A. Merc Rustad
The lone gunman waited for the train. He'd walked a long, dusty trail down from the Paper Mountains and he'd be home soon. Whiskey was waiting for him. The mountains were stable again, after he'd hunted out the stone lice that were cracking the foundations and threatening to collapse the mines.
He didn't have a name he cared to share, and he drifted as loners do. What he had was purpose: to leave the world just a hair better than he found it.
The mountains were stolid and sure-rooted once more. He could rest for a time.
The train was late.
The long gunman stared into the darkness. Rain was coming. Not a casual spread of water, either, but one of the hound-storms.
A cold front had shifted in with the sun’s funeral. Sodden clouds muted the stars. He pulled his collar up, tipped his hat brim down. Soon, the chaos hounds would land in splashing, teeth-bright drops.
If the train didn't come, he had no shelter. There were no warded shanties or ivy-draped stone adobes in these parts. Just wide stretches of flat land and pockets of uprisen mesas too far away to be of any help.
The revolvers at his hips whispered, restless like his hands.
"Soon," he told them. With nowhere to run, he'd hold his ground and fight.
WE HUNGER, the guns said.
Light in the distance. The train, racing the clouds on lightning rails to pick him up? He squinted and leaned forward a notch. No. Just the eye-glimmer of a passing vulture.
The gunman paced. His pocket watch had gone feral days ago. No way to tell the time. He remembered the glint of gold under his boot as he brought his heel down. Glass had cracked like a heart breaking. His wrist ached, longing for the oiled leather band that was no more.
It was a shame about the watch. It'd lasted a long few years; but time-tellers, well, even those go rabid in the end. He'd put it out of its misery, though it caused him a deep-cut share of his own.
The first rain drops pelted the charred ground near his feet. From the damp rose the hounds. Jaws wide, tongues brittle and sharp.
The guns keened.
"Easy," the gunman said, laying palms on the revolver grips to restrain them. "Wait for the horde-heart to rise..."
"I know. Wait."
Faster now, the rain-dogs fell. Each one burst against the ground and leapt up reformed and ravenous. The wavered in place, shimmering with their own internal luminance. Each droplet was beholden to the horde-heart, the master of the storm.
The gunman held steady. He couldn't waste his shots: storms like these showed no mercy, and weren't spurred on with wind and boredom.
In the rising fog, born from the clash of ground-heat and air-damp, the horde-heart began to appear. It was big as a horse: a hound made from bees.
The gunman pulled his bandana up over nose and mouth.
Then he unleashed the guns and let them howl.
The dual revolvers spat out equations and algorithms like bullets; each shot swallowed rain-dogs and bees alike, consuming the chaos.
But there were so many bees. Huge, red-velvet bodies strung with razor wings and curving stingers dripping apathy. The bees roiled, turning the horde-heart from a hound into a towering pillar of buzzing, humming terror.
The guns were tiring, running out of ammo: they could only hold so many pieces inside their chambers. Other guns ejected bullets instead of consuming matter. He didn't care much for those types of guns.
The gunman staggered back, breathing hard. The rain-hounds were closer, now. Fencing him in, eating up the dry ground under his feet.
Where was the train, his rescue, his salvation? It should have arrived by now. He couldn’t hold back the rain or the bees much longer.
A rain-dog slipped past his defenses and licked his shin. Burning pain lanced up and his knee buckled. Damn. He batted the rain away and staggered up again. He couldn’t fall. He had to outlast, had to get on the train.
Wind heckled and booed him, sweeping the rain closer.
He thought of home: his unmade bed, the tin-can coffee maker, his extra hats guarding the walls. Of the hermit crabs who lived next door and who’d given him a necklace of outgrown shells as a housewarming gift.
He thought of his sagging bookshelf and framed oil paintings. And most of all, he thought about his cat: a one-eyed, three-legged, chain-smoking, blue-cursing tom who’d lived eight lives thoroughly. Whiskey was expecting him: expecting a morning ritual of canned tuna and head scratches and bitching about the cost of fishbones.
No, he wouldn’t die here on the rain-soaked ground, stung to ash by bees.
He’d survive until the train.
The guns clicked empty.
Another rumble in the distance. His breath hitched. No vulture, this time. That light…
The pillar of bees swept towards him, tauntingly slow: the swarm gloated, and he glared in defiance.
Slowly, he holstered the revolvers. They were full, and had nothing left to give. He tipped the brim of his hat up, let the bees see his glint-hard eyes. Lowered the bandana.
Around him, the dogs undulated and snapped. The bees loomed, triumphant.
The gunman let a slow smile curve his mouth.
"All this time," he said, "I’ve been standing on the tracks."
The bees hummed a mocking laugh.
"And that," he continued. "Is a train."
The bees whirled in a mass as light burst from the night. A bellowing gout of steam ripped open the clouds above as the train arrived.
The gunman threw himself to the side, rolling away from the startled bees and the distracted rain-hounds. His coat whipped about his legs.
The train opened its huge grille mouth and hurtled into the bees, swallowing the swarm with the rattle-clash of wheels and teeth and heat. The rain-hounds wailed and fled, drying up as they dissipated back into the torn clouds.
The gunman shielded his eyes as the train roared.
Standing atop the engine car was a woman with dark hair, holding the reins in one hand and her conductor’s hat in the other.
The train huffed and slowed, its belly rumbling with the trapped bees. The woman waved her cap.
"Need a lift, buddy?"
The gunman exhaled in slow relief.
"Much obliged," he said. He looked around, wary for stray hounds or deserter bees. You never knew when a storm-ghost would rise after rain. The land was cascading from deepest night towards the wisps of dawn. Gray patches of sky clawed from the horizon, up, up—pale gradients. No threats remained tonight.
The woman reached down and offered the gunman a hand. He gripped her callused palm and pulled himself up, onto the roof of the train.
"My pardons for running late," the woman said. She flicked the reins, and the train heaved forward. It began the long, gradual curve that would turn it back towards civilization and the town of Dryspell. "Got waylaid by clockwork bandits."
"Glad you made it," he said. "What'd the bandits want?"
"Convinced they were avenging the death of their cousin," she said, shaking her head. "Where you headed, stranger?"
"Home," he said. "Dryspell Station, if you'd be so kind."
He smiled, letting out a sigh of relief.
He was going home.
© 2017 by Merc Rustad
(1,200 words | Fantasy)