When a man became desperate he looked to other people for needs. It didn’t matter if the need was material or spiritual, it all depended on the person in question. When a person approached death he made the instinctive choice of fleshing out his last wishes before passing onto the next life. In this day and age many probably asked for wealth, some sort of physical glee like money, women or a fancy mansion. Bos hesitated to count the times in his mind about the honest folk who regretted being unable to do more for his friends and family. When it came down to the rabid dogs of the wastes and people who remembered their humanity, the honest yearned to give freely and lovingly while the rest took everyone else’s freedoms away without a shred of remorse.
Bos held that piece of wisdom close to his heart. Tough times awaited him when he turned fifteen, the day his parents passed away due to natural causes. The next fifteen years he wandered throughout the wastes, looking for honest jobs from honest folk. Sometimes he got what he wanted and found jobs rustling cattle or tending shops. Other times he simply needed to survive and take any job he could get, and as a consequence they left cruel, bitter memories in his mind that plagued him in his sleep.
Against all odds his parents lived honest lives and earned the right to pass away as they did. In their wake they not only left Bos skills to survive in the wastes but also knowledge to gain insight of the hearts of others. The quiet cowboy met his fair share of bastards and his gut never lied to him about any of them. For them they all died like they deserved: Face first in the dry, dead ground.
Even if people tried living out their lives in peace a whole host of outside issues plagued their daily living. Bad mercenaries, rotten promises or just plain awful luck happened more than normal for a lot of those in Westpoole. Although the bad luck decided to fall upon Bos in the worn out shack made from stitches of thick wood, his mind kept its focus on a more important matter than the thin stack of money between his calloused fingers.
“Yer fifteen dollars short,” Bos rumbled quietly as he finished counting. Donne gazed to the aside, almost ashamedly as he carefully cleared his throat. Bos knew the scrawny, short man meant no harm for the hesitant explanation. Not many mercenaries treated their clients well, especially when they looked as defenseless as Donne.
“Sorry, Bos,” Donne stuttered while lifting his green, felt visor to wipe some sweat away from his head. Bos simply nodded as he slid the bills into his tan, leather duster. He picked up his Stetson hat from the worn, old counter and pressed it down onto his bald head. As he thoughtfully brushed his thick, brown mustache Donne only dreaded what swam in the cowboy’s mind.
“So tell me all about it,” Bos finally said with frightening calmness. His eyes gazed down to the counter as Donne’s lips quivered in hesitation.
“I’m just sorry, Bos,” Donne stuttered again. He started tugging and pulling the buttons of his dress shirt as a shiver went down his spine. “I can’t do anythin’ about your money.”
“Ain’t what I was referrin’ to.” The sight of Bos’s solid brown eyes drove a wedge through Donne’s spine. The store clerk’s amber eyes darted around in alarm.
“Whaddya mean?” Donne struggled to say with breathless words. Bos leaned in and rested his arms against the counter. All he needed to do was stock the shelves in the back room for twenty-five dollars. He furrowed his eyebrows, wondering why Donne continued feigning ignorance despite the ruckus he caused up front.
Donne let out a sharp sigh and swept away more sweat. “Alright,” he conceded stumblingly. “Please don’t look at me like that.”
“Now look here,” Bos began with the same, calm tone. “Ain’t about the money, alright? Not much honest folk around these parts. You tell me who brought you the trouble ‘n I’ll have a word with’em.”
No one bothered to help a poor guy like Donne with something as simple as stocking shelves. He knew Bos deserved his respect but that was the sole reason he wanted to keep his troubles away. Despite his fearful tone Donne’s face flashed with a brace of confidence. He simply didn’t want Bos to get into harm’s way. “You’re a good man, Bos. But like you said, there ain’t many honest folk around here.”
He said nothing more, only keeping his eyes locked at Bos in a wavering fit of confidence. The paling store clerk mustered all the strength at his disposal to keep from collapsing in a heap of fear. When Bos nodded calmly and slowly made his way out the shack Donne blurted out a sigh of relief, leaning onto the counter to regain his composure.
