I lean against the outer wall of the checkpoint hut and stare past the tops of towering hemlocks and cedars to the snow-frosted Cariboo mountains beyond. The view would be perfect, but for the smoke from the pit and Willie Harper sitting astride his piebald horse, rifle slung across his shoulder.
He rides patrol back and forth across my line of sight. Surely, it’s deliberate. I hate him and he knows it. If only I could spend the day gazing the other way, ignoring his existence, but my job demands otherwise.
Vigilance and sacrifice. A guard’s duty is what protects the remaining town folk. Or so the council claims. Since my sister and mother died, I no longer believe anything they have to say. Still, today I’ll do my job. There’s no other choice.
Fort Harrison has three entrances through the spike-tipped log fence that surrounds it. All open two hours after dawn and all close when the sun starts its western descent. The rules are supposed to apply to everyone. If you miss open hours, you stay out all night, and hopefully are still yourself in the morning.
Exceptions have been made for those who decide the rules. More than once the Mayor’s party has been granted entrance after the sky wore sunset colours and shadows lay long on the forest floor. I know this because I’m one of the guards at the eastern gate; the popular one that opens directly into the Horsefly Whisky Tavern.
I glance down at the fire pit. There’s one at every entrance. Thick black smoke suggests this one needs tending. I drop the open whisky bottle back into the wooden case just inside the hut. It’s a slow day—we’ve only gone through two bottles of whisky—but things can change quickly, like two weeks ago.
My skirts billow as I stoop to gather an armload of split logs. I smooth down the calico, thankful for the long underwear underneath.
“Watcha doin’ there, Sophia?” Harper’s voice rumbles across the clearing.
I don’t turn. I’ve seen enough of the man for today, forever. Clyde Browne’s spotting him, but Browne’s job is strictly back-up. In the eighteen months since the mine explosion and the appearance of the first sours, Harper’s only needed back-up once, just two weeks past.
He canters across my line of sight. I taste bile and my stomach clenches. The sight of his handsome features—chiselled jaw, steely eyes and dark, curly hair—disgusts me.
A year earlier, he set his cap for my older sister, Claire. We’d been expecting a wedding announcement any day.
Two weeks ago, he hadn’t flinched when he’d put a bullet clean through Claire’s head. Cool as could be, he hadn’t objected when Browne shot my ma ten minutes later.
Duty. Sacrifice. I grit my teeth. I’m done. It’s time to high-tail it out of here. I’ll leave at the end of my shift when no one’s paying close attention.
A rider emerges from the edge of the forest.
Harper shouts, “Heads up.”
I swallow hard, choke a little on the grease still coating my mouth, and fight the urge to swipe at it and clutch my belly. I move to dispense a half-shot of whisky.
“Sophia, the rules! Turn aside and repour where I can see what yer doing.” Browne sounds tense. We all are.
I sigh and dump the whisky quickly, hoping they don’t notice I skip the opportunity to drink it. I pour a second half-shot in sight of Browne and Harper.
We test with single malt from the Horsefly distillery. It draws visitors and their coin though the pub on the way into town. The other two entrances test with raw alcohol, cut a little with gunpowder and occasionally turpentine. If you don’t have the coin or you’re in a hurry, the alternate entrances are your best bet.
The rider is close enough to identify, Preacher John. He’s coming in hard, his mount lathered and wild-eyed.
“A pack of sours just beyond the pass. Headed this way.” Preacher gasps and half falls off his mount.
“Hold there, Preacher. You know the drill. Wait for Sophia to move away.” Harper’s wintery voice slides along the barrel of his raised rifle.
I scramble back. Preacher grabs the shot glass and tips the contents into his mouth. Smiling, he swishes the malt through his teeth. I can almost taste it with him. I fight the urge to gag.
“Get it over with. There’s more, as well you know,” I snap.
Preacher stumbles over to the pit and spits. The fire flares. He passes the first, and most important, test. Sours absorb alcohol through the lining of their mouths. What they spit out sizzles, but doesn’t flare. Also, their pain is usually obvious, even though the authorities claim sours don’t feel anything.
“Not like a real live human. It’s one of them auto-tomeecal responses, like when corpses sit up ‘cause they filled up with gas.” Doc had intoned at a town hall meeting.
I now know better.
I pour a full shot of amber liquid and hand it to Preacher. He knocks it back in one swallow. A waste of a finely-crafted whisky.
I want to send him to one of the other entrances. I long to push him into the pit.
