Last Rites

The way she was bleeding told me two things; they got her too good for her to be on her feet anymore and I needed someplace to park her that’d buy me some getaway time.

“You think I’m gonna be okay, Trav?” she asked around the wincing and quiet sobs. Tear-streaked and pleading. I looked down to her, saw she’d bled on all that hard-earned money and wanted to say no just because it might be ruined cuz she don’t know how to take a damn hit.

“Yeah. I’m just plottin’ our next move, is all.” I lie and pat her on the head. Feel like I’m petting a loyal dog. Mostly am.

“I could use a cigarette.”

I peek; see I’ve got half a pack. Half a pack was never too many in my book. “Sorry babe. Down to one. Anyway, you shouldn’t be pollutin’ those lungs right this second. You need good ‘ol H-2-O. Okay?”

“You’re probably right.” She said. Tears freshened her cheeks, and if I was the cryin’ kind, I oughta be doin’ the same. She’ll get lucky and drop dead here in just a second. I’m the one they’re gonna be huntin’ for.

We were lost in a maze of cars. Late night theater attached to some outdoor mall. Must’ve been playin’ the summer blockbusters cuz this place was stuffed fuller than the kitty when we finally got our hands on it. Gettin’ it was easy. Gettin’ out, now that was ugly.

“One last score, baby, then it’s you and me livin’ the good life,” was always my line on her. Always. She bought it as much as them church folk bought it when they heard Jesus forgives you. And just as much as they went off to sin again, I went off to dig up a bigger score. Life is a circle. And now she up and ended it.

I could hear them shoutin’ off in the background. It’s my luck the girl gets lead poisonin’ and I get the price on my head. That’s the other circle in my life. I swear. I know how to pick ‘em.

Like daddy said before he’d beat me good, time for the hard choices. At least I got ‘em. She don’t. Not anymore. She looked up to me, said—

***

“I need a doctor, Trav,” I told him, tucking my bottle blonde hair behind my ears.

“The cops will be watchin’ the hospitals,” he said, scooping a handful of blood-stained dollars from my purse and stuffing them into his shirt.

I hid my face behind my hand and coughed, turning my palm bright red. “Then just leave me in the parking lot. You know I won’t tell the law nothing.”

“Yeah, I know, babe.” His words hung between us like an untaken breath. The rail of coke I’d let him snort off my tits in the motel room earlier still lurked in the whites of his eyes. He could only meet my gaze for a second before turning away. Those eyes now betraying him like I never would. I looked away too and wondered why hard-learned truths were the only kind I had ever known.

Distant sirens played in the streets like sad songs on late night radio. Travis dropped my purse and bent down. “Look I’m sorry, baby,” he said, planting a kiss on my forehead. There was nothing left to say, but he never did know when to quit. I guess that’s why I went with him in the first place. He lit up a cigarette and spoke around it. “I mean, it ain’t like it was love or nothin’.”

Those words hurt as much as getting shot. Maybe more. “I guess not,” I said and clawed at my purse, daubing the fake leather with bloody fingerprints. Seems that fake was just how we rolled.

“Then we’re cool, right?” He cracked that smile of his, the one that only went up one side of his face; the one that used melt me like asphalt in July.

I reached in the purse and pulled out the little .22 he got me for my birthday. Flowers had never been his style. I aimed at the place where his heart should have been and let his crooked smile falter for just a moment before squeezing the trigger and wiping it away.

“Yeah, we’re cool, baby.”


Delta Blues

Juliet chain-smoked by the open window, her naked body sheened with sweat and silhouetted by the red neon of the ‘No Vacancy’ sign on the wall outside, the cherry-colored light accentuating her curves, my memory filling in the details.

The coal of her cigarette flared as she inhaled. “Everybody dies,” she said, answering a question neither of us asked.

I turned my head. I knew if I stared at her any longer I would never be able to look away. I lay back on the bed and closed my eyes. It didn’t do any good. I could still see her in my mind; feel her pounding through me like a coke-high.

“But not like that,” I said and looked up at the celling fan, the slow chop of its blades struggling to stir the heavy air. Running had been my idea. Memphis had been hers. Paulie, for his part, never had an idea worth a damn.

Juliet sighed as if this life had been a big disappointment for her, the sound leaving her on a plume of dirty smoke. Cancer never looked so good.

“Mostly people get what they deserve,” she said, sending the ash from her cigarette tumbling to the floor with all the fucked up philosophy she could cram into a single tap of her finger. “You didn’t know him like I did.”

It sounded like she was trying to convince herself, not me. Paulie was her brother after all, not mine. I waited for her to continue, but she turned away, gazing out of the window and losing herself in the melancholy notes of a twelve-bar heartbreak drifting up from the honky-tonk across the street.

Paulie hadn’t been much of a brother. He had been two-bit grifter with a needle habit. I liked him well enough when he was alive, although I can’t say I cared much now that he was dead. It wasn’t like he was ever going to see thirty anyway. What troubled me was how he came to be dead in our hotel room; smeared over the bathroom tiles with all the enthusiasm of a second grade art project. We were 400 miles from KC. There was no way they could have found us, not without help.

“I can’t believe Paulie sold us out.”

“You didn’t know him like I did,” she repeated. “You run with a junkie and there’s no such thing as a clean get away.”

“You really think he gave us up for money, your own brother?”

“You still think it matters?”

Juliet crushed out her smoke on the window ledge, the smoldering butt joining half a dozen others there. All of them burnt to nothing by the soft caress of her lips. I had burned too, destroyed by the heat of her touch. She turned, her dark hair falling across her face the same way it did when we made love, only Juliet didn’t really make love; Juliet just made you hers.

Beyond her I heard the growl of a flat six turn to a contented idle in the street outside. Car doors slammed, boots scraped on the sidewalk.

“They’re here,” she said moving back into the shadows.

“How many?”

“Enough.”

Juliet hurried over to the bed, bent down and kissed me, her mouth lingering on mine as she slipped her hand behind my head and pulled the.45 from under the pillow. The sharp tang of gun oil mixed with her perfume and I wondered if this was what love smelled like.

“We could still run,” I said, the bitter sweet taste of her on my tongue urging me to believe my own lie.

“We wouldn’t make it two blocks.”

She positioned herself facing the door, pistol in her hand and naked as the day she was born. I went and stood beside her, thumbing open the cut throat razor that I had found in the sink, along with some pieces of Paulie. Footsteps stole over the bare floor boards in the corridor, a shadow fell across the spill of light seeping under the door.

“So this is how it ends, huh?”

She smiled and worked the slide on the gun. “Everybody dies, baby.”


Gospel of the Bullet cover reveal.

GOTB-OEPS-LeeksOne Eye Press is excited as we hit the 6 week window to to the release of our first western novella, GOSPEL OF THE BULLET by Chris Leek.

As a tease, please enjoy the cover reveal with art by C D Regan. Chuck, as we know him, is a talented creator – designer, artist, writer – the whole enchilada. You can see some of his outstanding work in and on the many excellent Zelmer Pulp collections.

 

GOSPEL OF THE BULLET by Chris Leek

Release Date: September 30, 2014
Price: $7.95 print $3.50 digital

Mitchel McCann may have lost a war, but he never lost his belief. The preacher kept his faith throughout all the blood and the dying; trading his pulpit for a saddle and delivering his sermons with a brace of Walker Colts. McCann still believes in God, but he is no longer sure that God believes in him. Now fate has given him a chance at redemption; the opportunity to save a life instead of taking one.

