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Published on Tuesday, October 5, 2010

When The Pin Hits the Shell

By Joseph D. Williams

 

There were two horses tied to the post outside of Russell's shack, and both of them looked like they'd just been whipped hard and driven through hundreds of miles of barren desert with Hell at their heels. Their heads hung low, weary, within a baby's hair of death, but they were too tired to lie down and brace themselves against the sharp incline of the Sierra Nevada slopes. Instead, they stood together with their tails occasionally flickering back and forth in the midnight wind, leaning on each other only slightly to keep upright and warm. They didn't look like the kind of horses who were planning on leaving anytime soon.

   

Horace eyed them skeptically under a white, mountain moon, unsure whether or not he should move in or wait until the extra rider was gone to take care of his business.

He hadn't planned on finding two men at Russell's, not even one, and the prospect worried him a little. It might make the job more difficult. Russell was old, but he was still the deadliest gunman Horace had ever seen. Maybe a year ago, Horace wouldn't have had to think twice about it. His draw had been a lot quicker before the hanging, back when there was no white scar circling his neck where the noose had burned his skin. But his hand had been a little slower drawing ever since.

He frowned.

I've faced worse before.

He tapped his rifle against the ground thoughtfully and decided to wait a little while to see if the uninvited third party would leave on his own, but he didn't take much stock in it. It wasn't likely that either of the conspirators would go off at that time of night in the mountains, with the grizzlies loose and the paths too difficult for good horses even in the daylight, but Horace didn't want to kill any more men than he had to. Ever since he'd taken over the Red Gunmen, he'd resolved to carry as few souls as possible into the afterlife aboard his conscience.

So he sat down, leaned his back against a Ponderosa Pine, and stared off of the mountain.

California spread out dry beneath him. The skeleton trees provided good cover for a man on a night like that, when the wind was gentle, the air was thick even in the mountains, and the moon was full. He thought it would be nice to have a whiskey and cigar on such a beautiful night with such a breathtaking view, maybe with Caroline or Charlotte singing softly by his side, maybe one of them rubbing his neck just above the white line to get rid of his headache. But none of that would do at all until this business was taken care of, and that's why he'd come alone. He hadn't even brought Jericho, his favorite horse and constant companion, and he never left the Hole without him. He definitely couldn't have any whiskey, cigars, or women until he took Jericho to stretch out his legs again in the chalk country. It wouldn't be right. Besides, he couldn't risk the smoke or the smell of a good cigar alerting the shack-dwellers of his presence. Even harder to hide would be the sultry voices of those two women fighting for control of his heart. The C's, as he called them. Charlotte and Caroline. They could draw men out of the wilderness from miles away.

He grinned and turned his gaze up to the treetops. Thinking about the two women kept him busy for a while.

As he drifted, the moon slouched lower, the wind picked up, the trees wavered like drunken giants of an old world.

Horace set his rifle down, careful to angle it so it wouldn't tumble off the mountainside or stray too far from his reach, and craned his neck to get another good look at the shack.

Both horses were still tied there.

Light peeked out from under the door, whispering a challenge to the midnight visitor to lay siege at his own risk.

Horace wondered how they could stand to have a fire burning in there for so long, even up in the night-cold mountains. Even if the fire itself wasn't bothering them, the smoke must have been, since the shack had no windows or chimney to air it out as far as he could see. The only ventilation was the doorframe and the weathered cracks in the sides of the building.

Pretty soon the place will catch. But that might save me some trouble.

He turned back around and shifted his legs further down the mountain so he could lie flat and wait until the time was right. To keep from dozing, he thought about the eight riders who'd once been a part of the Red Gunmen with him, and all of the senseless killing they'd done to stake their reputations.

An hour passed quickly. The fire still burned bright and neither of the men had left. Horace could hear their muffled voices through the mountain orchestra, and he wondered what they could possibly be plotting so late at night after such a long day of riding. Whatever it was, it had to be important, otherwise they would have waited until the sun came up. The moon had all but disappeared. It wouldn't be much longer 'til daybreak.

And what if they don't leave in the morning? What if they stay for a day or two, or more?

Horace sighed and shifted back into a sitting position with his legs crossed in front of him.

