Time to read: about 75 to 90 minutes
All three of them were sat around the fire and Gosford had just finished saying grace when the man stumbled out of the shadows.
Bonnie’s gun was in her hand before he could step any closer. The stranger caught the flash of metal in the firelight and raised his hands. “Sorry to disturb,” he said. “Don’t mean no harm. But I was passing and saw your light. Wondered if you might have room around your fire for one more, least for a while.”
He stayed at the edge of the fire while the others took him in. He stood tall but awkward, as if something in him was twisted permanent, something grown wrong in his spine or his hips. His shirt hung loose around his shoulders. Didn’t look like there was a lot of meat on his frame. A sorry sight overall, like a doll dragged through the dust and hauled up to its feet.
Bonnie kept her gun pointed squarely at his chest. “What’s your name?” she asked.
The man’s right hand, already raised, brushed the rim of his hat. “Richard King, ma’am. Like I said, don’t mean no harm.”
A handspan of breaths passed with nobody moving. Bonnie could feel the cramp starting up in the fingers of her right hand, a slow but insistent throbbing in her palm. If she stayed this way, her finger wrapped round the trigger, the feeling was only going to get worse, spread up her wrist towards her elbow. She sighed. She wasn’t going to shoot this man. She put her gun away and tried to rub the ache out of her knuckles.
Gosford set his Bible in the dust, wiped his palm on his shirt and offered his hand. “Owen Gosford, Mister King. That’s Bonnie Murtaugh. And that unconscionable bastard over there is John Eaton, Jesus curse his name.” Gosford spat on the ground as he said this last.
Eaton gave no indication that Gosford’s insults stung him any. He didn’t stand, but he touched the brim of his hat. “Not much of a fire, friend,” he said, “but you’re welcome to whatever warmth you can get. Ain’t that right, Bonnie?”
Bonnie wasn’t sure about that at all. Something about the man didn’t sit right with her, though now she looked at him, she couldn’t quite place what it was. True, he looked odd, but she didn’t think it was his appearance that vexed her. How had he managed to get so close without them hearing his approach? Perhaps he’d come in against the wind. Or perhaps your ears are wearing out same as your hands, she thought. You’re getting old, Bonnie Murtaugh.
She shrugged. “Sit.”
King slowly eased himself to the ground. Bonnie wondered if whatever was wrong with the man’s spine was causing him pain besides twisting him askew. But once he got himself down, he looked at the three of them and smiled. His mouth was full of browned teeth, crooked as a fenceline after a tornado. “Well, I thank you all. It’s far too cold to be walking out under the sky tonight.”
Bonnie stared at him through the flames. He was straw-haired and hatchet-faced and the firelight hid more of him than it showed. “So, Mister Richard King. What are you doing on a cold night all the way out here?”
“Going north,” he said. “Got a sister up near Bostoke could use my help.”
“Bostoke? Where the hell’s that?” Gosford said. He looked around at the others, a look of bald confusion on his face. Bonnie had the notion she had heard of the place, or at least there was something familiar about the name. But where it was, she couldn’t say. She shrugged.
But Eaton nodded his head, as if he were familiar. “It’s a long way from here to Bostoke, friend. You’re planning on walking all that way?”
“No sir,” King said. “I know a man has a farm still working a few days north of here. He’s got some ponies. Small, most of them, but they’re of a determined type. One of those will take me to the end of the world and back.”
Far as Bonnie knew, there was nothing a few days north of here. Nothing a few days south, neither. Nothing much of anything past the Cut, excepting where the three of them were already headed. She had that feeling of disquiet again. It flicked around her like a buzzing fly. But if the others felt the same way, they gave no sign.
Eaton picked something out of his teeth and flicked it into the fire. “We’re traveling east, though our path curves nor’easterly for at least another day. You could travel with us, if you want the company and it don’t take you too far out of your way. So long as the others don’t mind.”
Bonnie was going to tell Eaton that letting a stranger walk with them, someone who had stumbled upon them all the way out here in the Scablands past Desolation Cut, was a very bad idea. But Gosford spoke before she could. “Course you can ride with us. Couldn’t leave a fellow Christian to wander out here alone unnecessary. Wouldn’t be right.”
Eaton and Gosford both looked at Bonnie. She could have said no. Instead, she shrugged. “A couple of days, no more.”
King bowed his head. “Well, I thank you all again,” he said.
Gosford peeked into the pot hanging over the fire. “There’s plenty left,” he said over his shoulder, “But we don’t have any spare plates. Weren’t really expecting company tonight.”
“That’s a kind offer,” King said, “but I’m not hungry.”
Gosford attended to his own plate, clanking his spoon and slurping happily. When he’d cleared it, he returned to the pot and helped himself to more.
“So then,” King said after a while, “Where are you headed? What’s in the east that has your attention?”
Both Gosford and Eaton looked at Bonnie. She shook her head. “That’s not anything you need to know,” she said.
King nodded. “You keep your intentions close. I understand. After all, mankind is a long, long walk away from the Garden. Hard to know who to trust in days like these.”
“Amen, brother,” Gosford said, between mouthfuls of beans.
After that, they sat in silence, except for Gosford’s clanking of cutlery.
Bonnie reached for her pistol and opened the chamber. She didn’t need to. She knew full well only three of her father’s bullets remained. Still, she counted them again, touching each one in turn. She looked across at King. He was staring into the fire, a half-smile frozen on his face that made him look like a simpleton. But there was something in the shine of his eyes that told a different story.
When the fire had lowered to embers, they set out bedrolls. Gosford offered his blanket to King, but he shook his head. “I’ve been traveling by myself a good long time now. I’ve become quite adjusted to the lack. The dust to me is just as comfortable as a feathered bed.”
“A feathered bed,” Gosford said. He leaned back, eyes closed, a smile on his face. “How long has it been since I have slept in such luxury? You wound me with such memories, sir.”
Eaton snorted at Gosford’s words. He rolled away from the fire.
Bonnie lay on the other side of the dying fire from King, looking up at the stars.
She must have fallen asleep, for something woke her. Both Gosford and Eaton were snoring. She must not have been asleep for too long—the fire was embers now, but they were still bright orange.
King was staring at her, unblinking, from the other side of the dying fire.
She sat up and reached out for her holster. But when she looked again, King’s back was to the fire, just like the others. There hadn’t been time for him to roll over.
It was a long time before she fell asleep.
Bonnie’s joints creaked as she tied her bedroll to her saddle. Her right hand still ached. She rubbed it as she worked.
Eaton had been in a taciturn mood ever since they had hauled themselves down the Cut. But he seemed in somewhat better spirits this morning. He boiled up a pot of coffee and offered a mug to Bonnie. When she demurred, he shrugged and poured a cup for Gosford, who accepted it with a smile. A stranger watching this exchange might think the two firm companions.
Bonnie knew different.
King had few possessions, just the knapsack and a walking stick Bonnie hadn’t noticed the night before. It came to his shoulder and was nearly as twisted as the man himself. Bonnie watched King while the others finished their coffee. King, like the Scablands themselves, was not improved by daylight. If anything, his back seemed more hunched than it had been the night before, his eyes a little more wild. Bonnie still did not think the man’s appearance was the source of the disquiet she felt when looking at him. There was something else, something deeper—
She shook her head. He’d be with them another day, perhaps two. After that, whatever strangeness lurked in the man’s core would no longer be her concern. Hell, it wasn’t even her concern now.
Bonnie climbed into her saddle. “Finish your coffee,” she said. “Day’s wasting.”
The ground was hard-packed and cracked, though the horses kicked up small clouds of dust as they walked.
Now and then they would see a few bushes, so shriveled and dried they appeared to be little more than echoes of themselves. Apart from that, there were no signs of life.
As they had the day before, they tracked their progress against a thin line of mountains barely visible to the west. Eaton had wanted to travel closer to them. Perhaps they could find shelter in the trees hinted at by the shadows on their sides. If there were trees, there might be water, or some game they could hunt. Bonnie decided against it. There could well be life over there. But she mistrusted any creature that made its home in the Scablands. They had water and provisions enough to last them for a while longer. Eaton’s face had suggested he disagreed. But he nodded and did not complain.
The three of them rode for hours, none of them talking. King followed on foot, leaning on his walking stick, his gait as crooked as his spine, but mostly keeping pace with them. From time to time, Eaton or Gosford would ride back to check on him. Bonnie kept her eyes ahead. She had spent hours studying Blind Coates’ map. She was certain they rode in the right direction. Even so, it would be good to have some kind of landmark.
Just before noon, they found a road.
Bonnie drew her horse up and the others did likewise. Here it was nothing more than a slight groove in the dust. But a few hundred feet away it widened, the start of a white scar on the land. It kept going, due north, widening further as it went, all the way to the horizon, in a line so straight it hurt to look at it.
Eaton dismounted and crouched at the foot of the trail and ran his fingers through the dirt, looking for something.
Gosford remained in his saddle. He unstrung the yellow scarf from around his neck and dabbed at the perspiration on his brow. “Is it an old road?”
Eaton rubbed his hands against his trousers, leaving long white streaks. He looked out at the road ahead. “Perhaps. But it hasn’t been used for a long time.”
“Should we follow it?” Gosford asked.
“We’ve already been following it for some time,” Bonnie said. The others turned to look behind them. Bonnie had seen no difference in the landscape of the past few hours. She had thought they had been moving across the same hard-packed earth all morning. But looking back from this perspective, the few bushes and rocks they had passed stood in a perfectly straight line. The space between them formed a road, visible in its invisibility. Bonnie swore and spat at the ground. Should have been paying closer attention, girl, she thought.
King caught up with them, stumbled to a stop. He did not seem too fatigued despite his unusual gait, although a line of sweat ran from beneath his hat down the side of his face. He pulled a flask from the inside pocket of his jacket and took a couple of swallows. “Why did we stop?”
“Road,” Eaton said.
“That’s good, isn’t it?” King said. “Won’t that make for better traveling?”
Bonnie nudged her horse forward. “Don’t know what it means.”
“Don’t mind her,” she heard Eaton say to King. “Bonnie’s got a lot on her mind. She don’t mean nothing by it.”
“I take no offense,” King said. “Not a good thing to have a head full of thoughts. Perhaps she should let them out. A burden shared is a burden halved.”
She clucked her horse into a trot and moved ahead until she couldn’t hear them talk.
The road did make the going easier. The surface was light and brittle, as if it had been paved with oyster shells, although that would have been impossible: they were far from any ocean, even assuming there were still such things as oceans in the world. Even King seemed to pick up his pace somewhat. Every time Bonnie turned to look behind her, either Gosford or Eaton had dropped back to ride beside the man. She was too far away to hear their discussions, but from King’s animated gestures, he was telling them both quite a story.
They stopped just before noon. Bonnie led her horse off the road. There was precious little to eat, but she still had some oats and a few brown apples in her saddlebag. The horse chewed, uncomplaining, as Bonnie waited.
The others had fallen behind in the last hour or two. Bonnie watched them walk towards her. Eaton and Gosford both keeping pace with King, who walked between them. King said something and both Eaton and Gosford laughed.
Something about the laughter sounded false to Bonnie. It had to be. How could King have found something those two men would both find equally amusing? Bonnie only had a vague sense of the long-festering enmity between them. In the weeks they had traveled together she had only picked up splinters and hints: a farm fallen to disrepair, a wife and child somewhere out west, a turn of cards and a fortune lost that the loser had not held claim to in the first place. She did not have the story entire, and did not intend to delve, but the men’s mutual bitterness was obvious. They were more than enemies. Each man held a deep, immovable hatred for the other; they were long past due for a final reckoning, leaving one of them standing, gun smoking, over the body of the other. Except that they also shared a common enemy. And their hatred of that one was enough to keep them moving forward. Bonnie was a good decade younger than either man, but they fell in behind her with no complaint. Though the various grudges they nurtured were vast, they could both see that her hatred for the Splintered Man was as deep as the sky and as wide as the horizon. They bowed in acknowledgement.
