The three bounty hunters laid dead at my feet, the fourth escaping moments before. I dusted off my black tailcoat, wiped blood from my cheek, and bent down for my black hat entangled in the limbs of one of the twisted bodies. I managed to free it but sighed when I brought it close, finding red clotted in the wool fibers. I picked at the specks for a moment, blew on them, then placed my hat atop my head anyway. I holstered my sixer on my hip, then strode over and ripped my tomahawk from the back of one of the fallen men, wiping it to a clean sheen on his shirt and slipping it back into its leather loop on my other hip. The ringing buzz that used to barricade itself in my head all those years ago instantly dissipated to a short and manageable jitter. Good. At least I still felt it.
I had told myself that the wild lands of Colorado would be a good place to lie low. That was a lie, and I should've known better. A man with a hundred and fifty dollars on his head was most certain to turn heads, and I was, but I still told myself that if it was not for my notoriety and wanted status then I would never have landed the opportunity I was offered.
I had heard whispers and tall tales that Rick Carlton and his gang had been working their way up the crime ladder, eventually getting the heat a bit too high and having to relocate out in Colorado. Sheriffs in small towns talked of it, and there was mention of US marshals lurking about for them, as well. Yet, my name still found Rick Carlton's ears, and my mind was still focused on getting to him.
For the longest time, I was merely an unlucky thief who gambled off his small snatches. My downfall was unknowingly cheating a sheriff and him catching me, causing me to accidentally kill him and his three friends when we scrapped in a saloon. I was no killer, but my bounty was posted, and men continued to come like the ones moments ago. So, I protected myself. However, a part of me feared Rick wanted me because of how I did exactly that. He and his men were bad medicine, but I was a jackass, and what's one more jackass to a whole bunch of jackasses?
A shrill whistle escaped my lips, and my horse returned warily through the thicket beside the trail. After looting the dead men's saddlebags and putting their contents in mine, I prodded my hoss's sides with my spurs and carried on east at a moderate canter. The air was brisk, and it chapped my lips, but snow did not seem like it was going to make an appearance in the bright sun. I later slowed my steed and dodged pine boughs with my head and arms, sighing when I came to a crisscrossing junction in the leaf-padded trail. From my knowledge this junction was not supposed to be here, and I grunted angrily to myself for not knowing the way. I had only passed through these parts a handful of times in the past, but years of dodging the law tended to empty a man's mind of the littler things. Minute memories of routes were nothing compared to the constant head turning and jumping at every little noise. Rick can fix that, I thought. He can make it all go away.
Iron stirrups and brass spurs jingled a ways from the south, causing me to instinctively reach for my shooter. The traveler came over the rise on their horse, a woman with her son on the rump of the beast, and I quickly loosened my grip. The woman stared at my battered, boney face, and her eyes went wide upon seeing the crimson stains on my dirtied clothing when her horse neared mine.
"Miss? Could you point me to Evansburg? I'm not sure—"
"Get away from us, you devil!" The woman put spurs to horse and sped past.
I expected that reaction, one that I had been getting more and more, but it was worth a shot. Dismounting, I reached into my kidney pocket and checked my pocket watch. Eleven thirty-six? If this Rick Carlton needs me as much as he made it seem, then I need to hurry, I thought. I shoved my watch back into its pocket and felt around for loose change in my trousers, finding a tarnished half-dollar. I made heads south, and tails would carry me on eastward. Resting the half-dollar on my pointer finger and nail of my thumb, I flicked it high in the air, the sides flashing against the sun's rays. It dropped to the ground and kicked some dust up when it landed, and I leaned over it to see the results. I pocketed the coin moments later. South it was.
Mounting my horse, I turned the animal and we descended down the grassy path. An unnerving twitch inside me wondered if I was even going the right way, let alone if it was still a good idea to even meet with Rick. A lingering sliver of my cockiness began to shrug off the idea of him angered by my absence, only for the remembrance of his brutality to come back around and slap me in the face. No one stands up Rick Carlton, I reminded myself. No one. He had sent some of his men with a letter and found someone like me, a man on the run, before the law did. The townsfolk across the Territory claimed the last man to stand him up for a meeting was a soft one, and, well, critters of all kinds sure liked him. Rick got what he wanted, always. If I did not give him what he was looking for, then the noose was the least of my worries.
