Science Fiction & Fantasy

FEAR CITY by F. Paul Wilson

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Fiction

Her Words Like Hunting Vixens Spring

The first fox to come clawing up and out of her throat is a sleek gray thing with enormous ears and eyes like drops of crude. Rosa opens her mouth to belch—she doesn’t give a good god-damn about being ladylike at this point, when the desert has cracked her lips to the texture of dried clay and the only other person around to hear is her horse—and all of the sudden she’s tasting musk and spitting fur and something big is scratching its way free of her gullet. The pain is lightning sear and cactus spine. She tumbles off Santiago’s back and crumples in the sand, dark spots exploding behind her eyelids.

The fox shoulders and wriggles from between her jaws, first the whiskery, pointed muzzle and then all the rest. Finally free, it shakes its sodden coat and shoots Rosa a disgusted look. It wraps its tail around its paws and sets to grooming itself dry, for all the world like some mouser caught in a rainstorm. Rosa watches in glaze-eyed wonder. She can’t think straight. Her brains are still vibrating slightly from shock and hurt.

When she finally wobbles back to her feet, the first thing she does is fish the empty patent medicine bottle from the bottom of her leftmost saddlebag, pushing past two waterskins, a fiddle case, and a faded tintype of her brothers. There’s a drawing of a dandy with a waxed mustache on the label, and a long list of ailments the wondrous stuff inside is supposed to cure. Rosa examines the flask from top to bottom, but there’s no mention of potential side effects printed anywhere, nothing about ague or addiction or (surprise) spontaneously hacking up full-grown foxes. No question about it, then. It’s a genuine miracle, just like she asked the bruja for. An inexplicable, painful miracle, with no use whatsoever in her hunt.

She looks at the ground, where the tracks of her quarry have almost faded to scuffed half-moons. She considers what this new delay means, thinks of Captain Todd pulling away into the mountains where a million hidey holes and snaky little canyons lie in wait for him. Briefly—very briefly—she wonders if it might not be better to turn around and go home, with or without his freckled scalp hanging from her saddle horn. No one will think less of her if she does. She can sew a patch on the family quilt to commemorate the occasion, line it with strips of the wedding dress she’ll never get to wear. The Day My Beau Tried To Kill Me, September 17th, 1880.

Her conscience pipes up right on cue, like an annoying little sister with a one-track mind. But you’re not out here just for yourself, are you, girlie?

“God-dammit,” she says. She grinds her teeth together so hard she can feel them creaking in their sockets. It’s no use. The key has already turned in the lock; there’s no unseeing what bleeds behind the door, scalped and split open by a man she naively thought she knew. Twenty-four girls with twenty-four names and twenty-four lives, reduced to stinking cordwood under yellowing sheets. Twenty-four bodies carried back over the threshold like brides by retching volunteers, to lie in rows beneath a sepia sky.

It’s all too much. Rosa pitches a fit, right there in the middle of the desert.

She tears the big black hat off her head and chucks it in the dirt. She screams curses and stomps her boots and flaps her poncho until even the unshakable Santiago spooks a little, snorting warnings. She yanks clumps of dark hair out of her scalp and lets the wind take them spiraling upwards like hay scraps after a mowing. And when she’s finally done, red-faced and panting and blurry-eyed from tears she can’t shed, she feels a teensy bit better. Not a lot, because the problems Rosa’s got are too big to be fixed that easily, but enough that she can keep moving unhobbled by the memories.

She turns back to the fox, still watching her out of those bright black eyes. It’s panting laughter now, all parted fangs and wicked good humor at Rosa’s expense. Irritatingly, she feels herself begin to blush.

“Yeah, well, I’d like to see your good ideas,” she mutters, snatching her hat from the ground and jamming it low on her head. She tells herself she’s not hiding in the shade it casts. “Wouldn’t happen to know which way he went, would you?”

