Three figures appeared through the thick dust of the high plains, and if bad things truly do happen to bad people, then the worst sorts of things happen to them. They were on horseback, and each man hung limply from his saddle. The figure at the front looked back at the other two and his face soured. He took one final long drag of his cigarette and flicked it to the earth, withdrew his revolver, placed the barrel in his mouth, and pulled the trigger. He hit the ground with a meaty thud, his head emptying its contents onto the dry landscape. The other two continued on—not looking back.
Romulus and Jacob had been on the run for two days. They had been careful to avoid each town in case Dogface's gang had headed them off. They had been worried about their share of the spoils from their last job, and decided it was better to keep it for themselves than risk trading their share for a slit throat. Honor amongst thieves may exist in the city, but not out here. They could make it to the next town if their horses didn't quit, and no one trusted men who rode in on near-dead horses.
"There," spat Romulus back to Jacob in his telltale drawl, pointing towards a town far in the distance.
Romulus was a tall, lean man with oily brown hair and a tangled beard. He had suffered a stroke years ago and now barked out words from the side of his mouth. His left arm was less than useless and his right arm more than made up for it. Even with little use of his left arm and eye he was still dangerous with a revolver.
Jacob was his younger by more than a decade. He was clean shaven and had a mess of blonde hair that grew out from under his hat, contrasting his dirty skin. Neither had much in the way of a family, and over time they had become a surrogate family for one another.
They slowed and eyed a sign as they passed into town. It read "Welcome to Silver Gulch."
"Miners…" muttered Romulus to himself.
Miners were a rare breed. They weren't dangerous, but they also didn't trust anyone, and they would be landing a discerning eye on their new company. Dogface's gang would have a hard time telling which direction the two had taken when they abandoned the heist, but word would travel quickly if they were spotted, and they hadn't made the distance they needed yet to avoid a reprisal. They also had to be quiet about how they spent any gold. While city people loved gold, it only made poor miners salivate and ask too many questions.
Jacob lifted a gloved hand and pointed to a stable beside a hotel. "We need to let them rest or they'll be useless tomorrow—us too," said Jacob. Romulus nodded in agreement.
They tied their horses up, and Jacob removed his hat and dunked his head into the water trough. He shook his head and ran his hands through his golden hair, taking a deep breath. Replacing his hat he looked over to Romulus, his youthful features now visible on a clean face that shined in the setting sun.
The hotel was several stories high and leaned heavily on its foundation making it seem like it was looking over the two as they entered. The lobby of the hotel was a saloon, and there were half a dozen men in all different states of inebriation throughout the bar. Jacob knew enough to avoid too many people seeing their faces and sat with his back against the wall at a far table, his eyes pointing towards the entrance.
Romulus continued on to the innkeeper. He was a short man with a big belly and a long curling mustache. He eyed Romulus up and down as he approached, but didn't stop wiping out a mug with a rag. Romulus saw that as a good sign—anytime someone keeps their hands in the open, and not on the trigger of a gun beneath the counter, means that they weren't recognized.
"Ho there, strangers. Need a drink? Maybe a room?" said the innkeeper.
Romulus used his right arm to lift his left up to the counter with a grunt. "Feed for a couple horses we have outside. Water for us."
Romulus placed his right hand on the counter and slid its contents to the innkeeper. It was a lump of gold, more than enough for what they needed and a night's stay. The innkeeper's eyes glistened, and he quickly pocketed it.
Moving to the end of the bar, the innkeeper kicked a young man who was resting against a barrel on the floor.
"Get up ya lazy boy, there's horses that need tending, then fix the suite for our new guests." Looking back to Romulus he smiled wide with his black, crooked teeth, "Anything else you be needing, just ask and I'll make sure it's taken care of. Welcome to Silver Gulch."
Romulus returned to the table where Jacob sat with a tall pitcher of water and two glasses.
"The black hat in the corner," whispered Jacob under his breath, eyeing the pitcher of water.
Romulus turned at an awkward angle as he sat to catch a glimpse of the man Jacob had mentioned. It was a large man with a copper star pinned to his pocket. A sheriff, possibly a marshal. Romulus didn't say a word while he poured out the murky water, and took a long deep swig. If the lawman didn't notice them, then they wouldn't make any effort to be noticed.
After a while, the innkeeper walked up to their table, and replaced the now empty water pitcher with a new one along with two shots of whiskey.
"This is our top shelf that we save for an occasion when our presence is graced by gentlemen such as yourselves. Will you be needing a room? I've got Thomas preparing it for ya if you're interested."
"That'd be grand, sir. Thank you for your hospitality," replied Jacob.
