Part 1: The Broken Village
The gunslinger fled across the desert, and the man in red followed. Despite every trick he knew, every trap he laid, every trail he cut through bramble or dried riverbed, the gunslinger could not seem to lose his crimson shadow. It had been months ago, when he left the icy mountains, that the figure first appeared in the distance behind him. Initially the gunslinger had ignored the stranger, assuming it to be another refugee fleeing the chaos of war, but as the days wore on and the red man continued to dog him, the gunslinger realized that their similar journeys were no mere coincidence.
While his pursuer had remained far enough behind that the gunslinger could make out no details of his face or form, he was not about to lay in wait for the red phantom to draw close enough to hail and challenge. He had no proof, but he well suspected the figure’s identity: a soldier, dispatched from the Good Man’s army to hunt down any survivors from Jericho Hill. For this reason, among many, the gunslinger kept his distance.
Now rolling plains had given way to hills of sand and dust. Each footstep became a strenuous effort, each breath drawn into his ragged lungs like inhaling fire. His food had run out several days ago, and a mere trickle of his water remained. Even if the man in red kept his distance, the gunslinger knew his time on this mortal coil was growing short. Soon it would come down to a simple choice: a quick death, or a slow one.
Ahead of him, sharp slopes cut a line across the horizon. The gunslinger paused to shield his eyes from the sun, and saw a cliff line that stretched across the line of sand, blocking his path as far as he could see. He let loose a low moan, which the whirling wind snatched up and carried away to be lost amid the sands. It appeared that, like everything else, even his choice of death had been taken from him.
Then, something caught his eye. To one side down the scant track he had been following all day, he saw a dab of darkness on the cliff line, a tiny break almost invisible at this distance. It was likely nothing more than a shallow inlet, but he had no other choice save laying down and waiting for death. He clung to this new hope with a sudden desperation, surprised to discover that he still wished to live, even after everything that had come to pass. Down a dune he slid, almost falling on his face as he reached the bottom, and began moving at a faster clip than he had in days.
The cliffs remained in the distance, refusing to draw closer no matter how fast he pushed. The gunslinger glanced behind him, and saw the red robed figure standing on the dune he had occupied only moments ago. The man stared in the gunslinger’s direction, and then began to descend the dune with slow and careful steps.
At last the gunslinger reached the dark nook, and he staggered into its shade with a welcome sigh of relief. Beyond, a tight passageway twisted away into the distance, though from here he could not tell whether it went all the way through or came to a dead end beyond his line of sight. Still, it was either forge ahead or make his last stand, so after pausing only a moment to catch his breath the gunslinger continued on through the canyon.
Overhead, light filtered through in dim patches to the passageway floor. In some places large boulders hung across the top of the gap, leaving the space below in shadow. The gunslinger wound his way forward, and while the passage did not narrow, it did not widen either, continuing to cut a jagged path through the hillside. In the darker corners moss and ferns grew, and once he startled some colorful bird from a nest bored into the rock. It emitted a piercing shriek as it soared away, and the sound bounced along the walls until it became lost in the distance. The cry left him with a cold feeling knotted in his stomach, rolling and thrashing like a snake in a bag.
The gunslinger stopped for a moment and looked back. Through the thin gap of visible passage he could see that everything remained still and quiet. Then, a brief flash of red appeared and was gone, so quick that had he not been watching for it he would have thought it no more than a trick of the light. His pursuer drew closer by the moment, and even if the canyon did not end soon he would be upon the gunslinger.
Now the walls began to blur as the gunslinger traveled faster, his weary legs finding a strength and energy they had not possessed in days. His pack was all but empty, and slapped at his back with each step. His guns in their worn leather holsters seemed to chafe at him with every twist of his hips. It may have been no more than a trick of his mind, but he heard his pursuer behind him now, a steady tap of footfalls that echoed through the passageway. It buzzed inside the gunslinger’s ears, drowning out his own rapid steps and the labored sounds of his lungs sucking at the dry desert air.
At last he pushed himself to his body's limit. The canyon widened by a hair’s breadth, and here the gunslinger came to a halt. He turned, and there behind him stood the man in red. His face was clean shaven and his skin was pale as the moon. Fiery red hair ran short along the sides of his head but fell down his back almost to his waist. His eyes had a dangerous gleam in them, a hunter staring down its prey, and there was just the barest hint of a smirk upon his face.
“Well, at last we meet face to face. You and I have much to talk about, yes, much indeed I think,” the man took a step forward, then paused as the gunslinger drew his weapon. He did not look at the pistol, but a single eyebrow drew up his brow and the smirk became an open smile, showing a mouth of perfect white teeth. “Come now, put down your weapon. Do you think such an ancient relic as that is any threat to someone like me?”
“Fortunately, it’s not for you,” the gunslinger pointed the pistol at the sky and fired a single shot. The man in red’s brows drew together in curiosity, then shot upward as his eyes went wide. He threw himself back the way he had come as a cascade of boulders tumbled down into the tunnel below.
