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    The Ballad of Mario Crane, Part Four
    by Jeff Bailey

    Stakeouts. They’re horrendous with a good partner. It’s worse with Bippy gnawing at my dreams. New York was never like this. New York had its problems, but hell … I never died there.

    I’ve been watching Soddum for over a week. I haven’t seen the man I’m looking for yet … Sloane. I’m guessing he rules from inside one of the buildings here, a general in his headquarters. There’s precious few buildings left: an abandoned saloon where the gang drinks, some houses with torn walls, and some cabins, all either new or built by those who now call it home. It’s not a question of where. It’s how to play my one chance to find him before I get spotted.

    I’ve learned Sloane’s gang. There are a few leaders. The most senior appears to be the man with the cards. The woman gives her share of orders, too. She talks short, like she’s delivering messages. When I met them, the three of them were it. Now they’ve got a small army under their heels.

    I see a lot of run-of-the-mill bandits, who occasionally drift into town. A Mexican rides in and out every few days. Lookouts walk patrol routes. It took a few days to suss out the weak spot I wanted. Or rather, the weak man.

    I’m always surprised gangs allow drunks. They’re erratic, believe just about anything … and they’re often known for making up things. So their first report of trouble is often ignored.

    I watched him last night, and I’m watching him tonight. Like clockwork, he starts singing too loud for the irritable types in the bar room, they throw him out, and he heads for the outhouse. I sidle up so that when he opens the door, I’m right in his face, gun drawn. He almost lets out a yell, but a hard barrel swipe to the cheek quiets him.

    “The man with the cards. British talker. Where does he sleep?” I ask. But I already know.

    “I-I don’t know. And I wouldn’t tell ya. You try anything in this town, you’re a dead man.”

    I smile at his words while shoving him against the outhouse’s back wall. “Stay there. I’ll be back when it’s done.” I jam a stick in the handle, just thin enough to buy me time to get out of sight. And just like every drunk, he wants to be a hero.

    I’m at the back door to card shuffler’s house thirty seconds before the drunk gets to the porch. I’ve got my hand on the latch, waiting.

    *bam bam bam*

    I wait.


    Shouting upstairs. “Bloody hell. Someone better have a reason for waking me up!”

    “Mister Jonah, sir! There’s an assassin lookin’ fer ya,” the drunk yells.

    Jonah. I memorize the name.

    Feet thud on the floor above. I test the knob. The slight give says it’s unlocked.

    Angry mutterings accompany footsteps descending the stairs, followed by the opening of a door.

    I open this door right in time with the other. I pull it closed behind me — I found a lot of burglars by looking for open doors — and move into the dark hallway. The angry conversation both guides me and covers my footsteps. I could have done this last night, but getting into a man’s house unheard is tricky. Getting into a man’s house while he’s shouting at a drunk at the front door … that’s easier.

    “… get the hell off my porch, Jimbo. Wake me again, it won’t just buy you a broken tooth.”

    I hear cards shuffle, and a moan of terror. Jimbo believes the cards aren’t for show, and he’s a regular here. Sometimes I trust a drunk.

    “I’m sorry, Jonah.” Jimbo gives a shaky laugh. “Must’ve heard wrong.”

    I ease into the front hallway. I see Jonah lit from one of the very few street lamps. I slip forward quiet foot by quiet foot, gun in hand.

    Jonah slams the door. Showtime.

    Click. “Don’t move … shout … so much as flip a card.”

    His eyes roll sideways to see a face. I show him Colt steel.

    “Hands up and empty. Don’t think you’re too important to shoot. You’re just not worth a bullet … yet.” He drops the deck and raises his hands.

    “So you’re not an assassin …”

    “The back room.” I saw it on my way in. We move slowly, but with no trouble. He seems to know I’m not in the mood to talk yet not of a mind to kill him.

    I don’t know what it means that I see so well in the dark these days, but it’s a gift. Most people would say ‘adjusted’; I don’t think that quite fits. I spot a chair near a stove and point to it.

    “Sit on your hands.” He does. It’s awkward and leans him forward. It’s not handcuffs, but it doesn’t have to last long. Now he’s facing me, looking equally confused and suspicious.

    “Somethin’ familiar about you, mate. I know you from somewhere?”

    I look him in the eye. Have you attended so many murders? I move my hand to my lapel.

    “Let’s see if this jogs your memory, Jonah.” I had already unbuttoned my shirt. I move my coat aside enough for the hole to show. He doesn’t gasp, doesn’t cry out, but does grow attentive. Jonah knows more than me about the dark forces in the world. I button up and play my opening card. “Don’t try anything. You and your friends had your shot. It’s my turn.”

