BITTERBUSH SPRINGS. FROM Silas’s vantage point in the low, rocky hills east of the town, it resembled nothing so much as a dozen or so wooden crates laid out in rows. Back in Granadaia, it would hardly qualify as a village, but in this part of the Wildings, it was a veritable center of civilization.
Silas lifted his hat and wiped sweat from his forehead, then reached out with his mage senses. There it was again, the brush of magical power he had been following for several days. It was strong, for him to have detected it from such a distance, and unusual in quality, dark and strange but with flashes of ordinary Granadaian magic, along with something similar to Granadaian power but with a different flavor to it.
It had been a while since he’d captured a decent bounty. The more settled areas in the eastern part of the Wildings, where he’d made a good living for the last five years, had of late become overrun with greenfoot mage hunters looking for excitement and a quick fortune, with the result that the smartest and most dangerous renegades, the ones who posed the greatest threat to the Mage Council’s authority and, consequently, were worth the highest bounties, had scattered across the vast, sparsely-settled lands.
Silas had come west hoping for better hunting out this way, and had headed for Bitterbush Springs after picking up rumors of a mining rush in the valley. That was just the sort of thing a rogue mage might try to horn in on, hoping for quick riches to fund his ambitions. Not long after deciding to follow the rumors, he had sensed the strange bursts of power coming from the area. There was no doubt about it; something strange was going on in the Bitterbush Valley. And, with any luck, there would be a nice, fat bounty in it for him.
He surveyed the valley below him. It was good cattle country, grassland dotted with clumps of scrub oak and lowland pine. A number of seasonal washes cut through the valley from the Bitterbush Hills to the east and the Great Sky Mountains that towered twenty leagues to the west, along with a handful of streams fed by year-round springs, all running together into the Bitterbush River some leagues to the south. Half a dozen ranch compounds and a few farms dotted the length of the valley from north to south, and scattered herds of cattle and a few sheep roamed the rangeland. In several places, the grass, bleached pale gold in the hot, dry weather, looked dull and dead. Signs of a drought? Some sort of blight? Or evidence of destructive magic at work?
The strange magic he was sensing in the valley could be a rogue making mischief, or an untrained mage unable to control their power, or possibly both. Both were dangerous in their own ways, and would have to be dealt with. But only a rogue mage would bring him a bounty from the Mage Council.
Silas made sure his revolver was loaded and checked that the shield concealing his power was 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 might draw attention, but it wasn’t so dark that it couldn’t be mistaken for a deep tan, and if he was questioned he could pass himself off as a descendant of the servants and slaves who had been brought over from the Islands by their mage masters.
With an earnest prayer to the Provider for good hunting and a good bounty, which he sure could use about now, he nudged Abenar, his big gray speckled gelding, into a walk and headed down through the pass that had been marked as safe passage by the A’ayimat who lived in those hills. As the pass descended into the valley, it turned into a road that crossed the valley from east to west. Silas followed the road into town to where it intersected with a second road running north and south, then stopped to get his bearings.
Bitterbush Springs was graced with a bank, a cattlemen’s cooperative association, a general store, and several other businesses. South of the crossroads, a row of relatively handsome houses lined the street. On the northwest and northeast corners of the crossroads, two saloons, the Bootjack and the Rusty Widow, faced each other from across the street like two gunfighters squaring off. Laughter and a discordant jangling of competing hammerboxes spilled out of the saloons. The bank and the Rusty Widow boasted big fancy false fronts and equally fancy painted signs that looked brand new. In the empty lot on the southeast corner of the intersection, a large painted sign proudly proclaimed, Future Site of the Bitterbush Springs Grand Music Hall and Variety Theater. Towards the north end of town, an unfinished building bore another sign, Bitterbush Springs Grand Hotel, Opening Soon.
It looked as if a large amount of money had recently come to town.
There didn’t appear to be another hotel in town, but next door to the Rusty Widow stood a two-story building, also sporting a new false front and painted flourishes, with a big sign in the front window that read, Mundy’s Boarding House. Rooms to let. 2g per nineday.
Silas let out a low whistle. Two gildings a nineday was a princely sum for a room in a boarding house in the Wildings, especially this far west. The local ranchers must do well at the annual cattle market at the Gap, where tens of thousands of cattle were driven each summer and sold to provide Granadaia with fresh meat for another year.
Or else the mining rush was more than just a rumor.
