(If you happened to read last week’s blog, this is one of those deleted scenes I mentioned. For the pace of the story, I spent way too much time here on characters and events that have no real impact on anything else, but I still enjoyed them. I’m cutting the vast majority of this out of the next draft, but I still like what I wrote. So I’m sharing it here.)
We reached the top of the track leading to Rockmouse in another half an hour as flat plains gave way to the first red Outland cliffs. The friendly transport hauler we’d paid to let us tag along dropped us at the edge of the road and continued on his own way, leaving us to go the rest of the way on foot with our gear— camping things, rations, scanners, and our weapons— slung over our shoulders.
Despite the fact that we couldn’t see the tiny mining town from the road, it was a short walk to get there, only five or ten minutes at the most. And while I wasn’t about to admit it to Tanner, I was pleased to find that my legs and feet adjusted to the uneven dirt faster than I’d expected. I could only hope that the hike up into the wilderness would treat me as kindly.
As far as towns went, Rockmouse was less than impressive. It boasted no more than a dozen buildings, the largest of which was the modified warehouse that functioned as a sort of community center. Another appeared to be a supply and equipment store, though I was surprised they saw enough business to be solvent. The rest were various bunkhouses and cabins and other small residences to house the working population.
“Not much to look at, is it?”
Tanner laughed softly. “No. It’s more a base camp than an actual settlement. Still nice enough, though.”
And it was. It was dusty and sparse and not particularly pretty, but I noticed a certain reckless camaraderie in the air here that I recognized and appreciated. If nothing else, it made for interesting stories, and the small knot of scruffy looking townsfolk lounging in front of the community center looked like they already had several each.
“Is that who we’re meeting?”
Tanner squinted and peered down the street before shaking his head. “I don’t think so. She’s probably inside.” He squinted again. “I think I owe that big guy money, though.”
I raised one eyebrow. “You owe money?”
He shrugged. “Ah, not much. Fifty credits or so. I borrowed his hovermule last time I was out here.”
I was about to ask whether he’d asked for permission before he commandeered the vehicle when the large man in question happened to look up the road and notice us. As soon as he recognized my brother, his face split in a grin I could see even across the thirty yards that separated us. Or if I couldn’t, the enthusiastic wave he sent in our direction was enough to fill in the gaps.
“Hey, freelancer! Wondered when you’d be back on this side of the colony! Good to see you!”
Tanner returned the greeting with at least as much animation, and they caught each other in an exuberant handshake as soon as they were within reach.
“Oh, you know, there’s always something bringing me out here. How’s the place?”
“Dusty! But better since you chased those gangboys out. We managed to open up that south branch of the mine again, and we think we hit a new vein. What’s got you out here, though? And,” the big man nodded in my direction, “who’s this?”
“My sister,” said Tanner. “Came out here to watch my back and keep me out of trouble.”
“Miranda Griff,” I said, extending my own hand and just barely stifling my surprise as his massive hand engulfed my own. I’m not a particularly large woman, but I’d always considered myself roughly average when it came to size. Just then, I found myself revising my estimate downwards.
“Good to meet you, Griff. Sam Sawyer. Your brother here’s a good guy. Helped us out a few months back. Glad he’s got someone out here to help him out. Means he might be a little less likely to catch a bullet in the back someday.”
My lips quirked in a lopsided grin. “My thoughts exactly. Though he can’t be that bad, I suppose. He’s been out here by himself for a couple of years and he’s still in one piece.”
Sam leaned back and let loose with a belly laugh that made me think he doubled as Santa at Christmas-time. I couldn’t help it; I grinned too.
“I’m glad you two have hit it off so well.” Tanner’s look of mock chagrin didn’t hold up well against the twinkle in his eye. “But happy as I am to see you, we’re actually looking for Hildy. Has she gotten out here yet?”
Sawyer nodded and jerked his thumb back over his shoulder, towards the community center. Though now that we were closer, I had to admit it looked a lot more like a saloon than anything else.
“In there. She’s probably been here less than half an hour, so you shouldn’t be in too much trouble.” He grinned.
“Technically, we’re still early. Unless you and the boys put her in a bad mood?”
Another of Sawyer’s belly laughs got loose. “We’d never.”
“Sure you wouldn’t. But just in case you’re getting ideas, here’s that fifty I owe you.”
Tanner dug into his pocket and pulled out a pair of coins, which he tossed to Sawyer.
“Oh, hey! I’d forgotten about that. Knew you were good for it, though!”
“Gotta make friends somehow, now, don’t I?”
Sawyer chortled again. “Good to see you, Tanner. And glad to meet you, Miranda.”