Pure Harvest (by Jaidis Shaw)
In which Dodger lends Ched an ear.
The professor’s story was so in-depth it stalled the game, which was fine by Dodger. He was tired anyways, and although he enjoyed listening to the crew tell their tales of intrigue, he was starting to get a hankering for his bunk. That and he was about up to his ear holes in wagered time owed to Lelanea. Who taught that gal how to play cards?
“That was a beautiful story, uncle,” Lelanea said.
“Thank you, my dear,” Professor Dittmeyer said. “And now I do believe it’s your turn, Ched.”
“Are you shure you’re ready?” Ched said.
The group shared a moment of silence as they stared at the driver. The moment stretched into a minute. The minute bordered on two.
“Well?” Lelanea asked.
“I ashked if you were ready,” Ched said.
“For Odin’s sake,” the doc said, “of course we are. Now stop stalling and start telling. Chop! Chop!”
“It’sh pretty grueshome,” Ched added, trying his best to waggle his almost frozen eyebrows.
Dodger gave a tired sigh. It did feel like the driver was stalling.
“Gruesome?” Lelanea asked. “You mean more gruesome than a sasquatch tearing people apart alive?”
Ched nodded solemly.
“Sasquatch?” the doc asked. “When did we talk about sasquatches?”
“Dodger shared a story with us,” Lelanea said.
The doc’s eyes lit with wonder. “Really? I’d like to hear that one! Would you mind sharing it again?”
“I’ve already had my turn,” Dodger said. “Let Ched have a go. Unless he really is just stalling.”
“I ain’t shtallin’,” Ched said. “I jusht wanna make shure y’all are prepared.”
“How could we be any less prepared?” the doc asked. “Tell your sordid tale before I lose my patience.”
“All right.” Ched hooked his thumbs in the straps of his overalls and leaned back in his chair. “Shettle in folksh, caushe thish ish about to get bloody.”
Dodger rubbed his tired eyes, wondering if listening to the not-dead man’s gruesome tale just before bed was a good idea. Too late now, he supposed. In for a penny, in for a heapin’ helpin’ of whatever blood drenched gore Ched was about to shovel on his tired mind.
By Jaidis Shaw
Wyatt swung his legs over his horse and jumped to the dusty ground below. Removing a pair of goggles from his pocket, he eyed the impending storm briefly before slipping them into place. He hated wearing the obnoxious goggles but he did have to admit that they had kept his eyes protected in more than one sand storm. Ace—who took his name from the cards Wyatt won him with—stamped the ground and gave a nervous snort as Wyatt began tying the reins through his belt loops. With a quick glance at the sand that was almost upon them, he lifted the leather duster from his shoulders, wrapping it around his horse companion’s head the best he could. The loud hiss of sand pelting the worn leather was deafening as Wyatt held the coat steady as best as he could. The flesh on his legs began to burn; the worn denim not thick enough to stop the sand’s furious assault.
The sand storm passed almost as quickly as it had appeared and Wyatt lowered the duster, shaking it free of the sand that had collected. It was by no means the first time he had been caught in an unpredictable storm, but that didn’t mean he had to like it. He would give anything for some fresh water to bathe in to wash the grit from his pores, something other than hard dirt to sleep upon, and heaven forbid some fresh grain for his horse. Removing the goggles from his raw skin and untying his horse’s reins, he brushed his clothes taking care to remove his boots and pour out the sand that filled them. After a thorough brush down, he moved to inspect his horse and removed what sand he could. He made a mental note to pick up a brush for his horse at the next town he came too. Mounting his horse once again, he continued on his way in search of the new start he was seeking.
Wyatt urged his horse into motion once more in search of civilization. His rations were dangerously low and he emptied the last of his canteen hours ago. Whispering a silent prayer to the Gods above to provide him a place to rest, he wondered if he had made the right choice to head this way, leaving behind the comfort of home. Pondering the life that had been taken from him, he hadn’t noticed the outline of buildings drawing closer in the distance. Wyatt urged his horse into a gallop, eager to make it to the town awaiting him.