The two saloons also had rooms on their upper floors that typically would be available to let. That would also be where the saloon’s house ladies lived and, if they so chose, entertained gentlemen clients. But, expensive though the boarding house was, Silas decided to seek accommodations there rather than at the saloons. Not that he was averse to enjoying the amenities to be found in such establishments, but for now he needed to concentrate on work, and the boarding house was likely to be quieter. If the Provider was good and he captured a valuable bounty, then he would celebrate.
A stable stood between Mundy’s Boarding House and the half-built hotel. A boy was tossing pebbles into a circle scratched in the dirt of the stable yard; Silas rode over and gave the boy a penny to watch Abenar and his belongings for a moment. 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 headed 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 blasting 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, Dinsin? 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.”
The gun was also aimed straight at Silas. If he threw a protective shield around himself, it would give away his presence to any other mages who might be around, and the mage-hating Plain folk of the town would notice the bullets, slowed by their passage through the shield, dropping harmlessly to the ground. So, instead, Silas stepped back into the shadows of the covered wooden sidewalk in front of the rooming house and edged out of the line of fire.
A handful of men burst out through the swinging door of the saloon next door, the Rusty Widow, to see what was going on. Gobby stood up slowly, turning to face the mustached man with the gun. He was now also holding a gun. “Well, Winnard?” he said. “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; holding onto his hat, he dove aside and hit the sidewalk.
A wild burst of magical power, panicked and uncontrolled, strong enough that he could feel it even with his shield in place, came from up the street. Granadaian power, but different; Silas recognized it from the brief flares of magic that had led him to Bitterbush Springs. He started to raise his head to look for the source of the magic, 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 gunfire went on, praying to the Defender that the unwritten law of the Wildings that it was an even worse crime to kill a horse than a man would keep the gunfire away from the stables and Abenar.
All at once the shooting stopped. “What’s all this, boys?” a deep, resonant voice called out from nearby.
Now Silas raised his head. Three men lay sprawled in the street. One was writhing in pain, the other two were still. The combatants 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, and had a lace-and-ruffle-bedecked house lady clinging to each arm.
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.
“Dinsin an’ Winnard threatened me, Mr. Carden, sir,” Gobby said. “Me an’ the fellas was just defending ourselves.”
“Go back inside, my dears,” the black-suited man said to the house ladies. “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. “You know damn well that’s rancher territory. You’re stupid enough to keep going in there, you deserve whatever you get.” Though the words were harsh, the deep voice was genial. The crispness of a Granadaian accent underlaid his informal Wildings speech.
“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, with just the hint of an edge to his friendly voice and polite words. “There’s no need for anyone to be shooting anyone else.”
Two men helped Winnard up, then they and several other men who had come 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 the silver sword-shaped badge of a sheriff 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 the attention of the angry men, he walked up the street in the direction the burst of magic had come from. On the other side of the street, in front of a shop that advertised saddlery, harnessing, and leather goods, a youth was hunkered down behind a barrel, arms wrapped around his knees.
Silas crossed the street and approached the barrel. When he got close enough, he realized that what he had taken for a young teenage boy was actually a small, slender young woman wearing men’s clothing – brown canvas pants, a green plaid shirt, boots, and a straw hat with a curved brim like those favored by cowhands. A long braid of light reddish-brown hair trailed down her back from under the hat. When Silas first came to the Wildings, it had taken him a while to get used to the sight of women wearing men’s clothes. In Granadaia, not even the lowliest Plain peasant woman would be caught dead in pants and a man’s shirt, but in the Wildings, practicality ruled all. There was men’s work and there was women’s work, but mostly there was just work that needed to be done by whoever was ready, willing, and able to do it, and for a lot of that work, skirts would only get in the way.
The young woman had her face buried against her knees and she was shaking badly. Silas said, “I think they’re done for the day.” With a startled movement, she raised her head and looked up at him out of wide hazel eyes, set in a delicate face with a dusting of freckles across her nose. He guessed she was maybe nineteen or twenty. “You okay?” he asked.
Slowly, she took a deep breath and seemed to relax. “Yeah,” she said. “I’m okay. I just hate it when they start shooting like that.”
“Does this happen often?”
“About once a nineday or more, lately. My brother got caught in it a few months ago. Shot dead, right through the heart. He was just minding his own business when the damned fools come out an’ start shooting.”
