“…and then the driver lost control of the truck and it skidded over the edge of the cliff,” Madeleine concluded breathlessly. “It was a five thousand foot drop down to the water below. Nobody survived. And that’s how he defeated the whole gang with just one bullet fired out of his gun.”
“Hmm,” Josie responded absently as she scanned the terrain ahead.
“You weren’t listening, were you?”
“On the contrary. You’re the one who hasn’t been paying attention. Otherwise you’d know that whole story is as real as purple alligators.”
“What!” Madeleine shouted, incensed. “It’s a true story! Everyone knows about One Shot Salomon. People have met him and written about him. He’s real!”
“Maybe so,” Josie said as she continued to scrutinize the canyon they were traveling along. “But that story is a crock of scorpion hair.” She seemed to be using animal metaphors a lot right at the moment, and she made note of that. For some reason, it was usually the first sign that she was on the verge of losing her temper.
“And how can you be so sure of that?” Madeleine was demanding.
Josie sighed. “You said nobody survived, right?” When Madeleine nodded, Josie said, “Then how does anybody know about that story seeing as anybody who might have actually seen it is dead?”
Madeleine blinked in confusion, and Josie shook her head wearily. Her partner seemingly had everything a bimbo could ask for except blonde hair. Madeleine was brunette. The golden tresses of the pair belonged to Josie, much to her chagrin. Although she had to admit that luring others into false complacency sometimes came in handy.
She checked her map again and then looked up. That rock formation could be what they called “Remington’s Ring,” but it looked more like a misshapen rectangle to her. She sighed and took a drink from her waterskin. Then she took off her wide-brimmed hat, squirted a little liquid into it and put it back on.
“We’d better keep moving,” she said. “These trader bonds aren’t expiring any slower.”
“Right.” Madeleine flicked her camel’s reins lightly and rode off at an easy pace. Josie took another swig from her waterskin and followed along behind, wondering for the hundredth time why she had agreed to take on this mission.
“You don’t think the D’Angelo bonds have gotten there already, do you?” Madeleine asked a bit later.
“They’d better not,” Josie grunted. “The last thing we need is for this to all be for nothing. That’s sort of the idea behind taking this shortcut.”
“And a wonderful idea it was,” a leering voice called out from behind them. “But maybe not for you.” This was followed by the significant sound of a revolver being cocked.
Josie never turned her head as she whipped her right-handed gun out of its holster and fired backwards underneath her left arm. She had been aware of the other man’s presence for about a minute, but she had needed him to make a noise with his gun before she could know its precise location. She was rewarded by a loud cry of pain, and she turned her camel around to see one of the cleaner bandits she had encountered in her life. Which is to say he showed evidence of bathing once a month. He was clutching the elbow of his right arm with blood splurting out between his fingers. Josie frowned momentarily. She had meant to aim a bit lower than that.
“Next time you’re stalking someone, it would be a good idea not to wear so much creaking leather,” she said to him, keeping her sights trained steadily on him. Then she pulled her left-handed gun and pointed it out to her side, directly into the face of another man who had been sneaking up from around a crag.
“And you breathe too heavily,” Josie said pleasantly. The man started and then slowly lowered the rifle he was carrying. Josie’s nose estimated that he had probably bathed some time last year.
“Ah, someone’s coming!” Madeleine called.
“How far?” Josie asked.
“About five miles behind and closing fast. There’s five of them, and they’re on bikes.” This was one good thing about having her around. Madeleine had only middling capabilities with a gun, but she had the best eyesight of anybody Josie had ever met.
“Damnit,” Josie muttered. They wouldn’t be able to outrun the newcomers.
“That’s our boss,” the less dirty one said with a grin. “You don’t stand a chance against him. You might as well give up now.”
“You two move over there,” Josie barked impatiently at them. She gestured with one of her guns.
They moved with alacrity to the point she indicated. Then Josie said, “Turn around and drop your pants.”
“What?” the dirtier one gaped at her.
She fired a shot at his feet. “Move it!”
