Snake Oil

The sudden jolt brought Maynard out of his reverie and into the present. All at once he was aware of the muggy evening air, the hard bench beneath him, and the incessant squeal of a wagon axel in need of grease. He had hit a small hole in the road, he realized. His horses May and Bay had avoided stepping on it. Maynard on the other hand was nowhere near as attentive as his horses. Silently he praised the horses and cursed himself. The wagon’s rear axle was bad enough without him breaking it further. That last thing he needed was to become stranded on some mountain trail. But that would be a problem for later, he still had a long way to go until the next town.

In the west, the setting sun was of far greater immediate concern. Wolves, he knew, prowled the mountains, and might see a lone traveler and his tired horses as a rare opportunity. But his worried were dominated by a far greater threat. He feared that the shotgun he carried across his lap would deal with them as effectively as it did wolves.

There had been four of them, each with a mean look in his eyes and a six shooter on his belt. Maynard had come upon them while they were resting on the side of the road sipping whiskey. All four had given him cold looks as he had passed by. For his part, Maynard had tried find a balance between looking non-threatening and looking like he’d put up too much of a fight to be worth robbing. The shotgun in his lap had been held is as confident and non-threatening way that he could manage.

Soon after he had seen them following him. Always just beyond the last bend, just barely in sight. He had thought they might be planning to rob him. So far they had not. Still, he was worried what they might do after dark. And so he was in a hurry to get to the next town. If he could at least camp at its edge it might discourage them from attacking. He ran through a few quick scenarios in his mind, and none of them looked good. He was a soothsayer, a man with a magical gift for persuasion. But it was always hard to persuade someone who had already settle on aggression. Violence turns off the reason in men’s brains, and Maynard knew better than to test it. At best, if the men decided to rob him, he might be able to pay them to leave him alone. But with the valuables stowed in his wagon he thought that unlikely. They’d shoot him and take what they wanted.

As the sun finally set over the mountains, a number of distant farms came into view. Their locations were given away only by the dim light of their hearths that shined through the windows. He glanced nervously behind the wagon. If the men were going to attack, this would be their chance. Lights from the town ahead were beginning to come into view. Soon he would be surrounded by more witnesses than most bandits would care for.

“You there. Hold!” yelled a voice from the darkness.

Maynard jumped in his seat and brought the horses to an abrupt stop. The four men? Come to stage an ambush? He considered running. But he had already stopped, and four riders would easily out pace his wagon. No, his best option was just to stay calm, wait, and hope.

An armed man came out of the shadows on horseback. He was only just barely visible in the moonlight. Maynard could barely make out the outline of the carbine held in the man’s hands.

“Your business?” asked the figure.

“Just a travelling merchant looking for a place to set up his store,” answered Maynard. The figure shifted, and Maynard saw moonlight reflect off of a silver star on the man’s vest. He let out a sigh of relief. Not an ambush then.

The deputy was silent for a moment. “Alright,” he said finally. “But don’t camp outside of town. There have been some unfriendly folks on the roads lately. Go to the village green, next to our office. You can make your camp there.”

Maynard thought of the men he had seen earlier. “Thank you kindly, sir,” he then added a bit of magical weight to his words. “Might I set up shop there in the morning too? I have many wares and little coin.”

The Deputy’s eyes narrowed. “What’re you looking to sell?

“Oh, a bit of everything,” said Maynard. “Medicines, tonics, tools, books.”

“Candy? Toys for the children?” asked the deputy.

Maynard put on a smile and nodded. “I have some, yes.”

“You can set your shop up for the day. But no hassling anyone. These folks have had enough trouble.”

Maynard thanked the deputy and urged the horses forward. As he did he saw other figures standing behind the deputy. Militia? He thought again to the riders he had passed. Fugitives? No. Why would they have been following him towards town. Perhaps the deputy was looking for someone else.

It was quiet when he finally reached the town. A few patrons were still visible through the windows of the saloon, but no music was playing and there was none of the usual raucous that Maynard had learned to associate with such places.

He soon found the sheriff’s office, which occupied one corner of a building that appeared to also function as town hall. The village green in front of it hardly lived up to its name. It was instead a patchy quilt of mud, gravel, and dead grass, tamped down by cart wheels and foot prints. He hitched his horses to a post in front of town hall and fed them from a bag of oats he kept in the wagon. Then he turned to making his own bed. He decided that a campfire and tent would be uncouth, as he was in the village green and not out in the mountains. So he elected to instead create a small sleeping space for himself inside the wagon. There, squeezed in between stacked rolls of cloth, sacks of flour and boxes of trinkets, he did his best to get a decent night’s sleep.

The sun woke him as it did most mornings. His breakfast consisted of a piece of bread and some dried fruit that he had stashed in the wagon, which he ate while he set up his stall. He first unfolded two light tables that he places in front of his wagon before placing his selections of trinkets, pocket knives, cloth, and tonics out on the tables. He only paused when he put his hands on a box of odd artifacts. Most of them were worthless trinkets, although judging from his admittedly week second sight he had surmised that some of those trinkets might hold some magical potential. Even then, to most people they would be worth little. They were things he acquired in the course of his travels and kept because they took up little space and might be of interest to a collector or two. Nothing in the box was of any real interest to a bunch of farmers, but he set them out anyway as curiosities; something to attract the public’s interest while he sold them other things.

When he was done he stepped back to admire his work. His wagon was hardly impressive, with its peeling red paid and worn gold lettering, but it certainly drew the eye, and he felt that the wares he had laid out would be of suitable interest. Just then he remembered that he ought to know the town’s name before he tried to make any money off them. He cast his eyes about the green, before finding it. Its letters, which were peeling like those on his wagon, read WELCOME TO ACRE.

With his stall set up and no customers yet in sight he decided to brush the horses while he waited. The morning was off to a slow start for a farming town. He would have expected to see more people in the streets, but so far his only company seemed to be the saloon owner whittling on his porch down the street. Maynard thought back to the deputy and the riders. Something had the people of Acre spooked.

By the time he saw the posse return it was nearly mid-day. The unlikely assembly walked past him without a word, although he attracted a few glances. Most of them went on down the street to the saloon where they were greeted solemnly by the owner. The deputy did not go with them. Instead he hitched his horse beside May and Bay and went inside the sheriff’s office.

