Happy Bleeping Birthday to Me, Chapter 12: High Heat with No Satisfaction


“Gimme a gun and I’ll help.”

“Not happening.” I spoke without looking at sixteen year old Phineas Meeks, paying close attention to tying off the latigo. Moon flicked an ear back my way in a mild expression of displeasure; he was tired, and he’d been promised he’d have the day to graze and nap and such. “But,” I added, lifting the stirrup back down from the saddle horn and turning to face the heated gaze that had been boring into my back, “we might could use you. If.”

The hate in the boy’s eye’s shifted a little; he was wary. Good. I gave him a look of my own. “Can you be really sneaky?”

“Yeah.” Something else in his expression. Surprise? “I can be the sneakiest mofo you ever missed laying eyes on.” He said it with confidence. I was pretty sure he knew what he was talking about.

“Phineas!” His mother snapped at him, “Watch your language.”

He didn’t look abashed in the least, but he did apologize. “Sorry, Mom. Yessir, I can be sneaky. Snake in the grass, ghost in the wind sneaky.”

Yessir, now was it? Well, we’d see. “You fast on your feet when you have to be?”

“Damn betcha. I got wheels.”

“All righty, then.” I stepped into the saddle. Cass was already up and waiting. “Come along. We’ll put you to work.”

Shyra’s eyes widened in shock and realization. “No!”

I could see her son’s jaw clench. “Shyra,” I said quietly, “this is man’s work. Phineas is obviously a man, and we’re going to need every man we can get.”

She wouldn’t have taken it from her boy. I was cheating, being the white man who’d fed them and then looked down on her from a tall horse. I didn’t care. There was a long moment between us while the pain that had been damped down rose again to fill her eyes. She didn’t say anything else.

Little Paul, however, did. We headed out at a walk, Phineas having no trouble keeping up on foot. The youngest member of the Meeks clan yelled suddenly, “You all bring my Daddy back alive!”

Phineas was hiking along between our mounts, so we caught his gesture quick enough to copy it. Three fists raised in the air, pumped twice, and returned to our sides. Not that any of us thought it was going to be that easy, but we were committed now. Root hog or die.

It was good to have Phineas with us. I’d not have trusted the volatile teenager alone with Tori and Tasta despite his mother’s presence as a chaperone. Not for the hours this would take. I’d left instructions for a Plan B, should we fail to return by midafternoon; Tori and Tasta were to guide everybody back to Derringer post haste, mission aborted. Not that they liked the idea of us dying, but both of my girls were realists…I hoped.

Not that I planned on checking out. Leaving the planet under these circumstances happened to be even lower on my list of favorite things to do than riding through a forest at night.

We were about halfway back to the treeline, still a quarter mile to go, when Phineas burst out with it, glaring up at me as he strode along. “Gimme a damn gun!”

It caught me off guard; I exploded without warning. “Get your own gun, nigger! I earned mine with blood!” I’d jerked Moon to a halt without thinking. The Boone .22 was in my hand, hammer back, the muzzle pointed right between the teenager’s eyes. Where the Hell had that come from? Earned it with blood?”

Cass had pulled Keebler to a halt as well. Phineas Meeks was frozen in his tracks. He’d faced Death before. I had no doubt whatsoever on that score, and he knew he was teetering on the razor’s edge, right here and right now. The rage fled from his eyes, replaced not with fear but with–for the first time since we’d met–clear awareness. He didn’t bluster and he didn’t cower; he would meet his end like a man.

“You called me nigger, whitey,” he said quietly.

“If you’re going to act like a nigger instead of like a black man,” I replied, my voice whisper soft, “then I’m going to call a spade a spade.” The pistol’s muzzle didn’t waver.

“I’m…” he gulped, swallowing noisily, “I was out of line.”

I thought about that. Did he mean it? Somehow, I was certain this man was not afraid to die, so that wasn’t it. “Yes,” I agreed, “you were.” I pointed the muzzle in a safe direction, off toward the trees, and let the hammer down easy. “Let me guess. Can we talk man to man?” Cass’s right hand, I noticed, finally moved away from the butt of his Colt; he could feel the moment had passed.

