By James Abendroth
BANG! The rifle’s sharp report and powerful kick against his shoulder happened a split second before the gnoll a couple hundred yards away stiffened then fell to the ground. Maybe that would teach it to keep its head down. But then, Cal Blackfeather figured it wasn’t going to learn anything with a bullet in the brain pan.
The body was barely on the ground before the other gnolls sent a storm of bullets back in his direction. He’d already ducked behind the rock he was using for cover before any of them hit.
More out of habit than anything else, he worked his rifle lever, sending the spent shell flying. It was a shame he didn’t have any ammunition to replace it.
He didn’t have to double check to know there weren’t many bullets left for his revolvers, either. He did, anyway. Checking again didn’t magically change the numbers. One had a full chamber of 6 and the other was one short at five. He went ahead and checked his belt and bandolier again, too but knew before he started that there weren’t any there, either.
Unless he’d lost count, there were 7 more gnolls bandits across that sandy expanse of scrub. 7 bandits and eleven bullets. Crazy gnoll bandits, too. They’d been even more aggressive and savage than normal and he had to put more slugs into them or get in more head shots to put them down than plain old gnolls. It wasn’t impossible odds but it was pretty close. He’d have to get real lucky to come out on top of a shootout with them.
It was starting to feel an awful lot like he wasn’t going to have any choice. He knew the only thing stopping the gnolls from rushing him was the fact that they were currently more afraid of his guns than hungry and greedy. That balance would shift against him until the fear was not enough to overcome their hunger and greed.
For maybe the hundredth time he did the math with only 10 bullets for the bandits. Then he figured he ought keep 1 for himself. Better that than letting them get ahold of him. Gnolls didn’t always bother killing things before starting to eat them and sometimes they liked to play with their food for a while before settling into their meal.
He thought about going ahead and taking that route right then. After all, they might get a lucky shot in during the rush that was coming that would prevent him from doing it later.
He looked down guiltily at the axebeak sprawled in an ungainly heap so close to him that its head was practically in his lap. It had looked so powerful and tough when he’d chosen it, if not exactly the prettiest thing ever. It had been a joy to ride, too, its power translating into speed and stamina that had carried him effortlessly for miles and hours.
He’d been drawn to the flightless bird first as a sort of kindred spirit, though he would have punched anybody who’d pointed out the similarity between a corvus and an axebeak. He might have looked like a 5’ tall crow who’d grown arms and hands instead of wings but he was just as much of a man as any other.
Now, the once mighty beast just looked weak, pathetic and scared. It let out a weak, croaking groan and wiggled a little closer, looking to its master to do something to ease its pain. Betraying that trust cut Cal to the core far more than the fear of the strange gnolls. The axebeak had taken a bullet to the leg and another to the gut at the end of the chase. Its following collapse was why they ended up here. Blackfeather knew from experience that the former bullet had crippled it and the latter ensured that it was going to die a slow death.
He also knew he should put one more bullet into it to put it out of its misery. He actually should have done it when the bird first went down. But, he’d been too busy convincing the bandits that it was a bad idea to get any closer by slinging lead at them earlier and now he didn’t have any lead to spare on kindnesses. Then again, he figured it didn’t make much difference if he only used 9 bullets on the raiders out there instead of 10 or 11 and he owed the bird a quick death.
Cal cocked the hammer of his revolver with 5 bullets left. “Sorry, friend. You surely didn’t deserve this.”
Before he could pull the trigger he heard a fresh ruckus coming from the other side of his cover. He peeked his head up over the rock, both pistols in his hands and at the ready. He squinted, not sure he believed what he was seeing.
One of the blamed fool bandits was right out in the open, jumping up and down, throwing his hands up in the air, howling and whooping like a madman. Blackfeather reached for his rifle before he remembered it was out of ammo.
Eagle eyed though he might be and even with a target out in the open like that, he knew he couldn’t reliably hit a target that far away with a pistol. He could only watch as it continued to caper around like an idiot before finally stopping. It stood still for a moment, staring in Cal’s direction before calling out something he couldn’t quite hear to its companions and returning to cover.
The corvus stared back, cocking his head curiously to the side. What were those sidewinders up to?
Suddenly, his eyes widened and he muttered a curse. The very fact that he hadn’t taken a shot was exactly the result they were looking for. If they didn’t know he was out of bullets, before they must have heavily suspected it, now.
He ducked back down, turning around and let out a much louder curse, one that would have made one of the working “ladies” back at the Silk Panther blush.
Sitting not more than three feet away from him was a chupacabra. Cal leveled both his pistols at that furry head.
