Hard eyes glared up at him from behind an oaken counter. He paid no mind to them or their owner as he swung his legs over the rusty stool and dropped into its seat. His boots clicked down onto the bronze pole that served as a footrest. Jackson reached up and took his broad hat from his head, setting it down on the stool to his right.
“Gimme an ale. Somethin’ strong and dark. And a hunk of bread if you would be so kind,” he said. The barkeep continued to shine the glass in her hands for a moment before setting it down.
She was a pretty maid, couldn’t have been more than ten and seven with auburn hair that hung down to her shoulders. The soft flicker of a fire burning in the corner of the room brought out the green in her fierce eyes. She grabbed a tankard from the bottom shelf behind her and unstoppered the great wooden barrel that hung over the edge of the bar. A thick, dark mead flowed from the hole where the cork had been and drained into the glass below. The lass ripped some bread off of a hard white loaf behind the counter and set it on a tray with the ale beside. She slid it down towards him with a scrape and tapped the bar twice with her fingers.
“That’ll be two coppers for the ale, one for the bread, and another ten if’n you’ll be wantin’ a room,” she said with a cold stare. Jack took three coins from the purse at his belt and slid them to her over the countertop. He wouldn’t be needing a room tonight. Not if everything went as it should. He took a swig from his tankard and looked around the room, sweeping over the chairs scattered across the room and huddled around the hearth. The dusty men occupying them stared back with hard defiance. All except one. Do I know him? The man stared shiftily down at his boots as he drank from a rusty tin mug. He looked to be about twenty years of age with oily black hair hanging down to cover his bulbous nose and hideous twisted lips covered in scars.
It was not the most pristine of establishments. In fact, it was just about as dusty and forlorn as any of the saloons Jackson Blake had visited in his day. But if catching outlaws was a religion, this rusty bar was his Shangri-La. That’s Long Bill Waters, sure as day. I’ve never seen a bandit so ugly. Looks like he's got five or six friends in tow.
Jackson finished his drink with a few slow gulps and slid it down the counter to rest in the barkeep’s hand. The men around the fire were talking in hushed voices now, glancing occasionally in his direction. A few of them looked nervous, fidgeting as if they were waiting for something urgent. Jackson didn’t like that any more than he did the silver-grey six shooters that hung from each and every belt in the circle.
He casually reached down to his hip and felt reassuring cold steel beneath his grip. He was ready for whatever they might bring. This was not his first rodeo.
One of the men stood slowly and sauntered over to the bar, his boots clicking on the hardwood floor as he walked. He sat down next to Jackson’s hat and ordered a whiskey, straight. He cast a fleeting glance over in Jack’s direction, lingering just a second too long on the pistols by his side. They’re looking for trouble, but so am I.
“You been to Fort Griffin ‘bout this time last year? I’m lookin’ for a friend of mine. Might be you can help me find ‘im,” Jackson spoke up. The man fidgeted his gaze over to meet Jackson’s.
“Can’t say that I have. As to yer friend, I would need name or a face.” Jack reached into his pocket and set a crumpled piece of brown paper on the bar.
“Just so happens I have both. You seen this man before?” Jackson noticed the man’s neck tense as he unfolded the paper and stared at the face looking back at him.
“Son of a bitch…” The man’s hand shot down to the pistol at his side, but too late. Jackson’s own six-shooter was already in his hand and leveled at the outlaw’s chest. POP! POP! The first round caught him in the shoulder as he tried to rise. The second slammed into his chest right over his heart. He let out a soft gasp as his head hit the floor. The barkeep screamed out of shock and dropped the glass she was shining, glass shattered over the floorboards.
Around the fire the men were jumping out of their seats, drawing guns and kicking chairs out of the way. Bill Waters fired the first shot as soon as his finger found the trigger. The bullet whizzed past Jack’s head and buried itself into the shelf behind the bar. The barkeep fled the room through the back door as Jackson vaulted over the counter to take her place. Dozens of bullets screamed into the thick wood around the bounty hunter’s head as he huddled beneath the bar. The sound of their exit was so thunderous he had to grit his teeth to keep from crying out. I need to shoot my way out of here. Wait for an opening, stay alert.
