Chapter one

The Cactus Man

Shejin Hundual, Elven bounty hunter, stood on the dusty street of Durrowridge in complete silence. It was late night in the small dusty town and most of the long street was deserted, almost a ghost town. Taking a match from his belt he lit it on the side of the building he leaned against and placed it to the cigar he smoked.

In his line of work there was only one way to do things-kill or be killed. The bounty he was after was said to be hiding here and so he stood silent in the shadows. A few tired cowpokes occasionally came past but they either didn't see him or chose not to stare. In the west most elves were little more than devils. Shejin didn't mind being ignored, talking and such was not his strong suit.

Shejin took a long drag from his cigar before checking inside his long duster coat. Both his revolvers were loaded and ready. His sword, a gift from the elven war, was freshly sharpened. A stick of dynamite was strapped to his hip just in case he got in a pinch. A dagger in his boot, a set of brass knuckles, and other odd weapons also were hidden around his person. In his two hundred years he had found that it was never bad to be overly prepared.

The bounty was a man by the name of Caleb Cactus. The hundred gold on his head was issued by The United Western States many years ago but so far no one had been able to bring him to justice. In Silvercity Caleb had made a name for himself as a druid and healer. Somehow the human had the ability to conjure plants, mainly cactus, to do his bidding. Through the west he had killed many for not following his insaine views. Shejin had tracked him here after a bank robbery in Snakehill had killed several people.

The night air was chilly but Shejin sweated slightly in spite of it. With the keen eyes and ears of his people he could do things that humans could not. With his hawk eyes he surveyed the main town square. Men like Caleb were never able to keep silent for long. At some point the druid would make a mistake.

A figure stepped out almost dead center in the street. The large brimmed hat the man wore was black. A matching duster covered in dust moved on its own in the cold wind. Shejin could smell the man's sweat but there was no fear in it. A scratching sound echoed off the empty streets in an eerie song. Shejin wondered what was causing it and did not have to wait long to figure it out. Large hulking cactus had surrounded the man moving of their own will. Or at least that is what one would think.

Not more than another blink and a second man came out of the shadows. Shejin instinctively went for his revolvers at the sight of his target. Caleb Cactus walked confidently to the other man, a smile on his weathered face. Just like his wanted poster Caleb had long hair and beard the color of tree bark. While he was not a overly emposing figure he still held himself confidently. The street lanterns reflected off several glittering green tattoos on his face and hands, magic flowing from them.

A smile was ear to ear on Caleb's face as he stepped up beside the black clad man. " Hello Lucas. I trust that you have it?" Caleb asked, his voice friendly.

" I got it. Boss had a time finding it, but here it is," Lucas produced a small black sack from his coat.

Caleb almost reached for it but then stopped himself. " I supposed you want payment, eh?"

Lucas knodded. Shejin watched as one of the massive cactus suddenly lept onto the unaware Lucas and slammed him into the dirt like a childs plaything. The cactus continued to slam its stub like arm into the man untill he did not move any more. Caleb snorted a laugh and then bent down to pick up the small sack.

Shejin knew that he would probably not have a better time to go for the kill. Taking out his revolvers he slowly took aim. He had not gone more than a few steps when something slammed into him from behind. Several dozen sharp stings erupted across his body as he fell. Spinning around on impulse he saw the giant red cactus hovering over him. The large bumpy thing was smaller than the green ones but seemed faster. It was raising its stumps to let loose the final blow when Shejin let his revolvers scream out their fury. The silence of the night was broken as bullet after bullet was let loose on the plant. Large chunks splattered all around Shejin as the last round reduced the things body to pulp.

Shejin stood up, the stings from the dozens of cactus quills fresh and hot. Caleb gave him a curious look from the other side of the street. " Who in the name of all things natural are you?"

" My name's Shejin Hundual. I aim to kill you and collect the gold on your head," Shejin said as he reloaded his revolvers. Occasionally he glanced at the half dozen cactus but each one stayed still.