The gunslinger stepped back and watched as stone after stone poured into the passageway. When at last the rumbling faded and the canyon stilled once again, rock had filled the tunnel preventing either side from reaching the other. It would take several strong men a full day at least to clear the obstruction, and for the man in red by himself several more besides. Satisfied that he had lost his pursuer at last, the gunslinger turned and marched down the darkening canyon, a swing in his weary steps for the first time in weeks.
Much to his relief, several hours later the gunslinger exited the passage through the cliffs. He found himself back in forest once again, although the trees here grew so weak and shriveled it was almost an insult to compare it to the wild lands of his boyhood home. A few creatures skittered in the gloom beneath their branches, although whether they walked on four legs, six legs, or more he could not tell. His hunger gnawed at his stomach and clawed at his mind, but finding water was more urgent now than food. He neither heard the sound of babbling brook nor saw the rippling shine of a pond, so he squared his shoulders and continued along, looking for salvation.
He found it just as the sun slid over the horizon, the last glow like an angry red boil upon the surface of the earth. It was neither lake nor stream, but rather a village clinging to a squat hillside, with the forest fighting to reclaim the territory on all sides. Even the term village gave the place too much honor, a dozen houses, and only two of them with more than a single story. Yet as the gunslinger paused at the outskirts he saw more buildings among the trees, half fallen to rubble and covered with moss and ivy. The town might once have been grand until hard times found it, but hard times had found everywhere in the world, after all. He supposed that this place should be no exception.
The streets were empty, and for a moment he feared the town had been abandoned after all, that there would be nothing left in the buildings but rot and dust. But then a light appeared in the Eastern of the two largest buildings, followed by its twin at the Western end. One by one a dozen or more lamps were lit between the two, although the other buildings remained dark. Numerous shapes moved among the pins of light, and the pair of buildings seemed to writhe with sudden activity.
In the street in front of him, the gunslinger saw two shapes emerge from the darkness. His hand went to his firearm, but neither of the shadows appeared interested in the newcomer. They were a pair of grizzled men in stained overalls, and no sooner had they met in the middle of the dirt road than they began to raise their voices in anger, hands waving to emphasize their opinions.
It had grown too dark to make out many details, but the gunslinger overhead one of the men exclaim, “Ye best cry pardon, ye filthy whoreson!” The other man moved forward, and his fist struck bone and flesh with a wet thud. The first man staggered back a moment, then lunged forward into the other. A loud cry filled the street and the second man collapsed, his opponent fleeing into the dark.
The gunslinger rushed to the fallen man’s side, and found him lying face down in an expanding pool of his own blood. A quick touch told him that the other would never rise again, but before he could decide what to do next a new figure approached out of the dusk. He cackled when he saw the fallen worker, and rolled him over with the tip of his boot.
“Aye, that be Jameson, and finally got what was coming to him, you set your watch and warrant,” he looked up at the gunslinger, and squinted at him in the dim light, “never seen your face before, stranger. Which house you come a calling to? I don’t choose sides here, but it's plain to anyone with eyes that Dela Corp is gaining the advantage. You’d best think about that, heh?”
The gunslinger spoke with a slow carefulness, his throat out of practice and parched from lack of water. “I’ll take that under consideration. And who are you, to be so casual in the face of the dead?”
“Names Biggins, and as for the dead, why that’s me business. Official undertaker I am, and it’s the last honest work to be found in this hole of a town, you can be certain of that. Well, if you excuse me, I’ve got a lovely box I need to go acquaint our associate with.” He nudged the corpse with his boot again, and then turned and disappeared into the dark.
Across the street, a light came on in the window of one of the smaller buildings. It illuminated a shingle out front with a picture of a billy-bumbler next to a bowl of soup. The gunslinger wasn’t sure about the first symbol, but the second was clear enough. Skirting around the dead man, he made his way over to the door and knocked with as much force as he could manage. His hands had begun to shake with the thought of a drink, and even if it was water from a poisoned well he would welcome it at this moment, if only to bring an end to the sand coating his aching throat.
The door opened, and he stared into the face of a young woman, brown hair tumbling down her back in an unkempt mess, her face cracked and scarred from some great tragedy. She stepped aside, and he passed over the threshold, just managing to reach a wooden bench before his legs gave out.
“Water,” he croaked, “or beer if you have any. Food too, doesn’t matter how many legs it walked on, I’ll eat it without complaint.”
He waved his hand in what he thought would be the direction of the kitchen, but the girl came over and stood by him, palm open before his face. “Payment first, then we’ll see about some food and drink. Don’t think about starting any trouble in here tonight either. If you haven’t heard from the other men yet, this is neutral ground, and I’ll not have anyone breaking my furniture in here because they didn’t learn the rules.”
The gunslinger reached into his pack, and drew out a pair of silver coins. The girl eyed them as he placed them in her hand, then looked back at him a moment, eyes narrowed. Satisfied at last, the coins disappeared into her apron and the girl stepped through a set of double doors, returning a moment later with a mug and a bowl. The mug did in fact contain beer, though it was the weakest the gunslinger had tasted in his lifetime, and if it hadn’t had a solid head of foam he would have thought it murky water instead. Still, he gulped it down with an aching sense of relief, his throat at last returning to a sense of normality.
