Short Fiction by Jake Kendall
The moonlight broke through the clouds; the wet-churned mud of the thoroughfare turned briefly into molten silver as it caught the light.
Nathaniel slowed his pace. He worked his tobacco languidly as he patted down his sheath and holster. A voice hissed at him from outside the Turner Hotel, urging him to hurry. Nathaniel spat out his tobacco and raised a finger to his lips as he approached.
“Took your god-damn time.” The hotel proprietor’s voice was full of quiet fury. “Feels like I been out here for an hour or more. Don’t want to catch a sickness over twenty measly dollars.”
Nathaniel swapped a wad of bills in return for a key.
“That there’s a good story, Jim. Shall we two get the piano out for a song as well – or do you think these things can wait until morning?”
It was obvious that Jim wanted nothing more than to berate Nathaniel further for his tardiness, but Jim was a coward before he was anything else.
“He’s in room six. Upstairs. Second room on the left,” Jim whispered as he counted out the twenty dollars. “On the left… you got that?”
“Room six. Up the stairs. Second room on the left,” Nathaniel repeated as he shimmied through the doorway and into the dimly lit lobby.
“You gunna do him silently, right?”
“Would you wake a feller size of him?”
“A feller size of him came looking for me, I’d be learning bean-eater talk the whole way south.”
“You say he was drunk?”
“Like his chair was a mean-old stallion. Didn’t finish his food neither, just picked at it and ordered more whiskey.”
“I ate here myself one time, Jim. Drove me to drinking too, if I recall. Now, you wait for me here. Once it’s done, I’ll need help with the body.”
Jim looked like he might complain at the notion before realising the futility of remonstration; they couldn’t leave the stranger where he was, and he would be too much for one man alone.
Nathaniel climbed each stair cautiously. He took the left turn and stood outside room six. The room was silent; silent and dark. Nathaniel’s body tensed as he felt up the lock and inserted the key.
This would not be the first life Nathaniel had taken. He killed his first in a brawl back in Montana. That had been some fight: a maelstrom of punches, kicks, and hurled bottles until things got serious. That was a hot-blooded killing. Different from tonight’s business in every way. He supposed this would be more like the raid on the Comstock offices. They killed twelve in total that night, with Nathaniel claiming two for himself. That too was different. Those were company men. There was hatred enough for Comstock Mining to justify those actions, even without other incentives.
This man… well, Nathaniel bore him no ill wishes. This man was nothing to him. To Kit. To any of the boys. This man was the inevitable consequence of their actions; nothing more. Mary had been staking the town out in the weeks since the raid, waiting for anyone who showed up asking questions. She rode back to camp in the evening with a story of a man with a scarred face and the physique of a fighter: said he carried enough guns to shoot up half the town, and that he was talking about Kit Carson and the Comstock raid.
The lock clicked softly. Nathaniel withdrew the key and unsheathed his knife. He had whetted the blade this afternoon, it was sharp enough to cut through cow hide. He waited, listening for sounds of agitations within.
He pushed the door open, little by little to minimise the creaking, and stepped inside.
Nathaniel had time enough to see that the bed was empty before he was slammed into the wall.
He slashed out instinctively with his blade, glancing the bicep of his assailant. He pulled back as far as he could to plunge the knife directly forwards, but a strong hand gripped his arm and crushed the closed fist against the wall repeatedly, crunching Nathaniel’s knuckles against the hilt. He cried out before a second hand grasped his throat and reduced his emanations to a hoarse rasp. Nathaniel dropped the knife trying with both hands to free himself from the choke hold. Unable to break free, he groped for his holster before his legs were kicked from under him and the beating began in earnest.
Milton punched the intruder out of consciousness. He picked up the dropped knife, removed the man’s pistol and tossed them back onto the bed before picking up his assailant and throwing him over his shoulder.
In the hallway, other doors were ajar. The peering face of a well-to-do man stared back at him from room four, illuminated by candlelight.
