Guided by the Wind
Star leads a dangerous life. Beneath the brutal sun, he helps his father, Ty, guide settlers through the harshest lands. Those who survive the monsters, bandits, and other omnipresent threats often succumb to the elements. Star has his own demons to worry about—ones from his past that he’s never been able to outride—but so long as he has Ty and the wind at his back, he’s content.
Damien Sole is a wanted man. His ragtag family of outlaws is on the run from bounty hunters who would as happily kill them as arrest them, and they’re in need of a guide. Star doesn’t look like much—with his slim build and cat-like features—but there’s ferocity in his sharp green eyes that Damien can’t resist. What starts as a spark of lust between the two men flares into an inferno.
As ancient secrets surface, they bring new enemies with them. Men like Damien and Star don’t die old in their beds, and they don’t get a happy ever after. With everything against them, nothing will come easy. Especially not love.
Reader discretion advised. This title contains the following sensitive themes:
Non-Consent (Off screen)
Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish. Click on a label to reveal its content.
The old saloon was an oven. Those packed within its wooden walls—including Star—were damp with sweat and haggard from heat, spending coin as if drink could chase away the sun-damned assault. The moon’s cooler touch was a long way off, but thanks to his father’s blood, Star didn’t feel the heat the same as those who called the hard-carved town of Standing Grave home.
They’d ridden in on scorched air gasped up from the Sun’s Scar, a wraith-haunted canyon yawning long and deep just steps from the settlement. After hitting the canyon’s outskirts a day earlier, they’d followed its jagged edges at a distance until it’d led them into town. After so long beneath the sun’s unrelenting glare, two moons at the least, it felt good to enjoy the conversations itching at his ears.
Star’s lone hope of a few days’ respite sat waxing poetic a short distance down the age-scarred bar. Bill Cove, the closest thing he and his father had to family, lounged with his shirt open to show off sweat-glistening chest muscles. The man’s sandy-blond head bobbed as he mimed some heart-stopping scurry for life. Exaggeration was doubtlessly involved, but that was half of Bill’s charm.
The man’s audience, two tow-headed twins, were as inflexible as anyone else around, and—gold or silver—they were only charmed on their terms. Judging by their matching looks of disinterest, Bill would soon either buy their attentions or lose them. Hot as it was, Bill likely didn’t care either way.
“Another water?” a gruff voice asked.
Twisting back around, Star turned his grin on Sandy, taking in the owner’s welcoming, grizzled brown face and steady hand brandishing a condensation-dampened pitcher of water.
“Please.” Star pushed his emptied mug closer. He dug coins out of his pouch and slid them over as Sandy poured.
The lukewarm feel of the water on his tongue and throat was welcoming.
“Lost Ty fast this time,” Sandy commented.
Star’s mouth twitched. “I usually do.” He took another gulp.
His father, Ty, was currently ensconced in one of the upstairs rooms “making nice” with Lacy, whom he always sought out when they came this way. Star—more interested in eyeing the men packed around the wobbly tables than the perfumed ones upstairs—was content to stay seated at the long, lop-sided bar. He kept watch over the stairs leading to his dad’s unprotected back.
“In town long, kid?” Sandy asked, as if reading Star’s mind. His old eyes scanned Star’s face before he nodded to the man next to Star, accepted a few minted coins, and poured a measure of dark amber liquid into the stranger’s waiting glass.
When Sandy looked back at him expectantly, Star smirked and shrugged. “We’re just passing through, I think. Dad hasn’t said one way or the other, but he’s restless lately.”
Star chuckled at the good-natured teasing. “Fair point.”
Star and his father lived on the move. Their rare stops in towns were short reprieves from sun and stars. Star enjoyed the visits, but they made his father tense and impatient. In his twenty-one years, Star could only remember one occasion when they’d spent more than a fortnight under a single roof. There had been no other option then. Star hadn’t been well enough within or without to face the world, and Ty hadn’t let Star far from sight.
Those memories always felt close when visiting Standing Grave. It was no fault of the settlement itself, but born of where it leaned against that bite of hell stretching leagues to the north and south. The long, curving rend split down into the sun’s domain, a dry hellscape populated by winged vipers and, at night, when all became dark, slivers of memory-wraiths. Only fools entered, and almost none left. No one within Standing Grave dared stray too near the valley below, but all took a measure of pride in living above it.
Star’d entered it once, and splintered memories of that desperate rush were impossibly tangled with the horrific days that had led there. It’d been an escape he and his father had barely survived, heat and vermin vying for their lifeblood. No wraiths had joined the hunt, but he could remember their presence, silvery and distant.
“Where will you ride next, you think? South, maybe? East? West?” Sandy moved down the bar as he spoke to accept more coin and parcel out more drink. Shaking off nausea clinging to the old memory, Star watched him. Sandy added, “I assume you’ll be long absent before this heatwave breaks over our heads, anyroad.”
A bray of laughter from one of the regulars cut into their exchange, loud amidst the morose crowd. “Losing your memory, old man?” he jeered, dropping coin next to his emptied mug. “There’s a north too. Some even say the damn place has air you can breathe, not like this scalding shit.”
Sandy snorted and refilled the waiting mug. “Ty’d throw himself off his horse before going that way. Man carries grudges, that’s for damn sure. Whatever he met that way, he ain’t revisiting.”
Star glared down at his cup, teeth set. No, his father didn’t go that way. He refused to say a word about the choice, but over the years, Star had managed to deduce one thing: north was where his mother had died.
“North isn’t in the dice, no,” Star answered around a smile that was more teeth than joy. “Money is easier to find in other directions.”
The interloper squinted at him, and for a second, Star thought the man might say something else. Instead the fellow shrugged a narrow shoulder and returned to his drink.
“As you say, kid,” Sandy agreed indulgently.
