Authors: James Axler
“Who happens to be a highly important man in the Association,” added Colonel Toth, who was obviously not easy to squelch.
“Happened,” Snake Eye corrected. He decided the scar-faced man had to be better at his job than he appeared to be, for his baron and general to put up with him. Or perhaps just that much better than whomever Jed could find to replace him. Thinking on it, he considered the latter the far more likely possibility.
“Allow me to introduce myself,” he continued. “I’m Snake Eye.”
“That’s the name your mother gave you?” Jed asked.
“That’s irrelevant. It is the name by which I am known as the premier assassin in the Deathlands. I understand you have chilling work you want done—targeted retribution against those who have done you and your flesh-and-blood wrong.”
“Consider my little announcement presentation of my bona fides.”
“Ridiculous!” Toth exclaimed. “Intolerable!” Or so Snake Eye guessed that’s what the man had said, anyway; the man was sputtering like an engine with water in the fuel line, so he was hard to make out.
Jed made a chopping gesture with the edge of his hand. “Oh, bullshit, Bismuth,” he said. “It’s not as if that fat nitwit Big Erl is any big loss. He mostly was a device for turning huge amounts of food into flab and gas.”
He leaned forward on his throne. His eyes glittered like polished shards of glass from a predark beer bottle.
“This job could use a man with skill and balls,” he said. “Since nobody’s shown a hint of having enough of either to track down the cowardly coldhearts who killed Buddy and bring them back here to face my righteous wrath.”
Snake Eye reckoned he ought give the man his props for having the presence of mind to speechify for the benefit of his hangers-on even in the grip of such apparent passion.
“I’m your man, Baron,” Snake Eye said.
“Fair enough,” Jed said. “Get the fuckers who killed my boy!”
“Do you know the miscreants’ names, Baron?”
Jed settled back in his chair with a look of something like wild glee on his narrow rumpled features.
“Like they were tattooed on the inside of my eyelids,” he said. “A man named Ryan Cawdor, his whores and cohorts.”
“Ryan Cawdor?” Snake Eye said. “Long drink of water, lean as an old gray wolf, shaggy black hair and a lone eye as blue as mine is yellow? Travels with five friends?”
Jed frowned. “You know him?”
“Let’s say I know of him,” Snake Eye said. “He enjoys a certain...reputation in the circles I run in, Your Excellency. My professional fraternity, if you catch my drift.”
Toth utter a crow-caw laugh. “Well, you’re wrong about one thing, mercie,” he said. “This coldheart has six worthless bastards trailing the tails of that long coat of his, not five.”
Snake Eye raised a brow. “He must’ve added a new member to his pack,” he said. “Interesting. So, he had with him a big strapping redhead with tits to here, a somewhat shorter black woman, a gangly white-hair, a sawed-off runt in a hat and spectacles, and a young albino of slight stature?”
“Albino,” Snake Eye repeated. “Someone born without pigment in skin, hair and eyes. People commonly mistake them for mutants.”
“Anyway,” the baron said, “the fucker had one more coldheart running with him. Just a kid, not much bigger than the...albino. Looked like a Mex.”
“Interesting,” Snake Eye said. “His son used to run with him, then up and disappeared. Cawdor’s particular about those he lets tag along with him. Well, so that’s seven targets, rather than six. Sweetens the pot, I should say. Wouldn’t you, Baron?”
“I’ll pay whatever price you ask,” Jed rasped, his face now suggesting an open wound, “if you get them and bring them back. But the one-eyed bastard and his two bitches—they have to be alive.”
Snake Eye nodded. “And so they shall be, Baron,” he said. “But understand—you don’t bring down a man like Cawdor cheaply. To say nothing of his pack. A formidable bunch, all told.”
“If he’s so nuke hot,” Toth said with a sneer, “what makes
think you can bring him and his mongrels down, mutie?”
“Because while Cawdor’s good,” Snake Eye said, “I’m the best. I’m the fastest blaster in the Deathlands, far faster than any man. And I always carry out a contract.”
From an inside pocket of his long black duster he drew a black cheroot, flicked a match alive on the talon of his thumb and lit up.
“Now,” he said, puffing blue smoke, “if you’ll kindly order up one of your lackeys to bring your new partner in righteous retribution a chair and something fit to drink, Baron, let’s talk us some turkey, shall we?”
A pair of big dust-colored oxen nodded long-horned heads as they strained into the padded yokes that pulled the covered wag. Riding just out in front was a serious-looking trooper in a blue tunic and a black hat, holding a Winchester-style lever-action carbine in a gloved hand. Ricky had no way to tell whether it was loaded with black powder—the preferred propellant for both these Protectors and their Uplander rivals—or smokeless, like the blaster he and his friends carried. It was rare enough to see a longblaster in either camp that wasn’t single-shot, and indicated better than the young soldier’s fierce and self-important expression that the cargo the five wags carried was worth protecting.
