Edna Star awoke, for the first time since this adventure began, without an incredible amount of pain. There was brightness - too much of it, frankly - and there were voices. How were there voices? And why did that seem strange? But the pain felt as dim as she did.
Her mind traced through the groggy morning maze of memories, trying to decipher what had happened in the night. Dimly, she recalled something impossible and exciting. Not the trip through an endless abyss of nothing (which had lasted two minutes thirty-two seconds). That was odd, if it had in fact happened, but it was odd in the way that Edna had come to expect of her life. It was an unexpected thing that shocked her fully to consciousness: her watch had opened.
Without thinking, she clenched her fist. Her hand closed on itself - the little silver disc gone. Both hands shot to the front of her vest. She calmed a little as she felt the round lump of the watch under her left hand, snug inside its pocket.
She was about to reach in - to grab and open it again - but then one of the voices pierced the veil of her focus. “Ha ha! The Star rises! Up, up, up! Today’s the day!” it said, along with other hurried exclamations.
Edna was vaguely aware of a mustache closing in on her with this tornado of words when a pair of hands grabbed her arm and hoisted her off the ground and out of her haze. Her feet planted and her senses landed with a jolt into the world of everything. Highmond was stood before her, beaming yet impatient. She could see Iona behind him, hands in the pockets of her pin-strip suit, her bag over one shoulder.
“What?” Edna said, efficiently.
“Today’s the day,” he answered, “We’re almost to Pythagoras!” Then he made a series of gleeful little noises, somewhere between laughing and hiccups.
He shoved the bag Edna had been carrying since the castle into her hands. She grabbed it without thinking, her mind still focused on the opening of the watch, trying to decide if she had dreamt it.
When she didn’t put the bag over her shoulder immediately, Highmond started working it into position, like a parent on a rushed school morning. All the while he spoke. “I cannot wait to see what the green scallywag's been up to! Fixing the ship, no doubt, but Pythagoras is also an accomplished ornithological sketchist, you know. Oh, they would never tell you, of course, but their work has been published in several reputable scientific journals! And a rather disreputable one as well, I should say,” he added darkly before jumping back to praise, “It’s really quite impressive! And all of it done with their mouth!”
“What?” Iona cut in, borrowing Edna’s efficiency. Her companions hadn’t explained to her about Pythagoras. She had gathered from passing comments that whoever it was was “some kinda egghead”, in her current parlance. But she knew nothing of the multiple bodies, or of the turtle shape of those bodies or of his ornithological sketches. Highmond thought those first two items were the sort of thing for which it was easier to experience than to be told. Edna thought it would be funnier this way.
“Er, long story,” Highmond said.
“Don’t worry about it,” Edna offered, her mind yet again pulled from her watch thoughts and into the present moment. “Which way?” she added, changing the subject.
Edna’s bag now on, Highmond tapped both her shoulders twice, dusted them off, turned, and barged into the woods.
“That way,” Iona said. The two women had developed a sort of short hand of looks - eye darts, lip curls, chin waggles, cheek bubbles, and combinations thereof - for communicating complex messages very quickly. Iona used her eyebrows to make it clear to Edna that she was aware they had not answered her question, but that she’d let it pass.
Edna gave a wink that, to Iona, definitively meant, “Trust me. It’ll be worth it. Also, you have mud on your jacket.”
They both turned and followed.
Highmond kept a brisk pace at the head of the pack throughout the morning. Edna’s focus drifted back toward her watch. She yearned to pull it from her pocket, but she knew she shouldn’t. If she took it out, she’d open it again, and then she’d surely stop to stare at it. What would she say to Highmond if she ruined this pace he’d set?
I’m sorry. I know you’re eager to reunite with your dearest friend in the world, but I just really need to study every detail of this clock face I’ve owned my entire life. No I don’t know what time it is, why do you ask?
So she kept the watch in her pocket, patting it from the outside now and then.
They had reached the part of their journey where any moment they might stumble upon the crash site for which they searched, so everyone was on edge when they saw a huge pillar of smoke rising from a spot in the distance.
Highmond erupted in more of the little laughing hiccup noises, then shouted something that may not even have been words. He sprinted at the smoke. Iona, who had lagged behind for much of today’s journey, caught up to Edna. The younger woman angled her chin and eyes in Highmond’s direction, clearly asking, “We runnin’ after the dust bag?”
