“We’ll need a couple of people,” Hiraul said, adjusting his hat to clip his long, pointed ears to the sides of his head. “A horse thief, for one. Can’t have anyone at the livery seeing us on a poster and putting two and two together.”

“Already done,” said Votal, harrumphing through his beard. “My boy Nvar. Sister’s son. Family. We can trust him, and he’s already stolen enough horses to equip a cavalry division.”

Hiraul arched a delicate eyebrow. “A dwarf horse thief?”

“He’s a quarter human on his father’s side, he can reach the stirrups,” snapped Votal. “Lithe as a willow too.”

“Someone who can deal with explosives next,” Hiraul continued. “Got to stop the train. I think I know someone. Neridi. She was in artillery during the war and her father owes me a favor.”

It was Votal’s turn to scoff. “A woman and an elf?”

“You remember how hard-pressed we were for troops as well as I do,” snapped Hiraul. “And if nothing else, no one will believe her story.”

“All right, all right,” Votal said. “But that’s not all, is it?”

“We need someone on the inside, on the train. A human, or somebody that can pass as one.”

Votal pondered this a moment. “One of Quint’s Raiders? They clipped their own ears after all.”

“The train will have an escort. Military. You’d better believe that they’ll have an etherometer and be checking everyone that boards.”

“So where does that leave us?” said Votal. “My boy Nvar isn’t passing an etherometer. You won’t pass muster on one of those if you’ve got so much as a great-grandparent who isn’t as human as President Graham.”

“I know. It’s a tough proposition…a human working for us when the old war means nobody trusts anybody else. But I think I know just the guy.”

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Jake started, jerking his chin out of his palm and focusing on the desk in front of him. Otto Luther, the last remaining Ranger rookie for the time being after the promotion or expulsion of the rest, was standing at the desk with a pile of receipts for reimbursement.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” Jake said. “My mind was elsewhere.”

“That’s okay, mine was too,” said Otto. “Back to that Orleans madam and her wiles, and the man I had to kill in cold blood in front of her…”

“That never happened,” snapped Jake.

“Well, it could have! Play along, we’ll get people talking at least.”

Jake sighed. “Just give me your receipts. The excitement of being a deputy marshal under virtual house arrest begins.”

Otto dropped a pile of paper scrips, and Jake wearily began to go through them with his good hand, copying each into a ledger in ink.

“Box of 20 rounds, .45 Colt cartridges, Scroggins’ General Store…one breakfast platter, with eggs, Portia’s Saloon…one iron horseshoe, Strasser & Niece Smithy…one-” Jake paused and flipped through the remainder of Otto’s receipt stack. “…make that seventeen receipts for ‘ladies of the evening’ and ‘services rendered’ at the Fantastic Filly in Dunn’s Crossing.”

“And you know what goes in there, don’t you?” said Otto, waggling his eyebrows suggestively. “It’d be a ‘shame’ if that got out, wouldn’t it? Poor, sweet, safe Otto is really a stallion in disg~//122.31.822

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~//122.31.822ver the desk. “Otto,” he said. “Whorehouses do not give receipts.”

“They might if they’re a classy establishment!” Otto cried.

“Otto,” Jake continued. “Even if whorehouses did give receipts, they would not be reimbursed by the Rangers as they do not constitute Ranger-related expenses.”

“Sure they would,” countered Otto. “Says so right in the by-laws that we are to be reimbursed for the ‘riding of mounts’ and the ‘exhaustion and keeping of mares, mustangs, colts, fillies, and geldings.’ The Fantastic Filly is a good, hard ride if you catch my drift.” More suggestive eyebrow action; Jake half expected them to leap off Otto’s face and frolic about on his desktop like hairy caterpillars.

“Otto,” Jake added, “even if whorehouses gave receipts and we decided to reimburse said receipts as ‘riding expenses,’ you have already used your allotment of ‘riding expenses’ for this month. You will have to pay for your escapades out of your own pocket…”

“Aha!” crowed Otto triumphantly. “So you agree I did have them! So you may let it slip out that I had them!”

“…if in fact you had them at all, which I doubt,” Jake continued with a deep, rattling sigh that made his mostly-healed wound ache from inside. “Or, considering that these receipts spell ‘Dunn’s Crossing’ with a 5, you’ll be responsible for paying whoever forged them out of your own pocket.”

Otto turned away from the desk, disconsolate. “You don’t know what it’s like,” he sobbed, “people always thinking you’re boring and harmless and weak.”