Justice Simpson was only seven years old when she lost father. She has been losing steadily ever since. The Yankee ball that did for Dan Simpson also killed his wife, Rosalee, although it took another nine years to do it. Alone and destitute on the unforgiving streets of Saint Joseph, Missouri, Justice knows that the sooner or later the bullet will find her too.

In the winter of 1872 the war is long over, but on the Kansas—Missouri border old wounds are slow to heal and they leave ugly scars. The past is something that neither the preacher nor the girl can escape.

About Chris Leek

Chris Leek writes the kind of fiction that your mother probably wouldn’t like. He is part of the team behind the late night entertainment machine and genre fiction imprint, Zelmer Pulp and an editor at the western magazine, The Big Adios. His novella, “Nevada Thunder” will be out shortly from Snubnose Press. You can find out more at his blog: www.nevadaroadkill.blogspot.co.uk

 


Guns of Justice

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.

“Shit!”

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.”


Guns of Justice

Bruce picked his way down the stony river bank and splashed out across the shallows. McCann let herself relax a little as the horse gained a footing on the far side. She followed the rutted wagon track that wound up through the scrub pine towards a range of bald hills, the last patches of winter snow on their summits lost in the failing light. This was a hard country, full of rough gullies and broken trails. Here you were more likely to get yourself killed by nature than a bullet. Diamond back rattlers, big mountain cats and grizzlies all called this place home; so did McCann.

She rode on through the gathering dusk. It was long past the time when God fearing folks would have pitched up for the night. McCann wasn’t afraid of God. When her time came she would face him down just like she would any other man and if it turned out there was no room for her in his mansions of glory, then so be it. The other place didn’t scare her either; she seen the devil before.

Right now, her place in eternity didn’t bother her half as much as the riders who were trailing her. She put their number at three or maybe four. Riding hard, but still a good ways back. She hadn’t been completely sure that they were there at all, not until one of their horses gave them up, whinnying when it missed a footing on the rocky ground. Could be they were just headed to Salt Creek, like she was. After all, there was no law against riding at night. You had a hard time finding any sort of law in these parts, especially after dark. McCann thought of the sheriff’s warning.  Shaw’s brother being on her back trail seemed a sight more likely than some honest traveler at this hour. Whoever it was, she wasn’t about to let them ride up on her.

McCann pulled on the reins and gently put her heels to Bruce’s flank, encouraging him up the steep hillside and into the pines. The trees crowded around her and seemed to suck all the sounds from the night, the thick carpet of needles underfoot deadening the fall of Bruce’s hooves as the horse weaved through the knotty trunks. The ground leveled out some thirty yards back in the trees before climbing up again. She turned along the ledge and rode parallel to the trail. When it felt like she had gone far enough, she dismounted and drew her shotgun.

“Don’t go wandering off nowhere,” she told the horse.

Bruce gave her a look that said he’s consider it, but wasn’t making no promises and started cropping from a patch of green shoots poking out of the needles. McCann began circling back towards the trail. The night was clear and there was a good sized moon on the rise, but its pale light didn’t penetrate the thick, syrupy darkness under the pines. McCann moved as fast as she dare, just another shadow in a world already full of them. She slithered down the hillside back to the trail, one hand on her shotgun and the other out to control her descent. She found a crooked pine that leaned out over the path just beyond a sweeping bend; there was plenty of brush sprouting around its trunk, which made for some good cover. She hunkered down and waited, her breath fogging in front of her face as the night air took on a chill.

***

            McCann didn’t know exactly how long she had been waiting, but it was long enough for the cold to leach into her bones. She was beginning to doubt what she heard, maybe there were no riders following. Could be the hills had been playing tricks on her, bouncing sounds around from a whole other direction. Pine flats was better than five miles distant and sometimes on a still night like this you could hear the train whistle like you were stood beside it. The moon cast its eerie light on the deserted trail. McCann propped her shotgun up against the tree and began skinning up the trunk to get a look around the bend.

She climbed along a thick branch out over the trail, straining her eyes for the slightest movement. Suddenly hoof beats drummed on the hard dirt, the noise seemed to be coming from everywhere at once. McCann scrambled to get down from the tree; her boots slipped on the mossy bark and she was left swinging by her arms above the trail. A black shape came around the bend. Curb chains and stirrups dully reflecting the waxing moon. She dropped to the ground, and dived into the brush at the side of the trail. Moments later the horse thundered by.

“What the fu…Whoa there!”  The rider said hauling on his reins.

Two more riders appeared, one leading a pack horse with baggage strapped to it, both were reining in and slowing from a gallop. McCann hid her face in her duster. She heard the beasts blowing as they passed her and smelt the pungent stench of shit and saddle sweat that came from hard riding.

“Jesus, what’s got you all balled up, Charlie?”

“I saw something back there, by that crooked pine.” Charlie said pulling his horse around and drawing his long gun from its scabbard.

“Probably just a deer or somethin’,” Clay said coming to a halt with Panoson just behind him.

“It weren’t no deer , it was a man. Charlie said and swung his leg over the saddle horn, slipping to the ground.

“You been drinking Regan’s scamper juice again? There ain’t nothing out here but trees,” Panoson said.

McCann peeked out from under her coat. The three men were a few yards off up the trail; their pack horse was stood much closer. The baggage it carried was a hog tied Wade Pollock. He looked like he was already buzzard bait, but the blood dripping from his head could still be proof of life rather than gravity.

“I know what I saw, Swede.”

“C’mon Charlie, we’re only a mile from that old copper camp, let’s go up there and get a fire going,” Panoson said feeling the cold and wishing he was in Regan’s back room with that Mexican gal, Angelique; she knew how to warm a man up.

“You take that shit-bird sheriff up there and me and Clay’ll be along presently,” Charlie said.

Panoson rolled his eyes at Clay, before doing as he was told and trotting on up the trail. Clay just shrugged and fished out a tobacco pouch, tipping the dry makings into a wrap made from the pages of a New Testament. He didn’t know how to read, but he knew bible pages smoked up better than any other book.

“C’mon Clay, let’s you and me take a look-see,” Charlie said.

Clay reluctantly pushed the home spun cigarette behind his ear and wondered why the hell he had let Charlie talk him out of a night of whoring and in to this damn fool escapade.

McCann lay still, not daring to move. With her shotgun out of reach she needed to keep surprise firmly on her side. She listened to the jingle bobs on the men’s spurs chinking; each footstep bringing them closer. Death was stalking these hills tonight, the reaper moving silently through the wooded gullies. McCann didn’t fret; he was here for somebody else.

Charlie had stopped just short of McCann. “Well, Looky here,” he said.

Dropping to one knee and leaning on his Winchester, he picked up a hand gun from the edge of the trail. It was shorter than any he’d seen before and the hammer looked kind of funny to him, like it had been pared down.

“What do you make of that?” he asked passing it to Clay.

“Don’t rightly know. I ain’t never seen a Sam Colt looking like this one.”

McCann swore under her breath. She didn’t need to feel her holster to know that it would be empty, although she did just the same. A greased holster gave you an edge in a quick draw, but not so much when climbing trees.

“See, I told you, somebody’s out here.”

Clay, now more inclined to agree, stuffed McCann’s colt in his waistband and drew his Griswold.

“There,” Charlie said pointing at what looked like an old crumpled wagon tarp lying in the brush.