Something crunched under her boot, and she looked down. A scatter of bones. Bonnie couldn’t tell if they had belonged to a rabbit or a small bird. Or some weird combination of the two. She wouldn’t be surprised by anything out here.
A sound on the winds. A long, piercing cry.
Gosford rode towards her. “Was that a wolf?”
Bonnie scanned the line of hills, looking for any sign. “Sounded like it, but I don’t know.”
“I didn’t know they howled like that during the day.”
“I’ve never known them to.”
Gosford licked his lips. His padre’s collar was dripping with sweat. “Perhaps we’d best be moving. Get as much distance between us and whatever that is as we can.”
Bonnie didn’t disagree. Eaton and King were still lagging, taking their time as if they were out for a casual stroll. “Hup!” Bonnie called. She climbed back on her horse and nudged him into a trot. Gosford did the same.
Another howl rang out. Bonnie turned her head, trying to figure out where the sound was coming from.
“Is that the same one,” Gosford said, “Or—”
The third howl came before the second had faded away. Then a fourth.
Bonnie spurred her horse into a gallop.
She turned in the saddle. Gosford was riding in the other direction. Eaton climbed down from his horse.
King was lying in the road. His walking stick lay, forgotten, some distance away.
Eaton grabbed King under his arms and hauled the man to his feet. His head lolled to his shoulder. Gosford reached the two of them. He jumped off his horse, opened his canteen and poured water over King’s face, which seemed to rouse him somewhat.
Gosford gestured something to Eaton. The two of them half-dragged King to Gosford’s horse. Gosford mounted and somehow, they managed to push-pull King up to sit behind him. King’s arms wrapped around Gosford, but the grip didn’t look all that tight.
Something moved at the edge of Bonnie’s vision. Over to her left, near the edge of the hill line, there was a cloud of dust, growing, its base boiling with flashes of gray and black. Not a wolf then. A pack, and a large one.
“Let’s go,” Bonnie called, though she made no move herself. The others were coming now, gaining speed, even with King lolling behind Gosford as if he were close to tumbling off.
The creatures were closing far too quickly. They had already covered a quarter of the space between the hills and the road. They were still too far away to see clearly, but even at this distance, it was clear these were no wolves. Bonnie had no idea what kind of beasts they might be. Not that it mattered. She saw flashes of white, pointed teeth, shoulders of bunched muscle. Six legs? Eight? She didn’t intend to stay long enough to find out.
The others had nearly caught up to her now. She spurred her horse and raced. The wind in her ears did nothing to diminish the unholy howling of the wolf-things.
They stretched out in a line, the three horses with four riders. The wolf-things were still a distance away. Bonnie pulled her father’s pistol and twisted round as best she could. She aimed into the middle of the slavering mass of them and squeezed the trigger.
A jolt of pain ran up her right arm as soon as she fired, so strong she nearly lost her grip on the pistol. She holstered it hurriedly, then straightened in the saddle. She hadn’t seen any of the wolf-things fall behind. It was possible they were still well out of range.
Careless, girl. One more of your father’s bullets gone.
She swatted the thought away and spurred her horse on.
Something emerged from the heat haze ahead. A collection of buildings scattered around the road. A town? There was no town on the map Blind Coates had given her before they’d left Berenton. Then again, the map had been a copy of a copy of a scratch based on a rumor. If her eyes weren’t deceiving her, they might have a chance after all. If they could get up to a roof, they might be able to pick the beasts off. Assuming those things would not find a way to climb the walls or—
Bonnie looked back. The other two horses had stopped. Eaton was standing next to his horse, hauling King down.
“What are you doing?” She shouted, but there was no reply from the men. Another howl rose from the pack of wolf-things and her horse shuffled in fear.
Eaton pulled his repeating rifle from its holster and handed it to King, who took it as if he had no idea what to do with it. Eaton tipped his hat, then climbed back on his horse. He and Gosford raced towards her.
King stood hunched over in the middle of the black road. He raised the rifle to his shoulder and pointed it towards the boiling swarm of beasts.
The others caught up to her a handful of heartbeats later. “He told me to leave him,” Eaton said. “Said he’d draw them off.”
“He’s got no chance,” Bonnie said. “Did you see how many of them there were?”
“Couldn’t tell,” Eaton said. “But the man is more than he appears. We might come out of this yet.”
The shapes ahead were clearer now. This was indeed a town. Three or four low buildings, sitting on either side of a larger structure, perhaps a saloon of some kind. The whiteshell road ran right through the center of town, widening as it did.
The sound of a rifle shot split the air.
Bonnie spurred her horse again, willing it to gallop even faster.
The town was abandoned.
Even before they were close enough to make out the details, there was something about the angle of the buildings that told Bonnie nobody had called this place home for some time.
She had looked back a couple times, trying to see if King had managed to draw the wolf-things off, but a wind had kicked up, spreading dust across the road and reducing visibility. She couldn’t even see the mountains now. She had heard a couple further shots, but nothing after that.
They slowed as they reached the first of the buildings.
As she had suspected, the largest place had once been a saloon. Although now it was little more than a collapse waiting to happen. The entranceway gaped open—one door lying on the ruin of the boardwalk in front, the other nowhere to be seen. Every window on the lower floor had been broken, though whether this had been done by human hands or the unceasing wind, there was no way of telling. Little drifts of sand collected against the wall, a miniature of the land they’d been crossing for days.
“Wait here,” Eaton said, dismounting and handing his horse’s reins over to Bonnie. He unholstered his revolver and disappeared into the darkness.
Bonnie and Gosford remained where they were. She leaned forward, trying to pick out any sounds of danger from inside the building. She thought she heard a couple of taps, like someone knocking on a door. Then nothing more.
“He can look after himself,” Gosford said, licking his lips. “He might be an abomination among men, a stain on all who walk above ground, but he can look after himself, that I will give him.”
Bonnie wondered again what the bonds of enmity were between the two men. This was the first time she had been alone with one of them since they had started traveling. It would be the perfect opportunity to turn over a stone or two. She turned to Gosford, ready to ask.
Eaton appeared in the doorway.
“It’s safe,” he said.
Bonnie looked out across the desert and saw no sign of either King or the wolf-beasts.
Once they had entered the saloon it became obvious that, no matter what ravages time and the winds had wreaked upon the place, these hadn’t been the only cause for its desolation. Upended tables lay here or there and in the farthest corner was a pile of chair parts, resembling nothing more than a pile of kindling.
A bar ran nearly the full width of the room. Though it had clearly been built from thick slabs of wood, there was a cavity in the middle, as if some immense fist had simply pounded through it all the way to the floor.
The grand mirror behind the bar was cracked and crazed, warping their reflection so it was as if rather than three of them standing just inside the doorway, there were an untold number, standing just inside infinite doorways. Bonnie had a strange feeling upon seeing herself reflected so. As if somewhere, some vast piece of landscape had cracked and crumbled, like the side of a cliff falling off to shatter into a million pieces. She closed her eyes and shook her head, trying to rid herself of the strange vision. When she opened them again, she determined not to look at the mirror.
“There’s a storeroom out the back,” Eaton said. “Empty. But it might be better to keep the horses there than anywhere outside tonight.”
“Why would we shelter the horses?” Gosford asked. “Surely you don’t expect we would stay?”
Eaton raised an eyebrow. “There’s something you should see upstairs.”
“No.” Bonnie shook her head.
Most of the rooms on the second floor were as destroyed and abandoned as the barroom below. Beds overturned, bundles of linen crumpled in corners, left to sit until they looked so ossified that Bonnie suspected they would collapse into dust at the slightest touch. But not this room.
“It’s a trap.” She stood at the entranceway of the room, unwilling to take a further step.
“It’s not a trap,” Eaton said. “Just a stroke of luck.”
There were four beds, one in each corner of the room. Each one covered with blankets and tidily arranged as though they had been made just before the place had been abandoned.
Eaton stood in the middle of the room on a rug, the elaborate pattern of which was still clear beneath a patina of dust. “We could clean up a little and enjoy a restful night for once. Wouldn’t you like to spend just one night beneath a roof? Gosford? What say you?”
Gosford, too, stood in the doorway. He licked his lips nervously. “I don’t know. True, I would be grateful for a comfortable night’s sleep. But this room, it—it is incongruous.”
Eaton walked over to the window. The curtains had been thick once, and lush red, but were now no more than dull pink spiderwebs. He carefully pulled them back. The late afternoon sun reflected on the dustmotes in the center of the room. Bonnie suddenly remembered the cracked mirror downstairs and shivered. Eaton began working the window, trying to coax it open for what must have been the first time in years. Light streamed over the beds.
“Still,” Gosford said. “It would be nice.” He nodded apologetically at Bonnie and stepped into the room, walked straight to the bed on the corner opposite Eaton and sat, bouncing experimentally. He closed his eyes and let out a long sigh.
Bonnie thought about protesting. She was, nominally, the leader of the group, though even she was not entirely clear how she had attained that mantle. For Gosford, it might have been enough that she was not Eaton, and vice versa. Without her to keep them focused on their shared goal, they would be tearing at each other’s throats before the end of the day.
Besides, she was exhausted, and Eaton was right. How long had they been following the map now? Three weeks? More? The days had blurred together under the unchanging routine. Every day was hot, with no more than the slightest wind. Every night the sky was cloudless and full of stars, which should have buoyed her spirits, at least a little. Bonnie had never learned much about the constellations and their movements, but as she lay beneath the stars over the past week, she had started to suspect that the stars above had ceased to move at all. That they had become as frozen in time as the land and air below them, apathetic to the concerns of mere humans like themselves. She did not think it wise to mention these thoughts to the others.
“One night,” she said. “No more than that.”
Gosford squinted at the map. “Where are we now?”
Eaton had found a lamp and some oil in the storeroom, along with some cans of beans that didn’t smell of anything at all. They had eaten them cold. Now they squatted in a circle at the top of the stairs.
Bonnie ran a finger across Blind Coates’ map. It was hard to make out any of the lines by the faint yellow glow of the lamps, but it made little difference. Even under the hard noonday light, it was sparse on detail. Besides, Bonnie had spent so long staring at it she had it memorized, or should have. Sometimes she wondered if the lines moved every time she folded the paper and stowed it in her pocket. Or perhaps the map was fine, and it was reality itself that ebbed and flowed like a tide. She had convinced herself that anything was possible on this side of the Cut.
“Here’s Berenton,” Bonnie said, finger on the map. “And here’s the path we took northwards. There’s Desolation Cut.” Desolation Cut. A place where the ground dropped away to the floor of the basin three hundred feet below, and no safe road to descend. They had paid Cole the Basketman the last of their money for him and his boys to keep a steady hand on the rope while he lowered them down in his wood-and-wicker box. Bonnie and Gosford had made the descent first, watching the rope pass through the pulley as they moved past the edge of the cliff and the sun was lost in long shadow. The horses followed, blindfolded, one at a time. Eaton was lowered down last, hands on his guns, unflinching eyes on the hands that fed the rope, lest the Basketman, now he’d taken their money, had decided himself towards treachery.
“And after that, the mountains,” Bonnie continued. “But there’s no mention of a town anywhere this side of the Iron River.”
“The Iron River.” Gosford leaned back, sucking his teeth. “I’d never heard of such a place, not until you pointed it out on the map when we first met. But I do wonder. Could there be any river out here? Perhaps it dried up and disappeared years ago. Perhaps we have already crossed it and not noticed.”
Bonnie had wondered the same thing herself. The Iron River was the last signpost—upon that point, Blind Coates had been insistent, tapping the map with a stubby finger as he spoke. The Iron River marked the last piece of solid ground before they passed entirely into the Splintered Man’s realm. If they had missed it, if they were already in that other place—
“I wonder what happened to him,” Eaton said. He sat on the edge of the stairs. “King.”
“Nothing to wonder at,” Gosford said. “We heard the shots, then nothing more. He kept those beasts from us, and I thank him for that. But the man is with the angels now.”