The fox’s laughter shuts off abruptly at her words. Its entire posture turns no nonsense, business from nose tip to tail tip. It glances over its shoulder at her—why didn’t you just ask me in the first place?—before setting off to the northwest at a steady trot, nose glued to the desert floor. What other choice does she have? Rosa follows. A miracle’s a miracle, whether sent by God or Santa Muerte. You don’t waste it, even if it comes in a ridiculous form.

Even if, like the second fox to disembark from Rosa’s innards, it sends you sprawling ass-over-appetite into a prickly pear patch. The new critter is jet-black with golden eyes, and it laughs at her as well.

***

When they found out what Captain Todd had been up to behind the locked doors of his villa, her three brothers wanted to hunt him down themselves. They were the weathered veterans of a million cattle drives and whore towns, rough and ragged as a rusty bucketful of cobs. Telling them “no” wasn’t a job for the faint of heart, but Rosa did it anyway. She got her hair ruffled patronizingly for her pains.

“We’ll string his hide on barb-wire like a coyote, little sister,” the eldest said. He was tall and lean and threw a shadow like a hangman’s platform at sunset. Rosa stole his revolver on her way out and was thankful he’d taught her to shoot it straight when their father wasn’t looking.

“That copper-haired devil is gonna dance a jig at the end of a yucca rope,” said the middle son. He wore a silver star on his barrel chest and carried a map of the territories from Tucumcari to Fort Bowie. Rosa stole the map from his saddlebags on her way out and was thankful he’d taught her how to read it when the snows were high and there wasn’t anything better to do.

“I’ll bring you back that pretty yellow scarf he wears for your wedding trunk,” the youngest told her. He slouched in his saddle and wore a black Stetson that must’ve cost him at least three months pay. Rosa stole the hat from a peg in the tack room on her way out and was thankful he’d taught her how to spit and swear like a man while their mother was otherwise occupied.

She knows they probably think her dead by now, another victim of the young man with the uniform and the foxy grin. Rosa misses her brothers desperately and wishes she could tell them the truth—don’t worry, fellas, I’ve gone to get the son of a bitch myself and the foxes I keep retching up track better than bloodhounds—but there’s no turning back until her task is done. The memory of all those girls drives Rosa onwards like a quirt, toward mountains that hover like judgment and a fiancé who is not what he once seemed.

***

The more of them she retches up, the easier it gets. It’s still not exactly what you’d call comfortable, but after the fourth or fifth time Rosa is able to brace herself when she feels her throat swelling like she’s just taken too big a gulp of water. They are all vixens, all female; when she looks around at the strange pack pacing beneath her stirrups she wonders what it all means.

Some are stout red matrons with shaggy coats and black masks. Others are small and sandy and whippy-thin as barn cats, quick to jump when Santiago’s iron-shod hoof strikes a rock. The heat doesn’t seem to bother them. They flow through the sage in a tireless wave, not even stopping to hunt or drink or mark bushes—a ghost army made real, called up by patent medicine and whatever dark forces for revenge lurk in Rosa’s craw. The idea is enough to make her laugh herself silly, or at least it would be had she any laughter left. Good humor has been powerful hard to come by since the day she used the key.

They’re indistinguishable from normal foxes in every other way that counts, though. They snap at flies and chase one another between Santiago’s legs and get into squabbles that sound like demons haggling over cribbage scores. The first one—Rosa calls her Gray Sister, all the while telling herself that she considers them neither pets nor family and what’s the point in naming figments?—takes to sitting at the foot of her pallet every night, ears swiveling against the speckled sky. Rosa isn’t sure when the vixen sleeps; maybe she never does.

A day comes when the trail fades to scrapes on stone and wisps of scent so faint not even the vixens can find them. The shadows lengthen until they’re all walking on stilts and Rosa’s hair is plastered to her neck like a wet strip of calico and her temper’s worn nubbin-small as lye soap on Saturday night and there’s no change, no nothing, they may as well have been walking this circuit forever eating their own tails and their own dust like stubborn hoop snakes. She reluctantly begins thinking about making camp, wondering if she even has the spit left to whistle an all in, ladies to her pack.

