What Needs to Burn

Issue #152

The first thing Ephraim Wood did when I met him was save my life. This was about a minute before he shot me.

Fickle man, that.

My horse had dumped me and Shadow a few hundred yards outside town and then slumped onto the ground and died. I would have cursed at the stupid animal, maybe kicked its carcass too, but I hadn’t had a drop of water for two days and I was pretty much dying. Plus, I figured he done good, since instead of serving us as breakfast to the poison-fanged mustangs who were on our tail, he’d dropped us where someone might find us.

Ephraim Wood happened to be that someone, and he happened to have a full water skin.

“Drink,” he said, pushing the skin against my cracked lips.

The water was gritty, the red desert sand gnashing against my teeth, but I didn’t care. I would have swallowed it all if it hadn’t been for Shadow lying next to me, just as parched.

“My man,” I croaked to Wood.

Wood pulled the water skin away and looked at my companion. His gray eyebrows jutted together in distaste beneath his hat. “He’s a savage.”

“That may be, but he’s my savage.”

Wood considered for a moment. Then he kneeled and tilted Shadow’s dusty face upwards so he could put the water skin to his mouth. By the time Shadow came to, blinking his black eyes against the already relentless morning sun, I had managed to stand up on shaky legs.

“Where you fellas traveling from?” asked Wood, snatching back the water skin from Shadow.

“The desert,” I said.

“And where you fellows going to?”

“Someplace wetter.”

Yeah, I admit, I was being smart. I probably should have shown some gratitude, with him saving our lives and all. But Shadow and I had been stalked by the sand-devil’s creatures for days. My horse had died. I didn’t like the pretentious tilt of this man’s hat, and I didn’t like the worn holster on his hip, neither. So I wasn’t feeling courteous much.

“Well, that over there is my town.” Wood gestured towards a cluster of buildings a few hundred yards away that I hadn’t seen through the oily shimmer of the desert air. “I’ve got two wells full of water, and stronger stuff at the saloon. Got women, too. You’re welcome to all of it.”

That sounded mighty welcoming, I thought.

That’s when our savior drew his revolver and shot me in the thigh.

By the time Wood found us and took us to his town, Shadow and I had been in the desert for at least a fortnight. The world had stopped being a nice place a long time ago, and sanity had started to drain out of me like water from a rusted bucket. Back in the desert, nothing looked right—the horizon appeared closer than it was, the sun looked like the flat face of the sand-devil laughing down at us from the sky. The landscape was all straight lines, and still, things looked crooked.

But limping into Wood’s town was worse. It was all crooked there—buildings sagged as though they’d been built against their will, and the sand whined beneath the scrape of our boots like we were hurting it just by walking on it. When we came into the saloon, which was occupied by a couple drunkards and a too-old, too-wrinkled saloon girl, things got quiet. Wood had the chubby bartender pour us each a drink in greasy glasses. He kept the revolver on us.

“What’s your name?” he asked.

“Sullivan. Utah Sullivan.” I was bleeding onto the floor.

“And the other one?”

“Shadow.”

Wood’s gaze slid over the tattoos on Shadow’s arms. “He’s a pureblooded barefoot? Does he have the magic in him?”

“Magic?” I downed my drink to buy time and gather my thoughts, but when the whiskey burned down my throat, I couldn’t come up with anything but a feeble denial. “He’s just my man, is all.”

Shadow had the magic, alright. He was the reason why we’d not gotten eaten by the things in the desert. The things that always loomed at the edge of our vision—all those creatures that had twisted hot and scorching and mad when the whole world went dry—none of them came close since Shadow had joined me. Shadow hadn’t given them a chance to. He’d said God sent him to save my soul. I found that rather amusing, seeing how we were already in a place crisper than hell and there wasn’t much of a difference to be made. But I hadn’t minded the company.

“I shot you,” said Wood.

“I reckon you did,” I said.

“It’s not personal. I just need you to have a reason to stick around. I’ll make sure your wound is tended to, as long as you do me a favor. You and your barefoot, that is.”

“What sort of favor?”

“We can talk about that tomorrow. You fellows are tired. I’ll bring the doctor tomorrow, too.” He glanced at Shadow. “Unless your man can heal your leg, of course, and save me from having to bother.”

“I done told you, he’s not that sort of barefoot,” I said.

Wood’s gaze hardened. “Well, that might change by tomorrow. Things tend to look different when you’ve tried to sleep through a night with a bullet in your leg.”