Caleb snorted and chuckled a bit. " Ah...I believe I have heard of you. The elven hunter of men. Your said to be one of the fastest draws in the west. Taking down evil men and moving on to the next job. In a way I can appreciate that. It's natural to want to kill a man. You see we are all just animals in the grand scheme."

Shejin shook his head. " I don't care. You can come alive or dead. Either way I make my gold."

" Then I guess your just another body to feed the cycle of life. I am working my way to bring things back to their natural state and no one will stand in my way!" Caleb screamed and stepped behind one of the cactus men. Shejin had no time to get a shot in as each cactus sprung to life.

Shejin took aim and began to fire at the plants. This time he was not ambushed and he shot each one's legs. Chunks of green mush soon littered the streets as all the living cactus continued to crawl tward him. Taking out the dynamite and a match he soon had the long fuse burning. Tossing the stick lazily in the middle of the broken things Shejin covered his ears. The ground shook and cactus parts were flung everywhere.

The town errupted into life and the sounds of shouts and doors slamming echoed in Shejins ears. Caleb was no where to be seen but it would not be hard to find out where his hideout was. Shejin waited untill a crowd was forming and then worked his way back to the small hotel he was staying at. As he stepped up to the doorway a form came out from the side of the building.

Shejin's gun was up before he even fully turned. A small, thin man looked at him with a startled face. The little man wore the black clothing a priest. Shaking like a leaf, the little man stepped back and ran his hands through his balding hair. " I-I-I didn't mean to sneak up on you. I w-wanted to speak with you is all."

" Then talk." Shejin said as he holstered his weapon. Priest of the one god came to him from time to time but most were only looking for money.

The little priest looked around the street with his small nervous eyes. " Might we talk somewhere more private?"

Shejin shrugged and opened the door. A small older woman named Velma Summers ran the hotel and she looked up tiredly from the desk. " Wondered if you would be back in tonight, Mr. Hundual. You have anything to do with that loud ruckus outside?"

" No." Shejin answered as he walked up the stairs to his room. Opening the door he ushered in the priest. Other than a bed and a chair the place was sparse and tiny. Shejin sat down in the chair and began to remove the quills still stuck in his arms and chest. " Now first things first. What's your name?"

The priest paced the small room. It was obvious that the little man was wound tight. " I'm pastor Jim Baleny, sir elf. I-I'm afraid that I'm alittle frightened by you."

Shejin was used to that. In the west most humans had little or no contact with the eastern magical races. Elves, Gnomes, and Dwarves were all scary and unknown to the uneducated. Wincing he removed a large barb from his elbow. " Well relax. I'm not in the habit of killing men of the cloth. Tell me why your coming to me."

Pastor Jim sat down on the bed and sighed. " I am just trying to help the poor people of this town. Caleb Cactus came into this town a few weeks back and ever since more and more bodies end up dead on the streets. The mad man must be stopped."

Shejin took the last of the quills out before reaching into one of his many pockets for a fresh cigar. " Your God don't care for the crazy man's nature should rule the world view, eh?"

" I have always tried to avoid raising a hand against anyone but when innocent people die then I must do what I can. I do not know exactly where Caleb is but I do know someone who might know."

Shejin took a match and struck the bottom of his boot. Taking a long drag he sat back. " Does the person that knows of Caleb's hideout hire men that wear all black?"

Pastor Jim looked up surprised. " Why yes he does. How could you know that?"

" I saw Caleb kill a man that brought him something tonight. I figure that whoever got double crossed will be more than willing to give up Caleb's whereabouts," Shejin surmised.

" The man is named Black Jack Williams. Just outside of town is an abandoned gold mine sitting along Snake River. Williams and his men run a black market trade down there. You must be careful, Mr. Hundual. The place is a den of murderers and cut throats."

Shejin removed his revolvers and made sure each was freshly loaded. " They won't want to tangle with me much. I'm after Caleb and I have a feeling they will be more than happy to give him up to me."

