Written by: Joseph D. Stirling (2013)
Dust hung in the afternoon breeze catching the brown light that spilled through the open windows. Outside, shadows from a few thin clouds tracked across the ground though they did little to abate the heat of the noon day sun. Tucker sat in his chair leaning back and peering over the top of his cards at the others around the table. He was sitting on a pair of Jacks, it was something at least. He took the chewed bit of cigar from his mouth with a puff of thick smoke and spit flecks of tobacco onto the floor. His stubbed third arm replaced the cigar and scratched absently at his ear. Heads turned as the cooling unit grated and choked then quieted again with a few kicks from the bartender behind the counter.
“Call,” said the thick skinned fellow to Tucker’s left, large crooked teeth clicking as he spoke. Dust clung to the creases between scaled patches on his arms and face. A row of shinney black spines ran down his head like a mohawk, diminishing in size down his back.
Cards dropped around the table. A pair of nine‘s from the dude with thick bone plates on his back and head, full house of eights and fours from an ugly man with eyes like a snail, three-of-a-kind to the scorpion-like tail, and Tucker’s pair Jack. Tucker blew a stream of smoke from his nose and stood taking his empty mug with him.
“That‘s five hands solid. I gotta inklin‘ that you ain‘t on the level son,” said Tucker.
The scruffy, dirt coated face drew back a sneer as he stood, eye-stalks narrowing. “Whatcha say ta me?”
“I think ya heard. I say yer cheatin‘ somethin‘ awful,” said Tucker.
The man reached for his belt, forgetting that the saloon was a ”check your weapons at the door” establishment. Tucker smiled and flung his empty mug, busting the mans nose open with a yelp. The man cupped his face, his eye-stalks pulling down into his head as blood pumped through his fingers. The others around the table laughed, each man taking back his money.
“Cards ain’t wit me today,” Tucker said. “An’ thanks fer the drink partner.” He tipped his hat to the spike-headed man.
He reached down and took the last few coins he had bet and tucked them into the pocket of his jeans. He snugged up his pants and headed to the bar as a shadow filled the door to the saloon. Hinges creaked as the slender form of a woman slid through into the place, quite literally on a long snake-like lower half that took the place of her legs. She knocked her hat back, letting it hang from her neck on the bola cord. She fingered the polished bone grip of her pistol under the watchful eye of the poker players.
“Figured you’d be here Tucker, time to go. Doc’s got that roller refueled. We movin’ out,” she said.
Tucker set the mug on the counter, “Lemme get my things,” he said to the bartender, flipping him a coin. “Hell, gimme one more shot o’ whiskey ‘for I leave.” He dropped another coin and slugged back the amber liquid he was given.
The bartender passed him a gun belt with two large frame revolvers and a bandolier lined with dozens of long, fat bullets. His long rifle clunked noisily on the counter as he buckled the belts, adjusting them to sit comfortably. He took the rifle and replaced the bolt, which he had in his pocket, tipping his hat to the bartender with the stunted third arm that grew from his right shoulder.
As Tucker joined Sara at the door there was a loud rumble of an engine thrumming to life, a deep throaty growl as the roller made ready to leave town. Sara pulled her hat back on and slithered across the street coiling herself into the top chair behind the mounted repeating rifle. Tucker took one last long pull from his cigar watching the hitched riding roaches step nervously as he flicked it to the ground. He straddled the seat of his speeder and with a loud whine the turbine spun to action, the airflow lifting the bike from the ground. Looking back he made sure the flaps were all in working order before throttling up and spitting a trail of dust into the air behind him. The roller thundered into motion on six fat knobby tires, Doc Shoemaker’s bone-plated, clubbed arm resting on the door frame from the driver’s seat.
Tucker squinted into the wasteland ahead of him, a toothy smirk on his weathered sun beaten face. A whole five hundred a week just to play ‘escort’ for this crazy doc and his lady friend. A trip east into the wastes for scientific research. Bah! Research was just fancy talk for looking at crap through a scope and scribbling in a book that no one was going to read. Tucker chortled a short laugh, it was easy money. He spied a pack of rattle backs to the north, wild dogs covered in dangerous quills that shook like a rattlesnakes tail, and slowed to pace with the roller yelling out to be heard above the engines.
