Dust

(I finished the story I’ve been working on and submitted it to the anthology so we will see what happens next, if anything. I just feel good that I started something, continued and completed it, which is not something I’m great at. Here’s an excerpt.)

Dust

He rode towards the sun as it fell to the horizon. Horse hooves clip-clopped against the hard-packed road passing the ghost tracks of past wagons. He stroked the horse’s neck, feeling the muscle and life beneath his hand. “Town can’t be more than a few miles away, Bella,” he said.

Bella snorted.

He stopped her with pressure from his knees and swung off. He grabbed a canteen out of his bag and took a swig. He looked to the horizon, at a brown smudge in the distance. He put the canteen away and crouched, spitting on the ground. He looked at the smudge and put his hat on.

At first, everything was as it had been, save for a tickling sensation where the hat touched his head.

It always tingled when an Artifact touched skin.

He concentrated.

The smudge came into focus. Buildings appeared, huts and houses of a small village.

His view was blurry and unfocused but he could tell it was a town. He heard the wind blowing sand across the ground, gravel crunching beneath his boots, the call of a wildcat miles and miles away. The smell of dry dirt filled his nostrils, along with dung dropped days ago half a mile away and the smell of his and Bella’s sweat the strongest. He pushed off the hat onto his back and it all went away.

The town became a smudge on the horizon again.

He heard Bella snuffling and smelled the dust.

He stood up and swung back up on his horse. “Town’s not far.” He took the reins in one hand and rested the other on the butt of the revolver holstered on his right hip, feeling the tingling sensation in his hand. “Let’s hope they’re amiable, right Bella?”

Bella huffed, as if in doubt.

The town grew in size, from a smudge to a few large shapes, to recognizable homes and structures, man-made constructions depicting life in spite of the barren earth they stood upon.

Farmhouses stood outside the town with large tracts of land, crops of hardy plants that didn’t taste like much more than gruel but were some of the few bits of vegetation that managed to grow in the west. Some farms had cattle and goats that watched the rider pass on the road, chewing on cud with uncaring faces. Farm boys stopped their work and watched with unease and excitement, looks and feelings a stranger always brought to children.

He rode into town as the sun hit the horizon, sending bolts of purple across the sky and put on his hat. He passed residents walking and talking, women carrying water, children playing and running.

Some men walked with guns on their hips and chips on their shoulders, anger in their eyes trying to hide their fear.

He heard their hushed conversations, even the heartbeats of those who were close to him. If anyone ambushed him, he’d hear them coming. He tipped his hat as he passed and those who saw tipped theirs back, eyes widening as they caught the badge on his chest. He noted the ones that turned away and the ones that spat on the ground at the sight of him.

A few had red in their eyes, signs of Dust ingestion.

He made sure to remember those.

The saloon was the biggest building in town, a wooden shack two stores tall and big enough to fit four or five of the houses in it’s first floor.

He swung off Bella and tied her to the hitching post alongside a couple other horses, who gave her looks, flicking their tails.

Bella gave them a look and a snort. She looked at him.

He smiled and patted her on the back. “I’ll be back soon.”

Inside, the wooden floor felt gritty beneath his boots. Dusty windows let in little light onto the rickety tables and chairs spread throughout the large common room. A long bar took up most of the wall to his left, along with a door that likely led into a kitchen. There were stairs that ran up the right wall up to the second floor where the rooms would be.

Folks inside sat at the tables, more men than women. Most had the look of miners, dirt-streaked faces and clothes caked with grime. They had dark bottles in front of them and gave darker looks to the newcomer. Loners sat at bar stools staring into glasses and considering personal problems with which they could drown their memories of in amber liquid.

Some eyes widened at the sight of his star.

He sat at a stool at the bar by the far wall and took his hat off, letting it rest on the counter. It tended to give him a headache after awhile. He ran a hand through his hair.

Others took note of him and moved a seat farther away. Still others paid their bills and left.

The bartender walked over, a lady with long black hair pulled into a ponytail and a rough look about her. She wore a vest over a shirt and work-pants stuffed into high brown cowboy boots.

“You’re a rare sight,” she said, leaning against the bar. Her eyes were quick, her posture poised, alert. “What business you got here?”

“Just passin’ through,” he said.

“You should pass,” she said. “Don’t bother staying.”

“You got somethin’ against slingers?” He shook his head. “I’m not rogue and I’m not here to start trouble.”

“Trouble rode in on your horse,” she said.

“I’m just here for a meal, a drink and a room, miss,” he said. “Or do you bar hospitality to a slinger?” He pulled a gold coin from his pocket and put it on the bar, sliding it across.

She shook her head and sighed, wiping her hands with a rag that stuck out of her front pocket. “I got stew in the kitchen, it’s all we got. Whiskey or ale?”

“Whiskey.”

She gave him a glass and poured two fingers from a dusty glass bottle. She left the bottle in front of him and took the gold coin.

He picked up the glass and sniffed, then took a sip. He swirled the liquor around his mouth for a moment. He swallowed, feeling the burn.

She went into the kitchen and gave a shout.

He finished the glass and poured more.

She returned and slapped a key on the counter in front of him. “Satisfied?”

“Soon to be,” he said. “Name’s Shane. Yours?”

“Sal,” she said and moved down the bar to take care of other patrons.

The sun set outside, leaving the darkness of night.

Sal went around lighting lamps at the table and bar.

Shane took his time with the whiskey, thinking about the town. The folks were strange but not the strangest he’d seen. A slinger wasn’t a common sight and mixed reactions were to be expected. They wondered if he still followed the Code, enforced the Law, still hunted magus or if he’d gone rogue. Most of the few slingers who’d stayed west had done so, turning to banditry with their specialized equipment and skills, the lone enforcers becoming the ultimate criminals.

He shook his head. Regardless, he’d be gone in the morning. He hadn’t gone rogue but neither did he much care about enforcing the Law in a rundown town that seemed not to need it.

The doors to the saloon opened, revealing the figure of a man holding a gun in his hand. He walked in, blood-red eyes searching. He had the look of the Dusted. His eyes found Shane at the bar and widened. He raised his gun.

Shane put one foot against the bar.

“Red!” yelled Sal, hands underneath the bar. “Put your damn gun down. You know I don’t let anyone draw in here.”

“Shut it, Sally,” Red growled. “This is over your head.”

Sal’s eyes narrowed. “Take it outside, Red, I’m warning you.”

“This is bigger than you, bitch,” Red snarled.

“You pull a weapon on an Officer, you better shoot first,” Shane said.

Red spat. “Slingers ain’t shit no more. You think I’m scared of you? You need to get out of my town. Now.”

“This ain’t your town.”

Red’s left eye twitched.

Shane grabbed his hat and kicked back from the bar.

Red fired, bullet splintering wood where Shane had been sitting.

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