The wind in the desert has a million voices. It hisses like a Gila and moans through the dry riverbeds like a toothless old woman, cajoling and spiteful by turns. Sometimes it whispers words to Rosa. Names, or directions, or nonsense gibberish that trails off into mocking laughter stinging as sand. You’d have to be a fool born to trust such voices. Since Rosa was born a woman and not a fool, she ignores them, shutting off her ears when they speak like her father or mother or the Captain himself. The evening breeze that eddies up now sounds like one of the village’s ill-reputed saloon ladies, all cigarette smoke and sipping bourbon. It nips at Rosa’s damp nape and runs a bold finger along her jaw, tracing a line all the way to her earlobe. Gooseflesh prickles her skin.

Play, it whispers, teasing as desire. Play.

Rosa sets her jaw and keeps her eyes on the horizon. She’s not in the mood for this tonight. Not now, and probably not ever. Santiago shies nervously, sensing her anger, and she puts the spurs to him, harder than she means to. He crow-hops and it’s all she can do to stay put, hissing curses between her teeth. The wind chuckles roughly at her back, a calloused hand in a velvet glove.

Play, daughter. To the trail. Play.

She spits dust and jerks Santiago around to face the darkening east, teeth bared like one of her own foxes. Enough is enough.

“Miss,” she says, “unless you’re Santa Muerte herself, I kindly suggest you go blow up someone else’s skirts. I’m not interested.” Something that isn’t anger is uncurling in the pit of her stomach, but she won’t give Whatever It Is the satisfaction of knowing that. “I don’t even understand what you’re getting at. You want music? Is that it?”

At the words “Santa Muerte” the laughter suddenly becomes a gale. Sand billows like smoke, lifting into the sky to turn the light bone-colored and watery. The world vanishes as if a curtain’s come down, foxes, desert, and everything else turned to dim shadows seen through muslin. The mocking voice is all around her. It’s loud enough to make her ears ring and knowing enough to make her wish she’d kept her big mouth shut.

Santa Muerte, Santa Muerte! A dry howl from a million throats, the noise of a sidewinder’s scales scraping across desiccated ribcages. Play them to the trail! Strings sing and foxes dance! Danza Macabra! Danza Macabra!

A shape forms in the cloud of sand. A woman with a skull’s face, hooded and robed, cigarette dangling lazily from between her teeth. Rosa sees the vision for only the briefest of moments, but it tells her all she needs to know, all she wants to know. Her throat goes as cottony as Gray Sister’s tail. She gropes reflexively for the strand of beads around her neck, rubbing at them for what courage she can muster.

“. . . My apologies, good lady,” she finally croaks. “I didn’t know it was . . . I never thought—”

Make them dance if you seek justice! PLAY!

The voice cracks against her cheek like a slap. Rosa mutters a final prayer under her breath and reaches into the saddlebags for her fiddle case, fingers fumbling clumsily with the latches.

It’s a beautiful instrument, all pyrographed flowers and gleaming red wood. She fits it under her chin and raises the bow. If I can play an air in the middle of a sandstorm, she thinks, the next time I’m invited to a corn-husking shouldn’t be any trouble at all. Her exposed skin tingles faintly. An old folk ditty her father used to play springs to mind, appropriate enough that she almost chokes on laughter. Music seeps into the air.

The fox went out on a chilly night,

He prayed for the moon to give him light,

For he’d many a mile to go that night,

Before he reached the town-o, town-o, town-o,

He’d many a mile to go that night,

Before he reached the town-o.

The tune capers and leaps cheerfully above the noise of the storm, ignorant as a trout in the stream. Had Captain Todd ever requested this song, back in the days when she’d sit on his knee and fiddle for kisses? She’s sure he must have, but her memories of that time are blessedly vague, a flash of freckles here, a swatch of scratchy blue uniform there. She remembers the faces of the girls better than his own. Their blood sticky on the floor and the key, their scalps swinging from his belt like obscene medals. A cavalry sword slicing through the darkness, his white sickle grin not far behind.

