Merk could hear the bullets slicing the air, the close ones, the ones he knew were just a few inches above his head. The sound reminded him of his brother, back when, blowing hard through a gap in his teeth till the rush of air pitched just shy of a whistle.
Two shots, quick succession, thudded into the meat of Merk's horse. The mare whinnied and kicked her legs; her neck arched so that she was looking at the sky, then she slammed her head down into dry brown dirt. Blood trickled from her nose and froth started to collect at the steel bit at the back of her mouth.
"You hit my horse again, you son of a bitch!" yelled Merk.
He shook his head and flared his nose and mashed his lips till he looked as animal as his own dying horse. He'd sooner kill a man than a good horse. He might yet. But first things first. He wriggled towards the head of his mare.
"I'm sorry ol' girl."
The first bullet had taken her in the shoulder, catching both off-guard. Now she had three pieces of fractured metal lodged in meat and bone. Merk reached his hand up and petted his mare along the forehead. It brought the beast no comfort.
Merk positioned the barrel of his 32-20 Winchester rifle under the horse's chin and rested his finger on the trigger.
A bigger calibre slug would have no problem finding its way to the horse's brain—end her suffering—but the 32-20 was no horse-killer. Merk used it to shoot varmints. If he pulled that trigger, likely as not the lead would ricochet from bone and smash through jaw, face, eye, or neck. She'd still be alive, only worse. Merk couldn't get into a position to rest the barrel right on her skull, end her suffering, not while the Sheriff kept blasting away with his cannon.
The plain sound, intimate and modest compared to the thunder of the weapon that sped the bullet on its way, was a deceptive accompaniment to the violence wrought. A flap of skin on the horse's shoulder was poking up where lead had filleted skin from flesh. A thin stream of blood drained onto Merk's shirt as he pushed up against her. His ear was next to her chest. He listened to her labour at the work of breathing. She sucked fast and shallow, fighting the sensation of choking as her own blood filled a lung and spilled into her throat.
"You stop shootin' and let me kill my god-damn horse!"
The bullets stopped. Merk waited a tick. He poked his head above the saddle. It was an ugly head, even uglier than normal with the clotted gash separating his left brow and the blue-black swelling where his right check should have formed a harsh ridge. And then the Sheriff unleashed a volley.
"Hey! Hey!" Merk hollered as he ducked down.
Two more bullets ripped into the mare's flesh. Merk didn't see the surge of fury coming. It took him like it owned him. He jumped to his feet. Stood tall. Aimed. Fired. Stepped over his mare—kept on. Bullets zipped by close enough for him to hear their breathy whistle, but he charged the Sheriff anyway, one step at a time, varmint-shooter blazing.
Sixteen bullets, spent five, got eleven reckoned Merk as he strode forward, angry, but with a mind to stay alive.
Minus one. Fifteen.
Minus one. Fourteen.
Minus one and already he'd lost count, lost his tally, kept firing. The Sheriff kept at it, too. Stood in his door with a six-shooter held as far in front of him as he could push it, the way old men read a book. Merk fired and the Sheriff fired and Merk fired and the Sheriff fired, neither hitting anything that deserved a bullet. Merk was twenty yards away when he pulled the lever on his Winchester and yanked down on the trigger, only to hear a dread absence of sound as a tiny steel pin punched air.
The Sheriff was still shooting and Merk was in the open, the cover of his dying horse behind him. He dropped his rifle and sprinted, screaming a war cry like the Injuns in the pulp novels his brother read him. It wasn't the cry of a man lost of sense, gone berserk, though it must have sounded that way to the Sheriff. It was the cry of a man with an empty rifle, intent on scaring the shit right out a man's asshole.
The Sheriff backed away as he worked the hammer on his six-shooter till he was pounding on hollow casings. He looked at the man coming to kill him then looked at his gun, measuring the two. The Sheriff stumbled backwards and slammed the door of the building. He lunged for his desk where he had an open box of slugs. His fat fingers pulled the pin that released the cylinder. He bashed the empty shells out then picked up the box and slapped it upside down. Shiny brass cartridges spilled across his desk. He fumbled.
Merk's boot pounded the door. The iron latch ripped through its wood casing. Splinters scattered the floor, then there he was, filling the empty frame where the door had been.
The Sheriff only had time to poke a single cartridge into the chamber. He slapped the six-shooter together and raised it. He pointed it right at Merk and fired. Booth stood there. Both expected Merk to fall down dead.