Phineas nodded.

“You grew up being told you were entitled. That America owed you, right? Your father’s obviously not like that, but I’m betting you hung around with a lot of Democrats, maybe a bunch of people who lived on food stamps, welfare, minimum wage jobs?”

“Yeah. So?”

“So when the world went to Hell, when the bombs started falling, when you lost your baby brother, when your Dad went off to war and came back short a hand, right up to when those clowns in Jefferson grabbed him yesterday, you felt like you’d been ripped off…again, and again, and again.”

He didn’t say anything, but I could see I’d hit the mark. “Well, Phineas, here’s the way the world really works. God helps those who help themselves. What goes around comes around. Shit happens. But the world doesn’t owe you, or me, or Cass here, or your Daddy, or anybody else one. Fricking. Thing. You earn it. If somebody happens into your life and gives you a hand, that’s a good thing, but they don’t owe you.” I was losing him; he was getting that MEGO look, My Eyes Glaze Over. I needed to switch gears.

“Let me put it another way. If you had a couple of guns on you right now, really sweet shooters you knew could save your life and the lives of those you care about…would you loan one of those guns to me right now? Or to Cass? To a couple of people you just met, about whom you know nothing? Would you?”

His mouth twisted in what I took for amusement. “Shit no. No way.”

“Well then. You want to save your Daddy’s ass? Or you sick and tired of him coming back home and taking over after you kept your Mom and your sister and your brother alive all through the winter and into the summer? You pissed off enough at him to maybe want to see him dead? You were the man of the family for a long time; it can’t be easy going back to number two. He doesn’t see you as a man yet, does he?”

The youngster flinched visibly. That dart, in particular, had struck pay dirt. “I don’t want him dead,” he said, but he was shaken.

“But you figure he was stupid as shit, walking into Jefferson yesterday and saying right out what he thought about Highland West like he did, don’t you?”

“He was stupid,” he snapped. I told him they’d kill him, likely as not. But he didn’t listen. He never listens.”

“My Dad never did, either,” I admitted. “But I tell you what. The only way I can see to maybe pull this off, any one of us could end up dead, you included. We get this done, Jonathan Meeks is going to understand clearly that you saved his life. That’ll open a man’s eyes some, believe me.”

He brightened some at that. Enough. We were burning daylight.

By the time we had the horses tied off back in the timber and were lying on our bellies at the treeline, glassing Jefferson, it felt okay between us. Not perfect, but definitely better.

“Okay, guys,” I explained, “all three of us need to know exactly what everybody is going to be doing. Here, Phineas, take my binoculars. See that last building to your left, on the edge of town there?”

“Yeah…no…yeah, I got it.”

“That’s the Jefferson Community Church. What I need for you to do is sneak down there, all the way to that church. You’re going to get soaked crossing Tarryall Creek. Oh, uh, can you swim?”

“To cross a little old creek?”

“You never know what kind of water you’re going to hit till you hit it.”

“Yeah, I can swim.”

“Okay. It’s going to take you the longest to get into position, but–right across the street from the church, can you see that kind of square building?”


“That’s the new jail. Well, not so new now; I believe it was built in 2103. That’s where they’re most likely holding Jon. It’s roughly half a mile across town; swing your glass over to the east edge. See there, in that parking lot where they’re hammering and sawing like crazy?” The sounds of construction carried well; we could hear the carpenters better than we could see them. “That’s the scaffold where they’re planning to do the hanging. We’re in luck.”

“Luck? Don’t see much luck happening.”

“Ah, but there is. Where they chose to build that scaffold, it’s on this side of town, right out on the corner. If we spring your Dad from there, we don’t have to worry about fighting our way through the buildings to get clear.”

“Oh. I get it.”