Edna responded with a head tilt, a blink, and a pair of pursed lips, that was equal parts amusement, chastisement, and “We’ll catch up soon.”
And soon they did. Only a few minutes later - the smoke still far off in the distance - they trotted up behind a lump of tuxedo jacket and twigs that lay panting across the ground.
Between breaths, the lump called up to them, “I… may have… misjudged… the distance…” it didn’t move except for the ragged rise and fall in the back of the tuxedo jacket.
“D’you hear something?” Iona said to Edna.
Edna rolled her eyes in response, which said to Iona, well, actually you know that one. Then she knelt down to the lump that had once been called Highmond and, patting its back, said, “I hope you’re right that Pythagoras is waiting at that smoke, but you shouldn’t go running off. It could be a trap, or a town of people who hate men in stick pants, or you could fall off the edge of the universe…”
“It’s all…” he said, as the other two helped him up “part of… the plan…”
While he caught his breath, Highmond informed them that this was, most assuredly, a signal from Pythagoras. It was all in the rescue plan he and the turtoid had cooked up years ago, if ever such an occasion arose.
Actually it was, quite specifically, for this such an occasion. Highmond explained, as they continued walking, that he and “the old boy, well er, not a boy, but you know what I mean” had spent years working out elaborate plans for every woeful scenario they could concoct. Preparing this list was one of the many ways they had convinced themselves that they weren’t yet ready to try their hands (and dextrous beak) at the life of which they dreamt.
“If we waltz into the adventuring world,” their reasoning went, “without a plan for, say, a sentient hurricane… Well, we’ll be laughed right out, won’t we?” And so they had eighteen plans for sentient hurricanes, depending on the size, intellect, and amiability of the storm.
The scenario in which they found themselves now - Scenario Epsilon B: The Road to Turtoid - was laid out like so: IF the zeppelin catches fire (due to raid or sabotage), forcing Highmond to flee while Pythagoras stays behind, AND Pythagoras succeeds at eliminating the fire, AND Highmond is believed (at time of departure from the ship) to be fit for travel, THEN Highmond will estimate the direction in which the ship crashed, Pythagoras will estimate the time it will take Highmond to reach them, Highmond will make his way there while Pythagoras repairs the ship, AND when Pythagoras estimates (through whatever method is deemed appropriate at the time) that Highmond is close, the turtoid will set off a signal (also to be decided at the time).
Edna folded this into her pre-formed ideas of Highmond. He was not the first would-be adventurer she had encountered with such a list of eventualities - it was a common enough stalling tactic. What set the old man apart, to her mind, was that he actually seemed to remember it all.
“Highmond, what's the first thing I said to you?”
Without pause he replied, “To me? You said, ‘Well, they're certainly persistent,’ referring to your Adventuring League. About me? You called me a brawny idiot. Mistakenly, I must add.”
“Yeah, nothin’ brawny about this idiot,” Iona said. She winked at him, but he didn’t know what to make of it.
“You’ve got a remarkable memory, don’t you?” Edna pressed.
“Oh,” he blushed then blustered, “Well, I mean, remarkable? I don’t--”
“Highmond,” Iona said, soft and stern.
“Right. Yes. It’s excellent, my memory. Top notch.”
Edna laughed, “Why haven’t you mentioned this before? Highmond, we had a whole talk about your thing!”
Highmond turned a deeper red. “Well,” he replied, “one mustn’t brag, you know.”
“Second save us,” Iona muttered, “You’re really Inglish, huh?”
“Well now’s your chance, old man: brag,” Edna said.
Highmond cringed at the idea, and didn’t say anything for a while. Finally, after much goading and prompting from his companions, he waded into these new waters, “Oh fine! I mean, if you insist, or else -- I don’t have to. I couldn’t. Well, alright, I--” his voice dropped to a whisper as he looked around, “I used to employ this memory of mine to cheat, on tests and the like.”
“How so?” Edna asked, skeptical.
“Yeah, I’m always lookin’ for good ways to cheat,” Iona chimed in.
