by Malin Larsson
His nose was clogged up with the yellow sand that whirled around them. As if the horses’ hooves weren’t enough to stir up dust clouds, the breeze had begun to gain in strength. And of course, it was blowing straight against them. Jimmy pulled up the patterned scarf and fastened it around his mouth and nose. It was a difficult business with only one hand but he didn’t dare let go of the rein of the skittish horse.
The land lay deserted around the stagecoach and the five riders; they were surrounded by only jagged rocks and stiff bushes. The road itself was just a broad patch of less bumpy ground, but the difference was hardly noticeable, especially not for the poor travelers in the stagecoach. Even though they were spared the dust, Jimmy didn’t envy them the shaky journey.
A gust of wind snatched a dead twig from the ground and threw it against his spooky mare. She flew in the air and flung herself to the side, colliding into Stonefist Jack’s stallion. Jimmy lost his balance and was thrown forwards. His manly parts got a hard thump and he gasped in pain. Luckily, the stallion wasn’t as flimsy as the mare and only flicked his ears angrily at her. Jimmy steered her firmly away again and regained his breath.
“Sorry,” he said to Jack.
The weather-bitten man shrugged and twisted his thick lips in something resembling a smile.
“Gotta keep your legs tight on her, boy!” he instructed.
Jimmy nodded and patted the chestnut neck.
“There, there, girl,” he mumbled with his voice muffled by the scarf.
The horse didn’t listen to him but he hadn’t expected her to. Another gust of wind so full of sand it prickled the skin like needles scared her again. She almost reared up but Jimmy pulled one of the reins and the sideward command was enough to get her on all fours again. With a snort, she danced some steps to the side again and shook her head nervously.
“Take her to the back, boy! She might like it better there,” Jack suggested.
“Smartest thing to do,” the tall man beyond Jack agreed.
He was called Goldie, because of his blond hair, and he never seemed to mind the girlish name. No one ever joked about it, but that might have been because of the heavy Colts he carried at each hip.
Jimmy nodded and steered the mare around to the rear group. He didn’t like being called a boy. He had been on the roads for five years and could handle a gun almost as good as his old man. He deserved to be paid some respect and calling him by his name wasn’t such an effort.
He raised a hand to the driver as he rode past, and the man touched his hat with a grin. He was an odd fellow, with a too wide mouth and eyes placed too narrowly. He was shrewd enough though, and knew the land around better than the redskins.
He tried to glimpse the passengers inside the stagecoach but the windows were covered with cloth. There was a family of four, man and wife with two almost grown daughters, by the name of Stevenson and a young man called Michael not much older than the daughters. The blushing kid had been under constant attempts to be ensnared by the lively girls since they left Jackson the day before. A smile quirked Jimmy’s lips at the thought of the dark eyed girls and their tricks. The young man didn’t even appreciate their efforts.
He passed the pair of spare horses trailing the stagecoach and joined the two riders at the rear. They both had their scarves up and the hats pulled down over their eyes, barely leaving a fraction to peer through. The dust ripped up by the trundling wheels made it obvious why. Jimmy pulled down his own hat as he joined them. They were a quiet couple, the Caseys, and they both straddled their horses with the same ease. In fact, they were so alike Jimmy couldn’t tell which was Cody and which was Marilynn. Even with their hats off, her short hair made it hard to tell sometimes.
The rough voice immediately exposed the rider of the dark bay as Cody.
“Sunny thinks the world is big and scary,” Jimmy said fondly and patted the mare again.
“Should have picked another horse,” Cody stated.
“She was cheap,” Jimmy said with an apologetic shrug.
“She’ll get you killed,” he said matter-of-factly.
“Nah,” Jimmy protested with a shake of his head.
“Break your bones,” Cody continued pessimistically.
Jimmy couldn’t help but grin.
“Well, that perhaps,” he agreed.
“Bad luck to buy a horse with four socks,” the cowboy continued gloomy.
Jimmy just answered with a shrug and concentrated on the horse. She seemed somewhat calmer back here but constantly tried to nuzzle up to the dark bay. She was very young and someone in her past had treated her harshly. The marks of the whip were still visible in her smooth velvet hide. His lips thinned at the thought and his fists clenched. At once she tensed under him and he forced himself to relax. He lifted his gaze and squinted at the surroundings.
The sunlight was weakened by a thin veil of clouds and the dust made the day even dimmer. He could see no one around, and doubted they would have any problems. It had been months since any robbers or redskins had disturbed this stretch of the road.
He quickly looked down again, his eyes brimming with tears from the dust and the wind. He hunched against the weather and scratched his back. Sweat and dirt caked the shirt to his skin. He wanted a bath and hoped that they would take the longer turn and stop by the river.
