“I got eyes, idjit.” Fran wiped his mouth. He needed a fix soon, especially after such a long job. These moon-faced gunners were only good for eating their chow and spending all that they earned on whores. He knew that the job was important – Hiram wouldn’t have come along if it wasn’t – but he also knew that being too far away from the gaze would send him to fits, which was just the sort of thing to muck up a job.
The bounty caravan trudged along the East Road, filling the air with the whicker of horses and the groan of axles on wheels. There were a couple of riders near the front picking on guitars, but they weren’t good enough at it to really make any kind of music. Most of the riders sat in packs, speaking of home or how they planned on spending their money. A few people walked along behind, bound at their wrists, stumbling and exhausted. Those were the bounties hardly worth the reward, from dirt-poor families that had been robbed or worse. The real rewards sat in the caged wagons rolling like fat beetles in the middle of the pack.
Behind them was the vast plains, used some half-century before as fertile farmland, but now packed full of desperate highwaymen and worse. The job of collecting this many bounties had been dangerous, but most folks knew better than to cross the likes of the Blanchettes, even this far from home. Looming before them, like a stack of dead, gray teeth from a massive jaw, stood the skyline of the city that had been, Tersch.
Fran paled at the sight of the dead city, abandoned years ago in the echoes of some sort of plague. Some said it was a military attack of some kind, with all sorts of weapons dropped and blasted, sending folks a-scatterin’, but Fran’s pa, Big Blanchette, said it was a bunch of hogwash. “Folks got terrible sick, tossin’ their cookies and lettin’ loose rivers of brown water. When the docs couldn’t do a thing for ‘em, they hightailed it. All that stuck ’round was the religious, tellin’ folks prayer’d heal ‘em. Poor saps that stayed probly cursed they God ‘tween upchucks.”
Naught but shadows danced in the midst of the old buildings, once tall and majestic according to his Grandpa, and full of life. Tersch started a place of dreams, but now, it was a den of nightmares. Fran doubted that Hiram planned on actually riding through that old, haunted place, but he was going to make sure, just in case.
A voice cut into his thoughts, and Fran shook irritably. “What, now?” he spat.
“I said, best set a fire, don’tcha think?” The rider was a yokel that probably was better handling a plow than a sidearm, and with his thick accent fire became fahhr. He had a pitiful dusting of fuzz on his cheeks and chin, and he laughed like a loon when someone told any kind of joke. He was always the first to get drunk. The way he twitched made Fran think that perhaps this one was itching for a pull from the jug.Boozers.
“I look like your hired man? If you want a fire,” Fran mocked the accent perfectly, “then you’d best hop down off your squawker and set one. Otherwise shut your mouth.”
The rider grunted sourly, finally seeming to understand that Fran wasn’t in a mood for small talk, and reined up his legger and trotted past Fran, toward the front of the caravan. The legger was a rarity in these parts; flightless birds with strong legs and a mean disposition if not broken young. It glared at Fran with black, lifeless eyes as it clucked past, head bobbing with each stride.
“He is a stupid man, is he not? Perhaps you’d do well to shoot him and steal his mount. A beast like that is worth twice what you’re paying him.”
Fran turned on his horse and looked back to the caged wagon. Three of the bounties in the cage were sleeping, but the fourth never slumbered. He could sense the glowing, mismatched eyes staring at him, like a big cat in the high grass, and he trembled.
“I’m really not talking to you, you butcher.”
The man in the cage chuckled; it was a majestic, throaty sound that did little to calm Fran’s nerves. “A pity you are too daft to comprehend irony, lest you might join me in my amusement. To call a man like myself a butcher would contend that there are others here with far less blood on their hands…which you know as well as I is a misapprehension.”
“Shut your hole, Demon.”
The man in the cage ceased laughing, but Fran could feel the deadly smile in the air around him. “Yes. To some more than others.”
“Say what you will about my family, we don’t kill babies.” Fran felt his blood rising. He’d wanted to shoot this one once they’d bound him, but Hiram wouldn’t allow it.He’s far more valuable upright and breathing. Let those that will pay stretch his neck or riddle him with holes. We’ll take the pay and wash our hands of him. Fran felt for the butt of his revolver and stroked it, feeling comfort in its presence.
“Perhaps,” the man in the cage whispered. “But then, perhaps, you don’t know your family as well as you should, Fran Blanchette.” The figure pulled away from the cage, leaning against the side and swaying with the rickety ride. “By the by, I hope your dreams aren’t bad. Going so long without a hit of the gaze can do mad things to an addict.”
“You don’t know me!” Fran squalled. He pulled the revolver and took aim. “You don’t know nothing!”
“Put that thing away.”
His older brother was staring at him, sitting atop his nyx, face shadow between the tall horns. Hiram’s eyes were always piercing, even in the dark. The muscular goat-horse hybrid trotted forward, and its rider never left his gaze from Fran. “I’ve told you what he’s worth. You plan on killing him, I suggest you ride quick and don’t look back, because I’ll take what’s owed me out on your hide.” He glanced toward the cage, his eyes flat. “If he keeps running his maw, smash his yap shut with the butt of your gun.”
Fran hung his head, sliding the revolver back into his holster and not wanting to look at his brother. Hiram ruled over him, always had since they were kids. He was five years older, much stronger, much faster, and much more ruthless than Fran had ever managed to be. His name now held a reputation beyond that of his own little brother – as evidenced by the posse he was leading.
“You draw that gun on my quarry again, Francis, I’ll shoot you myself,” Hiram growled. “I won’t be paid less than I’m owed.” Hiram flapped the reins and the nyx turned, heading back towards the center of the caravan.
Fran swallowed and stared ahead as the form of his brother coalesced amidst the other riders. His own pa had told him he’d never be as strong, as smart, or as fast as his oldest brother. The memory of those words had a way of stinging him to his core. His hatred for his brother had turned black, forming into the most bitter sensation he could manage to swallow down.
“There is another option, of course,” the man in the cage said softly, dark amusement in his voice.
“Oh yeah?” Fran grunted.
“Yes, indeed. You could kill him first. Leave his body in that dead place before us, with the rest of the ghosts. It would be the wisest thing to do, Francis,” the man assured. “I am a good judge of people. I know these poor souls in this cage with me will all be blubbering and crying once their future consists only of the gallows. I know that half of these men you hired won’t get a third of what you promised them, because you’ll find a way to cheat them out of the pay. And I also know that at some point, your brother means to kill you.”
Fran glared at the shadow figure looming near the bars. “Hiram ain’t killin’ me.”
Laughter drifted from the cage, black and ill-spirited. “Perhaps not today, maybe not even this season, but he does mean to destroy you, at some point. The only question is: When that day comes, will you be able to stop him?”
“You talk too much.”
“You think too little.” The man gripped the cage, and fading sunlight spilled over his dark features. Pale eyes – one green and one yellow – peered from a face the color of midnight. “Free me and I will kill him for you, since you lack the courage.”
“You just hush,” Fran spat, but his words weren’t angry. He had trouble masking the intrigue he felt.
“It’s a standing offer, but linger not upon it too long,” the caged man remarked. He backed away from the bars, lounging in the meager space of the cell. “If I find a way to free myself, I might come for you first, instead. Just to take the joy from your brother.”