They all call him...
His story continues.
In the tradition of classic westerns and set against a post-apocalyptic sci-fi backdrop, if you like Fallout, Firefly, Mad Max, or the Dark Tower, you'll love The Sheriff.
Release date: November 24, 2020
Print pages: 420
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The Sheriff 2: A post-apocalyptic sci-fi western
Ancient incandescent lights ignited, creating a dull vision of the corridor beyond the prison bars. A random sampling of the bulbs remained lit, two near the far end of the passageway—one approximately at the center and one about six feet closer to the cell.
Marcus had counted all of the fixtures at least a hundred thousand times. He knew the approximate date and time of when the last bulb had failed. Approximate because his entire understanding of the world was limited to the number of days he had scratched into his cell's metal siding. One vertical scratch for each day. A wave for rough seas. A dot on the bottom for his morning meal. Another on top for the afternoon feeding. An open circle for a dead light bulb. The storms were more frequent in the summer months and a quick glance at his markings revealed it was almost spring.
The ticks and scratches took up the cell’s entire back wall. The original scratches on the top rows were longer than those on the bottom. The Governor had put him away for life, but Marcus never really expected to be here that long. Destined for bigger and better things, that’s what he had always believed. That’s what he needed to believe to get through each day.
Those first scratches were primitive compared to the later marks, since they didn’t include the additional notations he had devised as the days passed. The lines grew successively shorter, starting with the sixth row when Marcus had begun to worry about available wall space. Now, nearly fifty rows later, the scratch marks were less than a half-inch tall. The chicken scratch probably looked like some kind of alien language to the guards who brought him his daily meals.
There were no trife out here. They hated open water. That's why this place existed. Why it was safe out here. Why he had come to Harvest in the first place.
Not to be thrown in prison.
But to seize control.
Marcus looked out through the bars of his cell to the man coming down the narrow passageway with his dinner. Thompson today. He had already guessed as much from the man's voice. A stocky man with a large round stomach, a wide face and a thick salt and pepper beard, he looked comical marching beneath the few still lit bulbs. They cast the big man’s profile in larger shadows against the tight confines of the passageway, creating an oversized caricature. He had a metal bowl in one hand, a spoon sticking out of the contents, a breath of steam rising from it. In the other hand, he carried a metal bottle filled with fresh water.
Thompson's clothing also clued Marcus in to the time of year. Unlike the southern coast, where it was hot most of the time, there were definite season changes between Sanisco and Haven. Despite the cooling ocean breezes, it was still fairly hot in the summer and warm enough for short sleeves in late spring and early fall. During the winter and into early spring, it was too cool on the water to go without a coat.
Thompson wore a frayed and faded knit sweater beneath equally threadbare coveralls, along with rubber boots that ended just below his knees. Still cool enough to stay with the sweater, but not cold enough to put his coat over it, or warm enough to switch to a long-sleeved flannel. In other words...spring clothing.
"Chowtime," Thompson repeated, reaching the cell. His face was cast in silhouette now that the light source was behind them, his scarred flesh and long beard creating a scraggly shadow on the wall. Marcus noted the lightness of his beady eyes. The lack of fear or concern about him, the Prisoner. Why would he be concerned? There were two thousand two hundred and twenty-seven ticks on the wall.
It was a long time to be trapped in a nine-foot-square cell with nothing to keep a man occupied. The guards only let him out once a month while they cleaned the cell and emptied his head. He should have done the job himself, except the guards didn't want him anywhere near another person. Ever.
Six years and they still didn't take any chances.
They knew how dangerous he was.
Marcus remained on the small cot protruding from the back wall. When Thompson reached the cell, he stretched his arms through the bars and placed both the bowl and the water bottle on the floor. He quickly retracted his extremities and straightened up, never taking his eyes off Marcus.
"How's the weather today?" Marcus asked.
Thompson didn't respond to the question. They were under strict orders not to offer Marcus any information he might be able to use to escape. Even if it seemed innocuous, he had already proven he could do quite a lot with very little.
"Fish soup...again?" he asked instead, complaining. In reality, he just wanted to talk to someone. Exchange a few words, even if they were meaningless. Six years. He was lonely.
"Yup," Thompson replied. "Doin' a cleaning next week."
Marcus glanced at the scratch again, checking his notation. Right on schedule. "I appreciate that," he replied. "The toilet's really starting to affect my sleep."
He motioned toward the portable head, nearly full of his raw sewage. This compartment wasn't originally designed as a prison cell. The rig didn't originally have a lockup. But that had changed when the war ended. When Governor Roach had exiled him down here, she had said he was the first occupant in nearly one hundred and fifty years.
"I'm honored," he had told her in response.
Marcus hadn't seen Roach since. He hadn't seen anyone since except the rotation of three guards who brought him his meals. Thompson, Bevis, Yang. Thompson was the friendliest of the three. The only one who would even take the time to speak to him. The only one who left his bowl inside the cell bars instead of toying with him by putting the food and water at the very edge of his reach. He had lost his meal more than once when his fingers pushed a little too hard on the bowl and spilled it instead of retrieving it.
"How'd you cut your finger?" Marcus asked.
"Huh?" Thompson replied, lifting his left hand and turning it over. He raised his pinkie, looking at the small slice on the inside edge. "You notice everything, dontcha?"
"I don't have anything better to do than observe whatever I can. It helps keep my mind sharp."
Thompson grumbled. "Nicked it descaling. No biggie. Enjoy the gruel." He used his raised hand to half-wave before turning and heading back the way he had come.
Marcus stood and approached the bars, a pang of anxiety hitting him at the idea of being left alone again. "What kind of fish are in here today?" he asked, hoping for a few more words.
Thompson didn't pay him any mind, continuing down the passageway.
Marcus picked up the bowl, grabbed the spoon and started eating. The smell was worse than the taste, which he had grown accustomed to, though it was always better to get it all down before it cooled too much. He dug in, shoved it in his mouth and swallowed without chewing. A familiar pain in his jaw greeted him whenever he tried to eat, a sharp stabbing from an untreated infection.
Thompson reached the hatch at the end of the passageway, suddenly seeming to move in slow motion.
Marcus felt it before he heard it. A vibration running along the deck followed by the thunderous roar of an explosion. When the red emergency lights evenly spaced along the passage suddenly began flashing, he had the presence of mind to drop the spoon and grab the bars of the cell before the entire rig shook on its moorings. Thompson wasn't so quick-witted. The resulting shudder sent him sideways into the bulkhead, where he hit his arm hard enough for Marcus to hear his shoulder dislocate.
Thompson screamed in pain. The lights flickered and went out, leaving them both in total darkness.
