A Clockwork Phoenix featured story
The Wind at His Back
Benito nudged Breezy from a trot to a canter, hoping to earn the horse her name, but the air of the scalding day didn’t want to move. The length of late-day shadows would have been a nice reprieve, except that there wasn’t anything along the road home to cast a decent shadow in the first place.
It had been like this for nearly a week. No breeze. No rain. Days so hot they seemed downright angry, squeezing all the water out of a body as soon as the sun caught sight of you. It felt like walking outside was asking the world to crush you as brutal as any storm might. Benito was all knots and nerves, and too exhausted to fight either one.
The long ride home was a fresh misery. As he nudged his Stetson up and wiped his brow with a handkerchief soaked through and starting to stink, Benito itched to wrangle. It wouldn’t be anything to reach out, snag a bit of wind, and turn it on himself to cut through the burn of the sun beating down.
But it wouldn’t just be a breeze, and he knew it. Touch the wind, and he was touching all the wild up inside it. Or the wild caged up in himself. It was hard to tell the difference when you were wrangling.
“Benito Guzman Aguilar!”
Benito started at the sound of his name. He turned to find Casey, blocky hands on his hips, staring up cockeyed from the side of the road.
“Now I know you weren’t going to be the sort who rides right by his husband without so much as a hello,” Casey chided, crossing out of the knee-high corn. He wiped the dirt from his face with his unworn work shirt before stuffing it into the back of his trousers. Benito pushed the memories of dread back where they belonged and gave his own crooked smile. There wasn’t much that ended a dark mood better than watching Casey wipe down after a long day in the sun.
Benito was about to banter back when he found himself under one of those long shadows he’d been hoping for earlier. Except the closest tree was the Seeder grove at least a mile back. He spun in his saddle, hand snapping for his pistol.
The Mestrovich girl jumped back with a squeak and dropped the gnarled tree stump she’d been carrying. Breezy reared up at the massive thud and dust cloud, but she was solid, and it only took a quick pull on the reins to steady her.
“Careful sneaking up on a body, Sarah,” Benito said, fighting to slow the pounding of blood in his ears even as he stroked Breezy’s neck.
“Sorry, sheriff,” Sarah returned shakily. At nearly ten feet tall—one shy of having a foot for each year on her—the girl was already a mountain. Still, those saucer-plate-wide blue eyes worked as well for the giant child as they did any of her human schoolmates.
He’d almost drawn down on the girl. Scared her as well as if he had. Her fear, her hurt right now was Benito’s fault. But he’d given that up, promised it away. No more hurting. No more children crying and screaming and begging for their parents. The pounding surged back up in his ears. It was hard to breathe. If he just grabbed a little wind it would be easier, surely. The howl would drown the pain or drown him in pain, and maybe it didn’t matter which.
“Don’t listen to him anyhow, Sarah,” Casey offered, his light tone bringing Benito back like always. Benito breathed air that wasn’t touched by any of the anger and fear and panic. He shoved those things away. Locked himself off from them. From the world. Focused on Casey’s tanned, callused hand on his knee. Breathed again.
Casey moved his hand to rub Breezy on the nose as he crossed the road to the girl. “Any sheriff that lets a giant sneak up on him deserves himself a start, don’t you think?” he said.
Sarah giggled. “I reckon so,” she said. Her smile was the last of what Benito needed to seal off the rough parts of the world. His ragged breath steadied as Casey patted the young girl’s hand. Casey gave Benito a wink. No harm done.
“Natalia has family from back east coming in a few days,” Casey explained. “I offered to watch little Sarah for the day so she could get her house in order without any other distractions.”
“I pulled the stump all by myself!” Sarah announced, moving close to show Benito the mass of gnarled and torn roots. He had to crane his neck up even from Breezy’s back to give the girl an encouraging smile.
“Yes, you finally got the last of the hickory you knocked over last winter,” Casey quipped. The young giant blushed. Casey waved it off before Sarah could get herself worked up again. “You’ve been a big help, little one,” he offered. “Now I think it’s about time you hurried home for supper, don’t you? Just drop the stump in the wagon before you go so I can get it back to the house.”
Sarah kicked up dust as she sprinted to the wagon. She chucked the stump into the back. The struts squealed in protest, but the giant girl had already turned about and was barreling home fast as her oversized legs could take her.
