Songdogs

Issue #27, First Anniversary Double-Issue

The True Moon and its False companion hung full in the sky, lighting the night so bright Agnieska could hardly see the stars. The True Moon smiled down like a senile old man. The False Moon rippled like a reflection on water. Out across the dry plain of mulga and saltbush scrub, the songdogs warbled.

Agnieska shivered and looked back at her prisoner. Carrick’s eyes were half-lidded but fixed on her, she was certain, rather than on the ground in front of his feet. He sported a patchy coating of brick-red dust from the tumbles he’d taken on the uneven ground. The split in his forehead that she’d given him with her pistol butt had swollen up into a knotted bruise, evident through his mop of black hair. The bottom half of his face was hidden by the tongue clamp she’d put on him. His hands were locked into lead mittens, both hooped to the chain she led him by. She’d been surprised by his age, at least two decades her junior. But then, she supposed, rebellion was the province of the young.

A dry creek intersected their path. Agnieska gave the chain a tug, changing direction to skirt a patch of wait-a-while grass growing down over the opposite bank.

“This way,” she said, when Carrick continued straight ahead. His head wobbled slightly as he stopped and looked around for her in momentary bemusement.

He’d taken longer to get up each time he’d fallen, but Agnieska wasn’t convinced he was as exhausted as he seemed. The compulsion she’d scratched into the soles of his feet, before shoving them into his boots, didn’t force him to watch his step, nor catch himself if he stumbled.

So far, she’d stayed her hand from supplementing the spell. The songdogs worried her, though, even if the pack’s cries were a way off yet and a fair distance from their backtrail. She worried more about Carrick’s mates, who certainly were on their trail. They’d got away to a good start before the telltale spell she’d cut on the back of his hotel room door had chimed faintly in her ear. They were making reasonable time, too, despite Carrick’s falls. But she worried.

Aggie-worry, Olly used to say.

She led Carrick along the eroded bank, examining the creek bed in the moonlight. It was furrowed with flood channels and littered with rocks and small debris, but no patches of smooth sand that might indicate a jack-o-box lurking underneath.

He slipped going down the bank, despite Agnieska’s efforts to keep him upright. He knocked her off balance, too, and caught her a painful blow on the breast with his elbow as they slithered to the bottom. Carrick landed on top. He pressed the mittens onto her chest as he scrambled up, squashing the breath from her lungs. Agnieska got her arm in the way of his clumsy swing at her head, yelped as she caught the blow on the point of her elbow. Carrick staggered away, trying to run. His escape lasted only a handful of paces before the compulsion spell stopped him and he sprawled once again in the dust.

Agnieska surged to her feet, her patience shot. With a snarl, she kicked him over onto his back. From her coat pocket she took a pair of steel-bladed calf hooks.

A lot of sheriffs used the things as a matter of course. To Agnieska they had always seemed a step too far. And she hated forcing a man to endure what her Olly had suffered through. But her blood was up, now, and she grabbed his shirtfront to shake him. Moonlight glinted off the spells etched into the ugly curved blades as she held them in front of his face.

“You know what these are?” She shook him again. His eyes went from the hooks to her. His breath rasped painfully behind the tongue clamp. He nodded. Agnieska stood back.

“Get up,” she said.

He stared at her, unmoving, for long enough that she was certain he’d called her bluff. She could feel her fingers sweating around the hooks. Get up, damn you.

At last, he rolled himself onto his side, then awkwardly up on his knees and, at second attempt, to his feet. Agnieska picked up the chain and turned away before he could catch any sign of relief on her face. Her heart clattered inside her ribs. If he was less dazed than he acted, he must’ve known he wouldn’t achieve anything more than exhausting her patience. But would he really risk having the hooks put into his legs—making every step a torture while they forced him to walk far beyond his normal endurancejust to test her mettle?

She had to lean on the chain to get him up the other side of the creek bed. Carrick grunted at the added pressure on his compressed fingers, but followed.

Up ahead, the low roll of the desert plain crinkled up into old granite hills, painted with horizontal stripes of age and sparsely capped by stands of twisted eucalypts. Nearer at hand, the stone chimney of a long-gone farmstead rose alone above the scrub. On the far side of the hills lay the railway and the fortress towns it served.

