The Salt Worms: Part Eleven

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The bullet streaked through the night. Its aim was true, but somehow it impacted on stone, not flesh, then ricocheted harmlessly into the night. Everett couldn’t understand it. How had he missed? That should have been impossible!

No time to dwell on that now, though, Nathan had sat bolt upright and was raising his own handgun to return fire! Everett flung himself backwards and Nathan’s shot zipped overheard. Then Nathan kicked dirt into the small fire, throwing them into the black. Everett didn’t try using his firearm while blinded, instead he lifted onto all fours and charged forward like a bull. By the time Nathan heard him coming and understood what he was doing Everett had closed the distance and slammed into Nathan at full force! The two men fell to the ground in a tangle of arms and legs.

Everett tried to punch Nathan in the gut, but his hand struck something hard in Nathan’s backpack. Nathan curled his arm around the back of Everett’s head, gripped the man’s chin, and gave a sharp tug. Everett rolled with the motion, spinning his whole body across the ground. As he went his head struck a large rock that had been hidden in the dark.

“Rrrrrrrgh,” Everett growled, trying to push past the fuzziness that came swimming in at the corners of his eyes. He couldn’t let himself fall unconscious. He forced his arm to swing his gun through the air, firing off two quick shots. They weren’t even close to hitting Nathan, but they spooked him enough that he turned and ran off into the dark.

Everett tried to stand and run, but he quickly stumbled back to the ground. Whether he wanted to or not, he was going to have to pause for a moment before he continued the chase. His back pressed against the rock he had hit his head on and suddenly he understood. This rock had been right in front of Nathan’s head when he was sleeping, and in the dark Everett hadn’t been able to make it out. That was what his first bullet had ricocheted off of. Yet another precaution Nathan had known to take, no doubt due to some prior night-time attack during his long, seven-year journey.

While Everett regained his wits, Nathan bolted full speed over the rocky terrain. There wasn’t a lot of moonlight, and more than once he tripped and fell. Fortunately he had the presence of mind to catch himself on his good hand, and not damage his broken one further.

He didn’t know who this attacker was that had come for him. Normally he would assume a common raider, but it would be strange for a thief to happen upon him in such a removed place as this. Unless there was a bandit hideout nearby.

There came a sound of clattering stones, and Nathan glanced over his shoulder to see his Everett sprinting down a hillside, two hundred yards distant. Definitely not a common thief, then. Only someone with a mission to fulfill would be this persistent.

So be it. Nathan had made it through a grueling, seven-year journey, what was one more night of life-and-death struggle? He already intended to be dead before next nightfall anyway, so a little lost slumber bore very little weight?

For a moment Nathan considered waiting to ambush the man. He rounded a particularly large boulder, knelt down, and pulled out his gun. He had to hold in his left hand, though, since the right hand was broken, and he saw the gun’s muzzle shaking erratically in front of him. No good.

With a snarl Nathan stood up and kept running. He bounded over a small rise in the rock next, and came upon a wide, open bowl. Running through it would make him an excellent target for his pursuer, but there was no alternative, sheer cliff faces or sudden drop-offs lay on either side. So Nathan continued forward, making for a rocky outcropping halfway through the bowl.

As he went, he strained his ears for the sound of footsteps halting, of sleeved arms being raised, or of a gun cocking. But, of course, he couldn’t hear anything over the sound of his own clattering feet. Thus he had no warning before the shot suddenly rang through the night. It made a deep graze across his arm, just above the elbow, and he winced in pain as juked left and right, spun and snapped back around the other way. Then he dove behind the rocky outcropping, waited for a moment, and popped back up to fire two shots towards the entrance to the bowl. He ducked back down as another shot was returned. Nathan popped off another volley, but this time no other shots came his way.

Nathan fired once more. Still no return.

Then Nathan understood. His foe was armed…but had little or no ammo remaining. He had left it all behind to be as quiet as possible when stealing towards Nathan’s camp! So Nathan weighed his options. Did he turn aggressive? Try and get the other man to burn his last shots and then finish him off with his own gun? Or did he just sprint out of there and focus on his final objective?

Up at the top of the bowl Everett understood the silence perfectly. He knew it meant Nathan had figured the situation out and was concocting the best way to finish him off. Now Everett could try to run through the exact same scenarios in his own mind, figure out the same conclusion Nathan would come to, and then try to think of a way to counter it. But that would mean continuing this game at a disadvantage. Rather than wait for Nathan to make his move, Everett would rather tip the board over and knock all the pieces to the floor!

So without any further thought Everett bounded out from behind his juniper tree and sprinted across the bowl. Nathan heard him coming and stood up, firing off a few rounds. Everett raised his own weapon and fired wildly in return, pouring out his last two bullets.

