RAWR! Pew! Pew! Pew-Part Three!

Cowboys V Apes final

The epic saga of shooting stuff continues.

Part 1.

Part 2.

P.S. If someone knows how to stretch a 24 hour day into 30 or more, I could get significantly more writing done. And maybe even have enough daylight to put the outside Christmas decorations up.

Anyways – onward we go!

***

The local doctor was an old man with a thick southern accent and steady hands. He had me strip my shirt off, and there was a long, quiet moment as he took in the decades old scar tissue. Most doctors in the west were used to all sorts of scars and disfigurements, but I knew mine were… an oddity. Thankfully, he didn’t ask how I got them and that suited me fine. One of the best things out west is that people tend to mind their own damn business.

The old man gingerly applied a foul-smelling medicinal oil to the small burned areas of my skin, then put a few neat little stitches back in my chest. He poked and prodded my nose. I thought it was broken, but it was just bent a little and tender to the touch. Luckily for me, the whiskey was kicking in and numbing a little of the pain as he went over my various wounds.

With my collection of fresh bruises, cuts, and burns, it probably looked like I tried to cremate a mountain lion alive. But he didn’t care enough to ask about that either.

After paying the Doc for doing his best to extend my life, I wandered to the general store and bought some cartridges for the Sharps and a few more sticks of dynamite. Just in case I needed to blow something up again.

Reverend Williams sought me out after hearing about the shooting and caught me leaving the store.

“Jedidiah,” he said in greeting. That was one of his ways, he always used a man’s formal name, never the shortened version. “Heard you were in a bar fight and a man was killed,” he clasped his hands before him, the old bible clutched tight. “Would you like to talk?”

I shrugged. “I’m fine, Reverend. The man deserved it and people dying around me is nothing new.”

“I know,” he half-turned away, and watched a carriage roll down the street behind a team of horses. “There’s nothing wrong with killing bad people who are trying to do harm. But I know how difficult it is for a man to escape their past. Trust me, I wasn’t always a man of faith,” he looked at my face, his eyes searching mine. “I just wanted to make sure yours hadn’t followed you here.”

I nodded, understanding his concern after the things I’d told him. You never knew when your past might catch up to you. That’d be an awful day of reckoning. But so far, I was free and clear of it. “He was just an angry, foolish drunk with an itchy trigger finger.”

“Good,” he patted my shoulder. “Let me know if you need anything. Thanks to you and your gambler friend, I’ve a funeral to prepare for.”

“Will do,” I called after him as he walked away, his boots thumping on the boardwalk.

***

It was well past noon by the time the Sheriff wrapped up his errands, kicked the drunk out of his cell, and was ready to head out.

I was still jumpy. But with the Sheriff traveling with me, I had some peace of mind in our combined firepower. Worst-case scenario, I only had to outrun Dan’s horse drawn wagon. That’s what he gets for choosing slow comfort over a fast saddle.

On the way, I kept the storytelling brief and simple.

He shook his head in disbelief when I described the beast and our fight to the death in the burning hellfire of my barn. He had a lot of questions, but I had few answers.

Then he filled me in on the latest news around town. The biggest news was that the town Mayor died a few days ago, which explained the padlock on his office door. His heart gave out and he dropped dead in the middle of the street in front of a wagon hauling manure. It rolled right over him before the driver could stop the horses. There was irony in that somewhere, I knew it. So far, no new candidates had come out for the job yet.

We broke free of the forest around my ranch, and the creatures body lay in plain sight by the pile of burnt timbers and ash. Broken, charred bits and pieces of debris still lay strewn across the yard from the explosion. I had some cleaning up to do.

Dan pulled back on the reins to stop the wagon and stared at the body. It took him a long moment to gather his thoughts enough to ask, “Just what in the hell is that thing?”

“Something big and mean. I was worried you wouldn’t believe me. That’s why I brought the claws.”

“I certainly wouldn’t have,” Dan cut his eyes at me sideways. “You know, by all rights, that thing should have ate you.”

“It almost did.”

“Still…” His voice drifted off as I tapped boot heels to the flanks of my horse and led us into the green field surrounding the house.

Dan pulled the brake on the wagon while I dismounted and tied Carbine to the remains of my corral.

We walked to the dead beast. The body was still fresh enough to not smell yet. Its mouth lay partially open, exposing jagged blood-stained teeth. Other than the mangled rear legs and tail, and the missing arm, the rest of its body was in reasonably good condition except for all the bullet holes.

I kicked its head with the toe of my boot for good measure and was rewarded with a meaty thud. “I doubt there’s just one of these. But folks need to know about it. I barely killed this one and the next guy won’t be so lucky.”

“It’s going to be hard to convince them that a creature like this exists, even with the claw. No one has ever seen anything like it before.”

That had occurred to me as well, but I already had an idea. “We won’t be able to fit the entire body in your wagon, but the head will. If that doesn’t convince folks, nothing will.”

“Works for me,” Dan pointed towards my ash heap of a barn. “You got any tools left?”

“Not really,” I said, thinking of the small kindling axe and Bowie on my hip. “This is going to be messy.”

“Yes…It is,” he seemed distracted as he tugged on his beard thoughtfully and walked around the corpse. Once he reached the remains of the tail, he stared at it in silence.

I walked over to the pitchfork that almost impaled me. The handle was burnt away, leaving only a charred end sticking out of the twisted metal fork. Pulling it loose, I tossed the ruined tool towards the remains of the barns where it landed with a small poof of ash.

“I’ve seen something like this before,” the Sheriff called out as he cut a plug of tobacco with his knife and began chewing.