“Damn rattle backs, if they come runnin’ you jes’ keep on rollin’. They can throw them damn quills but they ain’t got no aim.”
“If we get a chance to collect one I would love to dissect it, it would make an interesting chapter for my book!” Doc Shoemaker was beaming, searching the scoured landscape for the pack. “Maybe we’ll get lucky and these rattle backs will follow us! They might try and eat us during the night! Wouldn’t that be wonderful?”
“Crazy sum’bitch,” laughed Tucker as he sped out in front again.
He could feel Sara watching him, she seemed to always be staring at him when she thought he wasn’t aware. Tucker had to admit, she was a pleasant looking thing. Smooth skin, slender curves, lovely breasts, and a pretty face. It could be a fun time, though to be honest with the snake-tail-in place-of-legs, he had no clue where to put it.
They rode well into late afternoon. Doc Shoemaker watching expectantly for Tucker to find them a good spot to camp for the night. Tucker eased off the throttle as he closed in on a cluster of boulders drawing one of his pistols free and firing a single shot into the rocks. No movement. He returned the gun to its holster and brought the speeder in for a landing near the group of rocks, the roller crunching through the stone and sand of the wasteland behind him. The roller’s engines grunted to a stop as Doc shut them off, the speeder slowly cycling down with a dying whistle.
Tucker fished through the saddlebags on his bike and removed a flask, taking a short pull before stowing it again. Doc opened the door of the vehicle and climbed out with a slight groan, stretching. He flexed the hands of his two skinny right arms and shook dust from his clubbed left. His left foot was also heavily clubbed and he walked with a limp, though mostly from the prosthetic scrap metal peg leg he wore on his right side. He breathed deeply through the hard fleshy snorkels that rose from his back, a strange wheezy sound.
Sara dropped from the back seat of the roller and slid along to the passenger side, pulling the rolled tent and collapsible posts from where they had been packed.
“We gonna be safe here,” she asked.
Tucker cleared his throat and spit into the dusty ground, “Safe as anywhere I s’pose. Ain’t no sign o’ rock shells in them boulders, so that’s a plus. S’long as them rattle backs ain’t on our tail, we should be right fine.”
“Wonderful. Though I would like to open one of them up,” said Doc smiling. “Perhaps we’ll have a spot of luck and find something else then. Plenty of time, we still have another day on the road, by my calculations, before we reach Delphia. As I understand that’s the last town before we get into the deep wastes, is that right Mr. Tucker?”
Tucker nodded, “Jes’ make sure ya fill all yer gas cans. Y’all don’t wanna get stuck out there.”
“My pa disappeared in them wastes,” said Sara. “But he didn’t have no guide,” she smiled at him.
Tucker grunted, he had no real family. “My ma killed my pa fer filanderin’ about with some hussie. Can’t rightly say I got no other family.”
“No one at all? That’s awful,” said Sara. She genuinely meant it too, such a sweet girl. “Everyone should have someone.” She was smiling at him again.
Damn, thought Tucker, that’s a smile that could give a sandstorm pause.
He cleared his throat again and turned away, watching the light slowly change to a deep orange as the sun dropped to the horizon. His cheeks felt warm and if he didn’t know any better he would say he was blushing from that smile.
“Did you know that a few hundred years ago this land was said to be covered in grasses and such. Green fields of food as far as the eye could see! That was of course before the bombs fell and killed everything off. They also say that along the western coast, I believe you called it the Iron Ribs, Mr. Tucker?” Doc Shoemaker stared expectantly though waited for no reply. “Yes that’s what you called you them. Well that is merely what’s left of a vast city that sat at the water’s edge! That’s right my dear fellow, the sea came up that far they say!”
“I ain’t never heard no one ever say that. Sounds like a might tall tale there, Doc.”
“No, it’s true,” said Sara feeding a length of pole through the tent cloth. “I read about them things in one o’ the Doc’s books. Saw pictures even. They had a bunch of strange lookin’ folks too, all fleshy and such. Didn’t look rightly human, not like proper folks anyhow.”
“Huh. That’d be a sight I reckon.”