An idea came to Maynard’s mind after seeing the exhausted looks of the men. He quickly brought out his camp stove and started a pot of coffee to serve as bait. Eventually the deputy emerged from his office and leaned on the porch railing to watch Maynard. His eyelids sagged, and he leaned on the railing in such a way that Maynard suspected he might collapse from exhaustion at any moment.

“Want some coffee friend?” asked Maynard while he filled a tin mug and held it out to the deputy. The deputy eyed him suspiciously for a moment before accepting the cup. On his face he wore an expression of both simple tiredness and defeat. “Rough night?” he asked after the deputy had taken his first sip.

“Been a few of them.”

Maynard nodded sympathetically. “I saw some riders on my way here. They had mean eyes. Those the folks you’ve been looking for?”

The deputy was suddenly alert. “Where?”

“Just before I ran into you,” answered Maynard. “They followed me for a ways. I thought they might try to rob me until I found you.”

The deputy stared into his coffee. “I reckon they were Pauling’s men.”

“Pauling?”

“Small time cattle farmer. Lives up on the north end of the valley,” answered the deputy. “A few months back he found gold on his neighbor’s land. Now he’s trying to muscle his way into owning half the valley. He’s brought in a few brawlers and third-rate gunfighters from Dorster too. Lot of people have been robbed or otherwise roughed up lately.”

“Is that you reason for your patrols?”

The deputy nodded. “Enough of that. You’ve got customers.”

Maynard looked away from the deputy and his coffee. Coming down the street were the men from the night patrol. Each looked like he was on the verge of collapse. When they reached Maynard’s table they picked through his merchandise in silence. Normally he would have launched into a sales pitch, but he could tell the men would have no patience for it, and he suspected the deputy would notice if he attempted to enchant them into buying something.

A few of them picked simple things; boxes of matches, rolls of cloth. A few were looking for children’s toys, and Maynard made a point of giving those men free candies to take home. An action that he though might have brought a brief smile out of the deputy.

One member of the militia hung back until the others had found what they were looking for. The man was dressed like any frontier farmer. Rough spun clothes that showed years of wear, and calloused hands that were well acquainted with hard work. He had stood to the back of the posse, holding an old pepperbox in his hands that were well acquainted with hard work but unfamiliar with violence. While the others had looked through Maynard’s wares he had stood staring at a single point. Maynard followed the man’s gaze and saw that it led to a box of old trinkets.

Only when the rest of the group began to disperse did he approach the table. As he did, Maynard could see signs of a recent beating on the man’s face. The bruising around his eye had faded and was now a sickly yellow, and his nose looked like it was still in the early stages of healing.

From a box on the table he drew a small necklace and held it up. “How much?”

Maynard took the necklace from the settler, who seems to cringe as it left his grasp. He did not remember where he had picked up the trinket. It was a worn, carved piece of gray stone tied to a leather strap. Hardly larger than a button. Etched lines circled the stone starting on the outside edge until they reached the center. Looking at it he felt as if he could trace the lines for hours. Impulsively, he opened his second sight as far as he could and it instantly overwhelmed him. He felt as if he was standing on the edge of a precipice and about to fall into the amulet’s swirling lines. He panicked and shut his third eye before he could be drawn in any further.

“You know friend,” he said with his charmed voice. “I have many more splendid trinkets available if you would like. Ones that are much finer than that old thing.”

“No. This one will do.”

Maynard was not quite sure how to respond. Every rational thought he had screamed at him not to sell the amulet. Whatever was drawing the man to it couldn’t be good, and it was enough to allow him to resist Maynard’s magic. A man in as weakened a state should have been easy to charm. He looked again with his second sight. This time he was careful to avoid looking at the amulet and instead directed his gaze at the man.

An aura of black storm clouds writhing with lighting enveloped the man. From the hand holding the amulet radiated a sickly yellow light that was slowly intertwining itself with the storm clouds. To his horror, Maynard realized that there was nothing that he could do for the man. It would require a far greater Talent than his to dispel whatever curse had been laid on him, and his charms were clearly too weak.

In a last attempt at dissuading him. Maynard resorted to the only thing he knew to have absolute control over men’s hearts. “Two crowns,” he said finally.

“Done.”

Although not entirely surprised, Maynard was saddened by the man’s response. Two crowns was no small sum. He had a strong sense that whatever the amulet was it might very well ruin the man. Still, he knew better than to deny the sale. Whatever had its hold on the man wouldn’t let a shopkeeper like Maynard get in the way of obtaining the amulet. Reluctantly, he wrapped the amulet in a bit of tissue paper and sent the man on his way.

As soon as the farmer had gone out of earshot Maynard turned to deputy and asked who that had been.  The deputy told him that the man was a farmer named Ernest and was one of Pauling’s neighbors who had been pushed off his land. “He’s lost,” said the deputy in reference to the trinket. “People get desperate sometimes. They fixate on things. Maybe he wanted it for his wife. These times have been tough on her too.”

Maynard nodded noncommittally. He had a bad feeling in his gut. But there was nothing he could do.

By then it was well past the time that the town should have woken up. People should have been out on errands or working. He saw business owners like the saloon manager and gunsmith out, but by all accounts, it seemed that business was slow and the owners didn’t stray far from their front doors. Meanwhile the deputy went about brushing his horse, still sipping the coffee that Maynard had given him.

Maynard could not help but admire the man. It was well past noon and the deputy was still up after having spent the night patrolling the valley. As he sat there Maynard began to feel a strange sympathy for this man that he hardly knew.

“I think I know something that will help with the exhaustion,” he said carefully.

“Pardon?”

“The exhaustion,” said Maynard. “You’re obviously tired, I think I’ve got something that will help.”

The deputy narrowed his eyes. “I ain’t looking to buy anything.”

“Cost to you is nothing,” Maynard replied and started digging through a box full of tonics. “It’s a gift.” He held up an unbranded glass bottle with ALERT written in uneven block letters on the label. It was one of the tonics he mixed himself as he travelled, and he was quite proud of it. “Nothing quite beats sleep. But if you’re not going to be getting any, then this will keep you much more alert than just coffee.”

After a moment of hesitation, the deputy accepted the bottle. “How am I supposed to take it?”

“Just add some to this,” he said and handed the deputy a second cup of coffee.

The deputy nodded his thanks but stopped short of adding the tonic. His eyes narrowed as he focused on something down the street. “Looks like our friends have found you,” his hand went to the revolver on his hip.

