To celebrate the publication of Red Country (out where all good books are sold on Thursday) we’re bringing you a sneak peek inside the first three chapters of Joe Abercrombie’s brand new novel. Today, enter the world of Red Country with the first chapter . . .
Oh, and because this is a celebration we’ll be giving you a chance to win a signed copy of Red Country later this week.
Chapter One: 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 noth- ing. 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?’
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.
‘Where’s Gully at?’ asked Wist.
‘Back on the farm, looking to my brother and sister.’
‘Haven’t seen him in a while.’
‘He ain’t been here in a while. Hurts him to ride, he says.’
‘Getting old. Happens to us all. When you see him, tell him I miss him.’
‘If he was here he’d have drunk your bottle dry in one swallow and you’d be cursing his name.’
‘I daresay.’ Wist sighed. ‘That’s how it is with things missed.’
By then, Lamb was fording the people-flooded street, shag of grey hair showing above the heads around him for all his stoop, an even sorrier set to his heavy shoulders than usual.
‘What did you get?’ she asked, hopping down from the wagon.
Lamb winced, like he knew what was coming. ‘Twenty-seven?’ His rumble of a voice tweaked high at the end to make a question of it, but what he was really asking was, How bad did I fuck up?
Shy shook her head, tongue wedged in her cheek, letting him know he’d fucked up middling to bad. ‘You’re some kind of a bloody coward, Lamb.’ She thumped at the sacks and sent up a puff of grain dust. ‘I didn’t spend two days dragging this up here to give it away.’
He winced a bit more, grey-bearded face creasing around the old scars and laughter lines, all weather-worn and dirt-grained. ‘I’m no good with the bartering, Shy, you know that.’
‘Remind me what it is y’are good with?’ she tossed over her shoulder as she strode for Clay’s Exchange, letting a set of piebald goats bleat past then slipping through the traffic sideways-on. ‘Except hauling the sacks?’
‘That’s something, ain’t it?’ he muttered.
The store was busier even than the street, smelling of sawn wood and spices and hard-working bodies packed tight. She had to shove between a clerk and some blacker’n black Southerner trying to make himself understood in no language she’d ever heard before, then around a washboard hung from the low rafters and set swinging by a careless elbow, then past a frowning Ghost, his red hair all bound up with twigs, leaves still on and everything. All these folk scrambling west meant money to be made, and woe to the merchant tried to put himself between Shy and her share.
‘Clay?’ she bellowed, nothing to be gained by whispering. ‘Clay!’
The trader frowned up, caught in the midst of weighing flour out on his man-high scales. ‘Shy South in Squaredeal. Ain’t this my lucky day.’
‘Looks that way. You got a whole town full o’ saps to swindle!’ She gave the last word a bit of air, made a few heads turn and Clay plant his big fists on his hips.
‘No one’s swindling no one,’ he said.
‘Not while I’ve got an eye on business.’
‘Me and your father agreed on twenty-seven, Shy.’
‘You know he ain’t my father. And you know you ain’t agreed shit ’til I’ve agreed it.’
Clay cocked an eyebrow at Lamb and the Northman looked straight to the ground, shifting sideways like he was trying and wholly failing to vanish. For all Lamb’s bulk he’d a weak eye, slapped down by any glance that held it. He could be a loving man, and a hard worker, and he’d been a fair stand-in for a father to Ro and Pit and Shy too, far as she’d given him the chance. A good enough man, but by the dead he was some kind of coward.
Shy felt ashamed for him, and ashamed of him, and that nettled her.
She stabbed her finger in Clay’s face like it was a drawn dagger she’d no qualms about using. ‘Squaredeal’s a strange sort o’ name for a town where you’d claw out a business! You paid twenty-eight last season, and you didn’t have a quarter of the customers. I’ll take thirty-eight.’
‘What?’ Clay’s voice squeaking even higher than she’d predicted.
‘Golden grain, is it?’
‘That’s right. Top quality. Threshed with my own blistered bloody hands.’
‘And mine,’ muttered Lamb.
‘Shush,’ said Shy. ‘I’ll take thirty-eight and refuse to be moved.’
‘Don’t do me no favours!’ raged Clay, fat face filling with angry creases. ‘Because I loved your mother I’ll offer twenty nine.’
‘You never loved a thing but your purse. Anything short of thirty- eight and I’d sooner set up next to your store and offer all this through- traffic just a little less than what you’re offering.’