“I’m sorry,” Silas said, though the words seemed completely inadequate. The Wildings was dangerous country; in a lot of places, every man was a law unto himself. But in a reasonably well-established town, it was unusual to have full-blown shootouts erupting every nineday. “What about the sheriff?” He jerked his head in the direction of the man with the silver badge, who was still standing silently by the arguing men.
“Huh. He just says ‘Yes, Mr. Carden’ and ‘No, Mr. Carden’ and ‘Whatever you say, Mr. Carden.’ It’s Carden running this town and his miners causing all the trouble. Damned sheriff’s no use at all.”
Interesting. It sounded like the typical sort of trouble that might be stirred up by a rogue mage. Was a rogue trying to interfere with Carden’s mining operation? Silas generally didn’t expect to find renegade mages doing honest work; they were more likely to be robbing banks, selling fake medicines, cheating respectable widows out of their inheritances and their virtue, or stealing some honest man’s business out from under him, all with the illicit aid of magic. Silas let down the shield on his power just a bit and did a quick, discreet scan with his mage senses, but found no signs of any power in the area except for the girl’s. Then he did a more careful survey, looking for the subtle signs of shielded power, the nearly invisible seams and slight flaws in the camouflage, and still found nothing.
Well, there were plenty of non-magical troublemakers in the Wildings, too. “You need any help?” he asked the girl.
“No, thanks.” She got to her feet, brushing dust off her pants. She also wore a gunbelt with a holstered revolver that was small enough to fit her hand. Silas was sure she knew how to use the gun, but couldn’t blame her for not wanting to get involved in the shootout. “I better get on with my errands before they start shooting again,” she said. She turned to look at the group of arguing men in the street. “Hey, Gobby!” she shouted. The bearded man looked over at her. “The same thing from my Pa! He ever catches you on his land again, he’ll shoot you so full of holes you can piss from ten places at once!”
The dark, bushy beard broke into a leering smile. “Miss Lainie, you tell your Pa for me that this land ain’t owned by no one an’ I’ll drill wherever, whenever, an’ –” he leered more broadly “– whoever I want.”
Miss Lainie responded with a rude gesture. Gobby went red above his beard, and the men from the Bootjack laughed. One corner of Silas’s mouth quirked up. She had spirit; he liked that. He offered an arm to the young woman. “I’d be happy to escort you while you do your business, in case there’s any more trouble.”
She eyed him head to toe, her gaze lingering on the large revolver holstered at his left hip. Though firearms were considered anti-magical and therefore forbidden in Granadaia, no mage hunter would last a nineday in the Wildings without one. Silas had specially modified this piece himself; mundane bullets alone couldn’t be depended on to take down a highly skilled mage. “My Pa don’t like me going around with strange men,” she said.
“Well, then. I’m Silas Vendine.” He added the usual name-slip charm as he spoke his name, to make it harder to remember, though it didn’t always work very well with other mages. Then he grinned at her. “I may be strange, but at least now you know my name.”
That got a smile from her, a shy half-smile as she glanced away. “All right, then, Mr. Vendine. I’m Lainie Banfrey. If you’ll keep Gobby away from me while I do my business at Minton’s, I’d be grateful. My Pa’s foreman should be over at the cattlemen’s co-op; he’ll see me home.”
She took his arm, and he accompanied her next door into Minton’s General Mercantile. He stood just inside the door, keeping an eye open for trouble, while she made her purchases and talked with the storekeeper about the weather and that year’s drive herd, which was currently on its way to the Gap.
Two other young women walked up to the counter from the back of the store and greeted Miss Banfrey. One wore a dress, the other also wore men’s clothes, altered, as was common, to fit her figure, and decorated with embroidery on the cuffs and pockets. Miss Banfrey’s clothes had no such trimmings or alterations; Silas wondered if she lacked the skill to make such adjustments, or the interest. Still, even in ill-fitting clothes without the feminine touches, she was undeniably all girl.
“We heard shooting,” the young woman in the dress said. “Was anyone killed?”
“Maybe just a couple of miners,” Miss Banfrey replied.
“I’m just so afraid now, every time it happens,” the girl in pants said. “Ever since –” Her voice broke.
Miss Banfrey hugged her. “I know, Mari. I miss him, too,” she said, tears in her voice.
“Maybe those no-good miners will all kill each other, or the mining business’ll bust and they’ll all go away again,” the girl in the dress said.