“Just don’t crush the corn on your way!” Casey yelled after her, but Benito doubted Sarah could hear him over the thunder of her own feet on the ground.
“You want one now, don’t you?” Benito said with a smirk, jabbing his thumb at the retreating child.
“Bite your tongue and swallow it,” Casey returned, smacking Benito’s shin playfully. “If we get our own, we can’t send her home.”
Benito nodded, letting somberness fall into his features. “That’s the second one today almost set me off,” he admitted quietly. At Casey’s look, he added, “Mei Wu.”
“What bit her this time?” Casey asked with mild amusement.
“Joint snake,” Benito answered, Casey’s smile pulling out the glib. “Fool girl’s bound and determined to prove herself braver than those Knox twins. She cut the thing in half when the boys went running, but didn’t know that’s no more than a nuisance to their kind. Snake joined back up when she wasn’t looking. If I hadn’t been riding by . . .”
Benito felt the slight throb of his pulse at his temples and shook his head. That hurt wasn’t him. “Yuna got her fixed up,” he said, forcing a smile.
“That’s why we love our Doc Hayashi. And you?” Casey asked, green eyes pinning him.
“I’m fine,” Benito said, swatting at the worry in the air with one hand.
At Casey’s tug, Benito swooped his leg over Breezy’s back. He landed with an easy bend in his knees right in front of Casey, whose sandy brown beard split with a grin. Casey used his shirt to wipe the sweat off his brow again. Benito grabbed the other end. He pulled Casey close, lacing his fingers in the wet small of his husband’s bare back, then kissed him. Snake bites and guilt-panic and troubling heat waves fell off the wagon of Benito’s mind as beards skritched along lips. Casey smelled like loam and prairie grass after a storm.
Casey squirmed away with a chuckle. He tapped Benito’s badge with one finger. “That gets a might warm when you’ve been in the sun too long,” he said, brushing his thumb through the soft hair of the matching spot on his own bare chest.
“Well, then, I expect we best get out of the sun,” Benito said. His cheeks warmed as a wry smile crept its way onto Casey’s face.
* * *
The waning sunlight spun with dust and smelled of the stew simmering downstairs. Benito lay beside Casey on the bed. He ran his hand down Casey’s back, lingering at a spot near his waist. There Casey’s skin quickly faded from the reddish tan that almost matched Benito’s own to the naturally pale skin which hid away from the sun under his trousers.
Casey squirmed. “That tickles,” he said, batting the hand away with a wide grin. “And none of what you just did lets you out of your turn getting supper ready,” he added, rolling onto his side. He propped himself up on one elbow.
Benito chuckled, then slid out of bed. “I am getting peckish.” He grabbed his trousers from the nearby stool. He’d only pulled one of the braces up on his shoulder when the light dimmed and the rattling at the window drew him over.
Outside, the wind had picked up. Clouds bled gray and churned in the sky. It was the kind of thing that used to happen when Benito lost control. The nagging tug at the top of his throat said this wasn’t natural, either.
He flinched as Casey’s arms snaked around his middle from behind. The familiar, itchy bristle of Casey’s chin on his right shoulder, though, calmed the roiling in the back of his head.
“Haven’t seen it turn to storm this fast in a while,” Casey whispered. Benito leaned his head to rest on Casey’s crown. They both looked out at the grass and dust riled up and flying about. Benito closed his eyes a moment. He breathed in Casey’s after-storm smell mixed with his own musk. A moment this soft and warm would have been ripped up and torn to ribbons by the Pac he’d been. Benito breathed them both in again, held the scent until he was sure he’d washed that life back down and locked it up tight, then sighed.
“I should start on the johnnycakes,” he whispered, kissing the top of Casey’s head.
“Don’t know why you haven’t already,” Casey jibed, sliding around front and kissing Benito properly. He smacked Benito’s behind as the sheriff crossed the loft along the worn-smooth path in the floorboards.
Benito had just dropped the johnnycakes into the pan when the bang came at the door. He jumped, knots clenching tight in his shoulders. “You expecting anyone?” he called up.
His sandy-haired other half popped a head and broad shoulders out from the loft. “No more than usual, sheriff,” Casey quipped.
Benito sighed. Casey was right, of course. Unexpected visits almost always wound up being for Benito in his official capacity.
