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       Savage, p.28

           Richard Laymon

  “It is a shame they showed up when they did,” I said.

  “You never know. At least we ain’t got them to worry about no more.”

  “I’d rather have dealt with those two on my trail than a whole crowd.”

  He laughed softly. “Well, there ain’t gonna be a crowd much longer.”

  I looked over my shoulder and was glad to see that the gap between the piled boulders was still empty. The low thunder of hoofbeats sounded louder and louder.

  “What you might wanta do,” McSween said, “is dig in your spurs and light out.”

  “That’s what I intend to do.”

  “It’s right now I mean.”


  “That’s what I’d like you to do, Willy. Go on and skedaddle. No point in you being in on this. At the best, you’d only bloody your hands. At worst, you’d end up killed. Go on, now. We’ll handle this here posse. Things work out, I’ll catch you down the trail.”

  “I’m not a bloody coward,” I told him.

  “Why, I know that.”

  “It’s only because of me that we have this posse after us.”

  “That’s no call for you to stick with us.”

  “It’s all the call I need,” I said, talking quite a heap braver than I felt.

  “Reckon it’s too late, anyhow,” McSween said.

  I was still watching the gap. It was still empty. But now the thunder was so near I almost thought I could feel the air quaking.

  “This is it, Willy,” McSween said. He shouldered his Winchester and thumbed back its hammer. “Ride fast, keep low, and shoot straight. And God be with you.”

  “You, too,” I told him. It came out no louder than a whisper.

  A lone horseman rode through the gap. His head was turned. He seemed to be talking to someone behind him, though he was too far off for me to hear his voice. McSween’s rifle spoke. The fellow pitched backward. His horse reared. He fell off, but one of his feet got hung up in a stirrup. The horse scampered to the right, dragging him.

  “Hightail!” McSween yelled.

  We didn’t linger. We hunched and dug in and bolted.

  From behind us came shouts. “There!” and “Bastards!” and “Get ‘em!”

  It was Whitechapel all over again, a mob after my blood, only this time they had guns.

  They blasted away at us.

  Bullets whinged off rocks, buzzed past my head. I kept an eye on McSween racing alongside me low in his saddle with the wind shoving his hat brim up. He didn’t look like he’d been hit yet. So far, I’d been lucky, too. I figured a slug was on its way toward my back. I waited for it to whack me, but all I could feel was General dashing like mad, the hot wind rushing into my face so quick it wanted to choke me.

  The mouth of the pass hadn’t seemed like more than a stone’s throw away when me and McSween had picked our spot to wait for the posse.

  But that stone’s throw seemed more like a mile now that the mob was on our tails, spitting lead.

  I wished I hadn’t been so eager to play bait.

  None of the others had volunteered for the job, however, and I’d figured McSween shouldn’t have to go it alone.

  Even though it was his own daft idea.

  “You don’t never wanta try this trick on the redskins,” he’d said. “Why, hell, it’s their trick. You take your white folks, though, they fall for it every time.”

  I’d neglected to ask him how many redskins got themselves shot dead while leading their pursuers into such traps.

  At long last, we galloped between the boulders at the mouth of the pass. The gunfire slackened off a bit, so I raised my head and glanced about. I didn’t see hide nor hair of the boys up there among the rocks. What if they’d lit out? The notion shook me. But I reckoned they weren’t the sort to pull such a dirty stunt.

  I took a chance and looked back. Here came the posse, two at a time, racing at us down the narrow pass, only the pair in front firing. The rest had quit shooting so they wouldn’t hit their own.

  Me and McSween kept riding just as fast as our mounts could carry us.

  The boys kept waiting.

  If they were here.

  Suddenly, puffs of smoke bloomed on the canyon walls as four guns crashed and four men tumbled off their horses.

  McSween cut to the left. Rifle in hand, he hurled himself to the ground and dashed behind a clump of rocks. I reined in General, snatched out my Winchester, and leaped down to join him.

