by Micah Dean Hicks
Three years past, Seven-leg and his troupe of hard-backed killers were knocking over settler wagons in the pines of east Texas. They had been in camp one morning, chewing rotten horse hides and Seven-leg dealing a round of cards, while they waited for one-antennaed Willy Moseley to get back with news about a job. Willy never showed, but the state militia side-crept on them and let loose with rifles. The bandits drew iron, swung their segmented bodies around, and shoved themselves underneath logs and rock piles. That day the dirt flushed with blue blood, scraps of shell and leg segments strewn like cards. They lost a lot of good crawlers in those trees before they could get away. But now Seven-leg had heard about Willy turning sheriff in a border town, and his claw itched to squeeze down on his Colt cannon and make meat of the mud-eater who had betrayed him.
A gambler, Seven-leg was bringing six leadslingers for the job, all crawlers who’d been with him in the pines years ago, totaling seven: himself, Greg Potts, Tom Boiled, Janey Flicker, Nate Sayers, Coy James, and Dean Mitchell. Some of those crawlers would go on to become legends of their own, and some would go back to the mud.
It was two weeks swimming backwards downriver, their tails thumping through the mud-waters and reed-beds making good time. Nobody carried much more than their gun, the duster on their carapace, and pounds of shells. Wouldn’t need anything else.
They came to a little town on the riverbank, nothing but a few dozen badly stacked mud chimneys, and Seven-leg told them to have themselves a night of fun. There’d be desert tomorrow.
Nate, Coy, and Dean found a dark saloon with just enough light for their cards, and stayed at that most of the night. Janey Flicker took some old shells to a gunsmith and had him fill them up with powder and put a new lead cap on them. She wasn’t one to run out of bullets.
Old Greg Potts wandered the town for a few hours, his eyes slowly clouding up like dishwater. He found Tom Boiled carrying around a tin bucket, putting out cook-fires, and shook his head. Ever since he’d tumbled into a hot spring, something had been off with the crusty son of a bitch. Greg took the bucket away from him. He said he didn’t know if he was up to crossing the desert, old as he was and all. Tom’s mouth fizzed a little. He told Greg that if he backed out now, Seven-leg would get off Janey just long enough to put a bullet in him. Then, Tom said, he’d eat every piece of Greg himself. Greg called him a flat-tailed crazy piece of shit and crawled back to the saloon, but he was afraid Tom might be right.
The next morning, Potts’ eyes were solid gray with sick and he could barely see. Seven-leg asked him if he was going to be able to make it, and Tom grinned his burned grin. Greg spat and said that he could.
Out of the river, it was three days crawl across the heat wastes, nothing but sun and sun, and old Greg Potts died. That night, with a yellow moon heavy to fall in the sky, Seven-leg said some words over his shell. They sectioned up Potts, held the meat in their claws, and seared him red over the fire. That night, Nate, Coy, and Dean played cards while Janey Flicker fucked Seven-leg under the open sky, her five pairs of spinnerets drumming on his shell and his claw tugging her antennae. Off away from the others, Tom Boiled stuffed his mouth with Potts’ legs and sang every song he could remember. That night, Seven-leg whispered to Janey that they were six now and had lost their luck, but as long as she was with him, he thought he could do anything.
Morning came and Tom Boiled was up firing rounds off into the face of the sun, bright red splotches shining on his back and head. Coy spat and said they ought to kill him for it, and Janey said she was sympathetic to that. The shots echoed back and forth to the horizon. The town was an hour out, nothing but flatland, and surely Willy would know that they were coming now. Seven-leg told Boiled to get his shit straight, and Tom calmed down. Seven-leg pulled his hood over his rostrum, antennules checking the wind, and told them to get stepping. It would be a hot noon.
The town was a tiny hump on the desert, no more than a hundred crustaceans and larva taken together. Adobe burrows ringed a few good-sized rocks. There was a clump of wood buildings warped and sun-bleached and all sharing walls with one another. Seven-leg’s mouthparts rubbed together and he thought how generous it was of the militia to hide Willy all the way out here. He stuck a seven of clubs in his hat-band for luck.
They circled around to the south, knowing Willy had heard the shots. Tom Boiled was steady babbling, revolver clutched in each claw, not making any sense. Nate was fed up with it, but didn’t see anything they could do about it now, so he kept quiet. Nate, Coy, and Dean threw their serapes back off their claws and drew iron. The troupe crawled up the street in a line.
