Yorrick Mordecai Baptiste - a wanted killer - finds himself in the custody of bounty hunters with dubious employers
The broad expanse of blue met the wide spread of ochre, broadcasting the landscape in a stark panorama. A fat, flaming sun hung in the sky, glowing and amplifying the colors. His vision ached. He pulled down on the brim of his hat, shading his squinting eyes against the garish shine.
In the distance, a low sound trilled, faint but evident, and he regarded it with resignation.
His jaw rotated steadily as he toiled through the dwindling remnants of hardtack. His canteen was full, and he grimaced at the bitter mineral taste of the water as he drank. He reminded himself of the necessity of things and pushed back the thoughts of luxury that often plagued wanderers in places such as this. He was thankful for what he had, no matter how much. Scarce described his supplies.
He couldn’t tell much from where he was walking. There were tufts of browning grass sprining up in occasional blotches along the parched ground. Lonely Joshua trees swayed in the heated breeze. An occasional gathering of bones reported a history of desolation in this place. Some folks called it the Burning Ground. Others called it the Waste. No one stayed here long; there was no reason to know it. Maps in this sector were dubious at best, and the cartographers often would lead wayward travelers into the dens of the highwaymen that the mapmakers served.
He moved amidst the desolation, standing tall and moving at a steady gait. His clothes were patched and frayed, though still enough to keep the sunlight from searing his skin. His duster needed mending, as it was riddled with gouges and holes from confrontations a thousand years before, in a life before he’d meandered into this purgatory. His boots needed oil, and the eroded soles threatened holes. His feet ached. He missed his horse.
The sun baked him. His neckerchief was sodden with sweat in no time, but the heat dried it almost as quickly as he moistened it. He spotted the occasional rise of moisture in the distance, but he ignored these mirages. There was no natural water in these parts. The Liliana Desert was a place where even water wouldn’t reside. It was a place of nothing…save that noise in the distance.
The sun slowly bobbed toward the horizon. He removed his hat and fanned himself as night began to fall. He made it a point to check his pistol – not fully loaded, supplieswere scarce – and loosen his blade from his back. The soft trill he’d heard earlier in the day was now a low, throaty echo. In the distance he could see dust rising in a pair of swirling, furious clouds. He’d traded his spyglass at the last fort he encountered, getting enough hardtack to last him a month, and if he’d kept it he knew well what he’d see within those clouds.
“Pursuit,” he said in a creaky voice.
They’d be upon him in a matter of minutes, and with nowhere for him to hide, he stood his ground. In the fading sun, his skin was the color of pitch. A pair of bright eyes blazed in his midnight face, and his teeth bared, like a line of ivory in the midst of purest dark. He was sure that the Liliana would have been enough to throw them off for a bit, but he hadn’t expected them to have machines. His own mount hadn’t made it far into these wastes. Sorry for bringing you here, Orchid, he thought, genuinely remorseful. He’d left the mare two days prior, its bulging eyes and pale tongue protruding at disturbing lengths. It was panting furiously when it fell. He prayed for it, hoping for some kind of horse heaven, knowing it didn’t exist, and shot the poor beast.
My last friend, he reminded himself.
The sound amplified to new, savage life, and broke the mournful memories of a dead friend. The machines came into view. They belched and farted exhaust, and moved in herky, jerky strides, like wounded horses. The men astride them were dressed in tans and leathers, wearing goggles and bulbous helmets. Their faces were red from exposure, and he felt some joy in their suffering. There were four of them, moving in a pair of lines, all of them making the same, desperate whine. He could hear one of the riders shouting over the din from the engines, and not long after, a roaring report of gunfire.
He drew quickly, his hand moving at a blur, and his pistol fired. The first rider tumbled from his machine – a massive, two-wheeled thing that roared like thunder at its end – and lay still in the hardpan and timothy. He fired again, this time winging another machine; the ricochet warbled and echoed. The third squeeze of the trigger ended in a dry click.
A stuttering roar sounded from the other line of machines, and bullets whined and caromed off of the ground, sending tiny geysers of grit and sand upward. He drew his blade – a longknife forged of metal the color of cream – and dodged the line of fire, moving in catlike leaps, preventing an easy shot. The machines circled him, enveloping him in a whirlwind of dust and dry filth, and he shielded his eyes from the sting.