“I really shouldn’t say,” he was giddy with the impropriety of it all now, “Nevertheless, I would commit to memory everything my governess said and wrote, and then when she would quiz me on those things later, I’d dig through the old archives,” he pointed at his head, “as it were - and find all the information, stored safely away.” He laughed, “She never had any idea.”
Edna and Iona looked at each other, with no special code - no expression at all - for a full second, and burst into laughter. Highmond’s face scorched red as he babbled a string of confused syllables at them.
“I’m sorry Highmond, but that’s not cheating,” said Edna.
“It’s -- well, it’s... not?”
Edna continued, “That’s just taking the test.”
Highmond began to stammer a response, but Iona cut in first, “Yeah,” she offered, “cheatin’ is like when all your little classmates would copy off’a you ‘cause they knew you’d get everythin’ right.”
“I--” he stopped as quickly as he’d begun. After a moment of thought he continued, “I didn’t have any classmates. I had a private teacher.”
“What about your siblings?” Edna asked.
The flush of his face faded a little. “I don’t have any siblings,” was all he said.
“Really? A fancy lad like you?” she pushed, “I’d have thought your parents would have filled the mansion with potential heirs.”
His face was dim now, like a lightbulb that was purchased but never used, shoved in a drawer somewhere. He was neither angry nor sad, simply resigned to a life that had already been.
Edna looked to Iona, hoping she was saying something complex and pithy with only her right cheek and nostril, but the other woman was staring ahead, clearly lost in some other thought.
Starved for options, Edna began to say, “It’s still an impressive feat of memory,” but before she could, they emerged beneath a long patch of open sky. In front of them stretched about, oh, two zeppelin’s worth of broken tree stumps and turned up earth (the second).
The ground was muddy and covered in small puddles. A wide skid in the mud dragged across the center of the clearing, with several smaller to the sides. In short, it looked like a place where a zeppelin had crashed, but there was no zeppelin. There wasn’t even a blimp.
Footprints of several sizes snaked in and out of the center. There awaited a man at a small structure that looked like a market stall built of sticks and scraps. A huge fire burned behind him next to a pile of steamer trunks. Another stall stood empty to one side, while yet another was half-built across from it. The sign hanging over the completed stall broke off as they looked at it, crashing to the ground and scaring a handful of horses who were tied-off on the unfinished structure across from the fallen sign.
“Howdy!” he shouted, waving, “Welcome to Shelville!”
The group all looked at each other. Iona shrugged and whispered to her companions, “Welcome to Shelville.” She strolled forward, hands in the pockets of her boxy, striped suit, and Edna and Highmond watched as another Change poured over her.
Her pants tightened and brightened, turning to a dusty tan, now tucked into worn leather boots. Where her hands had been in her pockets they now rested on a pair of revolvers, slung from a lopsided belt around her waist. Her jacket dissolved into the air, leaving behind a dirty white shirt covered by a tight, purple vest. The shirt sleeves were rolled to the elbows, equally and oppositely lopsided as the belt, obeying Newton’s Third Law of Looking Purposely Disheveled. Her long, black hair was still tied back, but the fedora bill grew and curved until the hat was a stetson - matching the purple of her vest.
She turned her head, moving a hand to the brim of her hat for no reason at all - other than looking very impressive. “Come along now, ya’ll,” she said, then turned and continued her forward stroll.
After Edna and Highmond got their jaws back on, they followed along. As usual, the Change had no effect as it washed over them. Edna did notice though that it felt different. So far it had always blown over like a wind, but now it felt more like walking into a cold market on a hot day - passing through a wall of conditioned air. Whatever misplaced bits of history had come here - the old west apparently among them - were lingering, rather than passing over. She wasn’t sure if this was better or not.
As they approached, the man called out, “Welcome to Shelley Green’s Soda Fountain and Clothing Emporium! Come on, make yourselves at home!” He gestured to a few barstools in front of his stall.
“Or if you have a dispute, I can serve y’all over at the Shelley Green Civic House and Firearm Dispensary.” He swept one hand - his right, which he thought of as his Grand Sweepin’ Hand - over to the finished stall. The sign, somehow back in its place, fell off again, causing the horses to winnie and buck.
“And we haven’t yet completed construction on Shelley Green’s Horse Rental and Glue Superstore, as you can see, but we have the stock.”
Iona sat down first, and the others followed. “Sarsaparilla,” she ordered, ignoring his other offerings.
