For many months, if not a good year or so, there is an author whose blog I have followed above all others. Although, to be fair, I only ever followed 5 (max), at the height of my speculative blogging days. It was my only real connection to the premise of polishing up my skills through ongoing learning from those more knowledgeable than myself, because it was wisdom I could easily absorb as I worked on my own designs.
I can’t remember how I discovered Dan’s work, but since I stumbled across his blog, I have enjoyed both the common and uncommon sense inherent in his advice and discussions, and speculated many a time about basing my first foray into flash fiction on one of his challenges. It only seemed right. More so than one of those 100- to 200-word picture prompt affairs, certainly! I therefore chose to rule out anything with even a semblance of normality, leaving perhaps the most surreal candidate as the clearest debut: Cat Western.
I’m under strict orders to keep it as Truly Gritty as possible, albeit within the realms of my own imagination and writing direction. Which means I’m coming at it sideways, like the great train robberies of old. Because the only way you survive on the frontier is by staying one step ahead of all the things naturally inclined to pick you off. Like roving bandits. Wolves. Cholera. Stray bullets. Evil duchesses. Cursed totems. And even cats. Introducing…
The Good, the Bad and the Cuddly
There was no way this was going to end well for him.
The ‘he’ in question didn’t care, of course. Clearly. But if he did, his act, however pointless, was worthy of the best and brightest stages this side of Carson City. Or so Jesse imagined, casting his judgement on the posturing buffoon below from his favoured vantage point on the mezzanine. Truth be told, he had never been far beyond the twin towns of Dustworth and Wrypeak in all his youth, let alone to the state capitol, and it was unlikely his situation was going to change any time soon. Not with the new laws, which this clown thinks he can overturn. Idiot. The very concept of complete institutional revolution was impossibly complex, incurring a shiver of incredulity from someone who had only come of age recently. It started with a quiver of the eyelashes, then the judder of a sharp chin, a roll of his taut shoulders and an undulation of muscles all the way to his tailbone. How can anyone be this naive?
Particularly a man who claimed to come from wealth and influence, now short on funds but not on rhetoric, touting the virtues of a plan that called for the patrons of this mediocre establishment to aid him in overthrowing their Great Oppressor. Jesse paced about, awaiting one of the inevitable outcomes playing out in the recesses of his dark eyes, made darker still by the shadows that tried to cling to his passing form. This fool’s misplaced hope was going to get him in trouble, sooner or later, here or in the dead of night, after word turned to deed, if not before.
“We don’t need to fear her. I can save us.” The stroke of a well-kept moustache drew many eyes to the would-be saviour’s lips, followed by a ripple of gunslinger fingers as he leant back in his chair. “I can save all of us.” Or the opposite. At least the barkeep seemed to have retained a level head, the only occupant of the packed room with the sense to keep one eye on the exits and the other on any thumbs that might be straying near the hammer of a revolver, not counting his own.
Of course, that meant he wasn’t looking for the knife.
But within seconds, it was all anyone could see, protruding from the man’s perfect chest, slim and red and blossoming blood. A full inch of slick steel above, and another six still buried to the hilt within a slowly collapsing cavity.
The crash of his chair brought Sola to Jesse’s side. Sudden, like a wraith, yet graceful as a dancer, she slipped through the space between spaces, wrapping slender arms about her waist to draw her exotic robe close enough to mask the flames. Her warmth surrounded him, intimately protective.
“She’s here,” she whispered.
You’re here, Jesse returned, as evenly as he could muster. Must be serious.
“Could be,” Sola mused, her tone losing none of its immediacy, but rather gaining a note of intrigue. “If it’s her doing.”
Jesse surveyed the murder scene with equal fascination. Black boots clicked on the dusty floorboards where none had before as the dark figure circled the final convulsions of the man who might have saved the world. Or might not. And who definitely would not. Though a wide-brimmed hat obscured the pair’s view of the killer’s face, the man’s hairy, calloused knuckles gave his gender away as he wiped the blade and returned it to one of three sheaths on his hip. Then he squatted to examine the deceased.
“Peering into the empty mirrors of his eyes, perhaps, to see the life extinguished?”
Jesse shelved Sola’s morbid thought. Is that something you would do? As reassuring as her presence could be, he was still new to the whole fire…elemental…companion spirit…thing. Sure, the mind reading helped but God. Damn it.
First magic had ruined his life. Then it had become his life. And now it was more certain than life itself. While the Duchess ruled, all bets were off.
He flexed his claws in anxiety, a new reflex for him, but one which audibly scored the grainy banister on which he stood, poised and alert. And one which also drew a jerky reaction from the killer. Or maybe it hadn’t. Maybe he’d imagined it.
“You didn’t,” Sola was quick to point out, softly, her consonants heavy, like bullets dipped in honey. He cowered visibly and dropped to the floor, hoping to hide his fine feline features behind the thick wooden bars. He drew the line at running away, at least until he knew how significant the danger actually was. So jumpy these days. What’s wrong with me?
Rhetorical question, Sola! Not now. Not while the man had removed his hat to spy more effectively into the darkness of the mezzanine, searching for movement between the saloon’s secluded, upper rooms. Not while the killer’s craggy facial hair and haunting yellow eyes reminded him so strongly of a-
Well that isn’t good, she echoed in his mind, finally drawing her lips into a bouquet of secrecy. Yet though she never spoke, she didn’t stop either. Unless we’re talking Egyptian pantheons, in which case, you’d trump him any day.
Jesus! He’s looking at us! Jesse flattened his belly to the carpet, front paws pressed so firmly into the short pile that their pink skin nearly turned the same colour as his mitts.
Actually, he’s looking at me. All of me. She pressed herself further into the banister, fiery red curls cascading over a shoulder and catching on the hem of her robe, drawing those hungry yet calculating yellow eyes to what swelled beneath. Dulling their bite. And now he’s watching me rise, with my devastating glimmer of a smile, too exquisite for his ilk, and walk out of his life forever. Come along, master.
Jesse sheathed his claws but remained where he was, unsure of this plan.
Before he changes his mind.
That got him moving, pattering after his companion with no uncertain amount of urgency. The pair slipped into the boudoir at the end of the hall, drawn by the window that was already open, and onto which Jesse leapt, ignoring the tangle of bodies in the bed behind him. The small, bronze lamp totem adorning his collar glimmered, but the glossy sheen of his coat, mottled black and brown, caught the moonlight in full, as well as the seeping chill of the desert air. Sola’s warmth was receding, the gentle caress of her hand on his back trailing down the fur of his neck to where it would disappear completely. Forcing him to bury the fear, irrational as it was. He was still more man than mouse.
Which, he guessed, he really did eat for breakfast now.