Westpoole carried a Western theme from ancient times. People here relied on cattle and horses to sustain them with work, and Bos wondered how exactly the townsfolk managed to build the settlement at all. Most places managed using scrap metal and ruins that survived the world’s end, yet Westpoole found some haven of materials to construct the town with wood. Even though dusty winds clawed and chewed at the faces of the buildings not a single doubt troubled Bos. Thick lacquer and protective paint gave the wood the protection it needed to fend off any sort of wind threatening it.
Bos knew these showed signs of not only an honest, strong town but likewise people making a hard-earned living. The unsettling feeling simmering in his stomach also knew that Donne’s problems stood bigger than him. An honest town with honest folk always fell prey to acrid sons of bitches picking around their possessions like vultures to a rotting carcass. Perhaps the trouble would come to him, Bos thought, and he could nip the issues in the bud before they bloomed any farther.
He passed through the saloon’s doors without making a fuss. Those nearby looked his way and Bos gave a courteous and gentle nod. He made his way to the bar and took a seat on a jury rigged metal stool fastened with various bolts and some duct tape. The withered, lanky bartender looked at Bos with deep, sunken gray eyes and nodded to him.
“Poison?” the bartender said dryly yet casually. Bos put down five dollars on the counter and slid it towards him.
“Coffee. Black.” Bos watched the bartender as he pocketed the dollars and sized him up. Five dollars for a plain cup of coffee? Not unusual unfortunately. Most of the water tasted like piss considering the little technology salvaged from the old world. The know-how to create truly pure and drinkable water remained out of most of humanity’s hands as well. Even though liquor came cheap the bartender honored Bos’s request and left to heat up the kettle in the back room.
“Rather pricey for a grizzly mercenary like you.” Cardinal kept her calm, seductive gaze on her glass. Bos wondered how she seemed to appear out of nowhere as he looked over her from the corner of his eye. She wore a deep maroon leather coat that edged just above her sand colored slacks. The color of her long, brown hair held a wavy, natural style with some split ends. When Cardinal adjusted on her stool Bos heard the soft thump of metal. She either bought trouble or was the trouble.
“Can’t get caught off guard,” the cowboy stated calm and factually. They both knew the truth of the matter, she already caught him unaware during his state of comfort. People always needed to beware the quiet ones in this lifetime. At this point Bos thought the woman either an assassin or some professional gun hand but it only remained as a thought. The bartender returned with a mug of coffee and placed it near Bos.
“An honest truth,” Cardinal agreed with a soft nod. “Though, alcohol works as a stimulant in a low dose. But I suspect you just want something to drink.”
Bos took a gulp of his coffee. Yup, assassin. People never used words like “stimulant” and “dose” in everyday discussions unless they knew a lot, and those that did knew how to murder a person a hundred different ways. Those words in particular contributed to thoughts of real poison. After he checked his drink of any discoloration he took a long and absent look at Cardinal’s water. The gears of his mind creaked when he realized it was pure, transparent water, untouched by the filth of the wasteland. Like every other settlement Westpoole’s water supply looked and tasted like piss. Did that water belong to her?
“Rare seeing pure water, isn’t it?” Cardinal smiled as she gently rocked the glass’s contents with a fully gloved hand. Damn, Bos thought. The rare sight made him reckless. So much for coffee keening his senses.
“Another honest truth,” Bos admitted quietly. “I reckon yer not from around here, though.”
From the corner of his eye he met her gaze. Her eyes looked exactly like his and coated Bos with a strange, indescribable familiarity. He wanted to dwell on the thought but he noticed she carried the same expression as his. She realized too late about her moment of weakness and peered at her drink. Before she spoke she took a sip from it. “I’m sure you’ve heard of the Chessmasters.” Her blunt redirect made Bos uncomfortable and he slightly lowered his hat. “They’re not bad people. Rather strange most of the townsfolk here only have bad things to say about them, don’t you think?”
Bos certainly agreed with that notion. The Chessmasters carried a few dozen in their ranks but never went out of their way to harm anyone. Hell, they even kept some towns under their guardianship as long as they gave them measly tributes of food and water. Bos knew for a fact they were honest people. An ugly feeling clouted his chest but he soothed it with a slow, calm breath.