“Mm. Fresh out,” he said apologetically.
“Ah, I was hopin’ to find out what it was. Root beer, then,” she replied.
“Mm. Fresh out,” he repeated exactly.
“Mm. Fresh out.”
Iona opened her mouth to try another order, but Edna cut in, “Three of whatever you’re not fresh out of, please.”
“Three waters, comin’ up,” he said, and set to work cleaning and filling glasses.
Highmond, who was sat to Edna’s right, grunted and gave his companions a serious look, motioning for them to close in. Edna, in the middle, turned around on her stool, and the others leaned in until their heads were shielded by her. “What are we doing? We haven’t any money,” the old man whispered.
“Oh I take all sorts of payment,” the sodakeep called over their huddle, “long as it helps me feed thems I care about.”
Highmond leaned out, “You, er, can hear us?” he asked, his volume unchanged.
“You ain’t but two feet from me; it don’t matter much how quiet you whisper.” Seeing the wisdom in his words, and also the warning, they abandoned their huddle. When he pushed their glasses out in front of the three adventurers, he continued, “Your hydration. Now while you sip, can I interest you fine folk in some fancy used duds?” he swept one hand grandly - you know the one - back toward the luggage that sat beside the fire.
Their eyes couldn’t help but follow such a grand sweep. “Wait! One!” Highmond stammer-screamed, as he looked more closely, “Those are my steamer trunks! Pythagoras was here!”
“And that’s my bag!” Edna added, pointing to a rough-looking duffle on top of one of the trunks.
“No kiddin’!” The sodakeep/clothier laughed, “Ain’t that grand! That’ll cost extra, then.”
At this, Highmond broke down into his standard huffs of incredulous noises. They culminated in a loud, “WHAT! But-- but-- but-- the clothes belong to us!”
“So you know they fit,” the man offered in a kind voice, like he had done them a favor.
Iona laughed quietly, “I like this fella,” she said, in her newest accent.
Highmond’s immediate response was to simmer quietly on his stool in the dignified, imperial rage of his people. In fact, the haughty self-righteousness that results from this rage is one of the main exports of his country. His anger soon rose to a boil, and thoughts began to bubble out half-formed. “Why!” and “To say!” and “The gumption!” and others I haven’t the lee nor the will to print. As will happen when these things go unstirred, one idea eventually frothed over the lip of the pot. “Where is my turtoid!” he screamed.
The sodakeep / clothier / beacon for Highmond’s rage looked to the others for aid, but they offered none, being eager as well for the answer. “I’m sorry, friend, I don’t know nobody named Pythagoras nor Mitertoid.” When that did nothing to cool the spout of profanity pouring over his bar, he continued, “An--! And it ain’t nothin’ personal! It’s just like I said before, I have got to feed thems I care about.”
Here Edna stepped in. Grabbing Highmond by the shoulders, she began to spin him bodily on his stool. It was a slow, purposeful spin, though nobody - including her - knew what that purpose was. Perhaps she heard my metaphor, you know, about the boiling pot, and decided to stir him. But probably she was just doing something unexpected that Highmond would have to think about, thereby diverting some of his ire.
Once she got a rhythm - and the old man got a little dizzy and a lot quieter - she said to the sodakeep / clothier / beacon for Highmond’s rage / apparent family-man, “You do keep saying that.” In a softer voice, she tried to contextualize for Highmond, “See? The man just has a family he’s looking after.”
“Oh, no ma’am, ain’t got no family,” he replied, unhelpfully and without explanation.
To keep things from escalating once more, Iona guessed at another possibility, “So you mean yourself and your horses?”
“Should I be feedin’ them horses? I thought they found their own food.”
“Not when they're! tied up!” Highmond spat out in spurts as he spun by a couple of times. “Sir! what mouths! Have-you-to-feed?” he continued on subsequent spins.
“Aside from these horses,” Edna jumped back in, “which you should definitely feed as soon as possible.”
“I ain’t said nothin’ ‘bout no mouths,” he said, slowly, as if his meaning had been plain all along. “No sir and ma’ams, I have got to feed this fine fire you see behind me,” he clipped one of his hands - the left - by the thumb into his suspenders while the other - the GSH - swept, grandly, toward the massive bonfire behind him. His GSH then shot forward, gesturing toward the other stalls, “and I’ve got to feed my town here a steady supply of buildin’ materials.”
