Sheriff Slade is one of the most fearsome lawmen south of the Santa Fe trail. Hot on the heels of a notorious bandit, Three Hand Jones, and a new accomplice known as ‘The Kid’, he’s ready to send two more bandits to the gallows.
When the trap he has planned for the law-breakers goes horribly wrong, Bill Slade is left not with two devious, faceless outlaws on his hands, but a dying father and his wild daughter.
Tawny Jones, aka ‘The Kid’ is completely undomesticated, a motherless tearaway who can outlaw with the best of them – but her criminal days are over if Bill has anything to say about it. And if she won’t listen, well then he’ll just spank her lawless bottom until she does.
Beneath a big bad Western sun, a pair of redheads crouched in early sweltering heat. Black hats, black shirts, black chaps and red bandannas – anybody with a mind to avoid trouble would have given them a very wide berth. Mind you, by the time anyone knew they were there, it was usually too late.
The larger of the pair was notorious outlaw Three Hand Jones, so called because he always seemed to have an extra hand ready to hold a gun. He wasn’t the sort of man to be avoided easily. Once he had you in his ruddy red sights, you were going down. Ol’ Three Hand had been a legend for years. The smaller, slimmer man next to him was only beginning to tell his story. Didn’t even have a name yet, nothing besides ‘The Kid’.
The pair was framed in the round sights of a spyglass that drew back, leaving them as specks on the handkerchief of the plain. Sheriff Bill Slade chuckled to himself as his plan came together neat as a sundown two-step. He was a lawman with a reputation for going beyond the strict bounds of his jurisdiction. Officially, he was the Sheriff of Flagstooth, a mighty nice town of two thousand souls just south of the Santa Fe Trail. Unofficially, he had a head count of 101 dead evildoers to his name and he was likely to double that afore he retired.
Sheriff Slade was rumored to be a god fearin’ man, tall as a house and broad as an ox. When you got down to the truth of the matter, he was barely 6’3, and though he sure was broad, there was no chance of him outweighing an ox, though he might have out-muscled one. He was a fine man doing a fine job and there were plenty who hated him for it, though their number dwindled wherever he stretched out his long, lawful arm.
He was about to take down two more lawless plagues on good society, one big one, one little’un. The bounty on Three Hand would have been enough to set him up for life if he was eligible to take it. As it was the bounty would be split between their mercenary accomplices. He’d be happy taking down Jones for nothing more than the satisfaction of seeing another criminal get his comeuppance. There was no telling how much suffering Three Hand had inflicted in his career ? but it was going to end that day.
?You ready, Willis?? He addressed the question to his offsider, Steve Willis, deputy of five years.
?Flank ’em and bank ’em,? Steve said, tipping his hat with a broad grin.
Bill lifted his hat into the air, the flash of white alerting their accomplices on the other side of the ridge. Three Hand and The Kid were trapped and they didn’t know it yet, too busy concentrating on the trail where a coach laden with freshly mined gold was supposedly due to be rolling through. It had taken weeks to get the story out through saloons and gambling houses. It wasn’t true of course, it was a ruse designed to flush out Three Hand and it had worked.
At Bill’s signal, the decoy coach started rolling down the trail, about to enter the narrow neck between ridges. It was the perfect spot for an ambush. And it was the perfect spot for catching a couple of ambushers.
Bill and Steve watched as the coach entered the danger zone and sure enough, not a minute after she’d reached the point of no return, a shot was fired into the air. Three Hand and The Kid leapt out of their hiding spots and held it up.
They worked like a well-oiled piece of machinery, each attending to their respective tasks. Whilst old Three Hand threatened the driver, The Kid was cutting the horses free. He worked quickly, getting three of the six horses out of their reins before their plan came totally undone. There wasn’t any gold in that coach. But there were five burly lawmen. They came rushing out, six shooters and rifles pointed at Three Hand and The Kid.
Puffs of smoke erupted down below as shots were immediately traded. Bill swore. He’d hoped Three Hand would see how outgunned he was and go down easy. That wasn’t how it was happening. Three Hand was fighting back ? and hard.
