One Last Salue

By Marshall Norman McCarthy

Bates knew by the way she walked – hips sashaying and eyes hunting – that trouble followed the woman in the black gown. From the bar, neat-whiskey tilted in his hand, he watched her pass by the other louts filling the tables and chairs in Buntin’s Refuge. Her face was rigid in confidence, but he noticed how she clutched her handbag as if it was her lifeline.

To his surprise – and grinning delight – the woman in black sidled up to the bar, beside him and ordered a drink.

‘Rum, spiced and on the rocks. And another rye­ for my friend.’ Without looking, she waved to Bates.

Smirking, he downed the last of his drink and slid the cup back to the old barkeep. ‘Much obliged, Miss?’

‘Evelyn,’ she glanced at him and Bates was warned by azure eyes.

‘Evelyn?’

Those eyes narrowed on him and the warning deepened. ‘Really?’ she turned to her drink, sipped it with delicate purpose. ‘I was told you were an old hand at this; you should know that names have power.’

‘Well, thank you all the same, Evelyn,’ he winked. ‘Curious though, how’d you know that I was drinking rye, and not that southern garbage?’

Her mousey face turned to him and she considered him pointedly.  ‘Never mind that,’ she countered, glancing around the roadhouse. ‘I’m told you can handle a pistol.’

He was intrigued now. ‘Got a problem?’

‘Many,’ she sipped at her drink, thinking. ‘Unfortunately only one that can be settled with a bullet. But,’ she took another sip and chanced another glance around the roadhouse. ‘I’d rather not discuss it in such a public forum.’ She settled a meaningful look on him.

Snatching his hat from the bar-top, Bates settled it atop his head. ‘Come on, I’ve got a room.’ He grinned past the wide brim, winking once more.

And once more it passed by without the bat of an eyelash or the crook of a smile. ‘Very nice.’

Damn, this one’s as dry the grave. Right. Well, here’s to trouble.

* * * *

The room Bates paid for amounted to only slightly more than a closest and mattress, but he did what he could to make his guest comfortable. He let her have the bed while he stood with his back to the door.

‘So, what can I help you with?’ He studied her face from above crossed arms.

She looked worn-out, burned-out, now that they were alone. ‘I need you to kill a dragon.

‘What?’

Evelyn sighed. ‘I don’t how much clearer I can explain it to you. There is a dragon, and I need you to kill it. Do I have to spell this out for you?

Bates bit back a filthy retort, chewing it into a grimace. ‘No ma’am, that’s just fine,’ he assured her through gritted teeth. ‘Just not something you hear every day is all.’ He wiped at the sudden sweat beading on his brow. ‘Look,’ he pushed away from the door, searching the tiny room for the right words. ‘I don’t know what Dudley told you about me, but let me put rumours to rest: I ain’t never took on a dragon, and I don’t know that I’d be any good to you if I did. My Colt can’t pierce its hide.’ He shrugged.

Something devious crossed pouty lips. ‘No,’ she reached into her handbag and pulled out a weapon of shining steel and polished ivory. ‘But mine can. I just need a man who can shoot the damn thing.’

She held the pistol out to him as if it would bite. Before it slipped from her fingers, Bates took it, revering its touch. A gentle tremor worked its way from his hand, up his arm and into his chest, his heart. ‘Mother Mary; what is this?’

Salvation…

His gaze pulled down from Evelyn’s face, tracking the lamplight caught in the pistol’s steel. The reflection seemed to dance, as if he could see the magic that was promised. Enough to take out a dragon. Hell, if it can take out one of those bastards… Bates needed this gun, always had and he felt that need echoed in the weapon’s vibrations. He lifted eyes to his client’s face, gauging her. It was no good in her hands, she said as much already…

‘When do we leave?’

‘We don’t,’ Evelyn stood and before she continued a sound like screeching thunder ripped the air outside the roadhouse.

‘It followed you?’

‘Remember Bates,’ trouble crooked a grin, ‘you’ve just the six shots.’ Evelyn winked and was gone. Vanished. Poof!

‘Just your fucking luck, Bates…’ He scooped his hat back onto his head and turned in the moment the roof was sheared off by the dragon’s wintery breath. And there she was, big as the sky and twice as angry as all hell.

Rising from his crouch, Bates sped towards the window. Glass smashed as he threw his body out. Hitting the ground in a roll he was glad for his first floor suite.

The dragon’s call filled the air, spooking man and beast. Patrons poured from the roadhouse even as horses peeled away from the stables. But Bates’ old nag charged right for him, either out of loyalty or looking to pay him back for the harsh tones he too often used on her.

Bates hoped it was the former, reached out for the beast’s mane and hurled himself onto her back. ‘Go go go go!’ he needlessly urged the terrified animal. Glancing over his shoulder he saw the great lizard swinging around, and he swore it looked right at him.

Hurry up Nancy, before she heads us off at Malcolm’s Ridge.

But the dragon’s speed was superior, and icy death flowed from between man-tall teeth. He turned back to the plains ahead and spurred his mount, desperate for more speed as cold bit at his back.

Nancy screamed and bucked when the dragon’s breath caught her hindquarters. Below him she fell away and Bates hit the ground hard, cursing as the shadow of the dragon passed overhead.

‘Jesus,’ he barked, seeing Nancy’s body, frozen and broken in half. Organs and intestines, rimmed with frost, spilled out from her, glittering in the sun like morbid jewels. Bates swallowed a wad of vomit.

The dragon’s roar – a triumphant call – stole his attention. It sailed over the plains, between him and the spine of the ridge, a mile away. Numb hands fumbled at Evelyn’s pistol as he watched the beast gliding towards him, bellowing a goodbye.

Standing, Bates felt awareness become distant.

One last pass, one last salue.

One last roar from the dragon’s maw. Without thought, without worry, without haste, Bates squeezed the trigger before the dragon cried out – in surprise – and fell from the sky. He watched it crash onto the dusty plains, skidding to a stop twenty paces removed, amazed. One clean shot.

‘Not bad,’ Bates said, admiring the six-shooter before putting it away and winked at the dragon’s corpse.

Five more shots. He turned to the pink horizon. Got to be five more dragons out there.

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