Chapter 63:

Chapter 63 - Meanwhile, Back at the Ranch…


It was Roulette’s job to water the animals.

Daddy was getting on in years, so one day she’d volunteered to take on the task herself. He’d argued, of course (he was used to making her life easier, not the other way round), but he eventually relented. She was fifteen now, after all–practically grown! It was about time she started pitching in around the ranch.

The water pump squeaked in protest as she worked the handle. It filled up her little bucket well enough, though not nearly as quickly as she would’ve liked; it was kind of old, struggling to dispense more than a steady trickle at the best of times. That was how things tended to be around Wassinger Ranch, though–just good enough to scrape by. Between the drought and Daddy’s weekly expenditures on protests and rallies, they didn’t have the money to afford anything better.

Roulette didn’t mind it, really. The times were the times, and the cause was important. She’d keep doing what she could to support him, and eventually things would take a turn for the better. They always did sooner or later.

She took up the bucket and made her way back toward the pasture, frowning down at her fingernails as she went. Roulette couldn’t remember the last time they’d looked so drab. Had she chipped off all her nail polish during her morning chores? She normally made a point of repainting them every morning, but today they looked entirely natural. And her clothes… A filthy shirt and a pair of hand-me-down overalls? It was like the way she used to dress before…


…What exactly was going on here?

Suddenly, the sight of a lone rider approaching from the east caught her attention: a big man on a big, chunky-looking stallion. It kicked up thick clouds of dust as it charged down the wide dirt road leading to the homestead, and the sight of it filled Roulette with an uncomfortable mixture of curiosity and terror. Part of her longed to get away–to hop the nearest fence and tear off across the field, never to return.

She didn’t do that, though. Instead, she set down her bucket and started walking toward the front of the house. As she drew closer, she heard the sound of angry voices issuing from the porch. Roulette wasn’t normally one for eavesdropping, but something about the exchange seemed deadly serious–serious enough to warrant a little snooping. She pressed her back to the side of the house and cupped a hand to her ear, hopeful that she could make out the bulk of the conversation despite her considerable distance from the front door.

“–knew it wasn’t goin’ to fly!” barked a hoarse voice, loud and throaty. “You’re makin’ a laughing stock of me in my own home county.”

“Glad to hear it,” her father replied. “If the movement’s sourin’ your reputation, then I’d say it’s workin’ as intended.”

“‘The movement’... Would you listen to yourself, Abnur? You’re a rancher, not a goddamn revolutionary!”

“I’ll be whatever folks need, when they need it,” Daddy said, his voice calm and even. “Right now, they need somebody willin’ to stand up to men like you–men who seem hell bent on makin’ the range even poorer ‘n’ bloodier than it already is.”

Roulette heard heavy footfalls on the porch, as if their visitor were pacing back and forth in a bid to work out his frustrations. “I get it. You can’t see the big picture. I don’t expect you to,” he drawled. “But disarmament? Are you out of your mind? Do you know where you are? Out here, guns’re all we got! Our primary export–the linchpin of our manufacturin’ sector. And you want to take ‘em away? Right before there’s about to be a war on?”

“Oh, there’s gonna be a war on, now?” her father countered. “I knew you were bad for us, Gunn, but I never thought you’d stoop that low. You’ve already sent half our young men away to the enclaves, and now you’re lookin’ to bleed us even drier for a war nobody wants?”

The rider–Gunn–let out an explosive sigh. “I shouldn’tve told you that,” he growled. “I’ll put it plainly for you, Abnur, out of the respect I used to have for you once upon a time: this little side project of yours ends now. I want your word that there’ll be no more rallies. No more draggin’ my name through the mud. If you can’t promise me that, I’ll have to shut you up for good.”

Roulette’s eyes widened at that. He was going to kill him–she could feel it in her bones. Her father was many things, but he was not a quitter, and he wasn’t a liar either. She knew his pride demanded that he continue with his work, and he was sure to tell the rider as much in his very next breath.