" I will pray for you, Shejin Hundual," Pastor Jim said folding his hands.

A short time later Shejin payed for his room and went to the stables to get his horse. A stable boy looked up at him with a mixture of fear and wonder. Seeing a pointy eared elf always made children stare. Saddleing up it was short work to get out of town and tward the high mountains. Tree's became a little more frequent as Shejin went up hill but most were brown and dead looking. The night was turning to dawn and soon the heat of the day would be on him.

It did not take long to follow the priest directions to a small canyon. The giant rocky slopes looked like jagged steps leading to a small river. As Shejin looked down into the canyon he found Black Jack's small encampment. The yawning mouth of a large cave gave way to a small dock. Several small boats were tied to it with men in black coats going about various jobs.

Soon Shejin's elven ears heard a few small rocks crunch somewhere in the rocks behind him. Standing in the shadows away from his horse he waited. Sure enough three of Black Jack's men were sneaking up to his position. When the last one went past him Shejin crept up behind them. The one closest to him turned and looked at Shejin with surprise. With fast hands he threw a hard right fist into the man's jaw taking the feet out from under him.

The other two spun with guns up but Shejin was expecting it. Revolver out he fired two shots. Both hit the men in their hands making them scream and drop their weapons. All three men looked up at Shejin with a mixture of awe and fear. After a few moments of silence Shejin spoke. " I need to speak with Jack."

Puzzlement went across their faces like a wave but none of them protested. They led him down the mountain to a large felled tree that acted as a bridge. Severeal more men greeted them at the other end. A tall man parted the crowd of men with his revolver out. Long, oily black hair fell to his shoulders. His pale face scowled at Shejin as if it was the closest thing to a smile that the man ever got. " Who in the hell are you?"

" Shejin Hundual, and you?"

The man's frown deepened making the lines on his face look like cracks in ice. " I heard of you. Your supposed to be some kind of myth. I'm Ralph Crowe." Shejin knew the man's name and reputation. Crowe had been a bank robber and cow wrangler near Silvercity years past. It was said he was fearless and cold to the bone. One look in the man's cold black eyes said the rumors might be true. "I'll ask you once before I gut you, partner. What are you doing here?"

Shejin holstered his gun to the surprise of the three men that brought him there. " I heard your boss had some dealings with a man named Caleb Cactus. I bet you been waiting on your man with no word."

Crowe did not give an expression of any kind to say Shejin was right or wrong. After a moment he turned and motioned tward the cave. " Black Jack will want to hear this. Follow me." Crowe holstered his weapon and the rest of the men quickly departed back to their odd jobs. The three wounded men gave Shejin a dark glare before joining their mates.

The cave entrance was guarded by six men. All of them carried repeater rifles at the ready. Crowe led them inside following some old and worn mine cart rails. An occasional rusted cart was seen sitting on its side, as abandoned as the entire cave felt. Sometimes a few men would walk past carrying crates or sacks. A well lit room was their destination and Shejin had to squint for a moment after the dim light they had just came from.

The large cavern had a grand chandelier hanging from the cealing. Hundreds of candles made the room as bright as if they were outside. An immense tall backed wooden chair stood against the back wall. Behind a chipped table sat Black Jack Williams. Jack's black hair was cut short and matched the trimmed goatee. Handsome features masked his cold blue eyes. Lean and broad shouldered he wore his black suit and broad rimmed hat well. Shejin thought the man could have been an undertaker from the lack of color. The most distinguishing feature was the large ace of spades tattooed over his left eye and cheek.

Black Jack stood and motioned to one of the many chairs in front of him. " Welcome to my home, Shejin Hundual."

Shejin took a seat while Crowe moved to Jack's side. " So you know who I am?" Shejin asked even though he knew the answer.

" A man in my position must have eyes and ears everywhere. In Durrowridge I have more than a few of my men keep tab's on who comes and goes. I have a feeling you need something from me or you wouldn't be here," Jack said directly. Shejin figured the man was no fool and wanted to get straight to the point.

