[Author's Note: It's been some time and a lot has been going on, but I hope to keep a steady pace now. Most of my time will be spent on some original fiction writing I'm preparing for a convention this June, but I'll still be around. Good to be back and I hope most of you all are still here. Thanks for reading everyone and enjoy! ~Foxmerc]
Thunder rolled across the plains and rumbled in the boy's tight chest.
The gun felt too large for his hands, too heavy for his arms.
Fox's eyelids flew open and he sucked a quick, alert breath through his nose. The dusty rafters above slowly came into focus, painted in the dim gold of dawn's light seeping through the sandy windows. From the main drag outside wafted the early morning sounds of lazy wagon wheels and plodding hooves, interspersed with some greeting or another between the merchants setting up shop and people walking by. Fox had grown used to such sounds stirring him from sleep, but the noise was hardly the excitable din that he imagined Corneria City once bore, back when every other building wasn't a dirty shell.
But who needed noise when he had the dreams to stir him?
His heart calming down inside his sweat-soaked chest, Fox swung his legs over the side of the bed and sat up, mindful not to wake the naked lynx lying beside him. The modest inn room sat in silence. Folding his hands under his chin, he gazed out at the desert horizon and lost himself in it.
The dream never changed. It had haunted him for years until he grew expectant of it, resisting it like a poison. Then it ached, stuck with him well past the waking hours, still visible when he closed his eyes. Now it was just a part of his night, as natural as the sex that lulled him to sleep hours before. But despite Miyu's best efforts, the dream would stay with him far longer. He didn't mind. The dream kept him focused, made sure he wouldn't forget his path, like a rancid medicine he hated but knew was for his own good. He had changed from that scared child shivering at ghosts in the night.
But the dream never changed.
Soft fingers on his back accompanied the sleep-hazed voice behind him.
"That was a hell of an apology."
Fox swallowed and pushed the dream to the back of his mind. He stood and retrieved his pants from the back of a chair in the corner. "You don't got to stroke my ego to make a second sale. One-night only thing, just to help out the Feather here."
"Gee, ain't you the sentimental type." With a little scoff, Miyu sat up and let the sheet slip over her chest to her lap with unashamed nonchalance. Fox supposed that feelings of modesty didn't last long in her line of work. "Why do you care about the Feather anyway?"
With a shrug, Fox buckled his belt and reached for his shirt. "Miss Phoenix seems like a spirited woman. Resilient. Decent. Hard to find out in these parts."
"Yeah, she's alright. Helped out me and Fay. We used to work at another saloon before it closed and we refused to work at the Cat's Paw. So here we are. She pays us good and she doesn't have to."
With a grunt, Fox started on his shirt buttons, eyes perusing the street below. "I'm growing mighty curious about this Cat's Paw place, what with all the insults being flung at it around here.
"Well, insults are all I got for it." The sheets rustled as Miyu slunk down onto her side and propped her head up, her voice taking on a bitter flavor. "What would you call a Blood Wolf hang-out run by a cold-hearted bitch who'd rather make a buck than give a damn about the rest of the city? Huh? What would you call it?"
With a slow spin of the cylinders to check his rounds, Fox shoved his pistols into his holsters and made sure his rear-draw gun was still secured. "A target range."
The young lynx giggled. "No objections here. Better watch that talk out there though; Miss Phoenix won't always be there to pull that cute ass out of the fire."
The memory of the willful, kind face coming to his aid the day before played through his head, but it brought with it a frown, a knot of suspicion from a wandering life where no good turn was free. "Why'd she help me? Besides a couple whiskeys and a night's expense, what'd she have to gain from sticking her neck out?"
"Seems Miss Phoenix's neck is never anywhere but stuck out waitin' to get lopped in two." Miyu watched the man take his long coat, slip his arms in the sleeves, and tug it up over his shoulders, dust and sand drifting from the creases. No amount of shaking or washing would ever get the lingering desert out of it. "Just the way she was raised, I reckon."
"Thought she said she was alone as a kid."
"Well, she was an orphan. She don't talk about it much, but far as I know, her parents were killed and she scraped on by in the alleys. This was back when there were crowds in the streets and rich types tossing food away and coins to the urchins. Then she met James McCloud. You'd have to ask her for the details, but he must'a been some guy to raise her into who she is."
From a nearby chair seat, Fox took his hat by the crown and held it before him, distractedly turning it by the brim. "Sounds like he was a great guy." He paused. "Wish I could've known him."
"Talk to Miss Phoenix enough and you'll think you knew him. She's about all that's left of him. God damned Andross and his thugs killed his whole family along with him at their ranch back east a ways. Wife, kid too."
After a few seconds, Miyu realized all was quiet and she raised her eyes to find the fox still staring down at his hat. He soon glanced over at her and she realized that was the first time he'd ever looked her in the eye. Even that momentary glimpse sent a little shiver down her spine, seeing eyes as cold and sharp as new-forged spurs.
"Whadd'y'all do for coffee around here?" Fox uttered, placing the hat between his ears and returning most of his face to shadow.