Worse things could happen.

He wasn't worried about surviving in the wilderness because he often went through stretches of a month or two out on his own with no towns in sight. He was more concerned that he would be spotted. Horace feared no man, but Russell was something else altogether. Not entirely human, the natives said, though he looked and acted like it. And whomever he was riding with had to be a tough customer just to keep up, and especially to warrant Russell's trust. The old scourge of the west didn't hold counsel with common thieves. He didn't need to. Enough of the best wanted to ride with him, because his draw was so quick that he'd never been caught or taken a single bullet. His campaigns were always successful. That was why Horace had ridden there. He wanted to get his secret.

Somehow, the dark lingered long enough that Russell's companion left before sunrise.

Horace had fallen asleep with his back toward the shack, slouched up against the Ponderosa Pine and dreaming about a trip to the Atlantic Ocean he'd taken as a child. But he'd been through enough hard times with low people to stir awake at the slightest sound, and so he was on his knees with his rifle in hand as soon as the rickety shack door opened.

  

"Tuesday," Russell said in his gruff voice.

"Tuesday," his companion repeated, a tall, thick man with his Stetson pulled down over his eyes and a pistol on his hip.

The rider did not mount his horse but untied it from the post outside of the shack and gathered its reins. Without any other acknowledgment toward Russell, he led the animal onto the path leading to the base of the mountain.

Horace watched him off, and then saw Russell limp over to the other horse and stroke its neck softly, muttering affection into its ear and patting its chest with his other hand. He kept at it for a minute or so while Horace did his best to see and not be seen.

With that done, Russell turned away and disappeared into the shed, pulling the door shut behind him.

That's better, Horace thought. Not exactly what I expected, but better.

Now, he just had to wait for the light to go out, assuming that Russell did end up putting out the fire before he went to sleep. Horace hoped he would. Otherwise, he wouldn't know when to make his move.

For now, it was back to the waiting game.

But it wasn't long at all before Russell put out the fire and bundled himself up with a bottle of liquor.

The cold that he was feeling in his old age was too deep for a fire to touch. He needed the warmth of the bottle to keep him from the shakes. Rather than lying in a bed each night and throwing a bundle of blankets around his old shoulders, Russell sat in the wooden chair behind his desk and drank himself into a stupor. Usually, he got all the sleep he could handle from it and then some, no matter how chilled the mountain air got.

Horace waited for what he judged was a quarter hour between when the light went out under the door and when he decided it was time to make his move.

He put the rifle over his shoulder, thought better of it, and drew his Model P revolver instead, setting the rifle back on the ground where he thought it was far enough away and hidden in case Russell somehow made it out of the shack and turned the gun against its owner.

It was still dark. Daylight had been further away than he'd reckoned, after all.

The Red Gunman took the slope as silently as he could, though it felt like he was carrying fifty-pound weights in each of his boots. He couldn't see the moon anymore, but the sky was glowing nonetheless. The air had turned from dry into the pre-dawn cling of dew, and though it chilled Horace through and through, he thought the itch on his throat felt a little better than usual.

He was sure that each step echoed a thousand minute voices for Russell's trained ear to pick up on at any moment. He imagined seeing the old man suddenly appear at the entrance to the shack, eyes dark slits, gray beard disheveled from sleep, boots off, maybe a few scars lined here and there across his leathery face, and that would be all that he saw before the yellow-white flash when the pin hit the shell and sent him to his Maker.

But Russell didn't appear, and Horace had never been one to back down or quake because of his imagination. He would have died a long time before if he'd let his mind, or his heart, keep him from his work.

The wind fell silent. A veil of mist was forming over the mountain like a ghost skin.

As he got closer to the shack, Horace could see the full moon was still glowing off in the distance behind Russell's hideout. He squeezed the butt of his Model P and shouldered the door open.

He fully expected the old outlaw to be waiting for him in the darkness, ready to fire one killing shot that would make all of the Red Gunman's toil for nothing. But no shot came, and Horace found himself standing, a dark silhouette, in the doorway of a disinterested old man rather than a lethal gunslinger, searching by the dull glow opposite him for the secret that would secure his legacy. He couldn't see Russell, and wanted his eyes to adjust to the darkness before he went stumbling all over the room into some deathtrap. Maybe Russell was still asleep, or maybe he didn't have his gun right by him and was waiting for Horace to make enough noise that he could lunge for it without giving away his position. Horace waited.

