There were smiles on their faces, but their eyes were cold. Even the young lad sitting high on the wagon seat had eyes of slate and a sneer on his face as he appraised the stranger who had come out of the dark.
Richard Seth had just forded a narrow river when he heard the men a little while off. He’d approached carefully, guiding his horse expertly through the woods until he could make out the glow of their campfire. There, instead of halloing the camp as was common practice, he took the time out to study the men sitting around the overly bright fire. Two minutes told Seth all he needed to know.
“Hallo, the camp!” he called out and waited for the response. A wry smile teased his lips at the activity around the campfire. He didn’t fail to notice one of the men disappear into the woods and the young buck leap into the wagon seat and crouch down. It was all evidence enough that it would be foolish to believe whatever these men had to say.
“Hile, stranger!” someone, presumably the leader of the group, called back.
The ritual done, Seth led his horse into the clearing, taking care to avoid staring into the blazing fire. It was the first mistake that the group of men had made, and they were paying for this now, having to hold arms above their eyes to make out the form approaching them. Seth made certain that he stayed close to his mount—he even made a point of putting the horse between him and the direction that he saw the other man disappear. Safety first, a close friend had once told him. Business second.
There were three men left around the fire. Two had risen to their feet when Seth entered the clearing. Seth assumed both were wearing pistols, but could only see one set, poorly hidden under the man’s jacket and exposed when he lifted his arm over his face to ward off his night blindness. The man who remained seated was dressed neatly in black trousers and shirt. He was trying to appear nonplussed by Seth’s arrival, cleaning his fingernails with the point of a dagger, while his eyes sneaked peeks from their corners. This man Seth figured to be the leader. It was to him he spoke.
“The night is still warm.”
“Yes, but no doubt it’ll chill soon.” The man spoke in a monotone, pausing to inspect his nails in the wavering firelight. “Bit late to be out, isn’t it?”
“I was in the process of finding a camp,” Seth told him. “It looks like you’ve beaten me to this site.”
“Mm-hmm,” the leader said. He resumed his manicure.
In the pause in the conversation, Seth scanned the campsite. He saw the young man move slightly on the wagon seat and suppressed the urge to smile. The other man was no doubt deep in the woods, watching. Seth hoped that the protection offered by the horse would be enough.
At length, the leader continued the conversation. “So… where are you headed, stranger?”
“I’m heading north,” Seth said, turning his attention back to the leader. He noticed the way that the leader paused in his attentions to his fingernails, an action he’d been using to feign disinterest. In reality, he was listening hard to what Seth was telling him.
“North you say?” Now, there was an edge to the man’s voice. He’d lost the monotone as excitement crept in to replace it. “What makes you head north?” he asked. “Are you a prospector?”
It was here that Seth decided to play his first card; a lie, but one with the express purpose of seeking information. “Yes. A prospector.” He had no idea of what towns lay ahead; the leader had supplied the little tad of information from which he now began to spin his story. Obviously, the gang here were after men of a specific trade, and if that trade was prospecting, then Seth ventured that the trade of the men here was robbery. They’d claim that they were prospectors, too, which the leader did.
“We were heading north, too. The Tyneham Fields are yielding fruitful hauls.”
The coincidence will now be backed up by superficial evidence. Namely, pans and shovels and other implements of the prospecting business. In his inspection of the wagon, Seth had seen some of these. His keen eye could tell that the shovels were brand new and were yet to bite the earth. The pans were also new; these gleamed dully in the campfire light.
But what gave them away was the wagon. Seth had been following a northern trail now for several weeks. In that time, he’d been with other prospectors heading north. The flow of traffic north far outweighed that heading south. So the fact that the wagon’s wheels cut their ruts from a northward direction, coming south, meant that they were as much prospectors as Seth was.
“Maybe you’d like some company north,” said the leader, rising slowly to his feet. He wasn’t tall, but was made larger by his presence. He pointed towards the fire where a cooking pot hung over the flames. “Or at least some warm food and company for the night.”
