The yellow dog had been walking through the Salted Desert for days, its paws and fur matted by the stuff on the lifeless dirt. From time to time, it would lay down to alleviate the pain in its legs. They were full of cuts made by the rough terrain and the salt had seeped on the exposed flesh underneath, intensifying the pain.
From time to time, the yellow dog would forget and lick at the wounds with its long, forked tongue. The salt would sit on its tongue and make it retch, filling its head with a horrible, burning sensation. This place was toxic to both its kind and to the bipeds that had sent it here, for vastly different reasons though.
As it lay there, its nostrils picked up the scent of something in the distance. Craning its head, it searched for the source. Focusing, despite the merciless heat beating down on it, the yellow dog saw the scent as it lingered above it, swirling in the air, a thread extending itself from the main body, like a thin tendril.
Sighing in a manner that was very much like its master’s, the yellow dog got up, flinching at the pain, as its scabs touched the salt. Letting out a yip, it then looked back at the main body of the scent and adjusted its sight. There it was. Just a stone’s throw away.
It slowly trotted toward the source. No longer having any reason to hurry, it closed in on the small, desiccated thing that had been its target. Looked human in shape, though just barely. It was a bundle, curled into a ball, its arms frozen round its belly, its knees all the way up to its chin. There was a circle made out of dried blood around it that smelled foul, like human waste. Its face was a mask of agony, its jaw unnaturally distended. The thing that was once this bundle must have died screaming.
The yellow dog crawled closer to the bundle and stuck its muzzle up to it, gently poking till it turned the thing around, so it could get a second whiff. The side that was on the ground, away from the sun’s rays, was caked in salt, but reasonably well preserved.
Yes. This was the one it had been looking for.
The yellow dog placed its paw on the bundle and extended its neck, opening its mouth wide open, much, much wider than a dog would. Its forked tongue crawled out of its mouth, extended and let out a soft schlipp sound, as wicked barbs extended from it. The tip of its tongue slid under the bundle’s eyelids and wrapped itself around the soft eyeball, tugging at it.
Releasing the eye from its socket, the yellow dog gave it another tug and severed the withered nerve. Then it retracted its tongue and placed the eye behind its back teeth, taking great care so as not to pop it.
Its mission accomplished, the yellow dog realized it had no real reason to hurry and decided to make the most of it. Moving the eyeball under its tongue, it shoved its muzzle into the dead man’s mouth and chewed on his tongue. It was salty and dry, but it was spiced with the terror of a slow and violent death.
The yellow dog savored the taste. It tasted like a five-day hunt through the desert, like the slow death of hope and death by agonizingly slow poisoning. It tasted also of a man, with a face like chiseled granite and eyes like pitch black beads.
It was the best meal it had had for a good while.
“Last train to Raker’s Bluff! All aboaaaard!”
The gambler shut the suitcase that contained his wares (and his entire fortune), tucked it under his armpit then rushed inside the wagon, as it began its crawl across the station. The wagon was packed and he almost fell onto a large man dressed in black, who looked him all over.
“ ’Scuse me, sir” said the gambler, tipping his hat. He gave the man his best smile, making sure he hid his missing teeth. Then, he noticed the conductor’s badge. His smile faded.
“Tickets, please” grumbled the conductor.
The gambler hadn’t been counting on that. The conductors hardly ever made the rounds this late. Now he’d have to give the bastard that one ticket he’d been saving for the trip to the capital.
“Here you go.” Said the gambler, grudgingly handing the conductor a weathered old envelope. The conductor tore at it and took out his ticket, ripping at the paper.
Go easy on it, you fat bastard. Know how many cons I had to pull to get that?
“Third wagon, cabin 2b. You can find your own way there.” he grumbled, handing him the ticket. “Watch out for cutpurses, old man.”
“I’m a man of the soil and the desert wind, my good man. Ain’t got no purse worth cutting.” Said the gambler, taking back the ticket.
Pressing through the throng on the way to his cabin, the old man silently swore at his bad luck. Round him, the mass buzzed with the sound of conversation.
“So I tol’ him, I tol’ that sunovabitch, you tryinna trick me, you bastard? Then I socked him right between the eyes.”
“So a reverend, a gunman and a tax collector walk into a bar-“
“Say there was this man, on a black horse-“
“Get outta here!”
