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TITLE: Salamander Hill
WORD COUNT: 22,170 (unfinished)
SUMMARY: A band of fortune hunters venture towards Salamander Hill where fiery monsters guard a fabled treasure.
The setting sun washed the sky and clouds in an orange and pink glow. In the distance, perhaps about one mile away, were some dark buildings, the sentinels of Division Junction. A woman in a dusty coat and a wide-brimmed black felt hat trudged toward the only sign of civilization on the miles of sandy plains and scrubby grassland. She had a knapsack slung over her right shoulder. It made no sound as it shifted along with her quick booted steps.
A large puma trotted beside the woman, the animal’s golden brown coat gleaming in the late sunlight. The cat’s yellow eyes were narrowed and fixated on the town.
“I can’t wait to get a real bath,” the woman remarked to no one in particular.
Her feline companion twitched her whiskers, but otherwise didn’t reply.
By the time the last bits of sun was engulfed in a dark blue twilight and the stars peered out from behind a cloudy veil, the woman and the puma stepped inside the boundaries of Division Junction. The inhabitants moved leisurely along the main road towards the entertainment for the night, the local theater. The woman took a deep breath and headed in the opposite direction, a small road—more like an alley really—that branched from the main street. The puma twitched her whiskers again but padded behind her mistress in a lax stride. The smells were familiar. Almost home.
She pushed open a pair of wooden doors located beneath a sign painted with the words “Division Corral.” Inside the tavern inn, bright lamps flickered in a smoky atmosphere. Half of the tables were empty. The others appeared to be occupied with the regulars—cowboys in worn jerkins and cigars and with creased playing cards and dirty poker chips in their fingers. Women in bright colored satins and lace, rouged faces, and cloying words stood by the men, their eyes shrewdly calculating which man would end up with the most money.
Heads turned briefly to watch her and her large cat saunter over to the counter in front of a wall shelved with bottles of spirits and whiskey. The watchers turned back to the poker game. The regulars had seen her before and were uninterested at the moment. The bartender grinned at the woman as she sat down on one of the stools and gave an exaggerated sigh. The man wiping down the glasses could have been her twin, except for the slight laugh lines around his amber eyes and his dark hair which was short instead of long. Another man sat at the other end of the counter, momentarily unnoticed by the woman and the bartender. Half of his face was shadowed under a fedora, but he smiled when the puma swiveled her head and yawned in his direction showing sharp white teeth. He lifted a glass of gin to his mouth and took a sip.
“You’re back early,” remarked the bartender.
“You show such little faith in your little sister,” the woman sniffed. “I told you it would be an easy job.” She unslung her knapsack and placed it on the counter. “I want some water first.”
The bartender laughed. “You have abominable manners, Prudence.”
Her mouth moved upwards in a sly grin. “Please, Val?”
“All right, already.”
When her brother’s back was turned, she slid her glance towards the man at the end of the counter who was covertly staring at her. Her mouth widened. “I thought you drowned.” Her voice carried and the whores and poker players looked up to glance at the bartender’s sister and the man she was talking to. Then they went back to the game. The man too was familiar to them although he dropped by rarely, perhaps once a month or two.
“I thought you got hitched to that banker boy. Come back looking for me?”
She slid off her stool with the knapsack and ambled towards him until she was only a foot away from him. Calmly, she pulled out a pistol from beneath her coat and aimed it at his crotch. “Mind your mouth, Dash, or I’ll geld you clean through.”
He didn’t flinch. “You wouldn’t dare, Pru.”
She stowed her gun away and sat on the stool next to his. “Damn your quick draw anyway.” She took off her hat and took a swallow of water from the glass her brother placed in front of her. “What are you doing here?”
“Between jobs, like you, I’d gather.”
She shoved the knapsack in front of her brother. “Stow this away somewhere, won’t you? I’m not going to open it in front of the rabble.”
Val shook his head but took the bag anyway. “Prudence, don’t provoke him.”
“Don’t worry about me, Val. I know how to handle myself.”
Dash took another sip of his gin. “She can handle herself all right. Last time I tried anything, I ended up at the bottom of that lake.”