The sandstorm had raged for another forty minutes. Jax had stumbled around in the storm for the first ten, before walking into a liquor store. After taking his anger out on the stool outside, he’d felt his way inside. Then he’d sat there, avoiding small talk with the store owner until the storm left. For the second time in a week he felt impotent and useless, sitting out another fight.
So when he emerged, having to push a pile of sand out of the way opening the door, he was pissed. He kicked at every new pile of sand, cussing as he did. He walked out onto the street. Then he stopped, astonished. He swore again.
Tanaka was still exactly where he’d been when the sandstorm had rolled in. His feet were smothered in sand, and a steeple of golden dust was perched on his hat. His clothes seemed battered and worn, although that might have been Jax’s imagination. Jax swung his attention South, to where the other group had been. One member must have gotten lost and stuck outside, he emerged from under his cloak and a mound of sand. Two others emerged from shops they’d successfully sheltered in.
Tanaka tilted his head up. Sand sloughed off his hat and down his back in a golden waterfall.
“Hands up, butts down!” he said, loud and forcefully.
All three people, in the process of greeting one another, turned towards the noise.
“What?” one asked incredulously.
“Did I fucking stutter, gaijin? Sit down, and put your hands in the air.”
Tanaka was leering arrogantly, an old habit from his delinquent days. It carried enough confidence and threat to be effective. When he got like this, his open, smiling self could be hard to find.
Two of them reached for their guns. Tanaka drew, kicking a cloud of dust off his cloak. He was ready to fire while they were still reaching down. He didn’t bother with warning shots. They wasted time, and better men had died attempting them. Well, not better. Almost as good as. Maybe just four days ago, Tanaka would have judged a warning shot as the good thing to do, but not anymore.
He didn’t bother try one fancy headshot either. He aimed at the centre of mass, and squeezed off two shots at the one he judged to be the fastest. The person went down in an awkward clump. The way he fell suggested he wouldn’t be getting back up.
For the second person, Tanaka decided he’d do a warning shot. He still believed in striving to be good. With no other attackers but the one in front of him he concluded it was an acceptable risk. It wouldn’t be a traditional warning shot, however. He was going to aim for the head, maybe a little wide. Small target, rushed, not really trying. He’d probably miss. Let fate decide. That way he’d have his target already lined up and tested if the target kept drawing. He hoped the buzz of a close miss would stop the target.
In the event, Tanaka’s shot went wide and to the right. However, the third man, who hadn’t drawn a weapon, was charging towards his partner. To Tanaka’s eye, it seemed like the bullet might have hit him. It didn’t stop the man if it did. He carried on and tackled his friend to the ground before he could draw.
The wind carried the gun smoke and sand down the street towards the pair. Tanaka ejected the two used casings and reloaded with fresh cartridges. Then he holstered his gun.
“Understand now?” he asked. “Stay where you are. Hands up.” The pair exchanged words and complied. Tanaka stayed planted where he was, arms crossed. That in itself was a statement of confidence. He was so skilled he could uncross his arms and still draw faster.
“You seen Sebastian, Jax?” Tanaka asked conversationally, without turning his head.
Jax froze up. “No.”
“Well I’m going to be here watching these two, so why don’t you go find him?”
“Because I’m not your fucking errand boy.”
“We’re a team. I have my role, you have yours.”
“My role isn’t a errand boy.”
“It is when the other role is gunslinger.”
Jax was all the more riled up because he was worried he was becoming one of the less helpful team members. Before he could do or say anything stupid, Sebastian arrived.
He came in from the North, little streams of sand running from his cloak and clothing. His hat had a thin layer of grit on the brim. His sandstorm goggles were up on his forehead. His eyes had white circles around them where the dust had been kept out by the goggles. He ripped the bandana from his face and was beating dust from it as he walked. It came off in large puffs. His mouth was a grim line.
“Where’ve you been?” Jax asked sourly.
“I almost fucking had him, is where I’ve been,” Sebastian replied.
” Who the fuck do you think? The bounty, Ansar.”
“Before the sandstorm?”