Uncomfortable with the line of talk, Star cast about for a new topic. “Lacy wrote that things have been quiet.” Quiet was an unusual state for a town so close to hell’s guts. The type of people who chose to live near the sun’s cursed lands were not a settled lot.
Sandy laughed. “You got that one, did ya, kid? She wasn’t too sure you would, but you were due this way and we’d heard you and Ty had ridden east.” He shook his head, then gave a sigh. “Aye, though, lad. Quiet and too quiet. Summer came early, and the sun is making her enjoyment known. We’ve had, what? Maybe five deaths total here from fights in the last moon, and maybe triple that in survived brawls. The heat’s good for downstairs business, but upstairs? The girls and Davin don’t like it any more than the rest of us, and with good reason.”
Here he gave a wry grin, nodding to the stairs. “Well, most don’t. Lacy near dragged your father up that way when he stepped through our door. Exceptions, I suppose. Anyone else would’ve gotten a curled lip from that one before she led the poor soul that-a-ways, and they’d have paid dearly.”
“He missed her,” Star answered weakly, feeling the lie as he offered it. Sandy nodded, his brown eyes not quite meeting Star’s.
Disquieted, Star cast a glance Bill’s way, curious to see how he was doing. The girls were gone, but that didn’t seem to bother him.
Bill caught his glance with a wink and rose.
“Of course he missed her.” Bill wandered over. He never missed much, so Star wasn’t surprised that he’d been following their conversation. Bill dropped onto the stool next to Star, hand snaking out to ruffle his dark hair. Star glowered as the mussing knocked strands out of the loose tie, but his lips twitched all the same. Star might be an adult now, but Bill had known him since before he could walk.
“You’ve been drinking the town water, I noticed.” Bill gestured toward the empty cup in front of Star, saying with playful criticism, “Think Sandy here can spare a drop for me?”
Sandy turned to grab a glass and a pitcher off the low table behind them. There were five more sitting, ready. “Let my girls work the room, Bill, and the first one’s on me.”
Bill sank back on his stool, leaning until he almost unseated himself and looking thoroughly pleased. “A cruel deal, but I’ll take it.” He sighed loudly, then nudged Star’s slight shoulder with his meatier one. “I don’t know how you take this heat, kid. I’m melting. The old crook’s deal is almost a relief. Hell, I think some of those around us have melted.”
Bill’s exaggerated gape at the surrounding patrons lightened Star’s mood. Busy as the bar looked, it was as Bill said. The room’s bustle barely rose above a dull rumble. It was usually a far livelier place in the early evenings, but sweltering heat and no rain had dried out spirits. What would happen, Star wondered, once the heatwave broke and, feeling the moon’s cooler touch on the summer air again, all that pent-up tension hit release?
While not populated by the beasts that scavenged just below them, the town was home to its own land-grown variety: people seeking to escape their pasts or avoid the Sighted Blades—relentless peacekeepers who took up post to track down those with law-approved bounties on their heads.
It made the people a difficult crowd on the best of days, and on the worst? With no appointed law-keepers, rules were few and killings common.
The saloon doors creaked. Star canted his head to watch as a pack of strangers wandered in. Where Star was tall and skinny as the bendable prairie grass, the man leading the band was lean, a strand of wire cut from a fence. He had the build and broad shoulders of a man used to hard work, with fat to soften it into a welcomingly sturdy handsomeness.
Welcome enough that Star half-considered playing at being one of the house boys to see if he could catch the man’s light-green eyes.
“Well,” Star muttered.
He rarely felt more than a passing interest in anyone, but looking at the dusty-brown hair and the prowl of that gait dried his mouth. The need to keep watch over his father’s back was all that kept him on his stool and not playing the fool. Still, he could drink in the man’s appearance, and took little shame in the doing. Any man who led two like the ones behind him had to be impressive.
The old gray-and-black-haired fellow scowling through a short beard right at his leader’s heels was a compact wall of muscle, and the red-headed woman accompanying them looked more liable to shoot than smile. Star wondered what brought the three here. Once Ty returned, maybe it wouldn’t hurt to wander their way and see if the younger of the group might want some conversation.
Bill leaned in close to Star’s ear. “You start flirting, kid, and I’ll sic your dad on that poor man the minute Ty crawls out of Lacy’s clutches.” There was laughter in his voice, but his eyes were sober. “That man looks like trouble, and when men travel in packs like that, they intend some.”
Bill’s words grated on Star’s pride, but he knew they had merit and so pulled his attention back. The warning came from a good place. Even so, Star kept the strangers in the corner of his eye as he shot Bill an annoyed look that Bill answered with a smile.
“You travel with us sometimes,” Star pointed out wryly. “That makes our number even with his.”
“Aye.” Bill drew the word out with relish before he took a long drink. “And are you two not inviting trouble when you ask me along?”
Star laughed, shaking his head. Point to Bill.
Star couldn’t quite take his attention from the group. They might be trouble, he figured, but not mindless such. There was a measured watchfulness in their eyes that suggested them as being more the kind met if cornered, which he respected. Trouble wasn’t something he enjoyed, although his father had raised him to be ready should it knock. He’d had enough of it five years ago, and feeling that stirring of attraction brought old fear baying on its heels.
Closing his eyes and calling himself a fool, Star reached down with his left hand to run his fingers over the handles of the two little knives and the larger dagger belted on that hip. They were there, ready, and he didn’t need to check to ensure their sisters sat in their mirrored place. Feeling their steel ends and the dagger’s grip calmed him, reminding him of his self-appointed duty to keep watch over his father.
Knives were his weapon. He never touched a gun. Couldn’t, anymore.
He opened his eyes again, calmed, and went back to watching the handsome man and his little group. Even with ghosts plaguing the back of his mind, he wanted to try to catch those green eyes.
Bill nudged him again and grinned when Star turned to frown at him. “Are you really so bored of my company already?”
Star huffed but cracked a smile. “Never.”