Gosford stared at the darkness below and said nothing more.
The oil began to run low, and the lamp’s light started to stutter and fade. Eaton and Gosford both took that as a sign and ambled off to the red-tinged bedroom, making sure to take the beds farthest away from each other.
Bonnie stayed awake a while longer, sitting at the top of the stairs. Though the light was stuttering, it had not yet gone out. Bonnie turned the valve wheel, and the light dimmed a little, shrinking until it was as if she sat in her own private realm that extended little farther than two steps below her and the walls on either side. The walls were clad in a deep-patterned paper. Someone had hung that paper, once, stood where she now sat, struggling with brush and paste. When they were done, had they stood back, admiring their own work? Or had they simply shifted a little farther up the hall and turned their attention to the next bare piece of wall? She wondered where that paper-hanger was now, along with everyone else who had built this place, or run it, or drunk here, or spilled their guts in the street outside. But all their stories were lost to her, just as much as why they had abandoned the place.
When she started to feel her head nodding, she snuffed out her lamp and lay on top of one of the unoccupied beds. The men were already asleep, although how Eaton had managed it with Gosford’s snores ringing off the walls, Bonnie had no idea.
Her parents had met in Galliant. Least that was how Bonnie’s mother told it. In one of Bonnie’s earliest memories, she was sitting in front of the fire, looking at her parents, looking back at her while her mother told the story.
Their meeting in Galliant was followed by a romance, courtship, marriage, the two of them coming out here to make a life. Bonnie asked her mother to tell it over and over. Her mother told the story so many times it became nearly a ritual, though this or that detail would shift just a little with every retelling. She liked telling the story just as much as Bonnie liked hearing it. Her father didn’t seem to mind it none, nodding and smiling at the familiar beats. Though now and again his eyes would stray from his wife to the small wooden box that sat on a shelf high on the wall next to the fireplace.
After a while, that box became nearly as interesting to her as her mother’s story. Bonnie loved her mother’s stories, and her mother certainly never tired of telling them. But even before she knew her letters, or how to stitch a seam, Bonnie had wanted to know what was in the box that sat on the highest shelf like an accusation.
She had tried to reach it once, when her parents had both been out tilling the field. She dragged her father’s chair over next to the fireplace and climbed up, but even standing on tiptoe and stretching as far as she could, she couldn’t even touch the bottom of the shelf. She put her father’s chair back where it had been and worried the rest of the day that he would notice it had been moved.
One evening, when she saw her father’s attention wane yet again, she asked him. “What’s in there, Father?”
Her father looked at Bonnie a good long time. Bonnie wondered what she’d said that was so wrong. “Nothing you need to worry about, Bonnie girl,” he said. “Just something from the time before I met your mother. It doesn’t matter now and it ain’t ever going to matter again.”
Her father’s reply raised more questions than it answered. But Bonnie saw the way her mother pursed her lips and looked down at her needlework and thought this might be one of those times when she needed to let the question be, no matter how it burned for an answer.
Times were hard. Not just for them, but for everyone. Crops failed. Debts came due. Sicknesses came and went. Even before the Splintered Man came.
Bonnie’s mother died two years before the Splintered Man leaned against their doorframe. It was the last days of a winter so bitter that the cold lingered in every thin gray streak of light. It caught in the back of the throat, turned ears and fingers a ringing red. Bonnie had been playing in front of the fire when her father had flung the door open. The blast of cold made the fire stutter and dip. Her mother leaned heavily against him. “Boil some water, child,” her father said, as he bundled her mother across the bed.
Bonnie did as she was asked.
Her mother’s face had a drawn look, as if she had seen the end of things.
Over a span of days, Bonnie sat on the chest at the bottom of the bed, watching her mother grow weaker. Her mother stayed under the covers, the warmest place in the house, but even then, with the last of their firewood crackling in the hearth, she could find no comfort. The cold had sunk too deep into her, right into her bones. Her breathing changed, took on a high hiss. As if someone was playing a penny whistle, somewhere out on the plains.
The nearest doctor was more than two days’ ride. And even if there was some way to send a message to him, if he was up and riding soon as he heard, still he would be too late. There was nothing to be done.
Afterwards, Bonnie’s father spent a full morning and deep into the afternoon beneath a sky as gray as slate, scratching at the frozen ground with a broken shovel and the soon-blunted blade of his axe. The earth gave itself up grudgingly, in bitter fistfuls of black, glistening dirt.
Bonnie watched from the porch as her father struggled across his land, pushing the same barrow he used to take grain to the horses. Balanced on top was his wife, wrapped in the same sheets she had died in. Her father gently lowered her mother into the ground. It was so cold that the pile of earth already had a layer of frost upon it when he started to shovel it back into the hole.
She sat and watched, arms wrapped around her knees. She had already cried herself dry.
It was nearly dark when her father finally came back inside. Bonnie had prepared a bowl of water. She washed her father’s hands, cleaning away the dirt, before wrapping strips of fresh linen across the broken blisters on the heels of his hands. She tried to be as gentle as she could. Even so, her father winced as she wrapped his hands. She pulled her hands back. “I’m sorry Papa,” she said. “I don’t want to hurt you anymore.”
Her father’s eyes were mournful and deep. Gently, slowly, he grabbed her hands in his own. “It hurts Bonnie, that is true. Still, it must be done.”
She nodded and continued her work.
There had been a trickle of visitors after her mother died. Ma Renton came round near every Sunday for a month or so. Sometimes she would bring a few loaves of bread, or a jug of rye whiskey that her father would sip in the evenings, looking down at the empty fireplace. The padre turned up a time or two, bursting with smiles and proverbs, though her father never shared in the smiling. A few others, hats clasped before them, came to stand in the doorway and talk about the weather, or the prospects of the coming season.
None of the visitors spoke to Bonnie. Bonnie didn’t mind none. There was nothing anyone could say would change the truth of the small plot out back of the house, the rough-hewn cross her father had fashioned with his hatchet. Nothing that would make no difference.
The year turned. The days grew warmer and, as they did, even those few visits became less frequent until they ceased entirely. Bonnie spent the days stacking the firewood her father chopped, stewing the deer he hunted. She felt her mother’s absence as an unending ache. But even so, she had found a kind of happiness. She thought her father did too.
By midsummer, the fields in front of the house were high with corn. Beyond them was a road of clay, hard-packed and red. She had ridden that road with her father a time or two, but only as far as Cooper’s Station for supplies. The road went on past there—through Galliant and Newmire, even all the way to Berentown, her father had said, although Bonnie could not imagine such a distance and did not care to try. She didn’t like the thought of traveling so very far from home.
One morning as Bonnie stood on the porch, hands wrapped around a mug of coffee, she saw a shimmering at the edge of the corn, near the road. Just a heat haze, she thought at first. But she blinked and saw a man, or the shadow of one at least, flickering in and out of view as the wind rippled across the stalks.
He kept his head bowed until he was halfway to the porch. He wore a long black duster that had seen better days, and a wide-brimmed hat. He held his arms out wide to either side of him, so they brushed the corn to either side, as if he were a bird, fresh landed and stretching his wings to catch some last breeze. Soon he was close enough for Bonnie to hear his voice. He was singing, something low and steady. A hymn, perhaps, though she could not make out the words.
The door creaked behind her. “Get yourself inside, Bonnie,” her father said. He held his rifle. There was a strange look on his face. It had a mournful aspect, but there was joy in it too. As if he had been waiting for this day for a long time.
Her father had said she should go inside, but he wasn’t particular clear on closing the door. Bonnie made to peek around the edges of the frame, but her father pulled the door closed. She moved to the window and stood on tiptoe to see.
She couldn’t hear what the man was saying, or what her father said in reply. The man said something, and her father shook his head. The man tried saying something else, but her father’s hand was up in warning.
The man held up a hand of his own and took a couple of steps backwards. Reached a hand to a hidden pocket inside his duster. He pulled out a long envelope and held it out in front of him.
Her father shook his head, but the man kept his arm out, offering the envelope. Her father’s shoulders fell. He took a few shuddering breaths, then reached out and took it.
The man nodded. Then he turned and walked back the way he came, arms once again outstretched to touch the corn on either side.
Bonnie continued to watch him until he reached the road that went to Berenton. He was far away, and she could have imagined it, but later she would remember him turning. Somehow, despite the distance, she could see his eyes as clearly as if he stood right before her. The man touched his finger to the brim of his hat. A farewell, perhaps. Or a signal that he would see her again.
When the man in the black duster was no longer visible beyond the corn, she opened the door.
Her father sat on the porch, his back against the wall, an expression of utmost desolation on his face. The envelope lay torn beside him. He was tapping the paper it had contained against his leg, as if he were keeping time to something sad and slow. Bonnie twisted, trying to make out what might be written on it, what might be the cause of such consternation.
“What does it say?” Bonnie asked.
Her father stared out at the corn so long that Bonnie wondered if he’d heard. “Lies and slander,” he said, in a voice as cracked as the road to Berenton. “Nothing you need to think upon.”
That evening her father placed kindling in the grate, and pulled a match from his tinderbox, though the night was not nearly so cold as to require a fire. When he had coaxed a few pallid flames, he placed the letter and the envelope atop the kindling. Bonnie strained to make out what was written on the paper before it charred and faded to ash.
But as far as she could tell, the paper was empty.
She caught her father staring up at the box on the high shelf next to the fireplace.
Not long after that, the corn began to die. The stalks withered and bowed. Only a few at first. But soon it seemed as if the whole field was hunched over in defeat. Something still grew in them, but it was growing wrong. The ears swelled and split, disgorging fat black and purple kernels like so many rotten teeth. Within a few days, the whole field was dead. Bonnie stood on the porch, looking out at the blackened field. The flattened corn had a waxy, black look to it, like some kind of seaweed.
Bonnie recalled how the man had walked, arms out to brush the corn on either side, and shivered.
The door creaked. Her father stood in the doorway, though he did not step outside. He scanned the ruined crops like a general across a battlefield. Then he closed the door again. He did not leave the house for the rest of the day.
Her father changed after that. He had always been taciturn. But now it was as if he had taken a vow of silence. His hair had always been a deepest black. Over the span of a month, it faded to gray, then a fragile white. The lines around his eyes deepened and stretched out until his face was as creased and cracked as the road to Berenton. It was as if he had aged fifty years.
Bonnie kept to her chores, and a few of her father’s besides. One morning, she took her father’s rifle and went out to see what she could find. Her father watched her from his chair in front of the fire but said nothing. Didn’t say nothing when she returned neither, though she’d bagged a couple of rabbits. He watched while she skinned them and lay them out across the fire to crisp, still not saying a thing. When they were ready, Bonnie put them each on a tin plate and bid her father come to the table. He did, moving slowly. Bonnie took a bite of the first rabbit she’d killed, dressed, and cooked herself and the taste was as sweet as anything. But watching her father picking at his rabbit, eating barely any of it, she soon lost her appetite.
She tried asking him direct, once. Another gray day. How long had it been since the man in the black duster had paid his visit? Normally she’d be able to tell by the rise and fall of the corn in the field, but nothing grew in that black-purple mud now. Hadn’t for years. Bonnie was sure nothing ever would again. Her father was sitting at the table, staring at the wall. “What’s wrong, Daddy?”
He sat a long time before he answered. “Nothing you can help with, Bonnie girl.”
“I could go fetch Ma Renton. Or the padre.”
“Ma can’t do nothing. And the padre—” he closed his eyes momentarily. “Maybe I’ll be seeing him soon enough.”
“Tell me what I can do to help.” Now she was focused on the wall. Her father stared at the same spot. Bonnie heard the quaver in her voice. Hoped her father didn’t hear it too. Suddenly that seemed like the most important thing in the world. Being brave.
Her father shook his head. “I’m fading out. Ain’t nobody can do a thing now. Nothing to be done but let it happen.”
