The wagon rumbled across the plain, the horses kicking up dirt. The wind tickled my bare feet, my boots sopping from the last river we crossed. I looked past the horizon, trying to think of my old home, a cozy cabin surrounded with long, swaying grasses and a small stream to the side. Horses passed by the house daily, every new rancher wanting to get a taste of my mother’s famous homemade dried bean chili. I sighed, hardly being able to picture my mother without sore thoughts.
She was the reason we were on the road right now, even though it wasn’t her fault. About a year ago, or maybe it was less than that, a man with a scraggly beard and flushed, bright red face came to our house. But instead of pleading for a little bit of chili, as most people did, he asked for help. The man had a tongue with white polka dots and a high fever, but he claimed he was freezing, all signs of the deadly scarlet fever. Mother took him in anyway, her being so caring and, well, motherly. She cared for him for a while, and he eventually got better, but had accidentally spread it to my mother. She hid it carefully, and none of us knew until it was too late. She had caught it badly, and despite my father’s best efforts, she died less than a week after we found out.
The man felt very guilty and offered us this wagon as a favor when Father said he was leaving the area. I hadn’t wanted to leave at first, but Father couldn’t stand being in the house without Mother around, and I couldn’t stand him being so anxious all the time. So we left, taking nothing but food, some old quilts Mother had made, and the recipe for dried bean chili.
My thoughts were rudely interrupted as my heart jumped into my throat and the wagon suddenly stopped. I heard the horses rear, screaming, and the shouts of my father as he cracked his whip, trying to settle the horses. I leaped out of the wagon, despite the fear of snakes hiding in the rocks.
I ran around the wagon, worried about what I might see. My face whitened. It was worse than I could’ve imagined. The horses were right on the edge of a very, very steep hill, one the wagon surely couldn’t manage. Beneath the hill was a town. Not one of the nice boom towns, bustling with life, but a silent ghost town. Besides the horses pawing anxiously, it was completely silent. I saw my father’s face was pale, but he quickly collected himself.
“I suppose we can stop here for the night, Colt, can you make a fire?”
“But Father, there isn’t any wood for miles, except in the ghost town.” I protested. I didn’t want to go into the ghost town. It looked, sounded, and probably smelled haunted.
“Then you’ll have to go into the ghost town.” he said grimly. I frowned. I didn’t want to go to the surely haunted town, but I also didn’t want to upset Father. I had to choose which I was more afraid of.
I decided to go into the ghost town.
I grumbled, slowly making my way down the hill. Snakes lived in holes by hillsides, and that was exactly where I was. I didn’t like snakes much, not since Billy Gordon snuck one into my desk at school and I screamed like a girl.
The ghost town loomed in front of me more silently than ever. The wind brushed my bare leg, and I regretted not having slipped on my boots before I came down here. Everything had a creepy feel to it and-- wait, I heard something.
I walked down the main street of the town warily, keeping an ear out for a strange sound. The silence was literally deafening, and I could only just hear someone screaming.
My feet subconsciously began moving towards the sound. I got chilled, even though it was hot here. The screaming became clearer, and even though it sounded hardly louder than a whisper, I could just about make out some of the words.
“I will NOT! And you can’t make me, no more than you can herd black cats!” a girl’s voice shrieked. I crept closer, even though I surely didn’t want to have anything to do with this.
“I will make a deal.” this voice was scratchy but deep, and a shiver ran down my spine just from hearing it -- I doubted it mattered what they voice was saying, it could be about the blessing of rainbows, and it would still sound evil.
“I’m not interested.”
“You might be.”
“It could save your family.”
I could practically hear the girl’s will deflate. I think I knew which building the argument was coming from.“What is it?”
“If you can conjure a black cat and a portal by noon tomorrow, and get the cat to enter the portal within five minutes after the conjuring, I will follow the cat into the portal. If not…” the voice trailed off. I peeked between the slats of a big building, it might’ve been a town hall or a saloon in its prime, and saw two figures. One was a pretty girl with long braided blonde hair, she couldn’t have been older than me, and I was only 13. The others was a tall, menacing man, cloaked in darkness. He radiated evil, and I gasped at how much clearer the air became once he flashed out of view. I was so startled, I didn’t notice the girl had disappeared as well.
I backed away from the building, determined to forget the entire thing and just gather some wood. I turned away from the building. The girl was right in front of me. I screamed.
“Jeez. What were you doing?” she asked me, squinting her eyes as she scrutinized me. I backed up.
“I-- I hadn’t done anything.”
“But you heard us.”
I nodded, then quickly shook my head. I got the feeling this girl wasn’t to be messed with.
She seemed upset. “How much did you hear?”
“Not much. I could barely hear you over the silence.” I frowned. That sounded weird.
