Chapter 5:  A Somewhat Quiet Kinda Hoedown

5

Drifter

 A Somewhat Quiet Kinda Hoedown


“Good times and bad times aren’t mutually exclusive. When ya havin’ a bad time, sometimes you need to have a good one to balance it out.” — Bobby Joe “Big Thunder” Caldwell


 

Bringing Bobby Joe Caldwell was a dang good idea if he thought so himself. He needed someone with his demeanor. Big Thunder was a very lively and excitable type of fellow, given to outburst of all different types. He flicked through the radio channels like a child unable decide what channel he wanted. On the opposite side of that boat, Pit brooded in the back of the truck, squeezed in the back corner of the truck. He hadn’t muttered a full sentence they started this little journey. His mood had improved a little since the funeral. He only wished death, plague or fire to everything in existence once today. Drifter counted that an improvement. Probably the best he was gonna get now. He enjoyed the time with his brother all the same. It reminded him of old times, longed before they settled on the planet. Good ol’ times and more to come. That was why they were here after all, to have a good time.  Sometimes you needed to get out of the house and do something.

They drove down the main road, enjoying the day and looking for some mischief.  It had been quiet all things considered. The bed of their trucks was filled with any surplus: ammo, weapons, and salvage of value from the Old World. That along with their “illegal” beverage trade was how they kept afloat in complete solitude. The Caldwells and the Breauxs were the only two major families served as the pillars of civilization on the planet besides the growing military presence. There were other people on the planet, nomads, and scavengers for the most part. They didn’t stay for long. Either the planet got them or the people though.

Over several decades on the planet, they still hadn’t found everything of value lost in this world. Whatever happened the planet left marks on the world forever. The further away from the Dusk Mountains, the deeper the scars on the world became. Buildings rose all around them, broken and slanted with old shattered windows and chunks missing from its body like a half-eaten corpse. More scraps of old rusted cars hollowed out shuttles, and ancient first model mechs littered the former city, gathering flora and ivy against their metal.  A few determined hills devoured most of the city now, cutting through the once metropolis with mounds of dirt and lines of trees. Drifter hadn’t known everything that involved the Civilization and their colonies that tore this world to pieces. Nor had he cared much, if he was gonna be honest. He found this planet off sheer dumb luck with things they hadn’t cared for in years. Nevertheless, there was history involved here he couldn’t ignore and things that might be mighty helpful one day.

Drifter focused riding the hills, feeling the all too familiar ups and downs underneath his wheels. Of course, this was a bit dangerous. His truck wasn’t built like Pit’s jeep or even Big Thunder’s weird flying thingmabobs. It wasn’t built for this type of travel. The motor wheezed, and the tires groaned with each conquered hill. Big Thunder cheered after everyone, grinning and howling like a young child.  Drifter spun around a corner, slamming into an old fence and crushing it as though it wasn’t even there. Though it dented the truck a bit, it was worth the small happy howl from the back of the truck. That was the first sound he hadn’t been an angry growl or a curse.  Already, it was a success.

“Oh, you’re not sleep back there,” Big Thunder said, leaning back and staring at his other brother his dark almond-shaped eyes. He was a thick man like Appetite, though a bit more round and pudgier than his son. Every hair on his head and on his patchy beard had remained the silky black texture of his father that they didn’t share. None of them shared both father and mother, thus why they looked remarkably different. They were brother all the same and that didn’t change anything. “Good to see that you’re still with us, pal.”

“I’m still with ya,” Pit muttered. Drifter hit a hard bump. “Alright! Alright! I’m here. Don’t go off the deep in on me.”

Drifter grinned, adjusting his rear-view mirror. What he saw was an upright Pit growling, brow furrowing and teeth bared. Age hadn’t done much to him either, come to think on it. He was as mean, angry, and intimidating as he was when he was in his teens and twenties. It made Drifter feel a kinda way like only time was creeping up on him. He knew that wasn’t true, all in all. He had a lotta years left on him if their father was any indication. The bastard. Sometimes he wondered if he was still alive for he could stomp on his throat. He shook off the thought. Not the time or place to think about that. The fact remained that he felt some aches in his knees and shoulders from the rocky ride. “You need to get outta the house, get your mind on something else for a while.”

Pit nodded. He stood a little straighter in his back seat, stretching his legs.  “It doesn’t get easier.”

