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Friday, February 23, 2024

Dust and Sand – Chapter 2- By Sean P. Wallace

Chapter 2

            The posse rose with the sun. Winston Grainger, Maintenance Overseer for the Texan Telegraph Concern, rolled out of his rawhide tent and stood blinking at the coming day as his hired guns packed up their encampment. They complained, these mercenaries, but the pay was good enough for them to put up with a little busy work.

            Enis, an engineer from Germany who worked for curiously little, came and stood next to him as the sun crept up the sky. He was almost the opposite of Winston: where Winston was overweight, Enis was slim; where Winston was bald, Enis had hair especially as the German had a full beard he could almost plait; and where Winston looked shrewd, Enis seemed wide-eyed and naïve.

            “Are you feeling ready for this?” Enis asked.

            Winston reached into his waistcoat and pulled out a battered packet of cigarettes. He didn’t offer one to Enis; the German didn’t smoke. “No,” he said. “Are you?”

            “Only because they pay so well.”

            The overseer nodded, took in a breath of deep, rich tobacco. The TTC had to pay well to get people into the Badlands, the black heart of The Dixie Problem. Winston’s last few trips had practically paid for his new home with Abilene, his sweet little Mexican wife. Drawing deep on his cigarette, he wished he didn’t have a couple more payments to make and could wash his hands of the TTC.

            Two minutes later the Sawyers, young brothers distinguishable only by the lengths of their hair – Adam long, John shaved bald – left their tents. Stretching almost in unison, they scratched themselves and then silently joined Winston and Enis. Winston took in his little team now they were all upright; three engineers, ten mercenaries, it was the absolute minimum for a repair job in the Badlands. Even if a pole had simply sunk in a flash flood, you needed a posse and you made sure the job was done well before sunset.

            Sunset was some way off though. A sky pure enough to adorn a Cathedral stood behind his rabble, holding not even a whiff of cloud as it healed from the bruise of sunrise. The morning was cool but promised heat to come. There were rises and mountains below that clear sky, brown and honest, and the air was pure enough to please the Lord Himself.

            Still, Winston shuddered as he took in the horizon. Although you couldn’t tell, those rises were the start of the most dangerous place in America. And that was what he hated most about the Badlands; how nothing made them stand out. Somehow it would be better if the sands were black and the sky red, the air sulphurous and foul-tasting. Instead it looked exactly like the rest of Texas, unassuming and hard and American. The Badlands were dishonest as well as deadly, a cruel mix.

            Old Red, leader of the mercenaries, waltzed over as Winston cursed the lands. Maybe fifty, he had a thick moustache, hair like sugar and gunpowder. Old Red was older than you’d expect a hired gun to be but an old mercenary must be a good mercenary.

            It was Winston’s first time working with the man. He seemed capable enough. Time would tell. His men didn’t give a good account of themselves though, calling themselves the ‘Red Bullets’. Seeing how young and green they were, Winston called them fodder.

            “We’re ready when you are,” said Old Red.

            “Good,” Winston said. “Saddle up.”

            Within ten minutes, they were charging ahead at a good pace. The horses weren’t ruined in their haste but they weren’t spared either. Three of the Red Bullets took the lead. Three more covered the rear and two each side covered the flanks. Inside this ring Winston and Enis were on horseback. Adam and John manned the carts, looked after the spare wiring, components and replacement poles; everything needed for any kind of damage.

            The Red Bullets had cheap horses, except Old Red who must’ve known the value of a good ride. Enis had a strong mongrel but Winston had the biggest, most impressive beast – a black colt called Thunder – though that was only because he needed a beast like that to carry his frame.

            Old Red looked back at Winston as they rode. “This your first time in the Badlands?” he shouted.

            “No. Is it yours?”

            “Nah. I’m in and out like a horny teenager.”

            “That’s what the whores say of him too,” one of his men chimed in.

            Old Red cackled. A God-fearing man – and who wouldn’t be after so many trips into the Badlands – Winston didn’t approve of such talk. Not that he’d say such a thing.

            The old mercenary’s eyes twinkled with humour. “You ever faced… one of them?”

            “Yes, thank God,” Winston replied.

            “Why thank God?” one of the faceless Red Bullets asked.

            Old Red cackled again. “Because he’s still alive, ain’t he?” 

            They made good time to their target zone, a stretch of land between a nothing town called Crucifix and the Colorado River. The break was in a key line to Austin. With no-one around for miles it was hard to know where the break might be but Winston had narrowed it down from experience; any engineer learned the quirks of the line after a few while. He figured it’d be somewhere down a deep valley worn by some long-gone river. The valley had no name; only the Indians named parts of the Badlands.

            Rather than go charging in, the Red Bullets led them to a verge so they could check where exactly the damage might be and spy out any trouble. Winston prayed it was something obvious, not a pissy wire.

            Only a third of them went on the climb; Winston, Old Red and a couple of the mercenaries. The rest were left in the shade of the rise so the horses could rest and have some water.

 

            It was sheer and rocky, their verge, and unforgiving as the walls of Hell. Winston was not a fit man and he found every step difficult, especially in the rising heat. Soon he stank of sweat. But if that were the worst of this trip he’d thank the Lord for a week solid.

SeanPWallace
SeanPWallace
Sean is an editor, writer, and podcast host at Geek Pride, as well as a novelist. His self-published works can be found at all good eBook stores.

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