Of Gunpowder Deeds
There are many ways to kill a man. A blade in the night, poison in his drink, or hands around his throat. For the unjust, who ride the wastes on malignant steeds, the question of death had many answers.
To those who sit on the thrones of justice, with scrutiny in their eyes and the word of the law upon their tongues, the answer was the hangman's gallows or the headman's block.
For he who stalks this Fragment, where the Deadman himself comes to play, the question of death has but one answer. But he is willing to repeat it six times.
-From, The Lay of the Gunfighter,
Thibian Crass, 3092 AFL
The Deadman's Waste,
The Fragment of Tume,
Smoke rose from the farmhouse across the gulch, pluming grey to mar the clear sky. He was too late to save them. Old story now. For six weeks he'd been too late. He'd missed the smoke, only finding smoldering ruins and corpses. At the first homestead he'd buried the bodies. But that only slowed him down, so he'd left the others where he'd found them to sniff out his quarry's trail. His spyglass showed him horses hobbled near the porch; blurred movement through adobe window casings; a woman breaking from her home, rushing for the corral. His teeth gritted when two men burst into view, tackling her. He took the glass from his eye, not wanting to watch the inevitable.
Turning to spit, he tightened his grip on the old cloak wrapped about his shoulders. Once black it was faded now to match the distant smoke. Faded like the long greasy strands tied back from his head. Faded like the barren ridge he stood on, and the badlands between him and men who deserved the Deadman's regard. Snapping the spyglass closed, Bates turned to where his roan nag waited and sauntered to her. It would be hours before Longshot and his boys were through with their fun. Best to take his time, arrive after the fires of violence and rape subsided. When their minds and bodies fogged after sating their lust he would go to work.
Foot in the stirrup he froze at the call of a crow. The roan whinnied her worry and he looked up, saw the black smudge descending. Letting out a soft growl he hoisted himself into the saddle, and worked to steady his edgy mount. Another caw brought him round to see the buzzard alight on a rise of brown-red rock. Feathers shook as its body began to convulse. He looked away, fishing out his flask. He drank the biting whiskey, listening to the sickening sounds of bones and flesh changing, realigning. He hated this part, and so focused on the distant smoke until he heard her relieved sigh.
'I told you our debts done.' He hitched his gaze back, eying the waifish woman standing in place of the crow. 'We ain't got no more business, you and I.' Gaze back to the smoke, lips to the flask. 'Go away.' He drained the dregs.
'Inspector,' she teased, and from the corner of his eye she hopped down into the dust. 'Old friends don't appreciate being turned away after so long.'
He sniffed, a phantom of grin playing at the corner of his mouth. 'Old friends, eh?'
'Partners then?' As always her voice was cloying. But he was immune to the toxins of her words now, having built up a resistance to her after so many years of empty promises and broken trust. Whatever game she came to play, he'd have no part in it. 'I miss the days when you'd at least spare me a snide remark.'
'Yeah, well, I'm awful broke up about that.' Would that he could spare a bullet for her now, but ammunition was scarce and he'd need all the lead he had to finish the job. Six in the chamber, two looped on his belt. Three men to kill. Perhaps after he'd carve her name into one, if one still remained.
'You've certainly soured with age. Bates, forget this; no one's left to pay you for his head.' She was right, but that had stopped being the point weeks ago. 'I'm here for something important.'
'Ain't you always,' he turned a scowl on her. 'What is it? Another lover scorn you and you don't wanna pull the trigger yourself? Fuck off.' Heels to his roan's flanks he started her down the path into the gulch.
But that blasted woman would not relent. From behind she called down to him. 'Bates! I may have the answer you've been looking for.'
Right. He didn't turn back as his horse picked her way down the trail. Another baseless guarantee. He was done them.
He thought he heard her exasperate. Moments later there was a flap of wings and the crow's cawing. It wheeled overhead before gliding towards the farmstead. Olden cursed bitch, he thought watching it.
