Hugg Badfinger and his son ran around like headless chickens as they scrambled in preparing to skip town. To avoid unwanted attention, they distributed their haul between the pockets of their vests and the saddle bags of their two horses: one new recruit and good ol Frik. The latter was a scrub of a horse. He was almost a mule in both appearance and gait, but he had always been reliable and devoted to his owner. In looking at him, there wasn t much to expect in the way of physical abilities. Moreover, his unsightliness was a great deterrent to thieves. If anyone wanted to steal a horse, they would be looking for a more presentable animal - not this poor, raggedy beast. Despite Frik s years of honorable service, his master would not bat an eye at the choice between haggard ol Frik and the glimmering chestnut steed he had just procured. Poor Frik was handed down to Weasel. Neither seemed to mind at all.
Having two mounts would make the desert around them decidedly smaller, but it was just past noon and crossing it at that time would not be pleasant at all. Perhaps it would be easier to wait a couple of hours before heading out, in order to reach the nearest town by nightfall. Better yet, leave before dawn and arrive with the sun already high, but still not really hot. By doing so, they would be taking advantage of the cover of darkness to leave the town without risking exposure to gunfire from their curious neighbors. Not that they shot at each other at every opportunity, but that curiously suspicious package and their sudden hurry may have piqued someone s interest. If this was true, the only way to accommodate them would be through about fifty grams of black powder, a little lead, and a smoking barrel.
They were all valid considerations, but the most likely scenario was that someone had caught on and was now organizing a band of ruthless professionals to spring on them at any moment. They may have even organized a little frolic in the town square. A frolic of bullets, fire, and death.
Another alternative could be to stash the corpse to throw off any pursuers. It would have undoubtedly been the easiest and safest way, but it would likely raise the alarm among the townspeople and immediately remove all doubt as to the value of the stolen goods. If that happened, they would have advanced on them like a pack of rabid canines.
Badfinger concluded that, as always, he would go with the most cynical choice. His loot was worth too much. It was worth much more than the miserable existence of a bunch of deadbeats. Nobody's life, apart from his, was more precious than that haul. If those hypothetical outlaws killed off all of the town s scoundrels, they would be doing him a favor because it would reduce the number of potential witnesses. That loot was his. His and his alone. He was possessive and could not bear the idea of anyone else knowing of its existence. He even had to push away unhealthy thoughts regarding the fate of his own son.
One look at Hugg was all Weasel needed. He immediately knew what he had decided and took action. They mounted their horses and bolted out of the shed in a cloud of dust and wood splints. In doing so, they did not allow anyone time to react in offense.
"Paw, if we wear out the horses like this, they ll never make it across the desert!" the boy objected, while Frik huffed and puffed to keep pace with the chestnut horse. The scrub was holding his own by comparison, but only because the other mount was worn out from the charge he had just made.
"We ain t crossing the desert, we're hiding out. Now shut up and follow me, nitwit! His cruel and barbaric ways could make him look like a brainless cretin who relied on violence to get what he wanted, but Finn knew very well that his father was no fool. Once again, he had opted for the best solution.
They spurred on the horses until they disappeared behind a hill, thus giving the impression of advancing deep into the desert. Once out of sight, they changed direction and climbed a high hill from its only passable side. Its other side, the one visible from the town, was nothing but a steep cliff. There, the ground was calcareous and consisted of innumerable caves and ravines: the ideal place from which to see without being seen.
They stashed the stolen goods in a small natural hollow where they took care to further conceal them with foliage. They tied up the horses in a cave, then crawled up the bank of the ravine to keep watch on Little Pit.
"We ll leave for Agua Dulce before dawn," Hugg said.
"I don't understand, Paw. Since it's a stone's throw from here, why don't we just go straight to El Paso? It's a big city and a couple of extra gringos won t be noticed. Agua Dulce has so few people we ll be noticed right away. You re the one who told me that! "
"Don't you go on thinkin that now you got a gun you can tell me how things are! If I m the one s taught you those things, it goes to show that I know more than you. Lots of the folks headed for El Paso make a stop in Agua Dulce to cool down and water their horses. So, smart-ass, we ain t gonna get noticed there either. Also, as you said: there ain t many folks there, so that means we have less a chance of running into a damn bounty hunter what knows my face. You know your harlot mother and moron brother ain t the only ones they know I killed.
"Sorry Paw, I m still learning." Weasel s eyes flashed with fire for a fleeting moment. However, he kept his gaze low, as he always did, so the older man did not notice.
