|Hey Joe, what do you know. I've been writing this tale for over a year now. It started off as a punctuation exercise in my New Horizons course and has, at times, taken over my mind.
Upon my return to WDC this week I set myself the goal of entering a writers cramp and a daily flash fiction each day. I didn't intend to continue anything, but upon sitting down to write for Arakuns Daily Flash Fiction found myself continuing Ethan Drane's dark western tale.
It's still unfinished, and as such I have never made a portfolio entry for it. I've always just put it here in the blog as I added bits. An unintentional blog exclusive!
This has been the longest story I've ever written, not counting collaborations with Wyrm. I am hoping to finish it one day. Then I can start working on the second draft! I'm thinking for the second draft I might turn it into a dark Americana steam punk story on a frontier desert world with riding lizards instead of horses. No, really, haha, I'm not joking.
The town of Baton lay flat between two hills like a snake run over by a wagon train. The valley was wide and Baton twisted it’s way, not sprawling or compact like other towns, in a long array of buildings along some imaginary line. Further away from the valley a smattering of homesteads and farms opened up into a plateau and the plains that the old west was famous for.
The two hills were called Macrae’s Hill and Duncan’s Hill. Named after the founding fathers John Duncan and Paul Macrae, who had long been buried in the soil of said hills.
Baton was a beauty, and purple flowers were known to emblazon the hills on either side for months at a time. Spring and summer were beautiful here. There were no flowers the year that Ethan Drane rode into town and shot and killed the schoolmaster David Karnak. Not even any flowers for his grave.
Drane was an imposing man. He had the wide, sloping shoulders of the perenial horseman. He had big, meaty hands that were gnarled and scarred. At home holding a rein, a hammer, or a pistol. His brow was always sweaty and he was usually unshaven, the shadows on his cheek shifting, shifting with the pull and tug of his jaw on the tobacco plug. That mouth seldom cracked for a smile.
Still, he was not a cruel or evil man, he was just a dangerous one. He couldn’t help it that where ever he lay his boots, danger would be sure to follow on his footsteps. Even on those rare occasions when Drane would hang up his six-shooters for a more peaceful life, some affront, or crime, or vengeful man from his sinful past would come to repercuss themselves in his life. Peace never lasted long for Drane.
After a time, Drane gave up trying to go straight. After a time, Drane just held the notion of living in the moment. And moralising and repenting and remorsing be damned right to hell along with him.
The morning that Drane shot Karnak was a cold one. It was a wintry time in the valley, and much of Baton was slow and unmoving. The bank had not opened yet, but that was okay because Drane wasn’t much for robbing banks. Too much planning involved. The saloon’s doors were still closed and bolted. It wouldn’t open again until late afternoon when the farm hands and roustabouts came in from toiling at the surrounding homesteads. The hotel was open, as it always was, and the school was open, as it mostly was, and Drane had business at the hotel and Karnak at the school and although those two establisments were at opposite ends of Baton, the two men would soon meet and their fates would soon entwine.
Drane led his horse to the stables. Sharp cracks of frozen dirt surrounded them, the horse's hooves breaking frozen ground. Drane's fingers were sore from the early morning frost, and his workmans gloves did nothing to keep out the cold. They only made his fingers more numb.
The horse slipped on a section of road made into sludge by dew and overnight rain. Cursing, Drane stumbled. The horse found it's balance and so did Drane, but any semblance of good humour was now gone. Cold and sore and a little embarrassed, Drane grumbled at his horse, he grumbled at the town, and he grumbled at himself. A man like Drane, it didn't take much to put him in a bad mood.
He tied his horse up on the rail out the front of the general store so that he could get a bite to eat and maybe a mug of hot coffee. After the night he'd had out on the praerie, he could do with some warmth. Maybe they would have a news sheet for him to peruse. He'd been on the trail so long, he wasn't exactly sure of the date. Was it November 28, 1867? Or could it even be December 1867? His old, leathery boots stomped on the wooden floorboards of the porch as he approached the entrance. Each footstep was like a knock on the door. A sound behind him took his attention away from the stained wooden door. It was his horse fidgeting. Drane turned just in time to see his horse, mangy cur, flick it's head and snap the loosely tied reins from the rail. Drane's fingers had been too numb to tie a proper knot and now his horse was free.