Wood got us a room above the saloon and then took his leave. The crammed little room only had one bunk, and Shadow immediately tossed his roll on the floor. He always did that—claiming his place beneath me. Then he started to dig in his pack. He had lots of weird things in there. Blackened bones, pig bristles, things like that. Didn’t exactly look like God’s instruments to me.

“You been shot bad,” he said. “I’ll heal you.”

“No, Shadow. That’s what he wants. It’s a test.”

“Test for what?”

“I don’t know, but I don’t reckon we should play into his hand.” I examined the aching welcome-gift in my leg. The bullet hadn’t hit any important place, really, but it still hurt like hell. “If I stop the bleeding for now I can last until morning, and when the doctor has gotten the bullet out, we’ll see if we can’t get out of this.”

Shadow found some strips of cotton fabric in his pack and handed them to me. “Back to the desert?” he asked.

He sounded neutral, Shadow, when he said that. He rubbed the scar on his left arm. He hadn’t told me where he got it, but I knew from the crookedness of the wound it was from a unicorn’s horn. The scar was pale, like a sliver of the moon on his dark skin. That’s how long he’d been in the desert until I came along—long enough to collect scars and have them fade over. So yeah, he wasn’t neutral about going back to the desert. Not one bit.

As I wrapped my leg, I sighed and glanced out the dusty window. “Feels like a toss-up to me, Shadow. At least out there, we know what’s waiting. This fellow here—he feels just as evil as the dry beasts. Only we can’t see his claws.”

When I woke, I found the bullet between my wound and the makeshift bandage. The flesh was already closing where my body had spit it out. I pulled off the bandage and cursed a colorful tirade at Shadow, although I knew it wasn’t his fault. People with the magic can’t help it sometimes. Things just happen around them, though they might not want it to.

“Well, there goes your cover as an ordinary fellow,” I warned Shadow. “That man tested you, and I’m afraid you just passed.”

Shadow sure looked miserable. You’d think from his troubled expression that he’d stabbed me in my sleep rather than healed me.

Wood stood at the foot of the stairs as we walked down into the saloon. He asked how we had slept, if we’d eaten anything, and then invited us to stroll down the main street with him. All the while he kept his revolver aimed at my kneecap. Wasn’t that mighty civilized.

My wound was healing up by the minute, but it was still a nuisance to walk on that leg. I struggled to hobble along with Wood. Through the pain I noticed the town buildings shrinking away from us as we passed by, as though they were scared of the man in our company. There was no wind, neither. Like it didn’t dare to blow.

“Well, Utah Sullivan, I gotta confess something,” Wood said. “I lied to you yesterday.”

“About the doctor, I guess?” I said.

“We got a doctor. And woulda let him tend to you, too, only it looks like it’s not needed.” He glanced at my leg. “No, I lied about something else. Or twisted the truth, rather.”

We’d arrived at the central square of the town. In the middle sat a well, and a few folks were gathered around it. They scattered as we approached, like ants escaping a boot heel.

Wood walked up to the well and started to crank the lever. “See, we do have two wells,” he said, grabbing the pail. “Only they’re empty.”

He poured the contents out on the street. All that came out was a trickle of sand.

“Well,” I said. “This is the desert. Not much water around since the dry devil came.”

“The dry devil.” Wood tossed the pail on the ground. “Believe in that, do you?”

“I’ve seen his servants. He gets into everything. Including the earth. Everything bows to him eventually.”

“Not everything.”

Wood looked past me, over my shoulder. I turned around. Shadow stood there, scowling, meeting Wood’s gaze.

“Your barefoot isn’t bowing,” Wood continued. “He’s different. Different than the salamanders that turned to dragons, and the horses that grew fangs. Different than you and I, too.” Wood shifted his gaze to me. “He fixed your leg up in his sleep. By accident. Can you imagine what he’d do if he tried?”

“You know it don’t work like that,” I said, tired of the charade. “Barefoot magic don’t make things happen. It just opens possibilities.”

“Well, I need him to open me a possibility.” Wood spat, ejecting dirty tobacco onto the dusty ground. “I need him to find me a Fishgirl.”

“Say what?”

“A Fishgirl. It’s a creature of magic. Like the dry beasts that brings the desert. Only she doesn’t bring sand. She brings water.”

I took my hat off and scratched my greasy scalp. I was confused. And it wasn’t just from blood loss. “I never heard of such a thing.”

