PROLOGUE

Towler Farm - April 23rd 1934


Albert Towler plopped down the heavy buckets. Precious water sloshed over the sides. The brown, weedy ground greedily drank the spilt water.

“Drat,” he cursed. “Haste makes waste, ya lug.”

He only had a few paces yet to carry them. Up the steps, then onto the porch. “Paps maight have built the house a lil’ closer to the creek,” he complained aloud. This heat was draining, it was.

After only a moment, the earth at Albert’s feet didn’t so much as show a dark stain from the water. It swiftly returned to the worrying, milky-brown that had of late parched the surrounding countryside—and the farm along with it. If the winter had been this droughty, God only knew how the spring—already dry and close at hand—would treat the land.

Albert rubbed at his lower back, then damped the bitter trickles of sweat from his brow and upper lip with a once red, checkered sleeve. He peered up at the house, and smiled. Edna’s blue, flower-pattern feedsack dress came into view through the lacy curtains. A golden twirl of hair, an escapee from her bonnet, flashed white where the setting sun sliced past the handbreadth space between the frilly drapes. His satisfied eyes admired his wife as she busied herself in the kitchen with all those over ripe apricots the warm weather had forced upon them.     Bless her heart.

After hiking up an errant overall strap, Albert hefted the yoke over his shoulder once more, careful not to spill this time. He blinked, and blinked again. Odd. It looked like steam was rising from the surface of the water in the buckets. It was hot today, but not so hot as all that.

The screech of a high-circling hawk pierced the air, followed by a curt slam of the gate from what Albert’s kin called ‘the road.’ At the very same moment, the chicken coop exploded with angry cackling.

Startled, Albert staggered around, turning to see who or what had caused the racket. Dang it if more water didn’t splash from the buckets when he did, wetting down Albert’s pant leg. He drew in a swift gulp of air and almost dropped the yoke. It smarted. Hot. Very hot.

At the gate, a stocky, dark man stood. Without acknowledging Albert, the stranger slowly hobbled up the the stone-lined lane, his head hung low, lips mouthing unintelligible words. Albert now saw the man wasn’t a swarthy fellow, as he originally thought. The man was filthy dirty, soot-stained from his miner’s boots, up his grimy coveralls to his tattered and grubby tweed flat cap. The eyes beneath furrowed, blackened brows held a distant, feral cast. They burned with what seemed to Albert a fit of pique.

As the man approached, Albert grew shaky inside, just watching the fellow as he spat mumbled curses and seemed to be arguing with some phantom adversary—a foe he refused to look at directly. Albert was reminded of young nephew Peter when he would lock horns with his father; shame-ridden, hunch-shouldered in tense defiance, the kid would blatantly stare anywhere else, avoiding the stern look of his Da—all the while keeping up argument. This strange man’s mien was similar, but in a severe, frightening way.

His arms quavered beside him. Bare, blackened fingers poked through flaps of burnt leather gloves, looking for all the world like stubby claws. His fingers twitched and quavered, clutching and releasing, then clutching again. Combined with the curl of his shoulders, the posture gave him the bearing of a mad, predatory beast.

Albert quickly set the buckets on the porch. Were they steaming? No. Impossible. The creek flowed cool. But his leg still smarted where the water had spilt.

The hen house was still a riot of panic. Had some critter got in there with them? Albert didn’t didn’t hear the telltale snarling growl or hiss of a coon. The pen door was shut, so he decided to look into it after he’d dealt with this fearsome stranger.

When he turned back to face the man, Albert balked. Now no more than ten paces away, the fellow’s demeanor had completely transformed. He was that same wild-eyed man, to be sure, who had coarsely pushed open the gate and lurched forward down the path. But now, the fellow had an aspect of sadness upon him, no longer burning with ague. He twisted his cap between filthy fingers. His eyebrows bunched, and he forced his glum mug into what Albert took for a grim, yellow-toothed smile.

Albert’s gut danced a dark jig. It was not a mouth one used for a smile.

“How do, stranger?” Albert asked, hoping the man didn’t notice the nervous edge. “You are a long ways from nowhere. Are ya lost?”

The stranger’s smile faltered, and he shook his head—a pitiful gesture.

This time, loud enough that Edna should have heard him, Albert called, “Is there something I can help you with, friend?”

The man’s eyes shifted around, unsure and lacking in purpose. Then they fixed on Pap’s truck—wheelless and bottom-rusted—propped up on logs at the side of the house. An arm slowly raised, and pointed at it.

Albert chuckled shakily. “That old Ford hadn’t run now for years. Ol’ Pap run it into the ground trying to pull that stump yonder. Axle-broke.”

The stranger grunted, displeased.

Again with the chickens.

Nervously, Albert offered, “Say, it’s mighty hot today.” He pointed at the buckets on the porch. “Help yourself to some of this here water, if you wish…” then added, “before you go on your way!”

Dang but there must be a varmint in the hen-coop, for all the racket that was coming out of there. “Give me a moment, mister. I gotta go attend the coop. Damn raccoons.”

