Thursday, May 26, 2011

Chapter 109: Corona Borealis

Hellbender Hungerford stared hard at the luxurious spatters, whorls, and streaks of the stars above him, splayed across the blue and silver night sky in an impossible riot of light.  The low-hanging half moon overpowered many of them, but the stronger ones were still there, shimmering defiantly in the cold, dimly lit darkness.

He'd often marveled at how far he'd come from home. Way out here in the never never, where he'd had to relearn everything, to where the rocks and the trees and the wild things were new and strange. He'd managed to disappear, to lose himself under a completely different sky. It had taken him a long time to fully understand that the Southern Cross was not ever going to appear over this land and the thought both terrified and exhilarated him.

The night of that epiphany had brought with it a lightness so complete he almost believed he could literally fly.  He was homesick...but he was also free. Of everything.  

He honestly had not really meant to run this far. But once he'd started, it was a long time before he could make himself stop. It had felt like flying, at least figuratively. And he hadn't wanted to come back to earth. 

And here I buggering am again already, back on the trail. I think the Green is making me soft.

A dip in the sandy dirt that cushioned his bedroll was making his back ache a bit. He rolled over, shifting into a more comfortable position, and allowed his gaze to settle fondly on Miss Lil, slumbering in her bedroll.

I could probably get used to sticking around one place, if I had someone like her to come back to. And that's the dinkum oil. He smiled ruefully. She's a sweet little sheila, and we have a bit in common.

He stole a glance at Bari, sitting quietly near the smoldering embers of the fire with a shotgun beside him. I suppose it's ironic enough to happen that I'd find that bloody drongo making it complicated. Figures.

Still, don't have to worry about his skill in a fight. And that might come in buggering handy, before it's all said and done. He was pretty sure he'd come away from that last fight the two of them had had in the street with a concussion at the very least. And, he suspected, a separated rib or two and a sprained hand. He had ached for easily a month after.

He'd never made it to Abigail's that night. The thought troubled him even now. It's not like I can ever ask Abby what happened...but I have a pretty good idea. He and Bari had spent the night lying on the filthy bunks in the jailhouse, with Blackie and Doc Plunkett cursing at them. They'd very nearly lost their jobs over it. Bari had ended up vomiting from the pain of a bruised kidney, and despite the fact that Bender had pulled back just a bit on the force of the blow, he almost...almost....felt bad about the kick he'd delivered there. 

At least, he did until the first time he'd tried to sit up after the adrenaline had worn off and found he couldn't. At that point, every groan from the other cell, every hiss of agony, every muttered oath and threat had sounded like sweet, sweet music to him.

Bari had meant well, he thought bitterly. But sometimes saying 'he meant well' is about the worst thing you can say about someone. Yarl beating the shit out of Heinrich Klaus would have been the perfect diversion. His eyes travelled quietly over the gentle curve of Lily's shoulder and hip under her blanket, at the spill of brown hair gleaming in the dull light of the embers.  And Bari never stopped to consider the possibility that maybe Klaus needed the shit beat out of him by someone bigger, stronger, and stupider than he was.

He sighed, rolling back over onto his back and trying to close his eyes. It wouldn't do for him to be knackered and slow tomorrow. Too many thoughts jumbled through his mind, worries and fears and regrets that refused to quiet themselves. What are we riding into? Is anyone going to attack us? Who's behind this?

It was a rare thing when Bender felt vulnerable, but he had to admit to himself that he sure felt that way now. Lily's presence upped the stakes, made him feel like he had a target painted on his back. What if I can't protect her?

Her presence nearby only served to keep him keyed up.  He'd love nothing better than to pull her against him and hold her till morning, feeling her delicious warmth seeping into his skin under the blanket.

You're really not doing anything to help yourself right now, mate.

Against his will, his mind went back to Miss Lil in the back of the wagon, Bari sleeping with his head in her lap, and the look of unmistakable panic on her face that night he couldn't breathe. He grimaced. Struth, I was in a bit of a panic, too...I might not like the bastard much, but I dont' want him dying on my watch...

He stared at the Northern Crown, glittering dimly above him in the silver-shot darkness.

Neither does Miss Lil. Jealously flared in his chest, unwanted and shameful. He tried to push it away, but it crowded his thoughts, souring his stomach.  Balls. I've seen the way she looks at him. He's gonna end up hurting her...and when he does...I won't be pulling my punches anymore. Not even a bit. 

© 2010 Regina Shelley

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Chapter 108: Sinking Ship

“Thank you kindly, Mr. Thomasin.” Fiona smiled at the fatherly owner of the Green River mercantile. “But that’s not necessary.  Wash and Luis are over at the smithy with the wagon, and will be along to load this for us.” 

