Comfort was a luxury that eluded him in the cage. He stretched as much as was possible to keep his muscles from knotting and his limbs from going numb. A hollow gurgle echoed in the pit of his stomach. Death was coming for everyone, and for those that lived like he did, it tended to arrive early. This understanding kept the cold realization of his impending demise from burdening him.
The other denizens of the cage kept their distance from him, scooting away if they came close to brushing one another, as if the man’s nature was catching. Their eyes always looked upon him with stark terror. They were even afraid to speak with him, which suited him fine. He’d never been good with friends, and he doubted that the sort cooped up with him in this place were the sort that he’d like to be associated with.
He could hear laughing in the distance, and smell the scent of trail chow. He knew he’d get fed the bottom of the pot, with probably a little bit of dirt and ash mixed throughout to remind him of his place here. He’d take the food. Hunger overpowered his pride.
The moon cast a pale sheet upon the interior of the cage, illuminating his legs. The other wagons were parked in a cluster nearby, dark and vacant. The towering spires of the dead city loomed in the distance, watching over them like hungry massive vultures. He would see some of the riders look upon Tersch and cross themselves. It made him laugh. God doesn’t dwell in that place. He abandoned it long ago.
His bunkmates were sleeping, their forms contorted and folded in the cramped space. He rolled his shoulders forward, trying to work the kinks out of his neck. Footsteps whispered near the cage, and he froze, eyes scanning.
A pair of arms sprang into the darkness, encompassing one of the prone forms of his fellow criminals. A rag was stuffed into his nose and face. He twitched feebly, arms trembling against the assailant, before falling slack. The same process was done with the other two, though with less struggle.
“I’ll fight harder than them,” he called out. “Fair warning.”
“Not the plan,” said a familiar voice. “I need you awake.”
He turned toward the voice, and looked upon the pale face of the younger brother. “Little Blanchette, whatever do you think you’re doing?” he inquired.
“Shut up, Demon.” He gestured, and a pair of men emerged from the other side of the wagon, looking around them with worry. “Help me get him out of here. Lou, go watch and make sure nobody else is curious about the Indigo Man. Can’t have that right now.”
The one named Lou removed his hat, wringing it in his hands. “Whatcha want me to do if that happens?”
“Knock ‘em out or kill ‘em, I don’t care much. But don’t let nobody know what we’re doing here.”
Lou nodded and faded into the darkness.
The younger brother smiled up at him. “Yorrick Mordecai Baptiste, right? Not Demon, or Indigo, or whatever anyone calls you. You got a name, regular as the rest of us.”
He smiled down from the cage. “Baptiste is my name, yeah, and I suppose that makes us alike. But that’s all that makes us alike.”
Blanchette drew his revolver. The barrel looked huge and cavernous in the dark. “Not true. I could shoot you here and you’d die, just as easily as I would, if the tables was turned. You’re not something beyond the rest of us. Just a freak with freak skin. You still bleed. You still die.”
Baptiste smiled. “Someone got your goat tonight, I reckon. You sound mighty angry. And since we haven’t spoken in some time, I wager I can guess who did it to you. Again.”
Blanchette scowled. “He’s gotta die.”
“Oh certainly, but in that regard, we all have to die, Fran.” His feline grin split his features, exposing a row of white teeth that starkly contrasted his inky skin. “You were just opining about such truths. What makes Hiram Blanchette need to meet his maker any sooner than the rest of us?”
“Just does. You said you’d do it. Or was you just jawin’ at me?”
“Oh, I’d be thrilled to do it, that offer still stands.” He pulled close to the bars. “I’d be plenty amused to do the same deed to you, as far as that goes. Can you trust me?”
“Kill him, and I’ll let you be. You can take what you need and do whatever it is that you need to do. You won’t get no trouble from me.”
“I’m hardly worried about trouble from you.” He inhaled deeply. “But, right now, freedom is a delicious thought. I accept your terms.”
“Duke, help him down.” Now it was Fran looking over his shoulders, eyes wide and ears raised. His Adam’s apple bobbed. Duke, the biggest of the three, took Baptiste by the wrist and helped hiim down out of the cage. It swayed at the shift in weight, and the three slumbering residents made no protest.
Pins and needles emerged in his legs, and Baptiste sat down, hissing as he massaged the pain away. The air no longer suffocated him. Duke and Fran exchanged an uneasy glance, and Baptiste clucked at them. “You try sitting in that cramped space with the stink of the Earth as your companion. I can promise you, your legs won’t be the same if you just try to get up and go.”
“We ain’t got time for this, Fran, someone could come,” Duke muttered, his fingers flexing and relaxing.