" I hear you deal in black market goods. I'm guessing that ain't just stolen things," Shejin said. Reaching into his pockets slow as to not show he was threatening, he removed a cigar and matches.

Jack gave Shejin a smile although there was anything but warmth in it. " Your definitely have no fear, elf. I have had men shaking in their boots but not you. Are all elves so fearless?"

Shejin shrugged his shoulders. " If you fought in the Elven War then you would know the answer to that."

Jack continued to smile. " I was just a boy when it started. I was one of the lucky children to have my father come back. Another story for another time." Standing he walked with a slight limp to the other side of the table. " I deal in many things. Ancient things from the past. Magical things. If its something odd or cursed then most come to me."

Shejin lit his cigar and puffed away at a leisurely pace. " Men like Caleb Cactus?"

Jack raised his eye curiously, the tattoo looking slightly misshapen as he did. " You are full of surprises, elf. Since you seem to know a few things, I will not lie to you. Yes, he and I have had business together. Why do you ask?"

" Your man Lucas was stabbed in the back as it was. Whatever it is that you got for him was taken from his cold dead hands. I saw it with my own eyes," Shejin replied.

Jack folded his arms. Although he seemed calm Shejin knew that behind his demeanor Jack was bristling. " Well I..." He paused as if trying to keep his voice level. " Most men know that if they cross me then they have just signed their own death warrent's. I should have trusted my instincts about him. All that nonsense about nature taking back the world. " Jack limped over to the side of the table and opened one of the many cases on it. Producing a small leather pouch he carefully opened it and emptied its contents onto the table.

Shejin could instantly smell the earthy aroma wafting off of the black dust. There was also the dense air of magic as well. " You sold him dirt?" Shejin asked.

Shaking his head Black Jack took a black glove from his pocket and put it on. Taking a small pinch of the black grains he brought it up to Shejins eyes. " An alchemist who shall remain nameless spent most of his life gathering ingredients. Of all the things he found these grains were one of the most wonderful and deadly. Just a small pinch placed in water can make any plant grow faster and stronger."

" So you found some of this magical dust and were going to sell it to Caleb. To what end?" Shejin wondered.

" I do not ask a man what he plan's to do with the things I find for them. He came to me searching for this fabled dirt and I used my considerable reach to find it," Jack said plainly.

" So you don't know where he ran off to?" Shejin was starting to think that Caleb might have gotten away from him.

Crowe came to stand beside Jack. The tall man towered over them both. " Jack had me follow him. Durrowridge, the deep canyon the town got its name from is where he's been hold up. Theres a big field of cactus all along the bottom of it. All kinds."

Shejin knodded his head. Caleb was going to raise a massive army of his cactus men. While it would not be enough to fight the entire Western army a large enough path of destruction was not far in the future. Many would lose their lives. Shejin tipped his hat to them as he began to walk tward the opening.

" You aim to fight Caleb all by yourself?" Black Jack called to him.

Shejin turned back for just a moment. " I won't allow my bounty to get away."

Black Jack folded his arms again. The smile returning to his face. " Crowe. I want you to take a few boys and help Shejin out. No one does me wrong and lives to tell about it."

It was high noon by the time Shejin, Crowe, and Black Jack's men were galloping tward the massive crack in the earth called Durrowridge. The sun was baking hot and the ground around them was dry and white. Dust and dirt flew up in all directions as they rode hard. Far off Shejin could make out the ridges that looked into the canyon. With his keen eyes he could see the green cactus guards shuffleing along waiting to defend their master.

Shejin slowed and everyone else did the same. They were still a good distance away and running in without a plan was never a good idea. Crowe rode his horse up beside Shejin's. " You think you can get close enough to Caleb to kill him?" Crowe asked staring straight ahead.

" That all depends on how well you can draw all the cactus away from Caleb. Your gonna have to create a big distraction," Shejin responded as he checked his revolvers. In his saddle he removed a repeater rifle and double checked it as well.