The wait-a-while patch rustled as they passed, although there wasn’t much breeze. It looked like wild wheat, but its ears were full of fishhook barbs. Hidden beneath were leach-mouthed creepers that’d slither up out of the ground and into a person’s clothes.

The grass was a thing of the False Moon, like the songdogs, the jack-o-boxes, and the rest. Used to be, the most dangerous thing a person was likely to encounter out bush was dingos, or the occasional mob of unfriendly natives, unless they were unlucky enough to lay out their bed roll on top of a brownsnake. Now the snakes and wild dogs were gone, and the surviving natives had retreated to the towns with everyone else.

Used to be, Agnieska reflected upon her tired feet, that a person could ride horseback across the desert, not have to walk. Her grandpapa had learned to ride, growing up in the days before the False Moon came and turned the horses into man-eaters—them and most of the rest of the world. Used to be, had been grandpapa’s favourite way of starting a sentence.

Even so, Olly would say, when he got tired of the old man’s complaining, we’ve got it better than some. At least here men are still ruled over by men. And he’d stare grandpapa down until the old man subsided, grumbling, into his chair. Then Olly would turn to Agnieska and wink and they’d share a secret grin.

The chain in her hand jerked. She turned in time to see Carrick stumble over a spinifex tussock and topple forward, full-length into the dirt.

Agnieska swore, reaching into her pocket for the hooks as she kicked him over, determined to use them this time. He twisted awkwardly, the weight of the lead mitts keeping his hands where they were. His head lolled. Agnieska stooped to lift one of his eyelids.

Damn. Out cold. She straightened, then unhitched a water canteen, took a swig, and washed the stale water around her teeth while she fretted over the ground their pursuers would gain.

In truth, her own legs were shaking with fatigue. And even if Carrick’s mates weren’t just as tired, they couldn’t make up too much ground on foot. But the songdogs were out there, too, still making their presence known.

“Not much to be done about it,” she said, aloud. Alone, she would’ve kept going until she found a more defensible site. But it was too late to use the calf hooks now, even if she’d been willing.

Too soft, Aggy, Olly would’ve said.

She ran Carrick’s chain through the branches of a stunted mulga tree and padlocked it, then shrugged off her pack to rummage inside for warding irons, which she dotted around in a rough circle. The irons would deflect scrying eyes, now that movement no longer concealed them, and protect them from at least some of the desert’s nocturnal predators. She scattered caltrops and set spring-traps that might do for some of the rest. For whatever else was smart or lucky enough to get through, it was her carbine and the likelihood that Carrick, out in the open, would be attacked first.

The ritual of laying out her defences settled her. And then there was nothing left to do but lie herself down under the low canopy of another mulga, with her pack for a lumpy pillow and her carbine cocked in her hands, and hope that she slept lightly enough to wake in time.

Agnieska came instantly alert but remained still, both habits born of walking the bush alone. She watched through her eyelashes as Carrick stirred. His breath came in sandpaper gasps.

Beyond him, the air at the boundary of the warded circle was thickened as though by wisps of mist. The wisps extended limbs, probing the wards for a point of weakness. Riders, more than likely from the abandoned farmstead, seeking a host to sate their yearning for their lost humanity.

A gunshot would scatter them, but it would also mark their location for the songdogs and Carrick’s mates. Slowly, Agnieska eased back her coat and slipped a carbine shell from the row on her belt. Carefully, wincing at the creak of her stiff joints, she raised herself onto one elbow so that she could throw. The riders continued their mindless search.

She flicked the shell backhand. The lead slug in its brass casing whirled end over end, passing straight through a shadowy figure. The rider popped like a soap bubble. Its companions fled.

Agnieska crawled out from under the mulga, reaching back to get her pack. The Moons were low to the west, dawn a couple of hours away. The songdogs were still a distance off as well—too far, yet, for their cries to have any substantial effect. She realised it was too late to be concerning herself about drawing their attention, as their song had changed from repetitive warbling to fluting wails and whistles.

Damn.

She duck-walked the couple of paces over to Carrick. Dark eyes blinked up at her in confusion. She wondered how much he recollected of the previous twelve hours.

