Issue 19: "Domestic Disturbance" Jul 14, 2010 12:14:27 GMT -5
Post by markymark261 on Jul 14, 2010 12:14:27 GMT -5
Weird Western Quarterly
Issue #19: “Domestic Disturbance”
Written by: Susan Hillwig
Cover by: Susan & Jamin Hillwig
Edited by: Mark Bowers
Issue #19: “Domestic Disturbance”
Written by: Susan Hillwig
Cover by: Susan & Jamin Hillwig
Edited by: Mark Bowers
Droplets of melted snow dripped from the naked tree branches and onto the brim of Beau Cochrane’s hat. He would have moved to escape the annoyance, but the grove he was standing in, sparse as it was, provided him and his men adequate cover from prying eyes. Not that anyone should be expecting them to be there, but Cochrane was taking no chances, not with this man. He had to admit, part of him had grown to admire Jonah Hex over the past year; traitor to the Cause he may have been, Hex was also a model of efficiency when it came to killing, wasting neither bullet nor breath when pursuing his quarry. If the rumors were to be believed, Hex had laid hundreds of men to waste since the War, and Cochrane was determined to make sure he wasn’t counted among that number. So after finding out that Jonah Hex had supposedly “retired” and taken up residence in Cheyenne, Cochrane had notified his employer of the situation, then carefully chosen the men that would assist him in taking down the notorious bounty hunter. It hadn’t been an easy task: whenever he mentioned who the intended target was, many men turned tail and ran. Then there were the ones who wanted to pursue Hex purely for the sake of their own reputation, but lacked any actual talent to do so, thereby making them useless to Cochrane’s plans. After a while, though, he’d picked out four men that fit the bill; each of them were experienced gunmen who’d previously come into contact with Hex, and each of them had scores to settle with him, so they had no qualms about what was to follow.
“When do we move in?” Bill Granger asked Cochrane as they looked upon the small cabin a half-mile away from the grove. He’d barely escaped there with his life seven months before, when he and two other hands from Fenrick’s ranch had come to torch Windy Taylor’s home and met up with Jonah Hex instead. Though Fenrick was long since ruined and Hex now owner of Windy’s old place, Granger still desired revenge for the two friends he’d lost that day.
Cochrane pulled a collapsible spyglass out of his coat, saying, “Soon as I’m sure we can close the distance relatively unseen.” He wrapped a handkerchief around the brass tube so the sunlight wouldn’t reflect off of it, then brought it to his eye. “There’s no cover around this place, save for these here trees, so once we leave ‘em, Hex could spot us right easy.”
Joe Bauer, who’d lost all six members of his outlaw family to Hex’s wrath, pointed towards the barn that lay to the side of the property. “Reckon if we keep that between us and the house, it should hide us well enough.”
Dooley Dalton turned his head so as to look at the barn with his right eye, having lost his left when Hex nearly caved his skull in with a rifle butt two years earlier, his penance for spitting in the bounty hunter’s face after he had been captured. “Might work,” he eventually concurred, adding, “If we wait until the barn’s shadow is falling towards us, we won’t be so noticeable against all that snow.”
“Sounds like a good idea.” Cochrane examined the whole of the area through the spyglass. “It’ll be about an hour until the sun...” He paused, then swung the spyglass back to where he’d previously been looking. “Damnation.”
“What’s going on?” Dale Dalton, who’d taken up the criminal lifestyle two years ago when he sprung his half-blinded older brother from the jail Hex dumped him in, pushed his way to the front of the group. “Is it Hex? Can you see him?” He started to walk out from under the trees, but Cochrane grabbed Dale’s collar and violently yanked him back. “Cut it out! I just want to look!”
“I ain’t payin’ you to look, runt,” Cochrane growled, then pointed towards a dark speck moving in the distance. “But since you’re so all-fired curious, someone’s comin’ this way.”
“Can you tell who?” Bauer asked.
After lifting the spyglass again and taking a peek, Cochrane said, “I think the man’s one of Hex’s drinkin’ buddies.”
Granger held out a hand, and Cochrane passed over the spyglass. “I know ‘em,” he said once he’d focused on the approaching buckboard. “They’re local, for sure...a married couple. I forget their names, though.”
“Won’t matter once they’re dead,” Dooley replied.
“Nobody touches ‘em.” Cochrane took back the spyglass and collapsed it with a snap. “They’re not our targets, so forget all about ‘em. Our only concern is Hex.”
