This vignette is something of a prologue for the forthcoming novella, ‘Get Lucky’ (coming out this December in the Once Upon a Time in the Weird West anthology). The story takes place in the same steampunk, weird west setting as ‘The Hollow History of Professor Perfectus’ (published in the anthology Magic and Mayhem), as well as The Long Past collection, which will be released in January 2018. -Ginn
Dalfon Elias drew his horse to halt at the top of the wooded hill and considered the overgrown road ahead of him. As he dismounted, a little green pterosaur that had been occupied drinking from a muddy rut took flight into a flowering dogwood. Otherwise the road appeared largely abandoned and the surrounding lush forest stood quiet in the early morning sun. Dalfon crouched. The tracks that he followed weren’t difficult to pick out; the two nails missing from the horse’s hind shoe left a particularly distinct impression.
If Jo ‘Killer’ Curtis had been smart he would’ve allowed the farrier to finish shoeing the animal before he shot the man and stole the mount. But like so many other outlaws that Dalfon had hunted and gunned down, Curtis was quick to draw but slow to think. Double-crossing the members of his own gang and raping a marshal’s daughter hadn’t won him any friends—certainly no one willing to risk their own skin to shelter him from angry gunmen and marshals toting rifles loaded with alchemical ammunition.
Curtis’s decision to leave West America and flee cross the vast Inland Sea to the old states of East America could’ve been the only bright idea his rotten little brain ever produced. And Curtis might just have disappeared into obscurity if only he’d managed the basic decency to pay his way instead of knifing the porter who’d requested his to see his train ticket.
Committing murdering on a Trans Americas Railcar had been an astoundingly stupid act. It had spooked regular passengers and ignited an outcry in the press over public safety on the rail lines. Worse it had roused the ire of railroad baron, Louis Moreau.
Old man Moreau could afford to hire earth mages to open up mountains for him, and whole armies of gunmen to clear away any belligerent sauropods. The bounty his Trans Americas Railroad offered to have Curtis delivered—preferably dead—had been generous enough to decide Dalfon against retiring from the bloody work of hunting men. (In truth Dalfon had never felt so committed to peaceful employment that he’d sold his revolvers or ceased plying certain telegraph operators with coins and company to ensure that he knew exactly when a good bounty arose. But he’d thought about it… in passing.)
“Looks like the bridge washed out.” Dalfon spoke softly to himself just to hear human voice. It had been a long time hunting Curtis across a swampy wilderness. But he was close now, he knew it.
The pterosaur perched among the white dogwood flowers produced that little string of grunts that always made Dalfon think the creatures were chuckling over private jokes. Two more of the little beasts flapped into the branches. Dalfon’s mare helped herself to a mouthful of wild grass, while Dalfon considered the remnants of a wooden bridge and the wide dark river flowing between him and Curtis’s hometown of Edgewater.
He didn’t think the Curtis possessed the means to demolish a bridge, so more than likely this was a matter of bad luck rather than tactical maneuvering. (Triceratopses sometimes collapsed bridges under their immense girths.)
Still, Dalfon took a few moments to survey the town below for any sign of a possible ambush.
Nearly the entire populace seemed to be out, dressed in their Sunday best despite the muddy streets. Streams of the populace strolled from the big, white-washed church towards the grounds of the town square. Out on the open green, veritable rainbows of bright ribbons fluttered alongside East American flags and a number of women appeared to be in a desperate race to bury several big tables beneath a mountain of pies and cakes. Groups of men gathered around pens of livestock and paused beside gleaming displays of clockwork automatons. Between the clusters of bustling adults children chased each other and paused now and again to gawk at the fat troops of roan leptoceratopses romping in wooden enclosures.
Four young men hauled a yellow banner into the air. Give Thanks for Flood’s End, it proclaimed in brilliant blue letters. Despite himself Dalfon felt a whisper of nostalgia curl around him. In California, they celebrated Flood’s End earlier in the year, but here the day of thanksgiving brought out large crowds and reminded folks of how precious the common joys of their daily lives were.
The great flood that began back in ‘58 could have destroyed everything. For six years saltwater inundated lands around the world—states and then entire countries disappeared like Atlantis. Monstrous beasts emerged from the rifts where the water poured out. Tyrannosaurus devoured people, mosasaurs capsized supply ships and gigantic pterosaurs ripped airships from the skies. It had probably seemed like the apocalypse to most the people living back then. But thanks to the courage of a Black trapper and a one-armed mage the floods had been stopped. The dinosaurs remained but folks now knew how to fight and domesticate them.
