Short Story: A Bullet in the Rancher's Tomb

Greetings, everyone. This month's short story is another piece about the notorious bounty hunter Gwendolyn Hatch.

Some day I might gather these up, pick the best, and get them properly edited and placed in a collection.

Some day.

For now, this is all yours, my faithful Patreon subscribers. This one might also go out in some kind of promo to drive interest in the Metal and Men series, but, well, let's call that a future project.

A Bullet in the Rancher's Tomb

Gwendolyn Hatch didn’t think she’d be buried alive, but there she was, and with company to boot. After half a century as a bounty hunter, she’d always figured a job gone south would land her six feet under. This was considerably deeper.

The rancher’s tomb wasn’t the worst place to be buried, all things figured. All that orange stone and colorful Mexican tapestry made for a rather roomy place to spend an afterlife. Pleasant, almost. Ceramic vases anchored the corners of the dusty space, and a brick of a sarcophagus sat on the stone slab in the middle.

“Let us out!” shouted the man in the dirty coveralls. He pressed his clenched fists against the stone door. “Please!” When he pressed his despondent face against the door, his tears darkened the rough surface. “This has nothing to do with me.”

“Maybe,” Hatch said. “Maybe not.” She flicked a coin light to the ground and, along with the half-dozen others, it lit their tiny space. The curls of her long white hair fell in front of her face. An old lady probably couldn’t expect an understated death like this, but she could certainly expect better company. “It’s a hell of a company you work for. Think they’ve written you off yet?”

“Plastech pays my bills,” the man spat. He ran a hand through his exquisitely styled hair. “They’re not family. At least I don’t make my living as an outlaw.”

“Bounty hunter,” Hatch explained. She drew her revolver and checked its five bullets. Still there. She hadn’t even gotten a shot off before the gate guards routed her into the cemetery. How they’d found her so fast, she could only guess, but she had managed to pull the man with her when she went for cover in the tomb. “Man like you ought to know how to signal for help.” She tapped the side of her head. “They got you chipped?”

His eyes flashed with an unnatural blue. “It won’t work down here.” He kicked the solid door one last time and winced when he saw the new scuff on his shiny loafers. “Every bounty hunter I ever heard of was loaded with tech.”

Hatch nodded. “You haven’t heard of a hunter like me.”

“I would have been fine keeping it that way.”

She holstered her weapon and stuck out a hand. “Gwendolyn Hatch.”

He folded his hands in his lap. “Alistair Worths.”

“Well, Alistair, it looks a lot like we’re going to die here on account of that closed door that won’t open. Anything you’d like to get off your chest?”

His thin lips turned up in a sneer. “Are you telling me you dragged me down here and you don’t have any backup coming? What happened out there, anyway?”

Hatch shrugged. “Who’s to say? I was scoping the place out when your people got attacked.”

“So you decided to drag me down here.”

“You’d have been killed in the crossfire,” Hatch snapped.

Worths gestured wildly with his hands. “You approached the most heavily defended wing of the Thunderbird Bay Tech Compound and you didn’t think to have a decent escape route?”

She scratched her chin. “Well, when you put it that way—”

He towered over her. “This is not how I’m going to die. Tell me you have backup.”

“Oh, I do.”

“And they’re on their way?” Spittle flew as he spoke.

Hatch met his gaze for a good long time before she said, “I do apologize, Mr. Worths. It’s a shame you got wrapped up in this.”

Worths sat with his back against the door and buried his head in his hands. For a long time he didn’t speak, and Hatch figured it a kindness not to use up all the air talking. She sat across from him on the sarcophagus, gun held loosely in her hand.

Eventually, he spoke. “It wasn’t supposed to be a long-term thing. Fellas at the recruitment office said I could do a week’s work for Plastech and earn twice what I’d earned in the previous six months. And the work was the same. Tend the cattle. Keep them breeding and keep them healthy.” He looked up at her, his eyes puffy and red. “They paid twice that for the next week. Hard for a rancher to resist money like that.”

