A Wayfarer’s Tale: Attempting Miracles

I woke upon my back, half in and half out of the skitter’s broken shell. Wreckage pinned my left arm beneath me. Not a wisp of cloud remained in the unbroken jet-blue bowl of the sky.

The white ghost of Biggest Moon hovered just at the world’s edge, pinned down by the furnace sun. I turned my head in that direction. The mountains looked close enough to touch. At their base, off to the north a bit, I saw the reflected shimmer of the Edgerton water tank. We could have covered the distance before the sun reached mid-day, if we still had the skitter. On foot, it would be nightfall before we left the desert, if we both could stay alive to walk that far.

“Dela?” My throat felt sandblasted.

I pushed at the wreckage, managed to sit up.

My left arm flopped from under me, numb from shoulder blade to fingertips. I lay buried to the waist within broken spars and torn canvas. Despite the sun, I felt half-frozen, my legs no better than two shanks of beef hung in a meat locker. Then I saw it in the wreckage near my knees.

The chiller still functioned, trying to cool the stretches of the Furnace.

“Dela!” Still no answer.

I kicked my way from the debris, pulling at pieces with both hands as sensation returned to my left arm. Blood trickled from half a hundred cuts on my face and arms but it appeared I hadn’t received any major injury.

Once I reached my balance, I began to search. I found Dela jammed into the remains of the skitter’s narrow nose. When I touched her hand, she clutched at me and moaned, a pitiful sound that made the bottom of my stomach fall away. I tried to pull her free but she screamed at me to stop.

In the end, I tore the shell from around her with my bare hands and discovered she hadn’t had my luck. Her legs were twisted and broken. All but the thumb and index finger of her right hand were gone. The bullet wound on her side had been reopened and she’d lost a lot of blood. But the worst of the damage seemed to be inside her.

Minutes passed, and she became deathly pale. Unable to do anything, I settled to the desert floor beside her and held on to her undamaged hand.

“Hey,” Dela muttered, after a time.

I leaned close to hear her words.

“It’s bad, kid,” she said.

“Dela,” I stuttered. “This is all my fault.”

“Just like a man,” she said. “Always got to take the credit for everything.”

“I didn’t mean ..”

Dela interrupted. “Know what you mean. Trying for a joke. I’m as much to blame. We took a chance and we lost.”

“If you can stand to let me put you on a litter, I’ll get you out of here,” I said. “It’s a day to Edgerton; maybe two on foot. I’ll ..”

“You’ll die trying. You can’t walk across the Furnace, lugging me. Anyway, I’m broken up inside. Wouldn’t stand a chance on such a trip.”

“I’ve got to do something.”

“Promise me one thing,” she said. ““Don’t leave me here. Take me home .. Wayfarer.”

I laid my fist upon my chest. “I swear to you, I will.”

She smiled and closed her eyes.

“Dela?” I whispered.

No response.

I brushed sand from her cheeks, leaned in close to kiss her one last time. As I laid my lips to hers, I felt an inhalation.

“Let me be,” she mumbled.

She hadn’t left me yet.

Eken had said he sensed the white in me, maybe more than just a bit. And I had cast magic. Now was the time to see how powerful I was. I clawed at my face and arms, drawing gouts of blood. I smeared it on my hands until I appeared to be wearing crimson gloves.

“God above, Lord of all,” I chanted dimly-remembered words. “My blood, my hands, my heart and soul to heal.”

My hands glowed, faint at first but growing ever brighter. I laid them on Dela’s broken form, shouting the words of power over and over until my throat felt raw. “God above, Lord of all. My blood, my hands, my heart and soul to heal!”

And I wept, in agony and joy, as blessed power swelled within me and a notion filled my mind.


Near midnight, two days later, I entered Edgerton beneath a hooded canvas cloak draped behind me like a wedding train. Three fingers of my left hand curled uselessly against the palm. I limped upon a right leg twisted beyond repair. Both cheeks were crusted ruins. There would be scars.

All payment for my recklessness.

But the ruby pendent hung around my neck, so the folks of Edgerton never noticed. Who they saw was Del Bene.

“Christ step down from Heaven, Del,” the first man to bring water said to me. “You made it back on foot.”

“Aye,” I said. “A Devil almost got us, but I’ve brought my Dela home.”

She rode beneath the canvas on a litter cobbled up from skitter parts. It might take weeks, but she would walk again on her own for she was whole.