Approaching them on horseback were three of the men that Maynard had seen the night before. Those who we in the street hurried to go back into their houses and shops as the trio rode down the road. Maynard noticed that members of the deputy’s posse had returned to town and were watching the riders carefully from the alley ways. Most of them held rifles or shot guns at the ready and were looking to the deputy for guidance. Maynard felt the urge to grab his scatter gun from the wagon, but he realized he didn’t have time for that.

The lead rider dismounted and walked up to Maynard’s stall. “We don’t want any trouble deputy. Just need to buy something from this gentleman,” he turned to Maynard. “You got anything for snake bites?”

Maynard stared at him blankly. “Oh, yes!” he said as he regained his composure. “I’ve got something right here,” he produced a small jar of salve from the same box he had stored the deputy’s tonic in. “Simply apply to the wound and then cover with a bandage.”

“How much?”

“One crown,” Maynard said. As he spoke another idea came to him. Adding magical weight to his words he went on to suggest that the men purchase a tin of coffee, then new bedrolls, additional tonics, and so on until he had sold them his entire stock of wilderness supplies. By the time they rode off he had convinced them to spend the equivalent of a laborer’s monthly wages. As they finally left town Maynard caught the deputy smiling openly for the first time that day.

The next morning Maynard packed up his stall and rode out of town. He was escorted by the town’s militia past the point where they expected there to be any danger from Pauling’s men. After all that he had seen of Acre; the gunfighters, the patrols, and the amulet, he was happy to get out. He couldn’t help but feel that the Dorster region was like a powder keg, and he wanted to be as far away as he could when it finally blew.

 

 

 

 

WIP Map of Ancorda

The picture now occupying the banner space of this website is a new map of my Sprawling Iron setting that I made using wonderdraft. If you think it looks a little like North America you’d be right. The setting is inspired by 19th century USA and incorporates a heavy dose of fantasy elements.

Ancorda is the main country of this setting and is analogous to the United States. The current year of this map is 835. It is a time when the country is expanding westward and facing a number of the challenges associated with governing these vast new expanses of territory. There are gold rush towns, seedy ports, train heists, and more than a few mystical threats to be found by travelers heading west.

Politically the country is dominated by old aristocratic families who own vast estates on the east coast. These families are descended from the original noble patrons (mostly the younger children and outcasts of established old world families) that came over when the continent was first being colonized. Technically, the power that they wield in the modern day is not due to any noble privileges. Instead, during the founding of the country they were able to tie voting rights to land ownership, and these people own a lot of land which gives them a disproportionate level of representation. As the process of industrialization increases many of these families have turned their estates into manufacturing centers. Besides making them rich, this has allowed them to increase their influence over the population by becoming some of the largest employers of the urban populations.

A number of ancient ruins can be found throughout the country. Most settlers assume the natives to be primitive and simple people. In reality the continent has seen the rise and fall of several empires that at their height would have rivaled the nations of the Old World, and there are still holdouts from these civilizations throughout the country.

Many dangers can be found in this world, from menacing wildlife and bandits, to ancient relics, angry spirits, foreign invaders, and the beginnings of a civil war in the making.

A Fondly Remembered Abduction

I responded to another writing prompt on reddit. The original post can be found here: https://www.reddit.com/r/WritingPrompts/comments/9jowun/wp_you_lie_in_a_grassy_field_on_a_sunny_day/e6u5dos/?context=3

When most people imagine being abducted by aliens they imagine being woken up in the middle of the night by little grey men who poke and prod them. The reality is really quite different.

I had just left my friend Tom’s when I met them. It was Tom’s birthday and he had decided to throw a rager. I’ll admit that I had a bit too much to drink and on my walk back I tripped and fell into the path of a moving car. My head hit the pavement, and everything went black. I was sure that this would be the end. But they saw.

I woke up in an examination room. Everything was grey, cold, steel and plastic. I’ll admit that at first, I had a panic attack. I thought that I woke up in the morgue. That someone had mistaken me for dead and that I was about to be cut open. In my muddled state of mind, I searched around for something that I could use to defend myself. A pair if scissors on the counter was all that I could find.

I waited there for what seemed like forever. I was convinced that at any moment the morticians would rush in and tie me to table before cutting me open while I was still alive. But I couldn’t have been more wrong.

When the door finally opened I was greeted by a diminutive figure, who by my guess was only about four feet tall. Its big amber eyes looked at me, and then down at the scissors that I was holding out like a cross as if I was trying to fend off Dracula.

“You,” it began. “You know that isn’t really needed, right?”

I kept the scissors pointed towards the creature. “What do you want with me?”

“Want with you?” It seemed confused. “You just looked like you needed help. That car was about to squash you. So, we teleported you here to our medical bay. I can promise that you are in good hands.”

My body wouldn’t stop shaking but going against every instinct I had I lowered the scissors. I remembered the car, but why would they help me? Why wasn’t I dead?

“Why?” I asked tentatively. “Why would you save me?”

“Normally we wouldn’t,” it said. “Our mission is simply to observe. But we saw that you needed help and we couldn’t just stand by.”

I let the scissors drop to the floor. I didn’t entirely believe them yet. But I didn’t have the energy to fight and decided that I might as well take this creature at its word. It wasn’t like the scissors would have been much good anyway.

“Anyway,” it continued. “We could use your help justifying this to our superiors.”

“Justify?” I asked, a little confused.

“Yes, justify. You see, we have very strict orders to not establish contact with any humans. Command was very specific after the Roswell incident; no contact.”

“But, you saved me?”

“Yes well. We happened to be nearby, and we couldn’t just do nothing. We’ll need something from you in order to justify this.”

I reached for the scissors again and paused. “What exactly do you want?”

As it turned out all the aliens wanted was the rules to football. They had some of the most advanced technology that I had ever seen but despite their best efforts they couldn’t figure out the rules of the game. I spent an hour or so explaining yard lines and touch downs to them. Then we split a case of beer and watched super bowl reruns.

I spent two days just hanging out with them. As it turns out aliens are pretty chill. But in the end, they told me it was time to leave. Having learned the mysteries of football they couldn’t justify keeping me any longer. In my time on board their ship I had already seen them answer a few calls from their higher-ups. They seemed pretty heated.

I was sad to go. Hanging out and watching football with aliens was way better than going to work every day. I like to think that they were sad to see me go as well. They sure seemed it. They promised that they would keep looking out for me, and I like to think that they kept their word. It’s nice to have some guardian angels of your own. It’s even nicer to know that you’re both rooting for the same team in the play-offs.

 

 

Hired Guns

“Boss. He ain’t going down. That’s thirteen bullets we’ve put in ‘em and Wyatt put in six before that.”