Both men missed, Everett due to shooting while running, Nathan due to having to shoot with his weak hand. Both gun clips clicked empty, and before Nathan could reload Everett bounded over the rocky outcropping and body-slammed him to the ground for the second time that night!


The Salt Worms: Part Ten


Previous Chapter


Everett looked through his binoculars, steady and patient, watching Nathan sleep against the backdrop of his flickering campfire. Everett had been in this position for a few hours, but he had hardly moved a muscle. Like the other New Denver Rangers, he had learned the great art of patience. Now, though, it was time to report in, so he slid down the rocky outcropping, kneeled beside his military radio, turned the crank, and lifted the receiver to his ear.

“Hello, hello? This is Everett…is anyone there?”

Several moments of static and then–

“New Denver Operations here. Did you say this was Everett?”

“That’s right. Ready to make my evening report.”

“Alright, hang on a moment, I’ll get him.”

A few more moments of static and then–

“Samuel here.”

“Hello, sir, this is Everett. I’ve tailed that guy all day and he’s settled down for the night.”

“Do you think he might have seen you?”

“Not a chance.”

“Alright, well, where did he go?”

“After he left the city he wandered down the path for a good while, as if he was making for the other outposts. He did look over his shoulder several times, like he expected one of us to be following him.”

“And did he ever see you?”

“Sir we rangers have that whole way mapped out. We know how to get to our lookout points without anyone seeing us coming or going. It’s simply not possible that he would have seen me.”

“Alright. Well did he make it to one of the outposts?”

“No. Once he got to that grove of trees at Long Bend he left the trail. Crept over to where it exits into the gorge and used that to double back towards the salt flats.”

Samuel sighed. “That’s what I was afraid of. What then?”

“Well, he stayed in the rocky crags until nearly sundown. He went about it real cautious, too, keeping in the shadows and triple-checking for anyone tailing him at every turn.”

” And do you think–“

“And I’m sure he didn’t see me. Anyway, come evening he set up camp in a bowl and has stayed there ever since. He laid down to sleep a little after dark and hasn’t made a single movement in the last two hours. He’s sleeping, sir.”

“Now if I know that gorge as well as I think I do…he’s headed straight for the ridge and back past our city.

“Yes, sir, that appears right.”

“And then over the ridge into the salt flats themselves!”

“That’s how I figure it, too. My guess is that tomorrow he sneaks out to the flats for as far as he can stay concealed. Maybe he even lays on his stomach and crawls when climbing over the ridge. At some point he’ll know he’s bound to be seen, and then he’ll just have to up and book it, hoping to get far enough into the nesting grounds that we won’t dare chase him.”

“Is that how you would do it?”

“Hmm…well no. I suppose I would have kept moving through the night so I could get over the ridge while it was still dark. Of course, I’m more familiar with this area than he is.”

“I think he’s plenty familiar. Smart, too. He knew enough to steal into the crags when he reached the trees, didn’t he?”

“Fair enough. Might be he’s resting up now, but then sets off a few hours before sunrise. Do you want me to apprehend him now?”

“Yes,” Samuel sighed heavily. “I think it’s evident enough that he’s still sticking to his plan. Get him now before he sets out any farther.”

“Bring him in alive?”

“Well…what’s most important is that he is stopped.”

“Understood.”

Everett closed the antenna on his radio and blew on his fingers to warm them back up. He undid the straps around his waist and chest, lowering his gear down to the ground. For this next part he would want to be as quiet as possible. So he continued to unburden himself until all he had left was his first layer of clothes and his handgun. He even took off his boots and put on a pair of thick moccasins instead. Then he stretched and ran-in-place, getting his stiff muscles limbered up after sitting still for so long.

Only when he was fully warmed up and loosed out did he set out, moving through the rocky crags, making for the campfire in the distance. He kept his eyes locked on the camp, watching for any shadows that might pass in front of the small, open flame. When he got within thirty yards he was able to make out the shape of Nathan’s body laid out in his bedroll.

Everett paused and waited for his beating heart to slow back down again. That surge of adrenalin that came before a kill was trying to flood his senses, but he just let it pass him by, until he was back in a cool and collected state. Then he snapped his gun up, watching down its sights as he crept forward again.

Closer and closer he came. He wanted to get close enough to be certain of making his mark, but if Nathan so much as rolled over Everett would take the shot here and now. Now he was fifteen yards away. Now ten. As he advanced forward his eyes repeatedly darted to the ground, ensuring that he never put his foot on a twig or loose stone. Everett pulled back the hammer smoothly and silently, watching to see if Nathan would stir at the soft click of metal.

He didn’t.

Everett was near enough now to make out the difference between Nathan’s sleeping form and the long shadow that his body cast from the flickering flame that lay behind him. Everett centered his gun on Nathan’s head and took three more steps forward, careful to lift his foot over the tripwire he had watched Nathan set up before settling down for the night.

Everett exhaled slowly, tightened his forefinger, and fired!