Gran never did like it when I used the Winchester to deal with dragons — so I went and did a damn fool thing and set out to hunt them in the dead of night. It wasn’t hard to sneak by Gran. She snored twice as loud as she barked, which was saying something.
I clambered down the hill from our farm and into the swamp. A half-moon glowed above the trees, casting strange shadows over the curtains of moss and standing pools of water. It almost made the mud look like opals, but that didn’t change the smell.
I kept the rifle at a ready carry. The smooth, well-worn wood felt solid in my grip, despite the apothecary’s anti-mange lotion I’d slathered on my hands — and every other inch of exposed skin on my body. I wasn’t keen on coming home riddled with bug bites.
Something splashed behind me. I whirled. But it wasn’t no dragon — just my ten-year-old little brother Ted, tripping into a pool and soaked half-way up his britches.
“Tarnation, Ted! You shouldn’t be here!” I slung the gun over my back. Not my favorite way to carry it, or the quickest draw, but at least with it pointed straight up I could guarantee Ted wouldn’t run in front of my muzzle. Probably.
“You shouldn’t be here, either.”
Ten-year-olds are all smart-mouths. “Get on home.”
“Send me home, and I’ll wake up Gran. I’m the man of the house, Maisy. I belong out here,” he said.
He tried so hard to be grown-up, but if he were a man, he’d know how to swallow his pride and do what was important. If Gran woke, she’d froth herself into a right fit with us both gone. If Ted had stayed, she’d at least have a body to complain to. “Your pants are wet.”
He did his best to walk forward in a dignified-like manner. “You’re not sending me away. We’ve got to cull the dragons back. I know one of them tore up a row of radishes and made off with a chicken last night. You and Gran ain’t good at hiding nothing from me.”
Maybe even more pressing, we needed the money. The apothecary in town didn’t pay much for a swamp-dragon — but she paid something. I’d been planning on selling that chicken to get Gran more of her tonic. Now we only had one, and we needed her bad for eggs and eating up grubs in the garden.
“Fine. Be quiet. And stay behind me. I’ll be shooting things in front.”
Ted pulled a face. “I’m not an idiot.”
He was almost adorable when he pouted like that. Would have been, if he’d been five years younger.
I couldn’t see much in the way of tracks, but I could smell the blood-rust tang of mange eggs. I followed it. The little mange-bugs would bite anything that moved, but they needed fresh dragon blood to hatch their eggs.
Ted seemed to trip over every branch and stick behind me. Man of the house, indeed.
We walked and walked, the mange-stench getting stronger with every step. With this kind of reek, we had to be coming to a dragon’s nest or something. Couldn’t be less than twenty of them ahead. I pulled my shirt over my nose, but I still didn’t see nothing.
“M-Maisy?” Ted asked nervously, like he’d just realized he was afraid of the dark.
I brushed more moss aside, mud sucking at my boots. Water stretched ahead of me — we’d have to go around. It was at least thirty feet wide, practically a pond.
“Maisy?” he tried again.
I squinted. Three, maybe four, lithe adult dragons, each a bit bigger than a raccoon, wriggled in the shallows on the far side of the pond. Strange. Four dragons couldn’t make a mange-stink this bad. Maybe I just couldn’t see the others in the moonlight.
“I’m going to get a closer look.” If I sold a whole mess of dragons into the apothecary, I could buy Gran’s tonic and a new flock of chickens. Maybe we could finally really get on our feet and I wouldn’t have to sneak out to shoot dragons. “You stay here.”
I wasn’t particularly worried about getting bit or clawed by the critters. I knew what I was doing — but Ted didn’t and thought he did.
“I’m all itchy.”
“Yeah. Wet pants’ll do that to a man.” I started off.
A slap. Another slap. He was hitting himself, swatting at bugs. “I keep getting bites. It hurts, Maisy.”
I turned round. Even in the bad light, I could tell this wasn’t good. Wasn’t no mere mosquitoes. The blisters on his face and hands were turning black.