Cardinal casually spun around in her seat and leaned her back onto the bar counter. When her arms made contact with the wood the soft thump of metal whispered through Bos’s ears again. He glanced over the opening of her coat, spotting a red, silken shirt with small frills stretching across her collar. He spotted no weapons on her but something else caught his eye. Her gloves extended downwards into her sleeves like some jumpsuit. What kind of assassin was she?
“Heads up, Cowboy,” Cardinal cautioned with a smirk on her face, eyes locked right on Bos. “You might want to start paying attention now.” She nodded over to the entrance and watched as the gruff cowboy’s eyes narrowed at the newcomers making a racket. Three raider looking thugs barged through the saloon doors, hollering and hooting like they found something worth celebrating. The tallest of the three seemed to be the leader, donning a metallic hockey mask and dressed in black ramshackle armor composed of half-tire shoulder pads and modified sports equipment. The front of his thick vest bore an insignia of a rook from chess, and Bos automatically knew this guy acted no good for someone in the Chessmasters.
The two lower ranked thugs bore pawn symbols. Despite being measly understudies the rook allowed them to do anything they wanted, which included harassing the locals in the bar and just being outright distasteful. They kicked down tables, stole drinks and bullied any patrons that voiced an issue with them. Bos expected something vile to happen when he saw the rook catch sight of an elderly man’s glare.
“You got somethin’ to say, gramps?” Bode barked out in a harsh voice. The old man kept his gaze on Bode, eyes unmoving with utter contempt and disgust.
Cardinal scoffed aloud, mockingly, shaking her head as she spoke. “Feeling any tougher?” She kept her calm, casual gaze on Bode as he stomped over to her. Bos kept his hat low but his senses alive. If these jokers stirred up this much trouble he wondered how many others stood waiting outside.
“Bitch, you know who I am?” Bode snarled at Cardinal but she remained strong, keeping her prideful gaze steady. “Careful what you say,” He continued as he gestured across the saloon. Many people tried to leave but anyone who so much as touched the doors got pushed back in. The two thugs terrorizing the patrons mercilessly assaulted a couple laying on the ground with flurries of kicks. “This place? This place is mine. If I want these fuckers to lick my shit-ridden sneakers they’ll do it. If I want their money I’ll take it.” Bode gave Cardinal elevator eyes and chuckled darkly. “I’m feelin’ a bit for a feisty chick. How ‘bout you give me a nice blow and I’ll let you off the hook, eh?”
Bos knew the woman could definitely take care of herself. The way she kept herself as cool as ice, her relaxed posture, the unrushed pace she took when drinking despite Bode’s unrefined scrutiny. Bode saw nothing other than what he wanted to see. He only saw weakness, and weak people deserved subjugation in his arrogant mind. Even if he became the strongest person in this region of the empty wasteland his will mirrored its hollowness, and that became a glaring weakness in itself. No resolve, no will, no hope.
Despite knowing the truth, regardless of just how skilled Cardinal may be Bode weighed down the last straw on Bos’s patience. He moved from his stool, chugging down the remnants of coffee and sliding it towards the barkeeper’s end of the counter. “You should learn some manners, boy.” Bos faced Bode and sized him up.
In his eyes Bode was nothing but some impolite punk ass, a kid that needed to be humbled with a good punch to the face. Bos’s old-fashioned teachings kicked into full force. He kept his arms to his sides but flexed them to prepare for some bloody fisticuffs. The outside seemed to be jeering into the saloon with a cacophony of voices. There must be at least eight of them in total, maybe even more. Whatever the case Bos assumed he stood alone. This fight was going to get real messy.
Bode scoffed and got close to Bos’s face, letting the smell of his grimy hockey mask fill the cowboy’s nostrils. “The fuck you say to me?” His growl seemed more bothersome than intimidating.
“Son,” Bos repeated himself with a more commanding tone. “Don’t know who raised you but that sort of behavior ain’t welcome here. You’d best leave before someone makes a decision he’ll regret.” Bos kept his eyes on Bode, watching every slight twinge of muscle. The thug’s fingers and hands crooked back and forth endlessly as if trying to disperse tension. Bode scoffed again and slowly turned around, then immediately spun and swung a fist at Bos.