After a few moments of silence and still Merk dropped his head and looked at his body. He knew that sometimes a man didn't feel it till later. But there were no pieces missing. No blood. He wasn't dead and wasn't hurt.
Merk looked at the Sheriff.
The Sheriff spun on his heel. His right arm reached out and swept up a handful of cartridges from his desk. He kept on and into the open cell. As he went, he grabbed the iron grill, slamming it shut, locking himself inside, but the cost of his retreat was to spill the only rounds in his clutch. They made a tinking sound as they bounced on the floor. The Sheriff took a step back, automatic, out of danger's reach.
Merk stopped, looked at the cartridges spilled across the desk, on the floor, then lifted his gaze to the Sheriff. The Sheriff lurched forward onto his knees. His arm reached between the bars and his fingers grabbed at the brass pills.
Merk skipped, his body lifting high in the air like a lithe girl jumping rope. All his force was directed into the heel of his right boot—and down it came, plumb in the centre of the Sheriff's hand.
The Sheriff wailed, yanked his hand inside the bars, scampered backwards on all fours till out of reach. Locked in his own cell.
Merk walked forward. He grabbed the iron bars and tested them. Good and locked.
The Sheriff got to his feet. He went to the back of the cell and sat down on the bare trundle that passed for a bed. He nursed his throbbing hand.
"I think you broke it, you bastard piece of shit. You'll hang."
Merk grunted his understanding of the situation. He picked up one of the cartridges from the Sheriff's desk and held it close to his eyes.
"Say, Sheriff. What calibre?"
"44. Dumb son of a bitch. 'Bout twice as much as your pea-shooter can handle."
"Figured some'n like 'at."
From outside Merk heard the gargled whinny of his mare, slowly drowning to death in her own blood.
"Sheriff, you and I, we got business, but it don't involve my horse. She's a good ol' girl. Hate to see her suffer like that. Give you my word, you lend me that piece, I'll put her outta misery. Give it straight back to you. Got my word."
The Sheriff sat up. He leaned against the stone wall. With his good hand he stroked the manicured goatee covering his mouth.
"They said you was a queer son of a bitch, but that . . . shit, son, middle of a gunfight you ask another man for his weapon? You just about the dumbest ass-crack of a man I ever set eyes on."
"'Atta no, then?"
The Sheriff stood up and lurched forward.
"That's a fuck you, you fuck'n cocksucker!"
Without losing his calm faĆ§ade, Merk snapped forward, his right arm shooting through the bars, his big hand grabbing for the fleshy throat of the Sheriff. The old man jerked his head back and Merk snatched air.
Merk drew his arm back; breathed a heavy, long breath. He walked over to the desk and opened its drawers, rifling; looking.
The Sheriff laughed. He picked up the keys attached to a lanyard on his belt and shook them.
"Looking for these?"
"Here we be 'n, Sheriff. Don't know 'bout you, but I'm sure surprised I'm alive. I get you any?"
The Sheriff sat down. His only reply was a scowl.
"Nah, didn't think so. Lil' brother says I need spectacles on account a seein' fuzzy when I look a ways. I say, 'Why a gold miner need see so far?' Every wakin' hour got a pan six inches from my nose. Maybe you, though, Sheriff. God-damn, you a bad shot."
"I shoot fine."
"Oh, come now, Sheriff. Don't reckon neither us 'd hit a turd in a hole. Though you sure managed find my ol' mare, plenty. What you got agin' horses?"
"I was aiming for your gut."
"See? You a bad shot. Anyways, you shouldn't a shot my horse. All I come for is to get what's mine."
"Self-defence. Any judge 'll see it that way."
"Agin' a horse?"
"Against you, you simpleton fuck."
"Hell, you take 'em things I say serious? Only words, Sheriff."
"'Next I see you I'm gonna shoot you, gut you, and me and my horse are gonna take a hot shit in your chest.' I believe they were your exact words."
"I may a spoken outta sorts—on account my passions bein' inflamed. That's what they say, ain't it? Inflamed? Like a fire."
Merk grunted disinterest for his own question. Thought a second. Then: "But you do have what's mine."
"Horseshit. I got what the government's owed. Unpaid tax. According to law."
"Yessir, owed forty dollars in tax and fees. Guilty as charged. You gone took it all, though. Musta been nearly three hundred in gold. Now, mistakes happen, so you take Uncle Sam's cut, gimme back what's mine, I be on my way."
"Mm-hmm. Thought you'd say that."
Merk reached into his pocket, pulled out a few coins. He held them close to his face.