Marcus kept his grip on the bars, focusing on the vibrations along with the muffled sounds outside. Gunfire? The rapid pops were barely audible and Thompson's moaning wasn't helping. He could also hear a distant hum that sounded like it came from beneath them, at the base of the rig. Motors?
There were other rigs out here. Old oil drilling platforms abandoned long before the trife arrived. They had become a safe haven for the people fleeing the creatures, the only environment he knew where the demons couldn't follow. Harvest was one of the larger colonies, with three full platforms connected by floating bridges composed of hundreds of barges and boats. Of course, there were other rigs out here—other settlements. For the most part, they all lived peacefully, isolated from one another by the sea surrounding them and the aliens that stalked the coastline nearby.
It seemed that peace was over.
It was bound to happen sooner or later. All of the settlements were growing and there was nowhere else to go. Each city had to look after itself and its population, even if that meant removing a group from a rig to make that happen.
Marcus had seen that writing on the wall seven years ago, nearly as clearly as he could see the scratches on the bulkhead now. Earth had once been a relatively peaceful place, but that was a long time ago. Long before he had ever been born. And this wasn't that Earth anymore. Now, it was kill or be killed. You couldn’t trust anyone not to stab you in the back. Everywhere you turned, there was somebody who wanted what you had, even if you didn’t have a damn thing. You could either be predator or prey.
He had chosen to be a predator. Like his father.
He had killed his way along the coast and out to Harvest. He had tried to warn them, and when they hadn't listened he had staged a coup. If only Wanda hadn't betrayed him and his love for her, he would have succeeded instead of spending the last six years in a cell.
He would have walked the plank with lead weights around his ankles if Wanda hadn’t made a deal to keep him alive. A deal he had always seen as more of a curse than a boon, a completion of her total, devastating heel turn. He figured she’d only done it to salve her conscience. If she had one. He hadn’t decided yet.
And now the end was coming, and there was nothing he could do about it. He was an animal. A force of nature. But he was also trapped in this damned cage.
The rig shook again, another explosion hitting somewhere closer to Marcus' cell. The gunfire was getting louder too, the invaders climbing the ladder from one of the port side legs to the hull.
A light appeared at the end of the passageway, offering the smallest hint of visibility in the darkness. Thompson always carried a rusted battery-powered lighter that produced a small plasma arc. He had it out now, his frightened face looking back at Marcus.
"Thompson," Marcus said. "You need to let me out."
"What?" the guard replied.
"We're under attack, man. From one of the other cities, I'm sure. You need to let me out. I can help. I can fight."
Six years in a small iron box, but he had kept in shape as best he could with hundreds of pushups, situps, burpees—whatever he could think of to keep his strength up. Losing his physique meant losing hope. It was an often tempting outcome, but he had refused to let it get a hold on him out of sheer determination.
And now suddenly, unexpectedly, his chance to escape had come.
"Thompson," he repeated. "Unlock the door. Let me out."
"You're more likely to help the other side, I think," Thompson replied. "Been locked up in here so long."
"I want to stay alive too, and whoever's out there doesn't owe me anything. They'll as soon kill me as let me go. Or I can help you kill them first."
Thompson kept staring at him, considering the request.
"Thompson!" a voice shouted from the other side of the open hatch. "Where the hell are you? We need help up here!"
The next round of gunfire came from the other side of the passageway, echoing into the corridor. The guard looked toward the hatch but didn't move.
"Thompson!" Marcus snapped.
When Thompson looked back, Marcus could tell he was terrified. The guard had never been under real threat before. If the people on the rig were any kind of fighters, Marcus would never have gotten as close to seizing power as he had.
"Get me out of here. Let me fight for my life. And for yours."
The last part seemed to resonate with the overweight guard. He stared down the passageway toward Marcus, digging in his coverall pocket for his keys. The gunfire continued to echo from the other side of the door at the end of the passageway, shouts of fear and pain following behind them. There were no more explosions, but it sounded like the invaders were on the rig and making good progress across it.
"You won't kill me?" Thompson asked as he neared the cell again, his shoulder badly out of place. It had to hurt like hell, but in his fear, the man had forgotten the pain.
Marcus remained at the bars, heart thumping harder the closer the guard drew to him. "Why would I kill you?" he replied. "You've always been kinder to me than anyone else since Governor Roach threw me in here. Even Wanda never came to see me."
"Wanda's gone," Thompson said.
"Gone?" Marcus replied. If the guard was going to let him out, it didn't matter if he told him about his ex. "How long ago?"
"Dunno. Couple years? Went to the mainland, never came back."
It wasn't that uncommon for people to go to the mainland and never come back. Scavenging was necessary but always dangerous. The fact that Marcus felt saddened by the news was a surprise to him considering what she had done to him.
Thompson had nearly reached the cell. He paused a few feet away, looking down at the keys and searching for the right one.
A dark figure appeared in the frame of the hatch behind the guard, barely visible in the darkness until the muzzle flashes of his rifle lit him up. Dressed all in black, with a black scarf covering his face save for the eyes. He could have been anyone, from anywhere.
The bullets hit Thompson in the back, and he cried out again as he stumbled forward, collapsing onto his knees. Marcus' eyes locked with the invader, who quickly assessed his incarceration and decided he wasn't an immediate threat worth wasting a bullet to shoot him. The killer moved away from the hatch and out of sight as quickly as he had arrived.
"Thompson," Marcus said, kneeling to reach eye level with the man. "The keys."
Thompson was clutching them to his chest, his breathing already labored. If he fell on top of them when he died, there was no way Marcus could reach them.
"The keys, man," he repeated, reaching out through the bars. Thompson laid just beyond his fingertips.
The guard looked at him, opening his mouth to speak. Marcus could see the life drain from Thompson's eyes, and then he collapsed forward, landing exactly as Marcus feared he would.
On top of the keys.
"Damn it, Thompson," Marcus said, rattling the bars of his cell. The number of screams had increased beyond the passageway as had the gunfire. An acrid smell was wafting down into the area to go with it.
Something was on fire, the light of it reaching belowdecks and replacing Thompson's lighter as a light source.
He needed to get out. Fast.
He reached out for the guard’s body, stretching his arm as far out through the bars as he could. “Shit!” With the man’s body stretched out face down and not quite parallel to the bars, Marcus was a good two inches short of grabbing onto his coat. All he could get his fingers on was one side of Thompson’s thick reddish-brown beard. If he grabbed a fistful of it and pulled, would it be sturdy enough to bear the big man’s weight?
Marcus was about to find out.
He centered his shoulder between the bars and buried his fingers into the coarse hair. He readjusted his grip a couple of times, making sure he had hold of as much hair as he could gather up. Once he was satisfied with his grip, he pulled on Thompson’s beard, gradually pulling harder.
