I levelled the shotgun at my uncle. He quickly released her, catching her under the knee and easily lifting her in his arms. I stared at him, and he gave me a quick, apologetic grin, nodding at the weapon in my hands as he walked past me towards the cabins.
"I'll need that back in a second."
I followed him into the cabin, watching him lay Millie carefully down on a bunk. I kept the gun to my shoulder, and he shook his head as he looked at me. I took a second to realise just what he'd done. He'd put Millie out of commission. She wasn't going to fight with us. Which meant that she wouldn't be getting shot at or injured until the gang had taken us out first. Peter saw the clarity cross my eyes and then motioned again for the shotgun. I tossed it to him, and he quickly checked over it, before stuffing a handful of shells from the bench into his jacket pockets. He looked surprisingly calm for someone was about to go up against a possible pack of gun-wielding lunatics.
Thank you, I mouthed to him.
"Welcome," he said, knowing that I meant Millie. "This way she gets out of here in one piece. I just hope that I put her out long enough to keep her out of this." My uncle nodded at her ivory-handled Dan Wesson on the ground, and I pulled it out of the dust. "It's a custom-made 9mm with ten rounds in it. How good of a shot are you?"
I shook my head. Never fired one.
My uncle nodded sagely. "Figured that. Then do yourself a favour and find a bloody good tree to hide behind until they get within five feet of you. If I have my way, we'll get out of this easily enough, but if not..." He shook his head. "Keep your head down and stay behind something that's more than a foot thick. I doubt any of these boys can shoot worth a damn but they might get lucky."
What's your plan? I asked him.
"Try and make them see sense," Peter said. "I don't like my chances but the last thing I want is more blood on my hands. We don't start shooting until they do, understand? I'm not going to court as the instigator of this. And neither are you." He reached a turn in the track - looking down, I could see his Ford from here. And four guys clustered around it, destroying the thing with baseball bats.
Peter nodded at me, and I understood, stepping behind a tree, crouching, peering around the edge just enough so that I could see what was going on. The gang were so busy destroying my uncle's truck that they swore and jumped when he spoke, clearly, but only loud enough so that they could hear him. Hearing his voice sent a shiver cannoning down my spine - it wasn't his normal, warm, friendly speech. It was cold and hard. He stood there, relaxed enough, Remington on his shoulder.
"If you've finished..."
One of them spoke up. "Who the **** are you supposed to be?"
"Well, for one, I'm the owner of that vehicle," Peter told them.
They spread out, walking towards him in a loose line.
"Looks like we've finally got some luck, boys," the Latino snarled. I recognised him from the hotel - except for one thing. A raw, ragged cut in his face that ran from his mouth, up over his eye. I took me a second to realise that I was to blame for that - throwing the knife...
"We're looking for a silver case," another gang member said, a skull tattooed onto the side of his face and a thick silver chain snaking around his neck. "From a BMW a bit of a ways back."
"Can't say I know what you're talking about," my uncle replied.
"No? Because truck tires - " he jabbed one of the Ford's wheels with his bat "just like these ones run from that BMW. So I'm thinking that you've got the case and that you're lying to us, old man."
My uncle nodded at his belt. "Is that a Ruger KP90 in your pants?"
Skull looked down, and my uncle's shotgun roared, ripping through the window of his truck and showering the gang in a rain of glass. Then everything turned to hell - the gang pulled guns, a random assortment of weapons, and my uncle dived for cover, just as the firecracker sound of semi-autos roared and punched holes in the trees around us.
I ducked behind my tree. This had gotten out of hand too fast...
I dared a glance and saw that the gang were creeping slowly up the track, their guns trained on a fallen pine that my uncle had probably taken cover behind. I wrapped my hand around Millie's gun, taking some comfort in the solid, dependable feel of the pistol, reminding me of her embrace and her warmth...and then turned to the left, looking down the sights of the Dan Wesson at the gunmen closing in on my uncle. I took in a deep breath, braced myself, jerked off the safety and then slammed my finger back on the trigger. There was a thunderclap of noise, the gun bucked, and the Latino went down screaming, clutching his leg, blood streaming from his thigh. I didn't pause - I swung the sights up onto the next guy - Skull - and fired twice. The first shot missed, and the second crashed into his stomach and made him fall to his knees. The others spun, guns coming up, and adrenalin had me hurl myself backwards, behind the tree. Something ripped past my face, but I ignored it, scrambling behind cover and turning, trying to find a shot around the tree. The third guy hesitated, just as Peter appeared from behind the fallen tree like a ghost and fired his shotgun. I watched his chest explode in a shower of scarlet and black, and he collapsed. The fourth and final gangster threw down his pistol and raised his hands behind his head, breath coming in ragged gasps.