"Dang-it, You wily, cheatin', cunning-as-an-outhouse-dunny-thief. You no-good, pecker-eatin', flea-ridden dust-bag," He yelled, the menace in his voice enough to send the horse trotting away from it's source. "Hey! Come back here!"
Drane jogged after his slowly-retreating horse, stumbling again in the sludge. If his mood was bad before, now his temper was foul. Ethan Drane was seeing red.
The horse, head held high and neighing nervously, trotted away from the tired cowboy and rounded the corner of the general store. Drane shambled after it, still cursing (and in effect, scaring it further away from him). As he ,too , rounded the corner he became aware of shadowy figures under the framework of the building and a little girl, her skirts dirty, her face smeared, skittered out from near the back stumps and raced away. This was actually fortunate for Ethan Drane in his quest to recapture his horse, as his horse did not particularly like little girls any more then Drane himself did. As the girl ran past the horse, it shied away and twisted it's body back towards Drane. Seizing the opportunity, Drane grabbed at the reigns, snaring them in his strong hands.
"You bloody beast," Drane snarled. The reigns were now entangled in one meaty hand. This left his other hand free. He duly raised it above his head, preparing to deal a mighty blow to his horse. "I'll discipline you, beast."
Drane reeled to the interjector, and spied a tall young man dusting off his breeches. A finely cut pair of pants, made of a poor material from the look of them. Drane knew all about poor material. Those pants wouldn't last a week on the range, and would soon end their days cut for shorts.
"Sir - what manner of man are you, that you would hit a defenceless pack animal?"
Drane glowered at the tall young man. Every town there ever was, was filled with namby shit-heels like the one before him. If Drane could be gaoled for every one he had put in his place, well, he would not be a free man today.
"What manner of man are you," Drane did not bother with returning the honorific, " that I find you under a building with a wee girl-child."
The tall young man bristled.
"I am her school teacher! And that is one recalcitrant school girl. If I did not hunt her down each morning, she would never come to my classroom to learn."
Drane snarled, "A crying shame, that would be."
It was the schoolmaster’s turn to glower now. Schoolteachers were usually the worst, Drane knew. Living their lives couped up in four walls, dictating their small views on young children. They often looked down on the men and women those boys and girls would become. Men like Ethan Drane. Workers. Survivors. Free men.
"That horse is obviously of smarter ilk then you, Cowboy, to turn tail and flee your presence," snapped David Karnak, for that was indeed who the schoolteacher was. A learned man, still unaware of the destiny about to enfold two men.
"I know my letters. I know my numbers," Drane said to wipe the condescension from Karnak's mouth. "I know it's my right to discipline my horse how I see fit. A working man’s only as good as the horse under his ass."
"Sitting on your ass more like it, if not on a horse, then in a saloon!" Karnak laughed.
Drane, still holding the reigns tight in one hand, reached for his horses neck with the other. The horse shifted uncertainly in the laneway but did not bow away. Drane ran his gloved hand up the horses neck. Roughly, yet with a certain grace. The horse lowered it's head and snorted. Drane sized Karnak up, his ponderous frame dwarving the leaner man in the morning light.
“I will sit /you/ on /your/ ass, if you keep this line of jabber, schoolmaster.”
Said in the overly jocular language of cowboys on the range, the repartee would entice more insults of a similar vein. Said in the quiet tones of Ethan Drane in a laneway on a freezing winter morning after his horse had made a fool of him on the main st, it was a much more serious matter.
Morning steam fogged out of Karnak’s mouth as his lips curled into a sneer. Drane snapped as Karnak snorted. Whatever witty, educated reprise that the schoolmaster had intended as a parry in a battle of wits was silenced by the cowpoke’s blunt fist. Karnak’s head snapped back as Drane snaked his other hand out of the reins and sent it crashing into the schoolmaster’s side.
“Teach you,” Drane snarled. “Teach you.”