Jake gritted his teeth. At least Virginia’s idiocy had been in the saddle, about real things, instead of trumped-up notions of what it meant to be a Ranger influenced by bad newspaper articles and worse books.

“I just need some rumors, some innuendo, to get my reputation started. I’ve tried everything I can think of, and a few things other people thought of, but even with all the Ranger duties I’ve been discharging—I brought the dismissals to Prissy and Virginia!—people still think me a milquetoast babyface and a plain fool.”

When no response was forthcoming, Otto turned around. Jake’s desk was vacant, and the cotton drapes around his open ground-floor window were fluttering in the breeze. In the distance, he heard a rider spurring a horse out of the Ranger stables.

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“Well, this is a fine situation you’ve gotten us both into, isn’t it?” Milton said, his doughy face brimming with contempt. Beesen was tempted to smash the butt of his rifle into the ex-major’s jaw to try and roll out some of the lumps, but necessity stayed his hand.

“You hear me up there?” the calvaryman with stripes shouted again. “This is the 5th United States Cavalry ordering you to surrender the fugitive Isaac J. Milton. We won’t ask again!”

“That you, Ed Campbell?” cried Milton. “Quit your negotiating and shoot this son-of-a-bitch already!”

“You shut the hell up, sir,” the man–Campbell, apparently–cried. “Do you think we’re here to take you back to the stockade, Milton? Go before a judge and a jury of your peers and all that bullshit?”

Milton seemed suddenly aghast. “What?” he snapped.

“I’m gonna be square with you, on account of that’s the decent thing to do when a man’s about to die,” Campbell continued. “Me and then men here, we think that what you did was just fine. Saved us the trouble of clearing the territory of savages. Lots of people in town do too. But here’s the thing, Milton: those ornery boys back east, with their newspapers and their bleeding hearts, they got wind of what you did. It’s an embarrassment to the brass now.”

“Who gives a flying shit about the brass?” Milton cried, a hint of desperation in his voice.

“We do, when we’ve been promised a month’s pay a man to make sure that ‘the Butcher of Silt River’ eats a .45-70 breakfast.”

Milton had gone quite pale. “What are your terms, then?” Beesen shouted.

“You give us Milton, we let you go,” Campbell said. “With the promise that if you breathe so much a word of what happened here you’ll get the same vittles as Milton. Unless you’d rather wait for the Dog Soldiers, of course. They’ll kill you both, and they’ll do it like a slow roast, honey glazed.”

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“I would like,” said Beesen, “to declare my intent to pursue the bounty on one Major Isaac J. Milton, wanted by agents of the United States Government for the crime of resisting arrest and impeding federal marshals in the performance of their duty.”

The deputy sheriff’s lips twitched under his waxed mustache. “You wouldn’t be the only one,” he said. “But what do I care? It’s a federal bounty and federal money, none of my business.”

“I’ve been advised to leave a paper trail wherever I go,” Beesen added drily, “for the purposes of my own safety.”

“Hmph,” grunted the deputy. “Well, you can leave your paper trail elsewhere. Maybe the Sears catalog in the privy would be more appropriate.” He spat a bitter mouthful of tobacco into the spittoon.

“I am detecting a note of hostility,” Beesen said.

“You’re damn right you are. People around here are apt to give that man his space and his privacy. Major Milton is a bit of a folk hero to people around here for what he did at the Battle of Silt River.”

“It wasn’t a battle,” Beesen said. “It was a massacre.”

“Whatever you want to call it, the man mucked the savages out of the territory and opened it up for settlement,” the deputy sheriff said. “That may not carry much weight back east, but out here it makes him a goddamn hero.”

“Let me tell you a little bit about that hero,” growled Beeson. “When he ordered his troops to open fire on unarmed women and children at Silt River, my friend and commanding officer Justin Davies refused. Instead, he promised to testify against Milton at the inquiry, and for that he was murdered in cold blood. I mean to see justice done upon him.”

“So it’s a personal matter, is it?” The deputy sheriff leaned forward in his seat. “That’s a bit different. Not that the distinction’ll mean much to many around here. I’ll write your name in the book and give you a piece of advice if you promise never to darken that door again, Mr. Beesen.”

“What’s that?”

“You’d best hurry. Milton may be a popular man around these parts, but that bounty has some mercenary takers. A group of calvarymen came through day before yesterday looking for him as well, and word has it that the Cheyenne have a group of Dog Soldiers after Milton as well. It’s a dirty stench of greed and revenge clinging to that man wherever he goes, and much as I think he was in the right, I won’t be sorry to see the whole thing over and done with.”

