The Glorious Belt Bridge
Well, I’m afraid there’s not much new to report to you, kind reader. We’ve all been busy and, well, I’m running desperately out of things to post. So, instead, I’ll just throw up one of the little things I’m working on. This isn’t one of the short stories, by the by, but a sneak peek at the big novel! Well… one of the big novels. Well… it’s a novel at the very least.
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His hair was driven by the wind’s slaving hand, lashing his face with wide, blonde strands. That heavenly howl tore amongst a canyon so ripped into the red rock as to tear a great gash across the flesh of the earth. Scarlet soil spilt forth. It was the blood of the land and despite its age it continued to seep down its banks, drowning the scrub and sickle trees clutching to bare stones hanging over precipitous nothingness. The savages said it was cleaved in the formation of the world and forever would it bleed so long as man raised hand against his own.
Hopkins smiled at the thought.
If there was one constant amongst the savages, it was their damnable love for blood. It was an admirable quality in a peoples lacking just about everything else.
Beneath his legs, his steed gave a warning cry—slowing its pace as it drew up the dusty trail. Its nostrils flared with some foreign scent. He reigned her in, slowing to a gentle canter as eyes darted amongst the craggy stones. His hand fled to the pistol at his side while another raised to slow the entourage behind him. This would not be the first ambush from which he would walk away.
But no rifles cracked nor burnt powder stung the air as he rounded the crest. Hopkins continued, his eyes falling upon the great bridge spanning the chasm.
There she stood.
She was as still as the great canyon’s sides, unflinching and eternal. Her long coat caught about her, snapping like the jaws of a hungry dog. The great brim of her hat fluttered as though it were the wings of a bird seeking freedom in the crystal blue sky above. Her fingers held true to the cold steel of the trigger and polished wood of the longrifle’s simple stock. The hammer lay cocked and the trigger primed. A single long braid gathered behind her, catching in the wind like an old battle standard raised with weary arms for one last stand.
Was this all the impeded the tail end of his escape? Hopkins had been told the job would be easy. True to form, the cache offered little resistance and what few guards stood were easily overcome. And now, nary but a girl pretending at being some hard cut frontiersman was all that remained between him and precious freedom on the canyon’s opposite end.
Hopkins spent one quick glance at the men following. He knew none of them but there were grins or raised brows all-around at the sight of the lone girl. Hopkins raised his pistol, giving a great shout as he kicked his steed into a full charge. The others followed.
Still she stood like a feature of that expansive landmark with nothing but the wilds gathering about her. She sought no shelter from the worn ropes and weathered wood slowly giving over to burnished steel. Temporary towers stood unmanned, their simple cranes and suspenders groaned in the tossing breath of the canyon. The Glorious Belt Bridge was undergoing a remarkable transformation. For a bridge that had been near forgotten to the long decades since its construction, it was now half-cast in fresh iron with lines of new posts and beams running its sides like great sleeping worms. Someone had expensive interest in expanding it.
It was set to turn into the greatest of modern monuments. Unfortunately, it would not live to see its glory. Hopkins could hear the waggon rattling behind as it tried to keep up with the brigands. Beneath its roped cover banged and battered broad barrels filled to the brim with gunpowder. His orders were simple—see that this crossing would never be taken again.
There were no workers here today. It was the only arrangement from his boss that didn’t sit well with Hopkins. He relished the excitement of a good gunfight especially when it would be so easy to “lose” some of his men in the crossfire. Hopkins knew the fewer at the end of a job meant a greater payout for the survivors. And there were no better chaos for cutting unnecessary weight than a terminal bullet exchange.
Still she stood before their thunderous approach as though she were little more than one of them steel beams ready to stretch the gaping valley.
Hopkins’ cry came up louder than the hooves. Horses shook their heads as riders pulled hard upon their reigns. The group came to a stumbling halt as Hopkins grinned at the unshakeable darling who nary twitched despite half a dozen armed outlaws falling upon her.
“You’ve got guts, I’ll give you that,” Hopkins called.
The terrific mare of bright chestnut fur and proud dark eyes stepped forward and shook its head menacingly.
She fingered the trigger of her rifle. “Dirty Hopkins.”
The broad-shouldered ruffian twitched scraggly whiskers at the invocation. He poked the tip of his muddied Boss of the Plains perched upon an untamed mane of coal black. A single thread of faded yellow wound about it but whatever noble prospects it once bespoke were tarnished by the dark blood stains which it slapped. His arms—draped in buckskin—crossed and the tens of dangling trimmed fringe fibres waved like little cloth fingers in the breeze.
“Don’t think we’ve met.”
“Ain’t had the pleasure till now.”
He surveyed the bridge for foul intentions. But there wasn’t anything but the woman and a construction site in half repair. He led his horse to the side, looking over the edge.
Far beneath cut a trickling blue stream like a child’s forgotten ribbon at the bottom of the canyon. The great stone walls rose up on either flank. In both directions drew the exposed red and pink wound. Only the most distant of peaks were tinged white as they crawled towards the sky. And nothing else crossed its expanse save for this great metal and wood monstrosity. If there were others, they would be faint motes amongst the rocky shadows. Had they clung to the underside of the bridge, there was no expeditious way for them to scramble up its side.
Hopkins raised a hand to his hat, pressing the brim further up his face. He had seen misplaced courage before—even from the fairer sex when they felt pressed against the walls of their frontier farms.
“And what brings a fine specimen such as yourself so far into the wastes? Ain’t a proper place for a little thing like you. Ruffians about, I hear.”
“Surely, I hope.” The rifle faced the rider.
