After all this time, we are finally enacting our vengeance upon Grim Reaper Bostalk. We’ve successfully kidnaped his daughter, held an entire saloon under our guns, and now we’re waiting for our getaway wagon and $$400,000 ransom, which Bostalk and that damned sheriff Stan believe is all we want. My partners are edgy, but I think we’re making a damned good impression. . . .
So why is this idiot dancing into the saloon?
I watch, stunned, as this humming, dancing moron waltzes into the bar. Blondie calls a greeting, only to snap his mouth shut as Jean, Marvin, and Denim shove their guns against his head. He freezes, his only movement the munching of his gum, eyes hidden by golden sunglasses. Standing back, I clutch my own gun and hope I don’t have to use it. We just want Grim Reaper Bostalk. We don’t want to hurt anyone else . . . not even someone as dumb as this guy.
“Who the hell are you?”
“You got a death wish?”
“Or are you just plain stupid?”
Dipshit doesn’t answer any of these questions. Maybe he’s mute as well as dumb. Blondie flips his sunglasses up, staring at us with wide, oddly colored eyes. Just staring at us, he pauses in his chewing, and to my astonishment, starts blowing up the gun. I sigh when a couple hostages flinch at the pop of the gum, the gunk flying everywhere.
Yep. A complete, utter idiot. His high-pitched shriek hurts my ears my ears as Denim drags him away. “Robbers! Somebody save me!”
Fuck my ears. My head’s killing me.
“He’s just plain stupid, boss!” Jean hisses, eyes wild.
I twitch. “Nothing plain about the ruckus he’s making,” I snarl.
“Help me!” All right, maybe more than Bostalk is going to die today.
The idiot’s near tears as we bind his hands. “Ow-ow-ow-ow-ow-ow!” he whines. “Please be a little gentler, man!” The other hostages look on. Fortunately, if nothing else, the fool’s antics relax the other hostages. His dramatic tears actually coax smiles from the girls. Even Bostalk’s cold-hearted bitch of a girl Stephanie softens in the face of the blond’s foolishness.
“I won’t try anything!” the tall blond yelped. “Here, take my gun!”
Jean’s eyes widen as he pulls out the fool’s weapon. When the gun becomes visible, even Denim and Marvin look impressed. If he does make someone snap and shoot him, I’m keeping that gun.
“You’re packing some serious heat for a wimp,” Jean murmurs, awed.
For such a tall guy, he whimpers like an infant. “Give it back to me later, please!”
I think Marvin’s going to be the first to snap. “Shut the hell up!” he howls. Blondie cringes. I sigh heavily.
Shining aquamarine eyes sweep over the room, casually catching my eyes for a moment before Stephanie Bostalk speaks up. “Are you okay?” she inquires. She’s smirking a little, content in the knowledge that Daddy’s going to save her. Not if we have our way, girl.
So he’s an idiot and a pervert! It’s always the pretty ones. His eyes light up as he realizes his position under the Bostalk girl’s skirts. A fierce blush highlights his cheekbones as she shrieks in horror.
Maybe Denim will be the first to shoot. “Sit still!” he snaps, kicking Blondie in the ass. The red-coated twit slams face-first into the floor. Denim twitches, snarling under his breath, “What a pain!”
The blond wiggles on the floor. “You people are horrible. That’s no way to treat a lady!”
You were just looking up her skirt, pal!
I plop back on the table and decide to ignore that idiot. All he’s doing is hurting my head. We’ve told Bostalk our demands. Now all we can do is wait and hope no more twits like this one barge in. After the getaway wagon arrives, we can–
“Well, go on with your plan,” the Bostalk girl says, her high voice dripping with self-assurance. “Better not ask for anything stupid. If it’s a little money you want, I can get Papa to hand it over.”
Everyone freezes. I hear Marvin’s breath catch. All the blood drains from my face. Does she have any clue . . . any idea at all. . . ? That stupid, ignorant little bitch.
A scream tears from Jean’s throat. I lunge forward, trying to stop him, and the hostages panic as furious shouts erupt. The girl shrieks just before Jean shoves the barrel of his gun into her mouth. I think I hear that idiot shouting again, and I swear if he makes this situation worse I’ll shoot him myself.
Jean shudders, holding the gun in the Bostalk girl’s mouth. The girl’s saliva coats the barrel.
“I’ll do it!” Jean rasps. “I’ll pull the trigger!” The girl trembles but nothing else. “Cry! Scream, damn it!”
Jean freezes as everything, from tables to chairs, collapses towards him. Taking advantage of this, I dive forward and slip my thumb under the pistol’s hammer. It slams into my thumb, splitting the flesh and bruising the bone, but I only clench my jaw and pull a struggling Jean back.
