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.

Next: There; at Last

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