Stormhawk (perfect_ruin) wrote,
Stormhawk
perfect_ruin

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Here Be Dragons: Part 1

Challenge: Western Challenge
Author: Stormhawk
Date: 6 September
Story Title: Here Be Dragons
Rating: PG-13
Summary: Jackson comes home to discover his brother in deep debt, and his plan for paying it back.

Here Be Dragons

The gun in his face really wasn’t helping him think. Nor were the biting ropes that cut deep into his wrists, the constant friction making them bleed.

‘Tell me,’ the fat-faced bandit breathed, ‘where we go next.’

‘I don’t know,’ this answer turned the gun into a blunt weapon that struck him across the face.

‘Where?’ the bandit repeated.

Jackson swallowed. ‘In. We go in. That’s all I know.’

‘Map don’t say in.’

‘The big X is the entrance. ‘Despair to all who enter,’ is what it says on the back of the map.’ He spat blood, and didn’t bother to recite what else was written there – people like them didn’t care about the cost of lives. Especially his.

The cave in front of him was innocuous, just like any other hole in the earth. Most people in town were able to ignore the local legend – by staying very, very far away. It wasn’t what the cave looked like, it was what it felt like. It was the sensation of someone dancing on your future grave, though a hundred times worse.

His mouth dry and his bound hands were sweating. He lifted them to wipe his brow, and the sweat trickled down into the cuts – he winced, but took a step forward. If the local legend held true, there was a great chance that the pain would be all over soon.

Jackson didn’t have any delusions – he knew his chances of walking out of the cavern alive were slimmer than a drought-addled tumbleweed. The bandit pushed him forward, and he cursed his brother.

‘Here be dragons,’ he whispered as he stepped over the threshold and into the cave.

***

‘Here be dragons,’ Grandpa said as he lit his pipe.

Five-year-old Jackson tugged on his grandfather’s shirt. ‘Shouldn’t we…?’

Grandpa shook his head as he watched the twister on the horizon. ‘She’s not coming this way, storm’s almost over.’ It was a brilliant, beautiful, terrifying sight, the tornado was almost silhouetted by the light of the setting sun – it danced and twirled, tearing up the ground beneath it. Debris, dust and dirt spun away from it, covering what was left of crop fields.

‘Why do you always say that?’ Jackson asked, mesmerised by the twister. He almost felt like it could see him – that it was staring back at him across the miles.

‘Here be dragons – it’s the part of the map to stay away from.’


***

The bandit had two dumb-as-a-rock associates, Jackson assumed their purpose was to look scary and shoot what they were told to shoot. It seemed to be an arrangement that worked for everyone.

They may have been dumb, but they knew fear. One whimpered for his long-dead mother and the other kissed a cross caked in dirt and sweat.

The bandit gripped his gun until his knuckles turned white – this was his only consideration to the situation.

‘No.’ he said. ‘Some other way.’

They gratefully retreated from the cave. The bandit pushed Jackson toward his associates and went over to the horses. He retrieved a long rope and tied it to the ropes binding Jackson.

‘You go in and get the treasure, and bring it out.’

Jackson considered his words carefully. ‘And if doesn’t work?’

‘I got two more chances before I gotta risk my ass,’ the bandit spoke plainly – and dumb as they were, this bothered his offsiders. They gave each other sideways glances, and began to wonder if their shared ten percent cut was really worth this.

***

Jackson’s welcome back to town was drawn out – first there was stepping in manure as soon as he exited the stage, then the dog that belonged to the hotel ripped a hole in his luggage, and lastly it began to rain.

His brother never arrived to pick him up – and there was no way he could walk the five miles, not in his city boots in any case. The city boots were a bad habit he’d gotten into while studying – and one he knew he was going to catch hell for when his brother saw him.

He left his luggage on the porch and retreated into the hotel – at least it was warm in there, and some alcohol would further drive the chill from his bones. He pushed open the swinging doors, no one noticed the intrusion, and he headed over to the bar.