That got my attention. “What? Where?”

“Old newspaper. It had something about digging up giant bones in Montana and Colorado. Said they were from dinosaurs. Big extinct animals that have been dead so long their bones turned to rock. There was a sketch of what they looked like when they were alive. One of them was like this one. Except it had a bigger head, small worthless-looking arms, and walked on its back two legs. Yours is similar, but smaller and with longer front legs. Anyways, I remember thinking it was a load of garbage and used the paper in the outhouse.”

I looked at him in surprise, “Seems they ain’t all dead. You know who wrote the article?”

“Not a clue. But it was written by someone from the Smithsonian Institute. They could probably tell us what we are dealing with,” he spat a wad of tobacco juice out the side of his mouth. “I bet they’d be real interested to know they’re wrong about them all being dead.”

“Can you wire them? Ask them how worried we ought to be?”

Walking back to me, the Sheriff squatted on his haunches beside the corpse and gently touched its blood-stained teeth. “I’ll certainly try. But I got a feeling we ought to be mighty concerned.”

“Me too, Dan.”

Dan ran his hands over the pebbled hide and peered into the beast’s empty eye socket. I stared at the burnt remains of my barn, alone in my thoughts. Until one struck me.

“Hey, Dan?”

“Yeah?”

“After we cut this thing’s head off… you want to stick around for some steaks?” I asked.

“Steaks?”

I nodded, grinning. “Big ones.”

He looked puzzled, until the realization of what I implied sunk in. “You’re kidding, right?”

“Nope. What better way to celebrate my defeat of this horrifying beast than to feast on its roasted flesh?”

He sighed and looked back at the dead monster before spitting again “Okay.”

It tasted like chicken.

***

I woke the next morning stiff and sore. Today’s plan was to take it easy and try to salvage anything of value from the ruins of my barn. I wasn’t looking forward to digging through the knee-deep ash and debris though.

I slung the gun belt around my waist and glanced at the Spencer Carbine above the door. It tempted me, but I had my pistol, and I’d keep a careful watch as I worked. I decided to leave it. My new shotgun was freshly cleaned and oiled, laying on a small table between the door and bed with a box of shells. I left that gun as well. It was daylight, I’d be able to see any strange dangerous beasts well before they reached me.

Jerking the door open, I stepped out into the bright morning sun.

It was going to be a nice day.

A large spear whistled by me and slammed into the log wall next to the rocking chair. It stuck, driven deep, wood shaft quivering.

Instinctively, I drew my pistol and spun to face whoever just tried to kill me.

There were four of them scattered before me. Big hairy things, wrapped in hides around their bodies and waists, easily a foot taller than me, with long arms and hands big enough to beat a horse to death. Their broad, ugly faces and muscular chests were hairless, the exposed black skin marked with colorful swirls and strange patterns.

They reminded me of the big monkeys from my childhood picture books. But instead of carrying bananas, they held weapons.

The smallest of the four knelt beside the dead monster, with a bow in hand and quiver of arrows at his waist. Two others stood by the pasture fence, watching Carbine run away again. The biggest one was sprinting towards me in large strides, stone axe held high overhead. He let out a ferocious roar as he quickly closed the distance.

Even as the iron sights of the Peacemaker lined up on his broad forehead and I squeezed the trigger, I felt like this was a dream. This couldn’t be real. It was laughable. First a monster and now giant monkey-men.

It was ridiculous.

The recoil and gun blast shocked me out of my stupor, as the bullet punched through his skull and he dropped at my feet as though his strings were cut.

The small ape notched an arrow and drew his bow back.

Ducking, I snapped a quick shot at him as he released the string. I caught a glimpse of him spinning, grasping his side, as I dove into the house. The arrow zipped through the open doorway, narrowly missing be, before it thunked into the far wall.

Slamming the door shut, I shoved my pistol into its holster. As heavy feet stomped across the porch, I grabbed the shotgun off the table. Gripping it tightly with both hands, I thumbed the double hammers back, just in time for the door to be kicked open violently.

The slab of wood bashed into me, knocking me backward onto the floor, and sending the box of shotgun shells flying off the small table. The cardboard box burst on impact and the thick cased shells rolled in every direction.

The giant ape’s painted bulk filled the doorway, his stone club held low. Pounding a clenched fist against his broad chest, he roared loudly, revealing yellowed canines.

In return, I let the shotgun roar back with both barrels.

The large twin barrels spewed a cloud of white smoke, and double rounds of buckshot punched through the ape’s painted lower chest and out his upper back. At this range, the mass of packed lead balls didn’t spread, they simply blew a hole in the big monkey large enough to put my fist through. The big bastard flew backward in a spray of blood and pulverized flesh. The stench of burning hair filled the air.

Breaking the shotgun open, I plucked out the empty shells as fast as I could, and grabbed a pair off the floor. I dropped them in and snapped the gun shut, just in time for another ape to come through the door and swing its club at me.

The big stone on the end of the club hit the floor as I dodged aside. Splinters and stone fragments stung my face as it smashed through the wooden floor boards.

I struggled to maneuver the shortened shotgun for a shot and thumbed one of them hammers back.

The ape grasped the barrels and ripped the gun away, inadvertently making me pull the trigger and discharging a round of buckshot past his head and into the ceiling. A spray of wooden debris rained down on us. Roaring in painful rage, he dropped his club and clutched his ear as he flung the shotgun across the room with a snarl.

From the ground, I drew my pistol, but lost it, as the ape grasped me by the shirt and leg with an iron grip and threw me across the room. Slamming into a pair of bookshelves near the wood stove, I let out a cry of pain as I fell amongst a shower of books. Falling to the floor, I gasped and swore at the ape’s mother.

