Authors: K. A. Stewart
Also by K. A. Stewart
The Jesse James Dawson series
A Devil in the Details
A Shot in the Dark
A Wolf at the Door
K. A. Stewart
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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
An InterMix Book / published by arrangement with the author
InterMix eBook edition / January 2014
Copyright Â© 2014 by K. A. Stewart.
A Devil in the Details
copyright Â© 2010 by K. A. Stewart.
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For you, Dad.
The bead of sweat rolled down Caleb's nose to hang there, quivering, before it fell to join its brothers in the fabric of his denim shirt. It was a testament to the length of his journey that he hadn't even bothered to mop his face in the last hour. Beneath the low brim of his hat, he squinted toward the horizon, his gaze following the seemingly endless chain of telegraph poles as they disappeared against the haze of the distant mountains.
“Are we lost?”
Caleb sighed, leaning on the pommel of his saddle. “They said follow the telegraph wires. So we are.”
“This isn't a road, you know. This is barely a path. Maybe the poles are a mirage, leading us to our doom.”
Caleb turned to look at his companion, pillowed on Caleb's own coat on the rear of the transport. “We're optimistic today, aren't we?”
The odd creature sniffed, its quivering nose a clear expression of irritation. “You try riding back here while this thing goes to pieces. See how optimistic you are.” The rabbitlike animal gave a toss of its head, nearly gouging the man with its spiny antlers.
“Hey, watch where you swing those things.” The jackalope just rolled its deep brown eyes and sulked. “And it's not really a comfortable ride up here either.”
Somewhere in the last fifty miles, the transport had developed some kind of hitch in its hindquarters, resulting in a nasty grinding noise and lurching stride. Caleb wasn't an arcanosmith, but if he had to guess, he'd say the bearings had frozen up. No surprise, with the constant dust and heat they'd been suffering for the last two months.
“Hopefully, they'll have a smith at the next stop, and we'll get it repaired.” If the next town didn't have an arcanosmith, they'd be stuck for at least a month until one could be sent on the stage from Kansas City. That was going to put Caleb seriously behind on his circuit.
The jackalope grumbled under its breath as Caleb kicked the transport back into a trot. The normal wheeze and sigh of the mechanical construct was ruined by the grinding in the back end, and every other step was enough to painfully jar his teeth together. If they couldn't get it fixed, he was going to shoot it himself.
They'd ridden for another twenty minutes before the furry passenger remarked casually, “I think I see a crack in the casing.”
“What?!” Caleb nearly knocked the jackalope off its perch, turning in the saddle to examine the glowing blue casing at the transport's flank.
The animal scrabbled frantically with its claws to remain aboard. “Damn, Caleb!”
The casing was pristine, not a single flaw marring the transparent surface. Beneath it, the blue arcane energy whirled serenely with no sign of having found an escape route. Caleb's heart pounded in his ears as he fought to calm himself. “That wasn't funny, Ernst!”
“Well, it was before you tried to knock me off the transport.” Ernst smoothed his brown fur, twitching his long ears to express his displeasure.
“You do that again, and I'll skin you for a hat.”
“You have no sense of humor, you know that?”
“So I've been told.” The man turned to face forward again. The dusty track stretched out before them, barely visible in the tall prairie grass. Only the never-ending line of telegraph poles marked where the road might be. “It can't be much farther. We ride any more west, we'll wind up in Indian territory.” The Rocky Mountain range had been claimed as the land of final retreat by many tribes in recent years, leaving a nearly impassable wall across the budding U.S. frontier. Only the desperate and the foolhardy ventured close to that wilderness these days.
Which one are you, Caleb?
“You know, it's possible that they gave you bad directions.” Ernst settled himself in his little coat nest again. “They didn't seem to warm up to you.”
Caleb didn't respond, only kicking the transport into motion yet again. The last town had seemed rather cold, welcome-wise. As had the one before it. If this was how the entire circuit was going to beÂ .Â .Â . He was sorely tempted to turn and ride back east, if it wouldn't mean career suicide.
What little career I have left.