A loud drunk was playing the piano, and rather badly. He began to sing – even though it was blatantly obvious he had no idea of the lyrics, and what he improvised was worse than the screeching of cats.

Jackson looked more closely at the man – if it had been Charles, it wouldn't have surprised him. He shook his head – no, it wasn’t his brother.

He tapped a coin on the bar – another bad habit. The clothes, though cheap in the city, identified him a moneyed individual here. He began to wonder if he’d ever adjust to life back here on the farm – or if he would have to leave in shame.

‘What can I get for you?’ the bartender asked.


‘Something to warm me,’ Jackson replied.

The bartender placed a glass in front of him, and he drank it gratefully. He became aware that he was being studied.

‘Welcome back, Jackson,’ the bartender said.

‘Surprised you remember me.’

The bartender shrugged. ‘You and yer brother were always alike – least in looks. Finish yer schoolin'?’

‘Mostly.’ He stared at the glass. ‘When was the last time you saw my brother?’


‘You mean that ain't him?’ he gestured across the hotel floor. A poker game was going on. He’d ignored it, for him, going to school was the biggest gamble ever. He didn’t like to chance his money – another “flaw” on his part, and one that, on occasion, had made his youth difficult.

At the round table sat some sun-burnt farmers, playing with their hard-earned money, a few out-of-towners, one of which had been on the stage with him and at the head of the table was a slick, well-dressed young man. The young man looked up and winked at him – it was Charles.

Jackson stared at him, unable to quite believe that this was indeed his brother. Charles, in his younger years, had been unable to keep clean for more than five minutes – dirt had seemed to gravitate in his general direction. Several marriage prospects had been lost because of this.

The young man in the suit that cost more than his own was nothing like the brother he’d left a year ago.


He swallowed, there so many words he wanted to say. “Hello, how are you?” “It’s good to see you, brother.” “How’s the farm.” “How did you afford to buy that suit.” And most importantly: “Why are you playing while I’ve been waiting.” The fact that he hadn’t shown up when the stage had arrived had been worrying him – he’d had visions of the farm being in ruins, that he would be hung if unable to pay their line of credit at the general store…but by the looks of things, everything seemed to be going rather well.

The young man that he was fairly certain was his brother stood and walked over – he slapped him on the back and handed him a cigar.

‘Charles?’ he asked, just to be sure.


‘Who else would I be? Welcome home, little brother. Come, join in the game.’

Jackson followed and watched in a daze as his brother gambled with money comparable to a year’s tuition fees. He desperately wanted to ask where the money had come from – he wished he’d known the farm was doing this well. If he had, he may have spent the money to buy the ring for Elizabeth – he hadn’t, and he’d lost her.

Charles lost a lot, the kind of amount that would cause tension for most men – he merely shook it off and bought his friends a round of drinks.


They left the hotel and went into the night – Jackson finally found his voice. ‘Wasn’t that a lot of money?’

‘Not really. I win sometimes, I lose sometimes – that’s how the game works.’

Jackson swallowed and looked up at the sky – it was good to be under familiar stars again. ‘I’m glad the farm is doing so well.’

Charles looked puzzled for a moment, then gave a vague nod. ‘Let’s go home.’

‘My bags?’


They loaded the bags onto the wagon and drove home in silence – each for their own reasons – Jackson’s weariness kept him from speaking, whereas Charles was just quiet.

***

The bandit pushed Jackson toward the cave again, and when he hesitated, shot at the ground near his foot. This urged him on, he knew the bandit didn’t have any trouble hurting people. Hell, Charles was probably dead already.

‘Here be dragons,’ Jackson whispered and stepped into the cave.

***

Jackson awoke the sound of a distressed rooster – it sounded strained to crow in the morning. He didn’t remember going to bed the night before – travelling always tired him more than it should. He sneezed – the room was musty, and hadn’t been aired for his return.

A fine layer of dust lay over the bedside table. He stood and pushed open the window, found his glasses, then stumbled out the kitchen.