The girl stood there, hand planted on her hips. When he had drained the draught she replaced it with another, then took a seat across from him. She watched as he dug into the soup with almost as much relish as he had the beer, finding it to contain a mix of spiced vegetables, though little if any meat.
“So, which house have you declared for then?” The girl asked, startling him from his concentration over the well earned meal.
“You’re the second person to ask me that tonight. What exactly does it mean?”
“You don’t know?”
He shook his head, “I only just walked into town, and before that I didn’t even know this place existed.”
“Oh,” the girl seemed taken aback, and paused a moment before she said, “this here town of Charity Hill, it’s located by a near endless vein of iron. There are two companies that both lay claim to the vein and the surrounding area: the Dela Corporation and the Johnson Family. They’ve been fighting each other over control of it for years now, and things just keep getting worse and worse. Now both sides employ more soldiers than they do miners, and everyone else in this town that didn’t pick a side is either dead or gone. Everyone except me and my pa, that is, and Mr. Biggins the undertaker. Used to be a right nice place when I was little, but lately even I’ve been wondering if I shouldn’t just take my chances on the road.”
She lapsed into silence, and the gunslinger mulled over her words. After a few minutes passed he noticed the girl looking at him, and he met her eyes with a steady gaze. She held his look for a moment, and then her eyes darted down to the pistols around his waist. “You certainly aren’t the usual sort of stranger we have in these parts. What do folks call you anyway?”
He started to tell her a lie, as he had so many times already on the long road away from Gilead, but he would gain nothing by it, so instead he said, “my name is Steven Talmane, son of Joseph, of the line of Eld.”
The girl raised an eyebrow, “my my, that’s quite the fancy name. It mean anything special?”
“No, not any more at least. I’m named after my uncle, leader of the Federation and a warrior of the white, but my family was far removed from both castle and court. We were a minor offshoot, a branch not even remembered until the call to arms came. After that call…well, I’m all that’s left of a once proud line, just a traveler forgotten by the world and nothing more.”
“Well, can’t say I’ve ever heard of any Eld, or Federation for that matter,” the girl grunted, and then shrugged, “you can call me Betany, and should my pa ever grace us with his presence his name is Loter, though most everyone still left in this town calls him Loiter, on account of him never leaving the house anymore. Ah, here he is up and about, praise the man Jesus!”
A shaggy bear of a man came through the double doors, his hair a mixture of brown and gray. He eyed Steven for a moment, then shuffled off and took a seat next to the fireplace. Betany turned back and shrugged again. “Don’t mind him, he don’t talk much since my ma passed. Still knows how to chop vegetables and brew up a good beer, so you won’t hear me complaining!” She looked at the gunslinger and seemed to contemplate something for a moment. “Well, if you’re not siding with any of the houses, you’ll need a place to sleep tonight. Go ahead and use the building across the street, that’s old Hilde’s place, she’s been dead little over a year, so shouldn’t be too much dust or vermin. You come back in the morning, and I’ll fix you up something for the road, that satisfy?”
Steven nodded, and set down his spoon. A good night’s rest would give him the strength to put his next plan into motion.
The next morning Steven found a bench within sight of the two mining offices and sat down to watch. While he waited he disassembled his pistols, the first real cleaning they had seen since the red man began following him. He wiped out every trace of grit and oiled each part until they moved smooth and quiet once again. Reassembly complete, he reviewed his inventory of remaining supplies, a task that took far less time than he would have liked. There was only a little oil left, but that would not matter soon anyway; in total he counted nineteen rounds of ammo left between his two guns. He would not likely meet anyone with the knowledge or skill to make more either, now that he had left Gilead so far behind him. Still, he had enough faith left to believe that everything was according to Ka, and if he wasn’t cursed beyond salvation then it would provide for him somehow.
As he sat there working, men began to stream out of the two buildings. The men from the Johnson Family house were first, about a dozen miners and half again as many guards, though there was little to separate them in appearance and demeanor from those carrying pickaxes. None looked like they had any real weapons, just a few rusted axes and clubs, and they wore clothes that were little better than simple homespun.
After the first group had moved down the hill a similar contingent exited from the Dela headquarters. There some twenty guards in this group, but they were a bit better armed than those from Johnson, and their weapons glinted in the light from recent cleaning. He watched as they reached the bottom of the hill and set off into the woods, following a trail that sloped downward into a gully rather than the path taken by the first group. Steven nodded in satisfaction. They appeared to be heading in different directions. It might be that the two groups had a truce, however tenuous.
He stood and studied the two headquarters. There were a few signs of movement inside, but both buildings had an empty feeling to them now, as if their walls had pulled inward from the sudden flow of people, their walls sagging like loose rolls of skin. He looked at each in turn, and settled on the Dela headquarters.
