The Maulter: Part 4-Riddlebrook
To be fair, it wasn’t Riddlebrook’s fault it did little to warrant its place on the map. The town was pretty well situated in the middle of nowhere, like a good part of the towns in the vast and uncertain Wilds were. Barren desert on one side and arid grassland on another. A few farms and a local ranch constituted the town’s centers of industry. All in all, just another tiny seed of human civilization in the unconquered wilderness.
But it was the first town that Revik and Dance came to since the ambush on Hawthorn. And Revik planned to rest here while he could.
And, naturally, they stopped at the local marshal’s office first.
Dance knew little of what respect the Gavroka held for human law and government, but he guessed it miniscule after witnessing the disgust-filled snarl Revik gave the structure. Dance couldn’t blame him.
A pair of drunks lie on the porch, stinking and groaning, with a patch of flies hovering over each to relish in their stench. They tied their horses to the teetering hitching post and dismounted. Dance barred his nose with a sleeve as Revik shoved him forward to the door.
The Gavrokan clenched his big fist and pounded the creaking wood so hard Dance feared it would fly from the hinges. Whoever’s inside would think there’s a Neotok raid ensuing. Dance thought.
Amazingly, no one came once Revik finished his volley. Revik snarled and did it again. The door opened.
The marshal beat the appearance of the drunk vagrants by the slimmest of hairs. His brown jacket, worn to the barest thinness, with leathery strands popping out along every seam, dirt stained to the point of obscenity, hung from his body like an overused and ill-fitting rag. His shirt, so immensely stained it looked more like earth than fabric, barely held on to the filthy badge that hung from the left breast while draping over his pot-belly and lying untucked from his trousers.
The blatant, obstructing smell of cheap whiskey hung thickly on his every word.
“Yeah?” the marshal drawled. He didn’t show any sign of surprise when he saw the Gavrokan.
Revik grabbed Dance’s shoulder. The thief winced from the sudden pressure.
“Prisoner.” Revik said.
The marshal looked between the two of them with bleary eyes. He had all the looks of a man who’d had more than his tolerable share of life and tried ferociously to drown it in a bottomless, amber river. But even intoxicated, his suspicions were still raised.
“Prisoner? For what?”
Revik got a step closer to the marshal to properly emphasize his obvious superiority in strength and height. Dance thought he saw the marshal’s throat wobble from a nervous swallow.
“For me to know. Only.” Revik said.
The marshal made a low, guttural sound that did little to conceal his apprehension. “Fair ‘nough.” he said, and held the door open for them. Like the marshal’s dress, the office was just as neglected. Dust and cobwebs hung together in embrace from wood paneling of the walls where mold and rot festered. Empty whiskey bottles lay strewn on the dirty floor, some broken and most not.
The marshal went to his desk and found the keys, along with his whiskey bottle. Dance watched the marshal, analyzing every sluggish move of his ill-tended body, undoubtedly weighed down by the morning’s worth of liquor that currently coursed through his liver. A plan started to grow in Dance’s mind. The marshal was less than astute; playing a ruse on him would be the easier part of his scheme. The hardest would be to get it past the Gavrokan. Time spent in the art of thievery had taught him a valuable skill: identifying the opportune moment. And that’s what he waited for.
They followed the Marshal to the cell. Surprisingly, while the rest of the building slowly decayed around them, the iron bars of the cell had managed to escape the affliction. They were still strong, still solid. And they barely screeched when the marshal opened the door. Dance watched the drunken enforcer place the keys clumsily in his pocket.
“In.” Revik growled in his ear.
Dance made his move. Like a crazed wolverine, he grappled onto the marshal, bringing him crashing to the floor. The whiskey bottle shattered, spreading its contents over the floor in a dark puddle. His right hand made a move for the gun on the marshal’s hip, but before he could grab it, a pair of iron hands grabbed his arms, yanked him into the air, and threw him against the cell’s walls. The world spinning and his ears ringing, he got to his feet only to have the bars slammed shut in his face.
“Grey-skin! Bloodthirsty monster! I’ll have you sorry—“ Again, Dance felt the uncomfortably familiar feeling of Revik’s hand around his throat as the Gavrokan grabbed him from between the bars. Dance choked out his unspoken words.
“Enough!” Revik growled and threw Dance to the ground. Dance sat up, panting. The marshal got to his feet and brushed himself off, muttering curses as he went back to his desk.
“Try anything else and you die.” Revik said, growlingly as well as matter-of-factly.
“Message received.” Dance said, spitting out the words between gritted teeth.