    Jonah leans back as far as he can without moving his hands. “Mister. You’d better –”

    I punch him in the gut. I pull back the force a little, but it’s still harder than most human punches. He coughs a little blood, but somehow keeps his hands under his legs.

    “You don’t get to say what I’d better anything. You do get to tell me where I can find Sloane. You get to give him up to me.”

    He blinks twice. I slowly pull back the hammer and rotate the cylinder. It’s full.

    “Um, he’s … in the cabin on the north side of town. That’s a right mansion in these parts.” I review my observations. The blonde was there several times. She’s still his girl, apparently. He notices my thinking.

    “So what’ll you do this time? He got you once; he’ll get you again.” He sneers — an achievement while he’s still coughing from my punch — and chuckles. “All you’ve done is show me where not to shoot.”

    I shake my head. “Someone might get that shot, Jonah. But it won’t be you.” I cold cock him, and with the tiniest of crunches, Jonah folds like a nine-high hand.

    I slip out the back. I know where I’m going, and I know the patrol routes. As I said, my eyes are dark now. I might have guessed where his lair was; it’s where the lookouts keep the tightest focus during the day.

    It takes a few minutes, but I get there. The shack has a few windows. I see a figure at a table with a bottle of liquor. The gleam of metal tips me off there’s a light inside and a gun on the table. I don’t have time to wait for him to get drunk. The patrols will find me before I get in. So I do this loud and proud with a single kick.

    The door slams open.

    Three shots come at me. The first one takes me in the shoulder, going straight through. It stings, but it doesn’t bleed. The second and third prove how good a shot he is. They go straight through the hole, almost on top of each other.

    The lantern on the bedside table shifts in the commotion. I see long, dirty blonde hair … woman’s hair. There’s nobody else here. I draw a bead, but don’t shoot. It might be a mistake, but dying gave me more patience than before. And I won’t make things right by becoming what I’m hunting. I’m rewarded for my forbearance when her gun clicks empty. I see loose bullets on the table and grin.

    “Drop it.”

    She glares at me coolly, but drops the gun. She studies my face, then looks at the still-smoking holes in my coat. She watches the fabric blow outwards a bit as the wind comes in from the open door. She folds her arms in front of her, hands on elbows. It’s not quite ‘hands-up,’ but it’s not openly threatening.

    Her voice is icy contempt. “You’ve taken two rounds to the chest, but I don’t think I’m the first to shoot you there.” She studies me as I take in this unexpected scene. “You’re calm for a monster.”

    My hand tenses on the trigger. She sees it, but doesn’t flinch.

    “The man you ride with is the monster! Where is he? Where is Sloane?”

    She softly chuckles. “I am Sloane. Ask anyone out there.” She smirks. “Expecting someone else?”

    I pull the hammer back with my thumb. She still doesn’t flinch.

    “I’m not in the mood for tricks. I came to kill Sloane, the man you rode into Liver Creek with, but you don’t exactly have his shoulders.” I pause, considering the narrow smile that won’t wash off her face. “Or did I get here too late?”

    With a simple shrug, she admits to the murder. She looks at my gun, and then looks to meet my eyes. There’s a glimmer of recognition.

    “You do look a little familiar. Liver Creek … oh, yeah … the cute rolling move before he shot you. Not sure how you’re standing here now, but it looks like I did you a favor. Was that all you wanted?”

    I want my life back. I want justice … or at least vengeance. But things aren’t going my way tonight. My frustration edges out in a slow sigh. “You murder a murderer and expect a thank you? Then what? I leave, and you pick up where he left off? Is that what you want me to do?”

    She shakes her head. “I don’t care what you do. Shoot or get out of my house.”

    I look down the barrel at this woman, the trigger tight against my finger.

    She’s tough … ruthless. She was there in Liver Creek. I’ve seen her threaten the crowd over and over again in my nightmares. Hell, she just shot me three times in less than a minute. But she’s not him.

    I ease the hammer down. She laughs in my face.

    “So even after dying yourself, you still don’t have it in you to pull the trigger?” She pauses, more in contemplation than surprise. “You don’t have the sense to be a killer.” Her head shakes again. “You must be a lawman … only thing that makes sense. You had the grit to get inside here, but not the guts to finish the job.” She nods towards the holes in my coat. “Literally.”

    I flick the tip of the gun at her. “I’ve still got the drop on you. But you’re right. I was a lawman. I’ve stopped killers, but unlike you, I don’t shoot people just because they’re in my way. And I’d hardly call your situation any better. You live in a ramshackle cabin in a corpse of a town while you and your gang fight for scraps. Your man took more from you than he took from me. You’re wasting the heartbeats God gave you.”