A pair of armed men stood by the doorway, and another patrolled on the roof. The two down below eyed him as he approached, but it was the man above who called out, “what ye want stranger?”
Steven hooked his thumbs into his pockets and eyed the man with a casual glance. “I hear you’re looking for good men to serve as bodyguards.”
“Aye, and well met then. I’ll get Kilpatrick, he’s the man you want to speak to.”
Kilpatrick turned out to be a thin, balding man in a green jacket so old it was almost threadbare. He looked Stephen over, his eyes lingering for several moment on the guns at the gunslinger’s sides. He looked up, and Steven could see a hungry look in his eyes, “well, you look a tad more capable than the usual sort. What’s your name?”
Over the man’s shoulder, Steven saw an archery range, the equipment piled into a corner out of the sun and rain. “I’m known by many titles. You can call me Bo Striker.”
“Fair name, sure to strike fear in the hearts of those Johnson boys.” Kilpatrick smiled at his joke and pulled a bag of coins from a pocket. He tossed them into the air with a practiced swing. Steven snatched them up and gave them an appraising squeeze. “Call that a sign on bonus. You’ll get another like it each week. Well, you want to come in to rest a spell, or you ready to be put to work?”
“What did you have in mind?”
“Truth be told, you couldn’t have shown up at a better time. Word just came back that the Johnson Family are working one of our claims today, the East Warwick Mine. I was just about to round up some of our men to go run ‘em out, but with your firepower we might be able to do a bit more than that.” Kilpatrick turned and yelled up to the man on the roof, “Tern, how many men we got available?”
“Eight, including myself. Nine with our new friend here. You think that’s enough though? I saw them boys had twice that in guards this morning.”
Kilpatrick waved a hand in the air, “never you mind that, with a little extra firepower and the element of surprise I think you’ll be just fine.” He looked over at Steven and raised an eyebrow, “assuming you’re up to the challenge.”
“I’ve seen worse odds. Have your men meet me down here when they’re ready.”
“There she be, the East Warwick,” Tern had a distinct note of pride in his voice, “she’s one of our newest, and there’s a real sweet vein twixt her lips, but those Johnson boys just keep sneaking in when our backs are turned. They’re just jealous, the last two mines they dug turned sour on ‘em, so they keep trying to take what ain’t theirs.”
Steven surveyed the site. Dela Corp had carved the mine out at the bottom of a dry gully. Whatever trees and plants had eked out an existence there before were long uprooted, and the space surrounding the entrance was little more than gray dust and piles of broken stone. He frowned back at Tern, “Why did you dig this mine if you didn’t have the men to work it?”
“Had more men back before all the trouble started. Some left, others got themselves killed,” Tern shrugged, “there’s always more men flocking into town looking for work, but it never seems to be enough.”
“What do you want to do about those two?” Steven motioned towards the pair of armed men standing outside the entrance. There was little in the way of cover between them and where he and Tern stood hidden among the trees.
“Shoot, isn’t that what we hired you for?” Tern grinned, “you take them out and then we’ll charge in there before Johnson knows what hit ‘em.”
Steven shook his head, “if I start shooting now, everyone inside that cave is going to be on high alert. We need to take them out without giving them a chance to call a warning.”
“Well, if you got any bright ideas, I’d love to hear ‘em”
“One or two. Just get the men ready, you’ll know when to charge.” Steven stood and strode out of the woods, ignoring the cry that Tern managed to choke off at the last second. He walked towards the guards, affecting an air of innocence.
The two men looked up and watched as the gunslinger approached, but neither cried out. When he was a few feet away, one of the men held up a hand and said, “that’s close enough stranger.”
“Long days and pleasant nights gentlemen,” Steven held up his hands, palms outward. “I’m hoping you might be able to point me towards the nearest town. I seem to be a mite lost.”
“What kind of trick you trying to pull here?” The shorter of the two guards asked him.
“Trick? What would be the purpose of that? Gentlemen, I’m tired and hungry, and if you can just help me I’ll be on my way.”
“How do we know you ain’t some bandit?” The shorter man asked again.
Steven narrowed his eyes and stared the man down. “If I was a bandit, I would have simply shot you two before I even entered the clearing.”
The taller guard waved a hand, “alright, we take your point. If you head West of here you should come to a trail, follow that past the old boneyard and you should see the town soon enough.”
“Boneyard? That doesn’t sound right at all,” the gunslinger produced a scrap of dried animal skin from his pocket, “see here, the map that trapper drew for me doesn’t show anything of the sort.”
The two guards stepped forward and stood to either side of him. “Why, there’s nothing here-“ one of them managed to get out before Steven dropped the hide. He grabbed each man by the nape of his hair, and slammed the two heads together. Both men dropped like stones to the ground.
“Hooey!” Came echoing from the forest. Tern and the other men emerged from the tree line. “Well, if that wasn’t the best show I’ve seen since the traveling man last passed through, I don’t know what’s what. You really are more than just talk, ain’t you Bo?” He approached Steven and knelt down by the fallen men. A knife appeared in his hands, but Tern froze at the gunslinger’s touch on his shoulder. He looked up with a frown.