“All you need to do is ignore the blood on your hands.”

“Blood?” he scoffed. “There wasn’t any blood. Plastech’s nanomachines can turn a head of cattle into dust in under a minute.”

Hatch stared at the man. She’d heard of secret weapons testing, but nothing so terrifying as that.

Worths waved her judgment away like it was a pestering insect. “It’s all confidential. This kind of stuff never leaves the compound, but hell, we’re dying here. No reasons to keep secrets from the dead, right?”

“Can’t imagine.”

“So, how about you?” asked Worths. “Must be a hell of a bounty to bring you ‘round to this part of Texas.”

“Got to a point in my career where I was just like you.” Hatch set her revolver on the cold stone. “Felt like every step I took was a step in the wrong direction. I figured it was about time to make a change.”

Worths narrowed his eyes. “Not sure what that means.”

“I make my own bounties.”

“So you are just an outlaw.”

Hatch met his gaze. “Seems I’ll die like one.”

Worths repeated his question, “Who was your bounty?”

“Nobody in particular,” she said. She glanced down at his feet. “Figured I’d look for someone with nice patent leather shoes, top of the line headgear, and a nice haircut. You know, the kind of man who isn’t really a rancher at all, but someone in the upper echelons of the company, lazily disguised for a walk through the cemetery.”

His hand moved fast, but Hatch was faster. She snatched up her gun and trained it on him. He froze with his hand in the pocket of his coveralls.

“You found me, then,” he said.

“Sure,” she said over the barrel of her gun. “That I did.”

“If you kill me, this tomb will fill with a nanomachine cloud. Plastech’s little insurance measure. You’ll be dead in seconds.”

“That’s good to know,” Hatch said.

He withdrew his hand and rested it loosely on his knee. “You have me, then. We’ll both die in this tomb anyway, won’t we?”

Hatch pointed her revolver at the ground. “All I’m looking for is a man on the inside of Plastech. Someone who feels morally obligated to feed me information on the regular. Someone who worked their way up through the upper tier of the business and knows the ins and outs of Thunderbird security and technology.”

“You got the wrong guy.”

“I don’t think I did. I think a man who visits a cemetery must have some remorse.”

He tapped his temple. “You want me to be a traitor to my company. I don’t have enough remorse to accept a death sentence.”

Hatch crossed to him in touched the middle of his forehead. “No signal down here. I figure we’re more alone than we’ve been for our whole lives. A handshake here is between you and me.”

“I’m almost never outside the compound. How would I communicate with you?”

“A bigwig like you has enemies,” Hatch said. She holstered her weapon and withdrew a long, thin metal shaft from the deepest pocket of her coat. “Enough that you wear a worker’s coveralls to visit the cemetery.”

Hatch waved him aside and slipped the metal piece through the edge of the door. With some work, she hooked it on the stone. “Do we have a deal, Mr. Worths?” she asked, offering her hand.

He looked at the hand in the eerie blue light. For the span of a long breath, Hatch didn’t know if he’d take it. She’d tipped her hand and shown him there was a way out. He could easily deny her offer and hope she didn’t want him dead. She didn’t. It was a bluff she was willing to take.

He shook. Frowning, he peered at the single golden bullet she had pressed into his hand. “Gwendolyn Hatch, Bounty Hunter,” he read.

“Like I said, top brass like you sometimes makes an enemy or two.” She pulled the piece of metal and the tomb door swung open. “Give me a call.”

He pocketed her calling card bullet. “They’ll be looking for you out there,” he said, nodding to the stairs leading up through the ancient tunnel. “My security detail.”

Hatch drew her revolver and flashed a grin. “It’s like life, Mr. Worths. We fight our way in, and we fight our way out. Might as well get to it.”

With that, she left the tomb to fight her way through Alistair Worths’ entourage of security.

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