Copper tailings from the played-out mine at the top of the canyon were heaped up on one side of the camp. The small patch of open ground had once been cleared by logging, but the forest was well on its way to taking it back. Clay Billings huddled close to the cooking fire, propped up against a rotten pine log. Sunlight was filtering down through the ring of surrounding trees, but did little to take the chill from the early morning.
I needs me a doctor,” Clay said, his voice full of the wretched misery of his leg.
“Reckon you might be better served by a preacher,” Panoson bent down and lifted the bandage with the point of a rusty Missouri toothpick.
“Don’t play me bad, Swede.”
“Well, I won’t lie to you Clay. It ain’t pretty,” Panoson said recoiling at the sight of the oozing wound. “Want for me to piss on it?”
“You what?” Clay said not sure that he had heard him right.
“I’ll piss on it. It’ll stop it mortifying.”
“Go boil your shirt. I ain’t letting no plow chaser piss on me.” Panoson had once let slip that his folks were dirt farmers back East and Clay never let him forget it. “Charlie, tell this crazy sumbitch to go wipe his chin will ya?”
“Alright have it your way, it don’t make no never mind to me,” Panoson stood up and threw the knife at a stump on the far side of the fire, its long blade burying deep in the wood with a satisfying twang. “I hope that pill pushing bastard in Salt Creek takes your damn leg off.”
“Hell, let him piss on it if he wants,” Charlie said laughing at the exchange while he pushed corn biscuits around in a cooking pan. “It can’t hurt none. I’m sat down wind and I can tell you it won’t make you stink no worse either.”
“Why don’t you shut your big bazoo, Charlie,” Clay said failing to see the humor in his situation. “It’s you and your dunderheaded brother what damn near cost me my leg.”
Charlie dropped the pan in the fire, slopping bacon grease that made the flames leap up. “I reckon you’re the one who needs to hobble his lip, Clay Billings. I ain’t forgetting you shot me neither. Carry on bad-mouthing Frank and I’ll settle your hash along with that law dog,” Charlie’s bandaged hand was instinctively resting on the handle of shooting iron. He no longer found much that needed laughing at either.
“Easy there Charlie boy, he didn’t mean nothing by it, he’s only funning is all,” Panoson said. “Ain’t that so Clay?”
Clay stated back at Charlie across the fire, his own fingers tickling up the Griswold. “Yeah, like Swede says, I’s just funnin’.”
Justice McCann stood in the tree line at the edge of the camp, her back to the morning sun and her shotgun cocked and held on the three men gathered around the fire.
“Seems like you’ll is a might tetchy this morning,” she said stepping out into the clearing.
“Why you little bitch,” Charlie said, his hand now firmly on his gun.
“Don’t do it mister, I’m loaded with dimes and I’ll be happy to loan you a dollar,” she said advancing on the men, favoring Charlie with a look that would stop a stampede cold.
Charlie tried to stare her down, gave up and hawked a glob of lung butter that landed in the pan and sputtered next to the corn bread. McCann could see Wade lying on the far side of the camp, he looked like he had been roughly handled, but he was still alive.
“All I’m wanting is the sheriff here. I ain’t got no interest in you boys beyond that, there ain’t no lawful papers on ya, so you ain’t worth my time. Skin out and I’ll say no more about it.”
“Go to hell, you gunned down my brother in cold blood, if’n you think I’m gonna let that slide or let that no-good lawman walk out of here, you’re as dumb as you is ugly,” Charlie said moving around the fire putting himself firmly between McCann and the prone figure of Wade Pollock.
“It was hot blood not cold what got your rapin’ brother killed and if you don’t high tail it out of here, I’ll oblige you with the same kind of fucking he got.”
“You don’t but got two barrels in that old burner little girl and there’s three of us,” Panoson said working out the mathematics of the situation.
“I guess you ain’t never seen what a load of tin does to a man,” McCann said narrowing her aim towards Panoson, “at this range I could put pay to your hide and have enough left over for a jug to celebrate. You do them sums.”
McCann saw fear painting Panoson’s cheeks with a flush of red and turned her attention back to Charlie, knowing well enough that the Swede wouldn’t be first to draw down. She was still mindful of Billings though, who had kept his tongue so far. He sat with his back to her leaning up against the log and craning his neck around to gawk.