It wasn’t anything she didn’t already know. Still, his voicing of it burned like ice. Breathe, she told herself.
“It’s that man, isn’t it? He did this. Killed Ma. Killed the corn—” She couldn’t say the rest.
Something like a smile played around her father’s lips. “Things been failing for a long time, Bonnie girl. All God’s engines been winding down far before any of us took our first lungful of air and started yelling. No point looking for a cause now.”
“I’ll find him. I’ll kill him.”
He shook his head. “When it’s my time, I want you to go. Far from here. There are still places in this world where things ain’t broken and heartsick. Find one. Grow roots in that place. Build a life. Marry and have a bunch of children. Or not. But live. Live for yourself and celebrate every day God gives you under the sky.”
You’re not dying, daddy. She wanted to say that. Wanted to give him some kind of reassurance.
But it wasn’t true, and she wouldn’t lie to him.
His coughing didn’t wake her. She knew he’d been trying to be as quiet as possible. But she hadn’t been sleeping. Truth be told, she hadn’t slept much for weeks. The night was starless. Bonnie lit a candle. The frost on the window reflected it like fireflies.
Her father’s breathing was heavy and slow. She placed her hand upon his forehead and found it far too cold.
“I’m here,” she said.
“Don’t do it,” he said, slowly, as if every word was tearing something out of him, tossing it up into the sky to be whisked away on the icy December wind. “Don’t try to avenge me. Live your life. Don’t throw it away.”
“I won’t, Daddy.” She lifted his hand and kissed it. Cold, so cold.
“I promise, Daddy.”
He closed his eyes. Nodded. Then he let out a last, long sigh.
She was already up with the first gray shafts of light. Her father had repaired the shovel handle back in the summer. As if he knew she would need it before too long. Her breath misted as she brought the blade down. The frozen earth was reluctant to yield. But by midmorning she had a hole she judged deep enough. She went to fetch the barrow.
When it was all done, she went inside and stacked kindling in the grate. Her hands shook, though from exhaustion, cold or fear, she couldn’t rightly say. But eventually, she coaxed some sparks from the tinderbox and blew a fire into life. There wasn’t much heat in it. But it was enough to take some of the chill out of her hands. She turned them over, staring at the blisters. Bonnie had washed and wrapped her father’s hands. But there was nobody to do the same for her.
She did the best she could.
After a while, she stood and reached for the box on what she still thought of as the high shelf. Not that it was so high anymore. She was grown now, nearly as tall as her father was—had been. She placed the box on the table and opened the lid.
The pistol lay on a bed of red silk. It had been carefully cleaned and oiled before it had been put away, many years ago. Bonnie picked it up and as she did, she felt a chill of betrayal. The grip was dark wood, polished to shining by the sweat of her father’s hands. She checked the cylinder and found it empty. There were six bullets tucked into a fold of silk at the corner of the box.
She had promised her father she wouldn’t avenge him.
She loaded the bullets one by one.
When morning came, she packed a satchel. It didn’t take long. She walked out the back. Stood for a long time in front of the two crosses. She committed it all to memory: the stale smell of last night’s fire, the wide, low plains behind the house. The way the morning light reflected on the frost upon her parents’ graves.
She searched through the house one last time and found her old doll at the bottom of her mother’s chest. This she left next to her mother’s cross. Bonnie had no further use for childish things.
Then she shouldered her satchel and walked between the remains of the dead corn to the road that would take her to Berenton and far beyond.
The road that would take her to the Splintered Man.
Bonnie woke to the sound of laughter, and the smell of frying meat.
The morning sun sliced through the shredded curtains. The beds Eaton and Gosford had used were empty, covers thrown back carelessly.
Conversation drifted up the stairs, along with the sound of cutlery rattling against tin plates.
Bonnie put on her boots, strapped her gun on and peeked around the doorframe.
She made out Gosford’s voice, and Eaton’s. But there was a third person speaking. The voice was familiar. She stepped out onto the landing.
The men had found a table that was not completely beyond repair and dragged it out into the middle of the saloon. They were sitting together, laughing, looking across the remains of coffee and bacon at—it couldn’t be.
“There you are,” King called. “I trust you slept well.”
Bonnie did not move. It was not possible. King could not have survived those beasts yesterday, not alone, not with only Eaton’s rifle, which now leaned against the table.
“There’s plenty left,” Eaton said, pointing to the empty plates. “Mister King found some supplies in one of the houses further up the road.”
She took the stairs slowly, not taking her eyes off the man. There was a thick bandage on his right arm, and a long, red scratch on the side of his face. His right shoulder was at an unnatural angle, nearly at his ear, but given King’s odd posture, this did not seem unusual. He seemed the very picture of health, considering the events of the day before.
King caught her staring and smiled, his teeth crooked and brown. Bonnie found she couldn’t look away from him. It was as if he was staring deep into her, extracting her deepest thoughts, as if she was some book to be read. She was overcome with a feeling of immense space, of untold worlds and time—
A long squeal echoed off the broken mirror above the bar. Eaton, dragging his chair across the floor. “Sit here. There’s fresh coffee brewing.”
The sound shook her out of her strange reverie. Bonnie shook her head, looked across at King again and saw nothing in particular unusual. She walked across the floor and sat.
“I am confused,” she said.
“No more than I was, I assure you,” King said. “When I asked you to leave me, I had every expectation that I was about to die. Not a situation I had intended to find myself in, but given the importance of your mission, I—”
“What mission?” Bonnie asked. She glanced over at Gosford, who winced apologetically.
“We were talking,” Gosford said, “before the—before those things. I did not judge it a danger to tell Mister King of our intention. Indeed, if we were to be traveling companions, it would be best to have no secrets between us.”
And yet I know nothing of the secret between you and Eaton, Bonnie thought.
“So when we saw those things barreling towards us,” King shrugged, the movement making his right shoulder lift even higher, his head to turn. “I have never been a man of courage. But if there was a way to destroy the—” he caught himself on the edge of saying the name, pursed his lips. “To end the one who has destroyed everything we have ever known—well, then. What was my life in comparison to that?”
“But you survived,” Bonnie said. “I do not understand how that could be possible.”
“You and I are in agreement upon that point,” King said. “I stood in the road watching that pack of—of—abominations. I raised the rifle and took aim. Although I am no great marksman, I took one of the stragglers in its side and it fell. I loaded and fired again, and another went down. It had been running so fast that when its legs went out from under it, the thing kept rolling over and over, until it lay still. By the time I had reloaded again, they were almost too close for me to draw on. The first of them closed, wrapped its mouth around my arm.” King touched the bandage on his right arm. “I knew then that I would be dead in no more than a handful of heartbeats. I said one last prayer and—”
King fell silent. He closed his eyes, as if he were reliving the moment.
“Well?” Bonnie said.
King shook his head. “Sorry. A wind started up. Kicked the dust all around me, all around those creatures. It raised itself up so suddenly—I have never seen anything like it. And there was a sound in the wind, a high whistling. And the creatures just—just stopped. Their ears pricked up and then—they raced away, back towards the hills.”
“They just ran away?”
“Just so. Then, just as quickly as it had appeared, the wind died down, and I was alone. I thought about taking a few shots at their backs, but I confess I was shaking something fierce and,” he raised his bandaged arm again. “I sat there for a long time, while I waited for my trembling to subside. When I felt well enough, I stood and walked, following the road.”
“And here you are,” Bonnie said. She didn’t believe a word of King’s story. A sudden wind? A mysterious whistle?
“And here I am,” King said. That too-crooked smile again.
Gosford pushed the last of a heel of bread around his plate, sopping up what remained of beans and eggs, put the soggy mess into his mouth, then licked the last of the brown and yellow mess from his fingers.
Eaton placed a pot on the table. And despite everything, the smell of the freshly brewed coffee and bacon just the good side of burned tempted her fiercely.
“You continue east today?” King asked.
“We do,” Bonnie said, again cursing the wayward tongues of her traveling companions. “And you? North to—where was it? Bostoke?”
King nodded. “I will be turning north eventual. But I would like to travel on with you for a little while longer, if you’d have me.”
Bonnie looked at Gosford and Eaton, found both men looking back at her. Gosford tilted his head slightly, indicating his willingness. Eaton looked down into his coffee, which Bonnie took as the same thing. Two against one. Well then.
“Of course,” Bonnie said, hating the words as they left her mouth.
King abruptly stood up from the table. “There is a barn a short walk over yonder. I heard a sound when I arrived earlier. Might could be a mount back there. If it is agreeable, I would like to investigate before we head out.”
“I will come too,” Gosford said, rising.
King motioned for him to sit again. “No, friend. Either there’ll be horses or not, but I don’t anticipate any difficulty. Rest up. Have another coffee.” He left before anyone else decided to follow.
Gosford shrugged and sipped his coffee.
They had led the horses out of the storeroom and were preparing to saddle up by the time King returned. He walked up the middle of the street, leading a mount that looked nearly as misshapen as himself. It had a spare, scraggly mane and there were more than a few bare patches on its hide. But it seemed to be walking straight, and the saddle it wore looked nearly new.
King grinned. “He was in the barn. Looks well-fed and ready for a journey.”
Gosford smiled. “Well, that is certainly a stroke of luck.”
Bonnie thought the horse looked in no way healthy. And she would be very surprised if luck had anything to do with King finding even this pitiful example. But she said nothing of the sort to the others.
The four of them left the town. Before too long, it was lost from view. The line of mountains was no longer visible. There was still a path of sorts, but it was a pitiful thing, barely more than a slightly trampled spot marked out across the cracked earth. Soon the path became white once more. The horses’ hooves crunched on—whatever it was. Shells, bones. Bonnie couldn’t be sure.
They made good time, at least as far as it was possible to tell in such a featureless landscape. As before, Bonnie rode out in front. The others trailed behind, spaced out in an arrowhead to either side of the white trail.
Bonnie stared out at the arid earth. The cracks were wide and deep, as if the whole place had been dropped from a great height and shattered. Which made a certain amount of sense. She wasn’t sure that they were in the Splintered Man’s lands yet, not exactly. Perhaps they were in some intermediate place, not claimed by anyone, but traveled by all. She wanted to take out the map and see if she could find any clues in her surroundings. But she didn’t think King was aware of the map. If so, she intended to keep it that way.
After a while she heard hoof fall behind her. It was King, alone. The others remained back.
“You’ve come a long way,” he called. “And there’s a good long way to go still, I reckon.”
Bonnie said nothing. King nudged his horse until they rode level.
“You don’t trust me,” King said.
“I do not.”
King shrugged. “I thank you for your honesty. And it is an understandable position. We have not yet had a chance to talk proper. I am sure if we did you—”
“We have nothing to talk about. Except perhaps when you intend to turn northward.”
King fell silent but did not fall back. What was it about this man that vexed her so? He was strangely built, crooked as a half-collapsed barn. For a moment, Bonnie mistrusted her own mind. Was she so petty as to let an awkward appearance affect her opinion? No. No, there was something else, something about the light behind his eyes, the crooked curve of his gap-tooted smile.
“Why are you out here, really?” King said, his voice no more than a whisper. “Out at the end of everything, a lifetime away from home. For what? Just for revenge on one man?”
“He is no ordinary man. He has broken everything. He sucks the marrow from the world. He takes it all.” She had not intended to speak. But the words tumbled out, seemingly of their own volition.
“I agree that these are lean and harrowed times. The world is dry and empty as a husk. But surely you cannot lay this condition at the feet of just one man. No matter what powers he has at his command, I do not see how one man could do all this.”
“You disbelieve your own eyes? You disbelieve your history? Your memories?”
King shook his head. “I do not know what you mean. But my memories are not yours. Perhaps if you tell me your story, I could—”
“As you wish,” King said.
For a while, they fell again to silence.
“Ah, but what does it matter, anyway?” King said. “What’s done is done. The river of time does not flow backwards. Even if you succeed, what have you gained apart from vengeance? What have you added to the world but one more death?”
