This is a story about a FANTASY written for consenting adults. If you're not both of those, don't read it. Characters in a FANTASY don't get sick or die unless I want them to. You don't live in a FANTASY so be safe. The fictional characters in my stories are trained and experienced in acts of FANTASY - don't try to do what they do - someone could get hurt.
If you think you know somebody who resembles any of the characters here, congratulations, but you're wrong - any similarity between the characters in this story and any real person is purely coincidental, since all of these characters are figments of my dirty little imagination.
This is my story, not yours. Don't sell it or put it on a pay site. You can keep it and/or give it away with all of this information intact, but if you make money off of it without my permission, you're breaking the law and pissing me off.
The setting sun washed the clouds with vermillion and gold as the buckskin walked out on the shelf of rock. The main street of Whiteriver looked different, and the rider was surprised to see a line of trucks that filled the street for almost three blocks.
Alex studied the trucks through his binoculars. The stories about Phoenicians gave him pause, but when you separated fact from speculation, there really didn't seem to be much to worry about with them. What they were doing in Whiteriver was a matter of curiosity, but his other business came first.
His quarry had tried to obscure their trail, but out here, there were only so many places a man on horseback could be headed, and he had known, long before he picked up the trail again, that they were headed for Whiteriver or one of the ruined towns beyond. There was no mistaking the tracks of the horse with worn shoes with the deep scratches on toe and heel that could only have been made by sliding on concrete or asphalt. Those hoof prints were deeper than those of the other horse that carried a rider, so he knew the big man rode that horse.
The shoes on the other mount were newer, and the rider was clearly more conscious of his horse's well-being. That would be the smaller man, the one wearing flat-heeled cowboy boots. The three riderless horses trailed along behind the other two, sometimes stepping on top of the tracks of the others.
These two had been careful. That meant that they knew he was likely to be after them, as further evidenced by the fact that they kept pausing to survey their back-trail. Wiping out a horse's hoof prints, however, did not obliterate the signs of their passage. A broken twig, a tuft of grass cropped in passing by a hungry mount, a scar on a tree-trunk or lichen scraped off a rock where a horse had scratched himself - all of these were signs that a man who knew the hill country could read.
Thanks to Pops' teaching, and a lifetime of livining away from the remnants of civilization, Alex knew the hill country like the back of his hand.
For three days, Alex had followed the trail, and now, as they neared town, the riders had given up all attempts to hide their passage.
Alex removed the thongs from the hammers of the two .44 Magnums in his holsters, and walked the buckskin slowly into Whiteriver, or what was left of it, as the last rays of sunlight shone over the hills to the west. The moon was nearing full and was out early. It would provide all the light Alex needed.
There were still a few folks in town that minded their own business, but with no trading post closer than Show Low, the only thing to attract people who didn't live there was the saloon.
Pre-sickness liquor, except for the rare find now and then, had long since been consumed by thirsty survivors, but enterprising barkeeps had re-learned how to make what used to be called 'Indian whiskey' from pure alcohol and a few other ingredients that would have turned most folks green just hearing about them. There was a reason it was called 'rotgut' and Alex made a point of staying away from it.
The saloon, however, was the place to look for anyone who came into town, and Alex, his eyes constantly studying the ruined buildings around him, stopped the buckskin about half a block away. He dismounted, his eyes taking in everything in the vicinity from under the brim of his black stetson as he tied the thongs that dangled from the ends of his holsters around his thighs.
He pulled the 30-30 lever action Winchester from the saddle boot and tucked it under his arm. He didn't expect to need the rifle in the saloon, but he didn't want it walking away while he was inside.
As he passed one of the trucks with the Phoenix emblem stenciled on the side, a slight figure wearing the same kind of camouflage that Pops used to wear straightened and looked him over. Alex nodded and would have continued on his way if the person in the uniform hadn't stepped in front of him.
"Headed for the saloon?" she asked conversationally. From conversations with Pops, Alex recognized that the insignia on her sleeve marked her as some kind of sergeant: Three chevrons with a rocker underneath.