"Oh, uh…we got a little kitchen downstairs. Miss Phoenix should have some up by now."
He pulled the door open with a sad creak and, with a fingertip to the brim of his hat, gave a farewell of, "You take care now, ma'am," as he strode into the hallway.
The saloon's downstairs lay empty and quiet, the unmistakable aroma of a lived-in watering hole invading Fox's nostrils. Spilled booze, cigar smoke, street dust…all the signatures. But the Feather covered them up nicely with the ghosts of the chandelier and numerous lanterns, the burned oil offering a strange sense of dignity to an unavoidably foul-smelling business. But in the dawn hours, the only light came courtesy of the windows and swinging doors. As he descended the stairs, boots loud as hooves in the silence, the more pleasant fragrance of fresh coffee wafted from a door beside the bar. After a couple weeks of waking up to whatever dried grounds he could scrounge from his saddlebags, the strong smell kissed him like an angel.
Fox couldn't help but notice as he passed by the bar that the impressive rifle mounted above the shelves had gone missing. Rather than a glint or shine drawing his eye, it was the lack of it that drew his attention, so taken was he with it upon first putting his eye on it. A frown formed on his muzzle as he began piecing together the short mystery of its disappearance. The scratching, shuffling, and clanking of a wagon being suited up out on the road certainly helped. With a light sigh through his nose, Fox followed the aromatic call to the kitchen to pour a mug of black coffee before heading outside.
With the sun barely peeking over the tops of the main street's roofs, it already promised to be another hot day. Fox let the doors flap shut behind him and stood taking small sips every few seconds, perusing the wagon before him, set up right where he and O'Donnell nearly came to blows of lead the day before. It stood tall and solid, a stagecoach with a solid wooden frame reinforced with iron where a more pretentious owner would've put scrollwork and fancy adornments. The windows had been boarded up and the entire side painted in the same style as the Phoenix Feather's tavern sign, the paint equally faded and chipped.
"That you, Fox the fox?" Fara sauntered out from around the other side of the wagon, by the two chestnut horses harnessed and reigned in to the front shafts, giving each a pat on the neck in passing. She wore a simpler dress than the one Fox had seen on her before, brown and straight, less revealing and meant more for practicality than decoration. She tread the rough sandy dirt in flat leather boots. "How'd Miyu treat you last night?"
Fox took a slurp of coffee as he let his eyes wander the coach. "Better than the desert's been treating me, ma'am."
The vixen chuckled under her breath as she went about her work, checking the horses' straps and kneeling to get a look at the axles and undercarriage. Something about a woman who could go from alluring mistress to unabashed hands-on worker as easily as changing her clothes stirred a funny feeling in Fox's gut.
"I reckon that's as good a compliment as any."
Another scalding sip. "You mind telling me what you're doing?"
From her hands and knees halfway beneath the coach, Fara glanced back under her arm. "You said you wanted to see Toad. I said I'd show you. Did Miyu hump out your short term memory or somethin'?"
"My mind's working fine, ma'am, fine enough to know I ain't escorting a woman beyond the city lines into the wild. I heard 'bout the uppity Cerinians around here."
Fara scoffed and returned to her work.
"See," Fox continued, annoyed, "when you said you'd show me, I figured a little drawn map or written directions or a finger pointin' the general goddamn area or some such. I suppose you plan to ride up on the buckboard also, reigns in one hand and that pretty rifle of yours in the other, whoopin' and hollerin' all the way."
The tavern mistress-turned- coach hand slid back out from under the wagon and hopped to her feet, brushing gritty sand from her dress, eyes meeting her guest's with her jaw set in that way Fox already learned to recognize as stubbornness. "I don't know if you caught on yet, honey, but Corneria City ain't a place for proper ladies and their doting gentlemen. I'm plenty familiar with the paths all around these parts and I can hold my own just fine with that 'pretty' rifle of mine. You think I keep it in the bar to impress wandering gunmen like you?"
Fox finished off his coffee and placed the mug upside down on the porch railing with a hollow thump.
"Besides," she continued as she braced a foot against the front wheel and hoisted herself up into the driver's position on the buckboard. Sure enough, one hand grasped the reigns while the other produced the rifle from where it had been lying on the seat, its gleaming metal even more resplendent in the sunlight. "The tribe 'round the mountain path's always been pretty peaceful with us. Even if they weren't…ain't nothing out there more dangerous than life here in the city on any given day. Now, you coming, or did I dirty up this here frock for nothing?"
Fox frowned but presently pulled himself up to ride shotgun alongside her. He couldn't forget why he'd come to Corneria City in the first place. If this Toad had any information for him then he refused to let decency get in his way. What the hell, he figured. Every law of God and man had been broken by his hand on his long, gunsmoke-filled trail to Corneria City. No sense letting chivalry get away unscathed.