“I will have added his death,” Bonnie said in a growl. “And that is a great deal indeed.”
King opened his mouth to say something else, but Bonnie raised her hand. “Enough.” She spurred her horse to a gallop and left him in her dust.
In the latter half of the afternoon, Bonnie came upon the remains of another town. Even when it had been alive, it must have been a small, ill-fortuned place. Now there was barely anything left. A single wall still stood, with the barest corner of a room still attached. Apart from that, it was bones and echoes, nothing to show where buildings had been apart from shallow indentations in the earth. In what must have been the center of the place was a well, sitting in a drift of its own shattered bricks.
The others were visible as smudges on the horizon. Bonnie pulled Blind Coates’ map from her pocket. Her fingertip ran along the line of the nameless road, settled on a spot that could have been deliberate. If she had it aright, this might be the last remnant of what had once been. If she had it aright, they would find the Iron River across their path tomorrow.
If she had it aright.
She climbed down from her horse and waited for the others.
A bucket lay next to the well and a serviceable rope. Bonnie lowered the bucket into the well. But when she pulled up the rope, the water there was greenish-yellow cast to it, and the surface had a sheen like oil. She sniffed and recoiled at the rotting smell. Perhaps something had crawled in and died, or perhaps the water had been poisoned deliberate. She tipped the water out.
A poisoned well was a dangerous thing. There were few enough people abroad in the world these days, but even so, someone could stumble upon it. She should smash the bucket to protect any other travelers. She picked up one of the bricks, fully intending to hammer it apart. But at the last moment, she hesitated. Hiding it would be enough. She covered both rope and bucket with some of the broken bricks.
The others arrived not long afterwards. “There’s no water,” she called when they pulled up to the other side of the well. “None you’d want to drink, at least.”
Eaton nodded stoically. Gosford looked nervously at the well, as if he was figuring his chances despite Bonnie’s words.
“Are we stopping here?” Rough as King’s horse had looked when he saddled up, it was in a far worse condition now. It panted, head down, sides speckled with sweat dried to salt. Bonnie had been riding ahead and so hadn’t paid attention, but she was surprised one of the others hadn’t told her that King seemed determined to ride the beast into the ground.
“Stopping for the night,” Bonnie nodded.
Gosford leaned over the lip of the well and peered down into the dark. “That water looks good to me,” he said.
“It’s not. I checked.”
Gosford shot her an odd look. It took Bonnie a few breaths to puzzle it out. He mistrusted her.
“Perhaps I should check.”
Bonnie felt the disbelief in his voice like a knife. She shrugged. “Do what you want.” She walked towards the wall to see if there was anything useful to be found. She could feel Gosford’s eyes on her as she walked away, but refused to turn around.
It was King. Had to be. He’d been riding with the two of them, dripping poison into their ears as they rode. Turning Gosford against her. Eaton too, she was certain, though he kept his thoughts from his face.
A trunk sat in the wall’s shadow. The leather straps across its curved top were dusted and worn, but the box itself still seemed sturdy. There was an odd familiarity about the thing—her mother had owned one similar.
It had rested at the bottom of her bed. Bonnie lifted the latch and slowly raised the lid. Inside were sheets, carefully folded and miraculously white. And lying on top of them, a rag doll.
Bonnie blinked, not believing her eyes. This was not just any rag doll. She was sure in her very soul that this was hers. The very same one she had played with when the world was still unfractured. The same one she had left atop her mother’s grave.
She reached a trembling hand towards the doll, but at the last moment, she halted. No. This wasn’t right. Couldn’t be. She pulled her hand back. Just as she did, the lid of the trunk closed with a bang. Bonnie stumbled backward, landing in the sand that drifted across the boards.
The sound caught Eaton’s ear. “Everything okay?”
“Fine,” Bonnie called back, still sitting on the fragment of floor. She could not take her eyes from the trunk. Her right hand tingled. She had caught it at a strange angle when she fell. She shook it, trying to relieve the feeling.
Gosford had found the bucket. He was painstakingly checking the knot around the handle and every length of the rope.
Bonnie raised herself to her knees and reached once more for the latch. Her hand trembled as she raised the lid. She had to know.
Apart from a few drifts of sand in the corners, the chest was empty.
Gosford lowered the bucket into the well. He pulled it back out full, water streaming over the side with a sound that made Bonnie’s heart ache. He sniffed at it, then took a cautious sip. Then he began to guzzle it, raising the bucket nearly above his head. Water ran down his cheeks, down the side of his neck, marking his preacher’s gear even darker as layers of dirt sloughed off. Finally, he upended the bucket and poured what remained over his head. He whooped in absolute joy. “Praise Jesus! Praise the saints!”
Water still dripping from his clothes, Gosford lowered and raised the bucket again. He offered it to Eaton, who reacted in much the same way as Gosford, excepting the praising. King, too, drank, making odd grunting noises as he slurped.
There was a trough next to the remains of a store not far away. Eaton refilled the bucket several more times and filled the trough. The horses sniffed as they caught scent of the water. Soon all of them, even Bonnie’s own, had their heads lowered, drinking.
It made no sense. Bonnie had smelled the rotting reek of the water, had seen the oily sheen on its surface. Had it been an illusion, another trick by the Splintered Man?
Eaton walked over to where she still crouched. He set the full bucket at his feet.
“We have been riding under the sun a good long time. You should drink.”
Bonnie looked into Eaton’s eyes, searching for some sign of what he was thinking. Eaton’s expression remained unreadable.
But he was right.
She lifted the bucket to her lips, sniffed, and began to drink. The water was good and pure and as she drank. She had a feeling of aching loss.
Eaton scavenged up some twigs and scrub to start a fire. He found a few chairs stacked in a pile and broke them up. Why was it always chairs, Bonnie wondered? When the people who had once lived here had left, surely it had been a hurried affair. They might have been fleeing for their lives. But here, just as before, someone had thought to stack up the chairs. If it was an attempt to protect them from sand and dust, it was doomed to fail. Eaton stamped down on chair leg after chair leg. They broke with a crunch.
Gosford went into the saddlebags of his horse and returned with bacon wrapped in waxed paper. “There isn’t much,” he said. “But it should do for the four of us.”
“Three,” King called. He sat in the shade with his back against the well. “I will have none, though I thank you for the consideration.”
“Are you well?” Gosford asked. “I do not recall you eating in all the time you have been with us. I would not want you to waste away to bones.”
King smiled. “And yet do not we all, in the end?” Gosford made to say something else, but King waved whatever it was away. “Do not worry, friend. I have a few small provisions with me. And I have a slight appetite in any case.”
Eaton built a large fire, too big for cooking. But they were grateful for it as the sun dropped below the horizon. There was a chill in the air that Bonnie had not noticed in the last few nights. The three of them sat close to the fire, enjoying the heat until it had burned down enough for Gosford’s bacon. King remained leaning against the wall. Soon the shade turned to darkness and only the sound of his voice gave clue that he was still there. “It might be good perhaps,” he said, “to pass the time with a story or two. I would be keen to know more about my new companions.”
“I would rather hear more about you,” Bonnie said. “You said you knew a man a few days north. Well, you have traveled with us a few days now and we have surely taken you farther away from him. Why are you still with us?”
Gosford looked at Bonnie as if she had walked over to King and slapped him. “Miss Murtaugh! Why would you say such a thing? There is no need for such—”
Bonnie turned towards Gosford. “But you heard him, did you not? When he first stumbled upon us. You knew a man. Small farm still running. Small but determined ponies, wasn’t it?”
King said nothing. Only the slightest edge of his face was visible, like a blade in the moonlight.
Eaton coughed. “I—I do not recall that.”
Gosford looked as if he were reckoning a heavy sum. “Nor I. A farm north—surely not. There hasn’t been anyone up north for years. Not since—” his voice trailed off.
Bonnie looked from one to the other, not believing what she had heard. “He said so! Surely you must remember! We were sitting by the fire, and—”
“You are tired,” Gosford said. “We all are. Perhaps we should eat quickly and turn in. It is—”
“No!” Bonnie was on her feet, though she did not recall standing. “He has twisted you! He has taken the truth from you and given you lies in its place. He is the—”
“That’s enough now, Bonnie.” Eaton was standing now too. “Gosford is right. We are all tired. Put your gun down.”
Bonnie stared in disbelief at her own right hand. She had drawn her pistol, was even now aiming it at the gap in the darkness where King would be.
Eaton reached out slowly, placed his hand gently on Bonnie’s shoulder. “You are hungry. You are tired. Let us look after you. Sit down.”
King leaned forward a little and the moon caught more of his face. His crooked grin and his wide, watering eyes.
“No!” Bonnie pushed Eaton’s hand away and took a few steps backward. Took a few more. “No!” She turned and ran, no thought of where she might be going.
“Bonnie!” Eaton called.
Then she heard another voice. King, speaking low. “Let her go.”
She ran out into the night until her lungs burned, and her legs would not take her further.
Above, unknown stars whirled in unfamiliar patterns.
There had been a moon before, but it was lost to her now. Unfamiliar stars illuminated the land below, but without the moon Bonnie had no way of telling how far she had traveled, or much time had passed.
She wiped her palm across her face again. She had no memory of crying. But there was dried salt on her cheeks.
King’s poison had seeped into both men’s minds. Wormed its way right into the very root of them. There was nothing she could do to shake them out of his sway, not now. That he was a servant of the Splintered Man, she had no doubt. But that was all he was. No more than a lieutenant. She would not let his lies bother her.
She pulled Blind Coates’ map from her pocket and carefully unfolded it. Peered at the lines in the starlight. Walked her finger once more along the line, the one she was sure they had followed. “This map lies, girl,” Blind Coates had said before he’d handed it to her. “But now and then it tells the truth, too.”
She would go on without them. She would be at the Iron River tomorrow, or the day after that at the latest. She would cross over, into the deepest part of the Splintered Man’s territory.
She pulled her father’s pistol from her holster and opened the chamber. Only two bullets remained. Oh, she could have had more. Eaton carried two pistols and was well-provisioned. He would have given her as much ammunition as she wanted.
Once, perhaps. But not now.
She dropped the bullets into her open hand and pushed them around the lines of her palm. She wouldn’t have taken Eaton’s bullets in any case. These two were the last of her father’s bullets. And when the time came, she would lift her father’s pistol and fire his last bullets into the Splintered Man’s head and heart. Her father’s vengeance, along with her own.
A breeze started up. It picked up a few twigs of a tree, long dead and sun-bleached white. They rolled across her path, rattling like a procession of the dead.
It stung, the way her traveling companions had betrayed her so. She had thought them to be stronger. Thought at least that their hatred for the Splintered Man would hold them to their mission. Had Eaton gambled away the farm, or was it Gosford? Had it been Gosford’s wife, Eaton’s sister? Or the other way round? Had it been a sickness or some misfortune that had taken her? It didn’t matter, she supposed. Whatever scars had been laid upon those men’s lives, there was no one to blame except that one. The one behind all the desolation of the world.
The one whose servant was sitting with them, even now.
She stopped walking.
They didn’t know. Though they had embarked upon this enterprise with her, though they knew exactly what the Splintered Man was capable of, still they had opened their company to King and his crooked smile.
They knew. But they didn’t know.
Bonnie rolled the bullets around in her palm a little longer. Each had an odd symbol engraved upon it, though none were alike. She had puzzled over them many times, trying to imagine what they might mean. But if she stared at them too long, her eyes started to hurt.
Bonnie loaded the bullets back into the chamber. She didn’t think of turning around. But still her feet turned.
They didn’t know.
But she did.
She’d make them see the truth of things.
She walked, and there was nothing but the empty plain. Until, suddenly, she stood at the edge of the ruined town.
The fire had burned low, but had not yet gone out. Bonnie saw the glow and caught her breath. The scant light illuminated the well and the single remaining wall of the building. But what would have happened if it had been extinguished entirely? Would she have walked past and just kept wandering, lost, until the sun rose?
