By: Natania Barron
Read by: Jason Adams
Originally appeared in Crossed Genres Magazine.
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All stories by Natania Barron
All stories read by Jason Adams
Rated PG: For monsters and old west excitement. Yee Haw.
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Dead’s End to Middleton
By Natania Barron
Dust rose at the horizon in tongues of earth and wind, dancing before the sinking sun. Bits of mica flashed now and again; almost like fairy dust, thought Nathaniel, more than a little delirious in his saddle by now. It had been far too hot for a breakneck race such as this.
But there were slobbering, chittering creatures swarming Middleton behind him, slavering over the horses and terrorizing the families that made up his close-knit community. Their only hope was in him. Sutherland Ranch couldn’t be far. Old Man Sutherland would know what to do.
Time was wasting. His horse, Mixup, needed water, and Nathaniel needed rest. His tongue felt cold, his lips cracked and bleeding; he’d gone so far past dizzy that he’d come to expect the world to shift a bit by now.
But, no. Maybe not that much.
A voice. A woman.
It was easy enough to comply. Nathaniel doubted he had the strength to move, anyway; his ankle was still twisted up in the stirrup.
So he’d fainted at some point. If he’d had strength in his arms, he’d have held them up, but Nathaniel wasn’t certain what the logistics of surrender were when belly-up to the sky.
“He’s hurt,” said a second voice. Another woman, but high and lovely in contrast.
Squinting, Nathaniel made out two figures against the pink clouds: big hats, skirts, trim waists, and very long guns. Guns pointed at him.
“I’m looking for… Willard Sutherland… I’m from Middleton. We’ve been…” he barely managed the words.
The shorter of the two women tilted her head. She got close enough that Nathaniel could hear the flapping of her skirts in the wind. He had a dim recollection of Charity James being dragged off down the alleyway between the saloon and the stables, one shoe off as she struggled and screamed; he could see up her skirt then, all the way to her bloomers. Then… Christ. She hadn’t screamed for long.
“Willard Sutherland’s dead,” said the first woman. Nathaniel tried to get a better look at her. Curly red hair, narrow eyes, a flat nose, big boots.
“Then, his sons? Edwin and Edward…” Nathaniel tried.
“Jesus, no.” Blasphemy was the least of his worries.
“Afraid so,” said the soft-voiced woman. Nathaniel could see the outline of her slippers by his head. Pretty slippers. Expensive slippers. What slippers like that were doing out here in the middle of nowhere, he didn’t know.
“Cassandra. Hush,” said the first woman, putting down her gun and taking a few heavy-footed steps toward him.
Cassandra stepped away to let the other woman by, and Nathaniel shivered. He’d found a grain of comfort in the sweetness of Cassandra’s voice, but now that she was gone the severity of the other woman’s words were more clear in his head. His hope was as dead as Charity James.
“Then you might as well let me die here,” he said, closing his eyes.
“The Sutherlands aren’t all dead,” said the first woman. “But you will be soon if you don’t get some water and shelter.”
“You need a bath. You’re covered in, well, some rather offensive smelling ichor,” Cassandra said.
That was about right. The creatures had a habit of exploding rather impressively when, and if, they could be killed.
“Then perhaps we can talk business,” she added.
He licked his lips. “Business? I can’t even start to explain—”
“Try us,” said the other woman. “You’ll be surprised.”
There were seven girls all told. The one in boots was Elizabeth, the eldest. Then came Jane, red-haired like Elizabeth but without the curls; after Jane was Lydia, with narrow eyes and white-blond hair. Then Cassandra, the prettiest—petite and brunette, and dressed far better than the rest of her sisters. She couldn’t have been more than about sixteen, about the same as Nathaniel. The last three were Charlotte, Mary, and Anne, with matching brown eyes and straight black hair; Anne was freckled and barely thirteen.
When Nathaniel insisted he didn’t have time for a bath, Charlotte and Anne took his overcoat to wash, anyway; it was crusted with bile-green fluid and stunk up the house.