Edna stopped spinning Highmond so they could stare, open-mouthed, and in unison at him. Well, almost unison. Highmond was sat the wrong way, but he scooched himself round, to complete the effect.
Edna finally broke the stare by moving her gaze to the fire, then turning and looking again at the shops behind them. The sign for Shelley Green’s Civic House and Firearm Dispensary fell off, scaring the nearby horses. She turned back around and said, “So you want sticks, then?”
“Sticks, twigs, logs - really anythin’ fuels a flame or holds a nail,” he said, and should have stopped there. “I just burned a bunch of hoity-toity canes this mornin’. Whew!” he laughed, “Y’all shoulda seen the flames off them!”
Edna feared momentarily that she and Iona would have to hold Highmond back over the bar, but he only sat, perfectly still and silent, for a moment that went on and on. He was Inglish, afterall, and how could they export all that rage if they hadn't first learned to bottle it up? Yes, his was a land where mastering your outbursts so they could slowly consume you from within was the national pastime.
“Well at least we know we can pay,” Iona said, not actually caring if they could pay, but trying to pick the subject out of the things the sodakeep / clothier / beacon for Highmond’s rage / apparent family man / cane arsonist had said. “Y'all got pockets full of sticks. Y’all got pockets made of sticks.”
But Highmond would not be put off this topic. He simmered, speaking in a voice so quiet it should have been impossible to hear, but also so well enunciated that each syllable pounded its way into their ears he said, “Why didn’t you use the canes to build?”
“Well they wouldn’t’ve matched the aesthetic,” said the other man, and he used the GSH to indicate again the grand shanties he had built so far.
Everyone looked, again, for such was the power of the GSH. Everyone, that is, but Highmond, whose gaze was attached to their host by the daggers he was staring into him. As they turned to look, the sign fell off the Civic House, scaring the horses.
Turning back around, Iona said, “Am I crazier than a tumbleweed what doesn’t tumble, or does that keep happenin’?”
“Oh yeah,” the sodakeep / clothier / beacon for Highmond’s rage / apparent family man / cane arsonist / shoddy builder said, “I guess it does, don’t it? Huh!”
“Localized time loop,” Edna suggested, unaffected. A sign that always fell when you looked at it was the sort of weird that had become so mundane in her life it barely registered. The others - except for Highmond - took her casual attitude for their own, shrugging it off as well.
Highmond meanwhile stood from his stool with a stream of grunts, walked over to the steamer trunks, and began to poke around.
Edna thought she had heard the words “trousers” and “Pythagoras” spring from somewhere within that stream, so she started, “Alright, Shelley. Let’s ta--.”
“--Oh I ain’t Shelley Green,” he interrupted. “I’m just buildin’ this here town on the behalf, as it were, of Shelley Green.”
Edna and Iona both gave each other a tired look that said, among ruder things, “Sure, why not.”
She continued anyway, “Let’s talk pants.”
And so they did, and in so doing encountered a new trick of time on Earth the Second: the shopping montage.
One moment, they were digging through trunks and bags, the next Highmond was modeling a new outfit for the others. Edna barely had time to react, it seemed, before the old badger was suddenly in another suit and Iona was clapping and calling for a spin. Then it was to be her turn, which she protested on the grounds that the clothes were already hers, but there is no stopping a montage.
Suddenly, it seemed, she was twirling and laughing as Highmond whistled and Iona shouted old-timey obscenities. Then she was in another outfit, but Iona was gone. Just as Edna realized her absence, the other woman returned, having traded in her guns at the dispensary for a huge pile of sticks.
Then Iona started trying on the other’s clothes. First Edna’s, next Highmond’s, and she even convinced the man who wasn’t called Shelley to let her have a go with his trousers. There was great laughter and applause and also a cheese plate for the watchers to snack on.
In the end, Edna and Highmond each bought two outfits of their own clothes. Highmond also found a surviving cane that had been separated from its fellows before - what he now called - the Great and Tragic Burning. Having, however, spent all of his sticks on clothes, he was left unable to buy it. He was going to go get more from the woods nearby, but Iona bought it first. Then she kept it, to annoy him, having - she argued - bought it fair and square.