I healed her. Praise God above, I healed her through true magic brought forth by earnest prayer.

It was my first miracle. It wouldn’t be my last.

I did what everyone agreed could not be done, as well. Like Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, I had walked the fiery Furnace.

It wasn’t done through prayer, though.

For my second miracle I used two drops of my blood and the little chiller I had tucked beneath the canvas.

A Wayfarer’s Tale: Sailing the Furnace

Once we were well away from Laird and his posse, we stopped to sleep. Dela charged the chiller and I took the time to salve and bind her ribs. Then we nudged the sleeping pallets together. We were too excited, though, to fall asleep.

Over the past two days, we hadn’t talked all that much, at least not about our pasts. So, I told her about my first years, growing up in the warm, fertile lands below Port Andy. That led to the troubles I’d stirred up that sent me to the Brotherhood at thirteen.

She lay in my arms, listening, her eyes closed. I figured it was her turn to talk awhile.

“Where in God’s name did you come up with Del Benè?” I asked.

Dela opened her eyes, looked up at me and smiled. “He was my grandfather. I’m his namesake. I lived with him, in Edgerton, for five years before he died, out on a run. He taught me how to sail, how to run the Furnace. Most of those stories I told you I heard from him.”

She kissed me and for a time we remained silent.

“The pendent?” I asked, at last.

“He got that and the chiller the same place. Every time I ever asked, he’d only grin. The day he died, out here on the Furnace, I buried him, put on the pendent and took his place.”

“What are we going to do now?” I murmured, almost asleep.

“I’ll sell the skitter,” Dela said.

“You can’t,” I said. “It’s your baby.”

“That doesn’t matter now. We’ll go somewhere, back over the mountains. Buy some kind of little business.”

“You’ll miss the Furnace,” I said.

“Not as much as I’d miss you.”

That night, we kept a close watch, but no one followed us. As the days passed, Dela and I both began to relax. Rather than the long and silent hours of the westward crossing, we talked ‘til both of us were hoarse, making plans and sharing secrets. Making promises.

Making love.

The crossing passed quickly, but with Edgerton only one night away, we were forced to switch on the galvanic headlights, for the night sky had filled with clouds by the time we woke.

A storm had come upon us.

“It’s the Witch of the Wilds,” Dela shouted, to be heard above the rising winds. “Ain’t usual, this time of year.”

“Maybe we should batten down until it blows away.”

“Can’t,” she said, all serious. “We left the anchor back in Windswept.”

Then she grinned and poked her elbow into my side. “Relax, boy,” she said, giving me a decent imitation of Del’s rasping voice. “There ain’t a thing the two of us can’t weather.”

It sent a shiver up my backside, that echo of Tuck’s words, and it occurred to me that perhaps we’d forced Eken to leave me too soon.

I tried to remember Eken’s weather chant, but the harder I tried, the less success I had, until only bits and pieces came to mind. The winds’ ferocity increased until we could barely hear each other’s words, even when we shouted.

Then the first of the hail stones hit, pelting us, kicking up the dry earth in our path. We rolled on; the hail increased in size. Stones big as chicken eggs struck the varnished canvas of the skitter hard enough to punch right through.

Thick sprays of sleet struck the sails at sheer angles, spilling the wind from them. Visibility dropped below a dozen strides. Dela braked our forward momentum.

“I got to stop her,” she shouted. “I can’t outrun this and even with the lights I can’t see past her nose.”

Then we heard the roar.

Off to the north, a tall pillar appeared from the gloom, jet black against the gray. Dela leaned close until her lips were pressed against my ear. “It’s a devil! Biggest one I ever seen. We got to get out and get flat. If we don’t, we’re dead.”

I shook my head. “That’s no dust devil. It’s a water spout, what we would have called a Wind Dragon on the Eastern Sea.”

“This ain’t the ocean,” Dela said.

I shrugged. “Tell that to that thing out there. Mr. Soon could explain how it could be over land. He taught us weather science, but I never was much good at such.”

Dela set the sail to luffing, tried to dump momentum, but too late. The dragon seemed to target the skitter, roared its rage at our temerity. As it closed upon us, it grew larger and larger, until it filled the sky.

Just before it struck, Dela let go the control ropes and threw her arms around my chest.

“I love you,” she shouted.

“I love you, too,” I shouted back.

Then the Dragon was upon us.

The tail end of the skitter lifted. The land-sailer stood on its nose and stuck in the sudden mud. When the boom snapped, we went into a mad tumble and darkness snatched the world away.