“It doesn’t,” Drifter said. He remembered Jo’s husband and son, his first grandson.  “It really doesn’t.” That wasn’t easy either. It was his brother and the rest of the family that brought him out of that stupor. He turned the wheel of the truck, leading them down a steadier path. The roads smoothed out to a broke but steady asphalt road. “Sometimes, I wonder why we’re still here, but we can’t think on that.”

Big Thunder kicked his feet out of the window.  “Where are we going anyway? Thought you knew where you were goin’, bro. We seem mighty lost out here in the middle of nowhere. Won’t be long for some ferals come in on us. I worked a mighty hard time on those brews back there up and ready. Do’ya know what work goes into just a single keg of my stuff back there? Months, sometimes years’ worth of work.  Ain’t gonna lose it to some wildfolk.”

“Some people call us the wildfolk.”

“Anyone that says that don’t know real wildfolk. They’ll strip you dry. At least we don’t take the bones.” Big Thunder laughed.

“Aye guess you’re right. We have a little bit of class left.”

Drifter turned the truck, cutting through the suburbs. Despite his jokes, his brother wasn’t wrong. Danger lurked in the hundreds of dead shells of cities and towns that once held life. Drifter tapped against the wheel. They were watching, he knew–on the roofs, within the buildings, through every crack on the street. They knew their own kind, feared them. They weren’t that much different, all things considered. Smaller animals feared the predators whose mouth they could fit inside. Drifter tasted their apprehension in the air, smelled their rank odor against the dust cloud kicking up underneath their wheels. They weren’t gonna attack. If they did, that would be the last mistake they ever would make. I want them to try. Drifter licked his teeth, his long tongue lolling out the side of his mouth.  A bit of a green acid dribbled down the side of his chin and onto his shirt, burning a small hole blue checkered shirt.  I want them to try their hand against mine and see who’ll win.

The car grew oddly silent. Big Thunder exchanged his over the top smile for one of guile and mischief.  There was a familiarity in that one, even over his jovial one. It had gotten him beaten. It had gotten all the brothers into a mighty bit of trouble. Black cats. Broken mirrors. Walking under a ladder. Nothing brought more bad luck than that smile. He reached to his side, fingers barely touching his pistol. Drifter shook his head. He would start all kinds of hell when no one else wanted to. With a single bullet fired into the air, every frustration they had growing in their chest would have an outlet. There would be bodies around them in this dead city. There wasn’t that much time. Where they were going was gonna be trouble enough.

“You never answered where we were going. This ain’t nowhere near Pete’s post.” Pit muttered.

“We aren’t going to Pete’s today. We gotta keep him guessin’.”

“I’ve always hated Pete,” Big Thunder added with the calmest of venomous disgust. “Owes me some beers.”

“Who doesn’t owe you some beers, Bobby?”  Drifter asked.

“It’s not what you owe me, it’s how you owe me. I’m willing to let things slide if he didn’t dodge me. I might’ve promised that the next time I see him, I was gonna break his skinny neck on my knee. So, there’s a blessing in the storm, I guess. Who was going to instead?”

“We’re going to Old Coyotes place. He got something for me. Well, not for me.”

“Ain’t that where the Blue Coats trade though?”

“Is it?” Drifter grinned.

He knew it was. The Old Coyote didn’t play for either side, believe it or not. Drifter respected the man enough to give him space from this war when it came to that. Sometimes though, he liked a good ol’ fight in his place from time to time. It brought customers and lively to his old, stale world of trade. Gotta give me what he wants. Things to sell and entertainment. What could be better than that? The trick was going to finding him in this place. Never stayed in one place, the ol’ kook. Thought if he wasn’t worth finding, you weren’t smart enough to barter with. After a while, Drifter caught on his vagrant ways. It took one to know one. Back in his twenties, home was a four-letter word without a meaning. “I can’t lie to you fellas, I’m expectin’ trouble when I get there, and I expect ya guys to go a little wild and have a good time.  Know when to quit, got it? Don’t need to make an enemy out of him.”

Slow nods filled the space. Big Thunder Bobby exchanged a look with Pit over the shoulder of the seat. Drifter eyed him too. There was relief there in those harsh red eyes, the color of the tip of a burning cigar. They melted from red to orange, dripping with a dark contempt.  I’m gonna have to stop him from burning this place to the ground. Drifter rolled the thought in his head and chewing the bitter thought in the hard edges of his mind.  We ain’t that much different than those muties lurking in the shadows. Given the chance, they too will rip the meat off a bone until nothing remained. They were animals, a plague, a force of nature on the slowly civilizing Dusk Orbits.