A colorfully painted Wyatt Earp glared at me from the cover of a fallen dime novel, his face stern under his tilted hat. Below in large blue words, it said, “CAN HE SURVIVE?”

Thanks for the vote of confidence, Wyatt.

The floorboards creaked in protest as the great ape lunged across the room after me. Neither gun was within reach, but a cast iron frying pan was. I grabbed it and swung hard at the ape’s knee. He easily dodged the swing, and the heavy pan slipped from my grasp and thumped across the floor.

Screaming in half anger and half fear, I kicked at him in desperation.

He smacked my boot aside effortlessly and grabbed me by the throat. Single handed, the ape lifted me off the floor. Frantic for air, I pounded at his hand and arm, kicking, struggling to draw breath.

He watched me twist and fail, a thin trickle of red dribbling from his ruptured ear drum. His face was twisted into a snarl, and black eyes showed not an ounce of mercy.

As my vision faded to black, I forced myself to stop fighting his fearfully strong grip as I realized I still had a weapon. Drawing the large Bowie knife from the sheath at my belt, I began stabbing him in the belly and groin.

The ape roared, dropping me as it toppled onto his back, clutching the gaping wounds. The heavy knife fell and stuck point first in the floor as I fell to my hands and knees, gasping for air.

He said something painfully in a rough language through clenched teeth as he writhed back and forth. Bright red blood poured through his clasped hands and pooled underneath him.

I didn’t understand what he said, and I didn’t bother asking him to repeat it. Instead, I added insult to injury by punching him in the face. It was like punching a hair covered rock, but I was rewarded with a small spray of blood from one of his wide nostrils. That was for trashing my house.

I jerked the Bowie knife from the floorboards. Wrapping both hands around the handle, I brought it down repeatedly with all the force and violence as I could muster. Blood sprayed on me and splashed across the floor as his body shuddered and went limp.

Breathing hard from exertion, I stared at the mangled bloodied mess I had made. That was for almost killing me.

I suddenly recalled there had been four apes and one was still outside. Diving across the floor, I grabbed the dropped pistol. Sliding against the doorways edge, I peeked cautiously, waiting for the fourth one to pop around the corner to plug me.

Instead, the small one with the bow lay motionless in the yard in a growing red pool. He’d made it several steps before collapsing. I’d gotten lucky with that snapped shot and hit something vital.

They were all dead. Looks like I won again.

***

Doc had done a proper job on my stitches. Only one tore loose during the brawl and it looked like I would survive without it. But I desperately needed a week or two without violence to heal up. Satisfied with my own health, I looked at my latest kill.

The dead ape in my house lay gashed open from painted chest to throat. I pulled my knife out of him, wiped it off on his fur, and looked the corpse over.

Simply put, he was large, hairy, and ugly.

His face was a bald patch of wrinkled black skin covering his mouth and lips, and wide flat nose. The rest of his head was covered with the same thick, dark brown hair as his body, leaving only his chest, palms, and bottoms of his feet hair-free.

The monkey’s big chest was painted with red, green, and white swirls and strange patterns. I scraped off a little of the green paint with my fingers and rubbed it between them. It was clotted with small bits of plant fiber and what looked like pieces of smashed bugs.

What gave me the greatest concern was the skins he wore. I picked up an edge of the hides and ran my fingers over the smooth leather. The pebbled hide was like nothing I had ever seen before. Except on the monster I killed last night. That was foreboding.

A small leather pouch was stitched into the hides he wore. I opened it. Inside were thin strips of leather, a sharp chipped stone knife with leather-bound handle, and several bright purple fern leaves tightly roiled. I tossed the pouch into a corner.

The ape left a long smear of blood across the floor as I dragged him out of the house and rolled him off the side of the porch and into a heap with his dead buddies.

I knew the ape was strong. He’d lifted my entire hundred and eighty-five-pound body with a single hand and almost choked me to death. But as I picked up the club and struggled to swing it, I realized just how strong he really was. The handle was smooth dark wood with a reddish tint and small grooves cut for grip. The large gray stone at the end had been chipped into shape and bound tightly in place with strips of leather. And it weighed probably forty pounds. Getting hit with one of these would end a man’s life real quick, or leave him permanently crippled.

I tugged the arrow out of the wall. It was almost a foot longer than an Indian arrow and twice as thick. The fletching was made of strange greenish-yellow feathers, and the point was of crafted obsidian. The bow that the small ape carried was six feet tall and made from what seemed like a type of carved horn and finely braided string. I tried to draw the bow back and gave up after moving the string only a few inches.

The spear was sunk deep into the outside log wall, but with effort, I wiggled it free. Like the club, it was much larger than anything a human could easily wield. The shaft was almost nine feet long and several inches in diameter. Big enough that I could jab with it two handed, but impossible for me to throw. The tip was the same glossy black volcanic rock as used on the arrow.

I dumped the weapons in a pile and stood on the porch with rifle in hand, looking around in bewilderment at my ranch. Once again, I found myself confused and trying to wrap my head around the notion that I had killed not only a possibly extinct dinosaur, but also several giant monkey-men. And they wore hides from what had to be other beasts like the one I killed.

Just what in the hell was going on?

The breeze ruffled the hair of the apes in the yard and sent small dust devils spinning by.  Buzzards noticed my new lawn decorations and circled lazily overhead. A sure signal for miles around that something was dead or dying below. I’d provided quite the feast for them lately.

I looked at the forest edge and wondered what else was out there. There was no telling anymore.

