I HAD TAKEN OFF MY SHIRT and vest to let the sweat dry, and I was lying on the saloon’s front porch in the afternoon sun daydreaming about the Tekyr escort from Maplenesse when the first quiver hit. I sat up and immediately regretted it as a wave of dizziness and nausea overtook me, and salty saliva filled my mouth.
I walked down to the end of the block and vomited several times into the weeds, a torrent of bilious slush. I swore, struggling to breathe, my balls and guts aching. I walked back to the smithy with tears in my eyes, drank a handful of the pump’s water and sat by the forge, sweating bullets and shaking.
The sandstorm was just a memory; the sun had become an unrelenting hammer from a hard cobalt sky. I leaned back on my elbows, spat again, and let my head tip back.
When I looked up again, I noticed movement on the dark scar of the horizon.
Three figures were following the train track. They were riding some sort of animal, but I couldn’t understand the look of it at this distance.
Rising slowly, so as not to draw attention to myself, I got up and slid behind the far corner of the abandoned smithy shop. From there I made my way across the backsides of the clapboard structures lining the main avenue, jogged across the street, and entered the saloon at a run.
I snatched up the leather satchel with the Kingsman crest and ran outside, where I wriggled underneath the porch.
A few minutes later, I could hear voices. The three men came sauntering around the corner at the far end of Synecdoche (WELCOME TO THE STICKS!) and up the main drag, talking and laughing, generally cutting up. They were riding on the white beasts with heavy bodies and slender faces, with their great curving scimitar-horns that arced backwards over the riders’ legs.
The man in the middle seemed to be the brains, the mediator. Once, one of them shoved the other and they started arguing; Brains separated them and warned them to stop.
I could see the pistols at their hips, and one of them was carrying a rifle.
They clunked across the porch into the saloon and explored the building, lamenting the absence of alcohol. I heard a crunch as one of them stepped on the spectacles.
“Cannit believe there’s nothin tall in here, no liquor what,” said the red-headed one. He was sinewy and lanky, and walked like a bicycle with square wheels. The other guy, shorter and darker, in a green doublet and bowler hat, I could hear him creaking down the ladder into the cellar pantry.
“There’s some tins of food down here, but I figure it’s gone off, aye.”
“Someone’s been into em,” said Brains. “Look here. Tat’s a mess.”
Red chuckled. “Say he cut the tin open with the iron spike here, he did. Not been goon long.”
“Where d’you think he went?” asked Bowler.
“Prolly still here, I expect,” said Brains. “If he’s got any smarts, he won’t be in here, where he could be run into. He’ll be larkin’ in one of t’ese periffery parts of town, might even have a roll tossed out on a roof to keep off the street. Migh even have a rifle. If you go back outside, keep an eye on the roofline.”
“Think it’s a Kingsman?”
“I hope not.”
The fact that no one called him out on his cowardice struck me as relevant.
“Spread out and look ferrim,” said Brains. “I want to stage here. The shipment will be along in a couple of days, and I want to get set up. I doon’t want any extra angles, any wildcards, to have to worry about when the time comes, savvy?”
A scorpion the size of a hamster scuttled across the dirt in front of me. I managed not to react.
“Man, what makes you think that train’s not going to have any of Kaliburn’s boys on it? I feel like we rode all the way out here for nothing.”
“I got my saurces,” said Brains, and I could hear him walking up the stairs to the second floor, leaving Red and Bowler with me. I took off my crested satchel and left it in the shadows under the front porch, then belly-crawled to the corner of the building and selected a stone from the narrow ditch under the rainspout.
Red and Bowler both jerked in surprise when a window across the street shattered.
“The fuck?” said Red.
“Go see what it was,” Brains called from upstairs.
I heard Bowler draw a revolver and the both of them started toward the front door as I went around the side, but then Bowler said, “Uhh, no. You go check that out. He could be out there waiting to pick us off.”
“Oramoz damn you both,” said Red, and he loped out the front.
Where I crouched at the back corner of the saloon, I could see him kick up dust on the road as he went over and stepped onto the boardwalk. He raised the rifle and pie-cut the doorway, then stepped inside, aiming to his severe right, and moved in, fading into the darkened interior.