“Calm down,” I murmur reassuringly in his ear. “Calm down, Jean.” He trembles in my arms, and I hold him tight. Come on, man. We’ve come this far. Don’t lose it when we’ve come so close to avenging our families.
Still holding my trembling partner in my arms, I glare at the stupid bitch. “You keep your mouth shut,” I snarl, “or next time, it just might be me.”
A slight creak among the wreckage distracts us. I turn my head to see Blondie peeking his head out from under tipped tables and a plate full of food. “L-l-let’s keep this peaceful. Peaceful!”
Even as Marvin screeches “That was you? You scared me, you bastard!” I release Jean and shake out my wounded thumb, still attached to the gun. Blondie’s apologizing frantically behind me, but I’m too distracted by the–
“Gum?” I wonder aloud. I pull my finger away from the gun, gum trailing behind me. That twit . . . that fool . . . had been chewing gum earlier. The first thing he did when he walked in was blow up the gum . . . with three guns, including Jean’s, right by his face. It was he who knocked the tables over, distracting Jean away from the Bostalk girl. I stare at the bruised blond crumpled under Denim’s boot. “Couldn’t be. . . .”
Jean’s startled shout distracts me. Dammit, I’m going to have a heart attack before we get out of here. “Boss!”
I lightly clamp a cigarette between my teeth. “What? Hear something over the satellite?”
Jean’s white as a sheet. Shit. “V–” Jean swallows hard. “Vash the Stampede! ‘The Humanoid Typhoon.’ They say he’s coming to town!”
All the color drains from my face. Vash the Stampede. The man who single-handedly wiped out one of the seven great cities. Even with a bounty of $$60 billion, no one’s been able to capture or kill him.
Jean’s still talking. “If Bostalk or the sheriff hire him,” he manages, “he’ll kill us all!”
I swallow thickly. “Don’t lose it,” I order, keeping my voice soft and stern. “It’s almost time.”
Vash the Stampede. Damn. I hope he can’t be bribed by Bostalk’s money, or we’re all dead.
The bruised, dirtied blond in the corner catches my eye. Something about his eyes right now. . . I glare at him and turn away. Just stay still, dammit. The only casualty we want right now is Bostalk. I feel his eyes follow me, and for some reason, I feel the urge to shiver.
Marvin peeks out the window before nodding at me. I join him, listening to the thick rumble. There it is. One heavily armored escape wagon.
“One escape wagon,” one of the sheriff’s cronies shouts, confirming my thoughts. He opens a briefcase and flashes it towards the saloon. “$$400,000 in non-consecutive bills! That’s everything you asked for!” Laying the briefcase down on a step protruding from the metal wagon, the pipsqueak scurries off. Marvin sneers as the man shouts over his shoulder, “Now, release the hostages.”
Oh, yeah. Real brave guys helping Bostalk out.
“Not yet!” I snap. “We’ve gotta inspect the vehicle and the money! Don’t try anything!”
Marvin and I slip from the window towards the door. He slides in front of me, never looking back. “I’m going.”
I can feel the sweat sliding down my face. “Be careful.”
Jean ducks beside me, hand tight on his gun, and we watch Marvin stalk towards the wagon. Everything’s still. Even that prissy bitch is quiet, mouth tight and eyes sharp towards the door. The hostages huddle towards the back. For once, that damned blond isn’t making a racket. I kinda wished he would.
Marvin’s steps stutter. He makes a strange noise. “Tr. . . .” He whirls on his heel and runs back. “It’s a trap!”
The wagon slams on. I watch in horror as the wagon runs Marvin down before slamming into the saloon. “Marvin!” tears from my throat. Wood and bodies fly everywhere. The side of the wagon brushes past me, and everything flashes wildly, and then Jean’s gone. Jean? Where’s Jean? Denim? Oh God. “Damn it!”
That slimy sonuvabitch! I duck behind the counter as the wagon doors open, and I catch sight of Denim just in time for those murderous bastards to mow him down. They’re all dead. Everyone’s dead. Jean’s beside me and oh god Jean’s dead, Jean’s definitely dead. The hostages are dead, scattered like shattered glass. And judging by the girl’s screams and the wild firing, Bostalk’s daughter is going to be next.
Blondie’s untied and lunging through the air, red coat flying around him. The Bostalk girl is screaming and free and in his arms, and they’re sliding to a stop behind the counter with me. Every damn bullet missed them! He dodged them all, this whining, whimpering guy who somehow managed to stop Jean from killing the girl earlier, who managed to stop any violence from erupting, who somehow managed to untie himself, slice the girl free, and shield them from a hail of bullets.