“King’s Sheriff,” she said. “Got you at the hotel, while you were napping.” She’d caught up with his rebel gang on the road to a wildcat mining town, had watched and waited, mingled with them in town at the hotel bar, just another feral digger. She tapped the tongue clamp. “You need water and food. I’ll take this off, but you have to promise no spellcasting.”

His eyes flitted from one of hers to the other. He nodded.

“Your oath.”

He nodded again and grunted an affirmative. She helped him to sit and undid the buckles at the back of his head. “Try anything and I’ll burn you where you sit.”

Agnieska held the weight of the mask while she loosened the jaws of the clamp itself. His tongue came free and he gasped. She waited while he worked his cramped jaw, then helped him drink. There were tears in his eyes.

“I’ll get you some food,” she said.

She turned her back on him to reach for her pack, shielding her hands with her body so he wouldn’t see her fingers sketching the words of the attack spell that she mouthed under her breath. She licked her fingertips, holding the spell on the tip of her tongue, and turned round to face him while she dug in the pack for food. She was conscious of his gaze on her as she brought out two cans of beans and a pair of forks and opened one up with expert twists of her belt knife.

He opened his mouth. “Could...” was as far as he got.

Agnieska put everything she had behind the spell, which was enough to scorch all his nerves and knock him flat again, but not much more. She had to put a hand out to steady herself against a wave of dizziness.

Carrick groaned. One knee bent up, then flopped back again. He shifted the weight of the mittens from his belly to the ground beside him.

“You should be more concerned about LeMay than me,” he said, after a while. “I’m not nearly the spellsmith the stories would have you believe.”

Agnieska took a slow breath, trying to still her racing pulse. His witch girlfriend, he meant. Agnieska was worried about her. She’d heard enough about LeMay to think that the woman was a genuine headkicker, that little of her reputation was inflated.

“Here.” She sat him up again, wedged the open can of beans between his knees and jammed the fork into the hinge of one of his mittens.

“I was going to ask if you could loosen my boots,” Carrick said. “They’re cutting off the blood to my feet.”

She arched an eyebrow at him, and grunted a laugh at her and him, both, before she nodded.

“How’s that?” she asked, when she was done.

“Better.”

For a time he was silent, his concentration focused on getting food from the can into his mouth. Agnieska opened the other can and had a few forkfuls herself, watching him spill beans over his lap, before she relented.

“Here,” she said again. She took the can and fork and shovelled a load into his mouth.

“She’ll be coming after me,” he said, when he’d swallowed.

Agnieska fed him another mouthful. Neither his tone or expression made it sound like a threat. “I reckon she will,” she said. “And the others.”

“Your compulsion spell’s worn off,” he said. “Unless you’re planning to cut my feet again.”

She didn’t say that that was exactly what she’d been planning—although she’d be stretching what was left of her strength, now. “You hear those songdogs?”

A bean from the next forkload escaped down his chin and she deftly scooped it back into his mouth. He listened a moment. His eyes widened slightly and he nodded.

“That’s our trail they’re on,” Agnieska said. “They’re closer than your mates.”

Carrick chewed another mouthful. His lips twitched. “Reckon I’ll walk, then.”

Agnieska pressed down on her knees with her hands, willing her legs to keep pushing her up the slope. To her left, the hillside sheared off into unevenly stepped cliffs. Killjoys inflated their gas sacs in the morning warmth and spun themselves up into the sky, off in search of last night’s leftover carcasses. Her head felt stuffed with cotton.

Nothing but sharp rocks for a bed. Keep moving.

She scanned the scree ahead for a good vantage point. She wanted to be up over the first line of hills before they stopped to shelter through the heat of the day, but the songdogs were still following, and gaining ground. Willpower alone was still enough to resist the soporific effect of their singing, but she didn’t want to let them get any closer.

“What made you become a Sheriff?”

She guessed Carrick wanted to talk to distract himself from the hunters’ cries. She’d left the tongue clamp off, since there wasn’t much he could do without the use of his hands, anyway, and she judged his mates were too far behind for any voice-only spellcasting to reach them. She reckoned, too, that he’d be leery enough of what experience he’d already had of it, as well as the scorching she’d given him, not to try anything.