  He was already scurrying up the slope. I followed, rather hoping it might all be over before we found a proper perch.

  It sounded horrid. The canyon just roared with gunfire. Horses squealed and whinnied. Men shouted, cried out.

  They came to kill us, I told myself.

  Too soon, McSween picked himself a rock. It was big enough for both of us. We rose up behind it and shouldered our rifles.

  Down below was mayhem. Dead men. Dead horses. A few fellows rode breakneck for the mouth of the pass in a panic to escape. Others stayed. Of those that stayed to fight, some simply crouched in the open and returned fire, some scampered up into the rocks, some hunkered down to take shelter beside their fallen mounts, and a few rode in their saddles, shooting this way and that as their horses wheeled and bucked.

  McSween’s rifle deafened my ear. One of the men on a circling, snorting horse keeled over sideways.

  I levered in a cartridge myself and sighted in on a fellow who was squatting next to a dead man. He’d lost his hat. He was bald. His head was down while he worked at reloading his pistol.

  I spent a fair amount of time lining him up in my sights. It beat looking at the carnage. McSween kept on firing quick.

  The way I judged matters, my fellow was just a law-abiding citizen doing his duty. Maybe he was a shopkeeper, or the like. Maybe he had a wife and children. If I shot him, I’d be no better than a murderer. On the other hand, I wanted McSween to figure I was doing my level best to help the situation.

  So I eased my barrel over some, took aim at his weapon, and squeezed the trigger. Missed. My bullet raised some powder off the shirt of the dead man.

  My fellow finished reloading. He looked up toward me and McSween, swung his pistol toward us, and caught a slug in his forehead from McSween’s rifle.

  I didn’t feel too sorry about it, but was glad I hadn’t been the one to kill him.

  With him dead, I had no choice but to search out another target.

  The only fellow still moving down there had a wounded leg and was hobbling toward a skittish horse. Just as he got to it, he fell. But he latched a hand on to one of the stirrups. The horse lit out for the mouth of the pass, towing him. It was a big white stallion. I levered a round into my chamber and aimed toward the man’s feet. I figured to try for one of his boot heels. But then there wasn’t any point, for the stallion caught lead. It stumbled sideways and stepped on him. It missed him when it toppled over. Before the man could move—if he had it in him to move—he got smacked by three or four slugs.

  After that, the shooting stopped. The quiet seemed mighty unnatural. Other than the wind and the ringing in my ears, all I could hear were the cries of wounded men and horses.

  We climbed down to the bottom of the pass. All of us did, that is, except for Breakenridge. Snooker’d been near him on the slope, and said he’d been killed.

  Keeping our guns ready, we wandered among the fallen. It turned out there were nine dead and seven wounded. Ike Brewer, the town sheriff, was among the dead.

  We disarmed the wounded to avoid surprises, then gathered enough horses for them. Those too hurt to ride, we tied aboard their saddles. We sent them through the mouth of the pass, figuring that the few who’d escaped from our ambush would likely see to them.

  When they were gone, we climbed up a slope and found Breakenridge. A bullet had gone into his right eye, and he was awful to look at.

  Nobody seemed particularly upset about the loss of him. He hadn’t been the friendly sort, after all. If the others f
elt the same as me, they were mostly feeling glad it was him instead of themselves that had gotten killed.

  It took four of us to tote him down to the bottom. Snooker held our rifles for us. I helped out by lugging one of Break-enridge’s legs. He was huge and heavy. We were mostly all worn out by the time we got done.

  We spent a while rounding up our horses. Then we hoisted Breakenridge up across his saddle, and tied him so he wouldn’t fall off.

  We rode south out of the pass.

  Early in the afternoon, we unloaded Breakenridge in a dry wash and covered him with rocks. Chase read some words over him from a Bible he took from his saddlebag. Then we split up what was left of Breakenridge’s loot. We kept his horse as a spare, and rode on.