A young man came in the door, holding what looked like a brand-new bridle, and went to the girl in the dress. They both wore wedding rings. “You’re okay?” the girl demanded, grabbing his shoulders.
The young man kissed his wife. “I’m fine, honey. I stayed inside next door the whole time. You ready to go?”
“Almost,” the young woman said. “I just need a few more things.”
Miss Banfrey finished her own business, paying for the sack of nails and other items she had bought. With a squeeze of her friends’ hands, she said goodbye to the others and came over to Silas. “I’m done. Let’s go.”
The young couple, the other girl, and Mr. Minton all stared at him. Silas imagined he had just made Miss Banfrey the subject of the Bitterbush Valley’s latest gossip.
They left the store. “Mari was walking out with Blake, my brother, when he died,” Miss Banfrey said. “They were going to be married this fall.”
“I’m sorry,” Silas said again, and again it seemed completely inadequate. If there was a rogue mage behind the trouble that was tearing this town apart, catching him would be a job well done. Silas hadn’t gotten his license as a mage hunter and come out here to the Wildings just for the money and the excitement or because he cared about the Mage Council’s authority. The Plain settlers of the Wildings had fled from Granadaia in search of freedom from oppression by the mages there. But they also needed protection from ruthless, ambitious renegade mages who came out here looking to establish their own lawless domains. And though Silas himself was a mage, and though mages were hated and feared by the Plain folk of the Wildings, protecting Plain folk was his primary aim, whether he got paid for it or not.
Untrained as she was and clearly Wildings-born, Miss Banfrey definitely wasn’t a renegade mage, Silas thought as they walked down the street to the crossroads. But there was still no question that she had a significant amount of power. Under the Mage Council’s law, he was required to either send her back to Granadaia to be trained, or, if she refused to go, Strip her of her power. Silas didn’t think Miss Banfrey would appreciate being told she had to leave her home and family to travel to Granadaia and become something she had probably been taught all her life to hate. On the other hand, Stripping destroyed the mind and personality of the person being Stripped and left them a mindless, helpless shell.
Not a pretty choice to offer to a pretty young woman. But he couldn’t just do nothing. She could hurt or kill herself or someone else with her untamed power, or sooner or later another mage would find her, and then she and Silas would both be in serious trouble for not following the law in the first place. And there was the very real danger that the Plain folk of the town would discover that she had power and she would end up on the wrong end of a hanging rope, the settlers’ preferred way of dealing with mages.
Well, he was planning to stay in town until he unraveled the mystery of the other powers he had sensed, the Granadaian power and that darker magic, and caught his renegade, if there was one to catch. That would give him time to think of a way to approach the subject that wouldn’t upset her too much or earn him an unpleasant introduction to the business end of her revolver.
They arrived at the office of the Bitterbush Valley Cattlemen’s Cooperative Association, at the southwest corner of the intersection. A medium-size brown mare and a larger buckskin stood hitched outside. “I’m ready to go, Mr. Dobay!” Miss Banfrey called through the open door of the office.
A tall, weathered cowhand with salt-and-pepper hair showing from beneath his stiff, curve-brimmed straw hat came out of the co-op office. “You okay, Miss Lainie?” he asked. “We heard shooting out in front of the saloons. When I came out to look for you, I saw you outside Minton’s with this fellow.” He nodded towards Silas.
“This is Mr. Vendine,” Miss Banfrey said. “He offered to escort me in case there was any more trouble. Mr. Vendine, this is Mr. Dobay, my Pa’s foreman.”
Silas shook Dobay’s hand as the foreman said, “Much obliged to you for keeping an eye on Miss Lainie, Vendine.”
Dobay would remember his name, since Miss Banfrey had spoken it with no name-slip charm attached. Oh, well, no harm done; at least Silas hoped not. Dobay seemed to have Miss Banfrey’s best interests at heart, and Silas had helped her; at least if his name was remembered, it would be remembered by someone who had no cause to think ill of him. “My pleasure,” Silas said.
And it had been a pleasure, he thought as he watched Miss Banfrey swing up into the brown mare’s saddle in a practiced, graceful movement. A fine young woman; he looked forward to talking to her again. Even if the subject of the conversation was likely to be unpleasant. He tipped his hat to her and Dobay, and they rode away, heading west out of town.
Copyright 2014 Kyra Halland. All Rights Reserved.
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