“Ted. Did you follow me without rubbing down with anti-mange?”
“I… I didn’t want to lose you. You move fast through the swamp.”
Idiot. “We’ve got to get you back.”
“Back where?” he asked, but he was already wobbling on his feet.
I put my arm around his shoulder — the arm without the Winchester slung around it — and dragged him along. “The longer we wait, the worse it’ll be. Trust me.”
We didn’t have none of the apothecary’s anti-mange soap, so I sent Ted out with the lye stuff to wash by the rain barrel. I left him the lotion — it worked best as a repellent, but it might help some. He stumbled back inside soon enough, curled up, and went to sleep.
I woke to Gran screeching, “What the devil, Ted!”
The mange got him bad. The bites were still black, and the skin round them had turned purple. I felt like I was looking at a boy who’d suddenly grown a hundred tiny black eyes.
After that, it didn’t take long for the story to come out.
“Neither of you got more sense than a newborn chick!” Gran ranted. “What were you thinking, trying to shoot up dragons? And at night?”
I’d been thinking that she wouldn’t have to know a lick about it. Her gnarled old hands were already trembling, and it wasn’t noon. She must’ve started rationing her tonic down.
Gran knelt next to Ted and rubbed a cut-open radish over his bites, to help with the pain and the itch. Poor kid. Laying groaning on his pallet with his sweaty hair plastered to his head, he looked a lot younger. Like he did before Ma and Pa went up to heaven.
“They’re tearing up the radishes, they’ve eaten most of the chickens, and we needed a couple corpses to sell in town,” I said. “Looks like we’ll need more than a few now. He has to have the anti-mange soap, Gran. Lotion ain’t strong enough.”
“Ask Beth to sell us her soap on credit,” Gran said.
I choked on air, laughing. Credit?
“I won’t have you shooting no more dragons. It’s killing dragons what brought this horrible mange plague. Spilling their blood everywhere.”
“Gran.” I didn’t outright say she was plain dead wrong. I didn’t know how the mange had gotten so bad so quickly, but it’d surely be worse if folks weren’t shooting their breeding ground.
“Don’t you Gran me, young lady. You really think it’s coincidence that as soon as Beth offers to buy up corpses, the mange gets ten times worse than it’s ever been? Used to be you’d get a dragon maybe once every other year sneaking out of the swamp and tearing up radishes to rub on himself for a bad case of mange. But now!”
I shook my head. “That doesn’t account for the chickens.”
“So long as you’re going to hike for a radish, why not snatch a snack?”
She had a point there.
“Beth’s so proud of her apothecary skills, so proud she found some way to make use of lesser dragon bones. But if folks round here had a lick of sense, they’d stop selling carcasses to her. Including you, Maisy!”
She’d worked herself up and was scrubbing Ted like he was a pile of Saturday laundry.
“Can you stop trying to skin me?” he groaned. “I’m not a rabbit. I’m your grandson. Promise.”
Gran took herself a deep breath and calmed down, but I still spoke slow and careful. For Ted’s sake. I had no love for that stuck-up Beth, but Gran could blame bad weather on the woman. “Honestly, I can’t feel bad about selling dragons to her. Even if I wish someone else were profiting by it, the medicine she makes out of the bones seems to do a world of good for all those folks up north with coal miner’s lung.”
“Folks up north,” Gran muttered it like she was cussing. “What about folks here? Beth’s medicine probably doesn’t even work.”
Based on how many fancy new clothes she’d been able to buy lately, I doubted that. “Do you have some other idea of how to make quick money?”
Gran pursed her lips. Of course she didn’t. “Beth ought to be right ashamed of herself and all this mange she’s caused. All this damage to people’s farms. You tell her she owes us, then come back with that soap.”
“I can say that, but it won’t do a lick of good. Beth ain’t just giving us soap.” Gran thought about it for a second. Then she snatched a wooden carving of a bird off the mantle — Pa had made it. “Take this.”
