This story appears in the premier issue of the online magazine Wordmonger.me.
Twenty-Seven Cents of Luck (Excerpt)
by T. Lee Harris
Lead-colored clouds hung oppressively low and the daylight filtering through painted the landscape with a faint blue sheen. Not for the first time, Kaetin wondered if he should just head home. Two days out and, if anything, he’d seen less game up here than he had back home. The weather was holding, though, still only cold and windy. No, he needed to push on. Anything he could bring back would help to feed their little community when the weather really turned hard and snow filled the pass.
The bay horse shifted beneath him. Kaetin leaned forward to pat its neck. “I know, Jasper, you’re anxious to get moving. Can’t say I blame you. It ain’t getting no warmer us stopping here.”
He glanced at the sky again and found himself fingering where the medicine bag rested against his chest. Laughing at himself, he said, “We could use a bit of sun right about now, but looks like all we’ll get is more snow. To hell with it, Jasper. North it is.” He wheeled the bay toward a break in the trees and headed deeper into the woods.
Kaetin had been seeing boulders dotting the landscape for a while. They looked new-fallen with moss-clean faces and stark white scarring. As he traveled higher, their numbers increased and large chunks of jagged slate poked up through the snow crust. He dismounted and brushed snow away for a better look. “Looks like George’s gully washer hit up here, too.” He straightened and followed the line of debris. “Might as well head that way to see what happened, Jasper. Not like we’ve found anything the way we’ve been traveling.”
Turning the sheepskin collar up and seating his hat more firmly, he took the horse’s lead and carefully picked his way up the slope. The trail of debris led him to a place where a cliff face had sheared away and carried part of the mountain with it, opening a long-closed passage. Trees along the slide path leaned at crazy angles, both completely and almost uprooted by piles of rubble tumbled against the trunks. Small scrubby bushes and grasses poked up through the white. Nature was healing the wound. In a couple years, it would be hard to tell it happened.
Floyd led the big bay into the sheltered path. It was still tricky footing, but both welcomed the protection from the stinging, wind-blown snow. On the far side, the path opened out into another section of woods where undisturbed snow lay heavy on the ground and the air was much calmer. It was a beautiful sight, but at the same time disheartening.
“Damn me if it don’t look as sparse up this way as it was back there. C’mon, Jasper. We might as well push on for a bit. We come a long way for a lot of nothing.”
A few yards beyond the pass, Jasper suddenly got skittish. There was nothing that Floyd could see, but that didn’t mean much. Probably a mountain lion, he thought. No game for him also meant no food for them and they tended to get a bit testy when they got hungry. Quietly, he eased the rifle out of the scabbard and edged toward the thicket the horse was rolling his eyes at. Kaetin couldn’t see anything behind the scrub but a larger mound of snow. Moving the undergrowth aside released a dump of snow from the overburdened pines. Floyd jumped back, managing to avoid most of the fall. As he stood spluttering and brushing powdery flakes from his shoulders, something dark against the white caught his eye. It was a saddle horn.
Digging deeper revealed the rest of the saddle, then the bags, then the ravaged remains of a horse. Kaetin silently regarded the familiar punchwork on the worn saddle, then said, “Guess we know what happened to Nicolet’s horse.”
He spent a little more time searching the area, but found no sign of Nicolet, himself. “Well,” he said, settling Nicolet’s saddlebags on Jasper. “At least we can get these back to the post. If he don’t come for them himself, maybe the fur folks can ship them back to his kin in France.”
As they traveled, the woods became denser. The ground cover was pristine as a new fall. He was just considering turning back when the trees abruptly ended at a clearing. Kaetin paused just inside the trees and stared. He’d never seen anything quite like it. The cleared area looked to be perfectly circular and everything just stopped at the edge of it — even the snow. A rounded hill rose in the center; small stones were scattered around the sides and there was a big pile of larger ones at the top. It looked deliberate and would have taken someone a lot of time and effort. Even more curious were the bodies of deer and other animals lying on the rocky ground.
For a while, Kaetin stood motionless, trying to make sense of what he was seeing. Then a glint of light, like the play of sun on metal, caught his eye. He looked for the source. Nothing. It seemed to have come from the mound, near the cairn at the top. Deciding to look closer, he took Jasper’s lead and stepped forward. The big bay took a larger step back.
“Now what’s got you spooked, you four-legged lump of stubborn? Dead horse I could understand, but you’ve seen plenty of dead deer before.”
He tugged again on the lead. The big horse ducked his head and shied farther back. Exasperated, Kaetin looped the reins over a stunted-looking tree and snatched the rifle. “Have it your way, damn you. I’m going to go have a look with or without you.”
He wheeled back toward the hill and froze. The tug of war with the bay had taken them around the edge of the clearing. From his new angle he could see a man’s leg and boot protruding from a tumble of stones about half-way up. “Is that what’s spooking you?”
It felt odd as he stepped across the line where the snow ended and the barren ground began. It was like pushing through a curtain. Felt warmer, too — although not necessarily comfortable. He wondered if it was some kind of hot spring. He’d seen similar when his mounted company passed through the Wyoming Territory.
Rifle at the ready, he edged around the rocks and found Louis Nicolet slumped against the stones. He was just as dead as the deer on the other side of the hill and looked like a layer of dust had settled over him. Nicolet’s coat was nowhere to be seen and his shredded shirt revealed a large blackened patch covering most of his chest that was like no wound Floyd had seen before.
“That don’t look like a bullet hole. Don’t even look like a proper burn.” Baffled, Kaetin knelt beside the body and moved the tattered shirt aside for a better look. At his touch, Louis Nicolet dissolved into dust, bones crumbling, as if he were years dead rather than weeks. Kaetin took a startled step backward onto loose gravel that sent him pitching headlong down the slope, hat and rifle flying in different directions. He bumped painfully down the hillside and came to a hard stop against a rock near the edge of the clearing. A short distance to his right, the rifle skittered into the carcass of a buck which fell into dust just like Nicolet.