“That’s nothing but trash,” Clay said walking over and poking it with his foot.

A flash of steel blurred in the moonlight and something warm filled Clay’s boot. He looked down to find the cowhide on his right boot sliced open from shin to ankle. The fine, soft leather was no match for McCann’s skinning knife, which had cut deep enough to score Clay’s shinbone. It took a moment for the pain to telegraph itself to his head. When it did, Clay howled like a banshee.

“Watch who you’s calling trash, mister,” McCann said springing to her feet and taking off up the hill.

Branches whipped and clawed at her face as she ran, opening up old wounds like a lover’s feud. Charlie fired after her, his shots echoing through the canyon and kicking up the pine needles at her heels. The angle of the hill grew steeper and she had to climb on all fours clutching at roots, dragging herself up the slope and deeper into the safety of the trees.

“Dammit Clay, it’s her, get shooting,” Charlie said reloading his own piece.

Clay couldn’t care less. He dropped his Griswold and started scrabbling at his leg. Black powder flared and the horse-pistol went off half-cocked, turning the stock of Charlie’s Winchester to kindling. Now it was Charlie’s turn to holler.

“You son-of-a-bitch, Billings,” he said, hopping around, shaking his hand and spraying droplets of blood from the dime-sized hole in his palm.

Swede Panoson rode up like a parade, gun in one hand, pulling the pack horse along with the other; he held his own reins in his teeth.

“She went off up the hill,” Charlie said pointing after McCann with his wounded hand.

Panoson could see the moon shining through the hole in it. He looked from Charlie to Clay, who had managed to get his boot off and was holding the two halves of his leg together with bloody hands. Panoson thought he would probably live, although he might never walk straight again.

“Well, what are you waitin’ fer? Get after her, Swede.”

Panoson stared up into the inky trees that crowded the steep hillside above him. Their trunks so close together a man could barely squeeze between them in places. He pushed his hat back with a calloused finger. “To hell with that, Charlie.”

***

            McCann lay breathless on a bed of pine needles. She wiped a hand across her scarred forehead, dragging grit and needles over the puckered valleys of skin. The hand came away wet with sweat and more than a little blood from injuries both old and new. She felt neither. The press of cold air filled her lungs as she gulped it down and waited for the pounding in her head to subside. The men were cussing her from below. Calling her a bitch and a whore, telling her she was going to get what was coming to her; saying how they were all going to take turns, after they had prettied her up some with a knotted plow line. McCann had heard it all before, big talk from men who howled at the moon like a pack of mangy coyotes. She smiled as the one with the sliced up foot wailed when they tried to get him on his horse. Moments later she heard them clear out up the trace. She would give it a while longer before she fetched Bruce and rode back down to get her shotgun. Then she’d give them something to howl about.

***

            Wade Pollock felt the sun on the other side of his eyelids and knew that somehow he had made it through to morning. He tested the ropes that bound him hand and foot, twisting his wrists behind his back. There had been no magical loosening of his bindings while he slept. If getting beaten unconscious by Charlie Shaw could be counted as sleeping. He knew the whaling had been to make up for Charlie and his boys coming a poor second to McCann. While that cheered him some, it didn’t make it hurt any less. He opened an eye; one was all he could manage, the other had been swollen closed. The three men were lounging around a camp fire a few yards off. Two were still snoring loudly, the other, Clay Billings, was awake, but too busy with his flayed leg to notice the sheriff had temporarily rejoined the living. Wade felt around in the dirt behind him and came up with a small shard of rock. It would likely take a month of Sunday’s to cut through the ties with it, but having nothing better to do he started sawing at the rope.


Guns of Justice

McCann waited impatiently outside the livery while old man Sayles finished hitching a spike team to his beat up flatbed.  She wanted to be across the river and on familiar trails before dark.

“Could you see your way to hurrying it along some?”

“Alright, missy, don’t go getting knots in your rope.” Sayles tied off the reins and wiped tobacco juice from his whiskers to the back of his hand and finally on to his bib overalls. “That’ll be two bits for the stabling and an extra nickel for feed,” he said.

“A nickel, what you been feeding him on, steak and eggs?”

The old boy just smiled a toothless grin and held out his hand. McCann sighed and dropped some coins in it.

“Thankee missy. You’ll find him back there on the right and your saddle is on the rail. Now, if that’s all you’ll be needing, I’ve got me some pressing business in town,” he said picking straw of a grubby coonskin hat and wedging it down on his bald head.

“Surely,” she said guessing that his pressing business was probably with a bottle.

McCann walked the length of the stable and found Bruce in the last stall. He stood with his back to her absently chewing on his bedding.

“Don’t eat that crud it’ll give you the colic.”

Bruce regarded her with mild disinterest and went back to work on his wood shavings and straw. McCann had named the colt for a man she had known in Bad Rock. That Bruce had got himself shot dead in an argument over a one dollar whore; this Bruce was just as stupid, but he was also fearless. She thought it was funny how often those two went hand in hand.

McCann climbed up the side of the stall and wrestled the heavy saddle on to Bruce’s back. Once she had fixed the billets, she slid her side-by-side into its holster on the swell.

Most in her line of work favored a repeater, but McCann had never cared for a long gun. Her small size made it hard to fire one from the saddle and she’d heard too many stories about the new Winchester model jamming up to trust it in a tight spot. What her shotgun lacked in accuracy it more than made up for in brute force.

“That’s a fine looking horse you got there little girl. I’d give you ten dollars for him.”

Frank Shaw stood at the end of the stall, running his hand across his chin and letting his eyes take a walk all over her.

“He ain’t for sale and he never will be at that price,” McCann said turning to face him.

“Well that‘s no never mind. I ain’t got me ten dollars anyhow.”

“Was there something you’re wanting mister?”  She asked suddenly feeling claustrophobic in the narrow confines of the stall.

Shaw took a step towards her. McCann stood her ground. The truth was she knew exactly what he wanted and if she showed any fear he’d be apt to try and take it.

“I’ll be wanting the coin you got on Johnson for one. Then seeing as that face of yours would turn the stomach of most men, I’d be happy to oblige you with a pity fucking to see you on your way.”

McCann felt her guts knot up. She ignored them and took an inventory of her options. The shotgun hung on the far side of her horse; it might as well have been in Chicago. The way she was stood also put the wooden stall close up against her gun arm, close enough to foul her draw.

“Well now, that would be right neighborly of you mister,” she said concentrating on his hand, knowing that when the music stopped his move would start there. “But if you want to spill your seed then you best try one of them steers out yonder, because I’ll be dead and cold before I take your limp pecker inside me.”

“I prefer it better when they struggle,” Shaw said as if he was considering the proposal, “but I ain’t adversed about to doing it your way neither girl.”

McCann didn’t wait to get beat hollow in a straight draw and dove under the horse. Shaw cussed her and went for his gun. He was a lot faster than he looked. She kept her holster well greased, but he would have taken her if she’d stood still. Her move caught him by surprise and bought her a precious few seconds. She came up on the far side of Bruce, her short barrel colt already cocked as she cleared leather. Shaw opened up, his rounds going high and punching holes through the barn boards above her head. McCann returned the compliment, firing from the hip. She did it without aiming, hoping only to keep his head down. It worked and Shaw ducked out of the stall, she chased him with two more slugs as he dodged behind a stack of feed sacks, one grazed his trailing leg and made him yelp like a heel hound.

“Now I’m gonna bleed you before I fuck you, bitch,” he called out.

