The only way through the swamp was the road that passed over Invisible Hill, so called because to anyone walking west on it, the road appeared to be level, yet by the time they reached the peak at the edge of the swamp, they were winded from climbing, ever so slightly, the twenty minutes or so it took to get beyond the last stand of natron-cured oak. Usually a wanderer would spot the Waggoner house while they were trying to catch their breath.
Elsie Waggoner sat on her front porch, rifle held lightly across her lap. The house had been built at the top of a steeper, plainly visible hill, which let her see anyone on the road from about the mummified crocodile half a klick down from Invisible. The kitchen windows were an especially good vantage point, which was just as well since Elsie spent most of her waking hours standing over the sink. This particular afternoon she spotted a tall, dark, reedy figure struggling along the hard-packed clay even before the hill climb started. By the time the road joined with solid ground, they were nearly bent double with exhaustion, letting their long arms hang down as their shoulders heaved air into their lungs.
Elsie checked the position of the sun and risked a quick check with her field glasses. The hair was longer than one might expect, but as the figure straightened she observed a bleach-white throat with a prominent adam's-apple in the middle. A man, then.
A shape rushed up to the man and knocked him on the ground. Elsie quickly readjusted her view, and saw that it was a large black mastiff. At first Elsie thought the dog was wild, grown crazed from hunger as it crossed the natron swamp, but the man gently pushed it off and picked himself up.
Elsie patted her cardigan pocket for spare rifle shells, lips tightening into a humourless smile as her fingers confirmed she'd remembered to take some from the box on the windowsill on her way out.
The strangers came up Invisible Hill, stopped and rested, and then they always did one of two things. Either they rejoined the road (it disappeared into scrub grass for a while, but became clearly marked again a little to the north), or else they climbed the steep hill to the Waggoner house.
Sometimes they came claiming they needed directions, which was ridiculous since there was only one road.
Sometimes they came asking for food and shelter.
Sometimes they came to take whatever they could get.
Elsie didn't bother to find out which pretext a given stranger was using anymore. She set them all to work in the apple orchard, no questions asked. She'd lost her parents to one traveller, and her sister to another, and she wasn't going to bother waiting to find out if they were trying to gull her or not.
The man in black pulled his shoulders back and craned his neck. Then he hunched over and started up the Waggoner hill. The dog trailed after him.
Elsie stuffed the field glasses back into their battered leather case and brought the rifle up to her shoulder. She used to shout a warning, but that just made them run and zigzag, and she had neither the patience nor the spare shells to deal with the extra bother.
The man kept his head bowed the entire climb, anyhow. Elsie waited until his black-coated back made a suitable target before she pulled the trigger.
The rifle shot made a flock of lost seagulls leave the shore of the natron swamp and take to the air. The man dropped immediately. His body lay face-down, not moving. Elsie knew he might not quite be dead yet, but she was sure she'd hit, and that was good enough for the time being.
The dog had run off somewhere to the south. The sun was setting behind the house, making long shadows it was difficult to see into.
Elsie chewed the inside of one cheek for a few seconds. The weather had been cooling, and was supposed to stay that way for another week yet. She'd let the stranger start to mulch on the front lawn, and throw him in the wheelbarrow for the apple trees to use up tomorrow morning. With any luck the dog would be loyal enough to sit by the body of its former master, and she could take care of it then.
She turned and had one hand on the screen door when the moan came up from the hillside, wafting at the back of her neck like a bad smell. All right, so she hadn't killed him. That happened a lot with that kind of shot. She expected the shell had lodged in one lung. She'd done it before.
The next moan was louder, and included some half-panted curses. Elsie walked to the edge of the patio. She fished the spare shells out of her cardigan pocket and reloaded the gun. The man had fallen on the steepest part of the hill, rendering his legs invisible. Elsie could see he was raising an unsteady, shaking hand into the air, but she wasn't going to waste a shell on shooting that. She needed to hit some vitals.
She took one step off the patio, and the dog lunged out of nowhere, barking and growling. She immediately stepped back onto the porch, scuttled across to the door, and let herself in.
"Going to be a noisy night," she muttered as she locked the door behind her. She walked to the kitchen and checked how many shells she had left in the box before setting the rifle within easy reach of the door.
Over the dog's barks she could hear that the man's groans were ending with a short screech at the end. A glance out the kitchen window showed her he'd managed to alter his position.
Elsie quickly locked all the doors and windows downstairs, then hurried upstairs to do the same. If she was lucky the stranger might move to a position before darkness fell where she could shoot him from one of the second storey windows.
On the assumption that she wouldn't be lucky, she went to her father's den and got his revolver from the desk drawer.