She nodded, appearing mollified. Then she scowled. “How much is not much?”
“I heard about the deal.” I admitted, sensing it was hopeless to lie. “I want to help.”
Her scowl deepened. “How could you help?”
“I don’t know. What did he mean conjure a portal?”
“Magic. Don’t you know?” she said, then slapped her hand over her mouth. “Do NOT repeat that. Promise?”
“Only if you tell me what’s going on.” I replied. I was curious. And the girl was quite pretty. She glowered at me.
“Fine. But you’ll regret it.” she told me. I nodded, suddenly wondering what I had got myself into. I didn’t want to mess with magic. The closest thing to magic I’d ever heard of was the devil’s, and that was never good. Oh, and when Mother preached about miracles. Maybe magic wasn’t all bad. She continued talking. “That, my friend, was Jumping Jones, the meanest wizard in all of the West. He doesn't care nothing about anyone unless they have magic, like me. Then all he wants is your servitude. He even makes you immortal so your slavery came be eternal.”
I winced. That was harsh. “So you’re immortal?”
She scowled again. “No, idiot. Me and my entire family about to be though if I can’t make a stinkin’ rotting portal to an angel’s lair.”
“Can I help?” I asked again, though I doubted it.
“Can you do magic?”
“What do you think the answer is?”
“You’re a rotten idiot.”
“Thanks.” I said. The girl responded to strength, and I hadn’t shown any. Well, now I was going to.
The girl nodded approvingly. “If you can keep that up, I might have something for you. In the meantime, here.” The girl made a stack of sticks appear, exactly what I needed.
“How did you know?”
“You’re not the first idiot to come here, you know.”
“Oh. Thanks though.” I took the wood and began the walk back to the wagon. Father was probably wondering where I was. When I reached the top of the cliff, Father was absolutely livid. He jumped up from his hunched seat on the log, and began scolding me. Actually, scold isn’t a strong enough word. Maybe furious raging. “Colt! Where were you? I was sure you had fallen and broken your neck!!” he suddenly broke down and gave me a crushing hug. “I’m just glad you’re back.”
“Sorry, Father. I-- It took longer than I expected to find some usable firewood.” I told him once he had let go. He nodded.
“Don’t do it again. Let’s warm up some jerky soup.” Father and I ate in silence. I felt bad for being late, but I wasn’t feeling bad I had met the girl. She was something, and I wasn’t sure what to think of her. Something was off, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. Maybe it was just me.
* * * * *
In the morning, I offered to go to the town again to find some more firewood. Father just nodded. “Be back be noon.” he replied. “I’m going to do some tidying up.”
I assured him I would be back soon, then I went back down the hill. This time I had my boots on, even though they were still damp, and the climb was much easier. I made a beeline for the building I first saw the girl.
She was waiting outside, and sighed when I showed up. She nagged me about being late.
I complained that we hadn’t set a meeting time. “Besides, I don’t even know your name. Technically we’re still strangers.” I added. She sighed again.
“We are strangers.”She replied. But she told me her name. “I’m Liza. And yours is…”
“Like a baby horse?”
“Shut up about my name. Can I help or not?” I was getting impatient. I even got up to leave and actually look for firewood when she stopped me.
“Fine. While I conjure, you need to find my family and free them. Do you have a pocket knife?”
I held my knife up. She nodded in approval. “Oh, and if you fail, we’ll both be killed.”
I gulped. “That’s pleasant.”
“I know. Now, help me get ready.”
I looked at her in confusion. “What?”
“I need to look nice for my date with the devil. Unzip my dress.” She turned around.
“What? No!” I exclaimed. I wasn’t sure which I was more surprised by: The fact she wanted me to help her get undressed or that she just said she has a date with the devil.
“Oh, I forgot. Most of you are pretty modest. Nevermind, I’ll just change straight into the dress.” Liza said, snapping her fingers. Her dress suddenly changed from a modest calico dress normal for the wild west to an long, dark blue frock with a black hood and shawl. She twirled for me. “How do I look?”
“Wouldn’t red be more appropriate for the devil?” I asked, wondering what she meant by that. Father would be furious I wasn’t angry with her for even saying that.
She rolled her eyes. “I’m not actually going out with the devil today. Have you seen his schedule?” Seeing my shocked face, she quickly amended her words. “I’m joking. But dueling like this is a big deal and I should look nice. Now, do I or not?”
“You look lovely.” I told her. She glared at me. “What?”
“Nevermind. My family in in the second building on the left. It has a rusty sign.”
“They all have rusty signs.”
“You’ll find it. It’s the only building with people in it.”
“Okay.” I turned to walk away to find the building with Liza’s family, but she stopped me.