“Now, here’s what I want you to do, Phineas. I’m going to give you a striker. You may have to wait a while down there, find a place you can tuck in out of sight. But when they bring Jon out of the jail, everybody’s attention should be on that. When they turn right, leave that main street, to walk over to the gallows, then you start a fire going in that church. As fast as you can get it going, as big as you can make it in a hurry. And then you get the Hell out of there, squiggle your ass back across the creek, hit for the timber. Whatever you do, don’t let them see you. Cass and I will be busy springing your Dad and giving him fire cover; we won’t be able to cover you at the same time.”

“They won’t see me,” he stated flatly, and I believed him. He slithered back far enough to rise to his feet unseen and headed off to our left, picking his spot to exit the forest.

When he was gone, Cass asked quietly, “We got a prayer in Hell of pulling this off?”

“Hunh,” I grunted. “About that much, maybe. If we happen to have a few angels riding herd on our timing today. If I’m guessing right on half a dozen aspects of this operation. If this, if that.”

“That’s good,” he grinned. “It’s always nice to see a confident coach.”

“Player coach,” I reminded him. “After Jonathan himself, my butt’s the one going to be on the line out there.”

“Player coach, then.”

“You shouldn’t have any trouble threading the needle with my .308. Just remember, that Savage Sniper’s got a target grade trigger pull, three and a half pounds, smooth as silk.”

“Can’t see how I could miss unless I get buck fever. You’ve got it bore sighted. Check the rangefinder, adjust the crosshairs to match, and try not to jerk the trigger like I’d never seen a gun before.”

“That’s about it. Shoot to kill if you have to. When we kick the anthill, the rules are going to go out the window.”

“No shit, Sherlock. I’m on my way.” With that, he picked up the long barreled weapon that usually rode in the scabbard on Moon’s saddle and set off to the right. There was a bit of cover he figured he could use to reach the little cluster of boulders that would serve as his fire base.

That left me. Cass would be shooting from 500 yards out, a slam dunk for a hunter of his experience with the sun shining and the air dead still, but I had to get closer. A lot closer. Right up next to the poop-packed bone pile, in fact. The one silver lining was that I’d be on the midden’s west side, with any prevailing wind carrying the stench downwind.

Yeah, right. There was no wind.

There was also less cover between here and there; I hadn’t been kidding when I’d said I’d be at risk. From the look of it, though it was impossible to be certain, there were four separate areas I’d have to cross in the open. None of the exposures were overly extensive, ranging from a few feet to perhaps twenty yards in length, but I’m no sprinter, either.

I had more than an hour to wait. Time dragged. My mind skittered from possibility to possibility, frenetic drops of water on a hot stove. Strangely enough, I wasn’t worried about either Phineas or Cass; both of them would do their jobs. But me…. I was no more afraid of death than any other man–less than most, in fact–but I was terrified of failure.

And my part in this little drama was the most complex, by far.

They finished the scaffold. I watched through the binoculars as a man tossed the rope over the timber, tying off what looked to be a bag of sand or a reasonable facsimile thereof. The trap door was triggered, the bag fell to the end of the rope with a satisfying thud heard even from the treeline, and things were good to go.

It’s a wonder they’ve not decorated the blasted thing with Highland West flags, I thought in disgust. People were beginning to gather in the parking lot, obviously unwilling to miss the hanging. Either that, or they were afraid to stay away. Much might depend on the internal politics of the town.

Another half hour passed. There was a stir at the west end jail and a knot of people began moving up the street. Time to go. I couldn’t make out the guest of honor in the procession; even from this elevation, there were too many buildings in the way. But he had to be there, and if there was a moment when the town’s attention would be all on the pro-American heretic, this would be it. A parade, or a semblance of one.

On the way down the slope and across the flat to the midden, I walked normally, upright and casual, albeit a bit quickly. If anyone happened to look this way and see me coming, I’d be taken for just another stray traveler, not a threat. Or so I hoped.

Getting back to the trees would be another matter.