Thompson's body inched toward him. He added more leverage by pushing against the bar in his other hand, and the body slid closer still. But then the hair tore off in Marcus’ hand. He tossed it aside and held his breath as he reached for Thompson’s shoulder, finally connecting with the heavy cloth. His fingertips dug in and he pulled the body a hair closer. It was enough to sink his fingers into Thompson’s coat sleeve and pull his arm out from under his body, bringing the keys with it.
Marcus smiled as he jerked the keys out of Thompson's hand, quickly locating the one he had observed the guards using on his cell every six weeks for the last six years. He unlocked the door and pushed it open, needing to shove it a few times to push Thompson's body back so he could open the door far enough to slip out.
He was free!
A chill washed over him. He couldn't believe it. Six years of hoping something would happen to get him out of here, and then just like that it finally had. He wasn't going to waste it.
Marcus didn't bother checking Thompson for weapons. He knew the guards didn't carry any when they came down the passageway with his meals because they knew he was more likely to use it against them than they were to use it against him. He stepped over the dead guard and hurried down the passageway to the hatch, pausing there. The sound of conflict was louder now, gunfire crackling and echoing in the night, the peace shattered by continuing screams from those fleeing in fear and from those dying from their wounds.
Moving cautiously through the hatch, Marcus spotted a body face-down in the corridor, a fish descaling knife clutched in his hand and blood pooling around him. A quick glance down the other side of the passageway proved he was alone, so Marcus hurried over to the corpse, prying open the fingers to recover the knife.
He heard footsteps. Looking up he saw black boots and a pair of black pants descending the ladder in front of him. Marcus had a split second to decide whether to run or fight.
There was no decision to make. Clutching the knife in a hammer grip, Marcus sprinted forward, rushing the black-clad invader. The man had a rifle but didn't have time to aim it. His bullets went wide, spraying the deck and bulkhead. Marcus reached the insurgent before he could adjust his stream of fire, stabbing the descaling knife upward into the man’s neck and cutting through his carotid artery.
He grabbed the man from the ladder, throwing him to the deck while blood sprayed from his wound. Marcus jumped on him, stabbing him a second time. Taking the rifle from the attacker's hands, he surged back up and fired a single round through the man's head.
Marcus smiled at the violence, the caged animal finally set loose.
He hurried to the ladder, climbing up toward the main deck. He heard more shooting as he approached the first belowdecks, catching sight of another invader rushing toward the living quarters. Marcus paused, considering whether or not to stop the man from reaching the area, which was sure to be occupied mainly by women and children. He put his foot on the next riser before freezing and turning back. He was a killer, but he wasn't heartless.
"Hey!" he shouted, his baritone voice echoing in the passageway. The attacker stopped and spun around, rifle swinging toward Marcus. A single round from Marcus' gun caught the invader in the eye, punching through to his brain and dropping him with a single shot. He could have stopped there and fled, but he stepped through the open hatch to the deck and made his way toward berthing.
He was glad he did. Reaching the intersection of the two passageways, he caught sight of two more black-clad attackers to his left. They shot at him, their bullets missing him as he ducked and rolled to the center of the corridor. Emerging in a firing position on his knees, Marcus released four quick rounds, two for each invader. The men fell, both mortally wounded.
Marcus stood, pivoting quickly when he heard footsteps behind him. Another intruder, armed only with an old machete angling straight for his head.
Reacting quickly, Marcus jumped back, swinging his rifle up crosswise in both hands to block the blade. He kicked out, smashing the assailant between the legs before turning aside and cracking him in the head with the rifle's stock. The invader went down like a felled tree. Marcus put the muzzle of his rifle to the back of his head and finished the kill.
He looked up then. A frightened woman stood at the entrance to the living quarters, holding another descaling knife in her hand as if she would defend the area from these assholes. She recognized him immediately, her fear only increased by his presence even though he had just saved her life.
"D'yavol," she said, backing away. Devil.
He was hardly a devil. Just a man who knew how to succeed in this environment, who had maybe trusted a little too much. He had no intention of harming the woman. With the area clear, he was ready to move on.
Marcus returned to the ladder, taking it up to the main deck. He froze for a moment as he took in the scene before him, the dark sky illuminated by the light of the fire coming from the platform's engines. Thick black smoke belched from the engines, wafting across the area, obscuring Marcus' surroundings. The solar panels that had replaced the derrick were in ruin, shot out by invaders. Shipping containers stacked on the helipad were also burning, adding to the heat.
Gunfire rattled across the deck, most of it coming from around the piping near the seawater pumps. Marcus ignored it, turning in the direction of the port leg. He had heard the boats earlier. They must have tied up to the platform there.
He ran in that direction, away from most of the fighting, moving between a pair of multi-level shanties anchored to the deck. Made of aluminum and sheet metal, the hovels were coated in ancient graffiti deeply faded by the sun. The messages were still there for anyone who cared to look long enough to read them. Marcus had examined the markings when he first arrived on the platform.
SCREW THE TRIFE! read the topmost message, written in red paint that had dribbled down over the layers of graffiti beneath. A message a bit past its relevance.
Marcus neared the edge of the shanty, stepping over a dead woman, shot multiple times in the chest. He leveled his rifle and leaned around the corner, spotting a pair of invaders near the leg a hundred feet away. They guarded the attackers' entry point, ensuring the escape route remained clear should they need to escape.
Marcus ducked back as a sudden overhead spotlight bathed the platform near his position. Barely avoiding being illuminated in the beam, he squinted to look up at it, surprised to see a helicopter moving over the rig. Between the gunfire and the shouting, he hadn't heard it earlier.
Had it spotted him?
Bullets hit the deck around him, muzzle flashes from the chopper suggesting it had. Marcus shrunk further back, rushing away from the chopper and turning the corner at the end of the shanty, diving inside. The spotlight flashed over him, and he held his arms over his head as bullets tore through the aluminum and into his hiding place. The rounds barely missed him.
The helicopter drifted past, assuming he was dead from the barrage.
Marcus stood up again, finding a smoking hole in the baggy sleeve of his ratty old sweater.. Only luck had kept him alive. He cautiously moved back outside, catching a glimpse of an attacker headed away from the leg. Before, he might have left him alone, more intent on escaping than continuing to fight. Now the man was a target of opportunity he didn't want to waste.
He squeezed off a single round, the bullet catching the black-clad figure in the head and knocking him down. Grunting in satisfaction, Marcus ran along the shanty's forward side, past open hovels riddled with bullet holes and corpses. When the next invader appeared, he barely cleared the corner before Marcus put a round through his skull.
