It didn’t take me long to find one of them murderous bastards.
I had a good notion as to where Friedricks and his band might be hiding out. Up there in the hills not too terribly far from camp, there was a series of tunnels. Jessie and I went exploring up there when the weather was warmer, and on more than one occasion I’d stolen away with one of the camp girls for a kiss and a hug up in the shadows of those caves. The snow had hit hard and fast, almost as if the cannibals had brought the foul weather with them. If they were looking for a place to hole up until the thaw, the camp might’ve been there best choice, but I reckon they didn’t want to live amongst their food. The caves were the likely second choice.
Trudging across the snow, I glanced behind me and saw the path of my footsteps trailing back towards camp. Part of me wanted to turn and hike back in that direction. But another part of me wanted to keep marching on. Even after I killed those bastards-assuming I survived-I wanted to just keep on walking, leaving a trail of footprints leading on into forever.
I’d had it up to my gullet with Mr. Newcomb and his cruel ways. The camp wasn’t a home to me, not any more. With Ezra and Jessie gone, I didn’t have much of anything to return to. I think I decided then and there that I won’t never going back.
The snow was kicking up again, and I was near about blind out there in the white, but up ahead, I could make out the hills and the caves on the horizon. I pulled McGregor’s pistol from my belt, tested the weight. I didn’t feel that charge of electricity this time, but I figured it would come back when I needed it.
Six bullets. Six bullets for six killers.
With a little luck and a little magic from the gun, that’s all I’d need.
For half a second there, I felt like a dyed-in-the-wool killer my own self. Might’ve kept on feeling that way with every step closer to the caves, too, if I hadn’t been caught unawares.
I rounded an outcropping of rock, and almost walked smack into the ugliest man I’d ever met. I ain’t kidding. He was so ugly he could’ve chased a buzzard off a gut wagon. He was skinny and filthy and scraggly, and his pale flesh was covered in nasty boils. All of Friedricks’ men were dirty and sickly-looking, but this fella might’ve been the worst. His eyes were almost as pale as the snow-devil’s eyes, Jessie would’ve called them. He was hitching up his breeches as I ran into him. He must’ve been finishing up some personal business. He had a gun on his sagging, unbuckled belt, but he didn’t go for it.
I almost thought I’d gotten the drop on him. I brought the sharpshooter’s gun up, but my hand seemed to be moving too slow, like my bones and muscles were frozen. As the gun came up, I kept willing the magic to spring to life, to give me the strength and speed I needed. But I didn’t have no such luck.
Like I said, he didn’t go for his own gun. Instead, he moved with an animal quickness and yanked an Arkansas toothpick out from I-don’t-know-where. His breath gave a frosty blast, and he cackled as he slashed at my face with the knife. I’d like to say I wasn’t scared, but I squeaked right loud and jumped back. I didn’t fall, but I sure almost did. The gun slipped right out of my fingers as I dodged the blade, and it thumped into the snow.
The killer waved the knife back and forth. The point of the blade reminded me of the head of one of them cobras the camp’s snake charmer used to tame. The pigsticker was like a living thing, waiting for the right place to strike.
I couldn’t move. I wanted to, but fear held me in place.
The killer smiled.
His teeth were sharp. My gut reaction was that they looked like an animal’s teeth. But they reminded me of something else, too. Years ago, Jessie and I had caught a garfish in the creek. Was one of the meanest looking things I’d ever seen, and its long snout was lined with dozens of haphazardly placed, needle-sharp fangs. The killer’s teeth were kind of like that.
They damn sure weren’t human.
“What you doing out here, boy?” His bloated, gray tongue snaked out of his mouth, slithered across his sharp, yellowed teeth. His breath plumed in the chilly air, like he was sending up smoke signals. “Armed with that there six-shooter, you come out here looking for trouble?”
I glanced across the frozen ground to where the gun lay. No more than a couple of yards away, but it might as well have been a thousand miles. I knew if I so much as twitched the wrong way, the killer’s knife would plunge into my neck, and I’d be done for. He felt flushed and hot, despite the weather, and I couldn’t help but tremble with fear.
“I didn’t come out here looking for no trouble myself.” The killer sucked at his teeth. “You came from that camp, didn’t you?”
I swallowed down my fear. I figured if I could keep him talking, I might catch a lucky break. I nodded.
“You know how it is then, don’t you? You spend your every waking hour with the same folks, sooner or later, you need to slip away, get a little time to yourself, clear your head. Am I right?”