Half an hour later he reached the valley floor. Tumorous boulders forced him into a winding path, giving him time to put away her words and consider the task ahead. Longshot Quade's reputation was born on the quickdraw, tempered by vile appetites, and polished with the blood of simple folk. To call the man a bandit wasn't enough. Wasn't near enough. He was more like the demon many claim possessed his soul, but Bates knew the truth. He knew men like Quade suffered not at the hands of some otherworldly force, but were driven by dark desires they somehow justified with their twisted logic. Twisted enough to bring their own flesh and blood into this world of atrocity and violation. That, he believed, may be Quade's greatest crime: indoctrinating his sons, dragging them along with him into the depths of wicked deeds.
Justice demanded that a man and his boys die today...
Rounding a corner created by a clutch of boulders Bates hissed a curse. There she was again, sitting on a large flat-topped rock, knees pulled up high. 'My poor stubborn Bates; there's three of them up there you know. Quade's quick enough to give you trouble on his own, and I understand his boys aren't too slow on the draw neither.' She picked at loose pebbles and grit as she spoke, while azure eyes flickered his way.
He rode past her without comment, and only the barest of glances. She hadn't changed. In seven years, while time ate away at him, she'd been able to avoid temporal decay. Her skin had retained its creamy-alabaster shine; the short blue-black curls on her head remained lustrous and thick; hell, she still wore the same short black dress she'd had on when they first met. And where time had furrowed heavy creases into his face, not a new line had appeared on hers. None of this surprised Bates, for he knew what she was...
'Don't you want to see Trillium again? Or your son?'
That's it! She'd gone too far. He reined his horse in, turning her as his hand snatched at the revolver at his hip. 'You don't talk about 'em. You hear me?' For emphasis he thumbed back the hammer, cocking the pistol.
Her smile was patient and condescending. 'What are you gonna do with that? Give me a headache?'
There weren't many who wouldn't have been afraid staring at the barrel of his battered Renfield Peacemaker. He'd seen the death of bravado in many men's eyes when he turned his sights on them, but not Evelyn. Never Evelyn. A bullet might shut her up for a time, but it would certainly piss her off. And right now he didn't need an immortal's fury at his back. 'Shit.' Depressing the hammer he put the gun away. 'I don't wanna hear it. Any of it.' He worked his mount back onto the trail.
For three years he'd run around like a headless chicken at her behest. She'd found him wandering the Waste, lost and severed from his home time. She'd pretended at mercy, taking him in, teaching him the ways of this foreign Fragment. The promise of a way home was often given in those days, playing the part of a dangled carrot. He, of course, had been the ass chasing it. Three wasted years he didn't want to repeat.
His horse whinnied and threatened to buck suddenly, when a blur of motioned dropped before them. Evelyn stood there in the road, arms crossed, her smile caught between annoyance and confidence. 'I know you've written me as the villain of your personal sob story, Bates, but I'm here to help.'
'Help? Like how you helped me by sending me after the Preacher? Or how about those weeks I spent in a cell up in Carver? I don't need - or want - your fucking help. Accord?' He didn't wait for a reply, instead snapping the reins and urging his mount to shove past her.
'Fine.' She stepped aside. 'You go up there and get yourself shot, Bates. I'll come talk to whatever's left of you.'
'You do that.'
With his back to her he allowed himself a small smile of victory. She would not relent, he knew, but any time he could so frustrate one of the Olden, he'd mark that in the winner's column.
The sun was low on his left by the time he crested the sloping incline of the road. Evelyn had left him alone to climb the far side of gulch, but now and then he'd spied her circling above him in her avian form. He forgot her as the farmhouse came into view. Nothing to write letters about, the wasteland home stood a single storey. White adobe walls were blackened in spots where fire had scoured them. Smoke still lifted from around back, but no longer in the fat plume he'd seen with his spy glass. Lazy trails rose to be carried away by the breeze. The woman he'd seen fleeing was still just outside the corral, lying still, lifeless in the dirt.
His horse huffed her anxiety, stamped her hoof and tossed her head. 'Easy,' he patted her neck and dismounted. Watching the house for signs of life he walked her over to what he guessed was the remains of a flagpole and tied her off. Then he stood beside her, still watching the house and listening. It was quiet, save for the wind whistling by, kicking up puffs of reddish dust. He wondered what could have grown there, shrugging off his cloak and tossing it up on the saddle. Sorghum, he guessed, but so late in the season whatever crop had been raised there should have been harvested by now.