It felt heavier than lead in my hands. “It’s not worth nothing.” Not except to us. I remembered watching Pa make it — his long, calloused fingers gently turning the wood in his hands. Ted moaned again. I don’t know if he was just in pain, or if he was protesting, too.
“It’s not to pay her. It’s collateral for our loan.”
That might actually work. Beth would get a kick out of taking something we cherished. She’d probably burn it as soon as I left.
“Maisy,” Gran prompted sharply.
I’d just been standing there, looking at it and dawdling. If my folks were still around, we wouldn’t be like this — me and Gran and Ted scratching just to get by. “Yes, Gran. I’m going.”
Beth had a nice spot in town, between the tinsmith and the leather-worker. The wooden sign was painted in garish red, with letters so flourished they were hard to read: Madame Jade’s Apothecary. Best Tonics, Medicines, and Restoratives.
I pushed inside, setting off a small bell hanging from the door. The inside was worse than the out — every inch covered either in bottles or in red-and-gold tassels and posters. Usually it reeked like pickled cabbage in here, but today the air was thick with the smell of rendering tallow.
Beth strode out of the back, dressed-up in a silk robe with her hair stuck on top of her head with sticks and a lot of make-up all over her face — like she was really from the East, where they had the world’s most brilliant apothecaries. They’d figured out how to use dragon bones in the first place, and out there, they had proper dragons bigger than houses.
“Greetings and welcome to my humble store,” she said, giving a bow that reeked of arrogance.
I casually stuck my hands in my pockets. “Heya Beth. How you been?”
Beth bristled. She hated it when people didn’t play along with her, when they didn’t bow and scrape and call her Madame Jade. But she wasn’t from the East any more than I was, and I wasn’t going to pretend otherwise. She pursed her red-painted lips. “I don’t see any carcasses, Maisy. Do you actually have business here?”
“Need some anti-mange soap. Ted’s covered in bites.”
Beth gave me a flat glare and held out her hand for coin. I’d already outstayed my welcome.
“Gran wants you to take it on credit. We’ll pay you back.”
“I don’t take credit from customers.”
“We’re not customers. We’re family.”
She let out a bark of a laugh. “I think that makes it worse. I know exactly what your Gran thinks of me.”
Well. It’s not like Gran ever claimed to be discreet or mild-tongued. I liked that about her. You never could say she didn’t speak her mind. “It’s for Ted, not her. And I brought some collateral.”
I pulled out that fine little bird.
Beth smirked. “I’m not in the business of storing other folks’ trash. It looks like something an owl vomited up. Your Pa make that?”
She was trying to rile me up, but I hadn’t expected Beth to stoop so low as to insult the dead. I wanted to give her an earful until her skull burst, but the weight of the bird helped me remember why I was there. I could waste my breath insulting Beth when Ted was better.
“I’m one of your best dragon-suppliers. Cut me a half bar of soap and I’ll get you a carcass within the week.”
“I only sell whole bars and I’m not about to make exceptions. Go shoot me a pair of dragons and bring them back here. Then we can trade like civilized people,” Beth sniffed.
Surely even Beth could have compassion for a kid. “Ted’s already bruising. He needs it bad.”
“So go hunting, Maisy. Stop wasting time here.”
A new scent prickled my nose. “Something burning back there?”
Beth gasped and ran. I followed her a few paces. She did in fact have a pot full of white tallow, trimmed and cubed, rendering down on her fancy pot-bellied stove. She snatched a pair of towels and pulled it off the heat.
“You gotta do some kind of magic apothecary thing during the rendering to make the lotion or soap work? Cause if not, you really should’ve let the butcher do that.” Old Carson charged a fair price, and he had a pot big enough to do half a cow at a time.
Beth ignored me, red lips pursed as she poked at her tallow with a spoon.
“Is that whole batch ruined?” I asked hopefully — it’d serve her right.
