Excerpt: In the Hours of Darkness

The twin suns sat low on the horizon, burning away the last remnants of daylight and rapidly letting in the swell of darkness. Most of the inhabitants of Deadwood Gulch had already finished up their business and retired indoors for the evening, save for a scarce few who lingered for one reason or another. One of those few was Charles F. Colcord, sheriff of Deadwood Gulch, affectionately known as Charlie to those under his protection.

Not a small man by any means, Charlie’s massive frame was dwarfed completely by the twenty-five-foot dragon standing patiently by his side, watching what was going on with an intensity almost equal to Charlie’s. It had scales in an odd, metallic, silvery-indigo color that had garnered some interest when Charlie had first tamed him, but most of that interest had since waned due to the dragon’s snarly, unpredictable nature.

Charlie didn’t mind. He generally found it rather amusing. After all, it wasn’t like Zorevan ever snapped at him, just people that he’d decided he didn’t like.

Which was, Charlie had to admit ruefully, pretty much everyone else Zorevan had ever met.

“Ho, Sheriff!”

Charlie turned toward the voice, watching as Frank Eaton rode up. “Evenin’, Frank,” Charlie greeted him.

“Evenin’, Charlie. Just finished riding the perimeter. Everything looks quiet. Soon as that brat of Jasper’s gets in, we can power up the fence and turn in for the night,” Frank reported.

At Charlie’s side, Zorevan snorted. Charlie just rolled his eyes. Jeremey Jasper was a nine-year-old hellion who had spent more nights in lockup than most adults five times his age. His hobbies included spooking the fleep herd, snitching Mayor Burke’s pies, and trying to make Charlie go prematurely gray. So far he was two for three; despite Mayor Burke taking a paddle to his ass more than once and getting not-so-nicely thrown in the brig, Charlie’s hair remained a vivid, violent red with not a trace of gray in sight. Yet.

“One of these days that little miscreant is going to find himself on the wrong end of a caraca’s teeth and solve our problem for us,” Charlie drawled, shaking his head. “But in the meantime, one of us had better go retrieve the hellion.”

“I went yesterday,” Frank pointed out. He slid down off his dragon and stalked toward Charlie, keeping a wary eye on Zorevan. “Kinda like to not freeze my ass off for one night. Getting damn cold out there.”

“Yeah,” Charlie agreed, idly running one hand over Zorevan’s flank as the dragon’s head swung around to eye Frank with a particularly malicious gleam. From the day they’d met, the animosity had been mutual, despite Charlie’s best efforts. “Winter’s coming fast. Air’s got a bite in it.” He shook his head. “Early this year.”

Frank swore colorfully. “That means the rachya will be getting more active, and we’re down two riders after that rockslide in Snake Valley. Plus Bill’s still recovering from that fight with the caraca. Not a good year for an early winter.”

Charlie grunted in agreement. In the four generations since the colony ship Oliver Loving set down on S-278-9X, known locally as “No Man’s Land” or, more casually, just “Noman,” the settlers had had to overcome serious setbacks and were only just now beginning to recover and flourish. An early winter meant an early end to the summer rains and a longer dry spell than usual. While the fleep herds could practically graze on dust, humans couldn’t live on meat alone. Charlie made a mental note to speak with Mayor Burke in the morning.

Besides the food problems, an early winter meant that the rachya—big, mean, vicious predators that could tear a man in two in the time it took him to swear in surprise—would be stirring from their summer slumber deep in the cool of the mountains and venturing down into the plains and valleys in search of food. Unfortunately for Deadwood Gulch, food most often meant men or the fleep herds that fed the settlement.

Out of the corner of his eye, Charlie saw a brief flicker of movement. A moment later Zorevan’s tail—fortunately the flat underside and not the dangerously spiked topside—connected with the small of Frank’s back, sending him face-first into the dirt. As Frank swore profusely and scrambled to his feet, a deep rumble sounded in Zorevan’s chest.

“Fucking dragon!” Frank spat, glaring death at Zorevan. “Damn it, Charlie! Why don’t you get rid of that nightmare and get something a little less ornery? Whole fucking town would thank you.”

Charlie shrugged and grabbed hold of one of Zorevan’s horns before the dragon could take it into his head to snap—or worse. “Zorevan’s just a smartass. It’s not like he’s really malicious. If you didn’t swear at him all the time, he probably wouldn’t find it nearly so funny to make you eat dirt.”

“Funny.” Frank glared. “You’re cracked, Charlie. That dragon doesn’t think I’m funny; he thinks I’d make a nice snack. I’m serious: ditch him and find a nice, compliant dragon like my Sundown.” He patted his own reddish-tan dragon on the nose.

Charlie shrugged again. “Zorevan and I get along. I’d rather have him with me when I’m facing a lycodo pack than some other dragon. You’ll just have to trust that when I say he won’t actually hurt you, he won’t.”

Frank grimaced, fully wanting to argue further but subsiding. “Whatever. You’re the sheriff. Just keep that fucking monster away from me.”

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