A Wayfarer’s Tale: An Escape by Straw and Dung

It took us two nights to find our way back to Windswept without being spotted.

Laird and his men seemed to be everywhere and they’d gotten help. End of second night, all the moons had run their course and dawn wasn’t far away. Dela and I lay in the mercantile’s stable loft, spying on the ranchers gathered near the yellow skitter.

“Looks like Laird brought every friend in cattle country,” I said.

“Ain’t all of them his friends,” Dela replied. “I traveled these parts enough to know no love’s lost between the landsmen. They all think their own shit don’t stink.”

“Why are they here then?” I asked.

Dela glanced at me, tilted that one eyebrow and chuckled. A soft sound, we both whispered, but her laugh sent a shiver up my spine. “They don’t need no reason to hunt down the likes of us. I’m a custom-breaking woman. You’re a heretic and a child murderer.”

“It was an accident.”

She grinned. “I know,” she whispered. “Go tell them that.”

“Then what ..”

“Hell, maybe they just ain’t had a hanging in a while. It won’t make a bit of difference if they get their hands on us.”

She was right, of course. It didn’t matter what the truth was. What mattered to most folks was how things seemed to be, and there was nothing better to get them to set aside personal squabbles than a shared enemy.

And the thought gave me an idea.


First light had come upon us when they spotted the smoke.

“The barn’s afire!” one man shouted.

Not really, but we’d done everything we could to make it seem that way. We had fashioned a brazier from a battered washtub that seemed substantial enough to keep our fire from spreading. The wetted straw and dung we filled it with churned out smoke thick as a Far Banks fog.

It billowed from every crack and crevice in the barn, sent its stench upon the wind that blew toward the Furnace, demanding everyone’s attention. Nothing draws folks like a real good fire. The swarm of landowners and hired hands surged toward the smoke and heat, as if pulled by the same cord.

And not a single man stayed with the land-sailer.

Del and I waited at the far corner of the mercantile until the last of them ran out of sight.

“You get the chocks and the anchor,” she said. “I’ll set the sail in place.”

We scurried forward, each of us intent on our jobs. One good thing. We’d wheeled the skitter about before we left Windswept, so her nose aimed out into the Furnace. Dela freed the hatch and shimmied inside, as I hurried to the wheels to remove the chocks. When the last of the chocks popped free, I scrambled to free the anchor.

Of course, I should have done that first.

Before I could get to the anchor, the canvas sail snapped full before the wind. The skitter jerked forward, strained against the anchor rope, pulling it taut. Frantic to pull the anchor free, I set my weight against the drag, but it wouldn’t release its hold.

“There they are! ”It was one of the men at the barn.

Without thinking, I whispered words Eken had taught me and flung out my hand. He stopped as sudden as if he had run into a wall, and then flew backward across the hardpan. He stayed down. A gun barked at almost the same time and a bullet struck near my foot.

“Damn it!” Laird shouted. “Take them, don’t kill them!”

Something heavy hit the ground next to me. Dela’s leaf-bladed hunting knife.

“Cut the damned thing loose and get in here,” she shouted from the hatch.

I snatched up the knife, grabbed the line close to the anchor head and slashed. The skitter sprang forward. At first I figured the line would run through my grasp, that I would be left behind. But somehow I hung on, didn’t lose my footing, even though I stumbled along behind for a good one hundred strides.

My lungs were afire, my legs wobbled, by the time Dela set the brake to give me a chance to squirm through the open hatch. My hands quivered as I dogged the cover. I shivered as I wormed my way into the cockpit.  Dela made it better, though, turned her attention from the controls long enough to kiss me.

And as we kissed, the skitter rushed away from Windswept into the furious daytime heat of the Furnace.

A Wayfarer’s Tale: Away

At his brother’s words, Teddy’s eyes grew even wider. His attention focused on Dela. I glanced over her shoulder and spied her pendant, still on the counter in the bathroom.

She didn’t sound or look like the gnarled old tracker Teddy had watched down there in the kitchen. He wasn’t smart enough to figure what was going on, but he knew something wasn’t right. He reached to his waist and drew a pistol.

“What the hell is going on here?” he rasped.

Laird would be no less harsh than Stern.

No such thing as a fair fight, that’s what Tappitt taught in hand-to-hand drill. I stepped close and shoved Teddy’s gun hand away from us, toward the wall. The pistol discharged and I heard glass shatter behind me.