“I’m sure you hadn’t heard of horses with a taste for meat, neither, until you got into the desert.” Wood pointed at Shadow with his thumb. “I had me a fellow like yours once. He died last year. He’d always sleepwalk into the desert, and return with scratches and wounds, not remembering how he got them. But once he remembered something. A canyon with clear blue water, and a girl swimming in it with a tail like a fish. He said water just flowed from her. And he brought back this.”

Wood opened his clenched fist. In it lay something sparkly.

“I haven’t seen many fish in my days,” I said, leaning closer. “But that’s a fish-scale, I reckon.”

Wood snatched his fist closed. “My barefoot died before he could find that canyon again. So your man will have to find the Fishgirl. I need her to water my town back to life and keep my people alive.”

My leg ached, and I was tired, but I still mustered enough strength to cross my arms and glare at Wood. “You do know it’s a mighty big desert out there. Lots of crags and canyons. I can’t guarantee—”

“Oh, don’t you worry. He’ll find her.” Wood met my glare with a calm look. “Or I’ll shoot you in the other leg.”

Wood found a horse for Shadow. It was a scrawny thing, barely in better shape than our own horse that still lay drawing flies in the desert.

“She might last you a day or two,” Wood said as we walked to the edge of town, Shadow reluctantly following us. “Better than going on foot the whole way.”

“Thought you didn’t know where this canyon is,” I said.

“I don’t. But my man was in the desert for nine days. I don’t imagine it’s around the corner.” Wood stopped. He looked Shadow in the eyes. “The dry is getting closer. Sweeping in from the edges, crawling up from the earth. It’s been waiting and it’s growing impatient. This town doesn’t have nine days. And that means, your fella here doesn’t have nine days neither. I’ll hang him from the saloon rafters if you don’t get back with that Fishgirl in a week.”

He patted his holster for effect and shoved the reins into Shadow’s hand. Shadow didn’t say anything. But he got up on the horse.

“What way?” he asked Wood.

Wood shrugged. “Whatever way your magic says, Barefoot.”

Shadow looked at me with exasperation. He didn’t want to go—didn’t believe he could find whatever he was being sent for, I gathered. But I didn’t know what to tell him.

“You’ll be alright, Shadow.” I gave him a pleading, go-on-now sort of look, because dammit, I didn’t feel like getting bit by another bullet.

“I’ll go, Utah Sullivan,” Shadow said. “But it’s not for this town that I go. It’s for you.”

Then he kicked the horse into some sort of lilting trot, taking off into the desert.

When Shadow was out of earshot, I turned to Wood. “I’ve not known that man for long. He got no loyalty to me. What makes you think he cares to come back? He might just go on his merry way now that he ain’t got your gun pointed at his back.”

“Didn’t you hear him just now? He’ll be back. As you put it, he’s your damn savage.”

Wood tipped his hat and sauntered back into town. I turned back to the desert. Shadow was a speck of bronze, leaving a dust cloud in his wake. On one hand, I wished he would hurry and return as soon as possible. On the other, I wish he’d just keep riding into that blazing sun.

I couldn’t tell how may people lived in Wood’s town. I didn’t see much folk on the streets. A few faces flashed by in the windows, and they looked mostly the same. They had a flat look to them, skin even with the color of the sand. It was like the dry had crept beneath their doors and slipped into their beds at night. Slipped into the very people themselves and made a home right beneath their skin.

With nothing to do but wait, I took a seat at the bar in the saloon. The barkeep filled a glass with whiskey.

“Hold up now,” I said. “I got no money to pay for this.”

The barkeep stared at me. It was the same empty stare I’d seen from the townspeople behind their dusty windowpanes. But he didn’t answer. Just kept polishing his glasses.

“This is Woodstown, and Wood’s fellas don’t pay here.” It was the old saloon girl, standing on the stairs.

“I don’t know what you’ve heard, but I ain’t nobody’s fella.”

“Who are you kidding. He’s got you by your man parts now.”

She looked much like the rest of the folk I’d seen. She had some curve to her, and her hair had probably been blonde once. Now it was an ashy color. Grains of sand sat in the wrinkles of her skirt and laces of her corset. The dry sure was trying to get into her, too, but her eyes weren’t all flat so maybe she was fighting it off a little.

“You and your friend shoulda never come here,” she said as she sat down next to me.

“I reckon there aren’t that many towns left, ma’am. We thought you might have water.”