“There’s no need for that,” Steven said, “Kilpatrick said to chase them off, not kill them.” For a second he thought the other man would challenge his decision, but Tern just stood and shrugged, knife already returned to its hiding place. His gaze did linger for a moment on the gunslinger though, an unreadable look in his eyes.
The men began to move into the darkness of the mine, lanterns spread out among them bobbing into the gloom, some of them already disappearing around a bend. The gunslinger held back until only he and Tern were left.
“What’s the matter, afraid of the dark?” Tern asked with a sneer. From inside they could hear shouts and the scuffling of men in cramped quarters. “Best hurry on in, we’re losing the element of surprise. We need those guns of yours to even the odds.”
“Yes, about that. I’m afraid there’s been a change of plans.” Steven’s fist shot out and punched Tern square in the stomach. The man doubled over, and the gunslinger stuck him on the back of the head. Tern crumpled to the ground in a tangled heap, and lay there quivering. The gunslinger looked down at him, face a blank mask. “I’m afraid I’ll be switching sides now.”
He strolled out the cave, and the sounds of fighting faded away, stolen by the thick stone walls that surrounded the men beneath the earth.
Steven walked up to the Johnson Family headquarters, the sun high overhead and beating down on him with a relentless fury. A pair of guards, twins to the ones he had dispatched in front of the mine, watched his approach, sweat a sparkling sheen on their foreheads. He stopped outside of their weapon reach and regarded them with a flat expression.
“Fetch whoever is in charge,” he told them, “I have some news I think he’ll want to hear.”
The head of the Johnson family was a man almost a head taller than Steven, broad shouldered and with arms that looked like they saw their fair share of hard labor. He wore a broad brimmed hat with a silver star set above the band, but otherwise his clothes were no better than those of his men. “What’s this about news stranger? You the man we’ve seen skulking around that cursed Dela building all morning?”
“I am. I come recently from a term of employment with Dela Corp.”
“Is that so,” the other man made a quick motion with his hand, and several more men appeared out of thin air, weapons held at the ready.
“It was a very short term, one which I’ve already left. It seems that Dela thought they could make better use of my guns than the man who wields them. I had to dissuade them of that, and now I’m looking for a new employer, someone who wouldn’t make such a foolish mistake. Might you be such a man?”
“Well, I reckon I might. Name’s Clem Johnson, head of this fine family. Who might you be stranger?”
“If names are required, Bo will do.”
“Alright Bo. I promise me and my own won’t try to take what’s yours, but how do I know you’re worth hiring? Those relics you’re carrying could be nothing but rust on the inside.”
Steven’s muscles flexed, and one of the pistols appeared in his hand. Before any of the men had a chance to shout, he fired a shot straight at Clem. The hat flew off into the courtyard dust, and the leader of the Johnson family collapsed next to it. He sat there a moment, stunned, and then his face grew red.
“What in the name of the man Jesus was the meaning of that?” He patted himself down, and finding not a single bullet hole anywhere rose to his feet. “I don’t know if I should be grateful or angry over that piss-poor shot, but either way I don’t want anything to do with a madman!”
The gunslinger holstered his weapon. “If you would please do me the kindness of inspecting your headgear?”
Clem frowned, but reached down and picked up his hat. He stared at it for a moment, then burst out laughing. “Well, if that don’t beat all,” he held it out for his men to see. A perfect circle had been bored through the center of the star. “Alright, I suppose that proves the worth of both your guns and yourself. Come on inside and we’ll find you some quarters.”
“Actually, I have a house in town I’m occupying already, I’ll be staying there for the immediate future.”
“What if we need you in a hurry?”
“If you need me, I imagine I’ll know. Also, there is the small matter of payment for services rendered.”
“Services rendered?” Clem held his side and let loose another laugh. “I suppose we can provide a bit of a signing bonus, but what services exactly have you rendered for us?”
“I managed to prevent an attack from wiping out your men today.”
Clem’s eyes narrowed. “Explain.”
Steven gave a brief account of the events at East Warwick. By the end, Clem's face wore a broad smile once again. “Oh, sounds like you trounced Mason and Raol. They aren’t going to be happy, that’s for certain. With luck it all worked out in the end, but we’ll wait and see what the men have to say when they return. If most of them are still alive I’ll vouch for you, but otherwise things may turn ugly around here.”
“They outnumbered Dela more than two to one, never mind the miners themselves, I’m sure it went just fine for them.”
“I hope you’re right. Well, come on inside. Once the men get back and we hear their side of the story, if everything can be smoothed over I’ll have something a little nicer than our standard signing bonus for you.” Clem stood aside, and the gunslinger strode into the headquarters. “In the meantime, let’s see about having a drink. All the fighting skill in the world won’t save you if you die of thirst.”
Steven walked into the Hungry Bumbler, feeling like a much different man than the one who had arrived at its doors just a day earlier. His pockets were weighed down with coins, and his stomach filled with the food and drink that Clem had plied upon him. The hospitality had only increased after the men returned. While the gunslinger would have liked nothing better than to stay here longer, the threat of the man in red grew in his mind with every passing hour.