I stepped even closer and buried my knee in Teddy’s groin. The blow knocked the wind from him and he dropped to his knees. I hammered at his head with my fist, caught him hard across his temple. The pistol was beneath him when he hit the floor and it discharged. A bright arterial flow sprayed from his neck.

“God’s Blood!” Garrick stuttered, from the door. “You’ve shot Teddy. Pa will make you pay for that!”

He turned away and scampered down the hall.

“Now you’ve done it, boy,” Eken whispered. “You’ve really gone and done it.”


I didn’t need to tell Dela what to do. She scurried into the bathroom, scooped up her pendant, gathered her scattershot, saddlebags and blankets from the bed. She had the window sash up with one leg over the sill, by the time I collected my own gear.

The night smelled green. Little Moon hung a hands-breadth above the east horizon, providing just enough light for us to make our way across the tile. We made it to the edge of the roof before we heard hurried footsteps on the stairs inside. We jumped together. Dela grunted as she bounced back to her feet.

“You opened up the wound, didn’t you?” I rasped.

“Shut up,” she replied. “Just keep running.”

Seconds later, we slipped bridles into place, leaped onto our rented horses and raced bareback from the stables. As we cleared the gate, Laird and a fistful of his men came running. One of them fired a shot after us.

“Stow that,” I heard Laird shout. “I want those two alive.”

Five years since I had ridden without a saddle, but things come back when you have a need. We rattled through the silvered moonlight side by side, working to stay in place, juggling the gear we carried.

“You figure they’ll chase us?” I asked.

“Wouldn’t you?” There was a sweetness and a reckless banter to Dela’s voice that excited me.

“Go on, joke about it,” Eken whispered. “The storekeeper in Windswept won’t laugh when he finds you left his tack behind.”

“How much do you expect that merchantman will charge us for his lost saddles?” I asked Dela.

She laughed. “You think to grab the gold?”

“I did.”

Dela grinned, not looking at all like the geezer I’d first met in that Safe Harbor tavern. “Whatever he asks,” she said. “Don’t you figure it’s worth it to slip Laird and his ropes?”


Little Moon had set, the eastern sky had brightened before we slowed to hunt for shelter. It had been more than a day since we had slept. At last, Dela pointed to a dark patch on the sandy bluffs we had reached.

“If that’s a cave,” she said. “If it’s big enough, I say we lay low there until dark.”

It was a cave. More than large enough for the horses, too, once we goaded the animals up and through the cleft. The rocky floor of the arroyo hid our tracks and a few minutes work with brush hide the opening from passersby.

We hobbled and blindfolded the horses to keep them quiet, then shared the jerky Dela had stashed in a pocket of her vest. She rolled her eyes when she passed me a hunk. “I keep this for that damned mutt in Edgerton,” she said.

“The dog hasn’t chewed on it, has he?” I asked.

Dela guffawed, and then coughed to keep from choking on the bite of jerky in her mouth.

She slipped to the stone floor across from me. As we ate, we huddled close to a shuttered everlight from her saddlebags, our folded knees touching.

“Whether they come by here or not,” I said. “They’re going to go on to Windswept.”

Dela nodded. “Laird don’t seem the sort to give up easy.”

She chewed for a time, resting her free hand on my leg as she ate. The heat from her fingers was like a wrapped coal on a cold night, not over-hot but warm enough to remind me what its direct touch would do.

“We make a good team,” she said.

I nodded. “What are we going to do?”

“Wait ‘til dark, then head back for the skitter. Once I have my girl, they’ll never catch us, even if they’re dumb enough to try to run the Furnace.”

“You know that’s not what I mean.”

“Careful what you do and say, Wayfarer,” Eken whispered. “You’re being judged right now.”

“The old man’s talking to you, ain’t he?” Dela asked. “He’s whispering his wisdom in your ear.”

“Captain Stern and Mr. Soon are here,” Eken whispered.

“Yes, he’s talking to me.”

“The Captain offers one last chance,” Eken said. “Renounce this woman, return the gold to its proper place and accept the rancher’s punishment. Soon will take to the wire and soften it the best he can.”

He paused and then relayed the threat I had expected. “If you don’t, your name will be blotted from the records of the Brotherhood.”

“He wants you to give me up,” Dela said.

“He does.”

“What do you want to do?”

“I don’t give a damn for what he want. I want to stay with you.”