He knew she’d do it, even if it cost her. Never make a threat you aren’t at least halfway sure you’ll carry through on. ‘Thirty-one,’ he grated out.
‘You’re holding up all these good folk, you selfish bitch!’ Or rather she was giving the good folk notice of the profits he was chiselling and sooner or later they’d catch on.
‘They’re scum to a man, and I’ll hold ’em up ’til Juvens gets back from the land of the dead if it means thirty-five.’
‘Thirty-three and you might as well burn my store down on the way out!’
‘Don’t tempt me, fat man. Thirty-three and you can toss in a pair o’ those new shovels and some feed for my oxen. They eat almost as much as you.’ She spat in her palm and held it out.
Clay bitterly worked his mouth, but he spat all the same, and they shook. ‘Your mother was no better.’
‘Couldn’t stand the woman.’ Shy elbowed her way back towards the door, leaving Clay to vent his upset on his next customer. ‘Not that hard, is it?’ she tossed over her shoulder at Lamb.
The big old Northman fussed with the notch out of his ear. ‘Think I’d rather have settled for the twenty-seven.’
‘That’s ’cause you’re some kind of a bloody coward. Better to do it than live with the fear of it. Ain’t that what you always used to tell me?’
‘Time’s shown me the downside o’ that advice,’ muttered Lamb, but Shy was too busy congratulating herself.
Thirty-three was a good price. She’d worked over the sums, and thirty-three would leave something towards Ro’s books once they’d fixed the barn’s leaking roof and got a breeding pair of pigs to replace the ones they’d butchered in winter. Maybe they could stretch to some seed too, try and nurse the cabbage patch back to health. She was grinning, thinking on what she could put right with that money, what she could build.
You don’t need a big dream, her mother used to tell her when she was in a rare good mood, a little one will do it.
‘Let’s get them sacks shifted,’ she said.
He might’ve been getting on in years, might’ve been slow as an old favourite cow, but Lamb was strong as ever. No weight would bend the man. All Shy had to do was stand on the wagon and heft the sacks one by one onto his shoulders while he stood, complaining less than the wagon had at the load. Then he’d stroll them across, four at a time, and stack them in Clay’s yard easy as sacks of feathers. Shy might’ve been half his weight, but had the easier task and twenty-five years advantage and still, soon enough, she was leaking water faster than a fresh-dug well, vest plastered to her back and hair to her face, arms pink-chafed by canvas and white-powdered with grain dust, tongue wedged in the gap between her teeth while she cursed up a storm.
Lamb stood there, two sacks over one shoulder and one over the other, hardly even breathing hard, those deep laugh lines striking out from the corners of his eyes. ‘Need a rest, Shy?’
She gave him a look. ‘A rest from your carping.’
‘I could shift some o’ those sacks around and make a little cot for you. Might be there’s a blanket in the back there. I could sing you to sleep like I did when you were young.’
‘I’m still young.’
‘Ish. Sometimes I think about that little girl smiling up at me.’ Lamb looked off into the distance, shaking his head. ‘And I wonder – where did me and your mother go wrong?’
‘She died and you’re useless?’ Shy heaved the last sack up and dropped it on his shoulder from as great a height as she could manage.
Lamb only grinned as he slapped his hand down on top. ‘Maybe that’s it.’ As he turned he nearly barged into another Northman, big as he was and a lot meaner-looking. The man started growling some curse, then stopped in the midst. Lamb kept trudging, head down, how he always did from the least breath of trouble. The Northman frowned up at Shy.
‘What?’ she said, staring right back.
He frowned after Lamb, then walked off, scratching at his beard. The shadows were getting long and the clouds pink in the west when Shy dumped the last sack under Clay’s grinning face and he held out the money, leather bag dangling from one thick forefinger by the drawstrings. She stretched her back out, wiped her forehead on one glove, then worked the bag open and peered inside.
‘I’m not going to rob you.’
‘Damn right you’re not.’ And she set to counting it. You can always tell a thief, her mother used to say, on account of all the care they take with their own money.
‘Maybe I should go through every sack, make sure there’s grain in ’em not shit?’
Shy snorted. ‘If it was shit would that stop you selling it?’ The merchant sighed. ‘Have it your way.’
‘She does tend to,’ added Lamb.
A pause, with just the clicking of coins and the turning of numbers in her head. ‘Heard Glama Golden won another fight in the pit up near Greyer,’ said Clay. ‘They say he’s the toughest bastard in the Near Country and there’s some tough bastards about. Take a fool to bet against him now, whatever the odds. Take a fool to fight him.’