Nathaniel fidgeted in the chair—a plush green affair with bronze bosses about the arms and a set of matching doilies—while Elizabeth asked him to describe the series of events in Middleton.
“You don’t have to spare us the details,” said Jane.
“No need to candy-coat,” Elizabeth added. She still had her shotgun across her lap, as casually placed as knit-work.
Nathaniel took a deep breath and started. “About two weeks ago, a meteor landed behind the livery. Doc Brenner brought it to town hall, and everyone fussed over it. It was glittery, almost gold, with little rounds bits inside—well, that’s what we found out when Mrs. Vess and Mr. Kutcheon got into a fight over it, dropping it to the ground. It spilled these metallic gemstones, almost like tigers-eye, but red. Two dozen to the last one.”
Even if they didn’t believe him, it felt good to tell someone. Anyone.
“Then I suppose they called in the jeweler?” Cassandra said, leaning forward.
Nathaniel was struck what she said. “Yes! Exactly. He set the stones into necklaces and pocket-watches, for auction. I can’t tell you how much was paid, but it was rumored that the Jones family sold half their farm to get a watch.”
Elizabeth narrowed her eyes. “Same as always. Who turned first?”
Nathaniel was shocked into silence. “How did—?”
“Hey, listen,” warned Elizabeth. “We’re the ones questioning you.”
Nathaniel nodded and continued, “First time I noticed something odd was with Mrs. Vess. My family, we work the General Store, and she came in wearing her new brooch from the auction.” He swallowed, looking down at the empty teacup. He’d sucked it down and was jittery. “Except the stone was gone. Then I noticed, well, this hole… seeping blood. In her chest. My dad was asking how she was, and Mrs. Vess said she’d never been better, but the more she talked, the more blood gushed…”
Nathaniel’s lips trembled as he tried to get more words out. “I was putting her order together. I looked at the hole again; seemed like there was no way I couldn’t. And right out of it came this wriggling…”
“Worm,” said Anne, with a curt nod.
Before Nathaniel could reply, Cassandra cut in: “And how long until Mrs. Vess started eating people?” She was was far prettier in the light of the parlor, the oil lamp’s glow catching in her dark hair, turning the soft waves to auburn and copper in some places.
Nathaniel wanted nothing more to just stare at her; but there were uglier things in the world that held his attention.
“A few days later, I guess,” he explained. “My father found her…later.”
Mrs. Vess had been found in the back of the livery, preying on one of her own children, young William. Though Nathaniel hadn’t seen Mrs. Vess’s sin directly, he had imagined it many times. And once Mrs. Vess turned, the other twenty-three gem owners went along with her. Charity Jones had been a merciful death, in a way; he could recollect dozens that weren’t.
“My father killed her… but more turned,” said Nathaniel. “And then they got hungry. There was no knowing what they’d eat; and the more they ate, the more whatever it is that’s got them grew inside. I can’t… I can’t even…”
“Describe them,” said Elizabeth.
Nathaniel winced, uncertain they could handle more gruesome detail.
“Listen, we can help you,” said Lydia, haughtily, as if Nathaniel should be shamed for ever thinking otherwise. “But you’ve got to tell us what they look like, otherwise we won’t know which guns to pack.”
The laugh escaped him before he could prevent it, and Elizabeth sprung to her feet, her shotgun in his face.
“Listen, kid. We’re Willard Sutherland’s daughters,” she said, flicking the barrel of the gun closer to him with every syllable. “How the hell do you think we survive out here on our own?”
Nathaniel sunk down into the chair. He could smell gunpowder the barrel was so close. “I don’t know!” he said, squirming. He’d had enough of feeling like prey. “I just—”
“Our father was a drunkard and gambler. Our brothers no better,” said Elizabeth. She swept her free hand around the parlor. “Everything you see here we got working.”
“Working doing what?” he asked.