With the state of his brother’s wardrobe, the farm was obviously flourishing, so he was surprised to see no farmhands, and no cook preparing food for half a dozen strong men. He shook it off – he’d been away, it wasn’t his place to judge, especially before he knew all the facts.


He walked through the house, reacquainting himself with the place he’d grown up. Some of his grandfather’s effects were still scattered around – the tobacco pouch that “lived” on the mantle for example. He picked it up and sniffed it. It was almost as if that time hadn’t passed, and his grandfather hasn’t passed away.

He heard footsteps, and for one childish moment, he imagined that it was his grandfather. He turned and greeted his brother.

Charles wasn’t dressed for a hard day of farm work, nothing about him suggested that it had even crossed his mind.

‘I’ll make some toast,’ was all he said before heading to the kitchen.


Jackson walked from the house, and stopped dead in his tracks. He hoped that he was still asleep, for what he saw was straight from a nightmare. The fields were dead – corpses of corn stalks lay limply on the ground, the soil, once rich, was dry and cracked.

‘So yeah, I was gonna get to talking about this,’ Charles said as he came up behind him. Jackson turned, mouth agape, unable to vocalise his thoughts. ‘Toast?’ asked Charles, proffering his breakfast, ‘there’s more cooking.’ After a full minute, Jackson still hadn’t said anything. ‘Stop staring at me, you look like some glassy-eyed store-bought doll.’

Jackson condensed his thoughts into three words. ‘Everything is dead.’


‘Except my…our…future.’

‘But you…last night…and the clothes…’

‘You think clearer when you eat.’

‘My mind is as clear as that field,’ Jackson replied, regaining some measure of composure.

‘Look, farming isn’t the only way to make money.’

Jackson stared at the field. ‘All you did last night was lose.’

He turned, and punched his brother in the face.


The blow wasn’t that forceful, Jackson was always the weaker of the two – but the element of surprise added everything to the impact. Charles stumbled back – he’d been hit by friends, shot at by people he owed money to, slapped by whores and kicked by horses…but somehow this was worse.

‘You didn’t have to do that.’

‘Yes, I really did.’ He spat into the dry ground. ‘You promised grandfather you would look after the farm – I went to study to ensure us a future, you failed. It’s going to take a miracle to get this farm back together. A miracle I don’t want you any part of.’

‘How you going to stop me?’

‘I’ll buy our your half, you really don’t seem to give a damn.’

‘Ask me how I could afford the clothes.’

‘I don’t want to know.’


‘Ask me.’

‘How?’ He balled his hands into fists. ‘How did you have all that money to lose? Did you sell your soul? Do we even own the land I’m standing on?’

‘I have lines of credit, but who doesn’t.’

‘Credit is to feed starving mouths, or to pay for something until a crop sells. Credit is not for clothes. Not for gambling.’

‘I’m going to pay it all back.’

‘Is that what I’m here for? To pull you out of your self-created hell?’


‘I was going to share my future with you. It’s a bright and shiny one.’

‘I want nothing to do with it.’


***

Half a dozen steps into the cave, the fear was all consuming, but with that came a sort of calm. He was going to die, that was certain, but how was another issue. On the other hand, he was within metres of his grandfather’s treasure.

He had no idea what the treasure was, no one did – his grandfather had never said if it was gold, jewels or fine silks – it could have been a single horseshoe from his first pony if all possibilities were to be considered.

Jackson’s grandfather had a mysterious past, so that gave credence to the idea that the treasure was real. When he and Charles had been children, they had pretended to look for it while planting seeds, or uprooting trees. Once in a while, they would find things – their grandfather had planted pennies to encourage their hard work.

Charles had stopped believing as a child – though obviously his greed had rekindled his belief. Jackson had always believed, and remembering those stories had helped keep the memories of his grandfather alive.

***

Charles, fourteen years old, had stolen one of the horses. He’d learned the location of the treasure and was going to get it. Times were tough, and money would solve a lot of problems.

