Short Story: Rope Burns (Free Excerpt)


by Kelly McCullough

rope-burnKelly McCullough is the author of the WebMage and Fallen Blade series and the forthcoming School for Sidekicks. His short work has appeared in Weird Tales and Absolute Magnitude.


The saloon’s swinging doors banged open, startling Matt. Around him the bar went deathly still and quiet, but only for a moment. It passed almost too quickly to be noticed, but when the action resumed there was a subtle but desperate edge to it. Matt could smell fear in the air. He was suddenly very glad the Tawdry Goblin insisted patrons check their guns at the door. He twisted in his seat to see who had come in.

A man stood in the doorway, letting his eyes adjust. He was wearing a grey-green duster and matching hat that shifted colors as you looked at them, blurring his outline. His boots were soft and in the flat native style, rather than the high-heeled variety favored by most cowboys. Grey-green kidskin gloves covered his hands. He was of average height and slim of build, almost slight. His brown hair was salted with grey. A kerchief was bound high around his neck.

Matt was still sizing him up when the stranger’s keen green eyes met his own. Those eyes trapped Matt while they made their own assessment. There was something of recognition in that gaze and something of measuring. Finally, the man nodded, though whether in greeting or dismissal, Matt couldn’t tell. Once the man directed his attention elsewhere, Matt turned to one of his table-mates.

“Ned,” he said, “who the hell is that?”

Ned was another of the hands who’d signed on to move the Burness herd from the grazing lands around the Durango free state to the treaty port of San Diego for butchering. That was before the trolls cut the town off from the cattle routes. With the herds trapped, they spent their evenings drinking in the Tawdry Goblin while they waited for something to happen.

“Not so loud.” Ned made a shushing gesture. “He’ll hear you. His name’s Morgan Denny, and he’s more than half witch.” Ned touched middle and ring finger to thumb in the common gesture to ward off magic.


Ned nodded. “They say he actually lived with the Apache and their damned Sidhe allies for a couple of years.” He looked like he wanted to spit. “Stinking Apaches. The lot of them are half fey. They sold themselves to the devil for magic and all of its evils, and they’ll burn for it.”

Matt blinked, but held his tongue. He was part Lakota, something he knew better than to mention to Ned or any other herd rider. For them it was a never ending sore spot that the natives had intermingled their blood and fates with the Sidhe. The ties went back before Columbus, back to when the fey had been driven out of Europe. If not for the pacts between the tribes and Sidhe, the US would own the whole continent from Pacific to Atlantic. Instead, Washington constantly had to fight to maintain any holdings west of the Mississippi.

“The Hanged Man,” muttered Ned, “that’s what he’s called.”

“What?” Matt rubbed a thumb half-consciously along a patch of rough skin beside his Adam’s Apple. “Why?”

“On account of the scar,” whispered Ned. “They say that under that kerchief he always wears there’s a rope scar from when he was hanged.”

“Looks mighty healthy for someone who’s had his neck stretched,” said Matt. “What’d they hang him for? Rustling?”

“Shit, Matt. Keep quiet. Don’t ever let him hear you saying something like that. They say it was the Sidhe that done it to him, the wild fey in some kind of satanic initiation or something. More damned magic.” He made the warding gesture again. “Shit, he’s coming this way. Just keep your mouth shut. I’ll tell you more later.”

The hanged man arrived at their table.

“Evening, boys,” he husked. There was clearly something wrong with his throat. “Mind if I join you for a moment?” He was already pulling out the chair opposite Matt.

“Not at all, Mister Denny,” said Ned. “You’d be most welcome.” There was no warmth in Ned’s voice.

Under the table Ned gave Matt a gentle boot as though to remind him to keep quiet. It was unnecessary. From the moment the strange man walked in, Matt had felt uneasy. Now, after the talk of hanging, Matt had no interest in speaking with him. Out of long habit his right hand slid down to play with the coil of rope that he always wore instead of a pistol. The feel of the expensive Manila hemp running between thumb and fingers soothed him.

“Call me Morgan,” said the hanged man. “We’ll be riding together for a while. I just signed on as the Burness herd boss for the San Diego drive. Herd’s ready to move now that I’m aboard. We leave at dawn tomorrow, so why don’t you boys wrap things up here.”

He beckoned with one hand, and a small woman with skin the color of sunset and a wicked set of fangs materialized at his elbow. Her eyes were burnt orange and slit horizontally like a goat’s. She was wearing a corseted red dress that emphasized her most prominent feature, a bosom that would have looked unnaturally large on a human twice her size. Her skirts were pinned up to expose layers of bright petticoats. Her name was Rose. She was the owner and madam of the Tawdry Goblin, one of the many Unsealie fey who had decided to side with the US in the long war.

“Hello, Morgan.” She bobbed her head in wary acknowledgment. “What’s your pleasure?”

