KH is honored to present an excerpt from the upcoming novella
WHERE THE HORSES DIED, by Gareth Spark.
The north wind blew dust off the coal yard against the rusted door of the car. It was a ’92 Chrysler le baron, worn through by years of the back roads, pale in the blue, pre-dawn light. Jax rested against the vehicle and felt the cold metal through the thin denim of his jacket. He shook tobacco from a dented tin into paper trembling in the breeze, then licked and made the cigarette, scraped a match against its box and sparked up. His white hair fluttered beneath a ball cap stained by sweat and diesel. He squinted over piles of frosty coal to the light place where the sun was due. His nephew was late.
A blackbird sang a few notes from a naked branch, mistaking the false dawn for the real one to come. Jax listened then dragged on the smoke. The tobacco was cheap and bitter strands stuck to his ice-stricken lip. He spat and looked over at the high rushing water of the stream beyond the yard. Snowmelt from the mountains pushed the water over black rocks topped with ice. He heard a whistle and looked along the tattered wire fence. The boy was coming with the gun. His name was Gray, and Jax Stafford thought it a stupid name to inflict upon any child, but his sister would never be swayed on anything once she’d set her mind to it. ‘You’re late,’ Jax said.
Gray shrugged. He carried a double barrel shotgun cracked open over his shoulder. It was old, damn old. ‘You got any shells for this thing?’ He grabbed the weapon, sighted down the open barrels, and checked the action. The metal was so cold it burned his bare fingers. Gray said nothing. Jax looked up at him with hard blue eyes. The cigarette hung from his lower lip and smoked into the breeze as he waited.
Gray looked down at his feet. The sole was hanging from his boot. ‘I thought we was just gonna scare him.’
‘And nothing’s scarier than a loaded gun an inch away from yer fuckin’ face, son, loaded bein’ the important part of that sentence. You must have had the wherewithal to bring ammo.’
‘I could only find one.’ He handed the shell over.
Jax squinted at it. ‘Well, at least now we’re set.’ He jammed the shell into his denim jacket, handed back the gun. ‘It’ll have to do.’
They drove up out of the valley as the sky paled. The land was black, hard, and wet beneath the ice-blue dawn. Gray drove. His dirty hair was some shade between brown and blond and hung down the back of his long neck from beneath a knitted cap. He chewed his lip as he drove. ‘Your mother doing all right?’ Jax asked.
‘Told me to keep away from you,’ Gray answered with a buck-toothed grin.
‘She always was the smart one.’
‘Said you got Uncle Frank killed.’
‘Frank,’ Jax smiled, ‘good ol’ Frank. Now there was a man knew how to walk this world; as regards my getting him killed, let’s just say Frank never learned to pick his fights. Bit off more than he could chew.’ He looked out of the window at the mine buildings they were passing, grey steel patterned by rust and rain and dirt blown from the hills. ‘I haven’t thought about Frank for a long time.’
‘She said you was the one should have been killed.’
‘That was kind of her.’
‘Said you ran and left Frank to face them on his own.’
‘Frank could of run too,’ Jax said. He leaned over and pushed a cassette into the stereo. Johnny Cash started to play through tinny speakers. ‘Let’s leave the dead alone now; they’s work to do.’
They drove empty roads until they reached the high country. The land was black beneath snow-filled clouds and the wind blew wild from the hills. Jax indicated a dirty clay track cutting through a blackthorn hedge on the right. ‘This is us,’ he said. ‘Stop the car.’ The radio fell silent and the engine growled into sleep. Gray’s hands shook as he lit a Marlboro. Jax stared at the cigarette packet and said, ‘And here I was thinking times were hard? Where d’you get the ready-rolled?’
‘I found I had some money.’
‘That must have been a pleasant surprise. Don’t count on too many of those.’ The pain hit him in the side; he winced hard and grabbed the space under his ribs where his body was killing itself.
Gray noted the old man’s attitude and nodded down as the wind rocked the car. ‘Hurt much?’
‘No, it’s a fuckin’ treat.’ He gasped and reached for a pill bottle on the back seat. ‘This is what I’m saying, son; the Lord has a cold heart. You come back into the world after 10 years staring at steel bars and get told the future you was counting on all them years just got a whole hell of a lot shorter.’ He threw a handful of pills down his throat, washed them down with a hit from a battered whisky flask. ‘Now come on.’
