BITTERBUSH SPRINGS. FROM Silas’s vantage point in the rocky hills to the east, the town didn’t look like much, just a dozen or so wooden crates laid out in rows, brown and quiet in the hot summer sun. He reached out with his mage senses towards the town and the valley beyond, seeking the strange magic he had followed here.
There it was, strong, for him to have sensed it from several days’ distance, dark and alien, but at times mixed with flashes of more familiar kinds of power. A hell of a lot of magic for a place where no mage would dare show himself openly.
No doubt about it; something strange was going on in the Bitterbush Valley. And, with any luck, there would be a nice, big bounty in it for him from the Mage Council.
If not, some serious belt-tightening lay ahead of him. Five years of making a good living hunting renegade mages in the more settled eastern part of the Wildings had been shot to all the hells when a passel of greenfoot mage hunters flooded through the Gap from Granadaia, looking for quick, easy fame and fortune. Mostly what those amateurs had managed to do was chase away the smartest and most dangerous rogue mages, the ones who were worth the highest bounties.
With his money running low, Silas had come west to the more remote parts of the Wildings, hoping for better hunting. Rumors of a mining rush in the Bitterbush Valley had caught his ear, and not long after he set out to follow the rumors, he had sensed the bursts of unusual magical power coming from the area. It made sense; a mining rush was indeed just the sort of thing a rogue mage might try to horn in on, looking for quick riches. Though that darker power didn’t feel like any ordinary mage.
Silas surveyed the valley again. It looked like good cattle country, grassland bleached gold in the hot, dry weather, well-watered by seasonal washes and a handful of running streams. A number of ranch compounds and farms lay scattered the length of the valley from north to south, and herds of cattle and sheep roamed the rangeland. All signs of prosperity that might also provide tempting opportunities for a renegade mage.
Silas settled his hat firmly on his head, made sure his revolver was loaded, and checked that the shield inside him concealing his power was solidly in place and seamlessly camouflaged. It wouldn’t do to let the rogue mage, if there was one, know that another mage had arrived in town.
His Island-dark skin was another matter. It could give him away to both mages and mage-hating Plain settlers as a member of one of the elite Island mage families back in Granadaia, but there was nothing he could do to change that. Anyhow, his skin wasn’t so dark that it couldn’t be mistaken for a deep tan, and during his years in the Wildings, he had grown adept at passing himself off as a descendant of the servants and slaves the Island mages had brought with them to Granadaia.
With an earnest prayer to the Provider for good hunting and a fat bounty, he nudged Abenar, his big gray speckled gelding, into a walk. Keeping to the trail marked by stakes hung with white feathers, indicating safe passage through the A’ayimat-controlled hills, they headed down the pass.
As the trail descended into the valley, it turned into a road that crossed the valley from east to west. Silas followed the road into town, where it intersected with a second road running north and south, then stopped to get his bearings.
On the north side of the crossroads, two saloons, the Bootjack and the Rusty Widow, faced each other across the street like two gunfighters squaring off. Laughter and a discordant jangling of competing hammerboxes spilled out of the saloons. The Rusty Widow and the bank both boasted tall false fronts and fancy painted signs that looked brand new. In an empty lot southeast of the intersection, a large sign proudly proclaimed, Future Site of the Bitterbush Springs Grand Music Hall and Variety Theater. Towards the north end of town stood a half-built building of imposing size.
It looked like a large amount of money had recently come to town, more evidence of the mining rush – and more bait for renegades.
Silas turned right and rode up the street in search of stabling and a place to stay. Next to the Rusty Widow Saloon stood a two-story building, also sporting a new false front with Mundy’s Boarding House painted on it in elaborate letters. A big sign in the front window read, Rooms to let. 2g per nineday.
Silas let out a low whistle. Two gildings a nineday was an enormous sum for a room in a boarding house in the Wildings, especially this far west. This was going to make a bigger dent in his funds than he’d planned on.
The saloons probably had rooms to let on their upper floors as well, but those were likely to be just as expensive as the boarding house, not to mention more distracting. Not that Silas was averse to enjoying the amenities to be found in such establishments, but for now he needed to concentrate on work. And since there didn’t appear to be a hotel in town, the boarding house it would have to be.
On the other side of the boarding house stood a stable, where a boy was tossing pebbles into a circle scratched in the dirt of the yard. Silas rode over and gave the boy a penny to watch Abenar and his belongings for a moment. He took note of the smithy behind the stable; Abenar badly needed new shoes. Silas hoped getting a horse shod in this town wasn’t as expensive as renting a room in the boarding house.
He pulled on his long brown duster, which he had shed in the heat of the day and draped over the saddle behind him, then walked back to the boarding house to inquire about a room.