Too soft, Aggy.

“What made you become a rebel?” she said.

“I asked first.”

She glanced back, his head level with her elbow. He peered up at her from under the hem of the shirt she’d given him as a shawl, having neglected to put his hat on his head before she’d dragged him out the back of the hotel.

“I’ve got the gun,” she said.

His toe caught on a rock and he returned his attention to his feet. Agnieska shook her head but stole a glance at her own footing.

“Rebellion chose me,” Carrick said, “rather than the other way around.”

There was a large, broad-shouldered boulder jutting from the hillside, off to their right. She veered towards it, levering a shell into the chamber of her carbine. The click-clunk of it echoed back off the rocks.

“The town I grew up in was too small to warrant a police station,” he went on. “Until someone dug a chunk of gold out of the riverbed. Then we got a whole squad of troopers. They were scum, and their lieutenant was worse. Ran the town and the diggers’ camp as a private protection racket. Townsfolk got sick of it. Day came when I led a mob down to the police station, took their guns off them, and put them in their own lock-up. Then we sent off a petition to the district magistrate demanding to have them removed from our town and kicked out of the King’s service.

“What we didn’t know was that the bloody magistrate was the trooper lieutenant’s uncle. He declared the whole town rebel, put a price on the head of everyone who’d signed the petition, and sent in the redcoats.”

Agnieska stopped on the uphill side of the big rock and unhitched her pack.

“What are you doing?”

“I want to slow those songdogs down before we get into the hills,” she said. “Stay here.”

She tucked her carbine under one arm and climbed up the sloping side of the boulder, crawling on elbows and knees across the top. She heard the dull clank of lead on rock and knew that Carrick had disregarded her instruction. She didn’t look back. He wasn’t so stupid as to clobber her from behind, when there was no way he could unlock the mitts for himself and no help was near enough to reach him before the songdogs did.

“Don’t break your neck, will you?” she said, scanning the red dirt and scrub below. She cradled the carbine’s stock against her cheek and peered down the sights, keeping her eyes on the flickers of black-and-white movement among the mulgas as he lay down beside her. Focusing on them seemed to amplify the effect of their song.

The carbine’s barrel wavered. Agnieska steadied herself. “So you fought back.”

“We fought back,” he said. “Fight’s grown since then, taken on its own life. There’s too much of that kind of corruption about for it to still be just about me and mine. Lots of folks are angry.”

It’s not all corrupt, she wanted to say. There’s those about that still uphold the law. Carrick’s story lined up near enough to the official version of events that she didn’t think he’d concocted it for her benefit. It sounded like something Olly would’ve done.

“I don’t see them,” he said.

“Gun’s pointed right at them.”

There was a patch of clear ground right in the songdogs’ path. Agnieska tracked them towards it. Her eyelids wanted to droop. She creased up her forehead to stretch them open.

“That’s a long way out.”

“A fair distance,” she agreed.

“It’s your turn now,” he said, the mittens scraping over the boulder’s surface as he rested his head.

The carbine wobbled. Damn it. Was he really stubborn enough to risk his life just to score a point off her? “What does it matter to you?”

His eyes were half shut. “It doesn’t. Does it matter to you?”

She swore under her breath—the songdogs had changed course, following the scent.

She searched for another clearing in their path, found one, and steadied the carbine again.

“Used to be,” she said, “I had a fiancé.” She could’ve talked about something else, but what did it matter, really?

As cold as she could, she told the tale. “He was a peaceable fellow, my Olly, but not one to take nonsense. Happened that one day he got himself into some fisticuffs at the pub. He was good with his fists, Olly was, and knocked this other fellow silly.”

She fell quiet a moment, tracking the progress of the hunters down on the plain. “Problem was, this fellow had a gang of mates. That night, they made Olly walk into the desert, and they staked him out and left him for the songdogs.”

The first four-legged shape trotted out into the open, serrated beak close to the ground as it followed the trail, scorpion tail held high over its black-and-white back. It raised its head to sing. Agnieska squeezed the trigger. The crack of the carbine echoed around the hills. Out on the plain, the hunting chorus erupted into startled shrieks. The rest of the pack scattered through the scrub.

