Western Short Story
was the youngest bounty Wyatt had ever seen advertised. Her raven pig
tails and freckled dimples were better suited for a poster that had
the words “Missing Child” on it. Instead, she had earned a
different type of billing: WANTED – CASSIE SANGE. Crime: Murder.
Age: Eleven. Alive: $5000. Dead: $3000. Wyatt didn’t know if they
even hung people that young.
“Course they do, chickenshit,” Dermit said as the two of them were fastening their saddles for the long ride. “She’s a murderer, ain’t she? Young. Old. Don’t matter much to Judge Stone. She’ll swing. And you can bet we’re gonna have all five thousand in our pockets before she does. I ain’t settling for anything less.”
“Shoot. That’s a lot of money,” Wyatt said, examining the torn poster once more before rolling it into his rucksack. He knew he’d be lucky to see a thousand of those sheriff-sponsored dollars before Dermit had his take. “You seem so sure we’ll get it all.”
“Sure as shit. Come on boy. You gonna stand there jawing? Or we fixin’ to go get us the easiest money we ever got?”
Wyatt made no reply. He got on his horse and followed after his partner, not wanting to challenge Dermit or get on his ornery side again. He rubbed at his stubbled chin—the place where Dermit’s ornery side had struck last time—and cringed at the clicks of unhealed bones within. Still, the pain was only second in his mind. He hoped everything went as smoothly as Dermit assumed. He didn’t like the idea of having to kill a kid. No matter how guilty she was.
He and Dermit had been bounty partners for the better part of five years now. Before they’d met, Wyatt had been sleeping on the dusty streets of New Waco. He did what any twelve-year-old boy without parents would do. Sometimes he could earn up to a whole two dollars a day shining boots near the old post office. Most folks passed by his way anyway when going to Miss Selma’s saloon. The cowpokes that entered there were sometimes sent packing if they brought crusted horse apples onto Miss Selma’s freshly swept floor. A shoeshine like Wyatt could really make a way for himself collecting Indian head coppers. That was how things went at first. When he was hungry, he’d search the trash heaps or buy himself enough to get by. When he was thirsty, he’d scoop himself a hat’s worth of water from the horse trough. At night he’d cook his spoils, setting himself up on the edge of town where the coyotes passed through and the stable hands sometimes played cards over barrels. He kept to himself mostly. A dull fire and a hot bean can were the only company he ever needed.
Some days, however, no one needed a shine. So that was when Wyatt learned to steal. He’d been the recipient of his fair share of black eyes and busted ribs during his earliest attempts at making quick grabs. His wounds would heal, and his hands would get a little faster. It was either that or starve, and having a winged-scavenger circling overhead was not the last sight he wanted to see. No sir, someday he was going to make it all the way to one of the big cities, like New York or Boston. Maybe he’d catch himself a train and marry one of those fair lady types, like the kind he’d seen in the catalogues over at the general store.
Dermit had found him one day by purely a circumstance. Wyatt had just so happened to be coming out from the general store, untucking a recent grab from the folds of his shirt, when he bumped into a man who was rushing in to rob the place himself. The man had stopped to curse him—doing so rather loudly—and that’s when Dermit showed up like a black tornado and blew a hole right into the side of the man’s head.
All told the robber had a bounty of two-thousand dollars on his head. Dermit thanked Wyatt for his convenient assistance as he had been tracking that particular bounty for days. Wyatt gratefully accepted the man’s offer to share a campfire that evening. The bounty hunter was a surly old cuss, Wyatt had come to figure. Had to be in a profession that killed people, he reckoned. Dermit was the sort that could make a grizzly stumble back some if he encountered one on the plains. His hair was short and ragged, looking to be self-cut from the long knife tucked on his hip. And both his shrunken eyes were like two sapphire hurricanes; they were terrifying to stare directly into, but a thing of harsh beauty nonetheless.
They got to talking. Later that night Dermit got to drinking. It wasn’t long before he reached into his wallet and gave Wyatt a one-hundred-dollar bill—leftovers from the bounty. Wyatt had never seen that much money before. However dangerous this man’s business was, Wyatt wanted more.
“Couldn’t have done it without ya, kid,” Dermit had told him, shortly before belching and passing out with his head near the fire. Wyatt had to drag the heavy hunter to a safe bed of cold dirt.
Their partnership was pretty much assured after that. In some ways, Dermit reminded Wyatt of his own Pa. He always smelled of the cheapest whiskeys and he smoked Big Chief tobacco. It was his Pa’s favorite. Dermit taught Wyatt how to fire a gun and how to bring a man in alive to face the rope. They made a good team, just so long as Dermit was in one of his better moods.
Now according to the local sheriff’s office, Miss Cassie Sange was last spotted out in the desert past Sidewinder Gulch and up near the Dakota pass. The sheriff had taken a posse through the territory a week prior, but they had returned without their bounty. What’s more, they rode back with less men than they had ridden out with. They say a couple of the braver men had tried their luck going deeper into the pass—which was a dry canyon filled with old bones of poor souls who were said to have died of thirst. They never returned though, and that was when the sheriff updated Cassie’s poster.