Romulus turned as the innkeeper walked away and saw the lawman staring back at them. Silently the man in the black hat rose, and started to walk towards them. Romulus turned around and looked into his glass of whiskey. His eyes wandered up to Jacob, who never had much of a poker face and was sweating nervously.
Romulus let his hand wander to his holster. If he had to he'd kill the lawman along with any witnesses. It was always better to be safe than sorry, and he liked killing anyway.
Before the man in the black hat could reach them, the innkeeper darted between them. In a hushed whisper, he pleaded with the lawman to leave his new guests be, and that they had already paid. Romulus smirked—a very good sign indeed. He let his hand drift back up to the glass of whiskey which he lifted up and poured into Jacob's.
Jacob washed back the double shot and wiped his chin with the back of his hand. Romulus let himself feel at ease and didn't object when Jacob raised his hand and pointed to their table for two more. Things went like that for another hour before Romulus let out a long, tired yawn.
"Check on the horses, I'm going to the room. Don't drink too much, we have to get started at daybreak if we're going to keep our lead."
Jacob nodded and started stacking the shot glasses and then collected his jacket. Romulus headed up the wooden steps in the back, making sure not to look at the man in the black hat who had managed not the budge from his spot in the corner.
Romulus opened the door to his room and looked around. The lanterns were lit and their bed prepared. Romulus would let Jacob take it, and sleep in the armchair in the corner facing the door. He disliked being comfortable. That was when a man's guard was down, and his guard was rarely down.
Romulus placed his hat on the top of the armchair and sat himself down with his gun in his lap. He waited patiently for Jacob. At first ten minutes, then twenty. Romulus started to get annoyed. "I told that boy not to drink too much," he grumbled to himself.
Standing up with his left arm dangling at his side he replaced his hat, holstered his pistol, and stormed out of the room. He slowed as he descended the stairs and surveyed the drunken crowd that had grown since sundown. Jacob was not among them.
Romulus proceeded casually down the staircase. No one took notice of him, and that was good. He decided that Jacob may still be out with the horses for some fool reason, and headed out the doors and around to the stable.
A shock of pain and a flash of light shot through Romulus followed by the taste of dirt.
A large man leaned down to Romulus, his faces floating around like the hands of a clock before finally coming to rest in one image. If someone was being kind they could call the man ugly, but he was a man who was antithesis to kindness.
"Howdy, Romulus. It seems you left without saying goodbye," said Dogface.
Romulus's face was deep in the dry dirt and with each breath, he couldn't help but inhale some of the chalky earth. He managed to twist his head just far enough to see Jacob. He was alive, but battered, and held down on his knees by two of Dogface's men.
"My…" Romulus wheezed, "my bag."
Dogface grabbed the back of Romulus's long brown overcoat and pulled it up revealing a leather satchel. With his meaty hands, he effortlessly ripped the strap and retrieved the satchel off of Romulus. Cautiously he tore back the flap and looked inside. Even without light to reflect off of the gold hidden inside his vile face seemed to glow.
Tossing the bag to one of the men who had his hand on Jacob's shoulder Dogface leaned back down, placing his large hands on his knees and tilting his head sideways.
"Mighty kindly of ya to give that up so quick. But I gotta say, Romulus, I'm more than a bit upset you forced my men and I to ride such a long ways out here to get what was rightfully ours. First I'm going to beat on you, if ya don't mind. Then I'm gunna put a bullet in both of yer brains. Ain't nobody fuck with Dogface." And he slammed his fist into Romulus's face, forcing his head deeper into the cold dirt.
Dragging Romulus by the collar the men took the two behind the stable, better to put them down away from any witnesses. With his giant paws Dogface lifted up Romulus by the head, his thumbs pressed deeply into his cheeks, and blood pouring from his nose.
"The problem with you Romulus is that you think you're dangerous. I've seen you kill people, and I know you don't mind it. But killin' needlessly doesn't make a man dangerous, it makes him rabid, and rabid dogs get put down."
Dogface landed another solid punch to Romulus's gut and dropped him back to the ground. Romulus started coughing up blood violently and curled into a fetal position, cradling his abdomen with his one good arm.
"Goodbye you piece of shit," growled Dogface, chambering a bullet, and pointing his colt at Romulus's head.
A deafening shot rang through Romulus's ears. Then another, and another. Hooting and scuffling followed and he could hear the rapid footsteps of men fleeing, then a loud thud beside him. Romulus dared himself to look up from the pile of blood that had pooled around his head and saw Dogface. He was stone dead on the ground face to face with him. A bullet had shattered his two front teeth and gone right through his head.