They rode on, and Jimmy sat silent as the couple talked to each other in soft whispers. Every now and then, he caught some word or sentence from the conversation but nothing that made sense or attracted his attention.
A frown spoiled his smooth features and his tongue danced over his teeth as his thoughts flittered over plans for the future and memories from the past. He was young, but he had seen much and experienced even more. Since he had run away from home when he was twelve he hadn’t stayed in one town for more than two months, mostly he only passed through without stopping or he stayed for just a few days to get some cash.
As his mind strayed, his head sank lower and his shoulders slumped forward. He stumbled at the edge of sleep but the mare had calmed down and carried him safely in the stagecoach’s wake of blowing sand. The day became darker as heavier clouds rolled in and the wind picked up even more. Jimmy was suddenly rocked awake as the mare slipped on some stones on the steep downhill. She found her footing again instantly. He stretched and lifted a hand to rub his eyes. His head felt heavy and the nap had only made him more tired. They had been traveling across a low plateau and he now saw that they had reached the twisting path down from it.
The Caseys had changed places and Marilynn met his gaze as he looked up. The wrinkles in the corner of her eyes revealed that she smiled.
“Slept well?” she asked with laughter in her throaty voice.
He blushed violently and cleared his throat without finding anything witty to answer.
“You’re a sweet kid,” she said. “Someday I want a son like you.”
Stiffening, he looked down and the blush paled.
“No, you don’t,” he said with stunning seriousness in his voice.
She chuckled, not noticing the change in his voice.
“Well, I wouldn’t mind getting rid of my kids when they turn teenagers. I know how I was at that age and I don’t want my children to treat me like that,” she joked.
Jimmy tried to smile and was thankful for the scarf that hid his terrible attempt. Running away from home hadn’t been on his mind when he had answered. Under the dark shade of the hat, Marilynn frowned worriedly.
“Are you all right?”
Jimmy didn’t have time to give an answer when a mighty crack startled the horses and the riders. The stagecoach tipped slightly to the right and Jimmy’s eyes slipped down to the broken wheel. He sighed at the thought of staying to fix it and spending more time out in the open in this weather. Then the wheel fell completely off the axle and the corner of the bulk crashed to the ground. Jimmy heard the surprised screams from within and gripped the reins tighter. His throat contracted. The hill was covered in loose rocks and sand and sloped steeply toward a bend in the downhill path that went around a protruding patch of the mountain. The dark rock seemed chillingly close.
“Get out of the wagon,” Jimmy screamed and his voice pitched. “Get out before…”
The stagecoach began to slide and now he heard Marilynn scream to them too but his own mouth refused to work anymore. His eyes saw the coach beginning to tip, slowly as if it were deliberately lying down to take a nap.
It landed hard and stirred up a cloud that for a moment erased it completely from his sight. Under him, the mare was snorting and he felt her flanks shiver against his legs.
“Oh, Lord in Heaven,” cried someone next to him.
The stage was sliding out of the cloud of dust it had caused. Someone was whimpering and he realized it was himself. He heard screams, first high-pitched voices and then the inhuman wails of the spare horses tied to iron hooks and the harnessed ones in the tongue. Jimmy spotted the driver rolling away from the inevitable catastrophe.
He clenched the reins tighter in his fist and spurred on Sunny. She launched forward, frightened and excited. He steered her towards the sliding stagecoach that suddenly caught in something and spun ninety degrees. It hooked into another rock and rolled over. A scream was suddenly cut off but Jimmy couldn’t tell if it was one of the horses or one of the passengers. A spare horse suddenly fought free and flung itself up on its hooves right in their path. Sunny avoided it rapidly and almost threw Jimmy out of the saddle. He clung on and managed to release his lasso. The rope felt dry against his sweaty palms as he pushed her on.
The coach continued sliding but luckily the ground was dry and uneven and snagged at the wood. Sunny caught up with it in a few strides, her body tense and her ears pressed against her skull. The voices from the other riders reached him but he couldn’t discern the words in the sound of rushing blood in his ears.
He reined her in, and she was still sliding to a stop when he let go of the reins. He released a loop from the lasso and spun it above his head. It slithered through his hand as he let it fly. It hit true, snatching the side of the driver’s box. With swift fingers, he wound the rope around the horn of the saddle and grabbed the reins in one hand again.
Sunny had come to a halt but the sudden jerk almost pulled her off her hooves. She jumped forward and once again dug deep to stop the bolting stage. It snagged at them and the sand whirled around them as it pulled them over the ground. For a moment, it slowed down and Jimmy’s heart leaped.
