Currently reading: Novella: By The Fire (The Stranger) – Chapter 9
Novella: By The Fire (The Stranger) – Chapter 9
Posted on 17th January, 2018 - By Jonathan Hezzlewood
As The Stranger, Jayne and James continue on their journey, the local Marshal makes a worrying discovery.
By The Fire (a tall tale of Stranger times): Chapter 9
They had taken the northern trail, a gradual uphill climb that led toward the mountains. The days had started getting cooler, and despite the bright morning; today was no exception. In addition to the brisk wind, the air had a bite that had long been absent until present, making James ever so grateful for the generous gift he had received.
An elderly lady had brought two bundles to their table as they broke their fast that morning. As “Thanks for the bravery and quick thinking of your father.” was how the lady had put it – and neither Jayne nor himself had taken to correcting her misguided assumption. She had brought each of them an oilcloth duster, which was light and not uncomfortable to wear. The pale-coloured canvas made his sister’s freckles stand out more than usual. She caught his eye and smiled, he smiled back and chuckled inside – she looked odd wearing a coat meant for a small man.
Although hers fit better’ it dawned on him; which begged into question what he looked like in his? Overshooting his hands up to the knuckles, and stopping just above the ankle; he would have to lift his up; should he have to run at any point to make sure footing, otherwise he was likely to end up with his face in the dirt, or neck broken.
As they climbed, the edge of the path on the upward slope was dotted with shrubs of various sizes. Some small, others much larger and wider spread, the grey-green foliage pale against the reddish-brown slender branches of the smaller shrubs, the larger showing their age – the bark having furrowed over the years – had turned a purplish-blue. The bundles of pale pink flowers at the branch tips drew Jayne’s eye. “They’re pretty.”
The stranger looked to the shrubs. “Saltcedars. They thrive in these parts.”
“Why’s that?” Jayne asked.
James pulled a finger-full of leaves free as they passed a stray branch crossing the path. The small leaves were encrusted with tiny crystals of salt. He rubbed them between finger and thumb until they had gone.
“What are the big ones?” James asked from the back as the neared a woodland the path was leading them toward.
“None too sure on their name truth be told.” The stranger followed the climb of the trees skyward.
Upon entering the woodland the heat of the morning sun had gone, and the wind dissipated – the woodland proving the perfect shelter.
Through the cover of trees the stranger watched a group of men on horseback travelling in on the south-west trail heading for Salt-Crum Bluff. The stranger watched unseen as the five horses continued past on the lower path.
They continued forward; further into the wood, the stranger at the lead.
The body had been heavily mutilated, a large cavity on the left side of the chest, an entire section of rib cage missing; as well as the left arm from just below the elbow.
Ciril Hage turned away from the body. “Put him in the back of the wagon, careful as you go.”
Deputy Hudson and another deputy of smaller build struggled unsteadily on their feet; kicking dirt as they shuffled and staggered towards the wagon, Hudson thankful for having been stood to the right of the corpse. Deputy Evans Telton looked close to retching, faced with the open wound and the missing limb – which had clearly been torn free by something of brutal force, the pale clammy complexion of his thin face; add to that his pencil moustache made him look close to death himself.
The Marshal watched as his men struggled with the dead weight, the Doc joined him. “So Doc, what in the hell did that to him?”
“A bear? Wolves? A lynx? God knows.” The Doc walked up to the wagon and placed his bag on the seat of the buggy. “Whatever it was-” Clement Redmond rolled his shirt sleeves back down, before putting his coat back on. “-It was strong. There’s blood a ways down there-” He pointed past the Marshal. “-Quite a way too.” The Doc added.
Marshal Ciril Hage turned and looked in the direction the Doc had pointed. “So how’d he get up here? There’s no drag marks, just footprints.”
The Doc scratched the back of his head, giving no answer. The Marshal continued. “There’s just the blood splatter here, a few feet before where the body lay. An’then down there you say?”
The Doc nodded.
“Looks like whatever attacked him did so initially.” Marshal Hage pointed down the hill. “Then finished him off up here.” He looked at the blood, most of which had seeped into the ground, and what remained was mostly dry, some of it still tacky in places. “You found the arm?”
Doctor Redmond shook his head. “Nope. Nothing. Not even any flesh from the wound in his side.” The deputies joined them, catching their breath, Deputy Telton looking a little worse-for-wear. “Just the blood here, there, and where the body lay.” The Doc finished.
Ciril Hage turned to his men. “Keep looking. If you find nothing by midday, then come back to town.”
The deputies nodded and answered in unison. “Yes Marshal.”
The Marshal walked over to his horse and mounted. The Doc followed. “The logical explanation is that it was in fact a bear or feral animal that did this.”