Revik stomped away. Dance waited to hear the office door shut, followed by the scrape of chair feet against the floor, the solid thump of a desk being used as a foot stool, and then the deep, guttural, rumbling gurgle that was the marshal’s snoring.
Dance let the hours pass, watching the sunrays that reached through the spaces in the barred window across from his cell move and gradually dim until they evanesced, and the pale beams of the mistress star of the night took their place. The marshal still snored away, though it’d softened to an occasional snort.
Dance reached into his pocket and pulled out the keys to his cell he’d snatched from the marshal’s pocket. He smiled to himself, minutely proud of his success. The marshal never felt his hands slip into his pocket and take the object for himself while they had tangled on the floor.
This close to freedom, of being rid of Revik and Hawthorn and the law with one move. But he resisted the excitement, tempering himself. Years of experience in this trade had taught him to take it slow, to make every move a deliberate calculation before taking the first step forward.
And in the time that he’d let pass, his strategy had been worked out. He’d use the cover of night and take a horse from the nearby saloon. There was always bound to be one left untended, it’s rider undoubtedly lost in a drunken slumber somewhere. He’d ride for all it was worth into the night, leaving Revik in the dust. He’d have to randomize his movements to confuse the bounty hunter and throw him off the trail. Yeah, he’d make it; he knew he would.
He took the key and crept to the lock. He reached around the bars to the keyhole, and inserted the key. He heard the tumblers click ever so slightly. He eased the door open and crept into the hall. He kept his footfalls low and stayed bent into the shadows. He reached the door of the office, and spared a look at the slumbering marshal. Too easy. he thought.
He opened the door and went onto the street. The streets were empty, save for the few stragglers making their way to and from the saloon. As he had hoped, a couple of horses stood hitched outside swinging doors. Pale light stretched across the dirt in sharp streaks from the windows and entrance. Dance left the marshal’s office behind and crept along the alleys, sticking close to the shadows.
He had no idea where Revik had disappeared to, but he must have picked a spot that kept the office in sight. That’s what I’d do. He went on. Soon he heard the sounds of music and laughter that were mixed together in joyous and raucous cacophony as they spilled out from the saloon doors. The light painting the right side of his vision, he snuck up to one of the horses, a bay in the middle of its prime.
The horse startled a little as Dance approached. Dance quickly took its smooth and silky snout in his hands. “Shh. Calm down, girl. I’m a friend.” He rubbed the horse’s snout and continued to speak in soothing tones to it. The horse eventually settled, and eyed Dance with big, brown trusting eyes. Dance smiled. Finally, escape was within his grasp again. True, he wouldn’t have the object, for he had no idea where’d Revik taken the horses. But he’d be away from the Gavrokan, and Hawthorn, and everyone else. He’d have freedom.
“Atta girl.” he said, and went to untying her reins. “Now, to get out of here.” He put one foot in the stirrup and hoisted himself up—
He slammed through the saloon doors and landed on something hard. Glass shattered somewhere. A woman screamed in surprise. Men shouted curses. The world spinning, he got up from what he’d crashed on. He groaned. Poker chips and cards and whiskey glasses came with him. He put a hand to his head in a hope to steady it. Then a fist smashed across his jaw.
His head snapped backward from the impact. His skull rattled in his head and blared with pain. He lost his balance and fell, his head hitting the edge of the poker table as he went down. He was on the floor, but he didn’t remember hitting it. He coughed, blood flooding his mouth. Pain racked his head and back. He tried again to get up. But a pair of big hands did the work for him.
His vision cleared enough for him to see the enraged, snarling face of Revik, with his red eyes bright and furious.
“I warned you.” he growled.
Dance’s nerves and senses were frayed, but not so much he didn’t feel the weightlessness of being lifted into the air and slammed again onto the table. He tried to get a breath in, but something sharp and cold suddenly pressed into his neck. Though Revik didn’t apply enough force to cut his throat, Dance felt his skin slitting open from just the touch of the knife.
“Now, you will learn what it means to—Gah!”
Dance’s vision still possessed enough clarity to see the enraged, and obliviously drunk, gambler grab hold of Revik’s knife arm.
“You damn, no-good, worm-lickin’ greyskin bastard! You messed up our game!”
He saw another gambler take up a chair in his hands.
“I was two moves away from robbin’ ‘em all blind!” he shouted as he brought the chair smashing against Revik’s back.
