Dead Gulch lived up to its name. A two-bit hick town that was little more than a dirt track flanked by a couple dozen wood shacks. My beast growled low and mean as I started through and then reared up in yet another fool attempt to unseat me. I had to dig those rusty spurs in long and hard, twisting the boot heel like I was squishing a scorpion. My Halfie let out that familiar nerve-gnashing howl and settled down real quick.
I knew the twin wounds in his flanks must be pretty ugly by now, but felt no remorse. From time to time I had to remind him who was boss or he’d eat me alive. Still, I’d rather ride a Halfie than a regular horse any day. When the going got tough, at least you could count on the Halfie to do his own fighting, while the plain ole fillies and stallions just whinnied and neighed and flashed their big white eyes.
Speaking of which, it had been awhile since my Halfie had eaten anything, he was probably hungry enough to eat a horse by now! Probably the reason for his friskiness. I’d have to get some grub into him soon or he’d be munching on the first available animal in sight—or human.
The first couple of shacks claimed to be a store and an undertaker. A pair of old fogeys were sitting on the stoop of the store, jawing baccy. One of them spat a mouthload of blood-red juice in my direction as I rode by. It hit the dirt and rolled into a neat little spitball. I felt my Halfie clench the bit between his jaws and jerk his head briefly; he was that hungry, poor sumbitch.
The Undertaker was a short, thin type, so pale he could have passed for one of his own clients. His black suit was frayed and threadbare at the seams. Even death didn’t profit none in Dead Gulch.
The third place was a saloon and I turned in there. My throat was parched drier than an old whore’s cunny and I’d forgotten what real whiskey tasted like. I’d sipped a little snakejuice with some injuns back by the mesa but even that was a while back.
There were a bunch of horses tied up outside the saloon and a sullen-looking kid sitting by them, not caring that his left shoe was in my way and liable to be stomped on. His eyes widened at the sight of my Halfie and he stood up, swearing in Mexican.
“Watch it, Pedro,” I said, dismounting. “He’s a live ’un.”
“My name is Juan,” he said with that puffed-up pride some kids develop when they’re forced to fend for theirselves. “And I have seen many Halfbreeds before.”
I handed him the reins, making sure to keep my hands well away from the beast’s chomping jaws.
“Yeah, well, you ain’t seen this one before. He’s a cross between a Texican red wolf alpha and an Arabian mare. Ate his own afterbirth, then started on his ma. By the time they dragged him off, she was down to bones.”
Juan’s eyes goggled and he stepped back a couple of steps from my Halfie. I figured he’d treat the beast with a bit more respect now. If he didn’t, well, he’d end up as dinner and solve my feeding problem.
The saloon was a dusty smoke-filled place that was busier than I’d expected. The sleepy ghost-town feel of the main street belied the jumping-jack bustle in here. Bunch of cowpokes had a poker game going back by the bar, and a dozen or so other tables were occupied by maybe twenty or more menfolk, every last one with a shot glass or beer-mug in hand. A couple of dull-eyed floozies lounged on barstools, their waist-high slits and flabby thighs advertising vacancies. A stairway led up to areas unknown. A piano was tinkling off to one side, played by a fey fellow in a hat half as tall as himself. Right up front, before me: the bar. A long gleaming wood-and-glass showcase of liquor that made my mouth water with whiskey-need. Damn, but those bottles looked good.
The minute I walked in, conversation died. The piano tinkled on for a couple seconds before the pansy thought to turn his head and cottoned on to the new entrant. The poker gang froze, their hands held in front of their faces like ladies at church fanning themselves.
The bartender, a big-bellied fellow with an ugly lightning-shaped scar on his bald scalp, reached below the counter and brought out a double-barreled shotgun. He held it loosely, letting the barrel swing casually in my direction as I approached. The whores sidled away, their mouths scrunching up in disgust.
“We don’t let injuns in here,” said the bartender. His name was Big Jim, I figured, because that’s what the sign on the front said, Big Jim’s Saloon.
“I ain’t injun,” I said. “I’m Indian. Not the kind from around here, the other kind. From India, you know. The country that Columbus first set out to find when he accidentally tripped over this floating pile o’ crap.”
Big Jim pumped the action of the shotgun and pointed it right at my head. “We don’t allow no other kind neither. That includes Chinamen and your breed, whatever you are. We don’t take kindly to foreigners here.”
“Especially no foreigner wimmen,” hissed one of the whores, looking me up and down like she’d like to strip me and flog me right here and now.
“Unless she’s a whore,” said an old coot across the saloon. “With a hankering for white cock and no charge for it either!”