A crash from inside the saloon across the street caught his attention. He turned to see a big-bellied, bushy-bearded man come flying backwards through the swinging doors of the Bootjack. The man landed on his back in the street, then leaped to his feet with surprising speed for a fellow his size. A second, much thinner, man charged out of the saloon and plowed into him, knocking him down again. The two men tussled in a cloud of dust, rolling along the street until they came to a stop in front of the boarding house, the skinny man pinning the bearded man face down with a knee in the small of his back.
“I ever catch you digging on my land again, I’ll draw an’ quarter you an’ chop you up for dog feed!” the skinny man yelled. “You hear me, Gobby?”
In a blur of motion, Gobby twisted out from under the other man and dropped him with a blow to the jaw that sounded like an axe thunking into wood. “You threatening me, Redlun? Cause if you’re gonna threaten me, you better be ready to back it up!”
“Yeah, he’s threatening you,” said a man with an extravagant mustache who stood in front of the Bootjack. His right hand dropped to the holster at his hip and came up holding a six-shooter aimed straight at Gobby. “An’ I’ll back up his threats for him.”
Bullets were about to fly. Silas’s first instinct was to throw a protective shield around himself, but he suppressed it. The bullets dropping harmlessly to the ground, slowed by their passage through the shield, would give him away to any other mages who might be around and to the Plain folk of the town. He had more important things to do than deal with a bunch of Plains trying to hang him. Instead, he stepped back into the shadows of the covered wooden sidewalk in front of the rooming house and edged out of the possible line of fire. Without knowing anything about the dispute, he would do better to not get involved.
A handful of men burst out through the swinging door of the Rusty Widow, the saloon next to the boarding house, and stood clustered on the sidewalk, watching. Gobby, now also holding a gun, got to his feet and turned to face the mustached man across the street. “Well, Winnard? You think you can beat me?”
“I can –”
A gunshot exploded from the group in front of the Rusty Widow. Winnard tumbled back against the wall of the Bootjack and collapsed, blood spreading across the right shoulder of his shirt. More men came pouring out from both saloons, and wild gunfire erupted from both sides of the street. A handful of stray bullets hit the wall of the boarding house next to Silas; he dove aside, holding onto his hat, and hit the sidewalk.
From up the street came a wild burst of magical power, panicked and uncontrolled, strong enough that Silas could feel it even through the shield on his own power. It felt familiar; he recognized it from the flares of magic that had led him to Bitterbush Springs.
He started to raise his head to try to spot the mage, then a bullet split a board in the wall of the rooming house not one arm-length above him. He pressed himself even flatter against the boards of the sidewalk as the shootout went on, praying to the Defender that the gunfire would stay away from the stables and Abenar.
Then, for no reason Silas could discern, the shooting stopped. “What’s all this, boys?” a deep, resonant voice called out into the sudden silence.
Silas raised his head. Three men lay sprawled in the street. One was writhing in pain, the other two were still. The shooters who were still standing had all lowered their guns and were looking at the Rusty Widow. Silas turned his head to follow their gaze.
A tall man with a hearty build, handsome, pale face, and luxuriant black mustache was standing in front of the saloon. He wore a finely-fashioned black suit and black flat-brimmed hat. Two house ladies bedecked in lace and ruffles appeared behind him, clinging to his arms and peering around him into the street.
“Redlun an’ Winnard threatened me, Mr. Carden, sir,” Gobby said. “Me an’ the fellas was just defending ourselves.”
Silas stood up, making sure his hat was still in place, and brushed dust from his long brown coat. He kept close to the wall, in the shadow of the overhang, curious about this man who had the power to stop a gunfight just by appearing.
The black-suited man turned and put his arms around the house ladies. “Go back inside, my dears. No need to worry yourselves.”
The ladies retreated into the saloon, and Carden stepped down from the wooden walkway into the street. He stopped in front of Gobby, shaking his head. “Don’t tell me you went into the Bootjack again, Gobby,” he said in a genial tone. The crispness of an educated Granadaian accent underlay his informal Wildings speech. “You know damn well that’s rancher territory. You’re stupid enough to keep going in there, you deserve whatever you get.”
“When are you gonna start paying us for the ore that was taken off our land, Carden?” shouted Winnard, the wounded man in front of the Bootjack. The right side of his shirt was soaked with blood, but judging by the anger in his voice, he was a long way from dead.
“If you have a difference with me, Winnard, I’d be happy to discuss it peacefully,” Carden replied. “There’s no need for anyone to be shooting anyone else.”
Two men helped Winnard up, then they and several other men from the Bootjack walked over to Carden and started arguing with him. Gobby and some of the men from the Rusty Widow joined in. A whip-thin, bandy-legged man with a silver sword-shaped badge pinned to his shirt came over as well, but he stood back and remained silent.
Silas couldn’t make out what the men were saying, but their argument wasn’t what interested him the most at the moment. Taking care to avoid attracting any attention, he walked up the street towards where the burst of magic had come from.
Copyright 2014 Kyra Halland. All Rights Reserved.
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