“Everything alright sir?” room number four asked, his voice quivering.
“This aint nothing you need be concerned about.”
“Did he attack you, sir? Can I be of assistance? I can run, wake the sheriff if you need keep vigil…”
“Not necessary. Go back to sleep. He’s the only one coming,” Milton replied, already halfway down the staircase.
In the lobby, the hotel owner stood with his mouth agape.
“Sir, I… I rushed from my office at the sound of the commotion. Lord knows what kind of madness this is. I pray, sir, that you are well.”
Milton could sense fear on the older man. He glanced down and saw dollars still limply clasped at the man’s hip. The hotel owner followed his gaze and started, thrusting the bills behind his leg.
“That today’s take?” Milton offered the excuse as he approached.
“Of course. Yes, of course. That’s what I was doing. The count. Not a great day truth be…”
The hotel owner was cut short. Milton grabbed his head with the free hand and lifted him from the floor as he yelped. Milton dashed his head forcefully against the wall. The hotel owner crumpled on impact and started moaning for Jesus to show mercy.
“Jesus aint here. Quit your whining,” Milton growled.
“Please sir, you don’t understand – they threatened me, and my wife – I have a wife sir. You wouldn’t widow an innocent woman now, would you?”
“Maybe they did. Maybe you was just getting paid. Tell you the truth, it don’t matter either way. But, you give me that money you’re holding and I’ll leave things there.”
Jim waved the dollars upwards in submission, unable to look Milton in the eye. The bills were snatched from his hand and he was left, shrinking on the floor and clutching at his skull.
There was a trough outside the hotel. The rain had filled so that the surplus trickled out, pulling the remnants of straw and the slop from the animals with it.
“Here we go then. Time to wake up,” Milton muttered as he plunged Nathaniel head-first into a trough filled immediately with thrashing and panicked exhalations. Milton pulled his would-be assassin back up for air and let him take deep gasping breaths.
“Where is Kit Carson?” asked Milton.
“Go to hell,” came back the reply.
Nathaniel received thirty seconds in the trough for that.
“I’ve been tracking you boys for a week now. I was told you were most likely camped around these parts. Now tell me, where is Kit Carson?”
Nathaniel heaved and spat until he regained the ability to speak.
“I aint heard of anyone called Kit Carson, I swear to God. I was just gunna cut your throat and take what you got.”
“You sure about that?”
“On your say-so. Course my impression could be wrong, but that water looks real dirty. Would you mind taking a closer look for me?”
Milton submerged the man once again. He whistled a few bars of a melody to himself before relenting.
“I do not enjoy violence,” said Milton, “but a man in my line of work must have long-made their peace with it. Now, you’ve already cut my arm tonight. Do not give me a second reason to kill you.”
“Fine, sir. You can’t blame a feller trying to avoid the hangman,” Nathaniel implored, “but you got me. I am Kit Carson.”
Milton shook his head slowly.
“You took me for a fool once already. Now look where you are.”
He pushed Nathaniel deep into the trough this time, held him there until the struggles weakened. He gave him a few seconds longer still, made the man truly know what it was to drown. When he pulled him clear this time, he threw Nathaniel to the floor and kicked him hard in the stomach, helping him expel both water and vomit.
“This how you want to die son? I promise you I will keep on doing this. Look into my eyes, boy. I will drown you a dozen times over, then a dozen times more. If you don’t talk, I will let you perish in there. And what exactly will that achieve? I will find that gang you run with sooner or later. Do you doubt me?”
“You… you work for Comstock?” Nathaniel asked, regaining his breath.
“I work for myself.”
“Well sir, we all… all worked for Comstock mining.” Nathaniel pulled himself onto his knees. “You know a thing about them? How they… they treat good, honest people? They’re god-damn killers, and that… that got us to thinking…” Nathaniel stopped involuntarily. His spit dark with blood.