She also bought the other man’s pants.
When the order was all set straight and the tab evened, the sodakeep / clothier / beacon for Highmond’s rage / apparent family man / cane arsonist / shoddy builder / generous salesman informed them of a sale he had going: buy three things, get a horse. Between each person’s outfits, the cane, and their waters, they had all - he said - qualified for this sale.
This sudden straight-forwardness filled Edna with suspicion, but she decided perhaps he was just trying to rid himself of the burden of horses now he knew he needed to feed them. Whatever the case, she wasn’t going to look a gift horse in the mouth.
Highmond, meanwhile, was looking in their mouths.
“Highmond?” asked Edna.
“Is this you volunteerin’ to feed ‘em?” asked Iona.
From inside the third horse’s mouth, Highmond called (down its throat), “If you think I’m taking ownership of a steed with horse cavities, you’ve got another thing coming to you!”
But in the end, no horse cavities were found that day. So they picked their steeds and loaded their bags onto each. “Well,” said Edna when their preparations were completed, “where do we go from here?” She looked to the man not called Shelley, “You wouldn’t happen to know where a giant airship, about - oh - this wide,” she pointed out the width of the clearing, “would be, would you?”
“Y’all came lookin’ for the zeppelin?” he asked and began trotting - with purpose and without pants - toward Shelley Green’s Civic House and Firearm Dispensary. He whistled as he bent over the top, digging for something inside. “Y’all shoulda mentioned that!” he called at them, through the gaps in his workmanship.
“You know where my zeppelin is?” Highmond practically cried, in both meanings of the word.
“Oh sure! Shelley Green had the hunk of junk trotted up to Edo a few days ago! Just before charterin’ me to set up this here township.”
Several pieces of this news seemed significant to Edna, but none of them were the one word Highmond hung on. “Edo?” he asked, faltering a little.
“That’s the place--Ahaha! Here they are!” replied their host. He unbent himself then and turned around to face his customers, leveling Iona’s traded-in pistols at them.
“I don’t suppose that’s you offerin’ me a refund.” Iona deadpanned.
“Now, I’m mighty sorry about this, but I’m under specific orders to take anyone who asks about that there zeppelin straight to Edo. So I’m gonna need y’all to get in one of them trunks.”
“Or,” Edna said as calmly as offering an alternative take-out choice, “you could just let us go there on our own, which - I think--” she looked around at her companions, garnering confirmatory nods, “--we were going to do anyway. Yeah.”
The sodakeep / clothier / beacon for Highmond’s rage / apparent family man / cane arsonist / shoddy builder / generous salesman / stick-up man looked nervous, his guns and gaze darting between the three out-of-towners. He seemed to think about it for a moment before saying, “Yeah, but you would say that, and I ain’t fallin’ for it. You’re gonna get in one of them boxes. I’m’onna shoot some holes in it so’s y’all can breathe - I ain’t no monster--”
“--Can we maybe discuss the order of operations there--” Iona interrupted, but he continued on louder.
“Then I’m’onna throw your box on the Tokaido train--”
It was Highmond’s turn to interrupt next. “I’m sorry, did you say the ‘Tokaido’ ‘train’?” he asked, emphasizing the words separately, like they were a star-crossed pair, never intended to meet.
“Stop interruptin’! I’m’a put you on the Tokaido train, then I’m’a pull up a chair and watch your box the whole way through, with a gun in one hand and a sarsparilla in the other! That’s right! I ain’t out of sarsparilla! I lied! I only got enough for me!”
At this point, Edna, who had made a valiant attempt so far at patience, lost it. This man stood in front of her with his guns, and his lies, and his yelling, and his strange sense of loyalty to someone called Shelley Green, and she decided she, too, had several things. She had a headache, for one. She had a craving for sarsparilla, as well. She had no certainty that Shelley Green was real, at all. And she had, or rather had had enough.
She wanted to convey this possession of enough-ness with a hand signal or two, but her hands were busy reaching for the sky. It had been some time since the pair had made any progress toward that great blue above, but still she felt it was a bad idea for them to lose any distance toward their objective just now.