"Reckon I got . . . nearly dollar twenty. Now, I'm gonna tell you what I'm gonna do. I'm gonna take my dollar twenty next door, o'er Mr Harper's store, buy me two bullets. One a them bullets for my horse. The other's for you, Mr. Sheriff."
Merk gathered up the cartridges spilled across desk and floor, careful to make sure he had every last one.
"Don't you go anywhere, now," said Merk, knowing that if the Sheriff made a run for it he was too slow to get far.
Merk walked out of the building. The Sheriff could hear the footsteps on his porch, then along the porch of the building next door. He couldn't hear whatever conversation was taking place, but Merk was only gone a few moments before he strode back inside.
"Darndest thing," said Merk, kicking one heel out and resting his thumbs in his pockets. "Mr. Harper wouldn't sell me no bullets. Seems a have some notion a me wanting to kill you, on account all the shootin'. Friend o' yours?"
"That he is."
"Figures. I sees you didn't try 'n run. Wouldn't done no good. You too fat and old to get far."
"You just all talk now, boy. Get the fuck outta my jail. Fuck outta my town!"
"Mighty confused, seems to me, Sheriff. I ain't in your jail. You in your jail. You all trapped, like one them rabbits in my snares. Yessir, you trapped, old man. And I'll god-damned starve you out, need be."
"Go ahead. But my deputy's due back in a few hours. And I assure you, he's got plenty a bullets. More than enough for your sorry carcass."
Merk paced the floor.
"Appreciate that info'mation. Seems we need speed this up."
Merk looked around the building. No key. No weapons. There was a length of rope hanging from a hook. Merk grabbed it and tied a knot at one end, forming a lasso.
"Oh, oh, that's real good, dummy," said the Sheriff. "You think you're gonna rope me like a steer? Well come on."
Merk walked across to the bars. He sized up the Sheriff.
"Nah, I ain'ts gon' rope you, Sheriff. Not yet. Move too much, even if you slow. And got them hands that a steer ain't got. Nah, I ain'ts gon' rope you. Yet."
"You ain't gonna rope me never! But you'll be getting acquainted with that rope, boy, real soon. Oh, it's gonna be a good hanging. Reckon I know just the tree."
Merk said nothing. He walked back to the Sheriff's desk and threw the rope down. He picked up a thin pulp novel, tattered and yellowed. The cover showed a cowboy wielding two revolvers, blazing away at a group of Indians on horseback.
"You like these, too? Lil' brother likes these. Can't read 'em meself. Never did learn. Some men ashamed a that fact." Nnn-nnn, hummed Merk, "I ain't ashamed. We all got dif'nt skills. Me? Good with my hands. Good at makin' stuff. All kinda stuff."
"Keep talking, asshole. Deputy Monroe's getting closer by the word."
"Injuns," said Merk, holding the pulp novel close to his face. "Ain't know any meself, but bet they's plenty good at makin' stuff, too. Gone give me an idea, Sheriff."
Merk pulled the bowie knife from his belt. The Sheriff stood tall, backing away to a corner. Merk laughed.
"Don't be scared now, Sheriff, not a this. Hell, you think I'd throw this ol' thing? Look."
Merk closed the door to the building then backed up. He grabbed the knife by the blade, sharp side up, and hurled it at the door. The knife twisted through the air. It hit the wood and fell to the floor.
"See? I ain't no Davey Crockett."
"What the fuck you gonna do, then, boy? Hmm? Time's a ticking. And I ain't getting any younger."
Merk raised an eyebrow and smiled. He strode outside and round back of the Sheriff's building where Merk knew a stand of green saplings grew. He hacked into the base of the saplings with his bowie knife, felling four that were small and thin, and one larger, though not so large as to have lost its suppleness. He quickly shaved along the lengths of the cuttings, stripping leaves and twigs, then chopped the ends off. He grabbed up the bundle, walked around the building and threw them inside. He continued on to the General Store where Mr. Harper, with no more than a vague glower, agreed to sell him some twine.
On the way back, Merk stopped, looking out at his horse. He could still see her tail slapping at the dirt, still see her chest moving, still hear her drowning.
"Hey. Hey! Can som'un shoot my god-damned horse? Hey! Ain't no shootin' out here now. Som'un shoot my god-damned horse. Gene. Gene! I see your head stickin' outta there. Gene, I swear to God . . . All I'm askin' is you put that mare outta her misery. Ain't no shootin' here, promise."
The door to a little cabin on the other side of the street closed. When it opened an older man had a rifle in his hand. Merk nodded his thanks and walked back into the Sheriff's building. A few moments later Merk heard a gunshot.
