Jostice's eyelids fought open, adjusting to the faint orange light bleeding through the thicket. He blinked several times. The sun rested high, hidden behind a canopy of trees while mornings' heat warmed the dampened earth, causing steam to dance off the twigs around him.
Jostice sat up, blinking, allowing tears to wash away the haze that distorted his sight. He rubbed the back of his head, glancing up at the limbs that zigzagged and tangled above him, like the trees stood wrestling, fighting to uproot one another to keep replenished.
"Worse than a whiskey hangover," Jostice mumbled, massaging away the pain.
"Lookie who's awake," Morgan Dale snickered. "Good thing too. If you slept any longer we would've left ya fer dead. And that would've been a damn shame." Morgan's long, spider leg-like fingers tugged on Jostice's coat. "Not quite my size," he winked. "Would've left it witcha."
Jostice tilted his head and found Morgan's gnarled grin. Only a few stained teeth remained. He then shifted his eyes towards the man's head, "I see my hat fits fine."
The man tugged on the brim, "oh, this old thing? Seems to have found my head. Can't recall how ... my mind's not what it used to be."
"Nor your reflexes."
Morgan Dale raised an eyebrow.
Jostice sat up, swung his right arm, and groaned. He clutched his shoulder, hat in hand. "In the name of the calvary," he panted. A burning pain surged from his shoulder to his elbow.
"Well I'll be damned," Morgan patted his balding head. He turned to Jostice. "It ain't that bad. Just looks out of place."
"Can you knock it right?"
"I'm no doctor ..."
"Never said you was."
Morgan nodded and knelt beside the man. Jostice's eyes trembled when his limb was taken into Morgan's brittle, calloused hands. The man raised his arm slowly.
Jostice groaned, "do it quick!"
"Keep quiet and stop your whimpering." Morgan scanned the ground then picked up a twig, shoving it between the man's lips. "Bite on this."
"Cause I don't want to hear you speak. Now be a buck and bite down."
Jostice lip sunk as he bit. "Bastard—"
Morgan Dale pulled. Jostice's bones shifted beneath his skin, sliding and locking with a pop. He groaned and spat the limb from his mouth, wincing until the sharp pain became a dull ache. He licked his lips and spat. A bitter-dirt taste lingered on his tongue. "Did you have to pick the sappiest piece out of the bunch?" He spat again.
"A thank you would've sufficed."
"Ya, well, thank yous are for wenches after they've been swooned, suckled, plowed, and paid." He rotated his arm ridding more pain. "And you're no wench."
"I could be," Morgan pursed his lips. "All you'd have to do is ask."
Jostice smirked, stood to his feet, and slapped the dust from his hat. He then ran his fingers through his short, dark hair, and planted his hat on his head, tugging it until the bill rested just above his eyes. "You should make certain a man's dead before claiming his possessions. A man's hat is as precious as his life, some believe."
"I've killed men for less," Morgan confessed, fixating on something at Jostice's back. "Besides, if it was worth a man's life, then hell, it'd be worth dueling fer ... maybe even dying fer."
"Can't argue with that." Jostice followed the old man's gaze.
The coach sat perched on a stump. The left rear wheel twisted on the ground, a new one positioned against the axel ready to take its place. The door hung aloof while four horses basked in a clearing in the trees.
A burly man, with vicious eyes and arms the size of logs, kneeled in the dirt. His trousers muddy and his button shirt soaked in sweat. He examined the damage.
"How much longer, Butch?" Mitch asked.
"An hour ... Maybe two."
Mitch stood over him, arms crossed, and smug-faced, tapping his boot with the patience of a badger. From eyebrow to lower lip was a scar: palish, scabbed flesh, distorting his leathery complexion; a wound from a life left behind. Around his hips, he wore a gun belt fitted with ebony grips attached to shimmering steel. A revolver for each holster.
His shirt hung half unbuttoned and wrinkled from the storm, exposing black blooming chest hairs that seem to sprout down his arms, while his black trousers, hat, and boots clung to his flesh, covered in dry muddy splotches.
Beside him was his young blood, Mason, standing like a shorter, thinner twin. Just as leathery, hairy, and smudge-faced as his father was though he hadn't earned his own scars just yet. He looked at Jostice, frowning. "Why don't we get them filth to give us a hand."
Mitch spat. "Would require us to remove them chains … And I prefer my dogs on a leash." They laughed.
Morgan Dale turned towards Jostice. "How I prefer my women."
Jostice smirked, "and my horse."
He examined the rest of the camp: a large tent stood at the far corner keeping the food, rifles, and gunpowder dry, while at the core, two men and a woman sat hunkered around a fire. A pair of six-shooters on their hips.
They were quite the trio, one man with wild eyes and the other a feverish laugh while the woman had a severe case of pocked-face. The two men tried to peak her attention. A lonely place was the road and a woman was a good way to keep warm, though she seemed more interested in what was warming in the pot than in their pants.
Jostice looked beyond them. A belt of trees loomed into a dense forest that stretched to the Prairie Hum of the far east. "Many travelers have been lost in the woods," he muttered, "and I'm looking to be one of them." His eyes shifted towards the tent. "All I need is to get me one of them rifles—"
"Don't you do it, ya suicidal bastard." Morgan glared at him with his hands on his hips. "Even if you could get past them grubs, and your hands on one of them rifles, I doubt they'd be loaded."
Jostice looked down upon the frail man, "I wasn't asking for your opinion."
"Boy, I ain't goin' along with one of your lousy escape plans again. Besides, look at me ... You're looking at dead weight. How far you think you'll get with me hollering and dragging you down? Ten paces? Fifteen, maybe? Them brutes are looking for a reason to shoot ... don't give 'em one."
"When they start shooting, you'll start running."
Morgan Dale pulled on Jostice's collar, stronger than he appeared. He forced their eyes to meet. "One more duel and we're free men."
"As I've told you, the Mayor won't make it that easy." Jostice pulled away. "And I have no desire in going back into that arena — we have no idea what the Mayor has planned — and I ain't waiting around here to find out."
"And you think I do, Ace? I find our odds are better in there, guns in hand and dueling to survive than chained out here together; armless and outnumbered." He shook his head slowly. "Don't be a damn fool … You're better than that and you're smarter than them."
"You're a fool to put trust in a man who gets pleasure out of our misfortunes. Tell me Dale, why now? Why set us free less he had something up his sleeve?"
The frail man thought for a moment. "If I knew I'd tell ya. Hell, I'd say it word-for-word ... but all I know is same as you." He took a deep breath and dropped his head. The air was fresh in the north ,giving him a faint buzz. "I'm not a good man, Ace — never was nor ever pretended to be — but if given a chance to make it right, by taking one more life, I'll do it ... And work things out on the other side."
"Work it out in the next life."
"There's no guarantee of that, you know it and I know it. If we're to right our wrongs we have to do it here, before it's too late." He placed a hand on Jostice's shoulder. "You can't make it right with her in the next life …"
Jostice stared out at the tree belt imagining her red strands and olive flesh, and the smell of the pasture that lingered on her like perfume.
He lowered his head and sighed. "Don't make me regret this…"
"I won't ... intentionally."