The coach rattled on through Corneria City and past the church, Fara pointing out odds and ends like an old livery or boarded up general store, and finally shooting a glare and hooked thumb down a side street she proclaimed harbored the Cat's Paw. Fox couldn't see much except a row of nine or ten horses tied to the hitching posts; enough to know the Paw indeed claimed most of the city's business. Fara quieted up after that and stayed leaned over with her elbows on her knees, reigns firm in her hands. Though Fox felt he should've been the one leading the horses, he stayed quiet and let the tavern mistress tend to her own coach, leaning back and tapping the brim of his hat down to cover his eyes and let him catch up on some rest.
After a good few hours of silence with only the rhythmic clopping of hooves and strained shuffling of the vehicle, he felt the road change beneath the wheels, felt the air change from hot and dry to warm and airy, heard the ruffle of wind through leaves. He righted his hat back between his ears and looked around at the mountain foliage. Oaks and pines stood high to give them shade, shrubs and grass nipping at their heels. The barely-trod path before them was of dirt rather than sand. Even a bird or two dared to sing a tune, accompanied by the warbling of a brook or stream somewhere in the distance.
"Gettin' higher up in the Fortuna Mountains," Fara said, noticing her passenger's rousing. "Still a ways from the mountains proper but the foothills and valleys around here are always good for a ride."
Fox took his time giving the scenery a once-over. The new surroundings may have been a pretty sight and a relief on the skin, but more greenery meant more cover for dangers. "How long we been riding?"
"Five, six hours maybe. Toad's depot is only another hour or so away."
Fox's eyes lingered on a thick oak trunk beside the path coming up on their right. The thick wood had been whittled down, sculpted into the rough visage of an angry feral wolf, its ornate designs and sharp eyes a testament to its craftsman. Etchings adorned where the bark had been stripped around the carved wolf. Though he couldn't understand all that was there, Fox knew it was a Cerinian territorial marker, a tribe he'd not ever encountered. With a frown, he hoped it stayed that way.
"Not used to moving through Cerinian lands riding a giant, rattling, slow-as-hell target," Fox uttered.
"I figured since we're heading up there I can get a head start on some shopping Toad does every month or so." Fara rapped her fist behind her on the roof of the coach. "Santos at the city import gives me a few credits when he doesn't want to make deliveries. He gets jumpy up in these parts."
"Can't rightly blame him. Territory marks ain't exactly a welcome sign."
Fara rolled her eyes. "I should'a just let you sleep through it like you did the last two."
Fox blinked and darted his eyes around for another look all around them "How goddamn deep down the Cerinians throats are you taking us?"
"I already told you, the Krazoa tribe don't hassle us. Hell, they used to trade with us until Doc Andross got 'em all riled. It's mostly the other tribes around here that put us in their sights. Or whatever the hell it is they aim bows and arrows with."
When he was finished giving the woods a third scrutiny, Fox settled down a little and leaned back, arms crossed over his chest and fingers touching the butts of his pistols. He glanced out the corner of his eye at Fara and gave a short, deep chuckle. "You sure got a tight grip on that there rifle for someone without a care for savages."
Fara looked down at the gleaming rifle lying across her lap, her fingers curled around the stock and triggerguard like a nest of anxious rattlesnakes. She returned the chuckle and relaxed her hand. "I didn't say I trusted them, I just said they ain't the aggressive type."
After a moment, Fox muttered, "So, you gonna tell me about it?"
"Tell you 'bout what?"
"That rifle. I seen enough to know when something's got a story behind it."
Fara lowered her eyes to the gun and slowly ran her finger down its barrel and back to the lever, her eyes following but not focused. She stayed quiet for a minute and when she spoke again, her voice had lost some of its spark. "I got it from that James McCloud fella I mentioned yesterday. If you don't know him, it's sort of pointless to tell you about it."
Fox's gaze went to the rifle and he gave it a good long look from stock to muzzle as if looking at it for the first time. "That belonged to James McCloud?"
"That it did."
He reluctantly tore his eyes away from the fine weapon and busied back to keeping watch over the green mountainside. "Go ahead and tell me anyway. As it is, word from Miyu is you're the one to see if a guy wants to know about this man McCloud."
"I guess she's heard one story too many," Fara grinned. "Well…there's a lot to tell and yet there ain't much, you know? He was a good man, good heart, and everything he did showed it. That's a lot more than just saying he was a gunman for hire for Beltino Toad. He had a ranch in the eastern wilds with his family, but he spent half of every year in Corneria City tending to Toad's rail line. I guess you could say I was his family when he wasn't home; he was my family too after my parents got gunned down in a robbery gone bad."
Fox didn't pry into the specifics. Didn't need to. He'd seen it too many times in the rough western territory towns; children orphaned from violence with nowhere to go. Most times they ended up turning into the same thieves and criminals that hurt them in the first place.
"When I was eight," she continued, shifting the reins to the other hand and flexing her weary fingers. "I followed this tall fox all around town 'til he went into a bar. He didn't look like an ol' moneybags but he was carrying something that looked like it could feed me for a month if sold to the right fella." She patted the rifle on her lap. "So he sat for a drink and propped this here gun against the bar and I snatched it and ran out with it. He chased me for what seemed like forever until I got trapped in an alley. I pointed the rifle at him, all pitiful-like from the hip. Probably couldn't have hit him if I unloaded every shot. He didn't even make the slightest move for his pistol, like there was no way he was gonna shoot a kid, just strode right up to me. I was so damn scared I dropped the rifle and cowered away. No one ever chased me down like that before, and I tell you, James McCloud was a damn intimidating sight."