Tucker took a fresh cigar from his shirt pocket and wedged it between his dry lips, lighting it with a struck match and a few generous puffs. He walked the perimeter of the camp grabbing up a few dead bushes and scraps of thicker branches for a small fire. The flame and smoke would help keep the needlers away- nasty bugs, blood drinkers, with a mouth full of needle-like suckers. Damn things were nearly the size of a house cat and could suck a grown man dry in minutes. He stacked the larger branches around the dry brush and started the small fire with a match. When the wood had caught he stood and noticed Sara eyeing him again as she stood the tent up and began driving stakes into the ground for the tie-downs.
Tucker untied the bedroll from the back of his speeder bike and pulled his long rifle from its sheath along the seat. He unrolled the thick mat and blanket a few feet from the fire and eased himself down with the rifle across his lap. He racked the bolt open and slammed it shut, dry firing the weapon and listening for the smooth click. He slid one of the large shells from his bandolier and opened the bolt, dropping the round in and slamming it shut again. The shells he used packed a hefty punch, rocket propelled explosive ammo. The kind of thing that made most anything think twice about staying alive. Almost anything; maed’er, rock shells, and wild bullvone seemed to need more convincing. Most bands of raiders however, would flee after two or three of their friends exploded in front of them.
Tucker laid back with the rifle at his side and slid his hat down over his eyes. He didn’t quite doze off, and in truth he never fully slept either. His heightened senses of hearing and smell kept him in the realm of half-sleep, sure it left him cranky and tired but it kept him alive. He did find it strange that he felt so worn out though. A hand on his shoulder roused him from his rest and he smiled apologetically as he pulled the knife away from Doc’s gut and re-sheathed it.
“Some food for you Mr. Tucker,” said Doc nervously.
“Thanks Doc. And it’s jes’ Tucker, I sure ain’t no Mister.”
Tucker sat up and took the plate of meat, or beans, or whatever it was with a nod of his head. There was a heavy feeling in his stomach, maybe just gas, but he welcomed something to eat all-the-same. He shoveled the hot food into his mouth and tossed the empty tin down beside him. Doc and Sara ate quietly watching the stars twinkling overhead. Tucker stretched himself out on his bedroll again, hat covering his face.
“See you folks at sun-up,” he said.
“Do we need us a watch? Make sure nothin’ bad happens?” Sara had a touch of worry in her voice.
“Nope,” said Tucker. “If’n anything comes ‘round this way, I’ll know. Y’all get some rest.”
* * * * *
In the morning, Tucker tried to sit up but his head felt heavy. His body was full of aches and pains, and there was a sharp cramp in his guts. Something wasn’t right. Their were vague memories of voices and cruel laughter, a woman screaming, engines shredding the quiet night. He did his best to push through the fog that clouded his mind and slowly eased himself up. As his hat fell away he immediately saw that the roller was gone. The tent that Doc and Sara slept in was still there, flaps open and moving with the breeze.
He tried to stand but the numbness in his legs dropped him back onto the ground. He found his speeder missing as he doubled over, the pain in his guts causing him to wretch violently. He’d been poisoned, followed by the group from the saloon. Then it hit him. Back in the town at the table, the spike-headed fellow had bought him a drink. Clumsily he staggered to his feet wobbling as if he were still drunk and made his way to the tent. He tore the unfastened flaps open, it was empty.
“Doc! Sara!” His ragged voice trailed out into the wasteland, unanswered. “You gotta be kiddin’ me,” he muttered quietly.
The ground, he noticed, was covered in footprints. At least a dozen, and no effort was made to hide the deep ruts from the roller’s massive tires. Tucker’s hands fumbled at his belt. Empty, both guns gone, his bandolier too. He flashed a glance at his bedroll, no rifle. He swore loudly, screaming into the desert. It was a small comfort that his knife was still at his side, it was at least something. His mind vaguely wondered about Doc and Sara, but his biggest concern was his bike and his guns. The pistols he got from his first bounty, they could easily be replaced. His rifle was custom on the other hand. It took him a year to build and he loved it, loved it like other folks loved family.
