Cameron had been quick on the draw. Quicker than he had expected.
Everyone in Sur was good with a gun. Half the country was wilderness, the other chaos, it made sense to have a way to protect yourself. That said, what little pride Peyton Cash still had rested firmly in his ability to get his gun from hip to head in the time it took most other men to clear their holsters.
Cameron had known this, and it had nearly been enough to get the drop on Cash. He hadn’t bothered to draw, twisting his holster on the belt itself and shooting through it. Not deadly accurate, but enough to put Cash off the steamer and into the sea. Enough to make the swim to shore one long trek through tearing agony. By the time he had clawed him way up out of the water and onto the bleached sand, he couldn’t even feel his arm any more.
The feeling was coming back now it had been sutured, however. He reckoned he had done it himself between feverish blackouts. The stitches were adequate if not highly skilled, and he doubted he would have run into someone on his way that would have had the skill to do anything more than a temporary patch job. Not this far out from civilisation.
The wound had started festering as he limped into Toil, the dying workhorse town in which he was currently laid up. Even if the rest of his body hadn’t been screeching for him to rest, that was reason enough to take a breath. The senate could wait.
Toil seemed to be inhabited by people that others would describe as salt of the earth, which Cash took to mean that they killed everything in their general vicinity one way or another. Which, in his experience, meant they were smarter than they looked, which could only be a good thing. A town of dumb hicks might make a run at him, see if they could go through his belongings for something they could hock to what few traders still ventured down to this wreck of a place, and he was too tired to get back into killing so soon.
As it was, they had largely left him to it. They directed him to an empty house where he could stay until he was well enough to travel, with the unspoken promise that it would be unhealthy to stay longer than that. They had the wherewithal to see he was dangerous, and that afforded him some measure of hospitality, but they were not shy about showing that they had their limits. They had most pointedly not asked about the contents of the cracked leather messenger bag that hung against his hip, for instance, nor about the provenance of the polished walnut and chrome firearm peering out from under his coat on the adjacent hip.
The bag was starting to become his own albatross, it seemed. Not that he had expected much else from carrying around ten pounds of crushed diamond. People had no way of knowing what it was he was carrying, of course, and yet he could feel their attentions drawing to it nonetheless, in a way that they would not if the bag contained something as mundane as spare clothes or provisions.
For now, however, the people of Toil were content to leave him be, which was enough. He spent a few days in and out of consciousness. He’d moved the bed to the far side of the room so that he had a clear view of the door, and slept with one hand on his gun just in case. No-one bothered him, but he was prepared nevertheless.
On the third day, his fever broke and he ventured out to explore the town.
The bag tugged at his wound, but he felt safer carrying it with him than leaving it in the shack. Besides, while it wouldn’t be wise to return to the senate without the object they had sent him to fetch, he would need something he could use to barter for provisions with. A single grain of what he was carrying could have probably bought him the whole town if he had wanted it.
A girl ran the store. He made it a point not to notice any of her other features. Starve the beast.
‘You got the means to pay?’ she said. Only one hand on the counter, the other out of sight. Some form of large-bore firearm hidden underneath. Smart girl.
He slowly snaked a hand into his bag and pulled out the smallest chip of diamond. It was no larger than a fingernail, but it made her eyes widen. He tossed it onto the counter and she brought a hand up from underneath to catch it. ‘What does that get me?’
She smiled. He tried not to notice her perfectly straight white teeth. ‘Anything you want, stranger.’
He gave her a list. Gun barrels, water, food, just the essentials. She had those in abundance. He bought them and left.
And, of course, they were waiting for him outside. What looked like the entire town. They’d been patient, let what shreds of intellect they had run them for as long as possible, but the masks were slipping now. Avaricious eyes in dead faces.
They were three men short of being a mob, though they had enough makeshift weapons to compensate for that. Most of them were slapping table legs into their grimy palms, the dry slap of ageing wood on cracked flesh ringing out like a round of applause at a funeral. A couple had actual weapons, hand crossbows most likely taken from others who had blundered into town.
A man took a step forward and appointed himself leader. No-one seemed to object. Cash started running the numbers.
‘We been awfully friendly to you, wanderer. Took it upon ourselves to let you into our homestead to recover from whatever ills befell you on the road out there. We reckon it’s about time you pay us back.’