Who is this guy?
“You okay?” Blondie asks the girl, not even out of breath.
The girl cringes as she pushes herself up. “Y–yes.” The first thing she sees when she pushes herself up is the remains of Jean’s face. I take a sick satisfaction from her screams, even as bile rises in my throat. That was my friend, you bitch. Who your father just made into a corpse. He fucking earns the name the Grim Reaper.
But I’ll worry about that later. Now I focus on the blond . . . and his amazingly untied form. “You!”
Blondie looks at me and apparently remembers I was the one who tied him up in the first place. He stares frantically at his freed arms before loosely tossing the ropes around himself. The Bostalk girl gapes. I hide a twitch.
“Don’t bother,” I growl. “You could’ve untied yourself any time you wanted. Who in blazes are you?! What the hell,” I swallow, “were you thinking?”
Blondie abruptly relaxes and drops the ropes. He flashes me a dazzling smile that never meets his eyes. “Vash the Stampede,” he replies cheerfully. “The only things I think of are ‘love’ and ‘peace’!”
The Bostalk girl blushes. I ignored her and stare at the Stampede. “You. . . ?” I manage. I don’t have time to try to figure it out.
“Hey, robber!” one of Bostalk’s sandworms shouts. “Stick yer head out! Yer head! They said we could blow it off!”
The smile on the Stampede’s face vanishes like it was never there. He lightly cracks his wrist. “Take care of the girl.”
Without a sound, the girl curls towards me. I put a hand on her shoulder. If this freak is really Vash the Stampede, I am not going to argue. Despite his odd acting, I think he truly is.
The bastards are arguing, and the Stampede slips from sight. A moment later, the Stampede’s voice rips out, “You guys! That’s a no-no. . . .”
The girl cringes at the sound of wild gunshots. Something blasts apart, and then the Stampede calls cheerfully, “Haven’t you heard?! You gotta love your fellow man!”
Gunshots break out, and I peek out to watch the Stampede slide across the floor, dropping the punks like flies. I let out a heavy breath. He just took them all out like they were nothing!
Well, Grim Reaper, I think bitterly, glancing at Jean’s macabre face, didn’t expect this, now did you?
The girl perks up beside me. “Get it now?” she cries. Only the true grief on her face keeps me from lashing out at her. “Papa never intended to pay you! All your partners are dead. If you keep this up. . . .”
I interrupt her. “Y’know that big graveyard northeast of here?” I inquire, getting up. I never look at her. “It’s so barren that even corpse weeds won’t grow. That’s where our fathers are buried.” I suck in a deep breath, steadying myself as I walk towards one of the windows. An ominous shadow darkens its edges. “All I remember is them working, covered in dirt. . . . But after ten years, they made this sandy soil fertile. It was a huge accomplishment. Fourteen years ago, your father decided to take over the land.” I can sense her horrified eyes burning into me. I still don’t look. C’mon, girl, you aren’t as bloodthirsty as your father. Spoiled but not bloodthirsty. Listen and learn. “He simply killed everyone.”
“Lies,” she breathes.
The shadow finally ducks through the window, one revolver raised. “What’s the point in lying?” I point out, blasting that sonuvabitch away. I turn away from his corpse.
The Stampede walks back to us. That white pistol is back in his hands. “What are you going to do now?” he asks, face grim. He stands at my side, and for some reason, the thought of this strange, mysterious gunman beside me wills strength to my heart.
“I’m calling Bostalk out,” I state flatly. The girl–Stephanie–stiffens, but the Stampede only sighs.
“So, it’s come down to this.” No surprise registers in his voice. He knew this was going to happen, and he’s–for reasons I still don’t understand–standing beside me. The soft resignation in his voice confuses me, but now’s not the time to question.
“That’s right,” I agree. “Turning and running would be the same as death.”
The Stampede doesn’t say another word as I grab the girl and walk outside. He walks outside, too, standing a decent distance away as I shout out my new demand. Bostalk walks away from Stan’s wide-eyed form, and I pointedly raise my gun so the barrel is inches from his daughter’s head. I wish I could take some satisfaction from seeing him sweat.
“You have what you want,” Bostalk calls, standing in front of me. “Let the girl go.”
I nod. “True.” I push her away, breathing “Forgive me” to the distraught girl as she stumbles straight to the Stampede. I don’t know what the blond says to her, but he doesn’t let her look away. The goof from before his completely gone, and I’m grateful to this solemn gunman before I glare back at Bostalk.
