Obsidian

Buford hit the town at a dead sprint.

The horse lathered and snorted in the greatest exertion of its life. Buford worried the thing would just give up, exhausted, and buck him off. Leave him to his own feet to carry him further.

The heat emanating from the town baked him he was so close. The shattering crack of support beams giving, a roof swallowing inside itself and another building lost. Buford had seen glimpses and snatches of the dead between structures as he raced past it all. Getting to Maddie.

He saw the end of the row of buildings. Round that corner and Maddie should be there. Her sister Adele would surely be packing them into her carriage or racing them away on foot.

Just round that corner.

***

The Black surrounded the house, choking off the air.

The Stygian tendrils amassed like storm clouds and heaved inward, changing the air pressure and making it thick, humid. Obsidian took each step up the porch like an earthquake. Boards cracked and splintered. He took hold of the door and The Black disintegrated it.

The tarnished metal of the clasp fell into the ankle-high pile of wood ash. Rusted into flakes. Obsidian stepped inside, met with a gun blast to the chest.

Maddie snarled all her own, lit by the firelight from the windows outside as she jacked in another cartridge. Behind her, Maddie’s sister Adele was shoving the boys out a shattered back window.

“There you are,” Obsidian said. Relief. Stepped forward.

“Where’s my damn husband?” Maddie bellowed over the roar of the second round. She put the sights square up to his facial scar.

Obsidian inhaled and felt the firelight pass through him. He stepped to the side and the cartridge snapped a hole in the door frame. The woman looked confounded. Obsidian came at her from the side, grabbed her by a handful of her hair and heaved her out the door to the sounds of Adele screaming.

***

Round that corner, Buford thought.

Round that corner. He did, and Buford saw her. Maddie violently hit the dirt of the main street, throwing up a circle of dust. Through it all the calm footfalls of Obsidian strode forward. Buford charged the horse forward. The dirty fingers of The Black shoot around each side of the horse, driving into its nostrils, its mouth. Gripping. Yanking. Digging. The animal thrashed and seized. Eyes blowing out, blood red. Its great muscles spasmed. Pitched forward on dead forelegs.

Buford launched with it, leaping off the seat in a searingly painful dive. He landed in a spin, shoulder rolling along the dirt as his hands found his iron. He skimmed across his back and came up in a sliding crouch. Took aim not ten feet from his enemy and blared his hand cannons to life.

Obsidian gleefully stood still as the fusillade tore towards him. The bullets peppered his chest and shoulders and neck with bloody fury. Buford saw Maddie lying face down in the road, a horde of skittering and slithering things flowing over her like a writhing blanket. Their flames puffing away in an unseen breeze; they wanted her but not burnt.

Fire everywhere; red and orange painting the night with hues of annihilation. He could smell the death carried like tar smoke on the wind. Every footfall he made was getting heavier. His lungs burned but not from exertion. Rather, from hopelessness. It was rowing in his gut. Spreading like cancer.

Obsidian saw Buford enter the street, and he knelt. On one knee he withdrew his short sword and carved into the dirt. Buford felt the air change immediately.

The Black snaked around, a fat trailing line of darkness. It rode along the ground, encircling them. Slow at first, timid. Confused even. As if following a beckoning call, it began to rotate. Faster and faster; a locomotive picking up steam. As it spun, forming a loop around them in the street, it grew tall. Immense. It formed walls higher than the buildings and scraped the lower limits of the sky itself.

The Black spun a vortex. It drowned out the summer noises, the crackling fires, the straining light from the town burning, the dead and dying, their screams echoing like death peals across endless bone yards.

The Black’s walls were like being inside the eye of a hurricane. They had relative peace though the winds spiraling around outside them were furious. The main street was whipped and buffeted by the surge; little dust devils spun up at The Black’s circular edge. Their hairs tussled in the wind.

Inside the eye was very little else besides the people. The horse’s corpse, some damaged lumber collapsed off a building, a merchant’s cart filled with crumbling salt licks, the greasy stink of death and spent powder.