As I watched Carbine trot back towards the ranch, I knew one thing for certain, I needed to know where these apes had come from. Going without help didn’t appeal to me. But neither did spending half a day to fetch the Sheriff while the trail went cold.

I’d go alone and cautiously. If things went south, I’d ride like hell for town. I glanced at my saddle bags that rested beside the table. Just in case, I’d bring the dynamite.

***

I tracked the apes into the Granite mountains. The hairy men had followed the dinosaur, which explained how they ended up in my front yard. And that big creature left an easy trail to follow as it stomped through everything, leaving deep clawed tracks, broken branches, and crushed foliage in its wake. The dinosaur’s tracks meandered all over the forest and out onto the plains.

I had no idea why the apes would follow the beast. If they were hunting it, then they were more badass than I originally thought and that much more dangerous. But it appeared I was attacked by the apes simply because I had the bad luck of the beast ending up dead at my place.

After a couple hours, I came across the bloody, grisly carcass of one of my steers. All that remained was broken horns attached to a shattered skull, punctured with bite marks, and some crunched-up bones amongst shredded scraps of meat and hide. The area was painted with blood and gore for a good ten feet.

Eventually, the beast’s tracks led me to an area of the Granite mountain range further than I’d ever wandered before. The rolling grass hills ended abruptly against the base of cliffs jutting up from the plains and merging into the mountains behind it. The cliff rose a couple hundred feet into the air, complete with tumbled rocks and debris at the bottom with a few scraggly pines striving to survive tucked into small crevices on the cliff face.

Both the ape and beast tracks led right through a massive tunnel that stretched almost sixty feet wide at the bottom and at its highest point, arched twenty feet above me.

Somehow, the tunnel was only eight feet long and defied everything I knew was possible. I dismounted and squatted on my heels, staring at it, trying to wrap my head around what was before me.

Each end of the tunnel was… different.

My side was normal, the other side… not.

What I saw wasn’t possible. It didn’t just break the laws of nature, it shattered them. What should have been a cave going inside a mountain – wasn’t. It went somewhere else.

There was a clear line of division inside the center of the tunnel, where my side ended and the other began. Nothing in nature is perfectly straight, but this was. The grass on my side, small and thin, ended abruptly where large thick blades of grass and big ferns suddenly began and continued down a small rise where my view ended, showing only a blue sky with several puffy white clouds.

The unseen line continued up edges of the tunnel and along the ceiling, splitting two different types of rock. On my side, it was gray and marbled granite, then it hit the line and suddenly became limestone. Cracks that began in one side or the other, ended abruptly where it joined the other.

I couldn’t explain it. There should have been a solid mountain right there. But it wasn’t. Instead, the opening was only a brief eight feet away from me.

The only thing I knew for sure was that apes and the beast came from the other side. Their tracks were muddled together as the apes crossed through and wandered around the area, apparently as baffled as I was. The dinosaur appeared to have walked right through it, and wandered off to find a rancher to terrorize.

I gave up trying to figure it out. To hell with it. I was starting to get a headache. It was simpler just to accept it.

Frustrated, I stood and kicked one of the fallen rocks into the tunnel. As the rock bounced across the unseen line and into the other side, the air shimmered and tiny ripples spread out briefly in every direction.

At that moment, I said a lot of things my mother wouldn’t have wanted me to say. In my defense, I was really getting sick of all this weirdness.

Unsure of what I was seeing, I did what everyone does when confronted with something so strange and bizarre that it challenges your understanding of reality.

I poked it with my finger.

***

 

RAWR! Pew! Pew! Pew-Part Tew!

The rough draft saga continues.

Cowboys V Apes final

***

Part 1 Link – Click Me.

***

It took a few hours to reach the town of Granite Falls.

I was edgy the entire way, watching for anything that might want to eat me. It was an uncomfortable ride. The pain from constantly shifting in the saddle coupled with my high level of alertness was exhausting.

Cresting a hill, I stopped Carbine. The town lay exposed in the center of a vast valley below me. It was a beautiful place for a town. Scenic, dotted with small stands of trees, lots of knee-high prairie grass and a gradual incline to the hills that surrounded it.

Personally, I always wondered why western towns never seemed to pick the high ground. It’s like town founders always wanted someplace pretty, instead of on top of a nice tall hill with an elevation advantage in case of an Indian attack.

Regardless of the lack of a tactical advantage, the location was beautiful.

The town was laid out with the main street running north to south. A half mile to the west a wide river flowed, cold and fresh, fed from melting snows and ice in the distant north. Train tracks came into the valley from that direction as well, running their thick log ties and steel rails across the river on a wood framed bridge and to the southern far end of town where the train station and corralled stockyards stood.

I hadn’t been here in over a month, and the place was growing.

In addition to the church finally getting its steeple and bell installed, two more buildings had gone up since my last visit. All nice and neat beside each other in the center of town, with a few more outlying buildings in varying stages of construction.

The single, wide street between the buildings ran over a quarter mile past them, through rows of mismatched tents used for temporary housing and small businesses, and ending at the train station where a locomotive was preparing to leave.

Probably five hundred people lived and worked in the town.

It was far too crowded for me. I didn’t particularly care for strangers and I preferred to keep a low profile.

Watching the busy town below me, I couldn’t shake the strange feeling that this was the calm before the storm, and something terrible was headed this way. Pushing the dark thoughts away, I touched my heels to Carbine’s flanks to urge him forward.

As I rode into the northern entrance to town, I noticed peoples questioning looks when they saw my battered face. I pulled my Stetson lower over my blackened eyes to avoid the attention.