"I don't doubt it," Fox replied, keeping his eyes on the move and his ears perked. The birds kept singing and the unseen stream kept churning.
"He yanked me by the ear and dragged me on over to Sheriff Pepperidge. But he knew jail was no place for me and an orphanage wouldn't be no better, so the sheriff let him put me to work. Honest work, you know? Being his little assistant at the rail line. He took me on his patrol rounds, taught me how to ride, and when he went home to the ranch, he made sure Toad kept me busy around the depots. I had a roof over my head and food in my stomach and even made some honest money. Truth be told, though, I was a defiant little hellion and I always thought James hated me and just wanted to see me suffer for what I done to him. Took me a few years of this to finally figure it all out."
"Figure what out?"
A little grin crept onto Fara's muzzle as some old, dusty memory surfaced. "He told me he had a son 'bout my age back home, said I reminded him of the boy. Gutsy, smart, all these things I never thought I was. After four years of being his little sidekick, he taught me how to shoot. First with a pistol then with this here rifle." She belted out a laugh and shook her head. "My first couple shots landed me right on my ass and scared the bejesus outta me. But James stuck with me and I got to be a damn good shot, and he bought me my own little thirty-two to carry on patrol. I eventually asked him why he trusted me with a gun. He said it all went back to that alley when we first met. He didn't see in me a coward who couldn't shoot him. He saw a girl who chose not to shoot."
Fox nodded. "Too many cowards, thugs, and scumbags out there who think a gun makes them right."
"That's pretty close to what James told me, actually," Fara replied with a raised brow. "As a kid lingering with thieves I saw my share of guns. James was the first man I ever saw that carried a gun, wasn't afraid to use it when he had to, but was never eager to. A man with that kind of heart is scarce out here. He was also the first man who thought I was a good person."
The vixen paused and frowned, eyes cast down upon the back of the horses before her. "When he left for home just after my fourteenth birthday, I realized I loved him. Like a father. He gave me a kiss on top of my head before he left and told me to be a good girl until he got back, left me his rifle and said to practice hard. He was real eager to see his son and wife; part of me was kind of jealous." She hesitated. "I never saw him again. The old Blood Wolves followed him and murdered him and his family. Why? Well…that died with Beltino."
The two remained quiet for a good five minutes, the lush sounds of the mountainside seeming to grow louder in the absence of voices. Fox had let his vigilance slip halfway through the story, muddled by his own thoughts on what the woman had been saying, and he returned his attention to the woods. "What'd you do after that? Besides open the Feather, I mean."
Fara blinked, taken off guard by question so long after finishing her story. But she forced another grin onto her muzzle. "Just what James told me: being a good girl," she tapped the butt of the rifle, "and practicing hard."
Another stretch of silence, this time with the tavern mistress breaking the quiet.
"What about you, Fox the fox? You got a story behind that pistol you carry in the rear-draw holster? You even got a real name?"
When no answer came, she looked over to see the fox's brow ridged, his jaw set, ears perked. He slowly panned the woods around them, but the only unnatural sound that came was the double click of two hammers being cocked back under Fox's coat. Fara instinctively hefted the rifle up and slipped her finger onto the trigger, the sudden tense air growing heavier.
"What is it?" she whispered, her own eyes darting around. "I don't see any—"
Neither of them saw the arrow until it sunk into the backrest between their heads with a heavy thunk. Fox grabbed Fara's arm and shoved himself off the right side of the coach, dragging her along with him, just as another arrow flew by, followed by the unmistakable cracks of rifle fire from the brush. Bullets splintered the buckboard, raining shards down on them as they scrambled for cover against the side of the coach.
"God dammit!" Fara growled, covering her head with her arm as more rumbles of gunpowder thunder resounded from the hillside on the other side of the road. "What in the—!"
Her curses were drowned out by the sudden, chilling rise of savage warcries from the crest of the hill. Fox peeked around the coach at the other side of the road and perceived over a dozen silhouettes crest the ridge only a few hundred feet away. A traveler's nightmare was about to crash over the two foxes; blue-furred Cerinians, spears and tomahawks held high, bodies adorned with fearsome warpaint, eyes like embers from Hell yearning for blood. Their high-pitched warcries ran shivers down Fox's spine and he could see Fara's expression become one of cold fear.
With a shuffle of leather, Fox pulled his two pistols from his holsters and his eyes narrowed.
He answered their thunder in kind, whipping around the coach to fire at the warriors charging them. Magnum rounds tore through Cerinian flesh, dropping three men halfway between the coach and the hill. A retaliation of arrows and bullets forced him back into cover, more chunks of the wagon being taken apart. Waiting for another opportunity, Fox looked over at Fara and found her clutching the rifle against her chest, her chest rising and falling with heavy, fearful breaths.