Dela slid away from me then, rolled onto the blankets she’d taken from the ranch-house bed. She kicked off her boots and shimmied out of her buckskin trousers. She stretched out, her back against the rock and held up one corner of the blanket, as invitation.

“Come here,” she said.

“Last chance, boy,” Eken whispered. “Renounce her now or go your way without our blessing.”

“Don’t threaten me, old man,” I said.

I crawled across the cave and stretched out next to Dela, sliding my arm under her shoulders. She snuggled against me, grunting in discomfort as she pressed her side to me.

“Take care,” she murmured.

“I will.” I nuzzled her ear, breathing in the scent of her hair and skin.

“You’ve been a fool from the beginning, boy,” Eken hissed. “You’re being stupid now. Someday you’ll regret all this.”

Dela must have felt me wince.

“Tell the old pervert to close his eyes and keep his mouth shut,” she said. “And you have a care with my ribs.”

Eken sighed. “You showed such promise,” he whispered, and then I felt him fade away.

A Wayfarer’s Tale: Discoveries

Laird wouldn’t allow us separate quarters, but from the look of our room, Amanda had insisted we be given the best they had.

It was more than I’d expected, large enough to sleep the entire Blessèd brotherhood, who were used to crowded space. The room had been fitted with well-turned furnishings. Antiques that would have made my mother swoon.

Indoor plumbing, too, better facilities than I had ever seen. A porcelain sink with hot and cold running water, a claw foot tub and a loo that flushed clean with water stored in an elevated enamel cistern. Del discovered the loo moments after we entered the room and took possession without even a single by-your-leave.

It turned full dark outside before I figured he’d been in there long enough. “Del,” I called through the door. “I need to take a piss.”

“Go away.” His voice sounded strange; higher and smoother than usual.

“I can’t just crawl out on the roof and let my water fly,” I said.

“Go away!”

I wasn’t about to do that. In truth, I was angry with him. He hadn’t been much help, down there in the kitchen.

“Last chance,” I called.

“You heard me.”

I pushed the door open and barged in. All I managed to say was: “Listen here ..”

Del stood before the sink, stripped to the waist, intent upon the large wall mirror mounted about the basin; working on the angry-looking slash across his ribs. A heavy blood-red pendant lay upon the counter.

“A seeming,” Eken whispered. “I knew it!”

I wasn’t listening. Truth be told, I was flummoxed by what I had glimpsed in the mirror.

“Get out of here,” Del hissed.

I grabbed his shoulder to pull him around. He resisted, but I outweighed him. His hands fluttered to his chest, but couldn’t cover what I had already seen. Breasts too full and too round for any man.

“God’s Blood,” Eken whispered. “Del’s a woman!”


We were in serious trouble. Women might have land rights, but it was against custom for a woman to travel in disguise and claim the rights of men. Old Church and Freewill agreed on that. If Eken knew, Stern knew; there would be hell to pay. That didn’t seem to bother Del. She wasn’t pleased that I had uncovered her deception, but wasn’t the least embarrassed.

I stumbled back into the bedroom with her right behind me, spewing words I’d never heard a woman say.

“In the name of all that’s holy,” Eken whispered. “Tell her to stay her mouth and cover her nakedness.”

“Eken’s right,” I blurted. “Put your shirt on.”

“Who the hell is Eken?” she demanded.

“I won’t talk to you while you’re naked,” I stuttered.

Del turned and stomped into the bathroom. I couldn’t stop myself from staring after her. I was upset that she had lied to me, put us in this predicament, but relieved, as well.

I hadn’t fallen in love with another man.

“Who’s Eken?” Del demanded a second time, as she returned wrapped in her shirt.

She must have left the pendant in the bathroom, for she still looked womanly, and young at that. Not much beyond my nineteen years. When I told her about Eken, I was certain she would rip off her shirt again and strangle me with it.

“Why didn’t you tell me you had a lurker?”

“He’s not a lurker, Del. He’s my witness. God’s Blood! I’m on Journey.”

“You should have told me,” she said.

“I did,” I stammered.

“About him!”

“You should have told me you were a woman,” I said.

“There’s no need for you to know what’s between my legs.”

She glared at me. No. She glared through me at Eken. “And my name is Dela,” she said.

That set Eken off.

“Dela, is it? Tell Dela there was every need for you to know. There are ways to do things, after all. She’s broken covenant.”

“He can hear you.”

She ignored me. “Customs, not laws,” she said. “Tell him if it weren’t for closed-minded religious sods like him, those customs would have been done away with long ago.”