There were five men from Dela Corp drinking together in one corner, and at his entrance they turned as one and stared at him with open hostility. Two of them were from this morning’s ambush, although any recognition on Steven’s part was owing more to the severe bruises on their face than any memory of names. None of the men made any move in his direction, so Betany’s neutral ground must have outweighed their desire for revenge.
As if responding to his thought, the girl appeared at the doorway, arms laden with plates and cups. She set them on the table and the men broke their attention away from Stephen. Betany herself turned towards him, a half-smile on her lips. “Well, if I had known what a stir you were going to cause around here when you first arrived, I might have charged you more for the trouble!”
“You’ve had problems on account of me?”
“Well no, not directly, but if this little village weren’t coming to pieces before, it certainly is more on its way now. You here for a meal then?”
“No, I’ve had my fill already today. I was actually hoping to speak with you about another matter,” Steven glanced at the men behind her, “privately, if possible.”
“Oh, alright then. Let’s step outside, should be quiet enough.” Betany led him through the kitchen and out a back door. From there they walked to a copse of trees at the base of the hill. After a moment, the girl looked over at him and asked, “so what’s all this about then?”
“Do you perhaps have any horses you would be willing to sell? Or know of someone who does?”
“Horses you say?” Betany tapped her lips with a finger and looked off into the gathering darkness. “Most of the horses to be found within a day’s travel are all owned by the companies, but I know a farmer on the outskirts who still has a few. Before I go getting us both into trouble though, can I ask what for? You’re not thinking of running now, are you?”
“I aim to be far away from this town after tomorrow, no thinking about it.”
Betany let out a low whistle. “Well, I’m afraid I can’t help you then, won’t be part to a man getting himself killed. You try and leave now, you’ll have both companies out for your blood, and no amount of horseflesh will get you away from them fast enough.”
“Concerning that matter, I have a plan. If it works, they’ll too busy with each other to worry about me until I’m well beyond catching.”
“Really now? Do tell.”
“Sorry, but the less you know the better.”
“If you want any help with getting horses, I think you’d best answer my questions. Besides, your secret is safe enough. I’m the last person to go running to the…” she trailed off and cocked her head. “Did you hear that?”
A branch snapped behind them, and Steven whirled around. One of the bruise-faced guards from the tavern stood there. A flash of moonlight reflected off something in the man’s hands. In the time it took him to blink, the gunslinger drew his weapons.
“Imar, what do you think you are doing?” Betany’s voice was thick with anger, but she took a step away from the gunslinger.
“You go on home now Betany, this is between me and that traitor there.” Imar took a step forward. Steven lifted his guns and pointed them at the man’s head.
“That’s far enough now. I’m sorry you suffered on my actions, but it was nothing personal, just a bit of bad business between your company and mine.”
Imar spat into the dirt. “Don’t care about no ‘bruises’ you filthy cur! My brother was with me today, got himself split in half by one of those miners. He was only here because he didn’t want to be home on the farm without me, and now he’s dead. Somebody’s gotta pay for that.”
The man moved closer, and Steven thrust his guns forward. His hands had begun to shake, and he prayed that it wasn’t visible in the semi-darkness. “Not another step, or I’ll shoot!”
“Go ahead, but you better not miss, because otherwise I’m gonna carve you up and wear your insides like a hat!” Imar lunged forward. Steven dropped his guns and threw up his arms to protect himself. He huddled there for a moment, and then when he realized he hadn’t been struck, opened his eyes. The other man stood in front of him, eyes wide and ghostly white in the darkness. Then he slumped to his knees and fell face first into the dirt. Betany stood behind him.
“Well, this night certainly has taken an interesting turn,” she bent over and retrieved her dagger, then looked up at Steven, “so what happened, guns just for show after all?”
He collected his weapons and holstered them with a gesture so often practiced it had become automatic. All the energy that he had regained in the last day was gone again. “No, they work just fine, it’s the one who wields them that is broken.”
“I see…. Was it that call to arms you mentioned that did it? I’ve had men come into the Bumbler before that were broken by war, just shells of their former selves. There’s no shame in that.”
Steven felt tears on his cheeks. “I never even made it to the battle at Jericho Hill. My father and I arrived too late, and Gilead had already fallen. He knew where we were supposed to meet the others in such an event, but after everything we had just seen, all the people the Good Man’s armies had killed I…I just couldn’t. I fled into the night, didn’t stopped running until I could no longer see the fires behind me. Later on I heard what happened. My father died with the rest of them, surrounded on those cliffs, their backs to the sea. They had nowhere to run, and fought until the last…” He choked off the rest.
His body had turned numb as he talked, and everything he heard seemed to be filtered from far away. After a moment Betany waved her hand in front of his face. He stared up at her, his mind blank.
“I have forgotten the face of my father,” he said his voice a bare whisper.
