The stranger came to Karamea with two bullets, and left with only one. It was Len Carlyle he put down: some old grudge from the Māori wars up north, maybe. Din’t matter: stranger came to town, stranger left Len Carlyle bleeding in the mud, stranger rode east without another word. Must’ve been a tough bloke to ride the Kahurangi in winter - the mountains ate pioneers and shat out bones.
The late Len Carlyle had one rifle, no sons, and two daughters: Alice and Maud. Alice was the eldest: pale, red-haired, melancholy. Maud was more courage and fire, like her mother. There was a wee something of the old country about the both of them: thistles torn from the Highland stone and planted in damp, cold earth half a world away.
Two days after the stranger did his dark work, Alice returned home to find it empty: no food, no rifle, no Maud. She sat for some time, rocking back and forth, drumming her fingers on the tabletop. She smoked from her father’s pipe. The taste of tobacco made her feel sick, but the smell was comforting. Her father was dead, and there was no single thing she could do about it.
Her sister wasnae yet dead.
The tobacco was long burned-down by the time Alice stowed the pipe: she’d been sucking on cold ash from mid-morn until sundown. She took her best boots and heaviest coat, and throat dry, hands shaking, she followed her sister into the mountains.
In the foothills, rātā trees flourished: their wee red blossoms so very much like the ragged hole the stranger left in Len Carlyle’s chest. Alice stopped to pluck a flower, then turned it over in her hands. She hadn’t brought her book for pressing flowers; she hadn’t brought much of anything. Her stomach rumbled. She ignored it - she doubted she could keep food down anyway. In the bark of the tree, somebody had carved MC. Alice ran her hand across the markings, and didnae smile.
Up through the winding high roads, Alice went. She clutched at her coat as the wind battered her. She drank from a mountain stream, but the cold water sent her into convulsive cramps; she didn’t vomit, because there was nothing in her stomach. She stayed there for some time while the moon turned overhead. Muttering, hunched over, she pressed on until she reached a copse of trees that gave her some shelter from the wind.
She saw her sister, but her sister did not see her.
Maud lay splayed out in the crooked arms of a gnarled old rātā. The bark beneath her was freckled with blood - the same deep red as the flowers. Her eyes were open, glassy. The stranger had shot her just once, in the belly. It must’ve taken her hours to die. The frozen earth beneath her was slick with blood where she’d dragged herself. She’d died cradling the rifle as though it were a child. It was too damn cold for flies. Small mercies.
Alice could turn back, and rebuild her life in Karamea — let the trail go cold and let the stranger stay a stranger. The journey back down would be rough, but no moreso than the one up. She knelt down, and closed her sister’s eyes. The Kahurangi would only get colder, and higher — more’n a week’s trek before it eased away to the plains outside Nelson. She tried to take the gun, but Maud’s hands were wrapped too tightly around it. She peeled back her sister’s cold, stiff fingers from the wooden stock. The little bones clicked and cracked. Maud’s fingers were blue, and her fingertips were starting to blacken.
Alice didn’t cry.
She took the gun, and slung it over her shoulder. West for safety, or east for answers. Her hands shook. It was almost dawn: the sun bruised the late-night clouds in shades of purple and yellow. Alice took one last look at her sister, and muttered a small prayer.
She bit her tongue, and shivered, and watched the sun rise.
Xander Stronach is an author from Wellington, New Zealand. Stronach’s works have appeared in Esquire Malaysia, Flash Frontier, and the anthologies: Everything About Us and Cipher Sisters. When he isn’t getting into arguments with oncoming storm clouds, you can find him on Twitter @understatesmen
High Above, the Crown of Stone is a 2016 Fiction War Fall Finalist entry.
Please do not reproduce without permission from the author.
Originally published at fictionwar.com. Image credit: @tiagoaguiar