They could be quick about it when they wanted to be, she gave them that. Madeleine gasped and covered her eyes. Josie dismounted, keeping her guns trained on them and then quickly ran forward and kicked the pants over the edge of the path and into the canyon below. Then she mounted her camel again. “How close now?” she asked Madeleine.
“About halfway here now.”
“Then let’s move.” She fired a shot at the feet of one of the would-be robbers when he started to turn around. He jumped and faced directly backwards again.
“You two don’t make a move until after you’ve counted to fifty. You can get that high, right?” Then she turned and urged her camel into a gallop. There were curses coming from behind her, but Josie paid no mind. She only hoped their pursuers would be the type to stop and restore their comrades’ dignity before continuing on.
According to the map, there was a narrow pathway just a half mile ahead which went down the side of the canyon. It would be rocky and uneven, totally unsuitable for traveling on with a motorbike. Josie and Madeleine would be able to get away on their sure-footed camels there.
They actually looked like they were going to make it until an enormous man stepped in the way. He looked to be over eight feet tall and was built like a warehouse, encased in some kind of steel armor. Madeleine noticed him first and gasped before pulling out her rifle and firing. Her shot was accurate, surprisingly enough considering that she was mounted on a galloping camel. Josie saw a spark as the bullet pinged off the man’s chest. Then he was upon them. Madeleine cried out as he leaped forward, covering the intervening distance and seized her camel’s head. The animal bucked, throwing Madeleine clear away. Josie swore under her breath and took aim with her right-handed gun. The huge man moved quicker than she would have believed. He whirled about and brought up a fist, slamming it into her mid-section before she could get a shot off. Josie flew out of her saddle and slid a short distance, completely winded. Her stomach felt as if it would break apart as she struggled to sit up, and she could feel that she had scraped her cheek on the dirt ground. She pulled out her left-handed gun only to have it enveloped totally in a ham-sized fist. She looked up to see the massive, pig-eyed face leering down at her. He had Madeleine draped over his shoulder and was holding her with the hand that didn’t have Josie’s gun in a death-grip.
“Uh-uh,” he said in a voice that sounded both guttural and as if he had a sore throat. “That’s a dangerous toy for you to be playing with. I’d better take that away from you now and add that to my collection along with your other one.”
“Bastard,” Josie gritted, and then she threw everything she had into a kick that rose up between his legs. She hit her mark, or came close enough at least that his face twisted in surprise and his hand let her go. She scrambled away, looking around desperately for something to fight with. Maybe if she could reach his face…
Incredibly, he laughed. “Oh, you’re a spirited one, eh? That’s all right. Bosun the Matador likes feisty ones every once in a while, and he thinks it’s about time now.”
“How tiresome,” a voice murmured to the side. “Not only does he have a stupid nickname, he speaks in the third person just to make sure people know it.”
Bosun frowned and turned to the speaker. Josie’s first impression when she looked was of an overwhelming whiteness. A spotless, pure white trench coat flapping in the wind like a cape (where had the dramatic wind come from all of a sudden, Josie wondered). Her eyes tracked up the long, lanky frame to the pale, somewhat youthful-looking face adorned with a mass of spiky blond hair and a pair of mirrored sunglasses. She didn’t quite have enough energy to snort.
“And who the hell are you?” Bosun asked. “If you don’t want your arm broken in three places, why don’t you just mind your own business and let a man enjoy his work?”
“Feh. And let an incompetent like you act like the big boss of the area? That’s a criminal act all by itself.”
“Why you—“ Bosun’s charge was stopped short as a gun flashed into the other man’s hand, pointed directly at his unprotected face. This man was fast, Josie had to admit. Maybe even faster than herself.
Madeleine stirred on Bosun’s shoulder. Then she looked up and stared woozily at the man in white. Her eyes widened. “S…Salomon the One Shot!” she stammered.
“Is that what they call me now?” Salomon mused. “How times change…”
“What? Hey, what did you call him? Salamander?” Bosun was vacillating between being unimpressed and being unsure about whether Salomon would actually shoot him. “Who do you think you are butting in on a transaction anyway?”