Elizabeth had a triumphant look on her face, as if she couldn’t wait to spoil the surprise.
“Killing,” said Cassandra, cheerfully as spring rain. “It’s the family business, you could say. It’s the only useful thing our father left us.”
“But—but you’re—” Nathaniel stammered.
“Trained as well as our brothers were, and have spent the years since learning to augment and improve our weapons to optimal performance and, we should add, to significant advantage over most current available models,” chimed in Jane. “So, if you want us to take care of this pest problem, the more details the better.”
Nathaniel hugged his arms around his body, leaning back into the chair. Sweat dripped into his eyes, and he blinked furiously, feeling clammy all over. “By the time I left Middleton, whatever was left of the people who’d had the stones was just skin. The things that grew inside were like crabs with three legs—but brown and black and hairy, flecked with red sometimes. Bits of the peoples’ clothes stayed on the creatures’ long legs and backs, but most of peoples’ heads got busted clean through, their skin hanging off like dried chicken skin on the tines of a fork.”
“Coaters,” said Elizabeth. She was stroking the barrel of her gun thoughtfully, having removed it from Nathaniel’s face once he began speaking again.
“Coaters?” he asked.
“Sure,” said Lydia. “But we’ve got to figure out if they’re the smelly coaters or the quick ones.”
“They were fast,” whispered Nathaniel, and for the first time since speaking to the girls, he started tearing up. He would have done anything to spare himself the humiliation of crying in front of them, so he bit the inside of his cheek and looked away.
It was Mary who asked: “Quick like a horse or quick like a train?”
He cleared his throat, thick with emotion. “Quick like the Devil.”
“That’s gotta be the quick coaters,” said Lydia.
“I couldn’t do anything against them…” he said, sniffling.
“You escaped,” said Cassandra, sweetly. She was not far from him and she handed him one of her handkerchiefs, embroidered delicately with interlacing strawberries. He refused and used his shirt.
He’d gone through Hell to get to the ranch. But what did that make the Sutherland girls?
“Well, if no one’s opposed, I say we do it like we did at Dead’s End,” said Elizabeth at last, addressing her sisters. “We’ll take the Tank and the Riser. First light.”
“But if we wait—” Nathaniel countered, putting the handkerchief down beside him.
“If we traipse into town with guns blazing in the middle of the night, chances are we’ll get licked pretty well. I don’t know about you, but I’m nowhere near as accurate in the dark.”
“But the rest of the people in town—what about them?” he asked.
Elizabeth shrugged. “We’ll just have to hope they don’t get turned into dinner before we reach them. Meanwhile, you can sleep in the barn.”
Lydia and Cassandra brought him to the barn. Opening the doors wide he saw the wonders concealed: piled to the ceiling, crammed one on top of another, were carriages and tractors and other mechanized creations he had no understanding of, nor words to put to. Some had sails, some had wings; there were pipes and windows, finials and fans. What couldn’t be seen outright was covered in tarpaulin or closed in cases, bits of metal and leather peering out from the corners of tables and hung from above. From the ceiling brass-lined globes creaked, swaying.
And all along one side of the barn was a long bar lined with shelves and pegboard upon which hung thousands of gun, parts, and ammunition.
“A sight, isn’t it?” said Lydia proudly. “The Riser’s baskets are pretty comfortable if you’re looking for a place to curl up..”
“Riser?” asked Nathaniel.
“Dirigibles,” Cassandra chimed, pointing. Nathaniel thought he could make out wicker latticework in the distance, between a skewed grandfather clock and something that might have been a canon.
“We’ll be back to get you in a few hours,” Cassandra said, turning over her shoulder and giving him a smile bright enough to light the way to dreaming.
“Time to get going, kid.” It was Elizabeth, carrying a lantern. Morning, but still dark.
With a yawn, Nathaniel rose and followed Elizabeth back toward the front of the barn.
