Read Tin Swift Online

Authors: Devon Monk

Tags: #Fantasy, #Fiction, #General

Tin Swift (6 page)

BOOK: Tin Swift
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“Maybe we should warn the womenfolk,” Cedar said.

“They’ve seen worse,” Bryn said.

That was true. Cedar took point and urged Flint down the road. More houses, none of the doors open, no other sign of people, except for the smell of blood and rot, and nothing and no one at the windows.

The town opened up into an area that had been cleared and flattened, likely for gatherings. They stopped there.

“Where do you suppose all the people are?” Rose asked. “I mean the live ones?”

“There are no live ones,” Cedar said.

“That fella laying in the doorway?” she said.

“Dead,” Bryn answered.

“Don’t think this is a place where wise men shelter,” Alun Madder said. “We’d best be moving on through.”

“Might be a thicket off east a bit,” Bryn suggested. “I’ll see if there’s anything to stand between us and the rain.”

“But we could find supplies here,” Rose said. “We need more than what we have to get the horses to Fort Boise.”

She was right. They all knew it.

Cedar nodded. “Let’s see if we can find a mercantile. Take what’s been left behind for ourselves, then check the barns for grain.”

“Might as well see if there’s liquor at hand while we’re at it,” Alun said. “For medicinal purposes, Miss Small.”

Rose shook her head. “No need to make excuses for me, Mr. Madder. I know you and your brothers polished off the last of the moonshine a week ago. And blew up your still.”

“All the more reason to restock,” he said.

“Would you help me get Mrs. Lindson into the wagon first?” Rose asked. “I don’t think she can sit the saddle for much longer and with dark coming on, I’d hate to discover she’d dropped off in a ditch come morning.”

“It’d be my pleasure.” Alun swung down out of the driver’s seat,
dropping to the ground much more nimbly than expected from a man his size, and tromped over to her.

He and Rose coaxed Mae to dismount, then Rose led her carefully through the muck and mud to the back of the wagon.

Cedar stayed right where he was, one hand on his gun, his gaze restlessly searching the streets and houses for movement. The beast within him had gone still. Not because the danger had passed. No—because the danger was near upon them.

“You feel it, don’t you, Mr. Hunt?” Alun asked, coming back around the front of the wagon. He’d brought that monster of a gun with him and it rode slung across his shoulder with a wide leather strap so it could rest at his hip, in easy reach.

He took the reins of Rose’s horse and Mae’s mule from Cedar.

“The Strange?” Cedar asked.

“And more,” Alun agreed. “Death.”

“The Holder’s been here,” Cedar said quietly.

Alun’s head snapped up like he’d just been slapped. “Are you sure?”

Cedar nodded.

“How? How can you tell?”

“I can taste it on the wind. In the rain.” He could feel it in his bones too, just like he could feel the touch of the Strange left lingering in the crannies and nooks of the place. This near to a piece of the Holder, he felt like his bones were tuning forks, resonating with the awareness of that odd device.

“You’ve a promise to keep us, Mr. Hunt,” Alun began, “to retrieve the Holder.”

“I’ll see it stays kept, if it’s near,” Cedar said. “But not while Rose and Mae are in this town. Whatever thing drove off the townfolk lingers. Once the women are safe, I’ll hunt the Holder.”

“Then we best be quickly moving on,” Alun said. “See to the womenfolk.”

“This woman folk isn’t going anywhere,” Rose said, striding over from the wagon with a lit globe in one hand. “Unless it’s looking for supplies.”

“Miss Small—,” Alun said.

“I’m sorry, Mr. Madder, but my mind’s set on this. We need food. We need blankets. And any coal, bullets, or medicines this place might have stashed. Plus, there is no way in tarnation those two hayburners of yours are going to find enough to forage once we hit the snows.”

“This town isn’t a proper place for a lady such as you, Miss Small,” Alun insisted.

Rose pushed her hat back, the tips of her fingers bare and dirty at the nail though a knit glove covered the remainder of her hand.

“Look in my eyes, Mr. Madder. What you’re going to find there is exactly what kind of a lady I am. But since you’re in a hellfire hurry, I’ll spell it out quick for you. I am a very determined lady. And tonight I am determined to loot this town.”

She took the reins of her horse out of his hand, leaving Mae’s mule in his keep. Then she swung up into the saddle. “You menfolk can do what you want, but I’m going hunting.” She turned her horse into the town.