Merk got straight to work with his cuttings. He whittled a groove in the largest sapling right the way round its girth, about an inch from its end. It married with another groove he carved longways across its nub. He did the same at the other end.
"What the sweet Jesus you doin', boy? You think you gonna burn me out with them twigs?" said the Sheriff, shaking his head. "You just plain dumb, ain't ya? Came out your Mummy's filth dumb."
Merk kept working, moving on to the smaller cuttings. He sharpened one end of the thinner saplings, and notched a groove in the other.
"If you so smart," said Merk, without looking up, "why is it you ain't know what I'm doin'?"
"Cause you ain't doin' shit!" roared the Sheriff.
Merk kept at it. When he was done he put the sharpened saplings in a pile then sat down on the Sheriff's desk. He looked over at the Sheriff inside his cell, reclined against the stone wall. His swollen right hand was upturned, rested on his lap.
"Just so's yer know, Sheriff, wasn't my intention to kill yer, if it so comes to pass. But, hell, this is my first time playin' Injun. Could be I get you just so, how's I like. Could be I don't even scratch yer mangy hide. Could be I kill you. S'pose it don't much matter now, not after you shot my pretty little horse and stole everythin' I worked for, and tellin' me I'll hang for my troubles."
"You got delusions, boy. Jesus Christ, I seen some idiots, but you . . . What you gonna do, poke me? Poke me like half the town poked your sister?"
"You shut yo' mouth!" yelled Merk, jumping to his feet. He wanted to say more, but the anger that filled him with resolve drained him of words.
Merk snatched the big sapling from the desk, and the length of twine. He wrapped the twine three times round where he'd notched a groove, then tied it off. He ran the twine over the notch in the end of the cutting, then down along the sapling's length and over the opposite groove.
He flipped the cutting, so the tied end was on the ground, and jammed it up against his boot. He lent down on the sapling with his weight so that it bowed into an even curve. Merk pushed down a little more, then let off some. He liked what he saw.
He angled the twine down into the intersecting groove across the girth of the sapling. He looped it three times and tied a knot. Merk eased off. The twine pulled taught. He held up his creation and examined it, plucking it like a string instrument. At the dull twang, Merk smiled.
He picked up one of the other cuttings and walked across to the iron bars of the Sheriff's cell.
"What the sweet Jesus?" said the Sheriff, at once filled with disbelief and understanding.
Merk held his makeshift bow in one hand and threaded his makeshift arrow with the other. The little groove he'd notched in the cutting's end helped hold it in place. He pulled his arrow back as far as he could; stuck the point through the bars.
"You nothin' but a bully and a bad man, Sheriff."
Merk aimed, held steady, released. The arrow sped its way, shaking its tail. It smashed into the stone wall just next to the Sheriff's face. The Sheriff jumped in the opposite direction to the ricocheting arrow.
"You fuck'n crazy! What sorta backwoods coon huntin' bullshit?" hollered the Sheriff.
"Works better 'n 'spected. Who woulda thunk it?"
Merk got another arrow from the desk.
"Last chance now, Sheriff. Don't 'spect I'll miss again."
"I'm gonna fucking kill you for this you dumb prick," said the Sheriff through gritted teeth and scowl.
Merk fitted the arrow, pulled it back till the string wouldn't pull any further. The Sheriff started jigging from one side of his cell to the other. Merk's aim followed the moving target. Just as the Sheriff stopped and changed direction, Merk fired, trying for his gut, but the arrow's tip dipped down and it didn't recover. It met its mark midway along the Sheriff's upper left leg, tearing through pants and burying a good inch into his thigh. The Sheriff dropped to the ground and screamed.
Merk skipped back to the desk and grabbed his rope. He dangled it through the bars and let out the lasso so it was a gaping noose. He gave himself some throwing slack.
"Fuck you, Merk, you're dead! Dead!" screamed the Sheriff.
Merk used his wrist to get up a swing. He chucked the lasso. The Sheriff was still sitting on the floor, pressing down around the arrow with his good hand. The lasso landed on top of the Sheriff's outstretched leg. Merk pulled quick, jagging the Sheriff's boot, but the old man kicked at the last moment and the lasso jerked free.
The Sheriff grabbed the arrow and yanked it out of his body. His pants were wet with blood, though it was hard to see the red on the brown fabric.
Merk dropped his rope. He retrieved the bow. Got another arrow. The Sheriff pushed himself up so that he was standing, leaning heavily on one side.