“That’ll buy us some time,” she said, trying to sound satisfied rather than relieved. “It’ll take them a while to choose a new pack leader.”

She lifted herself back up onto her knees. Carrick’s mates would’ve heard the shot, but there was no point trying to hide from them if it just meant getting run down by the songdogs instead.

He shuffled after her. “How did you know it was the leader?”

“Because he was in front.” She watched him slither and scramble back down the side of the rock, coming to rest on his haunches in front of her. “You going to walk, or do I need to put those hooks in your legs?”

“I’ll walk,” he said, picking himself up.

“Good.” She nodded and caught hold of his chain.

They climbed in silence for a while. She could all but hear the thoughts buzzing in his head.

“What did you do?” he said, eventually. “To those fellows that killed your man?”

Agnieska looked back. “I hunted them down and brought them all in, one at a time. I took the bounties and saw them judged and hanged.” All but one. “And then I took the King’s coin to keep on doing the same.”

Quiet, again, for a time. Then, “How long were you following us, before you kidnapped me?”

“Arrested you. Three days, before you stopped in the town.”

“The bounty on me’s the same, dead or alive,” he said. “You could’ve taken me down like that songdog, anytime.”

“Could have.” She didn’t need to add that she could’ve sat on that rock and waited for his mates to come under her sights, as well. “But I’m not a bounty hunter, anymore. And I’m not your judge, or your executioner.”

He looked like he was about to say something more. She tugged the chain to cut him off. “Come on.”

Over the first ridge, the hills were a confusion of scree-sided gullies and striated cliffs. Agnieska steered clear of the stunted eucalypts that clumped in the crevices and dry watercourses, clinging to the sparse soil amongst the rocks. Not worth the risk when any of them might turn out to be gnarly trees instead.

Late in the morning, the day turned overcast, blocking out the worst of the afternoon heat, and she decided to push on rather than rest.

“What will you do when we win?” he asked, when they paused at the head of a gully for water and food. They’d clambered awkwardly along its side to avoid the patch of bare sand at the bottom that almost certainly hid a jack-o-box.

When?” Agnieska offered the canteen to him, then took a swig herself and screwed on the cap.

They hadn’t spoken much since she’d shot the songdog. The rest of the pack had since started up their cries again, but Agnieska judged that they’d opened up most of the gap the songdogs had closed before. Enough, anyway, she thought.

She offered him a strip of jerky. He folded it to one side of his mouth as she picked up his chain again and resumed walking. “If you won,” she said, “you’d still need the law. And you’d still need people to make it work.” She glanced over her shoulder. “Unless you’re planning to purge every magistrate, trooper and sheriff who’s taken the King’s coin, corrupt or not.”

“Too many are.”

One is too many,” she said. “But I’ve seen as bad from your side. There was a town magistrate I reckon you remember, hung a couple of yours who’d been tried under the law and come up short. Your boys came and hung the magistrate’s family, his wife and kids. Where was their trial?”

“I gave the men who did it back to the people of that town,” he said, “for them to judge.”

Agnieska stopped to face him. “Them to judge?” She prodded him in the chest. “It was you that did the judging, my fine fellow. You wanted the town to be your executioners. They would’ve, too. If a sheriff hadn’t arrived after you rode those boys back in, the men of that town would’ve torn them apart.”

Carrick’s nostrils flared. “And what did the sheriff do but take them off to another hanging judge?”

“They had their trial.”

“You know what’ll happen to me if you take me in,” he said.

She couldn’t help a derisive snort. They all came around to this, sooner or later. Some begged, some made it a challenge, but the gist of the words was always the same. She knew her answer by rote: “You’ll be tried under the law. If you hang, then it’s because your own actions have sentenced you—just like those other boys.”

“You know I’ll hang,” he said. “Justice has nothing to do with it, only authority. The rule of those in power, not the rule of law. You’ll have sentenced me by taking me in.”

Agnieska shook her head. “Sentencing’s not my job.”

“Did you ever?” he asked. “Sentence someone? When you were a bounty hunter, did you ever claim a purse for a kill?”