He opened the door to see the back of a lanky man. The visitor watched the storm threatening to come in. His dark hair was damp with sweat where it slipped out from under a beaten-up Stetson. Point of fact, most of what he wore, from the shirt to the chaps, was tattered, faded, and worn. Loose fit, too, like there used to be more of him. Benito cleared his throat, and the man turned back with a face as haggard as his clothes. His sunken, scruffy cheeks wrinkled sideways as he grinned.
“Benny!” he said. It wasn’t until he heard the name that Benito recognized the man holding out a big-knuckled hand.
“Pete?” he asked. A rush of cold ran down his back.
Pete grabbed Benito’s hand where it hung at his side. Clapped his other hand on top and shook, hard and desperate. Benito tried not to stare, and failed miserably.
He flinched back to himself when his shirt whipped over his head. He pulled it off and spun around, where a barefoot and half-dressed Casey clambered down the ladder, Benito’s Stetson on his head.
“I was right?” Casey asked with his canary-eating grin. He hooked Benito’s gun belt from the back of a chair and scooped up his sheriff’s star from the table.
Pete cleared his throat and broke the handshake.
“I . . . yeah. Official business,” Benito said. He pushed Pete back outside. Pete didn’t object when the door half-closed in his face.
Casey sighed as Benito slid his shirt on and buttoned it up. Benito gritted his teeth, willing his fingers steady.
“I’ll try not to eat all the stew,” Casey said. “But no promises on the johnnycakes.” He handed Benito the gun belt and pinned the star in place himself. Then he flipped the hat off his own head and rolled it to sit on Benito’s with a flourish. He frowned when he caught Benito’s look. “Is everything—?”
“I’m fine,” Benito said. Casey’s lips thinned, his eyes searching.
“Just hate having supper spoiled. This might take awhile,” Benito said, feeling warmth in his cheeks.
Casey didn’t hide the worry in his face, which twisted Benito’s insides, but he also didn’t press. “Gets too late, you bunk with Yuna,” Casey said. “Natalia says she heard whimpuses droning the other night. I’d rather they spin themselves hungry and you come home later but safe.
“Besides, I reckon Yuna might have leftovers from feeding Jenny,” Casey added, winking away what Benito wasn’t saying. Jenny, Yuna’s jackalope, ate whiskey-soaked oats. Casey obviously thought Benito would use this as an excuse to grab a drink with the doc, then.
Benito gave his own nervous chuckle and let that lie between them.
“Be safe, Ben,” Casey said.
“Only if there’s no better options,” Benito returned out of habit.
Benito curled up inside Casey’s kiss, away from the noise and grit and stench of the world for just a breath or two longer. Then Casey stepped back and looked behind Benito, green eyes bright.
“Well, look at that. The storm cleared right up for you,” he said.
* * *
“So this is a fine little situation you got for yourself, Benny,” Pete said lightly.
They’d ridden toward town slowly, and hadn’t said a word. Looked back and forth, sure. One or the other had opened his jaw to talk, but nothing broke through the thick, heavy air hanging between them. It wasn’t until they were passing by the fence of the Seeder grove that Pete finally managed to speak. There always was something about the tinpots’ fruit trees that made things a little easier.
“Why now, Pete?” Benito said. A little easier wasn’t easy. He didn’t have it in him to talk small.
“Can’t an old buddy look up his partner from back in the day and—?” The lie died on Pete’s lips as soon as he caught Benito’s glare. It was hard to read his expression in the deep shadows of sunset, but the quiet told a story all its own. They went back to not talking again for a giant’s step, nothing but the clop of hooves on the hard-packed road and the soft rustle of leaves as they passed through the grove.
“It’s been tough, Benny,” Pete said, slouching in his saddle. Benito pulled Breezy up short. Pete followed suit with his slope-backed mare. Pete’s hangdog look was all the longer for the evening closing in around it.
“I went back,” Pete muttered. The chill from before came back, only this time it didn’t run down Benito’s back. It grabbed hold. He thought it might tear his frozen spine out whole.
Benito swung down off Breezy, let her reins go. She was good enough not to wander off on her own. “To them? The Pacs?”
Pete swung down from his own horse, kept hold of her reins. “Benny, you don’t miss it? We were kings of everything. We wrangled twisters, for Chrissakes. Grabbed something that could rip a house apart easy as eating breakfast, and we made it ours. Dammit, I just . . . .” He ran one big-knuckled hand through his oily hair and bit his lip.
“You told them I was alive, too,” Benito said, the truth pounding in his ears.