Betany shook her head. “I don’t know what that means, but listen to me. You didn’t do anything wrong. Anyone in your place would have run, when the odds were long and the prospects grim. You made the right call, and any other man would have done the same.”
“But I’m not supposed to be like other men. I was supposed to be like them.”
“Yet they’re dead and you’re alive, there’s no changing that,” Betany cupped his face in her hands, and when he looked at her she kissed him on the lips. “I can’t take away that pain, but I can help you dull it a bit. I imagine you’ll be needing a place to sleep anyway, can’t go back to Hilde’s place until daylight.”
She took Steven’s hand in her own and led him back towards the town.
Afterwards they lay together in Betany’s bed, wrapped in a thin gray blanket, and he told her about his plan for the next day. She listened with interest, and said, “yes, that should work, assuming you can get Kilpatrick to talk without trying to run you through.”
“That is a distinct possibility,” Steven admitted, “but I’m betting his self-preservation will outweigh his need for revenge against me.”
“Alright, while you set all this in motion today, I’ll get horses for us. They’ll be down among the trees where Imar attacked you. Make it there once the fighting starts, and we’ll be free.”
“Us?” Steven sat up in bed. “Betany, I don’t think-“
“I don’t care much about what you think, I’m coming with you and that’s final. My pa too, no way I’m leaving him here to die when you finally knock down the last beam that’s holding this place together. I’ve had little enough reason to stay as it is, so we’ll take our chances out on the open road with you.”
“But why would you want to give up everything you have here?”
Betany waved an arm about, “What exactly am I supposed to have here? This place is dying, whether quick or slow our town’s last days are coming, and I should have left long before now. Besides, I have my own reasons for hating the mining corps, so if your plan can be my little parting gift to them, all the better.”
Steven started to protest, then thought better of it. “Do you think your father will? Come along that is?”
“I’ll know better when I ask him,” she let out a short laugh, “he probably knows already, thin as the walls between our rooms are.”
She rolled over and faced away from him. Steven sat there a moment, then turned to her and said, “by the way, I never had a chance to thank you-“ but Betany had already fallen asleep.
A short time past dawn found the gunslinger and a half dozen of the Johnson boys working their way toward the Turtle Rock mine. Clem had been in high spirits after yesterday’s unexpected good fortune, and allowed most of his men the day off, claiming that Dela would be too busy licking its wounds to try anything more for a while. That at least was the official reason given, but Steven knew there was another, one that he had discussed with the leader of Johnson in private earlier that morning.
Sending the gunslinger and the others out here was part of that plan, all a ruse to make sure it appeared like their help would be far away. If anyone from Dela followed them, they would see a pair of guards take up position at the mine entrance and the others disappearing inside. What wasn’t known to to other than Clem and his lieutenants was the second mine entrance on the other side of the hill. Steven and ten of the others would make their way back to Johnson, and be ready for what came next.
They arrived at the edge of a rock strewn clearing. Steven, ahead of the other men by several steps, came to an abrupt halt. A wave of grumbling passed down the line, but a quick motion of his hand sent the men silent. Then the gunslinger dropped to ground behind a fallen log, and the other men hastened to do the same.
Steven and the others peered over the top. Across the clearing, the man in red appeared. He stood there, sniffing the air. His head turned to survey the field, and when it approached their position the others ducked their heads in panic. Steven, however, did not move as the crimson figure continued to scan the horizon. At last he turned and went back the way he had come.
Steven rose from the ground, and the men followed his example. “Who was that Bo? Is there a problem?” One of them asked.
“No, no problem, not yet anyway.” Steven shook his head. “We stick to the plan. Onward to the mine.” But after that the gunslinger let the others take the lead, and lingered at the end of the line, watching over his shoulder.
The gunslinger strode towards the Dela Corps entrance with as much confidence as he could muster. He had left the Johnson men at the outskirts of town, and as far as Clem and the others knew he would be setting up for the next stage of the plan. The gunslinger kept his own council though, and the plan he had told Betany last night called for a bit of a gamble.
The men outside saw him coming, and this time they did not wait for him to get close. Before he had crossed half the distance, three men appeared in the doorway with bows drawn. Behind them stood Kilpatrick, his face set to murder. “You must think we’re some kind of stupid. Did you really expect to be able to just walk back in here like nothing happened yesterday?”
Steven held up his hands, “Calm down Kilpatrick, that was nothing personal, merely self preservation. Your man Tern meant to betray me, I simply struck before he had a chance.”
From behind Kilpatrick came a loud squawk. Tern appeared between two of the archers, face pressed to comical proportions by their shoulders as he tried to reach the gunslinger. “You lying snake! I’ll beat the truth out of you if I have to-“ the rest was lost as hands appeared and pulled Tern back inside.
Kilpatrick waited until the sounds of Tern’s yelling faded away. “You’ll have to pardon me if I take my men’s word over your own.”
Steven shrugged, “you do what you want. Regardless of what happened at the mines, things have changed.”
“Changed? What do you mean?”
“I spent some time with Clem Johnson yesterday, and he aims to turn yesterday’s misfortune against you tenfold. He plans to siege your building today while you’re recovering, put it to the torch and kill everyone who tries to escape.”
