The bullets whizzed past Galen's temple, sailing into a tree behind him. His battle reflexes, born on the dusty plains of Mexico and now dormant for more than three years, instantly awakened. Galen deftly reloaded and returned fire twice, albeit blindly, back into the woods. The time between their salvos made Galen think that these gunmen were not experienced in the art of the quick reload.
How many shots had been fired at me? He wondered. Two? Three?
Regardless of experience, though, it was easily apparent there were more of them than him, and it wouldn't take much, even for a bunch of hillbillies, to figure out a way to outflank him. He had to find cover. Galen grabbed the bleeding Mexican woman by the back of her collar and, while firing more shots into the woods as cover, dragged her back toward the embankment from which he'd made his initial charge. Even in her severely wounded state, she tried to scream, her open mouth streaming blood from where her tongue had been severed. Galen continued to pull the trigger on the Colt until it fell on the sixth, uncapped chamber, making it over the hill as another volley of shots came from the woods, one of the rounds tearing into the dirt by his feet.
“Too close,” he muttered to himself. He waited for more gunshots; when they didn't come, Galen determined that there were only two shooters in the woods—and they were staying together.
Hillbilly's got a friend, he thought, regretting not taking more careful aim at the one who ran away. He pulled the woman down below the edge of the hill, thinking, Hysterical.
“Do you know who those men are?” Galen shouted. She didn't answer; too busy wailing unintelligibly between heavy sobs.
“Shhhh!” Galen told her, but still she continued to wail. He turned his head toward the woods. There had been the faint crackling sound of a footfall on the underbrush. The gunmen were no doubt close, although still invisible among the dark thicket of trees. Using the crest of the hill, Galen was certain he had enough cover to hold them off, but was unsure for how long.
He reached into the ammo satchel slung around his neck—down past the extra thirty-two caliber lead shot and paper cartridges full of black powder—took out a single percussion cap, and placed it on the cylinder nipple of the only unfired chamber left on his second Colt. Quickly, he thumbed back the pistol's hammer and fired into the wood and, as was his best guess, at the hillbillies. Although he now had two empty revolvers, he hoped this last shot would keep the hillbillies cowering in the woods long enough for him to load his two black powder pistols.
Galen wasted no time. From his bag he took out a paper cartridge full of powder and ripped off the twisted top with his teeth. Carefully, he dumped its contents into the first chamber, then placed one of the thirty-two caliber lead balls atop the powder charge, pushing it down into the chamber slightly to keep it from falling out as he unhooked the gun’s built-in rammer from the lug under the barrel and, with his other hand, pulled down on the lever and pushed the ball home deep into the chamber. He began the process again for the second empty chamber. Nimbly, his fingers went about their task.
Again shots rang from the woods, one right after the other. The bullets coming nowhere near their mark—but Galen thought they sounded like they had come from two very different parts of the woods.
They are splitting up, he thought. This wasn't good.
He kept his eyes focused on the tree line as he continued to load the Colt. Paper cartridge, lead pistol round, a slight tamp, ram it home, and then move to the next chamber. Another crack of rifle fire—this time a single shot from his right, the bullet making no impact within earshot. Galen reached for the tin of beaver grease and, with his finger, slathered some across each loaded chamber. He'd seen men in the haste of battle forgo this last step only to have the powder flash of their first shot cause a chain-fire and ignite the other chambers. He’d seen one man’s gun explode in his hands, scarring his face.
A rifle shot sounded from Galen’s left.
He finished loading the first Colt and aimed it toward the woods. Still nothing, as if those hunting him were ghosts, haunting him with disembodied noises and all-too-physical bullets; he shuddered at the thought. He could blindly fire more warning shots into the woods, but Galen knew better: he'd just killed one of those raping bastards; they were coming for his hide.
Galen stole a glance at the woman just as she turned her head and spat out another thick mouthful of blood. Placing the now loaded pistol on the ground, he cracked open the cylinder of the other Colt and dug into his ammo bag for another paper cartridge of black powder. He had pre-measured and twisted them during the first few warm summer nights of his journey and, as he poured just the right amount into the chamber of the Colt, was glad he'd done it. As he crumpled the paper, a rifle shot came from his right, this time striking the ground directly in front of him.
Too close, Galen thought. Suddenly he realized what the hillbillies were doing. They were using an old trick to try and flush him out: one shoots while the other waits for the quarry to lift his head before picking him off from another location. Regardless, even if Galen stayed low and didn't take the bait, his hunters would eventually have him flanked and in a crossfire.
Hillbillies aren't so stupid after all, Galen thought. It was perfectly considerable that the two gunmen in the woods had served in the war as well.
That's it, Galen silently realized. The shooters were doing this by the book—a book he knew quite well.
As he sat in the study a clock from the hallway tolled the hour’s bell, and the first thing that struck Cyril was how frail the major now looked. Dunburton's slave poured two cups of tea from a china pot while Cyril leaned away from her, causing her to hurry back into the kitchen.