The wind picked up as Pete started shuffling from one foot to the other. “You know I’m not a good liar, Benny. And they’re our brothers, you know? You don’t just turn your back on—”
“You won’t take me back.”
“Benny,” Pete begged. He took two gangly steps to close the distance between them. The whistle in the wind rose in pitch.
Pete grabbed Benito’s shirt in his stringy hands. A handful of smaller apples fell off the nearest trees when a gust hit them.
“They won’t let me back in without I bring you,” he whispered. His breath was a mix of whiskey and salted pork. Benito batted Pete’s hands aside.
In the fading light, Benito saw Pete’s face go hard and mean, his eyes flare wild. The wind whipped around them, dust starting to spin in the center of the road. Benito swore under his breath. It was his turn to grab Pete by the shirtfront. That wasn’t all he grabbed. He reached out from his soul and grabbed the wind. He felt his blood throbbing in his temples, felt everything he ever resented well up and scream in his ears. He threw all of that against Pete’s will.
There was a loud thump. The road dust flew into the air like someone had thrown a bag of feed down. Then the wind was gone.
“I worked for this life, Pete,” Benito growled, shoving Pete away from him. Pete started to rush him again. This time Benito had his pistol out. The other man stumbled to a stop with a grunt. Benito forced himself to hold the gun steady, breathe deep. Took in the scent of apples and berries. Pushed the rage and the malice and the screams of children down, back where he kept them locked away.
Pete was wiping the heavy sweat from his face by the time Benito felt himself again. He took two steps toward Pete, slow and calm. When Pete opened his mouth to talk, Benito cut him off.
“I never forgot how it was,” Benito said, flat and even. “Don’t imagine I ever will, Pete. It sounds like maybe you’re forgetting a thing or two about what we saw, about why we left in the first place.
“You think this is fine and easy? Maybe it is, but none of it was easy to come by. I’m not giving it up. Not for you,” Benito said, swinging back up onto Breezy. He kept the gun on Pete as he nudged the horse to turn. “And sure as seven hells not for Pacos Bill’s lapdogs.”
“They’ll come for you,” Pete said, grabbing his own horse, working to calm it down in the face of the sudden squall that had come and gone. “The code’s the law.”
“I’m the law here, Pete McSwain,” Benito said. “And I’m telling you: find your way out of town tomorrow before I decide we’re all better off with you stewing in my jail.”
He didn’t wait for Pete to answer. Instead, Benito flicked Breezy’s reins. She trotted for Yuna’s place just outside town. Casey knew him a bit too well: right about now, he really could use that drink.
* * *
“This was the one you left the Battle of Big Bones with?” Yuna asked, locking him in place with her dark eyes. She poured Benito a refill from her side of the table. Benito swirled the rotgut around. It made a tiny whirlpool in his glass. He set the glass back down and nodded.
“That day . . . God, Yuna. All that time I thought we were right, you know? Wasn’t a way for us to be wrong. And, yeah, we were mean and ornery, but you wrangle twisters and save who knows how many towns, and . . .” Benito got lost in the fading whirlpool of his drink.
“If you’re saving the world, maybe it’s worth a few folks having to suffer for it,” the doctor finished for him. She swirled her own drink before taking a draw of it. This wasn’t a new conversation. Especially when they’d been drinking.
“You’re a good woman, Yuna,” Benito assured her.
“And you’re a good man, Nito,” she said with a dry smile. “But that doesn’t mean we don’t both have plenty of not-good to make up for.” She raised her glass and one of her thin eyebrows. Benito nodded and raised his own. They clinked in the middle of Yuna’s small kitchen table, managing not to add too much to the liquor already sloshed there, before both Benito and Yuna knocked back their glasses.
“Thought I was done ruining lives when I left the Pacs, but then I see Pete, and I’ve done it again.”
Yuna made a sound somewhere between a sigh and a snort and grabbed up the glasses.
“Seems to me Pete made plenty of bad decisions all on his own,” she said. She held the nearly empty bottle over the glasses and looked to Benito. He nodded. Yuna poured one last glug in each and slid Benito’s back to him.
“He left ’cause of me,” Benito said.
“He left ’cause he had the good sense to listen,” Yuna shot back. “Pacos Bill wasn’t in his right mind trying to flatten a town for not jumping into a fight between giants and men who throw twisters.”
Benito sighed. “A fight we started,” he muttered. He leaned back and rubbed his eyes but couldn’t get the burning out of them.