Calm and yet tumultuous.

“Deputy, let us end this.”

Buford reloaded, his eyes never leaving his enemy.

Buford looked over to Maddie. Her form was cocooned in a shell of those scorpions and snakes. It stood up; like some hellacious stalagmite formed from the carapaces of a thousand creepy-crawlies. The whole form began to pull back at the peak, the creatures melting down like candle wax. It exposed Maddie’s face and shoulders. She was crying; a rattler exploring her cheeks and swimming through her hair.

“Yes, deputy. You can save her.” Obsidian’s smile trembled and became a sneer. “It is a simple thing.” He strode over to his leather satchel and opened it. Took the slug-headed woman out and held her like Perseus held Medusa’s head to kill the Kraken.

Buford’s fingers froze on his triggers. What is happening?

***

The Black was whispering and screaming and pleading and demanding in a million different voices, all pouring inside her ears through a thousand different tongues in a hundred languages.

Lydia felt disassociated; drugged. This was so … foreign to their experiences. How was Obsidian manipulating her benefactor like he was? Possessing The Black and—

In the dirt near his feet. Runes. His fist holding her hair was so tight. Fierce. She bobbed around as he walked; swinging from side to side like a water pail. She snarled, barked.

“What are you doing? What?

No answer. Instead he walked over to the living woman, drew his sword. The very xiphos he used to cleave Lydia’s head clean off, and he raised the sword to his own face. Slowly, methodically, pressed the keen edge to his flesh and dug a trench through it.

“Impossible,” she muttered. The worms whipped back and forth in a frenzy. Her skin fluttered and tingled with absolute fear. “No …”

***

Buford watched in horror as Obsidian gouged himself, parallel to his scar.

Cut from his forehead down his chin and neck, Obsidian grinned and slowly, deliberately, turned his head, leaning this way and that. The cut opened wider. Gushed forth red. He shook his head violently, spraying everywhere.

The head was livid; shrieking. Blood everywhere. Obsidian knelt, bled onto the dirt as he wrote more into the ground. Whatever it was he drew, it was like a map. Blood flowed into canals formed by his fingertip, began to spread in thick lines as if they had a life of their own.

“I defied my gods over a woman. I longed for her. But my gods desired her as well, and one courted her. It was a mockery. I decided that if I should not have her, no one will.”

Buford’s eyes strolled along the cut line adorning Lydia’s neck, and he began reloading. Fast.

“My punishment was irony. A never-ending life with her. All whom I encounter become ill with impending death, and thusly I could never replace her. My Lydia.”

Obsidian stood, soaked, and regarded the once-beautiful woman. “Such a cruel whore, you are.”

He turned to Buford, who was advancing quickly. “And now, I offer you that same life with the woman you desire but could never have.”

Obsidian darted to his left, adjusting the angle of Buford’s approach. The deputy was fixated on getting his lead inside Obsidian’s bleeding face when the outlaw stopped, laughed.

“Become the new vessel.”

Buford looked down, saw he had been herded into a circle that Obsidian had drawn. Lines filled with his devil-blood. Those channels of split blood suddenly moved, slithered. They reared back like serpents, and struck Buford.

He fell back, opening fire. The lead harmlessly passed through the blood as the tendrils soaked into Buford’s clothes. A rising saturation swarmed up his legs and into his shirt, his skin. Buford thrashed as the blood rushed up his neck, down his throat and into his nostrils. Under his eyelids and deep into his skull. Found his heart. His veins.

He screamed, rolled around on the ground. The Black increased its speed a thousand fold and Obsidian watched with such relief it seemed impossible any one man could feel so satisfied.

Buford struck the merchant’s cart, spilling it over. He tasted the granules of shattered salt licks, felt the living blood recoil just a little from it. Salt. Something inside his head told him how important salt was against warding off evil and he rolled through the spill. The grains clung to him like wet snow.