“I’ll go with her,” Cedar said. “Stay with the wagon.” He clicked his tongue and Flint started after Rose.

“There’s Strange afoot, Rose,” Cedar said.

“So you’ve said, Mr. Hunt. We have guns. They don’t. Between the two of us”—she paused and glanced off to her left, where Wil was slipping through the shadows between houses—“the three of us,” she corrected, “I think we’ll manage.”

Cedar smiled despite himself. The girl had more spunk than a pot full of peppers.

“I think that place there has a sign on it,” Rose said. “Maybe a post office and general store?”

They got close enough that the light from the globe Rose held up caught at the whitewashed letters on the sign, neatly outlined in black. “Brown’s General Store,” Rose read out loud. “Good place to start.”

She swung down out of the saddle and threw the reins over the hitching post.

Cedar did the same, cocking his gun before walking up the step to the door. “Hold the light high, Miss Small.”

She did so, the light coming down over his shoulder and dusting off the shadows. He pushed the door inward with only a bit of a creak.

The smell of death hit him hard and full in the face. In the light of Rose’s lantern, the bodies of four people lying on the wood floor came clearly into view. A man, a woman, and two young boys. Dead as dead could be.

“Oh, God rest their souls,” Rose breathed behind him.

Cedar strode into the room, but Rose hesitated. He heard her pull the shotgun she carried before stepping in.

He didn’t see anyone else in the long, narrow room. Nothing was moving, not even a scratching of rats. He crouched next to the bodies and turned the man over so he could see what injury had felled him.

The man’s eyes were missing. As if they’d been sucked out like a grape from its skin, leaving clean bloody sockets behind.

He was also missing his thumbs.

“Was it man or animal?” Rose asked, bringing the light with her. She caught sight of the man’s face and made a small sound in the back of her throat.

“It was the Strange. Or at least they smell of it.” Cedar rested the man back the way he’d been and moved the woman enough to see that she was missing both her ears and her nose. As for the young’uns, both of them had holes where their hearts should be.

“Indian don’t mutilate like this. Could be a white man who likes to collect souvenirs.” He frowned. “Not an animal, at any rate. I’ve never
seen anything like this from Strange either. The injuries don’t add up to the thing that killed them. Well, except for the boys.”

The other injuries weren’t enough to kill a person right out, and certainly not enough to drop the entire family in a heap, as if they fell dead at the exact same moment.

Was that something the Holder could do? Fall down over a town and kill everyone dead? If that was the case, who, or what, had strolled through town gathering up body parts like they were out picking berries?

The bodies were cold, but no longer stiff. Fresh enough it hadn’t been long, but not so long the bodies had bloated. Whatever had dropped them dead had done it within the week.

“They look picked over,” Rose said. “Just bits taken.”

“Harvested.” Cedar stood and looked around the room. Stock and supplies filled the floor-to-ceiling shelves. There was enough food and blankets here to outfit them for the road. They’d just need to find grain and hay for the horses to finish stocking up.

“Looks like plenty here we can take with us,” he said. “We can load up and move on.”

“We’re going to bury them first.” Rose’s voice was tight, her face set in something more than determination. It was set in sorrow.

“Dig graves?” he asked. “Night’s upon us, Miss Small. Whatever or whoever did this to these people could be nearby. I don’t think slinging a shovel is going to do us, or in the long run them, any good.”

“I won’t leave them like this. And you shouldn’t want to either, Mr. Hunt. They deserve a decent burial. They deserve to have their souls put to a proper rest.”

“I agree they deserve a decent burial,” he said. “But it is too dangerous for us to administer it.”

“I’ve heard you,” she said. “But there isn’t anything about this new land that isn’t dangerous. That doesn’t mean we have to be the kind of people who turn away from the mercy at hand.”

Rose walked to the back of the room, the lantern light swinging shadows and bright at each other like trapeze artists reaching for the catch. She picked up a shovel and then, without a word, walked across the room and out the door, leaving the dark to swallow Cedar whole.

He took in a lungful of it and sighed. The girl meant well, but the last thing he wanted to do right now was dig a grave, much less dig one big enough for four, or who knew how many more. He walked over to the counter and rested his hand there.

A song, like sour trumpets trembling in the distance rose up through his fingertips. He knew that fleeting tune, knew its haunting rhythms and trills. It was the song of the Strange, of one Strange in particular.