“What? You mean that standoff? God no. I was just waiting for the sandstorm to arrive then.”
“Why the fuck would you want a fucking sandstorm?!”
“So I could catch Ansar.”
“How would you find him during a sandstorm, Einstein?”
“He had two ways to run, left or right. It wasn’t rocket science. And like I said, I fucking had him. Right in my goddamn hands.”
“What happened then?”
“I fucked up is what happened. Which is why I’m so damn pissed.” Sebastian emphasised this by the violence of his actions. He whipped the bandana to and throe to get the sand out. He ripped the goggles from his head and jammed them into his bag. His eyes were still dead, but his body gave away his fury.
“Well now what?”
“Argggggghhh!!!” Sebastian screamed. He was furiously shaking his shirt, sand pouring out from its folds. “This fucking sand is fucking everywhere and it is so fucking itchy. Grrrnngh.” He squatted, head in hands, sucking air in through his teeth. Jax stood awkwardly, unsure what to do in the face of such an uncharacteristic loss of control.
“I’m okay. I’m just a little filled with impotent rage.” Sebastian exhaled and stood back up. His face was once again a mask and his eyes blank slates of steel. The momentary cracks were gone. He smiled with grim amusement at Jax. “So what’s going on here?”
Tanaka answered. “I wasn’t sure what you would want me to do, so I figured I should just keep everyone here until you returned. So I just stayed here until the storm passed and held everyone at gunpoint.”
“Good job. You stayed out in the storm without equipment? How are your eyes?”
“Alright. My genetics are good for squinting, eh gaijins?”
All three of them laughed.
“They drew guns, so I had to retaliate.”
“You hit anybody.”
Tanaka grinned. “I don’t miss people. One dead, one possibly wounded.”
“I fired a near miss warning shot on my second target, but the third guy tried be all heroic and jumped in the way. I might have clipped him.”
“Alright. Where’s Pauly?”
“No idea. Haven’t seen him.”
“Probably pissing himself in a shop somewhere,” Jax said.
Well then let’s wait for him to turn up,” Sebastian said, expecting him to arrive in a few minutes, sheepish and unharmed.
They waited twenty minutes, their captives stuck in their uncomfortable position. Townspeople, such as they were, emerged from shops and houses and started going about their daily routines. Some came out with brooms and began sweeping sand clear of the doors. Others unlatched window shutters and opened their shops back out. They ignored the group, apart from a few glances. They had no interest in trouble. Pauly did not emerge.
“Well that ain’t good,” Jax remarked.
“No, it’s not,” Sebastian agreed. “If he stumbled out of town, he could be lost out in the desert now. It’s the very opposite of good.”
“Well now what?”
“You start looking for Pauly. Tanaka and I will go talk to our captives.”
Jax nodded and sauntered off, calling out, “Here chicky chicky! Here chicken! Bwock, bwock, bwock!”
As Sebastian got closer to the pair, he saw blood running down one’s right bicep. Tanaka’s warning shot had clearly hit after all. When he got closer still, he saw how miraculously little it had hit. The arm had the equivalent of a light scratch where the bullet had just scraped by. It was a superficial injury. It was then, when Sebastian moved his attention away from the wound, that he realised the second person was in fact a women, and an attractive one at that. She was beautiful in a soft, gentle way, with long reddish-brown hair that managed to be glamorous even in the harsh and sandy conditions.
“You can drop your arms now,” he said. They both did.
“I hope your happy, torturing us like that,” the woman spat. Sebastian had to admit he was surprised. Her tone was dissonant with her appearance. He’d judged a book by its cover, to his shame. “Poor Timmy here has a arm wound, thanks to you!”
“Now, now,” the man known as Timmy said, smiling. “Let’s be civil here, like adults.”
Sebastian didn’t smile back. He tried gauge Timmy’s age. He might have been a year shy of twenty, but baby faced. The woman was older, Sebastian wasn’t sure by how much.
