Here I am still catching up with some of the prompts for the October Indies Unlimited challenge posts I wasn’t able to do last month. I find it interesting how easy it can be to write a longer story from the prompts when you take away the need to hold onto the 250 word limit.
Sure the limit is a fun challenge but sometimes it can be just as fun to see where the story will take you. Like this story. It ended up quite a bit longer than the 250 word limit.
Feast of Color
Bryson topped the ridge and looked down at the valley, stunned for a moment at the beauty of the resplendent colors.
The air was biting cold and the first snow would not be far off. Bryson knew he would likely die before he could find help, but he had to try.
On the far ridge, he could just make out a thin trail of smoke. In this country, it was as likely to be foe as friend, but he knew he had to do something. His daughter was still with the wagon train. Soon, the convoy would run out of food and the alternatives were grim, though Bryson suspected it wouldn’t be the first time the wagon-master had tasted human flesh…
He’d be damned if his daughter would be the next taste the man had. He fought his way through the underbrush and brambles, his daughter’s fate still at the back of his mind. The forest seemed so much smaller at the top of the ridge. Deep within the trees he no longer had the smoke trail to guide him to the camp he hoped to find.
Not that it mattered too much in the woods. He caught the scent of their fire long before he was certain he still followed the right direction. Life in this part of the forest had gone quiet. The critters knew when to hide their presence, better than Bryson did at any rate. The soft click as the rifle was cocked as the only warning he had.
They didn’t fire at him, no this group was wary but not destructive. He turned to find three soldiers had come up behind him. He hadn’t hid his presence, but still, the three should have made more noise than they did. He chided himself for being so careless. He could have been dead right then and how would that help his daughter?
“I’m on a mission of peace,” Bryson said. He raised his hands into the air.
“You travellin’ alone?” The soldier had three chevrons on his sleeves, a sergeant. Bryson took him for the leader of their small group.
“Group of us, just up over that ridge.” He motioned with a tip of his head back the way he had come. “We ran into some trouble with highwaymen a while back. I’m looking for some help.”
“Sounds to me like you got all the help you need already.” One of his companions scanned the area around them while the other kept his rifle locked on Bryson.
“Look, I can’t reach my pistol before your man there pulls his trigger. I don’t mean you any harm, but the rifle is making me a bit nervous. Can we just say it’s still pointing at me and call it good?”
The rifleman and sergeant exchanged a look and the gun was lowered. He didn’t put it away, didn’t lower the hammer, but he also didn’t have it aimed directly at Bryson anymore. “Really doesn’t tell me what you’re doing all the way over here.” The sergeant said.
“Like I said, I was out looking for some help. I saw your fire and thought you might be able to give us a hand.”
“What kind of help?” There was a change in the man’s voice. It had softened at the edges.
“We’re in need of a couple new horses,” Bryson said. “They chased ours off. We can’t get the trains moving again without em.”
The sergeant spoke to one of his men in a hushed tone. The man ran off, off in the direction of their camp. At least that was what Bryson assumed.
“Let’s head to the camp,” the sergeant said. “Get some coffee in you to warm you up before we head back to check on this group of yours.”
“As much as I appreciate the hospitality, I need to get back to the rest soon. With or without help I need to get back to my daughter.”
The sergeant didn’t answer, not right away. He looked at Bryson, looked past his shoulder into the distance. He snapped back with a shake before he spoke. “Don’t you worry too much about that,” he said. “I’ve already sent some men ahead to give some aid. We won’t be long before we meet up with your group.”
The reason he sent the man ahead, what would Bryson come back to if these men were wicked in their hearts? He wasn’t sure he trusted them yet but they seemed sturdy enough. What could it hurt to warm up before they rode back to the wagon trains?
The coffee warmed him. The chill had run further through his body than he realized before that dark elixir flushed it from his bones. It had been some time since Bryson had been atop a horse but he had been bred to it. They had several horses at his father’s old farm. He learned the skills of a gentleman from the time he could first walk.
The distance he had covered on foot didn’t seem to great but for the horses it was rough going. They traveled quite a distance away from the path Bryson had taken in order to ensure the horses would have little trouble through the woods.
