The cool winds blow across the veranda stirring a glass wind chime. A man dressed in a wrinkled brown suit and a pair of pilot sunglasses stirs slightly, beginning to wake to the cool afternoon. With an almost spectacular struggle he manages to get one arm over the edge of the small daybed before sinking back into the cool polyurethane cushions. The man brushes the shades off his face carelessly and struggles to open one eye, making the world seem distorted and blurry. A flag billowing in the wind, attached to the smooth white columns by a small metal mounting bracket, catches his eye and he fumbles for his sword. Of course even in his groggy condition it only takes him a moment to realize he was looking at the red flag that marked the independent territories and not one of the dust cloak bandits he rolled onto his back and waited for his heart to stop pounding.
His blonde hair was whipped by a temporary gust of wind, and he admonished himself for being so jumpy. After all it was only a yesterday that he and a small outfit of local mercs had wiped the dust cloaks out, down to the last man… and woman. Though this bounty hunter, who many call Ezekiel, and who himself could not remember his name from before the cataclysm, was dressed for their victory party, he spent more of the evening with a bottle of bitter moonshine than he did celebrating. Something with the raid didn’t sit right with him, but he was too drunk last night and now was too hung over to place exactly what that was.
The bandits had women, and he hated to kill women, especially when they begged for their lives. Though he felt not guilty, more so disgusted that the times had reduced so many people to thievery and murder. He had no doubt those women, if he were a well spring farmer, would have cut his throat for a few gallons of water before smashing the pumps and leaving the whole damn territory dry. Why oh why couldn’t these fools join the territories? Sure there were politics, but everyone was given rations, there was order unlike out on the highways, you didn’t have to scrounge and scavenge to stay alive. Maybe it was the madness, no, he quickly decided. The madness wasn’t true insanity, it was a sickness. Too much thinking, Ezekiel’s head began pounding more in protest of his over-exertion of it.
Ezekiel shuddered at that thought, his cool blue eyes going back into a daydream, of that day with Wynn. The blasted lands screeching before them, they had wanted to see the coast, but there was that man, and there was death. His headache was murderous now, and he rode the pain. Once his train of thought got rolling it would take more than a hangover to stop it. They encountered a group of people infested with the madness, their bodies covered in open welts and soft yellow lumps. They were pitiful creatures, mere shells of people. They were hungry and dying. The last sane person in the area must have recently passed, as they were still somewhat alive when they came across them. They tried to kill them to eat. Ezekiel and Wynn, both skilled with swords and both fast as lightning. It was a slaughter. After that Ezekiel lost his will to go on, thinking there would be more of these ‘people’ on the other side, or even in the mountains. Yet Wynn insisted. Ezekiel grudgingly followed, but when they reached the mountains that blocked the way to the sea, the way to the gold coast, Ezekiel didn’t want to continue. He insisted it was too dangerous to go alone and in the state they were in they were ill-prepared for much more travel, especially in unfamiliar territory. How far away was the gold coast? What would they do when they got there? The truth was that Ezekiel had lost all faith in the mission. He didn’t see the point in risking their lives just to see what could very well turn out to be just another poisoned and ruined coastline like what he was told the eastern wastes led to. Wynn grew sick of Ezekiel’s interference and at night stole all his supplies and went on alone, leaving Ezekiel to stumble back home forced to eat Lizards and drink water from Cactus’s to survive. Not once, oddly, did the thought occur to Ezekiel to chase Wynn down and get his supplies back. If seeing the coast meant that much to him, he had pondered much later, he figured he’d need all the supplies he could get.
That was the past though, and now Ezekiel was one of the territories greatest bounty hunters / lawmen. Wynn and him were another time, and he was another person back then. Best not to dwell he told himself, it’s just doubtful he would heed his own advice. Even in spite of the perpetual reminders from his hangover to let sleeping dogs lay.
