Damn it, his old man could have gone a little easier on him!
Before sending him off to approach the Rangers, poor Finn s father had practically beaten him to a pulp in order to make his appearance more effective and believable. He probably didn t intend to go so hard on him, but just as appetite increases the more one eats, so the oaf grew a liking to pummeling the boy.
The general idea wasn t bad at all. While many Rangers were corrupt and opportunistic, it was still hard to find one who wouldn t jump at the opportunity to run to the aid of a poor, helpless boy who had been beaten senseless by outlaws. In the end, they were still just jackasses with a hero complex. Weasel struggled with the idea that adults could be so ignorant. He wasn t necessarily surprised by the naivety as much as he was surprised by the fact that they had survived for so many years in spite of it.
He arrived, winded and wheezing at Cactus Cross camp, but it was no act; he really was in bad shape. He fell forward and raised a hand, pleading for help, then unceremoniously face-planted into the dirt.
There were eight men. Right away one of them lifted him up and poured some water in his mouth to revive him.
Hey, kiddo, what happened to you? The man was massive and ungracious, but it was easy to see that he was trying to be gentle with him. Bingo! Here was the first aspiring hero.
He slowly opened his eyes and pretended to not be able to focus properly on his surroundings, then gave a couple of coughs and began to babble unintelligibly.
Come on, kid! Take another sip and talk slowly. Do you, or do you not, want us to help you?
They re gonna kill everybody! Maw! Paw! He said, rolling his eyes to the back of his head.
Who s gonna kill everybody? Where?
They lit the barn on fire! Gunslingers, on horseback. They shot to kill! They lined us all up in front of Joe s old saloon. I cried and they beat me! He had to pretend to be recovering from the shock by slowly coming to his senses and giving sensible information.
"Damn, son! Speak up, now! You re safe here, we re the Law. Can you at least tell us where you came from?"
"From Little Pit, Sir!" He pulled himself together and breathed from his nose. "I was on the ground in terrible pain. Sean tried to shoot those bad guys from his attic and I went and hid in the saloon s crawlspace. Then I crawled out the other side and ran off into the desert."
Much better! Now try to give me some more information about them, boy. It s important! Any detail you can give us will help. For starters, did you hear them say any names?
There was a guy they called Lane. He was the meanest; he beat up lots of people. He s the one who did this to me.
Lane, you say? Very good, boy! In return for his story, he got a tender pat on the head that made his stomach turn. Hey! You guys hear? I think the kid may have found the Butcher Sadlann. Seems like Cardigan was right all along. Let s go!
"Well why didn t Cardigan come and tell us, then?" Objected a blond man who had been dozing near the campfire using a saddle as a pillow. He didn t seem to want to inconvenience himself too much by getting up.
"They could ve taken him out. Or worse, they might ve taken him prisoner to interrogate him. Admit it, you re flunking out because Sadlann gives you the willies!" He antagonized the blond man.
Hey, watch your mouth! I d break your face if I didn t have to get up to do it. I fully intend to get another couple hours of sleep. Besides, geezer, yesterday we busted our asses to follow the trail and now you expect me to saddle up again before dawn. Loyalty is all fine and good, but for the beans the government gives us, I ain t in no hurry.
Pull yourself together, Rick. Get your ass up! We ain t got time to waste! He insisted.
Who the hell do you think you are to boss me around? Piss off! The man turned away to go back to sleep.
"Come on! You re gonna abandon us as soon as we get a chance to catch those bandits?"
"As soon as we get a chance to get shot by those bandits, more like."
"Gregory s right, now is not the time to dawdle." The new voice which chimed in was one of authority.
Yes, Captain! But since we re not altogether certain how this bust is gonna go down, shouldn t one of us first report to the nearest command? As a precautionary measure, I mean. Maybe while I m at it, I can take this poor boy to the El Paso infirmary. Is it, or is it not, our duty to ensure the safety of the people? said the blond.
"You don't have to tell me the process, and it damn sure ain t up to you to decide who s going to report to command. Your laziness borders on desertion. Anyway, if you care so much, by all means, coffee boiler, do as you like. Just bear in mind that this skulduggery is gonna cost you three weeks of salary, not counting the annulment of your rights to the bounty for those criminals. The captain scribbled two lines on a piece of paper, crumpled it, and threw it at the man on the ground. "Deputy Richard Keen, hereby enclosed are your sanctions."
"Don t you think you re blowing this out of proportion, James? Three weeks! All right, you've convinced me. I ll get up and come with you. He sat up.