Seth nodded. “That sounds good,” he said. Then with a slight movement of his head, he indicated the boy on the wagon. “But I’ll wait until the four of you have eaten before I help myself. You can call the boy down. I mean no harm.”
That was his second card. He made it clear he knew of the boy, at least. He gave them the idea that he was prepared for trouble and had taken time out to have a good look around. He didn’t say he knew about the fifth member of their group; he was smart enough to let that go. The suspicion of the leader was already triggered when the boy blew his cover, sitting up, rubbing tiredly at muscles supposedly aching. Seth wasn’t surprised to see him lay a rifle over his legs as he stretched his back.
They would have waited for Seth to get comfortable, and then, they’d jump him. Had Seth slapped leather, the boy would have shot him. Now, that surprise was taken from them. That left only the mystery man in the forest. Seth knew from experience that if he showed them he knew about this guy, then they’d kill him now. They wanted to lure him into a false sense of security with no risk of injury to their number. Seth wanted them to feel that they were succeeding.
“Where can I tether my horse?” he asked, knowing full well that the men’s horses were tied behind the wagon, on the northern side. Right now it was best to show he knew nothing.
“Joe,” the leader said, pointing to the fat man to his right. “Show our guest where he can tie his horse.”
It was another excuse to have a look at the camp, the wagon and the tools. It also gave Seth a little time to check out the men themselves; those who he could see, anyway. The man called Joe was a sweaty pig. The smell of his sweat swept over Seth in nauseating waves, even from a distance of five metres. He talked in the manner of dullards, with lots of words poorly articulated, many of the gaps between words replaced with “uh,” and “ah.” What Joe lacked in intelligence he made up for in strength, pushing horses this way and that when they went through the pack to find a tethering post for Seth’s horse. Seth wasn’t slow to notice his tethering post was in the exact middle—the last place anybody would look for a new horse.
With that done, Seth followed Joe back to camp, his eyes downcast, looking at the supposed prospector’s boots. For someone whose job was to wrench precious ore from the earth, this man sure kept a decent shine to his boots. It was the same with the other two men and the boy perched still atop the wagon. All of them wore neat chambray shirts of colours ranging from black (the leader) to dusty red (the boy). They were all reasonably well-kept individuals, too. Not a hair put awry, or a dirty fingernail. Seth doubted that between them all there was a hard day’s work.
He was led to a little camping stool directly opposite of the leader, who was busying himself with the iron cooking pot merrily boiling over the fire. Now this large pot looked like it’d been used frequently, if only to fill the bellies of the bandits who owned it. At least in that there was some honesty.
Seth was directed to sit, which he did without argument, and a pewter mug and matching bowl were thrust upon him. Here, he played his third card. With a hiss of pain, he allowed the contents of the bowl to spill to the ground.
“You idiot, Joe!” the other man shouted, with the young buck’s laughter hot on its heels. “You’re supposed to let the broth cool before passing it round!”
Only the leader appeared apprehensive about Seth’s ploy. He said nothing though, filling Seth’s bowl afresh from the pot before ladling some into the other bowls. When the others hogged into their meal, Seth followed suit. He didn’t touch his drink, but surreptitiously vested himself of its contents on the ground with the first bowl of food.
At length, after banking the fire, the men all made deliberate attempts at yawns, succeeding in various degrees to make it plain that they were exhausted from a hard day’s riding. Only the leader resisted the urge to play the actor, choosing instead to summon Seth to his side and engage in palaver. This Seth did with some trepidation, given that to sit where the leader indicated meant putting his back to the others. On the same hand, to refuse or make an issue of the situation would bring the leader’s scorn.
While the others slept (or indeed, feigned sleep) Seth and the leader conversed. The first thing Seth learned was the leader’s name. Ted Nolan. Ted had been prospecting for some twelve years, even though the hand he offered to Seth to shake was smoother than silk. His gaze never met Seth’s as they talked, preferring instead to stare into the depths of the fire. Seth on the other hand, looked at the man talking, knowing that to stare into the fire would shrink his pupils and render him night blind.
