This is Part Two of a magical western series.
No copyright infringement intended. All publicly recognizable characters, settings, etc. are the property of their respective owners. The original characters and plot are the property of the author. The author is in no way associated with the owners, creators or producers of any media franchise.
I was born Atticus Ludovicus Black, third generation American. My people, like so many others, came here to live and worship in the way we saw fit. My kin survived the Salem Witch Trials and moved west seeking open spaces, independence and adventure. This drive has always been strong in my family, which probably explains my choice of occupation.
My official title is Deputy Magical Marshal of the U.S. Magical Marshal Service, Deputy Mag or Mag Marshall colloquially, though the office frowns upon the usage. Often times I coordinate with the no-mag Marshall Service as there is a surprising amount of overlap in our responsibilities. However, the majority of my duties are more, well, domestic in nature.
Let me put it to you like this: What happens when a witch or wizard is born in say, Boston, or Philadelphia? The child is quickly identified and the parents contacted and arrangements are made by the Bureau of the Magical Census for the child’s attendance at the Ilvermorny School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Simple.
But what happens when a witch or wizard is born west of the Mississippi? There is no Magical Census office outside Phillidelphia.Then you must consider that those with a independent pioneering spirit are not partial to being told their children must be sent to live at some blue-blood school back east. Besides, who would help work the farmstead? What if the parents are no-mag? We don’t want the first indication of the special nature of their children to be their milk cows floating or chickens turning pink and growing three heads.
This is where I come in. I ride out and help parents adjust to the reality of the magical world, and educate them as to the particular needs and challenges of rearing magical children. I also arrange for education, usually through a traveling school-teacher, or providing a port key for a witchcraft and wizarding school-house if one is reasonably near.
The vast majority of my time, however, is spent in the saddle. Sometimes days or weeks traveling to and fro. Why not apparate, you ask? What is the point in living in a wide open country if you choose not to experience it? Besides, people tend to get a bit skittish if you suddenly appear with no reasonable explanation for how you got there, especially when ‘there’ is hundreds of miles away from anywhere else.
This is not to say that being in the middle of nowhere is boring. You’d be surprised at how often something comes out of nothing at all.
I had just finished one of these domestic responsibilities in the Missouri Territory and was on my way back to the Town of Kansas. I was five days from and ten days to anywhere. As far as I knew, the next watering hole was a day or day and a half away, and there was nothing around but rocks, scrub, and a few spiny trees. I hadn’t seen so much as a lizard since the previous day. Then came the shot that took my horse out from under me.
I felt the impact first, a dull thud from the heavy ball that struck my horse just ahead of my saddle on the right side. A split second later I heard the sharp retort of the rifle and the agonized cry of my horse.
I managed to push free and roll so as not to be pinned, then quickly drew the wand from my saddle and huddled behind my fallen horse for cover. The ridge from which the shot had come appeared to be clear, and there was no follow-up. Presently, I heard the distant sound of hoof-beats as my assailant rode off.
The only reason I could reckon for my attacker not finishing me off was the fact that to be horseless in this inhospitable local meant almost certain death… which told me that the shooter was no-mag. But that is all I knew. Who would murder a complete stranger without even robbery as a motive? I shrugged and thought about it no further. No point in working at a puzzle without any pieces.
Instead, I turned to my horse. The poor beast was beyond hope, legs twitching in agony. I stroked his muzzle and whispered into his ear as I pressed my wand to his forehead and ended his suffering. After untacking the saddle, I took a large sheet of map parchment from the fourth inside-right pocket of my coat.
The parchment was blank… until I drew the wand from my hip and touched it once, speaking the words “Proxime Ceperant!” At once a large, black arrow appeared on it indicating a town near to the south east. As far as I knew, there was nothing there, but the charm had never been wrong before.
I then arranged for alternative, if temporary, transportation. “Equus Umbra!” I said with a wave of my wand, and then I got on my way.
The map led me into the hills and a landscape that became less and less promising the further I went. Eventually I did come upon shallow wagon-ruts and hoof-marks, and though they didn’t look recent, I found it encouraging. After several hours of hard riding, I reached the town. Without the map, I knew I would never have found it. It had no name. Once it may have had a name, but the sign with the name was gone, and the post which held it splintered and pock-marked by frequent target practice. I did not take this as a good omen.