“You really think a man who just ripped a steer and Wyatt in half is going to go down easy?”

“We-”

“Listen here. I’m not looking for excuses. If you can’t take down one man then what the hell am I paying you for? Keep him away from the herd or else you’ll all be looking for a new job.”

“Boss…”

“Get it done.”

 

Powered by Blood

My response to an interesting writing prompt that I saw on reddit today.

The original post can be found here :https://www.reddit.com/r/WritingPrompts/comments/98ogf9/wp_you_are_living_in_a_world_where_every_energy/?utm_source=reddit-android

Being picked is a strange feeling.

I was too old when HemeCorp changed the world. Once their chips became mainstream, people suddenly gained the ability to charge their phones and all their other electronics with just a prick of their finger. HemeCorp circuits only need a drop of blood to generate a current. But as their usage grew so too did demand. A pricked finger can’t power a bus or a train after all.

Soon our entire system depended on electricity generated from human blood. The government started requiring everyone to sign up for a lottery on their eighteenth birthday, and every year the government uses this lottery to pick the new donors who will power the country. I was already twenty five when the system was implemented, I avoided donorship. Or I would have.

You see, when the law allowing the conscription of donors was passed, it specified that only individuals between the ages of eighteen and twenty one could be selected. Unless a state of emergency is declared.

I was thirty-five when terrorist attacks disable three of the country’s refineries in the same week. Some people rushed to volunteer and were quickly accepted by the Department of Energy, which at that point had gotten desperate for more of the blood that keeps our society running.

People like me nervously checked their email every morning, praying that they wouldn’t be picked.

Mine came on the last day of the lottery. At first I didn’t believe it. I told myself that maybe it was a scam until my wife read it. It was real.

We both took off work that day. But we waited to tell the kids. What else were we supposed to do? The terms of lottery gave me a week to report to the refinery. So we took the kids out of school took them on a weekend trip camping. Only when we got back did we tell them that I would be leaving.

They started crying, I cried with them. Up until that point I had been numb in a way. The fact that I would be leaving my family, to live out the rest of my life at a refinery, didn’t seem real. It all seemed like a dream.

On the day I was scheduled to report, the whole family came to drop me off at the refinery. I spent most of the car ride trying to cheer them up.

I’ll use this time to write a book like I always wanted, I told them. Then I said maybe I would learn to play an instrument, or pick up some extra degrees online. It wasn’t like I was dying, I said. But we all knew how it would be. The lives of donors are carefully regulated. They have to be be protected, kept healthy, and always near a collection point. It’s true that I wasn’t dying, but our lives together would never be the same.

When we got to the refinery I pulled my wife aside. I suggested that we get a divorced. Sure, I said, I’d be well paid and could send them money. But that was no substitute for actually being around. I told her it would be better if we divorced. I could still send them money and she could find someone that would be there for her and the kids. She just stared at me with was sad, desperate eyes, and told me that I was crazy for suggesting it. I laughed and told her she was right.

Then, on my walk to the refinery gate something broke inside me. I knew that if I was to keep my sanity as a donor, I wouldn’t be able to pretend that I had a life outside of the refinery’s walls. It’d be easier for all of us to pretend that I was dead.

I didn’t look back when I reached the gates, even though I could hear my family crying behind me. Last week I got my divorce papers in the mail. Turns out it only takes three years of no contact for your wife to leave you.

I’ll keep sending them money. Enough that the kids will be fed and able to go to school. If they’re lucky they’ll never be picked as a donor like I was.

I didn’t respond to the divorce papers. Or the fathers day cards. Or the photo albums. I’ve still to this day refused to look back, just like I refused to look back on that walk to the gate.

Other donors have asked me when I’ll come around and start talking with my family again. I try my best to avoid their questions. The truth is that I can’t look back. If I reach out, become involved, I’ll only be reminded of what I lost. What I could have been. If that happens I would surely break. And I’d have no way to pick up the pieces.

“Dark Green, Wet Fur, and an Echo” – Part 2

The creature roared and lunged at David. He dove to the side at the last moment and felt one of the monster’s teeth drag across his rib cage. Reflexively his hands went to the wound, causing him to slam his rock into his chest.

While he doubled over from his mistake, the creature’s momentum carried it out of the chamber and into the stream. It splashed violently in the water as it reoriented itself, giving David time to regain his composure.

Another roar was let out by the monster as it charged at him again. This time David intended to face it head on.

He ran straight for the creature’s maw as it opened. Its snout knocked the wind out of him and propelled him into the air. Just as he had hoped for.

His trajectory sent him flying towards the creature’s eye. With all the strength that he could muster, David slammed his rock into the beast’s eye, before he himself slammed into the top of the creature’s skull.

The thing let out a blood-curdling howl and attempted to shake him off. David was thrown against the cave wall and for the second time in the course of their fight had the wind knocked out of him.

While the creature continued howling in the cave, David seized on his opportunity to escape and ran back out to the stream. This time he followed it downstream, reasoning that if he followed it he would reach the shore eventually.

Paying little heed to the slippery and uneven path before him. David ran, eager to escape the sound of the creature’s howls that still thundered behind him. He still hadn’t figured what sort of beast it might be, but nothing he had even seen looked quite like what he had just fought.

Only when the howling faded did he risk slowing down to catch his breath. David was unsure of how long he had been running for, but already the cave seemed as if it had no end.

As the combat high faded David also became aware of the beating his body had taken. His head wound was still seeping blood, and the gash on chest had already soaked his shirt. All this was further compounded by the many sore spots he had just acquired that were sure to bruise later.

“And my wrists are still tied,” he said sadly, before pushing those thoughts from his mind. Right now his priority was getting out of the cave.

New sounds began to filter into the cave as he went on. He heard mostly the calls of tropical birds, and tantalizingly, the faint murmur of human voices.

Suddenly, he heard voices above him.

“Reckon he’s been eaten yet?”

“Aye. That bastard is all bones by now.”

David pulled himself closer to the wall. Was it the pirates? Somewhere above him he could hear their voices. He waited, expecting that at any moment one of them might look down into the cave and spot him.

“Sure was quite a ruckus. Think the old girl is having her fun?”

“Ha! Yeah. Almost as much fun as we had with his crew!”

David felt the anger well up inside him. He tamped it down. He was in no position to exact vengeance. Still, he took the voices as a sign that he was nearing the exit.