On the other hand, it was the best we could do. Had we arrived earlier, last night with hours of darkness to aid us, Cass and I might have been able to slip into town and stage a jailbreak. Might have. In broad daylight, however, going into town would be suicide. Not for Phineas, hopefully, though nothing was certain.

What none of the Meeks family knew was that I didn’t rate our chances of success any better than fifty-fifty, and that was a stretch. The heroes always succeed against overwhelming odds in the novels and movies, but those are fiction media. In the real world, hey dude, get a grip. There had to be more firepower available in Jefferson than we could hope to counter in any kind of extended battle. The only real advantage we had, or at least had so far, was the element of surprise.

That, and we had to be certifiably insane.

Once down off the steep slope, I could no longer see the procession escorting the condemned prisoner. They had half a mile to cover. They weren’t going to be running. The distance between the trees and the stink pile had to be less than a quarter mile. I should be in position in plenty of time.

Tell that to the desire to panic surging in your gut, why don’t you?

Flies began to make their appearance. The smell of the town’s refuse increased in intensity, a rich melding of odors that soon became powerful enough to overcome pretty much everything. More flies. More stink. Lots more flies. More stink.

They say a person’s nose will go dead after a while, no matter how bad anything smells. I know I used to say that. It might even be true…but by the time I reached my chosen spot, a little dip in the ground behind what looked to be a pile of buffalo bones with shreds of rotting flesh still clinging to them, the flies had taken over. They rose from every available surface in thick black clouds, making it hard to hear, obscuring my vision, settling on my every surface. If I didn’t catch some fatal disease from their mere proximity, they would almost certainly “bug” me to death. Heh. Heh. Very funny, Polson. I’d done what I could. A tan bandanna hung down from my baseball cap, covering the sides and back of my head and neck. Another kerchief covered my nose, bandit style. Buckskin gloves shielded my hands, not a normal thing for a man intending to use a firearm, but necessary in this case.

Unfortunately, there wasn’t much I could do about my eyes or my nose. I didn’t have any goggles handy, and I had to breathe. A gas mask would have really helped, but no; that wasn’t in the cards, either.

By the time Jonathan Meeks was led around the corner and prodded up the steps to the scaffold, my eyes had learned to blink at the rate of 700 strokes per minute and I was breathing into my gloved hand.

The Village Idiot, aka the Highlands West sympathizer who seemed to be in charge of the show, matched Shyra’s description perfectly: Small, white, and mean. He climbed the steps behind the condemned man, stepped to the front of the scaffold platform and, using it as an impromptu stage, launched into an impassioned speech I utterly ignored. Oh, the sound crossed the three hundred yards to the midden easily enough despite the flies; he was using a bullhorn. It wasn’t that I couldn’t hear what he was saying. It was simply that his words had no meaning for me; I was concerned with other things.

Jonathan Meeks, for example. He was not hooded; I had been nervous about that. My plan, such as it was, required him to use his eyes.

Thankfully, he looked alert. Not a happy camper, but keenly aware of his surroundings. I couldn’t tell for sure at this distance without using the binoculars, but it felt like he was eyeing the countryside, attempting to fix the images of the tall ridges within his memory for the transition to the other side.

The people were excited. They were involved, rapt, getting into it. The books all said it used to be that way, back before the western nations became super civilized and began frowning on such enthusiastic public involvement in executions.

How quickly the veneer stripped away, given the right conditions.

Back to Jon. He didn’t have any leg irons on, either. That was another blessing. Perhaps Mr. Mean wanted to watch him kick freely, not limited to short strokes. The kicking would only happen if they failed to break his neck and he choked to death, or… maybe Jon had asked to walk to his execution with dignity, and his request had been granted. Stranger things have happened.

Mean Runt would have gone on for hours if someone hadn’t yelled, “FIRE!” To the west, the church was going up in fine fashion; a black mushroom cloud of smoke rose into the sky, a hundred feet high and climbing. What Phineas had found to produce that effect, I had no idea, but Cass and I had to act fast now, before the noise of the crowd became too much to penetrate.