Cash rubbed his neck. This man was more beard than flesh, which was perhaps why he was so respected. Most of the others managed just a few random plumes of facial hair, like wiry geysers had burst through the skin and lost their nerve.
‘It would only be polite,’ Cash said. ‘How much recompense do you think is necessary?’
A smile, less jagged than he had expected. ‘You’re trying to do that charming, city boy bullshit, aren’t you?’
‘I’m trying to expedite the process. We all know you intend to rob me. I’m just trying to ascertain if there’s a way to get it over with faster, more efficiently and without violence.’
All of them laughed at once. A sort of dry susurrus rasp that betrayed a lot of untreated chest infections. It should have been accompanied by a small puff of smoke or dust. ‘Well, wanderer, the violence is kind of the point, you see. We’ve got a reputation with the outside world. We let one of you go, and, well…’
Cash nodded in agreement. ‘I can’t say that the outside world really gives a single nugget of horse shit about you folks, if I’m honest. You don’t figure on the who’s who tables, as far as I can recall.’
‘We aim to change that,’ he said and cocked his crossbow.
Slowly, Cash dropped his purchases on the ground. The hessian bag was thick and refused to crumple in on itself, which was good. He made care to leave it open at the top so that he could see down inside. He shook his head to push his hair out of his eyes.
‘I daresay the outside world has more of a presence in this little festering oasis than you do in it, so perhaps you’ve heard of troubleshooters.’
‘We don’t pay much attention to the goings on out there, not these days,’ the man said, turning to smile at his fellows.
Cash’s gaze never wavered. ‘Shame. If you had, you’d know that we – that is to say troubleshooters – don’t take kindly to unwashed, verminous growths like you pointing things at us. You’ll find that’s a good way of getting yourself into trouble.’
‘I think you’re the one in trouble, wanderer.’
It was a perfect, seamless draw. The incident with Cameron certainly hadn’t left any lasting damage. The gun was up and clean of the holster in a millisecond, the shot fired a half-millisecond after that. The crossbow fired as the bullet hit, his aim wild, flying off into the sky. The corpse and the expended barrel hit the dirt at the same time.
He kept the gun level while the corpse’s fellows worked out what to do. The corpse had failed to quite whip them up into a big enough frenzy to just open fire. Cash knew then that he could take them all if he had to – he had five shots left before a reload, enough to take out those with the crossbows and time enough to reload to take down a good chunk of the rest – but he preferred to cow than cull. Better to have them stand down long enough for him to walk than kill most of them. He had spent too long trying to be a better person to take the easy road.
‘You… you shot him,’ one of them said. He couldn’t pinpoint which. It didn’t matter, they were one organism now.
‘He was trouble,’ Cash said. ‘I shoot trouble. Any of you fine folks want to cause me some more trouble?’
There was a moment where he thought they would actually consider it. A smart man would take the numbers into consideration and rush him, hoping enough would get through the shots to beat him down. But these weren’t smart men or, if they were, they were smarter than he expected. As one, they took a single step back, and he knew he had them.
The gun slid back into its holster without a sound. He knelt down and scooped up the spent barrel. It was still smoking and warped from the gunshot. Couldn’t repack that one. It would go on the necklace. If the old man in the clouds wanted him to remember this kill, who was he to argue? He slipped it into the hessian bag for now.
He tapped two fingers against his temple and gave the masses a swift salute. ‘Much obliged.’
‘Just… just get out.’
And he did. Picking up the hessian bag mid-stride, he made for the outskirts at a brisk but unhurried pace. Any faster and he’d invite them to detect fear in his gait, and they might start getting ideas. Although he still wanted to be out of there before they had time to clear their heads.
He scanned the horizon. You could see Tole’s Palace from anywhere in Sur, which was saying something. It wasn’t a small country, and as such had warranted a palace of equal standing – a great black monolith of a thing that was visible from the civilised coast to the frontier. The senate was always watching.
On the plus side, if you were headed for the senate, they were always easy to find. It may take a while, but you could never get lost. As much as you might like to.
In an hour or so the crowd would try to ride him down. It was what he would have done in their place. His only hope was that most of them would refuse, make up stories to tell each other about what they would have done if they had caught up with him.
There were too many ghost towns on the border of the frontier as it was.