“Lou will let us know, just settle–”
“Lou’s dumber than a rock and he can’t see everywhere. Tell the darkie to move it.”
“The darkie can hear you,” Baptiste remarked.
“Shut it,” Duke snapped, but his fear overwhelmed all else. “Why the hell did I agree to this? If Hiram finds out I was party to this, he’ll flay me.” He drew a huge pistol, cocking the hammer and aiming it toward Baptiste. “Kill him, that’s what we do. He got out and we had to shoot him.”
“Put it away, for God’s sake!” Fran hissed, taking the big man by the arm and pulling him away from Baptiste. “Hiram ain’t stupid. We kill ‘im, and he’ll wanna know how them other boys got knocked out so easy. He’ll flay you then, too. You wanna save your skin? Let the Demon kill Hiram and there ain’t a thing he can do to any of us.”
“Shooting me would be counterproductive,” Baptiste added.
Duke scowled, but he disarmed the gun and slammed it into his holster. “I don’t like this Fran. Not one bit.” He turned to Baptiste. “You done rubbin’ yerself?”
“Are you offering to help?”
Fran couldn’t help it; he snickered. Duke’s murderous stare softened, and even he chuffed a soft laugh at the joke. Baptiste smiled, his pale teeth glittering in the moonlight. He thought it was remarkable that these were the sort to free him. He hadn’t been sure that he would be able to figure his way out of the cage, but God had strange ways of offering providence.
He stood and took shambling, uneasy steps. “Like a fawn,” he muttered to himself, and he moved toward the other two. “Okay, then. I should be good. What do we do now?”
“Kill Hiram.” Fran’s brutal voice lacked any fear; he was ready for the deed to be done.
“Yes, I’ve gathered that was part of it. Is there a plan?”
Duke and Fran shared another glance, and Baptiste shook his head. “You guys have really planned this out well, haven’t you? Step one: Free the Indigo Man. Step two: Let him kill Hiram. Am I supposed to be the brains or the brawn of this outfit?”
“I figured a fella like you would know what you’d need to do to kill a man,” Fran responded, petulant.
“Oh, I know what I need to do. In fact, I’m a bit relieved that neither one of you thinks ahead in such a way. Otherwise, you might have been prepared for this.”
He moved like a cobra, liquid and furiously fast, stomping Duke inches below the knee. His leg bent askew, and he tumbled forward. He opened his mouth to cry out in pain, but Baptiste lunged ahead of him, driving his elbow into the big man’s gut, expelling the air from him before he could shout. Duke folded forward, gasping and agonized. Baptiste swung his arm in a huge, rising arc, and struck Duke behind the ear. He fell forward, his leg twisted to the wrong side, and made no sound.
Fran had his hand on his pistol, ready to draw, but Baptiste already had Duke’s gun aimed at the younger Blanchette’s face.
Fran made a low, mewling sound.
“I suppose you thought yourself passing smart, drawing a murderer from his den to do your dirty work,” Baptiste hissed. He pulled back the hammer. “I have stayed free for as long as I have because most that thought they could dupe me were only twice as smart as you. Your plan was simple, and you didn’t share it with me because, in the end, you planned on shooting me to avenge your brother’s murder and win the favor of all of these other men. I don’t like people that plan to kill me.”
“You shoot that gun, you kill me, but then they’ll all hear it and come running.” Tears leaked from Fran’s eyes, and his lips trembled. “You won’t make it nowhere.”
White teeth emerged from the dark lips, carnivorous. “I think that’s more of my problem than yours, don’t you?”
And he moved again, free hand a blur as it caught Fran just below the chin. His head snapped back, knocking his hat to the dirt. He wobbled a bit before falling, and his eyes lost focus. Baptiste snatched his pistol from his holster, stuffing it into the band of his jeans.
“Worry not, I still plan on killing your brother,” he offered. “Just not today.”
He turned, and there was Lou the lookout, come back to see if the deed was done. Baptiste had no chance to draw, and there was a crack that filled the air like thunder, and a sharp pain took him in the shoulder. He fell to a knee, grimacing.
Lou looked at him with wide eyes, and then looked upon Duke and Fran. His hesitation gave Baptiste the time he needed – he drew and fired twice, both shots taking the lookout in the head. Lou fell without a word, landing noisily beside the caged wagon.
Shouts emerged in the distance. Baptiste pressed a hand to his wounded shoulder and groaned. He had hoped to make a clean getaway. He didn’t know how far it would be to someone that could tend to him. He shuffled from the aftermath of his escape, moving toward the horses that he thought might still have some provisions packed upon them. He wouldn’t be able to prepare as he’d hoped. The cries and footfalls of the other men seemed frighteningly close as he merged into the shadows.