Six impossible things

The Far West Sample

Chapter One (excerpt)

It is a true thing that the Far West is a strange and dangerous place. Everybody knows that, which is a little odd. In my experience, the things everybody knows are just exactly the ones that are most likely to be mistaken in some important way or other, if they’re not flat-out wrong right from the start.

But folks are mostly right about the Far West. If anything, it’s an even stranger and more dangerous place than everybody says. That’s why whenever someone makes it a little farther west and comes back alive, they have tales of new wildlife no one’s ever seen or heard tell of. Sometimes they’re harmless, like prairie dogs and chameleon tortoises; sometimes they’re useful or beautiful, like jewel minks. Most of them, though, are like swarming weasels and saber cats and dire wolves and steam dragons – deadly dangerous and not anything you’d be advised to stand around admiring, beautiful or not.

The critters have never stopped people from heading West, though. By the time I turned twenty, the settlements and tinytowns stretched a hundred miles west from the Mammoth River, and dangerous new wildlife was showing up every couple of years instead of every decade or so. The mirror bugs that ate every plant over an eighty-mile-wide strip from the middle of the Red River Valley almost all the way to the Middle Plains Territory caused the most problems, but the medusa lizards we’d only just found out about were the ones that scared the bejeezus out of everyone.

The medusa lizards turned animals and people to stone – and not just one at a time, but in bunches. Worse yet, they absorbed magic, so normal spells were no use against them. We were lucky there’d only been two of them, and even so we’d lost two horses while we were trying to shoot them. We almost hadn’t managed.

My twin brother Lan and I had been part of the group that killed the medusa lizard pair, and just having been there was enough to get every newspaper and broadsheet in Mill City after us. One reporter cornered me halfway home from my job at the college menagerie and kept me standing in the hot August sun for ten minutes while he asked the same questions we’d been answering for days – “Why were you up at Big Bear Lake?” and “Did your brother sense the medusa lizards before anyone else?” Then he had a bunch of personal questions about what it was like to be the twin of a double-seventh son.

“What’s it like not to be a twin?” I said, trying to hide how cross I was. “I don’t have anything to compare it to.”

“Er,” he said, looking startled. He drew a line on his notepad, then looked up at me. “It’s just something our readers would be interested in.”

I was about ready to say something when he added, “Because you’d never know from looking at the two of you that you’re twins, and – ”

“If I could grow a pair of muttonchop sideburns and about five inches in height, we’d look exactly alike,” I snapped. That wasn’t strictly true – Lan and I both have brown hair and eyes, but I have Mama’s straight little nose and Papa’s narrow chin, while Lan’s nose is flatter and narrower, like Papa’s – but we have as much resemblance as any other brother and sister, and maybe more than most.

“But Miss Rothmer – ”

“Good day, sir.” I turned and walked briskly off before I lost my temper even worse and hit him with the hotfoot spell Lan used on the school bullies back when we were thirteen. By the time I’d gone twenty feet, I was regretting it, but it was too late. I just hoped no one at home heard about it.

Of course, I wasn’t that lucky. Everything I said got written up in the papers. My mother and my sister Allie both scolded me for being rude and unladylike, and my older brother Robbie spent three weeks teasing me about growing sideburns. I was just glad that the reporters hadn’t counted up all Papa’s children and figured out that I was an unlucky thirteenth child. It didn’t seem to matter as much to folks in the West as it did back East, but I still didn’t like the idea of people finding out.

Lan hated the notice even more than I did. He was still getting over the accident back in the spring that killed one of his college professors out East. It was partly Lan’s fault – he’d been messing around with advanced Hijero-Cathayan magic, and it had gone out of control and burned him and a lot of students, as well as killing Professor Warren – and he didn’t think he deserved to be remarked on for helping out with the medusa lizards after doing something like that. So I wasn’t too surprised when he told me he was going back out West for the rest of the season as a sort of assistant circuit magician.

I was surprised by Mama’s reaction, though I shouldn’t have been. She never liked it when anyone in the family went west of the Mammoth River, and she was still fussed about Lan having been hurt.

