Reader, I have been so excited about this book. I edited it a while ago, and I knew I had something special on my hands. The book is this delightful mix of sarcastic humor, horror, and fantasy set in a Wild West landscape that just comes alive. Cross has a knack for blending tension and humor, for knowing right when to lighten things up a bit, and just how to press into the intensity of the moment at other times. He kept me guessing, and that’s something I really value.
So, without further delay, let me show you the cover, and the first chapter. You can pre-order the book here.
About the Book
Sheriff Errol Thorpe’s life is chaotic, brutal, and above all, solitary. After an unimaginable loss years ago, all he feels is the compulsion to seek vengeance. But when a vulnerable family arrives in town, facing an ugly future, he is pulled headfirst into a web of violence, secrets, and things he never imagined. In search of truth and answers, Thorpe finds himself battling deadly flesh-eating Dust, acidic golden blood, and the political designs of powerful people – all the while learning how to be a person again. When Dust rises in San Dios, people hide indoors. When Sheriff Thorpe arrives, people run.
Cover art by Luke Tarzian
The door to the Oasis Saloon in Santiago creaked as a large figure wrapped in greasy black fabric smeared with gray pushed it open. The music stopped briefly but resumed as the figure pulled off its mask–an intimidating black expanse with red glass covering the eyes. The figure was a man: tall, broad, and severe. His beard, brown with white streaks, covered his jaw, but anyone looking could just barely see the edges of a deep, red scar peeking out from beneath. His hair was long and similarly brown and white but tied up so he could wear the mask. By looks alone, Sheriff Errol Thorpe was not a man to trifle with. By reputation, doing so would be suicidal. He sighed as he took off the mask, then felt his chest hitch. He coughed once, hard, and it made his bones ache. Well, shitfire.
Behind the bar, a heavy-set bartender with a small pair of eyeglasses perched on his nose rummaged around for something unseen. As the bearded man stripped off the suit, tossed it in the corner, and sat down on the stool, the bartender peered up at him and yelped.
“Sheriff Thorpe! Didn’t expect to see you back so soon!”
“Evenin’, Cory. Storm picked up while I was out,” Thorpe growled, “Barely had enough time to throw on my suit, but the fuckin’ Elder Boys got away ‘cause of it.”
He coughed and his green eyes watered with the effort. The bartender, Cory, frowned.
“That cough ain’t sounding so good, Sheriff.”
“The usual then?”
Cory nodded and pulled out a small bottle and emptied it into a glass. The liquid was thick and greenish and extremely unappetizing, but Thorpe knocked it back without complaint. As soon as it entered his body, he could feel the tendrils of dust pull away from his lungs and his chest open up. He finished the liquid and breathed out a sigh of relief. A swirl of gray and red dust poured out from his mouth and evaporated into the air. Thorpe smiled.
“Now, that’s much better. Much obliged, Cory.”
“’Course, Sheriff! Now, I gotta tell you that getting that green stuff for you is becoming mighty tricky now that Harlan moved back into Prudence Valley. He’s put a limit on what gets through without his say-so. Sooner than later, I may have to charge you. Business is business, you know.”
Thorpe nodded in understanding. As he looked around the bar, he saw most of the regulars. Ol’ Barclay, the only person in town too drunk to give a damn about the Dust. Jed and John Purcell, the twins from the ranch to the south. Pastor Fletcher, who had his arm around the shoulder of Lindsy, one of the newer ‘working girls’ in town. Thorpe made a mental note to have a private talk with the good reverend about the value of chastity or, for fuck’s sake, at least discretion. Hell, even Max Brecht was here, and that cranky old bastard didn’t usually leave the stables unless he was forced.
In the corner, though, there sat a few people that Thorpe didn’t recognize. He saw the woman first. Blonde hair stuffed under a green-blue bonnet. Her dress and shawl were mismatched shades of blue, but she wore heavy-looking brown boots. He couldn’t see her face yet and he turned his attention to the two children sitting by her. To her right sat a little girl, probably seven or eight, in a pink dress. She was drawing something on a sheet of a paper and staring intently at it. Thorpe smiled a little. She reminded him of what Sofie looked like back then. He winced and forced down the unwanted pulsing in his heart. Best not to think about that till the storm died down. Next to the little girl slouched a young man who looked to be about thirteen or so. He had long, stringy black hair and a sullen expression. Nobody could see his eyes due to his hat being tilted down and his brown shirt and black pants were tinged brownish-red. Thorpe suspected they were a family, most likely.
That was odd. Families usually stayed here, but new ones didn’t usually arrive. No reason to. This far out from Prima City, wasn’t much to see or talk about. Aside from the Quarry, but that meant something else.