“Hey Zeke, you getting up sometime this year? We’ve got a meeting to head to down at the Sheriff’s. All the top hunters in the region are gonna be there. This is supposed to be biggest score since the old Desert Raiders, so get your ass up!” The sweet sound of Cestria’s voice was momentarily interrupted by another high wind. Ezekiel rolled over and sat up. She was a tall woman, muscular. She stood about six foot wearing padded leather riding gear and a sword strapped to her back that was about three feet in length. Her hair was long and braided, strawberry blonde. She also was one of the only people Ezekiel had seen who had a reliable and working pistol. Though he had only seen her fire it once, understandable since a misfire could be fatal, and the old weapons were notorious for that.
Cestria was his go-to girl for local info or if he needed back up for a job. She was reliable and didn’t take stupid risks. Ezekiel stretched and rubbed his eyes, “how long you been standing there anyway?”
Cestria rubbed her chin as if deciding how to proceed, then forced her voice into a lower pitch and began to belt out a forced drawl, a playful look came across her usually steely eyes as she began to speak.
“Oh I haven’t been standin’ at all, but I sho’ do reckon I saw you jump higher than a cat in a lightnin’ storm when you glanced over at that them thar flag, I’ve been sitting right here in that chair over yonder,” she gestured to a basket chair near the door to the town hall that the veranda was attached to before continuing, “you was in a bad way last night Zeke, someone had to make sure you’d be all right, so I sat right there and watched you until you fell asleep.”
Ezekiel groaned, the sound of the drawl affecting him like nails on chalkboard. The hangover drop kicked the back of his head in protest. “What time is it?” He asked, only mildly interested in the answer.
“Oh I reckon it’s ‘round noon. The local’s are jus’ gitting’ ready fer lunch.”
“Oh lord, you know I …”
Cestria rolled her eyes and then slumped a little in defeat.
“Yeah Zeke, I know you hate that forced drawl. You’re no fun at all you know that? During the party last night you were just drinking, not talking or carrying on like you usually do after a successful bust.” She paused for a moment and then impulsively sat next to him, her voice dropping a few pitches as though someone might be eavesdropping. “I heard you last night, when you stumbled out here and laid out on that bed. Zeke, you said some awful things to me last night before passing out, and the truth is… well, I didn’t come out here to watch you. I was about to give you a piece of my mind.”
Ezekiel bowed his head, and after a momentary lapse spoke, “I’m a louse when I get that drunk.”
“You’re worse than a louse, you’re a bastard when you get like that. You know I hate seeing you like that, and I hate even more being around you.”
He turned and looked her dead in the eyes, “Listen, I value our partnership and whatever I said last night was just the drink talking, seriously. I’m sorry.”
He then looked away and stared off into the distance, where the tufts of brown grass started to grow near the horizon. “What stopped you from telling me off?”
“Well, I came out here and you were just laying there, sobbing your eyes out. After seeing that I couldn’t bring myself to say anything to you. You kept saying something about not wanting to do it but having to or whatever. Just about broke my heart, it did, seeing you like that. Whatever the drink does to you, it isn’t right. You aren’t yourself and I guess I just forget that.” It was silent for a moment or so, and when she spoke next her voice was back to its usual semi-serious tone. “Anyway, we’ve got a meeting to get to, so get your gear on and I’ll meet you around front.”
With that she was gone, back inside and Ezekiel was left to ponder what exactly it was he said. Last night in his drunken stupor that nearly cost him his partnership with, in his opinion, the best damn hunter in the region. Whatever that drink did to him it must have been powerful he thought, to have made him dredge up those old demons from when he left the shelter. He shook his head as if the gesture would dispel the bad memories. He valued Cestria more than he let on, and silently vowed to himself to never drink like that again. Reliable … allies … were hare to find these days.
He stood up with a great effort. He was easily six and a half feet tall and fairly muscular. Tough. With a swagger he picked up an ornate looking sword from the foot of the hammock and slung it over his shoulder, the patched leather scabbard standing out from the wrinkled material of the suit jacket.
* * *
“Dawn is a feeling, a beautiful ceiling. The smell of grass just makes you pass into a dream. You’re here today, no future fears. This day will last for a thousand years, if you want it to.”