“I was passing through Vane flats, then see, so I suddenly hear some gunshots and then-“
“Hear that talk about Government people disappearing all over the place?”
“I heard that there was a Vas’Iiri agent done got killed in Thornsville…”
“Keep having this weird dream. There’s a yellow dog, see…”
“Watch it, old man!”
“Stop shoving, it’s bad enough as it is!”
The gambler went through the wagons, entering the third. He let out a sigh of exhaustion. Human conversation always took a lot out of him. Conning a man, now that was easy. There was just two of you and you steered the talk any way you fancied. But this? This was like trying to eavesdrop in a swarm of angry wasps.
Crossing the corridor, he looked for his cabin. There was someone already in there, his head hung low, sleeping soundlessly. That’s a shame, thought the gambler. Could’ve passed the time with a bit of chit-chat. Opening the door quietly as he could, he sat across him.
He’d just opened his suitcase, ready to open himself that bottle of wine he’d been saving, when the man across him woke up. The gambler almost shot up on his feet.
“Damn. Scared the bejeesus outta me.” He muttered. The man across him straightened the creases on his duster coat and tipped his broad-rimed hat at him. The gambler could tell he was armed.
“I’m sorry if I woke you.”
“Care for some wine?”
“I don’t drink.”
“Going through the day sober? Man oh man, you play it rough, don’t you?” Pop. “Got a name or should I call you stranger?”
“Stanger sounds good. What’s yours, then?”
“Uh-uh. You don’t give me your name, I don’t give you mine. I’m the gambler.”
“Nope. Just a poor lonesome gambler with a peddling problem. Been called a cheater by sore losers across the regions numerous times, though.”
“What’s your game then, gambler?”
The gambler smiled, as he leaned to snap his briefcase open. Fumbling inside, he took out a weathered old deck of playing cards.
“Klaberjass, bezique, ombre, you name it, I can play it, stranger. Take your pick.”
“Got anything else in there? Or is it just stacked with playing cards from top to bottom?”
“Just my wares: leather belts, playing cards, tobacco, some things for the ladies to pretty themselves up so they can sink their claws in unsuspecting men.”
“Sounds like you’ve set yourself quite a trap there, haven’t you?”
“I’ve never tricked someone into playing with me yet, stranger. And I see you still haven’t picked a game.”
“Ever heard of Spite and Malice?”
“You play Spite and Malice sober? Brave man.”
The gambler took out his deck, removed the two Gremlin cards and shuffled. The stranger stared at his hands the whole time, tracking his every move.
“That’s a northerner’s game, isn’t it? You a rockbiter, stranger?”
“Is that what you southern softskins call us nowadays?”
The gambler stopped shuffling and placed the deck on the collapsible tray between the benches.
The stranger cut the deck slowly, never taking his eyes off the gambler. Returning the stare, the old man drew the card at the top of his pile. The stranger did the same, not missing a beat.
“Hermit. Guess I’m going first.” Said the stranger.
They went through the first round, drawing cards and throwing them on the piles. The gambler seemed about to win that first round, when the stranger went ahead and drew an Emperor, taking the entire pile in his hands.
“That’s one-nil, gambler.”
“Bet you’re pleased as punch, beating a man three times your age. Bet your mother would be proud.”
“She would. She taught me, after all.”
The gambler gathered the cards and started shuffling them again. The stranger stared the whole time.
“What’s a rockbiter like you doing this far down south? Thought you people melt in the heat.”
“I’m here on business.”
“What kind of business requires carrying a gun?” said the gambler and saw the stranger tug at his duster coat, obviously alarmed at this.
“How can you tell?”
“You sit like you’re carrying a gun, you look at me like you’re carrying a gun and you talk like you’re carrying a gun. You ain’t exactly discreet about it, stranger.”
The stranger kept his silence. The gambler placed the deck on the tray.
“You Government, stranger?”
The stranger cut the deck in silence.
“See, I can tell you’re not a gun for hire, because guns for hire don’t take the train, especially when they’re packing. Too many Marshalls move around in trains, see. It’s too risky. Bishop.”
“Damn. See what I’m talking about? There’s no discipline to this damn game. It’s just blind luck! No skill, no finesse, just…drawing cards!”