“It’s fine,” she snapped. “I only render it myself to ensure my ingredients are quality. Unfortunately, I have much less control over the caliber of my customers. Get out, swamp rat. Now. Or do I need to chase you with a broom?”
I walked back home parallel along the canal, but a good ways from it. Townfolk had cut it a decade ago so they could let the swamp compost their trash instead of doing it themselves. Corn husks and chicken bones bobbed downstream with considerably less-attractive human waste. Right then, I hated folks who were too good for a normal latrine like everyone else. People like Beth. She was worse than most, pretending to come from a noble place she’d never even seen.
Still, I should’ve begged better. Bowed and scraped and put on a show, calling her Madame Jade and everything, but I’ve got too much Gran in me for my own good.
I veered from the canal and up the hill to our little farm. The succulent smell of boiling chicken filled the air. I frowned, then jogged the rest of the way.
“Gran?” I pushed the door open. “What are you doing?”
I groaned. “Tell me we’ve still got a chicken.”
“Liars go to hell, Maisy, and while my old bones wouldn’t mind some warmth, I’m fixing on spending my afterlife with your folks.” Gran nodded toward Ted. “Look at him. He needs all the help he can get, and chicken broth is good for any ailment. We don’t have the luxury to think about tomorrow — we have to survive today first. You got the soap?”
I stepped all the way inside and knelt by Ted’s mattress. His skin shone feverish, and his bites glittered. They were already transforming into tiny scales.
Tarnation. I should have begged Beth nice. I set the bird carving next to him, hoping it might bring him some comfort or luck.
Ted blinked at me, like he couldn’t quite focus. “Maisy?”
I took his hand and squeezed it, his scales scratching my skin. He must be allergic. Most cases never got this bad. The anti-mange lotion might slow it, but without soap, the scales would just keep spreading, until his whole body was locked down stiff in them. And when a body can’t move, it eventually wastes away into a skeleton.
“You’ll be right as rain soon, Ted.” I brushed his hair out of his eyes, then grabbed the Winchester off the wall.
Gran glared at me. “I won’t have you shooting no dragons! That’s what caused this in the first place.”
I pointed at Ted and spat her own words back at her. “We don’t have the luxury to think about tomorrow — we have to survive today first.”
Gran’s face wrinkled up tight like she was sucking down a sour pickle. Her right hand started to tremble. She had to be rationing her tonic. “I don’t like it.”
“Got any other ideas? You want me to take this gun into town, shoot Beth, and steal the soap instead?”
“I wasn’t serious, Gran.”
“I know, I know. I just need time to think. I left the chicken head and guts out by the stump. Go take care of them. I’ll come up with something before you finish.”
I slung the gun over my back, headed outside, and grabbed a shovel. I dug a two-foot hole and dumped the feather, skin, guts, and head into it. Then I turned our compost pile overtop — that would ensure critters wouldn’t smell the carcass and go digging for it. The compost itself smelled good — warm and earthy. Real. I wasn’t no town-dweller, sneering at others because I was too self-important to work up a sweat.
By the time I finished, Gran hadn’t come outside with any brilliant ideas. So I rubbed on some anti-mange lotion and headed down the hill to the swamp. I’d need two dead dragons to buy the soap, and more than that for Gran’s tonic.
I prayed that I really had found a nest last night. I’d worry about spilled blood spreading the mange and itchy dragons tearing up the farm in search of produce latter.
Soon as I reached the swamp, I switched to a two-hand carry, ready to shoot quickly. I ducked around moss and watched my step. Long before I reached the pond, though, I caught a wiff of rust. Had a mangy dragon been this way recently?
I slowed down. I watched the sunlight and shadows over the stagnant pools of water. Not a ripple.
Carefully, I stepped over a rotten log. Right onto a dragon’s tail.
I stumbled back, too slow. The dragon burst from the log, hissing. Claws raked into my calf. That burned something fierce.
I cracked the butt of the Winchester against its scaly face. It screeched in anger, flopping backwards. Giving me just enough time to get my feet under me proper.