That s Captain Bluemann to you! Sorry, but it s too late to change your mind. That was an order, not a suggestion. You will report back and so help me, if you don t hand over those sanctions, I ll write up a report that sends you straight to the gallows! I've had enough of you, good for nothing! The man was purple.
You commanders sure don t hesitate, do you? Scribble down two lines on a piece of paper and a poor Ranger loses several tens of dollars in salary. All this, after days of hard work! Rick complained.
Quit your bellyaching and remember what I said! Men, rattle your hocks and get going! The law calls! The captain mounted his horse, spurred him on and ventured off into the desert followed by the others.
"Scalawags!" The blond man spat, passing a hand over his face. He got up very slowly, despite having a strong physique. He yawned, had a good stretch, and with a sudden leap, was on top of Weasel.
"So brat, spit it out!" He threatened, grabbing him by his unruly hair as though he were yanking a yucca plant out of the squalid earth.
"But Sir, I don t know what you re talking about!" Finn made his voice tremble.
"Look here, little shit! You can pull the wool over the eyes of that windbag James or that nitwit Greg, but not me. First off, there s no way you could ve made it this far. Second, there ain t a chance in hell those outlaws would ve missed a little whelp like you right under their noses. Finally, I know how Lane Sadlaan works. He s refined, a perfectionist. I would almost say he s a master of pain. His victims are not simply beaten, but meticulously mutilated, he said, his tone held a note of esteem.
"Didn t you hear the officer?" contested Finn. The guy was not the sluggard he appeared to be. In terms of hostility, he was shaping up to be quite the adversary. If he wanted to win him over, he had to keep quiet and listen as much as possible in order to discern his intentions and act accordingly. He stayed silent a few moments.
Snake got your tongue, huh? Looks like I nailed it! Alright then, I ll help you out a little. Let s see how much my theory proves true. You re probably spooked, and I have a hunch as to why. I ve come pretty close to the collecting the beans that you never would have dared to spill because you re aiming to be a man of your word! He was smart, but he was underestimating him. As such, he was making the mistake of talking too much. When playing poker, one must take care that the opponent does not see their hand. This the man knew very well, but what he did not realize was that his most worthy opponent was the brat which he currently had by the hair. In the land of jackals, an emaciated appearance and timid demeanor would have been taken for shortcomings, but the boy had learned to use them to his advantage in order to appear harmless.
Let's begin. Lane and his men showed up at your town and lit it on fire. This I don t doubt. Now, what s not clear to me is the motivation behind it. Can t you throw me a little bone? You do something to piss him off?
At this point he had to conjure a half-truth, otherwise he would start to be suspicious.
Before they got there, someone else showed up. He had a nice hat and nice boots. Also, as soon as he got to the watering hole, he pulled out what looked like a gold pocket watch and checked the time. Studd thought he could have other valuables with him, so he shot him to get his stuff. They did end up finding some valuables on him, which caused a whole heap of people to rush in and grab for em. Not long after, the man s cronies arrived. There were nine of em and they did everything I told you before."
Lookie there, now the story is starting to make some sense! They feared they had the law on their trail in Little Pit, so they sent one of them to check; perhaps the least known face. Evidently, the guy didn't know that it s never a good idea to show a pack of hungry dogs a nice, juicy steak. Well, since you ve started to cooperate, I ll help you out a little. In my opinion, you were sent here by Sadlann's band. They forced you to put on this little show to set a trap, and to make sure you don t do anything funny, they re holding your family hostage. Am I right? It was clear that Blondie had been able to draw the most plausible conclusion from the clues at his disposal. A battered boy was the perfect bait. Ironically enough, his father had also thought the same thing. Fortunately, there was no evidence that would lead the man to conclude that one of the criminals had escaped by pocketing all the loot. Plus, the truth was even more arbitrary and beyond believing than anyone could invent.
Finn's silence was taken as a hesitating affirmation. If the answer was no, he would have responded immediately. He wanted to give the impression of wanting to talk, but being scared to do so. It was working.
"Here, see... I said it. You didn't spill anything. His grip on his hair was matting it. "So let's keep playing this little game. If you are here, it means that someone told them where we were. Did you see any hostages?"
Silence was the best way to make him keep exposing his cards and it was exactly what Weasel kept doing.
"Mighty fine!" Although the cop hadn t received an answer, it was clear that he had been convinced that they had captured Cardigan and made him talk. "Now listen up, boy. I could still make it to my troop, warn them and stop the ambush."
