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Reasonable Men

An early chapter from my upcoming fantasy western novel, 'A Draw Of Dust And Blood'


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Cullyn Blackmore would have pulled the trigger by now if he didn't need the extra coin that bringing these fools in alive would fetch.


Once, it would have been more than economic practicality staying his hand. Once, it would have been the idea that every man deserved a second chance to do the right thing—the right to change. But the man who thought that died a long while ago, buried beneath the dust and dirt somewhere he didn’t care to remember.


Kneeling on the cliffside and peering through the scope of his rifle Felfyre, Cullyn scanned the moonlit, sparkling flow of the river and the bank beyond where a fire glowed red-orange and incandescent in the night, illuminating a stagecoach. Doubtless, his primary target would be holed up in there—a swindling salesman of miracle cures he’d had the displeasure of engaging with before. The bounty on his head was decent enough, as well as on the other two men with him.


Shaking his head and spitting, Cullyn stood, rifle in hand, and walked back to Zanzita, his white and gray blotched mare. She was a good old girl, with him for more than fifteen years now. He patted her neck, pulled himself up onto the saddle, and clicked his tongue, sending her moving back down the switchback trail where he’d found his vantage.


Winding down through a patch of tumblebrush and dried-out pines, he rode to the river's edge, a smaller offshoot of the Ashituri, and started across, hooves tromping and splashing through shallow waters. The two boys who fancied themselves hired guns stood up, cursed, and pulled out their irons. The fire cast enough light on their faces that he saw their countenances twist in surprise and fear.


“Don’t you come no closer!” The man on the left long and gangly, missing a couple of teeth. Jimson Talor, a roughneck gunrunner wanted in more colonies than one according to the papers stuffed in Cullyn’s satchel. The other was one of the younger O’Griggs boys, a two-bit thieving gang. The boy appeared well-fed and aimed a Hawkeye carbine that trembled in his grip. Cullyn got the feeling he couldn’t hit the broadside of a confederance tytan class airship.


“Alright,” Cullyn said, jumping off Zanzita and splashing down in the shallow waters on the river's edge. “I’m only a traveler, passing through.” He raised his hands and stepped forward, wet stones crunching beneath his boots.


“That so?” Jimson said, his voice all nasal. “Don’t see many folk casually riding through this far out in the Roughs at night.”


“True enough,” Cullyn said. “But here we all are. Life’s funny that way.”


Cullyn took a few more steps forward until he came close enough to feel the warmth of the poorly made collapsing fire, knelt, and rubbed his hands together as the O’Griggs boy made a strange high-pitched noise clearing his throat.


“You heard him. No closer!”


“Oh, I heard him,” Cullyn said. “Just hoped I might rest a spell at your camp, if that’s pleasing enough to you all.”


“Afraid it would not, friend,” Jimson said, pulling the lever on his pistol with a click. “Now get before I get you dead.”


Cullyn sighed and stood with half a mind to make a quick draw and quicker work of the two idiots when a voice called out.


“Ho, there!”


Cullyn turned his attention toward the stagecoach. A stout figure clamored out the door, clad in what had once been a right fancy suit now worn from overuse and covered in the dust and dirt that life in the northeastern territories of Lanoria dictated.


Virgil North Loughlin strode toward Cullyn like a crysviper showing off its sheen, a smug grin framed by his thick gray-black mustache. Cullyn drew his pistol out of the holster, prompting another round of curses and re-upping of aims from the two would-be bodyguards.


Loughlin stopped short, sniffed, and glowered, wiping his hands nervously down his tattered frock coat. “Now, is that any way to greet an old friend?”


Cullyn laughed and twisted his mouth into a fleeting grin. “I ain’t no friend of yours.”


“You know this fool?” Jimson spat, flapping his revolver toward Cullyn.


“I suspect a lot of folks would know of this fool,” said Loughlin. Stepping into the firelight, his wrinkled face showed gleaming eyes and a faux wizened charm. “This here is none other than Cullyn ‘Gravestalker’ Blackmore.”


Cullyn breathed out a sigh as Jimson’s eyes widened on his dirty, gaunt, stubble-strewn face, looking like two round saloon dinner plates.


The O’Grigg’s boy lowered his rifle. “You didn’t tell us we were protecting you from the likes of him!”

“And you didn’t ask, sir, nor could I have known,” Loughlin said. “Good help is so much harder to come by these days. It’s good to see you, Mr. Blackmore.”


Cullyn had already started striding toward Loughlin, who held out his arms as if to embrace a long-lost brother. He stopped short, flashed a smile, then punched Loughlin, his top hat flying off. A familiar tingling ran through his arm like hot pins stabbing into him and spread like fire through his whole body, just as it did any time he touched someone’s flesh.