The rest of the tune Sergio hummed softly, as he stared across the horizon to the sunrise now beginning to form beyond the eastern horizon. Spears of pink, gold, and a sickly pale green shot up from behind the large rock formation that stood on the edge of Sergio’s plane of vision. It was the dawn’s first light, coming forth like a herald brining news of another hot and dry day to displace the cool comforts of night. Sergio took a long drag off a cigar and tended to the small campfire he was seated in front of. Above the fire on a crude metal stand was a beat up pot, which he was lazily stirring with a beat up ladle. Inside he was cooking some eggs, a half block of cheese, and some potato chunks together into what he called a ‘good enough’ omelet.
He ran a hand through his think black hair, and then beat the side of the tent that his associate was resting in. To his right was a telescope aimed at the town about half a mile away. From inside the tent came some grumbling followed by a rustling of sheets. Sergio gave an impatient grunt, and continued to mix up his breakfast concoction. At first glance one would mistake this man for a well-dressed merchant, taking a night’s rest at camp instead of paying for lodging in town, but then they would notice that he had no wares wrapped up. No valuables visible, spare the telescope. This assumed observer would then examine the man himself, dressed in a nice looking pair of pants and shoes with a clean white button-up shirt on. They would look at his face, with a day’s stubble beginning to form on his weathered face, they would notice the crow’s feet on the sides of his eyes, then they would look into his eyes themselves. They were dead eyes, cold, calculating, a deep blue but a bit off, unsettling even.
From out of the tent came a large man, possibly of latin decent. He had long black greasy hair and wore a pair of tattered brown pants and a leather jerkin. He spoke with a slow deep voice and quietly took a seat next to Sergio.
“Good enuffs again boss?”, said the large man.
“Have you found the man yet.”
Sergio pointed at the telescope, “have a look yourself.”
The large man got up and walked a circle around the campfire rather then squeezing by Sergio and his tent. In the mean time Sergio pulled two metal plates out from a leather bag resting near the fire and scooped some of his breakfast into both plates, giving the bigger portion to his compatriot.
The man squatted and looked through the telescope lens. In the distance he could see a heap of a man laying on a day bed on a white painted porch. Next to him was a unique looking sword. After staring for a moment, the man commented. “Is he the one?”
Sergio looked up and nodded his head. “Yes, he’s the one.”
The large man continued to stare. “Why have we not acted yet?”
“Eat, before it gets cold. You hate it cold even more then you hate it warm.” The man walked back around and took a seat next to Sergio, who continued to speak, “we have not acted yet because it is not the right time. That man will kill you if you underestimate him.”
“I am tried of this waiting game, I …”
“There is not much more waiting to be done.” Sergio wolfed down what was left of his breakfast. Then picked up his cigar from the ground and took a slow drag off of it. “You want to kill a man of status, you want to make him feel weak and powerless, and you want to ruin his advantage. These things are not easy goals. Let us assume that if this were some bygone era then he would be a noble of great status; however, as he is the member of another’s court his status only gives him a political advantage if he remains within the court. If one were to slay the king, in front of the whole court… that man included… then it would ensure that his influence in this territory will be greatly weakened. Ergo, when you go to kill that man, assuming you are successful, there will be fewer allies at his back to seek retribution. They would call these actions cowardice too, but it is merely tactics.”
Sergio continued, “since you have paid me so handsomely for my services as a tactician I will let you know something else too. I’m not doing this all for you.”
Braxshil stood up, “I know that. It’s the gold right? I don’t care you can have it all. I just want that man dead. I’m not educated like you, so I couldn’t do this on my own, but I’m no fool either. Let’s pack our stuff and move on into town before daybreak. I want to see what this ‘meeting’ is about before we break it up.”
Sergio said nothing, but as Braxshil turned his back he smiled faintly to himself and shook his head ever so slightly. “Idiot…”
* * *
Outside the children came pouring out of the day school and ran up the street towards their homes, passing by the roads that led towards the bar strip which had, on a few corners and leaning out the entrances of brothels, the good time girls. Whom, in a daily ritual it seemed, attempted to entice men stumbling out of the local bars who; hopefully, were drunk enough to accept the invitation inside to be fleeced by the often relatively unattractive women.
