Utah squinted into the sun as he watched the dust cloud growing to the south. “Think that's the stage?” he asked.
The comment distracted the store keeper from the frivolous small talk as he rushed through the store to stand on the boardwalk. He held his hand up to shade his eyes. “If it's the stage, then the school teacher is here. I heard rumors that she's the prettiest lass west of the Mississip.”
“No one in this town has ever seen her. Why would you think she's pretty?” Utah hated the gossip.
The store keeper ignored him, brushing at his apron and pulling on his shirt sleeves. “I didn't know she was coming today, or I'd have shaved.” The man ran a hand over the stubble on his cheeks.
Utah managed to keep his mouth shut this time, but he shifted his weight and laid a hand against the pistol on his hip. If that dust cloud really was the stage, his work was just beginning. The list he'd given the store keeper was an excuse to be in town. Ned could use the supplies, his cooking was the one thing Utah would miss about the 3 Bar W Ranch, when this was over.
The dust cloud resolved itself to show four horses cantering. The stage driver ran them hard. Utah's keen eyes searched through the dust cloud, but there didn't seem to be anyone chasing the stage. Those horses would need rest. Utah snorted. He preferred to save his horse for when he needed the speed, and there was always a time you needed speed.
The stage pulled up in a cloud of dust. The small and slightly rotund store keeper rushed into the street. Calling to the driver and passenger. “Welcome to Antelope Creek!”
Utah stayed in the store's shadows and watched the stagecoach, the driver, and everything that moved on the street as the dust began to settle in the still heat of the afternoon.
“Miss Thompson,” Bernie greeted the woman as she stepped off the stage. Utah blinked at her surprising height, the dusty blue travel dress, and her polite smile. Her chin was strong and she held her shoulders back giving her an air of confidence, which drew him to a woman.
“Ma'am, do you need anything?” the driver interrupted the store keeper's welcome speech.
“No, thank you, sir.”
“I told you it's Bill. I gotta take care of these horses before I go on to Custer City.”
“Good luck and God speed.”
Utah snorted. The driver was going to have a rough time through that country.
“Miss Thompson, welcome to Antelope Creek.” The store keeper began again.
“Are you Mayor Gregory?” she said with a polite inflection and soft tone.
“Ahhh, no. He's over there.” Bernie pointed at the corrals on the edge of town. The dress maker, Mrs. Woodard, appeared on the board walk in front of her store. She wore a large smile as she crossed the street.
Utah shifted his weight again and remained in the shadows watching all the movement, and people of town with a sharp eye. This was a dangerous time for the young lady, and Utah was her sole protector at the moment. More would come, but Mr. Henry, owner of the 3 Bar W, didn't waste man power. Waiting for a stagecoach only required one man. Utah reminded himself that after he finished this request his debt to Mr. Henry was paid. He'd be free to move on, free to find safer work. Free to use his talents and abilities as he chose.
All twenty people that lived in Antelope Creek turned out to meet the school teacher. The people weren't a threat, but the movement, laughter and jostling could hide danger. Utah watched the crowd, searching for unnatural movements, or behavior that wasn't appropriate. His concern was a shapeshifter, or other supernatural creature taking a shot at Mr. Henry's daughter, and sole heir.
The children of town scrambled among the adults and screeched as they saw Miss Thompson in her blue dress. There were five of them. Utah counted and identified each one. He assessed the children carefully. He couldn't afford a mistake. This was Mr. Henry's daughter.
After several minutes the first rush of excitement calmed. Utah felt confident that Miss Thompson was currently safe. He moved to the counter of the General Store and scratched a note on a scrap of paper.
He dropped it into the iron stove. There would be no answer, but Mr. Henry would send a proper guard. Once the guard arrived, he'd be free. A trip back to the 3 Bar W. Then he might start by going back to Utah, a visit to check on his mum would be good. She'd want to know he'd survived his debt to Mr. Henry.
The crowd moved toward the saloon, with Miss Thompson in its center.
“Hey, Bernie. You going to get my list?” Utah called out to the store keeper.
“Ummm, not really. I've got other business. You just dropped off your list. Why not get a drink or two with us? I'll have it ready tomorrow.”
“Ned needs them supplies today. This wasn't no social visit.”
“Gather them yourself then. I'm busy helping the new school teacher find her way about town.” Bernie snapped.
Utah quirked his eyebrows. “It's your store...” he reminded the man. “Ned wants to cook dinner for the boys, and I've still got a ride ahead of me.”
“You'll have your things.” The store keeper returned with a frown. It was plain he was determined to rejoin the festivities and draw the attention of the young lady. Every bachelor in town, the majority of Antelope Gap's inhabitants, was intent on drawing Miss Thompson's attention.