The cave finally ended. At its mouth the shallow stream that he had been following fell off a short cliff before snaking between the trees of the island’s jungle.

Again he could hear the voices from before. David ducked back into the cave just as a pair of men appeared before the entrance.

Both were unassuming and, David observed, drunk. Despite carrying weapons it was clear that neither of them were expecting trouble. They probably counted on the monster to take care of prisoners without issue.

With his hands still tied, David’s options were limited. His only real chance of success would be to tackle one of them, and hope they broke his fall off the cliff. He sized both of them up. The one on his left was a giant of a man, but carried only a knife, while the one on his right was equipped with both knife and pistol. Right it was.

Once he decided on a course of action he charged. Thinking about it anymore wouldn’t do him much good.

Both men yelled in surprised as he made contact with his target. Followed by the screams of his victim as he and David tumbled over the ledge. David closed his eyes and prayed. He’d find out soon whether he had timed his attack right or not.

The impact came quickly and was accompanied by a sickening crack as the man’s next snapped. Above him on the ledge, the man’s companion had already drawn his knife and was making his over to a narrow footpath that would bring him to David.

David lunged for the dead man’s pistol.He clumsily pulled it from its holster and managed to cock it.

With careful aim he fired as the second man rounded the corner onto the footpath. A bloody hole appeared in the man’s chest and he tumbled down the hill.

From the cave, David heard a muted roar. He beast had followed him.

Working quickly, he drew the knife from the first man’s belt and used it to cut the ropes binding his wrists together. He felt immediate relief from the chafed skin and stressed joints, but he had little time to enjoy it. The creature was sure to be closing in on him.

He tucked the knife into his own belt and took off running down the hill. Running down the incline he had little control over his trajectory, he cared little so long as it was away from that monster.

Soon he noticed the scent of salt water on the air. Finally he was getting close to shore.

He came too, or rather ran into, a low wooden fence that surrounded a small village on the beach. In appearance it was little different from any of the other countless illicit settlements built by pirates and smugglers.

If he squinted he could make out the silhouettes of four ships anchored offshore. David’s heart lept into his throat when he caught sight of his ship, the Sovereign, anchored safely beside the others. If he could reach it he would be saved. Although he had never put them to use, he knew that the ship had old enchantments that would allow a single man to sail her for a short time. His only obstacles were the village before him, and the monster behind him.

Inspiration struck when he looked down at his own blood-stained shirt. He had blinded the creature hadn’t he? The only way it could be tracking him was by scent, and he had left plenty of his own blood back in the cave.

Another roar came from behind him and he saw several heads in the village turn to look in his direction. He had to act fast. One last burst of action and he would be free.

David vaulted over the fence and ran up to the first building he saw. In his predicament he couldn’t afford to be picked. A glance over his shoulder told him that the beast was near, and currently crashing through the foliage outside the fence.

Hurriedly, David drew his knife and made a deep cut across his palm.He smeared the resulting blood along the wall and took off running towards the beach just in time to hear the monster crash into the house he had just marked.

He ran, paying little heed to the people around him or who he shoved out of his way. The crowds for their part were too distracted by the monster to pay attention to an escaped prisoner. Screams filled the air. Men ran to get their rifles, or just ran. Whatever semblance of order that had existed before descended into chaos, as the blind and angry beast tore into everything within its reach.

All along the shore people were scrambling for their boats. David could hardly believe his luck when he actually spotted an abandoned rowboat. He dove into it, allowing his momentum to carry the boat for the first few feet. Then he grabbed the oars and began paddling, ignoring the protests of his battered body.

Now he was treated to an uninterrupted view of the hell he had unleashed upon the village. Already several buildings had caught fire, and the flames were spreading. The futile crack of gunshots reached out to him across the water. David knew that massed volleys would be needed to take the monder down, and he doubted that the pirates had sufficient discipline to pull it off.

Where he should have felt guilt of the terror he had drawn to them, he only felt satisfaction. He had brought about his vengeance, even if it been inadvertent. David allowed himself this one emotion after a day of suppressing all others that came to him.

As he came up alongside the Sovereign he felt a strange sense of peace even as he watched the continued destruction. He’d being returning to an empty ship, as far as he knew the rest of the crew had been killed. He alone had lived.

He started laughing.

“Dark Green, Wet Fur, and an Echo”

My girlfriend has been babysitting a couple of kids all day. So I’ve been killing time by writing. This one I wrote in response to another reddit post, this time on r/SimplePrompts. The original post can be found here: https://www.reddit.com/r/SimplePrompts/comments/94ua65/dark_green_wet_fur_and_an_echo/?utm_source=reddit-android

David woke to the sound of echoing water droplets. It was a slow, ordered sound, and it only made him realize how thirsty his was.

His tongue was stuck to the roof of his mouth. Each breath he took seemed to catch in his parched throat. As he emerged from the depths of unconsciousness he became aware of a throbbing pain and sticky wetness on the left side of his head.

He tried to open his eyes and found them to be sealed them shut.

He cursed himself as the memories came back to him. They had been within sight of home when the pirates had boarded their ship. The pirates’ wizard had conjured a thick mist, allowing them to come within range without being spotted.

David cursed himself for his carelessness. Proximity to home had made him overconfident, and that had gotten his men killed. The crew had been unready to face the boarding parties that had materialized out of the mist. They had made David watch as most of his crew was slaughtered. While he himself had been bound, and a cloth bag had been placed over his head.

They had come ashore somewhere. Where exactly he could not say. But the clean smell of the air told him that it was no port that he knew. They had led him along for some time, across rough terrain where he had struggled to keep his footing. Eventually they had stopped, someone had hit him on the side of his head, and he had been left there.

He needed to open his eyes, he decided. His hands were found in front of him. But he was able to bring them up to his face. Through the thick cloth he rubbed his eyes, trying to scrape away whatever was holding them shut.

Blood. It was blood, he realized.

The dried blood tore at his eyelashes as it was removed, but slowly he was able to open them.

Small pinpricks of light shined through the dark green fabric that covered his face.

“Ok,” he said to himself, “Where am I?” At first he had suspected a cave, plenty of pirates maintained hideouts that they hid throughout the islands. It made storing loot and prisoners a far easier task. The rocks beneath him, the dripping water; and the damp, musty smell of the air had all screamed cave. But the lighting was natural, there was sky above him.

David decided it was time to take the bag off. It wasn’t secured tightly. But he could feel now that the blood had dried and stuck the cloth to his scalp.

