It was one hell of a homecoming. No welcoming party. No overzealous lawman quick to investigate the motive behind their arrival. No old friends eagerly offering to buy them their first drink. No parade of painted ladies lining up to present themselves before the eyes of fresh meat. Not so much as a hello, how are you, or how do you do.
The two strangers who were not strangers came into Bad End on foot, leading their horses, a pair of tiresome duns, by the reins. The men were clad in long dusters the color of the desert they'd come from and the rest of their clothing matched the dusters. On their heads they wore what would have once been considered top hats but were now so ragged and repeatedly crushed that they bore no resemblance to their former shapes. Their beards were long and tangled, stained tobacco yellow around the mouth. The heels on their boots were rubbed to mere stubs with soles paper thin. The shorter, frailer of the two had a Greener shotgun in a scabbard strapped to his back while the one who'd managed to keep some weight on his bones openly carried a pistol at each hip.
Theirs was a mood of indifference. It didn't matter that no Bad End residents recalled their existence. The buildings and the dirt roads remembered them. The constant, dry breeze remembered them. The small tumbleweed that rolled slowly by remembered them. Or, at least a distant cousin of it would have.
The two paused to stand staring at Saint Mary's Benevolent Orphanarium, a rare three-story structure at the outskirts of town, long and narrow with flat roof and uniform rows of windows stretching from one end to another. The panes of the windows had long since been busted through as targets for hurling rocks and in the empty yard there stood only the abandoned, crooked frame of a swing set and the rusted remains of a now seatless seesaw, all overgrown with dead shrubbery.
What these two particular men observed before them was an entirely different scene, though. What they saw was a grand playground in all the glory of its prime, filled with the rumpus activity and gleeful laughter of children with uncertain destinies enjoying their only retreat from a cruel, cruel world. They saw two boys, the best of friends lonely together, shunned by even their own peers, teetering contentedly on the seesaw.
Then, a group of kids from the outside, kids with well prepared life paths lying ahead of them, approaching the grounds and stopping at the edge to marvel at the less fortunate than themselves. Their jeers and chants rang loud and clear. "Those unwanted, those unwanted, those unwanted!"
After some time spent transfixed in their mutual vision, the bigger man cleared his throat to lure his partner back into the present. "Ah, forget it, Danboy. It don't mean anything now."
Danboy nodded his silent agreeance and without more ado, the two proceeded further into Bad End. The one who was not called Danboy and went by the name of Grover walked in an awkward, limping and waddling fashion brought on by an improperly healed femur that had been cracked by a forty-four slug, courtesy of a reluctant adversary.
When you grow up an orphan without the luxury of parental guidance or the means to proper education, your future is always an unreachable mirage. You learn to live your life day by day, creating your own version of stability that comes only in brief instances. It's a glum road to wander with no destination in sight and the elements always against you. Like a hand of poker where everyone except you gets a wild card. Of course, that's until you discover how easy it is to kill them all and walk away a winner.
It all got started unintentionally. A chance encounter with a murdering thief in some nameless hole in the wall town outside of Yuma. Unknowingly interrupting the thief while in the process of plying his trade at the expense of a defenseless innkeeper. The thief turning his weapon on the intruders only to be gunned down for the sake of self-preservation. This, before Grover and Danboy had any knowledge of the bounty hanging over the dead man's head. Turned out killing can not only be easy, but quite profitable as well.
With a growing reputation as men capable of getting the job done in their favor, demand for their services soon became plentiful. They took on only those hunts that included a dead or alive clause. Rounding up and delivering the wanted into the mercy of the courts was just too much of an extra hassle. Much less fun involved that way too. Best to execute, collect, and move on.
At the time, it was hard to imagine that the business of exchanging lives for money would lead them back here of all places but, when the papers reached their hands, they knew that this job could only be for them. When there's nothing tying you down, it's simple to leave what little you have at the drop of a dime. It was important to make sure they were first to get here, and they were not denied that victory.
Bad End. A name that was just a place to most but to Grover and Danboy, a fitting description based upon their own history here. If there was a Good End, it would be everything that this town was not. Every bad beginning has to someday reach a bad end, and today was that day.