"No! I m begging you, if something goes wrong they would kill Paw, Maw and Emily! That was the icing on the cake.
The officer continued, "Or... I could leave my colleagues to their inauspicious fate, outnumbered and caught off-guard. I don t think they would come back in one piece. Blondie had sardonically placed his bets in favor of the outlaws. Reality, however, was quite different than what he was envisioning. They were not outnumbered, since the bandits had suffered the loss of two other men in addition to the one Blondie also was aware of. Then there was the fact that there was no trap at all, and the outlaws would be the ones caught off-guard by the Rangers.
"I'll do anything, but I don't want my family to die! We are nothing but poor peasants. Finn screwed up his face into a pleading look.
Fine. Then go and tell that big man down there that the rock he s hiding behind is too small for him. Then tell him I know everything but I m willing to take a step back and not interfere. In exchange, I want three thousand dollars or equivalent. According to my estimates, the figure should correspond to about half of their portion of the stolen goods. If the guy they killed in Little Pit had some valuables with him, they ve probably already divvied up the loot. So, you can t tell me they have nothing. Oh! Also tell him that if he doesn t agree to my offer, that I ve got plenty of munitions that will agree for him. That rogue was not just slick, he had an eagle eye. Hugg had lurked almost a thousand yards from the camp. It was an impressive distance. Although several rifles exceeded that range, few were accurate enough and there were even fewer marksmen capable of such precision. Since his Jacob Hawken was three sheets to the wind, he might as well be out of range.
Three... three thousand dollars? Not even the most simple-minded wretch would have considered such an inconceivable figure.
"You tell him exactly what I told you. Three thousand dollars to turn a blind eye. Well, three thousand dollars, plus you as a bonus. I don't think my fool companions are going to make it, but I have to protect myself from any unforeseen circumstances. So, I still need to report to command, turn in this paper, and take you to the infirmary. Now, kid, if you let slip any of this and I ll not only kill you, but I ll go to Little Pit and take out your whole family if they re still standing. It won t be hard to find them. I know your sister s name. Emily, right? Think about it - who will they believe anyway? Some little rat-faced spawn of a reject of society, or an upright man of the law?
"No, no, sir, I won't tell anyone! But actually, I'd like to go back to my town. He and his father had far more important business to attend to and it wouldn t be good for them to be seen in the company of a Ranger.
"Look, it s essential to me that I take you to the El Paso infirmary as soon as possible. Then you can make yourself scarce. In fact, if you disappear, as far as I'm concerned, it's even better." He shoved him roughly in Hugg s direction and barked, Move! The sooner we get this over with, the sooner you can get back to your hokum.
The best way to profit is from a privileged position in the middle of the crowd. He had heard this saying from old Kent, the so-called bandit extraordinaire. Maybe he had been, but if he met his fate lying face down in Little Pit dust, extraordinaire he was not. At any rate, the motto fit perfectly with the revelation that Finn had just had: being on the side of the law required one to take possession of dirty money from time to time, but at the same time it allowed you to keep some of it. Operating with due caution, of course. Better than staying in that dung heap of a town waiting for some fool to show up with a pittance in his pocket. Blondie, keeping his eyes wide open and closing them only when the moment seemed fit, was about earn himself three thousand bucks and who knows how many other times he had already done it.
On the right side of the law was the best place to do the dirtiest work. He thought that this could probably be something he could get used to. There is something to be said for a young person who cultivates healthy intentions for the future.
At the moment, however, the task at hand was much more pertinent. He had reached his father and had to convince him to relinquish the sum that the crooked Ranger wanted, without getting his face smashed in more than it already had been.
"Paw, that guy there has eagle eyes. He saw you and he got suspicious! Better to blame him for what was about to go down.
Years of work as a trapper led the man to instinctively seek the shelter of the rock with greater detail. Then he regained his composure and grabbed Finn by the collar. Blazes sake! The hell is he suspicious of, exactly? Finn flinched at the finger in his face.
"He thought you were one of those outlaws they are after and brought me here to set a trap."
"So why didn't he tell his companions?"
That s my point, Paw. It s that he seems to want to keep it from them, cause he wants something in exchange for his silence. Weasel s voice was progressively waning and the last words came out as a barely audible whisper.
Hugg let out a hearty laugh. Let him go warn them! What do I care."
"Yes, but he s a pretty perceptive guy and if you let him go, he ll start to suspect something. Then there s one more thing. I don t think that for a smart guy like you it will be a problem, but he said that in the case you turn him down, he won t think twice about sparring with you. Of course, we only have pistols. He not only has those, but also has a brand new Sharps rifle. You know, Paw, they say that it has a good range and that it reloads in a flash. But you re the best and you can take him out, even if you have to circle him from a distance on horseback. Right? He pretended to cling to him, as though he was seeking his father s protection.
