How appropriate, a spooky story for a spooky month! I hope everyone is enjoying October and all of the joy it brings: Candy, Pumpkins, Spooky Things, Fall, Sweater Weather, Fine Leather Goods (Well not necessarily cut as I was reciting my fave October things I began to recite to the cadence of the first “Treat Yo’self” episode on Parks and Rec). Also, appropriate because of the word “Treat”. Without further ado please enjoy Chapter 9 as the October offering brought to you by myself, Jami Gray, and Dave Benneman.
So east is the direction. Several years ago I forsook the East, leaving my past and not a small measure of unpleasantness in my wake. Heading West, and never looking back. Now it seems, I’m heading east and directly into trouble once again. I adjusted my scarf snugging the knot to conceal my scar. My hand on Dragon Breath I swallowed. “As you said earlier Miss Snake, we’re burning daylight.” I started down the hill and paused. “I assume that thing has to tag along.”
Snake grinned at my discomfort. “We’ll handle it Fancy Britches.” She looked at the hand with disgust and then at Smoke. “Won’t you, sister mine?”
Smoke stomped back inside and came out with the abomination wrapped in a ratty blanket, and started down the hill pushing past me, where I assumed their mules waited with Daisy Bell. We rode three abreast, me on the left, Smoke on the right Snake between us. Our hats were snugged down to shield our eyes from the sun. The sound of hooves accented by the occasional screech from a predatory bird circling overhead was the only sound. Its silhouette floated high above us. As if it were keeping pace with us. I couldn’t keep my eyes off it even though it meant looking into the sun. Maybe it’s a vulture, waiting for us to dry up and drop dead in this heat.
At mid-day the bird’s shadow passed over me. A sort of vision exploded in my head. Blood and smoke filled my nostrils. Blinded, I heard screams. Ethereal screams. It lasted only a moment, but when it cleared the sisters were staring at me.
“Are you going to share?” Smoke asked.
“What?” I tried.
Snake snorted and tipped her hat up and held me with her icy gaze. A half smile creased her face. “What ever the hell that was that has your hands shaking like you got the palsy.”
She was right. My normally steady grip quivered like a fat man’s belly. “I had a brief flash of something.”
“Like a vision.” Smoke pulled her mule around so she could see me without looking around her sister.
“Except I couldn’t see. The air was filled with smoke, the cloudy variety, as opposed to the feminine type. I smelled blood. The screams were the worst part. They chilled my bones.”
“Anything else?” Smoke swatted at some unseen thing.
I considered. “No, I don’t think so.”
The sisters looked at one another. “You think he had a premonition?” Snake directed her question to Smoke.
“Sounds like it.” Smoke spat.
I followed the darkness created by the bird across the desert as it approached our location again. I tilted my head skyward. The hair on the nape of my neck started doing a jig as it drew near. “What the hell is that?”
Smoke let out an exasperated sigh. “A bird.”
“I know it’s a bird. Just because your riding a smart ass doesn’t mean you should be one.” I chuckled at my wit. I was the only one who did. The shadow past over me again, sending a cold chill up my spine. “Did you feel that?” They looked at me quizzically. I pointed at the shadow as it circled for another pass. I guided Daisy Bell close to Snake and motioned for Smoke to sidle up on my other side. She did so without argument. This time it touched all of us.
The sisters looked hard at one another. I knew they’re sharing something. “So what is it?”
Snake pulled her hat down and kicked her mule forward. “It’s not good.”
Smoke wheeled her mule around and rode next to Snake. “Are you coming?”
I urged Daisy Bell forward until she pushed in between my companions. I thought by separating them, whatever passed between them might linger with me too. “So how not good is it?”
“We think it’s a familiar.” Smoke clucked at her mule who was falling behind.
“Familiar to who?”
“Donoma.” Snake looked around me. “Are we sure he’s not as dumb as he looks?”
“As sure as we can be without…” Smoke grinned. “Well, you know.”
“I guess. I mean unless you wanted to…Well, you know.” Snake winked at me.
“Can we put my intelligence aside and get back on track here?” I pointed to the sky where the bird no longer circled. “You think that’s Donoma?”
“No, it’s her animal spirit guide.” Smoke explained as if talking to a child.
“It might as well be her.” Snake interjected. “Whatever her spirit guide sees, she also sees.”
“Then she knows we’re coming?”
“Silly boy. She’s always known we’re coming. Now she knows we’re close.”