The spotlight appeared again, a few feet away. Marcus turned as it swung toward him. Sighting down the rifle, he fired. The light vanished, the bulb shattered by the slug. Without the beam to blind him, he was able to get a better look at the helicopter’s long, broad fuselage and open sides. A single gunman leaned out, searching for targets. He found Marcus at the same time Marcus found him. They both started shooting.
The gunman's aim was off, his bullets smacking the deck nearly a foot away from Marcus. The man was a lousy shot. Marcus wasn't. He fired nearly half a dozen rounds at the shooter, the last two catching the man in the chest and knocking him back into the chopper and out the other side. He fell over the platform’s side, and Marcus heard the splash when he landed in the water.
Who were these people? As far as he knew, his father had the only helicopter for miles around. And that wasn't his father's chopper. He would have recognized it anywhere.
It didn't matter. Marcus needed to get off and away from the platform. The fire from the engines was spreading, and once it reached the shanties and the derrick, the whole place would go up. He didn't want to be on it when that happened.
Neither did the residents who had been hiding belowdecks. They had guessed the outcome by the smell and appeared at the hatches, trying to make their way out. A few of the invaders spotted them and started shooting, cutting down the civilians as they screamed in fear.
Marcus knew he should leave them and take care of himself. It was the only way to survive out here. His father would have told him those people were expendable. Dead from the moment they were born because they didn't have his killer instinct. Maybe his father was right. But Marcus had left Sanisco behind because he couldn't take watching his father's cruelty any longer. It was one thing to be violent to survive, another to take pleasure in needless slaughter.
He turned on the invaders, rushing back toward the hatches and releasing a handful of rounds. They hit the attackers and ended their massacre.
The people looked at him, eager to thank their savior until they saw his face. Even in saving their lives, he couldn't redeem himself for what he had tried to do. They still didn't understand he wanted to lead them out of here. To protect them. To prevent exactly what was happening now. He wasn't looking for thanks, but a hint of anything other than fear and disgust would have gone a long way. He spun away from them, bitter in their rejection.
His father was right. He needed to stop trying to be a hero and only look out for himself. He still remembered the last thing his old man had said to him before he left.
"You'll thank me one day. When the world gets too hard and the only thing left is life or death. You'll see I knew what I was talking about, and you'll be grateful for every beating. Every broken bone. Every scar. It's the memory of the pain that will keep you alive."
And it had...for six years. He’d had a lot of time to think. A lot of time to decide. If he made it off this platform, he’d promised himself he was going home, the prodigal son returning to his father a changed man. He shouldn't have helped the ungrateful meat behind him, but some habits were hard to break.
He headed back for the port leg and the boats he was sure were waiting below. He took the guards there by surprise, planting bullets in their chests and heads, dropping his rifle and replacing it with a pair of fresh weapons, courtesy of the two corpses. He leaned out over the edge of the platform, spotting a couple of motorboats nearly eighty feet below.
Bullets whipped past him, and he ran to three barrels near the edge of the platform, dropping to a knee behind them. He looked back at the burning superstructure, the smoke so thick now it stung his throat.
The rig would collapse soon, taking anybody still on it down with it. This whole thing didn't make any sense to him. What value was there in pillaging and destroying the rig instead of claiming it? This wasn't an assault with purpose. It was an attack for the sake of attacking. Why?
It wasn't his problem. Neither were the attackers coming his way, retreating from the smoke and flames. Heading for the ladder and their boats.
He needed a boat too. And this was his last chance to get one.
He peered over the edge of the platform, at the ladder leading down to the two motorboats tied to it nearly eighty feet below. A bullet whizzed past his head and he ducked his head even lower, several more pinging off the steel superstructure near him. He was between them and their means of escape.
Taking the ladder was no longer an option. They’d spot him and shoot him off it before he got halfway down. He looked down at the water, dark and forbidding. A long way down. A leap from this high up wasn’t child’s play, but he didn’t have a choice. It would hurt like hell when he hit the water, almost like hitting concrete, but he could do it.
And it would beat sticking around to keep getting shot at.
He didn’t give himself any more time to think. Quickly, stood up and stepped off the platform.
His body knife-straight, arms at his sides, he fell feet first, the water approaching fast. He tightened his stomach muscles just before he hit the water and held his breath, hoping to keep the impact from knocking the air out of his lungs. It didn’t work. He hit the cold, hard surface, pain knifing up both legs, traveling all the way up into his gut. The impact not only knocked the breath out of him, it was all he could do to keep from gulping in water as the dark silence washed over his head and he sank beneath the surface.
Looking up, he kicked hard, powering himself upward toward the lights and fire flickering on the surface. It seemed like forever before he broke out of the water and could breathe again. Breathing hard, he set out for the closest craft—seventeen feet of dull and pitted aluminum with a large enough outboard engine to get him out of here fast.
He pulled himself up over the side just as the attackers reached the ladder. A few started climbing down, others leaned over the side, shouting and pointing at him. A couple followed his lead, leaping into the water.
"Hold your fire!" he heard someone shout from above. "You'll sink the boats!"
Marcus shucked the rope off the bow cleat, fell into the seat and hit the electric starter. The big outboard rumbled to life.
"You're dead!" someone screamed at him from the platform. "We'll find you, and we'll kill you."
He wasn't impressed. It wasn't the first time someone had said something similar to him.
He almost made it away clean, but one of the invaders on the ladder leaped off, managing to land in the back of the boat. Marcus straightened the wheel, leaving them headed toward the open sea and rounded on the attacker, clearly a woman. She tried to get her rifle trained on him, but he grabbed the muzzle and pushed it toward the sky as she fired.
"Stupid move," he said, throwing a hard punch into her throat that left her reeling backward, She tried to catch hold of the boat’s hull but her hand slipped off the wet aluminum, and she let out a scream as she toppled overboard.
Marcus returned to the wheel, keeping the throttle pegged as he brought the craft around, heading back toward the chaos and the shoreline behind it. He winced when he saw the other two platforms in the group were also on fire, the bridge of boats that connected Harvest also burning and in ruin. Most of those ships were long dead, out of fuel or just broken down, but a few still functioned. A handful raced away from the scene, like him, eager to escape. The insurgents didn't seem to care much about the fleeing craft.
He saw why a moment later, his gaze settling on a second helicopter hovering over the center platform. It had what looked like a net trailing from it. It rose slowly from only twenty feet or so above the deck, the net expanding at the bottom. It held something large and dark. So dark it seemed as though it absorbed all of the light from the flames surrounding it.
What was it?
Marcus watched the chopper continue to rise and accelerate ahead of him, toward shore. He kept one eye on it as he slowed his approach. The attackers' boats were breaking away from the nearby rigs, and he didn't want to get caught up in them. He cut the throttle, letting the small vessel drift as the strange invasion force vanished with the chopper. Into the night.