Eken jump tracks.

“I’m an old man,” he whispered to me. “I’m not supposed to be taken in by such as this dolly, even if she did use magic.”

“She’s not a dolly,” I muttered.

But in a way she was. Without the magic of her pendent, Dela looked different. Her short-cropped hair was sandy blond. Her face wasn’t as hard-edged, her body softer with easy curves. And she couldn’t have been more than two years my elder.

“What was that?” she demanded. Her tone could have flayed my callused feet to red meat.

“I was talking to Eken,” I said. That set her off.

“You,” she said. “You’re as bad as that pervert. Sneaking around behind me, letting him watch. He saw me naked.”

“So did I.”

“You’re a boy.” She made it sound like a disease.

“I’m nineteen,” I said. “Old enough.”

Dela stepped close. “Old enough for what?”

The smell of her, the heat of her anger, overpowered me. I wasn’t thinking. I stepped in close and pulled her to me. “For this,” I said.

I kissed her. She tasted smooth and sweet and perfect, so different from how Tuck tasted. She reminded me of everything I’d wanted all my life and never had.

“What are you doing, boy?” Eken whispered.

He knew what I was doing, was experiencing it right along with me. What he didn’t understand, I knew, was why I was doing it. I ignored him, all my attention on Dela.

She crowded in, raised her hands. I thought she would hit me, but she never struck, at least not with any force. Instead, she wrapped both arms about my neck and held on, melting into me, kissing me back.

“Stop that!” Eken hissed.

I continued to ignore him. After a time, Dela pulled away, but didn’t let go. She took a deep breath.

“Sweet Jesus,” she said. Her voice had lost its grittiness. “I have dreamed about doing that very thing since you touched my hand over that map last week in that tavern.”

She raised on her toes, coming back for more.

The bedroom door slammed open. Teddy stormed in, Garrick right behind him. “To hell with what Pa wants,” Teddy said. “I want ..”

He stopped three steps into the room, eyes wide. Dela stepped away from me and turned toward him. I eased toward her, thinking to protect her, I suppose.

“Well I’ll be damned.” Teddy grinned. “You two are a couple of posy boys, just like Andy. The old man will pitch a fit, he finds out Mama offered shelter to the likes of you. He’ll string you up from the gateposts.”

Garr peeked around his brother. “Te-teddy,” he stuttered. “I d-don’t think that’s w-what this is.”

A Wayfarer’s Tale: There; At Last

A covered porch ran around all four sides of the house. A sprawling structure, three stories high, the house’s walls were field stone and timber, the roof done in red cupped tile. Tall catalah trees, manicured lawns and raked gravel driveways surrounded the house and barns. The broad catalah leaves must have shaded the house all through the day.

I could smell the money here. No one who ranched had time for such landscaping, unless they could afford servants. Field hands and wranglers, too, most likely, and that took money. In the conversations Tuck and I had shared about our homes, he’d never mentioned he came from wealth. I’d never thought to ask.

As we swung down from the saddle, the door opened. A man and a woman stepped onto the porch. Older, both tall and broad. Well dressed for ranch living. I saw reflections of my friend in both their well-tanned faces. He sported thick, dark hair, but hers was the same shade of blond as Tuck’s, but streaked through with gray.

A young man, almost my own age, stopped just behind them. A boy of twelve or so hung at the door. Tuck had told me about his younger brothers, Teddy and Garr. Both mirrored Tuck’s features, but their skin and hair were darker, like their father.

The woman came to the edge of the porch and stood, arms crossed, studying us. The older man stopped behind her and put his hands on her shoulders. She pulled away to stand on her own.

“Are you from that boat?” the man demanded.

The look he gave me set my fingers itching for my weapons.

“They knew you were coming,” Eken whispered. “Soon sent a message through the wires two days ago.” It was the first I had heard of that, but then I had some secrets of my own.

“I’m from Blessèd Vessel of Our Lord,” I said. “It’s a ship, not a boat.”

“You being smart-mouthed with me?” the older man asked.

“No, sir.”

“I don’t care much for smart-mouthed. Andy was always quick with it, too.”

Andy. Tuck’s baptism name. Andrew Lloyd Tucker.

“Hush, Laird,” the woman said. “These men have come a long way to do us a service. It’s impolite to talk in such fashion.”