“Oh? And why should I believe that. Seems you haven’t done anything to earn my trust.”
“Because this is different, the Johnson Family is going to slaughter you to the last man. I can’t stand by and let that happen.”
“Let him try,” Kilpatrick said with a laugh, “we have more men than him.”
“Won’t matter if he has the element of surprise. Look, you know he’s coming now, that should be enough, but when the attack begins I’ll fire my gun three times. You hear that, you know they’re coming for you. Run out into the streets or man your walls, makes no difference to me, but it’s the least I can do to repay you for what happened yesterday.”
Kilpatrick rubbed his chin. “I’ll…consider it.”
“Listen for my signal. Three shots, don’t forget now.” Steven turned and marched away. Only when he turned a corner and the Dela headquarters disappeared from view did he switch from a steady walk into a run.
He burst into the door of the Hungry Bumbler. The main room was empty at this time of day, the fire in the hearth banked low. He passed through the double doors to the back, but here too was unoccupied.
“Betany? Loter? Where are you? Everything is in place, it’s time to go.” He searched the bedrooms and the cellar, but neither father nor daughter were to be found anywhere. Then it occurred to him that they might be waiting down at the meeting spot, horses at the ready. He rushed to the back door and threw it open.
Steven had become accustomed to the low light inside, and for a moment he shielded his eyes, not quite understanding the sight he beheld. At last his vision adjusted to the brightness, and the shapes before him resolved into Kilpatrick and a dozen of his men. Betany stood next to Kilpatrick, her hands bound behind her. At the gunslinger’s appearance Kilpatrick drew a knife and held it to her throat.
“That’s far enough there Bo, or whoever you really are. I’ve had quite enough of these games already.”
Steven froze, not taking his eyes from Kilpatrick. “What is going on here? What are you doing to her?”
“Oh, don’t you be worrying about poor Betany here, I’d be worrying more about your own skin at the moment,” Kilpatrick spat into the dirt, “the lass always refused to choose a side, but I never made an issue of it, figured she would come back around to us in time. But then to have her betray not just Dela, but the town? For a worthless stranger like you? I can’t even begin to wrap my head around it.”
“Steven, I’m sorry,” Betany managed in a shaky voice, “my father-“
Kilpatrick pressed the knife to her throat, and Betany cut off with a squeak. “Yes, good old Loiter still remembered his place was with us, even after all these years. Came running to me this morning, told me everything he heard. You should have learned from your old man while you had the chance girl.”
“Alright, that’s enough,” Steven’s guns were in his hands. He stared at Kilpatrick and tried to calm his breath. “I’ll only say this once. Let her go.”
“Or what, you’ll shoot me? Go ahead and try, my men will tear you to pieces before you get off a single shot.”
The men started inching forward. “Last chance,” Steven said.
“Grab him,” the words had no sooner left Kilpatrick’s mouth than the gunslinger pointed his pistols into the air. A trio of shots rang out in quick succession. Then in the next instant they were back in the holsters at Steven’s side. Kilpatrick and his men stood where they had been, looks of confusion washing across their faces.
Then comprehension dawned on Kilpatrick’s face. “The Johnson Family!” He turned, and already up the hill the sounds of men shouting could be heard. A moment later there was a flash, and smoke began filling the sky above the Dela Corp.
“Boss, what do we do?” One of the men asked. Kilpatrick shook his head.
“Head back. We’re gonna need every man we’ve got if we want to end this.” He turned back to Steven as the men ran up the hill. “Well, you think you have everything figured out, don’t you stranger. Except for one thing.”
“Oh?” Steven asked, “and what’s that?”
Kilpatrick sliced the knife across Betany’s throat, then pushed her towards Steven. The gunslinger jumped forward, and caught the girl as the leader of Dela Corp chased after the rest of his men. Already the front of her dress had gone red with blood, and she let out a strangled noise, trying to breathe through her broken throat. He held her close, not knowing what else to do.
Betany reached a hand up and patted the gunslinger’s cheek. Her lips curled into a hint of a smile. Then a gurgling noise burst from her throat, and she went still in his arms.
Steven lay the body down, and after a gentle touch to the girl’s cheek he stood once again. Blood covered his shirt, but he took no more notice of it than he would have a buzzing insect. He stared up the hill, and as he watched a second flame bloomed in the direction of the Johnson headquarters. He turned and strode down the hill to the copse of trees, and gathered the horses that were waiting there. By the time Steven had mounted, he could see flames coming from four other buildings, then eight. When he reached the plateau to the north, the forest had caught fire as well. The town had made itself into a funeral pyre, and the gunslinger was its only mourner.
Then, in the distance he saw the man in red step out of the flames. He strode through the smoky woods, the fires around him melting away and then springing back up the moment he was past. He looked in the gunslinger’s direction, and waved a hand over his head. Steven turned his horse and sped away as night descended upon him, the glow of the fire at his back guiding his way.
To be continued in Part 2: Ka-Tet