Currently reading: Novella: By The Fire (The Stranger) – Chapter 1
Novella: By The Fire (The Stranger) – Chapter 1
Posted on 19th May, 2017 - By Jonathan Hezzlewood
The tall tale of Stranger times continues with By The Fire: Chapter 1. If you haven’t yet walked the path of The Stranger, might I suggest you start where the first steps of his journey began, and read the previous entries in The Stranger series.
If you are a returning reader, then I’ll simply say this. Welcome back to the world of; The Stranger…
By The Fire (a tall tale of Stranger times): Chapter 1
The night air was still. Although it was cool, Jayne wished for something to blow away the warm sickly feeling she had. They had followed the trail down from the camp to a wider path which had gradually widened into a road. Wagon tracks and hoof imprints had gauged and scarred their way into the ground over the years of travel the road had seen. She didn’t recognise her surroundings at all, yet after being taken by the men, it hadn’t been long until they had arrived at the camp. The sun had already started setting when the men attacked their home, and it had only been dark a matter of minutes before they met with the fourth man at the camp.
James looked across at Jayne from his mount, then faced forward again – looking at the back of the man who had saved them. Persuading his mount to pick up the pace, getting level with the man, he broke the silence. “Gee-Mister, y’sure capped the climax w’those bushwhackers back there. By the skin of our teeth we-” He trailed off, having considered the stranger’s gaze anything but encouraging.
“How did y’know we were in need?” Jayne enquired.
The stranger considered the question for a moment before answering. “I was travelling up to the next town along this very road when I heard the men airin’ their lungs. Thought nothing of it at first, Chet here knew something was amiss before I did.” He stroked Ricochet’s neck, and continued. “But then I heard you cry out.” He met her eyes. “So I made my way across-lots through the barrens to get as close as I could without drawing attention, sending Chet up to draw their eye.”
“They were all acock, that’s for sure.” She replied, grateful.
The stranger made no reply.
The sky above was dotted with an endless number of stars. Scattered across the dark blue-black abyss of intrigue. Beautiful. Thought Jayne.
Yaps, barks and howls cried out from behind them. The coyotes calling to one-another. The sound seemed to come from the left now. Meaning the wild dogs had crossed over the main thoroughfare and onto the other side, up towards the camp from which they had come. Screams of a man followed shortly after. It would seem that Al had become supper.
Jayne and James turned back in their saddles, looking in the direction of the cries, at the gap in the rocks which had hidden the camp from plain sight. The stranger paid no attention to the noise, continuing along the road, leading the one rider-less mount by her reins.
The screaming had stopped, the barks and growls of the coyotes had subsided; they were feasting now.
The scrubland was deserted, apart from the odd broken wheel and wooden carcass left behind by the trains of wagons that had traversed the dry trails in the past.
A gentle breeze touched her face, she took a deep breath and exhaled with relief; feeling a little cooler, and more relaxed.
They had journeyed for a small amount of time before coming across a deserted barn, adjacent to an old farmhouse. There was no light coming from inside the house, either the place was vacant or the people who lived there were asleep; given the lateness of the day, it seemed reasonable to assume the latter.
The stranger at the lead, stopped, and dismounted. “Quiet.” He said, not really talking to anyone in-particular. Ricochet acknowledged with a quick sharp exhale through her nose – not particularly quiet.
He closed his eyes upon hearing it, and checked back over his shoulder, to see if the occupants of the house had stirred. Confident that there was no movement within the house, the stranger stuck his head through the barn door, already ajar. The place was empty. He slowly pulled the door open and stepped inside – still hold of the mare from the camp – and signalled for the others to follow. James went first, Jayne close behind, with Ricochet the closing piece to the box, protecting the children, should an attack happen from the rear.
Inside the barn there were mounds of dry, stale straw piled into the corners, two large barrel containers – cut in half; once having been used to collect milk given look of them, a crome, a wooden dyke shovel, a worn, blunt scythe attached to the wall, a pick-axe and a rake resting against the far corner of the barn.
He led the horse further into the barn and looped her reins around a nearby beam. The children dismounted, holding the reins of their horses. The stranger gestured to the beam on the other side of the barn. Jayne wrapped her reins around the beam, and then helped her brother – who was struggling to get them to grip – do the same.
The stranger picked up the rake from the corner and dragged it through the straw, checking for vermin. Nothing. As he tossed the straw, Jayne asked “Do horses sleep standing up?”
He looked to the girl, who was watching her horse – which was stood, eyes closed. “They do.”
As he spoke, Ricochet gently trotted over to the far-left corner of the barn, and investigated the ground. Placing the rake back in the corner he continued “They prefer it, a horse don’t need sleep like you or me.”
Ricochet started circling at the ground, dragging her hoof across the dirt.
“Ain’t it uncomfortable for them? Surely they prefer to lie down?”
“Horses rarely need to sleep led do-” Ricochet sat with a thud. Everyone looked as she flopped onto her side.
The horse fidgeted, adjusting to a more comfortable position.
“-Nor do they require lots of sleep.” He paused, looking at Ricochet and finished “Well. . . Most of’em.”
A beautiful smile touched the girl’s face as she turned back to look at Ricochet, who was now led comfortably, flat-out on her side.
The stranger walked past James, back toward the entrance of the barn and closed the door most of the way – leaving a slight gap to see out of without anyone seeing in too easily. He picked up one of the half barrels and flipped it on its head, base up and sat, leaning back against the barn wall, looking out at the world outside. He looked at the dry straw, then at Jayne and her brother and said “Get comfy and rest. We rise early on the morrow.”
The children wandered over to the heap of straw and sat, each of them shuffling for a better position. James led down, the straw prickling his face at first, then found comfort, his back facing the barn wall, his front his sister.
Jayne sat for a moment before lying back, staring at the wooden beams above. She followed the grain, running her eyes along the lines, making out patterns and shapes. There was a house, with people. A field of wheat, leading in to a woodland; of which the far side was on fire. The fire died away, revealing a deep hole that seemed too big to be a well, or a mine. The hole appeared to be a gateway to the world beneath, hiding something hideous, or something importa-
She sat up sharp, the fast beating of hooves were coming from outside, multiple horses. The stranger was already stood at the door, his coat open at the hip, hand resting on his pistol. Two men appeared in the distance for a fleeting moment, before losing sight of them behind the house. He looked at the ground, listening to the horses carry-on past into the distance. Heading on up to town. He thought. Or, maybe they were other members of Al’s posse. Moving his arm, his coat fell back around his hip – covering his sidearm. He sat and leant back against the rough wooden wall once more, cocking his hat forward slightly, covering his brow. “Rest. I’ll keep watch.” He said to Jayne, without looking at her.
The girl led back, trying to find the pictures again in the wood. Her brother was already asleep, his breathing soothing. Her eyes felt heavy. The wooden beam above no longer looked the same. Instead of the house and people, all she could see now were a few darker marks and dents in the wood; rings showing the change of seasons the wood had endured as a tree, some of the rings darkened toward the top of the beam; this had previously been the field of fire. The rough patches the wheat. And the hole? The hole was now a dark knot, where a branch had once existed – back in the tree’s lifetime.
Her eyes started to close.
To Be Continued…