The two foot replica Liberty Bell hung at the edge of the parking lot let out a huge -CLANG-G!- followed by the telltale whine of a ricochet and, an instant later, the report of a heavy rifle. The crowd silenced immediately, stunned, unsure what was happening. In that instant of quiet, I leaped to my feet, Tori’s Whisper carbine in my right hand, arms waving wildly, bellowing for all I was worth, “Sergeant Jonathan Franklin Meeks, to me!! Sergeant Jonathan Franklin Meeks, to me!!”

Cass punctuated my command with his second round, clanging the bell once again, another ricochet. No one was shooting at me yet, but that couldn’t last. If Meeks hadn’t gotten the message to aim for the cloud of flies, then shame on him and may his corpse be devoured by crows. I quit yelling and started hosing down the parking lot area, or rather the area above it. I’d dropped back down to one knee, mostly hidden behind the bones and the flies. My shots were deliberately high and a touch wide, snicking past the ears of the men holding onto the sergeant. They let go in a hurry, ignoring their duties in favor of keeping their hides from turning into colanders. Both of them dived off the back of the platform, landed hard, and came up running, sprinting for cover. Jonathan stood alone except for the speech weasel; Little Mean Whitey stood frozen in place, staring in shock.

There might have been screaming, but honestly, I wasn’t really listening. This was all about the visual. The mob melted, scattering to disappear around corners and into buildings like so many cockroaches caught in the light. There had to be at least a few tough characters in that bunch; the law of averages said so, but they were swept right along with everyone else.

Jonathan Meeks was a combat veteran, and Jonathan Meeks got it. His arms had been crossed in front and tied with clothesline rope, a surprise benefit of having only one hand; a handcuff won’t hold an arm that terminates at the wrist. Without hesitation, he took two quick strides to the edge of the stage, shoulder blocking Mean Man from behind and leaping out into the rapidly thinning crowd. Only one man paid any attention to the escaping prisoner; a bearded fellow at the edge of the parking lot saw him coming and pulled a blade that flashed in the sun. I hadn’t zeroed in on this individual in time; he crouched, knife held low, facing the oncoming Meeks–and the Savage Sniper fired again, coring the blade man through the ribs. Meeks leaped over the falling body like an Olympian runner clearing a hurdle. I saw where Phineas had gotten his wheels.

Arms tied or not, that sergeant could move.

Innocent bystanders, if any, were cleared from the area. Anybody pointing a weapon our way was an armed enemy. Time to quit firing over their heads.

There’s no way to prove it, but I’ll swear to my dying day that Jonathan had a rocket booster up his ass on the way to my fly covered position. He didn’t bother with zigging or zagging, just ran flat out, diving over a corner of the bone pile and crashing down next to me in the little hollow with a grunt. I could hear his ragged breathing but didn’t bother to even look at his face; my Buck knife was too busy going for his ropes, the serrated portion of the edge sawing through them in short order.

Not short enough, in my book. Once they were messed up enough to let him remove the rest of them by himself, I returned my attention to the town. The parking lot with its lonely scaffold, the noose swinging in the bit of wind that had finally arrived, was completely deserted. Nobody was popping up or even pointing a rifle barrel out of a window to shoot at us.

That couldn’t last.

“You good to go, Sergeant?”

“Yeah.” He was still panting, pulling in as much oxygen from the thin high country air as he could, but he didn’t bother wasting time asking dumb questions. I liked this guy already.

“Behind us, you see that little gap in the trees, about forty yards to the left of the road?”

I sensed his turn as he looked to find the spot. “Got it.”

“Count four trees to the left of that gap.”

“Got it.”

“Okay. That’s your entry point. There’s a route between here and there that has fair cover most of the way but four different open stretches. Can you pick it out?” Something moved behind a window in one of the Jefferson buildings. I kept an eye on it.

“Give me a sec…yes. Got it.”

“All right. That’s your route. I’m going to give you this shooter.” Without looking, I changed magazines, tucked the one I’d been using back into my belt pouch, and handed him the Whisper. “There’s one in the spout. Safety’s off. Just point and shoot.”