That brought a big laugh from the house.
“Red,” said a fat man with a reedy high voice near me. “You’d fuck a nun’s nose on Easter Sunday and still go to church, you would!”
“Hell,” Red replied. “I’d fuck anything that moves as long as it’s female and doesn’t have more than six limbs, though if it’s got a purty face on it, I’d make ’ception there, too!”
That brought the house down. My eyes swept the room quickly. I gauged the mood of the place and figured that about half or more didn’t really give a hoot if I drank there, and all of those were curious to see if I put out. The rest were indifferent. They didn’t give a shit whether I got fucked or killed. I was just a colored foreign cunt to them. Not human.
None of them looked like any real trouble.
Except for the man over at the poker table. And Big Jim.
“Shut up, Red,” he said now, raising his gravelly voice to be heard above the drunken ruckus. “All of you shut up.” The laughter subsided somewhat. “I ain’t allowing no coloreds in here, be they hos or any other kind of wimmen. Now, you git, you brownskin. Git out of here. And if you’ve half a coon’s brain in that there skull, you’ll git back on your mule or whatever fool critter you rode in on and keep going till you’re out of town. We don’t need your kind here in Dead Gulch, you here me?”
My hands were at my hips, where I always keep them. Ready for action. Although he was so big and slow, I could have taken him even if I had a whiskey bottle in my right hand and the other hand up my ass.
“Whatsa matter, cunt, din you hear the man? Get your brown ass out of here now, or there’ll be hell to pay.”
This came from the poker table, from the man sitting facing me directly. He had a high pile of colored chips sitting before him and a shiny five-pointed star badge pinned on his shirt.
“Is that like an official warning, sheriff,” I asked innocently. “Or are you just saying it to air your bad breath?”
This time the silence was so acute you could hear the piano player sniggering in the corner, then cutting himself off abruptly with a sibilant self-admonishment: “Wilbur, behave yourself!” That man had some strings loose in his under-damper.
The sheriff shoved back his chair and rose slowly to his feet. The four other men at the table rose, too. Two of them backed away quickly, the better dressed ones, but the other two turned to face me, and they both had deputy’s badges on.
Big Jim’s face split into a wide grin. He lowered the shotgun slightly to aim at my chest now. I think he liked the view better; I’m what they call well built in the chest department.
“Honey, you should of left while the going was good. Now we’re going to see if your insides are as brown as that leather you call skin.”
He should have been shooting instead of shooting his mouth off. I took him with my first shot off the right. With my second right hand I took a deputy. My left hands took down the sheriff and the other deputy. And my third pair of hands stayed on the rest of the patrons, but never needed to fire a shot.
It was over in about two seconds.
The only four shots fired were mine.
The silence continued so long, I could hear my hands rustling against the back of my shirt as they sidled back into their specially tailored pouches. I slid my Colts back into their holsters with a practiced swivel, followed by my Remingtons next, but left the little pair of hands, the ones perched high on my back, pointing the Deringers at the rest of the crowd. You never knew who might be inclined to imitate the folly of his fellow men.
Nobody objected when I took the bottle on the bar, caught the cork between my teeth and pulled it out with a sucking pop. The whiskey gurgled happily into my shot glass and then down my hatch. It burned real good on the way down. By the third shot, I began to feel almost human again. Figuratively speaking.
I turned and faced the rest of the room, leaning against the bar.
“Anybody else have a problem with Indians here?” I asked. “Or wimmen? Or any other kind?”
There was a loud rustling of clothes and clanking of glasses and bottles as everybody turned back to their drinking and cards without another word. The piano player was gaping at me as he scratched his high hat.
“Wilbur,” I said. “Play something.”
He saluted, almost knocking the hat off, and began to play some redneck shit. I didn’t care. All this whiteskin crap sounded the same anyway. I turned back to the bar and continued drinking. The mirror was good enough to give me fair warning if anybody tried to act funny behind my back. I guessed Big Jim had it installed for just that reason.
The whores were looking sideways at me as I drank. One of them sidled up to me real slow, acting coy-like. Same one made that bitchy comment about wimmen when Big Jim had his big shotgun pointed at me.
“Goodness me,” she said. “You’re one of those Mixed Breeds, aren’t you? Six hands! And they all move like lightning, don’t they, Mona?”
Mona didn’t reply. She was busy rifling through Big Jim’s pockets behind the bar. When she finished, she started on the cash register.
The bitchy whore reached out cautiously and touched my back, around about the place where I stored my topmost pair of hands.
