The ShortRead of 4 March
Beyond the Horizon
Author: Ryan Ireland
What's the story: Are you sitting comfortably? You won't be for long. The debut novel of the frankly unhinged Ryan Ireland (we're sure he's a nice chap really), Beyond the Horizon blends the dusty hopes of the American West with an unexpectedly dark, visceral chase through history.
In the lonely frontier of the America, a man lives with a pregnant woman who is not his wife. When a stranger appears and advises him to register the baby as his own at a fabled military outpost, the man sets out on a lonely journey across an arid and hostile terrain. Soon after he departs, the stranger kills the woman before setting off in pursuit of the man.
Mythical, dangerous and deeply unsettling, you've not read a cowboy story like this before.
Release date: 5 March
At dusk he came limping from the ethered shadows. Perhaps the lamplight of the hovel attracted him as it did the insects—the grass flies, beetles, the moths. The man told his wife to stay inside once the stranger came into view. He went out and met the stranger. Collapsing into the grasses, the stranger panted. He asked for water, first saying water, then speaking in a different tongue altogether. The man called back to his wife for a canteen, made a drinking motion.
From the threshold of their abode the woman came, taper burning in a mason jar, canteen with the strap looped in the crook of her arm. She walked carefully, unbalanced, as she wore nothing on her feet and her belly bulged with child.
‘Thank you,’ the stranger said. He drank.
The man studied the stranger sprawled out before him in the grasses. The stranger wore a white shirt unbuttoned, but in good condition otherwise. His trousers were black, made with shiny fabric the man had never seen. He examined the stranger’s shoes and noticed his foot had been crushed. The hide of the boot puckered into the puncture marks. Dried blood crusted off the edges.
‘I saw your light,’ the stranger said. ‘Saw it from a dozen miles away. Seen it for some time now. Came this way hoping for some shelter.’
Shrugging the man said they didnt have much room.
‘Anything would be good. I need to get my foot looked at.’
The man turned to his wife. He continued to stare at her though he spoke to the stranger. ‘She can mend you—she does to me when I get in a bind.’ Then he motioned to her, one hand circulating around the other, then pointed to the stranger’s foot. She nodded.
The hovel barely accommodated three people. Planks of wood taken from the bed of a wagon covered the ground where the man and woman slept. One wall was constructed of stones piled haphazardly and reinforced with clay and swathes of sod. The adjacent wall was scrapped wood braced into place with a wagon yoke. Canvas oil cloth served as the ceiling, held in place by a stretch of rope. A ragged blanket hung as the door.
‘Gonna have to cut the boot off your foot,’ the man said.
Stranger nodded, said he figured so.
The man nodded to his wife and she used a straight razor to saw through the upper of the boot. Twice she nicked the stranger’s leg, but he did not flinch. He studied her movements as a child might.
‘How’d you do it?’ the man asked.
‘Get your foot like you did.’
The woman began pulling away the strips of leather. Scraps of flesh clung to the piecemeal of the boot. The stranger turned his head to look directly at the man when he spoke. ‘Had a horse go bad on me.’
‘Lost the horse, did you?’
The woman cleaned the blade of the razor with the fray of her skirt, sterilizing the metal in the flame of the candle. Without a moment’s hesitation she cut into the darkened meat of his wound. She sliced out the infected flesh. Still the stranger talked. ‘Beauty of a horse, white like snow. Light in her step too. I could ride up on someone. They’d never hear me coming.’
The woman wrung hot water from the rags she boiled and began wrapping his foot. Steam rose from where the blood soaked into the still wet cloth.
‘What’d you say you did?’ the man asked.
‘Horse kicked me off. I told you.’
‘No,’ the man said. ‘Your work.’
‘How do you go bout makin a livin?’
‘I dont. How do you go about doing such a thing?’
The woman finished wrapping the foot. Already the fabric hued pink with the stranger’s blood.
‘We scavenge,’ the man said. ‘Live off the land.’
‘I got a piece of land, got some wheat, some beans.’
‘No, no tobacco.’
‘Thats too bad.’
‘Caint say I’m much one for smoking.’
The woman nodded. The foot was dressed.
‘Does she speak?’ the stranger asked.
‘She does—just not in our tongue.’
The stranger smiled at the woman and thanked her.
When he awoke, the man thought the stranger to be an apparition, a dream of some type. Where the stranger slept an hour before now lay vacant. It was dark, still before morning. He went to the flap door of the hovel and looked out. The stranger hobbled through the grass. The man called out and the stranger looked back over his shoulder. A gnarly piece of driftwood fashioned a crutch for the stranger.
The man walked out to the stranger. ‘Just woke,’ he said. ‘Must’ve stirred me when you left. Woke up an thought you was a dream.’
The stranger closed his eyes as if meditating on the man’s words, inhaled through his nose. ‘Wasnt sure myself.’ He opened his eyes. ‘Then I woke.’
The man scooted his hat back on his head so it canted at an unnatural angle. He placed his hands on his hips. The stranger laughed. Then the man laughed too. Murky rays of the rising sun broke over the horizon, announcing the coming of the day.
‘Wanted to see the piece of land you told me about,’ the stranger explained. ‘The patch of wheat and beans.’
The man nodded, pointed, said it was down yonder way.
‘Yonder way,’ the stranger repeated.
A few seconds passed with only the two men studying each other, their forms coming into full shape with the gradients of daytime breaking apart the night.
The stranger’s gaze shifted over the man’s shoulder. ‘Your wife is up,’ he said.
And she emerged, swinging open the flap door of the hovel. She wore the rags of a bustier, her full stomach protruding and bare. Both men watched her yawn, stretching her arms over her head. Dark blotches of hair nested in her armpits, their shade matching the tangles that hung down between her breasts.
‘Should I avert my eyes?’ the stranger asked.
The man looked downward, toward the stranger’s unshoed feet. ‘She aint my wife.’ The man looked up to gauge the stranger’s reaction.
‘Shes not yours?’
‘Her nor the youngin.’
The woman looked out over the grasses at the men and she obscured herself, for now she stood naked.
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(Image: Flickr/Kate Hiscock)