He grabbed ahold of the bag, braced himself, and pulled.

Fresh blood flowed as the scabs tore away with the cloth. He resisted the urge to cry out. Hair followed, he didn’t look to see how much he had lost.

Sunlight blinded him. While his eyes adjusted he occupied himself by climbing to his feet.

Slowly his eyes adjusted to the light. David was soon surprised to learn that he was in a cave afterall. It’s rounded walls rose up around a grouping of shallow streams. Sunlight poured in through holes in the ceiling that gave it a honeycomb-like appearance.

He bent down to the water and tasted it. Those few drops of water felt like honey on his tongue, and he drank until he felt as if he might burst.

David rose back up to his feet, and looked along the steam in both directions. The water was flowing from his left, and headed towards his right. Save for that once difference, both directions seemed to be roughly equal. Both were lit by ample quantities of natural light, and in both directions there was a roughly cut path along the edge of the stream.

“Strange hideout,” he said quietly. He decided that his next order of business would be to cut the ropes.

To his left he spotted an assortment of bones lying in the water. Their time in the sunlight had bleached them white, and the water had worn smooth their broken edges. Still he thought he might find a broken one with a sharp enough edge to cut the rope.

He began walking upstream, searching the water for the implement that would free up. As he did, the musky scent that he had detected earlier grew stronger, and as he turned a bend he was greeted by a much larger cave, in which sat a huge mass of glistening, wet, fur.

David recoiled from the sight and nearly ran. Every instinct he had told him to run. But he gathered up his courage and approached it slowly. If he was going to escape those caves, he thought, it would do him well to know what else was trapped with him.

Upon closer inspection he realized that the creature resembled a six-legged wolf that also happened to be the size of a house. It’s entire body, save for its snout, was covered in the same wet fur. A single closed eyelid dominated it’s face. Jagged yellow teeth stuck out of its bald snout at odd angles.

He considered the fact that if he was careful, he might be able to cut his bonds on the creature’s teeth. Carefully, he moved even closer.

An outcropping of rock caught his foot and he tripped. He steadied himself, but not before he had kicked a small assortment of pebbles across the chamber. In the otherwise silent cave, each pebble sounded like a gong as they skipped along the floor.

He heard the creature stirring. Felt its hot breath on his face as it shifted to face him.

Reluctantly, David raised his head to face the creature. He quickly went over his options, he could see only two. He could run, if he did the creature was sure to chase him and snatch him up in its powerful jaws. Or he could fight, and probably die.

He snatched up a loose stone from the ground and held it tight between his hands.

He would fight.

Strange Requests

This story is written in response to a post on r/WritingPrompts.

http://www.reddit.com/r/WritingPrompts/comments/91axjn/wp_human_blood_is_a_color_impossible_to_replicate/

“It’s a magnificent color, don’t you think?” asked the king, as he thrust the blood-stained handkerchief towards me.

I quickly rubbed the sleep from my eyes and took the bloody cloth from him. “It is an undoubtedly unique hue,” I agreed. After ten years working for the king I had become used to these night-time summons. The clockwork antelopes had been tough to build, but doable. Then there had been the chandelier he had wanted made out of hard light. But I could already see that what he was about to ask of me would be impossible.

“Can you reproduce it?” asked the king.

I placed the cloth on the table, not wanting to touch it any longer than I had to. “Not exactly,” I said, “human blood is unique. Better alchemists than me have tried and failed to replicate it. The only way to get this color is to use actual blood.”

“Well, that doesn’t sound too hard,” said the king.

It took a conscious effort to stop my jaw from dropping to the floor. “You. You can’t be serious.”

“Of course I’m serious!” exclaimed the king, “I wouldn’t have called you here if I wasn’t. I need a new wardrobe made in this color for my gala next month. Get it done.”

“Y-yes sir,” I answer. The king got up from his chair and shambled back towards the bed, signaling that our meeting was done. I took my leave before he could think of any other tasks to ask of me. The one I had just been given was more than enough to keep me occupied.

The king rarely sees what it took to carry out his wishes. Worries like that are for people like me. The king only cares about results. These thoughts, and just how I would obtain the quantity of blood needed to craft the king a new wardrobe, occupied my mind as I walked to my quarters.

For a moment I considered going to the butcher, but I would have no way of guaranteeing the blood’s purity. Plus the king would probably notice the difference if he compared its color to that of the handkerchief. Human blood is just too unique. I cursed myself for not remembering to take the cloth with me. A doctor on the other hand probably couldn’t deliver the amounts I needed in time. I then considered the prisoners in the dungeon, but questions would be asked if someone began showing up to draw blood from them. I realized that I had only one option.

Upon returning to my quarters I ignored the tantalizing pull that the bed exerted on my tired body and instead grabbed a tattered brown cloak from the closet. It was one that I kept for tasks such as these. As I said before, the king only cares about results. My job is to deliver those results, and ensure that no inconvenient questions get asked about them.

The Black Horse Tavern was lit only by the dying embers of its hearth, and its patrons liked it that way. I walked up to the bar and bought two drinks before looking around for my contact.

I found him half-asleep in the back of the tavern. A quick kick to the legs of the table got him awake. I handed him one of the drinks and sat down at the table.

“You again?” he asked before emptying the tankard.

“Yes,” I sighed, “me again.” I had never asked for his name and he had never asked for mine. It was better for both of us that way.

“What can I get for you this time? Another lindworm tooth, or maybe some dragon scales?”

“I need blood,” I answered, “preferably enough to fill a tub.”

The man gave me a confused look. “What are you coming to me for? The butcher will be open in an hour. Ask him.”

“Human blood,” I said.

“Oh.”

Before he could object I tossed a purse loaded with gold coins onto the table. “You’ll get more when the job is done,” I said.

My contact counted the coins and sighed. “I’ll say this. Of all my customers you come to me with the strangest requests.”

“Can you do it?” I asked. I was getting impatient. The Black Horse wasn’t my idea of a fun place to be, and every minute I spent there was another minute someone might recognize me from the palace.

“Yeah,” he said, “Yeah I can do it. Meet me here in three days. I’ll get you your blood.”

I couldn’t help but breath a sigh of relief. “Thank you,” I whispered.

The man shrugged. “Don’t thank me. Thank the poor bastards it’s going to come out of.”

I pushed that thought out of my mind as I got up to leave. In my job I can’t afford to have a conscience. Besides, I had fabric to order.