Another junction came about through the pines and the distant sight of it made me swear. Where the hell was I? The pine trees, thick and blanketing, disallowed any vantage points to see through their shaggy needles. I neared the junction madder than a hornet, only to find my anger subsiding when I saw the outline of a fallen sign on the ground. I swung off my horse, strolled over to the fallen sign and lifted it from the dirt. Its wooden post had snapped in the middle from who knows what, but I placed the sign back up, lined up the broken splinters and found a scrawled arrow and lettering claiming I needed to trek left to Evansburg. I cracked a wide grin, seeing luck was still on my side. Backtracking to my horse, I saddled up, and went onward.
The layering of the trees began to thin, opening up the trail to clean cut grasses and shrubs, which made me hopeful that settlements would be slowly approaching. The sun had vanished behind a milky overcast and the temperature dropped while I moved along. I swore again, feeling the chill cutting through my outerwear and sinking deep into my skin. My tailcoat was wool, sure, but I needed another layer and should have taken a coat from my previous attackers. I opened and closed my fists a few times, my knuckles whitening from the dry, chilled air.
I finally broke out of the tree line, trotting down a decline and finding myself on a long, swishing trail that led through shallow, rolling hills. Smoke began rising in the distance and I followed it against my better judgment, the silhouette of a shack soon revealing itself. I began passing it minutes later, seeing an older man on the porch enjoying his tobacco. I nodded when he was close enough to see me, but his expression went sour at my sight. His eyelids dropped down to confused and judgmental slits, the rest of his face contorting into a snarl upon seeing my stained clothing like the woman before. He shot to his feet, damning me to hell and ordering me to move along at a quicker pace. I hung my head and waved apoplectically, but my embarrassment did not add speed to my horse. The older man groped behind his porch banister and pulled a leaning rifle out by its barrel, but I had already began galloping away at the sight of its muzzle. Once I put some yards in between me and him, I carried on speeding down the road.
A mountain range loomed in the distance from the rolling hills, and I slowed from a gallop to a trot. The trail beneath me dried out and looked more and more worn down with hooves and cartwheels as I covered more ground, and after looking up to the vastness of the lands and squinting I could just barely make out clumped buildings.
I followed the winding trail closer to the outskirts of Evansburg, the stench of sheep shit soaking into my nostrils as I passed them milling in their pen. A boy stood outside of the sign-covered general store shouting about newspapers, and when he caught me looking at him riding by, I flicked him a penny. It landed by his feet and he called out his thanks by the time I had passed the post office and oversized doctor's office.
My eyes were trained on a large building almost on the other side of the town. I could feel the watchful eyes of the law giving me a once over from the other establishments on the sides of the road, and my body tensed, but I still pressed on to the building. A dying red and gold painted sign was soon visible, the letters reading "Barrel Head Saloon" with a colorless barrel pictured behind them. Sitting beside it was a long line of rickety hitching posts, almost all of them filled with the customers' rightful steeds.
I rode closer and hitched my horse, patting her down and letting her know she was the greatest. I then made way for the stairs leading up the porch, and piano keys clinked louder until I pushed my way through the double doors into the saloon. My presence was met by concerned looks from card players and people eating, but I ignored the stares and made way to the plump barkeep who was vigorously shining glasses with a cloth and peering through his sheening.
I approached the bar top, set my hands on the counter and cleared my throat. The barkeep glanced up with a distasteful look through his spectacles, sighed, and set his glass down.
"You must be the one they're waiting on. What can I help you with, feller?"
I pulled my tarnished half-dollar from my pocket and slapped it on his side of bar top. "Double shot of whiskey. Johnston's."
"You're gonna need it."
The barkeep turned to the wall of liquor behind him and began pouring up my dead shot while I glanced over my shoulder, finding a man wearing a wide-brimmed valley hat checking me out. I didn't break my gaze and he didn't break his, but the more I stared the greater the feeling of unfortunate familiarity grew. He waved a toothpick back and forth between the corners of his mouth, and he whispered amongst his counterparts.
"Here you are," the barkeep said abruptly, sliding me my drink and causing me to break my stare.
Grasping the glass, I held it below my chin, leaning in towards the barkeep and swirling it some. I gestured with my head. "That man in the corner. The one with that valley hat. He's a bounty hunter, ain't he?"
"Yeah. Came in earlier this morning pretty banged up."