‘No doubt,’ muttered Lamb, always quiet when violence was the subject.
‘Heard from a man watched it he beat old Stockling Bear so hard his guts came out of his arse.’
‘That’s entertainment, is it?’ asked Shy.
‘Beats shitting your own guts.’
‘That ain’t much of a review.’
Clay shrugged. ‘I’ve heard worse ones. Did you hear about this battle, up near Rostod?’
‘Something about it,’ she muttered, trying to keep her count straight.
‘Rebels got beat again, I heard. Bad, this time. All on the run now. Those the Inquisition didn’t get a hold on.’
‘Poor bastards,’ said Lamb.
Shy paused her count a moment, then carried on. There were a lot of poor bastards about but they couldn’t all be her problem. She’d enough worries with her brother and sister, and Lamb, and Gully, and the farm without crying over others’ self-made misfortunes.
‘Might be they’ll make a stand up at Mulkova, but they won’t be standing long.’ Clay made the fence creak as he leaned his soft bulk back on it, hands tucked under his armpits with the thumbs sticking up. ‘War’s all but over, if you can call it a war, and there’s plenty of people shook off their land. Shook off or burned out or lost what they had. Passes are opened up, ships coming through. Lots of folk seeing their fortune out west all of a sudden.’ He nodded at the dusty chaos in the street, still boiling over even as the sun set. ‘This here’s just the first trickle. There’s a flood coming.’
Lamb sniffed. ‘Like as not they’ll find the mountains ain’t one great piece of gold and soon come flooding back the other way.’
‘Some will. Some’ll put down roots. The Union’ll be coming along after. However much land the Union get, they always want more, and what with that find out west they’ll smell money. That vicious old bastard Sarmis is sitting on the border and rattling his sword for the Empire, but his sword’s always rattling. Won’t stop the tide, I reckon.’ Clay took a step closer to Shy and spoke soft, like he had secrets to share. ‘I heard tell there’s already been Union agents in Hormring, talking annexation.’
‘They’re buying folk out?’
‘They’ll have a coin in one hand, sure, but they’ll have a blade in the other. They always do. We should be thinking about how we’ll play it, if they come to Squaredeal. We should stand together, those of us been here a while.’
‘I ain’t interested in politics.’ Shy wasn’t interested in anything might bring trouble.
‘Most of us aren’t,’ said Clay, ‘but sometimes politics takes an interest in us all the same. The Union’ll be coming, and they’ll bring law with ’em.’
‘Law don’t seem such a bad thing,’ Shy lied.
‘Maybe not. But taxes follow law quick as the cart behind the donkey.’
‘Can’t say I’m an enthusiast for taxes.’
‘Just a fancier way to rob a body, ain’t it? I’d rather be thieved honest with mask and dagger than have some bloodless bastard come at me with pen and paper.’
‘Don’t know about that,’ muttered Shy. None of those she’d robbed had looked too delighted with the experience, and some a lot less than others. She let the coins slide back into the bag and drew the string tight.
‘How’s the count?’ asked Clay. ‘Anything missing?’
‘Not this time. But I reckon I’ll keep watching just the same.’ The merchant grinned. ‘I’d expect no less.’
She picked out a few things they needed – salt, vinegar, some sugar since it only came in time to time, a wedge of dried beef, half a bag of nails which brought the predictable joke from Clay that she was half a bag of nails herself, which brought the predictable joke from her that she’d nail his fruits to his leg, which brought the predictable joke from Lamb that Clay’s fruits were so small she might not get a nail through. They had a bit of a chuckle over each other’s quick wits.
She almost got carried away and bought a new shirt for Pit which was more’n they could afford, good price or other price, but Lamb patted her arm with his gloved hand, and she bought needles and thread instead so she could make him a shirt from one of Lamb’s old ones. She probably could’ve made five shirts for Pit from one of Lamb’s, the boy was that skinny. The needles were a new kind, Clay said were stamped out of a machine in Adua, hundreds at a press, and Shy smiled as she thought what Gully would say to that, shaking his white head at them and saying, needles from a machine, what’ll be thought of next, while Ro turned them over and over in her quick fingers, frowning down as she worked out how it was done.
Shy paused in front of the spirits to lick her lips a moment, glass gleaming amber in the darkness, then forced herself on without, hag- gled harder than ever with Clay over his prices, and they were finished.
‘Never come to this store again, you mad bitch!’ The trader hurled at her as she climbed up onto the wagon’s seat alongside Lamb. ‘You’ve damn near ruined me!’