Thorpe’s eyes flicked to the left. Leaning against the piano, trying to remain hidden, was Merl Cinder. Tall, wiry, and fidgety, Merl’s few strands of white hair dangled from beneath his dented black hat. There was no mistaking him, especially not with that pistol swinging off his hip. One of Hoss Elder’s boys, Merl was particularly skilled at capturing innocents and smuggling them out past The Boundary, to the mines where they were ‘allowed’ to work for pennies. Just enough to skirt slaving laws. Lousy bastards. Last time they met, Thorpe had beaten him half to death and told Merl that if he saw him in Promise County again, he would finish what he started.
“Cory,” Thorpe said quietly, “who’s them over there?”
“Yes. The family.”
“Oh, y’ know, Sheriff, I don’t know much ‘bout–”
Cory sighed and leaned in.
“Came with Merl last night. He said they was travelin’ east to Unity to see about some work for the young ‘un there. Said he was doin’ a good deed for a needy family.”
“Did he now?”
“Sure did. Thing is, they was coming from the east. Makes no reasonable sense that they’d be headed right back, does it?”
“No, it don’t. How ‘bout you take five an’ take a piss or somethin’? Go ahead an’ tell the others to go an’ do the same.”
“Sheriff–” Cory said, fidgeting as he stood. Thorpe simply held up a hand to stop him.
“I ain’t askin’, Cory. Scoot.”
Knowing better than to argue, Cory rang a bell. Everyone that was a regular knew what that bell meant: time to skedaddle for a few minutes. Sheriff was about to do some business. Without a word, everyone but the family, Merl, and Thorpe trotted through a side door into another room. Thorpe heard Cory lock the door behind him and nodded. They had gone quicker than usual this time, which was good. To be fair, they had been getting enough practice. It had been a bumper crop of assholes coming through Santiago lately.
Slowly, Thorpe stood up and walked across the room. The thump of his boots echoed in the now mostly-empty saloon as he made his way over to the family and Merl, who had now stopped leaning against the piano and was glancing nervously at the family. As he walked, Thorpe grabbed an abandoned shot of bourbon from a table, kicked it back, and tossed it aside. The glass clanked against the floor but did not break. It did, however, startle the family and drew everyone’s attention. Merl saw Thorpe and the Sheriff watched his face turn nearly the color of his hair. He was scared. Good.
“Evenin’ all. Name’s Errol Thorpe, sheriff of this fine town. What brings y’all this way on such a Dusty night?”
The woman, who had turned to look at Thorpe, tried to speak, but Merl placed a hand on her back in a gentle but a clear warning to be quiet. Her blue eyes were watery and scared and she looked tired. Merl spoke up, his voice taking on a fake friendly quality. Thorpe hated it.
“Well, hello there, Sheriff! Now, Miss Bellamy and her lovely family and I were just–”
“I ain’t asked you, Merl, so shut yer damn mouth. I asked the lady.”
“Well, maybe she don’t want to talk to you, Sheriff. You think of that?”
Merl took a step forward, placing himself between the woman and Thorpe. The look on his face was smugger and more amused than he had any right to be.
“Ain’t gonna tell you again, Merl.”
“Y’know, they’s all very tired so why don’t you just let us scoot on outta here and leave you to–”
“Yeah, that ain’t gonna happen.”
Thorpe’s hand drifted to his right hip. Merl’s mouth twitched, just once. He knew what was there.
“Now, see here, Sheriff, I got a right to be here with my family. You interferin’ in our private lives is harassing us!”
The boy went to say something, but Merl shot him a look. The youth slumped back in his chair, unwilling to talk. Thorpe motioned to him.
“Seems to me yer ‘family’ got somethin’ to say ‘bout that, Merl. Why ain’t you lettin’ the boy talk?”
“Boy’s got a mouth on him, Sheriff. Had to give him a few whippins to get him to behave, but I learned him enough, now he knows his place.”
“I don’t know that any man got a right to hit a kid ain’t his. You married this lady?”
“Well…no, not yet. But we’re gonna! Just as soon as we get to Prima City.”
Thorpe didn’t bother asking why they were coming from Prima City if they were headed right back that way. He knew it would just be more hot-buttered lies.
“Why wait? We got a perfectly fine reverend right here in the next room. We could make things all official for you and get y’all on yer way in the morning.”
The woman stared at Thorpe with panic in her eyes. Without looking at her, he gently raised a hand to signal that he understood. Merl was stammering now, clearly unsure of what to say.