“Not you, Nito,” Yuna said.
“Which you aren’t anymore.”
Benito raised his glass and forced what he hoped was a convincing smile. “To not being a Pac.”
Yuna smiled back. She clinked her glass against his. “To deciding to be good people.”
* * *
The next morning seemed much brighter than the one before. Benito wasn’t sure that was a good thing as he squinted against it in the thrum of last night’s drinking. Thankfully, Breezy knew her way home. He didn’t have to open his eyes overmuch while he worked his way back to normal.
An apple from the Seeder grove helped. Benito was an extra bit grateful as he threw its seeds wide and called out, “Jonni grow!”
Bless the tinpots, Benito’s headache was mostly memory as Breezy trotted through the half-grown corn. He thought the headache might be coming back at first, but realized the new pounding was Sarah Mestrovich running her way toward him.
“Morning, sheriff!” Sarah beamed. At his raised eyebrow, she said, “Ma wanted to thank Mr. Lawrence for letting me come over yesterday.” The giant girl held up a large pie tin. “Rhubarb.”
“That’s neighborly of her,” Benito said. He waved Sarah to walk alongside him. She had little trouble matching the horse’s trot with her own lengthy stride.
“It’s his favorite, isn’t it?” she asked as the top of the house peeked over the horizon.
“Both of ours,” Benito assured her with a smile. The smile fell as he saw Sarah’s eyes widen. Benito turned his gaze back to the road and pulled Breezy up short.
He could see the front of the house now, where the door wasn’t just open. It was shattered, boards thrown about like twigs.
“Stay here, Sarah, you hear me?” he said, drawing his pistol and darting his eyes about. “You see any trouble, you run the other way.”
He didn’t wait for an answer. He could barely hear anything, anyway, his heart slamming in his ears. He smacked Breezy on her haunch and set her galloping. Pulled her up short and jumped off at a run before he got to the front door.
“Casey?” he called out, trying to see into the black hole torn from the front of the house. It was too bright outside. All he saw was dark. “Casey, I need you to tell me you’re—”
“Your little farm dandy’s fine,” Pete’s voice answered. Casey came stumbling into the light. There was a nasty gash dried black on his right temple. He favored his left leg. But he was alive. Benito suddenly realized how long it had been since he’d taken a breath.
Pete stepped out from around back. One hand held the rope he’d used to tie up Casey’s hands behind him. The other held a pistol to Casey’s temple.
Benito raised his own gun. His jaw ached from clenching.
“Thought it was you coming back from Yuna’s,” Casey said. His voice carried a raspy edge.
“It’s fine, sweet; we’ll—”
“Shut up!” Pete said, cocking the pistol. “You’ll shut up, both of you, ’cause no one needs to hear this twisted little homebody playacting you’re doing.”
“Pete . . .”
“I told him, Benny,” Pete said, a crooked grin falling on his face. “Told him you’re going back.”
“And I told you I’m not going back,” Benito said, though he’d stopped looking at Pete halfway through his rant. He watched Casey, saw the furrow in his brow shallow out, his shoulders relax just a touch. “I have a home here.”
“Not anymore,” Pete growled, pulling Benito’s attention again. “Storm smashed it. Sad thing, that. You should look into getting some Pacs to protect you out here. This time, you’re lucky your man is just a little scratched up. Way I hear it, they aren’t always right about lightning. Sometimes it hits three or four times. Gets right homey in one spot. Keeps coming back again and again until there’s nobody in its way anymore.”
Bits of dust flew about as the wind started picking up.
“Put your gun down, Benny.”
“Pete, be reasonable about—”
“Gun. Down!” Pete yelled, pressing the barrel of his pistol to Casey’s cheek. Casey flinched while the storm gathered. Grit and twigs and splinters rose up in the not-so-lazy circles of wind.
Benito held his hands up slowly. He made sure Pete could see the gun, could see him stooping down to place it, uncocked, at his feet.
“Kick it here.”
Benito looked to Casey, who nodded. Benito kicked his gun across the way, the handle skidding to a stop at Casey’s feet.
“See? That wasn’t so hard,” Pete said. He shoved Casey to the ground and pointed the pistol at Benito. Benito held his Stetson in place with one hand. The day wasn’t nearly as bright anymore, but the wind and debris made him squint the same as he had earlier in the morning.