“How do you know we’re close?” These two could wear down the patience of a martyred saint.
Smoke unwrapped the twitching thing that used to be Villalobos’s hand and held it out to me. “I’m not touching that thing.”
“Then have faith. We’re are indeed close.” She put the hideous thing away.
Snake pulled one of her six guns out and held it across the saddle. She motioned for me to unsling the shotgun. “Keep your eyes peeled. Question every movement.”
“I can feel her too.” Smoke’s hands started to glow.
Sitting on the back of my ass, Pearl lying in wait, I watched the lazy circles of the winged abomination above me. Donoma was a tricky bitch and as much as I’d love to drop her familiar with a well placed shot, I refrained. Not because I couldn’t make the shot, but because I wanted to be sure we knew what rock to lift to find our black hearted, scorned witch. A sharp cry proceeded another shadowed pass that left my flesh crawling. If there was any doubt as to Donoma’s depth of power, they were smothered under the cloak of living darkness masquerading as the bird’s shadow. My breath escaped in a sibilant hiss as magic twisted by a sick mind seeped passed my skin and found common ground deep inside where an icy mix of rage and revenge was chained by a soul-earned control. I ignored Smoke’s sharp, assessing glance and aimed a pointed look at her burning hands, “Can’t take it out yet.”
She flexed her hand making the flames dance. “Buzzkill.”
“Patience, sister mine,” I muttered, a reminder to both of us. Killing the familiar now gained us nada. No way did I want to waste time plodding through a desert on an ass with no name. Or at least not a name I could remember. It was difficult, but I forced my attention away from the bird and scanned the surrounding desert. The bird was leading us away from the scrub infested sands and straight into a narrow gully, the sand giving away to stone slowly stretching toward the sky.
“Not to state the obvious,” Sam kept his voice low as if afraid the feathered menace above would overhear. “This appears to be a trap.”
“It is.” No sense in pussy footing around.
“Am I to infer your plan is to waltz in?”
My grin was all teeth because my answer was going to raise Sam’s ire. “It is.”
Sure enough, temper darkened his face and the unusual flame I noticed earlier was back, giving his gaze a gimlet glint. “As one who tends to study the odds, may I point out, ours are drastically reduced with such a course of action.”
“Buck up, buttercup,” Smoke drawled. “Lady Luck might be sticking around just for curiosity’s sake.”
I was happy to note color returned to her pale face and the drawn, tight look around her eyes was fading. Knowing we needed the tracking spell didn’t ease the frustration of standing by why she set it in place, especially since the cost could be fatal. Not to mention the fact once you let dark magic in, it was a bitch and half to get out. Smoke was strong, but we both carried enough shadows to make it inviting to such things. Worry about it after. After we got the Blood Star and freed Cyrus, then I’d worry about the damages incurred. For now, time to get ready to play with our least favorite chimera.
The mules plodding resolutely onward, with minor side steps and tail twitches in reaction to the unnatural essence sliding along the shadows. As we drew closer to the mouth of the narrow opening, I began to reach for the cleaner power coursing through my veins. It took concentration to weave the protection, but I managed by visualizing poncho style blankets that I set on Sam and Smoke’s shoulders. When I settled the first one over Sam, he slowly straightened in his saddle, losing his hunched shoulders and air of defeat. Good. Gave him just enough breathing room to function. Smoke caught my eye and tilted her head in question. I held her amused stare in warning. Didn’t matter if she argued, I wasn’t letting her get near the witch without some protection. Her lips twitched but she let my magic settle around her without further comment.
Deciding it was the best I could do, I turned my attention to the familiar that was riding the downdrafts and used my heels to get my ass in front of the others. Putting some space between me and them, I tilted my head back and pushed the brim of my hat up to study the bird’s flight pattern. It continued to glide along the thermals, its flight almost mesmerizing, but patience and I shared a long relationship. Even Smoke’s half-smothered exasperated sighs didn’t shake my study. Just as we began to cross that final line marking the change of desert to canyon, the winged one gave up its master with a negligent change in flight.
Resettling my hat, I scanned the rock walls stretching before us. Ahead the canyon bent into the shadows. “There,” I muttered. “Just beyond the first bend. She’ll be waiting.”
“You’re certain?” The question came from Sam, who, unlike Smoke, didn’t know better than to ask as he came up on my right.
“Sam.” From my left there was the creak of leather as Smoke shifted in her seat. “Would you like to talk to the hand instead?”
