Currently reading: Novella: By The Fire (The Stranger) – Chapter 2
Novella: By The Fire (The Stranger) – Chapter 2
Posted on 24th June, 2017 - By Jonathan Hezzlewood
New to The Stranger? Then check out the previous entries in The Stranger series.
By The Fire: Chapter 2 continues this tall tale of Stranger times.
If you’ve read the previous chapters and want more, then step back in to the world of; The Stranger…
By The Fire (a tall tale of Stranger times): Chapter 2
She was running, her legs ached against the uneven terrain. After battling her way through a wall of bristles and thorns – tearing at her skin and clothing – she came to a woodland. Each tree lined up perfectly, as if someone had carefully organised them. Her chest hurt, her lungs and throat on fire. Every breath an effort to complete. It was coming, chasing her, out there in the darkness, somewhere.
She looked back, with no idea of what it was, or how she got here – all clouded by the knowledge that her life was in danger. She ran into the trees, darting through the gaps as fast as she could. Branches were getting in her way, closing in; grabbing at her like dying hands clawing at life. She tripped over a root protruding from the ground. Pushing herself up she noticed the ground was warm to touch, the soil and dirt turning moist, damp; no wet, it was wet. She thought. Getting to her feet, she watched as wisps of steam rose up from the ground and disappeared into the air. The steam faded, but the woodland felt close. A figure dressed in dark clothing stood amongst the trees in the distance, facing away from her. She tried to call out. Hello. Hello? But no sound escaped her mouth.
Stepping forward, her feet made a sucking sound, squelching with every step. She looked down, the ground had started to bubble. The roots of the trees climbing out of the ground, her feet sinking further and further in. It was very warm now, hot even. She looked back up, toward the dark figure. Still facing away, but a lot closer now, much closer. It was as if the figure had moved toward her itself, which was the only explanation – given that she had merely taken a few steps.
Something moved in her peripherals. As she turned to look a pair of boots gently swung past her line of sight. Attached to the boots were legs, which stretched up into the canopy of the trees. She panicked, the woodland started to spin. The trees moving, the branches clawing at her. More dangling legs appeared, all looking identical. The bubbling dirt was up to her knees now, she tried moving but it was no good. Heavy breathing was coming from all around her, emanating from the darkness of the crowded trees and shrubs. The breathing seemed to have a pattern to it, three calm breaths followed by a big forceful one. HU-HU-HU-HUUU, HU-HU-HU-HUUU. She looked back at the figure and stretched out an arm, her hand reaching, fingers almost touching the black material. She screamed with all her might. “HEEELLP!” But it escaped as a whisper.
The breathing was getting louder, growing closer. HU-HU-HU-HUUU, HU-HU-HU-HUUU. The figure in-front turned sharply, its face pushing into hers. A pale, gaunt face. The blue-tinged flesh – thin and tight in places, thick and hanging loose in others – had a blue tinge to it. Exposed teeth grinned at her through the missing flesh that should have been the lips. Empty orbs that once contained eyes stared into hers. Although there were no real facial features, she knew it was smiling. Shivers ran down her spine.
HU-HU-HU-HUUU. It’s breathe hit her face, warm, rancid spittle spotted her forehead, cheeks and lips.
As she opened her eyes she was presented with a smile of big teeth, above which sat two large and hairy nostrils, blowing out hot air. At the end of the long narrow face were two bulging black eyes, crowned with a fluffy mane that dangled down, framed by two twitchy ears pointing skyward.
Ricochet snorted, blowing hot air into Jayne’s face once more. She stretched, trying to loosen the aches and pains she felt – not from the bad dream, but from the trauma of the night before. She could still feel where Al had grabbed her above the knees, when he had forced them apart. Her brother stirred, adjusting his position, still asleep for the moment. The horse walked back over to the area where she had slept and sniffed at the floor. Jayne sat up, nothing but the overturned half-barrel in-front of her. She looked around the barn, the stranger nowhere to be seen. She stood and dusted herself down at the back of her dress, knocking strips of loose straw to the ground.
The horses were still there, including Ricochet. So he hasn’t left us. Unless something has happened and we didn’t wake? She thought. The voice in the corner of her mind continued. Maybe some of Al’s friends found him and have taken him? She bent down and gave James a gentle shove, he slept on. Placing her hand on his shoulder, she shook him more forcefully. “James, wake up. James! Come on, wake up sleepy eyes.” The boy moved, his face turning toward the voice, eyes and nose scrunching at the daylight coming in through the gap in the door. Quite rodent like. Jayne thought, smiling to herself inside.
Before she could explain about the stranger’s disappearance – and that maybe more of those men had taken him – the barn door opened and the stranger stepped in, the other half-barrel held between his arm and left side.
“Water.” He said, placing the half-barrel on the floor. “Get yourselves a mouthful or more before the horses have at it.”
The boy got quickly got to his feet and ambled over, his step faltering due to the tingly sensation in his leg. He dusted his hands against his pants, cupped them together and submerged them in the water, before bringing it up to his lips and sipping mightily.