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Sedena Vorobyova, assassin-for-hire, glared over the sights of her high-powered rifle. “You should be terrified,” she intoned evenly in her butter-thick but comprehensible Gorky accent. “It’s not every day that someone takes out a contract on your life, least of all goes to the trouble of hiring one from another story.”

“Oh, I’m terrified, I assure you, ma’am.” Priscilla “Prissy” Deerton said. Her elaborately embroidered duster was spotless over fine silk trousers and a matching blouse, with a glistening broach and a pair of fine hard leather boots to match–the benefits of being the daughter of the town haberdasher. “I will endeavor to keep Reynard calm, though I must warn you that, while terrified, I am not so much so as I’d be were you a spider.”

The assassin’s workaday cargo pants and combat jacket were certainly no match for Prissy’s finery–the drawbacks of being the daughter of a long dead Soviet apparatchik who’d drank himself to death. “Reynard?” said she, cocking her head. “Spider?”

“Where? Where?” Prissy shrieked. She undid the button on what looked like a small bulging at the bottom of her coat, revealing a fancy rat with a vaguely cow-like pattern of splotches. “Reynard! Spiders! Go to Pattern Delta!”

Her rat obligingly scurried up one of Prissy’s trouser legs, and Sedena incredulously followed the resulting rat-shaped bulge with her telescopic sight until it emerged above its owner’s starched collar to perch on her shoulder.

Reaching into her pants, Prissy produced a pair of small-caliber derringers—.32 caliber Sharps Pepperboxes by the look of them—and scanned nearby nooks and crannies for eight-legged interlopers.

“It was a question,” Sedena growled. “I didn’t actually see a spider.”

“Oh,” Prissy said. “Don’t scare me like that.”

“Thank you, though, for revealing to me where you kept your weapons,” Sedena added coldly. “On the ground, please.” The .32 caliber blackpowder bullets wouldn’t even make it to her position a short distance down the road, let alone pierce her ballistic vest, but it was always better to be thorough with a mark.

“Spiders are ruthless, you know,” Prissy continued, lowering the hammers on her Pepperboxes and placing them neatly on the ground. “Vicious, remorseless killers…not unlike you in that regard, but where you face my enemies down and kill them honest-like with bullets, spiders sneak around and use venom and poison like assassins in the Crusades.”

“I’m sure they do,” said Sedena, rolling her eyes. “I’m beginning to wonder if all the characters from your story are crazy or at least mildly imbalanced.”

“Don’t you know that aranea mactans, the black widow spider, has a bite that can cause premature birth, heart attacks, false death, actual death, agonizing pain, and pain like unto a thousand suns? They’re tiny, they wait for you under the bed or in the privy, always in wait, and the little red hourglass on their butts gets redder as the hour of your death approaches!”

“Then they must be awfully red right now,” Sedena said grimly.

Prissy, looking for a moment of distraction to dip down and scoop up her oft-abused Pepperboxes, saw something moving in the sand near Sedena—a very large, very brown camel spider. Her eyes widened.

“So where are the rest of your compatriots?” Sedena continued. “I’ve a contract to fulfill and if they’re as weak and pitiable as you, it should be the easiest I’ve ever had. I might even be able to claim a double bounty for bringing you all in alive.”

The camel spider began a leisurely scuttle up Sedena’s boot; for her part, Prissy had gone ashen-colored and could be heard hyperventilating, but with the assassin’s M14 trained on her more carefully than ever, she couldn’t cry out to Reynard to go to Pattern Delta.

“You’re right to be scared, but that’s not going to keep me from learning what I need to learn.”

Reaching the top of Sedena’s boot, the spider continued onto her cargo trousers, oblivious in the way that only arthropods can be that its presence was on the verge of shattering Prissy’s mind.

“I said-” Sedena began. Then she noticed the camel spider herself. The resulting scream echoed off the canyon walls, audible for miles around.

Prissy retrieved her fallen guns and aimed one at the rapidly diminishing silhouette of the assassin. “That’s right!” she cried. “You’d better run!”

The camel spider, flung far closer to Prissy by Sedena’s sudden retreat, began to scuttle towards the only remaining victim possible. Prissy, her face hard, blasted it with her other Pepperbox, flinching only when it seemed like the resulting spray of goo might splatter on her finery.

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“Who’s this strumpet?” asks my muse as he walks into my writing den–otherwise known as the single room comprising my kitchen and living room.

