Funnels of sand poured onto the canyon floor from where the pillar had come away. Stone held Clementine across his chest like a quarterstaff, his heart pumping. Not for the first time these recent years he felt old and worn down. A dying cactus in a dried out land. He eyed the rubble, marked time by the passing of wispy breakers overhead. Sure now that there was no movement he went over to inspect the carnage.
The Spineback was half buried by rock, her long snout protruding from the rubble, teeth bared and tongue lolling like a black snake. Nearby Stone saw the shattered form of a young spineling. He took off his hat and held it and then let it drop to the ground. He cursed. He ran his hand through his thin grey hair and felt the sweat and dirt that had accumulated there this long ride that had led him far from home for nothing else but murder. There were words etched in steel deep beneath his home of Appletree that condemned those who took life from the innocent and the young. Wyatt Stone had never been a superstitious man but these were troubled times and omens were portentous whether a person believed in them or not.
When at last he bent to pick up the hat the baby Spineback rolled its head, mewling and trying to work its shattered limbs. To Stone it looked like a struggling newborn child, malnourished and blind in the morning sun.
With grim certainty he cleared Clementine’s chambers and loaded the final shell. Working the trigger the railshot sent a halo of sand kicking from ground. When it cleared the spineling was as limp and lifeless as its mama. The others bolted from the rubble, shrieking and shuddering their neck frills.
“Go on. Get,” Stone said. He waved his hat at them like an angry farmer. They nudged their sibling and their mama but there was nothing. Cold as the rock that crushed them. With another hiss at Stone they went slinking back up the canyon. He watched them go. Then he fixed his hat and laid his rifle on the ground. Taking a pair of scratched and dented pliers from his bag, he pried open the Spineback’s snout.
Next Episode: Stone’s patrol leads to a deeper discovery, while far across the wastes a young agent of the Citadel tracks a very different prey.