It was as good a lead as any to go off of. Dermit insisted they ride up the pass during the coolness of dusk with plenty of water packed between their two horses. As they rode, Wyatt gazed all about the narrowing canyon. He half-expected to be done in by a stray cougar or worse. There’d be no way of fending off a surprise attack on this skinny trail.
Dusk came quick and night settled fast. Dermit had already taken to sipping from his flask but the cherry-nosed man wasn’t about to rest when he felt they were on a hot trail. Wyatt had no choice but to freeze atop his horse as the night grew colder and darker. His long, dusty bangs felt rigid over his watchful amber eyes. The moon was blotted out by heavy clouds. The Devil plays at night, his mother would say whenever he’d be outside too long as a kid. Evil lurks on a starless night.
Wyatt cleared his throat, ready to finally suggest that they should turn back. Dermit shushed him though as the trail widened and they quickly came upon a cabin. At first glance there was nothing extraordinary about it. It was just an old wooden shack with a tin roof and a broken pipe chimney. But as they drew closer, the ground became more uneven. Wyatt stared down and saw that much of the land around the cabin had been freshly dug. The dirt was splotchy and red and there rose a stench so foul that Wyatt had to cover his nose with his shirt.
Dermit stepped down from his horse. He stumbled forward with a clumsiness to his step before turning and motioning for Wyatt to accompany him. Wyatt dismounted and stepped cautiously towards the cabin behind his partner. He hadn’t noticed them earlier but there were several half-gutted deer carcasses laying on the side of the shack. Wyatt shuddered at the sight of a rotting buck’s head staring back at him lifelessly. Dermit fetched his attention, pointing at the cabin door.
“Cover me, boy,” he said, sharply, drawing his gun from his holster.
Dermit lurched forward and then raised his foot to kick the cabin door open. He entered with his gun ahead of him, cocked and steady despite the holder’s sobriety. Wyatt heard a loud scream coming from inside. It sounded like a little girl who had just been given the fright of her life.
Dermit had been right. This was one of the easiest bounties they’d ever gone after. Cassie didn’t have any weapons on her. She had begged and sobbed like the scared child she was until Dermit had enough of her wailing. He struck her with the back of his hand and then tied her hands and feet together using a cow-hitch knot. She could’ve been a calf awaiting a hot-iron brand with the way he handled her.
“She’ll ride with you,” Dermit ordered. He scooped the hogtied child up from the ground and handed her up to where Wyatt was sitting on his saddle. “Try not to drop her or screw this up, chickenshit. If she dies, you gonna wish you had too.”
“Shouldn’t we rest up tonight?” Wyatt asked. “Seems loco to go riding back this late.” He looked down at the girl now seated in front of him on the horse. “Damn Dermit, she’s likely to freeze before we get to town. I-I think we should make camp.”
“What the hell you say to me boy?” Dermit snapped. He raised the butt of his gun and rammed it into Wyatt’s ribs. “I says we going back tonight. You give me any more lip and I’ll bring her back myself. Ain’t no one gonna kick up a fuss for a worried little prick like you.”
Wyatt was hunched over, trying to catch his breath again. “I’m…sorry Dermit. You’re right…we should ride.”
“Damn straight til daybreak,” Dermit said, chuckling. “Try to keep up.”
Dermit always rode his horse faster when he was drunk. Wyatt could hardly match his speed. It was too dark to see much of anything and he was too focused on making sure Cassie didn’t slip from the horse. His rib was also bothering him some. He worried about it being broken.
Cassie eventually turned to face him. It was the first time he’d really set eyes on her face, at least in person that is. He couldn’t believe someone as adorable as her was wanted for murder. Her big black eyes sort of glimmered, even in the dead of night. Her cheek was puffy from where Dermit had hit her, but she wasn’t bleeding. Actually, she didn’t even look bothered at all by any of this. Wyatt could almost swear she was enjoying the ride. When their eyes locked, Cassie gave him a big dimpled grin.
“How’s your rib?” she asked, with a twang in her voice. She sounded as woodsy as a plucked banjo. “You think it’s broke?”
“Not sure. I’ll be fine though.”
“Don’t sound fine. Say, why you let him hit you like that for? Don’t seem right.”
“Dermit didn’t meant nothing by it. Just the way he is sometimes. I shouldn’t have mouthed off. That’s all.”
“Funny. Cause last I checked, you had a gun too. If I were you—I’d shoot him dead and take the reward all for myself.”
Wyatt reeled back some, startled by the rising glee in Cassie’s voice. “I—no. Dermit’s my partner. Always has been. I’d never cross him like that.”
Cassie scoffed. “I seen plenty of guys like him. You wanna know something? They’re all the same. They only care about their money. You just watch. As soon as he don’t need you anymore, why he’ll plug you himself.”
Wyatt scowled at her. “I think you should just hush now, Cassie. Start worrying about your own skin. They’re fixin’ to hang you, ya know?”