“Jesus, if I hadn’t seen it with my own bare eyes, I’d never of known they was there. How do you keep them tucked away so discreet-like?”
I turned and looked at her. “I have slits in my back. They go all the way into my flesh, to my ribcage. The hands fit right into them, so I can massage my own heart if I want to when I feel like it. You want to see it for yourself?”
She blanched. Then she swore and turned away. I saw her going over to the poker table and starting on the sheriff’s pockets. Nice friendly town.
The old fogey they called Red came over to the bar. He walked with a kind of limp that I knew wasn’t a limp.
“I hope you didn’t take no offense to my comment about fucking a thing with six limbs or more,” he said. “Seeing as how you got eight of them. Or eight that I can see!”
“No offense taken,” I said. “Especially from a man with an extra foot.”
His eyes grew wide. He drew closer, lowering his voice to a whisper. Nobody else heard us; they were all too busy trying hard to look busy.
“I was born with it,” he said. “My pa always said it was because my ma lay with one of your kind before she begat me. Beat her to death over it one day. Then threw my ass out of the house.”
I nodded. I had heard a hundred stories like it. But I spoke to him kindly: “Time’s coming, old man. When our kind won’t have to hide or pretend anymore. Not just half-breeds. But all manner of folk that happen to be different. Including Indians, both the kind over here and the ones in my country, Chinamen, and every other color in this world. Finally, beneath the paraphernalia, we’re all the same, aren’t we? Flesh and blood, bone and soul.”
He looked at me intently for a long time.
“You’re different, ain’t you?” he said at last.
I offered him a drink in lieu of a response. He hesitated, then shrugged and took it.
“You shot all the law in this town,” he said. “Not that it was very lawful-like, to tell you the truth. And ain’t nobody goin’ to mourn Big Jim either, except that he knew how to mix up a great evil-smelling batch of stuff to cure hangovers on Sunday mornings.”
He paused, scratching the swelling on his right leg, which was actually his third leg tied tight to the side beneath the cuff of the trousers to look like a clubfoot.
He went on.
“But the Dead Coon Trashgang will be out in force now. Sheriff Dolan had a kind of working arrangement with them, so they sort of stayed under control. But now that he’s gone, they’ll be free to do as they please. Which is no skin off your nose, but it means the few half-decent folks in this shitty town will be hard-pressed to stay alive and in one piece.”
I thought about that for a while. For about the time it took me to finish the bottle. He waited patiently while I drank, barely finishing his first. I figured him for one of those temperate folk.
When I had enough whiskey in my belly to make me feel like life was worth living again, I said: “So you’d like me to take out these Dead Coons or whatever they call themselves? Is that what you’re saying? Rid the town of some trouble-making varmints?”
He nodded. “Seeing as how handy you are with a gun and all.” He frowned. “With six of them actually. What do you call yourself anyway?”
I opened a fresh bottle. “Six-gun Vixen.”
He smiled at that. “That’s rich, that’s mighty rich. Six-gun, hey? Well, you got six of them all right!” he guffawed, slapping his thigh with pleasure.
“And what’s in it for me if I do clear up this Trashgang for you folks?” I asked.
He didn’t answer. He was still shivering with laughter over that last one. He slapped his double thigh again and launched into another series of guffaws. “Six-gun Vixen! Mighty rich! Six-gun! Haw haw haw haw!”
I drank some bourbon and waited. The saloon had gone back to normal-like, almost. A few men had dragged the dead lawmen out back, leaving large scarlet trails in the sawdust-strewn floor. Nobody seemed to miss ’em much, I noticed.
When the old fogey had finished having his funnies, he resumed.
“Well,” he said, wiping the tears from his eyes and looking like he could be set off with a feather. “Seeing as how you’re so handy with a gun—with all six o’ them, matterfact!” He coughed and managed to control himself. “Mayhaps the town’s merchantfolk would be able to rustle up some kind of compensation for your cleaning up them varmints.”
“How much?” I asked, glancing around. This bunch didn’t look like they had two whole dollars between them, but then again, who was I to argue with people if they wanted to throw their money away? Besides, maybe these Dead Coons were bad enough for honest folks to want to pay to be rid of them.
He worked his jaw for a moment. “Seven silver ones. One for each o’em. Leastaways, there was seven last we heard. Could be more by now, they multiply like vermin.”
I sipped a little more bourbon. “Gold ones,” I said. “And one for each one I kill, seven or more.”
He sputtered. That wasn’t very funny, evidently.
“You’re out of your head! That’s half a year’s earnings for this town!”