He wasn’t that old or stupid. Bos leaned back and easily avoided the blow, countering with his own powerful right hook to Bode’s neck. The impact caught Bode off-guard and he fell back onto a table with a thundering crash. The two thugs loitering around the saloon rushed to the rook’s defense, unsheathing rusty iron pipes clasped to their belts. Bos put his dukes up and prepared for the onslaught. He found enough time to peek to his left for Cardinal’s safety but she disappeared just as quietly as she arrived. Only the empty glass remained as evidence of her existence.
The pipes came whistling down and crashed hard into the rough and worn counter. Bos strafed to the side and kicked one of the pawns in the underside of his leg, causing him to buckle down with a grunt. Bos turned his attention to the other one, whose pipe flailed wildly with unmitigated abandon, not a semblance of reasoning with any form of attack. He slammed his weapon so hard against a table that it ricocheted out of his grasp, and Bos closed the gap between them and launched a flurry of jabs around any exposed parts of the pawn thug’s body.
The pawn reeled against the attacks and collapsed against a chair, shattering the poor old wood into pieces. The remaining pawn struggled to lift himself up from the crippling strike but his leg throbbed sharply with pain. Bode recovered from the surprise attack and charged Bos with a cry of rage only to have his efforts supplanted. The wounded pawn rubbing his leg let out a grunt surprise as Bos hurled him into Bode, causing a table to break into pieces.
“Fuck you!” Bode cried out with a squeak of fading anger. The splinters of the shattered table stuck needled agony through his arms as he shoved the unconscious pawn away from him. He quickly limped away to the entrance while clutching his neck. He coughed and wheezed, growling in anger as he forced his body to carry him away from danger. Bos simply followed him with an air of command, unfaltering in his point to shoo the bullies away.
As soon as Bode cleared the doors a larger, more heavily armored man grabbed the rook by the shoulder pads and hurled him into the dirt road. Bos walked out into the daylight and furrowed his brows at the amount of Chessmasters present in the little town. About a dozen of them bearing knight and rook insignias littered the street in two single file lines. The display of formation also resembled a pattern of black and white.
Bos gazed to the side. Cardinal sat upon one of the troublemaking Chessmaster thugs with her legs elegantly crossed. She gave Bos a smirk and waved to him. Around her sat the remnants of Bode’s crew, all bound with thick rope and unconscious. Bode himself laid in the dirt just at the end of the formation with the higher ranking Chessmasters, and boy was he angry. He whipped and lashed at his captor, who looked more like an executioner than anything. With a black hood that cloaked his face and armor that showed off his muscular arms the picture only reinforced itself by the metallic, sign post axe strapped to his back.
What caught Bos’s attention more than anything was Donne standing out in front of his shop with a sawed-off shotgun in his trembling hands. He struggled tooth and nail to keep his legs braced as they shook violently, his skin a sickly pale of white emphasized by the sun drifting overhead. When he locked eyes with Bos he let out a loud sigh and collapsed to the ground. With the shotgun clutched even closer Donne gave a wide smile to him, and Bos repaid the store clerk with a small nod.
But then, just as Bos motioned to gaze at his surroundings he realized Donne wasn’t alone. The little town became a militia within the span of a few hours, bearing various melee weapons and old fashioned rifles. It seemed like today was the day folks just got plain tired of Bode and his ways.
Bos heard the clang of arms orderly chiming from the formations. He heard stories of the King and Queen of the Chessmasters, how they adopted the lost, the poor and the meager. The cowboy respected that but knew it also spelled trouble to give such people another chance. Then again he also found out how the group maintained such stable numbers; most of those given a second chance never lived for a third one.
He wondered where the King was as the Queen walked through the formed lines at a calm pace. Her elegant white cloak lined with baby blue obscured most of her body along with her head, and a white mask covered her whole face other than her fierce, bright blue eyes. Once she made her way to the end of the formation she looked down at Bode with a pitying glare and motioned for the captor to bind him. She left the hooligan’s vile spewing mouth unheeded as she approached Bos. “An honor to meet the son of Chloe in the flesh.” She bowed slightly, wary of her height compared to the cowboy’s.