“I didn’t expect to see either of you here till nearer fall, but I’d dropped by Bay’s just as he got word you were northbound. So, since I knew you’d both be missing me, I changed my route.”
“I’m glad you did,” Star acknowledged, but he couldn’t fight back bitterness. Star, too, had thought they’d be south longer. That he sat here in Standing Grave’s saloon with the summer sun high and their pockets so empty felt wrong. Ty’d turned their heads north with a suddenness that still rankled over a moon later. Much as Star loved his father, the older he got, the harder it grew to stomach Ty’s many secrets.
Their flight from the south, coupled with the desperation that’d lined his dad’s face, didn’t fit Ty’s typical claim of a shifted wind. Pointing that out repeatedly had only received snapped impatience and evasion.
As always, Star had ended up giving in before his father, and Ty kept his newest secret.
It wasn’t long before the man himself came bounding down the steps, carrying a broad-brimmed hat in one hand and his double-barrel rifle in the other. Ty looked like an older version of Star, with the same glossy black hair—only Ty’s was cut to his shoulders, rather than bound down his back—and whip-thin build.
Lacy prowled behind him, her light brown hair pinned in a windy-looking upsweep and her rouged lips pursed in self-satisfaction. She wore a thin, flower-print gown and her expression was cool despite the heat flushing her skin. Star lifted a hand her way, and she mimed sending him a kiss, her eyes crinkling at the corners.
When young, Star had sometimes dreamed of his father settling with her, but years and knowledge had worn that dream to sand. His father needed the wind blowing against his back the way most needed shade and water. There’d be no home for them, just open land and the early graves that garnered. Sometimes Star wondered what it would be like to feel the wind as Ty did.
“C’mon, Star,” Ty called, heading for the door. His voice carried over the other patrons, knife-sharp. He moved like there was a snake nipping his heels. “Bill, get your ass here too. We’re bedding at Al’s place.”
Damien crossed the cramped room with a long, gliding stride. He eyed the folks gathered inside as he went, taking note of those who glanced their way versus those who paused to really look.
“A good ale would taste nice,” Ostra said.
Knott, keeping close to her side, hummed in agreement. “So long as we get things settled while we have it,” he added. “And keep an eye out.”
The bounty on their heads might make any of those here shirk their no-law pact. None of them wanted to chance that.
The barkeep barely glanced at them as they slid into three of four empty stools along his bar. The man’s attention was tied up on an impatient customer, but the look in those brown eyes had been assessing in a way that spoke of continued consideration. Damien didn’t expect trouble from that quarter, but knew he’d been marked and that he’d be remembered.
“Drinks?” the barkeep demanded, finally turning to them.
“Please. Three mugs of ale.”
A grunt was the answer, and soon they were served. Damien took up his own, and despite its warmth, it felt good on his parched throat. Knott hadn’t taken his up yet, but by Ostra’s sigh, hers was as bracing as Damien’s own. It was a fine brew, even if he’d have taken pretty much any quality with thanks at this point.
“Nice to sit inside,” Knott muttered, rolling his shoulders before drinking deep.
“Aye,” Damien agreed, his own slow-to-relax muscles aching. He was half on his way from twenty-five to thirty, and while he still felt young enough for this life, those who followed him were leaving that time behind. Knott, the oldest of his pack, had more gray than black in his beard these days. Ostra’s hair was the same, only it was bleach-bone white that shot through the still thick red she kept pinned tight to the back of her head.
Damien caught himself staring when Knott gave a sniff and raised an eyebrow. “Well?”
Ostra, seated to Knott’s left and bent over a block of wood that was slowly taking the shape of a rough-featured ranch hand, snorted. “Thinking too hard, Damien?” She didn’t bother looking up, knife busy and sharp eyes intent on her work.
“A bad habit,” he answered.
Ostra glanced up then, one eyebrow hitched far too similarly to Knott’s. “Drink and relax.” Their shared strain showed on her face, but her words were light.
“I can do that.”
They likely made an odd sight and would look odder again once Jonnie ambled in from putting the horses up at the stable down the road. Jonnie was a head taller than Damien, thicker-built than Knott, and as red-headed as Ostra.
If Jonnie came to join them, that was. If he had no one there to see to him, he’d sooner have his tongue go to dust than speak up and order a drink. It was a bit cruel leaving him to make their arrangements, but better he do that than help seek a guide.
“Think Jonnie will have any luck finding us a room?” Ostra asked.
Knott shrugged, answering for him. “Jonnie is exhausted. Man hasn’t slept a wink, hardly, since his sister’s letter. He’ll want somewhere quiet to put up for the night.”
The sour truth of the words settled like lead in Damien’s stomach. The best they could do for the big man was to locate a guide. Trying for a smile and missing the mark, he followed Ostra’s gaze as she looked around them.
“‘Quiet’ seems the popular theme here,” he pointed out, tone lighter than he felt.
A door slammed upstairs, the noise distracting in the otherwise hushed room. Damien glanced that way and saw a slim, dark-haired man of around forty dart down the steps, spry despite the brutal heat. When the man called out, two men a short way down the bar stood. Damien perked to attention.
The blond, ruggedly handsome and all grins, was closer, but it was the man’s companion who captured Damien. First was the glossy raven hair rolling down the man’s back, and second the leather belt around lean, denim-clad hips, with its well-worn sides ringed in blades. The fellow’s fine features, third to take Damien’s breath, were similar to the spry one who’d called the man’s way. But where that man looked hard and determined, the younger version was breathtaking in his road-worn cotton shirt and, beneath the belt, legs long as the plains.
Damien’s mind conjured an imagine of grabbing those slim hips by that belt and pulling the man in so that he could bury his nose in all of that gorgeous hair—
An elbow caught Damien in the ribs, and he choked, catching himself on the worn wooden bar top before he could land on his ass.
“We’re here for a reason,” Knott hissed, annoyed.