Silently, Bostalk and I face each other, hands over our holsters. He’s pale as a ghost. My jaw’s clenched so tight my head hurts. Everything we’ve fought for comes down to this moment. I’m the last. No one else in this town had the balls to take on Bostalk. Only Jean, Marvin, Denim and I, and I’m the last chance. I can barely breathe.
Above us, a crow screams. I whip out my gun. I only hear one shot. The dust settles. I slip my gun back into its holster.
Perhaps later, when his daughter isn’t weeping over her father’s fresh corpse, I can be pleased about the death of Grim Reaper Bostalk.
Silently, the Stampede walks to my side. I glance at him, and my eyes widen.
“So senseless. . . .” he weeps, tears streaming down his oddly pale face. “I really hate seeing people die.”
This guy . . . he’s actually crying.
The snap of rifles cocking into place breaks off my musing. I freeze, a muscle twitching in my cheek as I realize Stan’s goons have us surrounded. Beside me, despite his wide-eyed expression, the Stampede is oddly relaxed.
“I never imagined I’d have the chance,” the sheriff drawls, sauntering up to us. “I’m truly surprised. If I shut you two up, this whole town will be mine.”
So. In the end, even the sheriff is just one big, greedy bastard. Damn.
The Stampede tentatively raises his hands, the goof from before back. “I won’t tell,” he offers submissively. “Please pardon me.”
Stan’s expression doesn’t change. “You didn’t hear me? I’m going to be very certain of you silence.” Those reptilian eyes bore into us. “Drop your guns.”
The Stampede doesn’t hesitate, so neither do I, my gun joining his in the sand. Not even a smirk decorates the sheriff’s face, but his smug words are more than enough.
“Isn’t this nice? A pair of toothless stray mutts,” Stan sneers. “So nice to have the upper hand.”
The Stampede raises one hand, aqua eyes all but shut. “I have one question,” he murmurs. “How does it feel to kill helpless people?”
The sheriff stares at him like he’s a lame dog. “Do you feel anything when you burn your trash?”
Those eyes snap open again. The intensity in them almost blinds me. “I see. Good answer!”
Even years later, I’d never be able to say quite what happened right then. My jaw drops as I hear a single gunshot, and then all of the sheriff’s goons are on the ground. I stare wide-eyed at the groaning, bloodied bodies on the sand. “Th–that was fast!” I gasp. “I only heard one shot!”
For the first time, true emotion shows on the sheriff’s face as the Stampede slinks towards him: horror. “Ah, haha, I see. . . . He had another gun the whole time!”
The sheriff raises his gun. The Stampede’s other gun is shoved into Stan’s side.
“How’s it feel, sheriff?” the Stampede inquires cheerfully, eyes almost shut again and lips parted in a vibrant smile. “Being at the mercy of a stray mutt?”
Something in those reptilian eyes flicker. The sheriff’s bullet whizzes past the Stampede’s head. I flinch at the explosion of the Stampede’s gun.
“I won’t kill you!” the Stampede snarls above Stan’s choking. I can only stare as the man’s badge falls–the Stampede’s bullet still embedded in it–to the ground. The man himself follows soon after. The Stampede towers over him. “Say it with me!”
Stephanie and I both gape as within moments, the Stampede has the former sheriff chorusing, “Love and peace! Love and peace!” The Stampede’s fingers crosses in an odd peace sign.
When the piss from the ex-sheriff’s pants finally dries, the Stampede whirls around and winks at me. “I guess this means you’re sheriff now,” he chirps, nodding at the damaged chunk of metal on the ground. “Can’t think of anyone else who qualifies better.” He whirls back on Stan, who had been crawling towards a gun. “Don’t you think he’d make a nice sheriff?” The Stampede flashes another vivacious smile at Stan. I smell piss again.
“It won’t work,” Stan rasps. “He’s an outlaw– ”
The Stampede raises a golden eyebrow. “Didn’t you hear me?” he exclaims, sounding so exasperated that Stephanie smiles a little beside me. “He’s the sheriff. You know, taking care of outlaws and stuff, keeping the murder rate low, keeping certain people from being murdered because they ticked off the wrong people. . . The sheriff!”
Whatever color that had remained in Stan’s face vanishes at that moment. He stops reaching for the gun, trembling on the ground. “Y–yes,” he stutters. “Ingway is the sheriff.”
And then the exuberant outlaw was whirling back on me. “Your star’s on the ground, Sheriff Ingway,” the Stampede tells me cheerfully. “Your job is to make sure no one else earns the nickname Grim Reaper in these parts.” His smile fades, and he looks back on the remains of the saloon. “I’ll . . . help you clean up, and then I better get going. You know, keep this place outlaw free.”