Whatever they had taken, it had to be the reason for the attack. Since the insurgents had boarded all three platforms, they clearly hadn't known which one it was on. How had they known about it at all? His eyes shifted from one rig to the next, both sending smoke billowing into the night air. He spotted people approaching the sides of the platforms and jumping off, abandoning the rigs in hopes of saving their lives. They all knew what awaited them onshore, but dealing with the trife was still better than burning to death.
Marcus pushed the throttle forward again, speeding between the rigs and the freshly formed gaps in the boat-bridge. The small craft's hull smacked against bodies and other debris as he pushed through toward shore. One of the survivors noticed him and cried out, begging him for help. He didn't slow down. He didn't give her a second thought. He was done trying to help anyone but himself. The effort had only gotten him thrown into isolation for six long years, and in the end it had all been a waste. The idiots had to sink or swim on their own.
It was a lesson that had taken him a long time to learn.
His father would be proud.
Sheriff Hayden Duke crouched in the brush, eyes fixed on the creature wading in the stream nearly a hundred meters away. A mottled, ugly thing, it bore a vague resemblance to a human with regard to its size and general shape, as well as the overall shape of its head. But with its powerful legs, overlong arms and sharp claws, it held a much stronger resemblance to a trife. Its flesh was harder than a trife’s though, its muscles thicker and more robust. It was also smarter than one of the alien demons, able to think and reason more like a human than a mindless drone guided by the sight, smell and sound of its nearby prey. That and its enhanced ability to heal, along with its overwhelming stamina, made it one of the most dangerous predators on the planet.
The hellion had stopped in the water to do what it did best. Hunt. In this case, a brown bear further downstream, which was fishing for a meal itself. It hadn’t noticed the alien hybrid, or if it had, it didn’t know to register it as a threat. After all, for all the years the trife had covered the landscape they had never targeted wildlife. Only humans. The bear’s instinctual mind didn’t understand the hellion was different. While, like the trife, the creature only hunted for sport, unlike the trife, it didn’t care what it killed, only that it satisfied its need to rend flesh.
It was that need that had helped Hayden track it down, one of a handful of hellions that had fled an old research facility a few months earlier. He had already dealt with the others, and while he couldn’t prove this was the last of the bunch, he was hopeful. The escaped hybrids had killed nearly two hundred people and left a trail of dead wildlife wherever they roamed. Following one of those trails had brought him here.
The hellion faced the bear, staring at it as though it offered a challenge the bear couldn’t understand well enough to accept. Instead, the large mammal snapped its front paws together under the water, a fish caught momentarily between them before it managed to wriggle away. The bear groaned in disappointment, which the hellion seemed to take as a signal.
Its hiss drew the bear’s attention, its sizeable round head swiveling to look upstream. The hellion and the bear made eye contact, causing the hellion to lower itself and break forward. The sudden movement confused the bear, and it got caught deciding between fight or flight.
Hayden raised his rifle, quickly taking aim and squeezing off a round. The crack of his shot convinced the bear that flight was the better response, and it lumbered back toward the trees, eager to escape. The hellion might have followed, but the bullet struck it in the shoulder blade, digging into its thick flesh and stealing its attention. It sent up a large splash of water as it slid to a stop on the muddy floor of the stream, the bear already forgotten. It was smart enough to know that only one kind of animal used guns.
Its favorite prey.
It spun around, its head shifting to listen, judging the distance and direction of the first round’s report. Hayden kept the rifle trained on the hellion while he got to his feet. He hadn’t taken the most efficient shot, but he also couldn’t sit there and watch the bear be ripped apart.
The hellion was static for a moment, as if it were waiting for another bullet to hit it so it could tell exactly where the attack had originated. Hayden knew better and held his fire. He was too far away from the creature to kill it with the rifle. He needed it to come closer for that.
He had initially planned to trail the hellion for a bit longer. To slowly and carefully close the gap until he could fully control the encounter and ensure a quick and relatively painless death for the creature. The hellions weren’t inherently evil despite their demonic appearance. They acted purely on instinct, genetically programmed to be the way they were. It was no more their fault they were killers than it was the bear’s fault for slaughtering fish.
That didn’t mean Hayden could allow it to live. It was an engineered species—made, not born. It didn’t belong on Earth. It didn’t belong in existence anywhere. If he didn’t stop it, the hellion would kill thousands of humans in its lifetime and countless more bears, deer, dogs and other animals. It was meant to counter the trife, but the trife were gone.
The hellion started moving, creeping forward on a track that accurately followed the path of Hayden’s bullet. It was coming straight for him. Good. Hayden shouldered the rifle, reaching down to the revolver at his hip, chambered with five half-inch rounds. The long gun was appropriate for distance, but it didn’t have stopping power against the creature.
He backpedaled slowly, careful not to step on any random twigs or branches as he squatted down behind the thick trunk of an old oak. He watched the hellion bend down and bury its claws in the slope of ground leading up from the stream to the treeline. The hellion waited, looking around, sniffing the air.
It hissed when it picked up Hayden’s location, the hisses growing louder as it pulled itself up into the trees. Hayden picked up a fallen branch and tossed it at the trunk of another oak a short distance away. The hellion’s hiss turned into more of a scream when it heard the clatter, and it launched itself toward the noise, freezing when it realized it had been tricked.
It spun toward Hayden. Too late. He fired the revolver, barely able to hold it steady against the recoil as the large rounds punched through the creature’s natural armor and into its chest. It howled in pain and rushed Hayden, who stood his ground and emptied the weapon into it, putting the last two slugs between the hellion’s eyes.
It stopped vocalizing then, stumbling forward two more steps before collapsing.
“Sorry about that,” Hayden said to it, reaching to his bandolier to recover five more cartridges for his revolver. He had only chambered two of them when a rustle in the brush behind him caught his attention, and he spun around, slapping the cylinder closed.
A second hellion hit him before he could level the gun at it, claws ripping at his chest. He had an old kevlar vest beneath his shirt, which managed to catch the worst of the blow, though the force of the strike knocked him off his feet. He landed on top of the first hellion’s corpse, rolling off it and to his feet as the second creature lunged, slashing at him with its clawed hand.
Hayden caught its wrist, his own alien-enhanced strength struggling to match that of the creature’s. He brought the revolver forward to shoot it, but the hellion smacked his hand, knocking the weapon away. Hayden let go of its wrist as he ducked beneath its arm, pivoting to the side. He wasn’t fast enough. The hellion caught his shoulder with its claws, raking through the flesh and drawing first blood.