“Way I see it, old-timer, is if you don’t flush out these Dead Coons or whatever, you won’t have any earnings. So you put it to your people and ask them which is better, paying up my fee or paying the piper. Either way, it’s the same to me. I ride on tomorrow, coons or no coons. And oh yeah, I’d need at least three of those gold ones up front. Way I see it, I already did you people a favor by offing those no-good lawmen. Them was free, so I’ll adjust it against any Coons I kill. But you tell those merchants that’s my final offer. Take it or leave it.”
He blustered and fumed a bit. Then he went away for a spell, leaving the saloon. I watched him shuffle out on that folded leg of his and didn’t think he’d be coming back. Before I was halfway through the second bottle, there he was by my side again. He seemed sulky now.
“Awright,” he said, grumbling. “But they’re only paying two up front. Rest on delivery. And they want the job done today. Before the Coons learn about the dead lawmen and come calling. Means you got till sundown to bust the gang.”
I took the large gold sovereigns he gave me and examined them both, first with my teeth and then with my eyes. They had Lincoln on the front and good old Sam Eagle on the back, and they was both real. One thing about Dead Gulch: At least their gold was good.
“So what are these Dead Coons anyway? And where can I find them?”
“Down by the old millhouse. By the river.” After a moment he added: “They’re nightcrawlers. Better get the job done before sundown, or you won’t get out o’ there alive, six-guns or no six-guns.”
• • • •
The millhouse looked abandoned from the rise, and as I rode down toward it, not a soul moved nearby. The river was little more than a piss-trickle, and the area looked blasted and seared by more than just desert sun.
“Easy, boy,” I said, controlling my beast’s nervousness as he smelt the familiar stench of his most natural rival. He had eaten well. A calf I’d bought from one of the ’steaders Red introduced me to. I’d taken first blood, biting the neck of the calf with one quick motion and shutting my eyes in something near ecstasy as I tasted hot, living blood and quivering flesh. It had taken all my self-control to keep from finishing the whole steer myself. But I’d left more than three-fourths for Halfie and he’d gorged himself fat and sated. I could feel him grumbling as he carried my weight beneath this blazing afternoon heat. He’d hoped to rest a good two days and nights. And he would, just as soon as I finished with this little business here.
As I reached the outskirts of the property, I got off and whispered to him to be silent. I should of tied him up but he wasn’t goin’ nowhere with a bellyful of steer so I left him loose. I moved real quiet, walking so my spurs didn’t jangle none.
Boards creaked underfoot as I walked up the back stoop. I sniffed and caught the odor of a hundred different things, all mixed up together like a bag of sweaty rattlesnakes. There was wolverine in there, and dead flesh, and milk, and—
What in Ram Hill were a bunch of vampires doing with milk?
I shrugged that one aside and stepped slowly over a warped board. The place was in pretty bad shape. If these Dead Coons or whatever they called theirselves had a human familiar who cared for them by day, he wasn’t doing his job. There was all sorts of nasty stains and spills around. I stepped carefully to avoid getting my boots all gummy: Nothing sticks like dried vampire blood, except maybe an elephant-zombie’s eye-mucus. Trust me, I know.
The door was ajar. Which was an invitation to disaster. No bunch of fangers leaves their door unlocked unless they want you to hie on in. I flicked up my hairy ears as far as they’d go, which is about four inches over the top o’ my head, and listened real carefully. My wolf-sharp hearing was good enough to pick up an iguana crunching on a sand-beetle a mile away. I heard nothing else except the dry wind blowing sandy dust against the walls of the shack, a sand snake scrabbling with a rat somewhere in the dirt behind me, my Halfie’s stomach groaning as it processed that bucketload of meat, a rusty hinge creaking in the wind. The house sounded empty, but it also sounded like it was meant to sound empty. Like it was waiting for me to step in and WHAM!
I went in anyway. I’d been WHAMMED! before. At least this time there was gold for my pains.
The first room was a kitchen, since I’d come into the place ass-backwards. It looked like a slaughterhouse. Either the gang had laid out a buffet or there had been one ugly bust-up in here. Severed limbs and other assorted organs, internal as well as ex-, lay in stinking pools of decay. This was where most of the smells I had caught were coming from. I flicked my eyes across the place, figuring that maybe a dozen or more bodies had bought their tickets to the great abattoir in the sky right here. Mostly human, but some Halfies mixed in, too.