Dale asked, “So, what do we do now?”
Cochrane laid a hand upon the pistol strapped to his hip. “We bide our time, and keep our guns at the ready.”
* * * * * *
“Ah think Ah hear ‘em comin’,” Jonah called down the hall to his wife. “Y’all decent back there?”
“Just a minute.” Mei Ling emerged from the bedroom in a plum-colored dress, patting little Jason on the back in an effort to burp him. Though he’d been born a few weeks premature, he had put on a good amount of weight over the past month, and looked as happy and healthy as any baby his age. After he let out a satisfying burp, Mei Ling smiled and kissed him on the forehead, saying, “Very good...don’t you feel better now?”
“Sugar, yuh might want tuh...” Jonah gestured towards the undone buttons on the front of Mei Ling’s dress. She blushed and, after handing the baby to Jonah, fixed the problem. “Thet’d better hold yuh fer a few hours,” he told his son, holding the baby high above his head. “Yer mama cain’t exactly feed yuh in the middle of polite company.”
A look of worry crossed Mei Ling’s face. “Jonah, put him down. You might drop him.”
“Ah ain’t gonna drop him. ‘Sides, he likes it...don’tcha, little man?” As if in reply, Jason squealed and kicked his feet beneath the long white gown his mother dressed him in.
“Well, I don’t like it.” She held out her hands, and Jonah passed the baby back to her. “Why do you always have to play so rough with him?”
“He ain’t made of eggshells, woman, so quit...” There was a knock at the door, bringing an end to the argument, or at least a pause. Ever since they’d brought Jason home, Mei Ling seemed wary every time Jonah touched him, as if she were afraid he’d treat him just as poorly as Jonah’s own father had treated him. Jonah kept telling himself that it was only her motherly instinct kicking in, but whatever the cause, it was getting on his nerves. He had to push his frustrations aside for now, however, and forced a smile on his face as he opened the front door and said, “Glad y’all could make it.”
“It was kind of you to invite us, Mr. Hex,” Izzy’s wife Patricia replied, and handed over a still-warm apple pie. Izzy himself was over by their buckboard unhitching the pair of horses. “Ezekiel!” she called to him. “You should at least come up here and say hello before you busy yourself with that!”
“Yes, dear.” Everybody in Cheyenne knew how henpecked Izzy was, and the way he scurried up the porch at his wife’s insistence did nothing to dispel that image. “Hi, Jonah...Mei Ling,” he said, nodding to each in turn.
“Hello, Izzy,” Mei Ling replied, then said to both of them, “I hope you don’t mind, but supper might be a little late. The chicken is taking longer to cook than I expected.”
“Oh, don’t worry about it, dear. We’ll just have more time to visit together, that’s all.” Patricia stepped over and scooped Jason out of his mother’s arms. “Goodness, look at you! Aren’t we a handsome little boy.”
The two men glanced at each other as Patricia continued to coo at the infant. “Dollars tuh dumplings says she’s gonna want another kid soon,” Jonah whispered.
“Lord, I hope not. We’ve got seven already,” Izzy whispered back.
Patricia suddenly looked over at them, and they both froze, thinking they’d been overheard. But then she said, “Shut the door, Ezekiel! The draft isn’t good for the baby!”
“Yes, dear.” Izzy started to step out of the doorway, then stopped. “Oh, wait...the horses. Jonah, do you want to...”
“Gladly.” He put the pie on the kitchen table and followed his friend out, both of them eager to get away from the overbearing presence of Izzy’s wife.
Each of the men set about unhitching a horse, then leading it towards the barn so as to give it some shelter from the chilly afternoon. As Jonah walked across the yard, his eyes went to a stand of trees in the distance. Perhaps it was merely the sunlight reflecting off of the snow, but something didn’t look quite right up there. Before he could pin it down, however, Izzy asked him, “Where’s Ironjaws hiding?”
“Dumb animal spotted a rabbit this morning an’ took off a-runnin’...ain’t been back since.” He turned his gaze from the trees and smirked at Izzy. “Whut’s the matter? Afraid he’s gonna jump out an’ chew yer leg off?”
“You wouldn’t think it so funny if you’d gotten bit by him before.”
“He has bit me afore. Ah didn’t scream like a girl like y’all did, though.” Jonah pulled the barn doors open and led one of the horses to an empty stall near the back, saying, “Ain’t really got the room in here fer both of ‘em, but if’n we keep the doors shut, they should be fine.” He then checked on his own pair of horses, patting each of them on the neck as he spoke softly to them.