Grunting in pain, Hayden broke away from the creature, making it a dozen steps to another large tree as the hellion gave chase. He fell forward as its claws took another hack at him, cutting into the tree instead. Coming back up with his rifle in his arms, he fired back at the hellion, bullets peppering its chest but they only served to make it angrier. It rushed toward him, teeth bared, arms flailing. Hayden gripped the rifle crosswise, using it to block the next attack, pushing it aside and then slamming the creature in the face with the stock. The blow stunned it just long enough for him to dart past, headed back the way he had come.
It gave chase once more, crashing through the brush behind him as he reached the dead hellion, spotting his revolver on the ground nearby. He twisted to fire the rifle at it again, slowing it slightly before he dropped the weapon and dove for the handle of the more powerful gun. The hellion caught up to him, stabbing its claws into his calf and pulling him toward it. He managed to roll over as it yanked him directly beneath its gaping, slavering maw. He fired point-blank into its face, the front of its head exploding from the size and force of the slug. It’s grip loosened, and it collapsed on top of him.
The hellion was dead, but its claws remained lodged painfully in his leg. Its blood ran down onto his face and shirt, the smell and his own loss of blood making him nauseous. He had tracked the first creature for nearly four days and had never seen any sign of the second. Did it just happen to be nearby? Or had the hunted been hunting him?
Hayden winced in pain, carefully shifting the body off him as he sat up, reaching down to take hold of the demon’s limp arm. Clenching his teeth against the coming pain, he pulled its claws out of his leg, barely able to keep from crying out. If there were any more of the creatures around, he didn’t want to invite them to come and get him.
He tossed the creature’s arm aside and pushed its body the rest of the way off him, letting him shrug off his long duster. He tore off the sleeve of his shirt at the shoulder and then tied it around his leg with a loose knot. Looking around for a short stick, he found one to fit his needs under his other boot. He put it into the knot in his sleeve and twisted the cloth into a tourniquet before sliding one end of it under the cloth to anchor it. His body would heal faster than any normal human, but it would remain messy and painful until then.
Hoping these hellions were the last two, Hayden struggled to his feet, wincing again when he tried to put weight on the leg. He grabbed onto the tree trunk to keep from falling over. The wound was worse than he had thought.
Hayden stood there for a few minutes before hobbling over to recover both his rifle and revolver, reloading both and holstering his pistol. He used the rifle, stock down, as a cane as he made his way from the scene.
It took nearly an hour for him to reach the small field where he had left his horse, cursing loudly as he slumped to the ground, his calf throbbing like somebody had stuck him with a hot poker. Zorro was gone, and judging by the way the grass was trampled in the field, it hadn’t been the hellion’s doing.
Someone had stolen him.
Hayden remained on the grass, sitting with his back against a tree, eyes on the scuffs and divots where Zorro had fought to resist whoever had taken him. Six separate boot prints were overlapping one another on the ground, all of them different sizes. Each depression differently impacted the earth. Four men, two women. They had likely come on horses of their own, or maybe a modbox, though it would have needed to be electric for him not to have heard it. The field was only a hundred meters or so from the road leading through the area, but it was hidden behind plenty of trees and other vegetation. It surprised him that anyone had spotted Zorro from the road.
Unless he had been followed.
That seemed unlikely too. Hayden last stopped in a town along the Mississippi River called Maye. That was nearly three weeks ago. Most people stuck close to home. Close to town. Close to civilization. Even with the trife gone, the world continued to be dangerous. Of course, if you were part of a gang, a nomad or a War Dog, you were the danger innocent folks faced almost daily. However, Hayden thought it equally unlikely that a group of six outlaws trailing him wouldn’t have jumped him, if not in broad daylight, then while he slept.
Unless they knew who he was.
That seemed impossible. The Sheriff of legend had augmented arms. The stories spreading around the wastelands suggested he was nearly seven feet tall, heavily muscled and a real cowboy with women. That was the part of it he hated the most. It was also the most inaccurate. He had loved once. He still loved. Deeply. Even though Natalia wasn't here, holding onto their love was enough. That and his devotion to duty.
Ruling out all of the other options, his last guess was that someone had left the road to empty their bladder and had happened upon Zorro grazing there. Seeing the gear on the horse and the fact that nobody was around, they had likely figured it was their lucky day that the poor rider had somehow gotten himself killed. That made the horse fair game, and since it was a group and not an individual, they felt emboldened to take him. Hayden couldn't blame them for that. Nothing came easy out here. If the shoe was on the other foot, he probably would have done the same.
The good news was that the taking of his horse suggested there was a settlement nearby. A chance he could recover Zorro and also rest for a day or two. He had been hunting the hellions nonstop all season, grateful they preferred the warmer climate through the winter. It had been exhausting work, and he needed a short break. The slow healing of his calf was proof of that. His body was taxed and tired. All across the board. Part of him wanted to lower his hat over his face and sleep it off right here and now.
That thought caused Hayden to lean forward and unwrap the tourniquet from his leg to check the wound. It should have been closed up by now. Instead, it looked as though it was getting infected, the skin around the puncture marks deep red and swollen. It figured that the last hellion would be the first to land a solid hit on him. Flesh wounds like his shoulder didn't count. That one had already healed, with nothing but three thin red lines to signal it had ever existed at all.
There had to be something about the interaction between the hellion's claws and his interior muscle, bone and bloodstream causing the wound to fester instead of heal. Or maybe it was something it had gotten on its claws out here. He had no idea how the increased healing factor worked; it had been bestowed by alien technology, along with his strange connection to the Hunger's Collective. He did know the hellions had been designed to match the other monsters in the alien stable. Were they made to overcome that particular enhancement?
He regretted letting the first one get so close. And he chided himself for allowing the second to take him by surprise. He had gotten sloppy and had paid for it. With his foot perhaps? If that was the case, he needed to find a settlement with a borger. Someone who could give him an augment.
At least then he would be able to kick himself in the ass a lot harder for his recklessness. The enhancement benefited his line of work, but he needed to be careful not to become dependent on it to stay alive.
Realizing the damage wasn't going to repair on its own, Hayden had no choice but to get moving again. He couldn't afford to have the infection worsen in the middle of nowhere, with nobody to help him. Especially since he had lost his saddlebags. He had a Centurion medi-patch in there that could probably clear the issue right away. Damn. He wanted to kick himself again.
He started walking instead, through the trees and brush and out to the road, an old highway cutting northwest across the landscape. The wilderness out here had never been heavily occupied, more farmland and trees than burned-out cities and hollowed-out towns. He recalled passing a farmhouse a few klicks back, the roof rotted and partially collapsed, the porch nothing more than a pile of wood fiber on the dirt. Experience had given him good instincts toward the places that might have something of value inside and the ones that didn't, but anybody could guess a place like that was already picked clean.