The second room was so much worse, I had to stop and take a moment. Not to refer to my pocket Gita, but because this was a bit rich, even for my omnivorous digestion. I’ve seen some bad scenes in my time and will probably see several more before I eventually become part of one myself, but this was . . . well, it was plain ugly. This wasn’t the remains of a fight. It was the debris after a massacre. Judging by the entrails and stuff lying splattered all around, humans had mixed it in pretty good with a bunch of Halfies of different breeds, and not all on a single occasion either. This was an ongoing campaign that had taken place over several encounters in as many days.
The only thing I couldn’t tell for sure was who had massacred who. As for the why, that’s one question I never ask, for fear I might actually get an honest answer. I don’t know about humans, but we Halfies don’t gel with the concept of killing for killing’s sake, or for any other reason except feeding. Like the motto above a Halfie slaughterhouse in the Kansas outback: “We Waste No Part of the Humanimal.”
Standing there in that large empty room, I felt like I could be in that slaughterhouse again, except that these hunks of flesh and stuff were way past saleable. There were more maggots and flesh flies around than in most graveyards.
Barely a second after I’d stopped, I heard a whisper of sound from further inside the house. I moved in, my hands at the ready, two guns already out and cocked. The whisper came again, and I knew without a doubt now: There was somebody here. Somebody alive.
I came through a hallway with three doors leading off it. I went to the middle door and went through it. I was real careful and full-alert, ready for anything. I didn’t want to add to the body count in this slaughterhouse. So when I saw a figure move in the shadows by the far wall, I shot first and thought later.
The echoes died down like the wind in a gulley before a storm. My Halfie snickered outside, recognizing the sound of my Colts. A scorpion perched on the windowsill fell onto its back, dislodged by the reverberations of my double discharge.
I was across the room before the scorpion hit the floor, my Colts pointed straight ahead, the Deringers at the sides, and the Remingtons watching my back.
There was a bloody pile of bones and rags that might have once been a living thing, slumped against the wall. Two fist-sized splatters of blood low-down on the wall marked the results of my gunmanship.
I used my boot to kick the thing over onto its back, ready in case it was playin’ possum.
It was a kid. That was the first thing I saw and the thing that got me straightaway, like a horse-kick to the temple. A kid.
I holstered the Colts and scrunched down. The kid was still stirring as I pulled off the rags wrapped around its face and arms. The stench that it gave off was worse than the ones in the other rooms; dead rotten flesh is ugly, but live rotting flesh is gut-cutting.
It made a mewling sort of sound and I knew then that it was catbreed, a werecat of some sort. Too mixed to be able to tell the species, but a cat for sure. No mistaking those whiskers, furry ears and the feline eyes.
And it was female and fully grown, I realized with a shock. A mature adult, but so scrawny she looked no bigger than a kid.
By sniffing the hormonal soup of its sweat and groin secretions, I could also tell she was dying. Not just from my shots—those had been the last nails in a coffin long closed—but from hunger and thirst. She was starved.
Its eyes . . . her eyes . . . were opening and closing slowly, as if the life-light was flickering like a lantern on a windy prairie. I started to get up to go outside and get my water canteen, but then her dusty lids flickered open and I swear I was looking down into the most beautiful eyes I’ve ever seen, ’fore or since. They were green as jade, like a carving of a little Chinese laughing Buddha I’d once seen in Hunan city, but flecked with gold speckles. Green and gold, sparkling, and if they could sparkle so bright now, I don’t know how good they’d’ve looked in the right light. Like gemstones, I guess. Flawless gemstones.
She would have been a purty thing, if she’d lived and taken some decent nourishment. But from the looks of those wounds and the way her breath was starting to wheeze, her living days were done. She looked up at me, and for a moment I thought she was going to snarl or lash out one last time ’fore dying, like catbreed mostly do. She could see I was wolfbreed and we’re natural sworn enemies, species-wise.
But she didn’t do none of that. Instead, she sort of stared at me as if memorizing my face. Somehow I could tell by the way she looked at me that she wasn’t afraid of me none. Should have been: I had just shot her guts out and a chunk of her liver and I still had six guns ready to blow more holes in her wasted carcass. But there was a sense of connection. I swear I could almost feel her thinking that she was so glad I was female. That’s what I saw in those eyes.
“Cubs,” she said. Just that single word. And rolled her eyes downwards, as if pointing. I looked, but there was nothing there except floorboards. “Cubs,” she said again, and coughed a low, feeble, cougar-like cough. And died.
Slimy brackish blood oozed out of her mouth like a large snail, spreading over her chest, which was barely covered by a holey poncho. And I saw the bumps on her chest and the tiny circles of wetness around about the place where her nipples were.
