Shanks didn’t waste much time after the wagon had rolled and the gang had ridden out. He got a watered whisky from the bar and watched them go until the dust was a fading column in the far distance. He didn’t say a word to anyone else and when Elaine tried to coax something out of him he hushed her with a raised finger and went to get his things.
When he came back down the stairs, weighed down by his bags and properly dressed the barman and the saloon girl were waiting on him, standing between him and the door with a look very much like concern. He sighed and shifted his bag on his shoulder, arching an eyebrow at them. “Yes?”
“You goin’ after ’em?” the barkeep looked less drunk than usual. Not that this was a hard thing to do by any stretch.
“Yes Sir, I believe I am.”
“On foot?” Elaine spoke up, pursing her lips and twisting her mouth to the side of her face disapprovingly.
“I got a horse you can take. You’d catch ’em if they’re keepin’ pace with the wagon.” the barkeep spat to the side, onto the boards.
Shanks smiled and shook his head. “Gracious of you, but I believe I’ll stay on foot. They think I know something and I think their guilt is going to lead me there. A horse is going to kick up dust. I’ll be better on foot.”
“You could walk it slow, at least then you’d be fresh when you catch up to ’em.” Elaine took a step forward, hands towards him imploring.
“Madam, me and horses don’t get on. The first one I mounted bit me, the last one I mounted died. I’ll stick to my feet.” Shanks smiled again, tipped his hat to the lady and stepped around her. Pacing back out into the light and onto the trail.
The shallow ruts lead up the gentle, slope away to the north and east, crowded with hoof marks. The town didn’t get much traffic at the best of times and these newer tracks stood out like a sore thumb to even an amateur tracker. It certainly wasn’t anything like trying to chase down a fox with the Berkshire Hunt. Shanks re-shouldered his bag and set off, teeth gritted, in slow, steady, dogged pursuit.
Voices carry a long way when there’s little to stand in their way and in the bright light of day you can see for miles over the oceans of scrub and grass. Here, there, dotted, standing out on the horizon were lumps and bumps, a nest, a ‘herd’ of rocks lost in the ocean of brown and green.
Shanks paused and hunkered down as the wind turned and carried distant voices to him. Even on his belly he was only barely beneath the level of the grass. Getting up to where they seemed to be was going to take guile and cunning. Not for the first time Shanks wished he had a rifle, but most of the time I paid to seem less dangerous.
A deep, calming breath and he tugged his bowler down to his brow, casting about for anything that might give him a way to get closer and he was struck, suddenly, by the sight of a single buffalo, perhaps three hundred yards away. A great, shaggy beast that just seemed to be standing there, in the middle of nowhere. A beast out of its proper place, just like he was. Divine providence? He wasn’t the sort to put much credit in that sort of thing but it might serve.
Shanks stayed low, tutting at the dusting his suit was getting as he scrambled across he ground, closer to the buffalo. Two-hundred yards… one-hundred… that great horned head turned towards him and doleful brown eyes stared at him, but the beast just stood there, listlessly, ignoring him, even as he stalked it.
Another few scrambled, crawling steps and Shanks’ fingers hit something taut and dusty like a drumskin, it snapped and crackled under his weight and he pitched over onto his side, sending up a small puff of dust from the tinder-dry grass and stifling a cry of alarm. He twisted his head and looked and suddenly things made an odd sort of sense. There were bones and dry skin everywhere, skulls and ribs and hooves. A graveyard of buffalo of which this one remaining beast must be the only survivor.
Shanks sat a moment, shaking his head, the sheer waste of it all would give even a hard-bitten man pause. They’d just been left to the buzzards. Shot and left. Not even used. It didn’t seem… thrifty.
“Well old boy…” he ducked his head a moment “old girl, I think I know who might have done this so how about giving me a little bit of a hand eh?” He slid up, hunched over, next to the warm, sweaty stink of the husky beast and gave her a pat on the flank.
The old girl was a stubborn beast, but solid and shaggy. Concealed behind her and moving her along with pats and sweet nothings murmured into the creature’s ear. Closer and closer to the stony mounds that rose from the plains. It was painfully slow going, but it was going.
The voices got clearer as they skirted past the horses. Shanks cocked an ear to hear what the deuce they were on about.
“Ain’t nobody been here Dan.”
“He knew though, he knew what was up. The only way he could know is if he came through here.”
“How’s your hand Dan?” there was some laughter at that.
“Shut your goddamn mouth Jack, and this time you can go down there and check, again. He must have left some sign down there.”
“And the rest of you idiots can get a fire goin’ and brew some goddamn coffee.”
Shanks risked a glance around the buffalo. That fellow there must be Jack, parting from the group and trudging reluctantly towards one of the big boulders that rose from the grass. Shanks picked his moment and darted after him, breaking free of the buffalo and darting into the crack in the rock the man had slipped into, following the fading glimmer of a lit match, the only light.
It was a wide crack, worn smooth either side, two or three men could have climbed into it. It was smooth, slippery, cool, damp even in the daytime sun and in the stirred air from the passage of the man before him there was a foul and rancid stench that almost made him cough, but that would have been a bad idea.
The light went out and then was struck again, a fresh match in the darkness. Shanks was right behind him. The light from the match shimmered on water and gleamed from the walls as this man, Jack, covered his mouth with his neckerchief and crouched over the pool at the base of the cave. It was water, but it was also a foul, soupy mess. The cadaver of a bloated cow carcass floated, blown up like an obscene balloon and seeping foulness into the water.