A drop of sweat trickled down the man's forehead. "Sure, I can take him out with my eyes closed. Only thing is, if I end up just woundin him he d go runnin off to his pals, then we d have a pack of Rangers on our heels. Maybe we re better off givin him what he wants. What s his demand?
This was the hardest part. Finn held up three fingers.
Son of a crow! He wants a whole three hundred bucks just to turn a blind eye?
No, Paw... He doesn t want three hundred...
Oh! Aight then what re we standin here for? Here, take the thirty dollars the chump wants and that ll be the end of it.
No, he wants three thousand...
This was it. He was going to get another pummeling. Weasel was going to find himself on the ground again spitting out blood and dirt.
Fucking pigs! They gorge themselves on our taxes, and rather than helping the honest citizens, they go rogue and want three grand to turn a blind eye!" Finn wasn t sure his father ever paid a penny s worth of tax. Even honest citizens was a laugh. However, he preferred not to point out those details because he had grown a liking to keeping his hide intact.
Hugg breathed in large quantities of air in a vain attempt to stifle his anger, when he finally blurted out, "I break my back to get this loot, then that horse s ass shows up and wants three thousand, I say three thousand bucks! Well we ll just see about that when I make him eat dirt. Who does he think he is? I m just gonna have to get back to that hollow so I can get my pistol. This toy gun ain t gonna get us nowhere. "
He gathered himself and pulled out his pistol. As he leaned out from his hiding spot, a bullet whizzed inches from his ear. After the near miss, the adversary could simply adjust his shot and hit him. Hugg immediately turned back around to crouch behind the rock.
"Consarn it! This stupid backloadin pistol piece a dung can t hold a candle to my Jagg! If only I still had it... He seemed more shaken up by the affront to his convictions than by risking his hide by a frog s hair. He huffed and started digging through his pockets, cursing under his breath.
Finn! Finn, stop rollin round in the dust like a cat in heat and get over here! Despite his loss of equilibrium from the combination of the beating and getting up too quickly, he obeyed, but only to avoid an encouragement kick on top of everything else.
"Here. Take this. Should be worth about three thousand bucks. And you better hope he didn t realize I don t have a gun. If he did, he s gonna want it all and will try to take us out to get it. He ll have to pry it out of my cold dead hands! His lump of a father shared nothing. Ever. But for some reason when things got hairy, his father had no problem sharing the burden. Always. Come on, We gotta cut stick now!" He added.
Err, Paw... There s one more thing.
Badfinger stared daggers at him, took a deep breath through gritted teeth, and motioned for him to continue.
"The guy wants me, too. He wants to take me to El Paso for me to get bandaged up; he needs it to keep his cover.
Hugg breathed a sigh of relief.
Shoot, I was thinkin he wanted more than that! Fare thee well, kid. Don t take any wooden nickels. He chuckled, heartened.
Actually, I m gonna try to escape and meet you in Agua Dulce.
You do what you want. Y know, sometimes you can be useful after all. I ll stay at the only inn the place has. If you re still alive by then I ll see you there. If not, it s been a pleasure! I ve got a fifty-thousand-dollar haul to think about, So I can t be goin out of my way for you, understand. That bounty was too substantial for Hugg to keep is head on straight. It was in his possession for less than a day and it was already taking over; an obsession that clouded his judgment and made him even less rational than he already was. Even putting himself in the line of fire was out of character for him. Finn determined that if he left him alone for too long, he would soon lose his father, along with aura of sheer luck that always seemed to linger around him.
The boy neatly arranged the jewels he was holding in his hand in preparation of the hard sell ahead of him. He popped out from behind the rock and walked up to Blondie.
Rick scanned over the baubles, summing up their value under his breath. Then he made a barely perceptible grimace and barked, Damn curmudgeon! This junk is worth at most twenty-nine hundred dollars, not considering courtesy fee. For some reason, this did not surprise Weasel in the least.
The man stood there, contemplating for a moment. He could have been tempted to send the brat back to the crook to demand more. Even worse, he could have been contemplating a violent attempt to take it all. Fortunately, he was convinced that the crook couldn't have more than five thousand dollars. In the end, he decided that the game was not worth the candle. "Alright then. Let's say that this time I give him a little finder s discount, he conceded by shaking his head.