The Marshal agreed. “Yes, right.”
“You see any prints from a bear? Or a wolf?”
The Marshal looked back to where the body had been found.
The Doc continued. “Me neither. All I see; are the footprints of men. And on this surface, you can be damn sure the weight of a bear, or a wolf f’that matter would show up.”
The Marshal looked at the body, deep in thought.
The Doc waited.
He snapped out. “Thank you Clement. I’ll see you back in town.” The Marshal flicked the reins and his horse set off.
He brought his horse to halt and dismounted, fixing the reins to the hitching post at the side of the building – the two out front already taken up by other horses. He stepped on to the boardwalk, turned the corner and stepped through the jail house door with purpose.
Five men occupied the room, not counting the prisoner. One – of wiry build – leant against the sill of the window to his left, another to his immediate right, two sat directly ahead of him, the bench clearly under strain – both men being some of the largest he had seen. Brothers by the looks of it, the only difference being their hair; one bald as an Eagle but with a face full of fur, the other clean shaven, but with dirty; shoulder length hair – each solidly built.
“Release my man Marshal.”
Marshal Hage looked to the man who had spoken, the fifth man, sat behind the desk – his dirty boots atop of it. Urlan Stratton.
“Do you mind?” The Marshal gestured to his desk.
“Not at all Marshal.” Stratton replied, making no attempt to move.
Ciril Hage walked across the room, toward the caged prisoner. “Your man, got himself in a bind yesterday eve n’should be thankful he’s still of the breathin’ world.” Hage held his gaze at the man through the bars.
Stratton’s voice dominated. “Regardless-” he slid his boots from the desk thudding to the floor, chunks of dirt fell free. “-of what has previously transpired.” Stratton stepped towards the Marshal, their eyes met and finished. “My man goes free.”
Urlan Stratton was a tall man – nearing sixty if going by his weathered features and greying hair. Of stocky build too, making Ciril Hage roughly half a foot shorter, giving him no choice but to look upwards as he spoke. “Mister Dalton is free to go. But, might I suggest he remains trouble free for the foreseeable.” He turned toward the cell, fumbling through the keys on his belt before find the correct one.
The lock clicked, but the Marshal held the door to, and continued. “Y’see, if Mister Dalton should find himself urged into a similar predicament he found himself in yester-eve, he may not be so lucky to have my hospitality, nor this luxurious cell.” He pulled the door open on tired hinges. “Next time- His eyes watched Duane Dalton as he stepped free from the cell. “-the confined comfort of a wooden box may be all this town has to offer.”
“Uh-huh.” Urlan acknowledged, as he lit a cigar. He drew in, held, and exhaled a cloud of smoke. “You wouldn’t be threatening my man there would you Marshal?”
Hage slowly walked across the path of Duane to behind his desk and looked down. “No threat-” He brushed the dirt to the floor, and brought his eyes up to meet those of Mister Stratton. “Merely stating fact. Your boy here is reckless n’likely to get himself and others killed runnin’ that big mouth o’his.”
Urlan Stratton smiled a cold smile. “Thank you Marshal for your hard work and ongoing service to this town.”
The two men at the front of the room opened the door and stepped out into the bustling street. Stratton looked to the bench as the brothers got to their feet and slowly made their way out of the room, each one wide enough – almost – to block both Urlan Stratton and Duane Dalton from the Marshal’s view as they passed between.
Urlan Stratton adjusted the cigar in his mouth and gestured his man toward the door. Marshal Ciril Hage followed them to the exit. Duane Dalton unable to hold his tongue no longer. “That gun-tippin’ son’o a bitch is the one lucky t’be alive.”
“How’d you figure that?” The Marshal sighed.
“He simply missed!”
“Missed?!” The Marshal let the question hang a moment and smiled. “Yes. Well we all have him to thank for that now don’t we?”
“I-” Urlan Stratton cut him short, grabbing Duane by his collar he dragged him off balance before steadying him, now having his undivided attention. “Fetch your horse. We’ve business a day’s ride from here, and cannot be late.” Stratton pointed to the mare stood at the side of the saloon farther up the street, still hitched to the post. Duane set off walking, not able to avoid scowling back at the Marshal.
The Marshal called to Stratton as he walked to the hitching post. “The business you have to attend. Where might that be?”
“Hither and yon.” Stratton replied casually.
“Nothing the law would frown upon I hope?”
Urlan unhitched and mounted his horse, turning on the spot to face the direction of the saloon. He looked back in acknowledgment, ignored the question and nodded. “Marshal.”
The Marshal responded, no complimenting gesture or tip of the hat, and simply said. “Urlan.”
To Be Continued…