    She scoffs. “Spare the lecture. You’re tough enough that a hole in the chest didn’t put you down, but you don’t have the heart to finish this. I’m callin’ your bluff. I shot you three times, so you know what I’m capable of. I just told you I killed him. But you still won’t shoot. Your badge is covering your eyes.” Her tone sharpens from angry to mocking. “ ‘I’ve stopped my fair share of killers.’ Well, I’ve dealt with my fair share of lawmen. They talk tough.” Her voice gets louder, and her stare intensifies. “But sometimes the law’s right inconvenient when they think they know what’s what. Then they remember the law is just words. They look for the word that gets ‘em what they want. Like ‘expedited’.” She shakes her head as she takes a second to cool off. “But when a lawman can’t hide behind the law, can’t use it as their conscience, they fold. So if you’re done here, it’s the middle of the night.” She slumps into the chair next to the bed. ”I’d just as soon go to sleep.”

    I take a breath and think. I’ve been on a one-way mission since I left Gomorra. If the man who killed me had been here, I’d have taken him down with no thought to a future. But this — him dead, her gloating and maybe aimin’ to kill more folks than he did — I can’t throw myself away now. But I also can’t kill her just because she looks guilty. Not even because she says she’s guilty. I have to see this whole thing through. To do that, I have to get out of this town alive … in one piece, I mean. That might mean killing every gunman from here to the county line, or …

    I move the gun to point up in the air – still at her, but enough to signal her to get up.

    “Don’t push your luck. My badge doesn’t cover my eyes, it just stays my hand until it’s needed. And right now, I’m at a fork in the road. One way is the way folk like you always choose. You die, I die, everybody dies.” I mime pulling the hammer back with my thumb. Then I tilt my head back towards the door. “The other road is a proper escort out of your camp so I can keep my promise to all the people your man killed, the promise to make sure all of us didn’t die for nothing.” I move a little towards the door, where I saw her coat. “So we’re going for a walk.” I pick up her duster from the pegs on the wall and throw it at her.

    And I see what was hanging underneath it.

    I’ve seen it a thousand times. Sometimes I take the guns from it and shoot him. Sometimes I watch helplessly as he draws the guns from it and shoots me or everyone else. One time, I threw him into the wall with it.

    I click back the hammer for real and aim straight at her forehead. She knows something changed. Her eyes move to the wall and the sturdy leather holster belt hanging there … with a gun in it.

    She flings her duster at me and bolts out of her chair for the gun. I throw the coat off and just manage to slip the pistol out of the belt before she yanks it off the wall. She curses as I move back again – but she seems more concerned about the holster than the gun.

    I clear my throat. “That’s his holster. I wouldn’t have thought it fits you. So what is it, a blood keepsake?”

    Her eyes fix on my gun. She’s coiled to strike. Her hand clenches around the holster like it’s a drunk’s last bottle, and the anger she kept down finally boils up. “It doesn’t matter one rotten bit who owned this before, or why I have it. It belongs to me now.” Her fingers tighten even more. “He’s dead. Nobody here for you, lawman,” she spits.

    We stare for five whole seconds. No words. I’m holding my gun with the hammer back. She’s clutching that belt. Something about it hit her like lightning. Five seconds ago, she was so done with me she almost went to bed. Now she’s nitro. This woman might blow up the world, with herself on it, just to see the fireworks. I wouldn’t get ten feet from here with this woman as my ‘escort.’

    But while we’re just staring, it hits me. She’s a tall, well-built woman with decent muscles. I’m a tall, shriveled man with incredibly compact muscles. Her duster is right there. I pocket her backup gun and slowly pick the coat up off the floor.

    She watches me shrug her coat over my shoulders. I grab her hat with my free hand. Her eyes are burnt iron. She’s about to spit fire at me, but she swallows it. After a moment, she speaks again in a more controlled voice.

    “You missed your chance to get what you wanted here. And you’re not worth any more fuss. If you somehow get out of Soddum, leave my duds where I can find ‘em, and I’ll forget all about you.”

    I tense down a hair and allow a smile. “Really? How … chivalrous of you. But go ahead and sleep tight. I won’t forget about you. Not ever. You were there when he killed me, and you didn’t flinch. I’ve heard nothing but horror stories about you. You may have taken my prize away, but you’ve taken his name. Bad move. I’ll be watching you closely from now on. If you keep on his road of killing innocents without a sigh of regret, I’ll remind you I’m still here. If you think I’ll go away, you underestimate the patience of the dead.”

    I back away slowly. She’s still clutching the holster … his holster. I don’t want to know if she cherishes the memory of his life or the memory of his murder. But she’s the problem now. I need to find out who this woman really is, and why she’s taken his name. Is it a shield, or a sword? I can’t find that out here. Not now, not in her cabin, and not in Soddum. I have to wait for her to make her play, make her mistake, tie the noose around her own neck. So I close the door and begin my slow walk into the dark night.

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