"Hey!" Fox took her arms to get her attention and their eyes met. "You gonna show me what all that hard practicing got you or ain't ya?"
She blinked a few times and some of the fear left her eyes. She nodded and cocked the lever with a satisfying metallic charge.
"Make your shots count. Find their bowmen and riflemen and keep on them. They should be at the top of the ridge."
Fara nodded, fire slowly returning to her eyes, and she slid along the coach toward the buckboard. Carefully, she poked the barrel around and rested it on the seat at eye level, scanning the ridge, not letting the bullets and arrows that whistled and pounded around her deter her.
Reasonably sure she could hold that side of the road, Fox returned to his position and fired off two more shots at some encroaching blue-furs, thankful the horses at least decided to stay put. He reckoned they'd become used to gunfire in the city and if this tribe was like any other, they'd steer clear of injuring the horses so they could take them for themselves after the owners were dead. Between his own shots, Fox heard the sharp reports from the rifle beside him. Seemed Miss Phoenix found her trigger finger after all. Return fire seemed to die down a little more with each crack of the rifle.
The next time Fox whipped around to fire, he found the barrel of his revolver nose to nose with a Cerinian warrior right on the other side of the road. He had just enough time to glimpse the red warpaint smeared across his bare chest and the sharp axe in his large fist before firing a round that dropped him in a spray of red. A couple more shots held back the tide before Fox sought cover from return fire once more. From memory, he counted three shots left between his two guns. If they'd already reached that close, they'd overwhelm them if he stopped to reload.
"Fox," Fara gasped, seeking refuge herself from the sharpshooters. Her chest still heaved from the battle-fueled excitement. "You gotta save a bullet for me, you hear? You know what they do to women. You promise me it won't come to that."
"Shut up and focus!" Fox growled. "Listen to me. I'm gonna cut the horses free. You got enough rounds left to lay down some quick-trigger fire on them shooters?"
Fara nodded rapidly.
"Good. We got about fifteen seconds till they jump 'round this coach and gut us open. So quit worrying and shaking and just fight. Go, now!"
Fox didn't like leaving his life in the sweaty hands of a woman with rifle, but to her credit she stepped right around and fired round after round without missing a beat. He crouched under her gun and skulked to the horse harnesses, pulling his knife from his boot. Ears ringing with each shot above him, he sliced the leather straps away from the shafts and pulled the reigns free. The horses felt their freedom and reared up, threatening to take off, but Fox held firm to the reigns. He tugged Fara's arm and shoved her toward the nearest horse.
"Get on, dig in, and ride!"
Without hesitation or a word of questioning or objection, she hopped to. Least she catches on quick, Fox thought. As Fara scrambled onto the horse, Fox shoved his knife into his belt and palmed his pistols, covering her with three well-placed shots that kept the shooters he could see behind cover, maybe even gave winged one. Only a shot or two made it in her direction, kicking up dirt in the road before she disappeared down the trail and around a bend in the path, horse sprinting like a demon out of hellfire. Before the shooters could take good aim again, he holstered his pistols and went for the second horse.
But a cry from behind stopped him in his tracks, an unholy screech like a bird of prey about to dig its talons into unsuspecting flesh.
Fox dropped his head just as an axe blade sliced the air above him and sunk into the side of the coach. He spun around and came up ready to fight, knife drawn once more, slicing at the gutsy Cerinian. The fiery blue-furred savage, separated from his embedded axe, drew his own blade and fought back such fury that Fox knew he'd lose if the melee were to draw out. The warrior's arcs and lunges already cut so close to the flesh that he could hear the air whistle loud enough to even blot out all else for a split second.
Fox capitalized on the one successful blow he managed to land, a hard back-handed punch to the face after ducking a swipe that would've sent his head rolling into the underbrush. As the Cerinian stumbled back, Fox's hand went to this rear-draw holster and the hidden pistol saw the light of day, iron sights set right between the blur-fur's eyes. The warrior didn't back down, didn't even get a glint of shock or fear in his eyes, but he stood put with a scowl on his muzzle; proud, accepting of his fate, daring the red fox to end the fight in such a dishonorable way.
But it wasn't the threat of dishonor that stayed Fox's finger. He never intended to fire, just wanted to get the enemy to stay back like he was doing.
No; the bullet in that gun wasn't meant for no man but one.
Fox broke for the horse and hopped up over its rear onto the back, grabbing up the reins and kicking it into full gallop. A couple off-kilter shots nipped at his back but he rode away with his life intact. After a few seconds, he dared a look back at the bloody hillside and matched eyes with one figure in the middle of the road beside the shot-up coach. A woman; obvious by her shape even that distance, a spear upright in her hand. Though her tribal trappings would've caused the most casual civilized woman to blush, she wore enough in the form of decoration to mark her as someone important. Her glare bore into him as she watched him ride away
"Not this time, ma'am," he uttered under his breath as he slapped the reins and hunched over to get more speed, leaving another battle behind.