  All through the day, we kept a watch behind us. There was no sign that the remains of the posse was coming after us. McSween allowed it was a good thing we’d shot Ike in the ambush, as he’d been a stubborn fellow who wouldn’t have given up. The way he saw it, the rest of the bunch likely figured they’d got off lucky, and were hurrying on back to town with the wounded.

  I hoped he was right about that, but not because I was scared of the posse. It would take more than whatever handful had survived the trap to do us any harm. I just hoped they wouldn’t show up because I didn’t want any more of them to get killed.

  I was feeling mighty lowdown and miserable about the slaughter back at the pass. We hadn’t any choice to speak of. It was them or us. But there just wasn’t a way to put it in a light that eased the burden. I hadn’t shot anyone, but I’d helped bait the trap. And the posse never would’ve come after us if we hadn’t stolen Prue’s horse. It all stemmed from that.

  Four men in the saloon and nine at the pass, and Breakenridge—not a one of them would’ve gotten killed if I hadn’t made a choice to ride with the gang.

  Fourteen men.

  That got me to thinking how Trudy and her father and Michael had also died on account of me. No way I could blame myself for the General and Mable, but they’d taken me into their home and they’d ended up dead, too.

  It seemed like nobody was safe around me, like I carried a curse that got folks killed.

  Just a matter of time, I judged, before my curse would wipe out McSween and Chase and Emmet and Snooker.

  If I stuck with them.

  Much as I wanted McSween to help me track Whittle, I finally made up my mind to ride out alone. I sure would miss him. But I’d miss him more, and take on a new load of guilt, if he came along and got killed for his troubles.

  I didn’t let on about my plan. During supper that night, the boys discussed splitting up. Chase and Emmet figured they’d go east in the morning, Snooker said he thought he’d head up to Denver, and McSween allowed as how he and I would make for Tombstone. I acted as if that suited me.

  Later on, we all turned in except for McSween, who had first watch. I lay in my blanket, waiting. When it came my turn, I pretended to be asleep. McSween knelt and shook my shoulder. “Time to play sentry, Willy,” he whispered.

  I yawned, rubbed my eyes, and gave him a good show of waking up. McSween crawled into his blanket while I pulled my boots on and strapped on my gunbelt.

  “Come sunup,” he said, “we’ll hit the trail for Tombstone.”

  “Splendid,” I said, and felt badly about how he might feel in the morning when he saw I’d lit out.

  I wandered off past the others. I climbed a pile of rocks and sat down at the top, figuring to wait an hour or so. The sky had clouded up. With the moon and stars hidden away, there wasn’t enough light to see much. That would work to my advantage when it came time to sneak into camp for my things.

  Sitting up there, darkness everywhere, I soon found that the notion of riding off alone had lost some of its appeal. It was a mighty big wilderness. A fellow might lose his way. Worse, a fellow might run afoul of thieves or cutthroats. Or Indians? The Indian wars had ended, so everyone said, but that didn’t mean every last savage was accounted for.

  I hadn’t worried about such things while I’d been with the boys; I’d always had them to rely on. In a while, I’d be leaving them behind.

  I can take care of myself, I thought.

  But it would be a blessing to have McSween at my side.

  There was really no call to sneak off without him.

  Then I thought, if I don’t get shut of him, I’ll get him killed. I don’t want him to die on my account like all those others.

  By and by, it came time for me to go if I was going.

  I stood up.

  Fire spit at me from off in the dark. A boom pounded my ears. A slug nipped my side. Startled more than hurt, I took a quick step backward and my boot found nothing but air. Crying out, I fell. Rocks jabbed and poked me as I tumbled down. I kept figuring one might split my head open, but that didn’t happen.

  I came to a stop on my back, my legs hoisted up by a boulder. The ground under me shook with pounding hoofs.

  Earlier that day, I’d felt sorry for the poor folks we’d ambushed. Now, I suddenly wished we hadn’t let a single one of them get out alive.

  McSween had said they wouldn’t come. Not with Ike dead. But he’d been wrong.

  And somebody’d shot at me.