The mangy varmint paid no more attention to the gun than it did to the gunslinger. Instead its big, black oval eyes were turned to the axebeak as he gently stroked the bird’s feathers.
Cal wasn’t sure what was more disturbing – the pitying, yet hungry look the chupacabra was gracing the animal with or the fact that it had somehow crept up on him without him knowing it.
“Seems like you’re in a little trouble,” the chupacabra said still without looking up.
“Reckon,” was all the answer the corvus gave.
“Reckon you could use some help,” the chupacabra replied.
“Maybe I could help.”
If there was one thing about humans that made Cal jealous, it was their ability to spit. So often, it seemed like they could say more with a mouthful of spit than a mouthful of words. It felt a shame, in a moment like this that his mouth was physically incapable of the act, because a well-placed squirt of tobacco stained saliva would tell this fella what he thought far better than any talking.
The chupacabra finally looked up at him, its eyes focusing on the gun barrel in its face for a moment before looking disinterestedly past it to his face. He shrugged eloquently and looked back down at the axebeak he was still stroking.
“Maybe you don’t want my help. Maybe everything’s under control,” the chupacabra continued.
The corvus was tempted to shoot it after all. Asking if he had things under control in this situation had to be some kind of taunt. Did it expect him to beg?
“Well?” the chupacabra coaxed after a few more silent moments, looking up at him again.
“Just tryin’ to figure your angle.”
Blackfeather clenched his beak and tightened his grip on his pistol in frustration, fighting the itch in his trigger finger. Even now, the gnolls were getting ready to make a rush on him and he was dealing with this cryptic chupacabra and its hypothetical offer of rescue. An offer that might just be a scheme to get him to let his guard down so it could kill him before the gnolls.
“What do you get out of helping me? ‘Less you’re just a do-gooder who goes wanderin’ ‘round the wilderness helpin’ folks outta the saintliness of your heart,” the corvus quipped.
The chupacabra cast his hands and his gaze piously up to the sky. “I was sent by the Divine.”
Cal figured a response like that didn’t merit an answer so he didn’t bother with one. He was suspicious of what the Chupacabra really wanted, but it seemed harmless for the moment and he knew what the gnolls wanted so he turned his attention to them.
They were still taking cover but they were being real sloppy about it, popping up their heads and torsos as they moved around. He knew they were only going to get more brazen since he wasn’t punishing them for their cockiness.
He wasn’t going to keep them away by staring though and turned back to the chupacabra only to find it staring at him. Abruptly, it broke into a singsong chant.
“Two birds come into the canyon
“One a feast to end a famine
“The other to be saved from a beast.”
“I Ain’t much one for poetry,” Cal said after several silent seconds of the chupacabra staring at him expectantly.
“Not poetry! Prophecy!” the Chupacabra said, exasperated.
“I ain’t no bird.”
“You look like a bird.”
Cal again found himself at a point in the conversation where he didn’t have an answer and again he wishing he could spit.
“I suppose he’s the feast and I’m the one to be saved?” he said, instead.
The chupacabra shrugged and stroked the axebeak’s feathers. “Not necessarily.”
Cal just squinted his eyes at his cryptic companion. “He ain’t got much time either way. You wouldn’t be saving him for long,” he pointed out.
“I have magic. I can make him good as new. I already like him better than you.”
The corvus’ eyes widened at learning the chupacabra was a spellslinger and he sat up warily, easing his gun back at it.
“I can’t ask him, so you’ll have to make the choice,” the chupacabra pointed out when Cal remained silent. It leaned over to peek beyond the rock they were both sheltering behind. “And you probably ought to make it quick. I think your friends are running out of patience.”
Cal didn’t have to look to know who it was talking about. But he did look and found that the gnolls were out of sight once more. He didn’t know what that meant for sure but any change tactics probably boded ill for him.
“Alright, save me, then” he said when he looked back.
“Alright,” the Chupacabra answered and made a lunge at the axebeak’s neck with its sharp teeth.
“Wait!” Cal ordered.
“Change your mind?” it asked, eyeing the corvus’ neck in a disconcerting way.
Cal stared at him steadily then aimed his pistol down and pulled the trigger. He didn’t need the weak kicks of the axebeak before it went totally still to know that he’d hit it in the head and finally ended its suffering.
Cal had just a moment to be disturbed by the look of disappointment on the Chupacabra’s face before a snarling whoop from the other side of the rock caught his attention. Even before he stood up and spun around, he knew that noise had come from far too close.
Just as he’d expected, the gnolls were creeping up on him and were only a few yards away. They thought the gunshot was aimed at them and were giving up on sneaking for a mad dash.