That’s when I remembered the milk-smell. The only one I couldn’t figure out in this place of death and decay. She was lactating. Which meant there were young ’uns nearby. Cubs, she had said.
I found the trapdoor right beneath my feet. Cleverly concealed beneath a layer of grime and sawdust. She had died guarding the way to her cubs. I don’t know how long she had been up here, but it was too long. She’d probably been checking on the cubs from time to time, and from their condition, I’d say she had been giving them milk until they were all but drinking her blood. Mayhap she had given them some of that, too: Catbreed were said to do it when unable to feed their cubs otherwise. But these were no vampires, Dead Coons; they were plain ordinary catbreed cubs.
There were eight in the original litter. Two were dead a long time, three more had died recently. Painfully, from the rictus of pain their little cat mouths were screwed up into. The three surviving ones were the toughest of the lot, but even they had turned to biting one another and themselves out of sheer desperation. Still, they snarled as I leaped down the trapdoor onto the dirt floor of the cellar. One of them got to his haunches and showed me his little cat fangs, protecting his little brother and sister. He was the first-born, I could tell. We first-borns tend to recognize one another.
He was a tough little tyke. It took him a while to accept the fact that his mother was dead; he kept licking at her whiskers and face as if trying to wake her up, or wash her. Catbreed are big on washing each other up. His smallest sibling, the other male, was a scrawny bunch o’ bones, and he seemed heartbroken at his mother’s stillness. He sniffed the ichor that had oozed out of her jaws and lay down, mewling. I didn’t think he’d make it. Their little sister was quiet and calm. She was weak from hunger and was conserving her strength. Her little belly, swollen with gases, heaved and fell, fighting the good fight to keep breathing and stay alive. She panted silently as I picked her up in one hand, then scratched me a deep short gash on the back of my hand.
I smiled at her. She had her mama’s eyes.
When I rode back into town, the late afternoon sun was just starting to slant across the deserted street. I had made just one stop, at the same farmer’s place where I’d bought the steer for lunch. He wasn’t around, but there was a cow on the place, and I got enough milk out of her to give the cubs the best goddamn meal they’d had for weeks. The little male puked his out after a few licks, and I could see a little blackish red in the puke: He was hurt inside and wouldn’t last the night. But the other two looked at me like I was their long-lost aunt Matty come home for Christmas with a whole wagonload of goodies.
I knew there was something odd about the fact that there was nobody in sight on the main street—hell, the only street, and that shoulda warned me—but I figured that Dead Gulch was one of those towns that are big on siestas.
I went to the saloon, thinking there had to be someone there. And I was right.
The whole town was there, waiting.
And this time they were ready for me.
They had the old man Red trussed up real good against the bar, spread-eagled with ropes going around him and around the bar. He was bloody and his extra foot had been exposed and was flailing helplessly. The ropes had bitten through his skin, and though I couldn’t see much blood or harm, his eyes were rolled up and he seemed to be in a bad way.
That was what got me. I wasn’t expecting it, and when I looked in over the swinging half-doors of the saloon and saw him trussed up that way, I walked straight on in.
Right into the ambush.
There were two of them beside the door, waiting. I don’t know what they hit me with, but it felt like a ton of iron. I staggered, my guns starting to come out, but the other one hit me on the side of the head and I just crashed out clean.
When I came to, I was the one tied up on the bar, and Red was washing off the pig’s blood with a sponge and bucket. I knew it was pig’s blood now ’cause I could smell it. If I’d just trusted my animal sense instead of my fool human instincts, I’d have known that straight off. He and the other boys looked mighty pleased about their little circus act.
“Ah,” he said, seeing I was stirring. “The boys here thought that they’d done bashed your brains to mush.” He chuckled. “I told them that Halfbreeds like you only have half a brain to start with. And since you’ve got foreign blood mixed up, too, you prolly don’t know how to use even the half-brain you got!”
There were guffaws and grins all around at that. The saloon was back to normal again. Everyone drinking and carousing as before; even the piano player was tinkling, his high hat swaying as he tapped out the beat. The whole siesta-time charade had been just for my benefit. I didn’t feel too appreciative though. My head bled like a leaking coconut, and the ropes really were cutting into my flesh real cruel-like. The pain in my head kept rhythm with “On Top of Old Smokey.”
Red got up and came over to me. Crouching, he half-squatted and leered in my face. “Took these back,” he said, showing me the gold coins he had taken from my pocket while I was out cold. “Figured you wouldn’t be needing them no more.”
He pocketed them.
I tried to ignore the throbbing in my skull. “You sent me there to flush out the rest of the catbreed. You had lost too many men already trying to get rid of them, so you figured I stood a better chance, being a Halfie myself.”
