Photo by Michael Carnevale on Unsplash

“Gotta cut off its finger,” I say. “Left pinky’s traditional. The steel’s grafted to the surface of the bone. You’ll see wires in the blood. Once you see metal, you can put a bullet in its head with a clear conscience.”

“And if there’s no wires?” Sule asks, blue eyes wide above pudgy, peach-fuzzed cheeks. A baby’s face atop a stick-man’s frame, that’s Sule. “No metal? Nothing but flesh and bone, and a man screamin’ an’ gushin’ with a stump where his finger useta be?”

I shrug. “Then I s’pose an apology’s in order.”

The saloon’s walnut bar is caked with grime, the air blue and thick with pipe-smoke and the curses of the card players. To my right, Carney shakes his head side to side, big mane of black hair swaying as he does. “Hell an’ damnation, Fort,” he moans. “Can’t we just…I dunno, lock ‘im in a room for a coupla days and wait to see if’n he takes a dump?”

I shake my own head. “The Andies got wise t’ that trick a while back. Most of ’em carry turds on their person just in case. Gotta take the finger. Only way to be sure.”

Carney frowns. He’s a fearsome big man, with the hard shell common to any man of the West — if he hadn’t grown one, he’d be a dead man by now — but he’s soft at the center, and everyone knows it. “Jes’ seems wrong,” he says, his voice flat. “I mean, Werner’s been way out in the middle o’ nowhere, workin’ his claim, fer goin’ on six years. Seems like if he’d been an Andy, we’d know it by now.”

“Best take the bass outta your voice, Carney,” Sule replies. “Fort knows his business.” Sule finds life more comfortable in the shadow of a stronger man, such as myself. Andies keep turds in their pockets. I’ve got Sule in mine. Given the choice, I might opt for the turd.

Still, Sule’s got a point, and Carney knows it. His eyes wander to my left hand. To the stump where my left pinky used to be. “S’pose he does, at that.”

It’s settled, then. We buckle on the belts — the one with the holstered sixer on the right side and the Bowie sheathed on the left. We’ll be taking a trip out to Werner’s place.

We’ve been in the saddle for close to an hour, and Sule’s been babblin’ about Andies the whole time. “It’s the land, y’see. The Andies’ll take it all, if they get the chance. An Andy can work his stead twenty hours outta twenty-four, they say. Don’t stop to crap or even eat. Run for months and years on… I dunno, slag an’ mineral oil, I guess. They plow, dig, mine, harvest. Get rich quick, then send the profits east to pay for a fresh buncha Andies to be sent west. And no tellin’ which new fella gettin’ off the coach is one of ‘em.”

Carney still ain’t comfortable with our expedition. He tilts back the brim of his floppy hat, looks to the sky. “Where d’they come from?” he complains. “What the hell do they want? And why don’t the law do somethin’ about it?”

“The law’s what people choose to make it,” I reply. “Out here, only function the law serves is to help us tame the land. Those treaties the capital signed with the natives — well, those were the law. And then the capital decided we needed land, so they weren’t law. And now they want more of everything.” I pause. “More beef. More crops. Gold. Iron. Folks back east’r interested in what gets ’em those things, and in who gets things done. If that’s us, that’s us. But if it’s the Andies… Well, as far as the capital’s concerned, a man’s a man. Even when, technically, he ain’t.”

I turn and stare Carney in the eye. “So we look after our own,” I say. “No man’s a man who won’t look after his own. And no crime’s a crime to a man who will.”

We ride on.

They always run, when the knives come out, and Werner’s no different. He doesn’t make it fifty feet before Carney’s off the horse in a flying tackle and on top of him. And there’s Sule comin’ in behind, knife already out, puppy-dog eyes lookin’ to me for approval.

“Stay down, Wern!” Carney’s got Werner’s left hand pinned down there in the dirt, fingers already spread. “Sorry, but we gotta know! Here, see, I brought ya this strap to bite down on. It’ll all be over quick as y’ please.”

It’s then, behind Carney and Sule’s backs, that I draw my six. “Here ya go, Werner, here’s the strap, I’m right sorry about this, ya gotta hold still tho — ” I cock the hammer, pull the trigger, and the back of Carney’s head disintegrates in a hammersmash of blood and bone. Sule hears the bang and looks back at me, eyes wide. He takes his own bullet straight between ‘em.

Werner just lays there, face down in the dirt, panting and desperate with relief. “Oh, God, Fort! Thank God you got here!” They were crazy! They were gonna take my finger! What the hell were they…”

He sees my eyes and stops talkin’. I stare calmly down at him.

“Musta been a misunderstanding,” I say. “They came out here to take your finger, or to take your land. It went bad. And with all three of you gone, capital’ll want somebody new to work all three of your claims.” I raise the pistol. “Not to worry. I got friends.”

Werner is staring at my left hand, at the gap where my pinky used to be. It’s a damned inconvenience, truth be told. But it serves its purpose.

I can always send away for a replacement. More metal flowing in from the east every day now. Spare parts are cheap.

Steve DuBois is a high school teacher from Kansas City and the author of a dozen professionally published short stories. Find more of his work here.