Meanwhile, Izzy hung back a ways from Jonah, hands shoved in his pockets and a concerned look on his face. After a few minutes of silent debate, he said, “Hex, can I ask you about something?”
“Depends on whut yer askin’.”
“Well, it’s...it’s about this rumor going around town. I mean...I know you have this reputation for being a wild sort, so maybe this just kind of spun out of that. Plus, Mike does love to rib on you...”
“Get tuh the point, Izzy.”
The goat farmer gulped, then managed to say, “Mike’s been telling people that he saw you with that Hartley gal on New Year’s Eve, and that the two of you had, um...had relations.”
Jonah’s back was to Izzy, and he was thankful for that, because he could feel all the color drain out of his face. He clamped a hand on the side of the stall as he fought to regain his composure. Once he was sure he could do so, Jonah said in a calm tone, “When did Mike tell yuh this yarn?”
“He didn’t. I heard it from Steve Genesee when I ran into him last week outside the bank. He knows you and me and Mike are all friends, so he asked me if it was true.”
That bit of information made Jonah feel like he’d been stabbed in the gut: Steve Genesee’s wife was the biggest gossip in town. Slowly, he turned around so he could look Izzy dead in the eye. “Who else knows ‘bout this?”
* * * * * *
“I really hated being the one to tell you about this,” Patricia said as she stirred her tea, “but I also could not sit here in your presence and hold my tongue about it. It was hard enough to not berate your husband when he stopped by the other day to invite us over.”
“That’s all right, Patricia,” Mei Ling answered, though in reality, it was far from all right. When she’d gotten the idea to invite Izzy and Patricia over for supper, it had been with the intention of thanking them for their kindness to both her and Jonah during her pregnancy. But that was far from her mind now, having been driven out by visions of her husband laying with another woman while Mei Ling had been struggling to bring their son into the world. She stared into the depths of her teacup as she sat at the kitchen table with Jason in her lap. This had to be a lie. She knew Jonah loved her, he’d shown her that love in so many ways...but she also knew he’d been acting oddly for months now. Ever since he’d rescued Emmylou Hartley up in the mountains, in fact.
“To tell the truth, I’m not all that surprised,” Patricia continued. “Both he and that Hartley girl have consorted with savages, and everyone knows what a bad influence they can be.” She sipped her tea in a delicate manner, then set it on the table. “They’re more like animals than people, and I’m sure that living amongst them as they did could taint the mind of even the most God-fearing person.”
“Jonah’s not a savage,” Mei Ling said quietly, but she was thinking of when he’d fought those railroad men in Tanglewood, clad only in splashes of blood from himself and his victims.
“He certainly isn’t tame, either. I’m sorry to say, Mei Ling, that I’ve found it to be a failing on your part. Someone like Jonah Hex needs to be held on a much tighter leash. Take my Ezekiel, for example: I allow him to go to that silly saloon of his, but only when all the work around the house is done and all the children’s needs are met...and even then, he must be home at a certain time. No exceptions. If he breaks those rules, then there are consequences. You need to do that with Jonah: teach him that his actions have con...”
The front door banged open, scaring Patricia so badly that her lecture abruptly ended with a shriek. Mei Ling let out a cry as well and clutched the baby. When they looked over at the door, they saw Jonah standing there with an ice-cold look in his eyes. “Get the Hell out of muh house,” he snarled.
Patricia gaped at him. “How dare you speak to me like that!”
“Ah’ll dare tuh speak tuh y’all any way Ah please, yuh frog-faced witch! Now go on an’ git!” Jonah took hold of Patricia’s arm, then dragged her out of the chair and over to the door. She tried to pull away, but he pulled even harder, until he’d forced her out onto the porch. Once there, she saw that Izzy was already in the midst of hitching the horses back up.
Her face red, Patricia said to her husband, “Ezekiel! How can you stand there and let him treat me like this?”
“‘Cause he knows Ah’ll break his head open if’n he tried tuh stop me,” Hex replied, then went back into the house. Patricia thought that was the end of it, but then he reappeared with the pie in his hand, saying, “Here’s a little something fer the trip home!” He shoved the pie into Patricia’s hands so roughly that it ended up all over the front of her dress. “Now, get the Hell off’n muh land, an’ if’n Ah ever see yuh within a hunnert feet of muh wife again, Ah’m liable tuh get real cross with yuh.” And with that, Jonah slammed the door in Patricia’s beet-red face.
