I first saw him riding out near the old shipwreck to the north of the town. I was climbing on the lank, curved metal girders that rise out of the ground on the hill like the broken rib cage of an ancient monster. I had run away from home. Last night while my father and sister were arguing like they perpetually did about the politics of our stupid little world and my mother was drunk again and shouting at the waste disposal. I had taken my chance to leave it all behind me. I grabbed some water and escaped into the night.
“That’ll teach ’em.” I had thought. I had been out all night and most of the morning now and I didn’t think they had probably noticed. I was hungry, but I wasn’t ready to go back yet.
It was approaching the heat of the day and I was climbing through the carcass of this ancient beast of the sky to get a vantage on the enemy gargoyles approaching from the north. I was Germaine Gorboda, hero and leader of the Twelve Tribes of Traemfort. Or maybe I was Francois Caveat, interplanetary spy and ladies man sneaking stealthily into the enemy stronghold. I couldn’t entirely decide.
I’d never got so high on the wreckage before. (This is probably how I developed my fear of heights later in life.) But I could see far out across the desert toward the sun. The earth was flat and covered by cracks of the dehydration caused by the heat of a system with two suns. The light rippled in the heat on the horizon.
As I stared out searching for gargoyles (or enemy secrets) a silhouette grew out of the glare. It swirled and shifted and formed different shapes as I watched it. Was it a gargoyle scout? An enemy tank? A wild beast from the nether-worlds? My imagination dwindled in enthusiasm after watching its slow approach for a while and made way for my curiosity. It swirled less as it approached and formed slowly into the distinct shape of a man on horseback.
We didn’t get many visitors in this town. I started to climb down.
The wreckage was on top of a rocky knoll above the town. The road into our settlement went beneath its eastern edge. I made my way to the rocks where I could get a better vantage point on my prey.
He was wearing black. Black jeans with silver studs, a clean pressed black shirt buttoned up the front with shiny buttons and a black hat which cast a shadow over his face. I couldn’t see his eyes. Even his boots were black. He sat bolt upright as his horse walked slowly through the heat.
As he came round the knoll I saw his hat twitch up as he spotted the town. He was so splendid in comparison to us and our dusty hole of a settlement that I wonder what he was thinking then. He stopped the horse, dismounted and went round and opened his pack on it’s rear flank, the other side from me. As he stood searching through his saddlebag, he was looking around him, up at the rocks where I was hiding. I managed to catch a fleeting glance at his face as the light hit it. For a moment I thought he’d seen me, but he didn’t let on if he did, just carried on rummaging in his pack and scanning around. He wasn’t a young man, or old, ageless I guess. But well-weathered. He looked clean shaven and healthy, but tired. He had a pale complexion with the lines and wrinkles of wisdom and experience, but not of age. He pulled out a belt first, then something small which he popped into his shirt pocket. He moved around to the front of the horse, and pulled the belt loosely around his waist. It had a shiny blaster which hung low on one side which he took out, flicked open the load hatch, glanced at the charge and the clicked it shut before returning it to the holster. Then he took the small thing out of his pocket and fed it to the horse which chomped away gratefully. He mounted up again and the pair resumed their original course. I slipped away from the rocks over the back side of the knoll and flanked around them into town.
Looping around out of sight and on foot, I approached the town from behind the store and got there a little after him. I slipped between the store and Macey’s place onto the main street a little way into the settlement.
Prudence was a tiny town, like a thousand others out here. They’d all been established hundreds of years ago when the dropships crashed all over the continent. Each group of settlers had started living off the rations of their ruined ships before establishing more permanent residence. Most moved inward to build a central city, Intrepolis. It had taken a decade for them to find each other though, so a few stayed where they had made homes. The city had established a government and a currency. Before they knew it, the self-destructive capitalist society that had forced our forefathers from their native world had been rebuilt with incredible attention to detail. We farmed and we mined. We provided the food and the raw materials that made the city strong. But we were never allowed enough in return to aspire to anything more, we could only dream. Now, five generations later, nothing much had changed out here. We lived in a town with one store, one bar, one doctor, one lawman and all on the one street that I now crept onto from between the buildings.