"You boys alright?" cried a voice behind them.
Jacob tore away his gag and ran over to the side of Romulus. The two men who had been holding him had fled when Dogface was killed, and already galloping into the night—still in possession of the gold.
Jacob's hand rested on Romulus's cheek and turned his head to the side to assess the damage. His nose had been broken.
"Thank you kindly, sir," said Jacob turning his head up to the black hatted man.
"Just doing my duty. I'm the sheriff of this little town, and I got to apologize. I thought you two may have been up to no good, but I had ya pegged wrong. Let's get you boys inside and taken care of," said the sheriff.
They slept peacefully that night; Romulus even took the bed. He recovered quickly, but his demeanor was shot. They had removed Dogface from their worries, but along with it their spoils. Now they were two wanted men, in the middle of nowhere, with no money, and nowhere to go.
A rooster crow woke Jacob first, and he got up quietly and allowed Romulus to sleep. Counting his supplies, including his horses, they probably had enough to get them to the next town, but that was it. Sell their horses maybe, start new lives. Maybe be a farmer, he thought. He didn't know a thing about farming, but it sounded like a less dangerous vocation, and he had seen enough violence in his few years, especially being around Romulus.
He did what Romulus asked him to do because they had become brothers, but after almost losing their lives he started to reconsider just what kind of leadership Romulus brought them. Maybe I can talk him out of it, he thought, maybe I can make him go straight.
"Coffee?" asked Jacob holding out a white cup.
Accepting the cup with a grunt Romulus sat up and took a sip. He let his hand rest against his face, and felt the sting of pain from his nose. His eyes were dark and swollen from the bruising, and his lip was cut, but otherwise, he was fine.
A knock came at the door and the two men whirled around. It was the sheriff.
"So, we couldn't identify the thieves who attacked you last night, and we don't know where they headed off to. I'm sorry, but whatever they stole from ya is probably gone. I wish ya both a speedy recovery," and the sheriff tipped his hat to the two men.
"Sheriff," asked Romulus, "where's his body?"
"Oh, probably six feet deep in a wooden box by now. Buried out behind the old cemetery on the hill over yonder. That's where we stick thieves and murderers, not on good Christian ground. Why do you ask?"
"Just peace of mind, I guess. Still a bit shook up from the attack."
"You're brave men. A second later I might not have been there. Be careful who sees you accepting high shelf whiskey, bandits like that will follow you town to town just waitin' for the moment to take it from ya. I can't help you out with reparations, but the bandit left his horse and you're welcome to it. It's a pretty white thing, might get ya thirty dollars."
Jacob thanked the sheriff and closed the door behind him. Romulus leaned back in the bed and looked to Jacob, lowering his bushy, uneven eyebrows.
"Dogface is wanted throughout the territories just like us, but I don't think anyone knows we were ever a part of his gang," said Romulus in a hoarse drawl.
"Yeah, and what about it?" replied Jacob.
"Well, that ugly mug of his is worth ten thousand dollars."
"Yeah, but the sheriff gets the reward, not us. He's the one who killed him."
"Well, then we won't tell this sheriff. We just dig up the body and take it to the next town. But we gotta leave quiet."
Jacob grimaced at the idea. When Romulus said "we" he meant Jacob, and dead bodies weren't something he much liked being around.
The innkeeper was fine with the two men staying for the day, but his hospitality left along with their gold, and they wouldn't get much more out of him. When the sun set they started saddling their horses, ready to leave come midnight. When they finally did take off they stopped just behind the hill where the cemetery rested.
There on the ground was some fresh earth with a simple wooden cross along with yesterday's date. Jacob got to work, digging furiously through the soft ground, making sure to do so quietly. When he reached the wooden box he had to break through with the edge of his shovel. There was Dogface.
Jacob lifted the heavy man and slung him over his old horse, and stopped to wipe the sweat from his brow.
"You can't leave him like that. Sit him up," whispered Romulus.
"What?" replied Jacob.
"We're wanted men, we can't go wandering around with a dead body. Sit him up. No one will question three riders."
Using a length of rope taken from Dogface's saddlebag and a piece of his coffin, Jacob built a sling for the heavy man. He still hung loosely to one side, but the rope was strong enough to hold him upright. Jacob quickly shoveled the dirt back into the hole, and the three riders left silently under the moonlight.
The sun burned in the sky and made the dirt shine like water in the distance. Both men accepted the heat and carried on, Romulus with his eyes on the distance watching for unwanted company, and Jacob with his arm slung behind him holding onto their expired companion's reigns.