“That gun you came in with isn’t going to do much,” Elizabeth said, clicking her tongue and taking a few spry steps toward the wall of gun parts. She ran her finger over her bottom lip, back and forth, considering. “But I’m not sure you can handle some of our weaponry.”
“I can shoot,” he asserted.
Elizabeth narrowed her eyes at Nathaniel, looking him up and down. “You got good aim, relatively speaking?”
She unlocked a narrow oak cabinet, putting the lantern down on the table beside her and she pulled out a long, gold-barreled weapon; the end of it was swollen, nearly three times as wide the rest.
Elizabeth checked the sights, moved it side-to-side, and then went to another cabinet, extracting a tooled leather artillery belt studded with riveted brass balls rather than bullets. “It’s a grenade gun. There’s a peg here at the bottom and you shove it in just so—” she demonstrated, twisting the grenade down until it clicked, “—then aim. It’s got a kick to it. So keep steady.”
Elizabeth turned quickly, leveling him with a stare; her eyes were dark as the barrel of her shotgun. “Listen, kid. We’ve dealt with coaters before, but if I think the situation is bad, I’m pulling out. You get me?”
“If it’s about payment—”
“Oh, there’s lots of ways we can get payment. But we’ll deal with that later. Just making sure we’re clear.”
“If you help save Middleton,” Nathaniel said, “there’s nothing I wouldn’t do to help you all. I’d be indebted.”
“That’s what they all say,” Elizabeth said. Before he could ask her to elucidate further, she clapped Nathaniel on the shoulder and ushered him out of the barn.
The main carriage the Sutherlands drove was a black and red terror of metal and gears, pulled by black draft horses. It was fashioned from iron or hide, riveted and fastened with brass straps, and bosses. An ornate golden S was painted on the sides like an afterthought; a bit like putting a garland on a gun, Nathaniel mused.
The other vehicle was more cart than carriage, fastened behind one draft horse. It seated two and, Lydia breathlessly explained, was transportation for the Riser. It would be the first sent into battle, with the three youngest girls aboard, about a mile before they reached Middleton.
All of the girls had changed into men’s attire: long brown dusters, high-leather boots, trousers. They didn’t all match, necessarily, and Cassandra had a pink scarf tied around her neck, but from a distance they’d look like nothing more than a bunch of rabble-rousers out for a morning ride, braids tucked in, corsets forgotten.
“The plan’s simple,” said Elizabeth, checking her own horse. “Anne, Mary, and Charlotte are going to do a pass over, first. They’ll relay the situation via flares. From their vantage point they should be able to pick off a few of the quick coaters if they see them.
“Then we move the Tank in,” Jane said, as she thrust her thumb toward at the reinforced carriage.
Elizabeth continued, with a nod to Nathaniel. “With the Tank inside, that’s where you, Jane and me come in, kid. The Tank propels itself, see? We can go in and out, if needs be.” She clicked her tongue, poking his shoulder. “You’ll be on grenade duty. If you isolate one of the coaters, or a couple even, do what you can to blow them to Hell. Think you can manage that?”
“Yeah,” he said, swallowing.
Cassandra grinned at him. “Don’t worry. We’ll burn them down just like we always do. Right, girls?”
There was a chorus of rousing assent, and the mechanized caravan began its grinding progress forward.
Middleton was well out of the way for most travelers going to Prescott; as they approached, they passed no one. While it was never considered booming, the town did boast a successful copper mine, the De Soto, as well as the aerial tram system connected to the mine.
Jane, who was riding beside Nathaniel, and marked his gaze toward the DeSoto. “It’s early in their maturation cycle yet. Chances are, they’ll be getting ready to lay their eggs soon, and they’ll stay close to town where the food is. They like to keep some folks alive for their hatchlings.”
“Comforting,” Nathaniel said. He doubted his father would allow himself to be toyed with in such a way. He’d rather take his own life.
“Looks like a good place to let the Riser up,” Elizabeth said, flagging the rest of the caravan down.