People across the newly divided Americas and most of the wider world still commemorated the end of the flood. In San Francisco the day was always celebrated with parades, fireworks and street carnivals. Dalfon’s parents embraced the holiday with a rare, unrestrained revelry that they didn’t even display during Purim—probably because they were old enough to know first hand what the world had been like before the long inundation and just how near they’d all come to death.
Dalfon felt a dull hunger gnaw at his empty stomach as he recollected the feasts he’d left behind when he’d abandoned his pious family—all those penny pies, corn cakes, fragrant, sweet oranges and cups of spiced cider. He’d taken all that abundance for granted, he supposed. But he’d also known, even at fifteen, that he wasn’t ever going to become a rabbi like his father or wed any of the pretty girls his mother always pointed out to him. When he’d met a rugged older ranger, he’d joined the man and his band to ride the wilds of the Rocky Mountains. He didn’t regret the decision, but he did sometimes miss the decency and comfort of the life he’d left behind.
“You hunching there in the middle of the road for a reason, mister?” A man’s voice sounded from behind Dalfon and at once he sprang up and spun to face the youth striding up behind him. The pterosaurs startled from their perches but Dalfon’s mare continued grazing.
“Some lookout you turn out to be,” Dalfon muttered to her. Then he turned his attention and most winning smile on the ragged young man before him.
The fellow wasn’t unattractive—in fact there was something a little charming about his dark unkempt hair and amused expression— but being soaked to the bone and spattered with mud from his patched shirt all the way down to his bare feet didn’t wouldn’t have brought out the best in any man. His slim build and complexion made Dalfon think that at least one of his ancestors hailed from across the Sea of Sanji, but his dialect has sounded just a little French.
As far as Dalfon could see the young man wasn’t armed beyond the hunting knife that hung from his belt. But the fact that he carried a dead juvenile crocodile slung over his wiry shoulders certainly testified to a lethal capacity. The reptile’s pale tongue lolled from its grimacing mouth and it seemed to pin Dalfon with one warning yellow eye.
“Well, hail fellow and well met!” Dalfon tipped back his hat to the young man. “The name’s Dalfon Elias.”
“Luc Spivey,” The young man responded, then he added. “But everybody calls me Lucky.”
“ Ah. Well Lucky, you’ve caught me in the midst of pondering the bridge,” Dalfon informed.
“You mean all that what aint there? Seems like either a whole lot to consider or nothing at all.” Lucky smiled as he teased Dalfon and the expression seemed to light him up.
“Well as the bard wrote ‘what need the bridge much broader than the flood? The fairest grant is necessity.’” Dalfon stated but he could see that Lucky didn’t follow him. “Anything that would get me across the river would do, was what I was thinking.”
“Oh. Heading into Edgewater?” Lucky’s expression turned slightly assessing and Dalfon could almost feel him trying to work out what possible connection Dalfon could possess to the literal back-water of Edgewater.
Dalfon considered spinning one of his yarns about a long lost brother or newly discovered cousin, but today he didn’t feel like lying. And there was something canny in the way Lucky studied him that warned Dalfon that the young man wasn’t a fool.
“It’s been a long while since I’ve taken in a Floods End Celebration,” Dalfon admitted. “I’ve enjoyed plenty of bang-up parties—one that nearly burned an entire town down—but it’s been a long, long time since I last strolled across a green, sipping tea and sampling pie and just feeling…decent. I think it’d be nice to go.”
“It does look like it could be a good time.” Lucky’s dark gaze turned from Dalfon and he stared down at the town as if studying the bright poster for a play he longed to see but couldn’t afford the ticket to attend. Considering the young man’s appearance, Dalfon supposed the good folks of Edgwater didn’t treat him with much respect.
Civilized, genteel people— Dalfon’s parents included—would likely take a wide route to avoid acknowledging much less speaking to a man who looked like Lucky. But Dalfon had traveled far and encountered all kinds, from slick, handsome devils to dirty, old saints. He’d been himself accused of being a handsome devil more than once. And with twenty dead men to his name he didn’t argue. But something about this young man struck him as more genuine than Dalfon had ever been. Simple, in the better meaning of the word.
“They charge a nickel to get in if you don’t live in the city.” Lucky shifted the weight of the crocodile slung across his shoulders. “But it don’t cost anything to watch from up here when they set off the fire works tonight.”
