Monday, May 10, 2010

Common Words #12: Sparrowstrike

Here's something new. You may recognize some names in here if you've read previous bits of my work, particularly #11. As it turns out, this was the prototype for that one - while it uses the same characters, it was written three months before, in September 2006. My mind is, unfortunately, rather empty today, and I know it's not right for me to leave an equally empty day in the log.

The primary difference between this story fragment and "A Scene from the West" was that, in the latter, the setting was shifted to Montana. Here, things take place in southeastern Arizona, 1876. Not exactly the wettest place around.

I can't remember where I got the title from, or what it means, either.


The man had to be mad. Siobhan Cameron tilted the brim of her hat down, wishing it could keep the sweat as well as the light out of her eyes, and regarded him with a long stare, as if enough attention would make him fade from existence like the mirage that he was.

Whoever the man was, he was persistent, and steadfastly refused to disappear.

"Well, this don't look all that usual at all, Brendan," Siobhan said, one hand stroking her horse's thick brown mane. "How's about we make a stop, see if we can find out what the deal is, and give you a couple minutes of rest as part of the bargain? You'll like that, you will. Go on now, Brendan."

Siobhan urged her horse forward at a slow walk and leaned forward in her saddle, squinting as if she was staring into his soul. The man didn't seem to have noticed her presence yet, or if he had, he wasn't giving any hint of it. His attention was on some device Siobhan didn't recognize, what looked like a solid brick of iron on the end of a metal pole, that was connected by a tangle of wires to his backpack. He moved in a straight, regular pattern in a square of land, never going over his footsteps in the time Siobhan watched him, moving like a horse lashed to a plow.

He was a white man, that much was obvious. For all the savagery of the local tribes, Siobhan knew that none of them would be crazy enough to let themselves roast under an unforgiving sun.

As she approached the man, more details emerged from the bright glare that seemed to make the very air around him glow. He was modestly attired in clothes that gave him the look of a seasoned operator, and his boots were worn and coated with the dust of many miles. His hair was a tousled brown mop, visible despite the hat he wore, and he carried himself firm, without the hint of a slump.

He still hadn't taken notice of her approach. Siobhan said a silent prayer, thankful that she had found him before some vainglorious highwayman. She had learned from hard experience that the desert was not a place to lose touch with one's senses, lest death hide in one's shadow.

"Pardon me, sir," Siobhan said, taking up an oft-practiced respectful tone. "Do you know if Silverbridge is far?"

The man stopped in his tracks and his head spun toward Siobhan at an unnerving speed. Words died in her throat as she looked at the man, who regarded her in the cool and distant manner that a falcon might gaze across a valley from its perch. His face was placid and his chin was shaven, but she could see a quiet determination in his steel-grey eyes.

"Is that a lady's voice I hear?" the man asked. He was a New Englander from the sound of it. "Or is the heat boiling my brain?"

"I am a woman, but I can't speak for the state of your brain," Siobhan said, dismounting her horse with practiced grace. She retreived a water canteen from her saddlebag and offered it to the man, whose face overflowed with rivulets of sweat like miniature Mississippis. "Siobhan Cameron is my name. What might yours be, sir?"

"No need for 'sir' out here, Miss Cameron," the man said, taking the canteen in his free hand. He took a brief swig before handing it back. "Do I look like a duke or a general to you? The name's Morgan, Samuel Morgan, and I can tell you it's a pleasure indeed to meet someone like yourself in this wasteland. I know there aren't that many people who would share their water with a stranger."

"Likewise, Mr. Morgan," Siobhan said. "I could hardly ride by, knowing what the sun does to people under it. I can't help but wonder what it is you're doing out here all alone, though, and with that contraption of yours as well."

"It's simple, really," Morgan said. "I am a man of science, and these are my tools. Speaking of which, you wouldn't happen to be hiding a couple of batteries under your blouse, would you?"

Siobhan frowned and crossed her arms. Her experience across the coarse-tongued frontier nonwithstanding, such words never became easier to weather. To hear an educated man speak that way only made it even more painful. She would have expected him, at least, to have some politeness in him.

"The only cannon I have is the one that Mr. Colt provided, and as for what's under my blouse, that's not for you to know," Siobhan said as a great deal of her curiosity toward the device evaporated. "Not that I can see what a man of science would need with artillery."