Damien straightened, shooting Knott an apologetic grimace but unable to help a quick glance back toward the distracting fellow. Sadly, the striking man was already out the door with his companions.
“I can’t help it.” Damien sighed, embarrassed to be caught ogling a stranger when there were so many worries weighing them all. Even worse? He hadn’t the chance to make introductions.
“Fair warning—you’ll want to.”
Damien twisted to face his unexpected audience. The gruff fellow manning the bar leaned their way, face hard and eyes narrowed in distrust. Damien was more curious about the words than insulted, though.
“Why is that?” Damien asked, wondering if it had to do with all the knives ringing those hips. A man like that stood out, after all.
“That kid you were eying?” The barkeep answered, motioning to the door with an empty glass. “He travels with his father. His very overprotective father.”
Okay. That took some deciphering.
“First,” Damien drawled, “‘kid’? The lad looked like a man to me.” And a man he’d very much like to get to know, at that. “And second, an overprotective parent thinks it’s a good idea to take a family trip here? No offense, just, the reputation and all.”
There was a reason, after all, that Damien had brought his little band here to look for a guide. Had they ridden into any other settlement, a peacekeeper would likely already have had a gun on their backs and nooses waiting. This place? The only sure thing was that everyone here had reason to be skulking the back trails and steering clear of more refined civilization.
The bartender snorted, nonplussed. “Star’s twenty-one, so young enough.” Ah, there was the man’s name. It was unusual, but then so was the fellow attached to it. The other must not have liked whatever he saw on Damien’s face, as his next words were sharp. “This town is likely the closest thing those two have to a regular stomping ground. They’re safe enough here. They’ve friends and the sense to keep their noses where they belong.”
“No offense or trouble meant,” Damien assured, hoping to defuse any possible temper. At his side, Ostra snorted, still chiseling away. The curls of wood were building up on the counter in front of her, but the barkeep hardly gave her a frown. His vexation was, after all, visibly pointed at the man sniffing after his friend’s son. “We’re here to hire someone, not cause any trouble,” Damien added, trying to placate the fellow.
And there came the spark of curiosity Damien needed to tend if he hoped to burn off the barman’s residual distrust. Bartenders and innkeepers were the ones to seek when looking for information, as they seemed to revel in it more than pretty much any other person alive.
“I have a fair understanding of who is hanging around and their various skillsets,” the barkeep offered up slowly. “What type of hiring is it, if that information isn’t too sensitive for this room?”
“Not sensitive,” Damien said. Knott scowled at him in disagreement, but Ostra merely arched an eyebrow. Damien took that for a win. She’d lifted her whittling knife away to watch with interest. “We need a guide.”
Strangely, there came back that guarded look on the barkeep’s face. “Any particular direction?”
By Moon and Sun, what had Damien done now to garner that expression? “Blue Roc— Ow!”
He jumped and shot Knott a glare, leaning down to rub his sore shin. Now the barman was smirking, guarded look gone and amusement blatant. Damien scowled at Knott and received a pointed look in return.
Right. Hollowood had a price on their heads. Announcing everything to the room was likely not the smartest, and curse him for the fool that pretty little backside and sea of black hair had made of him. He needed to get his head back in the situation at hand and off the appealing piece he’d missed out on. Most of the folks around them appeared too mired in overheated misery to take note, but looks could be misleading.
“I might know someone,” the barman admitted. Now he looked even more amused, curse it. At least Knott’s overbearing attitude was good for something. “Is the trip time sensitive?”
“Very.” Ostra and Knott both let out a growl, and Damien touched their arms, placating. He understood the risk, but they had already started, and time really was against them. “We need to get there in the shortest time possible. That means we’ll be traveling through the Sun’s Scar, and I don’t know anywhere else we’d ever even hope to find a willing guide.”
It was asking for death.
The man nodded, lips pressed. “Name’s Sandy.” For a moment Damien had the heart-stopping hope that he meant the guide, but then realization hit. By the look on Sandy’s grizzled, scruffy face, something distasteful had been decided. “There’s a man. I’ll talk to him for you tonight after we close. Drop by come morning and I’ll let you know what he says.” There returned that narrow-eyed look of warning. “And you keep your nose clean if he agrees. Remember what I said about Ty’s kid, Star.”
Ty. That was the dad, then. As for Star, Damien really didn’t want to make any promises, despite how short a time they would be there. Especially since, if he put two and two together, it sounded like he’d be having dealings with this Ty. Or, possibly, a friend of his.
The room they’d paid for was private, with a single bed but floor space enough to make do. It was acceptably clean if stuffy, and Damien was thankful for the privacy Jonnie had spent extra to grant them. The giant of a Southerner had his back to them as he bent over his heaped belongings, already on twitching edge.
“Least we won’t need bedding for warmth,” Ostra muttered as she spread one of their blankets out across the worn floorboards. Knott grunted as he did the same scant steps away.
“And the floor might be the cooler of the spots,” Damien commented, wishing it was easier to distract himself. His mind wouldn’t let up worrying over their current problems, but their brief respite from the elements eased the tension aching at the back of his neck. It felt good to be shut away from both the sky and the strangers in the town.
Jonnie, blankets clenched in large hands and eyes clouded, wasn’t paying the rest of them any mind. His thoughts were with his sister, Damien knew, just as the rest of theirs were. There was damn little that could make Jonnie smile lately, but maybe four walls and shelter would help him finally rest. The pallor beneath his tan was as marked as the bruises beneath his eyes.
Knott moved his pack closer to the back wall and away from the makeshift beds spread over the floor. He ignored Damien’s eyes as he did so, and Damien made a point of looking away. Another barb, there. Knott was sensitive about his pack with its painful contents.
“Two and two,” Ostra commented, drawing their attention. She looked at the bed as she, too, ignored Knott’s shuffling and Jonnie’s distraction. Her own pack would end up next to Knott’s when he finished, but she’d still avoid the discomfort her watching would cause. Close as she and Knott were, not even she dared touch that old sun-damned pain.