Timmy turned to Tanaka. “However, I must preach to you to abandon your base brutality. I understand you were justified in retaliating when we disobeyed your orders to surrender. But you only needed to shoot once. To attempt to kill both was unnecessary and cruel. If you had succeeded, had I not intervened, you would be talking to just me now. Can you understand the value of that life that would have been lost? Could you really live with yourself if you had?”
The women threw her arms around Timmy’s neck. “Oh, darling. You were so braze. And you’re injured, you poor thing!”
“Now, now, dear,” Timmy said, patting her on the back. “I only did what was the right and noble thing.”
“You’re barely injured, you git.” Sebastian said, fed up and pissed off.
Timmy looked at him. “It could have been far worse. Your man is lucky.”
“I’m starting to wish it was far worse.”
“I was shooting to miss!” Tanaka protested. “If you’d stayed put, you wouldn’t be hurt at all.”
Timmy shook his head. “There’s no room for excuses, young man. You may have missed, but to claim you meant to is just sad!”
Sebastian’s pet peeve, as previously mentioned, was being told ‘you think you’re so smart’. Tanaka’s was having his skill questioned. He coloured a deep crimson and stayed silent.
Timmy extricated himself from the woman’s hug.
“And you,” he said, pointing at Sebastian. “You let pride get the better of you. Ansar is a dangerous criminal. You should have prioritised the public safety and justice and teamed up to capture him. Instead you allowed a sandstorm to roll in and for Ansar to escape. Any more deaths on his account are on your head.”
“What were Ansar’s crimes? The poster didn’t say.”
Timmy’s mouth slammed shut. Then he broke out into a friendly smile.
“We’ve gotten off on the wrong foot here,” he said. “Let bygones be bygones, and move on.”
Sebastian kept silent.
“We should team up,” Timmy continued. “Ansar needs to be caught, that’s what is important here.”
Sebastian turned on his heels and started to walk away. Tanaka kept his eyes on the two, covering Sebastian’s exit.
“I noticed one of your men is missing. Our team has a tracker!”
Sebastian turned back. “Oh?”
Timmy smiled apologetically. “Had a tracker,” he said, indicating to the crumpled figure. The man’s blood was already darkening into ichor, and the smell of desert steel was strong. “But he taught me the basics. We all exchanged skills, it’s a core principle of survival. If one of us dies, another knows enough to keep that role filled.”
Sebastian stayed stock still. “You don’t seem to bothered by the death of your friend.”
Timmy’s smile was warm, open and disturbing. “I’ve forgiven you, and moved on. It’s water under the bridge.”
Sebastian had no answer to that. He waited arms crossed, until Jax got back. He was hurrying, looking worried.
“Find him?” Sebastian asked.
“No. And I don’t think we will.”
“Why not?” Sebastian asked sharply.
Jax stuck his thumb over his shoulder. “The townspeople are sweeping away the mounds of sand outside their stores. The guy outside the gun store just uncovered a small black automatic pistol.”
“Show me,” Sebastian said. He turned to face Jax and strode past him. Jax struggled to keep up with Sebastian’s longer strides. “Follow us!” Sebastian shouted to Tanaka and the two other bounty hunters.
He got the gun store, the door hanging off its hinges. Sure enough, right by the corner, sat Pauly’s automatic. Sebastian crouched down and read the serial number. He’d memorised Pauly’s offhand during the long walks in the desert. It was a match.
He got up, and shook the collar of his shirt. Sand flew out. “So fucking itchy!”
“What now?” Tanaka asked.
“We try find and collect our bounty,” Jax replied.
“And find Pauly,” Sebastian said. “Shit, I was right here! Ansar must have taken him!”
The store keeper came out through his ruined door frame. “Hey, aren’t you the guy who broke my door.”
Sebastian stared him down. The store keeper reconsidered and went back inside. In Terra Deserta, you either developed an instinct for when a man wasn’t worth pushing, or you got yourself killed.
Sebastian turned on Timmy. “You can track? That’s our teammate’s gun. We think he’s with Ansar. Track him down.”
Timmy smiled. “Of course! It’s a pleasure to work with you. Your friend’s safety is important to me too.”
“Save your breath.” Sebastian said.