Passing the newly steepled church, Reverend William stepped out from the shadows of its interior and gave me a friendly wave. A tall, thin man, he wore a flat brimmed black hat, white shirt with suspenders, and a black frock coat. As usual, he carried a dog-eared Bible tucked under one arm.

I gave him a wave in return, but kept my horse moving. He was a good Reverend. I got drunk once and found myself in his church one dark night, confessing to him about my previous sins. He was a good listener and nice enough to not have me arrested.

As for the Sheriff, I wasn’t overly concerned about him. We’d fought in the Nez Perce War together and the strange twists and turns of fate had brought us to the same town years later. But just because we trusted each other with our lives, didn’t mean I trusted him with my past. The less he knew, the better.

After tying Carbine to the hitch outside the Sheriff’s Office, I pulled a wrapped bundle from the saddlebags. Along with the bank, it was the most secure building in town with wrought iron bars over the windows and heavy shutters on the inside with firing ports. The Sheriff didn’t take any chances with security.

Stepping onto the boardwalk, I noted the Mayor’s Office in the building next to the Sheriff’s had curtains pulled across the windows and a padlock on the door.

When I entered the fortified building, Sheriff Dan was leaned back in his chair, feet propped on the desk, a cup of coffee in hand. The polished silver star on his chest shone from the early afternoon light that poured through the open windows. Old and stern, with a gray beard and bald head, he was the sort of man who would help a fellow out, or fill him full of lead.

He was a great Sheriff like that.

“Afternoon, Jed.” Squinting, he took in my black eyes and tender movements. “Rough night?”

Removing my hat, I waved off his concern. “Don’t worry, Dan. It was a fight against overwhelming odds, but I won.”

He shrugged and gestured towards the coffee pot. “As long as I don’t have to arrest you or anyone else.”

Taking the battered tin cup beside the pot, I glanced inside. It looked clean, mostly. Ignoring the small dark spot in the bottom, I poured. “Actually… we may have something of a rather large problem,” I took a small sip and grimaced. The coffee was strong enough to float a horseshoe.

He raised an eyebrow. “Do tell.”

“Be easier to show you,” I tossed the wrapped bundle at him.

Dan spilled his coffee as he attempted a one-handed catch. “Dammit, man!” He looked at the long awkwardly shaped bundle that landed in his lap. “What’s this?”

“A small part of a big problem. Go ahead and look. You wouldn’t believe me otherwise,” I dropped into the chair opposite him and tossed my hat on his desk.

He kicked his feet off the desk and sat upright. Setting his cup on the cluttered desk, he began to unwrap the bundle. My eyes flicked to the board on the wall beside the cells with the Wanted Posters tacked haphazardly over each other. It was an old habit. I never knew if I might see myself or some old buddies on there or not.

As he removed the canvas wrapping, a set of three large black claws and a short length of forearm was exposed. The end was hacked off and white bone jutted from the stump.

He stared at it, mouth tight in a grim frown. “What in the hell is this from?”

“I don’t know. But I need you to come out and look at the rest of it,” I looked him in the eye. “If there are more of these… things that those claws came from, and I suspect there are, folks are going to die.”

I was worried he wouldn’t believe me if I tried to describe what attacked my ranch. But the severed clawed hand seemed to do the trick for piquing his curiosity.

He nodded quickly, gently touching his finger to one of the claw points. “I want to see this thing. Today. Where’s the body?”

“It’s back at my place,” I grimaced. “What’s left of it that is.”

“What do you mean, what’s left of it?”

“I used some dynamite. Long story.”

He shook his head. “Alright, fill me in on the way. But give me an hour to wrap a couple of things up and for the deputies to get back.” He jerked his thumb towards a man snoring softly in one of the cells behind him. “I’ve also got a drunk with a busted head to kick out. You weren’t the only one who had an eventful night.”

I snorted. The deputies were his nephews. “You still using those two buffoons?” I couldn’t stand them. The feeling was mutual.

He glared at me. “Good help is hard to find. I offered you a badge, remember? You turned it down.” I did remember, and I was concerned it might burst into flames the moment I pinned it on my chest. Standing, I downed the last mouthful of coffee and sent my cup on his desk.

“And Jed? Try not to blow anything up while you’re in town.”

“I don’t make promises I can’t keep, Dan,” I gave him a wink.

With a disapproving grunt, he wrapped the canvas back around the severed limb and tossed it to me.

***

Since I had time to kill, I put the severed claw back in the saddlebags and went across the street to the Bucket O’ Blood. The name was misleading. It wasn’t that violent of a place, but the owner was something of a joker who figured the name would spur interest.

Personally, I thought people tended to stay away from establishments where they might get killed. But I could use a drink, time of the day be damned. Hopefully, it would take away some of the dull aches throbbing through my body.

I pushed through the batwing doors and paused to allow my eyes to adjust to the dim interior. I hated this moment. It always seemed like a good time for a man with a grudge to plug you with a bullet.

After a few seconds and zero gunshots, I could see well enough to make my way to the bar.

Being midday, there wasn’t much going on. A few rough-looking characters at the end of the bar stared at me. One said something, and his friends laughed in response. With their filthy, torn and stained clothes they looked like miners blowing off some steam and probably pissing away whatever gold they’d scraped out of a claim. At least one had a pistol tucked into his waistband that I could see. A sawn-off shotgun rested on the bar amongst their bottles.

A couple of working girls lounged by the piano, talking in low tones and most likely, nursing hangovers. One raven haired beauty smiled at me, showing a wide gap between her front teeth.

Giving her a big grin, I tipped my hat in return. I didn’t partake in working girls, but I didn’t disrespect them either. My mother raised me right like that.