By the time the Riser was set to go, Mary, Charlotte, and Anne were bedecked with leather helmets, goggles with dark-tinted glass, and long black fingerless gloves. They each carried elegant guns, Civil War era by the looks of them, fitted with a series of scopes and lenses.
Mary noticed him ogling her weapon and grinned. “We did Whitworth one better,” she said. “I once got a Lepus californicus at 600 meters.”
“Lepus—?” Nathaniel asked.
“Jackrabbit,” corrected Anne.
With a few more adjustments, the Riser took flight. Nathaniel watched the balloon as it gained altitude, noting how deftly the girls managed the various cables and controls.
“And there they go,” Cassandra said. “Now, we wait for their signal.”
She walked back to check on the Tank and left Nathaniel alone to watch the small vessel rise high, its shadows slipping over the pitted landscape and over the hills toward Middleton. Lord, but she was beautiful.
Not ten minutes later a flare lit up the sky, bright blue, followed by three smaller yellow ones.
“That means two sightings. They’re not gathered together like we hoped,” muttered Lydia, peeking her head out from behind the Tank.
“Guns out, girls,” said Elizabeth. “Tread careful.” She pointed her elbow at Nathaniel. “You ready, kid?”
He realized he had yet to give them his name. It stalled him for a second, and then he said, “I guess.”
“Whatever you do, don’t get us killed,” Elizabeth offered. Then, after swinging one leg up over her horse and settling in the saddle: “Let’s ride.”
They didn’t get far past Pell’s House when they spotted two coaters, big as horses. Their heads turned toward the unlikely caravan, slavering jaws working back and forth. Nathaniel didn’t have to be close to know those jaws would be slick with green tendrils of saliva, each of the long protrusions ridged like a saw; he’d seen them dripping with blood and gore, too, run around with intestines and flecked with pieces of bone.
He’d seen worse, but he was frightened to see more.
“Cassandra, unhitch the horses and get in the Tank,” Elizabeth said. “Lydia, you, too. Then wind her up.”
Fear made Nathaniel’s mouth go dry. The dark images of the last few days he had tried so diligently to suppress in the Sutherland’s home rushed to mind.
He felt a shove and Jane was staring him down. “You moving or what? The Tank’s got a lot better cover than the open.”
“B-But—” he stuttered.
“Get down off the damned horse and get behind the Tank.” That was Elizabeth.
The Tank whirred to life with the churning of heavy gears. The whirring turned to grinding, then rattling. Nathaniel clung to the back, lacing his hands around a cold metal handle.
Elizabeth was about the other side for a moment and then began pulling at some of the levers near the flanks of the Tank. Keeping her balance as it surged forward she slid out a long panel on either side, locking it into place with a few flicks of her fingers.
The Tank had built-in cover.
Elizabeth glanced up at Nathaniel and smiled crookedly. “Don’t get all excited yet, we’re just getting started.”
“When we stop,” Jane said, “you scramble with me to the roof. Liz’s got the rest. But make sure you stay up top, okay?”
All he could do was nod while the girls started shooting.
“And don’t get in her way,” Jane added.
The Tank lurched forward as the hill grew steeper. It wasn’t fast, but by God it was loud.
“Up! Up!” shouted Jane, grabbing Nathaniel up by the back of his shirt. He nearly choked as he was hauled up.
By the time he looked over the roof, one of the quick coaters was a mess of green and gray, its long arms still twitching but entirely severed from the body.
“I think that was Denny Hardaway—that coater—” Nathaniel said.
Jane pulled back on her shotgun and reloaded. The shell flipped out and clattered to the metal roof. “If you can’t shoot, then shut up and keep count.”
By now they were in the center of town, a ramshackle crossroads that had never been much to speak of. The windows on most of the homes were smashed in, ragged curtains escaping the frames and trembling in the breeze. Some lace, others plain linen. There were bloodstains on the dirt in some places, but there were no bodies.
The coaters ate everything.