There was no question which way to turn when Hayden reached the highway. It was composed of a pair of six-meter wide stone roadways split by a berm in the center. Time had allowed the vegetation to take over, the center covered in tall grasses and weeds. The road was cracked by the elements and the small brush and vines that snaked up through and across it. The proliferation of vegetation made it clear there weren't many motorized vehicles passing this way, at least on Hayden's side of the lanes. The fact that there weren't any old abandoned husks of those same kinds of vehicles suggested this highway had never been heavily traveled.
He was in the middle of nowhere special. It was a lousy place to get hurt without his rapid healing process kicking in.
Hayden started walking, following the highway half a klick to a bridge that crossed the river where he had first spotted the hellion. The bridge was split like the roadway, two separate expanses crossing the water. The north side where he was had collapsed a long time ago, the remains of the stretch creating a rough patch of water as it flowed around the fallen debris. The other side looked like it was in bad shape but had yet to fall into the river.
Hayden crossed over, pausing at the sight of manure right at the edge of the bridge, as though Zorro had left a smelly breadcrumb for him. Two other turds joined it, spaced a few meters apart. Six people and at least two other horses. Some of the manure wasn't Zorro's. It was relatively fresh, but looking across the expanse, there was no sign of the group. At least he knew he was headed in the same direction.
One hour passed. Another. And another. Hayden remained on the highway, staying alert to potential danger around him and feeling relatively secure. The stretch was as open as anywhere he had ever been, surrounded by muddy brown fields and knee-high grass. No buildings. No vehicles. Not even many rusted old road signs. And still no sign of the group who took his horse.
His calf began to hurt more and more with every step he took. Hayden had a high pain tolerance, but the constant throbbing was starting to get to him. When he stopped to recheck the wound, he saw it was turning more purple and fluid oozed out of the punctures. He pressed a fingernail into his foot, noticing he didn't feel it anywhere near as sharply as he thought he should.
It was bad. Worse than Hayden had thought possible. He needed to get to a settlement. One hopefully with a doctor.
Another two hours of walking brought him within sight of a structure up ahead. A brick building. Grimy and slightly run-down, it still wasn’t in as bad shape as some of the other buildings he had seen. A rusted fence surrounded it, still intact, and as he got closer, he spotted a stained crucifix still affixed to the front. A church. A half-collapsed stone wall beside the portico had once held a sign announcing the name of the place, but someone had made off with it at some point, for reasons Hayden couldn't begin to guess. It didn't matter. His calf was on fire, and he needed to get off that leg for a little while.
It took another twenty minutes to reach the church doors, only one of which still hung from the hinges, the other discarded inside the building. The pews were all intact, some of them rotted from leaks in the ceiling. The lighting had mostly been removed, anything metal ripped out over the centuries, leaving the place with a hollow appearance. Hayden wasn't surprised to find the wood crucifix at the church's back near the altar had been left untouched. When everything else had failed, God probably seemed like a good last resort.
Hayden fell onto the closest intact pew. He left his rifle on the floor next to it while he removed the original bandage he’d used as a tourniquet and tore off his opposite sleeve, tying it tight around the wound before stretching out on the pew. He wouldn't stay long. An hour at most. He had about that before the sun went down, but he didn't mind walking in the dark.
He closed his eyes, still frustrated with himself for getting hurt in the first place. Lowering his hat down over his face, he drifted off to sleep.
When he heard the first rumbles of thunder, he thought he was dreaming. The sky had been crystal clear when he entered the church. There was no way a storm had cooked up in the few minutes it took him to doze off. Unless he’d been asleep longer than he thought.
He moved his hat off his face and set it back on his head as he sat up, listening while the deep grumble continued to echo across the sky.
What was that?
He stood, growling at the pain that had now migrated down to his foot, cursing when he struggled to keep his weight on it. Picking up his rifle, he limped to the door, still trying to discern the source of the thunder. He had just reached it when he spotted riders in the distance, on the highway and coming his way. One of them was riding a horse that looked very much like Zorro.
He couldn’t tell for certain though. Not at this distance. And not with the sun so low in the sky, it cast the riders and their mounts in an eerie orange light.
Hayden knew by now it wasn't thunder. It was gunfire. Large caliber rounds. Behind them, a line of thick, dark smoke from something on fire in the distance rose toward the darkening sky. The riders stopped to look back at the smoke, one pointing at it as they talked amongst themselves.
The rumbling stopped, the fighting apparent over. If a settlement did exist up that way, it was in bad trouble.
The riders altered course slightly, angling their horses toward the church. Hayden ducked back, getting out of sight before they spotted him. He limped toward the front of the church. Ducking behind the first row of pews, he traded his rifle for his revolver. Hayden didn't know who was fighting who or which side was the right side—if there was one, And he didn’t know what the riders headed for the church had to do with it.
But he was going to find out.
Hayden watched through a small space between pews as four men and two women filed into the church through the front doors. He kept his revolver in hand, pressed against his thigh with his finger resting on the trigger guard, ready to fire but hoping it wouldn't be necessary.
They stayed close to one another, the man in the lead and the one bringing up the rear both carried simple hunting rifles. Obviously, these weren't career thieves or brigands, but rather people from a nearby settlement. Since they didn't bring their horses inside, he couldn't be entirely sure they were the ones who had made off with Zorro, but he could resolve that question easily enough when the time came. For the moment, he was satisfied to observe them, interested to see how they handled the situation. Maybe they would offer him an unfiltered idea of the nature of the conflict further up the road.
"Shit, Moss," the second man—a kid as far as Hayden was concerned—in line said.
He couldn't have been more than twenty years old. Blonde hair. Blue eyes. Freckles. He wore a simple oversized roughspun shirt above badly faded and patched blue jeans cinched with a wide leather belt. His body language told Hayden he was the most nervous of the bunch. The kind of guy you didn't want around during trouble.
"I told you we shouldn't have gone back,” the kid whined. “We should have just kept going. We damn near got caught."
"Will you be quiet?" the woman behind him said. She was shorter and more stocky, with a round face, small eyes and close cut, dark hair. She wore dark coveralls over a t-shirt stained with sweat around the underarms. "We heard you the first ten times."
"What else were we supposed to do?" the other female in the group said. She was taller, probably the nervous kid's older sister judging by her fair complexion.
The two men in the back didn't speak. Twins. They were both Black, lean and muscled, and like their leader maintaining their calm. The three of them were all outfitted similarly. Button-down cotton shirts and vests, black pants and gun belts, though only one of the straps had a holstered revolver in it. They weren't farmers. Maybe the settlement's law?
"All of you just stay calm," their leader said. He was the oldest of the group, with long salt and pepper hair. The left side of his face was red and rough from an old burn. "You know how much a stallion like that is worth, and the prior owner didn't seem to need it anymore. We can keep Ruger off our backs for a week with an offering like that stud, and we lost what? A few hours? We waited too long to come out here anyways."