The older man looked down at her, frowning, but didn’t respond. She made her way down the steps toward us. “I’m Amanda Emerick-Tucker,” she said. “Andrew’s mother. The rude man on the porch is my husband, Laird Tucker. That’s Theodore, our middle son, behind Laird. Garrick is the sprout at the doorway.”

“My name is Ishmael Cummings,” I answered. “I’m Tuck’s .. Andy’s Wayfarer. And this is Del Benè, the tracker who brought me across the Furnace.”

Amanda nodded. “I’m blessed to meet you both.”

She drew a breath, as if it had been some time since she had done so, and took my hand in both of hers. Her grip was dry, her fingers thick with callus, but not sandpaper rough.

Amanda glanced toward her husband. “We’re blessed.”

Then she drew another breath, pulled her shoulders back, as if getting ready for a blow. Laird must have seen it, too. He hurried down the steps and stood behind her, his hands on her shoulders. His love for her was obvious. This time she allowed his touch.

“And now that introductions have been made,” Amanda said. “Would you please give me my son’s remains?”


The meal they offered us proved generous, even if provided at a table in the kitchen. The company remained subdued. Amanda said little, sat clutching the brass urn on her lap. What few words Laird said were addressed to me, as if Del wasn’t there.

“Where are you from, boy?” Laird demanded.

“My folks work land south of Port Angeles.”

I forked a bite of roast beef into my mouth, more to keep from talking than because I needed food. I didn’t like this man, who looked so much like my friend, but didn’t act like him. He spoke to me as if I were a wayward child.


“No, sir. My father manages orchards for a landsman who lives in Saint Edwards.”


I could hear the disdain dripping from that single word. I came from hired help. Tenants.

“Your father approve of you joining those heretics?”

I set my fork and knife onto the table with a thump. Del kicked me, under the table.

“Boy, do you never learn?” Eken whispered. “He’s baiting you, looking for a reason to throw you off his property.”

“I was raised Freewill, Landsman Tucker,” I said, working to keep my voice even. “My parents felt blessed I chose to join the Brotherhood.”

“Is that so?”

Clear I wasn’t the sort he would have picked as a companion for his son.

“That’s so.”

“There any money?” Teddy blurted.

He leaned against the frame in the doorway to the central hall. Garr hovered behind him, trying to look adult. It was the first time either had spoken.

“Hold your tongue, son,” Laird said.

Teddy took a step into the room. I decided I didn’t care for him one little bit, either.

“I got a right to know, Pa,” he said. “If Andy left money, by law Garr and me are entitled to a share.”

I decided to stir the pot a bit.

“There’s gold. An accumulated share of profits, minus costs of my travel.” I pulled the remaining pouches from my belt and tossed them onto the table.

Teddy drew a breath, almost hissing, as the gold landed, heavy and solid. Laird shot up from his chair.

“That’s getting to be a bad habit, boy,” Eken whispered. “You endanger your life and that of the tracker. You dishonor the memory of your friend, as well.”

“How much is it?” Teddy’s voice squeaked.

“I told you to shut up,” Laird thundered.

He turned on me then, his index finger pointed like a gun. “As for you, I won’t allow you to corrupt my two remaining sons, do you hear me? Your heresy has already stolen one son from me.”

Del pushed away from the table then, stood with his back to the wall. “If we leave now,” he said to me. “We can make it most of the way to Windswept by morning.”

His words were calm but they had a sandpaper rasp to them.

“Fine by me,” Laird said. He waved toward the table. “Take your dirty money with you, too. We don’t want it.”

It seemed to me that Laird would have been dead just then, if Teddy had had a weapon handy. He turned, pushed Garr out of the way, and stormed down the hall. His little brother followed.

“No!” Amanda said. She remained seated but her voice was on its feet. “This young man was Andrew’s friend. He has done us, a great favor. I will not turn him away. They stay the night.”

Laird might run the lands but the name on the gate told me who owned the ranch. Amanda’s name was listed first and so her word was law. Women might be looked upon as second-class citizens in some places, but their claim to land rights had been rock-solid from the first days on Daniel. Laird glared at me. I glared right back.

“I think it best we leave, ma’am,” Del said.

“Listen to the tracker, boy,” Eken whispered. “For your life and soul, please listen to him.”

I should have heeded both of them, but I saw the way Amanda cradled Tuck’s urn against her chest, heard the need in her voice. I was determined not to bring her further hurt. I scooped up the gold, feeling its real weight for the first time.

“No,” I said, my eyes on Laird. “You can go, Del, if you like. I intend to stay the night.”