“You’re coming back with me now, and you get to leave your little honey alive, or I make sure you have nothing left to stay for, you hear me?” Pete screamed, stepping toward Benito as bits of board joined the dust cloud spinning up nearby.
“Pete, just . . . calm down,” Benito said, holding his hands up where Pete could keep an eye on them. “We can talk about this like civilized—”
“No!” Pete yelled, bringing his other knobby-knuckled hand to wrap around the pistol’s handle. “I am all done talking!”
Benito flinched as the gunshot rang out. He only felt grit whipping up against his cheeks.
Pete’s eyes glazed over, and he sank to the ground.
“No, you’re just all done,” Casey said as he lowered Benito’s pistol. He held the loose rope in his other hand and gave a weak smile. “He was as bad at tying knots as you were when we first met.”
Benito closed in on him in an instant, one arm sweeping around Casey’s waist. He tangled his other hand in tousled, sandy brown hair, then kissed Casey like a drowning man finally making it to the surface.
He felt Casey tense and broke the kiss. Benito clung to him while biting his own lip. “Casey, I’m sorry I never—”
“Ben,” Casey interrupted, pointing skyward.
“Dammit,” Benito said. He looked where Casey pointed, through the spinning dust and debris. From the green-purple sky, a funnel grew downward only a dozen giant steps away.
“I thought when I—”
“Doesn’t work like that,” Benito said. He had to yell over the howling. “Once you call up a twister, it doesn’t go down again until it runs itself out,” He glanced back at Casey’s eyes, needing to see what he looked like there even as he dreaded it. “Or until someone goes in there and puts it down.”
Benito kept watching, wondering if the tension he could feel in Casey’s back was fear of the storm or of him, if the shadow behind his eyes was the both of them going dark.
Then the shadow wasn’t behind Casey’s eyes, but on his face. Benito spun around as one of the barn doors flew straight for them. Before he could do anything else, though, Sarah Mestrovich blocked out the sight of the door. She hugged both men to her. Benito felt a shudder go through her as he heard the crash and splinter of wood.
“Are you both all right?” Sarah asked as she let the men go.
“Are we all right?” Casey asked.
Sarah shrugged. “Giants are tougher than regular folk our size,” she said, then winced. “Well, maybe it did sting a little.”
“I told you to run away from trouble, young lady,” Benito said, recovering. He grabbed both Casey and Sarah by the hands. “Scolding later. Sarah, take Mr. Lawrence and find cover.”
“Ben?” Casey asked. Benito put Casey’s hand in Sarah’s larger one.
“This thing’s still growing,” Benito said, pointing to where the twister had finally touched down. It zigzagged its way forward. “It won’t stop here. Might not stop until it goes all the way through town. We can’t wait for it to wear itself out.”
Casey paused just a moment, looking between Benito and the storm, then nodded. “Be safe, Ben,” he said.
“Only if there’s no better options.”
Benito couldn’t feel the pounding of giant feet as Sarah and Casey ran for cover behind him. Breezy, having more sense than most folks, followed the pair. The rumbling twister screeched and howled and pitched a fit. Benito wondered just how much of what was pent up inside Pete had fed this thing.
There wasn’t time to care. Benito ran forward, felt the wind catch his feet out from under him. He rode the gust up into the bloody middle of the twister.
Twisters didn’t talk, but Benito could feel it throwing out spite and challenge all the same.
I can throw a steer clear across the county, howled the rage and venom. Rip a homestead from the ground without even trying, came with hate and a boil in the blood. Why should I listen to a little bit of nothing like you?
The way they taught a Pac to answer was to reach into a twister’s heart. Dig in. Give back as much nasty rage as the twister had until it was whimpering and begging to be told which way to go. You beat a twister by showing it you were ten times meaner and stronger than it was. You beat a monster by showing it you were a worse one.
Benito reached down into those nasty places he’d shut away from his life, felt the blood pounding in his temples, the rage burning in his throat, the screams bouncing in his ears.
Then he caught sight of Sarah and Casey—or shadows he thought were them. It was hard to see much of anything from here. He wobbled inside. There was another rumble and howl as the twister threw something heavy at him.
Benito barely managed to bend out of the way as Pete’s body flew past. He remembered Mei Wu from yesterday. Wouldn’t she be laughing an I told you so at him for turning his back on a monster that wasn’t dead after all his preaching at her?