I lowered my eyes, watching my swirling. "Oh, I bet he did."
The barkeep heaved a heavy sigh, lowering his voice. "Umm, your man is waiting. He's on the second floor. You can use those stairs over there by the back door."
I thanked the barkeep, throwing my booze back and clacking it down on the bar top. I straightened up my clothes a bit, shot another look at the bounty hunter in the corner, and made my way to the stairs. While I ascended them, I could feel the heat seeping out of my skin as each step turned my face hotter and hotter. Before I could think about turning back, it was already too late. I found myself at the top in front of a lacquered door with a cast-iron ring handle. I rapped it three times, waited a moment, and the door abruptly opened. Sighing, I stepped through.
Inside, I was met by the doorman, a tall, ox-like feller with two pistols. He gave me a mean look-over once or twice then stepped out of my way, glancing to the six Carlton gang members that sat at a green poker table in the corner of the run-down room. Weak, grey light cast through the window beside them, catching the brims of their hats and blocking out parts of their faces in shadows.
"Lawrence Godby," the old man in the middle of the table said. "Most folks don't find good fortune in keepin' me waiting. Do I need to take that iron from you?"
Stepping toward the only empty chair, I cautiously eyeballed the patrons sitting beside Rick Carlton. I sat then scooted my chair into the edge of the table, stunned by the man before me.
Rick clasped his hands, leaning forward into the light some and revealed healing burns on the right side of his body. He held his hands upward and slightly in front of his white beard, resting on his elbows, and his discolored eyes locked onto mine. The gang leader motioned to my blood stains. "Trouble find you?"
"Bounty hunters. Tried nabbin' me on my way in. Fourth one is downstairs. Looks like trouble found you too?"
"Was in Dakota. Son's 'shine distillery blew while we was taking a gander at it." Rick paused and waved his hands gently, then pointed to me. "But you, sir, Lawrence Godby. I've heard stories about a sad soul slayin' lawmen with one of them hawks. How'd you get it? Was you an Injun killer? Or was it something a bit sweeter?"
"Parents left me in the woods as a baby. Ute tribe members found me when they were hunting and raised me like their own."
Rick stroked his beard, glancing between his partners. He placed his hands down onto the tabletop, lifting his pointer finger and tapping. "If that bounty hunter comes up here a'knockin', you kill him with that hawk, you hear?"
"I can't kill a man inside town again. I'm already wanted, and he's probably already off getting deputy support," I said a bit too brashly.
The Carltons all began chuckling, then Rick pounded the table, silencing the laughter and homing in on me again. "I know that, Godby! I paid off the sheriff. Ain't no law from this town coming for us until tomorrow."
"All right. Why do you have me here, Rick?"
My mind, clouded and foggy with anticipation, still attempted its tirade of lies within. Thoughts of a hold up, robbing an armory, smuggling. No, those were purely lies. If I was a betting man, Rick would have something far more nefarious in mind, something conjured up only by having a chat with Satan himself. Kindness was a myth to Rick Carlton, something of a fairy tale that his mother would have told him about in order to forget about the cruel, hateful world that he would thrive so much in. Desperation ran deep, though, and having Rick's might protecting my future seemed that much more desirable.
Rick revealed a cigarette from his coat pocket and stuck it between his lips, lighting it with a match and puffing on it as he spoke. "That shoot out you found yourself in a few weeks back. The one in Englewood. Well, that man you wounded died later that evening. Turned out to be a smuggler I knew running a gold operation in California."
My heart seemed to stop, and I felt my face heat up again and slick over in sweat. I swallowed hard, speechless and feeling my hand itching for my gun.
Rick leaned in and pointed his cigarette at me. "I liked that. I liked that a lot, Lawrence Godby. That was very, very helpful in some of my efforts. In fact, you've angered a number of people by now. That's how I know you are the man I need to help me with my next set of tasks."
I relaxed my hand away from my weapon. "What about payment?"
Rick cracked a yellow-toothed smile, then blew smoke. "You'll be more than compensated." His expression suddenly dropped, his face turning stern. "Butch, he's the moonshiner son in Dakota. You see, there's this menace in that area, another young man who thinks he's the next big gunslinger. His parents gave me trouble way back when, so I dealt with them. I thought that was that, but that goddamn boy tried killing Butch and has already killed a few other gang members. Butch had captured this wretch, but he and his men let him get away."