"Well, out with it!" Fara snapped, her eyes downcast at her horse's mane, embarrassed anger etched on her face. "Which one you want to get on my case about first?"
He'd only caught up to her a few minutes before and eased their horses to a trot, stealing looks back every ten seconds or so and keeping his ears honed for any sounds of pursuit. But Fox suspected the Cerinians would stay with the cargo they'd won rather than chase two fast horses. Once again surrounded by the deceptive tranquility of the lush mountainside, he allowed himself to catch his breath and take a drink of water from his flask. He'd been in the middle of reloading his pistols when Fara lashed out at him.
"Which one what?" Fox replied.
"Which one what," the vixen echoed with a scoff. "How 'bout me jaunting us up here all sure the blue-furs would leave us be? How 'bout being so damn sure of myself that I took along two month's worth of goods from Santos and just goddamn lost it all, not to mention my only wagon? How 'bout freezing up on you when I should'a been firing back?"
Fox raised his brow in acknowledgement as he spun the freshly loaded cylinders and shoved his Ridgefields back in their holsters. "Sounds like you pretty much covered it all for me."
Looking more upset than most of the dead savages they'd left behind, Fara looked at the rifle across her lap. "I'd say you're a bad luck charm, Fox the fox, but if it wasn't for you, I'd probably be dead right now. Or on my way to becoming a blue-fur chieftain's bed pet. You're a hell of a fighter."
Fox reached for his other, smaller flask in his coat pocket. The one that showed its face when water couldn't cut it. He took a belt of whiskey and offered it to Fara who, surprisingly, took it. "I told you to stay back in town. The more you think Cerinians are leaving you alone, the more fooled you are."
Fara took her own draw of the sweet, fiery liquid and gritted her teeth with a cough or two before handing it back. "I was serious when I said they used to be okay with us. Don't know what happened." She shook her head. "What does it matter? I gotta go back and tell Santos I lost his supplies and that poor guy's been having enough problems as it is."
"Tell him he should'a hiked up his panties and made his own damn delivery."
A little chuckle fought its way through her sour demeanor.
"Listen," Fox said, "For what it's worth, you did okay back there. I seen better fighters than you crumble when they hear that blue-fur scream rattle their brains. Some of 'em never even get on the trigger. You did, and that's something."
She gave him a little sideways look of appreciation. "I've seen Cerinians before, even seen 'em attack a man once, but I never fought 'em myself. They're different from those thugs like the Blood Wolves. The Wolves are evils sons of bitches, sure, and I hate them more than anything. But the Cerinians…they're wild. Fierce. They don't want power or money, they want nothing from us but to kill us. Out here, they're like the ghosts of the land itself."
Fox nodded slowly. "But they bleed like anyone else."
The notion didn't seem to comfort her.
The two rode in silence the rest of the short trip, no more than fifteen minutes and down the slope of a foothill. The trees began to thin and give way to large boulders and carpets of rock. In a wide, flat valley under the looming watch of the mountains in the distance stood what Fox could only assume was Toad's place since no other unnatural traces could be perceived as far as the eye could see. The wood and metal warehouse was like a small mountain itself, solid and weather-worn with great streaks of rust trickling down its sloped roof to stain the metal outer walls, cutting through the faded white paint that declared the building property of "Toad Railway and Engineering." Its entire front consisted of bay door after bay door, each with a rail track laying out in front of it like a tongue from a mouth, at least half a dozen of them. The rails split off to different corners of the valley, each heading out to some far away destination, be it town or quarry or wherever trains would be needed. Fox didn't doubt that one of them probably went through Corneria City at one point. Every bay door was closed and the building itself looked as dilapidated and devoid of life as most of the city.
"How 'bout that," Fox said, tilting the brim of his hat to block the sun now that no trees overshadowed him. "Looks like a town all its own could fit in that warehouse, church steeple and all."
"This is where James and I used to work," Fara replied with a melancholy tone. "Here and the old train depot back in the city. Back in the day, this place bustled about like…well, like you said, a town all its own. Nearly a hundred workers, trains coming in and going out to all corners of the frontier, new prospects and new shipments dawn to dusk. My heart goes out to Slippy; in the same boat as me, trying to keep his little slice of history afloat out here."
Fox wrinkled his brow. "Slippy?"
With a chuckle, the vixen replied, "Silas Peter Toad. We were both kids out here when I worked for James and I used to call him Silas-Petey to get under his skin. That turned into Silly-Petey and then Silly-P, then just Slippy. He had a name for me too, though."
Fox looked over to if she was serious and shrugged. "I think yours was more creative."
Fara flipped her reins and took the lead, urging the horse into a quick gallop toward the warehouse. "Losing Beltino and James made us grow up real quick. No time for name-calling with Doc Andross around."
Fox followed after her, hoping the fidgety Cerinians hadn't decided to make a house call on Toad before turning their attention on the road. The behemoth of a building loomed tall over him as he dismounted and tied the horse to the vacant hitching post. After doing the same, Fara headed to the iron-reinforced door and gave two heavy knocks with a clenched fist before shoving the door open herself. Hand draped by his pistol, the apprehensive fox followed.