Crowe knodded his head and without another word turned his horse and galloped tward the canyon with his men not far behind. Shejin headed to the other side of the canyon hopeing that he could find a path leading down into it. As he got closer he found a spot where the river started to empty into the canyon. A small waterfall dropped down into a lake but the fall would be dangerous. The sound of gunfire and dynamite blast told him he needed to act fast.

Removing a small leather satchel from his saddle he placed his revolvers, repeater rifle, and dynamite inside. The leather was water proof and should keep his weapons dry. Taking a deep breath he walked into the water and to the very edge. It was a small flowing river and with the dry season it was possible that the lake below was only a few feet deep. Knowing that fear could not be allowed into his mind, Shejin jumped without another thought.

Closing his arms and tightening his body, Shejin aimed his body for the center of the water. His stomach tightened as the ground got closer and closer. Putting his hands together in a point he braced himself. Shejin hit the water better than he had hoped. Thankfully the lake was deep enough that no rocks skewered him. As he came out of the water he quickly swam to the embankment and any cover he could find.

From behind a group of jagged rock he surveyed his surroundings. Dead center of Durrowridge was a small wooden cabin that looked to be barely more than a few sticks and nails put together. It sat atop a slight hill and all around thousands of various kinds of cactus poked out of the ground like barbed fingers. An infinate amount of green tall ones, smaller red ones, round ones , and many other kinds went on as far as Shejin could see. Most of them did not seem to have the magic in them that Caleb wielded but in time they would.

Taking out his revolvers and rifle, Shejin checked them to make sure they were dry. A splashing sound from behind him made him spin. Two of the smaller red cactus had come running out of the water tward him. Rifle already raised he unloaded round after round into each of them untill nothing but pieces floated around the water.

Shejin knew he had little time to act. If Caleb hadn't known he was here killing his minions probably tipped him off. Hopping over the rocks and running like hell was following him, Shejin determination gave him added strength. A large green cactus came out of the spiny foilage and swung its massive arm at him. Shejin ducked underneath and shot the thing in its middle. It broke apart in a splatter of green wetness.

More gunfire and explosions erupted from the other side of the house. Crowe and his men were definitely giving the cactus army what for but Shejin knew they would not be able to hold out for long. The ramshackle house got closer by the second as he ran.

As he neared the front porch the ground underneath him began to rumble. Shejin slowed to keep his footing as the ground around him started to shift like waves in the ocean. A large orange snakelike vine shot out of the ground. Several more blew through the dry dirt like worms in mud. Then the ground erupted sending Shejin spiraling back into the cactus fields. Landing in a patch of cactus sent tiny spurs of pain all over his body. All around him dust and grime made it hard for even his keen elf eyes to see.

Rifle at the ready, Shejin moved slowly and carefuly. Years of training in the Elven army made him move with more reflex than thought. One of the large orange vines came out of the dirt cloud directly at his head. The barbs on it were as big as sword blades and Shejin narrowly ducked underneath it, losing his rifle as he rolled away.

Taking out his revolvers, Shejin moved in the direction of the house. Finally his boots touched the rotting wood of the porch. With all his strength he kicked in the front door. The small house held a cot, a wood stove, and a small table. Caleb was nowhere to be seen and Shejin cursed under his breath. A mad man like that could not be allowed to escape.

In the blink of an eye, one of the orange vines slammed through the roof like it was made of paper. Broken wood rained down on Shejin cutting him across his forehead. Not allowing the pain to slow, Shejin ran back outside. The dirt cloud had dissipated and the orange vines body could be seen. A gigantic round pumpkin like cactus loomed with several orange arms roaming all over searching for Shejin.

Sitting atop the monster cactus, Caleb stood, his arms outstretched. He looked down at Shejin triumphantly, madness in his eyes. " Do you see what power nature has bestowed on me! Soon I will once again return this world to its natural form!" Caleb screamed.