A few hours later, the leader, genuinely tired, stretched his body in an elaborate yawn. Seth knew this was a signal, and followed suit. Very soon, he’d stretched himself out on a camp bed and waited until the leader had settled down on his. Then he waited until the leader’s breathing settled down into long steady draughts that indicated true sleep. While he waited, he deliberately tossed and turned, making it abundantly clear that he was far from settled.
As soon as the leader’s breathing settled, Seth acted. He rolled carefully onto his side, the side farthest from the men ranged around the fire, and bunched his sleeping bags into an approximation of a human shape. Then, keeping to the shadows of the now dying fire, he crawled under cover and waited.
He didn’t have long to wait. Joe was first awake, sitting up slowly with a creak of leather. He had a gun in his hand. He was followed awake by the boy, whose job was to simply point his rifle at where Seth lay. The third man had a knife. He crawled slowly over to where he thought Seth lay, making very little noise.
What happened next happened in a matter of heartbeats. The man with the knife grabbed the blanket, whipped it back and placed his knife straight where Seth’s throat should have been. He began to bark an order: “Get up!” or something like that.
He didn’t even have time to flinch in surprise. Seth shot him from where he sat undercover. The bullet slashed through the man’s throat in a spray of blood and he dropped to the ground with nary a scream. The boy squeezed off a shot—aimed not at where Seth really was, but the roll of blankets. That was the only shot he got in. Seth shot him in the chest with his second shot, and then Joe with his third.
Three bandits were dead, that left two to be accounted for. But Nolan had rolled quickly away when the shooting began, and Seth didn’t see where he’d gone. The hidden man he knew was waiting somewhere in the periphery, lying in wait for the moment something went wrong—a moment such as now. But a situation like this wasn’t one he’d have been expecting, so he kept down, out of the way.
If Seth was a fool he’d have went out into the clearing. Instead, he squatted where he was, eyes scanning the campsite and nearby foliage for signs of movement. It was quiet in the aftermath of the gunfire, a thick, heavy stillness broken only by the sound of Seth’s heartbeat. His pistol still smoked in his hands, the acrid stench reaching into his nostrils.
Minutes passed. Long, drawn out minutes. Still Seth didn’t move. He was waiting and would wait as long as it took. It didn’t take too long, anyway. He heard rustling on the far side of the wagon, a few curses. Then someone shouted loudly: “Ted, you idiot, I thought you said you could take him. He was but one man.”
Seth smirked. It turned out that Ted wasn’t really the leader after all. It would explain the mistakes he made.
“How were we to know he was a gunfighter?” Ted shouted back.
“Did you check for guns?”
“Never occurred to you, did it?”
“I bet he knew you were all carrying, didn’t he?”
“I don’t… know…”
“He saw the kid on the wagon, did he not? And he knew I was out there. Didn’t you see the way he came into the camp? He put his horse between me and him. He’s a fox, this man. And he’s not going to stop until we’re dead.”
Seth listened to this conversation, heard the timorous tones to Ted’s voice and the strident confidence of the real leader. He wondered what kind of man the leader was, and what drove him to being a bandit and killer.
“So… what do we do, Jacob?” Ted asked.
“We have to show the fox that we’re the hounds,” the leader said. There was an edge to his voice that Seth didn’t like. Nor, so it seemed, did Ted. Seth heard a scuffle, a few muffled cries, then a shout:
“No! I don’t want to!”
Then there came the dread sound of the hammer of a pistol being jerked back. This was quickly followed by a whining shout: “He’ll kill me!”
“Not unless I kill you first!” came the retort.
Then Ted staggered into view, limping into full sight. His eyes darted left and right, indicating to Seth that he had no idea where Seth was hiding. That was just as well… but Seth knew that the man Jacob wanted him to shoot Ted so that Jacob would know where Seth was. It was a cold blooded ploy, but Seth expected no less. Not from men who would kill and rob a man they’ve just met.