“Now that ain’t necessary, Sheriff. Our love can wait another day or two! She always said she wanted a nice purty wedding in a big ol’ church in the city. Ain’t that right, dear?”
Merl swung his hand back and she shifted out of the way. She nodded slightly and Merl smiled.
“See? All’s right in the world! Now, why don’t I buy you a drink and you let my family get back to restin’ here?”
Thorpe nodded and was about to leave when the boy stood up and screamed.
“Don’t leave, mister! He took us from our home and is gonna make us mine for him!”
Merl turned around with fire in his eyes.
“Boy, don’t you go spreadin’ lies about your elders or I’ll–”
He did not get a chance to finish that sentence. Thorpe threw a big arm around Merl’s neck and locked in tight. The man started to gasp and flail, but Thorpe held on until he went limp. Satisfied that he was unconscious, Thorpe let Merl drop to the ground with a thump.
“Quick, go get the rope behind the bar an’ give it to me,” he ordered the boy, who ran and grabbed it as fast as he could. Working quickly, Thorpe tied Merl’s hands, and dragged him to a closet. Without a moment of concern for Merl’s wellbeing, Thorpe shoved the man in, shut the door, and locked it.
As soon as the lock clicked, the woman burst into tears and hugged her children. Thorpe walked over to the door that the townsfolk had gone through and banged three times. That was the signal that everything was okay. The door unlocked, and everyone filed back into the bar, albeit cautiously. There was always the very real chance that someone was hurt, so it paid to be careful. Charl Hartwood remarked that not a single glass or table had been broken, which was strange as something breaking was typically the case in ‘Sheriff Moments’.
“Merl’s in the closet,” Thorpe said to the group, “Leave him there overnight. It’ll do him some good. I’ll come get him in the morning. Meanwhile, put the three of them up fer the night. I’ll pay.”
“No,” the woman said, standing up, “You’ve already done more than enough, Sheriff. I can pay for our rooms.”
“No need, ma’am,” Thorpe said, “We gotta be hospitable now that you ain’t under the thumb of that jackass. Uh, pardon the language.”
“Please, I insist. It’s the least I can do, knowing what’s coming.”
“An’ what’s that, ma’am?”
The woman drew herself up to her full height and removed her bonnet. Heavy blonde hair spilled out over his shoulders and everyone in the bar recognized her.
“Sheriff, my name is Laura Bellamy and my father, such as he is, is Governor Hiram Sweetwater.”
Great. Governor Sweetwater was the most powerful man in the state, legally-speaking, and was notorious for enforcing his will whenever and wherever he pleased. Having his daughter in town didn’t bode well.
Laura continued, “He was there when my family was taken. He signed the order. He will hear that we did not make it past the Boundary. He will come looking for me, as will whoever was supposed to receive us at the behest of Merl. Sheriff, unless my family and I leave this instant, your little town will become a bloodbath within the week.”
Thorpe looked at her and motioned for a whiskey.
“Well then,” he said before he took the shot, “you an’ me best start talkin’.”
A half-hour later, Thorpe’s head was pounding, and he wasn’t sure there was enough whiskey in the world, much less the bar, to cure it. Laura had cried off and on throughout what she told him, but she made it through and even ordered a beer when she was finished. To Thorpe’s surprise, she necked it, set it down, and ordered another. He waited for her to slow down, and then spoke.
“So, just to make sure I got this right. You got forced to get married an’ had the boy with one of yer daddy’s business partners. Well, the old man up an’ dies an’ leaves you a widow at twenty-five. You go out on yer own an’ fall in love with a rustler–”
“Right. Rancher, my mistake. Fall in love with a rancher an’ run off with him. Get hitched, have the girl. Life’s all sunshine and rainbows. But yer Daddy don’t like that an’ hunted across the great state of San Dios to find you. He caught up to you in Silida, shot yer rancher husband, an’ sold the remainin’ three of you off to the Elder Boys for mining ‘work’. That’s what brought you here. I got the right of it?”
“You do indeed, Sheriff,” she said.
He leaned back in his chair and rubbed his hands over his face.
“Shit on fire. Alright. Well, good news is we got three, four days…hell, maybe even a week to get some kinda plan together. Ain’t nobody coming fer you right now.”
“What?” she asked, confused, “How can you possibly be so sure? If I had to hazard a guess, I would imagine word has already gotten back to my father and he’s sending a posse here to fetch me immediately!”
“Nah. Ain’t happenin’ right now. Yer safe. Well, safe as safe can be, I s’pose.”
She stood up, indignant.
“Your arrogance offends me, Sheriff! You do not know my father as I do! He will stop at nothing to enforce his will. They are coming for me, whether you choose to believe it or not.”