A funny thing happens as she plays. The voice of the wind quiets. The pall of sand begins lifting, gradual as the curtain before a revue. The first stars peek through, and then the miles of sage and sand ahead. She can see mountains, gullies, riverbeds etched in purple and orange ink. The world unfurls before her like music.

And the foxes.

They’re a riot of movement, whirling shapes ducking and dodging over backs and under bellies like eels escaping a net. A yellow coat and a gray twirl around and around together, teeth buried in each other’s tail tips, a third darting in and out of the cyclone they make. The two identical silver sisters Rosa calls the Minnows yap and stamp atop a heap of stones to her left, claws going click-click-clack on the worn surface of the boulders. Gray Sister bounds among her companions, nipping at rumps and legs and anything else that gets in the way of her fangs. The faster Rosa plays, the more frenzied they become. The earth is a mass of flashing fur and teeth.

They’re dancing, she realizes. Play them to the trail, she said.

It’s a memory she’ll keep safely tucked away in her heart’s pocket until the day she dies. The fiddle singing its wild, sweet song, the sky darkening to indigo above them, and all around her foxes, twisting like gunsmoke through the eye of a needle.

They have no trouble finding the trail the next morning.

***

She’s still got scabs on her knees from when she crawled to the bruja’s shrine outside of town. The parish priest had banished the old crone years before—the church didn’t look too kindly on the followers of Santa Muerte, blasphemous rum-swilling newcomer that she was—but that didn’t stop villagers from slinking out to the barrens whenever they needed a favor. Mama Margaret wasn’t picky, and neither was La Flaca. For a small offering the two of them could get you whatever you wanted. Money, or a little power, or protection for the people you cared about. Luck in love. Luck in things the authorities might’ve frowned upon.

Revenge, too. Santa Muerte was very good at revenge.

“To catch a fox,” the witch had said, “you need to be a fox.” And she had handed Rosa the bottle of patent medicine, smiling her lined, tobacco-stained smile. “I can’t promise you it’ll work, or that you’ll like what it does. Señora Blanca’s a fickle old bitch, but you’re young and pretty and you crawled here like a good penitent. You got faith in the old ways, which is more than I can say for the rest of your family. More important than any of that, you’ve been wronged. Drink what’s inside that bottle and I’d bet the whiskers on my chin the good lady will help you. Wait a little while and see.”

“But what about my brothers and the other posse?” Rosa had flinched at the memory of their faces, missing them already. “Won’t they catch up before I do?”

Another flash of teeth, brown as saddle leather. “What about them? The good townspeople didn’t give a whit about all those penniless wenches vanishing until you found their bodies, and I doubt they care too almighty much even now. You just start riding west and follow the sign as best you can, little girl. Let revenge be your compass, and don’t worry about folks who couldn’t find sand in the desert.”

***

Dreams begin skittering through her head each night like mice beneath tall grass, plump with omens and signs.

She’s standing in the parlor of her elderly fiddle teacher, Mrs. Wull, still dressed in her travel-stained poncho and boots. There’s a stiff horsehair sofa in the middle of the room, a piano in the corner, and several oil paintings hanging from the walls, exactly like the waking world. The heads of the stern-faced men and women in the portraits have been replaced with those of sly-eyed foxes. Rosa notices this, but the detail lands like a pebble in a dry well, quickly forgotten as her thoughts swim on to other pressing matters. How did she get here? Would it be polite to sit on the sofa when she’s covered in sweat and sand and horse lather? If she licks the wallpaper, will anyone notice?