He waved a fat hand as he turned back to his customers. ‘Aye, see you then.’
She reached to take the brake off and almost put her hand in the beard of the Northman Lamb knocked into earlier. He was standing right beside the wagon, brow all ploughed up like he was trying to bring some foggy memory to mind, thumbs tucked into a sword-belt – big, simple hilt close to hand. A rough style of character, a scar borne near one eye and jagged through his scraggy beard. Shy kept a pleasant look on her face as she eased her knife out, spinning the blade about so it was hidden behind her arm. Better to have steel to hand and find no trouble than find yourself in trouble with no steel to hand.
The Northman said something in his own tongue. Lamb hunched a little lower in his seat, not even turning to look. The Northman spoke again. Lamb grunted something back, then snapped the reins and the wagon rolled off, Shy swaying with the jolting wheels. She snatched a glance over her shoulder when they’d gone a few strides down the rutted street. The Northman was still standing in their dust, frowning after them.
‘What’d he want?’
She slid her knife into its sheath, stuck one boot on the rail and sat back, settling her hat brim low so the setting sun wasn’t in her eyes.
‘The world’s brimming over with strange people, all right. You spend time worrying what they’re thinking, you’ll be worrying all your life.’ Lamb was hunched lower than ever, like he was trying to vanish into his own chest.
Shy snorted. ‘You’re such a bloody coward.’
He gave her a sideways look, then away. ‘There’s worse a man can be.’
They were laughing when they clattered over the rise and the shallow little valley opened out in front of them. Something Lamb had said. He’d perked up when they left town, as usual. Never at his best in a crowd.
It gave Shy’s spirits a lift besides, coming up that track that was hardly more than two faded lines through the long grass. She’d been through black times in her younger years, midnight black times, when she thought she’d be killed out under the sky and left to rot, or caught and hanged and tossed out unburied for the dogs to rip at. More than once, in the midst of nights sweated through with fear, she’d sworn to be grateful every moment of her life if fate gave her the chance to tread this unremarkable path again. Eternal gratitude hadn’t quite come about, but that’s promises for you. She still felt that bit lighter as the wagon rolled home.
Then they saw the farm, and the laughter choked in her throat and they sat silent while the wind fumbled through the grass around them. Shy couldn’t breathe, couldn’t speak, couldn’t think, all her veins flushed with ice-water. Then she was down from the wagon and running.
‘Shy!’ Lamb roared at her back, but she hardly heard, head full of her own rattling breath, pounding down the slope, land and sky jolting around her. Through the stubble of the field they’d harvested not a week before. Over the trampled-down fence and the chicken feathers crushed into the mud.
She made it to the yard – what had been the yard – and stood helpless. The house was all dead charred timbers and rubbish and nothing left standing but the tottering chimney-stack. No smoke. The rain must’ve put out the fires a day or two before. But everything was burned out. She ran around the side of the blacked wreck of the barn, whimpering a little now with each breath.
Gully was hanged from the big tree out back. They’d hanged him over her mother’s grave and kicked down the headstone. He was shot through with arrows. Might’ve been a dozen, might’ve been more.
Shy felt like she was kicked in the guts and she bent over, arms hugged around herself, and groaned, and the tree groaned with her as the wind shook its leaves and set Gully’s corpse gently swinging. Poor old harmless bastard. He’d called to her as they’d rattled off on the wagon. Said she didn’t need to worry ’cause he’d look to the children, and she’d laughed at him and said she didn’t need to worry ’cause the children would look to him, and she couldn’t see nothing for the aching in her eyes and the wind stinging at them, and she clamped her arms tighter, feeling suddenly so cold nothing could warm her.
She heard Lamb’s boots thumping up, then slowing, then coming steady until he stood beside her.
‘Where are the children?’
They dug the house over, and the barn. Slow, and steady, and numb to begin with. Lamb dragged the scorched timbers clear while Shy scraped through the ashes, sure she’d scrape up Pit and Ro’s bones. But they weren’t in the house. Nor in the barn. Nor in the yard. Wilder now, trying to smother her fear, and more frantic, trying to smother her hope, casting through the grass, and clawing at the rubbish, but the closest Shy came to her brother and sister was a charred toy horse Lamb had whittled for Pit years past and the scorched pages of some of Ro’s books she let blow through her fingers.
The children were vanished.
She stood there, staring into the wind, back of one raw hand against her mouth and her chest going hard. Only one thing she could think of.