Sure enough, a young woman in a duster and hat, both heavy with dust, is sitting on the couch, arms folded, and glaring bullets at me. Luckily, the revolvers heavy on her hips are loaded with strictly imaginary bullets.

“This is Virginia McNeill, the heroine of my National Novel Writing Month novel for 2013,” I say. “I’ve been toying with her as a character since 2007 and finally got her story underway this year.”

“Uh, okay, great, sure,” says my muse. “I’m very happy for you. But why is she here, on your couch, which ought to be my place of honor? I am, after all, the imagined personification of your muse, shamelessly ripped off from an author so much richer and more powerful than you that I’m surprised you haven’t been sued back to the stone age?”

“If anyone asks, you’re fair use,” I say. “Or one of Stephen King’s Dollar Babies.”

“Whatever boats your float, slick,” says my muse with a hearty belch. “Now answer the damn question. What’s Annie Oakley doing in my ass groove?”

“I’m cross at him,” says Virginia. “I don’t like how my story turned out.”

“Ohh, and the crowd is crestfallen!” crows my muse. “All those years of thinking about Virginia’s story in the shower and you whiff on it like Casey?”

“I didn’t do any such thing!” I cry.

“I beg to differ,” snorts Virginia. “I thought my characterization was trite and two-dimensional, my character arc was more like a straight line, and that more often than not you were making fun of me.”

“Sounds like she has your number, slick,” says my muse. He tosses the cowgirl a cold beer from the fridge. “Here, have a brewski.”

“I for one think her story turned out well,” I say. “Sure, there are always edits and revisions, but-”

“Did you finish it?” snaps my muse.

“-I feel that I did enough justice to the outline of the tale that-” I continue, trying to ignore the question.

“DID you FINISH it?” my muse says again with exaggerated emphasis. “That WAS your resolution, wasn’t it?”

“It’s finished enough for now,” I say airily, evading the question.

My muse rolls his eyes afresh and turns to Virginia. “Did he finish it?”

“Far as I’m concerned,” she drawls acidly, “he never started it.”

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“I tell you, it’s criminal, and I know criminal.” Old Man Morrison was pacing back and forth in the dining room of the McNeill Ranch house. “I saw it when your rotten sister tried to tip my cows, I was it when the O’Callahans were rustling my cows, and I see it now.”

“I’m sure,” said Adam McNeill. Seated at his kitchen table, he had been listening to Morrison ramble for nearly an hour about problems in Prosperity Falls. Time was, Adam would have shown the old coot the door with a Remington in his face for his trouble, not least of which because he had an inkling that the Morrison’s Wonky M ranch had been quietly rustling and rebranding his cows for years now.

But in the atmosphere of fear and paranoia that now ran rampant in Prosperity Falls, Morrison was one of the few Adam could talk to without fear of recrimination.

“The militia took another one of my boys yesterday,” Morrison continued. “For ‘questioning’ as an Ide sympathizer and traitor. Jail’s packed to the gills with ’em! Rangers and the militia is doing as they please and not a soul can raise a finger to stop them.”

“I heard that they seized Scroggins’s store yesterday,” Adam added. “Just threw him into the street and took everything he had for their ‘war effort.’ Deerton’s is the only shop on Prosperity Square that’s still open, and that’s only because Marshal Strasser has them making uniforms for her Rangers and her militia.”

“Militia,” spat Morrison. “Bunch of thugs too low to pass the Ranger Trials even with the bar lowered the way Yale left it.”

“Yeah,” Adam said, thinking ruefully of how many of his ranch hands he’d lost to prison and impressment—or fleeing to Dunn’s Crossing. “Or impressed to fight against their will. I’d raise holy hell about it, or gimp downtown to do something myself, but Marshal Strasser has the City Council in her pocket. Bunch of sheep, letting themselves be led around by Sullivan when she’s just on Strasser’s leash all the same. And the woman took over Strasser Smithy and threw her own uncle out on the street—you can’t reason with a creature like that.”

“You sound like you’re about ready to yellow-belly it to Dunn’s Crossing,” said Morrison.

“No. I don’t care if half the town has gone, either. My parents worked hard to build a life here, and I’ve worked hard to keep this ranch going. Nothing’s going to get me squealing out of Prosperity Falls with my tail between my legs.”

“Not even that rotten sister of yours?” Morrison said, arching an eyebrow over one cloudy eye. “Running off to go join up with the Ide, trying to overthrow Prosperity Falls from without even as Strasser breaks it up from within?”