Mr. Thomasin, a sturdy, middle aged man with thinning salt and pepper hair nodded and finished wrapping up the supplies Fiona had stacked up on his counter. “Got your kitchen back in working order, I reckon?” He asked conversationally. “You must be replacing everything that got lost in the fire.”

“Yes, we are.” she said, looking around at the homey wooden mercantile. It was probably her favorite building in Green River town. Certainly it seemed the most civilized. The timbers of the walls were rough, but had a wonderful scent of dry wood that blended with the comforting aromas of flour and coffee and cured meats. Sunlight streamed through the glass paned windows and sparkled on the glass decanters and jars and on the virgin smoothness of new metal farming tools and cookware. She picked up an extra tin of sugar cubes and placed them on top of the stack, amused with the knowledge that Storm was stealing the cubes out of the kitchen and thought she didn’t know it.

The light shafting through the front window dimmed, and she turned towards the open doorway, expecting Wash.

She clearly had worn her surprise on her face when she saw that it was Rob Yarl instead. He stepped back and whipped his battered brown hat from his head, his pale, blue gray eyes wide and worried.

“Look here, Yarl.” Mr. Thomasin spat sternly. “I will not have you in here while she’s here. You have some nerve coming in here speaking to her after....”

“Lemme talk.” Yarl grunted, cutting him off. “Lemme say my piece and then I’ll get out of here.  Miss...Lewis-Smythe.” His ruddy face turned even redder and his eyes went to the floor. He clutched his hat to his broad, coverall-clad chest with thick fingers.

Fire clawed its way through her insides and up her throat. “What...” she started, her throat tight with loathing.  She’d publicly made her peace with this man, and didn’t wish for even more bad blood between the Yarls and the station crew. She’d hoped this truce she’d made might keep the boys a little safer. Still, she hated him with a passion that threatened to consume her. She couldn’t help it. Every time she looked at him, she remembered fear in her heart and Storm’s blood on her hands.  She forced her face to harden into a neutral mask.  “I   don’t...”

“Yarl...” Tomasin growled warningly.

“Let me say I’m sorry, alright?” His words stumbled over each other, clumsy and embarrassed. “I didn’t mean to get your beau in trouble. I wasn’t even gonna say nothin’ about it.”

My...what?? Her indignation was replaced by an icy, heart-squeezing clutch of panic. He knows about...Storm? How can he possibly know about Storm?

He stumbled on, his voice hesitant, unsure of himself. “I didn’t mean to get him locked up.”

She was clamping her jaw down so hard her teeth ached. “Well...I suppose it all worked out.”

“I don’t like him, I ain’t gonna lie to you. And I intended to rough him up a little...well, I reckon you know that...but I waddn’t plannin’ on him goin’ to jail.”

A red haze began to settle behind Fiona’s eyes the more he talked. “You intended to...” The unbidden and unwelcome image of Storm collapsing from exhaustion and blood loss into Saint’s arms screamed through her brain like a tornado. Rough him up... “A little...” she murmered faintly.  You oversize jackass... Her mouth opened, the words catching on the jagged ball of rage in her throat. “He could have died!” She spat, stepping forward towards Yarl before she realized she was moving.  

Tomasin had a hand on Yarl’s beefy shoulder. “Now.” He growled. “Out.”

“Died?” Yarl cocked his head, unmoving as a tree rooted to the spot. “From what? Now, Miss...your beau don’t look like much of a man to me, but I waddn’t gonna do much else than pop him one in the face.”

“Really?” Her voice had taken on that shrill, cracking fishwife quality that she hated when she heard herself do it. “A ‘pop in the face’ is how he ended up in the state he...” Her voice collided with the sudden realization that Yarl was talking about Jesse and stopped dead in her throat. ‘beau’. I’m thinking of Storm as my beau now. She admitted to herself with a start. I didn’t even hesitate...The thought was terrifying, thrilling, and brought with it the memory of his arms around her and his mouth on hers. She’d often imagined what kissing him might be like, how it might feel to put her hands on him that way. When it had actually happened for real, she realized she hadn’t even come close to imagining what it might be like.

And I know bloody well it’s going to happen again. The thought brought heat to her face, made her collar cling heavily to the back of her neck.  Bloody hell, I am going to have to learn to be careful with what I say...careless words could get him killed.

Both Yarl and Thomasin were staring at her in confusion.