The conundrum he faced was whether to shoot Ted now, and expose himself to an unknown assailant, or to try and move around so he could see Jacob. The former he risked Jacob getting an easy shot at him; the latter, he risked both of them spying him and shooting.
He sucked in a deep breath, watching Ted walk into the centre of the clearing, towards where the three bodies lay soaking in pools of blood. Before long, Ted crouched down beside them, snaking a hand out to try to find a pulse for each of them. But they were dead, despite Ted’s best attentions. Now Ted rose shakily, disbelief painting a nervous picture over his face. He found it hard to believe that after years of thievery, one lonely man could upset his livelihood. Suddenly, a roar escaped his mouth. He became more animal than man, pointing his guns in all directions and squeezing the triggers, sending volley after volley of hot lead into the air. Instinct made Seth drop to the ground even though it was unlikely he’d be hit. He wondered vaguely whether Jacob had taken the same evasive action. It took no time to ascertain that this wasn’t exactly the case.
Short seconds after Ted’s pistols registered nothing but clicks, there was a single deep resonant BOOM, and Ted pitched over, a dark smear spreading over his shirt. Jacob had blown him away just as surely as he would have Seth had he had him in his sights.
Silence, cold and hard, returned to the world. Seth could smell gun smoke and newly spilt blood in the air; he could feel tension like a tightly drawn wire. Then a voice, a deep gravely growl: “Stranger? Are you out there?”
Seth said nothing, just waited.
“Stranger, I’ve a proposition for you,” Jacob said.
Still, Seth said nothing. He did, however, slide home three bullets to replace those he’d used to kill Joe, the kid and the other guy.
“Look… I don’t want any more trouble. My gang is now reduced to one… and well… Ted, the idiot, has sucker punched me.”
Seth remained quiet, letting the silence fill the pause once more.
“I’m coming out,” Jacob said after a little while. “If you promise not to shoot.”
“Throw your weapons out first,” Seth told him, standing now, gun pointed at approximately where he thought the voice came from. He’d taken a couple of steps out of the clearing now, and was in plain sight of anyone who would be seated before the fire.
After a short pause, two pistols landed in the dirt just shy of the wagon.
“Now, your weapon, stranger.”
“I’m returning it to its holster now,” Seth said. “But I’ve got my eye on you. If you do anything funny, I will shoot you.”
“That’s fair,” Jacob said, and limped out from behind the wagon. He had indeed been sucker punched—or sucker shot, as the case may be. There was a large hole in his left thigh which was bleeding freely down his leg and into his boots. He hadn’t been quick enough to drop when Ted went berserk.
“Let’s make a deal, stranger,” Jacob said. “A life for a life. We both bury our grievances here, and walk away.”
“You’re a smart man, stranger,” Jacob conceded. “You took the time to study my men. I saw it all. You suspected that there was something in your food, and you were right; there was. A sleeping draught. My men use that ploy all of the time. That way, you sleep and slitting your throat would be easier. As it was, they knew they’d have a hard time because you’d be awake. So Ted tried to keep you awake longer than the rest of them, to wear you out. But you did that trick with the blanket rolls. You are quite the gunfighter.”
“I’d like to thank you for the complement,” Seth said, “but I think that would be ill advised. Your purpose here was still dark, and no amount of honeyed words are going to give that respite. I suggest you turn and walk away now, while I am in control of my patience.”
“Agreed,” Jacob said. He turned around and mumbled something under his breath.
“What was that?” Seth asked.
“I said, ‘how does it feel to die?’” Jacob shouted, and in one fluid action, spun on his heel, drew a gun from under his shirt and fired.
But Seth had suspected a ruse all along and had palmed his weapon as soon as he’d finished his last question. Jacob was a quick draw, but Seth was much quicker.
Jacob fell to his knees, and with his last breath, cursed the stranger who played the fox to his hounds.