“Don’t you say a word against her, Morrison,” Adam snapped. “Virginia’s got a lot of my parents in her, and they didn’t always think things through either. I love her, and I trust her, and if you so much as suggest that I do things any differently, I’ll rebut you with my Remingtons.”

“All right, okay, whatever you say, Adam.” Old Man Morriosn held up his hands in a gesture of surrender. “Guess you’ve got more than a little of her in yourself.”

“The responsibility of running a ranch tends to bury it deep, as I’m sure you know,” Adam said. He was about to continue when a heavy knock sounded at the door.

“Dale! Jeanette!” Adam cried out to his replacement ranch hands. “Whoever that is, let them in so I can tell them to go to hell for bothering me when I’ve got company!”

Before they could do so, if they even heard the command, the front door splintered inward. Two militiamen—identifiable by their pressboard Ranger badges—entered, guns drawn. Rangers Otto Luther and Shemaiah Talbot followed, their deputy marshal badges glinting in the late-day sunshine. Behind them, Marshal Ellen Strasser. Her outfit was immaculate, and she sported her old Colt Lightning revolvers with new ivory grips and the golden mashal’s badge buffed to a fine shine.

Morrison grasped for his double-barreled shotgun, which he’d left on the kitchen table, but Adam waved him away. “Marshal Strasser,” he said. “I’m honored by your presence. You’ll forgive me if I don’t stand, but I’m sure you know my leg’s no good.”

“Adam McNeill,” Strasser said. “You’ve ignored my requisition order. The people of Prosperity Falls need your head of cattle to feed the punitive expedition the Rangers are planning into Ide country.”

“Oh, I haven’t ignored the order, Marshal Strasser,” said Adam. That much was true; he had torn it up and burned the paper. “I’m afraid I was never properly presented with it is all.”

“And yet you are sitting here, well-fed—and armed—at your table while Rangers and militia go hungry for want of beef,” said Strasser icily. “That, to me, smacks of a lack of civic virtue. Or, to be less generous, conspiracy.”

“Oh, these?” said Adam, nodding at the twin Remington model 1858 revolvers on his table. “They are heirlooms. Belonged to my parents.”

“I’m sure you are aware that the requisition order extends to personal weapons as well,” said Strasser. “Even a pair of antiques like that could be made useful. And yet you’ve chosen to hoard them.”

“I keep them loaded with a blank charge and use them to startle cattle and wake up my sister,” Adam said. “Hardly hoarding, and they’re doing me more good than they would any fool used to cartridge guns instead of cap and ball.”

“Ah yes, your sister,” said Strasser. “Virginia. A name sure to eclipse even that of Jubal Sullivan in traitorous infamy.”

“Don’t you say a word against her,” said Adam, his calm slipping a bit. “I will not have my sister, no matter what she is held to have done, slandered in my own home.”

Strasser raised her eyebrows. “Perhaps your…lethargy…in complying with my lawful requests has something to do with that? Could it be that you, too, are in league with the Ide, plotting the destruction of everything I am sworn to protect?”

“Yes, I’m sure the Ide have great need for antique guns, cattle malnourished from confiscated feed, and fighters with useless legs.”

“Perhaps you’re right,” Strasser said. She nodded curtly to her escort, who began to advance with their guns drawn. “Even so, you might be a useful tool in bringing that girl to heel. A useful example to anyone else with your same…recalcitrance… as well.”

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“Goddamn yellow journalist,” Virginia cried, throwing down the paper on the bar at Portia’s. “That’s the last time I try to tell my side of the story to someone who made up his own nickname.” She was swaying a little and slurring as she spoke, which was easily explained by the small tower of upended empty shot glasses quietly weeping Madam Daisy-May Portia’s Patented Prosperity Falls Proof Tequila into the wood.

Prissy, seated next to her held up a finger, knocking over her own stack of glasses. “Yes, but imagine the lies that he might have made up if you hadn’t talked to him, Miss McNeill,” she slurred.

“You can stop calling me Miss McNeill,” Virginia said. “No one’s going to call me that unless they hit the bar when they’re aiming for the small of my back.”

“Oh, but I have to!” Prissy said, hiccuping. “I have to keep up decorum. And standards. Standards and decorum. As important in speech as in dress. After all, my plan to meet a strong husband in the Rangers is bust, so I must try extra hard to make up for it. With more class than Harvard.” She wobbled on her stool, spilling a shot of amber liquid on her starched white bustle. “Whoops! Good thing I have a line of credit with the tailor, though Daddy’s said that the next suit of clothes he makes me will be the last. I wonder if that’s a threat, or if he’s just doing tough love.”

