This Here’s A Skitter, Boy!

Edgerton turned out to be a cluster of low adobe structures on a hard-pan rim leading out into the Furnace. Tinder-dry shrubs hugged the ground. A few gnarled trees and a tired patch of grass clung to life near a central water tank. Red dust coated everything but the tank. A half-buried ring twenty paces wide, high as a man could reach and covered by a peaked roof, it stood white and gleaming in the moonlight.

“There’s a deep well,” Del said, as we rode past.

“Somebody clean it every day?” I asked.

Del shook his head. “The paint’s been blessed so it don’t collect dust. Damned thing’s a beacon, coming from the Furnace.”

He pulled a bit of jerky from his vest and tossed it to a scrawny dog that slipped from the shadows to challenge us. The dog disappeared without barking. We threaded our way through the buildings until we reached a long, narrow adobe shed at the edge of the settlement.

This is it,” Del said.

He winced as he swung down from the saddle. I had made it through the gully battle with nothing more than scratches, but Del hadn’t been so lucky. The two bandits that came at him on the rise carried pistols. One of their shots creased his right side before he blew them both apart.

Such a wound would fester if left untreated, we both knew that. The way he moved said to me he’d suffered broken ribs, too. Even so, he wouldn’t let me tend him, after I had squeezed from beneath my horse.

“Want some help?” I asked, as he fumbled with the padlock on the door of the adobe shed.

“I’ll manage,” he said, between gritted teeth.

“Stubborn pride will be his downfall,” Eken whispered.

I agreed, but I kept my mouth shut. I didn’t figure Del would take any more kindly to my trying to touch him now than he had up on the mountain. To be honest, the notion of providing such ministrations made me shiver, anyway.

He finally popped the lock. “Wait for me,” he said.

He slipped inside. After a time, a dirt-filmed tarp flew up at one end of the shed to reveal a set of angled doors.

“Bring in the horses,” Del shouted from inside.

I could hear he wasn’t about to say please. I led his horse and the pack mule down an earthen ramp into the dark, then went back out for the bandits’ horses. We managed to chase down three of them, up there on the mountain, and one of those had carried me to town.

We collected bandit gear and weapons, too. “I can sell it later,” Del said, as we stripped the bodies. “Help defray my costs.”

There came a scratching from the dark inside the shed. A light flared, revealing a long, high-ceilinged room.

“It ain’t fancy,” Del muttered, as he shook out the match.

There were horse stalls near the entrance, a cot and a few sparse furnishings, some shelves pegged to the walls, but little else. The floor sloped ever downward and stretched away from us for what seemed forever. Del walked the gloom with the candle he had lit, lighting lamps.

“There she is,” he said, as he reached the far end. “That’s my baby. That’s my skitter.”

“It’s a land-sailer,” Eken whispered.

Perhaps. I hadn’t ever seen the like. Its body was a round-nosed, tapered tube thirty feet long and covered in what appeared to be taut canvas painted glossy-yellow.

It flared to a high, wide blister at the rear, shrank to a red cap a hand-breadth in diameter at the nose. A varnished wooden spar extended horizontal from there for at least another ten feet, with a big metal wheel upon an axle at its tip. Two smaller wheels, mounted on an axle, carried the rear bubble.

“It’s beautiful,” I said.

Del beamed, injuries forgotten in the moment. “Ain’t she now? When you see her with the outrigger axles mounted and the sail set, she’ll take your breath away.”

“I’ll bet she’s fast.”

The little man could hardly contain himself. “You’d win the bet,” he said. “When the wind kisses her, she flies.”

#

Riding the fragile skitter across the salt flats of the Furnace reminded me of jumping a silk-and-bamboo glider from the high ocean cliffs at the edge of my father’s orchards near Port Angeles. The same giddy sense of rushing headlong toward nothingness, mixed with a gathering unbalance in the pit of my stomach.

We hadn’t stayed in Edgerton that first night, but sailed west before midnight, running on the flat-iron desert sand. The only sounds were the steady whine of spinning axles and the thrum of wind on the sailing lines.

“This is my ocean,” Del said.

Right off, I saw the truth in that. Aboard Blessèd I had always felt we battled the wind and the water, bent both to aid us in our stuttering journey. In Del’s skitter, I flew with the wind, connected to that beautiful but barren place in a way I couldn’t fathom, but could come to love.

“What do you think?” Del asked.

“It’s incredible,” Eken whispered. I echoed his words for Del, claimed them as my own, for it was just that. The sky stretched above us, an inverted onyx bowl pinpricked here and there by distant stars. The red dust flats glowed with a high-tide light from Daniel’s largest moon.

Del and I huddled close together in a small cockpit in the rear blister, our heads thrust from draw-stringed openings in a tight canvas cover. We wore leather helmets and clear-lens goggles, and he had made me smear my cheeks and jaw with a clear unguent.

“Mineral jelly,” he said, that first night. “It keeps your skin and lips from splitting open.”

It didn’t take long to understand the need. The Furnace was cooler after dark, but the air still could blister skin, even in the middle of the night.

But there were other things than heat to occupy my mind.

Next: Near to Hell on Wheels

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