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Knife Lessons

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If it had just been a matter of one quarter of Goodnight Robicheux’s would-be marksmen failing to show up for their training, it would have been a simple enough to say “to hell with them” and go right on with his instruction. Or possibly to say “to hell with Rose Creek”. Given how many of this charmingly flea-bit town’s able-bodied fighters seemed in favor of just plain dying when Bogue’s men showed up, it would be only polite for him, Sam, and Billy be on their way and let them get on with the matter unobstructed.

As it stood, this was more concerning than just a matter of men shirking. Every one of the missing had been learning to handle knives from Billy. And for Billy Rocks to lose track of his surroundings meant that either those lessons had gone exceedingly well or disastrously poor.

First action was a swift walk over to Billy’s makeshift practice field, a stretch of overgrown field on the out on the westernmost edge of the town. Goodnight found it deserted. The only evidence of combat were two tattered practice dummies, and not, as Goodnight had half-fancied, eight bodies on the ground and Billy calmly saddling their horses for a quick get-away.

Goodnight continued his search, his mood growing ever more dour as he headed up Rose Creek’s drab, dusty main street. He was not looking forward to his own stint as instructor. All the morning, Goodnight had tried to work up a good mad at the injustice inflicted upon the townsfolk, at Bogue crossing Sam’s path again to pull open old wounds, at his disappointment in his own sorry performance in taking the town back from Bogue’s hired guns. He’d grasped for any fire he could put in his belly to carry him through a morning of thunder and gunsmoke without going weak-hearted. He was coming up empty on every front, and that was… not good. Likely to be lethally “not good” in a few days time if he couldn’t get a rein on himself and focus on what had to be done.

Goodnight knew the scope of his task. He wasn’t just teaching men to shoot. Hell, half of these men were farmers; wasn’t like they’d never held a gun before. No, he was supposed to teach discipline under pressure. How to keep a target in your sights when everything around you was screaming, blood, and chaos. How to hold fire when death was bearing down upon you. How to sink to that ugly level of inhumanity that made killing the man in front of you more important than drawing your next breath…

A flash of silver caught Goodnight’s eye, drawing him back to the present. He unclenched his fists, remembered to breathe.

Billy Rocks leaned against one of the front posts of the Clay boarding house, a dark figure elegant in his seeming indolence. He had a long knife in his hand, one of the pair he wore crossed at the back of his belt. The knives that came out when there was heavy work to be done. Likely it was the same knife that had pinned one of Bogue’s men to that very post only the day before.

Every few seconds, Billy gave the knife a twist, a flip, a showy twirl. The broad blade caught the sun and flashed like lightning in his grip. For all that his movements looked easy to the point of carelessness, there was a tension to Billy’s shoulders that let Goody know his lover was emphatically displeased with current circumstances.

“You’re the last man I expected to find on break,” Goodnight drawled. He made a show of looking up and down the street, lit a cigarette, then sauntered over to share a lean beside Billy. Opposite the hand holding the knife, of course. He trusted Billy’s control entirely. His own nerves were rather less reliable these days, and he could do without the possible embarrassment of flinching. “Where’d your students get off to?”

Billy jerked his head briefly at the boarding house behind him. “There.”

“They breathing?”

“Probably.”

“And what happened, praytell?”

“They decided they didn’t need my help and walked off. They know better now.”

Goodnight laughed aloud. “You’ve treed the whole pack of them, then?” He grinned, trying to imagine the sight. Yes, he could just see the whole lot of those farmers and shopkeepers diving for the first building possessed of a door they could barricade once they realized there was nothing but open street between them and the aim of an incensed Billy Rocks. Served them right for getting Billy’s ire up, so far as Goody was concerned. Damned fools. He chuckled to himself, trying to imagine just how matters would have gone if they’d tried that little stunt with Sam.