“No,” she said firmly when Lan told her over dinner. “You’re not well enough.”

“Mama, I was well enough to go out with Professor Torgeson two months ago,” Lan said, surprised.

“And look how that turned out!” Mama said.

Lan frowned. “It turned out fine.”

“Fine? Chasing off after creatures that turn people to stone? That’s not fine!”

“It would have been worse to wait for them to come to us.”

“It would have been better not to go at all!”

“Better for who?” Lan said. “We didn’t come to any harm.”

“You could have,” my sister Allie put in.

“I could have fallen down the stairs and broken a leg, too,” Lan told her. “Or been hit by a runaway horse cart while I was crossing the street, but I don’t see you worrying about that.”

Allie scowled at him. “You shouldn’t be making Mama fret.”

Lan got a curdled look on his face, like he really wanted to say a whole lot of things that he knew he shouldn’t, and was having trouble keeping them in. I decided I’d best step in before he exploded. “The Settlement Office wants everyone who faced up to the medusa lizards at Big Bear Lake to go out and warn other settlements about them. Lan’s one of the people who was there, so of course they want him.”

Mama’s eyes narrowed and she gave a skeptical sniff. “They send out warnings all the time. They don’t need eyewitnesses to do it.”

“I believe they want to prove that it is possible to kill the creatures and survive,” Papa said mildly. Then he added soberly, “Without turning to stone, in whole or in part.”

I breathed a quiet sigh of relief. I’d figured that Papa knew what the North Plains Territory Homestead Claim and Settlement Office intended, because he was one of the magicians the Settlement Office called on regularly to help out with things like improving the settlement protection spells. He’d been West himself, too, when there were emergencies out in settlement territory that the settlement magicians and regular circuit riders couldn’t handle alone. But I hadn’t known until right then that he didn’t object to Lan going West that summer.

“They don’t need Lan to prove anything,” Mama said. “There was a whole group of people who went after those lizard things. Some of the others can go; they don’t need to send a boy who hasn’t even finished his schooling yet.”

Lan’s face darkened, and I knew he was about half a second from losing his temper, so I said quickly, “Lan and I are twenty, Mama; that’s older than a lot of the folks who file for settlement allotments. And there were only six of us who went out hunting the medusa lizards, and Professor Torgeson has to stay here and study the one we brought back, Mr. Grimsrud has his allotment at Big Bear Lake to tend to, and Greasy Pierre went back out in the wildlands right after we got back to the settlement. I don’t think anyone could find him even if they wanted to. That leaves Lan and Wash and me.”

“Wash can’t cover all the settlements by himself in two months,” Lan said, and I could see he was trying hard to sound reasonable. “It’s . . . it’s my responsibility to help, Mama. And it’s not as if they can ask Eff to go.”

Mama pressed her lips together for a second. Then she opened her mouth and took a deep breath. Before she could say whatever she was going to, I said cheerfully, “But they did ask me.”

Everyone sat there looking stunned, even Papa. “Mr. Parsons came around to the menagerie late this afternoon,” I went on.

“Eff, you can’t possibly be thinking of going!” Allie said in a horrified tone.

I shrugged. “Mr. Parsons said they’ve sent Wash out to take care of the far edge of settlement territory, but they want someone to go to settlements closer in, too. It didn’t sound like it would be too bad.” All of which was quite true; I just didn’t say that I’d already told Mr. Parsons that I’d be staying in Mill City to help Professor Torgeson and Professor Jeffries. I figured that by the time everyone finished up yelling at me and making me stay home, Lan wouldn’t have as much trouble getting Mama to let him do what he wanted.

Just as I’d hoped, Mama and Allie were even more fussed about me going out West again than they were about Lan, but it was a lot easier for me to keep my temper because I didn’t really want to go this time. Riding around to different settlements wasn’t as interesting as studying the dead medusa lizard we’d brought back, and I’d only ever have just one chance to help study the very first medusa lizard anyone had ever seen.

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