Really, Drane would have ended it there. The schoolmaster, the namby shit-heel, had mouthed off at Drane and then laughed at him. He'd made noises at him. And that, the cowpoke could not stand. So, he had hit him. Twice. Yes, Drane would have ended it there. He would have looked down at the schoolmaster on the ground, dismissing him. He would have taken his horse by it’s reins and tugged it back towards the store; taken off his work gloves this time, even with the bitter cold, and tied a convincing knot and kept that damn horse at the rail. Then, he would have walked back on to the veranda, his boots tapping on the wood floor like door knocks, and opened the flimsy door and walked inside to buy a warm coffee and a news sheet and demonstrate his surly nature to the old storekeeper inside. Drane would have done all that. But the schoolmaster hit him back. He hit him back hard.
"That wasn't what you expected, was it?" Karnak smiled. His shirt had come a little untucked and a little trickle of blood dampened his thin moustache, but his fists were raised and his limbs were loose. "The beasts don't usually hit back, do they?"
Drane surveyed the form of the schoolmaster and knew he would have to reassess. Perhaps he wasn't thin after all, but rangey. Perhaps he was that rare kind of man in Drane's world. The kind that straddled two worlds. A namby shit heel who could handle himself.
A determined look settled into the cowpokes face. A set of jaw more akin to an iron vice then a human being. Reassess or no, Drane /would/ teach the school master to mind his own business. How a man treated his horse, was no other man's business. Teach him? He would give him a thrashing.
The cowpokes next blow whistled like a falling boulder, hurtling airborne through a ravine, and was aimed straight at the school masters thin moustache. Karnak swept his palm up in an arc, and slammed Dranes haymaker across his own body, fouling the two lefts that were sure to come next. Still with his palm pushing against Dranes arm , he guided the punch's momentum downwards as he then landed a succession of neat, stabbing knee-kicks into Dranes stomach and chest. Dranes own knees buckled and he hit the dirt hard, his face bouncing in the mud.
Drane rolled to the side, away from the mean arc of Karnaks boot, and scrabbled to his knees.
"What exactly were you to teach me again -", and here the eloquent school master paused for the greatest effect," - bully?"
Drane may have been caught unawares by the fighting skills of the little school master, but really he was no stranger to violence. He had often been on the receiving end of some, and as such he was often the underdog in such instances. Now that Drane knew what he was up against, he felt a surge of confidence where some might feel uncertainty at the turn of events.
Drane rose to the occasion. He stood proud, spat some mud out of his mouth, crouched low, and plunged in.
A sudden side kick from Karnak gave Drane pause, but the pain in his thigh was sacrifice to his real offense.
Really, it was a small distance to travel. The lane was not wide, it was not a thoroughfare of note, it was exactly what it was, a space between buildings that horses and little girls took on their way to seek refuge. Karnaks side kick, while technically adept, lacked the force to fell the brute. But the charge was a subterfuge. Drane's headbutt's usually smashed teeth and cartiledge.
Karnak slammed bodily into the wall of the store, hand clutching at his bloodied mouth.
Drane stood with chest heaving, thinking the fight was over.
Never taking his eyes off his prey, Karnak rose loose-limbed. His left hand held a kerchief to his face. His right, a long butterfly knife. Drane's eyes shot up.
"What manner of schoolmaster are you that you take a knife like that with you?"
"Baton has a dark side," Karnak garbled, the words bloated with blood. "This protects me from buffoons like you.The threat of bloody violence is a powerful persuader. And, I have my own dark nature to bring to the table."
The next fist that Drane threw glanced on the schoolmasters ear, the next after that missed. Karnak was weaving, dodging, flying forward; taking that long, thin piece of polished steel with him. In his hurry to escape the knife, Dranes heavy riding boots slipped again in the mud. The advantage was definitely the school masters now.
On unbalanced legs, with sweat in his puffy, bloodshot eyes, with an element of apprehension in his breath, Drane saw that knife come flitting in, never where he expected it next. Certainly not lightly slashing his ear, or gouging a neat hole in his cheek. Did Karnak mean to harm Drane? Did he mean to kill him? A school master, with a sharp and deadly blade instead of a blunt belt for discipline? He certainly had never fought for his life with one before. Drane doubted whether he had ever been in a stranger predicament.