  From beyond me came shouts of alarm from the boys. They were mixed in with the thumping of hoofs and war-whoops that came from our attackers.

  I kicked my legs down and got to my knees as a bunch of horsemen charged through a break in the rocks, their guns ablaze.

  I patted my sides, figuring I must’ve lost my Colts in the fall. But they were snug in their holsters. For just an instant. Then they filled my hands.

  I shot two blokes out of their saddles straight away.

  Then McSween got hit. I saw him in the muzzle flashes, both his pistols blasting as slugs smacked his chest, knocking him backward. At least three men caught his lead and dropped from their horses before he went down.

  I don’t believe I witnessed the ends of Chase or Emmet or Snooker.

  My eyes weren’t watching for them.

  My eyes were on the horsemen as they dashed this way and that, yelling and firing, some riding at me with their guns aroar.

  I used only my right hand, as I’d had little practice with my left. I never moved my legs at all, but stood there at the edge of the campsite, aiming and firing. When my hammer came down on a used shell, I dropped that gun and switched to the other.

  Before you know it, that one ran out, too.

  I went to reload, and thought it strange I hadn’t been killed yet. I just hoped I could get it full of bullets and take down a few more of the bastards before they got me.

  But when the cylinder was full and I raised my arm to continue killing, I couldn’t find a target.

  I fired once, anyhow, to scatter the horses.

  As they hurried off, the moon came out. Its pale light came down. In front of me, shrouded by drifting gunsmoke, was a field of twisted bodies.

  They weren’t all dead.

  Some men lay there, writhing and moaning.

  I checked on them. They weren’t McSween or Chase or Emmet or Snooker.

  I shot them.

  At daybreak, I covered my friends with rocks. I read out loud from Chase’s Bible.

  I let the men from the posse lay where they’d fallen. There were eleven.

  I set all the horses free except General. I gathered money, food and ammunition, as there was no advantage to leaving such things behind. Then I saddled up General and rode out.

  PART FOUR Plugging On



  The wound I’d taken in my side while standing watch didn’t amount to much, just a gouge across my ribs. More than once, I wished whoever’d taken the crack at me had been a better shot.

  I knew I wasn’t fit to go on living.

  The third or fourth night after the shootout at the camp, I decided to blow out my brains. It seemed a proper way to stop myself from doing more harm in this world

  I’d built a fire, which was only to keep me warm as I hadn’t cooked a meal or eaten much of anything since the shooting. I sat down beside it and put a Colt to my head. Then it seemed maybe I ought to leave a letter behind.

  A letter for who, though? Mother? Sarah? Neither of them was ever likely to see my last message, left out here in the middle of nowhere.

  Maybe somebody would find it, sooner or later, and send it along. I couldn’t count on that, though. Every day, I’d been riding west, putting my back to the sunrise and heading for the sunset, and not once had I met up with a human being. That suited me. But it didn’t allow much hope of anyone finding my note.

  What would I write in it, anyhow? That I was the curse of death to everybody I met? That I’d turned bad and killed men? Wouldn’t serve any useful purpose for Mother or Sarah to know such things. Better to let them go on wondering what had become of me than to weigh them down with the grim truth.

  So I gave up the notion of leaving a message.

  I thumbed back the hammer and was all set to squeeze the trigger when General gave a snort.

  The sound reminded me that he was hobbled for the night. He would die if I went and shot myself without releasing him first.

  I only aimed to kill myself, not General.

  So I holstered my gun and went to him. He looked over his shoulder. “You’ll be quite better off without me, chum,” I explained, and gave his neck a pat.

  Then I crouched down and untied the hobble.

  “Get on, now.” I smacked his bum. He trotted off a bit, stopped and looked back at me.

  It was no concern of mine. He was free. He could stay or go, as he chose. I judged he’d move on once I’d finished putting a slug into my brain pan.

  I walked back to the fire, sat down, and drew my Colt. As I pulled back the hammer, I remembered how the train conductor had tried to shoot me dead, only his gun had misfired.

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