Further on down the street a few of the older boys played a crude game of kickball, shirtless and sweating in the mid-day heat on a dusty field sandwiched between a poorly constructed grain warehouse and the town hall that the hunters had used last night for that party that had got out of control. The town’s mayor slash sheriff, Estrada, casually walked down the street wearing a smart black suit and a white fedora, not seeming to mind the heat he stood out of the shade and greeted the various townsfolk as he walked by. As he approached Town Hall he adjusted his hat and removed his hat, revealing his slick black and casually brushed the sweat off his brow with a napkin which had been previously protruding from his breast pocket. He crossed through the field that boys were playing in, the ball bounded towards him, going derelict after the largest of the group kicked it a bit too hard into the endzone. With one smooth movement he sidestepped the oncoming ball, spun, caught it with his free hand, and pitched it right back to the pitcher. This was met with a few congratulatory claps from the boys near the baseline and a few of the straggling spectators. With a cursory bow he continued on the path towards the side of the Town Hall.
It is important to note that the town was not some old west shanty, it was the remnants of a boarder town, something that was semi-modern but now dried out and re-modeled to fit the more desperate times. Low-roofed staccato and white concrete, the more modern buildings with dusted and dirty glass windows, and old signs that had been stripped off the sides of the buildings, leaving the mark in a tanline with holes for the old power lines that no longer operated. Cit…. wa… fragments of old words that ceased to have any meaning in this new world. The town hall though, was, from the looks of it, an old courthouse retrofitted and now serving as a meeting hall among the scattered old buildings and patches of old concrete road that broke up or were never finished. The rest of the town was an impressive array of a wide assortment of mobile buildings, comprising of tents and adobes, some old-west styled wooden saloons had popped up. Possibly built by enterprising individuals looking to cash in on the lore surrounding the times. It did feel very much like society had taken a huge step back, the only thing Estrada had wondered about it was if things really were going to improve or just degenerate further. He often thought, as a way of giving himself a little bit of hope, that the fact that people had not yet managed to destroy what was left, and instead kept trying to rebuild was a sign that maybe a fresh new start was still possible.
As he came up on the side entrance of the building he came upon Cestria sitting casually in a hammock seat staring off into the distance. Sheriff Estrada could tell just by looking at her face and eyes she was not watching the rather heated kickball game on the opposite side of the field. No, she was lost in thought. Still without seeming to even notice him she spoke, “so Sheriff, you’ve finally decided on the suicide mission after all?”
He spoke with a smooth yet obvious accent, Cuban, as they would have called it if Cuba still existed in the sense of it being more then a name on a some old maps. The thing was though, that when he spoke his voice was rather smooth, reassuring even, in spite of that fact he was a man well-versed at saying many things that were probably considered to be the opposite of what his tone implied.
He gave a brief laugh, “well, Mrs. Cestria, I have heard quite a bit about your — how you say? – power of observation. It does not surprise me that you know why I have called all of you here. The question I am wondering is have you told your husband?”
She stopped staring into space and turned her head to give him a dead stare, “how did you know?”
He pulled a cigar out of his breast pocket and took his time lighting it up, taking a long puff before answering, as if mulling over the proper way to word what he was going to say. “Well, look at you. I’m not surprised you two ended up as more then standard ‘partners’, I’m just surprised it took him so damn long to decide to propose to you.”
She smiled, “He didn’t. I did.”
Another puff, “Oh?”
“Listen, it’s been a hard life for him. He doesn’t know who to trust or how to handle situations of the heart.”
Estrada held out a cigar as if to offer it to Cestria but she gestured he put it away with a wave of her hand.
“So that’s how it is then? I should have guessed.”
“Does this mean I’ve still got one people skill you don’t?”
Estrada shook his head half in defeat, half in amusement. “I suppose so.”
“So then about this business you’re going to propose today. How do we factor into the equation?”
“You two get the job done, everyone else gets in the way and gets themselves killed or distracts the marks enough for you to get the job done.”
“Hiring decoys? That’s not putting much faith in the competition.”
“Hiring implies that anyone is going to be paid. You know for a fact I have no intention on paying anyone. Besides that’s being realistic. The hunters are a dying breed, in case you haven’t noticed there aren’t many roving bands of freaks left. We’ve cleared them out. Yet, there are some more that threaten us on all sides, but they aren’t like the gangs and the road pirates. They are real political territories just like us, but they are becoming aggressive. We have the big threat to the north that we have to deal with first. This is no longer a matter of capturing some thugs, this is pure politics. If the territories are to remain independent we’ve got to keep anyone from taking over.”
