And so here's chapter 24, the final instalment of the Story With No Name.
Thanks to everyone who wrote a section and thanks to all the readers who have stuck with the tale for the last 6 months. It's been a lot of fun. Joanne Walpole (Terry James) suggested a serial story way back in the summer and it's been great to see how everyone has picked up the gauntlet and run with it.
'Get your ugly hides out here,' Walt said, 'and Bourbon gets to live for long enough to hang.'
Silence greeted him. So with a sideways glance at Sawtell to co-ordinate their approach, he moved on towards the crude shack. They had seen nobody on the way and Bourbon had become increasingly agitated adding weight to Walt's belief that his Apache helpers had abandoned him, but what awaited them here remained a mystery.
The shack had curved walls that met at an apex, appearing to have been constructed from timbers taken from the boat where they'd left the others. The door was a gap between two planks and Walt narrowed his eyes trying to discern what was within. Nothing was visible, but Sawtell still grabbed Bourbon's arm and swung him towards the gap, forcing him to enter first. Bourbon staggered on for two paces, then grabbed a plank to stop himself from tumbling inside. The timbers creaked ominously as he hung on.
Bourbon righted himself then turned to face them, one hand still holding the plank. He was smiling.
'There's nobody here,' he said. 'Just me.'
'Then why are you smiling?' Sawtell said.
'I was remembering how your brother Joe pleaded for his life, how he screamed when I ripped him in two. But most of all I'm remembering what I used to loop out his guts--"
Bourbon didn't get to complete his taunt as Sawtell roared with anger and leapt at him, his gun hand rising to pistol whip Bourbon's jaw. But goading him into being reckless had been Bourbon's plan. He jerked to the side, his hand coming into view. Steel flashed from the cutlass that had been hung inside. He ducked beneath Sawtell's blow then came up, slicing the cutlass into Sawtell's guts.
Walt was treated to the sickening sight of the cruel curved blade erupting from Sawtell's back. For long moments both men stood poised, the only motion being the steady drip of blood from the blade tip. Then Sawtell murmured something and he staggered away to leave Bourbon standing free. And in his right hand was Sawtell's silvery pistol.
Confident now, Bourbon delivered a kick to Sawtell's rump that sent the impaled man tumbling into the shack. Like Bourbon had done Sawtell grabbed a plank, but he succeeded only in dragging the plank down with him. He fell into the shack as one by one the planks toppled in on him.
The collapse of the shack didn't dampen Bourbon's smile. He raised the gun to sight Walt's chest.
'Before you kill me,' Walt said, 'are you going to tell me the secret you were hiding out here?'
Bourbon rocked his head from side to side as if considering then shrugged.
'Nope. You just get to die. Then I'll leave to enjoy myself killing the others.'
His eyes narrowed with a sign he was about to fire, but then a pained roar sounded behind him. Two planks parted. An avenging angel of death rose up, a blood-soaked cutlass held aloft.
'For Joe!' Sawtell screeched with his dying breath.
A gleaming red meteor streaked through the air, turning end over end, its unerring target Bourbon's back. Then the cutlass hit home... hilt first.
Bourbon fired, but the blow had nudged him forward. Walt felt an insect bite to the cheek as the slug scythed wide. He didn’t give Bourbon a second try. He threw his hand to his holster and in a moment his six-shooter cleared leather. He fired quick and low, catching Bourbon in the hip, making him stumble. A second shot to the chest made him keel over.
Walt paced forward keeping one eye on the downed man while he glanced at Sawtell. He was looking at Bourbon with dead eyes, but his last sight would have been his brother's killer dying. Walt knelt beside Bourbon, noting the spreading blood, the ragged breathing.
'Before you die,' he said, 'are you going to tell me the secret you were hiding out here?'
'It's yours now,' Bourbon murmured. 'May it give you the peace it gave me.'
Bourbon's back arched then flattened.
Walt paced over him. He dragged Sawtell aside then kicked and hurled the planks away. When he'd peeled the sections back like an orange, a casket remained sitting in what had been the centre of the shack, old and rusted enough to have been aboard the galleon and to contain secrets that men had died to protect.
Walt put a hand to the lid, but it wouldn’t move. He shot the lock, without success. Twilight redness was bathing the casket in hellish light when he tried the cutlass. He slipped the tip under the lid and worked a hole in the old wood giving him leverage. With a lurch the lid swung up.
Walt edged forward to look inside. The casket was empty, other than a book, lying at the bottom. He drew it out. The book lacked a cover, giving no hint of what lay within. He opened it. His right eye twitched.
'Does that end our quest?' a voice called out behind him.
He swirled round to find that while he'd been preoccupied Lola had followed him here. Flanking her were Zack and Choo.
'Yes,' Walt said raising the coverless book. 'But it also starts a new one.'