“I’m taking the Burness herd to San Diego at first light. Give each of these fellows one drink on me.” He handed her a folded bill. “Then, chase them out so they can sleep. Same goes for the other Burness hands in the house, and don’t let any more in when these have gone. It’s going to be an early morning.” Morgan pushed his chair back. “Rose, boys, if you’ll excuse me. I need to deliver the same message at a few more stops.”

There was silence at the table until Morgan left.

“Well, boys,” the Goblin Madam’s voice was brusque, “you heard the man. One drink and then you gotta git. What’ll it be?”

“Nothing for me, Ma’am.” Matt tipped his brown hat and pushed his chair back. “I’m going to head back now.” He rose to his feet.

“Dirty cheat!” snarled a voice to his left.

Reflexively Matt spun towards the accusation. A man in a faded tan hat was throwing his cards down on the table. Across from him the local card sharp, Jim Prather, was sweeping up a pile of coins.

“I want my money back!” The man in the tan hat leaped to his feet.

Prather shrugged and grinned. “I’m sorry, son, but when you play the game, sometimes you—”

Prather’s smile vanished abruptly as the man in the tan hat flicked his right wrist and a small but deadly derringer slid into his palm.

“I said, I want my money back.” He cocked the little pistol and started to bring the barrel up. “Now!”

With a motion he’d practiced a thousand times, but never expected to use, Matt slipped the lariat from its hook on his belt and snapped the knotted end of it like a whip. The rope uncoiled like a rattlesnake, the heavy knot at its end striking the back of the man’s hand with a sharp crack. The derringer fired, sending its lethal charge into the table rather than its intended target. The man screamed and dropped the small pistol, clutching at his injured hand.

Ned and a couple of other cowboys tackled the gunman, pinning him to the ground. Within moments they were relieved of that duty by the Goblin’s burly bouncer, who threw the man into the street.

Ned gave Matt a respectful look. “Good lord, I’ve never seen you move like that, Matt. That was uncanny. I’d swear you broke his hand with that rope of yours. How’d you do it?”

“I don’t know.” Matt, shook his head and slowly recoiled his lariat. “It all happened too quick. I wasn’t thinking.” His whole body felt like one big raw scrape and the rope seemed to burn the skin of his palms as he touched it. The twisted hemp was awkward in his hands, almost as though it didn’t want to be put away. He turned toward the door. “I need to get back to the bunkhouse.”

Matt shook off Rose’s offer of a “very special reward” but couldn’t dissuade her from giving him a bottle of bourbon on the house. He was still clutching it in one hand when he ducked through the Tawdry Goblin’s doors and out into the cool night air.

Outside, at the check-booth, Matt handed over the chit he’d gotten earlier and retrieved his duster and rifle, leaving the bourbon as a tip. Matt pulled the long oilskin coat on first. He was chilled right through. Then he cracked the Winchester open and checked the magazine. It was just as he’d left it, with four soft lead bullets, and four iron headed faerie-busters in alternation.

He slid the rifle into its case on his saddle before unhitching his gelding, a beautiful dapple-grey. Braid was a bit on the small side, but Matt was small too, five-seven with the dark skin and black hair of his Lakota grandfather. The ice-blue eyes that dominated his face provided a startling contrast that people often commented on. They also helped him conceal his native blood. It was safer that way. Putting one foot in the stirrup, Matt hauled himself into the saddle. It seemed a lot more work than usual, and cold sweat ran freely down his smooth cheeks as he reined Braid around.

Matt rode alone. Ned had decided to stay for his last drink, which suited Matt fine. Ned was one of his only friends, but Matt needed time to think. He felt drained. The encounter with the gunman was too much coming on top of meeting Morgan. Matt fingered the rough place on his neck again. It was the only remembrance of the accident that almost ended his life at its very beginning. Matt had come from the womb with the umbilical cord knotted tightly around his throat. Only a quick thinking midwife with a sharp knife had saved him. The rough patch was a memento of that blade. Born with a noose around his neck, Matt didn’t like to think about hanging. Not at all.


It was late afternoon and a light rain had started, bringing early darkness. The cold and damp had Matt hunching down into the limited shelter of his duster. The drizzle rolled off the front of his cowboy hat in a series of steady drips that fell to strike the horn of his saddle and splatter across the front of his long coat. He and Ned were riding at the rear of the herd as it climbed up a winding trail to a low saddleback pass a week out of Durango.

Blue-grey mountains hung above the herd like smoke rising from a dying campfire. The chill wind blowing down the pass carried the smell of wet cow and the gentle lowing of a herd ready for day’s end—a desire Matt shared. He wanted nothing more than to wrap himself around a warm meal and curl up under the supply wagon for the night. But the way was narrow, with a steep drop on the downslope side that made him nervous. He couldn’t rest yet.

He was wet and tired and completely unprepared when a rock loosened by the rain came rolling down the hill from above and startled a calf. The frightened animal turned and bolted toward him. Braid shied, almost throwing Matt when the calf slammed into the horse. As it bounced off the larger beast, the calf slid onto the muddy verge of the trail.