“So you’re saying you want to control what’s left, get rid of the hunters who are the only ones with arms capable of opposing the militia, and then claim everything for yourself, basically.”
“Of course. This isn’t a matter of power though. It’s a matter of doing some good. If the world is to be rebuilt why start it off on the wrong foot? I only want to help the people, not harm them. That’s for the Northern strip to do. That’s what he wants. I just want to stop him so that we have a chance at a good fresh start.”
“I know that, otherwise I would have killed you when you said ‘of course’.”
“Listen,” he leaned in closer, as if telling a dirty secret rather then speaking about the future “the hunters are mercenaries, but they have become a loose confederation and are starting to ask for more and more money to catch less dangerous people. We’re becoming too dependent on a hired army to do the work and leaving the good militiamen to stand around and drool waiting for something to happen. They aren’t getting any better and the hunters have become our only means of enforcing law and protecting people. We can’t have the militia doing nothing while the hunters are out doing the work and getting all the glory. The militiamen are being viewed as useless by the people and this gives the hunters all the clout. Your husband knows about this, that’s why he’s already agreed to quit being a hunter after we take care of this last job. You two are going to be generals, not some hired guns. You’re the future, not that stupid greedy rabble that hangs over my head like a boulder being suspended by cheaply made rope.”
He took, a long drag off the cigar and exhaled slowly. “Sorry, I lost my head for a second there, I’m just so tired of having to cater to a group of people who care more about money then anything else. I’m sick of the greed and glory hogging they do. I want them gone and I can’t just outright arrest them without due cause. I have opted to use their own greed against them, but once I start this there will be no turning back. So I need to know, are you in?”
There was no hesitation in her voice. “Of course I’m in. So is Zeke. We’ll be in the front row today.”
“Then I have nothing to worry about. Thank you Mrs. Cestria, when Zeke wakes up give him this, I know what he says about these things but he’ll need it, one way or another.” He extended his hand revealing a paper bag with heavy lump in it, it was taped shut but Cestria already knew what it was. After a moment or so of examining the package she merely extended her hand to return it, and Bowie extended his hand to receive the return. At the moment of release however, he pulled his hand back, letting it hit the floor with a dull thud.
“That is no longer my property, and I do not know what his aversion is to such things but he will need it when he reaches the frontier. So you can give it to him, keep it for yourself, or leave it to sit here where one of those young boys could pick it up and take it home. It’s up to you, I trust your judgment in these matters since mine is lacking. Now if you don’t mind dear, I have a meeting to set up.” With that he gave a little half-bow and walked inside before she could issue a protest.
* * *
Ezekiel stood up and stretched in the mid-day sun. The morning’s cool moist wind replaced by the day’s dry heat. He could hardly believe that after he was woken up he simply slumped back into his daybed and passed out again leaving Cestria to spend their usual morning time together staring listlessly into the distance somewhere as she was prone to do.
He dusted off his faded gray suit and strapped his blade unto his back. The weapon itself carried a weight that many wouldn’t guess it had simply by looking at it. The blade itself separated into three vertically cut sections. A surprise for every situation, he mused. Ezekiel prided himself on letting people underestimate him and his weapon of choice, which seemed to be a random bundle of cords and gears that someone jammed a hilt and a blade unto. Still, it gets the job done, in more ways then one. So many of the new guys or the others went for themes “the black dart gang”, “gunner boyz”, “Rinwald’s blades”. So many factions went for style rather then function. Sure Ezekiel and Cestria looked rough around the edges, but there was no hokey gimmick or uniform pattern they locked themselves in. They simply got the job done any way they could, and let the corpses and the busts build their reputations for them, not what color of tassels they attached to their boots or stupid name they have given themselves. You look at them and you’d see a two person rabble, but if you made the mistake of fighting them and you’d wind up dead or flat on your back wishing you were.