In the far corner, a man sat with his back to the wall, idly shuffling cards. His tan flat-brimmed hat was tipped low, obscuring half his face. An empty bottle and several glasses were scattered on the table before him from a game long finished. He had gambler written all over him.

Other than that, it was dead in here.

For a moment, I considered telling them I’d been attacked by a giant beast. But I didn’t want the reputation of being the local crazy who went around shouting about monsters in the darkness.

I’d let the Sheriff do that.

The bartender put down the glass he was cleaning with a filthy rag and walked over as I gingerly lowered myself onto a stool. He took in my face.

“You look like you could use some whiskey.”

“Yeah, the cheap stuff,” I didn’t think I’d be able to afford anything nice for a while. Stupid monster.

Reaching under the bar, he pulled out a brown unmarked bottle and shot glass. He poured a slug and started to put the bottle away, before looking at my face again and appearing to think better of it. He lifted the bottle questioningly.

There wasn’t a chance in hell I could drink an entire bottle and make the ride back home without falling off the saddle. But I could always cork it and take it home for later. I gave him a nod, and he pushed them both towards me.

I dug a couple coins out and slid them over.

Scooping them up, he pointed a finger at my face. “That looks pretty fresh. How does the other guy look?”

I decided to be vague instead of crazy. “A little rougher than me.”

The bartender must have decided he didn’t care to dig any deeper, and simply nodded. If I’d broken the law, my money was good up until the moment I was arrested. Why hurry things along with a paying customer?

“Where’s Left Arm?” I asked.

Left Arm O’Malley was the Irish jokester who owned the bar. A veteran of the War Between the States, he was missing his right arm. Hence, the name. Rumor was a cannon ball took it off at the Siege of Vicksburg, but the man himself always came up with new amusing stories as to how it happened. Last one I heard involved him being shanghaied onto a ship and a mermaid gnawing it off after a copulation of sorts. He was kind of an odd fellow like that.

“Took the train to Rock Springs. Family troubles,” he nodded at the bottle. “Let me know if you need another.”

“Thanks.” I wouldn’t. One bottle was more than enough for me.

The far end of the room was getting noisy. One of the miners looked down the bar before turning back and thumbing over his shoulder towards me. They weren’t even trying to be subtle.

I picked up the bottle and glass and moved to a table where I could keep an eye on the door and the miners, but also look out the window at the scenery. Right now, that consisted of Carbine across the street, lifting his tail and dropping a pile of manure.

I dropped my hat on the table and settled into a rickety chair that wobbled from uneven legs.

The gambler in the corner walked over. “Mind some company?”

The stranger wore a dark suit with a silver vest and had a fair complexion and blue eyes. For such a well-dressed, casual-looking fellow, there was something about him that I couldn’t put my finger on. He gave off the impression that he wasn’t someone who shouldn’t be trifled with.

Even though drinking in silence appealed to me, I figured I might get some local gossip out of him. With a short nod, I pointed towards the chair beside him. “Suit yourself.”

He dropped the deck of cards on the table and shifted the seat slightly, moving to keep the door in view. As he sat, his coat flared open for a moment, revealing twin pistol butts sticking out of his vest.

Apparently, my impression was correct. He wasn’t a gambler, he was a gunman.

Waving his hand, he caught the bartender’s attention and gestured at my bottle and glass and then himself. The bartender brought another pair over and wordlessly set them on the table. My unnamed companion peeled a bill off a tightly folded wad of cash, handed it to him, and accepted his change in return.

Looking at me, he smiled. Bright white, straight teeth flashed as he poured a shot, then downed it in a single swallow. He slapped the glass onto the table and picked up the deck. Idly shuffling the cards between his hands, he squinted at me from under the brim of his hat. “Care for some poker?”

“No thanks. I never was any good at cards.”

He re-shuffled and pushed them to the side of the table, before straightening them into a neat stack with his fingers. “Me neither, but it passes the time.”

I doubted that, I knew a hustle when I heard one.

“Maybe we both just need more practice,” he offered.

“Oh, I’ve had enough practice losing to know when I should stop.”

He chuckled. “No offense intended, but that’s a little funny coming from a man with two black eyes and a busted scalp.”

“The only game I’ve broke even in is the one of life or death.” I took a sip of the rotgut whiskey. It was awful. I fought to keep my face from pinching up at the taste. “But eventually, the house always wins.”

“I’ll certainly drink to that.”

“Please do.” We both topped off our glasses.

Loud, raucous laughter drifted over from the miners. One of them leaned back against the bar and stared in our direction. He was a big man with chubby red cheeks and crossed arms over a belly hanging over his belt. He looked like the sort of bully who had always been big and became accustomed to getting their way out of fear and intimidation with size alone.

I immediately disliked him.

He smirked. The other miners remained hunched over the bar, their backs convulsing with laughter and occasionally taking peeks at our table.

My drinking companion glanced at them before meeting my eyes. “I think they’re making fun of you.”

“I think you’re right.”

“It doesn’t bother you?”

I shrugged. “Sure, it does. But I also don’t feel like brawling. My face hurts, along with everything else.”

“The lady by the piano seemed to think you were handsome enough. Women like scars. This might be a good chance for some more.”

I laughed, a bit too loudly. If only he knew the number of scars I had. There was such a thing as too many. “I’m even better-looking without these bruises,” I joked as I reached across the table and introduced myself, “Jedidiah Smith.”

He looked at my hand for a moment before shaking it firmly. “Wesley Clemmons.”

“Hey, YOU!” The yell came from the end of the bar with the miners.

I sighed and turned towards the obnoxious group.