Outlaw? I swallow hard before kneeling down and picking up the battered star. It shines dimly in the sunlight. “You’re not an outlaw here, Mr. Stampede,” I tell him softly. “Any more than I am.”
Those aqua eyes pierce me. “Hey, you tied me up, beat me up, and temporarily took me hostage.” The Stampede winks again at me. “I think you can call me Vash.”
“Vash,” I repeat. I stuck out my hand. “Ingway.”
After he shakes my hand, Stephanie impulsively sticks out her hand. “Stephanie Bos– ” She quiets, then repeats, “Stephanie Bostalk.”
Her chin is high, as if challenging me, even as she avoids looking at her father’s corpse. I nod silently. I’ll give her that.
The S–Vash smiles warmly at us both. There’s something gentle in his eyes that does not belong on the face of one of the most notorious outlaws to grace Gunsmoke. I have to tear my own eyes away.
“We better get to work,” was all he said.
It was long after sunset when we finally cleared the saloon and buried all the bodies. By that time, the townspeople had come out to help us. Not one brought up the fact that I was the one who led the group taking the hostages, nor that Stephanie’s father had just died. Neither did they ask what the unknown blond was doing wandering around and helping. Everything was done quickly, with awkward hands and tentative smiles and sincere nods of appreciation when I finally pinned the sheriff badge to my front. I didn’t see Vash again until after the child sun set, the first three moons rose, and I was standing over the graves of my former partners.
He walks up to me and for a long moment, stands silently beside me. A large duffle bag is slung over his right shoulder, his left hand casually tucked in a pocket of that odd coat of his. As last, he speaks. “Someone once told me, a long time ago, how happy she was knowing that no matter what the past held, the ticket to the future was always blank.” Vash stares solemnly at me, and I look away from those intense eyes. My throat feels thick again. So much sorrow in those old eyes for a group of strangers. “You can do nothing for your friends now but honor their memories.”
I nod silently, and he falls quiet again. He gazes at the simple crosses adorning the three graves. Again, it is he who breaks the silence. “I hope things go well for you. Maybe we’ll meet again.” Vash nods at me and turns to walk away.
That snaps me out of my stupor. “Wait a moment!” I protest. “You’re leaving! Just like that?”
Vash glances over his shoulder at me. “It’s foolish to go to all this effort to help this town, only to have it destroyed by bounty hunters,” he points out. “You heard on the radio earlier. The bounty hunters have a good lead on me, and I just confirmed that I’m here. It’s best if I head out before they arrive.” He shivers. “Some of them can be downright mean!”
It’s phrases like that from the outlaw that confuses the hell out of me. Standing over the graves of my friends, I ask helplessly, “Who are you?” I gesture soundlessly for a moment, while he stares at me with shadowed eyes. “You allow yourself to be taken hostage, you kick the asses of Stan’s and Bostalk’s men, you walk in here and help us and leave without ever expecting even a thank you. Why?”
Vash hesitates for a moment before flashing that oddly hollow smile. “Good karma. Bye!”
He walks away again, carrying only a single bag on his back. I try to fold my mind around this enigma. This was the being who destroyed July? I can’t believe it. He looks so young, if you ignore his eyes. Why would a man who destroys cities for kicks help us out? Why would he help bury those bodies and clean up the property damage when he was running from bounty hunters? I don’t understand.
“At least stay for the night,” I call to him. “As sheriff, I can provide you protection until then.”
Vash pauses. “$$60 billion is a lot of money,” he reminds me.
“And even bounty hunters need to sleep,” I counter. “C’mon. You can shack up at my place.”
The tall blond turns slightly, the first two moons’ light oddly catching his delicate face. I have to remind myself again that this man allegedly destroyed July. It’s getting harder and harder to believe how my heart almost stopped when I heard his name on the radio this afternoon.
This afternoon. Damn, it seems so long ago.
“All right,” he agrees quietly. Then Vash perks up. “Hey, do you have any donuts? Or salmon sandwiches?” He seems to visibly drool over the prospect.
Dazed, I shake my head. “You’re an odd one, you know that?” I comment, amused despite myself.
Vash flashes that $$60 billion smile at me. “Yep!” he agrees happily.
I smile grudgingly. “C’mon,” I murmur, looking at my friends one last time. “My home is this way.”
With his hands behind his back, Vash follows me, humming some odd little tune. I glance back at him and see him with his head tossed back, staring at the stars. The last moon finally crawls out from behind the horizon, and he stares at it for a moment before concentrating on the stars again. Involuntarily, I find myself looking upwards, too.