“Our well has given nothing but mud for weeks. We’re left to the whiskey now. At least it makes for a pleasant death. Might not burn so much when the dry comes and the devil arrives with it to collect our souls.”

She was eyeing my glass. I pushed it toward her. She drank it in one gulp.

“Wood seems to think my man can bring water,” I said. “Some magical creature from a canyon someplace.”

“The Fishgirl. He tried to get Dogbait to find it for months. That old barefoot tried, but he couldn’t do it, and the desert killed him for his trouble.” She locked my gaze. Seemed her drunkenness was gone. “Nothing can stand against the dry once it decided it wants you. It eats everything. People, animals, towns. Everything has turned to dust by now. Or turned to evil.”

“This town is still standing, ma’am,” I said. “You all are still here. Wood is.”

“Like I said. Or turned to evil. Dust settles on everyone’s souls sooner or later. I think it started to settle on you, too, when you sent your friend out in the desert just now.”

She slid off the stool, more gracefully than I would have expected. For a moment I imagined her in her glory days, in a full saloon. Perhaps singing, definitely dancing. Definitely enjoying all the eyes on her, too.

“What’s your name?” I asked.

She shook her head. “‘Ma’am’ will do just fine. But you shouldn’t talk to me again. You keep your hatred for this place. Hate it, so you can leave it.”

I didn’t see her again for a while after that. Or perhaps I did, and she just blended in too well with the rest of the townsfolk, going about their bland lives.

With no water in town, I drank whiskey for the next several days. It should’ve killed me, drinking so recklessly. But it seemed rules were different in Woodstown. It left me in a state of constant fuzz where the world had round edges and moved slowly. I slept some of the time, having dreams of vampiric mustangs with their hide splotched with blood. In those dreams, the desert had turned black. The sky, the sand, my soul, too. Everything.

My wound ached as if it missed Shadow.

After four days, Shadow returned. With magic, if I ever saw any.

She sat strapped on Shadow’s back, her tail flapping in the dry heat. She oozed water from her eyes, the corners of her mouth. It beaded from her pores, too, and ran down her belly and made her green scales glisten. The water was crystal clear, and where a drop landed on the ground, a flower grew. A flower. My jaw dropped at that.

Shadow looked tired. I don’t know what had happened to the horse he’d left on, but from the way his legs trembled, I guessed he’d spent at least a full day carrying the Fishgirl back to town. He allowed two of Wood’s men to unstrap the girl from his back. Then he walked into the saloon, not turning around. I went after him.

“You found her,” I said.

“Yes.”

Shadow found a glass of whiskey that seemed to be waiting for him on the counter. He downed it. That was a bit of a shock—I had never seen Shadow drink before. I noticed he’d hung bone tokens from his belt and painted himself with protective symbols. Twice as many as he’d put on himself when he was in the desert with me. Seemed it hadn’t helped much. A claw of some kind had slashed his left cheek open, and his arms were scratched up real bad.

“Something chased you?” I said.

“Not me. Her.”

“What was it that came after you?”

“Everything.”

He looked at me. Who knew how old he really was, but now he looked much older than when he’d left. Older, and hurting. And that pain, it didn’t come from tired legs or scratched arms. It came from deep inside of him.

“I rest tonight,” he declared. “But tomorrow, we go.”

“Don’t you wanna wait and see if that girl’s gonna bring water like Wood says? Then we might be able to stay for a while.”

“No. We leave, while we still can.”

I gathered that Shadow hadn’t slept for all four days he was in the desert, and that perhaps he would come to his senses once he’d gotten some sleep. Woodstown wasn’t a very nice place to be, but I figured it would be slightly nicer if there was water in the well.

Shadow finished his drink and went up to our little room. And me, well, I couldn’t help it. I went to see the Fishgirl.

Wood had taken her to the well. Two of his men were rigging a chain with a harness so that they could lower her down into the shaft. Wood himself stood to the side, staring at the creature Shadow had brought.

She was the opposite of all the creatures in the desert. The dry devil’s creations were all made from claws and bone, with hard shells and rough angles. They had red eyes and razor-lined maws spilling bloody froth. But this creature was soft and limber, small and delicate. Scales covered her tail and arms, leaving her belly and breasts bare. Her hair was stringy and her mouth nothing but a slit, but her face was beautiful anyway—pale and smooth like the surface of a pearl.

She still spilled water. Flowers sprouted up from the sand, all around, in all sorts of colors. It was beautiful, but Wood seemed mostly annoyed.