"What does that have to do with me?"
"Because you and some of my men are gonna ride to Butch's fort and kill all of his men as punishment. Put the hurtin' on Butch but keep him alive."
I leaned back in my seat and stroked my chin ponderously but held my gaze with his. "Just like that, huh. What makes you think I'm a killer?"
"Look at you, Godby. The color has left your eyes. Probably can't sleep much with all the gunshots and wailin' going on in your head. You may be tall but you sure ain't fillin' them britches. What? Killing's been getting to your eating, or something? Ah, well, that will be all right. It gets easier. But if I do know one thing, Lawrence Godby," Rick stared me down, almost gritting his teeth, "it's that you're a goddamn killer."
I gazed deep into Rick's black eyes, but suddenly the door burst open behind me. I spun in my seat and watched the valley-hatted bounty hunter slug the doorman directly across the jaw, throwing him to the floor. The bounty hunter collected himself, reaching for his revolver.
"Lawrence Godby!" he cried, standing over the fallen doorman. "You're coming with me."
The glint of his revolver's muzzle left leather; however, my blade had left its leather loop seconds before. With a flick of my elbow and wrist, the tomahawk twirled like greased lightning through the air, and my colored beads and leather fringe decorating the handle danced. There was a thump and boney crunch as the man motioned forward with his Colt. He gasped, looked to his chest and found the blade stuck square in the middle of his torso. The man dropped his gun and stared wide eyed at me still in my chair. He let out a final sigh, then keeled forward face down. Seconds later, blood washed over the floorboards.
Rick applauded theatrically, standing from his seat. "Now that, that was what I like seeing! Oh, boy! Did you see that fellas? This is why you are getting the big bucks, Mr. Godby." He walked around the table and placed a hand on my shoulder, still marveling at the kill. "How does a thousand dollars sound?"
The number was so astounding it broke me away from my hallow stare at the body. I shot a sideways look at Rick, stood and strode to the dead man on the floor, then hauled him to his side and pulled my bloodied blade from his leaking chest. Wiping off the blade and holstering it, I crossed my arms and cocked my head. "A thousand dollars? What's the catch?"
The rest of the Carltons stood from their seats and came around to Rick. He took a step forward, grabbed my shoulders and looked me in the eye. "When you're done with Butch, go fifty miles south to Sandyville. I'll be sending you with new men. Lay waste to that place, and that goddamn menace. Kill as many folks as you can. No leniency. It's what they get for having that kid as their hometown hero."
I nodded, but uncertainty was rising. I stuck a thumb towards to the body. "What about him?"
Rick slung an arm around my shoulder, and we started making our way for the door together. "Don't worry about it. We're Carltons." He patted my chest and smiled.
We left the room as a group, the doorman rubbing his jaw and closing the door behind us. As we descended the stairs a woman cried out from down below, and Rick chuckled. When we arrived at the bottom, the woman was sobbing and splattered in blood at her table in the center of the dining room, the rest of the customers nearby gasping and staring at the ceiling. Through the wooden beams, thin streams of blood cascaded downward, all landing in the middle of the circular table and splashing out small droplets forming a crimson circle.
The barkeep ran over to the woman speechless, touching at the red and gawking at the scent. He spun to a grinning Rick Carlton. "What the hell have you done?"
"Looks like there's a mess up in that room, dear barkeep." He pulled a money clip from his pocket and tossed it to him. "For the cleanup."
We strolled by the wild-looking barkeep and frightened customers, reaching the double doors and pushing them open. Before we passed through, the barkeep called out, "Damn you to hell, Rick Carlton!"
Rick turned back quick while his men passed him and I. "I ain't goin', barkeep. I'm already there." He looked to me and grabbed a fistful of my coat. "You and me both, Godby."
We left the saloon, found our saddles, and rode off for the Carlton encampment. Behind me, people ran from the saloon in masses, all screaming and pointing at the inside of the building. I turned away from the scene, leaving me to ride off to my own mayhem. Rick was right. I thought I knew myself better, but those were just the lies making themselves anew again.
Money outweighed morals. In that room for the first time in years, the intoxicating buzz did not ravage my nerves. The small amount of food in my stomach did not want to leave my body. Evansburg was soon only a speck to my backside, and I pressed onward for my complete descent into the dark, hateful life of a killer.