Taking his first step towards the farmhouse he pulled his pistol, cocking it. Porch-steps creaked under his boots. Movement in a window froze him. Just a curtain caught in the wind. He relaxed his aim and crept to the open door. The smell of blood and piss and shit breathed out from the portal. He slipped in without pushing the door, gun leading.
A disgusted grimace at what he saw. Strewn about the open interior were the bodies of the family that had called this house home. A pair of young boys face down on the floor, their own blood pooled into a congealed mess. A man - their father? - laid out spread-eagle, his throat slit. A mother, now no more than a carved up jumble. All signs of Longshot Quade's presence.
The open concept home left few places for his quarry to hide. With cautious, practiced steps he stalked through the house, eyes searching and ears perked. A laugh from somewhere outside stopped him. He waited. A voice rose wordless in answer. He headed for the back door.
The back door too had been left open, and through it he saw them.
Longshot stood in his gambler's black, directing the two young men with him. His boys were loading plunder onto their horses. They must know Bates was on the trail, or at least some agent of justice. They weren't about to wait for some gun to come calling. Neither would Bates.
Flinging open the door he took them by surprise. His first shot cracked, dropping one of Longshot's sons unfortunate enough to be standing between Bates and the old man. Stepping onto the back porch he fired again, taking advantage of the single-action mechanism of his revolver. Trigger still depressed, he fanned the hammer back with his palm. Longshot's second son died with a short scream.
Though only seconds had passed between shots, Longshot Quade had drawn his pistol and fired in the same moment Bates released a third cartridge. Hot agony blossomed in his shoulder, the impact of Quade's bullet spinning and dropping him to a knee. 'God damn,' he grated. He heard a horse screaming and looked up.
'You sonofabitch!' Unharmed, Longshot was seething as he leveled his revolver.
Struggling through blinding pain, Bates held to his Renfield with a desperate grip and growled as he fought to raise it in defense. Quade's pistol barked. Bates fell to his back, new agony blooming red from his belly.
'I ain't gonna make it quick.' Through watery vision Bates saw him kneel to check on one son. 'Ain't gonna make it quick at all...'
Bates couldn't get his wounded arm to move. Frantic and rickety, he reached for his pistol with his left hand. His heart beat in panicked rhythm, pumping blood out the holes in his flesh. Blackness closed in as his fingers fumbled with the grip.
'I'll wear yer fucking skin like a coat!' Longshot said, his shadow falling over Bates.
The damned gun wouldn't co-operate with his fingers; he couldn't get a grip. He always figured he'd die like this, alone in the wastes at the hands of a madman. But now that his fate was descending, he found himself raging at it. He thought of his wife and son, wanting their faces to be the last thing he saw before the Deadman came for him.
But it was not death's invitation to eternity nor the blast of Longshot's pistol coming to his ears. It was the screeching of a crow. A shot went off, a scream followed, and Bates clamped shut his eyes against a bright white light. When he opened them Longshot was gone and Evelyn stood there instead, smirking. Next to her, a pile of ash...
'Was more work than I wanted to do today, Bates.' Her bare feet started her towards him. He held the wound in his belly, the warm blood soaking his hand. 'And looking at you now, seems I've got more work ahead. Unless, dear Bates, you'd like to die?'
He groaned in prelude to a curse, but when he made to speak a cough racked him instead. It filled his mouth with the taste of copper and more of his life spilled down his chin.
'I'm sorry, what was that?' She crouched before him, one hand on his thigh while the other wiped the blood from his lips. 'You must've been thanking me, weren't you?' He hated this about her the most: the warmth she pretended. Her hand lifted to brush away a strand of his hair and her eyes held his, feigning compassion. 'Bates, do you want to die here, alone, so far from those you love? From those who love you?'
Managing a sneer he shook his head, and nearly swooned from the effort.
'Of course you don't.' Her hand on his thigh traveled up to his at his belly. She pushed his aside, leaning over him to hover as a lover might. Her scent reminded him of dew covered grass. It settled a piece of his heart. 'Bates,' she whispered, pressing her forehead against his. 'This is really going to hurt.' With no other warning she put her mouth to his and he cried into her as her hand plunged into his wound.