Shejin wiped blood from his face and eyes with his arm. While there was no love loss with most humans he came in contact with he still knew that no man that enjoyed killing as much as Caleb could go on living. Turning his head and spitting, Shejin cocked both his revolvers. " Don't worry, Cactus man. I'll return you to a natural form. A dead one."

Without letting Caleb make a move, Shejin bolted with all his strength right at the giant cactus. Half a dozen vines shot tward him lightening fast but his head was clear and focused. With every ounce of elven dexterity Shejin could muster he dodged and rolled his way further forward. One vine whipped tward his legs and Shejin front flipped over it and somehow landed on his feet. Another came from the side and he twirled around narrowly missing getting sliced to death. When he was within fireing range he took aim at one spot and fired repeatedly into its body. Large orange chunks ripped off leaving a big hole like a wound. Holstering his weapons while still moving, Shejin removed his sword.

Like a whirling elven tornado, Shejin ripped into the thing like a wild animal. The orange vines of the thing could not find him as he slashed and hacked with abandon. Soon he had made a large cavernous tunnel as long as his arm cut out. From the side of his eye he saw one of the orange vines snaking tward him and he turned with an upward thrust, severing it in a gush of orange sludge.

Time was moving fast and Caleb would not allow him much more time. Sheathing the sword, Shejin removed the last two sticks of red dynamite, he fumbled for a match. He found it in the one of his pockets and brought it to his boot. The match was struck but to Shejin's horror it wouldn't lit. The water from the lake must have soaked into them.

" Hey, Shejin! Catch!" Shejin heard someone yell from behind him. Spinning around he saw a reassuring sight. Crowe and a handful of men stood around the small remains of the cabin. Each one looked about as battered as he felt. Crowe met his eyes and then tossed a glowing stick of dynamite high into the air. Shejin jumped up and just barely caught it, his breath catching at the thought of missing it. With deft hands he lit the fuse of the other two and jammed all three into the hole.

Making his legs move as fast as they could carry him, Shejin ran with all his might. Orange vines cut through the air tward him as he counted the seconds. The explosion rocked him off his feet and sent dirt and orange guts in every direction. Shejin hit the dirt hard and slammed his head into the ground. White spots danced in his vision. His ears rang from the blast. For a moment the blackness of unconsciousness tried to worm its way in.

The next thing he knew several hands were picking him up. Slowly Shejin regained his footing and took in everything around him. Crowe and three others stood around him, most of them dirty, bleeding, and bruised. Crowe himself had a swollen eye and about a dozen cuts on his face. The giant cactus sat split in half, large pieces of it having been thrown all over the canyon.

Shejin ran right into the middle of the dead thing. A moaning came from underneath a pile of orange mush. Shejin slowly limped tward it while taking out his revolver and reloading it. Caleb Cactus crawled out and Shejin saw several barbs as long as his hand sticking out in various places. The man was mortally wounded.

Caleb turned and layed on his back, blood trickling out of his mouth. His crazed eyes staring into the blue sky, already starting to glaze over. " W-w-wait and see, elf. A hundred years from now humans and the like will consume a-all of the natural world. You will wish then that I had succeeded. You'll wish...then," Caleb spoke the last word and then his life ended.

Shejin stood there for a moment, fatigue threatening to fell him right there. A moment or two later Crowe walked up beside him. " I don't give most men any kind of praise or glory, Mr. Hundual. It always goes to their heads. Your either crazy or fearless. Hell, maybe both. You probably just saved many lives today."

The clomp of horse hooves soon brought Shejin's horse over the hillside. Shejin bent to pick up Caleb's corpse and Crowe and his men helped lift. When Caleb was secured with rope, Crowe reached into the man's coat and searched around till he found a small leather pouch. Black Jack was making sure that the goods stolen from him were returned.

Shejin looked down at his feet. His hat had come off during the fighting. Placing it back on his head, Shejin turned and knodded to Crowe. The man's face remained emotionless but he did give a curt nod. With alot of pain he hopped up on his horse and started the long journey into town. Shejin had a bounty to collect.