In choosing this week’s fractured fragment, I haven’t been able to come up with an angle to explain WHY this particular story is apropos for this time of year; it’s just next on my list of non-flash publications. Here’s the blurb for “Riding the Devil”:
With his town running from one strange frontier to another as they elude their abductors, Aaron Walker is forced to risk all to fulfill his destiny. Would you do as well? Read “Riding the Devil” to see.
And here’s the excerpt:
On the third Move since they’d escaped the J’harn, Dire Smith marked Aaron Walker. Aaron was only three.
His ma’s holding him, and his pa has his arm around them both as they stand with the rest of the folk at the edge of The Town, silently looking out at the mountains surrounding the plateau they’ve stopped on.
There’s a murmur and movement to their right, and the crowd parts, and there’s Smith in his tan longcoat and his black Thunderbird hat, standing right next to Aaron. Smith’s red-rimmed eyes ride above his mask of a neckerchief, pass over Aaron and take him in. He feels his ma shudder and his pa’s arm tighten. Then Smith turns away and shambles off with that slow, dragging gait. No one says a word as he disappears into the dust.
It’s been eight years now since that last Move. The surrounding land changes each time, but The Town is always the same. The saloon, houses, general store, livery and the rest spread out from The Center, an alien brass and iron cylinder that seems to grow out of the middle of Main Street. Put there by the devil-spawned J’harn when they first took The Town. There’s four of their devil-horned faces stretching out of the metal, higher than a man’s head, one for each point of the compass. They look like someone fashioned the skull of a steer, then instead of putting normal cow eyes in the sides, they put large, oval eyes on top, between the horns. Folks still think the J’harn can spy on them through those eyes. No one ever goes in or out of there, ‘cept for on a Move. No one but Dire Smith.
Aaron’s playing sticks with Ethan, Mark and Ruthie in the alley alongside the General Store. He’s about to take his turn when Ethan lays a hand on his shoulder.
“There’s the Devil, now,” Ethan whispers.
Ruthie and Mark scootch around from their side of the circle so they’re all facing The Center. Aaron looks up and sees Smith standing at the door, completely covered up like always. He seems to look right at Aaron.
“Ooooh,” squeaks Ruthie, “he’s looking at me!”
“He’s not the Devil, Ethan,” Aaron says as he watches Smith turn his back on them and head away up the street. “You shouldn’t ought to call him that.”
“Why not?” smirks Ethan. “You sweet on him?”
Aaron wants to punch Ethan. He would if Ethan wasn’t so much bigger than him. Instead Aaron just shakes his head.
“My pa calls him that all the time,” says Mark. “on account of its him as stuck us here.”
“Think he’d rather we were all still slaves?” Aaron says.
“My folks say so, too,” Ethan chimes in, “say it’s him as left Mark’s ma and the others behind.”
“My pa says people need to remember it was them asked Smith to save us. He did the best he could.”
“Just cause your pa’s sheriff doesn’t mean he knows everything that’s in that outlaw’s head,” Ethan says, and then he stands up. “Let’s go.”
Aaron doesn’t bother asking where. Ethan wants to follow Smith and see what he’s up to. Nobody follows Dire Smith. Even the dogs keep their distance.
“Nah,” he says, not looking at Ethan, but the dig comes anyway.
“That’s ok. You girls can stay here. Come on, Mark.”
Mark looks at Aaron sheepishly, then gets up and follows Ethan. Aaron watches after them, warring with himself. For as long as he can remember, his pa’s told him to give Smith a wide berth.
“I’m tired of sticks,” says Ruthie. “Want to play dollies?”
Aaron catches up with Ethan and Mark near the edge of The Town. Ethan doesn’t say anything, just signals Aaron to get down behind the crates him and Mark are using as cover.
Dire Smith’s standing not more than thirty feet away, shading his eyes with a gloved hand as he stares into the sunset. Aaron wants to tell Ethan this isn’t such a good idea, and they ought to sneak back into town, but someone walks up and stops alongside of Smith. It’s Aaron’s pa.
“They’re coming,” Smith says, still scanning the horizon.
Aaron’s pa arches his hand above his eyes and tries looking the same direction as Smith, but gives up.
“I don’t see nothing,” he says, “how can you tell?”
Smith lowers his hand and cocks his head. “Not by looking out there, that’s for sure,” he winks. “The devil machine’s telling me.”
Then Aaron’s pa looks down at the dusty ground and shakes his head. “How long do we have to get The Town ready?”
“Not sure. Figure five days.”
“I’ll get the word out, then. It’ll take three to bring in the scavenger crews.”
He starts to walk back into town, but Smith isn’t done. “I’ll need the boy.”
Aaron’s pa stops, stiff-like.
“Not so soon, Smith. He’s only eleven.”
“I just need his help getting ready; I’m not as… young as I used to be. Besides, he needs time to get used to me, and I need to start teaching him.”
Aaron’s pa’s shoulders droop. “Alright, then, I’ll send him by.”
“No need,” says Smith, and he looks right at where the boys are hiding. Aaron sees Ethan go pale, like Smith’s coming for him.
“Follow me, Aaron Walker,” Smith says, and he shuffles into town.
“Riding the Devil” is a science fiction / fantasy story with a western steampunk flavor. The story’s seed was a dream my significant one shared with me, saying “you should write a story from this.” Of course, what I wrote bore no resemblance to her dream as far as she’s concerned (no matter how much we read each other’s minds, some things STILL don’t quite translate), but it works for me, and is one of my personal favorites. Maybe it will be one of yours, too – just saying…
This speculative fiction short story is available at several online retailers, including, but not limited to:
It’s also included in the collection More Things I Could Get OUT OF MY MIND:
Which is itself included in the mega-collection The F
irst Three ‘Things I Could Get OUT OF
William Mangieri’s writing – including his most recent release “Cats Out of the Bag” – can be found in many places, including:
• Smashwords: https://www.smashwords.com/profile/view/NoTimeToThink
• His Amazon Author page: http://www.amazon.com/-/e/B008O8CBDY
• Barnes & Noble: http://www.barnesandnoble.com/s/william-mangieri?store=book&keyword=william+mangieri
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