Pain eclipsing that of the bullets lodged in his body coursed through him. Muscled stiffed in answer. He bit down on her tongue; it held like a thick strap of leather. Through it all he could feel her fingers moving, searching for the foreign piece of lead. And then relief came as she pulled her hand out. His muscles relaxed. He released her tongue and opened his eyes.
'Shh.' She straightened, showing him the bullet in her wet red hand. Tossing it she smiled, and a glow flared from her hand. 'Almost done.' The hand went back to his belly. Searing heat made him convulse. With a fistful of his hair she forced his head back. 'Easy Bates. Easy. Shh.' Her words were like anesthetic, numbing his mind to the pain of healing. He let out a wet gasp when she was through. 'Better now, isn't it?' She shifted, easing herself atop him, straddling his hips.
'Now let's take care of that shoulder, then we'll speak of our new debt.' The smile that came to her lips, a moment before she planted another kiss on his, was devious and arrogant. He screamed as her fingers drove into his shoulder: a muffled curse.
She'd been told many times that the rays of the sun were meant for healing. That Lurion's gift of light could cure all illness and make whole all wounds. That to bask in His glory, sins laid out unhidden like offerings, was to be cleansed. And yet, sitting on the flattop of the temple roof, arms wrapped around drawn up knees, she felt nothing divine from the smouldering disk stuck up in the blue. The raw wounds crisscrossing her back still burned with the fury of her Sister's wrath. The knot in her gut still twisted, wringing out the wrongness of it all to drip on and soak into her soul.
She wiped at the phantoms of old tears, long dried up like the rivers of the waste. She swallowed a lump of self pity. It would do her no good. She could rail at the harsh lessons taught at the end of a switch, but it would only stoke the fires and so goad the switch and the women holding the other end. Was that the lesson they wished to teach her? To keep quiet, never questioning, never voice protest at the unfairness she felt? What would break first; their assiduity or her unflinching certainty?
Voices rose below her, clawing up from the courtyard, calling her name. The Matron was looking for her again. Switch in hand no doubt. The wounds on her back were fresh, yet there was still unmarred flesh enough to break.
Break the flesh and the soul shall follow. She couldn't remember where she'd heard that axiom. It didn't matter. It was the truth these women lived by. They break the initiate down until they're no more than a lump of life trembling on the flagstones and can be remolded into a proper image befitting their devout sensibilities. Perhaps she could bear it, had she chosen to live amongst the Sisters of the Solar Fire. If, like Worry, she'd seen the light and sought them out then she wouldn't find the path so hard to follow. As it was she too often stumbled from it and wandered the open plains of her own desires.
The groaning of wood and metal caught her. Someone was coming up through the roof-hatch. She didn't want to look. Didn't want them to see the fear, but her body betrayed her and she glanced over. Relief sighed out from her, and turned away resting her chin on her knees. It was just Worry; too meek to swing the switch.
'Tanner.' Footsteps shuffled towards her. 'Tanner, what...where are your clothes?'
She snorted. 'I dunno.' It hurt to shrug, the movement tugging at broken skin.
'Heart of the Sun; your back.' Cool, like damp cloth on a fevered forehead, Worry's fingers brushed her back. She didn't flinch at her friend's gentle touch. Tender connection at the House of the Solar Fire was as rare and precious as water to her. 'The Matron is looking for you.'
'She's really gonna give it to you now, you know.'
Her friend's exasperated sigh brought a crooked smile to her. 'I hope he was worth it.'
Tanner shrugged again, wishing her friend would keep touching her to counteract the pain. 'He was all right, I guess.'
'All right?' Worry's pale face swung around into view. Her red curls seemed to bristle. 'The Matron's gonna beat you harder than ever.'
Despite herself, Tanner grinned again. The memory of the night before, spent in carnal secret with the Matron's future lover, was too sweat. Not because the young man was any good or knew what he was doing. Virgins never do. It was because after years of having her pride stripped from her finally she'd been able to take something from that stern old hag.
The voices below sounded on the edge of cursing. Tanner had certainly pushed these pious women to the brink once more.
'Do you want to know how he was?' Worry's green eyes grew to saucers at her question. The poor girl, as far as Tanner knew, had never even tasted a man's lips or tongue before. The look of curious discomfort on her friend's face may be her last slice of joy for some time. 'Well?'