* * * * * *
“What in blazes is going on down there?” Joe Bauer shaded his eyes as he tried to puzzle out the commotion on the far-off porch. “They ain’t even been there twenty minutes, an’ they’re leavin’ already?”
Granger said to Cochrane, “Do you think Hex got wind of us? I swear he looked right this way when he was out in the yard.”
“No, this is something else.” Though the words themselves were indistinct, Jonah’s angry tone carried perfectly across the distance between the house and the grove of trees. “Whatever this is, it’s got him riled up something fierce,” Cochrane added.
“I’m not so keen on this now,” Dooley said. “Hex is dangerous under any conditions, but when he’s mad...” His hand wandered up to the patch covering his empty eye socket.
Cochrane glared at the man. “I’ll be damned if I’m going to let you break off now, Dalton, so just shut your mouth and grow a pair.” He took out his spyglass again and surveyed the area; the departing couple would soon be over the ridge and out of sight of the house, while Hex and his wife were preoccupied with each other within the house itself, going by what little movement he could catch through the windows. “Get ready to start movin’ towards the barn, just like we discussed,” Cochrane told the others. “Ain’t no way I’m gonna let a distraction like this go to waste.”
* * * * * *
“What’s wrong with you?” The baby was starting to wail due to all the commotion, and Mei Ling bounced the baby up and down in her arms while she glared at her husband. “You’re acting like you’ve gone crazy.”
Jonah stabbed a finger at her. “Don’t yuh go sayin’ things like thet. Ah’ve got muh reasons, an’ Ah don’t have tuh explain ‘em.”
“Yes you do, Jonah. Those are my friends as well...or at least they were before you insulted them and threw them out of the house.”
“They ain’t our friends. They’re a bunch of lyin’, backstabbin’ skunks!” He began to pace the room. “Ah don’t want y’all tuh go into town fer a while, not until Ah get some folks’ heads straight on certain matters thet weren’t none of their business in the first place.”
“And to just what matters are you referring?”
“Don’t worry yer head ‘bout it. Yuh don’t need tuh know.”
“I think I already do know.” Mei Ling took a deep breath, then said in as even a tone as possible, “This has to do with that Hartley girl you saved, doesn’t it?”
Jonah stopped pacing and looked at her. “Ah don’t know whut yuh mean,” he replied.
“Please...please don’t lie to me, Jonah.” Mei Ling felt her voice crack, but she kept going. “Patricia told me some things that I really don’t want to believe...”
“Then don’t believe ‘em, sugar.” He almost sounded like he was begging.
“...but I can’t imagine why someone would make these things up,” she continued. “I love you, Jonah, and I always will, no matter what the truth is. And as your wife, I have a right to know the truth instead of being kept in the dark. Don’t you believe that as well?”
He looked at her in stony silence, his face a blank mask. Then he turned away from her and started to pace the room again. As she watched him, tears began to roll down her cheeks, and she said hoarsely, “So, that’s it then? You would rather continue to lie than tell me the truth with your own lips?” She stepped forward, reaching out for him. “Please, why won’t you say...”
“Whut should Ah say?” he snapped. “Y’all want details? Yuh want me tuh tell yuh every dirty little thing we did? Would thet make yuh feel better ‘bout all this?” He loomed over her, his face twisting with rage as he said, “Maybe Ah should tell yuh how she doesn’t nag the Hell outta me or criticize every damn thing Ah do!”
Mei Ling backpedaled, clutching the baby tightly. “I don’t criticize you,” she replied in a shaky voice. “I never...”
“Thet a fact? Then how come y’all made me hang up muh guns? How come yo’re always tellin’ me thet Ah’m too loud or too rough?” He jabbed a finger against his chest. “Y’all knew who Ah was when yuh married me, yet yuh’ve done yer damnedest tuh turn me into somebody else ever since then.”
“I didn’t make you hang up your guns,” Mei Ling answered, “you did it of your own free will. As for changing you...are you saying that the loving and gentle man I saw within you when we first met does not exist?”
“Ah’m sayin’ yuh’d rather Ah be nothin’ but thet. Y’all want me tuh forget thet Ah ever even held a gun, much less used one. Dammit, woman, yuh cain’t geld a man an’ expect him tuh be happy about it!”