She settled then for rolling her eyes - or at least, trying. In the heat - of the moment, of the sun, of the giant bonfire burning twenty feet away - her muscles forgot a little how to roll the eyes, turning it instead to a jerky series of looks in different directions. (If you’re curious, and if Iona had been watching, these looks would have said to her, “Chunk! I, banana!”)
The middle look - the up one - landed right on the sign above their would-be hostagier’s head. In that splinter of a second - just before the sign began to fall - Edna realized how clever she would have been to have done this on purpose. Alas, clever or not, the effect remained.
The sign for Shelley Green’s Civic House and Weapons Dispensary fell forward, banging down onto the head of the man whose name was probably something other than Shelley Green. He yelped and collapsed, and the horses whinnied and reared. Edna’s horse - whom she had thought of naming Earl Grey - broke free of her loose grip, running off. It managed one solid kick to the head of their had-been stick-up man as it passed by.
He lay moaning in pain and surprise and a bit of his own pee, dazed for the moment. Iona shouted, already on her horse, “Get gittin’ ‘fore we get got!” She helped Edna onto her horse, then threw the man’s pants down atop his bobbing head.
From his horse Highmond called to the liar (and all the other things), “That will cost extra!” Then he looked at Edna for approval.
She laughed and said, “Good! It didn’t make much sense! But it was a fine callback.”
Iona could see the other man coming to, slowly trying to wrestle his pants from his head. “Hey, you two! That thing I said before!”
“Right!” Highmond cried, in a triumphant laugh, “Follow me!” and he cracked the reins and shot off upon his steed.
Edna and Iona sat still on their shared horse for another moment, following Highmond with a wide-eyed, wide-mouthed stare.
“I didn’t know he could do that,” said Iona. “Did you know he could do that?”
“I had no idea he could do that,” replied Edna.
A noise to their side broke the trance. The man who was many things - few of them good and none of them well - had set his guns down, ripped his pants from his face, and was working to push the sign boards off himself.
“Let’s find out if we can,” Iona said. Cracking the reins in an imitation of Highmond. She added a high, loud, “GIT!” which helped.
Their horse shot forward. Its riders were not as steady as the old man atop the other, but it managed to keep them on - probably because she yelled git. Edna braced her arms and legs - against Iona and the horse - and her mind - against the shrieks of pain she expected from within. Apparently both worked, for she kept herself aloft and kept the pain at bay.
They galloped after Highmond, who was cutting through a trail that led east from Shelville’s little clearing. Behind, they could hear the man shouting, then shooting. Edna was terrified a bullet - or soon a storm of them - would come ripping its way through the trees at her and her companions, but they never came.
About two miles and two minutes away, there was a lovely woman who thought - for time reasons - that she was Isaac Newton. She held an apple outstretched, feeding her goat - whom she was sure was Edmund Halley - when the bullet dropped out of the sky. From her perspective, the fruit exploded without cause or caution. From the goat’s perspective, everything suddenly became wet and tasty. “Eureka!” Isaac cried, “Apples explode spontaneously!” The goat bleated acceptingly and continued to lick the juice from her hand and its own face.
Back in the present - which is the past - which is a jumble of many times anyway, so why not call it also the future - Edna and her friends were not out of trouble yet. Having raced down the trail for some time without issue, Edna heard a sickening clip-clop clip-clop coming up behind them. She looked back to see their would-be captor in fact would be on them soon.
He had grabbed the last remaining horse, apparently the fastest of the lot, and was racing down the trail. He charged toward them like a stormwind - fast, angry, and pantless - his pistols clutched against the reins.
When he locked eyes with Edna, he shouted something. She could hear the noise, but the details of it were swallowed by the hungry wind that bit at their faces. At the same moment, the wind brought a new sound from ahead, one it had digested already - the sound of a train.
Invigorated, Iona cracked the reins again and their horse sped ahead once more. In moments, they burst through the treeline at the edge of the wood, where they could see now the train barrelling northward past them. Highmond had pulled up alongside an open storage car and was looking back for his companions. He had adjusted to sit side-saddle, facing the train. As soon as he saw them, he threw his bag into the car; then he waved and leapt in after it.
Edna and Iona angled toward the car and toward ending this doomed chase before it ended them. They tried to pull up along the open door, but Highmond’s horse was still running beside it.