The Gavrokan roared with monstrous fury. He rammed his great fist into the gambler who restrained his arm. Teeth and blood burst from the impact as the gambler went flying. The other gambler grabbed a new chair, but not fast enough. In one swift stroke, Revik swung his blade around and struck the gambler at the neck. The gambler’s eyes were still wide in his head as it rolled across the floor, blood gushing from the decapitated stump left on his body. The body fell to the floor like a broomstick would.
Revik growled and turned back to Dance. But he wasn’t there. Gone. He heard rapid footfalls, the sound of running. The Gavrokan turned and raised his knife.
Dance was a but a few feet from the swinging doors when he felt the blade pierce his lower thigh. He’d bolted once the chance presented itself, a pure impulse, another hopeful grab for escape. Now his hopes went falling with his legs as he went, face forward, through the swinging doors and out onto the cold dirt and dust.
He gasped, not only from the impact but also from the searing pain that charged through his leg. He could feel the warmth of his blood running down and over his skin. He gritted his teeth, stifling a cry, and turned around to grip the knife. But another hand grabbed it before he could.
And twisted it.
“AAAHH!” Dance yelled, every muscle in his body straining, locking from the pain.
“This is the consequence...” Revik yanked the blade out with one pull.
Dance yelled again.
“…for disobeying me.” He took Dance’s neck in his hand once again. He could feel the fragile bones, the delicate vertebrae, the soft veins, and malleable flesh all rub between the grooves in the skin of his palm and fingers. It would be so easy to crush the thief’s neck, then and there.
But he didn’t. He brought Dance’s eyes up to his own.
“Give me one reason I shouldn’t ring your neck like an insolent cock’s right now.”
Dance gasped out the word. “Money.”
Revik growled like a collared lion.
The breath quickly leaving his lungs, Dance continued. “With me dead— “, he choked, “you’ll only get two thirds of the bounty. They want me back in Redemption alive, Revik.” he choked again. The gathering numbness felt nauseatingly familiar. “You should get your work’s worth. And think—think what they’ll say about you. You won’t just be Revik the Mauler.”
Revik growled and let the thief go. Dance coughed ferociously, rubbing his bruised throat. He choked and sputtered, trying to get air back in.
“What do you mean?” Revik said.
“Oh come on, that’s why you took this job in the first place. I’m Jack Dance. I’ve raided the trains of the Cross-Continental Line without getting a scratch. I’ve robbed the rich coach trains that fill the banks of Red City. And I’ve rustled the herds and ranches of the Sycamore Trail. I’m infamous. Think how much more you’ll be when you get me back to Redemption and everyone in that city sees me hang.” Now he turned to meet the Gavrokan’s eyes. “You’ll be immortal.”
Revik sheathed his knife.
Dance stood up, rubbing his neck. Already he could feel a bruise forming. “But you can’t do it by killing me. That would just be too easy, too amateur. Getting me to Redemption alive, that’s saying something. That’s what’ll get your name in songs and men’s ears, rich and wanted alike.”
Revik crossed his arms.
“And add to it the fact that you killed the Hawthorn trying to get me. You’ll be the most feared and sought after bounty hunter in the Wilds.”
Revik’s eyes became bright red slits as he stared at Dance. The light took a peculiar effect on the Gavrokan, with half his body illuminated by the rays coming from the saloon and the other shrouded by the deep night. He came and stood before Dance. His thick-muscled neck craned as his face went level with Dance’s. Staring into Dance’s eyes, he said two words.
“Hold on there!”
Somehow Dance had missed the small circle of people gathering around them and the horses. All of them looked angry, and most were shouting curses and pointing guns. Out of their midst came the sheriff, still glassy-eyed and wobbling from his liquor, but competent enough to address the Gavrokan bounty hunter.
“Can’t let you leave, ya’ll.”
The Gavrokan stepped up to the sheriff. “Why not?”
The sheriff made a look of disbelief. “’Why…?’ You killed two men in there!” he shouted, pointing at the saloon. “Until you can explain yourself, greyskin, you’re goin’ back to my jail for killin’ without justifiable—“
The sheriff’s gurgled as Revik grabbed his neck with one hand and lifted him straight off the ground and into the air. The sheriff thrashed and cursed, trying to pry away Revik’s monstrous hand. Only a second more passed before everyone near heard a sharp, crunching sound. The sheriff’s eyes were still wide open as his head slumped to the side in Revik’s hand. Revik let the body drop to the sand in a heap like a sack of meat. The women gathered round shrieked in horror, and the men just stared.
Revik eyed every one of them. “Any other challengers?”
Not one uttered a word more. They simply gaped at the sheriff’s unmoving body and the Gavrokan as he shoved Dance in front and walked away.