“Is that why you...you slept with her? Because she makes you feel like the man you think that I won’t let you be?”
The statement seemed to take some of the edge off of Jonah’s anger. “No, no...Ah don’t know.” He ran a hand over his face and said, “It was a mistake. She just kept hangin’ on me an’...Ah swear, Ah broke the whole affair off with her thet night. Ah ain’t seen her since.”
“You broke off the affair? Are you saying that you slept with her more than once?”
Silence hung in the room, then Jonah said, “Twice. We only done it twice, Ah swear.”
“Only twice? I suppose you want me to be grateful that it was only twice?” She began to sob anew. “It certainly speaks of how much you love me that you only slept with that girl twice.”
“Thet ain’t whut Ah meant, an’ yuh know it.”
“I don’t know what you mean anymore about anything.” Mei Ling turned away from Jonah, hugging the baby as if to protect him from the ugly reality that had been presented to her. “I don’t even know who you are now.”
* * * * * *
“Sounds like they’re having quite the row in there,” Dooley said as the last of their group approached the side of the barn. “Hard to hear exactly what they’re sayin’, but I think Hex just accused the Chinese gal of gelding him.”
“Hex deserves nothing less,” Bauer replied.
“And by the time we’re done with him, he’ll wish a gelding was all he got.” Cochrane peered around the corner at the house. Through the window, he could see the woman turning her back to Hex, both of them seemingly unaware of the five men standing in the shadow of their barn. “Hey, runt,” Cochrane said to Dale, “you as good with that rifle as your brother says?”
“Damn right I am.” Dale slipped the weapon off his shoulder. “What you got in mind?”
“Bit of insurance,” Cochrane replied.
* * * * * *
Jonah ran a hand through his hair as he watched Mei Ling’s back tremble from her sobs. Lord, Ah want tuh fix this, Ah really do, he thought, but damned if’n Ah kin think of a way how. “Listen tuh me, sugar,” he said after a while, “Ah know it’s gonna be a long time -- if ever -- afore yuh kin forgive me, but Ah promise yuh, Ah ain’t givin’ up on us. Yo’re still muh wife, an’ Ah’m still yer husband, an’ we’ve both got thet there baby tuh look after. Just ‘cause Ah was an idiot fer a while doesn’t mean Ah forgot muh responsibilities. Less’n yuh say otherwise, Ah’m stayin’ right here. Okay?”
Mei Ling didn’t answer or even turn to look at him, she just continued to sob.
“Please, sugar, Ah’m still the same man yuh married. Maybe Ah ain’t as good a man as yuh thought, but y’all said yuh’d love me no matter what, an’ Ah’m hopin’ y’all meant it.” She still didn’t answer, so Jonah began to step towards her, reaching a hand out so he could turn her around as he said, “Even if yuh didn’t mean it, Ah swear Ah’ll always love...”
The report of the rifle was muffled, but the sound of breaking glass was loud and clear as the bullet shattered the window, flying straight and true into Jonah’s back. It exited high out of his chest, piercing the edge of his right lung in the process, then whizzed past Mei Ling’s head, missing her by inches, and embedded itself in the far wall. For a moment, neither of them realized what had happened, then a second bullet slammed into Jonah, further to the left this time, where it wedged itself between his back ribs and his spinal cord. His legs began to buckle from the trauma, but he had enough sense of mind to grab hold of Mei Ling and pull her to the floor with him, grunting, “Get down!” A third and fourth bullet soon followed, but there were no targets left within their path save for the wall.
Holding the baby even tighter now as they all lay on the floor, Mei Ling said, “What’s going on? What’s happening?” She placed a hand on Jonah’s back, then pulled it away suddenly when she felt the sticky blood beneath her palm. “Oh God...are you all right?”
“Cain’t...move...muh legs,” was all he got a chance to say before the front door was kicked open. Mei Ling looked up to see four men standing there, all with guns pointed directly at them. A fifth man with a rifle soon joined them as they filed into the house.
“Hello there,” one of the men said. “Is that chicken I smell cookin’?” Another man stepped forward and hauled Mei Ling to her feet -- she cried out and struggled to get out of his grip, but with the baby in her arms, she couldn’t manage. A third man with a patch over one eye turned Jonah onto his back with the toe of his boot and said to the man with the rifle, “You did a good job, little brother.”
“Out...get out...muh house,” Jonah gasped, his vision swimming with white spots from all the pain.