Inside his body, Buford heard a million screams. The blood spit itself out through his pores; little trickles like flowing silk scrabbled away and pooled into the dirt again. Buford felt un-possessed. More clean than moments before. He stood, and saw Obsidian clapping. Lydia’s head was at his feet, face down. Tired of her yelling.

“It changes nothing,” Obsidian said. He threw his sword at Buford’s feet and backed up. “The conditions are met. You are the new vessel for my curse.”

Obsidian scooped up a fistful of dirt and began to let it slip from his fingers like an hour glass. “The countdown. Kill the woman to bind yourself to her for eternity. Or do nothing and be bound to Lydia. I don’t care.”

Too fast. It was all happening too fast. The dirt was nearly gone. Maddie was screaming and struggling even against her beastly confines. The deafening roar of The Black’s tornado. So much evil.

Buford moved.

Grabbed the sword, hurled it. Grabbed Lydia’s head, hurled it. And as the last few grains of dirt skidded along Obsidian’s palm and out into the hard world, the sword met him head on.

Lydia screamed and damned her pining lover as she careened through the air. She saw Buford, the dirt falling out, the blood and the vortex. Lightning streaking across the sky and how everything had been ruined. Her eyes wide and shouting, she hit face-first into the spilt salt, burying her face in it.

Buford watched Obsidian fall. Lydia slap into the salt. Maddie cocooned in the low-crawling things. And again, the air changed.

The Black cavorted like angry children in a thick circle around him. They shrieked in his ears and barked in a thousand different animal voices. They lunged at him, tearing snatches of his clothes. They whipped and spiraled into a tornado, picking up scraps of dust, fire and rocks as they went.

The flaming scorpions, lizards and snakes formed a ring of fire, climbing higher than sanity allowed one to comprehend. The spiraling flame was outside of The Black, twisting in the opposite direction. Disorientating. Throwing light through the vast darkness of The Black, dancing shadows up and down Buford’s body. Their fires growing ever higher until the sky was blocked out with their haze. Buford was sweating so bad his mouth turned sand and grit.

Buford’s hair buffeted in the tumult. His clothes snapped and flew in the vortex. Lightning bolts exploded past, up and down, scorching black marks in the earth. Echoing huge cracking noises. The apocalypse unleashed.

A bolt wide as an ox hit Buford. An uppercut from God. Lifted him off his feet, grasped every nerve and every muscle and yanked them with violence unknown before now towards a single point in Buford’s twisting gut. He yelled out; his breath stolen by the energy.

Buford fell hard to the ground. On his knees. Un-scorched. Alive. His brain could only understand he had just been smacked by the cosmos when a second bolt pummeled him. And a third. And a forth, driving through his guts and soul without making a mark.

The Black reached a fever pitch, drawing out every morsel of tension in the world. Suddenly it exploded out like shattering glass. The rotating wall of fire blew into tatters with The Black as the scorpions, lizards and snakes puffed away as a great wall of ash. A sandstorm of burnt everything; roof shingles and shattered bits of windows and dead bodies still on fire and thick ribbons of dirt and entire trees and building timbers splintered and wrecked at both ends and intact yokes and vanities and dressers and wash basins and children’s toys and all the demolished remains of the destroyed lives in Red Clay River. It was a tide reaching high as a mountain.

And then it was gone. Let go of by the cyclone and flung to the world outside. Everything collapsed in a great heave that shook the earth and sent concussive thunderclaps up into the sky.

Buford fell down onto his face. The world slipped away in the agony of his life and he did not fight it.

***

Buford awoke inhaling dirt.

He coughed, sending up a veil of dust and grit. He tried to push himself up. No good. Just laid back down instead. Wait for it to pass, whatever this was. All was quiet. Eerie. His body ached with a dull burn and his bones were stiff.

“Buford … wh— what happened?” It was Maddie’s voice.

Buford turned his head in the direction. Eye out of focus, but there she was. She clambered forward, lifted him up into her lap. The first thing Buford saw was a scorpion’s tail dangling from her matted hair. Missing its body. He gently plucked it out.