“Wait–what are you–?”

“I’m the last man out. There’s a cowboy off to the east, the heavy shooter. You need to make it to the trees first. If people start trying to pick you off, he and I’ve got two angles on them.”

“Yeah, but you’ve only got–”

“A .22 caliber pistol. I know. It’s not worth spit at long range, but they don’t know that. We’re not talking about giving them time enough to set up a bunch of calculus equations, okay? And if it gets ugly, if they really send out a force against us, this is a target pistol. I can pop ’em in the eyeballs if they close within a hundred yards.” Which was a slight exaggeration, but hey.

“I go now.”


Meeks took off. I drew the Boone and waited, watching that window. Sure enough, something shifted. I couldn’t be sure, but then again, I didn’t have to be. Lobbing four rounds out of the pistol’s 7 1/2 inch barrel, I got lucky; one of the little slugs plinked the upper half of the window. Casualty inflicted? Doubtful, but it might keep the guy’s head down for a few more seconds.

Like I said, Meeks could move right out. I was barely starting to worry when the first round from the Whisper went over my head, alerting me to the fact that he was in position and ready to provide covering fire. I lifted the Boone and popped off three into the air, paused, then added three more, our prearranged signal to tell Cass to retreat.

Which felt like it took forever plus two or three days. He had the best cover coming and going, but he also had the greatest distance to travel. At last, though, the flies buzzing incessantly–possibly thinking to nominate me as Lord of the Flies or else a great place to lay their eggs–I heard the -crack!- of a round passing over my head and the heavy report of the .308.

Time to go, and not a moment too soon. The townies had gotten over their shock and fear, and they were pissed. From chosen buildings, at least half a dozen rifles opened up, riddling the bone pile, crashing through the space I’d vacated less than a second earlier. The first portion of the run included one of the four open areas, but they weren’t expecting to see me pop up like a Wack-a-Mole and dart off like the Roadrunner.

I might not have the wheels of a Jonathan or a Phineas, but hot lead gives you wings.

Dimly aware of bullets flying in both directions, some of the uphill versions chewing up dirt and gouging chips from rocks, I made it through the second open space, and then the third. I was out of wind; this elevation really did mess up a fellow’s lung efficiency. It couldn’t be that I was out of shape.

In the fourth opening, the final twenty yards between a patch of scrub juniper and the main treeline, my luck ran out. I was doing a little zig-zagging, not intentionally but as a result of sheer exhaustion, when I felt the impact. The ground flew at my face. I landed and rolled, as my Scottish great grandfather would have said, arse over teakettle. Didn’t know where I was hit, but it was death to stop; I rolled once more, scrambled back to my feet, and grabbed Cass’s outstretched hand; he’d seen my predicament and dashed out to get me, exposing himself in the process.

Somebody must have run out of ammunition. In the time it took them to reload, Cass pulled me to safety. I didn’t bother to thank him. I was too busy sucking wind and wondering how bad I was wounded–until Jonathan Meeks, a grin splitting his broad face, pointed to my…foot?

“Blew your bootheel right off,” he said, returning his attention to the front. Fortunately, the people down there weren’t complete morons; they weren’t going to waste precious ammunition on trees.

I gasped, “Seen Phineas?”

“Phin? He’s here?” Alarm flared the sergeant’s eyes; any combat vet knows it’s not a good thing when a commander has to ask the whereabouts of an infantryman.

“Right here, old man.” The teenager stepped out from behind a big blue spruce some thirty feet away. “Right here.”

Father and son stared at each other. It was obvious the younger man had seen action. His shirt and jeans were still soggy wet, there was a fresh scratch along one cheek, and he was carrying a rifle and a shoulder bag he’d not had earlier in the day.

Might be a good idea to make sure there were no misunderstandings. “We couldn’t have made this happen without your son, Sergeant. He infiltrated the town, fired the church, provided our number one distraction. And, I see, rounded up a shooter in the process.”