Ed Finnegan…sorry…Officer Finnegan sat all day, every day outside his jailhouse rocking on his chair with a heavy blaster lent against the wall behind him. I was surprised now to see him stepping slowly out into the street with the blaster on his shoulder and trained directly at my stranger who was starting to raise his hands having dismounted from his horse.
“…that’s right stay right there! You so much as move pal, I’ll take that stinkin’ head straight off.” he was shouting. I’d never heard him so tense.
“I’m not looking for trouble.” my stranger defended himself, “I’m just passing through, need to pick up some bits, do some business, just passing. There’s no need for that weapon Officer.”
“Like hell you are shit-head. I know your sort, we don’t want your type around here. You just turn around a head back out the way you came or I will shoot you so help me.” Ed was shouting. There was fear in his voice. I decided he was probably drunk again. Who did he think he was? Between him and my family this town so full of crap.
People were coming out of their homes and businesses now, hearing the commotion. Wasn’t anyone going to say anything? Everyone knew Ed was a drunk, and now he was screaming at some stranger and waving a gun around like he meant to use it. Someone needed to step in.
“I can’t do that friend. I need metal. I know someone’s got some here. It’s no use to them, and I got money. I got money and I need metal. No complication, no funny stuff. Just business. I’ll be on my way in no time. I got money, look.” my stranger started to reach toward his pocket.
“DON’T YOU MAKE ONE FUCKING MOVE MOTHERFUCKER!” Ed screamed irate. The stranger didn’t make one fucking move.
That was it. I broke. First my father and sister shouting at each other about petty local politics. Then my mother, on that stupid whiskey from Father Joseph. Now this guy. The people in this town just pissed me off. I stomped out of my hiding place between the buildings and marched into the main street screaming at Ed.
“What do ya think ya shouting about Ed! You drunk again!”
“Stay back kid, you stay the fuck back!” he shouted at me, his eyes flicking nervously between me and my stranger. I kept on screaming at him as I marched into the street. I took a tack toward my stranger to put myself between him and the blaster. As I got closer, Ed stopped screaming at me and started screaming at the stranger.
“You keep your dirty hands off him! You so much as move I’ll shoot!” he screamed, I could see him getting itchy and I waned in my determination for a second. It was only a hesitation though as I remembered how much hatred was burning inside me. We kept screaming at each other.
“You been at that whiskey again Ed! You supposed to be the lawman but you always drunk! This guy is just…”
“You stay back kid! And you don’t even move fool!”
I was an arms length from my stranger when I saw Ed go to try and scratch that itchy finger he had. I didn’t believe he would actually use that weapon. My stranger saw it too and he dived toward me. He grabbed my shoulder and spun me down onto the ground where he hunched over me as shots started going off. Ed’s aim was terrible. I heard blasts hit the floor around us like raindrops. The last three hit something made of metal really close. I started to look around to see what it was and spun onto my back, still underneath my stranger who was between me and Ed.
“Stay down.” my stranger said. I looked up from the floor and into his eyes. They were black. I realised as he held me to the floor, his hands were cold. Like ice.
As he looked me directly in the eye, I saw his arm jerk round to his blaster on his hip, then out behind him. Without taking his eyes off me, he fired twice, then returned his blaster to it’s holster.
There was a deathly silence.
Ed had been shot once in the heart, and once between the eyes. My stranger hadn’t had much resistance to anything he asked for after that. But he gave a more than fair price for the artefacts he wanted. It was a couple of antiques from the shipwreck that had sat on old Bernie’s mantlepiece as long as he could remember. He got 150 credits for them. He was pleased as punch.
An hour later Ed’s body had been picked up by the undertaker. My stranger had got on his horse and left just has he had promised. As I sat on the stoop to the store and watched him disappear in to the swirling heat haze, I spotted my mother and father approaching from the farm in their transport.
“Hey squirt!” Dad said. “Where ya been? Your sister’s been worried sick. Had an adventure? Come give me a hand, we got to get some supplies from the store. Fancy some chocolate?”
I didn’t answer any of his questions. I just followed along quietly.