He’d ransacked the house until he’d found the map – deciding to take matters into his own hands.

Jackson held onto his grandfather as they thundered after his brother. They took the more dangerous route, just so that they could head him off. The horse felt the need in his grandfather’s urging and ran quickly without any further encouragement.

Grandpa leapt off the horse, knocking Jackson to the ground in the process, so that he could tackle Charles before he could take his first step into the cave.


Charles screamed like a stuck hog, and clambered towards the cave entrance.

There was a short, sharp crack, as their grandfather hit him with the riding crop. Charles was stunned into submission and Jackson into silence – it was the first time either of them had ever been hit.

‘I said no,’ Grandpa said. ‘Never go in there.’

‘You buried the treasure in there!’ Charles screamed as tears rolled down his face.

‘Never go in there,’ Grandpa repeated as he helped Charles to his feet. ‘Never.’

‘We need the money!’


‘Not this badly.’

Jackson stared at the cave entrance. ‘Why can’t we go in there? A bear?’

‘Curiosity doesn’t only kill cats. I can’t tell you what’s in there, because I don’t know.’

‘Tell us what you do know then,’ Charles said, refusing to look at either of them.

‘Ghosts,’ the old man said simply.


‘I don’t believe in ghost stories,’ Charles said. Jackson refrained from mentioning when they were younger, he had indeed believed in ghost stories.

‘No stories, boys, just plain-speaking truth. Stories about this place are older than me. People go in there, and only the scantest few ever come out. It’s full of statues, and ghosts.’

‘Statues?’

‘They look like people…or were people, in any case, they’re dead, and their spirits are trapped there.’


‘If few ever get out, how did you bury the treasure in there?’

‘I’m one of those few.’

Charles kicked at a stone. ‘And if I don’t believe you.’

‘Your brother becomes an only child.’ Charles began to walk toward the cave. ‘Please don’t,’ their grandfather said, ‘I’ve already lost the rest of my family.’


***

The silence is the cave was something Jackson had never experienced before – even the sound from his shuffling footsteps seemed to be stolen away. The external quiet allowed him to hear every sound his body was making – the blood pumping in his ears, the pounding of his heart and the shaking of his bones.

The bandit – whose name he had not been privy to – had not given him a light, so part of him hoped that it was as dark as the dragon’s belly he felt he was walking into. If it was, he could find some pool of shadow and disappear for long enough – that was, if he could get free of the rope.

Slowly and surely, he began to slip his way free of the rope – his blood and sweat slick hands were actually a bonus in this case. He kept walking, so that the rope kept moving – if he didn’t they would get suspicious. Each step was one closer to death and one closer to freedom.

As he moved in, the whole cave became a play of light and shadow. Light from the outside streamed in through cracks, but what the light didn’t touch was as dark as pitch.

Something touched his cheek, the lightest touch he had ever felt. He closed his eyes, afraid to look at the ghost.

***

‘So how did you afford it?’ Jackson asked. They were in the kitchen now, Charles, despite his figure, seemed to have developed quite an appetite. Jackson assumed all the worries of his debts helped keep the pounds off. ‘Or am I here to help you get the money?’

‘In one sense, but we do have the money, we just have to go get it.’

‘Charles, are you drunk? This is all Grandpa had in the world. It’s all we have too.’

‘Not true, little brother.’

Jackson scoffed. ‘Yes? Then what is it that we have? What snake oil is going to save you from your mistakes?’

The he said it. ‘Grandpa’s treasure.’


Jackson stared at him. Then for a little longer. A tumbleweed could have blown past without his notice, a herd of cattle could have danced like showgirls and all he would have done was stare at his brother.

‘Say that again.’

‘The treasure. It will clear the debts a hundred times over. Or at least ten.’

‘Grandfather’s treasure,’ he repeated. ‘The one buried…somewhere out there.’

‘We both know where it is, Jackson.’



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