“Oh.” She said. Her heart was pounding and she felt light headed as her lungs heaved against the tight lacings of her corset and underpinnings. I need to just calm down. She took in deep breath, wishing she hadn’t laced so tightly. “I...I see. Well.” she said, forcing herself to regain her composure. “Thank you, Mr. Yarl. I hope you don’t mind if I pass that on to...Mr. Hanson.”  She leaned against the front counter, hoping Yarl was too stupid to figure out what she’d almost said and knowing that while he probably was, Thomasin probably wasn’t. I certainly was stupid enough to say what I almost said. Is it going to be this easy to mess up? Am I going to just accidentally create catastrophe? Have I already? She glanced at Thomasin’s perplexed face and then back to Yarl’s. I don’t care what anyone thinks about me...but if it were to get out...Storm’s life would get...complicated.

And probably very, very short. 

© 2010 Regina Shelley

Friday, May 13, 2011

Chapter 107: Our Old Woman's Lonesome Tonight

“You warm enough, love?” Bender crouched down and carefully placed a few pieces of dried wood onto the small fire they’d built, the flickering light burnishing him with deep orange and turning his hair into an amber halo. He pulled his hat off and rocked back on his heels, brisking the dirt on his hands off onto his knees. A swirl of red sparks swirled upwards in a twisting column through the moonlight-silvered darkness and the sweet scent of pinyon cracked in the air.

Lily nodded, smiling tiredly, and pulling her blanket around her shoulders more tightly and leaning back against the fallen cottonwood she’d snuggled her back against. The chilly air was not helping the ache in her legs. It had been weeks since she’d spent the day in the saddle, and her muscles were stiff and complaining. Other than weariness,  her three companions didn’t appear to be in the least bothered by any discomfort. Lily had long since resolved that she would not give them reason to think she couldn’t keep up.

Saint glanced up from the pan of salted ham he was balancing over the embers, the light from the sparks reflected in his dark eyes. Lily had felt a little guilty having him doing what she considered to be her job, but he had insisted and had actually seemed to enjoy it. And there was something comforting about watching him do it. The man is no stranger to cooking, apparently. He seems to know what he’s doing. She remembered how he’d stolen into the kitchen and made coffee the morning before his last freight run, and how quickly the men had drunk it all. Reckon he picked up a thing or two from all those sisters.

Jesse walked back into the circle of firelight, brisking his arms. He sat down next to Lily and snaked an arm around her, seeking warmth. “Thank God ya’ll got this fire built up some.” He muttered, pulling the free end of Lily’s blanket around his shoulders. “I got all the horses taken care of, so nobody needs to worry with that.”

“Thanks.” Saint nodded, holding out a slab of ham to Lily on the end of a knife. “Here you go, Little Miss. Careful, s’hot.”

Lily gingerly pulled the meat off the knife and bit into it. It was delicious and she was starving.  Saint passed around the remaining portions to Bender and Jesse.

“Thanks, mate.” Bender unfolded his long legs  and leaned against the tree truck. “Alright, Miss Lil. Your uncle won this deed in a poker game, yeah?”

“Yes.” She nodded. “He never told me what it was for. Gave it to me for my birthday a couple years back. I can’t imagine it would be worth anything.”

“Someone thinks its worth enough to send someone after you over it.” Saint said darkly, glancing between Lily and Jesse. “And that visit was anything but friendly.”

“He was pretty insistent.” Lily nodded.

“We’re gonna have to be real careful.” Saint said pouring himself a cup of coffee. “They know more about what’s going on than we do.”

“They who?” Jesse mumbled around a mouthful of ham.

“Whoever set the kitchen on fire, genius. They know what the deed’s to.”

“Aye.” Bender ran a finger around the inside of the pan, scraping the brown, greasy crust out and nibbling on it. “And I’m thinkin’ they’re willing to kill over it. ‘Struth, mate, what did you do to this stuff? You can cook, I’ll give you that. Maybe Lynch should have hired you in the kitchen instead of as a driver.”

Saint narrowed his eyes at Bender’s smugly curled lip. It appeared to Lily that something off-color and less than charitable was brewing behind his gaze. “Well.” He said, smiling wickedly. “Lot a people end up not doing something they should.”

Bender paused, his finger frozen momentarily on its searching path around the skillet. “Fair dinkum, that.” He said, licking the grease off his finger and carefully scooting the pan into the embers to clean it. “Couldn’t agree more.”

Are they...arguing? Lily glanced between them, feeling the palpable tension settle over the camp. She grimaced, pulling her blanket tighter around herself and crossing her arms beneath it. It frightened her, knowing they seemed on the verge of an argument or worse most of the time. It made her angry. And mostly, it made her sad. Why can’t we all just be friends? Why do I have to feel like I’m betraying one or the other of them all the time? Why do I have to be fond of both of them?

