The Rancher's Daughter (Daughter of the Wildings, Book 3)
THE POSTMASTER OF Bentwood Gulch adjusted his spectacles and studied the pieces of the torn letter Silas had placed on the polished wood counter. Then, with equal gravity, he turned aside and spat tobacco juice into a gleaming brass spittoon. “What’d you say the story is on this again?” he asked.
“It belonged to a fellow I came across who was killed down in the Bads,” Silas repeated for the third or maybe the fourth time. “Garis Horden. The man who killed him stole it and tore off the part with the address. I don’t know why. Proof that he killed Horden, I suppose. I found the letter after I took care of the killer. I’d like to find Horden’s widow so I can tell her what happened to him.”
“And this Horden fella picked up this letter here?”
“That’s right.” With an effort, Silas managed to keep his impatience out of his voice. Postmasters usually had quick, grasping minds, eager for any details that would make good gossip, but, to his misfortune, the postmaster of Bentwood Gulch appeared not to fit that mold. “That’s what it said in the letter he was writing before he was killed, that I found in his belongings.”
“Garis Horden,” the postmaster said slowly, his round face scrunched up in thought. “Name seems familiar. What’d he look like?”
Silas had only actually seen Garis Horden once. Horden had been unmistakably dead at the time and had been beaten before that, both of which tended to alter a man’s appearance in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. “About my size, a little broader. Brown hair, green eyes, good teeth.” What had been left of them.
“Friendly sort of fella?”
“Um…” Silas had no idea, having never had any dealings with the living Garis Horden. But he had heard good things about the man, and, judging by the tone of the letter that Horden had started writing to his Adelin – and by the very fact that he had married a Wildings woman – it was probably safe to guess that he wasn’t a mean, surly son of a bitch. “Yeah, I’d say so.”
“And this would have been when?”
The date of Adelin’s letter was clearly written on the top portion; Silas pointed it out again. “She sent it in late winter; going by the date on his reply, he must have picked it up about a month later.”
“So, early spring, then. Quite some time ago,” the postmaster observed.
In fact, more than eight months had gone by since Garis Horden started that never-finished letter to his wife. After finding the letter and finishing off Orl Fazar, Silas and Lainie had traveled nearly nineteen hundred leagues from the Bads to Bentwood Gulch, taking a route that edged between the sparsely-populated western reaches of the Wildings and the vast western plains that were the territory of the nomadic and warlike P’wagimet. With stops at the few settlements they passed along the way to resupply and earn some money, the journey had taken a little more than three months. Now, in early winter, they had finally arrived in the dangerously populous northeastern Wildings, nearly broke, in danger from any other mage they might meet, and with the solemn obligation on their shoulders to notify Garis Horden’s widow of his death.
The postmaster chewed his tobacco plug in silence for a long time. Silas was reminded of a cow chewing its cud. “I remember the fella,” the postmaster finally said. “Picked up a letter, left a good tip.”
Now they were getting somewhere. “Do you remember where the letter he picked up came from?” Silas spoke slowly and clearly, and pushed the torn letter from Adelin closer to the postmaster, hoping that would coax more information from the fellow’s thick brain.
“Let me think.” The postmaster frowned down at the letter a little longer. “I believe I recognize the handwriting. In fact…” He turned to the bank of open-fronted square boxes, made of the same polished wood as the counter, that lined the wall behind him. A couple dozen of the boxes had letters in them. One at a time, the postmaster pulled out a few letters, looked at them, and replaced them, then found the one he was looking for. “Here’s another one.” He blew dust off the folded and sealed letter. “Garis Horden, from Adelin Horden, Piney Ridge. Been here a few months now; I almost forgot about it.” He put the letter on the counter.
Silas bit back his observation that the man could have saved them all a lot of time if he was more diligent at his job of keeping track of the mail that was entrusted to his office. Postmasters were a notoriously thin-skinned bunch; if you offended one, no matter where in the Wildings, the rest of them would find out and you might never get another letter again. “Piney Ridge, huh?” He’d heard of the town, might have even passed through it a time or two. It sat in the foothills of the Spine, the towering mountains that formed the border between the Wildings and Granadaia. “Not far from the Gap.”
“So I hear.”
The area around the Gap, the single navigable pass between the Wildings and Granadaia, was heavily traversed by mages – hunters and rogues as well as representatives of wealthy mage families in the Wildings on business. In other words, it wasn’t the safest place for a mage hunter gone renegade and his illegal student-wife to venture.
They could just send Mrs. Horden a letter from here, Silas thought. Then he looked at Lainie standing next to him, and thought of Adelin Horden, seeing in his mind’s eye a woman who looked much like Lainie. He pictured her coming into the Piney Ridge mail depot hoping that a letter had arrived at long last, imagined her excitement and relief upon learning there was something for her and then her feelings upon discovering that the letter was from a stranger and that the stranger had very bad news –
This was something that had to be done in person. He could leave Lainie behind somewhere safe, but ever since they had found Horden’s unfinished letter to his wife, she had been haunted by the thought of Adelin waiting for her husband to come home and never knowing what had happened to him. She would want to see this through to the end. And she had made it clear months ago that she refused to be put in Adelin’s position, left alone to wait and wonder if she would ever see him again.
Besides, this task undoubtedly called for a woman’s touch.
Silas picked up both the torn letter and the more recent one, that had never been delivered. “I’d like to take this with me and return it to her personally, if I may.”
“Go right ahead,” the postmaster said.
Silas tucked the two letters into the inner pocket of his duster. “Thank you. You’ve been very helpful.” And he had. Eventually.
“Can I do anything else for you?” the postmaster asked hopefully.
