Things were easier when I was a ranger. thought Nettie Jack Russel in the cattails and reeds that peppered a riverbed, dry and dead this far into the burning season. Her nose itched but she dared not scratch it.
The sun was low in the sky, just a few rosy fingers caressing the horizon while the rest was so deeply blue it might’ve been purple. A few scattered clouds rolled lazily eastwards and the way the sun lit them up from underneath reminded Nettie of the brushfires she’d needed to circumvent this far into the Blastlands - only much much prettier.
Her knees ached. She’d hidden in these reeds since the sun was so high in the sky it threatened to bake her scalp raw, shaved as it was. But what skin she did have was thick and leathery - where it wasn’t peeled back to expose muscle and bone. Nettie surreptitiously wiped her brow on a handkerchief and a few chunks came with it.
You’d think, she monologued in the way the terribly bored tend to, that contracts would make it easier to determine who the bad guy is. It doesn’t. It makes it easier to figure who broke a deal; which is good enough for most folk these days.
Someone laughed. Nettie froze. Her eyes, red and watery after nine hours of silent observation, flickered to the tallest man in the group whose mouth was wide and grinning. Hers pitched downward in a tight frown.
Some forty feet from the Law Dog were a band of nerdowells she’d been tracking for the better part of a month. Bandits, these days. But when they’d worked for the Railroad Commission they’d been caught smuggling goods off of the Ox. Now the word to describe them was “breachers” and it was a Law Dog’s job to bring them in.
This was the Viper Gang. They’d picked up the name recently after their leader survived a nasty snake bite by manifesting psionic powers and purging the stuff right out of his blood. Nettie thought it was a little stupid. No vipers in the Lonestar.
The leader in question was one Jeremy Scales, a burly remnant fellow who looked like he might’ve been Saltwise if the dice rolled different. But life hits you hard and so the tough green plates across his face and shoulders looked more like ugly callouses gone septic. He was generally understood to be a charming psychopath - Nettie could see that in the way his crewmates followed his laughter with their own. He knew how to coach a room.
The sun had all but disappeared behind the horizon and velvety darkness descended. The Viper Gang sat comfortably around a campfire and as the evening progressed they grew drunker. Wild and ugly tales poured out of their mouths as quickly as they filled them up again with booze. Nettie listened, diligently taking notes in the little brown journal that had lead her to this hiding place to begin with.
Fetters make men of us, she wrote absently, without them we descend into base animalism. So cyclic is the wickedness of man that I knew these to be monsters before I preyed upon them for a night and a day. Contracts might be useless if we’re figuring some higher morality - but folks that break them generally turn out to be shitheels.
“Alright, girl.” A voice called cheerily from the camp. “Come on out now.”
At first Nettie did not register what Jeremy Scales had said. Or that he had said it to her. Until a rough hand clamped around the back of her throat and a powerful blow to the head dimmed her vision and turned her limbs to jelly. Ahh Hell. She dropped the book.
That rough grip dragged her from her uncomfortable place among the reeds and into the firelight. She saw a few flecks of blood hit the dirt where it dripped from her scalp. She felt a sharp pain in her shoulder when the thug who hit her tossed her dangerously close to the coals. They disarmed her handily and broke her arms.
“Another cocker spaniel come to chew at my heels, eeh?” Scales mocked, kneeling in front of her. Nettie’s eyes wept from pain; bewildered. “Guess the RRC didn’t tell you, yeah? That you’re the fifth pup they’ve sent after me in half a year.” Nettie’s stomach dropped. They most certainly had not.
“Poor kid.” Scales commiserated and stood again. She noticed her book in his hand - when had it gotten there? Nettie blinked, in shock. “Good notes.” he said, flipping through it. “But it’s too bad you called me a shitheel here at the end. I’ve got a real prideful streak in me. S’from my mother’s side.”
Nettie gritted her teeth. She could already feel the infection reknitting the bones and muscle. If she could keep him talking long enough-
Jeremy Scales flipped his duster back, exposing a snub barreled silver shotgun. He unholstered it, took casual aim, and shot Nettie Jack Russel right in the teeth. Her body hit the ground with an unceremonious thud.
The grim faced bandit handed the book off to one of the thugs in his gang. This one was named ‘Handsome’. Jeremy understood this to be ironic. “Keep that.” He ordered, “And move the body. She smells like my sister.”
The last of the sun disappeared below the horizon. Scales looked up and away from the fire. His expression was mild.
Another dead dog, he mused. How long ‘till they’re tired of this game and sic the ‘hounds?
He’d need to finish his work before then.
A Law Dog Vignette by S. Lindley