?C’mon Steve, let’s get down there,? Bill urged. The two men abandoned their hiding place and raced down to the valley floor where blood was flowing like water. All five of the lawmen had been hit at close range. All five of them were dead where they had stood, guns still in their hands. The driver was cowering under the carriage and when Steve and Bill came to aid, he took to his heels like the devil himself was giving chase.
Horrified, but focused on the job at hand, Bill scanned the bloody mess until he saw what he was looking for. Three Hand. Lying in the dirt and blood, barely breathing. He was alive, but only just. Where was The Kid?
A bullet stung by Bill’s ear, taking his hat clean off. He crouched immediately, catching it before it hit the mess and reseating it on his dark head. Swiveling, he drew his shooter and aimed it in the direction of the bullet.
The Kid was free. He had one of the fleeing coach’s horses by the reins and as Bill watched, he flipped up onto the horse’s back with such ease that it looked as though the forces that held them all to the ground didn’t apply to him.
Bill tipped his hat back and watched, marveling at the grace and skill of The Kid, who was riding rear facing, shooter pointed in their direction. There weren’t many who could ride facing the rump of a horse, even fewer who could do it at a full-out gallop.
?He’s out of range,? Bill said, abandoning the less interesting of the two, ?We got our man. The Kid’ll keep for another day. Besides, we got ourselves enough dead to bury.?
It was a solemn and deeply unpleasant task loading the dead into the coach and with just the two of them to do it; it wasn’t a quick job either, loading what felt like large sides of beef. They had once been men, mercenaries and bounty hunters, but men nonetheless. And thanks to a ruthless outlaw, they were all gone. Every single one of them. There was plenty of cursing from Steve as they moved the bodies with all the respect that could be mustered in that situation.
?I think Three Hand is bleeding out,? Steve said. ?Should we let him??
Bill looked down at the man on the ground, the man who had not said so much as a word whilst those he’d dispatched were stacked away like kindling.
Nudging Steve out of the way, Bill knelt down in the muck. Three Hand looked at him, a faint gurgle escaping his bloodied mouth. The great ginger whiskers, almost as famous as the man himself, were matted with blood. He was in nasty shape, but he wasn’t dead. Not yet.
?You know, I don’t reckon you’re much longer for this world,? Bill said, ?but I’m not letting you die until you go before a judge.?
With that he began patching Three Hand up. They had bought a few bandages with them in case of mishap, but they ran out quickly. When there was no more linen cloth to work with, he tore strips off his own shirt, ending up in his under-vest. It took a while, but Bill was finally satisfied that he’d managed to staunch most of the bleeding. The stuff happening on the outside anyway.
Three Hand didn’t fight. He didn’t have any fight left in him. Bill wondered if he hand any blood in him either. That would be for Doc Whistler to figure out. With Three Hand patched up, they loaded him into the back of the coach, along with the men he’d killed.
Steve was hitching the remaining horses to the coach in preparation for their return to Flagstooth when the queer and bloody day got a little bit queerer still.
?Holleeey shit,? Steve swore. ?I don’t believe it. The Kid’s coming back.?
Bill turned and saw that Steve was right. The slim figure of the kid was approaching at a slow trot. His hands were held high, open and empty in an expression of surrender. He was riding the horse with nothing but his thighs to control the animal.
Squinting suspiciously, Steve spoke without taking his eyes off The Kid or his hand off his holstered weapon. ?Reckon he means to turn himself in??
?Maybe,? Bill said. Or maybe he means to gun us down. Ain’t hard to draw from the back of a horse.?
?You want me to shoot him??
?There’s been enough killing for one day,? Bill said, shaking his head. ?Don’t shoot unless he draws first.?
Sheriff and Deputy stood and waited in sweltering sun whilst The Kid edged toward them. Flies were already starting to buzz around the blood in the ground, even as it sank into the sandy soil. In a few days all evidence of the gun battle, gallons of blood, it’d all be sunk into bone dry dirt.