There was no place for people like them anymore in a world like that.

***

They found Old Coyote’s pop up shop on the edge of the water by the sea this time. Drifter found himself pleased with that. He didn’t get to go to the sea very often. It was far away from the mountain and he didn’t have enough gas to be flaunting around like that. Though when he didn’t get the chance to go out much, the water was a reminder of softer days. He hadn’t ever seen a sea on the planet they lived on before. Lived, that was rich. He didn’t live in that awful prison planet of sand and dust. They were sold into it, one by one like cattle to pay off a debt. In the end, he bought his freedom with his family’s blood and slept well at night. Standing on a pier while feeling the salt rough against his skin and sour in his mouth reminded him how far he had come. He listened to the waves rolled in as he parked the truck in the small dirt lot.

Big Thunder and Pit whistled their approval at a few shuttles coming in and out of the lot.  Most of the patrons recognized them too. Ain’t hard to recognize a few old men rolling around in an old truck when they could be flying. To mention he had a bit of a reputation here. Drifter plucked the keys from the ignition and stepped out. The whispers rose all around them in hushed layers. Pit and Big Thunder began unpacking the cargo from their trunk, heaving the ship fuel and bigger items first on their backs. Drifter took a few of the weapons, inspecting the guns for anything he wanted to keep. In the end, he stole one of the refurbished rifles for himself. No reason to sell such a mighty fine gun to someone who won’t appreciate its beauty.  He placed it aside, packed the rest in his signature beat-up black duffle bag, and slung it over his thin shoulder. All packed up, they approached the Huntsman’s Cabin on the sea.

The shop wasn’t a big whoopdedoo. The walls and the roofs of the Huntsman’s Cabin were made of a thick, collapsible metal, tinged with red rust and bullet holes. The small shack had seen worst days though in its hasty construction. The time, at least, the walls and foundation looked stable instead of slumping on itself as though it was standing on pudding. Old Coyote had the decency to put the windows up this time, normally foregoing them all together and leaving his patrons exposed to the elements. Despite this and without fail, he managed to put up that stupid neon light sign right above the two swinging wooden doors.  Light of green and white flashed at eye level, burning spots in his sight. The urge to rip the sign from the bolts only intensified when a light sparked and went out against his face. Drifter growled, stooping under the low hanging frame.

The wave of smoke and cheap beer hit him in the nostrils first. The small shack was already crammed from wall the wall with patrons, growling and muttering something under their breath. If you can’t speak softer than the jukebox, Coyote figured you didn’t have enough courtesy in your blood to live.  Drifter liked the music at least. The old coon had some tastes in that at least. Not much else he was afraid. The lighting was bad, only a few soft electricity-less lights illuminating the entire palace. The planks creaked under Drifter’s sneakers, tempting to buckle with every step.  Not for the first time, Drifter wondered how the building stayed together. He approached the counter, shouldering through some grisly looking men taking drinks and exchanging wares at the counter. One of the men turned, frowned, and sipped from his tall, cloudy mugs. He grinned back with all brown teeth, a purple tongue poking from the empty spaces.

“Aye, don’t I know you from somewhere,” the purple tongued man barked.

Drifter eyed him. He recognized him as Staff Sergeant Bills, the highest rank of the Bluecoats that was on the planet before Debenham and Xan showed up. He was a thin muscled man with dark blonde hair with the consistency of badly cooked spaghetti. Drifter and the family made him look an absolute fool. Seeing him out of his uniform and in the beaten, poorly stitched fatigues, drinking, and muttering was quite the hoot. He stared, drunk eyes flickering up and down Drifter’s body. Recognition slowly donned on the Staff Sergeant’s brute of a face, a sneer ripping through his hard features. He straightened his body, reaching for his pistol sitting on his hip. Didn’t recognize him well enough, apparently. That little weapon won’t even scratch his hide, even when he looked like a normal, hardworking fella. He went to say something and only found weight on his purple-tinted tongue. Stupidity still glistened in those dark eyes though, the obscene willingness to act on whatever pride held him together.  “Luke Caldwell, what’ya doin’ here?”

Drifter smiled. “Staff Sergeant Lincoln Bills. Pleasure as always.”