"I mean electrical batteries, not cannons," Morgan said, holding a hand to his temple. "People always... no, it doesn't matter. I need electrical batteries to power my contraption, as you call it, and it drinks them dry like a shootist in a hot saloon."

"I've certainly got none of those," Siobhan said, frowning at him now. "Nor do I appreciate being spoken to in such a manner, Mr. Morgan. This may be an uncivilized land, but I will be damned if I allow myself to be dragged down to its level, or to yours."

Morgan's eyebrows shot up, as if her statement took him by surprise. Siobhan had to take a step back at that. Surely he wasn't so far removed from reality that he hadn't realized how she would react to his words, was he?

For a moment he floundered under her arrow-straight gaze, unspoken justifications or apologies dying as they met open air. She noticed the sweat starting to run down his forehead anew, despite the brief wind that had kicked up around them.

"I didn't mean you any disrespect, Miss Cameron," Morgan said, staring at the ground. That much wasn't a surprise, as she'd dealt with plenty of men who would rather be buried to their neck in the desert than apologize. "It's just, you know, I don't have the opportunity to talk to ladies like yourself, decent ladies, all too often. Not that many of them left in these parts anymore, either."

"Is that an apology?" Siobhan asked, eyebrow upraised. "What a fine work of camouflage. Here I thought you menfolk had all the subtlety of an artillery barrage."

"It... yes, Miss Cameron," Morgan said, still unwilling or unable to look her in the eye. "I... I apologize. It's just that... well, stay out here for long enough, and you'll feel the courtesies of the civilized world start to just fly away."

"That's something I'd prefer to avoid, thank you," Siobhan said. "I accept your apology, Mr. Morgan. Try not to be so uncouth in the future, though... or is it thoughtlessness?"

"Probably some of both," Morgan said. "Look, Miss Cameron, I'm sorry we got off on the wrong foot, and I'd hate to lose out on your acquaintance because of one stupid remark. You're headed for Silverbridge, right? It's only a couple of miles down the road."

"I am," Siobhan said. "In a manner of speaking. I go where the road takes me, and if Silverbridge lies along it, so much the better."

"What's left of it," Morgan said, shaking his head. Sadness? Regret? Siobhan couldn't tell from her limited interaction with the man. "All right. There's a place there called the Blue Castle, and it's a good enough spot to get your bearings. Tell the barkeep that I sent you along, and he'll treat you right. Once I get back to town, maybe we can try so start from the beginning again."

"Fair enough, Mr. Morgan," Siobhan said. "You do seem a conscientious sort, after all. As long as you keep from disrespecting me in such a way, I'm sure we'll get on well."

"I'm already looking forward to the opportunity," Morgan said. "I know enough not to waste second chances. Just be careful in Silverbridge... the place isn't exactly enlightened, you know."

"I know all too well," Siobhan said, mounting her horse once more. "Sometimes I wonder if there's any room for enlightenment at all out here."

"Only what you can carve out for yourself," Morgan said. "It's something, but it's hardly ever enough."

"Perhaps, Mr. Morgan, but if there was enough, there'd hardly be any thrill to the challenge, would there?" Siobhan asked, winking at the man. "I'll see you in Silverbridge, then. Good luck with... whatever it is you're doing out here."

"Only the business of necessity, Miss Cameron," Morgan said. "The most important business there is. I've almost got this problem beat, too. Then everything'll be right as a trivet again. Just you see."

"Perhaps I will indeed," Siobhan said. "Till next we meet, Mr. Morgan."

"Same to you, ma'am," Morgan said, tipping his nonexistent hat. "Safe journey."

Siobhan glanced back at Morgan as her horse trotted down the road. He'd already turned his back to her, once more consumed in the pattern of his movements, guiding his contraption over the dirt like a plowman steering a horse.

"That Mr. Morgan seems like an odd duck, doesn't he, Brendan?" Siobhan asked, stroking her horse's mane. "Good enough man, though, considering."

Something did seem unusual about him, though, in a way she'd seen in only a handful of people before. There was something strange about the way he spoke and the way he moved, as if he wasn't entirely tethered in reality. She wondered if it could be that he was one of the few...

No, Siobhan thought. He can't be. I know the Art. I would have been able to tell.

But then, to Siobhan Cameron, used to the orderly farms and bustling cities on the fair side of the Mississippi, the vast expanses of the West had always had the air of the unreal.


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