“Nobody’s been down here fer crissakes…” Jack set his matches aside and pulled his pistol from his hip and prodded at the floating carcass. It made a darkly comic sight, bobbing around, hooves in the air like the masts of a ship.
“Not until now anyway,” Shanks murmured, right behind the poor man who jumped, swayed and nearly fell in. Then did fall in after a sharp crack to the back of the head with a rock. “One down, four to go, but first…”
Shanks lit a fresh match from the man’s pack and propped it up on the rocks. He carefully stripped off his jacket and shirt, took off his hat and set it all aside, thrusting his pistols into his trouser pockets as he strained and pulled and heaved to take both the unconscious man and the rotting cow out of the water. By the time he was done he was drenched with sweat and foul with the muck that seeped off the cow. It wouldn’t make things better right away, but all in good time.
Now it was just a matter of dealing with the bastards back upstairs. The kind of chaps that would poison the water, just for a tiny bit more land on a seemingly endless plain, they didn’t deserve any quarter. Shanks cricked his neck side to side and held the unconscious man’s head under the water until the bubbles stopped coming, then shoved him next to the rotting cow, which was farting and bubbling as gas escaped from its rotten innards.
He grasped his pistols in his hands and shook the chains loose, feeling his way up in the dark as the match guttered and went out, up towards the light.
Shanks emerged into the bright light of day and the presence of another one of the ranchers. A fat looking man with a greasy beard, chin-string lost in a double chin. “Jack, you sure took your sweet fucking time!”
Shanks didn’t give him the time to realise his mistake, he raised his stubby pistol and there was a thunderous bang as the heavy bullet took the fat man in the chest and hurled him back, bursting his over-stretched heart like an over-ripe watermelon.
The others would be warned now, though they’d be shocked for a moment. It was important to move fast. Shanks jumped up onto the side of the boulder and sprang up to the top. Their little fire showed where they were and the horses were stirring now, scared by the gunshot and from up here Shanks could see them all. Two sat dumb around the fire, Dan, good old Dan with the crippled hand, running for the horses.
One of them looked up, saw him, got as far as “L…” before his pistols boomed. Red wounds burst open on the man’s chest and the massive rounds blew through his back, lung matter and shattered ribs spraying the fire, hissing in the flames, bone fragments rattling against the coffee pot before his twitching body fell back onto the lot of it, smothering the flames as he futilely tried to breathe.
The other man at the fire had gotten his gun free and fanned the hammer, spraying the air with bullets. Shanks gave a “Damn!” and tucked forward into a roll, splinters of stone and fragmented bullets stinging his bare back like wasps. Off balance he came back up on one knee and fired, before he was ready.
The man by the fire was clicking on empty chambers as Shanks fired, walking one, two, three bullets up the man. His knee exploded into fragments and his leg twisted around on a frayed, fleshy rope before the second hit punched through his stomach and the third took him under the chin and blew out the top of his hat.
Dan had reached the horses as Shanks stood up, clumsily holding a borrowed pistol in his left hand he put it to the head of one of the horses and fired. The others scattered, their dead friend falling as though its strings had been cut. Dan fell in behind it, cover, waving his pistol over the top.
“Back the fuck off you crazy shitheel!”
Shanks scrambled flat, below the line of the twitching corpse of the man he’d shot through the hat. It was no horse, but it might stop a bullet or two.
“I don’t even bloody like horses and I thought that was a bit much you callous arse!”
“Like I give a good god damn!” Dan lunged over the corpse of the horse and fired with his shaking hand. It went wide, sending up a puff of dirt yards from Shank’s side.
“You couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn Daniel. Even with your good hand. You know I can shoot you at my leisure. So why not die with a little dignity, on your feet?” Shanks clicked open his revolvers, more than enough bullets left, between them.
“Fuck you you fucking fuck!” Another shot, and another, no chance, they weren’t coming anywhere near him. The stupid bastard only had two left and he wasn’t going to have time to reload.
“Blast it to hell…” Shanks got up, raised his guns and walked slowly, calmly towards the corpse of the horse. He could see Dan’s wide eyes staring over its flank as he tried to steady the pistol in his trembling fist, stabilising it with his injured hand.
It wasn’t enough.
He thumbed back the hammer and fired. It went wide.
Shanks fixed him with a stony stare and kept on coming, yards away only, another bang like a punch in the ears and he stopped, guns raised either side, turning this way and that, lean bare body streaked with sweat, fingers blackened with powder.
“Shot your bolt Daniel. Nothing left,” his eyes narrowed as he sighted down the stubby barrel of one pistol.
“You’d kill a man in cold blood?” Dan tossed his gun and his belt away, raised his hands and licked his cracked lips.
“No,” Shanks lowered his aim and fired, a cloud of smoke and a fleshy ‘thump’ in the moment after it. The round took Dan through the stomach and blood began to drain from him, spilling over the dirt as he swore and writhed, a ball of agony around the wound. “I’ll do worse. Especially to a man of such cruelty and disregard. That wound’s going to kill you. I believe I’ll leave you to it.”
Shanks put his guns away, went back into the cave to get his things and dressed up in the sunlight, ignoring the swearing, grunting man, pathetically trying to crawl to where he’d tossed his gun, a snail trail of blood and guts behind him.
Shanks brushed his shoulders with his hand and took back to the road, shouldering his bag, the man’s swearing and cursing left behind while the placid buffalo ripped at the grass around the dead men. He paused, a moment, to tip his hat to the grand dam of the plains respectfully and then was on his merry way.
It didn’t take long before Dan’s cries and moans were lost in the rising wind.
But the, eventual, single gunshot….
That he heard.
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