Thorpe sighed. He didn’t want to have this talk again, especially given that she clearly didn’t understand the situation, but he didn’t have much of a choice, it seemed.
“You said that you an’ the family ranched near Silida, yeah?”
“Silida’s ‘bout a day an’ a half southwest of Prima City. You got trees there. Grass. Water. Maybe a little bit of sand. Right?”
“I know what the region looks like, sir.”
“My point, Ms. Bellamy, is that you ain’t seen Dust before.”
“Are you quite mad?” she asked, even more annoyed now, “Of course I’ve seen dust! It gets all over the clothes and boots and makes an awful mess of things! Why, it takes an entire afternoon simply to wipe all the dust from the furniture at home. I know what dust is, Sheriff.”
“I must say, Sheriff Thorpe, that I am getting quite tired of your insinuations about my intelligence or understanding of the world around us! To imply that I don’t even know what dust is goes beyond–”
Thorpe stood up, grabbed her arm, and pulled her to the door. Her protestations rang out across the room, but he ignored them. With a heavy shove, he knocked the door open and pointed outside.
“No, Ms. Bellamy. That is Dust.”
Even through the swiftly-gathering darkness, Laura could see what Thorpe meant. What looked like a moving, opaque wall of slick, gray stone undulated and pulsed in the street, sliding back and forth, sticking to everything it touched. Thorpe grabbed a nearby empty bottle and tossed it into the gray mass. The bottle stuck to the Dust, as if adhered by spilled tar, not moving through what seemed to be feet of heavy gray, then shattered into a thousand pieces and was swept away. With a grunt, Thorpe grabbed the door and heaved it shut with a slam.
“What…what…” Laura tried to say, but her voice failed her. Thorpe sniffed and ordered another round for the two of them.
“Like I said, ma’am. I meant no disrespect to you, honest, but you ain’t seen Dust. You ain’t seen what it does to people. You ain’t seen how it eats an’ sticks an’ spreads. When I say nobody’s comin’ for yer family for a few days, I mean it. Ain’t nobody gettin’ through that mess. Nobody worth a damn’s even gonna try.”
“But…what is it?”
“No idea. Smarter men than me may know, but all I know is what it does. You an’ yer kids are safe here. We got plans in place. Tunnels between buildings, right under that there floor yer standin’ on. You ain’t trapped in this saloon, but it ain’t a bad place to be. Now, let’s talk in the mornin’ when everyone’s got a chance to rest. There’s plenty of people here who’d be mighty interested in talkin’ to you. Meanwhile, if you’ll excuse me, it seems some other business finally needs handlin’.”
A loud banging erupted from the closet as Merl came to consciousness. He was clearly angry and made his displeasure extremely well-known. Thorpe went over and rapped on the door.
“Now Merl, if you want outta there, you better stop all that fussin’. Calm down an’ maybe we’ll let you out.”
“Fuck you, Thorpe! When I get outta here, I’m gonna cut you from yer throat to yer belly and stuff yer fuckin’ cock in the wound!”
“Well, now that ain’t neighborly of you, Merl. Might could even take that as a threat if I was so inclined.”
“Ain’t no threat! That’s a promise, you shit-kickin’ horsefuck!”
Thorpe sighed and shook his head. This was going nowhere.
“I ain’t gonna tell you again, Merl. When you start being civil, you can get outta there an’ we may even feed yer ungrateful ass, even though Lord knows you ain’t deserve it.”
“Kiss my dick!”
“Well, alright then, Merl. You just stay in there ‘til you feel yer ready to be civil.”
“At least toss one of them kids in here to keep me company! Already had my fun! A second round would be mighty kind of ya!”
The bar burst into roars of outrage and Thorpe held up a hand to quiet them. He could hear the sinister glee in Merl’s voice and exhaled angrily. He hadn’t wanted it to come to this, he really hadn’t, but Merl – dumbass that he was – had forced Thorpe’s hand.
“Really wish you hadn’t said that, Merl.”
He reached over and unlocked the door, then yanked it open and pulled the struggling Merl out. The man started laughing in triumph, but quickly lost his humor when Thorpe started smashing the butt of his gun into Merl’s nose over and over and over until it was nearly gone. With every hit, the Bellamys screamed in horror, being unaccustomed to seeing such violence. Within a minute or two, Merl’s face was a mass of blood and tears and he was coughing and choking on the wet, sticky mass. Thorpe reached over and lifted Merl up, staring him straight in the eyes. He only said three words, but a chill ran through the entire saloon.
“Dust or rope?”