“Thought blind luck was the name of the game with you gamblers.”
“You thought wrong, stranger.”
The second round was way more hectic than the last. The gambler and the stranger tossed cards, shuffled the piles, each trying to outdo the other with every draw.
“How about we call it a tie?”
“A tie sounds good. Where was I? Ah, yes. I was saying how you don’t look like no gun for hire. You look more like a Marshall, what with the black clothes and the grim stare and the long, dark silence. Am I getting closer?”
“You’re getting way too nosey, gambler.”
“Struck a chord there, didn’t I?” said the gambler, as he began to gather the discarded piles. The stranger stopped him then, taking the cards into his own hands, and then started to shuffle.
“You’re here about the murders, aren’t you? All them people turning up dead?”
The stranger stopped shuffling and placed the deck on the tray.
“That’s just plain old hearsay.”
“Oh, come now, it’s all over the place. Heard talk of a man on a black horse, dealing out justice with his guns. Heard he waltzed into Vane Flats, took a Government official hostage.”
“Cut the deck.”
“Week later, hear people say he showed up in Thronsville, killed a man that turned out was a Vas’Iiri Jaguar. “
The gambler flashed the stranger a grin, as he cut the deck.
“Heard he took buckshot to the chest, didn’t even flinch.”
“Didn’t have you for a sucker for tall tales, gambler. Twelve.”
“Tall tales don’t spread like wildfire cross these regions, lest they got some truth in them. So what’s the score, Marshall? You better own up now. Aces.”
The stranger drew his first card and tossed it on the tray, making it slide on the varnished wood. An eight. The gambler could feel him crack. He drew the next card slowly, chipping at his nerves.
“There’s talk of the Old Guard, dealing out vengeance from beyond the grave, stranger. Of the Vas’Iiri trying to pull off another invasion.”
The gambler drew his card. Bishop. He slid the pile on his side.
“The Vas’Iiri aren’t a concern. Most of them are agents, left behind by the main invasion force. No organization, no ties to each other, no agenda worth speaking of. It’s the Old Guard that’s0 been a thon at the Government’s side. Ever heard of a man called Johren Crom?” said the stranger, drawing a card from his deck, tossing it on the tray. Empress.
“Can’t say I have.” Replied the gambler, drawing a card. Sixes. The stranger slid the pile on his side of the tray.
“He was an Imperial Gunsmith, see. Finest one there ever was. There’s word he’s still out there. That’s he’s the one behind all this.”
“Thought the Gunsmiths died off with the rest of the Old Guard, when the Revolution ended.”
The gambler drew his card. Four. He sighed and tossed it on the tray. The stranger smiled and drew his own. Four. Tie. Both cards stayed on their pile, untouched.
“That’s what the Government thought, too. They thought dropping the L-Bomb on those bastards would wipe them all out. Turns out Gunsmiths are hardier than cockroaches, however.”
“You mean they survived the Bomb?”
“No. They had gone into hiding, most likely, about the time the Revolution took off. The Government has reason to believe there are cells of Old Guard remnants just lying in wait, ready to stage a coup any day now.”
“But it’s been ten years. There’s no way someone could hide that long and make a coup happen at the same time!”
“Not unless they’ve been planning for that since the Vas’Iiri war ended. What with the dehydration bomb and the rain of salt, there’s no way the Empire couldn’t have seen the Revolution coming.”
The gambler stopped halfway drawing his card. The stranger went on.
“So, I started thinking, see. What if people like Johren Crom and the rest of the Gunsmiths had stockpiled Imperial resources just for this eventuality? What if they’d planned a decade ahead, so they could bring down the Revolution by causing a panic, strategically striking at Government officials?”
“Sounds like too much trouble. Besides, how could they take over, now that the Emperor’sdead?”
“Well, I’ve got every reason to believe they aren’t planning a takeover. They’re just in it for revenge, see. If Gunsmiths are behind all this, then they lost everything on the day the Government dropped the bomb on the old capital. They’d have lost their purpose, their backing, they’d be desperate people after a desperate cause.”
“That’s why they’d be killing people left and right.”
“That’s why I decided to check up on them. Why I decided to pour into every last bit of information on them, to track them down and find each and every one of them.”
“Don’t sound like a Marshall’s job to me.”