Adele came rushing over. Maddie’s boys came near, hesitant. Buford tried to speak but his throat was raw.

“Don’t,” Maddie said. “We’ll get it worked out.”

“Maddie …” Adele said, motioned to the merchant’s cart. They looked over to it and saw Lydia’s face staring at them. Buford tore through the pain and drew his revolver. He fired one round and it punched through Lydia’s forehead.

Her face rocked in the salt spill, looking odd. It was devoid of even her reviled life from before. What was left of Lydia was ashen, crumbly.

“She ain’t dead?” One of the boys asked.

“Dead before I shot her.” Buford said. “That fireworks show … I didn’t bind to her.”

“So she’s … gone?” Maddie asked.

Buford looked again at Lydia, and watched as the hole’s lining flaked off into dust. The flaking spread like ink on water and her forehead drifted off into oblivion, her eyes, cheeks, hairline, the fat worms, down to her jaw. Trickling down into ash. Mixed with the salt. Blew away in the breeze.

“Are we bound then?” Maddie asked, hands instinctively going to her hair.

Buford smiled. “No worms there, Maddie.” Buford sat up, working out the pains. “Something’s different though.”

He rose to his feet, saw Obsidian’s dead body laying off to the side. The mound of dead low-crawling things which had entrapped Maddie before the ritual was disrupted now lay as a heap in the road.

“What happened?” Maddie asked.

“No idea.” Buford said. He walked nearer to Obsidian’s corpse, saw the sword covered in blood, jabbed into the ground. Buford walked around the body, careful to avoid the runes and gore.

Buford looked at Obsidian’s face, grimaced. He turned away, looked back at Maddie and Adele. The boys, both spitting images of Hornsby. He looked down at himself, and whatever fleeting hope he had of putting this behind him died.

“What’s wrong?” Maddie called.

“I know what happened,” Buford said, turned around. The sword made a perfect cut from Obsidian’s neck, and nearby the outlaw’s worm-haired head laid licking its lips and keeping Buford’s gaze.

“What have you done?” Obsidian asked.

Buford walked away, swallowing hard as the gravity of his new life weighed down. “I did right, even though it cost me.”

***

Buford packed his horse with the short sword, his guns and as many bullets as he could find.

The ancient leather satchel dangled off to the side, a carpet of worms writhing underneath the flap. Buford shrugged on his duster and lit a cigar.

“What are you gonna do now?” Maddie asked, handing Buford some food for the road.

“Find some answers.”

“What does that head say?”

“Two things. He’s glad to be rid of the woman,” Buford mounted the horse, turned it towards the road leading out of town. “And the rules have changed now.”

“What does that mean?”

“He thinks we’re in danger.” Buford exhaled a long line of smoke. “I’ll find out when I find out.”

“Will you come back?” Maddie asked.

Buford regarded The Black, which even then while it was timid and cowering, it was engorging itself, growing in size. It did not bode well. “Probably not.”

Maddie shook her head in acknowledgement. A single tear cut through the dust settled on her cheeks and she looked away. She grabbed him and leaned him down to her. She kissed his lips quickly and let go. “Thank you for saving me.”

Buford turned away and began to ride. Buford looked behind him once, and saw The Black followed at a safe distance. Its undulating formlessness contorting, making hands to reach out and grab him. He could smell its fear, however. However many eternities this curse had gone on, however many men it had pulled down with it, Buford knew he was the first to defy it. It was confused, and furious.

He had spit in its face. Whatever this curse was, whatever ancient god had commanded it, Obsidian had played along. Buford had not. There must be a price.

The town in smoldering ruins; lashes of flame still trying to rub the sky. A silhouette of a damned man with his satchel and guns strolling off, the heat from the town pushing him away.


Obsidian

Buford saw no sign other than some boot prints in the hefty grain of desert sand.