“Transaction?” Salomon smirked. “That’s a good one. I’ve got a transaction for you. You give me the girls. Or else I’ll pay you a bullet straight out of the barrel of this gun. And I never miss.”
Suddenly Bosun grinned. “I think I’ll keep `em, thanks. My backup’s arrived.” And indeed, Josie had heard the rumble of approaching motorbikes some time ago. The gang of seven pulled up with a roar of engines and a squeal as they didn’t brake until the last second as testosterone-tripped numbskulls liked to do.
“Boss!” called out the slightly cleaner bandit from earlier. Josie decided to think of him as Rosen. He was now wearing someone else’s coat wrapped around his waist which ended up looking like a worn, baggy skirt which still left part of his hairy legs bare. He was clearly aware of how ridiculous it looked. “What do you want us to do?”
“Don’t worry,” Bosun said. “It’s all under control now.” Salomon was eyeing the new arrivals with suspicion while he kept his gun trained exactly where it was. “You’re in a pickle now, Mr. Salamander,” Bosun said amiably. “That’s a very nice custom Colt revolver you’ve got there. But I can see your chambers. You really do have just one shot. You’re not going to stop us all with that one bullet, are you?”
Well that was it, Josie thought despairingly. He had to be an idiot to load his gun with only one bullet, even if he was called One Shot. Only a man with an overinflated ego would do that just to keep up his reputation.
“We can take him, easy,” said the second man Josie had relieved of his pants. She mentally designated him as Guilden.
“Wait a sec!” Rosen said, and the other six all stopped in their tracks. Evidently, Rosen and Guilden thought of themselves as an important pair in this group. Josie congratulated herself on picking out some apt names for them.
“Can’t you see?” Rosen was saying. “That’s One Shot Salomon. If anyone can beat us with just one shot, it’s him! I heard he can make a bullet bounce off many people, killing all of them.” The others all stopped and muttered to each other at this new revelation.
“Don’t be ridiculous!” Bosun said. He took a step forward and then froze as Salomon coolly raised his gun again and pulled back the hammer with his thumb.
Everyone held their breath. Josie found herself actually a bit fascinated by the elaborate dance around she was watching.
Salomon pulled the trigger, producing a click from the gun.
Everyone stared in silence.
Salomon pulled the trigger again. Twice more. The gun clicked in rapid succession. Finally, he looked down at his gun.
Bosun grinned. “Get him, boys!” The gang rushed forward and tackled Salomon, a pair of them taking each of his arms as he struggled and two others putting their guns to his head. Josie had a briefly thought of escaping while they were preoccupied, but Guilden turned his gun on her.
“Hey Boss,” he said. “I like this one. Can I have her after you’re done?”
“Sure, why not.”
Josie groaned inwardly. Just her luck that the smelliest one would go after her. “Whoever named you One Shot overestimated a bit, don’t you think?” she said to Salomon.
“Shut up!” he retorted sullenly. His sunglasses had fallen off, revealing icy blue eyes. Madeleine was watching him with a crestfallen expression on her face.
Bosun chuckled expansively. “That was a good bluff, there. I thought you actually were going to shoot me.” He thumped his chest. “But then again, I’m the man who wrestles bulls. And that’s why they call me the Matador. Right boys?”
“Right!” they chorused. Josie closed her eyes despairingly.
Guilden reached his hands roughly into her pockets, turning them inside out. Rosen was doing the same to Madeleine. She squirmed uncomfortably but didn’t make any noise.
“What the hell is this?” Guilden said. He held her roll of bills in front of her face. “This can’t be more than a hundred double dollars! Who has all the money? Is it her?”
“Naw, she ain’t got more’n fifty double dollars,” Rosen reported from his own search.
“And it’s not here either,” Bosun said as he opened their saddlebags. “What are all these?” He was holding a folder of papers. Josie’s heart jumped as he began riffling through them.
“Be careful with those!” she shouted. “Those are bank bonds, and they’ll be worthless if you damage them!”
“Oh, how much are they worth?”