“Yeah, you. With the ugly face,” the big man staggered away from his snickering companions, a malicious grin stretching across his reddened face. He was looking for trouble, and who better to pick on than someone already wounded. The bartender edged away from the miners as the working ladies turned to watch.

Wesley winked at me with a sideways grin. “Trouble seems to follow you.”

I ignored him and took a heavy slug, this time straight from the bottle. If this went badly, I might as well dull the inevitable pain beforehand.

The drunk man stopped in front of us, rocking back on his heels. He laughed harshly. Spit flecked out of his mouth and landed on the table. Wesley raised an eyebrow at him.

The drunk turned to me, his words slurring. “Yeah, you,” he snorted. “With a face like that, you remind me of the last squaw I had.”

Oh lovely, an abuser of Indian women. I sized him up.

He was an ugly, mean looking fellow. A front tooth was missing, others were yellowed and rotten. Black stubble decorated his large jowls. He outweighed me by a good thirty pounds and reeked of booze and stale sweat.

With his friends watching, I knew I wasn’t getting out of this without a fight. And since the smartass in me couldn’t keep quiet, I figured I may as well go all in. “Was she blind or dumb?”

“Blind… wait, what?” He looked baffled at my unexpected response and squinted, trying to focus on me then swayed and staggered, almost losing his balance. He grabbed the top of a chair to steady himself.

Wesley laughed and sipped his drink.

The drunk’s confusion turned to anger. “Listen here, you-”

I cut him off, my temper flaring at the man who was bothering me with the intent of impressing his obnoxious friends. “Because any woman who would willingly have a fat, nasty slug like you must be blind, dumb, or both.”

His face flushed crimson, veins bulged on his broad forehead as he reached for me.

I stood swiftly. A flash of surprise crossed his face as I knocked his arms aside, stepped close, and swung as hard and as fast as I could. The uppercut connected beneath his chin with a meaty thud that sent a bolt of pain shooting down my wrist.

I’ll give him credit. I put everything I had behind that blow, and he didn’t have a glass jaw.

Instead of dropping, he staggered back a couple of paces, rubbed the stubble on his chin, and looked a whole lot angrier and sober.

Well, shit.

Wesley chuckled and refilled his glass.

The miner bent and lunged forward, his shoulder driving into my waist and pushing me backward as we fell together. Our combined weight was more than a match for my rickety chair. It shattered, broken boards dug and jabbed into my back as we grappled on the floor.

Gasping from the miner’s heavy weight pressing down on my chest, I punched him in the side repeatedly with no noticeable effect as he drunkenly threw haymakers at my face. I took several glancing blows along the skull before he hit me solidly in the face. My nose bore the brunt of his fist. The pain was excruciating. My eyes watered. The next punch busted my lips, and the taste of blood filled my mouth.

My vision went red as anger and pain burned through me. Reaching between his arms, I grabbed the sides of his head and dug my thumbs into his eyes. I was going to gouge them out of his skull for his transgressions.

He screamed and shoved himself backward, jerking his head out of my grip and rising unsteadily on his feet.

Scrambling to my feet, I spat blood and wiped away the blood dribbling from my nose with the back of my hand.

He swayed drunkenly, rubbing his eyes and squinting as tears streamed down his face.

Behind him, I saw his friends straighten from where they watched. One grabbed the shotgun off the bar. They didn’t look happy.

I didn’t care. I was too pissed off now to stop.

Closing in, I grabbed the big drunk by his collar and belt buckle. With a sharp pivot, I felt stitches tear across my chest as I hurled the heavy man over my hip onto the top of the table. Wesley jerked his glass out of the way as the table shattered, scattering bottles and playing cards across the floor.

He grunted on impact, gasping for breath, his eyes wide with the sudden shock and pain.

My face and chest hurt something fierce. Dropping to one knee, I grabbed him by the front of his dirty shirt and jerked him up as I slammed my fist down. His head snapped backwards as blood splattered from his smashed lips.

He gurgled something through shattered teeth that didn’t sound like an apology.

I smashed my fist down again. His nose crunched beneath my knuckles, and his eyes rolled back into his skull. I dropped him on the shattered remains of the table and chair. My breath came in ragged gasps, and all my previous injuries hurt anew. But compared to last night’s monster, this guy wasn’t squat.

Reaching across his unconscious body, I grabbed a bottle that lay gurgling as it poured out cheap booze and took a healthy swig through busted lips. The whiskey burned like a red-hot poker on the way down. It felt wonderful.

“Get offa him!”

His friends had reached us.

The two other miners stopped a couple of feet away and they weren’t laughing anymore. One was young and wore a derby hat cocked at a foolish angle, exposing greasy hair underneath. He carried the shotgun, with a wild, drunken look in his eyes. The other one appeared a little soberer and eyed me warily as I noted the revolver stuffed down the front of his trousers.

“Look what that sumbitch did to Timmy!” The man with the shotgun shouted as he pointed the short barrels towards his friend on the floor.

I slowly pushed myself to my feet and looked for the bartender. O’Malley kept a shotgun under the bar for stopping things just like this from going too far in his establishment. But the bartender wasn’t in sight. That was just peachy.

The ladies had disappeared as well. Fist fights were considered good entertainment. Gunfights, not so much, and no one wanted to take a stray round from a shootout.

The sober one looked me up and down before putting a hand on the hothead’s shoulder. “Let it go, it was just a bar fight. He didn’t start it and he took his licks.”

The one with the shotgun shrugged off the hand. “Don’t matter. He almost killed him!” His small beady eyes glared from under his ridiculous hat. “You’ll pay for that.”