He was careful not to look to the west, they were watching him over there, whoever they were. The distant fires that seemed to skip along with them all the way back to New New Mexico’s boarder leading into what used to be Mexico but was now a toxic dessert of gas sandwiched on each side by a rotten coastline of red tides and oil. The tracker for their team was good, he had the sense to make sure, for example, that the fires were out before dawn so the distant smoke wouldn’t alert Zeke. Compensating for the fact that he might wake up early, so they must not know me that well, he thought. Still, Cestria was a scout and a damn good one. On all return trips she wakes up two hours before dawn to make sure that no one is following them, so she had known since day one. They were using a telescope too, and they were wise enough to avoid using it then the sun was facing the lens so that the light wouldn’t reflect and alert them to it’s presence. Of course, they didn’t know Cestria used binoculars as well. Then again, not many people have them. Actually out of all the hunters Zeke has ever worked for she is the only person he has seen who has a pair that’s even functional. Seems that these trackers, whoever they were, simply just had bad luck.
This morning though, they lit their fire a few miles out of town on a low hill. You’d have to be blind not to have seen it, not to mention that Zeke kept passing in and out of sleep all night. The alcohol always did that to him. There was no need to mask their presence anyway, traders sometimes camped outside town at night, and even if Zeke and Cestria didn’t know they were there, their actions would be viewed as absolutely normal. Wise tracker, bad luck though.
Ezekiel popped his neck in a back and forth jerking of his head. He took a second to sneak a glance in the direction of where the trackers had set up camp, but the second he managed to sneak a clear view he saw just empty turf. They had moved into town. Zeke opened the door and went inside. He figured from this point whatever happens, happens.
* * *
Sergio walked abreast of Braxshil through the main street of town, making sure to aviod the bar crowd. Louses always put him in a bad mood and he needed a clear head. To his left Braxshil was rambling about the history of the Dust Cloak Bandits that his father was a founding member of, apparently. This information was utterly useless but that didn’t stop Braxshil from expounding it as if he particularly gave a damn. It was just an almost endless loop of first out of the fallout shelter and that cowardly man cut down my father while I was out and our history destroyed by ten lousy hunters. Obviously this man had never comprehended cause and effect, or consequence. You murder people and you yourself may end up being killed if you aren’t good enough, and it was obvious his people simply weren’t good enough.
For the first useless bit of information, so what if they were the first out of the fallout shelter? It means nothing spare that they probably killed the other inhabitants before they were killed. When your ‘people’ are locked in a vault with hundreds of others for fifty years it’s no surprise that only one or two groups make it out alive. People turn on each other to survive. It just shows that his family was ruthless and clever enough to best a few hundred people. That’s not even enough people to build a reputation for most low-level tyrants. It’s nothing. Absolutely nothing, and all it did was bore and distract Sergio.
Then calling Ezekiel a coward for killing his murdering father, now that’s true stupidity. If you encounter an enemy or a murderer and beat them in direct combat you are no coward. A coward would have poisoned him, or caused the cave he was living in to collapse. Then again, that’s not real cowardice either, it’s simply being smart. If you can’t beat someone by brute force it only matters that you find some other way to defeat them. History favors the victor. It’s not cowardly to kill an enemy, it’s cowardly to live in fear and capitulate to that enemy instead of removing him. The supposition is even based on bad logic, is it cowardly to kill a father without slaughtering his children as well? Of course not, that’s mercy. Braxshil perhaps should have taken the hint that he was outclassed, but the real thing Sergio wondered was how outclassed was he?
As for the last repeated line, a whole history wiped out by ten people. That just shows his people were weak. They deserved what they got and as a far as Sergio was concerned by the time the day was over the last of them would have gotten his. Braxshil is neither a great man nor a clever man. He’s a useless leech, not even fit to be a lackey. He’s a single-minded brute who thinks the ability to bludgeon most men with a club makes him a warrior. There’s no honor or power to be gained in murdering women and dying people for a half-days worth of supplies. Just because you can does not mean you should. It proves nothing spare that you have no restraint and are nothing but a mindless animal masquerading as a human being. If anything, Sergio fancies Braxshil as a test dummy, and little else. His infernal ranting was starting to bother Sergio, it had become distracting, but as he held the door open to the town hall and let Braxshil in he knew he wouldn’t be having to listen to it much longer.
The grin that slowly fell across Sergio’s face was downright sadistic.
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