"Now, hold up School Master," he said, arm outstretched, fingers carefully tucked away from that knife. "Perhap, I was too hasty to temper..."
Karnak paused in his knife-dance, "Well, that's unfortunate cowpoke, for I have the sce -"
The mud that Drane threw with his other hand splattered across the top half of Karnak's cheap suit. Blood and mud now ordained its fate as rags.
Karnak gave a startled cry and Drane threw again, this time taking Karnak full in the face. Blinded by the mud, he did not see Drane come rushing in until his hand was crushed at the wrist and the steel knife released from his loose knife-fighters grip. For good measure Drane punched him in the stomach.
Karnak on his knees should have given Drane satisfaction, but he was past that. His temper had flared, and his rage had taken over. The morning had been bad enough, and now he was wounded as well. Superficial they might be, but in the cold air they stung like buggery.
Drane didn't plan on giving Karnak a chance to do any more damage.
He lashed out with his heavy boot, stomping Karnak's shoulder. Karnak cried out and for the first time that day Drane smiled. Karnak scrabbled to his feet, but this time Drane was ready for him. He grabbed him around the waist, lifted him up and squeezed.
Again, Karnak cried out. Drane only grimaced harder, tightening his grip. Imagining himself in a primal struggle. Karnak convulsed, and then, looking down upon Drane opened his bloodied mouth and latched onto the side of Drane’s cheek a scant inch below his eye. Teeth tore through skin and fat, and the school master’s head shook like a savage dog in lockjaw.
Drane’s only reflex was to let go. Karnak fell to the mud, tearing Drane’s face more. He lay there, his lower face and neck entirely scarlet. A feral look in his eye. Drane reeled away, his strong worker’s hand fluttering at his ruined cheek unable to assess the damage. Drane cried out, as he slammed into the pack saddle of his horse. The horse scampered away and back, giving it’s own thin cry of terror, and Drane found his hands clasping his rifle bag.
Drane would never forget those eyes.
Blood in the mud.
Drane cried in the dirt, struggling to draw breath. He pulled himself to his feet using the hot rifle. Grabbed the body, threw it over his horse. Pulled a rough blanket out of his pack and threw it over the limp form. Paused. Grabbed great, big heaping handfuls of mud and pushed them into the gaping wound. Something he'd seen another stockman do with a dead man.
The shot would be heard, Drane knew. But it was still early. And it was bitter cold. Drane was not bitter. Not Yet. That would come later.
He lead the horse, and the covered body of David Karnak, out of Baton.
School would not be in that day. Fate had spoken.
The fire wasn't enough to keep Drane warm that night, but without it he would surely have died. His long, dark hair was plastered to his scalp like he'd taken a bath. The skin of his face was clammy, and in the firelight it looked rubbery. A bandage lay across his entire cheek, crudely drawn. He huddled, miserable and sick, his blanket around his shoulders. A bowl lay at his feet, filled with a foul smelling concoction. A salve taught to Drane many years ago from the man who first took him on. Drane always carried a bottle in his pack. He never knew when some beast might bite his hand, or some dang fool might fall off his mount, drunk or useless, and need patching.
Drane was a man of experience. This wasn't his first night spent out on the range in this fashion. But normally, it was self inflicted through liquor or brawling, or both. Rarely, it was because of an illness. It had never been because he killed a man. For all his surly, cantankerous nature, Drane had never fought for his life like he did tonight. He had almost lost. Drane knew that.
Drane knew how close that namby school master had come to slithering that smooth butterfly knife between his ribs and ending his life. If he was to survive out here tonight, he would have to keep thoughts like that in check. If he was to survive with the body of David Karnak laying just metres from him.
Drane hadn't had the strength to bury him yet, and had spent his meagre energy between sleeping fitfully and patching himself up as best he could, along with setting up a rudimentary campfire. Enough wood to keep a cooking fire was another essential of his kit.
|ID: 1832624 (Rated: 18+)|
A joint project taking turns to write about the Zombie Apocolypse
Artist, Writer, Father, Factory Worker.
(and husband too!)