Cassie started to giggle. She could’ve just finished picking daisies for how carefree she was acting. “I ain’t afraid to die. But your friend there is.” She narrowed her black eyes. “You know you’re nothing more than a wall for him to hide behind when the bullets start flying, right?”
“…I said that’s enough.”
“Think about it. Only reason he didn’t send you in first to fetch me is cause he didn’t think there was no need. I’m just a harmless little girl to him.”
“You are just a little girl.”
“And you’re just somebody to take the first bullet.” She stared quietly at him, and for the first time appeared as if she genuinely cared about Wyatt and his situation. She pursed her lips together. “When I see a young man like you…well, you still got the whole world to see. What you doing wasting your time with trash like him?”
There was some truth to what she was saying. Wyatt usually was the first one tasked with approaching a bounty. It had been that way ever since they started working with one another. It used to make him so scared he could piss himself. Dermit, however, had seen to beating the terrible habit out of him early on in their partnership. Even now, Wyatt’s stomach was churning as Dermit’s horse rode further and further ahead of them. If Wyatt didn’t catch up soon, he was sure to see his partner’s ornery side again.
Cassie looked to the sky. For a second, Wyatt could swear her eyes suddenly shone yellow. “Clouds are thinning,” she said, almost warning. “It’s a full moon tonight, you know? They say scary things happen under a full moon. What you think?”
“Shoot, I think that’s something a kid would believe.”
She leaned in closer to his body, raising her eyebrows as she spoke. “Be honest. If I took care of your little partner problem, you’d let me go. Wouldn’t you?”
Wyatt laughed, appreciating her little joke. “Oh, Miss Cassie. I would love to see you try.”
They were nearing the gulch once more. The town was only a few miles ahead. The trail was becoming brighter as the moon drifted out from behind the clouds. It was then without warning that Cassie threw herself backwards and fell from Wyatt’s horse.
“Shit!” Wyatt exclaimed.
He stopped his horse, looking for where she’d rolled off to. He couldn’t see anything amidst the kicked-up dust and moonlight.
Wyatt jumped down from his horse and began checking through every nearby bush he could. She wasn’t there though. It was as if she had vanished. Suddenly, Wyatt heard a sound that made his heart leap from his chest. Dermit was riding back and Wyatt could already tell he was riding angry with how hard he was kicking on his horse.
“What the hell’s keeping you, boy?” Dermit shouted when he was close. “My own grandma rides faster than…where is she?!” he barked savagely, realizing for himself what had happened.
Dermit drew his gun. He raised his leg and fell drunkenly off his horse, but didn’t let it slow him none. He shot up with that tornado speed of his and belted Wyatt across the face with his gun. Wyatt hit the dirt hard. He tried crawling backwards, desperate to get away.
“You dumb bastard! I give you one job and this is how you repay me? Is that it, boy?”
“I’m sorry Dermit,” Wyatt wailed, checking to see if his jaw was busted again. “She just—she fell off. Honest.”
“Just fell off my ass! Hell, I reckon this was your plan all along, weren’t it? Soon as we come up with a real bounty you gotta find some way to keep it all for yourself. And after everything I done for you—this is what I get, is that it boy? Huh? Answer me you little prick!” Steadily, Dermit aimed his gun at Wyatt’s head. “After all I gave to you, this is the respect you show me?” His face was redder than a stoked fire.
“Please Dermit!” Wyatt yelled, before cradling himself in the dirt. His only chance of getting away was a mad sprint. But before he could find the nerve to push himself up, he felt around him and noticed torn pieces of rope on the ground. Cassie’s rope?
A gut-wrenching scream came from Dermit’s direction. Wyatt turned to look, now shocked by the horrific sight he was seeing. Cassie was upon the man, only she didn’t look herself anymore. She’d sprouted wings…huge monstrous wings. They looked like the kind you’d see on a bat. She’d grown spindly claws as well as two long fangs which protruded from her mouth. She used them to bite into Dermit’s neck and then she tore the man’s throat clean from his body. Dermit fell over and Cassie let loose a screaming hiss. She dropped down and began to feed on the dying man. What was left of Dermit shook with violent convulsions as his body was ripped to shreds.
Wyatt rushed to his feet and drew his weapon. He cocked his gun and aimed right towards Cassie’s head, just like Dermit had taught him. Cassie paused her feasting and looked up at Wyatt. Those big black eyes of hers were now completely yellow under the light of the full moon. Yet, they still retained the same look from before. The one she’d given him back on the horse when she told him he was better than all of this. And admittedly, she was still too cute to hang—despite the blood and bits of Dermit’s cheek dangling from her fang.
Slowly, Wyatt lowered his gun. Cassie gave him a bloodstained grin before continuing on with her meal in peace. Wyatt ran to his horse and calmed the frightened animal. Eventually, he was able to saddle up once more.
He rode off in a flash towards a direction not aiming for the town. After all, he was his own man now. The world was his to see, just like Cassie had suggested. And she’d taught him another important lesson tonight. There were some monsters in this world which needed to die.