The gun felt cold and natural in his hand. Too natural. He had shot something out of himself in the war, that was for sure. All those men trying to kill him, but he killed them instead. There was truth in that simplicity, for it could have been him, dead, he was a bullet or a rifle stock to the head away from that the whole time. When the lead was flying it was no special gift to not catch a bullet. Then what? Dumb luck? Fate?
It didn't matter. He was alive right now, alive with his tool of trade in his hand. The men camped below, bounty hunters, scavengers of the war. Sure, they were on opposite sides now, but they were kindred in much deeper ways. No home to speak of, making their life from others death. He could hate them for trying to bring him in or kill him, sure, but he couldn't hate who they were. He understood them, and they would surely understand him. However things went down, he thought, there would be no hard feelings. Only the living and the dead, They had all lost something in the war. It would be some time before peace and rebuilding restored the soul to this land. Until then the gun still ruled this part of the wilderness. The gun and the savage wickedness of men with no special code or law to govern them.
Did they know he was here? Did they know he was close? They had tracked him this far, but did they know he was the type of man who couldn't abide a gun on his trail? Who would sooner turn and fight then let some stupid anxiety gnaw at him?
Out here, so far from home or life or civilization, he was the man with nothing to lose. Nothing but a dream of a far off home, and a woman - would she recognize him? Accept him? Or see him for what he was, and fear the natural way the gun came to his hand, knowing that such a life could only end one way, that one day it would be his turn to catch a bullet.
Maybe today. It would be a day that brought peace. Unless he could find peace before a bullet found him. Maybe. But that seemed so far away. This was the business at hand. The business he was trying to run away from, trying to separate himself from, but deep down, he knew what he was. The war had seen to that. Or maybe it was something in him all along. Maybe one day he could put himself back together. Put aside the gun, and pick up other tools.
But not today. These men were between him and that particular dream. Time to put away those questions. To see things with eyes trained on the battlefield, eyes that worked lead and dropped men before they dropped him.
He surveyed the camp. There were five that he could see. Three tents - maybe another man inside. He would have to remember. Three bullets for the rifle, a few dozen for the pistol but that would take time to reload. He looked at the gun. It seemed to be made of old steel, cranked out of men's suffering. He pushed the thought aside, cut it loose. It was time to go to work.
He sighted down the rifle. A man with dark hair and a beard stood by the fire. Three other men sat, polishing weapons. One man lounged. The standing one seemed most alert. Probably the leader, though they all looked dangerous. He didn't let their lack of concern fool him. Men like these would snap awake in an instant, guns ready. His finger tightened on the trigger. The standing man first, he would need to make that shot count. The lounging man next, if he was quick enough, but he was the furthest from cover. From there, well, there was no from there. From there all bets were off.
He felt a moments hesitation as his finger brought nearer the standing man's death. Is this really who he wanted to be? To shoot from the brush like a coward? There were no rules in war, but wasn't his particular dream to get away from this war? He opened both eyes, eased off the trigger, troubled. That was when the crow squacked.
The four men around the campfire started, but the standing man looked straight up and at him. His eyes widened, then hardened in the space of an instant.
"No, wait -" he shouted, the standing man yanked at his pistol, Inman jerked on the trigger and shot him down throught the chest. His hands worked the lever automatically, the four other men slightly slower to react, the lounging man, eyes wide with sickening dread as he realized the wide open space around him, rolling now, but Inman could feel the man's resignation even as his finger tightened on the trigger again. The body jerked as the bullet found its mark, still rolling, but slower, without urgency, rolling to a stop.
The three other men were gone from sight, two cracks of gunfire erupting abrubtly, bullets whined and cut down tiny branches. Inman levered the gun again, moving behind more brush, his pistol out now, he didn't want to rely on a rifle with one bullet when three men remained. His blue eyes scanned the tents, no movement, good, but maybe someone was in them playing possum. He would have to stay alert.