Damien watched Ostra, still carefully avoiding Knott, cross the blanketed room to Jonnie’s side. Presumably weary and mind elsewhere, he didn’t react to her approach.
“Jonnie?” She offered what was almost a smile, hand extended.
Jonnie dutifully handed over his blankets, letting her spread them across the floor as he dug a pair of rough-hewn bone dice out of his bag, followed seconds later by a tin mug.
“Lady calls,” Damien teased as he tossed his hat down on top of his own travel pack. The hat needed a good shaking off before it ever returned to his head, but that could wait. A little more dust was the least of his worn pack’s problems.
Ostra pressed her lips into a line but accepted the mug and dice when Jonnie, a little less distant-eyed, handed them her way. “Suns, both, to win,” she clarified. “She is in charge these days.”
She rolled a sun and star.
“What do you guys make of the town?” Damien asked as he accepted his turn. The mug felt blessedly cool in his hands. He held it a second before giving it a shake and spilling the smoothed squares onto the floorboards. Two stars. No bed won yet.
“Lives up to its physical description but lacks the danger I expected,” Ostra said. “That likely has more to do with the sun’s current mood. Going by the look of the bar crowd, I’d say a bit of cooler air would raise spirits.”
And that would mean more people ready to fight. Sweat-eating heat swept past irritability and on into lethargy. Once that broke, the sun would likely still have her way. Blood, death, and hell.
“There are more graves than people,” Jonnie commented, his first words since they’d filed into the room. The ominous observation left a weighted silence as he rolled double moons.
Damien had been taken aback when riding past the long, lonely graveyard dug into the rock overlooking the yawning belly of the Sun’s Scar. The bells sprinkled among the older graves were silent, the air not even able to summon a puff of breath. It was a somber and chilling sight, testament to the type of people living there.
“Aye,” Damien answered, as no one else had. “We might have reason to be grateful for the sun’s temper. Here’s to the hope she keeps it up a little longer, lest we end up in her throat before we get to her scar.”
If they could manage to convince their possible guide to help them. They’d made good time, but what they’d lose going around the Scar was out of the question. By the tone of Wendy’s last letter, there wasn’t that kind of time left. Their only option was to face the sun’s demons, beasts told to kill any who plumbed the depths.
Knott joined them, rolling a sun and moon. Damien had half expected him to roll suns, but Knott already carried one curse from her, wrapped up carefully and tucked from sight. Why would she grant him a touch of luck after that? The damned hunk of sap had drawn most of those lines on Knott’s face, after all. It might be wrapped up all nice in Knott’s saddlebag, but Damien knew it rarely left his mind for long.
Old pains and new ones. The weight of ghosts was as heavy over Knott’s back as the fear for family on Jonnie’s, but the former was old and dated, the latter fresh and weeping blood. Jonnie’s, at least, they might be able to do something about.
“Think the barkeep will come through with a guide?” Ostra never shied from a hard question. Jonnie’s flinch didn’t have her bat an eye.
Damien sighed, hating hearing his own worries in her words. “We’ll have to hope.” The cup came back to him, warmer now after so much handling. He didn’t bother waiting to roll, just gave it a little shake and let loose.
The rough-hewn faces of twin suns stared up at him after the dice tumbled to a stop. It seemed he’d have something softer beneath his back than blankets over floorboards. Now to see who ended up sharing it.
“If not . . .” Ostra trailed off, apparently not willing to let go of the issue. Jonnie’s face tightened, eyes losing their distance and instead all too focused on the present conversation.
Damien sighed. “If not, we try ourselves.” And lose their best chance of making it through. Their bones would likely rot away under the sun long before they reached the other end.
Two more rounds and plenty of sighs passed before Jonnie finally rolled double suns glaring up at them. Tight as the fit would be, Damien was glad he’d won. Even if worries kept Jonnie awake, at least he’d be comfortable.
“You and me, then.” Damien laughed.
Jonnie managed a tight smile. “Aye.”
“Now that’s over, I’m ready to sleep.” Ostra stood, stretched, and headed for the bedding near but not nearest her and Knott’s packs. Knott himself took the nearest spot, and soon the two were lying close together, Ostra curled around his greater bulk as they settled in to sleep.
Damien and Jonnie followed suit, just without the cuddles. It was close, though, between the narrow bed and Jonnie’s bulk. Any other time, Damien would’ve whispered as much, seeking a snort that sounded more like a bull’s than a man’s. For such a quiet guy, his amusement could echo. They all missed it.
Damien doused the lantern, leaving them in the dark with their thoughts. Jonnie, stiff at his side, weighed down Damien’s mind and kept him from drifting off. Biting back a sigh, Damien chose his words carefully.
“Wendy is tough and capable,” Damien reminded Jonnie, going straight for the heart of his concern.
“All of you might die.” The words were a whisper, meant only for Damien’s ears.
Yeah, they might. Still.
“Wendy is one of us. She’s your blood-sister, aye, but we claim her too. She rode with us. Broke bread with us. Her danger is our danger, same as yours.”
And when Damien was far younger and had made the choice to strike against the man who had destroyed his chosen brother’s life? She’d been there, ready with stolen horses and a calling for them to run for the corral as they fled the house.
No, he and Knott owed her their necks even as she inhabited a space in their hearts. Her face might not be alongside theirs on the bountied boards, but she was one of them.
Ty and Bill sat out under the black night sky, Ty trying to enjoy the weak breeze as the sweltering heat dimmed to a just-manageable burn. Next to him, Bill was obviously soaking in the relief from the sun’s grip now that the moon sat high in the sky with their children. Over Bill’s head, a spider crept between the sloped arch of the porch and the dipping roof, repairing a tear where some insect had proven victorious over its web.
