Rajink Comes to Town

Rajink Comes to Town

Sunrise on the outskirts of Pickaxe, Montana.

Rajink sat on a small outcropping of rocks examining his hand. All night, it had bothered him, throbbing hard enough to rouse him from his sleep. Now, under the soft glare of sunrise, he tried to find some outward problem with it. It wasn’t until he compared it to his left hand that he noticed the difference in his knuckles. He made a fist and held his hands close together. The middle knuckle on his right hand had swollen to twice its normal size. When he squeezed the fist tighter, it sent a dull ache through his arm. Rajink played with the bones for a minute and sighed; at least it wasn’t broken.

It was a spot of good news, a rarity for the past three weeks. Traveling from the Westerland was no easy feat. There were mountains to contend with and pockets of fallout that forced him to take the long way around. Somehow he had ended up wandering past Spokane and had been forced to hire a guide to navigate his way through the blast zones to Helena. The guide, a man in his sixties who went by Monk, had done his job for the most part, leading Rajink around the minor pitfalls and away from the few Reclamation cities between Spokane and Pickaxe. But then they arrived on the very hill where Rajink now sat and observed the town in the failing light. The sounds of raucous celebration had wafted up from the valley and made both men think of beer and a proper meal.

In Monk’s estimation, that meal would be covered on Rajink’s tab, in addition to a sizable bonus for making it to Pickaxe without losing anyone in the party.

“Those weren’t the terms of the trade.”

The words echoed in Rajink’s mind as he slipped his gloves on again. The cold air was doing nothing to help his hands, which had now begun to shake. Safely inside the worn leather, his right hand felt strong again. It wasn’t until he stood up that he felt the strain in his back, a stabbing pain that climbed into his shoulder and set up camp. He cursed Monk’s name and spit in his general direction. For a man of such advanced years, Monk had been surprisingly strong and nimble. Rajink should have expected nothing less from a mountain man, someone who had likely been jumping from rock to rock since before he could crawl.

Rajink shook the weariness from his body and approached his horse. Horses, he told himself. Two Norther steeds were tied to a tree on the edge of camp, just inside the treeline. One of them, a black beast with a segmented saddle, had been Rajink’s conveyance since setting out from Yuba City. The other, a sleeker, golden-brown mare, had carried Monk with ease, even when he rode out ahead to check around a bend. With any luck, it would catch a fair price in town, not to mention whatever else Monk had in his saddle bags.

“Not a whole lot,” said Rajink. Something caught in his throat and made him cough. He inhaled deeply through his nose.

There was something odd about the air here; it was thicker than the sea breezes he had back home. It smelled different too, reminded him of earth, of dirt and sand. When he spit, he felt something coarse pass his lips.

Monk had been traveling light; his packs were mostly dried fruit and meat, a good week’s worth of food that could be stretched into two if he rationed correctly. Rajink found an envelope with a few bills of the old currency, enough to buy entrance into a Reclamation city should the need arise. That usually meant a serious problem, either running dangerously low on supplies or some kind of medical emergency. The thought of a bruised and bloodied Monk limping his way to the gates at Nezperce made Rajink smile.

Not that Rajink took pleasure in the unnecessary suffering of others; on the contrary, Monk’s suffering was quite deserved.

For one, he had changed the terms of a trade, a capital offense that violated the most sacred pact of the Gentlemen’s Agreement. Rajink had agreed on a sum of money for guided passage to Pickaxe. Demanding more compensation, whether twice the negotiated amount or simply a hearty meal, was grounds for immediate termination of the contract. That Monk had already provided his end of the deal became irrelevant. Rajink would not deal with a man who could not keep his word.

Then, there was Monk’s interest in Nola.

Rajink turned to look for the girl and found her standing near the ledge, shuffling from one foot to the other as if the ground were too hot to bear. From behind, he saw her as a silhouette, a hooded shape with two stick legs anchoring her to the earth.

Nola enjoyed sunrise more than anyone Rajink had ever met. Every morning, she rose before him, picked out a spot with the most exposure, and turned her face to the heat and light. How long she could stay like that was anyone’s guess; Rajink often pulled her away so they could get on with the day’s business. He imagined she would stay rooted to the spot like a plant soaking up the rays if she could. It was strange behavior, but then children did strange things.

Monk had noticed something was different about Nola after they had passed Missoula. Until then, Rajink had done a good job of keeping her covered and out of sight, something he had to do anyway in case they crossed paths with other travelers. Seeing Nola and speaking to her was not included in the deal, so Rajink did his best to dissuade Monk from pushing the issue, instead tried to focus him on the path ahead. But a man his age is not easily swayed, stubborn as he was.

At first, his interest seemed born of boredom. After his attempts to converse with Rajink had failed, he had opened with a general volley of, “So what’s your story, Little Miss?” Nola, for her part, remained silent, though she would have even if Rajink hadn’t warned her ahead of time. Eventually, Monk settled into the monologue that Rajink so often found himself in, that of talking to Nola as if she were paying attention.

Then came Missoula.

They had camped some fifty paces off the main road after a long day of mountainous terrain. The horses weren’t built for the rocks, so they walked for longer than Rajink would have liked. By the time he had rolled out Nola’s sleeping bag, she had already fallen asleep sitting up. Somehow her hood had fallen back and in the dim moonlight, one could almost make out the color of her hair. Rajink covered her as soon as he noticed, unsure of how much Monk had seen. In the days that followed, his growing reticence seemed to indicate he had seen enough.