“By my reckoning you’re the one who’s doing all the bleeding.”

Her comment was met by a swarm of lead that narrowly missed the back end of the horse and splintered the wood beside her ear. Bruce ignored the gun play and continued to munch on the rank straw; reaffirming both his fearlessness and his stupidity.

McCann counted his six and scrambled to her feet, pulling the side-by-side from her saddle hitch. She edged to the end of the stall and unloaded on the feed sacks. The shotgun biting deep into her shoulder as two barrels of buckshot chewed up a week’s worth of good corn.

“Hey, how do you like them apples mister?”

Shaw didn’t answer. He crouched behind a wall of mortally wounded sacks, his teeth clamped on one end of a filthy kerchief as he tied off the hole in his leg. He slipped fresh rounds in his piece, thinking more now about saving his own hide than getting a piece of the girl’s.

McCann had dropped the spent shotgun and was reloading her revolver when Shaw broke cover. He moved pretty well for a man with a gimp leg, firing at her on the run as he made a break for the door. His shots were going wild. Even so, they sent McCann scurrying to the back of the stall. She waited until she heard his hammer strike an empty chamber and rushed out after him.

The sun had dipped and the shadows were long inside the livery. She could just make out the loping figure of Shaw hurrying towards the doors. McCann hesitated. Shooting a man in the back didn’t sit well with her. She considered just letting him go and then thought about what would happen if she did. She fanned her trigger and put two in his spine. Life was short enough without a giving a man like this the chance to make good on his promises.

Shaw fought against gravity for a moment before toppling like he had been a sawed off at the ankles. He landed face down, his impact cushioned by a pillow of horse shit.

McCann stood over him, the short barrel .45 smoking gently in her hand. Shaw moaned and scraped at the dirt, his fist opening and closing on a handful of shit-covered straw. She could see he was done for; nobody bled like that and lived, although it might take him a while longer to realize it for himself. McCann slid her thumb over the drop-back hammer.

“I got your pity fucking right here mister,” she said and blew in the back of his head.

***

            Wade Pollock eased back in his chair, took a twist of paper and lit his pipe from the potbelly stove behind his desk. In another few weeks the town would be sweating under a blanket of summer heat, but for now the air still had a spring chill about it.

“Well, it sounds to me like a fair fight to me. The little I know of Frank Shaw-or should I say knew-I can’t say as I’m much surprised that he came to a bad end.” He toked hard on the pipe and filled the room with sweet-scented clouds of Lone Jack.

McCann nodded and cut a chaw with a long skinning knife. She thought to herself that if Shaw had come on her in the back country she might just have used the blade to clean his scalp before she sent him on to his maker.

“Then we’re done? “She said, popping the tobacco in her mouth.

Wade regarded his pipe and blew on the bowl. “I believe we are.” McCann nodded and started to leave. “But, it won’t take long for word to get out that Frank was shot in the back. I’ve no concerns about that. The way I see it you done me a favor, sooner or later I was bound to cut his trail. Other folks though, might not be so appreciative.”

McCann paused. “What are you sayin’ sheriff?”

Wade started making smoke signals again and continued. “Frank had a brother, Charlie. Now Charlie, he ain’t the biggest toad in the puddle, but he keeps with that Clay Billings and Swede Panoson, that’s some low company and no mistake. All I’m saying is watch your back. I’d hate for to see you end up next door, in your Sunday best burying clothes.

“That’s kindly of you, but seeing as I don’t got no best, you had better tell that other Mr. Shaw if’n he comes around, I’ll be happy to discuss matters with him at a time of his choosing and then if it pleases him, I’ll send him right along to his brother,” she said and spat a gob of squash into the fire.

Wade couldn’t help liking this gal. She was rougher than fresh sawn timber, but she had a deal of sand and that tallied pretty high in his ledger. “I surely will,” he said grinning around the stem of his pipe. “But I’d appreciate it if you could see your way clear to killing that son-of-a-bitch someplace else. I got me a passel of paperwork needs doing already.”

“In that case, I’ll not to add to it,” McCann touched her hat. “I’m much obliged to you sheriff,” she said and left him to his pipe.

***

            Wade was working late. His disposition soured by long hours spent trying to decipher the illegible chicken scratches of his predecessor. Judge Brown was arriving on the noon train and he would catch the rough side of the old coot’s tongue if the dispositions weren’t in order.

The door banged open, bringing down another cloud of dust. This time he managed to save the papers. The sight of Charlie Shaw stood there fingering the handle of his Colt did little to brighten Wade’s mood.

“Where is the little bitch?” He asked the question out of the side of his mouth, the rest of it being already occupied by an ugly sneer.

Wade could smell the liquor on him at twenty paces and knew well enough that rumination and whisky made for a poor mix. Wade made a mental note to stop hanging his gun on the back of his chair and keep the damn thing on his hip.

“Go home Charlie, you’re drunk,” he said, sliding his hand under the desk and palming a derringer from a concealed shelf.

Charlie did the opposite and stepped forwards. Panoson and Billings came in behind him and fanned out like the blades on a pocket knife. Wade quickly weighed them up. Billings looked like he was fool enough to do something with that old Griswold he wore across his fat belly, but by the time he got that smoke wagon out of its leather Wade could have shot him and had the hole to bury him half dug. Panoson didn’t rate much higher. The Swede had a flap holster and scared eyes. Wade didn’t pay him no more mind and turned his attention back to Charlie.

“We ain’t going nowheres ‘till I gets some justice for Frank.”

“Seems to me Frank got all the justice he had coming, Charlie. Getting all het up about it ain’t gonna do him no good now; you neither,” Wade said leaning back his chair on its rear legs and sliding the derringer inside his shirt sleeve.

“He was murdered, shot in the back and that ain’t lawful,” Charlie said.

“Frank drew down first, and around here I decide what’s lawful and what ain’t.”

“The bitch shot him in the back,” Charlie said, emphasizing every word as if he were talking to a Chinaman or a simpleton.

Wade felt his blood rising. He wore the badge in this town, you didn’t have to like it, but you damn well better respect it. “Well, if Frank wasn’t in such a hurry to run away from a girl then he’d have got his self shot someplace else instead. Would that make you any happier?”

“You calling Frank yella?”

Charlie was madder than hell and fired words at the sheriff like they were made out of lead. Wade took a moment to consider his reply, giving both the accusation and Charlie time to fester. Panoson looked nervously at Clay, who just shrugged and scratched his table muscle. Wade only had two shots in his derringer. He probably couldn’t kill Charlie with either of them at this range, but he could try.

“If’n the boot fits son,” he said.

Charlie wasn’t a fast as his brother and his anger had the better of him. He fumbled his six out of its holster. Wade shook the derringer into his hand. Flame spat from the little gun and Charlie grunted as the ball raked across his shoulder, sending his own shot ricocheting off the stove pipe. Wade instinctively ducked and overbalanced on his chair. He fell backwards, his head connecting with the potbelly stove, putting him out cold and his second round harmlessly into the roof.

Charlie rounded the desk, one hand clamped to the crease in his shoulder, blood oozing through his fingers and staining his shirt. He leveled his gun, drawing a bead on the unconscious sheriff.

“Easy there Charlie, think about it for a minute,” Panoson said moving in alongside him and putting a hand on his gun arm.

Charlie shook it off.” Stand clear Swede, this won’t take but a minute.”

“I ain’t sayin’ not to Charlie. Just not now is all. What if he’s the only one who knows where the girl is at?”