To their recollection, Father Time had not left any distinct mark on the place. Everything appeared as it always had, for the most part. A new sign here, a fresh coat of paint or an updated roof there, but nothing that reached beneath the surface. Just the same establishments with the same lack of morals. The same faces with different generations. The same hateful memories.
The road narrowed and buildings along each side grew closer together as the two men neared the town's center. They passed Sue's Diner on the left and her competitor the Boar's Head Cafe on the right. A tack shop and general store right there where they've always been. Same with the livery. Taylor's Gunsmith still stood as an unchanged staple. A house, one of very few built of brick, once belonging to an original settler had long since been converted to serve as a Sheriff's Office and three cell jail. From the outside, no activity to be seen there. Inside? Possibly a snoozing law dog, or perhaps one enjoying a taste of the afternoon delight with a local whore.
Six or seven mounts were hobbled in front of the Palo Verde Saloon. Mostly buckskins, along with a paint or two. They guided the duns up to the hitching post there. Their horses snorted and put up a bit of agitated resistance. Just as the men despised the people of Bad End, seemed their horses didn't much care for the animals either. They got the duns secured and headed into the saloon. One of the batwings hung loosely on a single hinge and had a hole blown through it. It screeched loudly and closed with a crack as Grover and Danboy entered.
Lighting was scarce inside the saloon save for what sun shone through small windows, floating dust made visible in the rays. Four men sat lounging around a card table, having abandoned the game in trade for drinking whiskey and telling tall tales of exploits with Mexican women. A bottle half full with amber liquid made for the table's center piece. One in a flat brimmed black hat who had his feet crossed and boots resting on the edge of the table looked up at the two newcomers as they passed, giving them a crooked smile that revealed a shining eyetooth of gold.
Upon a stool at the far end of the bar there sat a young man alone and down on his luck. He had a bushy blond mustache that curled upward at the corners and seemed out of place on his youthful face. In silence, he smoked a quirley and watched a fly march circles around the rim of an empty glass on the bar top before him. Another patron, tall and slim, dressed in the garb of a wrangler with sun bleached denims, finished his drink and made for the exit. Grover and Danboy blocked the man's way and examined his features closely before they were satisfied enough to allow his departure.
The barkeep was a potbellied man with balding head and more than one chin. He wore a white button down shirt one size too small and an unlit stogie occupied the corner of his mouth. There hung a gigantic mirror as backdrop behind him and a shelf displaying unlabeled bottles of booze ranging in color from chocolate brown to crystal clear. His fat fingers impatiently drummed against the bar top as he waited for the strangers to approach, something they took their sweet time in doing.
"What can I get ya?" The barkeep asked, annoyance evident in his voice.
"Two waters," Danboy requested.
The barkeep's eyes rolled upward and he shook his head. Someone at the card table snickered. "Listen, fellas," the barkeep said. "In case you haven't noticed, this here is a bar. Men don't come in here just looking to wet their whistles. They come in to get drunk." More laughing from the card table. "Now, I'll ask you again and this time, you try not to be so cute about it. What can I get ya?"
Both Danboy and Grover allowed their eyes to wander about the room. The open space, the distance between themselves and the men at the card table. The staring faces of those men, and that of the growing hot under the collar barkeep's. They saw not the mature, whiskered faces of grown men. They saw the faces of kids whom they never could forget. Instead of the tense silence that existed, Danboy and Grover's ears were filled with chants. "Those unwanted, those unwanted, those unwanted."
"Well?" The barkeep prodded.
Danboy and Grover met the eyes of each other, speaking without word. Danboy's cheek twitched and Grover gave a slight nod of his head. Suddenly, Danboy threw an arm up over his shoulder and unsheathed the Greener from its scabbard, bringing it down to his side and using the bar top to level the barrels at the barkeep's ample gut.
The explosion rocked the entire building to its core and the barkeep's torso was instantly painted red. The impact sent his bulk backward, crashing into the liquor bottles and shattering the big mirror. Shards of reflective glass rained down over him, slicing into his bare scalp and carving gashes into his face. He collapsed to the floor and his feet kicked before his soul gave up the fight. The stogie never left his mouth.
