No Harm At All
Late morning by the time Stone reached his horse. Nell grazed on the patch of snapegrass where he’d left her a ways back south of the canyon. He fixed the bloody yak harness to her saddle before mounting up and steering her back down the ridge and past the dead, toothless Ppineback. Even deep in the canyon the sun was hot and he took off his slicker and wiped his brow under the rim of his hat with the sleeve of his shirt. The yak’s trail ended about a half mile from the carcass where the ridge was low and the wind blew sand and ash across the canyon floor. He pressed out of the canyon up along the hogbacks where he picked up the trail, tracked it, and lost it again on a hill of dead trees tufting with dryweed. He turned Nell in a circle and then sat high in the saddle and surveyed the land.
Deadsands was two weeks hard ride south-east of Appletree, right up against the black hills that marked the south eastern border of Midtern. There was an old, sun bleached blacktop running between the two towns but the roadways were raider territory and had been for longer than Stone could remember. Not even companies like Yanmos bothered with them anymore. Instead, they used a half a dozen trail routes through the backcountry that all wound up in the Oryens and then Appletree.
Now the Oryens were a maze of cliffs and rocky overhangs home to more wildlife then the whole damn bloodplains and If you didn’t know the way through you could be lost in there for days. Chances were you’d be bitten by a viper or mauled by a bearwolf. It made it tough for bandits, but it would be even tougher for a man riding solo.
Stone took a canteen from the saddlebag and drank. The sun beat down on his upturned face and he thought about his next move.
He thought about riding home to Appletree for backup but then what would he tell them, and who would he tell?
He thought the way the sun kept coming up every day regardless of what happened, and what would happen.
He thought, like he often did, about taking Clementine from his back and putting her barrells to his own head but then he was out of shells now, wasn’t he.
It was about then that an orange salamander hissed at him from the branch of a petrified yew tree. He watched it with the canteen open against his lips until it began to speak.
Not easy, boy. Is it?
It was the salamander talking but it was his Pa’s voice. That asshole drunk was thirty years in the dirt but it was his voice, no mistaking it.
“What ain’t easy?” said Stone.
The salamander looked at him a while and answered,
Figuring this mess out.
“Well I figure someone must’ve led the yak out of the Oryens. Wherever it came from.”
Maybe they ain’t in the Oryens.
If they ain’t in there and they ain’t in the canyon where are they?
You know where.
Stone narrowed his eyes. “The Censure,” he said. “That’s what you mean?”
Depends what you mean by you.
Stone screwed the cap back on the canteen and put it in the saddlebag. A dry breeze stung his cheeks. He spat. If he went any further along this path he mightn’t make it to Appletree by sundown, and a night in the Midtern wasteland was not something a man ought to be doing. But then the Censure weren’t all that far from here neither.
You ain’t supposed to go there, boy. No one is.
“No harm in looking, pa.”
You ain’t supposed to.
“No harm at all.”
The salamander retreated from the limb. Stone gripped the reins and spurred his horse down the hill and north around the Oryens across the flat, cracked earth to the place of which folk do not speak. He hadn’t been near the Censure in years, but he knew the way all the same.