“Ya show yer face here outta all places. Here, where I drink, where I–”

“Voice, Lincoln. Voice!”

Old Coyote stumbled out from the back room. He stumbled, leaning on his right leg–the last thing made of flesh on his entire body. Drifter assumed for a long time that he was droid made by the Civilization. He learned later that he was indeed human once upon a time. There was little to show that now. Aside from that last piece of bone and flesh, his body was made of a flexible metal alloy, each with perfect parts that made no hissing or cracking. A bright green light searched the two men, flickering back and forth with the patrons. He tugged his leather cowboy hat on his optics and muttered with his husky, synthesized voice. He plucked the burning cigarette from the small slit on his head that served as his mouth, smashing the butt into an ashtray. “Didn’t expect to see you here, Drifter. Whatcha got for me this time?”

“Quite a bit actually. My brothers are unloading it as we speak.”

“You’re gonna trade with this ruffian.”

“I’m trading with you, aren’t I?” Old Coyote snapped. “Now sit down and drink your beer. Adults are talking.”

Staff Sergeant Bills frowned but shut his lip all the same.

Drifter heaved the duffle bag over his shoulder and on the counter.  Old Coyote took it with every intention to be unimpressed. He unzipped the bag and whistled. “What’s the occasion? You never part ways with your weapons, not of this quality. What’s going on?” Old Coyote’s voice took a low, serious tone.  What war do you wanna start?”  The question came out as serious as a heart attack.  When it came to Old World weapons and drink, there was no equal. Drinks were okay to sell. Guns weren’t. A sold gun from Drifter was the harbinger of the devil.  Everyone on the planet knew this simple fact. The Bluecoats in attendance stopped drinking their drinks, their drunken banter, even their breathing it seemed. Only the music rolled through the silent bar and trading post. They sat in stunned silence, eyes caught on the dusty old man with the knife to the world. Staff Sergeant Bills was the one that broke the silence with a laugh.

“This is about that mutt of yours that you lost to Debenham, ain’t it?” Staff Sergeant Bills barked another laugh. “How does it feel to be outta your depths, old boy? How are you—?”

Drifter didn’t say a word when he smashed the man’s own beer glass into his head. Shards of glass sprayed on the ground and the counter. The Staff Sergeant howled, holding his eye in pain, almost kicking out of his stool.  Drifter caught him by the hair. A cold, quiet rage filled him as he smashed the man’s head into the counter, repeatedly until purple blood oozed off the table and onto his black and white sneakers. Drifter yanked the man’s head up by his hair, allowing the open wound on the man’s ugly face to close. Staff Sergeant Bills had suffered burns, cuts, bruises, everything across the planet. His healing ability had saved him from a lotta those. This was an experiment, a thrill for Drifter to test how far he could go. A soft kinda savagery filled his gut with each satisfying crunch of the man’s skull. “I don’t want to hear your voice anymore,” Drifter said in a whisper. “This don’t involve you. So shutya trap ‘bout my boy.”

“That’s enough, Luke. I don’t want any trouble in the place.”

“Tell that to them.”

The rest of the Bluecoats squad in the Huntsman was standing now with their guns raised. Drifter looked from person to person, amused at their quaking expressions. The door swung open, revealing Big Thunder and Pit standing in its frame. The tension in the room only rose. They hadn’t heard what was said. Good. Better that Drifter started than either one of them. This way he had control, the reins over how this went down.  A quiet kinda of hoedown. Drifter rolled his shoulders, smiling at the only backup he needed right now. Old Coyote sighed and lit another cigarette, a habit he still had despite not even having a human tongue or mouth to taste it. “Go ahead, just try not to break anything important.”

The brawl started all at once.

Fist began to fly first. Big Thunder roared into the brawl. Though shorter than most opponents he faced, Thunder knew how to fight. He swung with one of his meaty knuckles, connecting with one of the nearest men’s face and shattering his jaw into pieces. Within seconds, he was surrounded by men, each falling left and right to his blows. The more he fought, the louder his punches sounded. His muscles began to warm, his skin taking on a blood red color with every blow.