Clay moved quickly to close the door, taking a careful look around outside as he did. The street was deserted, but the shots wouldn’t have gone unnoticed. He wasn’t adverse to Charlie beefing the lawman, although he wasn’t about to get his own neck stretched on account of it.

“Reckon Swede’s right fer once. Killing him don’t put us no closer to finding the bitch what done for Frank and like as not we’ll have a posse on our back trail afore morning.”

“What then?” Charlie said without relaxing his aim.

“Take him along, beat it out of him, then you can kill him all you want,” Clay said.

Charlie considered it for a moment and then holstered his gun. “Alright then,” he said and laid a meaty kick into Wade’s ribs, “might as well take his strong box along too.”


Guns of Justice

The Jailhouse door banged open, bringing down dust from the rafters and toppling the stack of papers on Wade Pollock’s desk.

“Goddammit!”  Wade said shading his eyes against the bright spill of spring sunshine that invaded his office.

A man stood in the doorway, he was nearly as wide as he was tall and looked about ready to chew up iron and shit out nails. Wade knew him right off; his picture was pinned up across from his desk. The wanted poster showed a buzzard-eyed killer with a huge beard. It was a good likeness. But Cory Johnson could only truly be appreciated by seeing him in the flesh. Wade twisted in his seat, reaching for the gun that hung from on the back of his chair.

“Where’s the sheriff?”

The female voice stopped Wade cold, his gun half clear of its holster. There was a dull smack as wood met meat and Johnson collapsed to his knees with a grunt. Behind him stood a girl—or at least something close to a girl—holding an old Baker side-by-side, stock first.

“You’re lookin’ at him,” Wade said continuing to pull his piece in spite of the fact that he could now see Johnson’s hands were tightly bound, or maybe because of it.

The girl leaned and spat tobacco juice into the coffee can by the door. It gave Wade a good look at her face and the terrible scars she carried there.

“What happened to Miller?” she asked.

“Been dead about a month, I’m running things around here now. Wade Pollock’s the name.”

“In that case, this here belongs to you,” she said flatting Johnson completely with a well-aimed kick to his kidneys.

Wade looked from the gasping Cory Johnson to the girl and then to the crowd that had gathered in the street outside. “You best come in then, and close the door, that is unless you want the whole damn town knowing our business.”

***

             Wade had been a lawman for better than ten years, most of that time spent working in cow towns like Pine Flats. He’d seen plenty of men who made their living chasing bounty. They were gray-backs for the most part; hard eyed, soulless killers who had lost more than a war. When you told them dead or alive, they only ever heard dead. He wouldn’t have given this girl a prayer against any of them, yet somehow she had bested Cory Johnson and what’s more she’d brung him in alive.

He got his prisoner squared away in the cell out back without any trouble. Johnson didn’t seem to have any fight left in him; in fact he looked sort of relived, which was unusual for a man likely headed for the end of a rope when Judge Brown came in on the Tuesday train.

“So what happened to Miller, he kill himself with Regan’s liquor?” the girl asked when he returned to his office.

“Something like that.”

In fact it was nothing like that. Miller had been found up in the hills with his guts ripped open. The fur trapper, who brought the body in, told Wade it was the work of a snow beast. Said he’d seen the critter his self, two winters ago, and went on some about how it was white as a blizzard and had quills like a porcupine. Wade put the killing down to a grizzly and the rest down to whiskey talk. He had assumed the stories he heard about a female bounty hunter in these parts were just more of the same. Now it seemed that particular tall story had some truth to it.

“Best we settle up and then you can be about your business, miss,” Wade said.

He bent to unlock the strong box and watched her from the corner of his eye as he counted out silver dollars on to his desk. He thought she must have been a pretty little thing before her face got those god-awful scars. Most womenfolk would have combed their hair forwards to try and hide the worst of it, but this girl wore hers pulled back in a horse tail so those crooked welts and deep healed burn scars were plain to see. He wanted to know how she came by them, but thought that asking might be impolite. Wade always tried to be mindful of his manners around women. It didn’t matter to him that this girl looked like a range bum in her old faded duster, or that she chawed tobacco and carried Sam Colt on her hip, after all was said and done she was still a woman, of sorts.

“Thirty pieces of silver that’s the same as the bible says Judas Iscariot got paid for Jesus. Ain’t seemly if you ask me,” he said when he’d finished.

“Reckon you’re right, a son of God should be worth more than a son-of-a-bitch,” she said scooping up the coins.

Wade nodded. “I’ll just need you to sign this here bill of receipt,” he said inking a quill and holding it out to her.

The girl hesitated for a moment and then took the quill. She stared hard at the paper he laid on the desk in front of her.

“If’n you don’t know your letters, just make your mark at the bottom.”

“Like as not I can write well enough for your reading sheriff,” she said and signed the bill with a flourish.

“I didn’t mean nothing by it Miss . . . Justice?” Wade said peering at her signature. “It’s just that a lot of folks in these parts don’t have much schooling. Not like yourself, them’s some fine letters.” He said blowing on the ink.

“I just go by McCann and there ain’t no need to put nothing in front of it neither,” she said. “Now, what can you tell me about Franklin here?” She pointed to a wanted notice he had tacked up above his desk.

“James Franklin? Well he’s a scaly bastard and no mistake.” Wade suddenly realized he was cussing in front of a female and pulled himself up short. “That is to say he’s a mean one, beggin’ your pardon.”

“Don’t fret none sheriff. I ain’t the kind to blush when a man airs his lungs. You go right on ahead.”

Pollock smiled, warming to this peculiar creature. “Well, last I heard tell Franklin was in Salt Creek ‘bout two weeks ago. He shot a man called Augustus Ward in the Pump Handle.”

“I should imagine that made his eyes water some.”

“I think you got all down but nine there. The Pump Handle is the name of the saloon they got there in Salt Creek,” he said trying hard to keep a straight face.

McCann grinned, showing off an even row of tobacco stained eaters. “I know it. I was just funnin’ ya.” She bounced the coins on her palm. “Well, it was a real pleasure doing business with you, sheriff.”

“I’ll say the same to you Miss McCann. Now, you ain’t figuring on going up against Franklin are you? He’s a stone cold killer.”

“Like I say, there ain’t no miss, it’s just McCann,” She said and reached over to pull down Franklin’s poster. She rolled it neatly and pushed it inside her duster. “Good day to you, sheriff.”

Wade suddenly found himself feeling sorry for James Franklin.

 

***

            Pine Flats was a cattle town much like any other. Regan’s Saloon and a newly built boarding house jostled for space with stores and the other assorted businesses along the small but prosperous main street. The stock pens that brought Pine Flats most of its wealth started where the town left off and stretched out behind towards the railhead. When the corrals were full they held upwards of 5000 head. Beef from all over the territory came through here on its way to the slaughterhouses back East.

The town had stood still long enough for God to find it and for the inhabitants to start thinking of themselves as respectable. Justice McCann didn’t have much use for respectable; it didn’t make for a lot of work. Most of her business was conducted in the rough country across the river. The prevailing winds of law and order blew the trash out that way, and just like those she hunted, McCann liked it best when she was one step ahead of respectability.