She ran to the shooting range at the side of the house–the place where her Daddy had taught her to defend herself. There was nothing there but her old pellet gun, but at least it was something. Maybe if she was lucky, she’d be able to blind the man with it before he could do any harm. She snatched up the weapon and ran back around to the front of the house to find that the talk had turned into a shouting match; Gunn had his pistol out, and violence seemed inevitable.

Roulette leveled her weapon at the man on the porch. “Leave him alone!”

He turned to face her with a smirk of amusement on his face. He wore a long, brown duster and a cowboy hat, and his handlebar mustache accentuated a prominent, stubbled chin. “I always knew you were an idiot, Abnur,” he chuckled. “I guess it’s only natural you’d raise one too.”

“Petunia! Stay out of this–go hide out back!” her father yelled.

“I can’t do that, Daddy!” she replied, keeping her aim steady. “I won’t let him hurt you!”

“So, the hypocrite taught you how to shoot, did he?” The man tromped down the front porch steps and spread his arms wide, plainly unfazed by the threat she posed to him. “Too bad he never put a real weapon in your hands. But, hey, maybe you’ll get lucky? Maybe you’ll sprain my trigger finger?”

He guffawed loudly. The sound of it demoralized her, causing the gun to tremble in her hands.

“What’re you waitin’ for?” he taunted. “Now’s your chance!”

Roulette took a deep breath and set her legs apart. She did everything she’d been taught… But nothing had prepared her for firing on a living, breathing target. Much as she hated the man in front of her, she was forced to confront an inconvenient fact–a fact he already seemed to know instinctively:

She just didn’t have it in her.

He lowered his arms and clucked his tongue. “What a shame,” he sighed. “Time’s up, girlie.”

Then he spun around and emptied five shots into her father’s chest.

“NO!!!” Her knees buckled, the pellet gun falling from her hands as she sank to the ground. She remained transfixed by the open doorway her father’s body had fallen through, barely registering the clomping of Gunn’s boots as he made his languid way toward her.

“You should’ve done what your daddy told you, Petunia. Now it’s too late,” he grated, turning the barrel of his pistol on her this time. “There’s too much at stake to risk letting you alone. Unlucky for you, though, somethin’ about the thought of puttin’ a bullet in that pretty face just doesn’t sit right…”

He shot her in the gut. She collapsed into the dirt, forced to watch the blurry shape of his large frame recede from her field of vision as the man made his way back to his horse. Roulette could feel her life’s blood leaking out all over the place; she felt as if she were drifting away. The minutes passed with agonizing slowness, and it became difficult to focus on the clear, blue sky above.

Just before she lost consciousness, though, she saw a dark figure loom over her.

“...Mom?” she croaked.

“No, damn it!” she heard a masculine voice bellow. “Get your finger off the trigger!”

“Wha…? Trigger?” she babbled. “But I dropped it…”

“What the hell are you on about? Stop shootin’! I said STOP SHOOTIN’, ROULETTE!”

Roulette gasped and shot up from her place on the ground, unintentionally headbutting Morgan in the process. He swore and let go of her wrist, which he’d been pinning to the ground–ostensibly because she’d been squeezing the trigger without pause for some time. Darts and bullet holes riddled the trunks of trees all around them, and Morgan’s own gun lay abandoned a few feet away.

“Had to ditch Ricochet to throw off those bandage-snakes of yours,” he explained, feeling at the bump forming on his head. “You never told me you could fire those things!”

“Oh yeah,” she replied in a faraway voice, still struggling to come to grips with reality. “Sorry.”

In the very next moment, though, it all came rushing back to her: the jungle; the ambush; her frantic flight through the underbrush.

Her friends.

“What happened?” she breathed. “Where is everyone?”

Morgan looked away, rubbing awkwardly at the back of his head. “Not sure. But if what happened to us is anything to go by…

“I’m thinkin’ we should probably expect the worst.”

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