“A nickel?” That wasn’t cheap. A dime could buy a man a pound of sugar and a quarter would set him up with more dried beans that he’d want to eat. Dalfon wondered if the folks of Edgewater hadn’t set that extravagant price just to deflect young men like Lucky.
Lucky nodded like a world-weary old prospector. His eyes remained focused on the festivities taking place across the water. Dalfon would have had to have been blind not to see the longing there. Again he recalled the pampered luxury of his own boyhood when he’d sampled sweets and jumped on carousel rides just as he pleased every Flood’s End. Since those days he’d figured out how easy his life had been and just how much luxury he’d enjoyed, but until just this moment it hadn’t ever occurred to him that it was one thing to feel grateful; that was a sort of childish state, being provided for and only having to say “thank you”. But it was different to suddenly think of providing something to another soul—finding a way to pass on a little happiness, a little joy. Not that he had time for such things. There was Curtis to hunt down. But it might feel good, one day, to allow someone else to experience the pleasures he’d enjoyed.
A band began playing on the green. Big brassy notes trumpeted through the air. Dalfon frowned at the river.
“I don’t suppose you know where there’s another bridge?” Dalfon asked.
Four miles or so south, on Swaim property,” Lucky replied but he shook his head. “If the Swaims see you it could mean a whole mess of trouble. Or you might try the shallow spot about four miles east but you’ll get plenty wet. You’d be best off rafting across.”
“If I had a raft, you mean?” Dalfon responded. “Maybe hidden in my coat pocket or slipped down my boot?”
“They do look like awful big boots.” Lucky smiled. “Maybe you could hire a fellow to take you across.”
Dalfon laughed at the obvious lead up. Lucky’s smile widened into a grin, assuring Dalfon that he did indeed possess a raft that could ferry Dalfon across the river. Depending on the route Curtis took, Dalfon might well arrive in Edgewater ahead of the killer.
“All right, how much will it cost me to hire you to convey my-poor-self and my stead across?” Dalfon asked.
“Poor-self! You aint all that poor. Not with a jacket that nice and those slick looking boots…” Despite his words Lucky appeared suddenly uncertain. “I aint trying to take advantage, I mean if you’re bad off—”
“What about this,” Dalfon found himself speaking even before he considered the implications or possible complications that might arise. “I’ll pay you two dollars. But not only do you have to ferry me across the river, you’ll also show me around the town and give me a tour of the Flood’s End Celebration.”
For a moment Lucky just stared at him like he knew the proposition was too good to be true but could quite figure out the con.
“I could use a little human conversation after only having my horse to chat with for a fortnight,” Dalfon added. “Chatting with me wouldn’t be too much of a hardship, would it?”
“No. I don’t recon it’d be any trouble at all…” The mix of hope and shy admiration in Lucky’s expression somehow sent a rush of warmth through Dalfon’s chest, filling him with the flattering sense of being mistaken for sort of hero—someone better than a mere bounty hunter. Dalfon felt his face warming. That couldn’t be mere gratitude alone that he recognized in Lucky’s gaze.
“What do you say?” Dalfon asked.
“You got yourself a deal, Dalfon.” Lucky thrust out his right hand and they shook. “I guess it’s your lucky day.” Lucky pulled a grimace at his own pun but continued to hold Dalfon’s hand for just a little too long. His fingers felt tough but also warm.
They descended together towards the river where Lucky had hidden his raft away in the underbrush. Dalfon found himself telling Lucky absurd stories of his various adventures in the Rocky Mountains and delighting when he won a laugh from him.
The young man did have a certain charm, Dalfon thought. And just now the way the morning light fell on him, it lit his dark eyes like amber and exposed a brief, almost flirtatious curve to the set of his lips. Cleaned up and fed a decent meal Lucky might prove to be quite fine. Maybe even a little distracting.
Dalfon knew it was neither wise nor practical to waste his afternoon—maybe even his evening, it things went well—with this young man. But if there was any day to indulge himself, any day on which to relish all the joy and abundance that made a man glad to be alive, and to share that bounty with another soul, it was today.
Music rose from a far shore and the scent of mulled cider drifted on the air. Dalfon stepped out onto the raft and led his mare after him. Overhead a flock of pterosaurs chuckled at him and dived after fish hidden beneath the rolling waters.
My lucky day, Dalfon thought to himself. Well, maybe it was.
Ginn Hale resides in the Pacific Northwest with her lovely wife and wayward cats. She is an award-winning author of science fiction and fantasy, as well as an avid coffee-drinker.