Fran looked around, his jaw throbbing. He heard people coming closer, too, and he steadied himself against the wagon as he stood. He saw Lou’s still body and sighed bitterly. Lou wasn’t much of a thinker, but he wasn’t a bad man and Fran had always considered him a friend. He’d drawn him into this crime, and it had killed him. He moved toward Lou’s corpse and quickly picked up his gun. Smoke still wafted up from the barrel.
The men at the campfire were dangerously close now, and there would be so many questions. Fran knew he wasn’t the brightest person here; that, like so many other qualities, belonged to Hiram. He did know, however, there was only way to escape this with his hide, and it didn’t involve running.
He aimed Lou’s gun at the back of Duke’s head and fired. The unconscious man didn’t even twitch. Shouts – some of rage, some of dismay, all of anxiety – grew louder at this second report of gunfire. Lou fell to his knees, cradling his face. He hurt, but he’d need to get past the pain and pull of a spectacular performance to survive what he’d tried to do.
The first group of men arrived, guns drawn and torches alight. Hiram was with them, his face placid despite the potential carnage. The sight of him made Fran’s heart go cold; he’d done all of this so that he’d never have to see his brother’s face again. And now, for the sake of his own skin, it was the man he’d wanted dead that would be the judge as to whether or not he’d take another breath.
“Hiram, oh God, they freed the Demon!” he called out, his voice warbling with remorse. “Duke and Lou, they set him free. God knows why, but they did.”
Mutters of shock and consternation rose amongst the crowd. Hiram glared at Fran as he approached, and he squatted on his hunkers and the stare grew stronger, as if he was looking through his little brother. He briefly glanced the corpses. “Those two idjits ran with you, Fran, didn’t they?” he whispered. His harsh voice spawned thoughts of a snake cornering a mouse. “They was your bunkmates, right?”
“I knew ‘em, but I didn’t run with ‘em, sure as hell not on this glorious mess!” Fran squawked.
“Duke used to be a cattle rustler, mebbe he thought the Indigo would take ‘im under his wing,” said a voice, and Fran felt momentary salvation in that declaration, though it evaporated under the heat of Hiram’s gaze.
“Duke had less brains than the cattle he stole,” Hiram snapped. “Don’t bother me with your views on the character of the deceased, Pokey.” The rider named Pokey paled and took a step back, melting into the crowd. Hiram returned his glare to Fran. “Tell me what happened, Francis, and I’ll be the judge of what holds water. But you lie to me, and I’ll shoot you down right now.” He caressed the handle of his pistol with his thumb.
Fran swallowed. Watch over me Lord. Let my lies sound true. He knew that asking for favor with lies wasn’t really what God liked to do, but he hoped that maybe, from time to time, God saw a need for falseness.
“I heard a noise back here and just came to see what was what. There was Lou and Duke, helping the Indigo Man from the cage. I don’t know what they did with the others in there, ‘cuz they ain’t moved.”
“Drugged ‘em,” Hiram spat. “Can’t you smell it?”
“I do now, but at the time, all I saw was that they were letting that killer out.” His heard was about to leap in his chest. “I took aim for the killer, knowing he’s the worst, but all I plugged was his shoulder. I shot Lou dead before he could draw.” He licked his lips, feeling new tears starting to slip from his eyes. “Then Duke came at me. He socked me in the jaw, but I think he fell in a hole, cuz his leg snapped when he tried to run. I shot him, too.”
“You shot three men, and without a shot back at you?” Hiram’s face remained impassive, but there was a tone of skepticism in his voice that made Fran want to wet himself.
“Y-yeah.” He shivered. “Got lucky, I s’pose.”
“I think you’re lying.” He stood and aimed his pistol at Fran’s head, pulling back the hammer. The murmuring crowd fell into a cold silence. “Tell me the truth, little brother, and I won’t shoot you. Tell me what really happened and you’ll make it through tonight. Keep feeding me lies, and, well…” Fran looked at the barrel of his brother’s gun, seeing the weapon that had slain Boggs only an hour or so before. The depths of the barrel seemed infinite from this perspective, and his heart filled with despair.
“God’s honest, I’m not lying, Hi! The Demon got away and these two helped him!” The lies tasted bitter in his mouth, but he knew that lies might mean a quick death, while the truth would certainly mean punishment beforehand. Long, drawn out punishment in a way only Hiram Blanchette relished. “Shoot me if you gotta, but he’s gettin’ away, and the bounty money with him!”
Fran hoped that the last bit would be enough to win his brother, and it did. The money was of the utmost importance to Hiram; it always had been. Hiram’s head cocked to the side, curious, and with a swift motion he put away his weapon. He reached down and hoisted Fran to his feet, savage eyes boring into him.
“The Indigo Man is bloodied! Ride in all directions and bring him back here!” His voice snapped like a whipped, and the crowd scattered. The sound of horses whinnying filled the air, and the riders bellowed out orders to one another. Amidst the din, Fran could feel his brother’s hot breath on his cheek. He also heard the low whisper.
“You’re lying. Just be glad finding him is more important. And hope he isn’t a loose-lipped sort.”