“Times a wasting, what’s it to be?” she said.
Clay Billings slipped the Griswold out of his belly holster, moving slowly, like corn syrup in January. He coughed to cover the click of the hammer locking back. Charlie watched him do it out of the corner of his eye and a big shit-eating grin crept across his face.
“Make your move, whore,” Charlie said.
Clay turned, leveling the Griswold at McCann’s head. He yanked on the trigger, igniting the grains of powder that had jarred loose when he dropped the pistol the previous night. The Griswold chain fired, one slug shooting out the barrel and the rest exploding in the gun, chewing Clay’s hand down to a mushy stump. He tried to scream, the sound never made it past the fragment of hot casing lodged in his windpipe and he had to settle for bubbling up frothy blood instead.
McCann felt Clay’s bullet burrow deep into the flesh of her shoulder. The impact of the ball knocked her sideways. She squeezed the Baker’s triggers, firing both barrels and spending $1.80 on Panoson. It tore Swede up from neck to crotch. He went backwards into the fire and died with flames licking up his face. McCann hit the ground a moment later and in only slightly better shape. Her right arm numb, the shotgun gone from her hand.
“You’s all abroad now, girly,” Charlie said, filling the hole in his hand with the blunt end of his Colt.
McCann rolled to her left. Chased by the bark of Charlie’s .45 she scrabbled in behind Clay Billings, who was slumped over the pine log choking on his own blood.
Charlie laughed and fired again; peeling away a chunk of rotten wood and making her hunker down.
“Come out and take your medicine, bitch. If’n you fuck good enough, I might even kill you quick.”
Another slug thumped into the log and McCann pressed her nose to the dirt; smelling death mixed with bacon grease and damp earth.
Wade worked furiously at his bindings. Rubbing his wrists raw and making the rope slick with blood. His view of the stand-off was mostly blocked by Charlie and Swede, but he could see well enough that nobody was paying him any mind. He sat up and scooted across on his backside to the knife Panoson stuck in the stump. He felt around, found the edge and ran the rope up and down, worrying it against the dull blade and making the muscles in his shoulders scream. He heard the loud wump of the Griswold going up, and raised his head in time to see a fine spray of blood arching into the cloudless sky as Swede went down ugly.
The rope finally gave and his hands came free. He tugged the rusty knife blade from the stump and hurled it at Charlie just as he fired on McCann for the second time. The knife sailed end over end towards its target and smacked Charlie on the back of his head, butt first.
Charlie turned rubbing his head. “Goddamn you Lawman.”
Wade scurried backwards until his ass bumped up against the stump. With no place else to go he pulled up his legs to his chest, set his jaw and waited for the good lord to carry him over. Charlie grinned and took a careful aim.
McCann got to her feet and lunged at the fire. Her right hand hung limp and useless at her side. She grabbed up the cooking pan with her left, ignoring the pain as the hot metal scalded her hand and flung the contents at Charlie. Boiling fat seared up his back. He let out a screech like he’d just been gelded and pumped a bullet into Wade’s kneecap. Charlie folded over clawing at the chunks of soggy biscuit that stuck to his neck and smoldered in his hair. McCann swung the pan at him, putting everything she had behind it.
The noise his skull made when it caved fair turned her stomach.
Clay Billings bled out. McCann managed to patch up Wade to stop him doing the same. She dealt with her own wound by packing the bullet hole with fresh moss and lichens scrapped from the north side of a live pine. Wade stood next to her using Charlie’s broken Winchester as a crutch.
“If you was to shoot him dead, you wouldn’t hear no complaints from me.”
McCann looked down at Charlie. He was making a strange sort of mewing noise and there was a horrible divot in the top of his head like somebody had scooped it out with a spoon. She had an idea that if he lived the highlight of his day from now on would be soiling his long johns.
“You best lock him up. He ain’t worth the lead,” she said turning away.
Charlie’s piece was lying in the dirt; Wade stooped to pick it up. He started to shove it in his belt and then changing his mind he cocked it and fired. His aim was slightly off, but the slug did its job well enough. “I reckon he ain’t worth the paperwork neither.”