik
“I haven’t properly introduced myself. My name is Emmet Bone and I’m thirty- two years old. I have a college degree, a rented duplex on what is laughingly called the East Side, a ten-year-old Toyota with more rust than paint, a large overdraft and not much else.” Bone is a reporter that is about to get a major story and have a really bad day…