She left the sheriff’s office and headed towards the livery. The building next door to the Jailhouse was the Undertakers. She supposed that was right handy for both of them. In front of the shop a rough pine coffin was propped up against the hitching rail while a painfully thin man in a frock coat fussed over the coffin’s occupant. The corpse had been dressed in a suit of Sunday clothes and a posy of wildflowers had been pushed into his hand. She thought it made him look like he was about to go a-courting, the illusion being spoilt some by the grayish flesh that hung from his face. That and the neat bullet hole in the center of his forehead. The Undertaker looked up and stared at her intently for a moment before tipping his stovepipe hat. McCann got the feeling she had just been measured for one of his boxes and hurried on.

She walked down towards the stables, glancing at the finery for sale in the stores as she passed. Bone china tea cups from England and expensive perfumes from New York, both were about as much use in the back country as tits on a boar. She paused for a moment outside a dressmakers’ and examined the fancy looking garment in the window. The sign said the dress was pure silk and came from Paris, France. She wondered what it might be like to go parading around in one of those things; the huge bustle making you look like a sheep on its hind legs. But her mind was mostly on the new sheriff. She was used to men making assumptions about her. Most thought she was weak because of her size or inept because of her sex; some saw the scarring on her head and took her for simple. Wade Pollock had been quick to realize she was none of those things and that showed he had a deal of sense. He was a hard man to put an age to; past being lean, but still handy looking and a ways from going to seed yet. She had him somewhere close to forty, old enough to know his business that’s for sure.

McCann realized she was still gawping at the dress. She turned away. It didn’t have any pockets for tobacco or shells.

***

            Frank Shaw leaned on the rail fence of a stockade and chewed the end of an unlit cheroot. The brim of his hat hid most of his narrow face in shadow; the rest of it lurked behind three days of salt and pepper stubble.  He saw the scarred up piece of calico come out of the sheriff’s office and watched her idle in front of the dress store. He found it hard to believe she had taken the coin on Cory Johnson. His elder brother Charlie said only a fool would go up against that mad dog without a posse of ten good men at his back. Frank couldn’t see no ten good men, just one scrawny looking little bitch.

The love of honest toil did not abide in Frank. He and his brother had grown up mean and lazy in equal parts. Charlie might have thought he had all the smarts, but Frank knew there was more than one way to make a dollar. Why risk going up against a killer like Cory Johnson when you could take an easier road? Maybe he would take himself a little something else too. She wasn’t much to look at, but he reckoned she’d taste just as sweet as honey. He felt a stirring at the thought of it, pushed off the fence and followed her down Main Street.


Knights and Preachers, One Eye Press Announces New Singles

oepsinglesOn the coattails of the release of Federales by Christopher Irvin, One Eye Press is enthusiastic in announcing the next two releases from the Singles Line.

To those who picked up a copy of Federales our next release for June 10th is no surprise. White Knight by Bracken MacLeod has a little excerpt included in the back of the debut Singles release. Bracken hit One Eye Press by storm last year with submissions being accepted in all three publications: Shotgun Honey, Reloaded: Both Barrels Vol. 2, and The Big Adios. And with the release of his first novel, Mountain Home, when we were offered a chance read his novella White Knight, how could we say no?

White Knight by Bracken MacLeod (June 10, 2014)

Once, he had imagined himself slaying dragons and making the monsters pay. But his armor was wearing thin as the women who drifted through his office haunted him with the same, hard-bought lie: “I want to drop the charges.” Every bruised face and split lip reminded the prosecutor of the broken home he’d escaped. So when Marisol Pierce appeared with an image of her son and a hint that she was willing to take a step away from the man abusing her, he made a promise he couldn’t keep.

A promise that could cost him everything.

Now, he’s in a race against time to find the boy, save the damsel, and himself from a dragon no one can leash before everything in his world is burned to cinders. This is his last chance to be a White Knight.

Some men only know how to do hard things the hard way.


Our third novella is a western that tests a man’s faith in Gospel of the Bullet by Chris Leek. Chris Leek is also a contributor to Shotgun Honey and Reloaded: Both Barrels Vol. 2, and has  been a valuable editor for The Big Adios. The man spins a fantastic western yarn that we’d swear that he has Missouri mud shipped to the UK just so he can become one with the West.

Gospel of the Bullet by Chris Leek (September 16, 2014)

Mitchel McCann may have lost a war, but he never lost his belief. The preacher kept his faith throughout all the blood and the dying; trading his pulpit for a saddle and delivering his sermons with a brace of Walker Colts. McCann still believes in God, but he is no longer sure that God believes in him. Now fate has given him a chance at redemption; the opportunity to save a life instead of taking one.

Justice Simpson was only seven years old when she lost her father. She has been losing steadily ever since. The Yankee ball that did in Dan Simpson also killed his wife, Rosalee, although it took another nine years to do it. Alone and destitute on the unforgiving streets of Saint Joseph, Missouri, Justice knows that the sooner or later the bullet will find her too.

In the winter of 1872 the war is long over, but on the Kansas—Missouri border old wounds are slow to heal and they leave ugly scars. The past is something that neither the preacher nor the girl can escape.


We are still reviewing to fill out our first year and to kick 2015 off with a bang. Submissions will reopen in a few months. Keep an eye on the submissions page.

 


Westbound and Down

Las Vegas burned in my rearview mirror. The last flames of a dying sun setting fire to the haze of dust hanging in the hot, still air above the city. The Strip clawed at the darkening sky, its concrete arms inked with glass and neon; reaching up like a drowning man, searching for the hand of God and begging to be pulled from a sea of corruption. I had never begged and I stopped reaching a long time ago. I still believed in God, although I was pretty sure he had quit believing in me.   

I didn’t have a destination, just a direction; West. All I knew was that I was done with the desert. I needed to see the ocean again, to feel the salt spray on my face one last time. I had wanted more, for both of us, but now that really would be reaching.

“You sure you’re okay, you don’t look so good?”

I glanced over at Katie; her bruises didn’t seem all that bad in the gathering dusk, but if you’d seen them in the cold light of day, then you’d understand.

“I’m fine Pumpkin,” I said and gave her a crooked smile. Crooked was the only kind my swollen face could manage. “You just try to get some sleep, okay.”

“Okay, if you’re sure.” She didn’t look convinced.

I just smiled again, hoping that she wouldn’t see what I hid underneath it. I didn’t think they’d be following us, not yet anyway. Even if The Duke had already found the bodies it would take him a while to figure out exactly what happened and by then it would probably be too late—one way or the other. I pushed down on the gas pedal to make sure and the highway blurred at the edges like some art-house skin flick. I waited until Katie was asleep before reaching inside my jacket. My hand came away wet with blood. It was the big fucker who’d stuck me. I thought the length of rebar I wrapped around his skull had killed him, it did, but it took him a while longer to realize it.

I had searched for two days, trying to find where they were holding Katie and then I wasted most of another one figuring how to get her out. That gave them plenty of time to work her over. Those bruises of hers were all my fault and that hurt more than a K-BAR twisting in my guts ever could. I told The Duke that my luck was running again, that I’d have his money by the end of the week. The Duke told me he thought I needed a little more incentive. That’s when he said they had my girl. The look on his face as I launched myself at him was almost worth the beat-down I got from his boys. They wanted to kill me. He did too; I could see it in his eyes as he wiped the blood off his chin. But it’s kind of hard to get fifty large from a corpse.

I was drifting out of consciousness and out of my lane. The sorrowing horn-blast of an oncoming semi snapped me back into both. I saw the sodium glow of a rest area up ahead and backed off the gas. The click-clack sound of the turn signal confirmed what I already knew. I had been reaching about our trip to the ocean too. That wouldn’t come as much of a surprise to Katie. I had broken every damn promise I ever made her. At least this one would be my last.