The rifle turned out to be a .17 caliber Shocker, capable of easily taking down sizeable game. The bullets blew up enough on impact to ruin a bit of meat now and again, but with this weapon, there was never an excuse to go hungry. The light round was worthless in brush, but other than that it was super deadly. Beyond that, the bag held eighty bullets and three cans of generic brand pork and beans. A bit beyond the expiration date, but probably not yet tainted.

We left Cass to keep an eye on Jefferson and meandered the half mile back to Goose Pond Campsite, the two Meeks men talking quietly as we went. I was pretty sure Jon was feeling more than a touch of embarrassment at having to be rescued by his son, but the paradigm shift had happened; he knew his boy wasn’t a boy any more. On Phin’s part…I didn’t sense the hatred in him now, but…I needed to talk to him.

The reunion was kind of loud and wet, what with all the woman-tears flowing all over the place. Fortunately, Jon held his family’s attention with his story of his adventures in jail and his miraculous escape. Leaving Tori and Tasta as part of his rapt audience, I was able to catch Phineas’s eye. The two of us took a little stroll.

“You’re good?”

He smirked. “I’m the best.”

“Yeah,” I chuckled, “I walked right into that one.”

“I’m okay, Harrison. I owe you one.”

“Bullshit. We’re even; I’d have gotten my ass killed out there if you hadn’t turned that church into s’mores. It was way too damn close as it was.”

“No shit.”

“The rifle…it was the pastor’s?”

“It was in his closet.”

“So you fired the rectory–”

“The rectal what?”

“The rectory. The pastor’s home.”

“Yeah. He wasn’t going to need it any more.”

I nodded slowly. “What I figured. He surprised you, or he was just in the way, or what?”

“Do I need to talk about this?” His protest was automatic; his heart wasn’t in it.

“Better now than later, after you’ve let it stew long enough to poison your insides.”

The youngster blew out a breath. He’d been holding it in, all right, believing he’d have to keep what happened in Jefferson to himself, take his secret to the grave. Which wouldn’t have worked; this man felt too deeply. “I thought the church was empty. I been thinking, ever since we were all safe back in the trees, thinking how it must have happened. He was a man of God, right? So maybe he didn’t believe in what the others were doing. Maybe he refused to go to the hanging. I think he must have been sitting around at home, or pacing or whatever. When he came into the church, it seemed like he was maybe just going over to the windows to get a better look, one last look at my Dad. Maybe say a prayer for him or something. But I was hiding behind the door when he came in, and he saw me, and….”

I placed a hand on his shoulder, nothing verbal.

“…I hit him, and he went down. And then I thought, hey, he’s still conscious, so I hit him again. And then I thought, wait a minute, he saw me, he’s a witness, and I…I got out my folding knife and…I cut his throat.”

I waited a few more beats, but that was it. “We’re at war, Phineas. Shit happens.”

He turned to face me. I let my hand fall. “Shit happens? That’s it? Harrison, my Mom believes in the church, believes in God. If she heard I’d killed a preacher like that…I think it would destroy her. I don’t know how she’d deal with it.”

“So don’t tell her.”

He blinked. Twice. “I’m going to Hell.”

“You believe that?”

“Maybe, maybe not, but that’s what Mom would say.”

“Okay. Would you care to know what I believe–what I know about how the Universe works?”

“PLease do.”

I searched for any hint of irony or sarcasm in that, but could find none. “All right. If you made a mistake with the pastor, it’s simple. Reincarnation and karma are real. You are Soul, the pastor is Soul. In some future life, the two of you will meet up again, and you’ll be given the opportunity to get it right. That’s all there is to it. It’s that simple.”

“You really believe that.”

“I do.”


“But beyond that, it’s possible that Soul, that pastor, already owed you from a past life. He might not be the innocent victim he appears to be.”

He laughed. It didn’t sound forced. “Mom hears that, she’ll consign you to Hell.”