“Thinking?” Milton snorted, filling the silence. “Why that’s just about the dumbest thing a man can do.” He took a cigar from his shirt pocket. “I do know you boys killed a bunch of theirs” he added, as he lit the cigar. “Took their money too – near six thousand dollars meant for payroll if I heard right.”
“That’s right. We did just that. Would do it again tomorrow. Comstock… Comstock had us working mines ready to fall. The bosses knew, but so long as the mines kept yielding, the instructions were clear – keep going. Seventeen of ours died when it fell. Crushed like bugs in the dark. We all lost friends, lost family. Kit – well, Comstock killed his brother that day. You heard what we did with the money we took?”
Milton said nothing.
“We tracked down every one of those families, sir. We gave them… well not justice, but something. You understand that don’t you mister?”
Milton took a last hit from his cigar before passing it to the man.
“Son,” he asked again, “where is Kit Carson?”
Bill was drunk, asleep behind the fire, curled up with his dog. Mary and Joe lay entwined next to him, whispering, giggling, and wondering if their love matched the intensity Bill had for his Mastiff.
Pete was sitting a little ways off, his back to the cave wall, his coat like a blanket as he dozed.
Kit seemed to be the only one restless. He stood and shoved Pete awake.
“The fire’s dying down,” said Kit.
“So put more wood on it,” Pete replied.
“That’ll be the fifth time since he left.”
“You think that too long?”
“I don’t know.” Kit paused to place the last of firewood onto the embers. “It don’t feel right to me,” he said.
“If you’re asking someone who’s seen the feller, Nat’s still digging him a hole,” said Mary, looking up from her lover’s embrace. “Tell you the truth, you boys owe him just for that job
The size of Nathaniel’s opponent proved infertile ground for consolation.
“God-damn it, Pete. Maybe you should’a gone with him,” said Kit.
“Man said he was fine,” Pete muttered.
“Then maybe you should’a insisted. Or – instead of playing happy family with the wife – maybe you should’ve gone yourself, Joe. Or even that useless sack of piss over there. Someone. We stand together, remember?”
“Of course, my brother, of course.” Pete stood and placed a hand on Kit’s shoulder. It did little to relieve the apprehension. Pete turned back to Mary. “Mary, can you remind Kit just how drunk this feller was again?”
“Oh – he was staggering before he sat down.” Mary stood to demonstrate, cross-footing around the campfire. “He was trying to quiet his voice, but he was too drunk to whisper even.” She stooped low down to stand over Kit and affected the persona of an involuntarily loudmouth. “You folk heard the name of Kit Carson? I heard he’s giving out money to the Comstock families.” Mary lurched over to Pete. “Next feller, different story – hey you there. I heard there’s an outlaw around these parts, name of Carson, I hear here he’s looking for guns. If you know him, tell him when I see straight, I shoot straight.” Mary stumbled back to Joe. “And when the big feller tried to take his chair, well…” She completed her pantomime by crashing wildly back into her husband’s lap. “He had to be helped to his room, Kit. So I says to Jim – you keep that man upstairs, and if you do see him, you make sure it is only to pour more liquor. After that, I came straight here to you.”
Kit had turned his attention back to the fire.
“He shouldnt’a gone alone,” he said eventually.
Those awake silently watched the flickering flames. Kit took to his feet and walked toward the cave entrance. Outside the first signs of the encroaching dawn were visible in the sky. Sam kept guard on a rock just outside with his loaded rifle in his hands.
Kit asked, “Any sign of Nat?”
“Nothing yet,” replied Sam.
Kit cast his eyes across the landscape. The terrain had made a compelling case to establish camp here. The opening in the rock wall was atop a hill. Anyone approaching would have to break the cover of the tree line and walk out into open ground. There were no signs of life among the trees, yet still Kit felt uneasy. He looked back at the cave and saw that the dim glow of their fire was visible outside.
“Think we should kill the flames,” said Kit. “Get back in Sam. You’re exposed out here.”