Utah turned his attention to the stage and its driver as he finished tying the horses in the small amount of shade provided by the buildings. “There's water in the corrals, probably some feed too.” Utah offered the advice.
“Thanks, but I want to keep on moving. I don't want to be caught between here and Hat Creek Station after dark.”
“Good idea,” Utah said as his eyes scanned the road south of town, where the stage had come from.
“Did you see how pretty she was? I felt like I was about to be overcome.” The store keeper prattled on about Miss Thompson. Utah didn't listen or interrupt. He didn't care. His job was make sure Mr. Henry's daughter remained safe. Utah was to use any, and all of his talents to keep her that way.
Once finished the store keeper crossed the street in a rush to fawn over Miss Thompson as she refreshed herself with food and drink at the saloon. The people of town had shown no signs to raise his suspicions, or concerns.
He walked out to his horse and stowed the supplies requested by Ned for his cooking. A dust cloud to the south, the direction the stage came from, raised Utah's suspicions. He pulled his rifle from the scabbard and stepped around the corner of the General Store, using the building to block the threat he presented with his rifle, while allowing him a good range of sight along the street.
He didn't wait long. Two Indians drew up their black horses at the edge of town. Their horses around the stage in the quiet street. When the Indians passed, the four tired stage horses pulled at their leads with eyes rolling white. They snorted and stomped.
Utah closed his eyes and whispered, “Krystalklar oko.”
He opened his eyes, keeping his movements slow as he surveyed the street before him. A lizard hanging on the wood of the building across the alley from him was a stab of light that pierced his skull. Utah squinted as he turned his face toward the street. Everything looked brighter. The spell showed him life forces.
The two beasts tied before the saloon were not horses. A glamour hid their true form, Badlands boars.
Utah blinked and gripped the rifle in his hands a little more firmly. Badlands boars had stiff ugly black hair that only lightly covered their thick, black skin. They stood the height of a pony, and had four dangerous tusks. They would fight as hard as their riders in battle, though they weren't discriminatory about who they battled. Not many humans or humanoids rode the difficult creatures, but the Svaltalvar, or black elves, had a reputation for using the beasts.
Black elves. This was more than Mr. Henry had bargained on. Utah gritted his teeth. The elves had already gone inside the saloon. They were much too close to Miss Thompson. He had to draw them out.
He pulled the rifle to his shoulder, sighted in on the closest boar and squeezed the trigger. The boom of sound was loud in the restricted space between buildings. The kick of the rifle moved the end of the barrel off his target. When Utah brought it back down where he could see, the boar stood still beside its fellow.
Utah jacked the shell out of his Springfield rifle and loaded without taking his eyes from either of the boars. The first settled to its knees. The shot had been good. He watched the saloon door for the dark elves to check on their mounts, but there was no sign of his primary enemy. The store keeper stuck his head out the door, and raised the alarm, but their was no sign of either of the elves.
Utah pulled the gun up and shot the other boar. This shot wasn't as good and the animal squealed. It turned, stepping on the downed boar beside it. The smell of blood enraged the beast. It shook it's head and squealed. The stagecoach horses went wild, flinging themselves around. Utah's horse pranced sideways, but didn't fight the tether. It had been battle trained, both in the U.S. Cavalry, and on the 3 Bar W.
The injured boar turned on the crazed stage horses. The high pitched screams of the horses brought most of the town's people to the entrance of the saloon. Utah's spell allowed him to see through whatever glamour the elves were using, but it was difficult to sift through all the extra information provided to his eyes. He saw connections between people, and the strength of their life force.
Ignoring the havoc caused by the animals in the street, Utah reloaded. One dark elf was there, among the people. Its life force was different, darker than a human's brightly burning force. Elves lived longer and their life forces burned slower, banked against time and magic.
People surged around the entrance with guns drawn. They wanted to stop whatever was attacking the stage horses, but the glamour spell confused them. Whether they saw horses, or the boar, Utah didn't know. He searched for the second black elf.
A stream of curse words erupted as the boar flipped a horse and ripped it open with the sharp tusks. Anger stirred the men, but confusion held them as magic swirled around the boar. It was a dizzying spectacle.
The elf stayed back in the crowd. Utah couldn't get a shot. The General Store limited his range of sight. He had to move, to find the second black elf and draw the one he could see away from Miss Thompson and the town's people.
“Zwalniac,” Utah whispered as he stepped back away from the street. The extra vision disappeared. He needed all his power for the duel to come.
“Cowards! Show yourselves!” he yelled as he stepped into the bright sun of the street. “I haven't seen your kind in ages. Thought you all died at the battle of Kimberly. Come out and face me like warriors.”