Pulling on the reins to slow his horse, Wyatt looked at the run-down buildings before him. Trotting through the seemingly deserted town, Wyatt wondered where the people were. He knew he wasn’t alone as he could feel the eyes staring at him from darkened windows. A door creaking open to the left grabbed his attention. From the shadows a tall man appeared, sizing Wyatt up with black eyes.
“Howdy,” the man said, his gruff voice rumbling around the cigar hanging from the corner of his cracked lips. “We don’t get too many travelers through these parts. What brings you to our fine town?”
Wyatt tried pulling his horse to a stop but the stud gave a nervous snort before taking hesitant steps backward. He yanked the reins down with authority until the horse reluctantly stopped. Facing the strange man, Wyatt took note of his horse’s hesitancy as the hairs on his own neck stood on end in warning.
“Good day, sir,” Wyatt said while nodding his head in greeting. He hopped down from his horse onto his aching feet. “I was just passing through the area when I came upon this town. Perhaps there is a place where I could rest for the night?”
The man stepped out into the street, the sun illuminating his weathered skin. “Just passing through? Where you headed?” He removed the soggy cigar from his lips and spit in the dust, a dribble of spit glistening on his chin.
“No place in mind. Just travelling is all. I wouldn’t want to be a burden though sir. If there is nowhere I can stay here I’ll just be on my way.” Wyatt said as he prepared to mount his horse.
“No need to be in a hurry lad. We have plenty of room here if you’d like to stay the night. In fact, you’re just in time for our big Harvest celebration. I’ll have Matilda show you to the stables. I’m sure your horse could use some fresh grain.”
“Much obliged.” Wyatt nodded his head in appreciation as he let out a sigh of relief. It was going to be great to rest his aching feet.
“No need to call me sir. The name is Chuck Dennison. Matilda!” Chuck hollered the name again before heading back into the building from which he came; the door swinging in his wake.
A young girl emerged from across the street, her head held high in pride. Her shoulder-length blonde hair was pulled back in a blue ribbon that matched the flowers on her faded dress. Taking the reins from his hands without so much as a word, she turned and led his horse towards the stables. Stepping through the doorway to the stable, Wyatt waited as his eyes adjusted to the sudden darkness.
“You can keep your horse in this stall,” Matilda said, “and there is a bucket of grain over there. You’re welcome to it. There is fresh hay in the stall and grooming supplies are along that wall over there.” Matilda pointed to a nearby wall. “I’ll be in the building across the street getting ready for the celebration. Come on over once you’re done and I’ll show you to your room.”
“Thank you,” Wyatt said. “I really appreciate your hospitality miss.” Wyatt walked over to the brushes and selected one. Using long, slow strokes he began brushing the grit from his horse’s coat. As casually as he could, he asked, “What is this Harvest celebration all about anyway?”
“The Harvest is a time of faith, purity and celebration. Every six months the town comes together and a name is selected at random. Everyone in the town is included and it is a great honor if you’re chosen. To be chosen means that God himself has selected you for the sole purpose of saving the rest of us from damnation. Not only does it guarantee the selected a place in Heaven but allows everyone to consume God’s purity. Can you imagine?” Matilda stepped towards the sunbeams streaming through the doorway, allowing their warmth to caress her face.
From this angle she looked just like his daughter. He would’ve done anything to have one more moment with her. But it was too late for such foolish wishes. Far too late.
“How is it possible to consume God’s purity?” Wyatt asked. He stopped brushing his horse as he awaited her response. The young girl looked so peaceful and content standing there, the sun casting a halo around her, but there was something nagging at Wyatt that made him think otherwise.
The young girl smiled and said, “By eating it of course. It is a feast after all.”
Matilda disappeared into the sunlight leaving Wyatt with his mouth agape. Eating it? She couldn’t mean literally … could she? Wyatt thought to himself. A soft neigh brought his attention back to reality. Bending down to pick up the brush that had slipped from his grasp at some point, he heard voices approaching the stables.
“Who do you want selected boss?” a low voice asked.
Two figures entered the stable and went to a box hidden in the corner. Wyatt recognized one as the man from earlier named Chuck. Remaining crouched behind his horse, Wyatt watched as the man pulled a burlap cloth off of a wooden box and used a key around his neck to unlock the tarnished lock.