“My father would always tell stories, passed down by his own father, about us coming from the stars,” I say softly. “My father dreamed about making this world as beautiful as the one we came from.”
Vash sighs, and I look to see him with his right hand reaching for the sky. The left stays firmly behind his back. “Someone I used to know always told me stories about Earth,” he breathes. “She talked a lot about flowers.” He smiles wistfully. “She loved flowers.”
I raise an eyebrow. “Was she from Earth?” I inquire, trying to imagine how old this person must have been.
Vash’s hand falls to his side again. “Yes,” he murmurs. “She was from Earth.”nSomething, some deep sorrow, races across his face for a moment before he’s all smiles again. “She was the one who told me that. About the ticket to the future always being blank. She always gave great advice.”
The look in his eyes hurts me for some reason. It kinda reminds me of Jean, especially when he visited his father’s grave. I don’t think this mysterious woman of his died of old age. I don’t ask for details.
As we walk through the town, people call out tentatively to me, testing the word 'sheriff' and perhaps wondering if I was going to be like Stan. At that moment, I try not to think about Stan or Stephanie or Grim Reaper Bostalk. I simply nod in greeting and continue leading Vash to my home. That’s how things are on Gunsmoke. You just have to keep moving or you’ll get buried in the sand.
Also, you don’t pry, no matter how much you may want to.
Fortunately for Vash, I do have some salmon, and I whip him up some sandwiches as he explores my small house. He doesn’t comment on the pictures of Denim and Jean and Marvin on the walls. I’m grateful for that. This is where we lived, planning on how to avenge our fathers. No one else in this damned town was going to do it, so we decided on doing it. Perhaps that’s why none of them kicked up a fuss about me taking over as sheriff. I don’t know.
“All we have is Wild Turkey,” I apologize, handing Vash a bottle and the sandwiches. My hand trembles a little. He doesn’t comment.
He smiles at me. “That’s fine,” he tells me. “I drink the stuff like water anyway.” Vash raises an eyebrow, even as he munches on his sandwich. Within moments, one is already gone, and he is reaching for another. Must’ve been hungry, apparently. “Aren’t you going to eat?”
I frown. “No. I’m not hungry.”
The blond cocks his head to one side, as if inspecting me, and I take the moment to examine who I just brought into my home. Lost in thought and lacking that goofy grin, Vash the Stampede looks surprisingly . . . soft. Should that word even fit a man? Or an outlaw, for that matter. But he does. And he looks more aristocratic than Grim Reaper Bostalk could ever manage. His face has that smooth, pale look of someone who can afford to stay out of the sun, not even flushed after working outside all afternoon. The rest of him . . . well, I don’t know what the rest of him looks like. Not once has he taken off that odd red coat of his. Why would such a wanted outlaw wear– No, I’m not going to wonder. Too much to wonder concerning this man, anyway. No reason to add more.
“This sandwiches are really good,” Vash coaxes, raising a sandwich. I raise an eyebrow as he waves the salmon sandwich in front of my mouth. “Really, really good. Sure you don’t want one? C’mon. . . .”
I can’t help it. I chuckle. Vash smiles brilliantly at me as I laugh at his antics, and for some reason, this smile is different than the others. I can’t quite place–
It reaches his eyes.
Finally, I grab the sandwich, mostly to keep him from prodding me in the nose with it. “You’re mad,” I say with a sigh, taking several bites out of the sandwich. Hmm. I was hungrier than I thought. I avoid Vash’s smirk as I finish off one sandwich and start on another.
Vash nods solemnly, even as those odd eyes of his twinkle. “Everyone goes a little mad sometimes,” he retorts pleasantly.
He waits for me to finish off a second sandwich before sighing a little himself. “Well, I better hit the sack if I’m going to leave early. Bounty hunters can be such annoying pests.”
I raise an eyebrow and jiggle the bottle of Wild Turkey in front of his nose. “Are you sure you wouldn’t like some?”
That genuine smile returns. “Oh, I know I would like some, but I better not have any. I really have no tolerance for the stuff. Tend to dance on tables, stuff like that. And I do have to leave early.”
I hesitate, but a picture of Jean, Marvin, and Denim on the wall catches my eye. “Yeah. How bad are the bounty hunters, anyway?”
The smile grows stiff on Vash’s face, and he touches his long red coat. “They’re pesky little buggers, I’ll give them that. Got a couch I can drop on?”
The picture of my partners burns into my mind. I stand up, abandoning the Wild Turkey on the table. After Vash leaves tomorrow and I handle whatever duties are required of a sheriff, I’ll get acquainted with that bottle. Not now. He follows my example and rises, grabbing his duffle bag.