Drifter tossed the bloody pulp of their Staff Sergeant to the ground. His healing mutation hadn’t stopped him from losing consciousness, it seemed. Shame. That was fun while it lasted. Drifter approached the chaos with a few casual steps.  A heavy-set man went for a swing at Drifter’s face, only to be caught by his knuckles and have those digits crushed. Bigger men always thought that he was smart to fight him. An easy picking. The boys at the mines learned that the hard way after a while. There was no messing with Drifter like this. He tossed the man over his shoulder and knocked him out cold with a swift punch. Not without a word. Fighting was a quiet type of hobby for him like knitting a sweater. The more they came, the more they fell to his fist. Thousands of days in the pits was edged into his body. A group full of drunk spacemen wasn’t gonna be much of the problem. That was until the weapons came out.

A blue beam brushed past his cheek, searing his cheek. Drifter touched the burn mark for a second. Get a real weapon, he thought to say. His mind was too focused on the attack though. He stepped around the table, kicking over for cover. They couldn’t put their lasers on maximum heat unless they wanted a fire. They didn’t want that among the pile of crap they put themselves in. Drifter loaded his revolver with six casual clicks into the chamber. Only six today. Ain’t gonna need much more. He peeked over the cover and fired, the heat of the gun feeling nice against his knuckles. Five in the chamber, one in the grave. They wanted to bring out a gun, they needed to know the consequences of that. Another bullet and another body dead on the slumping floor.  The rays of blue only rain in earnest after that.

Drifter rolled from cover to cover, being wary of when to use his bullets. Energy guns had its own weaknesses. They didn’t need to reload like Old World weapons–unless the batteries were completely spent. They did, however, need to cool off after a few shots. Every gun was different, depending on the manufacturers of the cells. The key, Drifter learned, was learning which cell went with each gun by ear. Drifter popped out of cover, hearing a sharp hiss from one of the men’s weapons. Drifter saw the steam and shot another bullet. Dead. A clean bullet in the chest.

There were about five more of the spacemen left in the Huntsman now.  Drifter saw a Big Thunder, skin the color of an overripe grapefruit, laughing over limp bodies with raw skinned knuckles. Pit stood over a few other men, his serrated hunting knife freshly pulled from a dead man’s neck.  We’re monsters, aren’t we? The thought struck a dull satisfying chord in the back of his head, better than the songs escaping from the speakers of the jukebox could. Drifter eyed the five remaining members of the squad, scattered in the small space with the same look of apprehension glued on their face. This was the moment that made men and heroes. Likewise, it was also the moment that made cowards. Drifter wasn’t a betting man, but he knew which one they would choose.

Four fled the moment Drifter stepped forward. Shame. He didn’t have enough in his barrel to kill them all anyway. They left one brave man who was too drunk or too stupid to realize he was outmatched.  Drifter thought to let him go, let him live his life. He even played with the idea when the stupid boy raised his weapon. He shot, a bright red laser shooting from its barrel.  The ray came close to hitting, burning through the flesh of Drifter’s shoulder in a sheering pain. With a bit more clarity and a lot less fear, he might’ve done the deed. Brave kid, wrong place.  Unflinching, Drifter shot the boy in his chest. Not a cough or a gurgle. Like that, they were done, and the room was quiet again aside from the light sounds of a bluegrass guitar.

“Does it make you feel better,” Old Coyote asked after a long while.

“It was never ‘bout feeling better.” Drifter took a soft look at the heaving Pit in the corner. If he had heard what the Staff Sergeant had said, nothing on heaven and earth would’ve stopped him from burning this place to the ground. This way there was only dead bodies and burns. “I’m sorry ‘bout this, Coyote, in a way. They came all this way to trade with you. But now, look at this way, their stuff is yours now. Plain and simple. They will think we stole it, you get free stuff. Win-win.”

Old Coyote folded his metal arms, looking at the carnage before him. First and foremost, he was a businessman. Everyone knew that the moment they walked in here. When given a choice, he will take the most profitable option. Here, the most profitable option arose. All he had to do take the stuff what Drifter was offering, plus the things he came to sell and leave this backwater world before the bloodshed started. Without an expressive face, it was hard to tell whether he would rat them out or take the deal. Either was a possibility now.  The old cyborg sighed again, tugging the cowboy hat on his head a bit the green light that served as his eyes.

“Ya crazy bastard,” he said after a time. “‘ight. I’ll take your offer. Don’t seem like I got much of a choice, now do I?” He walked over to the unconscious Staff Sergeant, frowning.  “Tell me what you want for I can get off this planet. I ain’t getting caught in another one of your wars.”

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