“More than your little gang here ever saw, but it’s a bit too complicated for me to explain it to you.”
“What’s going to happen to us?” Madeleine interjected.
“Don’t you worry yourself, sweetpie,” Rosen said to her in a sickening voice. “Soon enough, you’ll be taking off your pants for me.”
“Oh, but I don’t think I’d…” her eyes widened with realization. “NO! No, I can’t, I can’t! This is too horrible to happen to me! NOOOO!” Rosen sighed and stuffed a gag into her mouth which she tried to scream around anyway. Well, she had been holding up pretty well until now, Josie thought. She deserved a little credit at least.
“Tie them up and take them back with us,” Bosun ordered. Dirty hands immediately grabbed Josie and began wrapping rope around her wrists and ankles. She didn’t struggle. She had found that simply stiffening her arms would give herself enough slack when she relaxed a little later on. No need to give these thugs more reasons to hit her.
Salomon was also unresisting as he was trussed up. Josie’s eyes narrowed as she looked at him. Hadn’t she heard about somebody like him? Back when she was a little girl, what was it Nana Milly had said? Blond hair, blue eyes, tall…if he just put on a red trench coat instead of a white one…
But no, that was impossible. He wouldn’t be unchanged after all those years since her great-grandmother’s time. Then again, he was a bit different from what she might have expected.
Her thoughts were interrupted as somebody roughly picked her up and slung her across the back of a motorbike. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Bosun dropping the saddlebag full of her bank bonds on the ground. Then he turned away and mounted his own bike that he had kept hidden somewhere. Josie despaired once again as the motorbike she was on sped away and her precious bonds receded away into the distance. This would be the first blemish on her record.
The trip to Bosun’s hideout, wherever it was, went uneventfully. Josie spent the time looking around at everyone, trying to read their attitudes and weaknesses. She didn’t make much progress on that front. Madeleine was sobbing silently now. And Salomon did nothing but stare at the ground.
They were all the same. Just men with guns traipsing around butting heads with each other and never getting anything useful done. Even the legends.
The gang headquarters turned out to be a shabby, run-down shack in the middle of a plain. A few rusted bikes rested by its side, slowly deteriorating into nothing. A huge metal tank sat some distance away. Josie guessed that it was full of gas for the bikes. The way this gang used them, the motorbikes probably burned through fuel fast.
Bosun picked up Josie and Madeleine and carried them under his arms into the shack which turned out to stocked with a large bar. There was no kitchen as far as Josie could tell, and she wondered what kind of meals these men ate. Madeleine was not apparently thinking the same thing when Josie looked over at her. The other woman simply looked miserable.
They were dumped unceremoniously in the corner alongside Salomon who was still glaring about moodily.
“Now,” Bosun said, smacking his lips. “What are we going to do with these pretty pets here?”
“Well to start off, I could use a drink,” Rosen said. “Say Boss, that’s an idea. Let’s make them serve us.”
“Mmm, that’s a good one for starters.” Bosun pulled a knife out from somewhere under the bar and approached the captives. Josie knew that he only meant to cut her free, but it was all she could do not to flinch when he swung suddenly and with little apparent care. In instant later, her ropes fell off of her. It was a waste of perfectly good rope to tie someone up for such a short time and then cut them loose, Josie reflected, but she said nothing.
Bosun quickly slashed Madeleine free as well, but when she drew away at the last instant, the knife ended up tearing through part of her shirt. Her eyes widened, and she gave a muffled scream through her gag. Bosun leered down at her cleavage, now partially exposed to the air. “Should have stayed still, my little pet,” he chuckled. “But you’re more appealing this way.” Madeleine was noticing with relief that she did not appear to be cut.
“Now stand up!” Guilden commanded. Madeleine leapt to her feet. Josie rose a bit more slowly. She could still feel the spot where Bosun had punched her.
“Now, what are we having for today?” Rosen asked the others. Everyone called out heedlessly at the top of their lungs.
“I’ll have vodka straight up!”
“Got all those?” Rosen asked the women. “Better get moving fast.”