With his hands held high, The Kid drew closer. As the lawmen watched, he flipped off the back of the horse, cartwheeling his legs over his head and landing square on his feet, hands still raised. If it weren’t for the five, likely soon to be six dead men in the back of the coach, Bill would have been impressed.
The Kid moved forward with a broad swagger, his rust-red mustache twitching with the wind. The closer he got, the shorter he got. When he was close enough to almost touch, Bill realized why The Kid was called The Kid. He was short. And he was young. Real young.
The Kid glared up at Bill and grunted a gruff question.
?Is he dead??
?Not yet,? Bill said, surprised by the nerve of The Kid, who didn’t seem to be considering the fact that he was about to lose what was left of his liberty. ?But he’s well on his way.?
?You gotta fix ‘im.?
The Kid had pale skin and full, round cheeks, which were puffed with reddened vigor. Aside from the dense mustache there was no sign of any hair on his face at all, not even peach fuzz. He had wide eyes and fine brows and snub nose that didn’t suit the image of an outlaw whatsoever.
?Don’t worry, we’ll fix ‘im before we string ‘im up,? Steve laughed, earning himself a nudge from Bill.
?We’ll see about that,? The Kid replied. His little finger ghosted toward his holster, reminding Bill that he was still armed and he was still dangerous. They had to do something about that.
?You’re under arrest,? Bill informed him. ?And you best come along quietly because I’ve seen enough blood for one day, but I’ll spill yours if I have to.?
?I’ll come along, but only because I isn?t leaving him behind,? The Kid said, lifting his pointed chin high. Yet again, Bill was struck by the relative frailty of the young man. Whatever Three Hand had been feeding himself on, The Kid hadn’t been getting much of it. There was a certain resemblance between the two men though, a sort of kinship.
?Who are you?? Bill asked. ?What’s Three Hand to you??
?All you need to know is that I ain’t leaving him behind,? The Kid growled.
For reasons he couldn’t quite explain, Bill had a flash of remembrance of shooting a cow-hassling coyote on one occasion. He’d muffed the shot and she’d run bleeding, so he’d had to follow to finish her off. When he tracked her down he’d found two pups, wide eyed and nuzzling against her teats. The Kid had something of their look in his eyes, feral and lost.
Quelling his instinct for sympathy, Bill reminded himself that this wasn’t some lost little waif. This was the partner of one of the most notorious outlaws in the West.
?Cuff him, Steve.?
Steve moved forward with manacles from the coach. He roughly ordered The Kid to put his hands behind his back, which he did. Whilst Steve worked on securing their prisoner, Bill took the opportunity to relieve The Kid of his guns, earning himself a steely blue stare.
?These ain’t going to fit.?
Bill walked around to check. Sure enough the thick iron bands slipped right off over The Kid’s hands, which were small and so slim as to be feminine.
?How old are you, boy??
?Old enough to beat the snot out of you.? The Kid was defiant, his fists clenched tight.
?Now you mind your mouth, or I’ll tan your hide,? Bill threatened. ?I got a leather strap ready to lick you all the way to Flagstooth if I have to.? He looked at his deputy. ?Tie him up, Steve.?
The Kid let his hands be tied, glaring at both Sheriff and Deputy as it was done.
?My…He better not die,? he said fiercely. ?You’ll answer for it if he does.?
?Gag him,? Bill ordered Steve. ?He’s got a mouth on him, that boy.?
?Where do I put him??
?Put him in back, with the rest. About time he learned what happens to the lawless.?
With The Kid safely ensconced in the back along with the dead and bleeding Three Hand Jones they made their way back. It was a sorry party, and Bill did not feel as gratified as he’d hoped he would. Something was wrong. Something was off. Something about The Kid. He didn’t like arresting young folk. He liked sending ’em to the gallows even less.
They rolled into Flagstooth covered in the blood of enemies and allies alike. Three Hand was carted off to Doc Whistler. The Kid was tossed into a cell with a handful of pretty criminals, and Bill went and drew himself a bath. The blood was starting to dry and congeal on his skin in a sticky, cracking, smelly paste that he wanted to be rid of as soon as possible.