Buford turned in circles, but the dusk was fading. He approached the dead horse. Scrawny, withered. Its viscous, blank eyes bulged. Hornsby’s trusted quarter horse, gone to rot and worse. The living horse—a paint, patterned in brown and white—didn’t care to be lashed off to it; that much was apparent. It was constantly making small steps like a beginning tap dancer. Tugging at its lead. Buford continued to steal glances over his shoulder. That bounty had to be here somewhere. He considered this might be a trap, but there was nowhere for another man to be.

He circled the paint. It looked half-dead as well. No gun slings, a single knapsack and a single satchel, distended like a swollen belly. The fire spit up a yellow tongue and the light danced along a hilt of some kind behind the knapsack. Buford nudged the sack and saw the blade of a sword.

Buford removed it slowly like King Arthur pulling Excalibur out of the stone. The sword glowed in the camping light. Its hilt was short and wooden; nearly featureless. Practical. It’s blade was equally short but curvaceous like a woman. It’s base was wide and tapered with the curve of a dancer’s hips, but then flared back out towards the tip where it had a long taper to the apex.

Buford froze. Something out of his peripheral. A man. Flickering in the firelight like heat snakes at noon on the desert floor. Buford spun, dropped the sword and unloaded two rounds. Moved.

Nothing there.

***

Obsidian sidestepped and felt the hot lead travel along his shoulder.

Gasped, nearly lost his breath. Can’t be seen. Not yet. He stood bolt still, the dust he kicked up a marginal thing. The other man was moving like he meant to kill. Moving the way Obsidian moved.

The deputy came to a halt, confused but determined. Blood would be had here. Obsidian’s hand crept to his lower back, felt the bone handle of his knife.

Blood would be had, all right. The deputy forced his nerves to unwind. Minutes unfurled, played out in the slow creep of the elongating shadows. It played out along the deputy’s face. Convinced himself it was a spook, nothing more. Couldn’t be. Went back to the satchel.

The man’s back was to him. And blood would be had.

***

Buford felt his hairs tingle, the skin of his neck crawl.

Whatever demon or black magic this was, or conversely whatever simple criminal this Obsidian would turn out to be, if this was something sinister as The Devil himself or as easy as a lucky bastard, Buford would kill him.

“Hornsby didn’t leave his horse,” Buford said. “Ain’t his way.” The living horse paid no mind. Up close Buford could see it sway on its feet. Weak.

Buford threw back the fold of the satchel and was met by a bundle of worms as thick as a child’s forearm.

He dropped back, guns up. His fingers quivered but didn’t shoot. The angle would have put the bullets through the horse behind the satchel. And the horse didn’t seem bothered by the things. The horse should be bucking and thrashing, losing its mind with a bag full of what must have appeared as writhing snakes.

“Are you that ill?” Buford asked. The horse chuffed and licked its snout. Nothing more. Buford reached out and caressed its snout. The horse welcomed the attention. Buford grew up around horses; his parents raised them. To see one being used up, pushed too far and neglected like this tore at him.

The horse was already dead. He knew that. It might take a minute to finally keel over, but it’s fate was written and signed. He gave it a loving rub along it’s nose and let go.

Buford looked around, had been his entire time, then walked over near the campfire, found a dead branch and pushed up on the bottom of the satchel.

The worms fell out in a ball. Tangled, they undulated and wove inside themselves and out. Their whole mass bobbed and trembled, rolled. As it came around in the light of the campfire, Buford’s nerve trembled.

The worms were attached to a severed head. The rest of the world fell away from Buford.

The face was obviously a woman’s. All her hair was slithering, living worms. Her eyes, wide open, all at once were as detached as the dead’s, as peaceful as a mother holding her newborn and as wrathful as the bullet which kills a man.

She was hairless and her flesh was peeling in layers like sunbaked paint. Buford got nearer and squatted down to a knee. The cut that separated her head from her body was clean but looked like the crusted, tarred end of a stump. How were the worms alive?