He felt an odd shudder in the wind. It wasn’t the same as grabbing a twister by the reins, but it also wasn’t the beast bucking him off. He’d never felt it before, but he thought, for just a minute, he felt jealousy out of the storm.
I don’t have to be meaner and nastier than you, Benito pushed back with a smile. I don’t need any of that, because all you have is the next few minutes. You have however little time you can snag to tear things apart, and then you’re gone.
After, there would still be the stubborn refusal of a little girl to let a snake bite scare her off, the sweet juice from a Seeder apple, the proud voice of a slightly tipsy jackalope. There would still be a giant child’s oversized grin of pride and the warmth of rotgut and straight talk. There would be the smell of loam and prairie grass after a storm.
The wind began to collapse below Benito, and he rode it downward, smooth and careful. By the time his boots touched the ground, there was nothing left but a soft breeze.
Casey and Sarah moved back into the open cautiously. At a wave from Benito, the pair ran to join him. Casey all but knocked Benito over as he wrapped his arms around Benito’s waist, but he held back from a kiss, eyes searching for something in Benito’s face.
Benito smiled. Casey returned it, pulling Benito close for a hug filled with desperation and relief. Benito breathed him deep as the sky washed itself clean of the sickly colors of the storm.
“I have never seen anything like that,” Sarah said as the pair broke their embrace. “You have to teach me how to do it.”
Benito had the briefest flash of the rage and bile that would bubble up on Pacos Bill’s face if someone taught a giant, of all people, how to wrangle. He bit down on a chuckle.
“We’ll see,” was all he said.
“Ben?” Casey asked. “Are you all right?” He took Benito’s face in his strong hands.
“I’m fi—” Benito started, then stopped. “I’m tired,” he said instead, “and sore. A little queasy. I know we have to talk, and I want to. I really do, but right now, sweetie, right now all I want is you, and a cool bath, and a piece of rhubarb pie.”
A soft breeze played in Benito’s hair. It carried the pungent scent of horseflesh and the jangle of Sarah’s nervous giggle. The sun stung the back of his neck. Casey’s lips tasted of dust and grit and the slight tang of sweat as Benito kissed him gently and let the world melt into them for however many breaths it could last.
Jason Kimble left the tornadoes of Michigan for the hurricanes of Florida, because spinning air is better when it’s warm. He lives there with his finally legal husband. Other stories set in the world of “The Wind at His Back” have appeared in The Sockdolager and the anthology Twice Upon A Time: Fairytale, Folklore, & Myth. Reimagined & Remastered. Other recent work appears or is forthcoming in Betwixt magazine and Escape Pod. You can find more of his nattering at http://processwonk.wordpress.com or by following @jkasonetc on Twitter.
About “The Wind at His Back,” he had this to share: “While nosing about for folklore to play with, the ‘tall tale’ struck me as something that might be interesting fodder. It was littered with giants: Paul Bunyan and Joe Magarac and Old Stormalong come to mind. It posited a world where a man could ride a tornado, or could blanket the countryside with fruit trees while protected by nothing more than a tin pot on his head. It populated the wilds with whiskey-drinking jackalopes and snakes that could put themselves back together if you cut them in half. Just how wild might the West have been, I wondered, if none of that was an exaggeration?
“The tall tale, however, is pretty exclusively white, and even more exclusively straight. Anyone who doesn’t fit that model is either there to motivate or juxtapose with the awesomeness of the White Straight Dude The Story Is Really About.
“Oh, screw that, I thought.
“At the very least, I wanted to create a haven where those restrictions didn’t apply. Westerns have no end of little utopias, after all. Quaint little towns where Everyone Thrives. This is one of them, where Benito Guzman Aguilar sheriffs when he isn’t spending time with Casey, the warm-hearted farmer he fell in love with. Of course, this is a utopia in the center of a world with tornado wranglers and giants and supernatural critters and magic fruit trees, some or all of whom may already be part of the town. Besides, the thing about Western utopian settlements is, there is always, always trouble on the horizon. And it’s almost always personal.
“In that respect, at least, ‘The Wind at His Back’ is no exception.”
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“Allen’s strange and lovely fifth genre-melding fantasy anthology selects 20 new short stories of unusual variety, texture, compassion, and perception. . . . All the stories afford thought-provoking glimpses into alternative realities that linger, sparking unconventional thoughts, long after they are first encountered.” —Publishers Weekly, starred review