Night fell, and with it, a bitter cold. The damned desert was always that way; It would fry you during the day, then it would freeze you after sunset. Nevertheless, the two had years of experience in that hostile land, so they never traveled without a blanket. Even Finn had one of his own. It was half worm-eaten and home to more than a few lice, but it was warm and that was all that mattered.
It wasn t long until they spotted a group of eight individuals under the moonlight in the clearing below. They stopped their horses some distance from the town and sent a scout ahead. The scout removed his coat before he rolled in the dust and continued, on foot. They must have heard the rumors of the unconventional hospitality that Little Pit offered their guests when they arrived. The man, covered head to toe in filth, looked like a wretch of no interest to the townspeople. This would allow him to approach the watering hole undisturbed to feign drawing water while scanning the town.
He arrived in the town and was immediately approached by Studd Mash, a.k.a. Saloon. The man had one leg shorter than the other, which was how they recognized him from a distance and under the moonlight. With his slanted posture and his unbalanced gait he resembled the tattered old sign which was once Joe s welcome sign, which incidentally seemed to have the word Saloon faded on its face, at least as far as Hugg could tell. They watched the man hobble over to the guest, roughing him up in a search for valuables and then leaving, shaking his arms in frustration. As he walked away, his hat fell to the ground and he picked it up.
"Paw, that coot is wearing our benefactor s hat!"
Crimany, son! How the heck do you see that?
"I didn't see it, I guessed it. His would never have fallen to the ground because he has a string that keeps it tied under his chin. He put it on there so his hat wouldn t keep falling off on account of his hobbling.
"I think you might be right. Only Studd would be dumb enough to show off his stolen hat to the first drifter in sight. Well, bout now I m thinkin the town frolic is a sure thing.
The incognito scout sat on the ground with his back against a planked wall pretending to rest. After some time, he slowly got up and disappeared behind a barn. Some moments later, a fire broke out. He must have hidden some burning fuel in his leather pouch. That must have also been the signal. While the townspeople came out into the open to try to tame the flames, the group of outlaws galloped toward them. They rode in like a wave of death and caught the townspeople by surprise, taking out anyone brave enough to draw their weapon. A few anxious moments were enough for the few surviving inhabitants of Little Pit to have been disarmed and lined up for interrogation. Of the assailants, only one seemed to have cashed in his chips.
Meanwhile, some of the outlaws began raiding homes to avoid being shot from behind. The risk was real. In fact, before they could react, someone had fired a couple of shotgun blasts from Sean's house. The first of the two made its mark, taking out another of the invaders.
Only six left now , said Hugg.
Wrong... You didn t count me.
The unmistakable sound of a gun being cocked sent his words from the tip of his tongue down to the pits of his bowels.
Father and son both put their hands in the air and slowly turned around. A thin man with hate in his eyes was pointing the business end of a shotgun at them. With a barely-there mustache and a grin like a fox in a hen house, his appearance was a real slap in the face. He was, however, on the right end of the barrel, so all said and done he had the upper hand. Hugg, making the best of his predicament, contented himself with a smirk and spat on the ground.
I came up this hill to get a bird s eye view of the plain. Y know, we don t like surprises, he tilted his head back, Lo and behold, look who I find perched on top C two ugly ass buzzards ready to dine with the corpses. The man ran his tongue across his lips. C mon! What you just standing there for? Unbuckle them holsters and throw em under my feet. Any funny business and I ll put a bullet between your eyes.
Their choices were few. They had to do what he said.
All right now, maggots, kick that shootin iron over the cliff.
It wasn t just some old, shoddy gun, it was a buffalo gun, and a damn good one at that. Hugg hesitated for a moment. He instinctively looked for reassurance in his son s eyes, but found none, as the boy was pointedly looking down at his feet. It was as though the man had asked him to drop his drawers. Without his precious Jagg he felt naked as a worm. The forefinger of his tormentor began to put pressure on the trigger and once again, Hugg had no choice but to do what he was told. He sent his weapon - his beloved weapon - to its violent end, smashed on the rocks below. If he got out of this alive he would first have to find himself another rifle, or at least a decent pistol.
"Come on, gentlemen! Let s go join the others down there. You sure don t wanna miss the party! Badfinger realized he despised the man s voice even more than he despised his face.
You didn t happen to ve run into a gunslinger on horseback in the past few hours, did you? We ve been searching for him all across the desert. He just means so much to us, said the ruffian during their descent. He walked a few steps behind them keeping them at gunpoint.
In situations like this, it s always best to keep one s mouth shut. Both hostages stayed silent.