The machines died, and the remaining riders drew on him. Their weapons were wicked: a massive revolver in the hand of the biggest rider, a shotgun in another’s hand, and a machine gun in the third.
“You’re well-armed,” the dark man noted.
“Yeah, and soon to be well-paid,” said the biggest man, and he drew back his neckerchief, exposing a peppery beard and a maw full of broken, yellow teeth. His pockmarked face revealed him to be an old acquaintance.
“Pig Dansby,” the dark man remarked. “I was sure I heard a whore killed you a few years back.”
Pig laughed; it was a thick, phlegmy sound. “I heard the same of you…well, at least the dead part. Everyone knows there’s ne’er so honorable a killer than Baptiste.” he responded. His hand-cannon remained still and focused on its target. “‘Course, they call you so much these days: Demon, Shadow, Indigo Man…it’s hard to keep up with someone that ain’t got the decency to stick with one name.”
“The definition of decency from one such as you is enough to make my skin crawl,” Baptiste replied.
“Hard words from a man outgunned and outnumbered,” spat the man with the machine gun.
“You’d best close yer yap, Luther, ‘less you want our quarry to shut it for ya,” Pig laughed. He tilted his thick head querulously. “Uh-course, you could make this easier for all of us, Baptiste, and come peaceable. I wouldn’t begrudge it.”
“I don’t recall owing you any favors,” Baptiste responded, his fingers dancing along the kilt of his blade. “Seems like with all this small talk, you’re being told to take me alive.”
“You ain’t seen the ransom for you, Demon?” barked Luther. “Alive, or dead, it makes no matter. People are willing to pay.”
“You’d do well to heed your master’s advice,” Baptiste remarked, eyeing the machine gun coldly.
“Ain’t got no master, you blue-skinned devil, and might be that–”
The rest of his words were silenced by the single crack in the air, echoing into the heavens and trembling the ground. Luther’s head snapped to the side, and he fell to a knee, his dying eyes confused. A mist of blood hung in the air before pattering the ground like desperate rainfall. Pig cleared his throat, and trained the gun back onto Baptiste.
“Devil’s balls, Pig, whatcha do that fer?” shrieked the shotgun bearer.
“Because I told him to shut his yap, Clancy. Because he didn’t listen.” He tilted his neck again, and sighed a luxurious groan as the bones gently popped. “And because I’m fairly sure he meant to kill our quarry and rob the both of us of a much higher bidder than them dried townships leagues from here. You want a live one and a bigger payday, or a corpse and peanuts?”
“Didja have to kill him? I knowed his Ma!”
“His Ma ain’t no neither-way to me, Clancy. I’m the boss of this circumstance.” He poked the barrel of the gun toward Baptiste and leered. “Ain’t that right, Demon? Ain’t I the boss?”
“The boss is only the man with the biggest gun,” Baptiste replied. “So for now, it seems that the answer is yes.”
“Damn right it’s yes,” Pig chortled. “Now then, let’s get this feller in irons so he’s easier to tote. You gonna play nice, Baptiste, or will I need to clout you one?”
Baptiste tensed, eyes narrow. “You really believe that I mean to go along with you peacefully? I hardly see what the payoff is for me. You shoot me and you lose a goodly sum. Yet, if you don’t shoot me, then I suppose I’ll go my way because I’m not going to be captured without a fight. And a fight without shooting would end quite badly for you, I’m afraid.”
Pig sucked his teeth irritably. “You could make it easier, but you gotta be stubborn.” He sighed, and then quickly roared, “NOW!”
Baptiste whirled, stomping his foot into the ground to the left and sending Clancy sprawling. The man barked a shout of dismay as he fell onto his face. Baptiste spun again, this time bringing his other foot down, heel first, into the back of Clancy’s neck. There was a crunching sound, and Clancy’s shouts ceased.
Something pinched him in the back of the neck.
Baptiste turned, and there was Pig, smiling broadly, holding a long hollow reed in his hand. He bulged and shrank, and Baptiste felt his heartbeat thrum like gongs in his ears. “Gotta thankya for that one, Baptiste,” Pig crowed. “I didn’t want to split the bounty as it were.” Baptiste fell to a knee, and he sucked in air desperately, wanting to scream and curse at the fat man. But those words died in his mouth, just as the vision died in his eyes, and the darkness took him.