The taste of Mrs. Wull’s wallpaper has been a long-standing question in Rosa’s mind. It’s the vibrant red of prickly pear preserves, striped with veins of minty green. When she was small, she imagined it tasting like figs crossed with raspberries, sweet and sappy and juicy-tart all at the same time. Now that she’s older and supposedly wiser, she knows that wallpaper, no matter how colorful or tempting, is just wallpaper, dust-flavored and dry as a moth’s wing rasping across your disappointed tongue. Saint Nicholas isn’t real, true love is a lie, and the only thing that won’t let you down in the world is its ability to let you down. The past few weeks have been, if nothing else, something of a learning experience in that regard.

Rosa knows all of this, but it doesn’t stop the stubborn five-year-old part of her from wanting to try. Feeling a little ridiculous, she sidles over to a corner, extends the tip of her tongue, and gives the wallpaper a tentative swipe. She braces for the bitterness of boiled glue, the chemical tang of several generations of mothballs and kerosene smoke. She prepares for life’s bad taste in her mouth, inevitable as wrinkles or scorpions in the kitchen.

It tastes like figs crossed with raspberries, sweet and sappy and juicy-tart all at the same time.

The voice comes from the empty room behind her, a dry, honeycomb-and-bone thing like sugar skulls trying to speak. “See there? Life ain’t so bad sometimes—leastways not all the time. Don’t let him make you forget that, else he’s already won and we might as well just pack it up and go home.”

Rosa whirls with her hand already fluttering for her gun. She breathes a sigh of relief that’s half curse, half greeting when she realizes it’s just Gray Sister, seated primly on the sofa.

“Where the hell did you come from?” she says. That the fox can talk now doesn’t surprise her in the slightest; this is, after all, only a dream. “And where’d you get that horrible accent?”

“Where’d you get your dark skin? Where’d you come by the color of your hair?” Gray Sister scoffs down her muzzle, all toothy disdain and bristling fur. “Don’t ask stupid questions, darlin’. I know you got more brains sloshing around in your head than that. Now, where did I come from, that’s a pretty good one. I could tell you,” —and here the sneer slips into a rueful, foxy grin, like a bullet sliding into a chamber— “but I don’t particularly feel like talking about that right now. Let’s hunker down and have a pow-wow about you. About the future, if you get me.”

Now it’s Rosa’s turn to bridle. She eyes the vixen suspiciously. “What about the future?” she asks. “What about me?”

“I swear, there’s more of an echo in here than inside Cap’n Todd’s empty puddin’ head. Untwist your tail and stop puffing up, I’m not here to give you grief. We’re all behind you one hundred and ten percent, more than you probably cotton. Hell, if I die a second time on this little hunt I’ll consider it time well spent and rest easier in my grave, wherever that may end up being. Not like I was getting any sleep before.” She shakes her wedge-head irritatedly, like she’s dislodging a fly from her eartip. “Didn’t I say I wasn’t gonna go into all of that? Lord a-mercy. Anyway, what I came here to tell you is this, and you remember it like it’s written across the face of your fiddle. Once the hunt’s done and the skin’s tacked up to dry, move on with your life. Don’t let that carpetbagging piece of rat-bone fool you into believing livin’ ain’t worth it, ‘cause it is. Even with scalawags like him runnin’ through it it is, I tell you that true.”

“But—”

“Butts are for rifles and cigarillos, little sister. Love something. Doesn’t have to be another person. Could just be your own sweet self. But for goodness sakes, don’t let him take off with your joy between his teeth, else you might as well have died with all the rest of us in that crawlspace beneath the stairs.” The fox snaps her fangs together, snickety-snak. Rosa shudders at the noise, and the memory. “That’s all I came here to say, anyways. Some of the others are better at speeching, but I got elected to it. Hope they’re happy with the results.”

And the mystery of the vixens suddenly clicks together like the oiled machinery of a revolver inside Rosa’s head.