Tucker snatched his hat from the ground and pulled it on. He scanned the tracks on the ground and started to follow where they led, one woozy step after the other. By all that was holy he would get his rifle back, the safety of the folks paying him would just be an added bonus. The tracks were easy to follow, plus the sweet stink of the roaches still hung in the air. Roaches didn’t leave much for tracks, but Tucker knew their scent all too well. When he was young he got his first taste of real work on a ranch, taking care of trained roaches. Seven-hundred pounds of sugar and feces, it was a smell he’d never forget.
Hours under the hot sun passed. Tucker was still stiff from whatever poison he had been shot up with and he had a terrible thirst. To him it felt as if he had been swallowing sand all morning. The tracks were leading him into a canyon that dipped into the rocky ground. Large boulders clustered around the entrance and he found himself wishing for a pistol in case a rock shell hid in the pile. As if in answer a large boulder amid the pile stirred slowly. Tucker found that the choice to avoid the boulders and follow along the top of the canyon had been made for him.
The canyon deepened as he walked the ridge and he kept his eyes open for a way to climb down. At last a narrow slice in the wall gave him his chance. Despite his best effort to climb down quietly he found the rock slick and crumbly and dropped most of the fifty feet to the ground. He coughed in the cloud of dust around him as he made sure he hadn’t broken anything. Luck seemed to be with him, only scrapes and some heavy bruising. He sat in the shade of the wall a moment catching his breath. The stink of the riding roaches was thick here and he knew he must be close. The faint echo of voices from deeper in the canyon confirmed his thought.
Tucker fixed his hat and moved along the wall, staying in the shadow and keeping his steps light. Close to a hundred yards down the canyon a few buildings came into view. A couple of low, flat roofed structures packed tightly against an old decrepit church. The stained glass window were all broken out and the bell tower looked to be a watch post, the bell long gone. From within one of the side buildings he heard a muffled scream of protest, a woman. Tucker pulled his knife and crept up to one of the shuttered windows.
“If’n you ain’t gonna fix him up doc, we can do all manner of terrible shit to yer lady here,” he heard from inside. “See we need you, doctors is hard to come by an we had you pegged back in that little outpost. She’s jes’ some bit o’ sweet meat, what they call exportable…”
“Leave her alone.” It was Doc. “I swear if you hurt her or she comes to any form of malicious behavior you’re friend here will die. I’ll see to it! And actually I think you mean expendable.”
There you go Doc, thought Tucker. Don’t budge an inch, you jes’ keep ‘em busy for me.
“But yer all alone here. That gunslinger o’ yers is dead. My boys fixed him up good, he ain’t never gonna wake up. Probably gettin’ ate already.” Tucker could hear two men laughing.
He snuck around the side of the building and saw the corral, at least a dozen roaches penned in. A crook of a smile played along his dry lips as he checked for anyone near the fencing. When he found it clear he made his way to the gate and cut the tie rope, easing it open a bit. He took up a few small rocks and made his way to the rear of the pen and hurled the stones at the roaches. They spooked and surged away from the scattering of rocks, pushing on the loose gate and breaking free. As they tore through the small courtyard several shouts rose up and Tucker moved quickly back to the building with Doc and Sara.
It sounded quiet inside. Tucker popped the shutters open and took a peek. Sara was tied to a bed in the corner and Doc stood over a bloody figure on a table. A wrinkled man with a drawn gun stood at the door watching the other bandits desperately try to catch the loose herd. He slipped in and crept up behind the man, placing a finger to his lips when Doc and Sara spotted him. It was quick work to cover the mans mouth and bury the knife into the back of his neck. Tucker dragged him away from the door and took his gun.
“Tucker? We thought you were dead, they said you were poisoned,” Doc said.
“Shoulda gived me a double shot I guess.”
He cut the ropes that bound Sara and she rose, hugging him tightly. “They were gonna-”
“Don’t think ‘bout it. Y’all gotta get ta that roller and pound sand. I gotta get my rifle.”
Doc was squeezing the throat of the injured man on the table, killing him as he answered. “There’s a fellow with a tail and spines down his back. He’s got your rifle and your pistols.”
“You two jes’ get ta that roller. I got some folks to kill,” said Tucker spinning the cylinder and checking the rounds in the pistol. “Get to it.”