A Wayfarer’s Tale: Near to Hell on Wheels

Our shoulders and thighs pressed together without let up, there on the skitter’s narrow bench. I felt every twist and twitch of Del’s muscles, as he pulled ropes and pushed at peddles to steer the skitter. And no way for me to get away from it for space  was much too tight. I stayed aroused most of that first night.

Del kept my only escape – the access hatch at our feet – latched tight. He swore we would open it but twice a day, at dawn and dusk. “To slip outside, one at a time, and relieve ourselves,” he said.

Two narrow pallets hung just beyond the hatch, one on either side of the pinched interior that was illuminated by an everlight. We slept there during the day, within an arms-length of each other. I would have gone mad in that narrow space, from the heat and my growing need to touch Del, if not for the unexpected presence of a piece of manufactory magic.

“How can he afford that?” Eken murmured, first night.

That was a chiller, a white cube big as my fist, its six faces engraved with a stylized rabbit’s head, the mark of the Old Church-sanctioned WeisserHase Werke in Port Angeles.

Del frowned when I asked about it. “T’was a gift,” was all he would say.

“Horse Pucker!” Eken snapped. “That can’t be so; that device is worth near as much as Blessèd.”

Like most pieces of manufactory magic, the chiller was easy to operate. Every morning, Del stabbed his fingertip with a pin and allowed a drop of blood to fall into a narrow slot.  A swelling bubble of chilled air would well from the cube. It kept the cabin livable all through that day and night.

“Feel that, boy,” Eken whispered, first day before I fell asleep. “Proof there is real power in the blood.”

So we raced across the sands by night and slept in chilled comfort by day, within the confines of the skitter. My need to touch Del grew as the days and distance passed, but I knew that if I gave in to desire, Eken would witness my perfidy. If that happened, my chance to return to Blessèd would be gone.

For the first time in my short life, I caught a glimpse of Hell.


Third night out, Del tipped his head toward a dark smudge on the horizon to the north.

“Lookee there,” he shouted.

“What is it?” I  shouted back.

“Dust storm,” Eken whispered, and he began to chant.

“That there’s a devil,” Del said. “A dust twister pushed up and on by the Witch of the Wilds. Pray to your god, kid. Fast as my baby is, she can’t outrun such a thing as that.”

And so I chanted, too, repeating Eken’s words. I don’t know if God or my novice grasp of true magic kept the storm away, a combination of the two, perhaps, but we sailed on untroubled.

No amount of magic could ease my growing anguish, though. Then when I thought I could endure it no longer, when I was certain that I would reach out for Del, would accept the damning consequences, we arrived at Windswept.


The tiny settlement at the west edge of the Furnace looked to be as small as Edgerton, and the land about it just as sere, but it was home to a sizable mercantile and stable. The ostler, a jolly sort, seemed used to being roused before the sun had risen. We made him even happier by showering him with gold from Tuck’s crew share.

I wasn’t feeling as much panic, away from the confines of the skitter, but I still didn’t trust myself to say more than a word or two together. So I let Del dicker for horses, tack and food, and like a good boy, laid down what coins he told me. He handled it just fine.

“We’ll be back before a week has come and gone,” he promised, as the ostler handed us the reins.

The fella rattled the gold coins in his hand and grinned. “I know you, Del,” he said. “I ain’t that worried.”

We tied down the skitter and threw a canvas over it; took the gear and animals and food, and rode off to the west.


At first, the land seemed almost as barren as the Furnace, then the heat and dryness, bit by bit, dropped away. Life began to present itself. Green trees and knee-deep grasses. Jackrabbits and foxes locked in their eternal struggle, and raptors on the wing, high overhead. Tall and crumbling bluffs, pocked with caves, gave grudged way to low, rolling hills.

The first night, we camped in a stand of trees near a fast-flowing stream, in an arroyo cut. Over supper, Del regaled me with long-winded stories of his exploits.

Second day, we came upon green pasture lands thick with herds of grazing cattle. Smooth traveling after that, and my desires slacked, eased to some degree by Del’s manner. He seemed a different man, away from the Furnace, telling ribald jokes and encouraging my tales of life upon the sea.

The sun had touched the western horizon when we arrived at the tall gates of the Emerick-Tucker ranch. I had rehearsed this visit in my mind, beginning the moment I stepped forward at Tuck’s cremation and swore the Wayfarer’s Oath. I figured I was ready.

It didn’t go the way I planned.