I nodded again. I slight smile curled the corner’s of the killer’s lips, and he sucked his teeth once more. I didn’t like to think about what he was trying to dislodge. He looked back towards me, his smile slipping away.
“But like I said, you came out here looking for trouble.” He looked towards my gun. “I’d guess that there smoke-wagon’s meant for me, along with them others I’m riding with, too.”
I couldn’t help myself. The words jumped from my mouth like a toad from a hot skillet.
“You killed my friends, my brother.”
“Hell, son. If I went around gunning down everybody what killed one of my brothers, I’d never have a moment’s peace, and that ain’t even taking into consideration I’d have to eat the barrel of my own pistol for what I done to young Jasper.” He coughed out a laugh, a halo of frosty vapors exploding from his lips. “And you thought you might be able to get the drop on all six of us, is that right? You never stood a chance, boy. Boone would’ve skinned you alive before you even realized what was happening to you.”
Now the cold seeped into my bones again.
The killer leaned in close, as if sharing a secret. “But I guess I ain’t gonna tell Boone about finding you out here.”
I blinked, unsure of what the man had just said. “Y-you’re not?”
“Hell, no. It ain’t none of Boone’s concern what I find when I’m out enjoying a little alone time.”
The killer’s grin widened then, wider than I thought possible, almost like his entire head was splitting open, and a graveyard stink oozed from his mouth in a cloud of frost, and I saw bits of ragged meat between his teeth.
“If I keep this little meeting to myself,” he said, “it just means more for me.”
He took a step towards me. I flinched back, looking towards the gun. It didn’t matter if I’d make it or not, I had to make a grab for the pistol. He might have killed me before I reached the weapon, but at least I’d die fighting. I threw myself towards the gun, but even as I landed-hard-in the snow, I felt his hand clamp around my ankle, and he started hauling me backwards with a strength I didn’t expect.
I rolled over, kicking at him, and he fell upon me. His sharp teeth snapped at my face, and I turned my head to avoid getting my nose bitten off. Rancid slobber fell across my face. He was punching me in the belly over and over again.
No, not punching, I realized.
He was stabbing me.
I felt the icy cold of the blade slicing into my flesh. The warmth of my blood.
I cried out, trying to push him back.
Just then, a voice called out-
-And the killer immediately released me. He jumped to his feet, turning. His bloody knife lay forgotten on the ground. I scurried away, wiping freezing snow and ice and spit from my face. I could move and I could breathe, and I figured the cuts in my stomach might not be as bad as I thought. I scrambled to my feet, and I saw blood in the snow. I dared not look at my stomach, though.
A figure in black strode through the snow. He was tall and lean, and his gait was sure and steady, like no amount of snow or ice or freezing cold could sway him from his purpose.
It was the walk of a gunfighter.
I couldn’t make out his features. A flurry of snow whipped around him, and the derby hat he wore cast a shadow across his face. But the killer-Frank Cartwirght-he seemed to recognize him straight away, and his smile turned to a sneer.
“I was wondering when you were gonna show yourself again,” Cartwright growled.
A muscle along his jaw line twitched nervously. His hand inched towards the pistol at his side.
The wind howled, and a sheet of snow whipped between the two men.
The rapport of a gun cracked through the cold night air. The sudden smell of gun smoke stung my nostrils and made my eyes water.
I have seen some fast gunmen in my time. Up until that moment, I had always believed Colt McGregor to be the fastest man who ever drew breath. But Cartwright made Colt-even when he was in his prime-look slow and feeble. His hand snapped to his hip and back up in the blink of an eye.
But near as I could tell, his finger never touched the trigger.
The killer staggered, and toppled backwards. Frosty steam no longer streamed from his mouth, but instead boiled up from a bloody hole right through his murderous heart.
I blinked in disbelief as the gunfighter approached. I’d seen men die before, sure, but I’d never seen such an efficient killing. It was downright professional.
Glistening blood oozed through the snowy ground, spreading like a crimson blanket around Frank Cartwright’s body. I took a step backwards, away from the spreading blood. It was about that time that I looked down and remembered not all the blood belonged to the killer. I remembered the pigsticker. I remembered the killer driving the weapon into my stomach. The frigid cold had numbed me to the stab wounds in my belly, but as soon as I saw my own blood staining my shirt and running down my legs to my boots, I started feeling light-headed.
He killed me after all, I thought.
And about that time, my eyes rolled back into my skull and I passed out into the cold and darkness.
* * *
TO BE CONTINUED NEXT TUESDAY…
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