Preacher shakes his head and starts to yell about sours, “I seen ‘em hiding in the bushes, all grey with those evil yellow eyes. Gave me a right fright, they did. I called on the Lord to protect me and they shrank back, scared of the eternal fires I ‘spect. Must have been half a dozen of the devils. Lord protect us.” He crosses himself, but I’m the only one still paying attention.
Harper shouts to the sniper on the top of the wall, “Sours on the way. Double the watch. Send out more riders.”
Preacher stands there, trembling. I pour him yet another shot. If I had my way, I’d charge him double, but so-called holy men don’t pay.
“Here. Sip it a little. Taste the forest, the peat. It’ll warm you.” I want to ask about my younger sister, Josie. Did he see her in the bushes? I search for words that won’t set him off, but find none.
Preacher avoids my eyes, downs the second shot, and runs for the tavern entrance. Coward.
My stomach burns. I don’t know how much longer I can hide the pain.
Claire didn’t pass the test. A test I’d administered.
I shut my eyes. Today is my first day back on duty. They’d allowed me double the normal grieving time. Ten days – the going rate for a sister and a mother.
Preacher came to call on me and Pa, but we had no use for what he was offering. Besides, we’d no bodies to bury; they’d burned in the pits. Pa sent Preacher, and everyone else, away.
Pa needs me, but so does Josie. I pray she’s still alive even though I know it’s unlikely.
I’ve had almost two weeks to prepare for today. My first opportunity to escape.
Ma, Claire and Josie traveled to visit Grandma in Fort Hope. I begged to join them, but the council claimed it couldn’t spare Claire, Ma and me, three experienced guards, for a week, as most of the young men had died or turned sour. At ten, Josie was a tad too young for guard duty.
I’d been to Fort Hope before, and Claire hadn’t, so I stayed behind. At the time, I thought it a sacrifice.
Ma and Claire returned in the company of two heavily armed and cloaked strangers. Hired guards they’d claimed, necessary because of reports of sour activity near Fort Hope.
When Claire couldn’t hide her pain, the strangers moved to protect her.
Ma pushed me behind the shelter, whispering, “Sophia, I’m sorry. Claire was sure Harper would listen. Couldn’t talk her out of it. We aren’t monsters.”
The shock made speaking difficult. “Josie?”
“She’s with the others.”
I noticed Ma’s grey pallor. Scared, I shoved her away. She clamped a hand over my mouth, as I opened it to scream.
“It’s all lies,” she hissed. “Everything they’ve claimed about the Barkerville plague is a lie.”
I fought, trying to shake my head free. It happened so quickly. The stinging sensation; Ma’s look of horror as she stared at her claw-like nails and the dripping blood. She turned, stepping into Browne’s line of sight, and fell dead before the shot finished echoing.
For ten days I’ve known my fate.
This morning I coated my mouth with grease against the first test, but the alcohol in my stomach burns like the fires of hell. I can’t survive another day of this. I look down at my lengthening nails. I trimmed them to the quick this morning. The skin on the back of my hands has a grey cast. Everything looks warmer, almost golden.
“Sophia?” Harper is behind me. I don’t turn around. “Sophia. I need you to take the test again.”
I nod. I imagine the smooth bite of the whisky, the leathery aftertaste, the pooling warmth in my belly. It’ll be fine. It’ll be like a thousand other times I’ve taken the test.
Shaking, I turn and pour a half-shot. “You should’ve talked to Claire.”
His eyes are hard. “She was already dead.”
I know he mourned. He wept over her body, but what he did was unforgivable.
Screams, and the cracks of gunfire, interrupt. Browne is shouting to the sentries. Dazed, I look up. Riders charge toward us, clouds of dust mark their path. They shine silver-grey in the sunlight. Avenging angels. I’m frozen, not knowing which way to turn.
“Sophia.” The lead rider is shouting my name. As his horse gallops past, a muscular grey arm reaches down. I grab hold and everything is a blur until I tumble to the ground at the edge of the forest.
My sister, Josie, runs to my side. She throws thin slate-coloured arms around me. Her strange amber eyes flood with tears.
I look back. Harper is twenty feet out, rifle raised, expression grim. I watch him aim; his finger curls around the trigger.
There’s no time. With all the strength I have left, I shove Josie toward the cover of the bushes at the edge of the forest.
Over my shoulder I see Harper. He aims past me. Josie!
“Monster,” I whisper, and step sideways to shield her—