There was a mercantile, saloon, hotel so small that it barely qualified, blacksmith, and not much else. The land around was uneven and rocky, useless for farming or grazing, so I assumed that the few residents scraped a living from prospecting the nearby hills; judging by the mean conditions of the town, it couldn’t have been much of a living.
A yellow dog scuttled across the street, tail tucked between its legs. The only person in view was half leaning and half draped over the hitching-post in front of the saloon. A ‘49er by the looks of him, his mouth hung open, rheumy eyes blinked furiously. He looked from me to the near-empty bottle in his hand then back again. To his no-mag eyes I must have been a queer sight as I came into town, riding as I was upon the shadow of my former horse.
The moment I saw him, I immediately dismounted; that is to say I stepped to the side and caught my saddle before it fell to the dusty street. The shadow blew away on the breeze with a faint whinny. “Good-bye, Perceval,” I said.
The prospector dunked his head in a near-by rain barrel before falling over backwards, spread-eagle and unconscious in the dust. It was doubtful he would remember the previous day, let alone the last few minutes, so no harm done.
I walked into the hotel, and stood before the empty counter. To my left was a sparsely decorated sitting room with a fireplace and reasonably comfortable-looking, if mismatched furniture, and to my right a dining room with a table that would seat six. To the right of the desk was a hallway leading to what I assumed would be the kitchen, while to the left was a short hallway with two doors, at the end of which were stairs and a back exit. On the counter next to the empty guest register was a silver bell. I rang it.
A moment later, a harried-looking man bustled in, sleeves held above his elbows with black bands.
“Yes?” he said.
“A room,” I answered.
“Have you just arrived?” he asked.
I chose not to answer. After staring at me for much too long a time, the man turned around and fussed at the three keys hanging there and cleared his throat. “Well, we have a nice room down the hall…” When he turned around with the key, I shook my head and pointed at the ceiling.
“The room above,” I said.
“But… the other gets the morning—”
“The one above will do nicely.”
The proprietor shook his head but turned around and fetched the other key. “Yes, yes. Whatever you wish. If you’ll just sign the—”
“How much. For the room?”
“Oh, three dollars.”
I couldn’t help but raise my eyebrows at that.
The proprietor shrugged. “Only hotel around.”
“Is there a place in town where I may purchase a horse?”
The man blinked. “You haven’t a horse? Then how did you get here?”
“My horse broke its leg a few miles outside town.”
“Oh most unfortunate. Most unfortunate,” he said, frowning down at the register I had not signed.
“A horse,” I repeated after another interminable silence.
“Oh, yes, a horse. Quite impossible. No horses for sale. Donkeys. Mules. You know, for the prospectors.”
“A mule, then.”
“Oh, no. None of those for sale, either. A prospector would as soon part with his legs than his mule.”
I resisted the urge to sigh and drummed the countertop and stared. Dense as he was, he eventually got my point. “I’m afraid you’ll have to wait until the stage arrives in a week. They’ll take you to the next town and I’m sure you’ll be able to buy a horse there.”
I dropped three silver dollars on the counter and headed for the stairs.
“The price includes supper. We eat at six, Mr… Mr…” he said, looking again at his blank register.
I remained silent as I took the stairs. Through the glass of the back door I could see a large cooper tub, a few stools and a barber’s chair. The whole area was fenced off for privacy. Barber, hotelier, cook… the man was bound to be a gossip. Until I knew who it was that had tried to ambush me outside of town, I thought it best to keep my name to myself.
Like the rest of the hotel, his room was unremarkable, but it was clean, the bed louse-free, and the window afforded a good view of the street and the way in and out of town. I
After hanging my coat and jacket, I tossed my hat and neck scarf on the one chair in the room and shucked off my boots and socks. I poured water from the pitcher into the basin on top of the small dresser and splashed my face, which was refreshing after the morning I’d had.
I then lay back on the bed, which was surprisingly comfortable, and relaxed.
Though I was aggrieved at the loss of Perceval (I’d been quite fond of that horse) I was probably nowhere near as vexed at my situation as you might think. The unknown shooter, this nameless town… my gut told me that the two were somehow connected. If there was something in the town worth killing for, it was worth me figuring out. So it didn’t matter that the coach wasn’t due for a week, for there was no place I’d rather be.