“No!” shouted the stranger. He looked like he immediately regretted the yelling, for his shoulders slumped, and his face paled with shame.

Albert looked to the house. No sign of Edna. Maybe she’d heard him, and backed out of sight. Albert forced a smile, nodded to the man, and grabbed the broom off the porch.

“I’ll just be a moment, fella. Help yourself to the water here.”

Not three steps toward the coop, Albert halted. Curiously, the straw on the broom was smoking, like it’d been thrust into a candle flame. His jaw dropped as the smoke turned black, then white as the straw caught fire. He swatted the ground to put it out, but the movement only made the flames worse. Flustered, he ran back to the porch and doused the broom into one of the buckets.

The fire was doused, but dang it if the broom wasn’t ruined. Eerily, the dissipating smoke reeked of… rotten eggs. Now, for for the life of him, it looked to Albert like the water in the buckets was boiling. He turned to the stranger, realizing he was holding the smoking broom handle across to his chest, defensively.

The man hadn’t moved. He merely stood there, his deeply circled eyes downcast, and now red-rimmed.

“‘M’sorry,” he mumbled.

“I think you best be on your way, so I can attend my coop, sir.” His voice came out hard. Good.

The stranger shrank and faltered backward a step.

Albert exhaled. It looked like the fellow was going to turn and walk on… but he didn’t. Instead his face turned skyward, like he was taking in the sun, were the sun high in the sky, which it weren’t. Albert followed the gaze. A hawk had been circling above. The bird glowed gold in the late afternoon sun. The thing broke its pattern, and dove—having spotted prey, no doubt. But instead of plummeting to the dread of field mouse or garter snake, the raptor descended… right for the stranger.

The man let out a squawk and dove to the ground. Albert clung tightly to his broomstick. The falcon swooped past, bellowing a hoarse, screeching kee-eeeee-arr. They watched, silent as the dead, as the falcon winged over the house, and vanished behind the windbreak stand of trees beyond. Even the coop was now quiet, like the chickens had gotten a scare as well.

The stranger pushed himself off the ground, eyes wide. Dust clouded around him. He didn’t bother to pat himself.

Albert spied it at the same time as the stranger had.

Flitting, hovering in the air, twirling like a whirligig, a lone feather floated down, directly between the two men. It had come from the falcon.

They both watched it light gently on the ground.

Then they both looked up. For the first time the stranger’s gaze met with Albert’s own. The farmer stiffened. The stranger’s eyes were now narrow, scornful. They bore into Albert, deep through him, penetrating to some private place. With that stare, all sensibility dropped away. Albert opened his mouth to speak, but managed only a feeble gape. The broom handle slipped from his grasp and clattered on the bricks of the walk. For the life of him, Albert was paralyzed. Frozen still with terror.

Never breaking the gaze, the strange man took three menacing steps forward, then knelt and plucked up the feather. Those eyes, terrible and piercing, never wavering, remained locked with Albert’s.

The man rose, and stepped directly before Albert. He was hot. Albert could feel the intensity of it on his face. The air between them wavered lightly, like a mirage. It was as if the man were an angry furnace.

His mouth twisted into a warped smile, and he held up the feather not three inches from Albert’s nose. The man’s focus shifted to the feather pinned between his blackened, filth-stained, and charred fingertips.

The twisted skin, so close now it smelled like seared meat, declared the man’d been burnt, along with his gloves. The wound looked raw, but the feather twirled easily as the stranger rubbed it between those terrible fingers. He turned it this way, then that, like a circus hypnotist might. 

Then the spinning stopped.

Albert didn’t move a muscle. He couldn’t. All that existed in that moment was the feather. It was beautiful, brown with golden streaks; the most perfect plume imaginable.

Flames, of their own accord, licked up the feather, just as if it had been touched to a lamp wick. It burnt quickly. Sadly. And with its destruction, Albert felt an unimaginable emptiness.

The stranger smiled again; that face what was never meant for smiles. His eyes blazed, all former sign of remorse and sadness burnt away. There was that smell again. Sulfur.

Albert blinked. A yell welled inside him, trapped. No words came out, just a terrible panicky squeak. His voice. He must find his voice. He must warn his dear Edna.

At that moment, the door behind him opened with a familiar creek.

Should’ve oiled it, Albert thought.

“Albie dear, I forgot to put sugar on Sissy’s grocery list.”

Edna.

No.

“What do you think the odds are that they checked the sugar tin? If they forget sugar, this whole crop of apricots’ll be ruined… Oh, who is your friend there, Albie?”

The stranger’s attention snapped to the doorway, to Edna. The man’s tongue protruded between thick lips. A line of drool trailed the corner of his grinning mouth.

“Go back into the house, Edna. Do it, wife.” His voice. He’d found it.

Edna, bless her heart, did as she was told. She’d let out a startled squeak, but the sound of the door creaking then setting in came as a relief.

Albert backed to the porch, and nearly stumbled over the stair. Three steps up. On the porch. But something caught at his ankle. The yoke. He landed hard on his bottom. He’d upset one of the buckets, too. His bottom was thoroughly soaked in.