“Not until you get what you’re due,” the first man said, then the man with the patch kicked Jonah viciously in the side of the head, knocking him out cold.
* * * * * *
All he could feel was pain. It wasn’t just the bullet wounds in his back, either: every breath he took ignited red-hot coals in his chest, and his arms were slowly being ripped from their sockets, not to mention the vice locked around his head. Jonah has faced pains like this on an almost-daily basis as a bounty hunter, but it had been such a long time since he’d done so that his body had grown accustomed to not being constantly abused. And now, when he needed to be as awake and alert as possible, his body was no longer up to the challenge, so he had to take the time to tell his body not to feel anything. Pain didn’t exist, it was just an excuse weaker men used when they failed at being men, and dammit, he wasn’t weak.
Far away, someone was crying. Not himself, he knew that, the pain hadn’t driven him that low. He recognized the cries, but the pain was making it difficult to think of who was making them. Then he heard a second cry, distinct from the first, and his mind puzzled it out. Jason...Mei Ling...NO!
Jonah’s head jerked up from his chest as his mind bolted back to consciousness. He expected to still be inside the house, but instead, he found himself hanging a few feet above the floor of his barn. His hands were tied together with rope, which had been looped onto the hook-and-pulley system attached to the rafters inside the barn. Just below him and to his right stood one of the gunmen -- after a moment, Jonah recognized him as Joe Bauer. “Well, well...look who finally woke up,” Bauer said as he looked up at Hex with a grin.
“About damn time,” someone outside of Jonah’s field-of-view said. “Turn him around.”
Bauer placed a hand on Jonah’s calf and slowly spun him until he could see the others. Mei Ling was tied up on the floor halfway between the barn door and Jonah, with another gunman -- Jonah didn’t know this one -- standing behind her, and his wailing son was in the arms of a man whose face looked vaguely familiar, but he couldn’t place it at first. Then it hit him: “Cochrane...y’all were up in the mountains with Hart when Ah went missin’.”
“Very good of you to remember. Saves me the trouble of introductions.” Cochrane stepped towards him, saying, “I’d been lookin’ for you for a long while, Jonah Hex, and I was glad to finally come face-to-face with you. I was doubly glad that I didn’t find you dead.”
“Why’s thet? Y’all got some sort of beef with me?” Jonah nodded as best he could towards Bauer. “Ah know why this jackass would come gunnin’ fer me, but Ah ain’t even met yuh afore thet day, Cochrane.”
“This isn’t personal, Hex...not for me, at least. This is pure business. Tell me true, now: does the name Quentin Turnbull mean anything to you?”
“It might,” Jonah answered in as even a tone as he could muster.
“Then I don’t have to elaborate on why exactly Turnbull wants you dead? Or rather...” Cochrane pinched little Jason’s chin between his thumb and forefinger, making him wail louder. “Why he wants your whole family dead?”
“Yuh sonovabitch!” Jonah yelled, and began to thrash upon the hook, to which Bauer responded by picking up a nearby shovel and smacking Hex across his injured back with it. That action caused Mei Ling to scream, so the gunman behind her grabbed her roughly by the hair and told her to shut up. Cochrane caught sight of that and said, “Hands off her, Granger! She’ll be taken care of soon enough.”
Teeth gritted against the pain, Jonah said, “Whut did he tell yuh, Cochrane? Did he feed yuh some cock-an’-bull story ‘bout betrayin’ the Cause? Thet ain’t the full truth, believe me.”
“Frankly, the truth of it doesn’t matter to me anymore. I’ve learned a lot about you these past few months, Hex, and I’ve come to believe that gettin’ rid of you will be doin’ the world a huge favor. You’ve built your life on other people’s misery, startin’ with Turnbull’s family, and bein’ that I’m someone who’s had many miseries unjustly visited upon him, I’m not inclined to let you get away with such a thing. Therefore, the time has come for you to do what you do best.” Cochrane nodded at Granger, who holstered his gun and pulled out a knife in its place, while Cochrane did the same, both of them holding the blades to their respective hostages’ throats. “You get to stand idly by while two innocent people die for your sins.”
* * * * * *
Ironjaws trotted through the snow, a dead rabbit hanging from its mouth. It planned on stashing the kill below the porch, more out of instinct than any worry that the New Master would let it go hungry. It had done the same when the Old Master had been alive as well, though the Old Master tried to break Ironjaws of the habit. The New Master didn’t bother, seeming to understand that the wolf would always be just a touch wild, no matter that the Old Master had hand-reared it. Ironjaws liked the New Master and the way it was treated by him, but there were times when it would miss the Old Master, and the wolf would go lay on the spot of ground where the New Master had buried him, or pad about the house seeking out the Old Master’s smell amongst the smells of the New Master and his Mate and Cub.
