When she saw the campfire, she knew it was them. The three riders. Men traveling side-by-side for seven days on horses plenty fed and watered, holding the reins with hands plenty drenched in gunpowder and death. Now they were down for the night, warming those filthy hands at the edge of the flames’ glow, cooking baked beans in a pot and roasting a black-tailed jackrabbit on a makeshift spit.
She sat in the dark, watching, waiting. Waking nightmares about all the bullet-ridden bodies kept her alert. Still, she must’ve dozed off for a few minutes because by the time she heard the footsteps the tall one was on top of her. He rolled her over, digging his knees into her thighs and pinning her arms to the ground. He had dark hair, several weeks’ worth of beard on his cheeks, teeth like rotten fence posts sunk into dead earth, sour breath and a nose bent clear over to the left, set where it lay after a bad break. She hoped it’d hurt.
“Well, well,” he said when she stopped struggling. “What have we here. Mangled as this sniffer of mine may be, it can still smell a stranger lurking in the shadows. And wouldn’t you know it: went for a midnight stroll and caught me another nice little rabbit.”
“Fuck you,” she said, spitting up at him.
He licked her spit from the corner of his lip. “Got a mouth, little rabbit, don’t ya? Well, maybe we should see what else that mouth can do.” Grinning, he pressed her harder into the ground.
Batting her eyelashes, she said, “Wait a minute, you ain’t one of them gunslingers I heard about, are you? Shot up that town a week back?”
He narrowed his eyes and brought his face closer to hers. “What if I am? What’s this little rabbit gonna say about it?”
“Been lookin’ for you, mister. You’re famous.”
“That right?” He looked around. “Only you doin’ the lookin’?”
“Hmm. How’d you find us?”
“Mister, it’s in my blood, coming as I do from a long line of hunters, trackers and all-around keen-eyed, sharp-witted, stubborn sons-a-bitches.”
He thought about this for a moment. Then he said, “So what makes a pretty thing like you want to come out to this godforsaken place for the likes of me?”
“Why, this little rabbit only wanted to make your acquaintance and wrap its itty bitty legs around a man that knows when there’s killin’ to be done and doesn’t shy away from the deed.”
Confused, he eased up the pressure on her legs and she worked them out from under his knees and curled her legs around the small of his back. Then she ripped her shirt open and bared herself and his eyes went wide and dumb like he’d seen the Lord Above float down from the sky with a bottle of whiskey in one hand and a bag full of gold coins in the other.
“Holy shit, yeah,” he said, sitting up to take his shirt off. When he did so, in that split-second when the blood-splattered garment was over his head, she swung the rock in her hand and aimed for the soft spot at the man’s temple. Say goodnight.
Later, when he regained his wits, she was lying on his back, stealing his warmth. For the night was cold.
“Rabbit, you fight dirty,” he said, groggy, words slurred, as lifted his head out of the sand.
“And you’re gullible,” she said.
“What did you do to me?”
“Well, I stripped you down and tied you up good with a length of rope all ‘round your ankles and arms. You can try and move if you want but I’m real good with rope. My daddy taught me.”
The man nodded. “And that?”
She put the blade of the knife flat to his cheek. “Won’t do nothin’ with this if you don’t make me.”
“So you’re gonna let me live?”
“Figure I’ll tie you to your stallion and whip him on the hindquarters and what hide of yours the sand doesn’t scrape away you might just be able to save if he gallops the right way. Pretty sure there’s a town not far from here. My daddy took me to it once. For a carnival. I saw a bearded lady and a feral boy raised by wolves. And I ate cotton candy until my stomach hurt.”
His voice went small and hard like a diamond. “What do you want to know?”
“I want to know why you murdered my daddy and the whole town and also everything about those other two men sitting by the fire over there.”
The man laughed and spit out desert sand from his mouth. “Girl, you don’t even know the half of it.”
“So tell me.”
“I could yell for help.”
“It’d be the last thing you did.”
“And if I–you’ll really let me go?”
“Cross my heart and hope to die,” she said as she flicked him across the nose with her thumb.
“Ouch, shit, okay. It was a job. Cash money on the barrelhead. ‘Wipe ‘em out,’ the man said. I told him there are a lot of ways to do that, but that one, he’s the serious kind, and he already had it all planned out. Told us exactly what to do.”