 

Dreadnought Approaching

“Captain! Martian dreadnought approaching! Camera four!”
Captain Davis pulled into his chair and fastened the tethers that would hold him there if the ship had to make any sudden maneuvers. “Faction identification?”
“No beacon sir. Still waiting on a report from Optics, but no visible markings.”
“Crap.” Davis switched his console to the number four camera and a silvery dot appeared on his screen against the emptiness of space. “How long until it gets within range?”
“Six minutes.”
“And the Portsmouth? How far out is it?”
“Eight minutes.”
Davis swore. He had allowed their escort to go too far from them. They’d be sure to regret not having the cruiser and its guns if the dreadnaught came within firing range. “Get ready to hail them. All frequencies.” He turned to his left and selected a prerecorded message in eleven martian dialects, all demanding to know the dreadnaught’s intentions.
Davis resolved not to wait for the radio waves to go across the space between them and back. “Put the ship on alert, and call back the Portsmouth. Are the spitfires fueled?”
“Almost. Forty-two are reported ready, twenty-two still in progress. Autocannons are all loaded.”
Davis nodded to himself. Had the dreadnought appeared earlier during their test flights they would have been defenseless. “Launch all of our fighters.”
The alert aircraft took off immediately, becoming blips on the ship’s radar screen. Davis was relieved to see his untested crew working without hiccups as they readied the other spitfires for launch.
Meanwhile, the minutes ticked by with no response from the dreadnought. Davis hoped that theirs was a chance encounter, but he knew the odds of that. The space around them was completely devoid of anything of value. That was why they had picked it. It was a place to test Earth’s new carrier away from prying eyes.
“Two minutes.”
Still no response from the dreadnought. “And the Portsmouth?”
“Four minutes.”
Davis looked back to view of the dreadnought on his console. It was now close enough for him to begin to make out more details of its design. Like most martian ships it resembled a slab of iron with an engine strapped to one end. On its hull was an assortment of weapons clusters, sensor arrays, and docked support craft that looked like off-color pixels on his display.
Davis knew that in a one-on-one fight the carrier would be outgunned by the dreadnought. Their ship was designed to carry and support fighters, not exchange broadsides. He also knew that many of their spitfires would be lost to martian point defense canons. Space combat was still new to humans, while martians had over a century experience. His pilots would be turning theory into practice as they went. It was going to get a lot of them killed.
“One minute.”
Davis glanced at the blips on the radar screen. All of them were waiting for his orders. If he hesitated any longer the dreadnought would be on top of them.
“Engage.”

Train Heist

Billy raised his hand to shield his eyes from the sun. If he strained his eyes he could just barely make out a thin line of black smoke rising up from the opposite end of the valley. “Best be getting ready!” he yelled as he ducked back into the signal house.

Inside Sawyer and Clay jumped to their feet. Sitting in the corner was the bound signalman, who was resisting Jack’s attempts to force another vial of Oil down his throat. The first dose had worked wonders and had bought them hours of silence from their captive, but the poor bastard had woken up since then, and this time he knew what was coming.

“I still don’t know why we can’t just blow the track,” Clay complained. Even when agitated the man spoke in a laid-back drawl.

Billy was growing irritated with his friend’s unwanted suggestions. “Clay, did I ask you to speak?”

“No, but you need me to,” he answered. “What the hell are you going to do when they realize they’ve been set up and get the train moving again?”

“They won’t get moving because we’ll tie up the engineers first. Besides, what happens if we blow the tracks and someone dies? Do you really want to hang for murder?”

“We’re going to be wanted men after this anyway,” Clay replied, raising his voice.

Billy said nothing, and turned to check on Jack’s progress. By that point the signalman had finally been subdued for the second time. Jack assured him that the man would definitely remain incapacitated for the duration of the job, and was now checking the sealed jars of formaldehyde that he had prepared for their heist.

“I still think we need a name,” Sawyer said quietly.

“Shut it Sawyer!” Billy yelled. “The train is almost here.” He balled up his fist, but held it at his side. His brother’s incessant ideas were starting to annoying him. “I’ve spent weeks planning this heist, and all you-”

“He has a point,” said Jack. “Most gangs give themselves names nowadays. If they don’t some reporter will. It’s the only way keep control of your branding. ”

Billy glared at the disgraced chemist. He didn’t know what the man meant by ‘branding’ but he knew that he had no time for it. “I,” he began slowly. “Am beginning to regret bringing you on for this job.”

Jack shrugged. “Just trying to help.”

“All of you are going to get me killed.” Billy declared, and went out to check on the train’s progress. It was now close enough that he could make out the individual cars behind the engine. In his mind he pictured the mail car at its end, loaded with gold. He had paid good money for the information, and he was expecting a big payoff.

This would be it. No more working for another man’s profit, no more worrying about where his next meal would come from. Soon all four of them would be rich men. He checked and saw that the stop sign was still in place before taking a swig from the flask of whiskey he kept in his back pocket.

Once he had allowed the whiskey time to calm his nerves, he turned and went back into the house. “Everyone on your feet!” he hollered. “Train’s almost here.” Sawyer and Clay jumped to their feet, while Jack’s response was much more subdued. “Guns loaded?” The three nodded an affirmative, while he made sure to check his own pistol as well. “Alright Jack, put on one of the signalman uniforms. I want you to be ready out there with the formaldehyde. The rest of you, keep yourselves hidden in here, or else they might see you and suspect something.”

The three of them nodded, and Jack, having donned the uniform, went to stand wait by the stop sign. Billy swore when he realized that the uniform was much too small for the chemist. Jack’s twin revolvers produced a pair of bulges in the uniform that he hoped would not be noticed. “They’re too far away to see anyway,” he muttered to himself.

“What’s that?” whispered Sawyer.

“Nothing!” Billy snapped. “No more talking!”

The train eased to a stop. Billy had imagined the engineers panicking at the sight of their stop sign, but by all appearances the engineers seemed perfectly in control of the metal beast. They must have seen it from a distance, he thought, and then realized that meant they might very well have seen him too. “They’ll just think I was here to help,” he assured himself.

“What?” asked Sawyer.

“Shut up!” He was getting worried. Not about the plan, everything had worked so far. He was worried about Jack. As the train approached the man had suddenly lost the snarky attitude that they had all gotten used to hearing from him. Jack, Billy decided, was a professional.

Jack had approached the train and was speaking to the engineers. “Now,” he whispered, silently urging Jack to throw his jar. He began to wonder if Jack actually intended to throw the jar, and it he was planning on selling them all out instead, until suddenly Jack sprang into action and lobbed his jar of formaldehyde through the engine’s window.