You’re missing things, Bonnie girl.
No. She shook her head and took a few steps backwards. Immediately, the fire, the whole ruined town, faded from view. She stepped forward and it was all visible once more. She wasn’t missing things. This was just another example of the Splintered Man’s trickery.
There were shadows on the ground. One of the men was lying some distance from the fire. Gosford, she thought, from his shape, but she was too far away to be certain. Eaton would be on the other side of the fire then, and King—
Something moved across the face of the fire. What it was Bonnie couldn’t tell, but she saw enough to know it wasn’t right. It was taller than a man, with long, thin arms like poles. Its head was oddly elongated, with a jaw that jutted well clear of its snout-like nose.
It looked like some unholy mixture of a bat and a locust, though it had no wings. It was thin-limbed and sharp-jointed, and its carapace had a purple-black sheen.
Bonnie crouched down, hoping she hadn’t been noticed.
Fear lodged itself in her heart, so strong and sudden it made her gasp. But she shook her head and the feeling lessened, just a little. She pulled her father’s pistol from its holster and crept forward as quietly as she could.
She was close enough now to see it was Gosford who lay closest to her. He was not snoring as he had in the past. Was he breathing? The dying fire played light and shadow over him, making it impossible to tell.
She saw movement on the other side of the fire. Eaton lay on his side. The creature leaned over him, head low, as if it were whispering something. Something was passing between the two, some long, silvered thread which ran from the creature’s mouth to Eaton’s ear. Eaton had a look on his face of utter despair. Though he made no sound, his mouth was open in a wordless moan.
Bonnie stood and cocked the pistol. The creature straightened somewhat and looked towards her. Even from here, she could see the teeth gleaming in the moonlight. Multiple rows of teeth, arrayed behind each other like an invading army.
Wrapped in a crooked smile.
“You came back,” it said in what was near King’s voice.
The creature unfolded slowly. It towered over her. Bonnie took a few steps forward and raised the pistol. “Get away from him”.
It took several steps towards her. Bonnie suddenly understood. This was King, but his true form. This was why his other form had been oddly misshapen. It had been trying to hold a monster in. She saw something draped around its shining shoulders. Fragments of skin, torn like rotten cloth. There was more such around its lower limbs. King had split open like a seedpod. Like an ear of cursed corn.
“You’re braver than I thought. Not that it matters.”
“What have you done to them?”
Suddenly there were images in Bonnie’s head: a rainbow of shimmering colors, formed not from light but from darkness; a spider, fangs extended, poisoning a rat; the rat, dead, on a desert plain—
Some small, faraway part of her was aware of King as he crept closer. But she stayed where she was, lost in the images he projected into her head.
The rat’s skin, shaking, something moving beneath its fur; the whole thing collapsing as thousands of purple-skinned maggots burst through and devour both the carcass and each other; those few maggots remaining changing, growing shining wings and spindled legs; the remains of the rat, desolate, an unknown constellation reflected in its blind eye; and beyond the stars those same shifting colors, like oil in blood.
A log cracked in the fire with a sound like a gunshot. It was enough. Bonnie blinked and shook her head. The images faded away.
King was directly in front of her. She had lowered the pistol as he had walked towards her, though she had no memory of doing it. She raised it again.
“You won’t shoot me, girl.”
Even as he said it, Bonnie felt an ache in her right hand. It was as if there were a hot needle inside her bones, forcing her finger away from the trigger. She had felt such cramping before, but never so intense as this. Within a handful of heartbeats, the pain was nearly too much to bear.
No. She refused to let the pain distract her. Bonnie took a deep breath and pulled the trigger.
The gunshot split the sky. For the briefest moment, Bonnie could have sworn it was full daylight. But no sooner had she thought this than the vision faded again and she was shrouded in darkness.
There was a hole in the center of what passed for King’s forehead, shining as if a star had fallen from the sky to alight on him. Silver strands emerged from the wound, reaching out and up.
King’s smile somehow became even wider, and for a moment Bonnie wondered if she would fall into that forest of teeth and keep falling forever. She had a flash of the broken mirror’s vision once more, pieces of an immeasurable cliff face falling into the sea—
Then King’s body fell backwards and landed in the dust.
The silver strands that had escaped King’s wound rose into the sky. They circled the fire, as if searching for something. One darted down towards Gosford. Another speared through Eaton’s skull. Then the rest of them soared upwards until Bonnie could no longer see them.
There was silence, except for the crackling of the fire and her own ragged breathing. Her finger had cramped up around the pistol’s trigger. Bonnie pulled the weapon free with her left hand and holstered it. She tried to rub the ache out of her right palm.
A sound came from her right. A sudden, barking cough. She was certain Gosford hadn’t been breathing before. But his chest was rising and falling now. His familiar snore reached her ears. She crouched next to him. He seemed to be in a deep sleep, completely unharmed as far as she could tell. Bonnie walked around the other side of the fire and found Eaton in the same condition. She wondered if she should wake them, but decided against it. She didn’t know what it was King had been pulling from them, or what the effects might be. If they had managed to sleep through everything that had happened, perhaps it was best to leave them so.
Eaton had some rope strung over his saddle. Bonnie went to retrieve it. King was dead, she was sure of that. But even so, she thought it might be best if he were secured in some way.
But when she returned to the other side of the fire, he was gone. There was no sign of the monster’s body.
Sleep eventually came. But it was thin and bitter, and riven with sour dreams. Bonnie abandoned the attempt before dawn.
When it was light enough, she looked for any sign of King’s departure, but found none. No footprints, no trail where he might have dragged himself away. King’s horse, too, was gone. Had it just been some illusion he had created, or some weird extension of him?
Gosford woke, sitting up suddenly with a loud snort. For a few moments he stared about, blinking, as if he had utterly forgotten who he was and what he was doing out in the middle of nowhere.
Bonnie coaxed the fire into life and started preparing coffee. A few minutes later Eaton sat up, nearly as suddenly as Gosford had, though his expression changed from confused back to his usual stoicism far more quickly.
“I had—such dreams,” Gosford said, unconsciously smoothing his hair across his forehead. “Things I would not speak aloud.”
“Then stay silent,” Eaton said, a deep tremble in his voice.
They found the Iron River late in the afternoon.
All day they had been crossing downward-sloping plains, covered with a layer of bitter plants, so closely packed and with leaves so sharp that the horses needed to pick their way carefully. Every few minutes, the ground would drop a little further. Their descent was not particularly noticeable while it was happening, but every time Bonnie looked backwards, it was as if they were at the bottom of a massive set of stairs. She had never seen plants like this before, but whatever they were, they did not seem to require much in the way of moisture. Apart from the traitor well they hadn’t seen running water for three days now.
Her right hand still throbbed, a dull ache that worsened over the day, no matter how loosely she grasped her horse’s reins. She had taken to stretching her fingers out against her thigh, which seemed to bring some relief, but only a little. The effect seemed to disappear a little faster every time.
The three of them traveled silently, Bonnie in the center of the white road, with Eaton on her left side, Gosford on her right. Whatever softening King had accomplished in the men’s relationship had hardened once more. The image of the creature King had become kept rising up in her mind.
You won’t shoot me, girl.
“But I did,” she said aloud, though she couldn’t shake the feeling that she hadn’t achieved much, except waste another of her father’s bullets. Only one remained. She couldn’t shoot the Splintered Man in both his head and his heart now. She would have to choose.
Eaton coaxed his horse a little closer. “I—I owe you an apology. We both do, though I doubt you’ll get one from him.” He angled his head in Gosford’s direction. “Still, I am sorry. Thank you for saving us.”
Bonnie shrugged. “The Splintered Man is exceedingly subtle. It follows that his servants would be likewise. I could have fallen under his spell just as easily as you did. Had that happened, I’m sure you would have done the same.”
“That’s kind to say. But I worry you flatter me. I did not see King for what he was. Who’s to say I won’t fall for such trickery again?”
Bonnie wanted to say something to reassure him, but could not find the words. Eaton was right, after all.
“In any case, I thank you.” Eaton touched the brim of his hat and guided his horse a little distance away, no doubt wanting to be alone with his thoughts.
She pulled her canteen from her belt again and gave it a shake. The rattle sounded like there was no more than a swallow left, if that. She had not refilled it from the well. She clipped the canteen back again without drinking.
“There,” Gosford said, his voice little more than a croak.
Bonnie squinted, trying to see what Gosford’s trembling arm was pointing at. Not far ahead, the bed of plants thinned, spreading out before finally fading, leaving nothing but bare ground. And not too far further on, a thin line of something sparkling in the sun.
Any number of dangers past Desolation Cut, child, Blind Coates had said. But once you reach the Iron River, ah, then you’re deep in the Splintered Man’s realm.
Once free of the plants, the horses could move at a faster pace. But they did not. It was as if none of them, neither horses nor riders, wanted to reach the sparkling line at the bottom of the valley, or the littered plain that lay between the riders and here.
A field of bones stretched from one side of the horizon to the other, as if they had been left by some vast receding tide. Skulls of horses and cattle sat side by side; racks of ribs were stacked in piles as if kindling for some unthinkable fire. There was no discernable order to it. More than a few human bones were mixed amidst the beasts. There were other, larger skulls as well, creatures Bonnie had no name for.
Beyond the black shining line, a hill rose. It was low, but still the highest point before the horizon. It was odd to see such a thing upon such a flat plain.
“The Hand of the Lord was upon me,” Gosford said, “and he brought me out by the Spirit of the Lord and set me in the middle of a valley. It was full of bones. He led me back and forth among them, and I saw a great many bones on the floor of the valley, bones that were very dry. He asked me, ‘Son of man, can these bones live?’”
“Shut your damn mouth,” Eaton said.
Gosford said no more.
The horses picked their way carefully around the bones, although now and then a hoof would crunch through a skull or femur. The bones were bleached pure white and there was no trace of meat left upon them. Not that Bonnie had seen any carrion. The ice-blue sky was empty and infinite.
When Bonnie’s eyes finally made sense of the dark, shining line beyond the beach of bones, she reined in her horse. Began to laugh. A low sound that made Gosford raise his eyebrows.
“The Iron River,” she said, and laughed again.
The riverbed was as dry as the bones surrounding it. No water had flowed between those banks for an eternity. In its place there were firearms: an almost impossible number of rifles, carbines and revolvers. While most seemed of familiar type, there were a few with shapes Bonnie had never seen before. Directly ahead of her, a rifle had been stuck barrel-down into the sand, a deep and disconcerting pattern carved into its stock displayed as if it were a warning.
“All the bones,” Eaton said. “All the guns.”
Gosford nodded. “All the instruments of death and their busywork. Here at the end of everything.” He turned to Bonnie. “So what now?”
“This is not the end of everything,” Bonnie said, with more certainty than she felt. “This is the right track. We go on.”
Off to their left came a clatter. All three turned their heads to see a collapsed stack of bones, surrounded by a cloud of white-gray dust, which, as it cleared, revealed a man.
He was so thin it was as if he were not much more than a skeleton himself. He might have been wearing jeans and a shirt, or military dress—he was covered top to toe with bonedust, making it impossible to tell. He appeared to carry no weapon, which Bonnie counted as fortunate. Camouflaged like that, he could have crept up upon them and slit their throats before anyone had noticed. You’re getting old, Bonnie Murtaugh, she thought. Old and slow.
The man raised an ancient hand and pointed at them with gnarled fingers. “You cannot cross. Not armed.”
It was Eaton who recovered his wits first. “What do you mean, man? Cross what?”
The man crept closer, his bare feet sliding over rock and bone as easily as a rug. “The river will take your weapons and keep them safe. Will return them too, if you chance to come back this way. But if you keep them with you, you cannot cross over.”
“You rave, sir,” Gosford said, licking his lips.
Bonnie climbed down from her horse and took a few steps towards the river of weapons.
“You cannot cross,” the man said, agitated.
“Who are you?” Bonnie asked.
