When Hunter returned to the land of the living, it was with an intense need to urinate. It helped that he hadn’t been tied up. Once he had relieved himself, he patted his body to take stock of the damage done. Except for a slight bump on his head, a dry and bitter mouth, aching limbs and anger, he was fine.
Hunter looked around then, already knowing what he’d see but needing to see it to confirm his biggest failure yet.
He knew the band that had run them down would have taken the kid. What he hadn’t counted on was that they’d leave the old man behind. Hunter walked up to where he was trussed up like a pig for slaughter. He heard the old man’s wheezing and gulping. So he was alive. Hunter didn’t know how to catalogue that triumph.
He wanted to kick Romeo on his arse to let out some of his frustration but resisted the urge. He did shake him, vigorously, to wake him up.
Romeo came to with a groan. For a few moments, he just sat there, head in his hands, trying to breathe. When the realization hit him, he started to whimper. He did not even ask to be released of his bonds. He did not care he was lying in his own drying piss. He had let Lola down once again and now…he simply wanted to die.
Had Romeo known his wish would be acted upon so swiftly, perhaps he would have asked for another? Not a moment after he had finished moaning his wish in his mind, did he find the barrel of a gun in his mouth.
“Now,” said Hunter impassively, “if you will stop your whining I’ll greatly appreciate it.”
When he got no response, he jammed the barrel into the old man’s mouth harder. “I would also like an answer.”
Romeo nodded quickly, as much as he could, though he could feel his teeth grating on the gun. Once the barrel was out of his mouth, he spat into the sand. “Can you cut me loose?” he asked hoarsely.
Hunter looked at the old man through narrowed eyes. A part of his brain wanted to cause as much physical pain as possible. Maybe then the ants would stop crawling on his skin. “I have still not decided if you’ll be useful ol’ man.”
Fresh tears sprang into his eyes but he was blessedly quiet. He did not moan, nor did he plead with Hunter again. In truth, Romeo was terrified. If Hunter killed him, at least his agony would end. If not, Romeo was sure the agony would only get worse with passing days.
“Do you want to die?” asked Hunter softly.
“You are wasting time. Shouldn’t we be going after Lola? The trail…”
“Answer my question Romeo.” Hunter squatted in front of the trussed-up man. His voice was emotionless and his eyes blank.
“It would be the easy way,” said Romeo softly. “But that’s all it would be. I think I…”
Hunter removed his knife and Romeo abruptly stopped talking. “I don’t care what you think.”
He suddenly lunged at Romeo and held the keen edge of the knife to his neck. His eyes bore into Romeo’s as he pressed it hard. The knife broke the skin and a thin trickle of blood started to seep into Romeo’s shirt collar.
Romeo winced as he felt the knife breaking skin but held the gunslinger’s stare. He knew there was a test in the stare and not the knife which was just a distraction. He knew he could be wrong. But he had learnt to read Hunter early on in their association since his niece’s and his survival had depended on it. He also knew if Lola wasn’t in the picture, Hunter would leave him behind, no compunctions.
The gunslinger removed the knife and cut the ropes, none too gently. “Rest ol’ man. We have a long and hard night ahead of us.” He left him there and walked away, his need to cause pain temporarily satisfied.
When Hunter walked back to the camp, his hair was damp and he looked less dusty. Romeo on the other hand hadn’t moved at all from where Hunter had left him.
“We leave in an hour,” said Hunter.
“It’ll be nightfall. Won’t it be harder to find our way to Lola?”
“Aye but we can move quicker in the night and we’ll catch up on them soon enough.”
“How do you know they won’t travel by night?”
Hunter rolled his eyes but made no more threats. “They took away my prize ol’ man. They would have ridden hard to put as much distance between us as possible. They’re on horses, good horses. They’d want to rest ’em. Besides, they wouldn’t think I’d come at night. But they don’t know me.”
“Do you know who they are?” Romeo could see the time away had done the gunslinger some good. He no longer had the madness in his eyes. He looked calm and deadly – like a weapon. And if Romeo could learn how to wield this weapon, he could save Lola…and maybe even himself.
“It doesn’t matter,” said Hunter. “They took what was mine and I will kill every last one of them.”
The way he said it, Romeo was sure he’d do it. It would be a bloodbath. And so Romeo decided to pray for the…oh he had lost count! If this ordeal had taught him anything, it was that he had become one of those praying kind of men he had so despised. Though he wished he had started praying sooner. Then he would have had some credit with the good Lord above and could have used it to draw on now.
The old man was right about one thing: Hunter had found his centre on the walk he had taken. It wasn’t anything spiritual. Like he had told the kid – you live with nature long enough, it rewards you with clues and he had been rewarded, handsomely.
On his walk, Hunter had found another trussed up man. On closer inspection, the man turned out to be one of the party of seven. Hunter hadn’t cared to investigate why this one had been left behind. You don’t question nature and her rewards.
Though the gunslinger revered his guns, there was something about the deadliness of a knife he loved. It put the fear of God in a man. Being creative with a knife and finding a live, bleeding, pig to test his skills on had been the type of therapy he had needed.
Hunter looked at the sky, then turned to look at Romeo. He had come to respect the old man more in the last two hours than he had in the last two weeks. “Let’s go ol’ man.”
“Where are we going?”
“We go to hunt.”