Seven-leg could see Willy’s burrows on the north end of town, right where he thought they’d be. Bead-like eyes followed them from street windows, but no one moved until a larva ran out in front of Tom Boiled — scrawny thing, not much past a nauplius — and Tom skewered it with one sharp foreleg, shoved it in his mouth, and ate that little bastard with his parents watching from their door. Shit got bad, then.
The town crustaceans screamed and drummed their claws on the walls. Willy spun around in his burrow, silver star gleaming on his carapace. He saw Seven-leg and his group down the street, and he and his deputies came boiling out, guns high and hammers dropping. Ducking into houses, Seven-leg and his troupe were some cold-water killers, and raked the streets with lead from one end to the other.
Seven-leg found himself alone in a doorway, a family balled up together on the floor behind him, and deputies sending gunfire his way. He shot back, and wondered where Janey was, but he knew he couldn’t worry about that now. He got hit, a bullet cutting straight through his tail and shattering the chitinous plate above it. It left blue stars of blood every time his tail slapped the ground, but that wasn’t going to stop a crawler like him. He cleaned out everyone on the street, their antennas lying limp in the dirt, and went to find Willy.
There was an awful sound back around a cluster of cabins, and Dean wondered what in the hell Tom was doing over there. He saw Janey start scuttling that way. Willy’s men were filing past the general store to stop her, but Nate, Coy, and Dean shot the bastards from an alley, their heads settling like helmets in the dust.
Seven-leg followed the shine of a silver star creeping in and out of water troughs and barrels, squeezing off bullet after bullet, stripping the tops of railings and hearing the sound of shells sink into Willy’s soft body. He finally caught up with him trying to climb back into his burrow on the north side of town.
Willy was walking in circles, his eyes gummed up with blood and dirt, antennaeless now, his sides dotted with shots. Seven-leg was glad he’d found him before he’d been able to drag himself into a hole and die.
Willy flailed his claws, and Seven-leg crawled right up on his back and clamped two pincers behind his head. He asked if Willy remembered the night Seven-leg dug him out of jail and gave him his life back. Willy vomited a necklace of blue froth, slurred that he hadn’t had anything to do with the ambush, and asked what the hell this was about. Seven-leg clamped down, Willy’s heavy head dropping into a water trough. It floated there. Seven-leg spat on him and went to find the others.
Everything had quieted down. He found Nate, Coy, and Dean stacking bodies in front of the saloon. They were passing a bottle of whiskey back and forth, but Dean dropped it when they heard more gunfire at the cabins. Seven-leg raised the Colt in his right claw and went straight down the street while the others covered him. He came around the side of a building and saw Tom Boiled’s bright-splotched head cracking apart under gunfire, some crawler standing over him and squeezing off their whole chamber into his body. Seven-leg didn’t hesitate. He put a bullet down the center of her tail, blistering its way across nerve-bundles and burning out her head. Janey Flicker dropped her gun and fell down across Tom. Seven-leg howled and tore the dirt when he saw what he had done.
They found where Tom had smashed in the door of a nursery and stuffed himself bloated with little ones, then carved up those he couldn’t eat. One girl’s gray jelly skin was freckled with white spots where he’d tried to burn her.
Janey Flicker lay upside down in the dirt, her head a mess from gunfire, her spinnerets white and delicate and shining in the sun. Seven-leg lay down across her. He still had the seven of clubs in his hat. Nate, Coy, and Dean each took out their deck of cards, pulled the sevens from the stack, and dropped them beside the couple in the dirt. Seven-leg took her body in his claws and dragged it away, moving backwards down the street. They let him go, hoping he’d take his luck with him.
That night, it was a heavy moon over them all: Nate, Coy, and Dean playing cards and eating the dead in front of the saloon; Seven-leg watching the dark from the mouth of his burrow, Janey cold underneath him. He tore off chill pieces of her and ate them, each one a reminder of how much he’d loved her.
When Nate, Coy, and Dean came to get him in the morning, he was gone, seven needle-like tracks going off into the deep desert. They never met up with him again after that, heard later that he had gone further south and had run-ins with the army. They went back to Texas for a while, eventually went further west. They sowed stories wherever they went, shadows that grew larger with every saloon they passed. Though they never saw him again, every once in a while Seven-leg’s stories would meet theirs around a camp fire, behind a hand of cards, under a yellow moon.
MICAH DEAN HICKS is a master’s student in the Center for Writers at The University of Southern Mississippi. His work has been accepted to over a dozen journals, including Shady Side Review, Brain Harvest, Prick of the Spindle, Tryst, and the Smoking Poet.