***

It all happened like the worst kind of fairy tale. Rosa can almost imagine some prairie hen of a mother telling it to her circle of wide-eyed daughters, a cautionary sermon on impropriety and the dangers that lie waiting around every corner for headstrong young girls:

Rosa’s sixteen and oh! my darlings, such beauty you’ve never seen. Curls thick as blacksnakes, eyes brown as a summer flood, and a dab hand at the fiddle that could charm a Mennonite into doing the Jarabe Tapatío. She’s the delight of her father’s eye and the worry of her mother’s heart, high-spirited, fractious, and stubborn as three mules standing end to end to end.

A rich man lives in this town. He wears a bright blue uniform with bright brass buttons, and his hair is bright, too, like a penny at the bottom of a spring. There’s money jingling in his pockets, a whistle like rubies on his lips, and a glint in his eye when he looks at Rosa that says he’ll have her on his knee before the next Fourth of July. And does Rosa mind, my dears? Does she turn up her nose at all his flattering and charming and carrying on, like she’s done with all the other farm boys who came a-courting? Good heavens, no! For this captain is an easterner, and that spells different, and different spells interesting. She follows him around like a cat expecting fish, and if his eyes are sly (so sly!) and his expression foxy-sharp (so sharp!) she pays no attention and gives it no thought. Love’s wicked sneaky that way, my darlings. Like blinders on the eyes, or having no eyes at all.

So here he is and here she is and never have you seen a better-matched pair, tight as ticks in a coyote’s armpit. They’re the talk of the town and the toast of the throng, admired by every second son and firstborn daughter in the county. The months march on, and, as often happens, talk of a wedding springs up. Rosa’s chomping at the bit to see where she’ll live—to see where they’ll live, he and she and their lives ivy-twined together but her Captain, sly and slick as a greased lizard, never takes her there. It’s away down the white road, he says, far too dusty a length to travel for a mere visit.

“How many rooms are there in your villa?” she asks. For our Rosa’s a curious girl, as curious as a cat with its paw under the door.

“As many as there are teeth in a fox’s jawbone,” says he. “You could dance on your pretty toes from one end to the other and back again, fiddling all the while, and never come across the same set of doors twice.”

“When can I see it?” she asks. For our Rosa’s an impatient girl, as impatient as first love and last rites.

“Why, when we’re married, of course,” says he. “You know as well as I do what people would say if you visited before then, don’t you?”

Rosa smiles too, but she’s not smiling inside, no no no. Propriety be damned, her heart says. I want what I want and I want it now.

All through the long weekdays of sewing and study she’s imagining her lover’s touch, until she’s near full to bursting with impatience. All through Sunday mass and Monday oration and Tuesday baking and Wednesday washing she’s thinking of his eyes, and lips, and hands, until she can barely focus on another blessed thing. The moon comes up one Thursday night big and round as a horsecrippler cactus, and Rosa’s had enough of prim and enough of proper. Out of bed she goes, dancing past creaky boards and sleeping siblings and the room where her parents lay a-snoring. Into the stables and out again like thread looping a needle, and now she’s pounding away down the white road and no one can stop her.

***

The wind blows fine white sand all over them and now they really are a ghost army, gritty and swift as dust devils as the sign gets fresher and the foothills loom. The vixens smell victory and begin to lope. Rosa senses it too and kicks Santiago into an out-and-out run, reins in one hand, the polished grip of her brother’s revolver warm in the other. She imagines the other girls riding beside her, bloody and vengeful. She whispers their names, lets them spring from her mouth like hunting animals.

Samantha.

Lettie.

The pretty Navajo girl with the long, long hair.

The one with the freckles nearest the door.

Essie from Buck’s Ridge, who died a free woman.

Ada, who died with her hands over her eyes.

There’s a crack, like the purple evening sky is hatching from some unfeasibly huge crow’s egg, and a little gout of sand spins upward to her right. She barely has time to register what’s going on—a gunshot a rifle someone’s shooting at us he is shooting at us—before the next bullet whines past her ear, so close the wind of it tugs at her hair. Rosa blesses the dusk, the shadows, and Lady Luck. She stands in her stirrups and screams a challenge across the plain, her voice a snarl of barbwire and rust.