The people paused, turning to look at him as another horse died. It wasn't a pleasant death and the smell of blood filled the air. Utah regretted that the second boar wasn't dead yet. He pulled up the rifle and snapped a shot. The pony-sized hog turned on him.
Six shots rang out from the entrance of the saloon as Utah dropped his rifle and grabbed for the pistol at his hip. The boar fell in a puff of dust. Utah kept the pistol in his hand, but dropped it so the muzzle pointed at the dust beside his boot.
“That thing killed my horses!” The stage driver shouted.
All eyes turned toward the black elf. What the people of Antelope Gap saw was a mystery. Utah viewed the elf with eyes that saw through the glamour spell.
The dark elf stood calmly in the midst of the chaos. He was distinct at close to, or just over six-feet tall with dark skin, and eyes that glowed iridescent blue, even in the brightness of the sun.
Utah had to act fast before the elf released his magic. So far only horses had died today, he wanted to keep it that way. “I challenge you.”
“Which one of us?” the elf asked. His voice was deep and smooth; strong like all elves' voices.
“You first, then the other.” Utah snapped.
The elf shook his head. “Both of us. You have not used our names. Do you not know them, slave of Henry Wolstrum?”
Utah shook his head. “I'm not a slave. And you are Svaltalvar.”
“Ahh, you do know us. Am I allowed the name of the human who dares challenge two Svaltalvar?”
“That name doesn't hold all your power.” The elf's thick voice kept all eyes riveted on him.
Utah nodded. “I'll keep the rest of my name to myself.” He blinked, holding his eyes shut as he allowed his other, magical, senses to locate the second elf.
He pulled up his pistol and opened his eyes as he squeezed the trigger. His free hand slapped the action on his revolver. Two shots rang out, the first breaking the glass of Mrs. Woodard's dress shop. The second was higher, knocking the dark elf from the overhang that shaded the shop.
The dark elf hit the dirt of the street with a heavy thud. The elf pushed himself up and Utah shot him again, this time with more accuracy as the elf was closer, and stationary. The bullet tore its way through the elf's chest, taking out the heart on the right side. Utah nodded as the elf fell limply to the dirt. It always paid to know your enemy.
A sharp pain pierced his shoulder and he staggered. A bone handled knife protruded from his shoulder. Utah's attention returned to the elf at the saloon. The humans had cleared away from him. Most disappeared back into the saloon. Utah was glad that Miss Thompson wasn't too close to the action.
“Odkrycie,” the word left his lips, drawing knowledge about his wound, and what had inflicted it. The quick spell told him the bullet had been soaked in a poison, one unique to the dark elves. Ned might have something that would counteract it in his healing archives, but Utah wasn't sure he'd survive long enough to find out.
“Plomien,” Utah spoke and thrust out his free hand. A fire ball launched toward the elf, fast and full of Utah's strength.
The elf swatted it aside. The fire ball smoldered in the dirt of the street as Utah gathered himself for the elf's attack.
A gentle song emanating from the black elf filled his mind. “Nevermore to see your face again,” the words cut to his heart and Utah knew that his mother would mourn him. The tune was simple and left a longing for days past.
“Watch out!” came the cry from some on-looker.
Utah dropped to the ground and rolled without discovering what the threat was. When he came to his feet the black elf was within striking distance with a dwarf-made sword. One close look at the sharpened blade descending toward him had Utah rolling through the dirt again. He stopped at the edge of the boardwalk and sat up, propped against the wood.
He held his palm out. “Plomien.” The fireball that emerged was half the size of the previous one and floated slowly through the air between Utah and the dark elf. The poison made every movement painful and Utah grunted with the effort.
The elf laughed. “Foolish Utah. The woman is mine. No one here has the power to stop me.” He drew the sword up for a powerful blow.
Utah didn't spare the energy on words. He pointed his pistol in the dark elf's direction and pulled the trigger.
“Eiiiyahh!” The elf screeched. “You missed.”
“But I won't.” The voice held a distinct old world accent. Mr. Henry. Reinforcements had arrived. The sharp report of a gun sounded.
“Damned Indians! Someone shoot him! He's taken down one of the 3 Bar's men!”
“Eiiiyahh!” Came the war cry of the dark elf as it turned to face the enraged people. Shots and hollers rang out. The elf sank slowly to the ground riddled with holes.
Utah sighed as the poison sapped the strength remaining to him.
“Ahhh, Utah,” Mr. Henry said, his hand cupped Utah's cheek. “Thank you. It's a shame you came to such an end. I had big hopes for you.”
“Is she safe?”
“Yes, Miss Thompson, my daughter, is safe.”
“Tell my mom that I paid the debt.” Utah struggled to get the words out as his breath came in gasps and darkness filled his eyes.
“Rest easy Utah. She'll know you were brave to the end.”