“You were saying?” Dunburton asked, prompting a return to their previous conversation.
Cyril was hesitant to fully explain why it had taken him so long to make good on the major's request. He would disapprove of the reason—Cyril was sure.
“My delay was caused by circumstances beyond my control,” Cyril lied.
“Military issues?” inquired Dunburton.
“Yes.” This was the truth, but not all of it. Cyril didn’t elaborate, allowing the old Major to nod his head in understanding. “Tell me more about this Tom Holt,” Cyril said, moving the conversation in another direction.
Dunburton gave as many details his old, yet nimble, mind could remember while Cyril listened intently. The latter already knew Tom Holt was Galen Altos, being there was only one deserter from the brigade of St. Patrick’s who had eluded initial capture, albeit just barely. However, there was one thing about the whole story that bothered Cyril, one inescapable fact that burrowed under his skin like a tick. The Private First Class Galen Altos he knew from the war—the very same man who had deserted his unit—had been hunted down and killed years ago. Cyril had followed a lead to a small town south of Nogales and discovered a lone gringo sheltered by the dirt-poor natives in the town’s one-room church.
In fact, it was Cyril who had ordered his men to round up the townsfolk into the church; it was even his very hand that lit the first torch that set the building, Galen, and poor Mexicans aflame.
He shut the door on the case of Galen Altos years ago, watching him perish along with those pathetic Mexican fools who had risked their worthless lives to save him. Indeed, the deaths of these innocents, he though, would be a veritable warning to any future cowards considering desertion. In this way, Cyril felt, he was giving their poor lives some kind of previously absent meaning.
Nevertheless, there was a persistent sting in the back of his mind when Dunburton began talking about Altos, or Holt. The slippery bastard had eluded justice once before, after all, when he made his way out of the country and into Mexican hands. Could he have escaped that burning one-room church? There had been a posse of eight men, stout volunteers who had shared Cyril’s feelings about delivering justice to the San Patricios, who guarded the burning church. If Galen had indeed made it out of that building, someone would have noticed him emerging from the flames.
After loading the second Colt, Galen lay with his back to the dirt and waited for the next volley of rifle fire. When it finally arrived, Galen knew he’d figured fairly correctly. It was now taking each man approximately two minutes to load his rifle, move around to the perimeter, take aim, and fire. This meant the alternating shots were coming every sixty seconds or so. The woman was breathing heavily, her head to the side to allow the blood to flow out, preventing her constantly spitting. Galen had seen the copious amount of blood she had already lost and was fairly certain she would soon die. He quickly chided himself; his foolish entanglement in her situation had done nothing to save her life and only endangered his own.
Though, truthfully, he was unsure that was actually the case.
The footfalls coming from the woods were more audible. The hillbillies were getting closer.
Another shot from the woods, this one louder.
It can all end here, Galen thought. But then it hit him: it would be okay.
Travelling alone, he often reflected back upon his journey. Why him, he’d wonder, until it wore grooves into his brain. Lately, he’d begun to believe it had all been a hallucination, a figment of a deteriorating mind.
It can all end here, he thought.
There would be no white light waiting for him at the end of the tunnel—which Galen was sure of. And yet the prospect of death’s darkness devouring him still seemed welcoming, a shift in his journey from a ‘from’ to a ‘to’.
The woman gasped again; her eyes lolled as her fingers reached out to him, but he was too far away. Her pleading eyes did nothing to move him; he knew there was nothing he could do for her except release her—but to use a bullet for such a task would lower his chance of actually getting out of this.
A rifle shot came from his left—the bullet coming so close Galen could feel it whiz just over his head. Galen waited, steeling himself for the companion crossfire shot that would follow shortly. He imagined the shooter to the left loading the black powder down the still-smoking barrel of his rifle, the grains falling to the bottom, waiting for the lead bullet to follow. Finally, the hillbilly to his right fired from, as Galen figured, less than 100 feet away. If his calculations were indeed correct, he had a minute before he'd be fired upon again. Galen thumbed back the hammers on the twin Colts and took a deep inhale. Regardless of how old and creaky his legs felt, they would not let him down.
The Colts roared like thunder and spat unholy lightning as Galen ran at full gallop toward the woods. Carefully, he measured his shots, trying to flush out the location of the shooter. He continued his charge, racing toward any movement he saw, gun blazing. He made it to the edge of the woods in a matter of seconds when he heard a pained yelp—the sound of his bullet meeting its mark. Galen turned past a stout tree and saw him trying to run on a gimpy leg. Galen took careful aim before feeling a sting in his side. He'd been so caught up in the moment that he forgot the rifle firing from his right. As Galen staggered, he knew the bullet was lodged deep, unexited. His legs, so strong just a few seconds earlier, buckled underneath his weight. Galen dropped to his knees and turned as the second hillbilly came charging through the woods before plunging the bayonet-tipped musket deep into his heart.