The agency police were after him. Conroy knew they were, though he hadn’t seen them for several miles now. His thighs hurt but he couldn’t stop. His horse was panting from the effort and seemed to be slowing down.
Could horses sweat?
Conroy had ridden south from the Lumpong Agency, around the Owl Creek Canyon and through the seemingly endless national forests. He’d underestimated just how many trees the Hawatama Territory had. The Lumpong Agency had been the empty, red desert he’d been expecting. He hadn’t much time to gawk at the Owl Creek Canyon, but even that was behind him. The trees were tall and narrow ponderosa pines, covering sparse and rocky land.
He reached for his canteen, but it was empty. Where was the nearest water source?
“I’m going to die out here,” he said, licking his parched lips. His vacation down from the orbital states was certainly not going as planned.
His horse had slowed down to a shuffling trot. “Come on, buddy,” he said, patting its neck. “Just a little bit further.”
His horse slowed to a stop, wobbling where it stood. Conroy jumped down and the horse collapsed. “Son of a bitch,” he muttered. He took what he could from the saddle and began to run.
Conroy didn’t make it far before he tripped and fell face forward into a muddy wash, scrapping his hands on the rocky outcroppings. He pushed himself to his feet and saw that he’d stumbled onto a camp. Two Andalusian mustangs were tied to a nearby tree, and a single orc was standing over a smoldering fire.
“Son of a bitch,” Conroy muttered again.
It was a female orc–green skin, low forehead, heavy jaw. She wore dusty jeans and a tight, grey t-shirt that said HAWATAMA in red and gold letters across her chest. One side of her head was shaved, and the rest of her black hair was tied into braids.
“What?” she asked flatly.
“What are you doing here?” Conroy asked quickly. She didn’t look like agency police, but she still an orc.
“Hunting,” the orc answered.
A battle rifle was leaning against a nearby tree, as was a gun belt with a revolver. She’d come prepared for something. “Elk.”
“Look, you have to help me,” Conroy said. “There are some bad people after me.”
She narrowed her eyes. Most of her face was obscured by a tattoo of a handprint that ran diagonally from above her left eye down to her right jawline. “Why?”
“Look, if you get me to Carbonate safely, there will be a big reward for you.”
“Yes, reward. My family is quite rich and will pay you for rescuing me.”
The orc didn’t say anything.
“What’s your name? My name’s Conroy.”
“Odima,” the orc said.
“A pleasure to meet you, Ms. Odima,” Conroy said. He heard distant shouting behind him. “I assure you, you will be paid handsomely if you–”
“There,” Odima said.
Odima pointed to a hollow under the tree. “Hide there,” she said.
Conroy scrambled and hid inside the hollow. Odima untied her horses and moved them to obscure his hiding space. His heart was thumping in his chest so loud he was afraid the agency police would hear it. After several long minutes, he heard the sound of approaching horses. There was shouting in the harsh guttural language of the Lumpong orcs, and there were several voices, including Odima’s.
He was too afraid to move and eve to breathe, so he lay there, motionless and listening to a conversation that he couldn’t understand.
The agency police finally departed. He was about to let out a sigh of relief, but a hand reached down to pull him out. He struggled and shouted as the hand grabbed him by the collar of the shirt. Odima pulled him and pointed a revolver at his head.
“Rape,” she said through gritted teeth.
“They say you rape orc.”
“Okay, look, that was just a misunderstanding. We were both drunk and she didn’t want to tell her parents that she–”
Odima turned her revolver around and whipped Conroy across the face. “You bad man.” She spat on him before pistol whipping him again and again and again. When he tried to protect his face, she kicked him with her boots. She finally stopped. “Garbage.”
Conroy spat blood and several broken teeth. “I’m sorry.”
Odima holstered her revolver, strapped a black ballistic vest across her chest and slung the hunting rifle across her back. “It more cruel to leave you here,” she said. She untied her horses and mounted one.
“You can’t leave me here!” Conroy said, but it came out heavy and slurred.
Odima looked down at him, a scowl on her face. She turned and began to ride south without saying another word. Conroy tried to get to his feet to follow her, but he stumbled and fell. He rolled onto his back and stared up at the branches of the pine tree obscuring his view of the red sun.
“Son of a bitch,” he muttered, closing his eyes.