“Get out!” he roared but his voice was weak and hoarse.
Yet the door, now staring at the sky, flew open. Under him, the muscles of the mare’s neck and back was arched and tensed against the heavy weight. Another lasso came flying and caught the wagon. Yet the stagecoach rocked and pulled against them, still sliding against the rocks at the bottom. The rope was quivering from the intense pull and beneath him Sunny was weakening.
“Come on, girl, come on!” he prayed desperately.
A dark head shot up through the hole and the terrified face of one of the daughters shone pale against the dark wood. She clambered at the planks and got a knee up on the side. Sunny lost her balance. The mare stumbled forward and as Jimmy felt her falling, someone shouted at him.
“Cut loose! Cut her loose, you stupid kid!”
She landed hard on her knees and Jimmy clung on. His body shook at the impact but he was already holding the knife pressed against his palm. With a savage swing, he sliced the rope in two.
The tension loosened and the mare got up on all fours. Jimmy snapped his gaze to the stagecoach. The girl was falling through the air and the pale dress was fluttering around her.
“No,” he moaned.
She disappeared over the edge and another scream was abruptly cut off. He felt his stomach turn around and he bit together hard. Blondie had cut his lasso too and watched with the same helplessness as Jimmy. The screams cut his ears like nails against the blackboard.
Another horse had broken free but it was left behind, immobile. The stagecoach slid faster and a head emerged from the open door. Jimmy recognized the slim figure of the young man as the shoulders heaved up, defying the rocking and shaking of the descent. He heard shouts from around him but Sunny stood still panting, and he did not move to drive her on. Hope swelled but the bend was too close. It was too late. All they could do was watch them race to their deaths. The man was half way out.
The crash into the mountain cliff turned most of the wagon into firewood. The Caseys were just behind, reining in their horses and dismounting in one fluid movement. Jimmy gathered his wits and followed their example, as did Jack. The smell of blood made the mare even more afraid but she was exhausted and only shied away a few feet when he let her go.
Cody was lying on the remaining bulk of the stagecoach, stretching down into the dark interior. He pulled up the second girl, her body wrapped in blue cloth and lace. He handed her to Marilynn, who carefully laid the girl on the ground. Jimmy felt his heart struggling hard enough to break his ribs and his mouth tasted sour. Hazily, he saw Marilynn shake her head sadly. He closed his eyes and leant a hand against the wooden bulk.
“The devil be damned!” he heard Cody curse as the cowboy pulled the man out of the bulk.
A thin piece of wood had stabbed the man through the guts and blood bubbled from his lips. Jack lowered him down but they all knew he wouldn’t live for many more breaths. Cody was already bending down into the darkness again.
His movements were softer when he rose. He held the wife gently in his arms and clumsily climbed down without letting go.
“She’s breathing,” he said as he laid her down. “There’s no one left in there,” he continued with a glance at Jack who was on his way up.
Marilynn was at his side at once and examined the woman knowingly. Jimmy didn’t move, just stood still and tried to breathe, tried to think. It was Jack’s voice that woke him.
“What about the fancy boy?” he growled. “Where did he go?”
Jimmy looked up, and his wide eyes scanned the area. Up the hill, he saw the dead horse and Blondie bent over the body of the daughter that had tried to escape. The driver was limping towards them. But there was no other to be seen.
His eyes turned towards the wagon and the scattered parts around it. One horse was moving, trying to get on its feet but failing. The other was crushed between the mountain and the stagecoach. He made himself move, stiffly stalking around the broken wooden bulk.
“Don’t, boy. You don’t want to see the remains if he’s caught under there,” Jack warned him sharply.
Jimmy stopped at his words, his body shivering and the bile rising in his throat. He quickly spun around to hide the shame when the nausea overwhelmed him. Gripping at the cliff wall, he lost the meager breakfast he had eaten. He leant heavily against it and shielded off the quiet conversation behind him. The rock was cool; the sun hadn’t been strong enough to warm it. Against his sweaty skin it felt like ice and as the wind rippled over him, he shivered.
The sound made him tense. He shouldn’t even have heard it amidst the noise of the wounded horse and the Caseys talking over the woman. But yet, it was there. He turned, wiping his mouth. Pricking his ears, he tried to hear it again but feared that he had imagined it. His eyes flickered to Jack who was also scanning the area with a puzzled frown. Jack met his gaze and then moved quickly, jumping over the debris. Jimmy was at his heels.
The wagon lay over most of the young man’s body, only his right arm, shoulders and head were free from the weight. His lips were faintly parted and his eyes were sharply watching them with detached terror and dizzy pain. No sound was heard but his lips formed the word ‘help.’