The stranger looked at the boy, then to the girl, Jayne, and said “There’s a cup in my reload outfit.” Pointing to Ricochet, who had also noticed the water. “Behind the rig.” He finished.
Jayne walked over and found the cup wrapped in a cloth at the back of the saddle.
She walked back over to them, knelt before the barrel and pushed the cup into the cool, clear water. The cold wet touched her lips and sent a chill down her spine, a nice chill. As she gulped the water, the cold feeling spread throughout her body. It felt good. James was sat back now, his thirst quenched. Jayne passed the cup to the stranger, who skimmed one side of the cup along the surface of the water, filling up as it went. He drank quickly.
Gesturing silently with the cup he asked both of them. More? The children expressed thanks but had had their fill.
“Ki-kik.” He signalled to Ricochet, who wandered over and began to drink. The stranger unhooked the other three horses for their turn.
Jayne asked “Where’d you get the water?”
“There’s a run just up the hill, must lead in to a river somewhere nearby.”
Once each of the horses had drank he fixed them back to the wooden posts and dragged the – now almost empty – half-barrel to the side of the barn.
A banging sound came from outside. The stranger held up his hand, signalling quiet, and looked through the gap in the door.
Stood there was a man, in his early twenties from the looks. Average height and build, wearing a fading brown canvas jacket, a red bandana hanging loose around the neck and a pistol worn low on his hip.
“Com’on open up. I knows that you’re in there Amos.” The man knocked on the door again with the heel of his clenched fist.
Still no answer.
From where the stranger stood he could see the man was frustrated. The man stepped back from the door of the farmhouse and shot his gaze around the area – fixing his sight on the barn. He turned and began walking over, his hand dropping to the side of his pistol as he walked.
The stranger stepped behind the door, keeping his head away from the gap now; he brushed his hand backwards, silently asking the children to step over to the side of the barn, behind where the stranger stood.
He listened as the man made his way toward the barn, hearing every step as the dry dirt crumbled beneath his feet.
The man was almost upon them – the stranger about to walk out and peacefully convince the man that he was the only one here, having sheltered from the elements the night before – when the farmhouse door creaked open.
The stranger risked a look through the gap again. The man had turned around, making his way back to the farmhouse door. “Well here he is. Hello Amos.”
Partly hidden behind the wall of the farmhouse, the stranger could see an older man stood in the doorway. Frail and thin, having weathered his way through many years of hard work by the look of it. About half-a-foot shorter than his visitor, the elderly man stood there, his shoulders hunched, clothes hanging loose off his bony frame. A scruffy grey beard, stained with food framed a gaunt, tired face.
The visitor continued “Am here to collect what’s owed.”
“I don’t owe shit. This here is my land, the house I built wi’ my own two han’s.” The old man stepped forward, and bringing his arm around from behind his back he raised the barrel of a rifle toward the visitor, and continued “N’this here is ‘Lady Luck’, and today son, luck ain’t on your side.”
The stranger thought that that would have been a good line to finish the conversation with, had the visitor either turned-tail and left, or the old man put him down there and then. But as things had it, the visitor had simply walked up to him, grabbed the rifle and pointed it skyward, before dragging the man to the side and pinning him against the farmhouse wall by the scruff of his neck, dropping the rifle onto the small wooden walkway that ran across the entrance-side of the house.
Removing his hat, the stranger placed it on James’ head. “Stay hidden.” And stepped out of the barn, pushing the door to a close as he left. Jayne and James peeped through the gap that was left and watched as the stranger casually walked up passed the house, disappearing around the back. Neither the visitor nor the elderly gentleman noticed movement from the barn.
Jayne suddenly felt a presence behind her and turned, Ricochet had joined them to see what the trouble was.
She turned back and continued to listen.
“Pay up for these here diggin’s, no more dilly-dallyin’ old man.” The visitor turned his back to the barn. Pulling the man with him, then forced him back against the frame of the door. She could hear the man struggling to catch a breath, wincing in pain as he struck the edge of the doorframe.
At the far edge of the house Jayne saw the stranger’s face edge out. Realising now as to why he removed his hat – so not to draw attention.
“I have nothing left. He has taken it all from me, and given nothing in return.” The old man caught a breath.
“Where’s the woman?” the visitor asked snidely.
“My wife! Is sleeping. She is none of your concern.”
“He’s goin’ t’be expecting somethin’ as payment dun.” The visitor grinned, his gaze looking into the house.
Before she could do anything Ricochet pushed passed, nudging both Jayne and James to the right – still hidden from sight by the barn-door. The other door swung open with a clatter, and scrapped to a halt on the dusty ground.
Startled, the visitor turned, pistol drawn. He looked at Ricochet, still pinning the old man to the wall with his other hand. The horse stood a distance away, having stopped just outside the entrance to the barn.
“That’s a mighty fine horse you got there Amos.” He said, turning back to look at the old man, but instead met the gaze of pistol barrel.
The stranger thumbed back the hammer. “Don’t be raisin’ sand, son. This here’s the gentleman’s own place and you have no business bein’ here. Best be on your way.”