“I am The Message. And I bring The Message. And the message is you cannot cross. Not with your weapons.”
“You are The Message that brings The Message?” Gosford snorted. “What kind of nonsense is that? Why should we believe you? How long have you been here?”
The Message shrugged. “I cannot say. Time is wounded. It starts and stops like a broken watch. But you should believe me because I speak from experience. When I arrived here, I carried no pistol. Only an old and rusted knife. When I saw such bounteous weaponry, I immediately assumed it was some kind of trap. So, I stepped carefully across, finding what few footholds I could where I would not have to touch a single one. But still I anticipated danger. I drew my knife and held it before me.” He raised his right arm. The end of his sleeve was knotted, but he loosened this with a twist of his left hand. The sleeve fell away, revealing a stump. The skin where his wrist should have been was pock-marked and rainbow-tinted. It had the look of rancid meat.
Gosford snorted. “As illusions go, it’s a good one. I’ll grant you that.” He climbed down from his horse and began to walk forward. “But surely you do not expect us to believe such nonsense. I am a man of faith.”
Quick as lightning, Eaton jumped down from his horse and ran at Gosford, grabbing for his yellow scarf. The two of them fell backwards, kicking up a fresh cloud of bone dust.
“Get your hands off me, sir!” Gosford said. “How dare you!”
Bonnie crouched down and reached out towards the river. The man called The Message flinched. She picked up the nearest weapon she could reach. A pistol of some kind. The barrel was decorated with elaborate filigree. Words were written along one side, although it was in no language she knew. She stood and, with a fluid motion, threw the pistol as high and far as she could. The pistol arced across the river, spinning end over end. Twenty feet past the river, just as the curve of its flight began to descend, there was a flash and a loud boom. Rainbow ripples spread out from the point where the gun had been, as if a pool of oil-tainted water had been disturbed. Then a deep silence. There was no sign of the pistol.
“Sorcery!” Gosford exclaimed, crossing himself. Then he turned to Eaton. “I would have been destroyed. You saved me.”
Eaton stood and held his hand out to Gosford. “You die when I say. Not before.”
“You can cross through the barrier safe as a babe in his mother’s arms,” The Message said. “But only if you surrender your weapons.”
“And then we walk into the Splintered Man’s realm with nothing to defend ourselves?” Eaton snorted. “What fools do you take us for?”
The Message shrugged. “I take you as nothing at all. I am The Message. I bring The Message. That is all.”
Bonnie took a closer look at the man. He was thin, ancient. But rough as he might appear, there was a stubborn solidness about him. He stood straight and confident. Whole. It was possible the Message was another one of the Splintered Man’s servants. But she didn’t reckon so.
Bonnie stared at the other side of the Iron River. In the heartbeat between the pistol hitting the barrier and the flash as it was destroyed, she thought she had made out the barrier’s shape. A perfect dome, like a soap bubble half-submerged in the sand. There might be a way around the edge of the thing if they could determine where the edge exactly was. Or they could walk forever and find nothing. She shook her head. What if they succeeded? What then? They’d just be on the other side of where they needed to be.
She loosened the buckle of her gun belt.
“What are you doing?” Eaton called. “Surely you don’t mean to go on?”
Bonnie turned to face the men. “What other option do I have?”
“That is your father’s gun,” Gosford said. “The one you swore you would use to destroy the Spl—” He caught himself, unable, even now, to say his name. “To kill him.”
“If it is a choice between keeping the gun and getting to the man, then I choose the man.” Bonnie released the buckle. Her gun belt clattered to the ground. “You are both free to make your own decisions.” She turned and led her horse into the river, kicking at the weapons to find safer footing.
Eaton pulled his repeater from the saddle holster and laid it carefully next to Bonnie’s gun. Then he unbuckled his own gun belt. He stood, grabbed the reins of his own horse and nodded at Bonnie. Bonnie nodded back.
“What should we do with the horses?” Eaton asked.
“Leave them.” Bonnie said.
“There’s no grass. No water. We can’t tether them anywhere.”
“Then let them wander free. If there’s anything that can sustain them, they’ll find it. Whatever is on the other side of that barrier is ours to face. They need not suffer our fate.”
The look on Eaton’s face suggested he disagreed. Still, he began unbuckling his horse’s saddle.
“I’ll keep them safe,” The Message said.
Eaton lay the saddle on the ground. “Touch them and I’ll make your left arm match your right.”
The Message grinned as if this were the funniest thing he’d ever heard.
“Hold,” Gosford called when Bonnie and Eaton were half-way across. They turned. “We should mark the spot. In the event we are successful.” Gosford had picked up a bone, something that looked almost like a human femur, but much larger. He pushed and twisted it into the ground next to the others’ guns until it looked like it would stand. Then he removed the yellow scarf from around his neck and tied it around the end of the bone.
“You carry no gun,” Bonnie said.
“True.” Gosford began tapping at his waist, his shoulders, his boots. From every point he pulled knives, silver-edged things that looked sharp enough to slice the wind. Bonnie lost count of how many he pulled from hidden folds in his clothing, but by the time he was done, there was an impressive pile of blades for stabbing, slicing and throwing collected around the yellow scarf-wrapped bone. Gosford tapped himself a few more times, checking that he hadn’t missed any.
Bonnie and Eaton looked at each other. “Did you know?” Bonnie asked.
Eaton shook his head. “That bastard is full of surprises.”
One step away from the other side of the river, they stopped. Eaton turned. The Message was crouched behind a pile of skulls, as if he expected an explosion. “Hey,” Eaton called. “Has anyone ever returned this way?”
The Message smiled, though there was no joy in it. “There’s always a first time.”
Bonnie took a deep breath. Then, as one, they stepped across the river.
There was no flash, no sensation at all. But between one heartbeat and the next, the raising of one foot and setting it down again, the world had changed utterly.
The low hill was directly in front, but besides that—
Bonnie turned. Where the Iron River and the beach of bones had been just a moment ago, now there was nothing but a broad plain of yellow grass.
Her first thought was of the horses. She had been wrong. They could have crossed through with them, left them here while they finished their task.
She took a few steps back in the direction she had come. But even as she did, she had the certainty that the barrier was no longer there. That she could walk a week in the direction she had come and be no closer to the Iron River. The horses would have to wait or walk away as they pleased.
Only now did she realize there was no sign of either Gosford or Eaton. She was alone.
Bonnie smiled and nodded to herself. She should have known. This was the Splintered Man’s realm, after all. And with the same certainty with which she knew there was no barrier, she understood that she was deep in that realm now, nearly at the living heart of the whole damn thing. From here, from the end, was all so obvious. Her father, her mother before that, all the lands crossed beyond horizons—her life had been splintering into smaller and smaller pieces with every setting sun. Of course, she would find herself alone at the end of all things. Just her and, somewhere near, she knew, the target of her vengeance.
Bonnie reached down to her hips, forgetting for a moment that her gun lay in the Iron River, an unknowable distance away. She balled her hands into fists and walked towards the hill.
The grass was dry and yellow, the earth below it flecked with wide cracks. The feeling of the grass against her legs seemed odd to her. It was an anti-ocean, a place that might have seen barely any moisture for a thousand years. As she neared the hill, she saw it was covered in the same grass. For a second, she had a vision of the Splintered Man, walking through the corn. She reached out and brushed the tops of the grass as she walked. Perhaps her touch here would have the same effect.
She stopped when she crested the hill. The plain continued on the other side, so featureless it hurt her eyes just to look at it. There was a building down near the bottom of the slope: a log cabin. An impossibility—how could a log cabin exist here, where no trees grew? But Bonnie had stopped trying to find the logic in her situation. The door was closed, but a thin line of smoke trailed from a small stone chimney.
She climbed the three steps to the front door. The porch creaked under her feet. She did not knock.
The single room was nearly bare. A small table in the center of the room, an old cot in one corner, a larger double bed in the opposite corner.
It wasn’t the same, not exactly. There was no rug on the floor beneath the table. Only a single window, a small one, next to the door she had just passed through. No window on the opposite wall. But it was so very close to the place where she had been born and spent a few happy years with her parents before everything went sour. It was as if her house had been recreated by a talented artist who had heard the place described but never visited. Perhaps one who had stood outside it, but never entered.
There was one other difference. A door on the far wall next to the fireplace, where the shelf with her father’s gun should have been. Bonnie crossed the room and opened the door.
And stepped into a street.
Of a town, and a large one, the size of Berenton at least.
Bonnie did not bother to turn around. She knew the cabin would be gone. Another splinter.
She stood in the middle of the main street. The earth beneath her feet was rutted with the recent passage of carriages. From behind her came the sound of a hammer ringing against heated metal, horseshoes being made.
And there were people—a man in a black suit and a string tie strolled the boardwalk in front of the hardware store to her left. Further up the road on the same side was someone else. From the large black book he held to his chest, she judged this one a preacher. On the other side of the street, a woman in a blue dress walked, her parasol spinning between her fingers. None of these people so much as looked at her.
“Hey!” Bonnie called, waving her hands. “Hey!”
Nobody acknowledged her.
Bonnie walked over and stood directly in front of the woman in the blue dress.
The woman stopped a couple of paces away. Her head was bowed, and her parasol shaded her face, making it hard to see her.
“You have to see me,” Bonnie said. “Look at me!”
The woman slowly lifted her gaze. She was grinning, her lips pressed close together, but there was an odd look to it, as if she had no choice in the matter. And her eyes were a pale milky blue, almost the exact color of the sky. It was an unnerving sight, as if there was no back to her head at all.
“Where is he?” Bonnie asked, her voice rasping and desperate. “The Splintered Man. Where is he?”
The woman’s grin widened into a smile, showing yellowed and crooked teeth.
Bonnie reached for her guns, forgetting again that they were missing. Instead, she pushed the woman, intending to force her back a few steps. But her heart was pounding, and she used more force than she had intended. The woman pitched back and leftwards, tumbling over the side of the boardwalk. She did not reach her arms out or make any other movements to try and stop her fall. It was like watching a rag doll falling from a table.
When the woman hit the ground, she shattered into pieces.
Bonnie stared at the spot where the woman had fallen. She was an endless blue on the inside. It was as if a piece of sky had fallen into the street. She had a sudden memory of the broken mirror in the destroyed saloon.
Neither of the men on the other side of the road gave any indication they had noticed. Bonnie was sure that if she crossed over there and pushed them over the same thing would happen. But what would that achieve?
She could still hear the ringing crash of the horseshoe anvil somewhere in the distance.
Bonnie stepped back out to the middle of the street. And now she finally did turn, to look back in the direction she had come from, where the back door of the cabin should have been.
The street continued forever.
There were no breaks in the lines of the buildings, no alleyways. Just two lines of buildings continuing on to the horizon. She suddenly knew with complete certainty that if she were to enter any of those buildings, she would find them no more than facades. Or perhaps each one had a back door and if she passed through it, she would find herself right back here in the middle of the street. This place, though it appeared infinite, was as constricting as a coffin.
Her fury, her unceasing desire for revenge, had taken her so far. But here, finally, she could feel her resolve begin to crumble. In its place came a wave of desolation. She had walked willingly into the Splintered Man’s trap, had sunk into it so deep that there was no chance of escape. He was toying with her, had been for how long? Since the creature that claimed the name King had stumbled into their firelight? Since Cole the Basketman had lowered them down into the Cut? Or had she been trapped in this path all along, since that very first day when he had come between the corn rows, arms outstretched, killing all he touched?
No, her fury whispered within her. He cannot win. The Splintered Man had surrounded Bonnie with tricks and mirrors. And this feeling of despair was his greatest one. She focused on her fury. It was perhaps the only real thing left in the world. In her mind, she drew it closer until she could feel the black-sun heat of it in every fiber of her being. Until it started to burn.
“Show yourself,” Bonnie called. “Just you. Just me. No more tricks!”
Something flashed and spun. The world changed in small and subtle ways. The blue shards of the shattered woman disappeared, as did the sheriff and preacherman. But she still stood in the middle of the endless reflected street.