"Listen now," said the Sheriff. "You ain't thinking straight. Killing a lawman 'll get you killed. Stop this madness now. You git on your way. Stop this business, no grudges."
"Sheriff, reckon I'm thinkin' 'bout straight as I'm shootin'. Seems it's you who ain't got his head on. Gimme that gold back, I be on my way."
"Help!" hollered the Sheriff. "Help! He's tryin' to kill me! Help! Harp! Harp!"
"Heck, Sheriff, no one's comin' a help. You got yo'self in it, you git yo'self outta it. You know how to end it."
"I don't have your fucking gold. It's gone. Gone."
"Mmhmm. But then you confess to takin' what wasn't yours?"
"I had to ride out to the asshole of nowhere, out through fucking scrub and them prickles in them hills, looking for you and your brother for two god-damn days. I earned it. It's mine you. Fuck you!"
"So you confess."
"Confess? Hell I do. All I confess is sticking my cock up your sister's —"
In a single movement Merk raised the bow and fired before the Sheriff could finish spitting his bile. The arrow—just a cutting from a kinked sapling—twirled in a funny way, but shot true, hitting the Sheriff in the chest, lodging at a crooked angle.
The Sheriff slumped back and dropped to the trundle. His head slouched so that he was looking at the arrow sticking out of his chest. He grabbed it with his good hand and tried to pull it free, one quick jerk. It didn't move.
Merk picked up his lasso, measured the weight and cast. The lasso dropped round the Sheriff's neck. Merk yanked down and it tightened under his jaw. Merk quickly hauled back and the Sheriff sprawled forward. The Sheriff kicked with his feet and scraped with his hands, but Merk already had momentum. In a few hauls the Sheriff was pulled up hard against the bars of his cell.
Merk threw a fist through the bars, landing blows on the side of the Sheriff's head. Then Merk tied the rope off on another bar.
The Sheriff wheezed, the rope choking him of air. Merk reached into the cell and plunged his hand into the Sheriff's pocket. He came out with a handkerchief. He threw it away and moved to the Sheriff's other side. He found his pocket and straight away felt something. He pulled it out. A little leather pouch tied shut.
Merk recognised it. Teddy's pouch. Teddy and Merk's gold inside.
The Sheriff gasped and spluttered, trying to wedge a finger between the noose and his throat. Merk stood up. He untied the pouch and looked inside. He saw a rich pile of fine golden flakes. He held the pouch over the Sheriff's head and tipped it up a little, enough for a shower of gold dust and flakes to rain down on the spluttering man. They settled on his balding head and ruddy face and flecked his bloody shirt.
"Reckon that be 'bout what we owe, give o' take. Now, all's I need do so we settled . . . "
Merk tied the pouch and put it in his pocket. He crouched down and reached an arm through the bars. He gripped hold of the arrow. The Sheriff's eyes bulged; his good hand shot out and held on to its middle.
Merk let go. He balled a fist and punched the Sheriff in the face, swung back and punched him in the face, punched him in the face, punched him in the face, then the Sheriff dropped his hand. Merk grabbed the arrow and pushed. It didn't budge. Merk figured it was caught on bone, maybe cartilage, so he put some pressure on to change the angle, then pushed. It jagged past whatever was stopping it and started tearing deeper into the Sheriff's body. The old man screamed an empty scream. He didn't have breath for sound.
Merk felt neither pity nor remorse. He was just doing what needed doing. He kept pushing the arrow, threading it with patience and care, like he might thread a fat needle through hessian. Merk felt the arrow punch through into lesser resistance. When he stopped, the arrow must have been near four inches deep in the Sheriff's chest. Merk was satisfied. He stood up.
"Breathe, Sheriff," said Merk, untying the rope from the bar. "Breathe just like my mare."
The Sheriff gulped down big breaths that didn't sound so bad going in, but sounded like a man gargling water going out. Merk bent down, took his bow, slung it round his shoulder. He walked across to the Sheriff's desk and picked up the novel he'd looked at earlier. He folded it long-ways and shoved it in his back pocket. He reached into his side pocket and felt out a coin. He dropped it on the desk.
Merk found his rifle in the dirt just beyond the porch. He picked it up, dusted it off. He walked across to his dead horse, paused long enough to shake his head, kept walking.
He wasn't far gone when he noticed the burn in his knuckles. He held his fist up close to his face. In the afternoon sun he could see flecks of gold pressed into his skin. Flecks punched clean off the Sheriff's face.
"Hmph," grunted Merk. "Reckon just made me fifty cents."