'Okay. I mean no.'
'You mean yes.' She tilted her head. 'Worry, I know you want to know what it's like.'
'No I don't.' Red curls tossed as Worry shook her head. But Tanner saw the truth writ in sparkling gaze.
'When you grab it it gets hard.'
'Stop it.' Worry glanced over her shoulder, checking the trapdoor.
'They like when you play with it.'
'Don't!' Worry hissed. 'You shouldn't speak of such thinks under the Sun.'
'We could find him tonight and I could show you what to do.'
Worry surprised her then with a slap across the cheek. 'Shut up.' She rose and another slap descended. Tanner did not lift her arms in defense. She took her friend's anger with quiet, reactionless rebellion. What's another welt between friends. 'Why?' Worry asked when her outrage had ebbed.
'Why are you always trying to lead me down to blasphemy?'
'That's a little stilted, isn't it?'
'Tanner...' Fist at her hips, head tilted to one side, Worry looked so much like one of the Sister's now. Tanner almost laughed.
'Go on,' she waved her friend away. 'Go tell them where I am, so I can take my beating already.'
Worry looked ready to say something, lips parting, but then they clamped shut. 'I'll come see you after, okay?'
'If they let you.'
'Tanner, they're not without mercy.'
Looking away from her friend, back out across the broken brown wastes running from the temple in all directions, Tanner shrugged.
Worry did come to her that night, long after the lamps had been turned low and the evening prayers had been spoken. It was hard for Tanner to tell at first who had entered her cramped chamber, with one eye swollen shut and only a single candle to light her friend's face.
There was a part of Tanner that didn't want Worry to see her in this state, but it's voice was so quiet now she easily ignored it. 'Hey,' she croaked. Split lips stung as she tried a smile.
Worry put something down on the little table beside her cot. 'They let me come to clean your wounds.' And true to her word, Worry began to prod and wipe with a cool damp cloth. 'I didn't watch,' she said as she worked at the dried blood at the corners of Tanner's mouth. 'I couldn't.' Her voice sounded close to breaking.
'Are...' Tanner had to swallow before she could manage the words. 'Are you all right?'
The cloth froze hovering. Worry frowned. 'How can you ask me that?' She went back to work, her ministrations focused now on the deep cut along Tanner's cheek. The switch hadn't been enough for the Matron. She flinched recalling the dagger's blade being drawn across her skin, opening her. It would leave her scarred, but that was the point. No one wants a cut up whore.
'You're too gentle for your own good.' She reached out from the blankets, her shaky hand to her friend's creamy cheek. But her burnished fingers seemed to sully Worry's perfect complexion and so she quickly took them away.
'And you're too stupid for yours.' Worry was smiling as she spoke, small and gentle. Just like her.
'She really gave it to me this time, hey?' Her friend said nothing to that, but her expression fell. 'Next time you might be burying me.'
'Stop it.' Worry stiffened. 'I hate when you talk like that.'
It hurt to laugh, and even the chuckle Tanner let out then caused her to wince. 'I thought you hated when I talked about sex.'
'That too. I hate most of what you say.'
'Then why do you keep talking to me?'
Worry kept silent while finished cleaning Tanner's visible wounds. 'Can you sit up? I need to get to your back.' With her help Tanner got up. Naked beneath the covers, her ravaged back exposed, she shifted forward while Worry sat behind her on the bed. 'There shouldn't be a next time.' Tanner grimaced as the cloth touched at the raw wounds. 'You need to conform, Tann. If you don't...'
She didn't need to say it. The Sisterhood had but one answer for failure. And there were unmarked graves out in the waste that could attest to that. 'There won't be a next time.'
'Good. Wait. What?' Ah, Worry: smart enough to know her warnings fell on Tanner's deaf ears. 'What do you mean?' Hands on her shoulders, Worry leaned over her.
'I mean there won't be a next time.'
'Why?' Over her shoulder Worry looked scared. 'What are you planning?'
'Who says I'm planning anything?' Tanner snatched her gaze away.
'I do. I know you won't comply. Do you want to die?'
'Of course not.'
'Do you love me?'