“I think we should go young this time, Ted,” Chuck said. “It’s about time we had some tender meat for once. Have you noticed the older they are the tougher the meat?”
The man known as Ted smiled, showing his rotten teeth.
“We could select Olivia. She sure is ripe boss; fresh from the vine.” Ted licked his lips in anticipation.
“No. I was thinking a little younger this time. God came to me in a dream and told me it needs to be Matilda. You get to work on filling the box and I’ll go let the town know it’s time.” Chuck turned and left his companion to his work.
“Sure thing boss.” Ted removed a stack of parchment from the inside of the box and began scribbling on them, one by one, and placed them in the box.
Wyatt couldn’t believe what he had just heard. Were they really eating folks? Though a religious reason may be partially to blame for this insanity, it appeared the both Chuck and Ted had darker reasons for their love of human flesh. Who gave them the right to fill the town with this false notion? Wyatt glanced at his horse and weighed his options. He could probably wait for the man to leave, mount his horse and be gone without anyone noticing. But remembering the peace on Matilda’s face gave him pause. He couldn’t save his own daughter when it mattered most but maybe he could save someone else’s little girl. Taking a Colt pistol from the holster around his waist, Wyatt crept to the man focused on his chore.
“Psst,” Wyatt hissed.
“What the …?” Ted said as the pistol’s butt slammed into his head.
Wyatt caught the heavy man as he slumped forward and lowered him to the ground.
“Sorry partner,” he said. “That’s gonna leave a mark.” Wyatt took a piece of paper from the box and read the name. Matilda Walters. Selecting another slip from the box he glanced at the familiar name. Matilda Walters. “Bastards think you can rig the selection. I’ll fix that.” Removing all of the names from the box, Wyatt started writing a new name on the pieces of parchment and quickly put them into the box. He wasn’t sure the exact number of slips that needed to be in the box but didn’t think that the people would stop to count. After adding the remaining pieces, Wyatt secured the box with the lock that was lying beside it. He didn’t want to take too much time and be caught in the act. Hoisting the box in the air, Wyatt walked out into the street and into the gathering crowd.
“Ladies and gentleman,” Chuck began, “the time has come for another Harvest celebration. God came to me in a dream last night and reassured me that this next selection would be the purist yet. He has personally laid his hand upon one of us, blessing the one chosen for the great feast tonight. Bring forth the box Ted.” Chuck said, searching the crowd for his partner.
“Here it is,” Wyatt said as he approached the center of the circle where Chuck awaited. “Ted asked me to bring it for you sir.” Placing the box on the ground at Chuck’s feet, Wyatt turned and drifted back into the parted crowd. The energy surged through the crowd; a wild hunger reflected in the eyes focused on the wooden box.
“Thank you. As you all know, once the name is selected and read aloud, the feast may begin. May whomever is selected bless us all with God’s ever lasting peace and purity.” Chuck kneeled at the box and took the key from around his neck. Opening the box, careful to not reveal the names, he reached into the boxes depth and rummaged for a slip. The crowd pulled in tighter as he pulled out a folded piece of parchment, all eager to hear the honored name. “The name that God has chosen today is …” He stood, unfolded the paper and glanced at the name. “Wait … this can’t be.”
“What is the name?” a man to the left asked.
“Read it!” a woman yelled from the back.
“Who has God chosen?” the crowd cried, surging forward in unison, trying to get a glance at the name.
Matilda stepped up and snatched the paper from Chuck’s shaking grasp, unable to resist.
“The chosen is …Chuck Dennison!” she yelled above the roaring crowd and glanced over at the man trembling before her.
Chuck glanced around the crowd until his gaze settled on something at the back; a silhouette sitting upon a horse. Wyatt nodded his head in salute as the crowd converged on their prey, a scream piercing the desert heat.
Jaidis Shaw currently resides in a small town located in South Carolina with her husband and her beautiful daughter. When not reading or writing, Jaidis fills the position of Book Tour Coordinator for Nurture Your Books™, maintains her blog Juniper Grove and loves encouraging her daughter to let her imagination run wild.
Thanks to everyone who participated in the intermission tales.
Join us next week when regular Railroad! updates return.
THE SIZE OF THINGS
In which Dodger and the crew get underway.