The Tank shook as the remaining quick coater threw itself at the contraption, its hard legs scrabbling against the fortified sides, doing its best to get close to the fleshy prizes within.
Elizabeth dangled from the front of the Tank, and with a whoop, swung across. She came down hard with her boot on the coater’s bullet-shaped head. It shrieked and snapped at her foot with its pincers. She laughed. With her other foot—her single grip on the top rail the only thing preventing her from falling into its merciless jaws—she pushed down on a pedal on the side of the Tank and a set of spines jutted out, sharpened to razor edges. But the coater sprang back just in time.
Then its eyes turned to Nathaniel, a lid within a lid closing over a shiny yellow iris. It made a chittering noise from somewhere within its chest.
A burst of fire from the inside of the Tank sent the coater back, twisting and writhing, catching far quicker than Nathaniel would have expected. The flames were white, low burning, but made quick progress. It smelled of burned tar and, distantly, roast pig.
“Lydia!” shouted Jane.
The Tank shuddered again, spewing a jet of inky black liquid that covered the coater in a slick, tarry substance. The creature’s mouth went open in a silent scream, and it clawed at its face with its trembling pincers before tripping back and hitting the ground. It heaved, then went still.
“Where’s the rest of them?” Elizabeth asked, pulling herself to the top of the Tank. She stood to her full height, her face smudged with soot, her eyes shaded and black with purpose. She looked toward the DeSoto. “The mines. Gotta be. Not good.”
“What’s the plan?” asked Jane.
Elizabeth was silent. She was chewing on her bottom lip, and the other girls were watching her for cues. She gave none.
“You’ve got to help me,” Nathaniel begged. With a hot stab of fear he remembered what she’d said to him that morning: We’ve dealt with coaters before, but if I think the situation is bad, I’m pulling out.
“You know why so few people hear about us?” Elizabeth asked him.
“Liz…” warned Cassandra, who had exited the carriage and was staring up at Nathaniel.
Nathaniel stood on shaky legs. He took deep breaths through his nose, and the air felt hot. He shook his head no.
“We’re a cleanup crew, kid. You know what happens to those people after something like this? They leave. They don’t come back. That’s how we get paid. No one comes back. You get me?” Elizabeth explained.
Something in the very center of him twisted, hope extinguished. Cassandra sighed and looked away.
Elizabeth’s tone softened, if only for a moment. “The chance that there’s anyone is left up there is slim to none. Coaters kill fast. Show him, Lydia.”
Their timing was better than a hook in a three-penny play. Elizabeth gestured to Lydia as the younger Sutherland sister held up a stick of dynamite, dusty gray and utterly impartial.
“But there’s people in the mines!” Nathaniel shouted.
“Then being blown to bits is a hell of a lot more merciful being turned into coater feed,” Jane said.
“Wait—look!” Cassandra cried.
A flare, bright green, and the Riser gained in altitude steeply over the DeSoto.
Cassandra had taken out one of her scopes and turned the lens toward the mine. Nathaniel was glad of it; he had been two blinks from sobbing. The scaffolding of the aerial tramway showed dark against the horizon.
Cassandra gave Nathaniel a smile. “Green means survivors.”
“I’ll be,” said Elizabeth, after looking through the scope herself. “Clinging to the tram cars.”
Nathaniel didn’t want to look, even when Elizabeth offered. He couldn’t stand knowing who was up there.
“So, new plan,” Elizabeth said. “We need two groups; one to get the people, and one to deploy the explosives.”
“There’s a back mine-shaft,” said Nathaniel, willing his thoughts into more coherent order.
“Good enough. We’ll poke it full of holes,” said Lydia with a wink.
“I’ll go with Lydia,” said Jane.
“Then it’s Cassandra and you, with me,” Elizabeth said, grinning at Nathaniel. He wondered how in God’s name she could grin. But there it was. Plain as rain.
Nathaniel was given a pair of pistols and was still trying to adjust them while managing the grenade gun as they approached the DeSoto and the tram car full of survivors.