The question got under her guard, like a punch to the stomach. She turned away from him, yanking on the chain to make him follow and wanting to kick herself for telling him about Olly.

“You did,” he said.

Agnieska heard surprise in his voice, rather than triumph. Shame heated her face and neck. She jerked the chain again, making him stumble.

“Once,” she admitted. “I never claimed the purse for him.” It made what she’d done no better, although she’d always told herself that it did. Not taking the purse was just a private admission of guilt.

“The man who killed your Olly.”

She was glad he couldn’t see her face. “It was a long time ago.”

Carrick was quiet. His footsteps crunched on rock, off-beat with hers.

“The man who started it,” she said, addressing the red stone ahead. “I’d brought all his mates in, one by one, saved him till last. I sat up on a hill and shot him while he ran away, just like that songdog. Not to kill, though. Just his leg.” She felt sick, recounting it. “Then I sat on that hillside and waited for the songdogs to find him.”

She half turned her head, expecting some comment, but Carrick said nothing.

The chain pulled taut in her hand. He’d stopped again. She rounded on him.

“We’ve come far enough,” he said.

“What?”

Agnieska realised a heartbeat after she’d spoken what he meant. By then it was far too late. She started to raise her carbine anyway, to mouth a defensive spell.

The world stretched like elastic. Pain lanced through her head like something had grabbed her skull with a fistful of claws.

She lay on her back, paralysed. Another face appeared beside Carrick’s—a hooded woman, a witch’s web of purple veins prominent on her chalk-pale skin.

Blackness.

She woke up where she’d fallen, at the lip of the gully. Deep evening shadows stretched away from the rocks. She felt warm and sleepy. To simply lie there and wait for the stars to come out seemed like the most wonderful idea in the world. Her tongue hurt, though, pulled taut from the floor of her mouth. She tried to move it and found that it was stuck.

They’d put the tongue clamp on her. Fuzzily, she tried to lift her hands to take it off, found them weighted down with the lead mittens. A little part of her, that didn’t seem to want to rest, thought: Damn you, Carrick.

She could hear a musical whistling. For a while, she just listened, and thought she might drift back off to sleep. But the wakeful little part of her brain refused to settle, demanding attention.

Songdogs. Her mind cleared abruptly. The tongue clamp muffled her bellow of outrage as she twisted to get her knees under her, willing herself upright.

Damn you, she thought again. I suppose you think this is bloody funny?

The songdogs trotted along the gully rim. Their whistles turned to trills like high-pitched laughter when they saw her. The black-and-white feathers of their shoulder ruffs flared as they broke into a gallop.

Panic jerked her into motion, a lunge downhill because that was the way her feet were pointed rather than any conscious decision.

She realised she was barrelling straight towards the jack-o-box patch. The songdogs’ laughter seemed right on top of her. She whirled about, swinging the mitts in a pathetic last defence. The songdogs were still a few yards away, bounding across the scree. Oh, Olly. I’ll see you soon, love.

A crackle of gunfire surprised her as much as them. Half the pack went down; the rest tumbled over themselves in their haste to flee.

Agnieska turned wildly to see where the shots had come from. Already off balance, she put her foot in the gap between two rocks, felt the ligaments in her ankle give. She landed on top of the mittens and skidded head first down the slope.

Winded and trapped by her lead-weighted hands, she twisted her neck, trying to see. She’d stopped only a few feet short of the jack-o-box. Her pulse hammered as she waited for the sand to erupt, for the jack-o-box’s muscular rope of a tongue to slash towards her.

Hard footsteps scraped on loose stone. Lots of feet. Her skin prickled. Something was here, something worse than any jack-o-box could handle. A shadow blocked out the sky. A fanged muzzle pushed into her face, large nostrils snuffling loudly. Horizontally slit eyes examined her from the other end of a long face.

A hand pushed the horse’s head aside.

Carrick tipped her over onto her back, then sat her up. A short distance away, other riders let their mounts feed on the songdog carcasses. LeMay sneered at Agnieska. The witch’s aura was like the static of an approaching storm front. Agnieska couldn’t hold her stare.