“C’mon,” I say gruffly. “You can sleep in Jean’s old room.” He freezes, but I grab his arm and drag him along. Even through the coat, I can feel the heat of his flesh. I tighten my grip. “You can call it Jean’s apology for kicking you in the face.”
Involuntarily, Vash reaches up and fingers a scuff mark on his sharp cheekbone. “Ah, that happens all the time.” He winks at me. “I think it has something to do with me being so . . . odd.”
I roll my eyes. “And looking up ladies’ skirts?”
He grins. “That, too.”
To distract myself from those again hollow eyes, I escort Vash to the door at the far end of the hallway. “This . . . was Jean’s room. It’s not much, but it’s something.”
I open the door and lead him into the small bedroom. Equipped with only a bed, dresser, and a small table, the room is exactly like I described: not much. However, he smiles just as brightly as before.
“It’s better than sleeping on the sand,” Vash quips. “Those scorpions get annoying sometimes. Not to mention waking up in the middle of the night to find out you’ve been sleeping by a sandworm nest.”
He snickers as I–again–roll my eyes, and he plops on the bed. Vash lays the duffle bag beside him on the bed. “Well, thank you. I might have to leave before you get up in the morning, so I’ll say it now: It was nice meeting you.”
Nope. No way would I ever get this guy figured out. “Thank you, too,” I murmur.
Vash smiles brightly and leans back on the bed. I stand in the doorway a moment longer. “Are you sleeping in that?” I inquire.
Those brilliant aqua eyes go blank. “It gets really cold at night.” Vash pantomimes a shiver and dramatically clutches the long red coat to him. I narrow my eyes but leave it at that. He’s going to be gone tomorrow. I have no right to interrogate him when he’s just going to leave in the morning.
I pause on my way out the door, staring at him for one long moment. He meets my eyes, and for a moment, I catch my breath. Those eyes, the same color as the mythical oceans of Earth have been described, seem to look through me. Inhumanly smooth lips quirk in a parody of a smile, as if he knows something I don’t. I concentrate on the bridge of his nose.
With a not-so-steady hand stroking my beard, I nod at him. “Goodnight,” I murmur.
Vash smiles pleasantly at me. “Goodnight.”
I can’t sleep. Not too surprising, all considering. I stare at my ceiling, my bones aching with some deep chill, the memories of the day spinning endlessly in my head.
We finally did it. We finally avenged our fathers. But the cost had been so extreme.
We grew up together, Jean, Denim, Marvin and I. Hell, Jean and I even fooled around growing up before our dedication to our cause blossomed, pulling us from more physical distractions. For so long, we planned our revenge, never realizing that the Grim Reaper could have so domestic a weakness as his daughter. In the end, we didn’t want to drag anyone else into it, but at last we could think of nothing else that would drive our point across.
Many lives were lost: the hostages, Bostalk, the mercenaries . . . Jean, Denim, Marvin. More lives would have been lost if Vash hadn’t interfered. Stan would have killed Stephanie and me, and he would have ruled the town like Bostalk had.
Now I’m the sheriff.
Sighing, I drag myself up and wonder where I left that Wild Turkey.
Somehow, I end up walking to Jean’s old room rather than the kitchen. The old floor creaks beneath my feet, and I sweat, hoping Vash isn’t so suspicious about bounty hunters that he’ll shoot first and ask questions later. I think about softening my steps, but that would probably only increase his suspicion, so I straighten my shoulders and walk normally . . . and hope Vash the Stampede doesn’t shoot me anyway.
God, this walk is so quiet. I’m used to hearing Denim’s snores, Marvin’s grumbling, Jean’s pacing–
Wait. There are sounds from Jean’s room.
Suddenly, I find myself recalling every legend ever told of Vash the Stampede, the only man whose destructive power was enough to wipe out an entire city. The man who could dodge the world’s greatest bounty hunters. The man believed capable of class G damage.
The same man who saved your ass earlier! I snap at myself. Enough!
Sweat dampens my brow as I walk up to Jean’s door. On the other side, I hear an odd noise. It sounds familiar, but I can’t quite place it. Carefully, I knock on the door. “Vash?” I call softly. “Are you awake?”
The noise instantly stops. There’s a new noise, a shuffling sound, and then Vash calls, “Yeah. Come in.”
Something is wrong, but I shrug it aside and open the door. Vash sits on the bed, the lamp on the bedside table and the moonlight through the window lighting the small room. His white revolver lies in his hands, oil, rags and something else on the table. I suppose even legendary gunmen have to clean their guns sometimes.