‘They’re stolen,’ she croaked.
Lamb just nodded, his grey hair and his grey beard all streaked with soot.
‘I don’t know.’
She wiped her blackened hands on the front of her shirt and made fists of them. ‘We’ve got to get after.’
She squatted down over the chewed-up sod around the tree. Wiped her nose and her eyes. Followed the tracks bent over to another bat- tered patch of ground. She found an empty bottle trampled into the mud, tossed it away. They’d made no effort at hiding their sign. Horse- prints all around, circling the shells of the buildings. ‘I’m guessing at about twenty. Might’ve been forty horses, though. They left the spare mounts over here.’
‘To carry the children, maybe?’
‘Carry ’em where?’
Lamb just shook his head.
She went on, keen to say anything that might fill the space. Keen to set to work at something so she didn’t have to think. ‘My way of looking at it, they came in from the west and left going south. Left in a hurry.’
‘I’ll get the shovels. We’ll bury Gully.’
They did it quick. She shinned up the tree, knowing every foot- and handhold. She used to climb it long ago, before Lamb came, while her mother watched and Gully clapped, and now her mother was buried under it and Gully was hanged from it, and she knew somehow she’d made it happen. You can’t bury a past like hers and think you’ll walk away laughing.
She cut him down, and broke the arrows off, and smoothed his bloody hair while Lamb dug out a hole next to her mother. She closed his popping eyes and put her hand on his cheek and it was cold. He looked so small now, and so thin, she wanted to put a coat on him but there was none to hand. Lamb lowered him in a clumsy hug, and they filled the hole together, and they dragged her mother’s stone up straight again and tramped the thrashing grass around it, ash blowing on the cold wind in specks of black and grey, whipping across the land and off to nowhere.
‘Should we say something?’ asked Shy.
‘I’ve nothing to say.’ Lamb swung himself up onto the wagon’s seat. Might still have been an hour of light left.
‘We ain’t taking that,’ said Shy. ‘I can run faster’n those bloody oxen.’
‘Not longer, though, and not with gear, and we’ll do no good rush- ing at this. They’ve got what? Two, three days’ start on us? And they’ll be riding hard. Twenty men, you said? We have to be realistic, Shy.’
‘Realistic?’ she whispered at him, hardly able to believe it.
‘If we chase after on foot, and don’t starve or get washed away in a storm, and if we catch ’em, what then? We’re not armed, even. Not with more’n your knife. No. We’ll follow on fast as Scale and Calder can take us.’ Nodding at the oxen, grazing a little while they had the chance. ‘See if we can pare a couple off the herd. Work out what they’re about.’
‘Clear enough what they’re about!’ she said, pointing at Gully’s grave. ‘And what happens to Ro and Pit while we’re fucking following on?’ She ended up screaming it at him, voice splitting the silence and a couple of hopeful crows taking flight from the tree’s branches.
The corner of Lamb’s mouth twitched but he didn’t look at her.
‘We’ll follow.’ Like it was a fact agreed on. ‘Might be we can talk this out. Buy ’em back.’
‘Buy ’em? They burn your farm, and they hang your friend, and they steal your children and you want to pay ’em for the privilege? You’re such a fucking coward!’
Still he didn’t look at her. ‘Sometimes a coward’s what you need.’ His voice was rough. Clicking in his throat. ‘No shed blood’s going to unburn this farm now, nor unhang Gully neither. That’s done. Best we can do is get back the little ones, any way we can. Get ’em back safe.’ This time the twitch started at his mouth and scurried all the way up his scarred cheek to the corner of his eye. ‘Then we’ll see.’
Shy took a last look as they lurched away towards the setting sun. Her home. Her hopes. How a day can change things about. Naught left but a few scorched timbers poking at the pinking sky. You don’t need a big dream. She felt about as low as she ever had in all her life, and she’d been in some bad, dark, low-down places. Hardly had the strength all of a sudden to hold her head up.
‘Why’d they have to burn it all?’ she whispered.
‘Some men just like to burn,’ said Lamb.
Shy looked around at him, the outline of his battered frown show- ing below his battered hat, the dying sun glimmering in one eye, and thought how strange it was, that he could be so calm. A man who hadn’t the guts to argue over prices, thinking death and kidnap through. Being realistic about the end of all they’d worked for.
‘How can you sit so level?’ she whispered at him. ‘Like … like you knew it was coming.’
Still he didn’t look at her. ‘It’s always coming.’