His “career” currently consisted of a lonely, miserable circuit in the wilds of the frontier. Over the course of the next year, he'd range from the southern-most reach of the U.S., skirting the still-contested Texas-Mexico border, all the way to the north and Canada. He would mark a trail straight down the eastern slope of the Rocky Mountains, the very edges of what was considered the borderlands, and cover everything between there and Kansas City. Such was the life of an itinerate lawman.
The mountains to the west never seemed to get any closer no matter how long they rode. The behemoths merely sat there, watching over the grassland from a bank of purple mist. Small clouds played ring-the-rosie around the peaks, teasing with a promise of rain that never came. The lack of moisture showed in the prairie grass, which had long ago gone brown and brittle in the summer heat.
Caleb finally broke down and wiped at his face and neck with a bandana, fanning himself with the wide brim of his hat. It brought middling relief at best.
“Can't you just put the heat elsewhere? I'm turning into stew back here.”
The man eyed the dry prairie and shuddered. Yes, he could have taken the heat around them, shifted it elsewhere. But anywhere he put it would spark a fire, and in a dry environment like thisÂ .Â .Â . “Better stew than turned to charcoal.”
“Says you. You're not wearing fur.” The antlers jabbed Caleb in the back again, and he grimaced.
“Enough! I've got four days of stubble on my face, five gallons of sweat in my shirt and not an ounce of water in my body, and my ass feels like someone's been at it with a carpet rod. If you don't like fur, shift form. Not another word out of you until we hit town.” Immediately, Caleb felt bad for snapping, and his shoulders sagged. They were both hot and increasingly miserable, but that was no reason to bite the poor creature's head off. “Sorry, Ernst.”
The jackalope gave a peculiar little purr, indicating that there were no hard feelings. “Wake me when we get there.”
About an hour later, “there” appeared suddenly out of the tall grass like a jack-in-the-box. It was a decent-sized town, bigger than the last two they'd visited, and Caleb stopped the transport long enough to evict Ernst and inspect the transport one last time.
Built to resemble the horses they had replaced, they had four metal legs that moved with arcane-powered gears and pistons. Though some inventors back east were experimenting with arcane powered wagons on four wheels, the transport design made them better at irregular terrain and simply had more power. Transports were capable of great speed and strength, and only rarely had to be recharged with arcane energy, as opposed to a horse, which had a limited range it could travel in a day and had to be fed and watered often.
This particular model had been one of the newest available when he'd left St. Louis, a gift from his director.
A banishment present.
It was fast, to be sure, but it had been designed for paved city streets and short country strolls. The extreme conditions of the west were taking their toll on it, and quickly. The ball joints in the knees were still moving freely, but the gears in the rear workings were grinding audibly, and it was only a matter of time before it wheezed its last. Caleb simply didn't have the knowledge to repair it himself, and once it quit, they'd be on foot. In this heat, it'd be a death sentence.
Mindful of protocol, Caleb shrugged into his heavy duster and adjusted the star badge pinned over his heart with a sigh.
Wonder if they wouldn't be happier to see me without it.
As if his familiar knew his thoughts, the jackalope mused, “We could just say no one was home and go on to the next one.” The plucky creature hopped around the dusty trail a few times, stretching his furry legs.
“You know as well as I do, this thing won't make it to the next town.” In spite of his misgivings, Caleb squared his shoulders and tugged his hat down over his eyes. “Come on, one last short ride, and then we can turn this heap of scrap over to someone else.” He scooped Ernst up, depositing him on top of the battered trunk attached to the back of the transport, and swung himself into the saddle.
As they rattled and clanked their way into the town, Ernst peered at the high sign spanning the width of the road. “And what's the name of this place? Dusty Hollow? Dry Gulch? The Backside of Hell?”
Caleb smiled a bit to himself as they rode under the sign. “Hope.”
The townsfolk stopped to watch the stranger ride into their midst, as Caleb had known they would. He tipped his hat to those who would make eye contact, but most kept their gazes down, daring to stare only once he'd passed them.
They rode past a small barber shop, what appeared to be a dressmaker's shop, and several nondescript structures that might have been personal dwellings. A church with a modest steeple dominated the north side of town, and a half-constructed something sat just beyond that. There was no sign of a hotel or boardinghouse until Caleb spied a card in the window of the tavern that said
“Looks like this is our best bet, Ernst.” He dismounted, stretching muscles that were cramped and complaining from the long hours in the saddle. Even after three months, he was still green enough that the long rides hurt. “Watch the transport. I'll be right back.” If the jackalope grumbled about being reduced to guard duty, Caleb missed it as he stepped up on the wooden walk.