Jacob looked back and inspected Dogface's corpse. He looked better than usual, thought Jacob, but it was hard for him to be any uglier. His skin was pale white, and he didn't carry his usual sneer.
Hours passed and they hadn't seen a single soul. They had started heading east towards the next big town where they could find a marshal. If the marshal recognized Dogface from his poster they'd get a reward, if the marshal recognized them from their own posters they'd get their necks stretched. They deeply hopped for the former.
Jacob took a sip of water from a canteen, careful not to take too much, and replace it on his saddle. He never knew how Romulus was able to drink as little as he did. The heat was getting to him, and with it the smell from behind him. Jacob looked back at Dogface. His body had collected a fair bit of flies, and bloated to the extreme. The giant body was twice its already enormous size, and lopped back and forth on the saddle like a balloon.
"What do we do about that?" asked Jacob.
Romulus looked back and then his face grimaced like he wished he hadn't. "Here, use this," and Romulus handed a knife to his companion.
"What am I supposed to do with this?" said Jacob holding the small silver knife.
"Vent," replied Romulus without turning back, his eyes locked ahead of him.
Jacob allowed Dogface's horse to catch up to him a little and lifted up the shirt on the bloated body. The skin was mottled yellow and green, and flies were gathered in a thick mass around his gaping mouth. With a quick jab, Jacob cut a deep hole into the side of the corpse. A thick steam erupted from the body and Jacob tried hard not to vomit. The smell of hot death crept up to Jacob and he covered his face with his bandana. Flies migrated to the new orifice and collected around it. Dogface's body listed a bit back to one side, looking a bit more normal.
Taking a second bandana Jacob tied it around Dogface's head, covering his mouth. Maybe if anyone saw them passing, they wouldn't notice the man with his mouth wide open filled with flies.
That night they slept under the moon. They had sat Dogface up against a tree, and Jacob had a hard time sleeping as he continually woke up to make sure that their corpse was still there. Something unnerved him about it.
The horse objected when they slung Dogface back on in the morning, but they were able to calm it down. It was no wonder, black liquid seeped from the dead body and stained the saddle and back of the horse. The smell was enough to force both men to hold their breath as they did it. Some creature in the night had gotten to the body and eaten out his eyes. Two black pits now poured out a continuous stream of bile and puss.
The day grew hotter, and Jacob pleaded with Romulus to share the duty of holding the reigns of their bounty's horse. Romulus shook his head, if danger came he needed his good arm for his gun. Jacob frowned and choked back the vomit, and continued on, holding onto the fly invested body, now trailing a long black trail of rancid fluid onto the prairie.
"There, ahead," said Romulus pointing.
Jacob let loose a long relieved sigh, the biggest breath he had allowed himself in two days. There was a small cabin just ahead along with a sizable farm. They would be able to find water and food if the people were kind, and if the people weren't kind that wouldn't be a problem either.
Romulus rode out ahead and left Jacob with the body.
Romulus was careful to take his time. He didn't want to spook the homeowner. He circled around first, noting the barren farm and around to the back where he saw a rusty old plow and a small garden.
"Hello?" called out Romulus.
Romulus watched as the back door of the cabin crept open slowly and out came a slender man with a big red beard, and a long rifle held down by his side.
"How can I help you stranger?" shouted the man.
"My friends and I are just passing through. I was wondering if we might rest our horses and refill our water. It's been mighty hot out," said Romulus in the friendliest voice he could muster. It still wasn't a very good attempt.
The man dropped the butt of his rifle to the ground and waved his hand. "Sure friend, it's always nice to have company. We've got supper on and you three are welcome to join us."
The man was smart, he had noticed Jacob out front in the distance, but naïve, thought Romulus. Dismounting and walking his horse over he shook the man's hand.
"The name's Jeb," said Romulus. "My companion Jed is over yonder. Our friend is feeling mighty ill. Probably something he ate," said Romulus with his half smile.
"The name's Theodore, and my wife Mary and our daughter Matilda are inside. We're more than happy to feed and water ya, but that's all we can offer. We haven't found much luck this season, so a single meal for weary folks is the best we can offer. And if your friend's ill we've got an outhouse just behind ya, and he's welcome to use that."
"Oh, that would be perfect," replied Romulus.
The two men sat at the dinner table with the kind family. Mary was a wisp of a woman with dark hair, and their daughter was in her late teens, with a spotting of freckles, and a feminine form that was hard to ignore. They ate potato and rabbit stew, and it was relished by them both. Jacob had trouble taking his eyes away from Matilda, and Romulus had trouble taking his eyes away from the riffle Theodore had left in the corner of the cabin.