“Is that the best you can do?” she howls. “Do you think I’m afraid of you, you miserable stinking lump of horse shit?” The tears are finally falling now, hot and angry. “We found you! Get out here and fight me face-to-face, coward! Either shoot straight or show your god-damned face!”

The silence unreels and stretches lariat-taut, Santiago’s hoofbeats drumming a tattoo across its surface. For long seconds no response comes. Rosa hunches closer to the horse’s neck, pressing her cheek against warm skin and lathered hair. She wants him to do it. She dares him to call her bluff, to finish what he started, to take her maidenhead with a bullet. Anger like ether fills her up and chases out what little fear is left, leaving her as hollow and light as gnawed rabbit bone. Let the lead fly. Let her skin rip like a rattlesnake’s shedding. There’s nothing inside to tear apart but air and a paper heart.

“Go on,” she whispers. “Do it. Do it and be damned.”

It comes like a knock at the door after a long illness. Gray Sister shrieks, tumbles into a clump of sage, and fades to smoke and twilight, still clinging desperately to her old shape.

Rosa feels the vixen go, a deep-down-in-her-bones tug that hurts worse than an entire pouch of bullets. She tries to scream, but it comes out a wordless gurgling whimper and the wind snatches it away as greedily as it did Gray Sister. Shots are peppering the earth like hail now, as fast as her unseen enemy can pull the trigger. Pirate falls by the wayside, biting at her fading flank. Sepia somersaults like a great unseen hand has grabbed hold of her scruff, already mist before she can hit the ground. Phantom and Frizzle and Patch die in rapid succession and buzzards with straight-razor beaks tussle at Rosa’s guts, each casualty another pull and twist. He’s severing parts of her she didn’t even know she possessed. Invisible connections are snapping, ragged as exposed nerve.

Captain Todd is sending her a gunpowder telegraph. I know how much this hurts, it says. There are worse things than dying, and I’m going to teach you all about them before I finally take your life.

Somehow she manages to stay a-saddle, clutching blindly at Santiago’s mane as they charge across the last of the desert and up the first foothill. The world recedes into a raw red haze of pain and noise. When she comes back to, there are only eight of the original twenty-four vixens left, a snarling half-ring beneath the pile of cliffside boulders where Captain Todd has gone to ground.

He’s scrawnier than she remembers, all gangly, boyish limbs and pale skin shrunken over bone. The pretty blue uniform he always took such pride in hangs off his shoulders in scarecrow tatters, toes peeking through ripped scraps of boot. Even his face is strange now, covered from chin to cheek in a forest of gingery hair. The Todd she knew kept his mustache trimmed and his boots glossed to a high sheen. This stinking, hairy creature clicking his empty revolvers at her foxes can’t be the same man, and yet she knows it has to be. There hangs the evidence from his belt, shriveled and grisly. There sits the memory in her mind’s eye, vivid as a vision of Hell.

“Rosa. The one that got away. I declare, this is a spot to bump into a soul, isn’t it?” He doffs his hat to her, polite to the bitter end. “I believe the last time we crossed paths I promised to kill you.”

Her voice is tight when she manages to reply, more controlled than she thought possible under the circumstances. “You’ve gotten pretty good at lying. Looks like that’s not gonna stop any time soon.” The hammer punctuates her words with a sharp click. “I loved you once, you know. Maybe I still do. Doesn’t mean I don’t think you’re a monster that needs to be put out of his misery, though. I’m sure those other girls loved you too, right up until you slit their throats.”

“Sanctimonious, aren’t we? Haven’t you ever heard that the memory of a thing is better to keep than the thing itself?”

“No, but I’m more than willing to find out if it’s true.”