Ty watched it struggle, bitter amusement stirring. He’d never seen the draw of a home—the closest thing he’d ever had was Bill’s during his teenage years—but watching the little fellow work stirred a commiserating sympathy in his chest. His own life was unraveling more each cycle of the seasons, the life he’d fled closing its jaws on his and his son’s heels the harder he fought to outrun it.
The web swayed, the spider worked, and Bill sat, by his side the same as he’d been when they were young. Still there, even though he’d had to leave behind his own family so Ty could keep his.
“You’re likely not here long, eh?” Bill’s eyes were closed, head tilted back. He was a few years past Ty in age, but he still looked every inch the young rascal he’d been when they’d met.
“Just long enough to let the kid visit, and for me to pick a new direction,” Ty said, regretting letting them stay that long, but Star was different from him. He craved companionship, where Ty needed the freedom of the wind at his back and the plains stretched unending at his feet.
“I wouldn’t mind a bit more of a visit with the lad,” Bill commented, a laugh under his words, “but looks like I’ll have to wait for morning. Still not one for late nights, huh? He won’t even stay up to visit with his uncle!”
“Guess you aren’t as charming as you think you are.”
Bill chuckled, eyes still closed in content. “Guess not.”
For a short time there was silence again, and Ty found the quiet of the night a welcome shroud.
“I’ve about exhausted my interests here for now,” Bill mused, ending the peace, “and when the heat finally breaks, not one of us will want to be around for that special branch of hell. I’ve a mind to follow you for a bit.”
Ty sighed, leaning his own head back. The wind teased at his hair. It didn’t feel like it pointed in any particular direction, which further unsettled him. Soon it would, and he’d follow the path as he always did, but the wait was hard.
“Star and I will welcome the company, as always.” Ty tried for a light tone. “Kid’ll be overjoyed to have you dogging our steps.”
“The two of us should be enough to keep him focused.” Bill’s words were light but his eyes, now open, pinned Ty where he sat. Reading too much, as always.
“Mm.” Ty pointedly ignored the silent question. “Except my boy is as trouble-hungry as a rattler sunning itself, as you well know. He isn’t the one I’ll need to watch.”
Bill nodded slowly, readily accepting the rebuke, but Ty knew it wasn’t that easy.
“And what is it that needs watched?” Bill pressed. “Not only me, I’m thinking.”
Ty sighed again. A quick glance through the dirty window of the cabin showed Star stretched out on the straw where old Al’s mattress had been, his wide-open mouth probably catching every insect sharing his bed. No danger of an eavesdropper there.
“The older I get, the smaller these lands are,” Ty said slowly, feeling out the words. “If I didn’t need coin, I’d just keep to the road. We were almost caught in the south.”
The flash of fear across Bill’s face sliced into Ty’s chest. Leaning toward the man, elbows on his knees, Ty shook his head once, hard.
“By Bears,” Ty reassured him. The worst of the fear left Bill’s expression, but not all. “Star didn’t notice. We’d intended to pick up some travelers in a town bordering the southern desert, but when I recognized the bastard’s men, I lied. Told Star the wind changed, that we needed to ride north, hard.”
A sympathetic grimace. “And with pockets near empty?”
Ty shrugged, not bothering to answer.
“My own aren’t much better,” Bill offered, thankfully letting the matter drop. “We’ll figure something out.”
Ty let out a long breath, Bill’s words easing some of the weight he carried. “Maybe we can guide some settlers through the dead springs, if you’re willing?” he suggested. “That’s always good for some coin.”
Bill huffed, scraping up a transparent show of the happy humor he’d exhibited only minutes earlier. “By the sun, I hate that stinking hot place. Guess it’ll do, but damn you for not suffering like the rest of us.”
Ty managed a smirk. The dead springs were a tract of desert pocked with slow-moving pools of stagnant death. The springs part of its name was a cruel misnomer, but anyone with a nose would know better than to touch said pools, thick as syrup in little crags. It was the stretch of land surrounding most of the Sun’s Scar and served as a stark warning to anyone foolish enough to consider passing through it and down into that hellish crack.
“It won’t be fun for anyone, even if the sun doesn’t bite my son or myself as hard as she does the rest of you, but you know how heat makes for desperate pockets.”
Since that expanse was the only way around the Scar and on to fresher, greener farmland, guiding was a lucrative practice for anyone who grew up traveling places like that. Ty knew where to find safe water and hidden shelters, as Bill was well aware.
Bill waved the words off. “How is your kid doing these days? He seemed all right at Sandy’s. Laughing, smiling, and with a tense room all around.”
“Good,” Ty assured him. “Better every day. I don’t doubt he’d love to have some strangers to pester for stories.”
Star was getting better with people again, had been for the last few years. Ty enjoyed seeing more and more the playful, determined lad he’d raised, and would do anything to keep that part of his son alive—even drag unwanted strangers through harsh countryside in exchange for coin. Each stranger brought the chance of danger, yes, but Ty had to trust his instincts to stay ahead there. Instinct and an old friend’s deal with the monsters of Ty’s past.
No wind blew as they spoke, not so much as a little stir, so it was likely not their destination. Ty said as much, and Bill sighed.
“It would be easier if the damn breeze would tell you what to do next,” Bill muttered. “Save us the puzzling out.”
Bill didn’t suggest moving without its guidance, and he never would. He’d been there when Ty had ignored it once, when they were barely out of childhood. Mired in the dark memories, Ty closed his eyes and listened to the night rather than memories. No good could be found chasing old ghosts.
“We’ve nothing but time,” Bill pointed out, trying for levity. “Let it blow when it wants, and we can enjoy the town until then. Maybe I’ll have more luck with those blondes tomorrow.”
“Charm the sun into a moment’s respite and you might,” Ty teased, forcing himself to focus on his friend. Hard as it was to set aside remembered pain, there were many more nights in his future to punish himself for the fault. He and Bill got too few together to let himself dwell. Far too few, truly, considering what Bill had cast aside for Ty all those years ago. Sister, nephew. Bill had left them all in another life just because his chosen brother needed him.
