Read the teaser.
America whistled a tune as he counted the bullet holes splintering the walls of the sheriff’s office. The holes were old wounds that had surfaced long before America was brought, and this office wasn’t the only scarred, battered, and splintering building. Bow Creek was a rowdy little town, and America liked rowdy little towns.
America ceased and leaned into the bars to get a better look at the rude fellow in the next cell over. The moonlight pouring in through the window cast light on the kid’s dark hair, darker eyes, and nasty scowl that one might typically reserve for snakes and roaches but certainly not other human beings.
“What’re you in here for, handsome?” America ventured. He saw the young man’s jaw tighten before he puffed out a heavy sigh through his nose. The sign of surrender. Or annoyance.
“They think I burned Bell Oaks to the ground–“
“Now hold on one goddamn minute! You torched Bell Oaks? That was you?”
“No, you brainless shrew. I was framed.”
“I liked Bell Oaks. Knew a horse trader there. Probably burned alive, didn’t he? Him and his horses.” America scuffed his boots against the floor then broke the silence that’d swelled between them. “They’ll hang ya?”
“Yeah?” America grabbed the bars with both hands and pressed his face up against the metal. “What changed their mind?”
“The sheriff,” and the kid shot a glance at the snoring lump in the chair over there, “will die tomorrow morning.”
“You’re gonna kill him? From behind bars? Oh, I’m sorry–I didn’t know I was in the presence of a magician!” The boy just smiled, and something about it send a chill crawling up America’s skin. He withdrew his hands and stepped back a pace. “And what happens after you, you know…” He jabbed his chin in the sheriff’s direction. “You break on out of here and just waltz out of town unmolested?”
“That is the plan.”
“Alright, kid. Alright.”
The next morning the sheriff put up his coat, went to start a pot of coffee, sunk into his chair, then fell over dead.
America whistled from the cot. “I’ll be damned.”
“Remain calm, dimwitted pig.”
“The hell did you just call me–?”
America shot up and nearly tumbled out of bed when he heard a boom so sudden and loud that it wretched a yelp from his throat.
Fireworks? A bomb?
Whatever it was, it went unheard over the church bells and rapturous piano coming from the chapel.
Then there was the sound of metal jiggering and groaning. The kid stepped out of his cell and immediately went for his belt and guns.
Finally, America jumped up. “Hey, kid–“
“I’m not a child,” he snapped, “and I’ve killed worse men than you before.”
“Right, no, you’re a man. A man far smarter and talented than I, for–“
The nice young man threw the ring of keys to the ground in front of America’s cell, very nearly out of reach. He smiled sweetly and held America’s desperate gaze for one fleeting moment. And then he turned on his heels, walked out into an empty street, and was gone.
America may have pulled something trying to get that key, and that ratty little bastard was going to get an earful. Stepping over the sheriff’s body, he made a quick prayer sign and was on his way.
But the street was not empty. In fact, there were half a dozen men galloping in from the city gates, furious and fast like they had hell on their heels. When a group of cowboys comes racing into a rowdy little town, that usually meant all hell was gonna break loose.
The kid was up ahead, standing in front of the bank with his eyes fixed on the riders. Maybe he was petrified. America, though, had a strong sense of self-preservation so he dove behind a barrel and watched the scene unfold.
Rugged bastards, those cowboys were. Each wore the same black duster and blue bandana around their neck, gold rattlesnake emblem stitched into the fabric.
The Viper Gang. The roughest, hardest, baddest outlaws in the west. They solidified their reign with brutality, robbing and killing for fun–and now they had surrounded America’s new friend.
“Get your hand off your gun, son,” the one in charge ordered, though his tone was softer than America was expecting. “What I have for you isn’t a bullet.”
The outlaw tossed something to the kid–a dusty, worn hat spattered with blood. It must have meant something to him. He turned it over and inspected the inside.
“Mama’s dead,” the man announced. “I put a bullet in her head myself. Buried her in the sand.”
The kid said nothing, just held the man’s gaze with steadiness. That did not go over well. The outlaw leaned over his horse’s mane to take a hard, squinting look at the boy. His lips cracked into a smile. “What? No tears? Not even one, for your poor ma?”
“You gave me nothing to cry about, Dallas.”
America was certain that any second now the kid’s brains would be splattered all over the dirt. But that second never came, and instead the crook barked with laughter.
“Russia gave us a lot of hell, you know,” Dallas said after the humor died down. “Carson started thinking that killing her wasn’t enough. He wants to bury everyone and everything she ever loved.”
Russia? They killed Russia? Suddenly, America forgot how to breathe.
Dallas went on, “So you can stay here and put up one last fight… or you can run–for a while. But we’ll find you.” After he was again met with silence, his gritty smirk widened. “No, you won’t run. You’re a fighter. Just like she was.”
By this time, church had let out and a crowd had gathered. Fearful and nervous onlookers… who were probably wondering where their sheriff was.
“Seven days from now,” Dallas called out in a voice that carried through the town, “The Viper Gang is going burn this shithole and everyone in it to the ground.” And he nodded at the kid. “And then Carson will give you something to cry about. Don’t worry, little one, we’ll bury you next to mama.”
And then they were gone, fast as they’d come. While the townspeople gasped and panicked among themselves, America scurried out from behind the barrel and followed the kid as he wrapped around the backside of the saloon.
“Hey,” he whispered, “hey, young man–“
“Korea. That’s my name.”
Certainly not the same Korea America knew, unless she had made some dramatic changes recently.
“Russia never told me she had a son.”
Korea stopped walking and went silent for longer than America would have liked. He had put on a brave face in front of the gang, but up close America could see the kid was pale and clutching Russia’s hat with trembling hands. Finally he said, “You must be the insufferable weasel she always talked about.”
“She talked about me?”
“Well, she can’t do much talking now, huh?” But even as he said this, America’s tone was somber. He and Russia may have been like fire and ice, but they had a history. No amount of animosity could erase that.
“No, she can’t.”
America thought he heard Korea’s voice threaten to crack. Something about the guy’s big ol’ misty eyes pulled at his heartstrings. He tugged on his hat and changed the subject. “So, you gonna run? You can get pretty far in seven days. Give you a nice headstart.”
“I’m going to kill them.” Left unsaid was or die trying.
Ballsy indeed, if not a damn fool.
“No, we’re gonna kill them.” Korea’s dark eyebrows pulled together. “You heard the man. Carson is coming after everyone that Russia ever loved, and seeing as she and I were once romantically involved–“
“I’m fighting this fight with you, okay? Look, don’t say no. I’d just ignore it anyway.”
“I hope that sentiment doesn’t carry over into other aspects of your life,” Korea said, but by the time he’d gotten the last word out America was already walking to the center of town.
“Beautiful people of Bow Creek,” he shouted, gathering attention. “You may know me as the handsome stranger your sheriff dragged into jail a few days back. But ignore what you know and focus on what I’m about to say. Your sheriff is dead–not my doing, it was the work a magician. But ya got no sheriff, okay? No sheriff, and those Viper bastards are gonna be back here in one week to rob you of your livelihoods, and, well, your lives. But we don’t have to let that happen. We can fight back. If you wanna take a stand and rid this beautiful land of those snakes for good, meet me right back here tomorrow morning.” He paused, offering the scared people a look of fiery determination. “Let’s give those sons of bitches hell.”
By the next morning, the entire town had packed up and left.
America and Korea stood together, watching the dust roll by.
“Well, looks like we’re on our own, handsome.”
“I know someone.”
“And I know two someones. So that makes five of us.” America tugged on his hat. “I like those odds.”