Hopkins smiled, turning back to his gang. A few had followed in drawing their weapons but the rest stood around until he barked his command. Immediately, four outlaws dismounted, pulled the canvas across the vehicle’s back and fetched large barrels from its end.
“You got gumption; I give you that.”
He leaned back in his saddle, wholly unperturbed by the weapon pointing dangerously at his chest. When she didn’t respond, he gave her a questioning nod of his head.
“You got a name to that face?”
“Ain’t one that matters. But if it’s required, you may address me as Felicity.”
And that appellation made him lean forward upon his seat.
“I’ve heard of you.” Lips curled back to reveal a row of rotted teeth. “One of them hunters and runners scratching a living on them ships between Empires.”
He turned in his saddle looking up and down the bridge.
“But I ain’t see no ship.”
“There’s two ways we play this. You come willing or you come roughly. Either way’s ending the same.”
“And where we be heading, my dear?”
“You gone and made some folk irate. Falls on me to bring you back to them.”
“Aiming for a bounty?” Hopkins smiled. “Well ain’t that a thing. And you going to do it all your lonesome?”
He regarded the cowled men as they dragged their payload towards the bridge’s supports. Felicity finally acknowledged them, her eyes lingering momentarily on the pistols by their sides.
“Only got business with you. They’re free so long they ain’t do nothing unlawful.”
And Hopkins laughed. He swung one leg over his saddle, dropping from his horse and taking a few testing steps towards her. His snakeskin boots thumped against the wood as he drew closer and closer without a single discharge loosing from the rifle’s barrel. He was aware of a few of his entourage cocking hammers and covering the side angles. Hopkins rested a callused hand on the rifle’s top, pressing the weapon’s lips earthward.
“I ain’t tell if you’re bold or just full of aethers,” he said. “I reckon you can turn your cute little hat around and walk away from this and I ain’t have to bloody your pretty little face.”
He could smell her at this distance. This was no perfumed lady or pioneering immigrant. She smelled of sweat and grease. There were smudges of gunpowder residue staining her cheeks. Though her olive skin was radiant it was scratched and marked, edges of scars creeping from her collar and cuffs. And her eyes were hard as she raised them to meet his. There was not a trace of youthful brashness within their dark pits. They were cold and they were empty.
Hopkins hadn’t removed his hand from her rifle and he gave a quick tug, trying to yank it from her hands. But her grip held and she pulled back, the barrel slipping through his fingers. Before she could raise it, however, Hopkins struck. The back of his hand connected her cheek fiercely, forcing her for the first time from her stance as she stumbled a few steps.
She looked up, raising the rifle but gun fire kept her from pulling the trigger. The outlaw gave a wide grin as he nodded in appreciation for his hired men not killing her on the spot.
“It’s a wonder folk like you still manage to scrape a living. There can only be so much coin running unregistered shipments off the schedules. You want my advice? You got to look elsewhere for a scratch.”
He jabbed the tip of his pistol hard into her chest, causing her to wince as he grasped her shoulder.
“Now I ain’t going to ask you again. You better drop that little smokemaker of yours.”
There was the briefest of hesitations. Enough pause to make her rebelliousness known. But the weapon dropped from her fingers nevertheless.
In one quick motion, Hopkins boot crashed against the weapon and it skittered across the boards, tumbling over the edge of the bridge into the great beyond.
Felicity cried out, making a useless grab. As she shifted her weight, Hopkins struck her hard against the back, sprawling her across the bridge as her hat tumbled loose. She coughed and groaned as he hunched over her.
“You see, life out on the frontier ain’t a simple thing. Some men got to do what they got to do. You take some jobs other folk ain’t. You get a name that some ain’t like. But I tell you, you live. And that’s all that matters.”
He grabbed her by her hair, pulling her to her feet with a yelp.
“And sometimes you get some blood on your hands. But this land ain’t for the weak. Take a look on them hills. They’ve been bathed in the stuff. Always been since them savages learned two stones smashed against each other could create an edge that could paint red. You either fight and live or you get put into the ground to pay the earth her due.”
He pulled her to the edge of the bridge, forcing her towards its razor side. Her arms flailed, fingertips clutching for the ribbed steel on either side. He held her tight by her knot, her head pulled uncomfortably back. Her eyes could only see the tops of the canyon, its dark line winding out as far as the eye could grasped.
“You can hear the groans of all them stiffs stuffed into the earth. First was them savages with their constant fighting and hollering. Then them kuli’s in those junks they sailed across the waters with their long nails and shaved tails like rats fleeing a sunk ship. Got them cities digging right into the coast all the way up to the mountains and been sitting there like they’ve been under siege for generations.
“This land is a harsh one.”
He pulled her back, throwing her roughly to the bridge’s planks. He stood over her, like a rancher looking over a lame calf. He half-smiled, watching her fingers tighten around the boards. But she did not move as he crouched.
She coughed and he turned his head, losing her words in the distant cry of an eagle.
“Hunter’s on the wing,” he smiled, reaching down and grasping her chin. He turned her face to look at him, noting with amusement the fierce glare she shot. “So what were them pretty last words you wanted?”
“Should have taken the willing way.”
He raised a hand to strike her impertinence but thunder cracked against the canyon walls. Hopkins turned to the sky, searching for the phantom storm but a clatter off his shoulder pulled his attention. One of the barrels landed heavily upon its side, rolling along the wood and bouncing against the discarded tools. Hopkins spun to his feet, taking a step towards the wayward vessel while hollering at its clumsy carrier.
Just as unexpectedly as the barrel’s descent, the ruffian fell to the ground. Unlike his parcel, he didn’t move as a crimson pool began to stain the back of his shirt.
His half strangled criticism was drowned in a second sharp clap.