As Creed rounded a narrow, bending dip in the road – if it could be called a road – a shallow muddle of murky smoke wafted into the dim glow of the coupe’s headlights, seeping from the lows like deadly fog. He pressed his foot on the brake, and as he slowed to a stop, the twin beams illuminated an iron gate.
This was the place. He hadn’t seen any indication of other homesteads for miles around. It wasn’t exactly that he recognized it. He simply felt it, a chill in his bones, like he’d been here before. Creed guessed he’d had at that, in a maddening, uncanny sort of way.
He shifted into neutral and keyed off the engine. The twin head-lamps dimmed, but he left them on. He wanted to see if Nika made it here safe. The gate’s reflection looked foreboding, like it was made of slender, burnt bones.
He opened the car door and stepped up onto the running board for a better vantage. The revolver was in his hand, but held behind his back. If these folk were peaceful, he’d not scare them out of hand. The stench of woodsmoke was thick hereabouts, mantling the ground in places, like a creeping, horrific vestige of what had happened here.
The smoke was tinged with another, less noticeable yet unsavory smell. That would be the dead homesteaders.
A flash of white, beyond the gate, told him someone was approaching, and fast. The slim, shapely form of his protégé broke through a puff of lingering smoke. Nika’s dark auburn hair looked wild and tousled, not her usual coiffed look, with curls that framed her pretty face. Her pale shirt was marred with mud, and she’d lost her hat.
Nika raised the catch on the gate and flung it wide. She swept around the nose of the car, around the open door, and flung her arms around Creed’s hips, nearly pulling him off balance.
“Now now, Button,” he said, stepping down from the running board. She clung tightly to him, obviously shaken. “No need to squeeze me to death,” he said, but gently.
Creed holstered his pistol, then carefully grasped her shoulders to get a better look. He minded the right one. It would still be sore, despite his medicines.
Even in the dim reflection of the headlamps, it was clear her face was awash with tears.
“Don’t you go scaring me like that, then,” she admonished. “I was sure that you were shot up, or worse. You had me worried sick.”
Creed thumbed back her tears and gazed into those deep, wide eyes. Even in the dimness of the pre-dawn glimmer, fire shone there, in those hazel flecks.
“Hey kid, you gotta have more faith. I told you I’d meet you here, and here I am. Heck, I’m even earlier than I thought I’d be.”
Nika looked up at him, looking every bit the girl of 19 she was, vulnerable and comely, yet not overly soft. Troubles will do that to you, harden you up. Tears continued to make her eyes sparkle.
“How did you escape?” she asked. “What happened?”
Creed grinned his best, calming smile. “I got away. That’s all that matters.”
Her eyes flared and she walloped him on the chest. He tried not to wince.
“Oh my stars,” she exclaimed, “you’re hurt.”
“It weren’t nothing but a scratch,” he said, but the look she fired at him informed Creed she’d have none of it.
“I’ll be the judge, Kes,” she said. Nika unfastened the top button on his plaid shirt, and her brows squeezed together. “Don’t tell me you had to abandon your surgery satchel,” she said.
Creed cocked a grin and tilted his head to the runabout at the rear of the car. Nika hastened to the back of the car and lifted the latch, swinging up the rumble seat. While she did, Creed noticed movement, and a reflection of metal in the glow of the headlight. Whoever it was kept to the shadows, and were out of its direct glow. He kept an eye out in that direction. They were likely the dead homesteaders’ family, but he’d not take chances.
Nika’s face lit up when she saw not only the medicine kit, but her well-traveled suitcase as well.
“How did you manage to…?” she began.
“You know me, Button. I have a way with blandishment.”
“I don’t presume to suspect that ‘Smitty’ there had anything to do with it?”
Creed snorted, his hand lighting on his Smith & Wesson’s holster. “Just might’ve. Lets just say that, in the end, the good sheriff of Burning Bush was convinced I weren’t no murderer.”
She returned with the satchel, favoring him with one of her ‘you’re not out of this until you spill the beans’ looks.
“Because, Nika…” he replied, “I didn’t murder him. The whacker gave me every reason to ventilate him, I assure you. But when the dust was settled, he realized I could have killed him seven ways to heaven, and I didn’t.”
Nika took Creed’s arm and gently ushered him to the front of the car, and used a headlamp for her examination. The spectators, there were several now, were beginning to buck up; they were inching forward, nearly into the light now.
Creed had unbuttoned his shirt the rest of the way, and now peeled back part of the cloth that he’d wrapped all the way round his chest. He showed Nika the scratch there, on his left breast.
Nika gasped when she saw the wound.
“With all the fire’n smoke, I’m lucky for just this graze,” he reassured her.
She examined him, poked and prodded, then dipped fingers into his tin of healing goop.
He started to protest, “I done that already…,” but she dabbed a dollop of all-heal on the scratch anyway, giving him another of her expressions. It stung, despite her gentle touch.
“What about you?” he asked as she adjusted the wrapping. “Why didn’t you take the coupe like I told you?”
She gave him yet another incredulous glare, one of umpteen dozen she had mastered. The girl sure had a way with those scornful looks, alternating one to another. He stifled a smile.
“I was being shot at,” she blurted, “by my own gun no less. I had to get out of there quick, and I did the only sensible thing. I jumped on a horse and rode as fast as I could.”
Her expression turned toward the ground then. “The man who’d taken my gun shot after me, and… he… dangit he shot the horse as we high-hoofed it out of there. She’d flared up, see, when I landed on her, or perhaps when I spurred her to get moving. The mare kicked him. I don’t know if it was purposeful, or if the gun went off on its own, but I heard my Colt go off. The fella, he looked scared and not too gun-sure. And that was before he was hoof-slammed in the chest. After that, I rode and rode. I didn’t even now she’d been hit in her flank, poor girl. One we’d made clear of the town and more’n halfway here, the mare just sighed and went to her knees, like she knew her purpose’d been fulfilled.”