“Adam says I can come home whenever I want, despite what this piss-yellow newspaper man says,” groaned Virginia. “But I can’t go back. I can’t. Not unless I’m crawling there wearing a potato sack. I have to make it on my own…somehow…to prove them all wrong. Prove that I have what it takes so they’ll beg for me to come back.”

“How long before you…crawl there in that potato sack?” Prissy belched.

“About two weeks,” said Virginia. “Renting a room upstairs is eating through what’s left of my Ranger pay like a starving dog through a dead man’s ass, and doing stable work at the livery is barely paying for Murgatroyd’s upkeep. I might have to send him back to Adam, but without me around, someone’s liable to send him to the glue factory.”

“I need to find something to do with myself, too,” said Prissy, miserably. “Something that’s not beneath my dignity.” She tipped her head forward onto the bar where it landed with a thump. Reynard the rat, eating crumbs from a plate, hoisted his nose at the sound. “Don’t look at me like that,” Prissy added.

“Maisy-Day! More tequila por favor!” cried Virginia, holding out the least dirty of her shot glasses. “The glass wants booze!”

“I think you’ve had enough, sugar,” said Daisy-May, behind the bar, as she very deliberately corked an enormous bottle of the house brew. “I should know, I was a drunkard in another life.”

“The same life you were a jimador?” Virginia grunted.

“No. The jimador was a teetotaler,” said Daisy-May. “And I’m still cutting you off.”

“What about me?” cried Prissy, her head still on the bar. “Can I get some more, or am I too drunk to get another? Gonna cut me off like a bad fingernail, Mrs. Portia?”

Daisy-May squinted at Prissy. “You’re drinking sarsaparilla, child.”

“So is that a yes, or a no?” Prissy slurred.

“Darling, there’s no alcohol in sarsaparilla,” said the proprietress. “It’s for teetotalers, children, mixing with booze, and calming upset stomachs.”

“Well what do you know, I do feel less upset in the stomach area, Mrs. Portia,” said Prissy, still addressing the bar. “Still feel pretty rotten everywhere else. How about a round of sarsa…sarasap…root beer for the whole place? You know I’m good for it.”

Daisy-May looked around her establishment. It was ten-thirty in the morning, and the only customer was an unemployed ranch hand losing at Faro to Daniel Evans the gambler. “Whatever you say, honey.”

Prissy didn’t respond; she had somehow passed out on the bar and had begun snoring loudly. Reynard the rat sniffed at his mistress and climbed up her increasingly stained outfit to her increasingly disheveled hair, where he made a little drey and curled up to sleep as well.

“What am I supposed to drown my sorrows in, if not your tequila?” Virginia moaned.

“Maybe that’s my subtle and ladylike way of telling you that sorrows are like fish, sweetheart,” said Daisy-May. “They can’t be drowned; getting them wet just makes them grow.”

“Ah, but a fish’ll still die if you put it in booze,” grunted Virginia, holding up a finger. “Don’t ask me how I know that. Mr. Rhodes was really sore about his goldfish, and how was I supposed to know that it was swimming in water and not single malt whiskey?”

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The High Ide who had been shadowing the party for some time now made their presence known, appearing on either side of the “gate” and the canyon. They were wearing the traditional Ide garments, which the Lower Ide only sported in pieces, and armed with a mixture of bows and arrows and old muzzle-loading rifles. The High Ide who had spoken, though, was armed with a Winchester repeater of older manufacture, and he kept it trained on the group as he spoke.

“You are not welcome here, in the Ide lands or the settlement of Gailebesh,” the High Ide continued. “By order of Kunan, son of Mainagha the High Chief, turn around and leave these lands at once. Your failure to do so will mark you as enemies of the Ide and we will rain down upon you without mercy.”

Virginia understood enough Ide to get the meaning, if not the nuance, of Kunan’s speech. “Kunan? Who we saw with Naquewocsum?” she said, mangling much of the syntax but managing to make herself understood.

“Ah, so you are the enidiiagil I saw in the chief’s tent, insulting him with your presence,” said Kunan. “Do not think that we will tolerate you on behalf of our brothers, and do not think that I will hesitate to kill you now because I did not do so then.”