Tucker peeked through the door and jumped out, rolling in behind an empty water trough as the robbers shouted after the roaches. Across the canyon, with the head of a roach held in his arms, he saw the man with his rifle slung across his back. He raised up and took aim as another man with a thick heavy plate of bone covering his back and head came out of the church.
“Hey!” The man shouted. “We got us a-”
Tucker fired, the crack of the gunshot loud and echoing from the canyon walls as he put a chunk of lead into the mans chest. He cried out and dropped in a puff of dust as all heads spun to look. Tucker was up and running for the church doors, firing as the robbers sprinted for cover. Sprays of blood misted into the air, he hit at least two of them. Tucker slid in the dirt next to the shelled man and yanked his gun free, dropping the empty pistol. Shots rang out around him as he got his feet and dove through the church doors. He could feel a burning in his leg and looked down to find blood flowing freely from his thigh. Tucker ripped a piece of his shirt and tied it tight around the bullet wound. He only hoped he could finish the killing before the chunk of lead in his leg tore something important.
Tucker was suddenly aware of being watched and spun to face the inside of the church. A tall man with white collar stood at the podium staring at him, and sitting throughout the pews were at least another twenty folks. Eyes atop fleshy stalks, snarled sharp-toothed mouths, scaled faces, all watching him. Tucker slowly stood as he heard several clicks of gun hammers locking.
“Ah hell,” he said.
Tucker spun and bolted back through the door. As he entered the courtyard again, shots erupted around him. He swore as he hit the ground and rolled the shelled man up for cover. Shouts came from the church as Tucker fired over the dead man. He was almost relieved as the deep throaty growl of the roller’s engine fired up and in a cloud of kicked up sand and dust ripped into the yard. Sara sat atop the roller and with a smile unloaded the repeating rifle.
As the rapid fire crack from the gun filled the canyon, joined by Doc’s wild laughter, Tucker jumped to his feet and fired into the crowd rushing from the church. He ducked into the narrow alley between church and one of the other buildings heading for where the roller had come from. As he rounded the corner at the far end he heard an all-too-familiar sound. A large chunk of the building, closer than he would have liked, exploded from the shot. The splintered wood peppered his face and chest, thin rivulets of blood drawing lines through the dirt on his face.
“You sum’bitch! That’s my rifle,” he screamed as he looked across to the spinney bandit.
He fired shot after shot at the man as he watched him reloading the single shot rifle, racking the bolt closed. Shit, he thought as he desperately looked for cover. Just then a man came thundering through the alley behind him. Tucker watched as the spinney man aimed and fired. Tucker grabbed the charging robber and spun him around using the momentum to launch himself back into the alley. As he hit the ground the man popped loudly, spraying the area with meaty chunks and fluids.
Tucker got his feet again and sped around the corner as fast as his injured leg would allow. He fired two more shots and the gun was empty. He dropped it and tackled the man as he tried to reload the rifle. Tucker felt a knife blade slice across his ribs and he screamed out as he hit the man’s face. Tucker grabbed the man’s knife hand and grinned as his stubbed third arm took hold of his throat. He rammed his knee hard into the mans groin. Tucker let his other arm drop and took one of his guns from the mans belt, firing into his gut.
He shakily rose to his feet, stripping the gun belt and bandolier, his belt and bandolier, from the gurgling spinney bandit. He lifted his rifle and slid the revolver back into its holster, spying his bike sitting beside the nearby building. He could hear the concussive shots from the repeating rifle dying out as he flipped the turbine on and geared it up, rising off the ground. He ripped forward, a pistol in each of his free hands.
“Kick rocks!” He shouted as he sped towards the roller.
Doc throttled the roller up, the engine roaring, and took off through the canyon. Sara spun the gun turret, facing behind them as Tucker trailed closely flashing glances over his shoulder. The remaining raiders were already mounting up, roaches tearing across the ground after them.
“They can’t catch us can they,” asked Sara yelling over the engines.
“Jes’ shoot the damn things!”