Her eyes like jewels plucked from the fires of hell. Luxurious and stunning, but the kind of fire that would burn a man for all eternity if he admired it too long. Buford took in her every facial curve, the trajectory of her nose, the slant of her eyebrows, how her ears were still gracefully shaped like shells.

“Besides the horror in you,” Buford stood, rolled his head on his shoulders. Just glad it was still attached. “You’d be gorgeous.”

“She was,” came from behind. Before Buford could turn, his thigh came alive with the fierce agonizing sizzle of a deep knife cut.

***

Buford was covered in all manner of snakes and scorpions. Desert lizards and even some mammal vermin were about. His hands trembled for his cold steel. Two guns alive and willing, mere inches from his hands. Screaming to be fired.

“Respect will win the day with them,” Obsidian said, walking in a slow circle around Buford. “Do you practice such a thing?”

Buford laid still and let his leg burn like someone had poured alcohol on a scratch and set it on fire.

“Hornsby?” Buford tried to focus on the one thing grounding him in this nightmare.

“Dead.”

And though he knew he would hear that word, know its weight and truth, to actually have it dropped upon him—especially in the state he was in—it shattered.

“Ain’t right. Killing a father.”

“I have slain countless fathers.” As Obsidian moved, Buford watched. The man inhaled through his nose, out his mouth. Calm. But when Obsidian inhaled, he grew dim. Translucent.

“Don’t make it okay.”

Buford flipped a scorpion off the back of his hand. Obsidian’s eyes followed it. When it landed Buford could see the blip of concentration across the outlaw’s face as it re-oriented itself and scurried back to Buford. Buford let it crawl back up his arm. Now he knew.

“What evil is this?” Buford asked, watching the scorpion.

“Our curse.” Obsidian strolled over to the satchel. As he did Buford carefully picked four scorpions off his body and flung them as far back as he could.

He gripped one snake by the head and snapped its neck between his thumb and palm, just the way his pa had taught him long ago. Practiced on the range in his younger days when he helped him herd horses and cattle. Very gently, Buford laid down the limp snake as if it were just being still. Tucked it along the curve of his leg. In plain sight, and therefore out of sight.

Hopefully this cursed man couldn’t know when these things died or moved when he wasn’t looking. Soon find out.

Obsidian paused at the horse, turned just enough over his shoulder to show Buford his eyes. “Are you ill?”

In a situation of compete un-reality, that question struck Buford as even more bizarre still. “No.”

“Unique.” Obsidian turned back around. He opened the satchel and lovingly removed Lydia. The worms undulating wildly as the flap moved, calmed down the instant his hands touched them.

The display of affection reviled Buford. “Love her, do you?”

Obsidian could not hide it. “With everything I have.”

“How much you got left?”

“Everything.”

“I want his family,” the head spoke. Buford scrambled up to one knee and his blanket of wildlife came alive in fury. Obsidian hollered in authority and the vermin held still, tails poised to sting and fangs bared, dripping poisons.

“That thing can talk?” Buford asked. “It … the head … lives?”

“I do so much more than speak, mortal.” Lydia smiled. Obsidian casually walked over to Buford. The dangling head was animated as any person’s would be; muscles flexing under the skin’s surface. Eyes darting back and forth. The crown of worms curling and folding, swaying in the breeze.

Lydia smiled and her tongue crawled out of her mouth. It ran up her face as if she were orgasm-ing, tasting her own flesh. The thick muscle passed through her worm-hair and caressed Obsidian’s arm. Buford could see small suckers along the surface of the thing as if it were a octopus’s tendril.

As the tip reached Obsidian’s elbow the tongue’s tip, fat and rounded, split into four sections like separating the wedges of an orange. The sections were long and much thinner, revealing wrinkles of pink flesh. She made a horrific and sexual display of licking the outlaw before swallowing the grotesque appendage. Where she fit all that mass inside her severed head Buford could not fathom.

“Wipe away your disgust, mortal.” Lydia said. “He tastes so delicious I cannot resist whetting my appetite.”