For a short moment, time stood still as minds wrapped around what had just happened. Then, Danboy hurdled himself up onto the bar top, stood square, shouldered the shotgun and emptied its second barrel. His target, a confused and off guard man still seated at the card table was thrown back in his chair and his lifeless body slid across the floor.
Black Hat pulled his feet from atop the table and quickly skinned a Colt, firing at the shooter. Danboy grunted and fell out of sight behind the bar. The other two men left their seats and made for their sidearms but by this time Grover had both his pistols in hand, charging forward and unleashing a fury of hot lead and smoke, cutting the men down before they cleared leather.
Black Hat flipped the table onto its side and dove to safety behind the barrier. It was too late, Grover had already closed the distance and lunging, he drove his shoulder into the upturned table. His force was so strong that the table's wooden surface split down its center and Grover crashed into Black Hat. In the collision, Black Hat's Colt was knocked from his hand and bounced off the floor, going off and sending an errant bullet toward the saloon's ceiling.
Grover had also lost hold of one of his guns. Beneath him, a now panicked Black Hat tried desperately to free himself, reaching for the discarded Colt with an arm too short. Grover clutched Black Hat by the throat and pinned his head to the floor. He stabbed the bad end of his pistol into Black Hat's jaw and squeezed the trigger. The bottom of Black Hat's face erupted into a sideways spray of blood, teeth and bone fragment. His scream was shriller than that of any woman alive as he brought his fingers up to touch something no longer there.
Grover released the man under him and came to his feet. He kicked the Colt father away and retrieved his own pistol from where it had landed on the floor. Then he stood over Black Hat, watching his agony with no more emotion than an indescribable feeling of pleasure. Black Hat's groans and cries came through as weak moans and choking gurgles. Grover pointed both pistols downward and shot them simultaneously, finishing off nearly all that remained of Black Hat's head.
The barroom was filled with a blue haze of gun smoke and the nose tingling aroma of spent black powder. All was still and pin drop quiet until Grover looked to the bar and called out, "Danboy, you dead?"
"Naw, I ain't dead," came Danboy's reply. "Bastard winged me in the arm, though. You wasn't lying, it burns like hell." Danboy's chuckle that followed verified his well being.
Grover eyed the puddle of slop that had once been part of Black Hat's face. Crouching, he fished a shiny nugget from a pool of dark red. He wiped some blood off of it onto the front of his pants. Between his thumb and forefinger, he held the piece up for examination. He brought it to his mouth and bit down on it enough to test its durability. He smiled and dropped the gold tooth into a pocket.
By the time that the sheriff, the sounds of nearby gunfire having disturbed him in whatever he had or hadn't been doing, arrived at the Palo Verde Saloon, he discovered five bloodied bodies lined up side by side in the center of the floor. At a table, Grover and Danboy sat across from one another, sipping from glasses of fresh water. Danboy's bicep was wrapped tightly with a bar towel and five posters lay spread out between the two.
"Christ, what happened in here?" The sheriff demanded.
Grover cleared his throat and set his water glass down. "These men held up a stagecoach north of Yuma. Killed the driver, the messenger, and a passenger who happened to be an off duty lawman on his way east to visit his dying mother. We come to place them in custody and they drew down us."
"Reward says dead or alive," Danboy added. "They chose dead."
The sheriff stepped closer to the table and bent low to gain a better view of the papers. Though in crude sketch, each of the five faces were easily recognizable to the sheriff. "Good enough for me," he said. He straightened and looked around the mess of a room. "But damn it, I like to drink just as much as the next man, and I like to do my drinkin' here. Now who's supposed to run the saloon?"
"I'll do it," offered a new voice from somewhere back in a darkened corner. Having been quick about stowing himself away in the shadows as soon as the gunplay began, the young man with the out of place mustache now came forth into the cast light of a window.
"Franklin, that you?" The sheriff asked, his eyes squinting.
"Yes, sir, it is," the young man replied.
The sheriff gave it some thought, and then shrugged. "Well, I guess that's settled. I'll take a whiskey."