Before they could get close enough, Elizabeth announced: “Look, company.”
The coater scuttled toward them like a crab with a missing leg, dragging its back leg rather ineffectually, and clicking its jaws. Half dead, but full hungry.
Nathaniel blew it back to Hell, aiming just in front of it, so as it staggered toward them it met the blast from the grenade gun. Elizabeth had been right: the kickback was intense, sending his elbow up and nearly clocking him in the chin.
Bits of the quick coater rained down before them, crackling and sizzling as they struck the ground.
“Found your trigger finger, I see,” said Cassandra with a wink.
He could hear the people in the tram now, shouting, but he couldn’t make out their words. They’d been spotted.
But the coaters saw them, too.
“Cassandra, you get the ones on the left; Nathaniel, go for the straight shots, just like before,” Elizabeth said.
“Don’t worry about us,” Cassandra said, lifting a long, silver-barreled shotgun from over her shoulder. There were two brass tanks on either side of it, with accompanying silver piping. “Just keep a good distance. I wouldn’t want to singe off your lovely eyebrows.”
Nathaniel blushed, then poised for action: eight coaters now approached, the skin and clothes on their hairy bodies stretched wide, tanned and torn, leaving little vestige of the bodies they once inhabited.
The centermost coater was skittering back and forth, opening its mouth to call to its companions; the others took up formation behind.
“Now, kid, now!” shouted Elizabeth.
Nathaniel squeezed the trigger, prepared for the kick-back this time. But the grenade landed too far to make much of a difference, decimating a boulder and taking a good chunk out of the side of the mine. His vision obscured entirely by the dust, he staggered back just as Cassandra started her onslaught.
Her gun didn’t shoot bullets. It spewed fire.
“To the center, kid!” shouted Elizabeth.
Nathaniel’s fingers were sweaty and he aimed and shot again, this time true. The heat of the fire from the grenade blast warmed Nathaniel’s face and when he opened his eyes, all that remained of the two coaters were twitching amidst the sand and rock.
They moved on. If Nathaniel didn’t destroy it, Cassandra incinerated it.
“Let’s move, kids,” Elizabeth said when it was clear, shoving past Cassandra and falling into a jog toward the swaying tram car.
Nathaniel swallowed, each step closer to the tram. He caught a glimpse of a face, remembered: Dylan Seymore, one of his classmates in Miss Pellsey’s school… and then, Miss Pellsey, too, her long, white fingers clinging to the edge of the tram car, her usually tidy hair spilled down her shoulders, eyes wide. But not his father.
With a wide spray of flame, and a few coordinated shots from Elizabeth, the last few coaters beneath the tram were reduced to a pile of singed chitin.
Dylan was the first to speak from above. “The tram’s jammed!” he shouted. “Saved our lives getting up here, but now we can’t get down.”
“Are there any people in the mines?” asked Elizabeth, shading her eyes as she looked up at the tram car. The one further down the line shuddered, and a few, pale faces peered out.
“It’s impossible to say for sure,” said Miss Pellsey.
Elizabeth shot the flare up—bright red.
“What’s that mean?” asked Nathaniel.
“Lydia’s clear for—” Cassandra replied.
The ground shook with the first explosion. Nathaniel fell to his knees from the impact, and smoke billowed from a gaping hole in the side of the mine.
The DeSoto was on fire.
Coaters streamed from the mouth of the mine just as the Riser crested over them, Anne, Charlotte, and Mary taking aim with their sniper guns. There were seven coaters all told, and one far larger than the rest, striped rather than speckled, the back part of her thorax wider and paler.
Nathaniel looked desperately for a hint of who the coater once was, a strip of fabric or a familiar belt. But he saw nothing. He stood and shouldered his gun.