“Most noble and respected Kunan of the High Ide,” said Dr. Eggebrecht, whose natural faculty with languages and careful study had granted him an impressive mastery of the Ide tongue in a comparatively short space of time. “I am Dr. Dana D. Eggebrecht of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC, and these are my escorts. We understand and respect your defense of your borders from interlopers, and would ask only a moment of your time that you might listen to what we have to say.”

Virginia pursed her lips. There were a few words in Eggebrecht’s speech she couldn’t make out, but it was clear he was being much more polite—obsequious, even—with the High Ide than he had been with the Rangers risking their lives on his behalf.

“Do not slander us with that title,” sneered Kunan. “There are no High Ide and no Lower Ide, only the true Ide and traitors who consort with murderers, thieves, and tricksters.”

“My most humble and sincere apologies, O Kunan,” Eggebrecht said. “Please forgive my ignorance in using the only term for your noble and mighty people that I have ever known. Will you accept my remorse, and accept my offer of parley?”

“No,” said Kunan. “We of the true Ide do not stoop to parley with those we know to be violent, base, and false. I reiterate my earlier command: leave us at once.”

“Please, O noble Kunan of the True Ide, hear me out,” Eggebrecht, a slightly desperate inflection in his voice. “I seek access to your most noble settlement of Gailebesh not to settle or even to trade, but to observe for a short time your ways that I might educate my own kind, the enidiiagil, how better to respect the True Ide lands and the True Ide ways.”

“No,” Kunan repeated. “Your honeyed words ring hollow, enidiiagil. Observation is but a prelude to invasion, and we of the true Ide have sworn never to let outsiders into our midst. This is our most sacred vow.”

“But…but…I have letters of introduction, O wise Kunan!” Dr. Eggebrecht fumbled through his portmanteau and produced them. “One from the City Council of Prosperity Falls, signed by all, and another from the wise Chief Naquewocsum who is known to you.”

As much as she disliked being at a disadvantage, surrounded by people who did not like her and with weapons trained, Virginia had to admit that she enjoyed seeing Eggebrecht squirm.

Kunan laughed. “What good are your speaking-papers, enidiiagil, to one who cannot read? And what good is the word of a band of treacherous enidiiagil and the false, fallen Ide who, while our brothers, were not strong enough to resist the temptation of the enidiiagil when they came among us sowing destruction and discord?”

“The Smithsonian Institution sent me, can’t you appreciate that?” Eggebrecht cried, the veneer of elaborate politeness in his words beginning to crack. He also slipped into English without realizing it. “I am under orders to preserve your culture and your ways through observation! I have your best interests in mind! Would you rather have nothing left to mark your passing when ignorant enidiiagil like these lunkheads around me massacre you all as ignorant savages?”

Kunan narrowed his eyes, and his lips compressed to a thin line.

“Oh, my apologies!” Eggebrecht said hastily in the Ide language. “I did not mean to-”

“If we cannot defend our ways by our own hand, they are not worth preserving,” Kunan said in clear, if accented and somewhat halting, English. “Your offer does not interest us, Dr. Dana D. Eggebrecht of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC. For the fourth and final time I must refuse your request.”

The Smithsonian man could only sputter helplessly, waving his worthless papers and looking to the Rangers as if they had some power to alter the situation.

“Bring the wagon around, Mr. Sullivan, if you please,” said Prissy quietly. “We’re going.”

“What? After coming all this way? Surely even a moron like you must admit that we can’t give up so easily. We can try additional arguments, bribery, something…anything! I simply must be allowed into Gailebesh for the continuance of my studies!”

“Dr. Eggebrecht,” said Jake. “They are losing patience with us, and they have us at a supreme disadvantage. Even with those weapons, they could kill all of us in half a minute flat. You can think up other ways for them to turn you down elsewhere.”

“Your enidiiagil drover speaks wisdom,” Kunan said, again in English. “I would heed him.”

“Honored Kunan, we thank you for your patience,” Prissy said loudly. “We will bear your answer back to our people and inform them that you do not wish to be troubled further, if you are willing to grant us safe passage back the way we came.”

“What are you doing, you fool?” Eggebrecht began. “You were put at my disposal, and-”

Prissy reached into her bustle and produced a Sharps Pepperbox, and pointed it so close to the Smithsonian man’s face that it touched his nose. Shocked, Eggebrecht said nothing further that was intelligible.

“Very well. You may leave, and tell any who will listen what you have heard here today,” said Kunan. “My Guardians will track you to make sure you do not renege on your word as is the enidiiagil way.”