Cullyn turned as the shyster roiled on the ground. Jimson had already turned tail, running off toward the tree line with gangly arms flailing. Cullyn didn’t bother to bring his revolver eye level before firing a shot. A yelp punctuated the crack, and through gunsmoke, Cullyn saw him fall and roll in the dirt, holding the back of his leg where the bullet struck true. He wouldn’t die probably, unless he happened to be a particularly good bleeder. A decent tie-off with a spare shirt or rag would do the trick.


“Be reasonable, sir!” Loughlin said, grunting and pushing himself up off the ground. He reached down for his hat.


“I’d stay down if I were you,” Cullyn said.


“You leave him be!” Cullyn turned to see the portly O’Griggs boy running at him, fist raised. Cullyn grabbed him by the collar of his coat, trying to avoid skin contact lest he take the Mark he had placed on Loughlin.


Cullyn flung him to the ground. “Stay out of this, kid,”


“Now, I know we can work this out,” Loughlin said, wiping blood from his lip. He spat and put his hat back on. “A simple misunderstanding is all.”


Cullyn stalked toward Loughlin, raising his rimfyre and aiming between the man’s beady eyes. “You call poisoning half a gods-damned town a misunderstanding?”


“Let’s be fair—I did say it’d cure what ailed them. Never said a different sort of ailment might not ensue.”


Cullyn shook his head, fighting the severe urge to pull the trigger, and after a moment that passed in relative silence apart from the whimpering of the simp who ran off and got himself shot in the leg, Cullyn lowered his gun.


“You’re lucky you caught me in a good mood.”


“See,” Loughlin said, “reasonable as ever.”


“Save your reasoning for the time you’ll spend in a cell in New Luminster.”


That was when the cocking of a rifle prompted Cullyn to turn. The O’Griggs boy stood, sights trained on him and shaking like the rattle on a vipyrn.


“What’s your name, son?” Cullyn asked.


The boy squinted. “Name’s Boone.”


“Alright, Boone, I’ll tell you what. Why don’t we make this easy on everyone, and you just set the iron down.”


“Mr. Loughlin hired us to protect him,” he stammered. “And that’s what I’m gonna do.”


Cullyn put a hand to his brow and wiped down in exasperation, then turned back toward Loughlin. “You want to try to explain and talk him down, or should I?”


Loughlin came around Cullyn’s side, still wiping his chin where his fist had met moments earlier, a wash of horror coming over his face as he saw the rifle trained on Cullyn. He swallowed with an audible gulp.


“Now Boone, let’s be reasonable here. Put the rifle down.”


“What?”


“Just don’t shoot him, you moron!”


The O’Griggs boy squinted his eyes as confusion flashed on his face. “Why not?”


“Because you’ll shoot me!” Loughlin said.


“But I’m aiming right at him.”


“I know you are, you buffoon!”


Cullyn sighed, pulled out his flask, took a sip of goldcorn whiskey and flashed a grin toward Loughlin. “Go ahead, son. Take your best shot.”


The boy squinted and re-upped his aim.


Loughlin’s voice was a squeak of panic. “Don’t—”


The cracking report and flash went off, and Cullyn felt a bullet punch clear into his shoulder.


He reared back only for a moment from sharp pain, followed by the tingling rush like a million tiny nails pricking his skin. The air around his shoulder shimmered and danced before leaping toward Loughlin, finding its Mark. The shyster screamed out in pain and flew back as if hit, a dark wet spot welling on his shoulder beneath his frock coat.


Cullyn glanced down where one of his favorite and only shirts was now torn and burned from the bullet skimming him there, the skin below unmarred save for the blood that managed to seep through for the briefest of moments.


The O’Grigg’s boy dropped the rifle, lip trembling.


Cullyn nodded. “Good idea, son.” He looked down at Loughlin, writhing with a hand over his shoulder. “And nice shot.”


Loughlin roiled and wailed on the ground like a stuck niddhog.


“Calm down, it’s just a graze,” Cullyn said.


“Are you happy now, you brute?” Loughlin hissed.


“Not really, no. Now I need to haul your sorry arse back, whining all the way, no doubt.”


“You really are an unreasonable man.”, Loughlin scoffed.


“Won’t get an argument from me,” Cullyn grumbled, turning to the O’Griggs boy. “Make yourself useful and help your friend up.” He looked out to where Jimson Talor made a valiant if pathetic effort to crawl away into the scrub. “We’ve got a long trail ahead of us.”




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