"Jesus, don't kill me!!" he screamed hysterically.
I kept Millie's Dan Wesson levelled at him as I stepped out from behind the tree.
"On your knees!" Peter demanded, and the would-be killer dropped down without argument.
Adrenalin was still charging through my veins full-tilt, and as I walked over to the others, I noticed that my knuckles were white around the handgrip of the pistol. Skull was moaning, his gun lying a couple of feet away from him. I kicked the weapon further away, and saw the blood streaming from between his fingers. He looked up at me, disbelief in his eyes.
"Where the hell did you come from....?" he demanded.
He retched, blood and fluid covering my shoes. I barely noticed, instead focusing in on his face. A bullet to the gut - my bullet - and suddenly a cold, hard killer was reduced to a crying kid. If I could've spoken... I shook my head and looked over at the others. The Latino guy was whimpering softly, cradling his leg, his gun nowhere to be seen. Something clicked in my mind and i raised my gun just as he brought up his own. There was an explosion of noise, and his weapon fell from nerveless fingers, his whole body going limp. I could see a hole drilled almost perfectly between his eyes. The world seemed to turn to grey, and time slowed. Next I knew, I was on my hands and knees, the Dan Wesson blurring in and out of reality close to my fingers. Peter was at my side, a hand on my shoulder, but he wasn't talking. I couldn't have heard him even if I'd tried.
God, I'd just killed a man...
Something warm slid down my neck, and I raised my hand to find that it was blood. One of them had winged me - nothing serious, just a scratch - but a few inches and I'd have fared as well as the Mexican. I shook my head, trying to dispel the grey that had surrounded me... but it wouldn't fade, and everything around me seemed to become part of a dream. Snatches, particularly vivid sensations, stood out, but the rest of the world practically ceased to exist. I could remember red and blue lights flashing... Millie's pale face, staring at me with a mixture of astonishment and concern... my uncle, Peter, glancing over at me, a calm look on his face... the trees, the pines of the mountains flashing by a window, the sun going down over the horizon, bathing everything in a golden light...
White walls, floors, beds and men in coats - a hospital, maybe?
Then Millie's voice.
"You OK, Todd?"
Don't know, I mouthed. It's a little off-kilter...
"He'll be fine," my uncle's disjointed voice said. "It's just shock. He needs some time..."
Then there was the old familiar house, sitting out near the beach, the waves filling my ears with a roaring that was both comfortable and terrifying. My old familiar bed, warmth, a strange relief, and then the grey faded to black, ending the strange dream...
My eyes flickered open, and I found Millie sitting at the foot of my bed, watching me. I wasn't sure how long she'd been there, but it occurred to me that it really didn't matter that much. She smiled at me, a real smile, relief in her eyes. Peace. I returned it and sat up, kicking off my sheets and grimacing slightly. I felt fresher than I had in days. Then again, I hadn't slept that night driving away from Flagstaff... i found a glass of water on my bedside table and gulped it down gratefully.
"How you feeling?" Millie asked, her voice soft.
I gave her a thumbs-up. Much better.
"Guess I owe you an apology," she said, tapping her neck.
I touched the scar, and shrugged. Just a scratch.
"Thank you for everything," Millie told me. "I probably owe you my life."
I shook my head. Thank Peter. He's the guy who made this all happen.
"You're really something, you know that, right?" Millie said, tilting her head as she spoke.. "You just put down my father's best people, lost ten grand and saved my skin, and you're putting that down to someone else?"
I nodded. Yup.
What happened to them? I asked after a moment.
Millie caught what I was saying - she was getting better at this. "The gang? Two of them are dead - Pedro and Gary. The others are in critical condition, apparently. Cops weren't happy that we had to 'take matters into our own hands', but they were close enough to figure that you guys didn't start anything. So any criminal charges have been dropped for the time being, until the others can get out of critical and tell their side of the story. I'm guessing that Dad's not going to want them pointing the cops back to him, so if they've got any sense they'll just vanish and try and forget about all of this."
Kinda like you, I said.
She shrugged. "I still lost him ten thousand dollars. He's not going to be happy about it, but if he wants to play it smart then he'll keep away. Guess that means I can stick around here... around you."
I raised an eyebrow at that. I'm not exactly brilliant conversation.
Millie tilted her head. "What was that?"
Her reaction just made me laugh...