I hate this. She leaned back against the tree, stretching her toes towards the fire and feeling the comforting warmth of the embers radiating against the soles of her feet. The ground near the fire was warm, in welcome contrast to the bite of chill in the night air. Jesse had gotten up and retrieved the bedrolls and she watched him deftly lay them out.

“Turnin’ in.” he mumbled, his voice tired. “Lily, don’t you leave camp without waking someone.”

“I won’t.” She said, distantly. She let her head fall back across the tree trunk, the peeling bark rough against her scalp. The swelling moon was white and shimmering inside the tumbling rags of clouds that flitted across its face, throwing fleeting shadows across the buttes and rocks that rose alongside the trail.
Her gaze lowered to the shadowed lump that was Jesse, already asleep beside the fire and rolled so deeply into his blanket all she could see of him was a few locks of pale hair gleaming in the wavering silver light.  Bender had sprawled as she had, his head resting on the cottonwood, staring into the fire. “I’ll take first watch.” he said decisively. “Too keyed up to sleep right now, anyways.”

“Wake me next.” Saint lay down and dropped his hat over his eyes.

These three brother and these two that...well...hate each other...if anything were to ever happen to any of them...I wouldn’t be able to bear it. “I don’t care about it that much, you know.” She said softly.

“What, love?” Bender turned to look at her.

“Whatever the deed’s to. I don’t care about it so much I want anyone hurt over it.”

Saint’s voice was muffled beneath the brim of his hat. “You don’t even know what it is, Little Miss.”

“I know.” She said. “But it doesn’t matter. I’ll up and give it away, if it comes down to that. I won’t see any of you hurt over it.”

She took a deep breath and let it out slowly, thinking. “I reckon we could be dealing with some bad people over this thing. If we run into trouble...I’d rather have the three of you unharmed than anything this deed represents. There’s no telling what we’re riding into. My uncle was....well...” she shook her head sadly. “he wasn’t exactly a choirboy.”

Saint huffed under his hat, amused. “Luis was. I’m just sayin’.”

Bender laughed, rubbing his eyes. “Ah, ‘struth, mate.” 

© 2010 Regina Shelley

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Okay, So...opinions?

Howdy, all!

Diego is working on a new Bender. This particular picture is part of a larger piece that will end up being the cover of the printed book. I actually asked him to hold off on finishing it till I let you all have a look.

I compiled a small collection of your suggestions and sent them along for references. 


Personally...I think he's kind of hot, myself.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

We Three Loggerheads Be (Prequel)

“So, Hungerford.” Saint loaded the last sack of flour into the back of the wagon and mopped his brow with the back of his hand. The Autumn sky was a brilliant, impossible blue and while the crisp air warned of the chill to come, the sun was warm on his back. “Where you headed next?”

“Making my way up to Three Crossings.” Hellbender Hungerford, the farrier the company had hired on to service the relay stations, was dusting loose flour off his gloved hands. “May go as far as Fort Laramie, dunno yet exactly. Hoping that eventually, they’ll keep me in one place for a while.”

Saint nodded, straightening up and flexing his back. He raised an eyebrow and nodded towards the Silver Star. “I could go for a sarsaparilla about now.”

“Buggering fine idea, mate.” Hungerford fell into step beside him. “Gonna be a while before the chance comes up for one again, yeah?”

“‘Fraid so.” Ah, shit. He froze with one boot on the low step leading up to the porch of the saloon, the other in the dusty earthen street.  The day’s too nice for this.

Rob Yarl was stalking across the street towards them, his meaty, sunburned face fixed in an unpleasant scowl. Yarl had mixed it up with the crew before, and, in particular, had mixed it up with Saint. He saw the two of them standing on the stoop and his scowl deepened as he approached.

Saint exchanged a glance with Hungerford, then fixed his eyes back on Yarl.

“Heinrich Claus in there?” Yarl stopped at in front of the stoop and jerked his chin towards the saloon doors.

“Why?” Saint said, keeping his voice neutral.

“Because I got something to say to that chickenshit German son of a bitch.” Yarl muttered, shoving  past. His big forearm impatiently glancing across Saint’s chest as he shouldered his way through the swinging doors.

The doors creaked, flapping in his wake like shutters banging on a house right before a tornado rips them off. What the...? Saint, mouth dropped open. “Let’s go.” He shrugged, starting for the doors.


Saint was surprised by the startled, wary look on Hungerford’s face. “Because Claus is in there,” he said, gesturing at the doorway. “I saw him go in while we were loading. And Yarl likes to pick fights with immigrants...and with pretty much everyone.”