Sergeant Adams and his men were an advanced scout for a southern regiment. Their current mission had been to comb the woods for the very highwaymen that had attacked Bryson’s group, a bit of fortune for sure. Bryson didn’t know what he might do if he hadn’t stumbled upon them in his search.
“They were up at the main path?” Adams said. “Had you all crossed Alger’s Creek yet?”
“According to the last maps I had seen, we were still a few miles north of the river,” Bryson said. “That a tough river? It didn’t appear to be too much on the map.”
Adams chuckled. “Depends on if the bridge is still there. The rains up in the hills can be pretty ugly this time of year. If the bridge is gone you will have to cut across quite a bit of rough terrain to get across the creek.”
Gunshots rang through the air ahead of them on the trail. Bryson yanked on his reins to bring his horse to bear, his thoughts first of his daughter. They had ridden for hours and the twilight of early evening should have stopped their progress. They were too close to the wagon trains now to camp, Bryson and Sergeant Adams agreed they needed to press on.
They should have heard from the advance scouts well before they came upon the encampment, but the rifle blasts were their first indication of a problem. They rode steady toward the sounds; Adams directed their escort to watch for trouble. “Their shots aren’t steady,” he said. “Sounds like they are pushing for time.”
The scene they came upon was more dire than what Bryson feared. Bodies lay strewn about the encampment. Men and women hid as best they could behind overturned wagons. But these wagons lay toward the center of camp with stragglers huddled behind them toward the trail. The cooks trailer stood tall in the center. His horse had been released from the harness but it remained tethered to the wagon itself.
A muzzle flash exploded from behind the cook’s wagon. The shot missed its mark though it passed close beside Bryson’s head. He pulled the service pistol that Adams had given him with the horse. As he took aim at the wagon in the center a scream erupted from inside the wagon. His daughter’s voice broke into the stalemate with the cry, “Daddy!” He dropped his aim, no way he could fire upon the wagon and be sure to miss his daughter.
“He has my daughter,” Bryson said. He locked eyes with Adams. “Don’t let him hurt her.”
“I’ll make sure she’s safe,” he said. He caught the eye of a few of his men and gave them a few hand signals. The men dispersed back into the woods. “We’ll have him surrounded in no time,” he whispered to Bryson. “We can take him out at our leisure then. We have to be careful with all of these innocent bystanders here as well.”
Bryson kept his eyes on the wagon, though it became even more difficult as darkness fell around them. They couldn’t risk making themselves a target by lighting any fires. The lack of light worked as much to their advantage as it did for the cook.
The moon broke through the clouds at the worst time for the soldiers. They had been making their way through the camp to assault the wagon under the cover of night. It was at this precise moment that the moon shone right on them all. The girl screamed as rifle blasts flashed beside the wagon.
The cook had been preparing an assault of his own. His horse took off like a shot from the wagon, back toward Bryson and Adams. The men had shot the cook he fell near his wagon. But the horse broke free and with it, the girl who lay across its back her hands and feet bound together over the beast’s flanks.
It charged past them further down the trail. Bryson missed a grab at its reins; nearly fell to his knees in the process. That moment gave the beast a good lead before he could mount his horse and give chase.
In the darkness, the horse could have tripped and injured itself and the girl in its blind race. Bryson saw it as pure luck that it managed to stay ahead of him on the path. When he heard the rush of the river ahead he pushed his horse hard to catch them up.
The bridge was out, just as Adams had warned it could be. The renegade horse and his daughter were headed straight for the missing bridge, a collision course with deep rapids that neither would survive. As Bryson and his horse pulled alongside the other at full gallop he grasped for the horse’s reins. He yanked them hard as his hand closed about them.
No time to stop before they went over the edge, his pull on the renegade beast and his horse’s own reins directed a wide turn. They pulled away just before the water’s edge. If he had been a betting man, he would have bet against himself on this one. Bryson was in awe of providence at that moment.
He caught his breath and jumped down from his horse. It took but a moment to release his daughter form the back of the horse and check her over. She survived, a few scratches and trauma but she lived.
They found Adam’s men helping the survivors of the cook’s lunacy when they returned to the camp. A fire had been built and the wagons righted.