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Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Dust and Sand – Chapter 7 – By Sean P. Wallace

Chapter 7 

            Dust sat on Horse and read the mission dossier. Certain they wouldn’t be in any danger when barely into the Badlands, he paid the way ahead no mind.

            The kid did not do the same; she watched the horizon like it was about to do a trick.

            When Dust did glance up, he saw the crooked mountains and sandy plains of the Badlands looking over the pages of information as if reading up on Penelope Chalmers. As before, cacti littered the land. Though these were no ordinary plants; they twitched and danced and took pot shots at passing wildlife with their spiked arms. Some were unnaturally tall, others were stunted as they curved like an old miner’s spine. Each one was onyx. Some leaked blood. The cacti didn’t dominate the landscape – brushes and grasses and flowers were visible too – but they were the plants most corrupted by the Badlands.

            Dust looked back at the dossier. According to the file, the Texan Telegraph Concern had repaired multiple breaks in a telegraph line two miles from where the Solution guessed Penelope Chalmers had been taken. It seemed too coincidental to ignore so Dust decided to lead the kid to the downed line.

            It must have cost the TTC to do those repairs; no-one with half a brain went that deep, not without damn good reason or a lot of money changing hands. He looked at a photo of the kidnapped girl; she was a pretty girl, blond with a wholesome smile. The was no clue in her smile as to what had been so urgent that she and fifty soldiers had crossed the Badlands as the crow flies rather than skirting the border. What couldn’t have waited a few days?

            It wasn’t important, he supposed. Not really. What mattered that Penelope was at the mercy of this cult, held by people and less-than-people dedicated to That Which Sins. ‘Sinners’ spend their lives exploring the limits of pleasure and often include their captives in their search… It was a fate most well-bred girls wouldn’t survive for long.

            Then again, neither would most low-bred men. Remembering his previous experiences with Sinners made Dust want to spur Horse and charge in. Getting the kid killed through recklessness would be of no help to the poor girl.

            Plus Dick would pitch a right fit if that happened.

            Speaking of the kid, Dust folded the dossier back into his pack and watched her. Again, she was a puzzle. He couldn’t reckon what made someone with so much going for them – the wealth, money and power –  grub down at the worst end of the Dixie Problem.

            Could it be the glamour of facing the truly monstrous? Dick had once told him that dime novels had turned the Badlands into a place for heroes and villains, that they drive young men to become uniforms in the Solution. Dust had scarcely believed him. But Jacky said some uniforms had a bunch of these stories and here was the kid maybe risking her life for a taste of it, so what did he know?

            As if sensing she were being watched, the kid looked up. Not at but the horizon again. Hopefully any romantic ideas of the Badlands were draining away; he needed her alert and scared, not mooning for adventure.

            Dust looked away and they rode for a while like that until the kid broke the silence.

            “Tell me, Dust, do you know what happened here?” she asked. “Do you know what made this the Badlands?”

            Suddenly Dust needed a cigar. Or a drink. Or both. Not that they affected him but having a fine whiskey would’ve gone down mighty well. “Same thing that happened elsewhere. Though not on so grand a scale.”

            “Which was?”

            Either she  didn’t know or was wanting to hear his tell of it. Neither option made sense but that was no reason to be rude. He looked down at Horse and patted him gently. “The cults. They used their powers to make havens. Tainted the land. Poisoned the wildlife. Killed most everyone who called it home.”

            “Well yes,” she said, her pitch rising, “but how?”

            Now he could feel her eyes on him. He took a moment then said “I don’t truly know.”

            “But you could take a guess.”

            “I could.”

            “Go ahead then.”

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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