Thursday, May 12, 2016

Friday Flash: Night Ride

Our Chuck Wendig challenge this week was the "random photo" challenge--he gave us this link, and I clicked it a few times, and two photos leapt out at me. There was this one, which my mind interpreted as some kind of ant (which it isn't). And this one, which provided the setting for my story. Naturally, I took liberties and made the Badlands a great deal more expansive than they look in the photo (or are in fact).  I brought back, more or less, a character from my last foray into the Weird West, the Traveler.

Night Ride


The Traveler surveyed the land that stood between him and the nearest drink. Not a plant grew anywhere among the heavily eroded slopes and washes of the badlands. Heat waves made the colorless hills shimmer.

“Nothing to eat down there, hey Dusty?” The horse tossed a head in agreement. Its other head was busy sampling the bushes at its feet.

The Traveler reined his mount around. “We’ll go fill up at that spring back a ways and have a nap. And a graze,” he said in response to four flicking ears. “We’ll head down and get through those Badlands come night.” The midday sun withered everything, including the Traveler. Salt stained his torn shirt, the sweat dry before it could show wet. He estimated the temperature at 102. It was no time to be riding down into that oven.

Trav dismounted and let the two-headed horse drink at the trickle of water, then stripped off the saddle and rubbed the beast down. He picketed Dusty where each head could reach a different bit of grazing. Dusty seemed to be willing to try anything without spikes, but an awful lot of what was out here had spikes.

His mount seen to, Trav stretched himself out in the meager shade of a creosote bush, checking first to be certain no rattlers had beat him to it. He closed his eyes.

The Traveler woke in a cold sweat. He could feel them crawling on him. Springing to his feet, he brushed at a couple of wandering insects. Dusty snorted at the motion, then went back to dozing and grazing (left and right heads, respectively). Trav took a deep breath, calming himself. Just ants. Harmless ants. Their resemblance to the beings he’d been battling for weeks was purely coincidental. He knew that. But he couldn’t see one without seeing the giant, tentacled Bugs.

The sun had nearly reached the horizon. Trav kindled a small fire, taking care not to let smoke rise beyond the lip of the wash, and boiled the last of his coffee. He drank it slowly, washing down the jerky that was his only food. If they got through the badlands, they’d make it to town the next day. There’d be wine, women and song there, and more to the point, a square meal.

If.

The Badlands were just the sort of place the Bugs would hide out. He scarcely expected to make if through without a battle, though the Bugs saw poorly in the dark, and night was the safest time.

“Safest” wasn’t the same as “safe.”

He saddled and bridled Dusty, and double-checked the girth. They’d be running for it before morning. The sun dipped below the horizon, and the Traveler mounted. If they could get through the gullies and back to open desert before dawn, they might make it.

Dusty was a help. With two heads, he could always watch both his footing and their surroundings. That might give them the edge they needed. Trav still held a grudge against the Bugs for the death of his former mount, Rover, who saw only ahead. He’d barely escaped from that one with his own life.

They slid down the steep bank into the gully. Trav had to trust to his own, and Dusty’s, sense of direction to see them through. He had no maps, hadn’t even known the Badlands existed.

The danger might be greatest now, at dusk. The Bugs might still be moving about. If they didn’t make it through before dawn, it would be worse then. The Traveler didn’t have to urge Dusty on. The horse could smell the Bugs. He was nervous, but eager to move on and get past them.

A huge yellow and black head popped into view from a side-canyon, and Trav acted. A single bullet in the right place stopped a Bug, and this one was too close to miss. The shot echoed through the mud hills, and Trav spurred Dusty to a run. The Bugs weren’t smart, just deadly at close range. If they got far enough before any others appeared, they’d be clear, for a while.

Dusty raced down one wash, turned west up another, then south again. He nearly got boxed, but scrambled up the steep slope and slid down into the next wash. Trav pulled up on the reins. “Easy there, Dusty. I think we’re clear.”

They moved through the maze of gullies and hills for the next few hours at a walk, following the stars and Dusty’s nose toward the west whenever they could, with no further sign of the Bugs. The Traveler had begun to relax as they moved into the darkest part of the night.

Dusty did not relax. The scent of Bugs was everywhere, and it kept him on edge.

It kept them alive.

Dusty had already begun his leap forward when the tentacle reached for Trav, and it tore at his worn homespun pants. Trav grunted. A bit of his leg had gone with the fabric. He let the reins rest against the saddle horn and pulled both six-shooters. He couldn’t see much in the dark, but this wasn’t a lone Bug. He began firing as the giant insects loomed out of the darkness on all sides. Bug guts spattered them, burning where they lit, and Dusty leapt forward.

Trav shot three more times, mowing down a pair of Bugs that loomed ahead of them, and held tight as Dusty rose in a massive leap over the corpses. He ran on. The land flattened out, dusty hills and creosote bushes once more. The Traveler fired a couple more shots, tied his bandana around the flesh wound in his leg, and let Dusty run.

When they were sure no Bugs followed, Trav pulled up, studied the stars and the land, and steered the horse in the right direction.

“We made it, pal. Straight on toward morning, and a bait of oats for you, beer for me.”  They’d lived to fight Bugs another day.


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My own view of the Badlands at Anza-Borrego State Park


©Rebecca M. Douglass, 2016
As always, please ask permission to use any photos or text. Link-backs appreciated!

4 comments:

  1. One of my favorite places, but a strange beauty. I can see why alien bugs might get comfortable in the badlands. Fun story.

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    1. Thanks. Yeah, I love that kind of landscape (especially when the light is right :) ). Did you check out the linked photos? Much better than mine!

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  2. Lovely style. It was a wasp, but I understand your desire to change it up for the story :)

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    1. It wasn't so much a deliberate desire to change it--wasps would have been at least as good!--as that I worked from memory, and in my memory it was an ant. By the time I looked again and saw it wasn't (though I didn't recognize it as a wasp), it was too late.

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