“That’s the Queen,” said Elizabeth, through gritted teeth. “Fire won’t work. When I give you the signal—”
The other coaters were going down, thanks to the girls on the Riser, but Elizabeth stopped when the unmistakable sound of twisting metal caught her attention. Another explosion from the opposite side, and the tramway scaffolding started to twist and move down, as if an invisible hand had grasped it and pulled it down toward the earth.
Lydia came running, Jane barely on her heels.
“Too much heat!” shouted Lydia, her voice barely audible above the din. “Jesus, too much heat!”
The Queen lowered her head, angular and speckled with six black dots above her lazy eyes, and stared at him. Nathaniel froze.
“It’s a copper mine!” Lydia’s voice was drifting toward him, but Nathaniel’s world was slowly losing all sense. “It’s chalcopyrite, and a hell of a lot of it. Too much heat and it goes magnetic—it’s pulling down the scaffolding as the fire moves!”
Distantly, Nathaniel was aware that the trams above them were shaking, that the people were screaming, that the dynamite had been a mistake.
The Queen charged toward Nathaniel, her wail as loud as a steam engine. Her three legs pounded the earth as she charged, head down, gaping maw wide.
Bullets plinked off of her chitinous hide, angering her but doing little damage. Nathaniel marveled at the beauty of her, the lustre of her scales, the perfect lines of hair down the sides of her three legs. Beautiful death, coming at breakneck speed.
A shadow snapped Nathaniel out of it, then he was hit, hard, on the back of the head as the basket of the Riser clocked him. He fell, his arm crushing under him, going face-down into the rubble. The the dirigible made contact with the Queen and the three youngest Sutherlands tumbled out of the Riser like practiced acrobats.
The balloon punctured on contact with the Queen, helped by a series of percussive shots, and deflated around her. She thrashed beneath, giving the Sutherlands a moment to regroup.
Nathaniel was aware that he was being dragged somewhere, but the sky was spinning. The ground shook again, and he turned his head to the side, just as a blossom of flame obscured all sight in brilliant orange and red.
He moved. It hurt. Everything hurt.
“Cassandra?” he asked.
When he opened his eyes, his eyelids cracked. Then they burned. He remembered fire. He remembered everything.
“It’s Miss Pellsey,” said his schoolmistress. “You’re in the hospital, in Prescott. It’s been two weeks since… ”
Nathaniel tried to swallow. His tongue felt as if were coated in wool.
“The papers say it was Mexicans, of course — picked the town clean, even the bank was emptied.” Miss Pellsey didn’t sound convinced, but when his vision cleared a bit more, he could see she was smiling.
“Where.. where’s Dad?” Nathaniel asked.
She sighed, leaning back in the chair. “He didn’t last much longer after you left, but you’ve got to know he was the one that helped us get to the tram. He died protecting us, the six of us who made it, and that assures him a place in heaven.”
Heaven. Nathaniel didn’t believe in heaven anymore. e.
“You got the bad end of the blast that saved us,” Miss Pellsey said. “I can’t chalk it up to anything else than sheer luck, or blessing, but our tram car fell just right. You did well, Nathaniel.”
He closed his eyes, feeling his body shudder against emotion, pain throbbing in his arms and chest.
“When you’re fit again,” she said, “you’ve got a job working as a clerk at one of the stores in town. If that’s what you like. It’s better here, in the city. I feel safer, somehow.”
Nathaniel turned his head away from her. She was talking to him just to make herself feel better. He still didn’t have the heart to tell her to shut up.
He felt gentle pressure on his fingers.
“Ring the nurse if you need. I’m staying nearby; just send word, and I’ll be by,” she said and left, closing the door gently behind her.
The light from the window was bright, perfectly golden yellow. It fell on the enamel table beside him and revealed nothing. No notes, no flowers. Just imperfections and scratches, the sign of use, of wear.
Then, as he shifted in the bed, he felt something soft in his hand that he hadn’t noticed before; he looked down. A handkerchief, embroidered with interlaced strawberries.
Hope had wings.
Dead’s End to Middleton by Natania Barron is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
Based on a work at escapepod.org.