“Hurry with the harness,” he told his men. “I don’t like the way she’s looking at me.”

She had eyes—big milky ones, and she sure looked around. I didn’t know how much of a mind she had, but I guessed she understood what was happening. Water still streamed from every fold in her pale skin. It wouldn’t stop. I don’t know how—perhaps it was from the way her eyes seemed to smile at everything—but I realized that she was doing it willingly. She wanted to help.

“Why you gotta put her down in that hole?” I asked Wood. “Why don’t you let her see the sun at least.”

Wood glared at me. “I want her to help the town,” he said. “Not drown it. She’s a damn fountain. Gotta contain her somehow, or who knows what’ll happen. This place might turn into a jungle.”

The Fishgirl didn’t protest when she was lowered into the hole, the pulleys squealing. She looked upwards, her eyes large and unblinking. I felt sorry for her, having to go down that pit.

Townsfolk gathered in the square, and they all peered into the well, one after the other. I watched the commotion a good hour, seeing their eyes widen at what Shadow had brought them. Many ran to their homes, fetching large pails to carry water with. I expected to see hope in their eyes, and perhaps some wonder at this miracle creature, but all I saw was desperation. That bothered me. On her behalf, it bothered me.

When I returned to the saloon, Shadow was sitting at the counter again. Didn’t look like he’d even tried to sleep, with the desert still dusting his clothes. Two glasses filled with whiskey were in front of him. A cluster of empty ones sat next to them.

I took a seat and slid one of the shots to me. Didn’t really need another drink, but he needed it less. “That creature is a spring,” I said. “From the gods, I reckon.”

“From God,” he corrected me.

“From God, then. My point is, she can save this town. Maybe the whole damn world.”

“Didn’t bring her to save the whole damn world.”

His voice was clipped, and it frustrated me. “There are innocent people here, Shadow. They need our help. But I think they don’t know how to handle that Fishgirl right. I think she might need our help, too, or things could go bad.”

“Can’t help both town and Fishgirl.” He looked at me again, pleading and piercing at once. “Perhaps neither. Shadow just knows how to help you. That’s why God sent you to me in the desert.”

“God sent me to you so that you could drag me out into the desert to die, when we’ve got water right here? God must not realize that a desert doesn’t do much good to a man.”

Shadow didn’t pay me no mind, even though I was baiting him—and his God—pretty hard. He put his glass down. “Remember, Utah. At dawn, we go.”

But that night something took hold of Shadow. Perhaps it was the dry finally getting to him, finding its way past his barefoot magic.

It made him sick. For hours, he retched and coughed in the little room. Fever raged his body, flaring his tattoos bright red. He cried. By the time dawn arrived, I knew there was no way in hell we could leave as I’d planned.

I was no barefoot, and I had no special powers to fight what wrecked through Shadow. The next morning I intended to wait out Shadow’s illness at the bar, maybe strike up a conversation with Ma’am to feel less of a helpless fool. But I couldn’t stand the sound of Shadow upstairs. He wailed through his fever, cried like a woman with a broken heart. It pierced my eardrums like rusted iron nails. I took a seat outside on the porch instead where I couldn’t hear him. And I wanted to see the flowers.

The well had a nice patch of grass around it now. Tall, moist grass, the sort my old horse loved to graze on when he was still alive. Pretty flowers were growing, too. Roses and lilies and tulips heaping over each other.

When the splendor of the flowers lessened to daisies, and dandelions, and then droopy weeds, I grew suspicious. There were still noises down in the well, and droplets still splashed over the edge, but they came less and less. As the afternoon passed, the grass around the well turned yellow and brittle-like. The townsfolk frowned as they pulled up half-empty buckets. Eventually, they didn’t get anything but mud. Despite the white-hot morning, I grew cold at the sight.

By the time that chilled curiosity got the best of me, and I went to peer down the well, I knew I wasn’t gonna see anything good. The sunlight shone down into the pit. At the bottom of the well, on her back, lay the Fishgirl. She was still writhing, but there was no water springing from her anymore. Mud seeped from beneath her scales. Mud and grit. Even through the layer of dirt that covered her face, I could tell that she was frightened and confused, as if she didn’t understand what was happening.

And it had only been one afternoon.