Sophie Anne Clifford laid her daughter in the Moses basket and looked back to her father, sleeping in a rocking chair. He would soon leave for the mine where he was a guard. The baby had cried most of the night, kept the house awake, and the old man was tired. She tied back her long bleached hair with an elastic band and kicked his foot. He was more than a little overweight, and his red face was sweating in the glow of the electric fire. ‘Old man,’ she said, ‘you’ll be late.’
He mumbled something she could not hear, and then rubbed his face with a paw like hand, his eyes still closed. She heard the calloused skin rub over the bristles of his grey moustache. ‘I’m up,’ he said.
‘That’d be a move in the right direction.’
She stepped into the kitchen and started tipping cheap no-brand coffee into a damp filter. ‘You should of retired gracefully, like most other men your age.’ She shouted through from the kitchen. ‘You expect anyone?’
‘There’s a man outside.’
Her father, whose name was Jed Clifford, pulled his frame from the chair, padded through to the kitchen, and glanced at the clock above the electric oven; it was coming up on 6 AM. ‘Who in the hell is it?’ He peered through the greasy window at Gray Stafford, standing in the yard between a broken generator and a mouldering tool shed. He wore a dirty jacket Jed recognised though it was missing the mining company logo. The fabric was darker where it had been. He was tying a bandana round his face. ‘Sophie Anne, get the baby and get upstairs.’
‘Stay right where you are.’ Shotgun hammers clicked back; the sound was brittle, like arthritic knuckles cracking. Sophie turned and looked straight into Jax Stafford’s rheumy blue eyes, hidden behind a wolf man Halloween mask. He coughed, and then whispered, ‘You should really lock your door, Big Jed; never know who might be passing on these hills. Might be some soul looking to huff and puff and blow your house down.’ He held the gun level, aiming it at Sophie Anne rather than her father.
Jed acknowledged this and moved himself in front of his daughter, slowly. ‘Who is that?’ He said. Sweat ran down his round face. ‘I know that voice, who is that?’
‘Boy,’ Jax yelled, turning his head towards the door but keeping his eyes locked on the girl, ‘get in here.’
There was a bang as Gray slammed the door behind him. He held a switchblade that he swapped nervously from one hand to the other. He was breathing fast.
‘What is it y’all want?’ Jed asked.
‘Just what’s owed me,’ Jax answered, holding the gun level, aimed at the Moses basket now. ‘You’re gonna be real co-operative from here on, Jed.’
Jax snorted, and then peeled the mask from his face with his free hand. ‘Couldn’t breathe in that thing anyhow, you remember me, I should be honored I guess.’
‘The last man I slapped in cuffs, yes, I remember you. You can’t roll up in a man’s house like this.’
‘Ain’t your house, now, is it? And shut the hell up anyhow, when I got this scattergun trained on that child. You only got the one thing in this world worth a damn, Jed, and that’s your entry code to that cashbox at the mine. ‘
Jed sighed and lowered his hands. ‘All right.’
‘Now we’re taking the girl and the kid,’ Jax said, ‘with no undue fussing, and I want you to bring me every last penny in that box by sundown, or I’m gonna kill them both, and you know I’ll do it.’ He coughed. ‘I ain’t got nothin’ left to lose.’
‘Where am I bringing it?’
Jax grinned. His crooked teeth were stained nicotine yellow. ‘Bring it where the horses died.’
Gareth Spark is the author of the crime thriller BLACK RAIN, the short story collection HALF PAST NOTHING, and the poetry collections AT THE BREAKWATER, RAMRAID and RAIN IN A DRY LAND. Gareth’s fiction has appeared at Near 2 the Knuckle, Out of the Gutter and Shotgun Honey. His story “All Night” opened the 2013 anthology GLOVES OFF. Look for WHERE THE HORSES DIED to be released by the end of this year.
Gareth blogs at http://garethspark.blogspot.co.uk
He is on facebook at http://www.facebook.com/gareth.spark
And twitter at http://twitter.com/sparkgareth