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Red Country (First Law World #3)
Joe Abercrombie

I

TROUBLE

‘You, that judge men by the handle and the sheath,

how can I make you know a good blade?’ Jedediah M. Grant

Some Kind of Coward

‘Gold.’ Wist made the word sound like a mystery there was no solving. ‘Makes men mad.’

Shy nodded. ‘Those that ain’t mad already.’

They sat in front of Stupfer’s Meat House, which might’ve sounded like a brothel but was actually the worst place to eat within fifty miles, and that with some fierce competition. Shy perched on the sacks in her wagon and Wist on the fence, where he always seemed to be, like he’d such a splinter in his arse he’d got stuck there. They watched the crowd.

‘I came here to get away from people,’ said Wist.

Shy nodded. ‘Now look.’

Last summer you could’ve spent all day in town and not seen two people you didn’t know. You could’ve spent some days in town and not seen two people. A lot can change with a few months and a gold find. Now Squaredeal was bursting at its ragged seams with bold pioneers. One-way traffic, headed west towards imagined riches, some charging through fast as the clutter would allow, some stopping off to add their own share of commerce and chaos. Wagon-wheels clattered, mules nickered and horses neighed, livestock honked and oxen bellowed. Men, women and children of all races and stations did plenty of their own honking and bellowing too, in every language and temper. It might’ve been quite the colourful spectacle if everywhere the blown dust hadn’t leached each tone to that same grey ubiquity of dirt.

Wist sucked a noisy mouthful from his bottle. ‘Quite the variety, ain’t there?’

Shy nodded. All set on getting something for nothing.’

All struck with a madness of hope. Or of greed, depending on the observer’s faith in humanity, which in Shy’s case stood less than brim-full. All drunk on the chance of reaching into some freezing pool out there in the great empty and plucking up a new life with both hands. Leaving their humdrum selves behind on the bank like a shed skin and taking a short cut to happiness.

‘Tempted to join ’em?’ asked Wist.

Shy pressed her tongue against her front teeth and spat through the gap between. ‘Not me.’ If they made it across the Far Country alive, the odds were stacked high they’d spend a winter up to their arses in ice water and dig up naught but dirt. And if lightning did strike the end of your spade, what then? Ain’t like rich folk got no trouble.

There’d been a time Shy thought she’d get something for nothing. Shed her skin and step away smiling. Turned out sometimes the short cut don’t lead quite where you hoped, and cuts through bloody country, too.

‘Just the rumour o’ gold turns ’em mad.’ Wist took another swallow, the knobble on his scrawny neck bobbing, and watched two would-be prospectors wrestle over the last pickaxe at a stall while the trader struggled vainly to calm them. ‘Imagine how these bastards’ll act if they ever close hands around a nugget.’

Shy didn’t have to imagine. She’d seen it, and didn’t prize the memories. ‘Men don’t need much beckoning on to act like animals.’

‘Nor women neither,’ added Wist.

Shy narrowed her eyes at him. ‘Why look at me?’

‘You’re foremost in my mind.’

‘Not sure I like being that close to your face.’

Wist showed her his tombstone teeth as he laughed, and handed her the bottle. ‘Why don’t you got a man, Shy?’

‘Don’t like men much, I guess.’

‘You don’t like anyone much.’

‘They started it.’

‘All of ’em?’

‘Enough of ’em.’ She gave the mouth of the bottle a good wipe and made sure she took only a sip. She knew how easy she could turn a sip into a swallow, and the swallow into a bottle, and the bottle into waking up smelling of piss with one leg in the creek. There were folk counting on her, and she’d had her fill of being a disappointment.

The wrestlers had been dragged apart and were spitting insults each in their own tongue, neither quite catching the details but both getting the gist. Looked like the pick had vanished in the commotion, more’n likely spirited away by a cannier adventurer while eyes were elsewhere.

‘Gold surely can turn men mad,’ muttered Wist, all wistful as his name implied. ‘Still, if the ground opened and offered me the good stuff I don’t suppose I’d be turning down a nugget.’

Shy thought of the farm, and all the tasks to do, and all the time she hadn’t got for the doing of ’em, and rubbed her roughed-up thumbs against her chewed-up fingers. For the quickest moment a trek into the hills didn’t sound such a mad notion after all. What if there really was gold up there? Scattered on some stream bed in priceless abundance, longing for the kiss of her itchy fingertips? Shy South, luckiest woman in the Near Country…

‘Hah.’ She slapped the thought away like a bothersome fly. High hopes were luxuries she couldn’t stretch to. ‘In my experience, the ground ain’t giving aught away. No more’n the rest of us misers.’

‘Got a lot, do you?’

‘Eh?’

‘Experience.’

She winked as she handed his bottle back. ‘More’n you can imagine, old man.’ A damn stretch more’n most of the pioneers, that was sure. Shy shook her head as she watched the latest crowd coming through–a set of Union worthies, by their looks, dressed for a picnic rather than a slog across a few hundred miles of lawless empty. Folk who should’ve been satisfied with the comfortable lives they had, suddenly deciding they’d take any chance at grabbing more. Shy wondered how long it’d be before they were limping back the other way, broken and broke. If they made it back.

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