With my heart twisting uncomfortably at the sight, I decided that I’d wait in the saloon, after all. Ma’am was there, perched on a bar stool. She had a glass in front of her, but it wasn’t whiskey this time. It was water, and she was using it to clean the desert off her velvet shoes. Her face looked cleaner, and her dress wasn’t so dusty anymore. The sequins around her neckline even sparkled. I gathered she’d taken a bath, gotten her clothes washed. Strangely though, it didn’t make her look any better. Just made me see her wrinkles clearer, and showed how old she really was.

“Your friend ain’t getting better, Utah,” she said.

“He’s strong, Ma’am. He’ll pull through.”

“No, honey, he won’t.” Her words came out with pity, but they had a sharpness to them. “The dry got into him, don’t you see? Did it to Dogbait, too. I sat at his bed when he died. That old man sounded just like your friend. He don’t have long, believe me.”

“He’s a barefoot,” I snapped. “He can handle himself.”

“Being a barefoot ain’t gonna do him any good,” Ma’am said. “His soul is damned now. You don’t go sacrifice a creature like the Fishgirl to someone like Wood without paying the price. Your friend shoulda known better. God knows why he went and did something so foolish.”

“He did it to save this town. To save Wood, and the people here, and you.”

She shook her head. “Do you see what this town is doing to that girl? Do we look like we deserve saving? I told you days ago that you shoulda left, while you still could. It was always too late for Woodstown. Now it looks like it’s too late for you and your friend, too.”

Then Ma’am turned back to her shoes and didn’t say anything more to me. Above me, Shadow still wailed in pain.

Ma’am was right—Shadow should’ve known better. He shouldn’t have to listened to Wood, or to me, or to God, even. What purpose had he served, taking a magical being and giving it to a town that didn’t know how to handle her? Who was he trying to save?

The more I thought about it, the angrier I got. Yeah, it was true, perhaps I could have made a decent home for myself in Woodstown. There was a bit of water, and other people, and right here there was even a woman I thought I might be able to grow fond of. But that wailing from above cut right through that idea. Because what was happening out in that square just wasn’t right.

I stood on the stairs for a while, just to hear Shadow’s pain. Reckoned it would be easier to do what had to be done with his cries ringing in my ears.

Wood was more than happy to find me a horse when I asked him. He even supplied two saddle bags full of grub and several water skins. My revolver was in one of the bags, cleaned and loaded. He sure wanted rid of me.

“Guess it’s the least I can do for you who saved us,” he said as he handed me the reins.

“Don’t think I saved you much at all,” I said. “Looks to me like your well’s drying out.”

“The town will hold on.”

“But will she?” I shaded my eyes from the sunlight and peered at Wood, but his leathery face gave no emotion.

“If she dies, she dies,” he said. “We got lots of water out of her. Bought us at least another few weeks. More time that we had before, in any case.”

Don’t know if I would have been quicker at the draw than Wood, but in that moment I would have liked to have my gun at my side rather than packed up in my saddle-bag. “You reckon it was worth it? That pretty creature dying for you to have a few weeks?”

Wood didn’t seem to be bothered by my tone. He just gestured toward the east. “A few months before you got here, we had a fellow come from the mountains. Said there was a town still standing there. Even had a patch of grass and a spring near it. Don’t know how much truth there was to it, but I reckon that’s a good place for you to go.”

“Sounds as fair a plan as any,” I said, even though I doubted very much there was a town with a patch of grass and a spring left anyplace in this sorry mess that remained of the world.

“Sorry about your barefoot. I hear he might not make it through the night, from the looks of him.”

I stared at my scuffed boots. “I sure had hoped for a different fate for Shadow. And for me. For all of us, really.”

“Well, I’ll make sure Ma’am takes care of him, as long as he lasts. And you be sure to wait until dusk to leave. No need to let the sun get to you sooner than necessary.”

I tipped my hat to Wood. He tipped his back. It was, again, mighty civilized.

I took the horse back to the saloon. I didn’t have much in the way of belongings to load up, so all I had to do was wait. This time, though, I waited in the little room with Shadow. I forced myself to watch him as he slurred in delirium, sweat running down the sides of his face, grit and sand coming out his nose and corners of his ears and his mouth as he coughed. I forced myself to watch because I had made that happen to him. I had cracked him.

“Shadow,” I said, taking his hand. It was hot as coal. “Can you hear me?”

He just moaned. I imagined it to be an affirmative. Gave me a reason to keep talking, anyway.