“Family?” Buford stammered. Black edged at his vision. It was all too much. “My family? You want my family?”

“Not your family,” Lydia said. “That bounty hunter’s.”

“Maddie?” Buford could not help but speak her name aloud. At the sound of it, Lydia began to laugh.

“What does that mean?”

For the first time, Obsidian smiled. “In time, friend. In time.”

“You’ve done enough to— leave her be. Leave her be.” Somewhere deep inside Buford he could hear the pleading tone of his voice. It disgusted him, but he felt naked before this hellish apparition.

Obsidian knew to play this just so. “She and her sons will succumb to us before dawn. Love her, do you?”

Buford could not hide it. “With everything I have.”

Mocking, taunting. “How much you got left?”

Buford wanted to say everything. He wanted to grit his teeth and jump up. Open fire. But his skin crawled with certain death and his head began to pound with aches. He needed to swim to the surface. He needed to shake off the yoke of this nightmare. He needed—

“Fight for her better than her own husband did.” Satisfied, Obsidian replaced Lydia’s head into the satchel and began to ride towards Red Clay River. Buford watched as he left, and with every gallop the scorpions and snakes seemed less under the outlaw’s spell. They began meandering away, and all Buford could think about was getting back to Red Clay River.

Getting back to Maddie.

But when he tried to stand, his façade cracked and he fell over. What no scum, no outlaw, no evil-doer could ever have done, Obsidian did with barely speaking a word. Buford coughed that shook loose a powerless tear and he coughed again and that shook loose a torrent of them and Buford had never felt so feeble, so impotent, his entire life.

***

“The scorpion is an embodiment of evil, but also a protective force which counters evil … dynamic, is it not?” Echoing from decades ago, the Chinaman said to a young Buford.

Buford allowed the man to lay a small brown and black scorpion on his forearm. Buford was nervous; not only that the thing would sting and kill him but that his parents would find him.

Through his veil of tears, Buford allowed for the memory.

“In my home, they make wine out of this creature. It heals.”

Buford remembered his arm trembling, shuddering like a youthful tree branch in a storm.

“Breathe in through your nose, out through your mouth. Be calm. They flex their stingers, but know this: your boot heel is always bigger.”

The adult Buford looked up, saw the plume of Obsidian’s dust settling back down. He strained his eyes to watch the man along the horizon, but something drew his focus. A lonely scorpion clambered onto his forearm, aimless. A remnant from his living blanket. His jail cell made of fangs and poison. The thing was black and sharp. Fearsome.

“Stung? You might be,” The Chinaman said from decades ago, “But no matter how much pain you have, you can always make it feel regret. Just stay calm.”

The adult Buford felt shame. And from that shame, a rage. That rage boiled like a bad meal in his gut, pressing upwards. Needing to escape. Buford could feel his blood pump and strain his veins. His heart kicking. His teeth hurt from clenching them as hard as he was.

He roared in fury. The scorpion’s tail came alive. Buford thrust out, fist enveloping the thing. His grip turned his fingers white as he crushed it. Oozed out through his clench.

Buford stood. Determined now. Breathing through his nose, out through his mouth. He allowed that fury; wiped the guts off on his pant leg. But then he collected himself. His leg was cut deep. Got to his horse.

“Make him regret it?” Buford said, swinging a leg up onto the animal and spurring it into a gallop. “Fine by me.”

***

Obsidian reached town and his horse whinnied once, slowed.

Got down on a front leg. The Death swirled around in a feeding frenzy as the failing horse trembled and shut down. Obsidian got off just as the thing collapsed dead. He could stave off its demise no longer. As it had happened a thousand times a thousand to whatever animal he rode, Obsidian simply took it as it was and left it there.

He reached in through the throngs of mist unabashedly draining the last vestiges of life from the horse and took the satchel. Threw it over his shoulder, checked his ammunition, set off on foot.