“I’ll have a double Scotch, too,” someone called as Madeleine ran behind the bar like a frightened cat.
“I want a shot of bourbon, and I want to drink it out of the blonde’s mouth there!”
Everyone else gave a roar of approval as Josie folded her arms and gazed back evenly at them. Finally, Rosen drew a gun and shot at her feet. She took a step involuntarily back but no more, noticing that there were a lot of holes in the floor.
“All right, I’ll get your damn drinks,” Josie growled. “But nobody’s touching me.”
“Oh I think we’ll see about that,” Bosun said. He was at the bar now taking off his enormous breast plate while Madeleine filled a tankard of beer he was holding. Josie was surprised to see that he was actually not very fat underneath that armor. He was almost skinny, in fact. She moved toward the beer kegs and selected a tap at random. Someone tried to goose her as she moved, and she immediately swung around and sent a roundhouse into the man’s jaw. Caught totally off guards, he flew out of his seat and into the lap of another man. The chair collapsed underneath them, and they fell in a heap, to the laughter of everyone else.
“You’ll need to be a bigger man to get that girl!” Rosen roared. His voice was already beginning to slur.
It was a few minutes afterwards that the glasses began to break and the guns started to shoot into the ceiling. Josie dodged bodies and ducked under flying bottles of spirits, waiting for an opening. But it never came. These outlaws had apparently had a little practice with this sort of thing, and even when drunk out of their minds, they still managed to keep an eye on her.
Bosun finally noticed that Salomon was scrutinizing him closely. “Bet you’d like a swing at this, eh?” Bosun said, patting his stomach.
Salomon grinned a tiger’s grin. “Oh, I think I’ll get one. And when I do, I’ll go right for that cracked third rib. I wonder how you got that.”
Bosun blinked and then scowled. “You’re a bit too observant for my comfort.”
“What’s to discomfort you, big man? Me all tied up here and you hiding behind your armor and your cronies. Is something worrying you?”
“I don’t need to listen to this!”
“Maybe you should anyway.” Salomon calmly stood up and his bonds fell away from him. Slowly, the others in the room noticed what was going on and gradually stopped their singing and shouting to look at him in astonishment. Drink had apparently dulled their wits enough that none of them thought to pull a gun. Salomon examined himself fastidiously and flicked off a few specks of dirt.
“I ought to make those bonds tighter next time,” Bosun said with a scowl. “Or maybe break one of your legs for good measure.”
“You’ll have to take me down first, big man.” Salomon took a step forward, smiling faintly. “Think you can do it, Sir Bullfighter? Or do you have to have your pets do it for you? Is that why you’re their great big leader?”
“Listen, punk, I can knock you out in two rounds any day of the week. I’d just rather not kill you yet.”
“Well, what else are you going to do with me?” Salomon took another few steps forward. “I’m not as entertaining as the ladies here. You might as well use me for sport. Who knows?” And here, his smile darkened. “Maybe you’ll be doing me a favor.”
They waited tensely. And then Bosun brayed in laughter. “I like that attitude, Mr. Salamander. What do you say you join my group here?”
“Take me out all by yourself and maybe I’ll consider it.”
“Fine, why not. Shouldn’t take more than a few minutes.”
“Without that plate armor.”
“Oh no you don’t.” Bosun grinned. “We don’t do that honor and fair fighting thing here. You’re doing this my way.”
Guilden finally realized what was going on and shouted, “Everybody clear out! Give them some room here.” And with a series of loud bangs and scrapes, everyone had retreated away from the center of the room. Bosun had strapped on his breastplate by now and rose to his full height until his head nearly brushed the ceiling. No other head in the room so much as reached his shoulders, and the floor trembled slightly with each step as he walked up to Salomon. The man in white regarded the behemoth quietly. Out of the corner of her eye, Josie saw Madeleine crouching down with both hands over her mouth, eyes wide with terror.
The combatants stood no more than a breath away from each other. “Your move,” Salomon said.