Ricky, lying on his belly on the cool earth, watched the convoy’s slow progress through the open sights of his fat-barreled carbine. The nearer pair of outriders came so close he could have made a good shot of hitting one with a thrown rock...no more than twenty yards away.
But the blue-bloused riders never glanced his way.
The day was bright, the sky blue, brushed with a few purple chem clouds. Their new pals in the Uplander Army told them real Deathlands orange skies and acid rainstorms were rare in these parts, this time of year; they tended to hit more in late summer and autumn. It was a cool day despite the bright light of the sun shining down from halfway to zenith.
The wag convoy rolled along a rutted dirt road that ran down the middle of a wide flat-looking expanse set among stretches of rolling country, a few miles west of the Des Moines River. The river was fairly wide here but not deep enough to be navigable by boats carrying much cargo, which was why both sides depended largely on land resupply.
But the “flat-looking” part was a cruel deception. It seemed to offer no more cover to Ricky’s eye than his poor mother’s dinner table did. But he’d spent his whole sixteen years of life on the island of Puerto Rico, which was mostly mountainous.
The landscape, already showing many signs of greenery despite the fact this morning’s breeze bit through Ricky’s light scabbied windbreaker with winter’s teeth, in fact broken by many hummocks, folds and clumps of vegetation. No matter how unimpressive the area looked, it offered an impressive quantity of what Ryan called “dead ground,” spots too low to be covered in the field of vision even of a person on horseback.
Jak, at first his bitter rival and now his increasingly inseparable friend, had installed him in his current hiding spot behind a bush of some sort that was beginning to bud out, its base, as well as him and his carbine, concealed by long windblown tan grass.
Watching over his open sights, waiting, Ricky felt a twinge. It wasn’t as if he owed a duty to the bluecoats. They had treated them badly, stolen their stuff and tried to make them soldier slaves in the ranks, fresh meat for the Uplanders’ black-powder cannon. And, of course, there was still what their commanding general’s son, Buddy, tried to do to Krysty and Mildred.
But he didn’t have anything personal against this young soldier, nor the trooper in the grimy-looking long-john shirt with the blue rag tied around the arm and the pair of baggy blue canvas pants, who sat on the board beside the driver of the lead-covered wag cradling a short double-barreled scattergun. Nor the other gun-riders in the five-wag convoy.
owe a duty to his friends, and to his lost sister, Yamile. He needed to stay alive long enough—somehow, against all odds—to cross her trail and free her from the unknown mainlander to whom El Guapo had sold her.
The trail rider came abreast. Ricky tried hard not to see the details of the gray-stubbled jowly face of the Protector cavalryman as he lined the top post of his front sight up on the right ear, just below the black slouch hat. He had already gulped a deep breath, trying not to make a gasping sound that would give away his position.
Then he let out half the breath, steadied himself and squeezed the trigger.
The steel butt-plate of the replica DeLisle carbine kicked his right shoulder with authority. He worked the bolt quickly as he brought the weapon back down.
The only sound that came to his ears above the sighing breeze, the creak of harness and wag wheels, the groan of bearings and the
of slow hoof beats, was the thump of the bullet striking on target, just behind the trooper’s right ear. The man slumped down and out of the saddle, chilled instantly by a 230-grain .45-caliber ball to the brainpan.
Forgive me, Ricky thought. But he believed even more strongly in duty than he did in mercy. As he mentally whispered the prayer to the dead man’s spirit, he was already lining up his next victim.
The rear rider of the pair of mounted escorts on the far side of the wag convoy was a much younger man, not so very much older than Ricky and his new
Jak, perhaps. He had long blond hair, which was a very pronounced yellow in the sunlight although fairly stringy, almost obscuring his right ear and neck. He was also a much longer shot, closer to fifty yards away than forty and moving, if slowly, over not so even ground.
But Ricky was a good shot. His fear was forgotten now and he acted without hesitation. It was what he had always been like, turned into a skill by his uncle’s teaching and stern supervision: a craftsman who poured his whole being into anything he did with his hands.
Even taking the lives of other men.
His second shot hit nearer the exact aim-point than the first and shorter one had. Ricky actually saw blood squirt from the young rider’s suddenly violated earhole as the bullet bored through his head. The kid didn’t even lose his hat until he tumbled off the far side of his shiny, dark brown mount.
But the rear right flank rider, much nearer to Ricky now, happened by triple-bad luck to be looking right over at his opposite number. Whatever words he’d been about to call to the other young trooper turned into a cry of alarm.
“Herb! What the nuke?”