I shot. The Winchester cracked the air, making my ears ring. I pumped another cartridge into the chamber, but I didn’t fire. Dragon wasn’t moving. I’d gotten him clean between the eyes.
Well, that was one carcass I could haul in. One more and I could buy the soap. I hobbled over to a nearby rock to get a proper look at my injured calf. Little beast had torn through my boots and shredded the bottom of my pants. I ripped the bottom of the latter clean off and tied it tight around the gashes. They weren’t deep enough to threaten bleeding out, but they hurt like the devil. And with part of my leg exposed, I was sure to get some mange on it.
“Thanks, big fellow. Just what I needed today.”
He didn’t respond of course, what with blood running down his snout from that third eye I’d given him. The little flurries of mange all around him clouded to his head, licked it up, and began laying eggs. The white froth looked just like soap scum — it matched the patches already on his back and forelegs. The little bugs must not have realized he was dead, yet. Mange liked fresh blood —they always left soon as a carcass bloated open or other critters tore into it.
Gran was wrong. This fatal wound wasn’t any different than one he could take from a fall or fighting another dragon. No reason why it ought to make the mange spread.
I didn’t want to haul him to the pond with me, so I slung his carcass up into the branch of a tree. Not real professional, but I hoped it would prevent scavengers from dragging him off.
Something itched my calf. I slapped at it, then swore as pain flared across my wound. Sooner I got this done, the better.
I hurried as fast as it was wise across the swamp. My whole leg throbbed by the time I reached the pond. With an open wound, I was probably going to need anti-mange soap as bad as Ted.
Once we healed up, we’d figure out how to get Gran’s tonic. And replace the chickens. And eat when winter came, given the dragons had torn up so much of the garden looking for radishes.
My leg better heal up right quick. I was going to spend the rest of my life in this swamp, hunting dragons so we could survive.
I edged along the pool, trying to find a better vantage. Once again, I pulled my shirt over my nose, trying not to gag on the sharp, metallic reek of mange. There was swamp-reek, too, and something sickly sweet and potent in the hot afternoon.
But I only found six dragons, nosing around several largish shapes bobbing in the water, not the huge nest my nose had led me to believe there would be. I found a tree not too far away that looked solid and clambered up. Then I crawled out along one long branch and aimed the Winchester.
But there were those uncanny shapes in the water. The dragons were whimpering and pushing them around. And was that — half a pumpkin? Then I spotted a brown rum bottle. Other bits of floatsam bobbed in that curve of the pond.
The trash from the canal must gather here. Were the dragons eating it up, like pigs taking to slop?
I held still, ignoring my hurt leg and the uncomfortable angle of the branch digging into my stomach. A pair of dragons managed to flip one of the large, bobbing things up onto the bank.
It was another dragon. The corpse of one. All flayed open. Had to be one Beth had butchered — no animal teeth made those kind of nice cuts. And it was covered — tail to snout — in the pale froth of mange-eggs. I thought it might be a trick of the light, but then I spotted another dozen carcasses on the shore. No wonder this place stank so bad.
The live dragons sent up a mournful, haunting wail and rubbed up against their dead fellows. That only got them covered in its blood and guts and eggs. The mange swarmed thick around them and the open carcasses.
What had Beth done to those bodies, to make the mange take to dead dragons like that? Had she done it on purpose, so more people would need to buy her soap and lotion? She should have just hired someone to compost them for her. I’d have done it, if she threw in some of her soap.
But as the dragons nestled their fellow and grieved, I saw the reason for her secrecy. They rubbed away the guts and slime, showing bones sticking out. All the bones.
Beth wasn’t buying those carcasses because she’d figured out how to use the skeletons of lesser dragons. She wasn’t making medicine for no miners up north. I’d been a damned fool. I should have realized something was wrong when I caught high-and-mighty Beth rendering her own tallow.
I hauled the fellow I’d shot earlier back home, then asked Gran to help me butcher him up.