Carrick unbuckled the straps around her head and released the clamp. His horse nosed past his shoulder, teeth bared. He pushed it away again and reached up to slap its shoulder for good measure. With alarming abruptness for such a large animal, the horse spun away and trotted up the slope to its fellows. Agnieska watched it shoulder its way into the circle.

“Horses,” she said. Damn me.

“They can still be trained, if you get them young enough,” Carrick said. “Sometimes.”

“You didn’t have them while I was tracking you,” she said.

He tapped the side of his nose. “Been our little secret.” He regarded her with a wry smile. “Reckon that might be about to change.”

“When did they catch up with us?” she asked.

He chuckled. “Not long after you shot the songdog.”

“You were judging me.”

“Yes.” He unlocked the mittens. Agnieska flexed her fingers. His were swollen and bruised, the nails blackened. “Executioner isn’t my style, either,” he said, and dropped the mittens beside the tongue clamp. “A person should know what they’re doing to others.”

She met his eye. Carrick looked away first.

He pulled the magazine out of her carbine and shucked the remaining shells into his palm, then slotted it back into place and offered her the empty gun. Her ammunition belt was no longer around her waist. Ah well, she thought. If nothing else, the gun would do for a crutch. Her ankle throbbed.

He watched her, elbows on his knees, weighing the cartridges in his palm. “I want your oath, that you won’t come after me again.”

Agnieska shook her head. “My oath’s already been given, years ago.”

He nodded, had probably expected the answer. His eyes were amused. “Then promise me that you won’t come after me today.”

She considered her sprained ankle, and their horses. “Reckon I can manage that,” she said.

He smirked, then stood and flung the carbine shells out across the scree. Agnieska craned to see where they landed.

Carrick’s lips twitched, almost another smirk, or a laugh. He offered her a slight bow. “Good luck, Sheriff.”

She sat silently as he walked over to rejoin his companions. He said something to LeMay as he mounted his horse. The witch’s scowl broke into a reluctant smile.

The animals whinnied their displeasure at being dragged away from their feast, but they responded obediently enough. Agnieska hauled herself up on the barrel of her carbine and hobbled over to retrieve the scattered shells.

Sunset painted the sky on the far side of the hills. The True Moon stood low in the east, alone for now, shining gold in the last of the day.

She wondered what Carrick’s republic would be like, as she dusted the shells on the front of her shirt and clipped them back into the magazine. Would it be any better? Her imagination failed her.

Would she hunt him again, tomorrow? She didn’t know the answer to that, either.

She spied her pack, ammunition belt, and canteens a short distance away and gave a snort. “I might be a while yet, Olly, after all.”


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Ian McHugh's stories, appearing in publications including Asimov's, Clockwork Phoenix 2 and 4, and multiple times in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, have won grand prize in the Writers of the Future contest, been shortlisted five times at Australia’s Aurealis Awards (winning Best Fantasy Short Story in 2010), reprinted in Australian year’s best anthologies, honorably mentioned for world year’s bests, and appeared in the Locus and Tangent Online annual Recommended Reading Lists. His first collection of short stories, Angel Dust, was published in late 2014. His full bibliography, along with links to read and hear stories online, can be found at ianmchugh.wordpress.com.

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4 Comments on “Songdogs”

4 Responses to “Songdogs”

  1. Guest says:

    07-07-2011, 08:31 PM
    Guest

    great story!

    i haven’t seen a ‘wierd Australia’ story before: brilliant.

  2. Scott H. Andrews says:

    07-08-2011, 12:02 PM

    Very glad you liked it!

    Ian has had another story in BCS that’s in an alt-history paranormal Australia: “Red Dirt,” in BCS #58.

    We’ve also had an alternate Brisbane steampunk tale “Mr Morrow Becomes Acquainted with the Delicate Art of Squid Keeping,” by Geoffrey Maloney. And the Joe L. Murr story in the current issue, “The Moral Education of a Mad Bastard,” feels to me like a paranormal colonial Australia.

    Check them out too and see what you think.

  3. […] or nearly pure, world building from my story “Songdogs”, which you can read all of at Beneath Ceaseless Skies or listen to at Podcastle (and which is also in the new BCS weird Western […]

  4. […] “Songdogs” by Ian McHugh Agnieska swore, reaching for the hooks, determined to use them this time. […]

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