“Thank you, O honored Kunan,” Prissy said. “Mr. Sullivan, the wagon.”

“A word of warning: do not expect us to be so accommodating should we meet again,” Kunan said.

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This entry is part of the NaNo Excerpt Blog Chain 2013 at Absolute Write.

“…never even seen a Savage Figure Eight. How do you suppose Caleb Jung found one?” Deputy Marshal Hopkins was saying. “Nobody liked those even when cap-and-ball was state of the art!”

“Probably bought it off a peddler for $5,” Cunningham grunted in return. “Remember the Elgin cutlass pistol he brought last year? After he missed with his first shot, he ran up and stabbed the target?”

“One of the O’Clellan Gang had an Elgin as his backup boot pistol,” Hopkins said. “Wasn’t even good for roasting meat on a spit after we pulled it off his carcass.”

“…still got to work that into every conversation, don’t you?” Cunningham muttered. “So, who have we got here? Miss McNeill, I see!”

“That’s right, Deputy Marshalls,” Virginia said. “I’m here to do my parents proud.”

“I rode with your parents when I was just a rookie Ranger myself,” said Hopkins approvingly. “It’s a shame they were taken from us so soon. I could have used their guns against the O’Clellans.”

Cunningham audibly sighed, and Virginia responded: “I hope to do them justice. I was to wear my mother’s own duster and kit until there was a…washing mishap.”

“Yes, that would have been most fitting,” said Hopkins, glancing at Virginia’s ragged and somewhat tatterdemalion rig with a critical eye. “We’ll have you fitted out properly at the Rangers’ quartermaster if it comes to that.”

Cunningham looked at the revolvers laid out as part of Virginia’s kit. “Most of our candidates are using Peacemakers,” he said with a note of surprise in his voice, “but I see you favor the Model 1875.”

Virginia nodded eagerly, trying to remember the lines Adam had told her to recite at just such a statement. “Yeah. Mr. Remington can go to hell. My parents used a Colt as Prosperity Rangers and that’s what I’ll use now.”

Cunningham and Hopkins looked at one another with meaningful, skeptical glances. “I…see,” Cunningham said. “Recite for us the Prosperity Charter, Miss McNeill. Why, and for what principles, did our forefathers reject the inequity of the east and come to the lands of the Ide in peace and brotherhood?”

“Ah…” Virginia said, pursing her lips. She knew this, she’d learned it in school, Adam had yammered on and on about it while she had daydreamed about rags to riches stories…why hadn’t she paid more attention? Why hadn’t she tried to listen for Talbot’s answer so she could copy it?

“Come on, out with it,” said Hopkins. “As I said before facing down the O’Clellans: he who hesitates is lost.”

“…really?” Cunningham murmured. “Really?”

“Uh…everyone’s equal…ladies and gentlemen, it doesn’t matter,” Virginia said, bowdlerizing the concept as best she could.”

“Point the First: All shall be equal before the settlement of Prosperity Falls and before God, regardless of their sex, creed, or color!” barked Cunningham.

“Right, exactly, just like I said.” Virginia’s bullets weren’t all on the table; she was sweating them. “Er…Point the Second…disputes get solved peacefully…no war…no violence!”

“Point the Second: Real men solve their disputes peacefully, and there shall be no war and no recourse to violence save in direst need and then only in defense!” Hopkins cried. “Really, Miss McNeill, if this is a joke it is in exceptionally poor taste.”

Virginia bit her lip. Somehow, being called out for a lie—well, a bowdlerization—didn’t seem as easy to brush off as it had been for the eponymous hero of Alger’s Luke Larkin’s Luck weathering crooked Mr. Coleman. “Point the Third: Respect for the natives…settlers and Ide tribes trade and get along!”

“Point the Third: The Indians are the original posessors of the land and will be dealt with fairly and respectfully; trade and brotherly harmony shall be our watchwords!” corrected Cunningham. “As I said in the action at Slaughter Gulch, near isn’t nearly good enough.” The Deputy Marshal seemed slightly crushed when his witticism elicited no visible response.

“Point the Fourth: Self-sufficiency: Prosperity Falls makes everything it needs!” Virginia clenched her fists in anticipation of the brutal riposte Hopkins or Cunningham would respond with.

“That’s better,” said Hopkins. “Well recited, if only on that last point.”

Virginia sighed heavily.

“Gather up your kit and meet the others at the firing range,” Cunningham added. The pair then moved on to Jake, who flawlessly belted out the Prosperity Charter with a smug sidelong glance at Virginia.

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