Tears renewed in Nika’s eyes as she finished re-buttoning Creed’s shirt. “With my Colt gone, I had to leave her there. I hope she didn’t suffer much.”
“The horse wasn’t moving when I drove past it,” Creed replied. “I figured it was dead. I’d suspected it might have been your savior.”
“I thought you were shot for sure,” she continued. “I heard all that gunfire behind me when I was fleeing. Kes, I am so very happy you made it out of there ok.”
Creed smiled and gave her a hug. The girl did know how to go on.
“It’s good to see you too, kid,” which provoked yet another glare.
One of the homesteaders, a short bloke with the look of fear in his phiz, stepped forward then, into the glow of the car’s lights. Creed noted the rifle cocked under one arm. He leaned in and whispered in Nika’s ear. “We’ve comp’ny. They peaceable?”
“Scared. Full of grief, mainly,” she replied softly. “But they were nice to me. I only wandered in here about a half hour ago, so we really didn’t get much time…”
“Go look in the passenger’s door pouch,” Creed interrupted. “Just in case.”
Nika walked around to the passenger side of the car and opened the door. Creed himself also stepped out of the light, moving to the driver’s door. Nika squealed as she pulled her Colt from the pouch.
“There’s a box of cartridges in there too. I refilled the magazine, so she’s ready to go.”
“Oh thank you, Kes, I thought I’d never see her again.” Nika pocketed a handful of rounds and went around to the rumble again and retrieved her hideaway ankle holster.
“Mister,” called the timid man with the rifle. He was scrawny, like most of the poor these days, but he had a haunted look about him. Not surprising since he just lost some of his kin, and his home as well. “What you doing here?” His voice was throaty. An upraised hand blocked out the glare from the beamers.
“Sorry for you loss,” Creed called out, “and many thanks for your hospitality to my friend. We don’t mean any ill, mate.”
Creed stepped into the light. Sure, he’d only come off as a dark silhouette. Still, the man and the others lurking about would see he wasn’t threatening them none.
“That’s close enough, stranger,” he yelled, raising the rifle.
“Da, is they the ones who killed Uncle Albie and Aunt Edna?” The voice was off to Creed’s right. It was a youthful male voice. Still too dark yet to see where that one hid.
“You keep out of sight, Taddy. Let your Da handle it. That goes for the rest of you! Ricky, keep this man in your sights. Fill him with daylight if I say so.”
Creed spread his hands wide. “There’s no need for shooting, fella,” he said. “We don’t mean you no trouble.”
A soft clacking sounded behind the coupe. Creed knew that sound. Nika had checked the action of their rifle. She knew the drill, but these folk weren’t a bounty. They weren’t gangsters, hooch-runners, or other unsavories either. There’d be no need for shooting this morning, not if he had a say in it.
“How’d you know we’d suffered a loss, mister? Unless you were the one what killed them!” Grief was a terrible blindfold, and Creed would have to peel it away carefully.
Telling them that he’d had a vision earlier in the day, that he’d seen who had done this and how it had happened would only get him shot. Hell, he barely believed it himself.
He had to chance his answer. “Nika just told me,” he replied, and sure hoped that they’d told her of their loss.
His answer was the sound of the man working the bolt on his rifle, setting a round into the breech. “We never told her nothing about what we found when we got back from Burning Bush.”
“Hey, hey… calm down, mate. She said you were grieving. That much is plain even to me, and I can’t barely see you. Your voice is full of your loss. Besides, anybody with a nose can tell something burnt down today. And this wasn’t no field fire. You lost your home.”
“True enough,” yelled the man, whose fidgeting and shuffling belied his words.
“Still,” the homesteader continued, “how do we know it wasn’t you what did it? Nobody ever comes down the road but us, yet here you is.”
Shit. Creed took in a deep breath, wishing he hadn’t. That particular gulp of smokey air was thick with burnt flesh.
“Look mister, you can either shoot me, or let me come in and talk to you. The reason I am here is that I’m following the cur that did this to your kin.” A little lie, but not entirely untrue, not after today’s dream-walking. “I hunt bounties, and I aim to stop the malefactor before he can do this to anyone else.” That much was true as rain.
“You do?” whispered Nika. She had crawled beneath the undercarriage of the Ford, now lying prone on the ground just behind him. Smart sheila, that one. His training wasn’t completely lost on her.
“Shh. Later,” he whispered back.
“The who-lifactor?” called the man.
“The hooligan, the man that did this evil here. I’ve been following this fellow a while now.” Since his vision this afternoon – even though that was stretching the truth a tad. “Mister, anything you can tell me about what happened here will be helpful. My name is Creed.”
He took three steps forward, hoping the man wouldn’t shoot him out of hand.
“You’ve met my ward, Nika. Say, I don’t yet know your names. What say we all sit down and have a talk. I’ve even got a bottle of giggle juice in the jalopy, if that hits your fancy, and you don’t mind. It’s legal now.”
“We don’t live in a cave, mister. Hooch’s been legal for a year.”
“Smooth,” whispered Nika. Smartypants.
Creed ignored her and called back to the man. “What say you, mister…?”
“Sessions,” he replied at last. “Gabriel Sessions. And I’d be happy for some of that… giggle-juice… of yours. I’m normally a family man, but after the day we’ve had…” He tentatively pulled the rifle up, eventually resting the barrel on his shoulder. He cautiously stepped forward and held open the gate. The dawn light broke then, the sun creeping over the craggy and dusty ridge that Creed remembered from his vision. It infused the morning with a pallid pink, and utterly eerie glow.