"Plannin' on it," Alex answered, his right hand hovering over his gun butt.
"Take it easy, fella," the woman's eyes didn't miss anything, but her hands were still in sight and her rifle was slung barrel up over her shoulder. "I'm just makin' conversation, unless you intend to use those guns on somebody who's dressed like me."
Alex recognized the way she stood from the training that Pops had given him, and moved his hands away from his weapons. This close, they'd never have cleared leather if she knew how to fight like Pops did.
"I got no quarrel with Phoenicia or Phoenicians," Alex said, "but there's a couple of fellas that trailed into town a couple days ago that I need to have a conversation with. Maybe you saw 'em."
"We been here about a week, so maybe I did," The woman answered, relaxing her stance but keeping an eye on him still. "What did they look like?"
"Ain't actually laid eyes on 'em," Alex's eyes took on a faraway look as he tried to picture the two men in his mind. He had learned a good deal about them on the trail, even though he had never seen them. "One of 'em's big, prob'ly six four, six five, and likes to run his horse on the pavement. The other one'll be smaller, riding a red roan. I reckon the big fella woulda been on a paint or maybe an appaloosa. Brown and white."
The woman nodded and asked, "A couple of scavs came into town the other night while I was on watch. Matched that description pretty good. You figure all that out from their trail?"
"Ain't all that hard," Alex shrugged, "if you know what you're lookin' at an' what to look for. I reckon these boys was leadin' three other horses with saddles still on."
The woman nodded again. "Well, you're headed in the right direction, but you'll want to watch out for those two. That little one, he wears a pair of revolvers tied down like yours, and the big one, well, he'd make two of you."
"I reckon I got it to do, ma'am," Alex replied, the pain clouding his eyes as he remembered. "Them two raped and killed my wife and left my son for dead."
Alex was still three miles from home, thinking they might throw some steaks on the grill for dinner, when he saw the smoke. The little grey he was riding that day was tired, but he was game. By the time they reached the smoldering ruins of the Hidden Valley ranch, the horse was on his last legs.
He saw 'Cilla even before he slid from the saddle. She was naked and her blue-grey eyes stared sightlessly at the clouds overhead. Joshua was nowhere in sight, but the two bodies at the front of the house told him that 'Cilla had not gone quietly. He read the sign out of long habit, keeping his mind busy so he wouldn't have to think of what they had done to his wife.
'Cilla had been in her early to mid 'teens when they married, and the circumstances surrounding that union were the worst of both of their lives. They had been happy together at the ranch, though. 'Cilla had gone to work the moment she set foot on the place, and made it a home.
A year later, she braved the birth of their boy with only Alex for company, and he thought his life could not get any better. Joshua grew and showed every sign of becoming a fine young man. He had turned six years old only two weeks before the riders came.
Piecing the story together from the tracks of horses and men, Alex saw where they had ridden up to the porch before dismounting. 'Cilla should never have let them get that close, but she'd ever only killed one man and that man had been trying to rape her.
He could see where two of them came up straight on and she let them have it with the shotgun as soon as they set foot on the steps. She hadn't seen the big man who went around to the side and sidled along the wall while she was dealing with the two in front.
Even so, she had cut him. There was blood with a thread of denim stuck in it to show that she had gone for the femoral artery, just like he taught her, but the cut hadn't been deep enough, or maybe not in the right place. After they finished with her, they had cut her throat with her own knife and left it in the dirt beside her.
Alex picked up the knife and cleaned it carefully. He tucked his knife into a saddlebag and stuck hers in his own sheath.
Choking down the bile that welled up inside him, Alex searched what remained of the house. They had searched, too, that much was clear, but the only thing in the place of any value to them, the guns, they had missed. The cache that Pops had built under the hearth was untouched. He poked through the rubble in desperation, but found no bones, nor any sign of his son.
Then he remembered; five had ridden in and only two had left. 'Cilla had accounted for two, so what had become of the other? Going back outside, Alex started again at the tracks that came up the trail. All five had dismounted in front of the house, but two had headed for the barn, and by the look of their tracks, they were running.