As it got within a half-mile of the house, Ironjaws caught wind of smells it didn’t know, and its hackles automatically went up. Both the Old Master and the New Master were distrustful of strangers, and so Ironjaws was as well. It tucked the rabbit beneath some underbrush, then slinked on its belly towards the house. It could hear the Cub making a sound that Ironjaws identified with distress, and the Mate was making a similar sound, both of which were coming from the direction of the barn. There were two men with guns standing in front of the barn -- going by smell, they were littermates -- and though it couldn’t see anyone else, it could smell three other men nearby, and it saw unfamiliar horses tied to the porch rail. The wolf then heard the harsh bark of the New Master from inside the barn, followed by his Mate letting out a terrible noise.
Now the wolf was bearing its teeth. The New Master was like Ironjaws: tame on the surface, but itching for a fight underneath, and the wolf could hear the call to fight in the New Master’s growling words. So it obliged the New Master by darting across the yard and throwing itself at the smaller of the two men, knocking him to the ground. It sank its teeth into his throat as the larger man tried to pull the wolf off his littermate, but it was too late: the smaller man gurgled his last through a mouthful of blood. The task done, the wolf turned on the larger man, snapping and snarling and tearing at him with its claws until he let go and stumbled towards the partially-open barn door. But the wolf was enveloped by the smell of blood now, and the New Master’s voice still carried the growl of warmaking, so Ironjaws pursued the larger man into the place of dim light and horse-smells.
* * * * * *
“Don’t do it, Cochrane! Y’all kin kill me, but don’t touch them!” Hex struggled against his bonds, but all that got him was another blow to the back from Bauer.
“Oh, you’ll die eventually,” Cochrane answered, “but not until we’ve made you suffer a good long time. Turnbull wants you to feel what he felt when he heard you’d killed his son.” The tip of his knife pricked at the tender flesh on Jason’s neck. “Don’t think he ever imagined that he’d be able to exact true eye-for-an-eye vengeance on you, but God works in strange...”
A pair of shouts came from outside, mingled with the savage growl of a wolf. Cochrane and his men all turned towards the barn door, and even Mei Ling looked in that direction, but not Jonah: like Cochrane, he wasn’t one to waste a good distraction. While he’d regained movement in his legs while hanging from the hook, the price of that was a screaming amount of pain shooting up and down his spine whenever he did so. But that didn’t discourage Jonah from his next move: he grabbed hold of the hook he was hanging from, pulled himself up, then swung his legs around Bauer’s neck and squeezed. Bauer dropped his shovel and tried to pry Jonah’s legs apart, but Jonah just squeezed tighter, letting out a howl of rage and agony as he did so, which caused Cochrane and Granger to look his way. They’d barely registered the sight when Dooley Dalton burst through the barn door, covered in blood and with the wolf hot on his heels. Ironjaws easily tripped Dooley up and dispatched him the same as it had his brother, then turned its feral eyes on Cochrane.
“To Hell with this,” Cochrane said, and ran for the door, throwing his knife at Ironjaws -- the wolf let out a yelp as the blade sank into its hindquarters. At the same time, Jonah used his grip on Bauer to steady himself, and he managed to slip his bindings off the hook -- the two of them fell to the barn floor, the weight of Jonah’s body snapping Bauer’s neck with ease. Though it was difficult with his hands still bound together, the bounty hunter pulled a revolver from Bauer’s gunbelt and shot Granger square in the chest, then turned it on the fleeing Cochrane, who still held their wailing son in his arms.
Before he could get off a shot, however, Mei Ling shouted, “No! You’ll hit the baby!” That moment of motherly concern was enough to make Jonah second-guess himself, and when he pulled the trigger, he hit the edge of the barn door instead of Cochrane’s head as the man slipped out of sight. Cursing, Jonah climbed to his feet to pursue...then promptly fell flat on his face as his legs gave out.
Mei Ling called his name repeatedly, to which he replied in an exhausted voice, “Shut the Hell up, woman. Ah ain’t deaf nor dead.” He then propped himself up on his arms and pulled his battered body across the floor until he was at her side. “Did they hurt yuh any?”