“I need to tell you I’m sorry,” I said. “Sorry you found me in the desert, sorry I took you here. And sorry I made you get that Fishgirl. I ruined a lot of things, trying to help what couldn’t be helped. What shouldn’t be helped. But it’s time to make things right.”

Shadow’s eyes were crusted shut with sand, and dust lay in the fine lines of his forehead. I don’t know if he heard anything I’d said.

Outside, dusk had just started to reach across the sky, but I couldn’t wait any longer. It was time to go.

Tying Shadow onto the horse was easier than I thought. The animal was docile from the heat and didn’t much protest as I tied him onto its back, his limp head hanging off the side of the horse’s neck.  

When I went to get the Fishgirl out of the well, on the other hand, things changed. The damn town changed.

At the well, the wince whined like an injured animal when I began to turn it, and the little creature suddenly weighed as much as a horse—like the well was holding on to her, wanting to keep her down in its black belly. I finally hauled her over the edge, her limbs slick and gritty with mud, and hurried to put her on the wagon. She didn’t make a sound; she just blinked at me with her milky eyes. Maybe she was too tired and dried out to make a fuss. I sweated something mighty when I tried to strap her in, the rope slipping and burning my palms like it wasn’t rope at all I was holding but a blazing hot snake.

I hurried out of the square, the wagon squealing. There were no movement on the street. Most townsfolk were huddling in their houses, their lanterns flickering behind the window panes. I led the horse through town without being noticed by a single soul. The houses and buildings sure noticed though, and they didn’t like it one bit. They loomed, and their shadows stalked us, twisted and dark and alive. There came groaning sounds from the buildings—wood cracking, floor boards splintering. But I didn’t turn around. I just tugged the reins harder.

I don’t know if it was the proximity to the Fishgirl, but when we’d gotten to the edge of town, Shadow came to. He turned his head toward me and whispered my name. I tried to catch his flickering gaze, and it steadied on me. He looked a little like a rabid dog and a tired angel all at once.

“We’re going now?” he croaked.

“Yeah, Shadow, it’s time.” I patted his shoulder. His fever was cooling, just a little. Or so I told myself. “You think you remember the way to the canyon where you found the girl?”

“Didn’t matter the first time that I didn’t know. Probably don’t matter now either.”

“Well I need you to take her back to that place. Take her back, and keep her safe there.”

“You won’t come.” It wasn’t a question. He knew.

“I gotta stay, Shadow. I let you down the moment I asked you to go get that creature. I betrayed her, and you, and all things good. I can’t undo that. I gotta pay the price, just like Woodstown.” Ma’am’s words became my own. “Sometimes it’s best to let burn what needs to burn.”

Through the caked dust on his face, and the tendrils of dried mud too, Shadow smiled. It was a sad smile. “You’re a good man. You won’t burn, Utah Sullivan.”

I couldn’t help but laugh. “Look around, my friend,” I said. “The dry is about to pounce on this place. Things are about to get pretty hot around here.”

“You might burn here, in the desert. But in the place where it counts, you won’t. Told you God sent you to me for a reason.” He pointed his finger to my chest. “To give you a chance to cleanse that dust off your soul before the end comes. And now I think you have.”

Shadow whispered something to the animal, words twisted and unfamiliar that I couldn’t understand. But the horse understood, and it took off at a trot, faster than I would have imagined it could, stirring up a cloud of dirt like it had the dry devil himself on its tail.

But the dry devil wasn’t on their tail. It was right there, on the edge of town, with me. The further away the horse got, the tighter the air became. It crackled in my ears.

I watched Shadow and the Fishgirl disappear into the waiting darkness, and to whatever fate awaited them beyond. Then I turned toward Woodstown and went to face my own.

I reckoned the dry was mad with me for not succumbing completely, body and soul and heart, but Shadow was right—I felt a certain peace inside, knowing I had done at least something right when I sent the two of them off.

Maybe we’d both done good, after all.


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Sylvia Anna Hivén lives and writes in Atlanta, Georgia. Her fiction has previously appeared in Daily Science Fiction, EscapePod, Stupefying Stories, and more. Find her on Twitter @brynnfarusiel.

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3 Comments on “What Needs to Burn”

3 Responses to “What Needs to Burn”

  1. betsy tomson says:

    Excellent story. Only, where did the wagon at the end come from? Didn’t Wood just give the narrator a horse? A minor quibble about a story that I otherwise enjoyed.

  2. Hot damn, that was great!

  3. DJ says:

    Reminded me a bit of Firefly for some reason. Good story

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