He grinned, turning to look at his back-up players.
“Hey, boys, looks like she might have a little sense in her skull after all. Maybe a little rubbed off from the humans she spread her legs for, hey?!”
They roared raucously in response.
“But you’re a Halfie, too,” I said. “Your leg—”
He struck me so hard and sudden, I didn’t have time to even clench my stomach muscles. It felt like the front of my stomach met my spine. Spread out like I was, it took me moments before I could start breathing again.
“I’m no Halfbreed,” he said, his eyes flashing with an anger and vigor that belied his age. He pointed to his leg, now strapped up and tucked out of sight inside his trousers again. “This is a birth defect, you hear? A birth defect!”
I didn’t say anything. I was too busy trying to hold in my digested lunch.
He took out a long ugly knife. A Bowie. The serrated edge gleamed like it had been polished for hours. He hadn’t been using it to carve woodchips, for sure.
“You creatures are a curse on the land,” he said. “Sent by the Lord to remind us of our sins.”
I sighed. Another Bible thumper. I should have known when I first laid eyes on him; he had that fanatic gleam in his eyes. And a love of violence. The two made a combination deadlier than a poison-filled rattle and fangs.
“But now the time of the plague is done. The day of redemption draws nigh.”
He was loud enough to be heard across the room. Everybody kept on with their business, like they’d heard him make this speech a hundred times afore; but as he went on, they chipped in with “Hear ye, hear ye,” and “Amen,” at just the right moments, never stopped their card games and whiskey swigging and whore-nuzzling. This was prolly what passed for Sunday school in Dead Gulch.
“We, the promised children, shall take the land back from the cursed ones. Death to the mutants and Halfbreeds and all other filthy verminous abominations!”
“We shall cleanse the land with their blood, and feed their carcasses to the jackals and vultures and hogs, and shall wipe their damned kind off the face of the Earth.”
“And then the Lord shall look down on us and say, ‘This is good,’ and he shall reward us with life eternal and paradise on Earth again. Eden shall be our land, and we the children of Adam will rise again to take our rightful place among the angels of the Lord.”
I had a feeling he’d mixed up his Bible lessons somewhat, but it didn’t seem like a good time to correct him. I was busy trying to work on the ropes that bound me. His men had taken away all six of my guns, but they forgot that a she-wolf’s greatest weapons are her fangs and claws. I kept my claws retracted mostly; the guns were quicker and cleaner most of the time. But I extended them now and began to saw through my ropes discreetly. Fortunately, Red was shielding me from the eyes of the others, and he himself had his back to me as he played preacher. Some of the men were getting that glaze-eyed look I’d seen before, less from the whiskey than from the preachin’. I figured that he was riling them up to something. With me hogtied up here, it didn’t take a genius to figure out what that might be.
He droned on some more about the Apocalypse and the Day of the Slaughter and stuff like that, until I got tired of listening.
But I heard him loud and clear when he called for them to bring in the cubs.
The men were slow-witted from the religious spell he’d put them under and he had to repeat himself.
Red hit one of them upside the face. “Bring them in,” he said again.
I stopped sawing as the room grew quiet. I had left the cubs in a hay barn at the farmer’s place, a mile or so out of town, so they could digest their milk and sleep on a full stomach for a bit. But of course, the farmer was one of them. They all were taken up by Red’s madness.
My blood ran cold when one of the towheads that had ambushed me came in with the cubs in his paws.
I had a rough time as a yearling. A really rough time. Nothing I’d care to talk of under suchlike circumstances, but let’s just say that I got mad if I saw anyone mishandling young uns. Spittin’, cursin’, slicin’, bitin’, fightin’ mad. Even killin’ mad at times.
When I saw what these human bastards were going to do to the cub, I felt the anger rise up in me like bile in a pig’s gullet.
Old Red had the Bowie to the little male’s belly when I slashed through the last of my ropes and broke free. He looked up as I leaped to my feet and I saw his eyes flash that same grin he’d first greeted me with. He hadn’t just been sayin’ it; he really was the sort who would fuck anything with legs, two or more or less, except that he was also the sort that would kill it once he was done having his way with it.
He grinned widely and raised his right hand so’s I could see clearly.
And then he impaled the cub on the point of his Bowie, digging it in with a manic, religious glee.