Hayden smirked. So these folks had taken Zorro. They were hardly thieves. They sounded more like desperate locals who thought today had been their lucky day. At least up until those explosions.
"A week isn't worth shit," the sweaty woman said. "The tribute's barely two days late and he sent that bastard machine out again before we could get that horse to Jackie. How many do you think he killed this time? How many crops do you think he'll burn? Asshole."
"If we hadn't left when we did, or if we had gone back sooner, we might have been one of the dead," the nervous kid said. "Do you think it saw us?"
"I don't think so," the twin with the rifle replied, keeping an eye on the road toward their settlement. "Seems like it's over."
"Until next week," Sweaty spat. "We can't find the Sheriff in a week."
"If we can find him at all," the other twin said.
Hayden froze when he heard them mention him, quickly putting the pieces together. Tribute. Machine. A man named Ruger. How would they react if he announced himself and told them they had stolen the Sheriff's horse while he was busy killing a creature that was probably a lot worse than some two-bit warlord who had picked up a Butcher bot somewhere?
Hayden didn't move, preferring to listen a little longer. When he did come out of hiding, he knew they wouldn’t be particularly up front with him...a stranger. He doubted they would even believe he was the man they were looking for since he didn't match the description in the stories. That was fine. They could go looking for that Sheriff if they wanted. If their settlement was in trouble, he would keep heading north. Toward it.
Except he was in no condition to head north.
A twinge in his leg nearly caused him to groan out loud, but he clamped his teeth down on the pain. He was in bad shape, too hurt to mix it up with a Butcher. The old Space Force robots weren't quite as dangerous as a hellion. Still, they were challenging in their own right, and even his fifty caliber rounds might not be able to pierce its metal hide. He should have gone back to New Eden to re-equip when he’d had the chance. But if he had, none of the people in the church with him now would be alive.
The two hellions would have reached their village and torn them apart.
"Moss is right," the other twin continued. "We need to just stay calm. Lie low for an hour and make sure Ruger calls off his attack spider before we stick our necks out again. Hopefully he won't notice anyone is missing. Then we can get back on the road, right Moss?"
Spider? Hayden's ears perked up. He had never seen a bot that looked like a spider. Then again, he was sure there were plenty of old Space Force designs he hadn't encountered before.
"That's right, Shaun," Moss replied, turning back to look at the sweaty woman. "Mary, I don't know if we can find the Sheriff. Not in a week, a month or at all. But we have to do something. We can't have that thing coming into the village every damn week shootin' up our people. Every corpse Ruger leaves cold and bloody in the dirt makes it that much harder for us to meet his damned quota. We discussed this with Jackie. We need to find the Sheriff."
"We need a miracle," Sweaty said.
"Well, we're in the right place for that," the nervous kid's sister said, pointing to the crucifix hanging at the front of the church. "Maybe he knows the Sheriff."
"You're welcome to pray if you think it'll help, Tammy," Moss said. "Cal, stay on watch." The twin with the rifle nodded. "Shaun, why don't you make sure the side entrance is covered?"
"Yes, sir," Shaun replied.
"Wendell, maybe you should pray too. For a backbone."
"Look, it wasn't my idea for you and your sis to come along. I thought the twins and me and my Mary could handle this. We haven't even really left yet and you've spent the better part of the day complaining. Maybe we shouldn't take the horse,” he mimicked in a sing-song voice. “What if the owner comes looking for him? What if Ruger kills us?" He paused, shaking his head. "When has life ever been easy?"
Wendell swallowed hard, face turning beet red. "Sorry, Moss," he said. "Jackie said we could come. She said out of everyone Ruger would miss me the least, and she wanted to get Tammy away from him. You saw the way he looked at her last time he paid a visit in person."
"Yup, I did," Moss replied. "That's why I agreed. We don't need any of that in our town."
Wendell didn't move toward the front of the church, but Tammy and Shaun did. Hayden crawled back slightly, ducking a little lower while at the same time getting his feet under him to stand. One foot, anyway. The other hurt too damn much to put weight on it, so he rested his arm on the pew to use it for leverage to push himself up.
The two younger villagers reached the first row. Neither one was looking in his direction. He cocked the hammer on his revolver to get their attention.
Both of them froze instantly.
"Just keep still," Hayden said. "I don't aim to hurt you." He looked to the back, where Moss had brought his rifle up, taking aim. "Any of you."
Cal spun around at the sound of Hayden's voice. Hayden stepped up to Tammy, putting his arm around her to bring her close, though he didn't put the revolver's muzzle to her head. That would be a step too far.
"Who are you, mister?" Moss asked.
Hayden noticed Shaun out of the corner of his eye, the man's body tense and ready to make a move. "Just a traveler," he said. "I seem to have lost my horse."
"Damn, Moss," Wendell said. "I told you."
Shaun lunged at Hayden, reaching for the gun. Hayden pushed Tammy away as gently as he could, shoving Shaun's hands away with one strong hand, wrapping his good foot around his ankle and turning him off balance. He leaned forward, grabbing the twin the way he had been holding Tammy, using him to keep from falling as his other leg refused to hold him up.
"Don't," Hayden said, turning Shaun toward Moss, putting him between his body and the rifles.
"You're stronger than you look, mister," Shaun said, struggling to move his arms beneath Hayden's grip.
"My apologies, sir," Moss said. "We found your horse abandoned in a field a ways back. We figured you weren't coming back for him, and he's a fine breed."
"I'm going to let you go," Hayden said softly to Shaun. "I don't want to hurt anyone, but I guarantee I can kill every one of you before you can kill me. Do you understand?"
Hayden released his grip, shifting his free hand to the arm of the pew to stay upright. He lowered his revolver, slipping it back into its holster, hands moving quick enough to give the villagers pause.
"Truce?" he said.
"Stupid move, traveler," Cal said, shifting his grip on his rifle.
Hayden let his hand leave the pew to grab his other revolver, whipping it from its holster and shooting from the hip. The round hit the rifle's barrel, splintering the wood just ahead of Cal's hand and causing him to cry out and drop the gun, gripping his painful hand in the other.
"I said, truce?" Hayden repeated, swinging his revolver toward Moss in warning before quickly holstering it again.
“Damn,” Cal said, looking down at his hand and pulling a splinter out.
Moss smiled. “You earned that, Cal.”
"Sorry about that," Hayden said. "But I don't need to get shot today. I'm already—" A wave of dizziness suddenly overtook him, and all of the strength went out of his legs. He stumbled forward, catching himself on the pew. His arms weren't able to keep him up, and he fell forward.
Everything went dark before he hit the floor.
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