Except he really couldn’t imagine any citizen of Rose Creek daring to buck Sam Chisolm’s calm, self-assured authority so blatantly. Nor could he envision them offering such disrespect to “legends” like himself and Jack Horne. Even jovial wastrels like Vasquez and Faraday had a familiarity about them that at least invited basic courtesy. But Billy? Folks had a habit of dismissing Billy, the outsider who made no effort to meet anyone on terms that involved humbling himself. Goodnight had seen it again and again, even when such dismissal had been nothing but prideful, occasionally fatal, foolishness. And to hear that Billy had been offered that level of insult when he was here, like as not to die as beside the very rabbit-hearted cowards he’d been trying to instruct in the ways of saving their own homes and hides…

Suddenly, Goodnight didn’t think he was going to have to reach so deep to find that mad he’d been looking for.

“Ungrateful sons of bitches,” Goodnight muttered underbreath. He glanced over his shoulder to the boarding house windows. The shapes of men moved about, faces all but pressed against the unwashed glass. Goodnight scoffed and looked away.

“I believe your prisoners are convinced their salvation is at hand.”

Billy looked up from his knife. “You want them?”

“So far as I’m concerned, cher, you can keep them in there until Gabriel blows his horn. Though I will confess, I can think of better uses of your time.”

“Yeah. Me too.” Billy sheathed the knife. “Wait here.”

Three long strides, and Billy was heading up the outdoor staircase that ended just beneath the boarding house’s second floor windows. Even in boots and at speed, his approach was extraordinarily quiet.

“Where you going?”

Billy paused just long enough to flash Goodnight a smile as sharp and wicked as any of his blades. “To flush them out.”

Near as Goody could grasp, Billy’s family back home had been the equivalent of landed gentry. Not nobility, but certainly well-to-do. And Goody would have believed that information even second-hand, based solely on what a black-hearted son-of-a-bitch Billy Rocks could be when his pride got nicked.

Goodnight couldn’t have kept the adoring smile off his face if he’d tried. “Any of ‘em got guns?”

“Won’t matter. You haven’t taught them to shoot yet.” And then Billy vanished, headed up and around the corner of the building.

Goodnight settled back against the post and took another drag on his cigarette, not deigning to so much as glance back at the boarding house once the commotion kicked off. In other circumstances, Goodnight’s ingrained Southern manners might have had him trying to gentle Billy away from outright humiliating the townsfolk who were, no matter how uncomfortably, their hosts for the duration. In this instance, however, he was entirely inclined to stand by and enjoy the show.

The first three tried to stampede out onto the porch in tandem, shoulder-to-shoulder. They damn near took the door out of its frame before tangling up with each other and hitting the ground in thrashing heap. The next fellow had quite a head of steam built up, and managed to go briefly airborne when he tripped over the tangle, landing half on the porch, half in the street. The remainder were less entertaining, making it outside without doing anything more noteworthy than stumbling and windmilling their arms for balance as they tried to negotiate the chaos of flailing limbs obstructing their path to freedom.

Goodnight pitched the butt of his cigarette and straightened up.

“Gentlemen.” He made a show of studying his pocket watch, then snapped it shut and fixed them with a glare. “I do believe you are late for our engagement.” His voce hardened. “You have wasted my associate’s time. You are currently wasting my time, and at the current rate of progress, none of you are going to have much time left on this Earth unless Lord Almighty God reaches down to smite Bogue of his own accord. So unless any of y’all are feeling particularly favored right now, I’d suggest getting your asses out to the firing range!”

The last words were delivered with harshness and volume Goodnight hadn’t seen fit to use since his soldiering days. To a man, Billy’s failed students went scrambling toward the range, some more shame-faced than others, but none stopping to offer apology.

Goodnight made a disgusted sound deep in his throat. Billy abandoned his front-row vantage point in the doorway to stand beside him.

“Likely a waste of our time either way,” Goody sighed.

“Better than praying for miracles.” Billy was all business now; the fun was over. “Want me to come?”

Goodnight shook his head. “Won’t do them any good seeing you handle a gun for me, and I don’t much feel up to pretending your skill is all my good work after that. I’ll talk them through. You finish getting the lay of this place. Maybe we’ve got more to work with than it looks like.”

But somehow, Goodnight doubted it.