In an instant, the corvus pulled the trigger then fanned the hammer of the pistol in hand. He sent one shot into the nearest one’s chest and another into its head then tracked to the left even as his hand kept moving and put another two into the chest of the next closest one, knocking it off its feet, sprawling and squirming in the dust.
He slipped that pistol back into its holster and whipped out the other
He didn’t fire, though. Seeing two of their number go down, and realizing that he still had ammo took the grit out of the others and they were already fleeing back to cover. He didn’t have bullets to waste on fleeing opponents.
Besides, the one he had downed with the two chest shots wasn’t quite convinced to stay down. It was dragging itself at him with hatchet in hand. Cal aimed his pistol at its head before remembering how precious his bullets were. Instead, he holstered his pistol, put his boot on the thing’s wrist and wrestled the weapon out of its hand. He chopped once, twice, thrice into the raider’s head before it was convinced not to get up…ever. The corvus turned away from the writhing strands that wove through the creature’s brain in disgust and hurried back into cover. There was just as disgusting a display in there.
The chupacabra was messily eating. “Unless you want to be next on the menu I suggest you get the saving started,” Cal declared.
The chupacabra growled, though in the way a person irritated about being interrupted in the middle of a meal would rather than the way a wolf that was getting its food taken away would.
It did draw away from the axebeak’s corpse, wiping its mouth with the back of its hand to clean away some of the blood and viscera as Cal grabbed his rifle, saddlebags and canteen.
The two of them stared silently at each other for a moment before the chupacabra turned and started trotting deeper into the canyon and up along the scree that sloped up the edge. It wasn’t long before the corvus envied his companion his sturdy moccasins. He was sure that they weren’t the most comfortable things to wear on those sharp rocks but his own boots with their slick soles left him slipping and sliding, causing him to stumble repeatedly and sending him to his knees regularly. It wasn’t long before his shins and hands were cut and scraped raw.
“Where are we going?” he demanded, between pants of effort. He looked back and saw that the gnolls had lost their patience and were even now ransacking what was left at the rocks he’d used as cover. A few of them were completing the job of devouring the axebeak the chupacabra had already started while others were looking around for anything valuable.
Cal cussed as he looked back and saw one of the distant figures spot them, aiming a finger that brought him and the chupacabra to all the gnolls’ attention.
“Don’t worry, we’re almost to the tunnel.”
“Tunnel? You’re not going to fly or teleport us out of here? I thought you had magic!” Blackfeather demanded incredulously.
“I do. Just not that kind,” the chupacabra answered with casual cheerfulness.
A bullet ricocheted off a nearby rock and the gunshot gnoll rang out a moment later. Cal didn’t have enough time to properly vent his frustration with the chupacabra as several more gunshots filled the air though none of the bullets struck close. At least the chupacabra picked up its pace.
The tunnel the chupacabra lead him to was well hidden. He would have walked right past it if the creature hadn’t led him to it. In fact, he lost sight of his guide for a moment as it ducked into the entrance and he thought that it might have lied about using magic to disappear.
Cal had little choice but to follow though the crack he found himself in that barely merited the term “tunnel.” He had to turn sideways and twist his head to the side to squeeze through. The jagged, unforgiving rock still tore his shirt and pants and some of the skin underneath. He had to pause and twist and pull his rifle to get it through, too.
Only the knowledge that his fate would be far worse if the gnolls caught him kept claustrophobia and primal terror of the dark from pushing him back out of that tunnel. He had to twist and contort repeatedly but finally, the tunnel opened up and he could walk comfortably. Not that he would though, because it was still pitch dark and, for all he knew, two steps forward would bring his face slamming into more rock. He kept his pistol in hand, not sure if his guide could see in this darkness and fearing an ambush while he was helpless.
Instead, the chupacabra lit a lantern, though the dim, flickering light coming out of the smoky glass did didn’t do any favors for its appearance. Its spines, massive eyes and ragged fur were even more unsettling in that light than in the sunlight.
“This way,” it said, as though there were a lot of choices.
Blackfeather had no idea how long it took before the twisting, ragged tunnel turned into the deepest section of a mine. Having barely any light and no real landmarks disoriented a guy. When he actually got outside, though, the moon was up.
Looking around, he realized he knew where he was. This was an old abandoned mine not far from Tombstone. Relief filled him at being so close to safety.
“So, what’re we going to do when we get to town?” the chupacabra asked, the first words either of them had voiced in what must have been hours.
Cal didn’t answer as he started walking.
He really wished he could spit.