A half second later the calf and twenty five square feet of the slope abruptly dropped away with an awful syrupy noise. Matt almost went with it, but somehow he managed to keep his seat and rein in Braid at the same time. As soon as he had the horse settled he dismounted and fastened the back end of his lariat to the saddlehorn. He passed his reins to Ned.

“Take Braid and move back up the trail a bit,” he said.

“What are you doing?” asked Ned.

“Going to see what became of the damn calf.”

Ned looked at him like he was crazy. “It fell off the cliff. What else do you need to know?”

“Do you want to tell the Hanged Man that we lost a calf without at least checking to see what happened to it?”

Ned didn’t respond and Matt took that as a no. He yanked the rope sharply to make sure the knot was solid. Then, using Braid as an anchor, he sidled out toward the place where the mudslide had broken away. When he peered over the side, soft brown eyes met his own. The calf had slid about twenty feet before hitting a small evergreen. The pine couldn’t have been much thicker than Matt’s thumb, but it’d been enough to halt the animal’s descent. But, the tree was already bowing dangerously, and there was a nasty drop beyond. If something wasn’t done soon, the little fellow wasn’t going to make it. The calf made a plaintive sound as it stared up at him.

Uncoiling more of the rope, Matt began to swing the lariat in a slow circle around his head. It was going to be a tough cast with the darkness and the rain. He swung the lasso once, twice.

Suddenly, the ground sagged underneath him and began to move. Even as he started to slide, Matt let the loop fly, sending it in a long arc that settled neatly around the calf’s neck.

Ned yelled after him. “Matt!”

Matt slithered about ten feet downslope before the rope pulled up short, stopping him. The calf was bawling. Matt turned to climb back up, but the fresh mudslide he’d started hit the calf and knocked it free of the tree. The calf slid away, dragging the line through Matt’s hands. He could feel the skin on his palms shredding as the rope burned across them, but somehow he managed to hold on until it went taut and stopped moving. The calf’s bawls changed abruptly to strangled coughs as the rope jerked it up short.

“Goddamned idiot cow,” snarled Matt.

Then he let himself slide down the rope to the calf. He wrapped his legs around the animal and his hands around the rope, straining to relieve some of the pressure on its throat. His fresh rope burns cried protest at this further indignity.

“Matt! Are you all right down there?” called Ned.

“No. I’m not. This stinking calf’s trying to get us both killed. If I get out of this in one piece, I’m going to ask Cookie to change its name to Veal. You’re going to have to use the horses to pull us up. There’s no way I’ll manage it.”

“I’ll see what I can do, but with all this mud I don’t know if I’ll be able to manage it. You may have to cut the rope and let the calf go.”

“I’d rather slice off a finger than take a knife to this rope,” he said softly. He wasn’t about to let anything happen to his beloved Manila hemp.

There was no reply, but a minute or so later the rope jerked even tighter, rolling the calf on top of Matt and driving the breath from his lungs. For several long moments nothing more happened. Then Ned called down again.

“It’s not going to work, Matt. You’ll have to–”

“Matt!” A hoarse yell interrupted Ned. “This is Morgan. Hang in there. We’ll get you both back up.”

Almost immediately the quality of tension in the line changed and they began to move up the slope. Also, though Matt couldn’t swear to it, the rope seemed to twist in his hands, easing the pain in his palms and making it simpler to hang on. In a few short minutes Matt and the calf were lying flat on the packed mud of the trail. Morgan bent over them, still hanging onto the rope.

“I was coming back to check on you when that calf bolted. I watched the whole thing while I worked my way through the herd. That was a mighty fine cast with the lariat, Matt. I haven’t seen that kind of ropesmanship in a long time. Let me help you up and shake your hand.”

As he reached for the proffered hand Matt noticed an odd dark patch, like a scar, on Morgan’s palm, but he couldn’t be sure what it was in the poor light. It struck him then that in two weeks on the trail he’d never seen Morgan without gloves. The thought was driven from Matt’s mind when their palms touched. The contact jarred through him like a shot of raw whiskey, and it felt as though someone had poured fresh embers into the rope burns on his hand. He’d have screamed if it had lasted more than an instant, but almost as quickly as the hot pain had come it was replaced by a soothing cool. It started in his palm, and snaked its way up to his aching shoulder.

As he came to his feet, Matt met Morgan’s eyes. He saw brief shock there, followed by a sort of bitter acknowledgment. Morgan pulled his hand away then, and the sensations vanished.

“Again,” said Morgan, “good cast with that rope. Burness owes you half of anything we get for the calf. I’ll see that he pays it. Now, saddle up and let’s put this herd to bed.”

“Thanks,” mumbled Matt, “it wasn’t anything.”

As he remounted, Matt tried to make sense of what had passed between the two of them. But he couldn’t think of any rational explanation. Over the next two hours, as they got the cows into the pasture beyond the pass, the importance of the incident slowly faded from his mind. By the time he was spooning hot beans from a tin plate and looking for a soft spot to sleep, Matt had written the whole thing off to rope burn and the relief of being back on the trail.



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