“Don’t speak,” Jack growled.
He was bending down beside Michael and gripping the edge of the stagecoach.
“Pull him out,” he snarled at Jimmy who quickly ran to the terrified man.
He bent down and put his hands on his shoulders. He flinched at the sudden moan and removed his hands, frightened that he had grabbed a dislocated shoulder and caused greater harm. He glanced up at Jack and saw the man tensing his muscles and using his whole force. The wagon didn’t budge. Cody came around to them and spotted the trapped man.
“Oh, merciful Christ!” he muttered.
Jimmy turned his gaze to Jack again and then took a deep breath. He left Michael and grabbed at the stagecoach.
“Kid! Let me do that!” Cody croaked.
“Pull him out when the wagon lifts,” Jimmy said determinedly.
He could hear someone snort, though he didn’t know who. He couldn’t care less. Breathing in deeply, he adjusted his grip and placed his feet firmly against the rock. He would pay dearly for it in the morning, he knew. He lifted.
The campfire threw little light, being almost burned down. The stars had died in the cold of the night and at the horizon, a pale line of blue could be made out. Jimmy sat cross-legged beside the sleeping figure of the young man. The woman still lived, though barely, and the driver had a broken arm and tender ribs. Three people and three horses were dead. The stagecoach was reduced to matchsticks, except the heavy bulk that had lain across Michael’s body. Yet the young man was not more than bruised and scraped.
His eyes flickered open and met Jimmy’s. Jimmy smiled faintly.
“You want water?” he asked in a whisper, trying not to wake the others.
Michael shook his head but didn’t move his brown gaze from his. Slowly, and probably in pain, he reached out a trembling hand and laid it on his thigh. Jimmy frowned and stiffened. The young man’s eyes clouded over and he quickly jerked his hand away, as if in pain.
“You all right?” Jimmy wondered hoarsely.
He saw Michael swallow and nod faintly.
“You…” the man began and swallowed again. “You lifted the wagon.”
Jimmy looked away, into the night where the wreck was. It was out of sight but he imagined he could feel its presence. He remembered the shock in their eyes, and the questions on their lips. He wouldn’t answer them, not the unsaid or the said. No good would come from that.
“It hurts,” the man continued.
Jimmy returned his gaze to him.
“Want me to get some whiskey?” he wondered. “There’s no doctor...”
“No,” he interrupted, croaking. “Not me. Others. When I touch them. I feel them, they’re in my head. They called you bad words. You had to escape from prison.”
The words were softer than whispers but Jimmy heard each one of them. He felt cold and warm at the same time. His heart thudded in hope and his mind cringed in shame and fear.
“I could feel them die.”
The despair in the weak voice stabbed him like a blade and he had no words for comfort. They sat in silence and Jimmy felt something trickle down his cheek. He hoped the darkness hid it.
“I wish I could have stopped it,” he mumbled. “But I can’t, not from a distance. Perhaps if I had been in front of it but I don’t know. I have to have a grip, and something to brace myself against.”
They were silent again and finally Jimmy turned his gaze and met Michael’s eyes. For the first time, he found understanding and true compassion at his revelation. He wanted to stretch out and touch this newly found soul mate, but the man’s earlier revelation stopped him.
“Not even people like us can do miracles,” Michael said sadly.
“No,” Jimmy agreed quietly and sighed. “I thought there was no other like me.”
“I figured there should be more.”
“Now we both know,” Jimmy said and he smiled.
Michael smiled too. Lifting a hand, he rubbed his face.
“How about that whiskey?” he asked hoarsely.
Jimmy’s smile turned into a grin and he fished up a flask from under him. He handed it to Michael who took it and drank carefully. When he returned it, Jimmy took a swig too. It burned in his throat and he muffled a cough.
“I’ll feel terrible in the morning,” he muttered. “Another great treat with using it.”
“Headaches?” the young man wondered.
“I’ll be out cold. Already feel it in my temples.”
He pressed his knuckles against his forehead.
“Hell, I guess it’s worth it when saving a life. And finding a friend.”
Glancing over at Michael, he was relieved that a smile was on the man’s lips. In his eyes, he could see the same gratitude and joy he felt in his own guts.
© 2007 Malin Larsson
Original fiction debuting at Residential Aliens.
Malin Larsson lives on a tiny farm (no real farming though) in eastern Sweden. She enjoys writing, reading and riding; in equal degree. Daytime, she's studying Environmental Science in University. Nighttime, she amuses herself with making up weird stories which she then writes down, puts online and hopes that someone will say something nice about them. You can read more from Malin at Elfwood.