But that isn’t what catches my eye. It’s the fact that Vash’s vibrant red coat is wrapped clumsily around him, unbuttoned but still covering him. I can see something tight and shiny and black under it, but Vash’s coat is covering him up enough that I can’t see anything else. Was that the shuffling noise? Him putting his coat on?
I’m not going to ask. I have no right to ask.
“Hello,” Vash greets softly, oddly hunched in the coat. “Couldn’t sleep?” He nods towards the single chair in the room, inviting me to sit.
Nodding, I sit in the chair, momentarily reminded how often I sat in here to listen to Jean. I shake my head quickly, banishing those thoughts.
But apparently Vash is psychic. “This was Jean’s room, right?” he inquires softly.
I blink in astonishment. How had he remembered that? “Well, yes.”
Those intense eyes stare into me. “He and the others sacrificed a lot for justice,” he continues quietly. “They were exceptionally brave individuals.”
I close my eyes for a moment. “We all knew what we were getting into,” I murmur. “We knew it would be dangerous facing a man named Grim Reaper.” I fall silent, and Vash tactfully does not mention the hostages who died.
He stares at his gun, absently stroking the barrel. In the soft light, he looks pale and wan and ageless. “I’ll never understand the constant need for death,” he says with a sigh, putting the gun away. “People have been struggling to survive since the Great Fall, and rather than respecting the life they’ve been given, they kill.” Sorrowful eyes look up at me. “All those years ago, instead of working with them, Bostalk chose to murder. I doubt he ever realized the true consequences of his actions until Stephanie was born.” He shakes his head, and I remember how he wept when I shot Bostalk earlier. If he cried over the death of that killer, how did he feel over the other deaths? A look into his eyes gives me my answer, and I look away.
“But then,” Vash continues, his voice soft in reflection, “everyone has to live their own path.” He smiles faintly at me. “Blank tickets and all that, you know?”
I smile weakly back. “Yeah.”
Vash quietly starts packing his materials back into his duffel bag. As he moves, his red coat shifts, and I see more of the black, skin-tight outfit he wears underneath it. However, I don’t pay much attention to it. I stare at the large hole cut into the leather body suit. His white, muscled stomach is bare. My eyes widen in horror at the incisions slicing into that pale skin. Instantly, he snaps the coat shut, averting his gaze. I flush in shame.
After a moment, Vash turns and flashes that brilliant smile at me again. His eyes are all but shut. “Ah, it’s getting kinda late, isn’t it? And tomorrow you officially start your new job as sheriff, so you might want to try getting some sleep.”
That odd, cross-shaped incision flashes through my mind as I abruptly stand again. How . . . how had he gotten that? Who had done that to him? I clench my fists to hide the shaking in my hands. Bounty hunters?
I get all the way to the door before I can’t take it anymore. I turn around and sit on the bed beside the startled blond. I lay a hand on his thigh, warmed more than I care to admit by the heat under my palm.
“If you ever need your own help getting justice,” I say fiercely, “just come back here. ’ll help you.”
Vash smiles sadly. The expression slides easily across his face, as familiar as my gun is in my hand. “There’s a difference between justice and vengeance. But thank you anyway.”
Still, I hesitate. It’s late and I’m exhausted and three of my best friends just died the day before helping take down the richest man in the area. Now’s not the time for rash actions, and I know it, and I should just get up and leave and try to get some sleep. His thigh is so hot and so hard under my hand. Those eyes seem to glow to the dimly lit room. I should be walking away. I don’t move.
Vash catches my eye, and his entire demeanor softens, looking nothing like the man who had danced into the saloon the day before. “Good night,” he repeats.
I swallow. “Good night.”
When I wake up, the first sun hasn’t even risen. I blink, wondering what woke me. I become aware of the note in my hands at the same time I’m aware of the odd moisture and heat on my lips. I finger my lips with my free hand, even as I read the note:
Thank you for sheltering me for the night. The bounty hunters were up earlier than even I thought. I caught sight of one of them edging into the house and thought it was a good time to leave. Don’t worry. It won’t take them long to discover I left. Good luck with the town, and say good-bye to Stephanie for me.
P.S. Can you untie the bounty hunter for me? He’s hanging by the porch, and his feet must be losing circulation by now. Also, he’s probably really cold. His clothes are on the table. Thanks!
I reread the note before laughing softly. Brushing my finger against my lips one last time, I set down the note and walk off to free the insipid bounty hunter.
Vash the Stampede. A man whose name means “reckless.” Shortly after, he was declared . . . mankind’s first “localized disaster.”