I get it - you don t want to sing. On the other hand, I always thought vultures loved to be heard. It s pretty sad to have to go to a party without being able to serenade the crowd. But don t worry; once we re down there I ll introduce you to Lane, and I guarantee you he knows how to make you sing like finches.
Yep, he talked too damn much. In any case, Hugg felt his blood freeze in his veins at the prospect of being tortured.
The day had started out to be the best day he had ever had, but now it was on its way to conclude as the worst one.
You two! Turn around slowly. That most certainly was not the same irritating voice as before.
Their former captor stared wide-eyed at the sky from a rocky shelf several feet down from the path. It seemed that his look of surprise was due in part to the hole in his forehead. A man with an icy glare and fairly well-groomed travel clothes peered at them from behind a Colt. He had another revolver on the left side of his belt, along which a battery of pre-loaded charges were visible. The guy was the very picture of a lawman.
"I'm Cardigan Smith. Texas Ranger. Are you going to tell me what you were doing in the company of that criminal? He was a lawman, and a dangerous one. He wasn t the usual high-ranking windbag. He was a Ranger. That meant that he was a skilled gunman or a former bounty hunter who had chosen to work for the state. The operative arm of the law.
"Thank you for saving us, Mr. Lieutenant. We re nothing but poor pikes tryin to find a living in this cursed land," Hugg began.
"I'm not a Lieutenant... I wish. Anyhow, please continue.
Yessir. We live close by, in Little Pit. Up yonder is where I buried my beloved wife and my other son when they died of smallpox. Hugg pointed to a nearby hill where he knew that there were two mounds without an inscription. The real story was that bodies of his spouse and his offspring had been left to rot in their old house in Louisiana. After having committed the crime he skipped town and was on the dodge. He pretended to choke back a sob, wiped away a non-existent tear and continued, Today would ve been our anniversary. Sixteen years. So me and m boy came up here to spend some time with em. When it started to get dark we headed back home, but then we saw smoke coming from our town. Fearin the worst, we climbed this here mountain to figure out what was goin on. That s when that man attacked us. He kept askin us about a gunslinger, but I didn t know what he was talkin about. We didn't know what to tell him, so he said he'd take us to some person named Lane who would make us talk." A half-truth was always better than an outright lie.
Lane... Lane Sadlann, I suppose, He said to himself. There we go - finally!
"What? I don t get it." Hugg tried to speculate.
"No, nothing that concerns you. I have to thank you, though. You saved me from having to retrieve the body of that outlaw over there. Now I don t have to, cause I've already gotten what I needed. Your faces don t seem to be on any wanted flyer, at least not from what I can recall. Anyhow, I still don't fully trust you, so you ll have to come with me to my company s camp. If you are who you say you are, you ve got nothing to worry about. Where did you leave your horses?
We don t have no horses, Sir. How great it would be to have one. We could cross this desert in a few hours.
I suspected as much. Damn! It would take us too long to get to the others at Cactus Cross. The man was cautiously aware that they could be in cahoots with the band of outlaws he was hunting. Therefore, in order to avoid any unpleasant surprises, he would have preferred to take them with him. Everything appeared to be pointing to the contrary, but in outlaw country one could never be too careful. On the other hand, he intended to get back to his company s camp as soon as possible to get the necessary reinforcements. If he was any bit the bounty hunter he once was he would have taken them out at even the slightest suspicion just to get them out of his way. However, he was a man of the law now, so he had to put aside the more cynical part of himself.
"Ok son, tie your father to that tree," he ordered, throwing him a rope. When he saw the young man hesitate, he added, "Don't worry. It's just a precaution. I have to do something first, then I'll come back and untie you. Look, I'll give you my blanket to keep the chill off."
Regrettably, Weasel did as he was told.
"Now, I have to tie you up too. I suggest that you don t do anything stupid or try to take off.
I m not takin off! I m not leavin my Paw, he whined, emulating the insufferable voice of Denner, the only other kid in Little Pit.
The lawman put his gun back into his holster and took him by the arm to tie him up. Without warning, Weasel planted a booted heel on his foot and tried to escape, but to no avail. The man's grip was firm. The only thing he got out of it was a curse, but it bought his father the one distracted moment he needed bash the man s head in with a rock. The boy was skilled at knot-tying, and the false knot was his specialty.
Did you kill him?
He look alive to you? The ill-fated man s eye was dangling from its socket.
"You could ve just knocked him out. After all, he did just save our hides.
Well, since you re so grateful to him, it ll be you who ll go warn his buddies since he won t be able to. In these parts not many folks know who I am, but that don t mean there s nobody can identify me. If the Rangers could take out the outlaws, it would eliminate the threat.