That was battle tactic. They were not rookies.
I went around to the back door, which was already hanging off the hinges, and grabbed the leg of a table from a pile of smashed furniture out back.
I crept into the bar from the rear. Stepping inside the back door, I was in the pantry behind the bar, the trap door open at my feet. I slammed it shut and danced backwards into the shadows of the windowless little room, turning sideways to hide behind a narrow shelf.
Bowler stormed into the pantry, flung open the hatch, and fired a round into the tin cellar, shouting, “Come out of there, you son of a bitch!”
You ever been poked in the face with a ball bat?
I came around the shelf and leapt at the man in one fluid motion, spearing him in the forehead with the end of the table leg as he looked up at me. The bowler hat flew straight up like Donald Duck doing a double-take and his legs crumpled; he fell onto his knees and swore in a venomous hiss.
Before he could recover and shoot me, I clubbed the gun out of his hand, sending it clattering into the cellar.
He snarled in pain and swung at me; I wasn’t fast enough to dodge the punch and he clipped my eyebrow. My head bounced off his knuckles, the world stepped seven inches to the left, and I lost my bearings just long enough for him to snatch the table leg out of my hands and throw it on the floor. For a split second I could smell the pain.
I tried to punch him back, but he caught it and tried to twist my arm.
I stomped his foot and attempted to hip-toss him but since I was already standing on his toe, this only resulted in me collapsing and him falling on top of me like two turtles mating. We grappled on the floor for a few seconds, grunting and crawling around, and then I managed to grab his lapels and get behind him.
I used the leverage to put my arm around his throat and my legs around his waist, tightened my grip, and tried to pull off his head with the crook of my elbow.
The man began to choke and spit, and tried to shout but all that came out was a strangled “Ffffcccck ynnn!”
I held on until he went limp.
His face was a horrible shade of magenta, and the veins on his forehead were swollen.
I tipped his unconscious body toward the trap door and he collapsed like a Slinky into the cellar, tumbling loudly down the ladder, landing at the bottom in a heap of limbs. I bent to grab his revolver off the floor and a loud bang startled me. A bullet hit the wall in front of me, flicking splinters against my face.
I didn’t look to see who fired. I ran out the back door and cut to the right.
I was standing next to the stoop when Red came running out.
As soon as the rifle barrel cleared the doorframe I grabbed it and shot him in the face with his friend’s pistol. A hole the size of a dime appeared next to the bridge of his nose and the wall behind him was splashed with a fine spray of blood and brain matter.
His inertia carried him the rest of the way down the stairs—he took two more steps and dove bonelessly into the dirt.
I’d never shot a man before. It wasn’t what I expected.
I couldn’t afford to stand around and get messed up over it. I took his rifle away and ran back to the corner of the saloon, meaning to hide under the porch again and snipe Brains when he came out to look for me.
Somehow he’d expected something of that ilk. A pistol round traveled the clapboard siding next to my face with an insectile whir and I ducked, doubling back, jumping over Red’s corpse. I felt a hot thump on my right shoulder like I’d been slapped with the flat of a hot sword.
Luckily, the saloon was only flanked by an alley on one side; the other side was flush up against the structure next door.
I hurdled a fence, almost twisting my knee, and ran as hard as I could.
Brains cursed as he turned the corner, ran across the back of the block, and caught up with me, but unless he was particularly imaginative, he would never find me where I was hiding.
I peered through a crack in the wood panels. He was no more than ten feet away from me.
“Where did you go, Kingsman?” he bellowed into the desert afternoon, staggering to a stop. He panted, looking around, checked the rounds in his chamber, and slapped the cylinder shut.
He stood there for several minutes, listening, waiting for his breathing to slow.
About the time I got tired of watching him listen for me, he turned and walked the way he’d came. I remained where I was, however, unwilling to give him the chance to trick me, and grateful that the outhouse I was currently hiding underneath hadn’t been used in a very long time.
I looked down at the dried shit-mud pit I was standing in and vomited again, croaking up a mouthful of bile as quietly as I could manage.
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