The inside of the tavern was just as hot as the outside, but the dimness was a startling change after hours under the ruthless sun. Caleb pulled his hat off, surveying the room to allow his eyes time to adjust. The tables were empty but clean, and a piano stood in one corner, carefully covered with a linen cloth against the dust. On the far side, the staircase presumably led to the promised rooms for rent, and the bar stood to the right of the swinging doors, backed by mirrors and a wall of glass bottles of varying alcoholic content. There was even a cold box, hissing softly as the arcane power in its tubes cooled the air within. All in all, it was one of the nicer places they'd been lately.
“Hello? Anyone here?”
An answering yell came from a doorway on the right, and the door soon swung outward to admit one slender fellow with dark black hair and shockingly blue eyes. He grinned through his beard, drying his hands on a towel. “How kin I help ye?” The brogue was unmistakably Scottish.
“Looking about a room to rent. I saw the sign in the window.”
“Oh, yessir! Rate's two dollars a week, meals not included.” The dark-haired Scot came out from behind the bar, offering his hand, but his smile slipped a bit when he saw the star pinned to Caleb's coat, the six-gun on his belt. “The last Peacemaker used ta take rooms out at the Warner ranch, about ten miles south of here.”
Caleb took the offered hand for a firm shake, feeling a faint tingle against his skin. If he had to guess, he'd rate the barkeep on the low end of the power scale. Nothing someone like Caleb couldn't handle. “My transport's not going to make it another ten miles, so I think I'll just stay here if that's all right. Name is Caleb Marcus.” Digging his wallet out of his coat, he presented five dollars to the tavern owner. “For meals, too.”
The Scot's eyes lit up at the sight of the money in advance, but there was still a caution there, a wariness that Caleb had seen in the other towns he'd visited. “Teddy MacGregor. Owner of this establishment.”
“Well, tell me, Mr. MacGregor. Do you happen to have an arcanosmith in this lovely town?”
The man snorted, retreating behind the bar to put the money safely away in his cash box. “That'll be just Teddy, thank ye. And we got a smith on the west end of town that can do for most things. Otherwise, you'd have to ride out to the Warner place. Abel keeps his own arcanosmith out there.”
“I'd rather shoot the thing myself than ride another mile.” Caleb grinned and was relieved to see the tavern keeper return the expression, though the man's gaze kept drifting to the right side of Caleb's face. Inwardly, the Peacemaker sighed, but if the Scot wasn't going to ask, he wasn't going to bring it up.
Finally, Teddy shook himself and tossed Caleb a key attached to a large chunk of wood. “Up the stairs, last door on the left. We serve food from five to nine, and whatever you'd like to drink until midnight.”
“Thank you, sir.” Tipping his hat as he put it back on, Caleb stepped back out into the searing summer sun. He glanced to the west and paused to look at the mountains suddenly looming large over the plain. When did they get so close, and why did it feel like they were watching him just as much as he watched them?
A clamor of childish voices drew his attention, and he smirked when he saw Ernst atop a convenient barrel, surrounded by curious youngsters. He could hear the jackalope purring over the din, and the children oohed and aahed obligingly.
“Enjoying yourself?” Caleb leaned against a pole, grinning at his companion. Anytime he lost Ernst, he could be certain to find him in the arms of the nearest child. The furry creature just rolled his eyes in absolute ecstasy, carefully holding still to avoid jabbing anyone with his antlers, which, Caleb noted, he had blunted for safety's sake.
One of the older boys, all of seven maybe, looked over at Caleb. “Is he yours, mister?”
“Well, we travel together. So, in a way, yes.”
“He's so cute!” The children seemed to understand not to pick the small animal up, contenting themselves with stroking his downy-soft fur, exclaiming over his long, supple ears.
“That's a helluva scar, mister,” said another boy, sandy-haired and freckled, and he got swatted by what had to be his sister for his language.
Caleb idly fingered the smooth scar that cut down his right cheek. “It looks worse than it is.”