I flexed my hands to loosen them up, they trembled from excitement, and my knuckles were skinned raw and bleeding. Drawing was going to be difficult. But I couldn’t help myself and shoved the unconscious miner with the toe of my boot. He moaned pitifully. “Pay for this, huh? What’s this sorry turd worth to you?” I grinned at my own joke painfully.

The wild eyed drunk jerked the shotgun up and shoved it in my face.

I stared down the large double barrels. The shotgun was a ten gauge by the looks of them. Things were about to get very western in here.

“How about I blow you through that window?” he sneered.

None of my options were good, especially with a drunk wild card behind the trigger. The best I could hope for was his inebriated state would slow down his reflexes. I braced myself to slap the barrel away and draw. Maybe I’d get lucky. If I didn’t, it’d be a quick, messy death.

“Easy gents. It’s over. No need to for this to get any uglier,” Wesley spoke up, his voice calm and even. He still sat in his chair, his body turned to face them. He gave an easy smile, before knocking back his drink without taking his eyes off them. He rested the empty shot glass on his leg.

The shotgun hammer cocked loudly, as the hot-headed miner swung the barrels towards Wesley. “Try and stop me, you pretty boy dandy-”

Wesley’s first shot caught the miner in the throat, while the second burst through the bridge of his nose and blew his derby hat along with a spray of blood, brains, and bits of bone a good six feet behind him. The shotgun clattered to the floor as the dead man collapsed in a heap.

If it hadn’t been for the sudden appearance of two holes, I’d have sworn it was one shot. The Colt Lightning that magically appeared in Wesley’s hand turned, unwavering, at the last man. His other hand still held the empty shot glass in place.

The dead man’s partner froze in shock. Droplets of gore splattered his face and shirt. A wet patch spread from his thigh, running down his pant leg and into his boot. He slowly raised his hands, eyes large and frightened. “No! No! No trouble here.”

“Keep your hand off that pistol, and there won’t be any,” Wesley said, his voice suddenly hard and all the easy-going attitude gone.

The miner carefully kept his hand away from the gun as he slowly gestured towards the unconscious man with a shaking hand. “Just… Just let me get Timmy, and we’ll go,” his voice trembled and quavered.

“Go ahead. Then git.” Wesley twitched his pistol barrel slightly towards the door in emphasis.

I put my bloodied hands on my hips and tried to breathe around the blood clogging my nose. I suddenly felt tired.

The man roused his friend enough to pull him to his feet. The drunk managed a couple steps before a leg buckled and they both almost collapsed to the floor. The unwounded miner shot us a glare, before steadying his semi-conscience friend and half carrying him out the door.

Wesley covered them with his pistol until they were out of sight, then twirled the gun in his hand before smoothly sliding it into the holster hidden under his coat.

“It appears we both made some enemies,” I said flatly, probing my teeth with my tongue. None felt loose, thank goodness.

“Anyone worth a hoot has them. You just got to outlive them is all,” he patted his concealed pistols to emphasize his point. “But you were right, Jed. You do seem to win the ones that matter, if only by a slight margin.”

I nodded slowly and unbuttoned the top of my checkered shirt to look at my chest. Several of the stitches had torn through the skin, and small droplets of blood beaded and trickled down my stomach. I was going to have to get myself sewn back up again. “This time, you were that slight margin. It might have gone differently without your help.”

“I’d rather have kept out of it, but I do detest people shooting my drinking partner.”

Leaning forward, he rifled through the dead man’s pockets, and carefully shifted his boots to avoid the growing pool of blood. He pulled out three gold eagles and several folded bank notes. Keeping one coin for himself with the paper money, he handed the other two shiny gold eagles to me with a conspiring wink. “This is for our emotional distress over this sad matter.”

I shrugged and accepted the coins. Looting the dead was nothing new for me, and most likely they’d be snatched up by one of the working girls, or that cowardly bartender before the Sheriff arrived anyways.

We shook hands.

“Really, Jed?” Wesley held his hand up to show that I’d smeared blood on it.

I laughed and rebuttoned my shirt.

Since Wesley didn’t seem interested in the shotgun, I scooped it off the floor on the way out. It was an old Stoeger Coach shotgun with exposed hammers. My guess on the gauge was correct, it was a big ten. The barrels were cut down to a foot long and the stock had been shortened into a rounded grip. A handy size, with a helluva kick and the ability to make big holes in a man. And it was mine now. To the victors go the spoils.

I stepped out into the sunlight just in time for the bartender to step onto the boardwalk with the Sheriff.

Dan took in my freshly bloodied face and he sighed angrily. “Jed, what did I just say?”

“Hey, I didn’t blow anything up! Besides the other guys started it. We were minding our own business, sipping whiskey, and one of them started a brawl. After I beat his ass, another one threw down on us with this scatter gun,” I raised my new shotgun for emphasis before jerking my head towards the bar. “The fellow in there shot him. It was self-defense.” I didn’t mention that I started it by throwing the first punch. But I’m not the sort of man who gives anyone a free swing at me before I fight back. If you can, hit first, and hit the hardest.

Dan pointed at the shotgun. “You know that’s evidence, right?”

I shrugged and tried to look sufficiently innocent.

“Fine. I know where to find you anyways,” he looked at me sideways. “Do I need to get one of my nephews to escort you around town? You seem like you’re having a hard time staying out of trouble.”

The last thing I wanted was one of those deputy clowns following me around, and he knew it. I also knew it wasn’t an idle threat. “I’ll try harder. Promise.”

Dan shook his head in disgust and walked past me into the saloon with unhappy looking bartender in tow.

I went to find Doc.

***