After that, it was only a matter of time, renegotiations notwithstanding.

Rajink pocketed the old currency and closed up the saddle bags. Both horses had started to fidget; perhaps they smelled the river that ran along the northern border of the town. Crossing the campsite, Rajink kicked some dirt at the smoldering fire, the ineffective pile of twigs that had barely kept him warm throughout the night. When he reached Nola, he put a hand on her shoulder to get her to settle down.

“Stop fidgeting,” he told her.

Nola’s shifting slowed but didn’t stop.

Rajink looked down, intending to place his boot on one of her small shoes. Instead, he noticed the ground around Nola’s feet was moving, as if the red grains of sand had sprouted legs and were running around in circles to celebrate their newfound mobility.

“Crazy ants!”

Though his shoulder still hurt, he scooped up Nola and began brushing the ants from her legs. She made no protest as the tiny red welts began to flare on her pale skin. They looked painful, but Rajink knew they would be gone soon. Minor physical maladies had no lasting effect on Nola. Her skin healed itself without any assistance, usually in less than a day. The how of it was a mystery that Rajink hadn’t quite figured out yet.

He took a few steps back and set Nola down. “Go stand by the horses,” he said. “We’ll be moving out soon.”

Nola said nothing but complied in her usual unenthusiastic way.

Rajink returned to the ants.

They had come for Monk in the night. Rajink followed the trail to the lip of the lower outcropping to where Monk had fallen the night before. At the time, he had been too tired to push the man’s body over the edge, had instead stumbled back to his sleeping bag and shut down, fully intending on dealing with Monk in the morning. Now that crazy ants were involved, he was hesitant to come within ten paces. The ground flowed around the body, turning in a wide circle like a whirlpool, growing faster at the center. Most of Monk was still intact, but Rajink could see the ants had focused on the exposed flesh first, eating away at the eyes and nose, dulling his features away.

Rajink looked around for a long stick, but there was no guarantee the ants wouldn’t just swarm its length and feast on his hand. They’d get under his gloves and into his clothes, uncaring that the body they were trying to consume still lived and breathed.

“You think he had anything on him?” asked Rajink. He glanced back at Nola, but she was ignoring him.

If Monk had trusted currency to the relatively weak security of his saddle bag, what then did the man value so much as to keep on his person? Monk’s coat was bulky, with thick padding on the outside and lined with pockets on the inside. What treasures did he keep in there, Rajink wondered.

His mind wandered, imagining the personal keepsakes of this old man.

Steam began to rise from the chimneys of Pickaxe. Its people were waking up.

Rajink took the moment to survey the layout of the town. The main streets were true to its namesake, comprised of a crescent-shaped road that bisected the one or two-story buildings. At the center, a straight pike extended southward to the edge of town. Along its length, smaller paths broke off at random intervals to serve a grouping of homes. Agricultural installations filled in the empty space and butted up against a perimeter fence that appeared to be largely symbolic. Unlike some of the other towns Rajink had passed, Pickaxe stationed no guards at its entrance.

Too trusting.

A smile crept onto his face and made him forget about the potential contents of Monk’s jacket. What could he possibly have to rival Pickaxe? After all, it was in this town that Rajink would find the man he had sought since the day Nola came into his life.

Rajink shuddered from the sudden rush of adrenaline.

“Nola,” he called. “How would you like to visit Pickaxe?”

The wind came up and rustled the leaves in the treeline. To the south, Rajink saw the horizon being swallowed up by a haze.

Monk had mentioned the sand storms, called the Montana Monsoons, but instead of rain they flooded the land with inches and sometimes feet of fine sand. The air became more dust than oxygen—not enough to kill a man, but stay out in it too long and you’d be coughing up blood and sand for a week.

Rajink felt the tickle at the back of his throat. He needed to make shelter before the storm arrived.

With a nod towards what remained of Monk’s body, Rajink hurried to Nola’s side and lifted her onto the horse without warning. At this, Nola smiled and petted the animal.

“Yeah, you just sit there and play with the horsey,” he said.

Closing up camp took only a few minutes. Most of the supplies were still strapped to the horses. All he needed to do was collect the sleeping bags and a few cooking utensils. He ran his shoe over the smattering of footprints around the fire, rubbing out the telltale signs that a child had been there.

From Monk’s horse, Rajink pulled an old sleeping back and spread it out on the dirt. He ruffled it with his shoe to make it look like someone had slept in it. For a final touch, he dropped an empty bottle on the ground leading to Monk’s body. An experienced traveler would see through the deception, but there was no time to make things perfect.

Rajink climbed onto his horse and helped Nola get a hold of his jacket. He double-checked to make sure her gloves were on and her hood was up. Satisfied, he grabbed the reigns of both horses and led them away from camp.

In the valley below, the staccato clink of a blacksmith at work rose from the quiet.


The above is an unused (and unedited) introduction to a longer version of Bartering Nola that never materialized. How Rajink and Nola got to Pickaxe is not mentioned in the novella, but it doesn't affect the story at all. I like the idea that they've been traveling for a long time, with Rajink making and breaking trades in a world where agreements and deals are everything.

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