"Slippy!" Fara called out, cupping her hands around her muzzle.
The echo took its time wearing down, long enough that Fox's eyes had adjusted to the dim light. The inside of the warehouse looked no better off than its shell, the musty odor of dust, metal, and smoke burning his nostrils. Not gunsmoke though; work smoke, the kind made from sparks and melted iron. The two wary guests took a few steps into the warehouse, weaving around crates and mounds of scrap, until they could clearly see the train bays lined up behind their respective bay doors. Only a few of the turntables held cars. Though Fox thought it to be a trick of the light at first, the final turntable at the far end of the warehouse harbored something hidden under a white drape, something big enough that he was only able to see it past the closer train cars because of its overbearing size. Just as he squinted to try and make out some hard angles under the covering, a voice responded to the echo.
"That name stopped being amusing fifteen years ago."
To their left across from the trains, sitting at a wide workbench against the wall mired in shadow and clouds of dust, a plump silhouette turned to face them, dropping on the bench whatever trinket he'd been working on with a solid thud.
"In fact, it was never amusing."
The man – a toad, as his literal surname implied – stood and walked forth into the meager light provided by the high windows, wiping his oily hands on an equally oily cloth that looked ill equipped to clean anything. He wore a tan suit, sans the jacket, with the sleeves rolled up and a good amount of grime as a final layer. Mulling Fox over with suspicious eyes, he finally beckoned with his index finger and walked back to his workbench.
"Most people found it amusing," Fara retorted following him with her travelling partner lingering behind.
"Most people around here were dim-witted imbeciles whose sole function was to lift a pickaxe and let it fall with slightly more force than it would have otherwise. And laugh at your attempts at humor as well." Toad pulled a bottle from one of the workbench drawers and thumped it on top. "Crown Royale single malt. Better than the swill you'll have forced down your gullet at the Phoenix Feather. My father's choice label, offered to all new guests of Toad Railway and Engineering."
Fox realized the man was talking to him and he slowly made his way over to the workbench, retrieving his flask. "Could use a refill." As he poured he nodded toward the massive draped mystery at the end of the warehouse. "What's that over there?"
"A gargantuan heap of disappointment that will never see the light of day again. Does that sate your curiosity?" Toad sat and swiveled his chair away from the bench to face them, leaning back with his arms crossed over his chest. "Traveling with a hired grunt these days, Fara? I'd take a few jabs at you for it, but it seemed to work in your favor today."
"You heard all that?" she replied, swiping the whiskey from Fox once he'd finished and taking a swig straight from the bottle.
"These mountain winds carry noise easy as a feather. You have my compliments, sir, for evading a Cerinian ambush. Krazoa?"
"Strange," the engineer uttered with a frown. "They've been quite energetic lately. Sometimes at dawn I see four or five on the far ridge line just watching me, like hyenas waiting for the right moment to finish off a meal."
Fox took a gulp of the Crown Royale before putting the flask away and swallowed with a smooth burn unlike any whiskey he'd had in years. He'd have to make that flask last. "You're all alone out here? And they leave you alone?"
Toad chuckled with a devilish grin. "You can shoot your enemies down all day, sir, but the only decisive victories come from wit. I found out several years ago that some Cerinians were superstitious when it came to me, thought I was doing all kinds of unholy things in here what with the noise and sparks and all. So I encouraged the myth, set up some decoy traps, strew some cow entrails here and there, all that sort of wholesome activity. Now they're afraid to cross the treeline. I fear it won't last though, now that something's got their dander up. Speaking of which, should I assume my expected goods fell victim on the way here?"
"They might still be out there," Fox replied, giving his own little devilish grin. "Maybe the savages'll give some back if you go on over and ask real nice."
"I'll make do without, thank you. I might just go back to the city with you for some time until the Cerinians settle down. Though I don't know if the Blood Wolves are only a lateral substitution at best."
"So you're a technical man, huh? You don't seem like one."
"What did you expect, a sprite little fop with a squeaky voice and a stuttering problem?" He squinted and looked the other man over top to bottom. "I don't believe we've been formally introduced. Silas P. Toad, owner of the rusty husk of an establishment formerly known as Toad Railway and Engineering."
"Call me Fox."
"Fox? Huh. I see the same mischievous fate that gave me my last name played the same trick on you."
"It's not his real name," Fara interrupted. She'd worked her way to the wall near the workbench where a wide array of tools hung on pegs, and flicked and fingered them as she perused them. "He wanted to see you about…well, maybe he can tell you."
Toad looked back expectantly and gestured toward a seat for him, but he ignored it; last thing he wanted after a hard day's ride was another stiff seat.
"Your father used to hire a security freelancer named James McCloud," Fox started. "I want to know what you know about him, and about Doc Andross."
Toad's brow furrowed and he stared back at his guest for half a minute before reaching for something in the shadows on his workbench. Fox's hand instinctively twitched but all that came out in the engineer's hand was an intricately carved pipe. He took his time with the pipe, laying the mouthpiece about his lower lip, retrieving tobacco from his vest pocket, and pouring a good amount into the bowl. He struck a match, lit the pipe, and took a deep draw. "What's your interest?"