“Wh-what?” Merl choked out.
“Dust or rope. Make your fuckin’ call, Merl Cinder.”
“I…I don’t…I don’t…”
Thorpe hit him in the face again and he went down, a smear of blood landing on the floor. The sheriff picked him up and slammed him against the bar.
“Yer dyin’ tonight, Merl. Yer dyin’ right here an’ right now. The fact I’m even givin’ you a choice? Well, that is a fuckin’ mercy on my part.”
“Wait, wait, wait, hold…hold on now,” Merl said, “Y-y-y-you ain’t gotta kill me, Sheriff! I was just foolin’. Honest! I ain’t touched any of ‘em! Ask ‘em! They’ll tell you! Tell him! Tell him I ain’t touched you!”
Thorpe looked over at the family, who was standing together, trembling, bone-white, and wide-eyed at the violence in front of them.
Laura held the little girl close, but the boy looked directly into Thorpe’s eyes and nodded slightly so only Thorpe could see it. Clearly, he didn’t want to upset his mother and sister, who were still staring at the bloody mess at the bar. Still, the kid’s face tensed up, trying to be brave, but most certainly shaken. Damn it all. Thorpe must have made a face because panic washed across Merl’s.
“He’s, he’s lyin’, Sheriff! He’s lyin’! I ain’t never touched a single one!”
“But you said you whupped him earlier, remember?”
“Merl Cinder, you are a low-down, dirty, degenerate piece of shit. You an’ all yer Elder Boys deserve to be wiped from the Earth by God’s wrath. Unfortunately fer you, He ain’t here, so I’ll have to do. You ain’t even gettin’ a choice now. Cory, get me the rope.”
Cory nodded and went into the back room as a few people clapped. This had been a long time coming. Merl was thrashing now, trying to get out of Thorpe’s grip. His eyes were wide and white.
“Please, Sheriff! Please! Don’t do this! Don’t hang me! I-I-I’ll tell ya whatever you want! Anything! I’ll tell ya where the Elder Boys are holed up! Barker’s Canyon! See? See? I can have good information for ya! An informant! I can tell ya what they’s gonna do, where they’s gonna be! You could be ahead of ‘em every step of the way! Come on, Sheriff, please! Please don’t hang me! Ple-he-hease!”
He started bawling and Thorpe rolled his eyes. What a weak little man for how tough he talked. It was awkward.
“Fine, Merl,” Thorpe said with a grunt, “Alright, now. Alright. Just calm down. Get yer dignity back. Fuck’s sake, son. C’mon. Let’s go sit down over there an’ we can talk ‘bout things. Alright?”
“Okay, okay, okay. Thank you, Sheriff. Thank you,” the man sobbed as Thorpe released his grip. Merl started to walk toward the table that Thorpe had pointed to when a shot rang out. A burst of blood exploded from his forehead and he crashed to the ground, dead, his legs splaying out. Thorpe blew the smoke away from the barrel of his pistol and holstered it.
“Fuckin’ finally. That was embarrassin’ fer everyone. Cory, you still gettin’ that rope?”
“Yes, sir, Sheriff!” he called out from the back.
“Good. Come mornin’, we’ll hang Merl outside so the Dust Crows can get him. Maybe a little fresh meat would convince ‘em to stop the storm, right?”
Thorpe looked back over at the family. All three of them stared at him, aghast at what had happened. He winced. He really wished they hadn’t been there to see it, but what was done was done, and the world was better for it. Still, best to talk to everyone to get things settled here.
“We’re done here, folks,” he said to the group, “Ain’t nothin’ more happenin’ tonight, so why don’t you folks head upstairs? Lindsy and Sara’ll help you get settled in yer rooms. Try an’ get some rest. We got some talkin’ to do tomorrow.”
Numbly, the family made their way up the stairs and disappeared. Thorpe groaned and shook his head as he turned to the bartender.
“One of them nights, eh, Cory?”
“One of them nights indeed, Sheriff. Another whiskey?”
“Nah. Best not. Gotta sort things out tomorrow. My room’s still all made up in the back, right?”
“Every night, Sheriff.”
Thorpe smiled and nodded.
“Yer a good friend, Cory Standen.”
“You sleep well, Sheriff. I’ll get things here cleaned up.”
Thorpe nodded again and trudged into the back to get some rest. Cory grabbed a mop and bucket and made his way to the body and bloody puddle that was all that remained of Merl Cinder. Sheriff Thorpe kept the town safe, there was no arguing that. But every time he came in, he left blood and pain in his wake. Not that it wasn’t deserved, but a nice quiet night every now and again wouldn’t go amiss. If only.