“Weren’t you going to sell this?” she asked, sitting next to me outside.
“I think I can do better for Ted than that.”
Gran didn’t ask more questions. She was old, but when her hands weren’t shaking, she was one deft butcher. Soon we had nice, white-yellow chunks of dragon fat. I asked her to start rendering them into tallow inside, while I buried the messy leftovers with the chicken carcass.
I scooped up some water from our leeching barrel and boiled it down into right strong lye. By then it was long past dark, but neither me nor Gran had any thoughts of going to sleep. Gran cooked the lye and the tallow together until we had something that looked like mashed potatoes. Gran crammed most of it into our soap mold. Some she just plopped onto a plate so it’d cool faster.
“Anti-mange soap,” I said. “The bugs might like dragon blood, but they apparently can’t abide dragon fat. That’s why they stick with live dragons — all their fat is still safely inside.”
Butcher out all the fat and dump the rest of the carcass in the swamp, and you’d create the perfect mange breeding ground.
Gran poked at the lump on the plate. “Looks like fine soap. You sure?”
“Do you think Beth’s a no-good lazy charlatan?”
“Right. Let’s try it on your leg first, then.”
The soap would have been harder and better with more time to cure. It stung like the devil, but the itch disappeared as soon as we rinsed my calf off.
We sponge-bathed Ted’s limbs. Half the little scales flaked off him, and the swelling went down. He groaned softly at first, but then started protesting out loud.
“Ain’t natural to wash a body so often,” he mumbled, slurring the words, eyes still closed.
I tried to reassure him. “We’re helping you get better.”
“Get offa me, or I’ll kick you in the shins, Maisy.”
“You’d have to stand up first. Besides, we’re done now,” I said. Gran was already taking away the rags.
“You’re done ’cause you’re scared of me.”
I gently brushed the hair from his eyes. “That’s right. You’re terrifying. Now shut up and go back to sleep, sweat pea.”
For once, Ted listened. The feverish sheen to his skin had gone away, and he was breathing slow and regular. Looked like he’d be fine.
“Come eat,” Gran said, filling two bowls with chicken soup. “Shouldn’t go to bed on an empty stomach.”
I joined her by the fire. My eyes felt dry as cotton and my bones ached with tired, but my soul finally felt light.
Gran was smiling, too. “Beth caused this mange outbreak, throwing dragon carcasses in the swamp like that. Whether she’s daft or whether she did it on purpose to prey on innocent folks so they’d buy more soap, I figure we can get her run out of town by tomorrow night.”
For an old woman who couldn’t abide a soul shooting dragons, she sure had a mean streak. “Gran. Then everyone’ll be shooting up dragons for tallow. You think all of them are going to handle their carcasses any better than Beth?”
Gran’s face puckered again. Nope. “Beth deserves it. She’s family and she left Ted to rot.”
“We can do better than a mob, Gran. Once that soap is hard enough to cut, I’ll start selling it in town at half Beth’s price. I’ll buy carcasses for double.”
I’d make lotion, too. That was easy — just add a little oil to the tallow so it spread easy.
“But the mange — “
“We’ll compost the dead dragons proper ourselves. That’ll get the mange under control, eventually. Dragons will stop bothering folks’ farms for radishes all the time, we’ll cut Beth out of what I suspect is her best business, and we’ll make a tidy profit on the side. Once the mange is back to normal, I’ll stop paying for carcasses and just go hunting myself — just enough to keep folks supplied with what little lotion and soap they’ll need.”
By then, we’ll have more than enough money to replace our chickens and buy Gran a mess of tonic. We wouldn’t be scraping by anymore — we could plan for tomorrow. Though I might have to hike to the city for tonic, if Beth was feeling disagreeable with us.
Gran took a few more spoonfuls of soup, thinking it over. “Beth will watch her business wither away?”
“Yup. Much worse than being driven clean out of town.”
Gran nodded. “I like your plan, Maisy. Just promise me you’ll sell the soap right in front of her store, where she can watch.”