“The kid’s getting big,” Bill commented, his preoccupation apparently on the present.
Big was hardly what Ty would call his son, but he understood Bill’s point. Some of the injury leaked back into Ty as he braced himself against this new line of talk.
“Leave it.” Ty sighed, tired of the dig. He’d been expecting it since Star had shuffled off for bed, but that didn’t make the nicks burn less.
“You know it’s selfish. That box you’re carrying will hurt a hell of a lot more the longer you keep it from him.”
Ty had to let Star grow, but how many hurts before he became her?
“Star doesn’t take after his mother,” Ty said, “but sometimes…”
“They share a pain. That doesn’t mean he’s ready to point a gun to his own head.”
Ty gritted his teeth, refusing to respond. That was unfair, and Bill must know it. Star’s mother, Sunny, had fought against her demons as long as she could, and had been braver than anyone had right to demand.
“Ty, Star’s strong. You made him that. And he’s older now than we were when we left.”
“Stop!” The cry tore out of him, louder than he’d meant. Desperate. Star was strong, but no one had been stronger than his Sunny.
Bill finally dropped it, though it was likely a temporary reprieve. The older Star got, the more Bill worried over Ty’s continued silence. Bill hadn’t been there when he’d rescued his son, so how could he know?
Bill hummed a soft tune, leaning back. Ty recognized it as one Bill’s father used to favor and let himself relax, listening. The sun slept, the moon kept watch, and for the time being there was no point borrowing tomorrow’s trouble.
Ty was about ready to call it a night when Bill fell quiet, body tense. Ty followed his friend’s gaze to where a figure ambled their way through the dark. It was too far at first to make out the figure’s face in the light from the lantern held aloft, but in a few strides, Ty made out Sandy’s features.
Bill relaxed, but his own mind sharpened, the tension in his shoulders making his fingers twitch. Al’s place was way out on the edge of town, nearer the graves overlooking the Scar than to Sandy’s own home. If he was heading their way, he had reason.
“Clear night, boys,” Sandy greeted as he lowered his lantern and closed the last of the distance. He rested his bulk on the porch rail, leaning over it to look at them.
“And a cooler one,” Ty responded. “What can we do for you?”
“I figure you’re looking for work.” Sandy shifted, the wood groaning as he unsettled it.
“Aye.” Ty sat straighter. “What type have you sniffed out?”
“A group rode in today looking for a guide. They’re headed to Blue Rock territory, over east. A little farther north than you usually do, I know, but no one knows the lands leading there better than you.”
Ty narrowed his eyes, studying Sandy. He’d been a good friend to them for years, and was as fond of Star as Star was of him. Ty also knew for a fact his kid wrote to him along with Lacy.
Sandy in turn sent letters that more often than not ended up in Star’s hands eventually. Whether in months or a year depended on what area they traveled and where he’d guessed them to be. Sandy wouldn’t be setting him up for anything beyond work, even if it took them jaw-achingly close to Bear territory.
“Are they trouble?”
“Not other than maybe being in some. I don’t know them, but I know of them, Damien Sole in particular. Price on his head, but no innocent murders, and no cruelty to his name. The price is for stealing from a man crooked as the law will overlook. The man’s kid ended up dead, along with some men, but there was something fishy about the whole matter. I’d trust him, far as the work’s concerned.”
Ty frowned but nodded. A burst of breeze had stirred up as Sandy spoke that felt distinctly of an easterly bent, with the littlest twist of north. Ty gritted his teeth, but as always he’d follow as was willed. “We’ll talk to him come morning. Tell the man to meet us at your place before noon.”
Ty read Sandy’s hesitation and waited him out, the tension returning to his muscles as Sandy seemingly struggled to find words for what he had to say next.
“They’re looking to cut through the Scar.”
That sliced Ty, sharp and cold even in the heat. For a second his resolve wavered, but the wind picked up then, no little breeze against his skin. It fell away in a heartbeat, but it served its purpose.
“All the same,” Ty gritted out. “I’ll meet them.”
Sandy nodded, turned. Bill gave Ty a strange look as Sandy ambled back toward his home.
“You’re willingly going that close to the north?” Bill demanded, suspicious. “And through that?”
“The wind blows, so I follow.”
Bill sighed, leaning back and shutting his eyes once more. Ty watched him, feeling the argument he was forming behind pursed lips.
“Damn your wind,” Bill grumbled, his words as hard as the line of his jaw. “The memory-wraiths might not go for you or your kid, but that doesn’t help the rest of us. How’re you going to get us fools past them?”
Ty didn’t know. “We’ll figure a way. It has been done.”
Bill stared at him. “Done, sure, else there’d be no stories. Shame most of those stories’ sources are bone and dust. It’d be nice to meet someone in our lifetime who survived it.”
Ty took his meaning, wishing he had any response that’d comfort the other.
“Guess I’d better get what sleep I can now,” Bill said. “Then again, I’ll have nothing but sleep soon, sounds like.”
Ty sighed and stood. The ghost of a breeze traced his back as he headed in out of the clear night.
Damien wasn’t surprised when he sauntered into the saloon at the appointed time and found Ty seated at the bar waiting for him. At Ty’s side perched his handsome son, Star. The slim slip of beauty leaned against the counter, chatting with Sandy, and only twisted Damien’s way after catching the stony look on his father’s face.
Upon seeing Damien, Star shot him a large, open grin, and half lifted his hand before Ty tapped his arm and hissed something.
Damien swallowed a sigh at losing Star’s attention and sat where Sandy pointed, picking up the mug of ale shoved his way. Sandy raised an impatient brow, and Damien paid for the drink he hadn’t ordered. At least he’d insisted on coming alone. Knott or Ostra would have downed it and paid for another.