“No, but Jason...oh God, Jonah, that madman has Jason!” Her eyes were becoming swollen from all the tears she had shed that day.
“Ah’m well aware of thet.” His tone seemed dismissive, but that was merely because it was taking all his self-control to not scream from all the pain he was in. After finding Granger’s knife, Jonah cut the rope binding his hands, then set to work on Mei Ling’s. “While Ah was unconscious, did they mention a hideout or any other place? The name of another town, even?”
“No...no, they didn’t, they just...oh God, they just...” She paused a moment, then said, “Jonah, that man...Cochrane...he said you’d killed another man’s son. Was this one of your bounties he was talking about? Or did you...” She left the rest unspoken, and Jonah didn’t answer, he just kept cutting the ropes. Once she was freed, she helped him to his feet so he could stagger over to where Ironjaws lay. The knife was still stuck in the wolf’s hide, but when Jonah pulled it out, the wound didn’t seem too bad. “Good boy,” he said as he petted Ironjaws, who responded by licking Jonah’s hand before limping onto its own four feet.
The three of them stepped out of the barn and into the yard. Dusk was falling, but Jonah could make out the tracks of Cochrane’s horse well enough, showing that he was heading in the direction of the foothills. It almost seemed as though he wanted Jonah to follow, and far be it from him to not oblige a man who had a death wish. Not seeing what her husband saw, Mei Ling said, “We have to get you to Doc Pedersen’s. And Hart...we have to get Hart to track Cochrane down before he hurts the baby. He’s...”
“Ah won’t let him hurt the baby,” Jonah replied, “an’ Ah ain’t goin’ tuh the doc’s ‘til Ah’m good an’ ready.”
“What do you mean?” she said, but the meaning was clear to her the second she looked upon his face, and she shouted, “You promised me! No more gunfighting, no more killing!”
“Whut the Hell do yuh think Ah just did in thet there barn, called a square dance?” he snapped back. “He’s got our son, Mei Ling, an’ Ah ain’t about tuh let somebody else have the pleasure of dispatchin’ thet bastard fer whut he tried tuh do tuh y’all.”
“But you need a doctor! You can barely stand!” The words were no sooner out of her mouth than Jonah pushed her away -- he swayed a bit, but he remained standing. “You can’t do this, Jonah, he’ll kill you!”
“Then Ah’ll die doin’ whut Ah do best.”
Mei Ling stared at him, realizing that the kind, gentle man she’d fallen in love with was nowhere to be seen, only the cold-blooded killer remained, and there would be no arguing with that man over the promises he’d once made just for the sake of some useless emotion called love.
He walked her over to the house and untied one of the dead gunmen’s horses from the porch rail. “Doc Pedersen lives closest,” Jonah said as he helped her into the saddle, “so head fer there. After thet, y’all kin scare up Hart an’ send him out thisaway. An’ keep this on yuh.” He placed Bauer’s revolver in her hands. “Anybody comes near yuh that yuh don’t recognize, shoot ‘em. Understand?”
“Yes.” Mei Ling’s voice had become just as emotionless as Jonah’s. He didn’t appear to notice, though, and handed her the reins without another word. As Mei Ling rode away from the house, Jonah looked down at Ironjaws and said, “Stay with her, even if Ah never come back.”
Ironjaws whined, but soon began to run after her, favoring its injured leg.
It wasn’t until they were both far from the house that Jonah allowed himself to slump against the porch rail, a sound somewhere between a moan and a sob coming from his throat. He really did need a doctor, but his son needed him more, so Jonah stuffed all the pain down as far as it would go, then climbed the porch steps and entered the house. Shattered glass crunched under his boots as he walked into the kitchen, a slight detour so he could grab a bottle of whiskey from the pantry. He pulled the cork out with his teeth and proceeded to pour it down his gullet as he made his way to the bedroom. Once there, he fell to his knees at the foot of the bed as if to pray, but there would be no prayers today. The Good Lord obviously never heard the ones Jonah made, so he didn’t bother to offer up any. No, what he needed was a strictly man-made miracle, and he knew just where to get it.
Pushing aside the quilt sitting upon it, Jonah Hex opened the trunk at the foot of the bed, and removed his Dragoons and gunbelt. Then he took out his Confederate-gray coat. Just the mere sight of these items seemed to help him focus better on what was to come.
“Get ready fer war, Cochrane,” he snarled.
To Be Continued!
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