“It’s not a Marshall’s job.” Said the stranger, as he removed his gun from its holster. It was a heavy thing, well-oiled that clicked lightly as he cocked it. Looked like it could take down a bear with a single shot. The gambler had gone pale. “It’s Expunger jurisdiction.”
“What the Devil do you think you’re doing?”
“Taking you in. I know you’re Johren Crom, see. I’ve seen the stills. I’ve been after you for six months now. Was gonna give up, go back to the Capital, when all of a sudden, you pop up right in front of me.”
“You better put that gun back in its holster, son.”
“You better be quiet, old man. No one ever said I had to take you in alive. Now, you can be a good lad and come with me nice and quiet, or I can put a bullet in your brainpan. How does that sound?”
“I see.” Said the gambler, his expression suddenly grim. His eyes stared right back at the Expunger. The gambler’s eyes looked like little pools of emerald-green water, surrounding a bottomless pit. The gambler seemed ten years younger, somehow, his very presence taking over the cabin. The Expunger’s hand trembled, beads of sweat formed on his forehead. “You know your gun won’t work on me, boy.”
The Expunger pulled the trigger. The gun’s hammer struck a full chamber, but nothing happened. No ignition, no flash, no puff of gunpowder smoke. For an impossibly long second, the Expunger prayed to God for his gun to fire.
His prayer was answered, but the very shell exploded in the chamber. Gunpowder burned his hand and face. Shards of metal tore through his hand and bit into his face, like a hundred invisible needles.
The gambler stared at the Expunger, as he writhed and squirmed on the bench, screaming like a maniac at the pain. Calmly, the gambler walked to him, reached his hand out and took his other gun, a serviceable revolver, far less fancy than the gun that had just failed him.
The gambler then struck him with his own pistol across the head, again and again, till the Expunger stopped screaming.
““How old are you, kid?”
“Like shit you are! You look barely old enough to drink.”
The gambler pressed the gun’s muzzle against the boy’s forehead, pushing his head against the wall behind him. Gently, he cocked the hammer.
“I’m going to ask you a question. You’re going to answer it, truthfully, or I will shoot you through the head and the Expungers will have lost one more stupid bastard by my hand. Understood?”
The boy whimpered and nodded yes.
“Good. There is a man, has been seen in the region. You said he could be a Gunsmith, like me. One that’s kidnapped that Government man in Vane Flats. Know who I’m talking about?”
“Is there an Expunger squad sent out to find him?”
“There is one…in Thornsville…went to meet them when I was looking for you…”
“How many men?”
“That’s a regular posse, isn’t it? Do you know which way they’re heading? Where they’re going to look for that Gunsmith next?”
“They…they said they’d head for Sarat…said they’d look for help there.”
“Sarat? What the Devil’s in Sarat?”
“Don’t know. Kept talking about a black woman...never told me her name…”
The gambler nodded, thinking about what he’d just heard. The black woman. No, no, that couldn’t be her. They couldn’t have let her live, not after all this. But if she were alive and if she was on the Government’s side…
“Thanks, kid.” Said the gambler, uncocking his hammer. The boy let out a sigh of relief.
Then the gambler wrapped his hands round his throat and crushed his windpipe, staring at him right in the eye as he choked and kicked and squirmed, till he was still and silent, his tongue a swollen thing, popping out of his lips.
He went through his belongings and took his Expunger badge, a thing of hammered bronze, depicting the skull of a large saber-toothed cat, twin sabers crossed between its teeth. Then, the gambler set the kid’s head down, so that he’d look like he was sleeping, sat down on the bench against him and looked out in the distance, watching the world crawl slowly by.
Somewhere in the Salted Desert, the yellow dog was slowly walking home, its belly filled with the flesh of a traitor. Under its tongue, the eye that had seen its body’s killer, taken from the man it had devoured. The yellow dog traced his countenance across the forks on its tongue and saw him in its thoughts.
Now that was worthy prey.
Content and excited at the same time, the yellow dog sat on its haunches and howled. From miles away, vultures scattered and wolves cowered in their caves. In its master’s abode, a silver-lined mirror clouded over.
Somewhere far away, on top of a black horse, the man with the face like chiseled granite felt an ill-wind blow against his back. Despite himself, he raised his duster’s collar flaps and shivered.
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