All fakery and illusion. All this time, all this damage rendered by the man. He had not come with armies in force. Just suggestions and suppositions, rumors and hints. It had been enough. His whispers had grown to shouts, supported and echoed by voices who could not see past the facades, the shine, the repetition. Though he carried no weapon, these others did, and they took them up along with his words. Everything burned.
Bonnie blinked. All fakery and illusion. But if the Splintered Man could spin truth from lies, then perhaps—
She closed her eyes and saw her gun belt lying in the Iron River, untold worlds away. Then she raised her hands to her hips.
Felt the warm leather and soft wooden grips.
She opened her eyes, and she was wearing her gun. There was only one bullet left.
She prayed to the wind and sky that it would be enough.
Fifty paces away up the street, a door swung open with a low creak. The sound of boots on the boardwalk reached her, but the person who had emerged was in the shade. Then she stepped down into the street.
A young girl, perhaps ten. Her hair was tied back with a red ribbon. She wore a faded dress with a mud-stained hem.
Bonnie watched the child walk slowly into the middle of the road and turn to face her, arms held loose and ready at her sides. A breeze kicked up, set the red ribbon in her hair to fluttering.
The girl shrugged and shook out her wrists. Something flickered around her waist. A belt shimmered into existence, hung low on her hips.
And her father’s gun.
The girl raised her head slightly, and there was a look on her face that was achingly familiar. Head raised, chin jutting out. Afraid, but determined not to let it show. Bonnie had worn that expression so many times. Could remember doing so at the same age. And suddenly realized that this child was herself, dragged through time and across worlds, but her, nonetheless.
So even here, at the end of everything, the Splintered Man would not deign to show his true face. Bonnie grunted. She had been a fool to expect anything else.
They faced each other, both ready, both waiting. Bonnie could feel every beat of her heart, could feel the passage of time, gears slipping and falling off their axes, stuttering but moving still. Could hear, above and beyond that endless lie of the blue sky, the slow death of a billion suns, the last breath of a hurricane.
Young Bonnie’s face broke open in a smile, showing teeth as yellow and crooked as desolated tombstones on a barren hill.
There was no thought in it. There never is. Bonnie’s fingers flexed and closed on the grip. The fingers on Bonnie’s left hand flexed and closed on the grip. Raised the revolver from its holster. It smeared as it came, the barrel leaving long, shining marks in the air, a liquid rainbow. She did not know which of the bullets was left—what strange markings were engraved upon it. She did not think it mattered. One bullet was the same as any other when it came down to blood and dust.
But Young Bonnie was in motion too, raising not her left gun, but her right. Young Bonnie’s draw was faster. Even now, when time had slowed to nothing but a trickle, Bonnie could see that. But perhaps it would not matter.
Bonnie brought her left hand up and across her body. Raised her right hand now too, palm outwards.
Young Bonnie’s eyes narrowed just a little, confused.
Bonnie pressed the pistol against the palm of her own right hand.
Young Bonnie finally understood. Her pistol was aimed directly at her older self’s heart. Her finger pulled at the trigger, slowly, slowly.
Bonnie’s finger, Bonnie’s trigger, young and old.
At the last moment, Young Bonnie hesitated.
Bonnie did not. A click, as the hammer found home. A sound yet to be born. A spread of smoke, the sparkling hint of silver casing.
The bullet found the meat of Bonnie’s right hand, passed through, was already resting in the dirt before there was any pain, any awareness of what she had done. Her right hand was a bloody ruin, fingers splayed, tendons ripped to nothingness. She opened her mouth, but the pain was beyond any scream. She sucked in air, in, in.
Somewhere a cliff finally surrendered to gravity and fell into a gray-dark sea, hunks as large as houses throwing spray into the sky.
Somewhere else a fire raged beyond all control, devouring buildings as casually as a whale with plankton, black clouds assailing heaven.
Young Bonnie’s unshot revolver fell from her open fingers. She fell on her side. Her head, when it hit the dust, shattered into blue sky fragments.
Finally, Bonnie’s scream found voice.
It seemed there could be no end to the pain. For a while, that was true.
Eventually, after a time that could be all time or no time at all, Bonnie opened her eyes. She was kneeling on the floor of a cave, her legs covered in gray dust. She held her throbbing right hand cradled to her chest like a fallen bird.
When, somehow, the pain had lessened a little, she took a better look at her surroundings. This was not a natural cave, at least not entirely. The walls were flat, with carefully angled corners, decorated with pictures, although they were too faded for her to make out what they were. An opening in the wall farthest from her gave hints of a hallway.
There was a raised platform in the center of the room. Upon which sat a sarcophagus of marble and beaten copper. The sides were carved and decorated with more faded pictures. The top was lying in pieces against the wall, as if it had been thrown aside.
There was a warmth in the air. And a feeling of lightness. As if a great burden had been lifted from the world.
Her gun lay on the ground not far from where she was kneeling. It must have been some trick of the light. Dust motes caught in a subtle gust of wind, perhaps. But she could have sworn that as she picked it up and eased it back into her holster, the barrel was still smoking.
Bonnie stood and walked closer to the sarcophagus. Inside was a body, petrified to agelessness, skin like paper stretched across yellowed bones, hands crossed across its chest. Upon each hand were rings of gold and platinum and other, stranger materials and though Bonnie could not name them, she was certain they were worth more than the treasure houses of a thousand kings.
Placed to the left side of the grinning skull was a pistol just like hers. On the right, a scatter of bullets, each one marked with the same odd sigils as hers.
The remains of the Splintered Man lay on a bed of new-looking silk, as blue as the sky.
A pile of rags sat in one corner of the room. Bonnie shuffled over, still holding her ruined hand against her chest. The top layer of clothing was covered in a fine layer of dust, but the ones underneath seemed well preserved. She found several linen shirts and set them aside. At the very bottom of the pile was a small carpetbag. Inside was a green bottle of patent medicine and a small Bible. Bonnie tipped up the bag and emptied the contents onto the floor.
She sat against the wall and worked on one of the linen shirts, tearing at the seams with her teeth and her good left hand. She wrapped her right hand as well as she could, then wrapped the rest around herself as a sort of sling. She sat for a long time afterwards, waiting for the throbbing to subside.
Eventually, she took the carpetbag and approached the sarcophagus. The bones and skin were ancient. It was no effort at all to separate the skull from the spine. She placed the skull in the bag. She ran her fingers over the gun, touched the symbol on every bullet. There was power in them still—she could feel it buzzing through her fingertips. But she left them. She had no need for bullets now. She walked out to the hallway beyond.
Several rooms branched off the hallway. She found Eaton in one, face down. There were long, dark slices down the back of his coat, as if he had been stabbed repeatedly. Though there were no knives anywhere to be found. His repeating rifle was just beyond the reach of his outstretched hand.
She found Gosford in another room not far away. He was sitting against the wall, had slid down if the long stain behind him was any indication. Shots had punched holes in his chest, his shoulder, his neck. Bullets from a repeating rifle, Bonnie judged, though apart from the man, the room was empty. She was sure that if she investigated further, she would find copies of both men. Unless their doppelgangers had shattered into piles of cloud-blue porcelain, their pieces blown away by winds from some faraway place.
There were wide stairs at the end of the hallway, each step worn in the middle, and Bonnie had a sudden image of untold footsteps, over an unimaginable span of years. She shook away the vision and climbed the stairs towards the light.
And found herself on a hillside, covered with a thick carpet of moss, dotted with wildflowers. The plain was a sea of waving grass.
She climbed around the opening of the tomb, making for the other side of the hill. She had to know.
There was no cottage on the other side. The grass continued a little way until it reached the Iron River. The sea of bones remained. Beyond that, the land was as cracked and desolate as before.
She slept for a time. When she woke, the sun had moved halfway to the horizon.
Bonnie returned to the other side of the hill. Entered the Splintered Man’s tomb again. She dragged Eaton’s body from the room where it lay and up the stairs. By the time she had done the same for Gosford, the first stars were out. She could not be sure—in truth she had never paid too much attention to the constellations—but she thought, perhaps, that these looked more familiar than those she had walked beneath a few days earlier.
She dug two graves on the other side of the hill, looking down towards the iron river, facing back in what she hoped was the direction of Berenton. It wouldn’t matter to them now, and the distance was too far in any case. But even so, she wondered if from time to time some singular trick of the wind might bring voices here, in conversation or in song. Likely not. At least they would rest on the hopeful side of the hill, away from that deeper emptiness.
She scratched away at the earth with a series of large branches she had torn from the lone tree on the other side of the hill. The ground was hard at first, but softened once she had broken through the red-brown crust. Even so, it took her most of the morning to dig the two resting places and even then, they were shallower than she would have liked. As she worked, she thought again of bandaging her father’s hands after he had dug her mother’s grave. It hurts, girl. But it must be done.
They had all dug too many graves in this world.
Her right hand throbbed constantly as she worked, but she did her best to ignore it. A red stain spread slowly, but before too long the whole bandage was so dirty it was impossible to know where the blood stopped and the red earth began.
When she was done, she laid each man down in their graves and started scraping earth over each of them. She covered the fresh graves with rocks to deter any predators, though she was certain there were no other living creatures anywhere nearby save her and the horses.
Bonnie’s back and shoulder muscles ached with her morning’s efforts, but she was surprised to notice no pain at all in her right hand. She flexed it a couple of times and frowned when she did not feel the familiar broken glass sensation. She unwrapped the bandage, intending to wash out the wound with the last of her water and find some material to bind it up again. But when she peeled away the blood-caked bandage, she found no wound in her hand. Only a pair of scars, front and back, to show where her bullet had passed.
She nodded as if this was entirely expected.
Bonnie returned to the tree on the other side of the hill and snapped off some smaller branches. She bound the crooked wood together with her bloodied bandages, fashioning two crosses, though when she was done they seemed so rudely made that she doubted any traveler coming across them would discern them as such. But she hammered them into the earth as best she could and they seemed to stand aright.
She considered voicing a prayer, but her throat was dry, and it seemed wrong to invoke the word of God so far out here. Gosford at least would have expected a psalm or two, but she had buried the man’s Holy Book with him and Eaton would have sneered at both the man and the divine. She wondered if they had finally found a way to settle each’s account against the other. If they had found some peace.
She hoped so.
There was nothing more to do here. She walked down the hill.
The shimmering barrier that had run the length of Iron River was gone. Still, she stepped carefully, half-expecting to be torn apart by magical force with every step.
She had not expected to see The Message when she reached the Iron River and indeed there was no sign of the man. She walked beside the river of guns, searching for some landmark. The length of the river, and of the flotsam of bones beyond it, made it difficult to know where she was. She could be miles away from where they had left their weapons.
The sun had passed nearly to the horizon and she had resigned herself to abandoning the search when she saw the signal bone, with its yellow swatch flapping in the ghost of a breeze she did not feel. She pulled her gun from her holster and laid it once more in the bone-dust.
Bonnie reached into the carpetbag and pulled out the Splintered Man’s skull. She set it atop the femur. The yellow scarf dangling below the skull looked like a lolling tongue. It stayed, though only balanced precariously—the slightest breeze would knock it to the ground.
There was movement off to her left. The horses, making their way towards her through the bones. She had no idea how much time had passed, but they did not look any the worse for wear. Her horse nuzzled her, and she rubbed her face against his neck, smelling his warmth and life.
The sun fell below the mountains. Bonnie didn’t know if it would rise again tomorrow. She had faith it would.
Bonnie climbed up into the saddle and clicked her tongue. The horse turned and began walking across the bones, away from the river, towards whatever yet remained.
The other horses followed.
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2 thoughts on “Three Past Desolation Cut”
This was a pretty cool story. I’ve not read book 1 but did not feel lost reading this novella. It’s quite dark and a bit scary, but a great fantasy story. I really enjoyed the mystery of it and the characters are well done.
An interesting read. Well done.