“Thank you.” she told me. She seemed sincere, but I couldn’t exactly tell. “I really mean it. Thank you for helping me. Most people wouldn’t have.”
“It’s okay. You’re welcome. I just have to be back by noon with some wood or Father won’t be happy.”
Liza gave me a small smile. “Easy.”
She went inside the building, and I left to try and find the building with Liza’s family. I looked at all the houses on the left with rusty signs and didn’t find anyone. I looked in all the houses on the right with rusty signs and didn’t find anyone. I wandered up and down the ghost town street, until I heard some whimpering.
At first I just thought it was the wind or something, but then I heard it again. Then it was full-blown crying. Liza was not going to be happy if it was her family. I thought was coming from the one house that didn’t have a rusty sign. I was not happy.
Inside the house was a woman, man, and two little girls tied together sitting on the floor. The rest of the room was bare. I rushed to their side and began sawing through the thick rope holding them together.
“Who are you?” the woman managed to gasp out. It sounded like the rope was cutting off their air. I began sawing faster.
“Your daughter I assume, Liza, sent me here to free you.” I told them. “She’s fighting some shadowy monster dressed like she’s going to a party.”
The woman groaned. “The foolish girl, she’s never going to be able to beat him. Saw faster.” she instructed, nudging me with her foot. “I need to go help my daughter.”
I finally had sawed through the rope, and the woman leaped up. “John, you watch the girls. I’m going to save Liza. Boy, you come with me.”
I just nodded mutely, even though I didn’t particularly like being ordered around. I followed the woman as she whipped across the town into the building Liza was fighting in. I could hear Liza’s strained shouts as she did, well, I’m not sure what she was doing.
Her mother burst through the door shouting. “Let my daughter go!”
The black figure sneered. “She made a deal. She has to conjure a portal and a black cat.”
“LIII-ZAAA!!!!” her mother screamed angrily. “You are in a lot of trouble, young lady!”
Liza groaned. “Mother, I’m kinda in the middle of someth-INNNGGG!!!” her complaint turned into a scream as the shadowy figure shot her with something.
I screamed also, and ran to her side. The mother rose into the air and began chanting. I was terrified by everything going on around me. The floating woman, Liza bleeding, the shadowy figure.
I pressed my hand against Liza side, and her already short breaths turned into desperate gasps for air. The woman yelled when she noticed what was happening to her daughter, and blasted the figure into a sparkling portal she had created behind him. The woman collapsed to the ground, and the portal disappeared. Once she had gained her breath a few minutes later, she rushed to Liza’s side just like I had. I scooted over with tears in my eyes. I knew she didn’t have long left. Only a miracle could save her.
Luckily, we had a miracle. Magic.
Her mother pressed her hand to Liza’s bloody side and started chanting again. I covered my eyes, terrified at what was about to happen.
Liza’s mother nudged me. When I opened my eyes, I saw Liza, all healed up, fuming. “Mooootherrrrrr! I had it under control!” she huffed, glaring at her mother. Then she turned to me. “Why did you let her come? It was dangerous!”
“I couldn’t have stopped her just like I couldn’t stop a runaway train. Besides, its her fault you’re still alive.”
Liza frowned again. “Dang it.” Then she wrapped her arms around me. “Thank you for untying her. You’re right, I wouldn’t have survived without her and you. But don’t tell her that.”
I grinned and hugged Liza back. Then I realized that she was getting blood all over me. “Liza!You got blood all over me! What am I going to tell my father?” I asked, pulling away. “And I need firewood.”
Liza’s mother smiled. “You helped me. I can certainly help you with that.” she began chanting again and my clothes looked like they were brand new. A stack of firewood appeared at my side.
“It was the least I can do. Liza?” her mother prompted.
Liza rolled her eyes. “Thank you.” She flicked her wrist and two journals appeared. “One for you and one for me. So we can keep in touch.” Liza explained. I looked at her strangely. This was too nice a gift. “In case I have to fight another being from the underworld.”
I smiled. “Thank you for everything. Now, I really have to get back.” I stood up, and hurried back to the hill. I could see Liza and her family hugging and waving at me. I quickly waved back, then quickly scaled the rocky hill.
Father smiled at me. “You’re early.”
“I am?” I looked at the sun. He was right. It was definitely not noon yet. “Oh well. I found some more wood. I’m starving.”
Father passed me a piece of jerky. I devoured it. I guess watching people fight a monster was exhausting. We built a fire and ate, then packed up the wagon.
As we rode further into the wild west, kicking up red dirt, I wrote in the journal Liza gave me.
Thank you for helping me believe in magic. I owe you.
She immediately wrote back.
Thank you for having such a dumb name. Now you don’t owe me. Oh, and for saving my life. That too.