"You've finally come," Russell's gruff voice shattered through the darkness. A wooden chair creaked across from Horace.

The Red Gunman remained silent. His eyes could finally pick out the shape before him, but he was so caught off guard by Russell's greeting that he wasn't sure what to say. Had the old man really known he was there the whole time? Had he been expecting him?

Russell must have known that the Gunman would be wondering those things. "I've known you'd come for years. I saw it in a dream."

A match flickered in the darkness and then a candle was lit on a desk cluttered with a sloppy meal of jerky and beans. Russell's shoulder-length, pepper hair was greasy and pulled back off of his face. The man beneath it looked very tired. He leaned against the wooden desk for support as though his head and neck were too old and too weak to do the job on their own. A bottle of whiskey wobbled limply between dry, cracked fingers that seemed too large and too steady for the rest of him, the golden liquor sloshing at the bottom of the glass because his arms were trembling. There was only enough remaining for one or two shots.

"I've been watching my back for years, you know, looking for the gunslinger with the white, circle-scar around his neck in every town I robbed, every train I rode, every rancher I gunned down, waiting for the day that you'd finally come and end me." He looked Horace in the eye.

Horace squeezed the butt of his gun, unsure whether he should raise it to the weary old man or keep it at his hip.

"I guess you've come for the Devil's scourge, and even though I've worried about giving it up all these years to a new generation, I realize now that it will be a relief to be free of it." Russell sighed. "I knew this night would come. I've known since I stole it from Bad Finn thirty years ago. I was just like you."

Horace stepped into the shack, finally pointing the Model P between the old outlaw's eyes. He was calm.

"Go ahead," Russell continued. "Take it. Someday you'll wish you hadn't. 'Cause, when the pin hits the shell, it's your burden to bear, until someone comes along and takes it from you the same way." He grinned. "I may have gotten it from Finn, and you may get it from me, but Finn got it from the Devil himself. Once you have it, it's yours for keeps."

Horace squeezed the trigger of the Model P and the room lit up.

Russell caught the bullet in the center of his forehead and flung backward in his chair, the bottle shattering against the ground, his arms flailing forward on impact, but there wasn't very far for him to go.

He came to rest with the chair leaning against the far wall, where a hanging bed sheet was now ripped away and revealed the full white moon, still glowing, clinging to the pre-dawn fog like a stubborn stain.

Horace stood, silent, smoke wisping out from the revolver and combining with the fog outside the door. Russell wasn't dead yet. He could hear his frantic breath with horrifying clarity. The old man's eyes were wide and pointed straight at the ceiling. Horace couldn't look.

He blew out the candle, so that all he could see was Russell's outline in front of the glowing moon, and all he could hear was desperate, rasping breaths from the darkness.

It wouldn't be long, and then the scourge would be his. He wouldn't have to stick around to take it. Once Russell breathed his last wretched breath, Horace would draw like lightning again. He'd be the fastest draw in the west, until some new, young gunfighter appeared the same way he had. When the pin hits the shell and Horace breathed his last, it would pass on. He'd condemned himself to death by the bullet.

Horace left without another word, without even searching the shack for money or food or ammunition. He had the Red Guns waiting for him in Arizona with one of his two women, along with the Red Mask, his silver-spurred boots, and the noose that had hung him. Now that he had his draw, there was nothing else in the world that he needed.

He walked thirty-five miles to town, gravely. From there, he borrowed a horse but paced it like he was a common man. He knew that the next time he rode, with his red mask and red revolvers, he'd ride like the Devil himself.

THE END

 

Joseph D. Williams is a journalist for Real Detroit Weekly where he has interviewed artists ranging from Grammy Award winners to American Book Award winners, and his fiction has appeared in The Wayne State University Literary Review, A Fly in Amber Online Fiction Magazine, and Bewildering Stories. His previous work has been edited by award-winning author Christopher T. Leland and Bill Thompson, the editor who discovered Stephen King and John Grisham.

 

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