“No doubt.” I knew the type. “We’d better be getting back. They’ll be wondering where we’ve gotten off to. But Phineas?”


“If you need to talk some more, and you probably will, get your Dad off to the side. He’ll listen. And he’ll understand. He’s been there. Oh, and one more thing; you’re not the only one who ever killed a church dude. I gunned one down not long ago.” I failed to mention it was a gunfighting priest who would have killed me if I hadn’t killed him first.

“Really?” His eyes popped wide at that.


Jonathan refused to accept any more of our food supplies, reminding me that his son now owned a fine rifle capable of bringing down all the game they could eat, but he did accept my note of introduction to Marcus Grady. “You can go through Derringer in daylight,” I assured him. “We’ve cleaned up the town. If you happen to encounter a tall thin man in a deputy’s uniform, talk to him; he’s a good man. Otherwise, Grady’s CafĂ© is around the next curve west of town. He’ll understand it, and if he can talk you into staying in the area, he’ll help you get settled and on your feet. And if there is trouble for any reason, he’ll have your back.”

“That’s saying a lot.”

“Marcus is a lot of man. He’s also a retired Army Ranger.”

“Ah-h-h…. But, about this note….”

“You’d like to know what it means? Would prefer not to be handing a total stranger a mystery message? We’re on the same page. Tori!”

My number one slave girl left off talking with Shyra and trotted over, tucking herself under my arm. “Read this for Jonathan if you can, please?” Her trim little body felt awfully soft and warm; despite me standing funny because of the missing right bootheel and realizing my left knee had to be bruised more than a bit, I suddenly realized I was about as horny as horny could get.

Cooper's Hawk Snake Knife Five 018

“Snake Five Knife,” she announced, “…um…in the egg.”

“Bingo.” I gave her arm a little squeeze. “What else?”

“Um…Snake is in a resting coil. Five is between Snake and Knife, and both Snake and Knife are pointing out.”

“And if Jon were to hand this to Marcus Grady, what would Marcus think it meant?”

She lifted her gaze from the slip of paper, going eye to eye with the one handed man. “He wouldn’t think; he would know. Jon and his family being the Five, you and Marcus working with them, defending them, hatched from the same egg so to speak. All for one, one for all. Family.”

“Close enough,” I added, “and who are Snake and Knife?”

“You’re Snake, Marcus is Knife,” she answered promptly.

Jon just stood there, looking at the note and nodding. “I never been a big fan of snakes,” he said, “but in your case I do believe I might be willing to make an exception.”

By the time Tasta and Tori and I got back to the treeline, the sun was low in the sky. Cass sat with his back to a tree, watching Jefferson, half asleep. He roused when he heard us clomping up the road, though.

“The Meeks family is on its way, on foot but armed and dangerous,” I told him. “Looks like the locals aren’t any too keen on coon hunting in the forest?”

“Not hardly.” The cowboy stood up and stretched, Tasta watching with her tongue hanging out. Cass was too tired to notice. “Church is burned to the ground, but it looks like they managed to keep the fire from taking any other buildings. They probably decided we were gone with the wind.”

“We need to hold out till dark,” I decided, “then swing wide of the town and get started up Kenosha Pass on 285 before the moon comes up to give us away. Once we get a mile or two out of town, we can start looking for a hidey hole. Not easy to be sure of such things in the dark, I know, but at least there’s no cloud cover, so the moon will help. And as soon as we get holed up–well before midnight, hopefully–we’ll do some serious resting and recuperating. No travel tomorrow, no travel tomorrow night, no travel the next day till dark. As long as we can find water, and that shouldn’t be a problem. There are several sizeable lakes before we hit the main grade.”

I felt the relief and approval from all of them, though Cass wasn’t about to ‘fess up. “A day off, Hoss?” He asked, “Just when I was getting warmed up?”

That didn’t require an answer. Cass Nestossin, however, was not the only member of our party who was getting warmed up. From the way Tasta was looking at him, she was about ready to melt.

I’d give her another day or two on high heat with no satisfaction. That should do it.

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