by Eric S. Brown

Zed stared across the table at the fat man in the little brown hat. All the other players were out of the game, folded because of the stakes. There was over five hundred dollars in the pot and Zed’s own revolvers. He’d offered them up to stay in the game. Zed glanced at the bar. Yule sat on one of the stools. Only God knew how much whiskey his big brother had downed tonight.

A large breasted brunette sat next to Yule as he cradled a slim blonde in his lap. Yule might be as dumb as a pile of bricks but his size and hard muscles always drew the ladies to him like flies to meat no matter where they traveled. Zed shook his head, turning his attention back to his cards. All he held was a pair of aces.

Noticing his expression, the fat man rasped in a phlegm-filled voice, “You in or out?” Zed sniffed the air. The scent of the fat man’s confidence was so powerful he could smell it over the cloud of smoke in the bar. He knew he was beat. He could fold, cut his losses, and walk away but where would the fun be in that? Yule would never forgive him.

“I’m in and I call,” Zed smiled, spreading his cards onto the table in front of him. Laughing, the fat man laid down a royal flush. “Too bad for you.” The fat man leaned forward, sweeping the huge pot towards him. He lifted one of Zed’s revolvers, inspecting its custom-made grip.

“Hold up,” Zed said. “I don’t care about the money but you ain’t taking my guns.” The fat man nodded at two ranch hands at the next table. They stood and walked over to stand near him. “You lost them fair and square, son. A man has to honor his debts.”

Zed knew the fat man was a big wig in this town. Supposedly, he owned most of it too. A man like that never left his ranch alone. Zed imagined the two idiots standing next to him weren’t the only protection he had in the bar. The ranch hands eased their fists towards the holsters on their belts.

“Just give me the guns,” Zed warned them.

“Look,” the fat man told him, “I’m sure none of us here wants any trouble. Ain’t that right, Hank?”

The larger of the two ranch hands grunted, spitting a mouthful of tobacco juice onto the floor. “No, sir, that’d be downright foolish, wouldn’t it, pup?”

Anger flashed through Zed. “What did you call me, mister?”

Zed’s eyes blazed yellow, glowing in the shadows of the bar’s low light. The fat man was on his feet, backing away from the table, holding Zed’s guns and staring at him with holy terror in his eyes. His two lackeys drew their guns, leveling them at Zed. This was going to get bloody.

“What in the hell are you?” the fat man squealed.

Zed leapt over the table as the two ranch hands opened fire. The bullets came at him in slow motion. Zed caught them both easily as he flipped through the air to land in front of the men. He grinned, showing them their bullets lying in his open palms.

The whole bar erupted into chaos at the shots. The showgirls were running for the stairs, the bartender was reaching for a concealed weapon of some sort, and most of the men were getting to their feet, guns drawn. The rest of the crowd was busy taking cover under their tables or making a bee line for the door.

“It’s about time,” Yule roared. “I thought we’d never get to the fighting part.” His thunderous voice echoed off the bar’s walls, shaking the glass in the windows. The poor bartender was so frightened that he emptied both barrels of the shotgun in his trembling hands into Yule’s back out of sheer panic. That shot set loose a chorus of others as everyone in the bar fought to make it out alive. No one except Zed and the fat man’s party really knew what was happening but no one wanted to die. Bullets flew everywhere and men screamed as the bar became a war zone.

The blast from the shotgun knocked Yule from his stool. Zed saw his big brother’s bleeding and mangled back healing as he went after the bartender with bared, razor-like teeth and a loud, angry growl. Zed moved like lightning in the sky, dodging one bullet after another until he was in the fat man’s face. He calmly took his revolvers from the fat man’s hands and shot him point blank in his rolling gut. Before the fat man’s body even hit the floor, Zed was moving again. His guns blazed. Both of the ranch hands’ foreheads caved inward as Zed put three rounds into each of them. Zed ran between their falling bodies, passing them, and up onto the wall of the bar. The wood splintered in his wake, spraying tiny fragments of splintered shrapnel as the other men in the bar tried to take him down, their bullets smacking into it.

Zed’s feet touched the ceiling as he spun, twisting about, his guns blazing. Another four men were dead as he landed in a crouch on the floor with his revolvers empty and their barrels smoking. The upper half of the bartender lay a few feet from him, strands of entrails leaking from the lower part of his torso where his legs should have been. Yule was finishing up the last of the bar’s patrons who were too stupid to run. He stood seven feet tall, towering over a cowboy in a long duster who had two six-guns leveled at him. The pistols spat lead. Yule grunted as each bullet ripped into his massive, hairy chest. The cowboy managed to get off five shots before Yule’s hand closed around his head and popped it like an overripe melon underneath his hat.

Blood and brain matter sprayed from the cowboy’s eyes, ears, and nose. Yule let the cowboy’s corpse flop with a dull thud to land at his feet. Yule’s eyes were red orbs of pure violence as he searched for someone else to kill.

“I think that’s enough, boys,” a man in a fine black suit called to them. He was smoking a cigar as he leaned against the frame of the bar’s doorway,

Zed couldn’t believe his eyes. “Graham?” he said.