“Afraid I don’t recall if we’ve met,” Bos noted politely, tipping his hat. Despite that he narrowed an eye out of impulse. How did she know his father? The tall woman looked down at Bos not in anger or pity but with eyes of respect worthy of his reputation.
“That is because we have not,” the Queen replied elegantly, a voice fitting of her role. “My subjects have, however. I personally have had the pleasure of knowing your parents before their passing. They were strong, honest people in a world riddled with impurity. I am glad to see you follow their footsteps in your own path.”
Bos didn’t know what to make of that. “Don’t know what people say about me,” he admitted. “But I reckon any friend of my parents is a friend of mine, if you allow me the right to say so.”
“That I do,” the Queen responded calm and kindly. She gazed at Bode like looking at a rabid animal. “For the injustices Bode and his ilk have caused, death is a surely find. By leaving them alive you have allowed us to utilize our system of law, and that is well appreciated even if that was not your intention.” She looked back to Bos. He believed her to be smiling now based on the narrowing of her eyes. “I am sure Cardinal has told you about our system? She is a fond friend of ours and volunteered to investigate this town of Westpoole.”
Bos arched his brows in surprise. Cardinal sauntered up to the two and patted Bos on the back.
“Apologies, Milady, but I didn’t believe it was necessary to tell him about it.” She chuckled wryly. “I thought him an honest man and didn’t think he was going out for blood.” She looked at Bos and nodded with a smirk. “Sorry it took this long for introductions. I’m Cardinal.”
“Yer a God damn Black Sparrow.” Bos stared at Cardinal in calm shock, struggling to process the presence of the woman before him. Every town he’s been in always carried some story about the Sparrows. People say they held connections with a lot of dangerous people but that’s not what Bos worried about. They were trained to be dangerous.
“You gonna shank me with some wrist blade in the dead of night?” Bos narrowed his eyes at Cardinal, who simply trailed a finger over her smirking upper lip. Now that he knew who she was that smile put him on edge. Cardinal was a master of stealth and assassination. Not a single fact graced her tales other than her weapons of choice, two wrist-mounted blades sharp enough to cut obsidian with ease. Things seemed to come together when he recalled how she sifted from place to place without ever alerting anyone. One true fact of the Black Sparrows was that they carried technology from before the world’s end, and Bos assumed she was employing such tech to move around.
“Eyes of honesty,” Cardinal said. “You’re the rather calculating type, aren’t you?”
He couldn’t respond. Bode’s captor screamed in agony as a jagged blade pierced his ankle clean through. Bode swung his bound hands under his feet and pulled the man down while snatching something from his back. In slow motion the pistol swerved towards Bos as nearby Chessmasters lunged to grab the gun before it fired.
The bullet screamed out of the pistol as Bode backpedalled away from the reach of the Chessmaster soldiers. Bos pushed Cardinal out of the bullet’s trajectory as his hand passively swept under his duster. He removed his M1911 Colt pistol from its holster and switched the safety off in under a second. He knew this wasn’t going to be fast enough. The Chessmasters weren’t the only ones who told stories about him, and towns hailed Bos as the quickest, sharpest gun hand around. He knew death when he saw it, and as his bullet departed from the magazine he felt a sharp, agonizing pain course through the right side of his head.
Small chips of bone broke away from his skull along with the spray of deep crimson. He slammed hard into the ground and dropped his weapon, feeling the pain somewhat ease from the numbness clouding his now half-blind vision. The ring of his bullet never reached his ears as it pierced through Bode’s neck. The thuggish Chessmaster clutched his bleeding throat with both hands as he slowly wilted from the world.
The damage was done. The infuriated Queen unsheathed a blade from her side and thrust it through Bode’s head, surrendering him to the bliss of death. Cardinal knelt beside Bos and assessed his wound. His eye was completely ruptured along with the side of his skull.
“How does he fare?” The Queen asked. As she sheathed her sword Donne came rushing out from his store clutching numerous medical supplies.
“Oh God!” Donne cried out His skin turned ghost white as he watched Bos writhe weakly. The dirt soaked up all the blood pouring from his skull and he barely showed any signs of life. Donne saw the light slowly fading from his eyes and mustered all the strength he could to carefully set the medical supplies beside Cardinal.