The stranger dropped what was left of the charred feather. A terrible, dirty leer ignited his febrile face. He stared past Albert, as if he could see right through the door. Albert scrambled back, feet sliding on the steaming wet planks of the porch. His back found the door, and with an effort, he clambered to his feet.

“Get ye gone from here, you… devil, or whatever you are!” His words sounded feeble.

Despite the admonition, the stranger took a slow step forward. Albert’s stomach churned. He fumbled for the door knob, not taking his eyes off the stranger. Perhaps putting the door between him and this lunatic would be protection from what was to come. To Albert’s shock, the door opened.

It was Edna, and she held out the shotgun. Bless her heart.

“Git back inside,” he ordered as he grabbed the firearm, “and push the chair under the door.”

She did.

He thumbed the lever and broke the barrel.

She’d loaded it.

Bless her heart.

Albert seated the barrel back into lock. He shouldered it, aiming it at the stranger.

“I’ll give you but this one warning,” he said, with the confidence a firearm grants a man.

The stranger took another, deliberate step. He was muttering again, this time it was not to a phantom, but to Albert’s wife.

“Mmm, Edna,” he said, voice low and lusty. Most of what followed was gibberish, but Albert made a few words, “…sweet, ripe, woman…yes…” and “…perhaps she will serve…” between the mumbling groans.

With a fantastic boom, and a plume of smoke, Albert fired the shotgun.

The stranger sneered, and took another step closer.

“I have one more shell in here, fellow. And I’ll not waste it on the air this time. You’ve been warned! I am serious, I will kill you. If you take just one more step…”

The stranger took one more step.

There came another great clap of exploding gunpowder.

The stranger’s mouth cocked to one side. A wry smile.

Albert Towler screamed.

Most of his right hand was blown to bits. He couldn’t see out of his right eye, either. The shotgun’s action was shredded. A distinct odor permeated the stifling air. Blood. Gunpowder and… sulfur. Brimstone.

His feet went out from under him. Sliding, he landed on his bottom once more, and a different sort of paralysis overcame him. The type, he imagined, that one experiences when they have suffered such a trauma.

Surprisingly, there was little pain. His cheek was warm and wet and stung a mite. Oh yes, and he felt something warm on his leg. He looked. It was his life’s blood, pumping out the wrist under his ruined hand, spurting crimson. He’d have quite a mess to clean up.

The stranger stepped over him and opened the door. “Edna… mmm Edna, he murmured. Edna shrieked.

She hadn’t put up the chair.

Bless her heart.

*  *  *

The moon was getting fatter.

The stranger steps over the corpse of Albert Towler. He kneels, eyes downcast and full of tears.

“M’sorry,” he mutters. “You shouldn’t have got in our way.” His sad words sound nearly lucid.

He treads down the steps, off the porch. But he stops. There was a bucket, an offer of a quenched thirst. The man lifts it to his mouth and pours. Water, pink with blood, cascades all over his face, and down his front. Some even goes down his gullet. He lets the bucket drop with a clatter and turns his attention to the derelict Ford truck. He shrugs, then turns his gaze to the plump moon, climbing over the high stand of trees to the east. He sighs.

“Have to walk, I reckon.”

As he trudges down the path, toward the gate. He fumbles in his pocket, and draws forth a scrap of blue, flower-patterned sackcloth, the kind you buy flour in.    The kind many Depression-humbled homesteader wives fashion into nice dresses.

He uses it to wipe the wetness still clinging to his face and chin, then holds the shred of fabric out before him, turning it this way and that. The moonlight plays on its patterns. Edna’s blood glistens darkly.

The man’s chest heaves, then heaves again. Tears wet his face. He doesn’t bother to wipe them away.

He looks at the cloth once more, holds it up to his cheek. A tender gesture.

He straightens as if he’d been called. The tears subside, banished.

A smile plays across his face. One might not recognize him now, had they known him of a time.

Inside the night-dark home, a light flickers. Flames hungrily crawl up the lace curtains. In mere moments, the home flares into an inferno. He is unmoved by the woman—Edna’s—weak pleas for help. She will be silent soon. She, who is not the one.

The pretty-patterned cloth in his hand also sparks into flame. Though it tickles his flesh and further singes his gloves, he feels no pain. Nonetheless, he drops the cloth onto the brick path, and walks away.

The fire fails to eat at the blood-soaked fabric, unlike the conflagration that was once Albert and Edna’s homestead. The one they shared with his father, her sister and his husband, and their seven children combined, who arrive back from town just minutes after the stranger has withdrawn down what they call ‘the road.’

This Kestrel Creed story was my 2013 NaNoWriMo project. I anticipate the final draft to be finished by the end of July, 2015

Famous Australian stockman and adventurer Kestrel Creed, along with his lovely protégé and ward Nika Silbersichel, have just six days to stop a fugitive killer from committing an act so heinous that if he succeeds, the whole of the Western United States may well face a devastation more horrendous than that caused by the Great War.