I rolled to a stop on the far side of the restrooms and killed the engine. I was shivering in spite of the temperature topping ninety, but it didn’t hurt anymore. I looked at Katie, curled up in the passenger seat. The hard truth of it was she would be better off without me around to fuck things up. I ran my blood-stained fingers along her arm.

“I love you, kiddo,” I said.

She turned towards me, somewhere between awake and asleep. “I love you too, Daddy,” she said.

Maybe God did believe in me a little after all.  


Hell and Gone

The wind cut harsh through the trees, dragging with it squalls of snow that stung a man’s flesh and chilled his marrow. Mitchel McCann had known there was a blow coming right enough, he told Shepard we should skin out, but Captain Shepard delayed, as he was want to do whenever there was a decision in need of making. So the storm found us in open country, long miles short of Kirkman’s Gap and the Missouri Line.

I rode up alongside Mitchel; he had his slicker buttoned up tight and his hat angled down over his eyes so as all you could make out of his face was that big mustache he wore. I noticed he had wrapped oil cloth around the brace of Walker sixes on his saddle hitch, although he carried another on his hip that would still be handy enough.

“Hey Mitch, how comes you knew it was for snowing?” I had to raise my voice to make myself heard above the gusting wind.

He lifted his head and I could see the ice on his mustache where his breath had froze to it like sugar frosting. “The air changed, tasted different,” he said.

I nodded, pretending like I understood what he meant. Mitchel always knew what was fixing to happen before he had a right to. Some of the fellas said the good Lord spoke to him, and maybe he did. Mitchel, for his part sure spoke to the Lord often enough; I guess that sort of went with the job.

“You think we’ll make Kirkman’s Gap afore dark?” I asked him.

He considered the question for a time before answering. “Depends,” he said and fell silent. Mitchel wasn’t much for talking, outside of a Sunday sermon and he liked it best when folks just let him be, but this weather had me feeling a might lonesome and I hankered after some conversation. I was just thinking that was all the answer I was going to get when he spoke up again. “Like as not we’ll make Missouri, but by now the Yankees will have cut the trail ahead of us, so I doubt it’ll make no never mind if we do.”

It wasn’t the cold that made me shiver. “You can’t know that for sure, we ain’t seen hide or hair of no Blue Bellies for a week or more.”

Mitchel cocked his head to one side as if he could already hear the drumming hooves of Union Cavalry on the frozen earth. I listened too, but all I heard was Clem Panowich cussing his horse.

“Death’s abroad right enough and there’ll be a reckoning.” he said and looked at me square, his blue eyes hard and cold. “You best stick close, you understand, Plunk?

“If’n you says so, Mitch,” I said, meeting his gaze so as he knew I took his heed.

He gave the smallest of nods and we rode on in silence. Me, thinking about Kate and the old place, Mitch thinking about whatever it was he thought at such times.

Mitchel McCann had seen the elephant more times than I could count. He had started fighting this war when most people I knew was still calling it a feud. Camp talk had it that he rode side by side with Quantrill himself back in ’62 and it was said more than fifty union men had died at his hand. It might seem strange to some that a man of God should have such a keen aim with a pistol, but I never had no call to question it. God’s work was much the same as the Devil’s these days. The only difference to my mind was that God wore a gray coat while the Devil dressed mostly in blue.

***

            It started snowing heavy as we drew near to Kirkman’s Gap. Half-glimpsed skeletons of oak and elm stood sentry on our flank, their naked branches clawing at the gun-metal sky. We had lost sight of Captain Shepard and the troop. I made to kick on and catch them up when Mitchel put his hand on my shoulder.

“Don’t be in such a hurry to meet your maker; he’ll call you when he’s good and ready. That is assuming he wants a skinny runt like you to begin with.” Mitchel smiled and tugged the oil cloth free of his pistols. “You keep them guns of yours covered, like I told you, Plunk?”

“Uh huh,” I said taking my brother’s Griswold from inside my jacket.

“Good enough, a frozen revolver ain’t use nor ornament.” He said hefting one of his big sixes.

Just as did there was a muffled shout from up ahead and rifle shots cracked like green wood tossed on a hot fire. “Now you go full chisel, Plunk Regan. You don’t stop for nuthin’, else ways you’ll end up to hell and gone and break your Katie’s heart.”

Mitch didn’t wait for me to reply; he put spur to his horse and charged into the blizzard. I thumbed back the hammer on my pistol and followed hard on his heels, riding low to the neck of my mare; the rebel yell fogging out in front of my face.

We soon found the fight; a smear of blood on the lying snow pointed the way. Them Blue Bellies were in the tree line, raining misery on us with their Yankee rifles. They could load those damn repeaters on Sunday and shoot for all week. I emptied a whole cylinder back at them while their bullets plucked at my coattails and kicked up the snow around me. Clem Panowich caught their lead and fell backwards from his horse. Clem’s acreage butted right up against our place, but my neighbor was past helping. He hit the ground deader than a doornail. I reined my old girl in least she trample him and turned her aside.

By then we’d caught up to Captain Shepard and young Donnie Sayles, they came out of the brush, riding across our front. Donnie had a pistol in each of his hands, spitting flame at those sons of Kansas and giving them a taste of their own medicine that wasn’t much to their liking. Shepard got to waving his sword high above his head and hollering something about death and glory. I know for certain that he found the first one. Whether he was bound for glory remained between him and God.

Mitchel was still alongside me, riding tall in the saddle, twisting first this way and then that. His Walkers barking like the hounds of hell. I saw four men fall to his shots before a Yankee ball took my mare in the shoulder. It must have ricocheted of her bones as it burst out through her flank and buried in my calf. We went down together. My only thought being a selfish concern of how I was to tend the bottom fields come spring without the old girl to pull the plow. I hit the frozen ground hard and the fall sent me swimmy-headed for a time.

When I came to my senses the firing had stopped, the wind had eased too and the snow fell soft, laying a shroud of white over them that had been mustered out at the point of a gun. I looked across and saw Donnie Sayles. He had died up against a stump, facing the enemy with his pistols clasped in his hands. Steam was still rising from the tangle of guts in his lap.

All but two of those Yankees had lit out after what was left of our troop. The men that stayed were probably ordered to tend to their wounded. I was sure they’d have a passel of ‘em too; our boys were of a kind that died right hard. Although it seemed these good Samaritans were far more concerned with robbing the dead than giving succor to those that still lived. I lay quiet hoping they might pass me up for richer pickings, but they were nothing if not thorough. One of them started to rifle my pockets and got his self a good fright when it turned out I was still drawing breath. He yelped and jumped back in surprise. I tried to scramble away, but my leg pained me something awful.

“You stay put there, Johnny Reb,” he said recovering some and pulling his pistol.

chrisleekChris Leek is a greenhorn from back east. He shoots straight and tells tall tales. You can read some of them at: All Due Respect, Shotgun Honey, Out of the Gutter, Near to the Knuckle, Thrillers, Killers ‘N’ Chillers, Grift and Spinetingler. www.nevadaroadkill.blogspot.co.uk.

His pal heard him shout and came over to see what was what. “Kill him dead, Charlie,” he said and spat tobacco juice in the snow at my feet. “A bullet is the only fair go fer a Missouri Bushwhacker.”

“Reckon you’re right,” Charlie said cocking his piece. “Where you want it Reb, head or gut?”