“Bos,” Cardinal said hurriedly. “Stay with me, alright? You’ll be fine, just stay awake.” She started ripping through gauze packages. He continued fading away despite her protests to keep awake. Every word that didn’t reach him filled Cardinal with more reminiscent terror. Even as she kept her cool she remembered this horrible, sinking feeling. This was watching the light in her father’s eyes fade away all over again.
Bos’s vision careened between blurs of bright white and pitch black. He felt his breath abandoning him, and for some reason he locked his ruined gaze at Cardinal and blinked once. Now he realized what he felt during their chat in the bar. She had the eyes of his mother. After that his vision withered into darkness and slumber wrapped over him for almost an eternity.
The pain crashing through his head told him he lived. Everything from before almost felt like a dream but he knew better than that. His tired and aching body made no response despite his clearing vision. Was he paralyzed? Several grunts allowed him to wiggle his fingers and he expressed his gladness with a breath.
His head felt heavier. He moved an unsteady hand to it and felt something strange coupled to where his right eye should be. His vision seemed perfectly alright save for a slight tint of green. What the hell happened?
The room wasn’t perfectly clear but he could make out a metal nightstand with his pistol and Stetson sitting on top of it. The concrete room screamed prison cell yet a metallic door with a valve knob graced the center of it. It turned with a screech and Cardinal slowly entered the room.
She only wore her thick, black fibrous jumpsuit that completely covered her body. If this was a woman’s advance Bos only thought it polite to respond in kind. “Glad to see you’re awake,” she said as she walked towards the nightstand. She looked over the Colt pistol and admired its polished wooden grip. The Stetson wasn’t bad looking either despite its worn and frayed edges.
“The hell did you do to me?” Bos said as calmly as he could. He remembered taking the bullet to the head and knew he should be missing something.
“Your eye was ruined from the shot.” Cardinal checked the nightstand’s small cabinet and took out a mirror. “A friend of mine gave you a new eye but you might need a while to get used to it.” She handed the mirror to Bos. He winced in pain as he looked over the grey coupling fastened to the small area around his eye. The lens carried a dark green color and an inner reticule constantly shifted sizes at an almost lightning pace.
“It’s been a few months since the operation. Breakfast should be coming soon so you’ll be in shape soon enough.” She took the mirror when Bos handed it to her. She seemed a bit more awkward than before, almost as if struggling to find words. He stared at her for a long time, feeling as if she reminded him of something.
Then it finally hit him. “You kinda look like someone I know.”
“Same to you.” She smiled at him and Bos knew this one was a genuine, sincere expression. She certainly did remind him of mother. The awkward presence surrounding the room seemed to dissipate immediately, replaced with one of a strange, cozy warmth. Cardinal filled Bos on some other remaining details in case he was curious. The Queen began searching for any other corrupt subjects and also extended guardianship over Westpoole. The townsfolk started off suspicious but Cardinal’s word helped ease tensions. They started appreciating them more when they found out the Chessmasters were helping Westpoole become more prosperous with trade caravans.
Along with that Bos’s reputation skyrocketed from the mix of caravans and gossip. Donne’s store became a boon for the town and he now ran a rather large shop compared to his dinky one. Apart from that Cardinal also found something interesting about Bos. “Rather strange you named yourself after a cow.” Her smirk grew into a smile as Bos simply shrugged. Something about the moment gave Bos some comfort. Even though he thought the gadget strapped to his head felt more of a burden than a boon he found it difficult to actually feel disgruntled about it.
Bos quietly watched Cardinal, unable to say a word to ruin the moment. She kept her gaze on his Stetson and pistol, trailing an absent thumb across the smooth, wooden grain of the grip. He recognized those eyes. He had the same look fifteen years ago when his parents passed on. He knew without a shadow of a doubt that the both of them endured some rough teenage years.
“Say,” he finally said, breaking the illusion. “Who do I remind you of?” Bos knew he hit the mark when Cardinal locked eyes with him. She simply chuckled and peered over him with a teasing glance.
Several knocks came from outside the door. Breakfast would be nice time to chat about it all.