Half a dozen men had their guns out and were on their feet. This time, it wasn’t just the sheriff and Big Jim and those slow-witted deputies: Red had been right about one thing, they had been the only things keeping the Dead Coons safe in town. Except that the real Dead Coons were right here in this saloon, walking on two legs, and the citizens Sheriff Dolan and his badge had been protecting were the catbreed clan out there in the millhouse—if you can call turning the occasional blind eye to a massacre or two protection. Ayuh, it’s a stretch, maybe, but part of being a Six-gun is having a touch of sixth sense; I just knew.
I could have taken all of them with just my fangs and claws, but I’d have a dozen bullets in me before I was halfway across the room. And though we wolfbreed do heal fast, we can be killed.
But Red had twisted that Bowie in that little half-starved tyke, and it was dying right there in the sawdust, and he had the other two lined up for slaughter as well, like some crazy sacrifices to his cause. And I would rather die than stand by and see three cubs get butchered. Bad enough I had shot their mother dead. True, it was this human bastard that had tricked me into going out there, but my bullets had orphaned them.
We stood there for a second or two in a Mexican standoff. Then Red called it. I could see from the look on his face that he wanted to put more than just his Bowie inside me, and maybe all the other men in the saloon were also hankering for a taste of the same apple pie. But I was free now and conscious, and there was only one way this standoff could end.
“Shoot her,” he said quietly. Smart enough to know they couldn’t take me alive or in one big enough piece. And turned his attention to the next cub, the female. She mewled softly as the Bowie rose above her, big as a guillotine to her scrawny little neck.
The sound of the saloon picture window exploding was deafening. You never heard glass crash that loud before. Because when my Halfie came through, he didn’t just charge in, he roared. And you have to hear a well-fed healthy wolf-horse mixbreed roar to know what it’s like. Blood curdles instantly at the sound, and then turns to cheese.
He burst through the window at my whistle, which I’d given out the moment I burst free of the ropes. Landing straight on a large card table. The table legs collapsed under his weight, and the four men sitting there were pinned like flies under a swat. The sound of their thighbones crunching was like gravel under hooves. My Halfie was in full fighting mode, his claws lashing and slashing in four directions at once, decapitating two men with a single swipe, turning the faces of another three to red mush in an instant.
Before he hit the floor, I was on my way, leaping in a series of arcs that took me from one end of the saloon to the other. As I went, lunging and leaping like an acrobat in a show—or a wolf in the middle of a horse herd—I cut open bellies and slit throats with vicious force. I had six hands to do it with, and my Halfie had four, and between the two of us, we were like fire and brimstone to that group of misguided, drunken Bible thumpers.
Reaching the far end, I rolled over, and when I came up on my feet, I had all six of my guns back in my fists. They’d slung them onto the piano, and as I took them, my claws slicked the piano player’s tall hat into shreds. He howled and fell to the floor, cowering and wetting his pants.
Then I snarled at Red, who was still holding the Bowie raised over the female cub, stunned into inaction by the suddenness of the violence we had wreaked on his world.
“You were right, Red,” I snarled. “The Day of Slaughter is at hand.”
And I filled him with bullets before he could even start to turn around. He went down in a blur of blood and gristle.
It didn’t take more than another minute or so to clean up the rest of the place.
By the time my Halfie and I were done, there were only two humans left alive in Dead Gulch: the piano player, and Juan, the little horse-minder.
He was sitting on the porch outside when I emerged with the two cubs in two of my hands. He was sitting like it was just another sunny day and he was just minding the horses as always. But I saw from the way he flicked his brown eyes up at me and then down again that the killing inside had rattled him, and he feared for his life, too. I didn’t blame him; I had just wiped out the entire population of Dead Gulch.
“Don’t fret, son,” I told him as I calmed my Halfie down. “I don’t have nothin’ to do with hurtin’ young ’uns, and I don’t parlay with those that do neither.”
I got onto my Halfie, who groaned with satisfaction, still chewing on someone’s leg. It had a double joint and two feet. I realized it was Red’s. That beast will eat anything, anytime.
I flicked the horse boy one of the gold coins from the cache I’d found on Red.
“Here you go, Pedro,” I said. “Take a horse and ride on somewhere else where the people ain’t prejudiced. World’s got enough killing and hatin’ in it without adding more.”
He pocketed the coin and spat a mouthful of baccy on the dusty street. “My name is Juan,” he called out to my back as I rode off. “I’ll be seeing you again someday, Six-gun.”
I grinned as I rode out of town, the two cubs peeking out of the pockets of my saddlebag. Juan. Sounded like a good name to give a spirited catbreed first-born. Now all I had to do was think of one for the female. Juanita maybe. Yeah, why the hell not.
Any darn handle would be better than Six-gun Vixen.
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