Sam took to instruction like a soldier. He walked back with Kit to the cave entrance and leaned across the opening, raising his rifle to his chest in anticipation.
Kit knocked the wood from the fire, ignoring the protestations of his comrades.
“Nat knows where we are,” said Kit, “and he’s the only one who needs to.”
Pete took out his revolver. “Seems we played our hand then,” he said as he flipped out the chamber and slotted the bullets in. “I’ll keep watch with Sam till Nat returns.” Kit said nothing. Pete stood and walked back towards the entrance. “And he will return,” Pete assured, turning back briefly.
“Should I wake Bill?” asked Joe as he took out his own gun.
“Joe, Mary” Kit replied, “I am sorry for the words I spoke back then. Know that I spoke only from a place of concern. That you were able to reunite, to have another go at things after all that’s happened, the year we were forced to run… Well, that’s a miracle, that’s love, that’s beautiful. Something worth living for, worth dying for too.”
“No offense was taken Kit,” replied Mary. “We pray he comes back safe, just the same as you.”
A long silence followed, broken by the dull sound of a distant thud. Kit jumped to his feet, turning back towards the cave mouth to ask what had happened.
Sam fell silently sideways. Even in the half-light, Kit could see the blood gushing from the hole in Sam’s temple.
Pete yelled in shock and shot from his rifle, back into the trees. Kit shouted at him to retreat. Pete could see movement and fired several times at the distant shadow until it stilled.
“Think I hit the bastard,” he declared, breathless. Four repeater shots fired in reply. Pete dropped his rifle as his knees buckled and he grasped desperately at his throat before falling.
Bill’s Mastiff was up and barking wildly. It hunched its back to snarl before bounding outside the cave. Bill’s face was complete confusion.
“What in hell is happening?” he slurred. More shots were fired, Kit could hear them mingled with the fading sound of the dog as it charged down towards the trees. These were pistol shots; Kit was sure of that. He heard them firing quickly – at least seven times – before a pause, a final solitary shot, then silence.
The cave was large enough for shadows. Kit whispered for everyone to arm themselves and take cover. He saw Joe ushering Mary to the darkness of the far side with his pistol in hand. Kit nodded to them. On the near side a cluster of rocks were big enough to crouch behind, but it would mean standing ankle-deep in water. Kit stepped in quickly and felt the pain of water that had never been warmed by the sun. He would have to remain perfectly still. Bill stumbled over, crouching to the side of the rocks and just out of the water. He had tears in his eyes – most probably on account of his dog – and seemed about to vocalise his thoughts before Kit hushed him with a raised index finger.
They held their position. From above the sounds of Pete twitching and moaning through his death throes filled the soft air. Kit peaked over the rocks at the cave mouth. A large man of near six and a half feet tall was inching his way into the cave with his back to the opposing wall. He carried a scoped rifle on his back, and a pistol in each hand. Milton searched out the cave for movement.
Kit wondered if he might be vulnerable in this moment – the man’s eyes as-of-yet unaccustomed to the dim lighting inside. Any thoughts of lining up a clear shot were ended as the man focussed fully in Kit’s direction, both pistols pointed at the rocks. Kit ducked down and waited.
Nothing. He had not seen him.
His footsteps were slow, scraping noises as he pulled himself deeper into the darkness. Kit allowed himself another glimpse. Milton kept one pistol pointed idly towards him, but his attention had switched in Joe and Mary’s direction. Bill must have noticed this too. Bill lurched to his feet blasting drunkenly with his gun, yelling “die, you-son-of-a-bitch.” Milton dropped swiftly to the floor returning fire.
Bill crashed backwards on impact. He fell into the pool of water beside Kit, clutching his chest where at least one bullet had found him. He filled the cave with a primal howl of pain and shock.
“He shot me,” Bill said, turning to Kit for reassurance. Kit put his hand to his mouth pleading for silence, but Bill would not listen. “Think I’m dying, Kit.”