By then three of the five that stood around the hearth had run out of ammunition and stopped to reload, kneeling on the hardwood floor. Jack took notice and drew his second gun from his belt. One, two, three. He jumped up, guns barking. A bullet struck through one bandit’s throat at the navel, sparking a fountain of red that sprayed in every direction. Another grazed the shoulder of the man next to him and knocked him from his feet, where Jackson finished him off. But for every shot the bounty hunter got off, his remaining targets sent three singing back through the air.
Jackson recoiled from a round that buried itself in the wood next to his arm on the bar and another ten that whistled past his head. He ducked back behind the counter. The outlaws continued to fire while he shoved six rounds into their chamber’s and caught his breath, protected by the thick wooden counter. This’ll never work. Those that are left won’t fall for that again. Jack unstoppered a bottle of gin that rested on the shelf behind him and took a long swig.
Suddenly the gunfire ceased and a cold silence filled the room. Smoke from both sides of the bar floated up to the rafters. “Bounty hunter!” a deep, gruff voice called out. “We’ll give you a choice now. Lay down your weapons and come on out here and we’ll spare the girl. Keep firing and my next bullet goes through her skull.” The girl. Dammit, how did they get to her? This’ll cost me.
He raised his hands over the edge of the counter and slowly rose to his feet. “I’m comin’ out.” Four bandits and one bartender stood in a semicircle around a scene of demolition. Blood pooled under a pile of what had once been chairs but had been reduced to firewood by the scrambling gunmen. The girl was unharmed as of yet but they had her surrounded, steel bared.
Long Bill flicked the barrel of his pistol over in Jack’s direction. “Walk.” He pointed to a spot on the floor in front of him. Jack climbed over the bar and walked slowly over, both palms raised. “You put up a hell of a fight, hunter. But we canyon boys have seen a fight or two in our days, and we’re not so easily incapacitated as it were.”
Jack looked over to the girl standing in the midst of their group. She caught his gaze and held it for a brief moment. He saw a flicker in her eye in that second, a look that frightened him. “Just you wait,” her eyes said. “Wait and see.” Jackson felt a knot twist in his belly. Ah, shit. She’s gonna try something.
Bill Waters took a step forward and raised his gun to level with the bounty hunter’s teeth. “Now, seeing as that you have surrendered, we will be doing whatsoever we like with your life and gold.” Jack swallowed back the nervous tension that had reached the back of his throat. He felt suddenly cold, then hot, as chills swept over his body. How am I gonna get out of this? The outlaw turned back and nodded his head at the barkeep girl behind him. “And hers.”
“You promised,” Jack scrambled to his feet in protest and advanced on Bill’s posse.
“Whoa, there cowboy. Back on up now,” Bill cocked the hammer of his pistol. “Now what we promised and what we intend to deliver are not one and the same. Being as we are humble thieves and murderers ourselves, we do not place too much emphasis on keeping promises. We’re bandits, you should know that. Are you ready to die now, boy?” Behind his shoulder, the girl inched forward. Jack looked down at her hands, which were removing something black and slick from the folds of her gown, he thought it to be a knife.
Jack cocked back his head and spit full in the outlaw’s face. “Well I guess that answers that,” one of the posse offered.
Bill raised his pistol again and made Jackson return to his knees. Jack closed his eyes. If you’re gonna do something, girl, do it quick. He looked back up and stared Bill dead in the face, defiant. Long Bill laughed, “I’ve never had much of a pension for allowing last words and the like, but…”
Suddenly the girl’s hands snaked out and Jack could see the object entwined within. If only for a fleeting glance, he could make out silvery circles raised over a a slick black surface. The length of the small flat rectangle was strewn with lines running from beginning to end. Small bright lights shone from one end, flashing on and off.