Billy drew his pistol and ran from the signal house, “Go!”

Clay and Sawyer pulled scarves over their faces and ran out of the signal house after him. They quickly closed the distance between them and the mail car before throwing their own jars of formaldehyde through the windows. Billy watched long enough to make sure that the two had made it inside before taking up position beside the engine with Jack.

Jack nodded to him and drew his pistols. Together, he and Billy jumped aboard the engine and found the engineers coughing and sputtering from the formaldehyde’s noxious fumes. Jack gave them a few kicks for good measure, while Billy tied their hands with a length of rope from his satchel.

Billy kicked them again and told them to stay quiet, before jumping out of the engine with Jack. “Let’s get the passengers subdued.” Jack, still without any sign of his previous attitude, simply nodded again. As they walked along the coal hopper Billy saw Clay stick his head out of the mail coach and give the all clear sign. Billy allowed himself to breath a sigh of relief, so far everything had gone as planned. He expected that by then Sawyer and Clay would be working over the mail guards, trying to convince them that opening the safe was in their best interests.

The two passenger cars presented a different problem. Billy and Jack were only two people, and if there wasn’t a single gun-carrying passenger on-board Billy would eat his hat. He reasoned that a single gunman might be able to keep control over the car so long as he displayed enough bluster. Even that was assuming that no one on board felt a sudden urge to become a hero.

He took the first passenger car while Jack went on to subdue the second. Billy cocked his pistol and held it before him as he went to face the passengers. To his relief most of the seats were empty, and to Billy’s eyes the few passengers that were on board all looked to be clerks and bankers. Not the kind of people who would feel inclined to fight. Billy allowed himself to relax a little, although he was well aware of the fact that less passengers would mean less loot.

“Alright!” he yelled, trying his best to add an edge of menace to his voice. “Unless you want to get shot, you’ll keep any valuables you have held in in front of you, and your mouths shut.” He struggled to open his satchel and keep his gun ready at the same time.

Billy was so nervous that he nearly pulled the trigger when the door at the opposite end of the carriage swung open. Just in time he realized that it was only Jack, who was pushing two women who looked like sisters in front of him.

“Only ones in there,” Jack explained, as he pushed them onto the nearest empty bench.

With Jack’s twin pistols now trained on the assembled passengers, Billy felt comfortable walking among them to collect their booty. “Everything you have goes in this bag!” he yelled repeatedly as walked along the aisle. Most of them complied, dropping handfuls of bank notes, jewelry, and spare change.

He had almost reached Jack when something hard struck the back of his head, and he soon found himself lying on the floor.

“Put the guns down or I put a bullet in your friend’s head,” said someone behind him. From where he was Billy could see Jack standing with both of his pistols trained on a single target. He was standing firm for the moment, but Billy could sense that the man was wavering.

Slowly, Billy tried turning his head to see who was behind him and was instead greeted with a boot that slammed his face into the floor. Teeth broke free from their roots and blood filled his mouth. “Bastard,” he said spitting out the teeth.

“Hardly,” said the voice. “Now, you,” he addressed Jack again. “Put down your guns as I instructed, or I will kill your friend.”

Billy looked towards Jack and their eyes met. Resignation flashed across Jack’s face. He nodded, and slowly he placed his pistols on the floor. The voice spoke again. “Right. Now, pick up the bag, and give all of these good people their money back.”

Jack stepped forward cautiously and grabbed the satchel from Billy’s hand. As he did that the strap caught and twisted Billy’s wrist. Billy swore through the blood, but he refrained from saying anything else lest he invite another kick.

As Jack rose up again, the sound of gunshots and shattered glass filled the carriage. Fresh blood spattered on the floor. Billy shut his eyes, in anticipation of a bullet soon entering his skull. To his surprise that bullet never came. Instead he heard a heavy thud behind him accompanied by a woman’s screams. His assailant had been shot, he realized.

Jack helped Billy to his feet and retrieved both their pistols. Meanwhile Sawyer, followed by Clay rushed into the car. Clay had abandoned his usual lazy drawl and was now screaming at the passengers while brandishing his rifle.

“We should hurry,” Sawyer insisted.

Billy was in no mood to argue. He looked around the car one last time and saw the body of the man who had been holding a gun to his head. A woman, he guessed her to be the man’s wife, was sobbing over the body. He spit a mouthful of blood at them and turned to lead the gang away from the train.

They untied their horses from the posts behind the signal house and rode off towards the mountains. Half a day passed before Billy was satisfied that no one was following them. Jack scouted the forest around them and soon came back to lead them to a small stream. Next to this stream they erected what Billy decided was the saddest looking lean-to he had ever seen.

Sawyer and Clay, eager to take stock of their prize, dumped both the haul from the mail car and the passengers’ effects on the ground beside the campfire. Meanwhile, Billy found a comfortable tree besides the fire where he could nurse his sprained wrist.

Their prize turned out to be considerably smaller than Billy had been led to believe by his informant. Silently he cursed the ‘western gentlemen,’ who bought their wives jewelry made of fake gold and hardly carried more than five crowns on them. His more pressing concern, now that they were a safe distance from the train, was what to do about Jack.

All he had known about Jack when they first met was that he was a disgraced chemist, whose customer had died after an unfortunate mix up of tonics. Billy had welcomed the chance to recruit an educated man for their job, especially when Jack had shared his formaldehyde trick with them, but there was something wrong about the man. Something about Jack made Billy think that he was a bit too comfortable with the pistols hanging from his hips.

Sawyer soon distracted him from his paranoid thinking. “How are we gonna divide this up?” he asked holding up a gold bar.

“We wont,” Billy answered, “not yet.” He looked at Jack, then back to the two of them. “We us the loot to buy provisions first. Then we divide up what’s left.”

Clay was visibly crestfallen upon hearing that his share would be smaller than hoped.

“You mean we’re gonna keep this gang together?” Sawyer asked carefully.

Billy nodded.

“Okay. Well, in that case. We have a name for us.”

Billy raised an eyebrow.

Sawyer turned to Clay. “You tell him.”

A grin split Clay’s face. “The Broken Heads.”

Billy could see Jack smirking behind them. He thought about their suggestion for a moment. “The way I see it,” he said slowly. “Is that there’s got to be something broken in your head if you’re going to go rob a train like we just did. Alright. We’ll be the Broken Heads Gang.”