The visitor looked from this stranger; to Amos, who was initially looking at the man who seemed to have appeared-out-of-thin-air, awe-struck. But then – upon hearing what the stranger had to say – met his gaze and gave a quick sharp nod of agreement.
The visitor pushed the brim of his hat toward the clouds. “Do you realise who y’gon interfering with?” He finished the question with a raise of his brow, dropping his mouth slightly, waiting for a response.
The stranger didn’t move nor speak. It was as if he hadn’t even heard the question asked. He just continued to hold the revolver at his head.
The visitor flared at the lack of response. “I’m Mister Stratton’s right-hand man.” He raised his voice, hoping to instil fear at the mention of the name.
Amos undermined the visitor’s last comment with laughter, “You’re a road agent tha’ ain’t worth shit! I’m down to the blanket because o’ this son-o’ a-bitch!” Amos looked at the stranger, who didn’t seem to react at all to his revelation of being broke.
“Tell him I said Hello.” Amos added, sarcastically to the visitor.
The visitor nodded, stepping down off the porch. “Mister Stratton will be very int’rested t’hear what you’ve had to say Amos, and I’ll be sure to tell’im.”
He stepped back across the yard, and continued. “He’ll also be very interested to hear ‘bout you Mister…?”
The question hung in the air.
The stranger made no reply, continuing to hold his pistol on the unwelcome visitor.
“Colt 1851. That’s a fine revolver you have there, none-too-common too.” The visitor continuing “From Samuel’s London armoury, am I right?”
“It’s rare.” The stranger replied.
“You from there? London?”
The stranger dropped the pistol back into its holster. “I’ve travelled.” He acknowledged the question without giving a direct answer.
“Iron back-strap and trigger guard, no brass in sight.” The visitor let out a whistle, and smiled at the stranger, continuing. “See I prefer me a Cooper.” And dropped his hand next to his sidearm.
The stranger slowly stepped down from the house, putting distance between him and the old man.
The visitor had stopped walking now, a few metres ahead of Ricochet. “Double-action. Faster’n Colt too.” He said, resting the palm of his hand on the butt of his gun.
“Whether that’s true or not, I wouldn’t know.” The stranger replied. “But one thing I do know is; should you ‘tempt t’wake Cooper there.” He paused, adjusting his hat slightly – shading his eyes a little better from the sun on his right – whilst at the same time revealing the pistol that hung low on his left, from beneath his coat. “You’ll b’left askin’ yourself three questions.-”
The heat of the morning sun beat down on them, the gentle wind too warm to be of any relief. The right-hand man of Mister Stratton, stood, baking. His brow perspiring; his confidence slowly drying up, as this stranger appeared to show no concern over the mention of his boss’ name, nor the fact that his shooter was quicker. He stood listening as the man continued to speak.
“-First. You’ll ask yourself. Why am I sat here in the dirt? Then, secondly. Why do I have a searing pain in my left leg, and one in my shootin’ arm? Which, upon investigating you will discover a hole in each, accompanying the pain. And finally. Finally you will ask yourself; what is probably the most important question of them all. Why didn’t I listen to this man and leave whilst I could still walk without limp?”
Mister Rake ‘n’ Scrape stood there, rattled. A mix of anger, humiliation and confusion crossing his face.
The stranger spoke once more. “See, now you’re questioning yourself before-hand, now too. You’re askin’; should I leave and heed this man’s advice? Or, could I put him down, before him me?” The stranger let it sink in before finishing. “Well, let me ask you a question. Do you feel lu-”
The visitor interrupted him. “Mister Stratton will hear about this. About you!” He said, pointing his finger at the stranger, his eyes darting from him to the old man. “And Amos, I will be coming back to collect what’s owed. Mark my words…” His voice trailed off as he disappeared around the side of the farmhouse. Moments later the beat of hooves could be heard fading into the distance.
“You are a break in the medicine son, thank-yee kindly.” The old man spoke, grateful. He bent to pick up his rifle, his face let-it-be-known it was no easy task.
Both of the children stepped out from the barn and stood beside Ricochet.
The stranger looked at Amos, who had now noticed the new company. “We sheltered from the night air in your barn, didn’t know at the time whether your place was occupied or not, and given the lateness of the day I decided it best not to attempt to wake yourself or your wife.”
Amos raised his spare hand and dropped it. “I won’t be hearin’ no apology. If it wasn’t f’you things will’ve no doubt ended different.” The old man held out his hand. “The names Amos Pickett…”
The stranger shook his hand, “Please to meet you Amos.” But made no attempt to let his name be known. Amos waited for more, but the stranger said nothing.
“Yes, well met.” Amos turned to go back into his house, and glanced back over his shoulder. “I don’t have anything to give as thanks other than my words, but I’d like the chance for the wife to meet you, to know that there are still good men in the world.” He gestured with his hand to follow and walked into the farmhouse.
The stranger looked at Jayne and James, then stepped up onto the porch and into the house.
To Be Continued…