Tucker fired a few shots behind him, blasting holes into the carapace of a riding roach. Goo spit into the air and the thing tumbled head over thorax, crushing the rider. Bullets ripped through the air, buzzing passed his head, pinging off the roller’s heavy plating, chipping stone on either side of him from the canyon walls. The stone blurred by him and it was difficult to see how many gave chase in the clouds of dust rolling up behind them. Sara ripped off shots is short bursts, the sound clattering loudly all around them. Not too much farther, thought Tucker, if we can just make it out.
Tucker glanced up, the walls of the canyon were shrinking as the trail rose, they were getting close. He looked behind him but there was far too much dust to see. He knew they were still chasing, the crack of gunfire was all around. He replaced one of his revolvers, using his two stronger arms to steer and leaving the stubbed arm holding the other pistol.
“Hold fire, Sara! And stay down!” Tucker sped up and shouted through the window to Doc, “When you get outta the canyon jes’ keep rollin’! Don’t wait fer me!”
“Fantastic!” Doc shouted back, his eyes were lit up and a smile split his merry face. Crazy sum’bitch, thought Tucker.
Tucker dropped back and watched for the canyon mouth. He found himself grinning as it rapidly approached. He took aim on the largest boulder in the cluster and fired three shots at it. The boulder lurched violently, a rough snarl rising above the scream of engines. Tucker throttled up, keeping pace behind the speeding roller. A mass of barbed tentacles spilled from beneath the boulder as the rock shell reared up, flailing wildly. The roller tore through the mass of sand coated limbs. Tucker wove his way through feeling barbs rip into his shoulder and almost throwing him from the racing speeder.
He hit the brakes hard and slowed with a long skid, killing the engine and dropping to the ground. He holstered the pistol and pulled the rifle free, his third arm cracking the bolt and loading a round as he took aim on the canyon mouth. The first roach and rider came through and amid the screams from the man and squeal from the roach, both were pulled into the greasy maw of the rock shell. The dust cloud rose, gurgled screams replaced the sound of gunfire, and the horrid smell of the roaches mixed with the rotting earthen scent of the rock shell filled the air.
Tucker was just about ready to stow his rifle when he watched a roach scurry the canyon wall and bypass the ruin of the dead smeared through the sand. Tucker took bead and fired. The shot rang loudly as the rider and roach splattered with a loud cracking boom. In a flash, Tucker’s third arm racked the bolt and reloaded, slamming the receiver shut. He waited for a few long moments. Nothing. The rock shell had dragged itself into the canyon mouth, roaring and moaning.
With a grin, Tucker pated his rifle and slid it back into the sheath along the seat of his bike. The turbine whistled on and he sped off after the settling rooster tail of dust, chasing down the roller. He glanced at his bleeding shoulder, broken barbs protruding from the skin, and sighed. At least I know a good doctor, he thought as he pulled the barbs free with his stubbed third arm. He reached into his shirt pocket and took a cigar out, wedging it between his teeth.
By late afternoon he slowed and pulled up to park next to the roller. Doc and Sara stood by laughing as he climbed off the bike. Sara was on him in a flash, hugging him tightly, her tail coiling around his waist.
“Damn girl, watch my bleedin’ parts,” he winced with a bit of a smile. He dug a match from his pocket and struck it as she pulled away, inhaling deeply through the cigar with a content sigh.
“Haha, Mr. Tucker you are amazing! Simply incredible, Sir!” Doc spun circles on his steely peg leg, wheezing through his snorkels. “I thought that was the end of us for a moment back there. But then there you were back from the dead! The way you roughed up those braggarts, nasty business, but well played.”
“Still bleedin’ here Doc.”
“Oh, quite right.” Doc leaned into the roller, digging around for his medical supplies.
Sara smiled at him, taking his arm and leading him to a small rock and helping him sit. She leaned over and placed a soft gentle kiss on his cheek.
“Thank you, Tucker.”
Tucker felt his cheeks tingle and flush, and with a tip of his hat said, “Ma’am.”
As Doc stitched up the knife wound on Tucker’s side, Sara piled wood together and lit a small fire near them. The sun was drooping in the brown sky and the stars slowly spread from the east. As Tucker puffed on his cigar, doing his best to ignore the stabbing needle and pulling thread, he found himself thinking that he just might get some real sleep tonight.
©May2013 Joseph D. Stirling