Bosun didn’t wait to be invited twice but swung out with his arm. Salomon really was fast, and probably faster indeed than Josie, she had to grudgingly admit. He dodged under the wide arc of Bosun’s arm and dashed to the side. Josie thought she saw his hand reach out toward Bosun and grab something, but she couldn’t be sure. Bosun turned with a roar to face Salomon again, and then he stopped suddenly.
“What the…?” he said. Something in his armor was creaking. He looked a little off balance somehow.
“A peculiar thing about people your size,” Salomon said clinically, “is they can’t actually support their own weight. People aren’t meant to be as tall as you. They normally need braces like the one in your armor just to stand up.” He walked around behind Bosun, but the giant couldn’t seem to turn to follow him.
“You don’t take care of your equipment very well though,” Salomon continued. “The supports were all corroded So I just had the lady pour a little something down in there to dissolve the rust away while you weren’t looking. I think they should be just about to give out now.”
There was a loud snap. Bosun fell with a cry, and Salomon’s foot lashed out to kick him. The huge man stumbled forward a few steps and then crashed into one of the vertical beams holding the whole ramshackle structure up. “Run!” Salomon suddenly commanded Josie, and she ran as if she had been waiting all this time for this moment—which in fact she had been. Salomon quickly grabbed Madeleine’s hand and jerked her out the door right before the whole house came down with the other seven gang members inside. They cried and yelped as they realized what was going on, but it was too late by then. The roof tumbled down on them like an egg shell under a horse’s hoof.
When the dust had cleared a moment later, they were all trapped inside, moaning in pain but seemingly still alive. Salomon whistled tunelessly as he walked among the wreckage and then retrieved a set of guns—his own as well as Josie’s pair and Madeleine’s rifle. He tossed them out, and Josie caught her weapons and gave them a quick check. Their balance didn’t seem to have been disturbed, and the sights still seemed aligned properly. Then she looked at the sun and saw that it was beginning to set. She sighed. Her bonds just hadn’t been meant to make it to market.
“Hey,” she called out to Salomon. He was loading a bullet into his gun now.
“You gave Madeleine something to dissolve the rust?”
He smiled then. “You mean why didn’t I give it to you?” He looked at Madeleine then who had fallen back to the floor and was staring at the wreckage. “A dirty trick from you is exactly what everybody would expect. They weren’t paying much attention to your friend, though. And she’s smarter than she looks.”
“Wait a second,” Madeleine suddenly exclaimed. “You’re not just One Shot Salomon. I know you somewhere from a story my great-grandmother told me. What was it, I was so young…”
The name popped up in Josie’s mind just then. “Vash the Stampede, you mean. But that’s impossible. He’d have to be over a hundred years old by now.”
Salomon was chuckling. “Oh, him? I wonder what stories they tell about him nowadays. A world-class idiot is what he was. Always running around shouting, `Love and peace!’” Salomon suddenly raised two fingers in a victory salute and widened his eyes exaggeratedly. “Everyone has a right to live and nobody should fight ever! We should live together in harmony and brotherhood!” Then he lowered his hand and stared moodily at the debris. Bosun’s groaning was becoming audible now.
“He would have been running and screaming in terror through this whole thing,” Salomon said with a sardonic laugh. “Unless there was a donut around for him to grab, then he’d be docile as a pup.” He turned away with a sigh and began to walk away. “And the damnedest thing about it all is my dear brother might have been right all along anyway.”
“You’re his…” Josie stopped at a loss for words. Come to think of it, wasn’t the legendary gunfighter supposed to have a silver handgun instead of a black one? But then that meant this was… “We almost never heard anything about you in the stories,” she called to his retreating back.
“Good. They wouldn’t be very good stories for children to hear.” He stopped for a moment. “Let’s just say I owe something to your family. Both of yours.” He started off again.
Josie suddenly smiled. “You must be more like Vash than you think if you could handle all this without anyone dying and without even using a single bullet.”
“Oh. Right.” He suddenly turned, raised his gun and fired. The fuel tank near the house burst up into flame with a boom followed by the cowering whines of Bosun’s men. One Shot Salomon turned back the way he had been going. “That ought to be bright enough for the authorities to find you.”