“What in the hell…” One of the posse began. But the room was suddenly filled with a shrill, high-pitched whine which seemed to echo off of the rafters and fill Jack’s head, his eyes, his chest. He sank to his knees and clasped his hands over his ears. The lights were shining violently now, throbbing red. Only the girl remained standing, seemingly unaffected by the sounds or the lights. The outlaws lay flat on the floor, rolling around and covering their ears. How the hell is she doing this?
Suddenly the lights and the sounds ceased. An eerie silence replaced them, and the light from the fire dimmed. Jack started to rise before… SCREEEECH! What looked like tiny lightning bolts flew from the end of the black device and shot out in every direction. Jackson was lifted off of his feet and thrown into the far wall, crashing violently against the wooden panels. A chair exploded onto the floor next to him and an empty tankard slammed into the small of his back.
He lay there on the floor for what could have been thirty seconds or an hour before he rolled painfully onto his side. He tried to open his eyes, but found that smoke filled the air thick and black. Off to his right someone was coughing as if they meant to die, so, Jackson crawled in that direction, bumping into rubble and burning chairs as he went. By the time he reached the source of the noise, he managed to open one eye and could see the room burning and collapsing around him. Three bodies lay atop one another underneath a fallen roof beam. Another had made it as far as the front door before he had died of burns, gunshots, or some combination of the two by the look of him. Jack crawled over to where he had dropped his six-shooters and gripped them tightly in his hands. He would do well to keep them around.
The coughing was coming from Long Bill Waters. He had fallen in the confusion of the blast, getting trapped by cascading debris, and lay with a pistol in his hand underneath the collapsed beam. Thick red blood clung to the skin of his chest, and flowed grisly from his mouth and left ear. Jackson kicked the pistol away and bent down over the man. “Your days of murder and rape are over, but not entirely by my hand. I’m sorry.” He raised his gun and put a bullet through the man’s brain. The blood spattered up into Jack’s face, and he wiped it from his brow.
Just then the rubble by the door shifted and a pair of dusty hands clawed its way out of the pile. Another one’s still alive. Jack looked back over his shoulder to see if he could find the last of the bandits, but when he looked back the pile was moved and the hand was gone. Shit, how did he move so fast? Through the smoke-blackened window he caught a glimpse of auburn hair fleeing towards the stables. Shit, how did she move so fast? He clambered over Bill’s body and went out of the door.
He limped slightly as he ran. The blast had slammed his leg into the wall with bone-shattering force, but he was hard to break, and recovered quickly. A crescent moon lit his way around the back of the burning saloon and into the barn doors.
She was saddling up a mottled brown palfrey when he caught up, her fingers working deftly over the old leather straps. Either she didn’t notice his footsteps crossing the stable threshold and creeping up behind her, or she did not mean to finish what she had started. Jack, however, was not given to such luxuries. “Where are you stealing off to with that horse? I have some questions that require answers.” Jackson cocked back his pistol to help make his point.
She turned and stared him down. “I’m done here. There’s work elsewhere for me. For you, too, it would seem.”
“So you’re a hunter.” Jack couldn’t believe his own ignorance. Of course she was. He lowered his gun, but didn’t put it away. “You know you didn’t finish Long Bill off. The credit’s mine.”
“I figured as much after I heard that shot. Thing is, I was headed out of the door when that building collapsed.” She turned back and resumed working on the saddle. The young mare whinnied. “Got trapped beneath a falling beam and couldn’t see much on account of the smoke—”
“How did you do that. I’ve never seen something so powerful.” Her silence told him more than her words could have. “Well you’re a fool if you think I’ll let you walk out of here. Not after that.”
She faced him and laughed quietly. Her eyes sparkled green in the moonlight shining through the open doors. “Good thing I’m not walking.”
And suddenly a pistol was in her hand and she was hurling bullets his way. Jack felt a force strong as a train rip into his stomach and knock him off his feet. A blinding pain rose up to his head and he screamed in agony. She swung up onto the saddle and kicked the horse twice in the ribs, galloping out of the barn. Jack realized he still had gun in one hand, and squeezed two rounds from the barrel. The first flew through the night sky past her head and off into the desert. The second slammed into her leg above the thigh and drew a dark stream of blood that shone in the blue moonlight. But she held onto the saddle with a yelp of pain and rode off towards the distant hills.