Alex drew his right-hand weapon as he heard a small sound in the barn, and crept closer. In the doorway, a run-down pair of Nike shoes lay, toes down. As he came nearer, Alex saw that they were on the feet of the fifth man. He was face down in the hay and manure that littered the floor of the barn, and there was a bloody hole, dead center, in his back. From the size of the hole, it had to be an exit wound.
Ten feet further in, Joshua lay, the pistol still in his hand. Rushing to his side, Alex raised the boy's head. The bullet wound in his son's abdomen causing him nearly as much agony as it must be causing Josh.
"We tried to stop 'em, Pa," the boy gritted through his teeth, "but they was too many. Is Ma all right?"
"She..." Alex choked on the words, then continued, "your ma was hurt some, son, that's why she couldn't come to you."
"I heard her scream, but I couldn't..." Josh's body convulsed in pain and Alex tried to soothe him.
"It's okay, boy. You done good. A man couldn't hope for a better son." Alex looked down into his son's face, and didn't know if he had heard him. Like his mother's, Joshua's blue-grey eyes now stared skyward, unseeing. A gust of wind stirred a sandy lock of hair.
"I buried 'em," Alex told the sergeant, "then I caught up that buckskin yonder and came on. Took a little time figgerin' the sign, since they didn't want nobody followin' 'em, but I knowed day before yesterday that they was headed here or San Carlos."
The woman nodded. "Well, when you get done, I'd appreciate the opportunity to talk to you some more, if you're willing. Like I said, you be careful. I watched that little guy practicing, and he's awfully fast."
"'Preciate the concern, ma'am, but..." Alex stopped in mid sentence. A short, slender man wearing two tied-down revolvers had stepped out of the bar and onto the concrete sidewalk.
"Would you kindly look after my horse and rifle, ma'am?" Alex asked, his eyes locked on the other man.
Without a word, the woman took the proffered weapon and stepped back. The other man's eyes turned their direction at the movement, and widened when, in the brightness of the moon, he saw Alex.
"You! You're that kid!" the other man said spreading his legs about shoulder width and stood facing Alex, clawed hands within inches of his gun butts.
"Then you'll be the one that shot my son," Alex answered, moving away from the trucks and stepping watchfully onto the sidewalk. His hands hung at his sides, relaxed, but ready. "I guess you got to pay for what you done."
"What makes you think it was me?" the other asked warily.
"I seen the sign," Alex told him, "plain as day. Wondered why somebody would wear ridin' boots like that with low heels. I reckon some folks just want to look pretty."
"What are you talking about?" the other asked irritably.
"Anybody knows," Alex said, "that if you don't want your foot slippin' through an' gettin' caught in the stirrup, you wear boots with long heels when you're ridin'. But I reckon you ain't done a lick of work on horseback, have you? All you can figger to do is take from other folks an' shoot little boys."
"I heard how you killed those fellas over in Show Low," the man said, "but I ain't no pre-Sickness slowhand."
"I heard tell you was fast with them guns," Alex replied. "But can you hit a man that's shooting back? Why don't you go for 'em and let's all find out?"
"Why you... !"
He was fast, Alex noted idly as his own world shifted into slow motion. He saw fire bloom from the other man's right hand, and then from his left, and felt the whiff of something passing his left ear. A bee stung his right arm, but he steadied and triggered both guns. The recoil from the magnum rounds kicked hard against his palms but he was already thumbing the hammers back. Two black holes appeared in the smaller man's shirt front, not half an inch apart, and the gunman's third and fourth shots flew off into the still nigh air as the impact threw his aim off.
Alex steadied again and fired both guns a second time. Those two shots were about a half inch below the first two which had stood the man on his toes. These two slammed him backwards and he fell heavily, still trying to bring his guns to bear.
Bodies boiled out of the saloon, heedless of the possibility that the shooting might not be over. They were shoved aside by a giant of a man who wore a bloody rag around his right thigh.
"Cooley!" the man shouted as he looked down at the slight man, spotlighted by the light spilling from the door. Cooley stared back in wonder.