The animal - who thought of itself, in the language of horses, as a Guiseppe - kept looking back and forth from where it was going and where its skillful rider had gone. Should Guiseppe abandon this human who had put its whole head in his mouth?
Surely not. Surely the old fool would need Guiseppe.
The human and his companions began yelling human things - at each other and at him. Guiseppe’s rider - now crouched on the ledge to which he’d leapt - pushed at the air between them with his grotesque human hooves. Guiseppe did not understand. Could humans do air magic? He thought only birds and bugs could do that.
The other humans tried to pull their horse - whom Guiseppe knew as Prisha - between him and the big, fast human worm. But Guiseppe, unladen and more able to maneuver than the heavily weighted Prisha, was able to keep his spot by the opening while he made his decision.
The man walked out of sight then, disappearing into the belly of the worm. Guiseppe thought maybe that was it, maybe he was gone forever, but he came back a moment later with wads of hay, which he began to throw at Guiseppe.
Normally Guiseppe would think this method of feeding rude, but under the circumstances and given how hungry he had become in his days with the Stupid Man, he found it very kind. That did it. That made up his mind. Guiseppe summoned all the strength he had left - willing himself even faster than the fast worm - and leapt.
Edna didn’t understand any horses, really, but this one was a full mystery. As Iona attempted and failed to pull between the horse and the train, Edna wondered what could be going through its head. Too bad no one will ever know, she thought.
There wasn’t time to consider the enigma of the stallion now, for their pursuer had closed the gap considerably. He now trailed only a horse’s length behind, which is unsafe - Edna noted - you should maintain at least three horse’s lengths at all times. Notably though - and as a mark toward his safety record - he didn’t seem interested in shooting them. Edna was basing this notion solely on the fact he hadn’t shot them yet, but it seemed like a solid enough foundation, given the ample opportunity he had had.
Nonetheless, Edna was starting to get worried that she might actually have to try something, when all of a sudden Highmond’s horse leapt fully into the train carriage. It was an astonishing, magnificent, very stupid leap, but it worked. Suddenly the horse stood next to and over Highmond, devouring hay from his hands and coat and face.
Iona, quick as her wit, pulled their horse into the now vacant spot beside the door. Edna could hear their pursuer shouting more things at her, but as before it was devoured by the wind, with help now from the train. One by one she tossed Iona’s bag and Highmond’s cane (which Iona still claimed) into the car.
When it became her time to leap she tried to summon up her courage, but it wasn’t answering - perhaps off playing bridge with her pain. They were moving so fast, any mistake would be a miserable end to her storied, miserable career. Fitting, she thought.
Using Iona’s shoulders for balance, she began to stand on the horse’s back, trying to gain a better position for jumping. She lost her balance though - probably to the bridge game - and tumbled forward. Her outstretched hands caught the floor of the car and her head tucked under them, forming her accidentally into a roll, which culminated in a three-point landing, one hand having flown out to her side in a panic.
“Show off,” Highmond said, as his horse licked his face.
Iona jumped in quickly after, with a simpler grace, and suddenly all three of them were in the car. It wasn’t over though. Edna jumped to her feet and turned. Their horse - Prisha - had pulled away, stopping to catch its breath like a normal animal. Their pursuer was quickly and forcefully filling the gap, turning as he did and stowing his pistols, preparing for the leap.
She looked for something, anything to stop him and spied the large, rusted handle of the carriage door. She reached it just as he was planting his feet into the side of his poor steed and yanked at it, trying to close it in front of him.
She got it half-way across just as he jumped. He slammed into it, but managed to grab on, holding the lip of it. But the rest of the door was as rusted as the handle, and the sudden complex of forces caused it to shutter and fall from its track. With the sodakeep / clothier / beacon for Highmond’s rage / apparent family man / cane arsonist / shoddy builder / generous salesman / stick-up man still firmly held onto it, the door flew out and down. The wind caught it on the bottom edge as it fell, pulling it so the inside part - where the man was not - was the side that hit the ground.
Edna and Iona watched as he skid across the dirt, shaking a fist and screaming more unhearable things at them. Highmond meanwhile watched a horse eat more hay off of his face. They all breathed a sigh of relief. The women comforted by the surety that their pursuer had been thoroughly lost, Highmond by the surety that his animal had no horse cavities.