'Do you love me?'
Worry's fingers on her shoulders tightened their grip. 'Yes.'
'Do you love me enough to keep quiet?'
'What? You can't.'
'Yes I can. I didn't ask to be here. I don't want to be here, and no one wants me here anyway.'
'I want you here.'
'I know.' She leaned back into her friend, accepting the pain in her back as a price for closeness. Worry had been the only one there to give a damn about Tanner. The only one to offer a shoulder when the sun burned black and hope was raped before her eyes. With her hands she took Worry's and wrapped her arms about herself like a scarf. 'You're the only light in this place.'
'You'll keep pushing them, won't you?' Worry's breath was warm on her ear and smelled of spiced vegetables. 'If you stay you'll get yourself killed.'
'And maybe you in the process.'
'You love a whore. If they find you out...' Worry's arms tightened around her and she buried her face in Tanner's neck. 'It's best for both of us if I leave.'
'They'll hunt you,' came Worry's muffled reply.
'But at least I'll have a chance.'
Neither girl spoke after that. Worry just held her until sleep crept in through the darkened window to claim them. Once in the night Tanner awoke to find her friend still holding her, snoring softly. And new tears welled in Tanner's eyes at the thought of leaving her friend behind.
Bates woke with a bed beneath him and rays of sunshine bathing his face. Groggy, grainy-eyed and stiff, his gaze cast about the unfamiliar room. For a moment he thought himself home, with Trillium beside him. But that had been a dream. Lying back, staring up at the rafters, he reached for his shoulder. Touched bandages. Tried to move that arm, but pain sapped his strength. Under the sheet covering him he found bandages wrapped around his belly. He wished the dream reversed; wished he'd woken up with his wife, his journey through the wastes a nightmare to be forgotten.
He looked over when the door began to creak on rusted hinges. 'I bet you feel like shit,' Evelyn said, leaning on the door frame. She lifted a hand-rolled cigarette to her lips. 'You look the part.' White smoke poured from her nostrils.
'I'm fine.' He tried to rise but it was difficult using only one arm. 'Or,' a groan interrupted him as he propped himself up, 'I will be.'
'You're welcome.' Pushing from the frame Evelyn sauntered over to the bed. Delicately she put the cigarette between his lips. 'How's the pain?' She eased her slight weight down beside him, looking on him in some pseudo-motherly fashion.
Before answering, Bates took a long and satisfying drag. He'd been too long without tobacco on the road, having burned through his supply weeks ago. She was, he knew, moments from launching into some request to settle their new debt. He would at least enjoy this smoke before she got to the bad news. 'I said I'm fine.'
'That you did.' A wistful expression softened her face. 'I noticed a lot of new scars. These past years have not been kind to you.' He puffed on the cigarette, not answering, only watching. 'You should have stayed with me.' She looked away. 'I could have saved you some pain.'
He snorted, almost laughing at that. 'Right, Ev.'
'You lack faith,' she turned back to him. 'You always did.'
'I have faith. Faith your kind's always got some damned fool-errand for us mortals. Faith you'll get us all killed one day.'
'Enough with the Blackwatch propaganda, Bates. I'm not here for a fight.'
'No,' he said, squashing out the cigarette on the side table. 'You came calling with yet another promise. Well, I'm here, at your mercy, so go on, talk.'
Her mouth formed a condescending smile and her eyes took on a cold quality. 'I was coming to you with a mutual offer, but now find you once more in my pocket.'
Olden cursed bitch. 'You said you had answers for me. A way home.'
'I said nothing of a way home, Bates. But yes, my answers did lie in that direction. Too bad,' she stood up from the bed. 'Now you owe me Bates. So I suggest you listen well, or I'll reverse the gift I've given you and leave you to the buzzards.'
'Same old shit.' He tore his gaze from her. 'Just another fucking carrot.'
'No more carrots Bates,' she stepped around the bed to look him in the eye. Her gaze was hard, cold, and maybe a little desperate. 'No more games. I need you Bates, or an innocent girl will die.'
Cutting remarks died on his tongue. He was not fool enough to believe only ice ruled Evelyn's heart. There were after all those who prayed for her fabled mercy... 'All right. Let's hear it.'
Her old smile returned.