Silas didn’t think it was more questions the fellow wanted. He dug into his pockets and came up with five pennies, four copper bits, and some lint. No doubt the postmaster of Bentwood Gulch would be insulted by a tip that small. “You got anything, darlin’?” he asked Lainie.
Frowning, she reached into her pants pocket and retrieved a drina coin. “Here.” She smiled brightly at the postmaster and put the silver drina on the counter. “We appreciate your help, Mister.”
The postmaster scowled down at the tip, then sighed. You couldn’t get blood from a rock, as the saying went. “Glad I could be of service. You folks take care, now.”
Silas tipped his hat, and he and Lainie left the mail depot.
“Was that really all you had left?” Silas asked as he and Lainie walked along the wooden sidewalk back towards the center of town. He looked down at the beat-up toes of their boots. “Maybe we shouldn’t have taken that hotel room.”
The last bounty he’d earned had been five months ago, when he’d been paid a measly twenty-five gildings for Carden. Soon after that, the Mage Council, or someone connected with it, had sent Orl Fazar out to assassinate him and other hunters allied with the Hidden Council. With the Mage Council trying to kill him, Silas had decided it was inadvisable to continue doing business with them, so he had buried his Mage Council message box out in the Bads.
Since then, he had been making do with whatever jobs he could find for people who needed his particular tracking and shooting skills and didn’t ask too many questions. He and Lainie had located a runaway teenage son, a runaway horse, and a runaway wife – who had preferred to stay run away – and caught a neighbor who kept taking down pasture fencing in the very act. The jobs had been far and few between in the remote areas of the Wildings they had traveled through, and hadn’t paid much, as the farmers and ranchers out there couldn’t afford much.
Lainie had added to what Silas earned with her winnings at Dragon’s Threes, but now that the ranchers and hands had spent their money from the yearly cattle drive on drink, house ladies, gambling, and supplies for the coming year, the card games and the wagers had dwindled. They had also sold Orl Fazar’s gun and knives, but the ill-cared-for weapons hadn’t brought in much.
On the other side of the ledger, they had paid for a costly stay in Ripgap, ammunition for their revolvers, and two new sets of shoes for the horses. The harnessing had also needed repairs beyond what Silas was equipped for, and they had had to provision themselves and the horses for the long journey from the Bads to Bentwood Gulch along a route where settlements were rare. Silas had also bought more ammunition for his hunting rifle, to fill out their provisions with fresh meat. Since the old familiar staple of critter on a stick just didn’t have the same appeal it used to, he had also picked up a cookpot and skillet so Lainie could cook what he killed. She turned out to be just as good at cooking over a campfire as she was in a kitchen, working her own kind of magic with the few ingredients that were to hand.
The cold weather, when they came into it, had brought even more expenses. Silas’s battered tent was barely big enough for one, let alone two, so he had scrounged the cheapest used one he could find that would accommodate both of them. It was leaky and smelly, but at least it kept them from freezing to death. And Lainie, much to her embarrassment when she discovered her oversight, had left Bitterbush Springs without a winter coat, so Silas had bought her a second-hand duster. Luck had been with him there; he’d found one dyed a soft rose color that suited her perfectly. But their boots were badly in need of replacing, especially after all the tracking they had done through the rugged desert of the Bads, and much of their clothing was worn out far beyond Lainie’s ability to mend it. And the horses would need to be re-shod yet again before long.
Silas was hoping to find work in some of the more isolated valleys in this part of the Wildings, but, at the moment, a hotel room was an extravagance, even if it was at the cheapest hotel in town. They had justified the expense on the grounds that neither of them could stand the thought of another cold night sleeping outdoors. But if Lainie really had spent their last drina as a tip for the postmaster, Silas didn’t even know how much longer they were going to be able to eat.
“Don’t worry.” Lainie reached into her pocket again, then showed Silas three more drinas. “Seed money,” she said. “Let’s see what’s going on in there.”
She pointed to a large building across the street. It boasted a gaudily painted false wood front and its windows were brightly lit in the early winter dusk. _Dirty Deke’s_, the sign on the false front said. It appeared to be the largest of the four saloons in Bentwood Gulch, which also boasted three hotels, two banks, a free-standing restaurant, a two-story schoolhouse, three general mercantiles, a number of other office buildings and shops, and even a music hall and a shrine. The round shrine with its eight spires, one for each of the gods, wouldn’t have looked out of place in any decent-sized country town in Granadaia.
Everything in town looked neat, well-kept, and prosperous; the Bentwood Valley was rich cattle and sheep country. Which was the problem; Bentwood Gulch was too settled, too prosperous. Chances were too great that a rogue mage, tempted by the opportunities presented by a town like this to enrich himself, or a mage hunter on the watch for renegades might be hanging around. Too many eyes could see them, too many mouths could gossip about them, and the gossip could spread too easily to the wrong ears. Silas just wanted to keep a low profile, enjoy one night in a hotel, and then get out of town and try to find work somewhere where there weren’t quite so many people. “I don’t think –”
“Come on.” Lainie tugged at his sleeve. “I feel lucky tonight.”
“Why don’t we just go back to the hotel room, and you can really get lucky?”
It was funny how after all their months together, he could still make her blush. Still, she collected herself enough to respond, “It’s more fun if I’m not worrying about where our next meal is coming from.”
“That three drinas is where our next meal is coming from.”
“But what about after that?”
“I’ll find some work.”
“You can’t work in boots that are falling apart. Come on, just one game.”
He looked down at his boots again, and had to admit she had a point. “All right. Just one game.”
Copyright 2015 Kyra Halland. All Rights Reserved.
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