"Is your friend alright? He's been out there an awful long time," said Mary.
"Oh, he's quite embarrassed about the smell, so it's best to leave him be. Knowing him he's leaking out of more than one hole if you catch my meaning," said Jacob, smiling to Matilda.
Mary sneered, that answer was sufficient for her. They ate the rest of the dinner in peace, interrupted only by questions Matilda had for Jacob about his travels, and what the cities were like.
"Well, if you boys are interested I'm going to have a smoke. Care to join me on the porch?" asked Theodore.
Romulus nodded, but Jacob politely declined, having decided to spend more time inside with Matilda. Romulus took long drags on the rolled cigarillo and thanked him for his hospitality. The sun was beginning to set and Theodore looked back at him.
"It will be dark soon. I don't know if you have plans on continuing on in the dark, but you're welcome to camp out back if you'd like. Good company is such a rare thing out here."
The door creaked open and Jacob and Matilda stepped out, both giggling.
"Father, you have to hear the most wonderful story Jacob just told me! They're heroes in Silver Gulch. They apprehended a dangerous bandit!"
"It's true sir, we're just doing god's work keeping good people safe from the bad ones," said Jacob beaming, with his arm now around Matilda's waist.
"Where's your mother?" asked Theodore.
"Probably out back leaving a plate for their friend."
The two men stopped and shot each other worried looks. A piercing scream rang out from behind the home, and in a flash, Romulus had knocked Theodore down onto his belly and dug his knee deep into his back. Removing his gun like lightning he pointed it at the girl.
"Jacob, take care of that," growled Romulus.
"Romulus, I…" stuttered Jacob.
"Fine, watch them!"
Jacob removed his colt and had the man and his daughter lay down on the patio.
Romulus stormed off into the dark around the house. A single shot rang out, and Theodore screamed Mary's name. Matilda began bawling, and Jacob could do nothing, but point his gun and watch them cry.
A heavy boot slammed the front door open and Romulus stepped out with his gun held at his side. He stood above the two as they sobbed and he watched Theodore struggle to get up. Romulus lifted his gun and shot Theodore in the knee then pressed his boot against his back forcing him down onto the ground. Theodore cried out in pain, and his daughter screamed for mercy.
"Romulus, no." Jacob's eyes were deathly serious.
"It's too late now. We kill 'em, drag the bodies inside, take what we need, and burn the place down."
"No. These are innocent people. They don't deserve this."
"Did we deserve this? Did we deserve the lives we got? All men have to live with what they're dealt. All of us are just crawling through the piss and shit that's pouring outta poor Dogface making the best of it. If we don't kill them they'll alert the marshal, and there goes our bounty and our necks."
"I won't let you." Jacob put his hand against Romulus and pushed him back, removing his foot from the back of Theodore.
"You're my brother and I love you, but you're being a damn fool. Don't mess this up for us."
"I can't do it anymore. I can't lead around dead bodies. We're surrounded by death and I've had enough. Stand up honey," said Jacob waving to Matilda.
"I'm killing these people, and you're not going to stop me. It's for your own good. If you don't want to see it, go inside."
"I ain't moving," replied Jacob allowing Matilda to cry on his shoulder.
"What, because of her? You're green boy, you meet a girl and an hour later you'll lose your only friend over her?"
Romulus's face turned from disappointment to anger. He had never loved anything, never even had a friend until Jacob. His father was an abusive drunk, and Romulus had killed him when he was sixteen. Jacob was his family, and now some girl had made him decide that he didn't need a brother. Well, that was a dumb decision, but Romulus would help him see his mistake.
Reaching out his good hand he grabbed Matilda by the hair and slammed her down to the boards of the porch and held his gun against her forehead.
"You're just confused, Jacob. Let me help remedy that."
Romulus shot the girl through the head, and she fell back limp against the cabin.
That morning the three riders left the burning cabin. The ears and nose had rotted away from Dogface and Romulus started to question whether he could claim the bounty anymore. He looked back to Jacob, and it assured him everything would be fine.
"You made a damn fool decision, Jacob. But I'm glad we're back together. I couldn't imagine being without my only family."
Romulus waited for a response from Jacob, but he said nothing.
"Still mad, eh? Sorry about that. I just get a little too invested in the moment sometimes."
Romulus stared long and hard at the two men behind him, and they only looked back at him with the pits of their lifeless eyes. He withdrew a cigarette he had lifted off of Theodore before he killed him and lit it with his last match. He winced as he breathed in, antagonizing the bullet wound in his side.
"But you know what they say about family, Jacob. They should always be together."
Romulus leaned back in his saddle and took the first long drag of his last cigarette.