“Your one, he’s big and wears all black? Always polishing his boots? The right-hand of that railroad man?”
“But we were going to sign that paper.”
“Maybe the railroad man thought he shouldn’t pay so much for that signature and told his toady to take care of it. Maybe he didn’t want to pay anything to run his tracks through your town except what he paid us.”
“Everyone thought you were bringing the money. The whole town was there.”
“And so were you, weren’t you? Had to be, you know so much.”
“William and me, we were up in the alcove. It was the only place we could ever be alone. But by the time we remembered about the town meeting it was too late and people were coming in. So we stayed hid up there.”
“Ooh, I knew you were a naughty girl.”
She punched him in the ear. “Billy was a nice boy. We were just kissin’ is all. So, yes, we saw you murder all those people. Our kin and the others. Like lambs for the slaughter.”
“I guess Billy’s the one that charged us with that hunting knife, outside, as we were fixin’ to leave. Sorry he had to die like that. I told Earl not to leave the boy with his guts hangin’ out in the dirt but there’s just no reasoning with him most times.”
Tears welled in the corners of her eyes. “I tried to stop Billy but I couldn’t. After you rode off and Billy was gone, I ran home to get my horse, my daddy’s guns and the six bullets I planned on killing you all with.”
“Six bullets, huh?”
“No more, no less. My daddy would’ve wanted it that way.”
“Well, you found us, girl. And no one deserves to die more than those two, I can tell you that. I do the jobs but they really enjoy them. But get this: that’s a man and wife warming themselves by that fire. Sure, she cuts her hair close to the scalp and swears like a man but she ain’t one. And don’t let her feminine disposition fool you. That one, she’s rotten to the core. Both of them are. And they rut like dogs in heat every time I go for a walk, so I bet they’re sleeping pretty deep by now. Shouldn’t be so hard to sneak up on ‘em. Not for a resourceful animal like you.” He turned his head to her, a knowing grin on his face. “Just don’t think you’ll be coming back from this.”
“Mister, I intend to return. Count on that.”
“But who will you be? This kind of thing will turn a heart black from the inside out.”
She stared at the light of the campfire in the near distance and let that sink in. Spun it around in her mind. Looked at it all from all the angles. Decided to ignore it. “You won’t yell if I get off you and go over to them?”
“Won’t hear a peep,” he said. “Quiet like a mouse.”
And he kept his word as she stood up and bent down over her pack, removing a mound of animal hide. Wrapped well, safe from the sand’s insatiable appetite, were her daddy’s six-shooters. Oiled and pure, the guns gleamed in the moonlight.
R. Daniel Lester lives in Vancouver, BC, Canada, aka Terminal City, the Big Smoke. He has thirteen years in the writing game with the battle scars and rejection letters to back it up. Most recently, his writing has been seen online in Shotgun Honey, Bareknuckles Pulp and The Flash Fiction Offensive. You can find more of his work, including ebooks for sale, here: http://rdaniellester.com
She went slow, took her time. Patience always being one of her virtues. She crept steady and with purpose. The tall man was right. The couple had recently lain with each other. She could smell it in the air and by the slack jaws on their faces and in the contented, heavy way they slept. So they didn’t stir at all as she stood over them, a six-shooter in each hand. She shot them both through the heart. They gasped. They gurgled. They died. Then she put a bullet in each eye for what they did and saw and how they grimaced in delight that day in the town hall, lips pulled back over their gums.
When she found the tall man again, in the meek light of sunrise, damned if he hadn’t managed to squirm his way a distance. “What,” she said, as she straddled his back again, “don’t you trust me?”
He lifted his head. He spit sand. He said, “Nothin’ personal now.”
“Speaking of personal, there’s one more thing I need to know. The name of the greedy traitor that barred the town hall doors from the outside.”
He grinned. “You are a smart one.” Then he told her the name and she knew it well and burned the face into her memory, along with that of the railroad magnate and his right-hand man. They were next. “But I heard six shots,” he said, “so now you got to let me go. Wouldn’t want to disappoint you’re daddy now, would ya?”
“No, I would not,” she whispered softly in his ear. Then she took the knife blade across his throat and pulled his head up and back to bring Lady Death closer to him.