That caustic tease earned her a glare, but instead of verbally responding, Sam simply adjusted his scarf.
Catching the edge of Smoke’s grin, I decided to interrupt the pissing match before it got going. “We time it right, we can throw a wrench in her plans.”
“What kind of wrench are you considering?” Sam’s polite question was uttered through gritted teeth. Yeah, Smoke tended to get that reaction. One of the reasons I adored her.
I eyed our Gambler. “The kind that hurts.”
Behind me, Smoke drawled, “Is there any other kind?”
Sam’s face colored red, he was losing his patience with us. I should care but I didn’t. The tracking conjure followed by the long mule ride with the sun beating down on me did not help my already surly disposition, but I took a deep breath and remembered Meemaw’s wise words. You’ll catch more flies with honey, but if you ain’t got honey let them know all you got is vinegar. Those buzzers will take it or leave it. Faking honey could be a handy skill to use but the grift was over and we needed to be on the same page, so I decided to listen to Meemaw.
“We need to kill the bird.” I said without preamble.
“Yup,” Snake agreed.
Sam sputtered. “You have had countless opportunities to do just that. Why the hell haven’t you taken the shot?”
“We needed to know where Donoma had dragged her black magic ass off to. The hand got us this far but the bird confirmed Smoke’s conjure, plus we want her down when we get to her. We can’t give her time to slither off.” Snake pulled a cigar out of her pocket leaning back in a relaxed pose on her ever patient mule as she lit up. The peppery tobacco added some complexity to the smell of dust that had invaded my nose making me sneeze.
“Bless you,” Snake and Sam said in unison.
“Thank you.” I grabbed a hanky from my pocket. “Sam,” I continued while wiping my nose, “I’m gonna ask you do something that will sound dangerous and stupid, but as you chose to stay with us you’re either stupid or have a taste for danger.”
He opened his mouth but Snake held up her hand silencing him until I finished.
“The hand has taken as far as it can. We know she’s in the canyon, but we don’t know where. Despite our earlier jibes we don’t want to walk right into whatever nightmare that woman considers fun and games. So, I’m gonna need you to act like a bigger ass than you ever have in your life. I’m going to need for you to go full hillbilly yahoo.”
Sam had gone silent, his mouth a hard line. He waited a moment before breaking the line. “How so?”
Snake had already figured out my plan and pointed in the direction we came. “You need to ride like a bat out of hell. That way.”
“Ladies it sounds like you’re trying to take me out of the equation. I thought we had a deal.” His voice was as business like and high fulutain as always, but I could hear the hurt in his voice.
I looked him straight in the eyes. “We don’t go back on our promises. Now that we have a good idea of where the chimera is we need to hurt her. If you go riding off, maybe take a poorly aimed shots at us while saying something about cutting us out then Donoma will want to know where you’re going and what she missed. Right now she’s the puppet master. We want her to think you’ve cut your strings.”
The hard set of Sam’s face disappeared as he began to chuckle. “How yahoo are we talking?”
“We give you full artistic license,” Snake said magnanimously.
“Give me a boost?”
“Whaaaa?” I began, no idea what he was talking about.
Snake apparently did, because before I could finish my question, she smacked Daisy Bell the ass on the ass with a sharp slap. The mule took off at a surprisingly fast pace. Even more surprising, Sam’s horsemanship, not only did he keep his seat, he had the startled mule turned back towards the way we came passing us by, and then began full yahoo.
He took out his pistol and fired to the left of us and began screaming back at us. “I’m tired of you two fighting over me! The Yaqui Star is mine! Find a new boy toy!” He shot again in our general direction before facing forward urging the mule on. I patted the neck of my own beast saying soothing words to calm her after the the commotion, but she never batted an eye. That’s why you should always choose a mule.
“That wasn’t the artistic liberty I thought he’d take,” Snake offered.
I rolled my eyes. “Well director, if you’re not prepared for the consequences don’t set loose the thespians.”
Snake started to smile but something had her head snapping back toward the bend. Before I could blink, she shoved her cigar between her lips, raised her gun, and fired. A pained shriek met my ears as the black bird fell from the sky.
“Right around the bend like you said. How predictable.” I looked at Snake.
She took a long drag from the cigar, in no rush. “Villains aren’t the masterminds they used to be. Do you think Sam will realize he can drop the act and come back?”
“Boy toys always come back, sister mine.” I grinned at her.