He barks a laugh. “You and what’s left of your pack of ghost bitches, I presume? Whatever you paid your scrub witch was too much. All it takes is silver bullets and a little bit of aim to break that sort of sorce—”

The bullet catches him in the kneecap. His chuckle turns to a shriek, the sound tearing at Rosa like a swallowed fishhook. Down the slope he goes, cracking against boulders and slabs of stone, his momentum carrying him right into the jaws of the waiting vixens. They waste no time falling on him with their sharp, sharp teeth.

If I was brave and strong and honest, I’d have done that myself, she thinks as she turns her horse away. The noises from behind are horrific. But I’m not. God help me, I’m not.

When they’re finished, all that’s left of him is a scrap of blue cotton and a fox’s whisker.

***

Rosa doesn’t go home. The only thing that makes that village full of cowards “home” now is her family, and she cannot bring herself to face them after everything that’s happened. Not yet.

It’s not a bad way of living. Odd jobs and jackrabbits keep her clothed and fed, and the remaining vixens—for better or worse, no more come up after that night—provide company and much-needed cheer. Some mornings the sky is so blue she could drown in it, the wind smelling of sage and clean earth. These are the good days, the forgetting days, when she races Santiago against cloud shadows and clutches Gray Sister’s advice between her teeth like a stolen hen. Just as frequent are the bad turns, the nights when she dreams of the dead and wakes with the sound of Captain Todd’s final muffled screams still echoing in her ears.

She misses her brothers, blunt and teasing. She misses Gray Sister, curled like a tombstone at the edge of her bedroll. She misses having an unscarred heart. The way back to her old life is still somewhere out there, Rosa knows it must be, but no matter how many times she casts for the scent, she can never seem to find it.

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Brooke Bolander

Brooke BolanderBrooke Bolander is a chaos-sowing trickster girl of indeterminate employment, half-tornado, half-writer. Originally from the deepest, darkest regions of the southern US, she attended the University of Leicester from 2004 to 2007 studying History and Archaeology and is a graduate of the 2011 Clarion Writers’ Workshop at UCSD. She enjoys loud music, peaty scotch, drawings that move, and anything pumpkin-flavored you might happen to have on hand. Her short fiction has previously appeared in Reflection’s Edge, Strange Horizons, and Lightspeed.

15 Responses »

  1. Came to this via io9.com. Fantastic story! How can you go wrong with fantasy and the wild west? It also conjured in my mind the cover art for FOX CONFESSOR BRINGS THE FLOOD, a record by the magnificent Neko Case.

  2. Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful. Nearly broke my heart.

  3. I was completely drawn in. My mouth feels dry and my skin prickled by wind blown sand.

    More please.

  4. Oh, this is fantastic. Gritty and gut-wrenching, and the imagery is amazing–the things she takes from her brothers, the way everything links together and is so relevant, and most of all I like that it has a price.

  5. Fantastic story. Followed the trail from Tornado’s Siren on Strange Horizons and I think I’m just going to keep on going …

  6. An intriguing and captivating use of the Blackbeard story–bravo!

  7. Wow, this is a fantastic story. The prose is fabulous.

  8. Wow. Inspiring. Keep up the great work.

  9. Excellent. Love the interweaving of fantastic and Wild West. I think a lot of people want to tell that kind of tale, but here you actually succeed.

  10. Beautiful story, searingly told. The wallpaper, omg the wallpaper! And this bit of rattlesnake alliteration: ‘the noise of a sidewinder’s scales scraping across desiccated ribcages’. Thank you for this story…

  11. I agree with a previous poster — “amazing” is exactly the right word for this story. It should be read, back-to-back with another terrific, dark-fantasy Western, by Saladin Ahmed, “Mister Hadj’s Sunset Ride”.

    I look forward to reading more fiction from Ms. Bolander.

  12. Ms. Bolander, thank you for a tremendous read. Quite enjoyable. It was highly recommended by my writing students. So much in one story–something for everyone to love. Looking forward to reading more of yours.

  13. ahh, the names “Todd” and “Rosa”. Perfect.

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