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News & Features » August 2017 » “Scorched Earth” by Laura Boss

“Scorched Earth” by Laura Boss

Akashic Books introduces a new flash fiction series, Wilderness Wednesdays. Inspired by Nina Revoyr’s brilliant and chilling new novel, Lost Canyon, which is set in the Sierra Nevada and could be categorized as “wilderness noir,” this series will showcase hard-boiled short stories of men and women in perilous encounters with the natural world. But if you think surviving an encounter with a black bear, a 10,000-foot elevation, or a cell phone dead zone sounds difficult, try describing the experience in 750 words or less. Pretty wild.

This week, Tomás finds an unexpected friend in the desolate mountains.

Scorched Earth
by Laura Boss
Alta California – 1769

Brother Tomás watched the red tail hawk slowly circle overhead. It screamed one long piercing cry then sliced through the sun-whitened sky with the inevitability of a blade. Moments later it rose into the air with a serpent in its talons.

He had counted one hundred days since Captain Rivera and his soldiers had gone on ahead. One hundred days of walking, climbing and, at times, crawling through the wind-burned coastal mountains and empty scrubland. The group of friars and craftsmen followed the native trails where they could and the soldiers’ trails, newly cut through the wilderness, when they couldn’t. Their path had wandered, following clear-running streams and murky ponds. Water was so precious that Tomás could smell it now: the sweet mineral of mud and the decay that comes from rotting plants. He could smell water over the sharp, dry smell of dust and sun-scorched leaves that burned inside his nose and mouth–even over the sweat stink of the men and beasts. Every morning he woke wondering if he would live another day. Another day of walking under the steady weight of the sun without a single sign of another human being except the broken path made by their own dwindling group of men.

Behind him a mule coughed. He felt bad for the animals, they foraged what they could but the low and prickly shrubs had leaves sharp as swords, leaves that caught equally on robes and fur and skin. They should have brought goats instead of sheep—animals agile enough to stay on the cliffs instead of straying and falling into ravines, drawing predators. A soldier killed another puma at sunset only two days ago. It had been stalking them for several leagues, making the mules skittish and uneasy. Tomás, too, had felt a canny pricking at the back of his neck, sensing the casual graze of the beast’s golden eyes raking across his back.

He stumbled in pain and hopped on one foot to a boulder, his sudden movement silencing for a moment the constant buzz of cicadas. A jagged stone had cut through the leather sole of his sandal into the tender part of his foot. He wrenched the offending rock out, tossing it off the cliff toward the vast emptiness of the Pacific Ocean. The flat blue line of the horizon mocked his meager faith. He wanted to go home.

By the time the sun was low in the sky, he reached the flat area where they were setting up camp. The late afternoon still retained heat but it was now an agreeable warmth and not the hellish hot of midday. He was exhausted, but still had to build a makeshift bed for the night. He put a knife in his belt and went out to look for dried meadow grass.

The crushed oak leaves under his feet gave off a pleasant smell and a breeze from the ocean brought brine with the sound of crashing waves. Tomás waded into the deep grass and bent over to cut a swath with his knife. He heard a rattling sound and froze.

“Stand up very slowly. If it bites you in the leg you stand a chance. If it gets you in the neck, you don’t.” The voice came from a tall soldier standing not ten feet away. His arms were draped loosely over the musket resting across his shoulders.

Tomás did not know this man or how he had found their group, but now was not the time for questions. He straightened slowly, his eyes darting back and forth over the grass, looking for movement.

“Shoot it!”

“Loading the gun will take too long.” The soldier eased the gun off his back and put it on the ground. “When I drop my arm, jump back.” The soldier drew the sword at his hip from its scabbard and raised his left hand. “Do as I say.”

Tomás could hear the wind turning over individual leaves, could sense the exact weight of the fly moving from his neck to his shoulder. He knew nothing of this soldier but he didn’t have a plan of his own.

The soldier dropped his arm and Tomás leapt back. The soldier jumped forward and sliced the head off the springing snake in one clean movement. He grinned and grabbed the snake’s long body. Still moving, it flapped and coiled around his arm. He held it up. “This will be good eating.”


LAURA BOSS is a former student at the Writers Studio and member of Women’s Fiction Writers Association, Mystery Writers of America and Sisters in Crime. She currently resides in San Francisco, where she is working on her first suspense novel, set in Hong Kong. She has published “Café Blanc” in Mondays are Murder, and “Occupied San Francisco” in Keeping the Edge: An Anthology of New Urban Fiction. She uses her experience living and working in many places and cultures around the world to inform her writing.


Do you have a story you’d like us to consider for online publication in the Wilderness Wednesdays flash fiction series? Here are the submission terms and guidelines:

—We are not offering payment, and are asking for first digital rights. The rights to the story revert to the author immediately upon publication.
—Include the location of the story next to your byline.
—Please include a short bio with your submission.
—Your story should not exceed 750 words.
—Accepted submissions are typically published 2–4 months after the notification date and will be edited for cohesion and to conform to our house style.
—E-mail your submission to info@akashicbooks.com. Please paste the story into the body of the email, and also attach it as a PDF file.


$22.95 $17.21

Posted: Aug 2, 2017

Category: Original Fiction, Wilderness Wednesdays | Tags: , , , , , , , ,