Jackson rolled to his side and pushed himself up to sit. The pain was nauseating, and he turned to retch in the straw on the floor. Taking leave of his senses, he drew in a sharp breath that sent a new wave of pain rolling over his stomach. He struggled to his feet and found a saddle on the wall. I can’t let this go unpunished. She won’t get away. He hobbled over to a lean grey horse in the corner of the stable and threw the saddle up. He groaned his way through the straps and up onto the mount. In the distant moonlight he could see the dust from her trail rising into the night sky. Warm blood slicked down the side of his shirt and fell onto the ground in large drops; his head swam. He kicked the horse in its side and rode off after her.
At first the trail was easy to find. But as the soft sand turned to clay and rock, her trail all but disappeared. The only distinguishing path left was the rare drop of blood that fell from her leg and shone deep purple against the brown and red ground. She went to the hills, and he followed.
Jack caught her on a red sandstone butte three hundred feet above the desert floor. His horse made it only three fourths of the way up the trail before it became too steep and rocky to navigate. He continued on foot, passing a mottled brown palfrey along the way. The top of the butte was covered in green moss that proved a soft foothold; his boots dug into the soft ground. She was sitting on a twisted log facing away from him, the ground before covered in a pool of slick red. His own blood still seeped from the wound in his stomach, but he gritted his teeth and pushed forwards.
“End of the road, I fear. This is as far as it goes.” Jackson called out as he advanced on her seat. “That was a helluva shot back there. You almost did me in, but you’ll find I’m a bit harder to kill.” She stared ahead, ignoring his words. She still had a small pistol, but it lay on the ground in front of her.
Jack reached the log and hobbled around its side, using one hand for support on the rough, dry surface, and the other to nest the six shooter glinting in the moonlight. “You see, the truth is that I like a good fight, under the right circumstances. I like it almost as much the reward when I win. But you meant to take that reward from me. I’ve been tracking Long Bill Waters for longer than you’ve been playing this game.” Jack reached the front of the log and aimed his pistol at her head. “The game’s over.” She stared off into the distance, her hands resting on the dry wood to her sides. Talk about dignity in defeat. “Are you hearing this? I said it’s over.”
She made no move or sound. Jackson moved to her front and saw his error. She sat slumped over, the light gone from her emerald eyes. Her head drooped down into her navel. She’s gone. Jack breathed a sigh of relief. He didn’t much like executions. He holstered his pistol. It should be just about morning now. He turned towards the coming light. But if he was looking for a sunrise, he didn’t find it.
Hard eyes glared up at him from behind a shiny six shooter. He stared back. His mouth gaped open in shock. “You’re wrong, hunter. The game’s just begun.”
“How did you…” but Jackson stopped himself before he started. Of course. He had seen it before, at the saloon. “You’ll pay for this.”
“You’ll have to catch me first.” She squeezed the trigger. POP! A brief flame burst from the barrel sending a hard bullet screaming through the air and through Jackson Blake’s left eye. Darkness crept up to cover the world.
— - — - — - — - — - — - — - — - — - — - — - — - — - —
Jack Masterson awoke in a cold, blue room with white sheets pulled up over his chest. His eyes felt heavy with disuse and his arms were leaden weights sinking into the firm springs of the mattress. It was daytime, the yellow beams of light streamed through the windows and thin curtains. He blinked to adjust his vision and pressed a small blue button to his side to raise himself into a seated position. “Game Master!” he croaked, his voice cracking and sharp to ears.
Electrical nodes attached to different spots around his chest, legs, and arms. The control cap sat heavily on his head, and he reached up feebly to pry it off. The wires that covered his body took slightly less effort to pull off, but even that proved to strain his fingers and wrists. He was reaching for the last pair on his legs when the game master came running in on two stubby legs, dressed head to toe in regulation blue.
“Masterson? What happened, you were first in the rankings since last week!” The man sputtered. He gave him a quizzical stare. Jack glared back and swallowed to clear his throat.
“I think we have a hacker.”