The other far-side outrider, ten or fifteen yards ahead of the late and now lamented Herb, called out, “Attack! Bandits!”
Well trained by his uncle, Ricky was automatically jacking the bolt action again. The riders still had no way of knowing where he was hidden, and he could thin their ranks by at least one more before they could find him and close in for the kill.
And that was the exact moment when a fire ant bit him smack on the head of his dick.
* * *
had just ridden past J.B.’s hideout when the Armorer saw the trail guy fall out of his saddle. He allowed himself to feel satisfaction in what the youth he had taken under his wing was accomplishing for his friends. Kid comes through for us again, he thought.
His face and body remained immobile as he kneeled behind a low, humped mound that was almost certainly some predark car, stranded by an EMP trashing its electrical or just running out of fuel. Most likely it had been drifted over by blown dirt, then overgrown with grass and weeds.
His location was a calculated risk. The buried long-derelict automobile was a fairly obvious hideout spot, a bushwhacker, of course. But even if it was just dirt under there, it would give cover as well as concealment—maybe better than the old wag body, if it was of cheap late-1990s construction, as was most likely. But J.B., like Ryan, had reckoned that for all their firepower and display neither escorts nor wag-drivers would actually expect trouble, back here well behind their own lines.
The Des Moines River flowed past the Association’s capital of Hugoville as well as, further upstream, the leading Uplander settlement of Siebertville. Though wide, it also ran shallow, too shallow to allow passage by much more than canoes and flatboats, which could not be heavily weighted-down. So most of the resupply for both armies happened overland.
The small size of the wag convoy and the relatively large size of its escort indicated relatively high-value cargo, which was why after a couple of days scouting, the companions had targeted this convoy.
A handful of heartbeats later, the rear-left member of the pair of flankers went down. Most of the ambush group was sited on that flank—in order to minimize the risk of crossfiring one another.
Obscured by one of the wags, a right-side flanker shouted a warning. For some unknown reason, Ricky jumped to his feet and started yelling.
The lead escort was turning his horse when J.B. loosed his first buckshot blast from his M-4000 scattergun. The shot missed, but the guy stiffened as a handblaster cracked off a round.
It was Mildred
. The Armorer knew the way the thud of a .38 round differed from the big boom of Doc’s LeMat replica and its .44 cartridges.
The fight was on. The shotgun guard on the lead wag raised his double-barrel, looking around for targets. Then he jerked back against the backboard as two shatteringly loud reports exploded.
Jak, J.B. thought, swinging his scattergun to track the front-left flanker, who was spurring back toward where Ricky was hollering and dancing like a mad thing. That chromed Python made an almighty racket lighting off those .357 Magnum rounds. The weapon had a nastier report and worse side-blast than any handblasters the Armorer knew, and he knew most.
The driver of the lead covered wag had two clear choices. Well, three—freezing in panic when the shit-hammer fell unexpectedly was always an option, and a not uncommon one, even though it was almost always the worst. But the wag driver picked the one that wasn’t jumping off the buckboard he shared with the dying trooper and bounding off over the weeds like a jackrabbit. He started fumbling over the back of the box in the canvas-covered wag box behind, obviously seeking some weapon of his own.
J.B. felt mild surprise. Their new employers had told them that, unlike most of the Uplander transport, Protector wags and teams weren’t owned by the same folks who drove them. Instead of contractors, they were just more people from the landowners’ estates; their rides and draft animals belonged to their barons and bosses. So they didn’t feel as driven to defend their wags as if their livelihoods depended on them.
But perhaps the thought of the flogging his master would give him for giving up the goods without a fight inspired the man. Perhaps the driver, a burly middle-aged guy with a paunch and a salt-and-pepper bush of beard, was the hero type. Or maybe it was just the first member of the fight-flight-freeze trinity of hardwired reactions to sudden danger kicking in.
Whatever it was, it brought Jak onto the buckboard with him in a wild panther leap, white hair flying like a cavalry pennon and a bowie-bladed combat knife in his alabaster grip. The albino teen scrambled right over the guard, who was wheezing his last breaths as much through the holes in his chest as his bearded mouth, to grapple the driver.
J.B. took all this in as he lined up and loosed another blast at the lead outrider. But at just that instant the man ducked his horse between the lead and second wags. J.B.’s shot blew holes in the front of the wag’s canopy, right over the head of that vehicle’s guard, who ducked so hard he almost dropped his long-barreled single-shot scattergun.
Before he could recover, Doc’s LeMat boomed out and he jerked. J.B. swung his blaster, looking for more targets to take down.
So far it was a picture-perfect ambush.
Except for poor Ricky’s unexplained dancing act.
Ah, well. The kid had potential, to J.B.’s way of thinking.
Too bad he was clearly about to die.