"My interest is my own."
"That's no way to do business."
"Oh, God!" Fara cried from the side of the bench, pounding her fist against the wall and evoking a rattle of disturbed tools. "Stop trying to act like your pa, Slippy! Business? Ha! You got an oversized hovel filled with broken memories and life ground to a halt in its tracks, just like me! Havin' a fancy education don't make you any more worth a damn out in these parts. This fox here gunned down Oikonney in a fair fight and he ain't a friend of Doc Andross. You want to do something to help out here other than prattle on like an arrogant prick, then answer the man's questions!"
Toad's pipe hung from his lip as he exchanged a brief look to match the woman's glare. Finally, he took it in his fingers and let out a long sigh, annoyed by her outburst but seemingly unable to retort effectively. "You killed a Blood Wolf? Good. They say my father died by the hand of a disgruntled laborer but only a fool would believe that. The old Blood Wolves did it under Andross' command."
"Why?" Fox pursued. "Why would Andross murder James McCloud and your father? What does it have to do with Venom Hill?"
"We Toads aren't just businessmen; as you can see here, we're also machinists. We get our hands on metal and we build. We innovate. We design and create and improve. Most of all, we love a challenge." He took another draw of his pipe. "Doc Andross came out here seventeen, eighteen years ago and bought up some houses in the city. He was of obviously vast intellect and wealth, and ambitious as well. He bought the barren land to the northwest called Venom Hill. A name like that doesn't boast lovely vistas and fertile land. Rocky terrain, dry and barren. We'd just finished plans for a rail line connecting Corneria City with an eastern route when Andross offered a ludicrous sum of money for a side line going up to Venom Hill. The sum was equal to the challenge of building in that harsh land so my father took it. James McCloud handled security."
"What's at Venom Hill?"
Toad shrugged. "No one left in the city has been up there. It's a long, unforgiving ride through Cerinian land. And not Krazoa land either. The other tribes out there make the Krazoa seem quite welcoming. All I remember from my childhood is that the line was completed and James left for home. He and his family were murdered and my father followed soon after. Something involving that rail line meant they had to die." He waved toward the train bays. "Line three still runs up there. Once Corneria City began to crumble under the weight of Andross' fist, TRE followed, and the connecting line to the east was never built. It's baffling; Andross pays for a rail line, never uses it, and then destroys the possibility of it being connected to the economic hubs of the east."
Fox let the information sink in for a few moments, stealing a glance at the vacant line bound for Venom Hill. "I don't rightly care for his reasons. I'm just here to kill him."
Toad laughed and shook his head. "I don't know where you're from, but I have no trouble believing Andross has hurt just as many people in other parts of the world as he did here. Can't imagine how many people want him dead. Well, if you want to follow that line for a good eighty or so miles through wild, arid, craggy Cerinian land fraught with Blood Wolf lookouts…you're bound to find him, or whatever he's got up there in his own little slice of hellish heaven."
The fox's eyes lingered on the track for some time before he faced Silas again, his voice a bit more subdued. "What do you know about James McCloud?"
In the duration of a long draw of his pipe, Toad's face became somber. He exchanged a look with Fara, a look of mutual respect without any of the head-butting they'd displayed the whole time Fox had been there. He spoke simply. "James was a fine man. My father respected him more than anyone else, and for good reason. No one like him has been to Corneria City since the day he left."
Fox found himself echoing his sentiment from that morning in his hotel room. "Wish I could've known him." He paused and added, "I was counting on some more information I could use."
Toad shrugged. "I'd be willing to look more thoroughly into my father's records, but I'm not doing it here, not with those savages becoming more unpredictable by the day. Help me load some things into my wagon and lock this place down. We can leave at dawn. I doubt they'll bother us with me and my 'sorcery' aboard." As he stood, he hesitated and narrowed his eyes as if just remembering something. "You know, there is one person who might be able to shed some light on Doc Andross and the Blood Wolves."
Fara's eyes flew wide and she scowled. "Forget it, Slippy. He made his choice, he can rot in hell for it."
"Oh, come now. You don't have to like him, you just have to show your nameless friend here to him. If you're lucky, he'll start a fight like he always does and 'Fox' can put him out of our misery."
"I never want to see that horse's ass ever again."
"If he has information," Fox interrupted, "I'll see him. Where is he?"
Fara's scowl remained plastered on her face and she crossed her arms, that old fire in her eyes once more. "Don't know what rock he crawls under at night, but any given day, you can find him at the Cat's Paw."
"Okay then. It'll be nice to finally see what all the fuss is about with that place. What's his name?"
"Just look for the most drunken man in the bar," Toad chuckled as he stood and began gathering odds and ends from his workbench to pack and take with him. "His name's Lombardi."
Fara's scowl deepened and she spat out her next words with venom the likes of which he hadn't heard in a long while:
"He's a former Blood Wolf."
-Chapter 4 Coming Soon-