I closed my eyes and prayed he’d make it quick, so as I could see my brother Tom again afore the day was out. I wondered if he’d be waiting to greet me at the gates like Mitchel said he would and if the lord might have seen fit to give him back the leg that Yankee cannonball took at Wilson’s Creek.

Two shots rang out, so close together they sounded like one. I waited, but no lead came to ease my passing. When I opened an eye, I saw Mitchel standing above me, his Walkers smoking in the fading light.

“You deaf, Plunk? I thought I told you plain to stick close.”

***

            I don’t claim to know the why. At the time, it seemed to me like there was plenty of reasons worth the killing; the dying too for that matter. Looking back on it now, it’s hard to reckon exactly what they were. Still, they say the mind dims with age and that cold fight is better than forty years distant. The ball in my leg still pains me though, especially on days when the wind blows from the north, down through Kirkman’s Gap.

Ain’t but one of us left who crossed the Missouri Line that day in the winter of ’64. Old Mitch McCann is long in his grave—God rest his soul—but I don’t need him to tell me there’s a change in the air. Soon we’ll all be to hell and gone.


Candy’s Room

Candy told me she had never seen the ocean. She told me a lot of things that night.

Her father was a truck driver from Wisconsin; his side line was knocking over drug stores with a ski mask and a snub nosed .38. Her mother was a hooker who used to turn $20 tricks on Fremont before it cleaned up. As for Candy, she was a waitress at the Showboat. She worked the graveyard shift for minimum wage and lousy tips.

I didn’t have to ask her twice to come back to San Diego with me.

#

We met in the lounge bar at the Showboat, Candy, catching a smoke before starting her shift upstairs and me, drinking my last fifty instead of dropping it at the tables. Candy was 22, petite, and in a harsh way, beautiful. I was none of those and the wrong side of 40. But so what, we were good together and I don’t just mean in the sack, although I guess that was part of it.

We got talking over a vodka and lime and 15 minutes later she had blown off her shift and we were out on the Strip. The rest of the night was a blur; cocktails, blackjack and Candy’s dark eyes.

I woke up the next morning with $2000 plus change and Candy curled up naked in my arms. Someday I may have a better night, but I doubt it. I traced my finger along the curve of Candy’s shoulder and down her spine to the eagle inked at the top of her ass. Its wings spread wide across her tanned skin.

Dusty rays of morning sunlight slanted through the blinds and played on the cracks in the mirror, making her busted motel room sparkle like Christmas morning. I spent the best days of my life in that room; just me, Candy, a pint of tequila and the oldies playing on KQOL. Looking back now I realize it could never last, bright things are made to burn quick. But if I could trade all my tomorrows to have just one of those days back again, I’d do it in a heartbeat.

#

I saw cherry tops spinning lazily in the parking lot as I pulled up in my Cutlass. Two Metro cruisers and an ambulance were drawn up in front of the motel. Yellow crime scene tape, like you see on CNN was stretched across the door to Candy’s room. Before I knew what to think I was out of the car and screaming her name, pushing my way through the small crowd of gawkers. I was tackled by a big Mexican cop, called Chavez, over his shoulder I saw the paramedics carrying out a body bag

“Easy buddy, she’s gone,” he said.

My whole world was in that bag and I don’t mind admitting I cried for Candy.            

I still do.

#

Chavez drove out to my place at Imperial Beach about a week or so later. He didn’t have to do that, but he was good people. He wanted to tell me in person, they had caught the son of a bitch who raped and murdered Candy. It seems he was run down coming out of a liquor store in Henderson. The Cops had found Candy’s credit card in his pocket and made the connection. DNA did the rest. He had previous, all small time stuff. Chavez said he was nobody, just another low life piece of shit.

He would always be somebody to me.

Chavez told me he was pretty beat up. A witness said the hit and run driver had slammed it in reverse and backed up over him. It would be a miracle if he ever walked again.

I told Chavez, I hoped it hurt.

We sat on the back porch, pulling on bottles of Corona, not really saying much, just staring out at the ocean. Candy would have liked it here. Chavez must have seen my Cutlass sat out front with its stoved in grill and cracked windshield, but he never said a word.

Chavez was good people.


Drinks at Romero’s

Kelly sat at the bar, fingering her purse and sipping the kind of drink that came with a paper umbrella and a suggestive name. She had dressed to blend rather than kill; a little black dress and a pair of fuck-me-pumps. Her blonde hair was piled high save for one curl that rested seductively on her forehead.

A low babble of conversation drifted over from the dinner crowd on artificially cool air. She glanced around, noting the brushed chrome, the French menus and the floor to ceiling mirrors. Pretentious fuckers, she thought and absently watched the chunks of ice circle as she stirred her $25 cocktail.

“Hi there, I’m Steve.” He said sliding up next to her.

It was always Steve or Bill or Mac, something like that. She’d seen this one before, slot walking over at the Copper Queen, hitting on woman that either didn’t know any better or were just too wasted to care. Kelly tried to decide which of those two categories fitted her best. She looked at him sideways and lit up a Marlboro.

In the subdued lighting of the bar she thought he looked a little like Mickey Rourke, only after the surgery. He had a big, stupid grin and a peach colored lounge suit. Kelly had to admire him for that, it was the kind of thing you rarely saw outside of a Miami Vice re-run.

“Hi I’m Sara” She said blowing smoke from the corner of her mouth.

“Well Sara, can I buy you a drink?” He asked running his hand through a greasy mop of hair and wiping it off on his pants.

Kelly shrugged, Stan or Steve, whatever his name was, would do just fine.

Her therapist told her she had low self esteem, apparently that’s why she attracts these losers. Take her last boyfriend, Jimmy. His idea of a romantic evening had been knocking over a convenience store with a pistol grip Remington. He’d even bought them matching ski masks. She supposed that should have told her all she needed to know about him and maybe a little something about her tastes in men. Looking back it had been the high point of the relationship, not long afterwards Jimmy had taken off with the rent money and a Latino table dancer from Reno.

Steve sat next to her, making small talk and puffing on a Turkish cigarette that smelt like a fire in a dumpster. Kelly wasn’t listening.

“Steve honey, would you do me a favor?” She asked, smiling her best smile.

“Sure, anything for a pretty lady like you.”

“Great.” She said crushing out her butt and fishing in her purse.

She handed him a black garbage sack. He looked puzzled.

“Don’t worry baby, just sit there and hold it open for me will you?”

Kelly stood up, put her arm around his shoulders and cleared her throat.

“ Ladies and gentlemen, could I have your attention please.”

Cutlery chinked against china, heads sporting $200 haircuts turned and the room grew still. She reached in her purse and pulled out what most in her line of work would call a nickel plate nine. Soft mood lighting played on the gleaming barrel, the image reflected a thousand times over in the mirrored walls.

“Thank you. Now, I want wallets, bill folds, cells and all jewelery in the sack, otherwise Don Johnson here gets a new smoke hole.

“Hey Sara, what the…”

“Shush Steve.” She whispered and shoved the gun up under his chin.

Somebody laughed nervously, somebody else coughed but nobody moved. Kelly sighed, her shrink was right; if she wanted to be taken seriously she needed to become more assertive. A ganger banger with baggy ass jeans and prison tattoos would never have this sort of problem.

She took a rough aim at the chandler over the door, squeezed the trigger and filled the restaurant with noise and shards of glass.

“Did I fucking stutter?”