“Sandy here says you have work for me,” Ty said. He had a firm voice, very no-nonsense. His son watched with interest.
Damien nodded, trying not to let his gaze linger. Business first, he reminded himself. Wendy needed him.
“I’m looking to hire a guide to Blue Rock territory,” he said.
“And you want one fast,” Ty pointed out. “That’s what Sandy said when he sent word. I’ll be bringing my son and friend into this, so I’ll expect full answers. I’m also likely the best hope you have of making any sort of time.” He sniffed. “And by ‘best’ what I mean is ‘only.’ You plan to head through the Sun’s Scar, right?”
Damien resented speaking so plainly under such a hard gaze, but Ty had them over the proverbial barrel.
“A friend needs us, and time is tight. Her land is prime cattle territory, with good water, grazing, and plenty of trees for shade. It’s large, hers, and a newcomer with a lot of backing wants it.”
Ty’s eyes narrowed, but his son cut in before he could say what he was thinking.
“Dad knows these lands better than anyone,” Star assured him, leaning in with an easy smile at odds with the cool look Ty wore. “That’s why Sandy chose to bring us here to talk with you.”
Ty set his hand on his son’s arm, and Star eased back, letting the older man take control again.
“If you need to make that kind of time,” Ty told him, “we’ll have to cut through the Sun’s Scar, as you said. I’ve ridden through that hell before, and I can do it again.” Both father and son sat stiff as they discussed the Scar, allowing Damien scant hope that Ty spoke true. “I know of a path down—nice and easy—and it’ll cut weeks off the travel, but you have to listen if you want out of there alive.”
“And the memory-wraiths? The flying vipers?”
Ty offered a tight shrug that was almost painful to watch. “The wraiths are death on the unwelcome, but we’ll get you through.”
A big claim, but one Damien desperately needed to hear. “People say it’s near impossible.”
“And still, you want to cross it.”
“Not want, have to.”
Another shrug. “Same ends. People have, but damn few. You won’t have a better chance than with me.”
Bold words. The certainty of Ty’s claim roused the first bit of confidence Damien’d felt since Wendy’s last letter.
“You’ll need supplies,” Ty went on. “Canteens, and quite a few. You want speed and you’ll get it, but it’ll be through a thin swath of the sun’s hell. We have an extra horse to our names, as does our companion, but how are you looking?”
“Two extra,” Damien assured them. He closed his hand over his untouched glass of ale, feeling the ache of his coin pouch. Between hiring these men and paying for all the necessary supplies, he’d do well to never buy a drink again.
“And how many of you are there?”
“Leaving four extra between us, then,” Ty mused, thinking hard. “That should be fine. Good horses?”
“The best,” Damien said, and meant it. They’d spent a near fortune for one of their three mounts, and the others had been stolen from one of the best horse ranchers around. That the man, Hollowood, was also a murdering coward was a pleasant bonus.
“There’ll be lean days,” Ty continued. “Pack dry goods, since we won’t have a fire during the nights in the Scar. Fire draws death there. Pack as light as you possibly can. It’ll be hard work, and the horses will be feeling it too. It’s narrower here than farther to north or south, but hell is hell, and it takes a toll.”
Damien’s face pinched in distaste. He wasn’t used to taking orders in such a tone. Still, he’d be damned before they lost their best chance at helping Wendy.
“We’ll be ready,” he promised. “When will we head off?”
“Tomorrow,” Ty answered, sharp. “Dawn.”
Damien nodded again. Ty stood, effectively ending their discussion. His lips pressed into a thin line, his blue eyes burning into Damien’s own.
“Head back and make sure our own supplies are ready,” Ty ordered his son, not taking that narrow gaze off Damien until he’d finished. Obviously expecting obedience, Ty turned and stalked over to a tall, lanky woman across the bar. She was the one whose company Ty had been leaving the day before, Damien was sure.
Rather than follow his father’s call, Star lingered, a curious look aimed directly Damien’s way. Far be it from Damien to ignore the gifted chance. Ty was already vanishing up the steps behind his pretty lady, so there’d be no trouble from that quarter.
“Quite the blades,” Damien said by opening, nodding to the ring of steel circling Star’s hips.
Star tilted his head, looking at him. “I like their feel.” The grin on Star’s lips was fetching.
“No gun?” Damien pressed, then regretted it. There was a flash in Star’s eyes, before they went forcefully blank, that looked uncomfortably like fear.
“No.” Star’s tone was firm. “I stick to my knives.”
Point made, indeed. Topic dropped. Still, Damien wasn’t about to let his chance at conversation go that easily. “It’ll be a warm ride, I bet. I’m grateful for your assistance. We all are. Thank you.”
The guarded look cracked, and there came that smile again, lightening the sharp lines of Star’s lovely face. It was a weak smile, but better than his daddy’s empty coldness. “You should save the thanks until we get you clear of the Scar. It won’t be an easy journey.”
Damien heaved a sigh, but his heart was soaring now that he’d gotten to see Star’s infectious smile up close and directed his way. Not even noticing Sandy’s sudden attention from the other end of the room could dampen his mood. “Yeah, I should get our supplies while the getting is good. How is the store down the way?”
Star paused, and Damien appreciated that he was giving actual thought to his answer. “Be polite to his daughter if she’s on guard duty and you’ll be treated fairly.”
“I’ll keep that in mind, thanks.” Maybe it’d spare Damien’s purse a further thrashing.
Damien swallowed a groan and watched Star perk up and turn to the barkeep as Sandy stalked their way.
“What is it?” Star asked.
“Your dad ran off with Lacy, and she was supposed to deliver some water to my wife. Here.” He shoved the pitcher Star’s way across the bar.
Star laughed as he dove forward to take it. “Will do.” He grinned, standing, and raised a hand Damien’s way. After offering a nod, he took off on Sandy’s obviously trumped-up delivery.
Damien shot the bartender a hard look, and Sandy frowned in return.