Mr. Shunt.

Suddenly, the chill of the night and the dark and death squeezed down around him. They’d killed Mr. Shunt. He’d seen him killed, seen his innards stretched out and pounded to a mash even the crows wouldn’t pick over. He’d seen the bits of Mr. Shunt smashed apart by Jeb Lindson, Mae’s dead husband.

There was no possibility a man, nor any other creature, could come back together after the taking apart Mr. Shunt had received.

The wind huffed against the rafters, silencing the song as a fresh scatter of rain broke from the sky.

But then, there was no man nor creature like Mr. Shunt. If there was anything in this world unkillable, it would be him.

Suddenly, the harvest made sense. Mae had said Mr. Shunt fell into pieces and sewed himself back together again. Maybe he needed more parts.

But if Shunt were still in the town, hell, if he’d been within thirty miles of the place, Cedar would know. He wasn’t here. But he had been.

“Mr. Hunt?” Rose said from the door, her lantern clutched tight in one hand, the shovel in the other. “I think you’d better see this.”

“We’re leaving,” Cedar said, making to walk around behind the counter for the supplies. “Now. Come take an armful.”

Rose didn’t say anything. Not a peep. Wasn’t like her.

He glanced up. She was still standing in the doorway, the shine of light carving out holes of dark against the sweet angles of her face. There was more than just rain falling from the brim of her hat to wet her face. There were tears.

“Rose?” He came out from behind the counter and walked to her. “Rose?”

“I looked into houses. A half dozen houses,” she said. “They’re all dead.” She looked up into his face. “Children too, Mr. Hunt. Little babies missing their feet and hands, all carved up…”

Cedar wanted to tell her not to worry about the dead. To tell her that if they left these people behind it was a civilized choice. But that was not true. The place stank of the Strange. And he had seen the Strange do terrible things with the unburied dead.

“We’ll do what we can for them,” he said. “Give them a grave and a prayer, the only mercy still in our hands.”

Rose wiped at her nose and nodded. “We’ll need to gather them all up. Maybe in the middle of town? The clearing?”

“That should do,” Cedar said. “Let’s get the Madders to help. Quickly.”

Cedar followed her back out into the rain. They mounted up and tracked back to the wagon.

Alun was leaning at the side of it, the huge brim of his hat and the angle of the wagon blocking rain and wind. He puffed on his pipe while the youngest and tallest Madder, Cadoc, paced about, a strange device in his hands.

The device resembled an ear trumpet. He held it up to one ear, a rope running from the ear trumpet to wrap around the top of a cane in his left hand that he stuck into the ground. He paused for a moment, as if listening through the ear horn, then pulled the cane tip out of the soil and swung it to tap the ear trumpet before spiking the cane back into the wet ground again.

Cedar didn’t know what Cadoc Madder was doing, but then he rarely could fathom the man’s actions.

“We’ll be needing your help,” Cedar said. “Bryn’s too.”

“Are we hunting the Holder now, Mr. Hunt?” Alun asked.

“No. We are hauling and digging,” Cedar said. “There’s dead in this town. Rose and I have agreed we’ll see to their burial before we move on.”

Cadoc Madder had stopped pacing. He turned to look at them as if they’d suddenly dropped out of a blue sky and brought the moon down with them.

Alun pulled the pipe from between his teeth and pointed it at Cedar. “What do you think killed all these people? The Holder. It fell into this town, and snuffed their lives out like a wet wick. If a piece of it remains behind, the death will spread, creep to the next town, and kill off the living there. Finding the Holder is a damn sight more important than burying the dead.”

“The Strange have been here,” Cedar said. “Surely you know what sport the Strange can have with the dead.”

“Of course I know! Hang the dead and hang the Strange. If we find the Holder we won’t need to stay here to see any of it.”

Cedar drew his gun and cocked back the hammer. “Rose Small, myself, and these bullets disagree with you.”

Both Madder brothers went stone cold. Even the smoke from Alun’s pipe seemed to stop moving.

“No need for guns,” Mae said as she came round from back of the wagon leading her mule. “Let us tend those who have been lost.” She wore a duster—Cedar thought it might belong to one of the Madder brothers, and though she’d rolled up the sleeves, it was huge on her thin frame. She’d changed her bonnet for a man’s hat—again, Cedar guessed it to be one of the Madders’.

BOOK: Tin Swift
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