Kit could not offer his friend anything further. He thought he counted three shots. That left three more in the first pistol, six in the other. He would have at least one trained onto the rocks now he knew there was someone else behind them. He wished he could hear their attacker’s movements clearly, but Bill obfuscated the atmosphere, pleading for his gun.
Kit hoped that Joe was positioning himself for an attack, and wished they had some means of communication. With no other recourse immediately obvious, Kit shot blindly above the rock in the hope of forcing Milton back.
The action galvanised Joe. Shots were fired from the other side of the cave. Kit stood, an involuntary shout ripping from his lungs. The cave was lit by the flashing of the guns. In his peripheral, Kit noted that the embers had caught something and had flared up once again. Their light turned Milton into silhouette, stepping backwards as he fired. Mary screamed out. Kit aimed at the head of the silhouette. He hit the man’s hat and nothing more. He shot again but the kickback had affected his aim and his second and third shots were wild and panicked. Milton turned fully towards him, pointing both pistols. Kit’s shoulder shattered as a bullet tore through it and he no longer had the strength to hold his gun. Kit fell into the pool of water beside Bill’s body, clutching at his wound.
Mary was crying. Kit could see now that it was Joe who had caught the embers. He must have died before impact; he lay perfectly still on his back as his clothes ignited and the flames began to singe his hair and skin.
Kit pulled himself out from the water. Milton was twisting back-and-forth looking for further threats.
“You did them all,” Mary sobbed. “Now please sir, help me move my husband.”
Milton nodded and moved to the fireplace. He put a boot behind Joe’s knee and turned him out of the embers. Mary was crouched besides the body crying as she beat the flames from Joe’s clothes. Kit could see the gun Bill had dropped. He crawled fully out into the open towards it while Milton looked elsewhere. He was just able to get a fingertip to it before the bullet whistled past his face.
“That’s far enough,” Milton warned. He walked over to Kit, kicking Kit’s gun into water and casually shooting him in the thigh. As Kit yelled out and grasped his wound, Milton produced a poster and squinted at it in the half-light.
“Gather you’re the wanted man. Think I heard your friend say-so too,” Milton said bending to bind Kit’s hands and feet together, ignoring his shouts of pain. “You boys must be the softest fools to ever call yourself outlaws”, he said, more to himself than to Kit. “That dog of yours put up a fight at least.”
“Please, sir” Mary implored, her voice shakily defiant. “He’s a good man.”
“That may be. It true about the money you gave them families?” Kit nodded through the pain. “Well that was a good thing you did for folk. Got to respect that.”
“How much are they paying for him?” asked Mary.
“Two fifty dead. Three if they can hang him.”
“Kit, what’s in the box? Kit – give him your key.”
Kit nodded and indicated his neck chain. Milton looked at it quizzically before Kit
craned his neck to allow the key’s removal. Mary shouted out that she was getting their money and soon returned with a lockbox. She took the key from the large man and opened it to reveal a large wad of notes. Milton took them and began thumbing through with one hand, his other keeping one of his pistols ready.
“We didn’t give all the money away,” Mary managed. “There’s got to be more than three hundred there.”
“Indeed, there is Ma’am. Four-seventy by my count,” replied Milton.
“Then please, take it all. Just let us live. Let us tend our dead.”
Milton nodded and stood upright. He pocketed the money and holstered his gun. He then picked up Kit and threw him over his shoulder and made for the mouth of the cave.
Mary shouted as she ran after him, pulling up her dress and calling for Milton’s attention.
“Hey, that’s not fair mister. Please, you said you’d let him go.”
“I said no such thing,” Milton replied turning back to her.
“You took the money. Four seventy dollars – more than he’s worth dead.”
Mary dallied, wondering if she should run back and try and take a gun or a knife. Milton could almost see her thoughts.
“Well, Ma’am,” he told her, just before knocking her unconscious with a big, open-handed slap. “Way I see it, now it’s seven-seventy.”