The mere sight of either of the Yarl brothers was enough to put Saint in a fighting mood. They had caused enough trouble for the crew, the Old Man, and for Saint himself that his patience for them was at absolute zero. Anyone else doing the exact thing Yarl had just done would probably have gotten a scowl and shrug. At the very most, a hard shove in return. But the very fact that it had been Rob Yarl, and him on his way to rough up yet another person who happened to have a heavy accent, made his vision go hot and red.

Hungerford was shaking his head. “Leave it, mate.”

“What do you mean, ‘leave it, mate?’ Are you joking?”

“I mean don’t go in there. Don’t get in the middle of that.”

Saint’s mouth dropped open, fresh anger flaring through him. What the hell, Hungerford? It’s not our problem so let it happen in front of us? “I can’t believe what I’m hearing, you just expect me stand down while Henry Claus gets a beating from someone like Yarl?”

Hungerford mopped his face with his hand, clearly at war with himself. He shook his head, looking like he was having a conversation in his head Saint wasn’t privy to. “Mate...I know what you’re thinkin’, and I don’t blame you. But...”

“If you knew what I was thinkin’, you’d have taken a swing at me already.” Saint spat, disgusted. “I didn’t have you pegged for a coward, grow some balls!”

Hungerford exhaled through pursed lips, raising his eyebrows. He chose his words carefully, evenly. “I can’t talk to you about this now, mate. You’re gonna have to trust me on this one, yeah?”

“I got no reason to trust you. You’re makin’ a call I can’t stand by.”

“And you’re bent on ending up on the wrong buggering side of a bad cock up.”

Saint felt downright betrayed. He’d liked the quirkly stocktender well enough, but now, hearing his flat refusal to go to Claus’ aid against Yarl , his regard and respect for the man was quickly evaporating. Claus owned the best restaurant in over a hundred miles, and didn’t seem to mind when the crew...any of the crew...decided to eat there. There was no way he was going to stand here and let Yarl go into the Silver Star and throw the man around.

“You’re just gonna stand down and let Yarl...”

“I am. Yeah.” The farrier nodded, stepping between Saint and the saloon doors, blocking his path. “Come on, mate...” he said firmly, nodding back at the wagon, his eyes straying briefly over to the homey little house that housed Abigail’s at the other end of the street. “Why don’t we go down to...”

Saint’s temper boiled over and he planted a hand in the center of Hungerford’s chest, giving him a rough shove as he tried to pass. “Well, I ain’t.”

The farrier’s hand shot out, grasping Saint’s forearm and jerking him back with surprising strength.

Enough. We got to put up with enough shit from some of these jackasses in town, I sure as hell ain’t puttin’ up with more of it from our own people. Saint spun around, launching himself into Hungerford, shoving him back into the porch rails. Hungerford brought up a knee as he fell backwards, jamming it hard into Saint’s ribcage and throwing him off.

Saint’s shoulder slammed into the rough timber of the stair riser, and he rolled, gasping in pain as Hungerford shoved himself free of the porchrail and slammed a fist into his jaw.  His head hammered back into the hard packed dirt of the street. Light and dark shuttered across his vision and he grabbed Hungerford’s shoulder, torquing him sideways and throwing him off balance before driving a hard elbow into the side of his head. Hungerford went down with a satisfying grunt.

Saint rolled to his knees, his head throbbing and his shoulder and rib cage sending fireworks of pain through him. He tasted blood and didn’t know if it was from his nose or his lip. Son of a...

Hungerford’s boot caught him in the kidney, just over his hip, toppling him into the dirt again. He writhed, his midsection convulsing, and rolled over, Hungerford all over him. Gonna be pissing blood after this. He jammed a fist into the farrier’s solar plexus, hearing him cry out through the ringing in his own ears. Hungerford doubled over, unable to breathe, and Saint grabbed him by the shoulders and threw him hard into the porch riser.

He drew up a leg, trying to pull himself to his knees, but only succeeded in rolling backwards and lying flat in the dusty street, his head throbbing and his body seemingly full of broken dishware, burning coals, and bags of angry badgers. He opened his mouth to swear at Hungerford and managed a faint groan before abandoning the project.

He detected a shadow falling over him, the light through his eyelids dimming. He peered through them, squinting up at Deputy Blackie Shannon, standing over him with his arms crossed. He groaned again, his eyelids dropping back down over his eyes. The ringing and buzzing in his ears was loud, and he could barely hear Blackie’s disgusted voice above the din. “You stupid sons of bitches” was the last thing he heard before everything went quiet and dark. 

© 2010 Regina Shelley