Two more shots cracked out, the bullets coming in his general direction but nowhere near him. Immediatly he knew their plan, read their intentions. One man staying put, firing off shots at random intervals, holding his attention. The other two men would be working their way through cover, quiet as Indians, looking to flank him on either side, catch him unawares, gun him down.
Inman looked to the right where he thought the one man would be, the rifle, as always and without conscious thought, following his gaze. There, amazingly, was the man, his face taught, intent, eyes scanning, moving up the hillside. Their eyes met. Inman shot him.
Bullets kicked up dust at his feet. The was a cold hot tear as one bit through the outer part of his calf. He dove down the hillside, throwing the rifle, now empty, firing two random shots from his pistol as he went down. There was more shooting from the camp; the man left there spotted him, spotted the commottion, more bullets whined around him. He was in the moment know, he knew this time, the heat of battle, no thought except the killing.
He stopped his roll, fired two more shots towards the camp and the sound of the shooting. He was rewarded with a yelp of pain. Eyes back up the hill, but the man who had flanked him had melted back into the brush, no young hothead this one, he had seen some fighting, had the patience of a real killer.
He slipped further down the hill, his hands refilling the fired chambers, eyes looking up and down the hill. He backed into some thicker brush, crouched, waiting, ready to move the instant they made a move. Silence enveloped them, his chest was thick from trying to calm his breathing, sweat rolled uncomfortably down his neck.
"We didn't come here to kill you you know!" the man from the camp shouted.
Inman said nothing. Watched. Waited.
"We're just here to bring you back is all! To fight!"
Inman didn't beleive them for a second. He had seen men like these when he was still in the war. They came back with bodies, not men. The bounty was the same dead or alive, and dead men couldn't escape. He heard movement further up the hill, but couldn't see through the underbrush. He pointed his gun in that direction.
"I mean, your country needs you alive, right? You can't fight if you're dead! What would be the point in us trying to kill you?"
Inman spotted him now, the man on top of the hill creeping down towards him while his friend tried to distract him. Only he was creeping up on the place he was at earlier, behind the giant oak. He watched as the man crept, paused, gathering courage, then leapt around, gun pointed. Inman watched as his anxiety turned to resignation as he realized his blunder. He had him dead to rights. But something in him hesitated, gave the man, not much more than a boy, his life.
"Drop it and I'll let you live," he said in a low tone, enought to carry to the boy 20 feet away but not enought to carry down the hill.
He watched as the man's eyes twitched to his position, giving away his intent. Inman realized before he shot him that there was no reasoning with these men, no turning them away. They were children of the war, no other way was known to them. Peace was a language they wouldn't understand. It didn't take away his, Inman's sin, but at least he understood them now.
"Didja get him?" came the eager call from down the hill, as well as movement. A touch premature. Inman marked his position.
"No," Inman said, standing up, aiming, and firing, no fear in him, no fear of the bullet that may have been made for him. Let it come. There was nothing else this far in the wilderness but bullets, anonymous bullets killing many anonymous people. Only killing. Let it come if it would.
It came, but not for him, not this day. The body slumped and fell back behind the log. Inman's eyes turned to the tents and the man that still might be left. He strode down the hillside without fear, without taking any pains to conceal his approach. Let it come. Life and death are the same thing in this place.
He walked into the center of the camp. The tent flaps were open. All the tents were empty. The bodies lay around the camp, but Inman payed them no heed. This was no man's land. The buzzards and coyotes would see to them. He hated this place, hated the senselessness of it all. Hated that he had been a part of forging it. An unwitting part, maybe. But it didn't matter now. He scavenged some food from the tents. He could've scavenged bullets from the bodies, but didn't. He'd had enough of this business today. He turned, pulling a new haversack over his shoulder, facing the way he would go, facing the dream of home where no more violence would dwell, only peace and planting and gardening and loved ones and children-
Enough. Such dreams would tear down his resolve. He pared it down to one face, one name, one promise made in blind haste and passion. And hope. It would be enough, he hoped, enough to take him out of this part of the wilderness. It was a far darker place than he wanted to be.