Before him was the main street, running like an artery through the place. Small wooden shacks adorned it right and left. People asleep, people filling their bellies with whiskey and warm beer, people who didn’t know he had rode into their town.

Obsidian knew what his dreams told him. Striding forward, he held out his arms as swarms of scorpions and snakes and all manner of desert lizards flooded from the shadows. Burrows erupted and they poured forth like black magic oil.

He knelt, snapping his fingers. Brilliant flames caught on his fingertips. As every scorpion passed by him he set them alight. Their legs pumped and skittered forward, strange heralds carrying forth a torch of doom. They never burned up, they never died. The fires never extinguished.

Each snake received a blazing halo. Every lizard’s spine was outlined in near-white flame. And they ran forward, along the main street.

Under every building. In one continuous driving line, they found the very roots and foundation of the wooden town.

***

Amos came stumbling out of the bar and into the road.

He had been out of the jail just long enough to try to wash away his visions of all the fire which had consumed his home back when he was just a boy. He blinked hard, then squeezed shut his eyes, tight against what he saw.

A tidal wave of living reds, oranges and yellows was coming to to scoop him up like outstretching arms, to wash over him. All over again.

In the center of the flaming embrace, Amos saw Obsidian. Even through bleary eyes, Amos knew who it was. Hadn’t aged a day. Not an hour. The man who shot Amos’s mammy dead was striding towards him as if he hadn’t a care in the world, and was on an easy Sunday stroll to burn down another town.

“Ya varmint bastard!” Amos shouted, throwing up a shaky fist. “Ya came ta the wrong damn town now that I’m a grown man!”

In his drunken rage, Amos charged. The world spun, the fires creeping along. Amos thought he saw a smile on Obsidian’s face. Amos felt like a hero taking his war charge to the enemy, but Obsidian just watched a feeble drunken man stumble forward several steps. He was amused but undeterred.

Obsidian looked at the swarming heralds of death and had them move as one, as easy as a school of fish, flowing off to the side and avoiding Amos, who was already stumbling to a knee.

“Kill him,” Lydia demanded.

“He is as frail as a baby,” Obsidian said. “A slobbering drunk.”

“So why the pity?”

“Because I choose to allow him his life. And beyond that—”

And nothing! Kill him and feed us!”

Obsidian swallowed his bile, muttered, “Engulf him.” He spit on the ground.

And this time, Amos, as an old man and as drunk as he was, with no dead mammy to form a protective cocoon over him as death rode by, his charge ended as abruptly as it began. The tidal wave hit Amos, knocked him over with its might.

It was warmer than his mammy had been, but not as comforting.

***

Every hoof-fall shot electric pain through Buford’s leg wound.

His face stoic, his concentration on one thing: Maddie’s sister’s house. It was at the opposite end of town from the Sheriff’s Office.

“Damn you,” Buford uttered. The horse banked around a large rock outcropping and he smelled it first. The breeze carried the woodsmoke on its back. A tease. A harbinger of what he had failed to prevent.

He crested a hill and there it was. A horizon of flame.

***

Obsidian strolled along with his purpose.

For every burning building, there were people inside. Ran out their doors. As their feet met the dirt, Obsidian’s bullets met them.

Feet hammering down front steps. A stranger’s guns barking lead. The townsfolk of Red Clay River blossomed with blood and empty holes, collapsing along the street as they fled their burning homes.

One by one, Obsidian drew a bead and found a victim. Spent casings dropped in steaming groups of six. New rounds spun in the cylinders and waited their turn.

Behind him fire-filled buildings caved in. bodies laid face down in the bloodied earth. Obsidian’s face never changing from a placid, detached look. The mist gnawing at his feet. Feed me more it demanded. But he was running out of targets.

The mist was surging towards one singular house, and Obsidian knew Buford’s unrequited love was inside.

“There! There! Get her!” Lydia shrieked with a furious excitement. “Yes! Yes!”

Obsidian knew there were children and another woman as well, but they were as meaningless to him as handwriting was to an ant. But Buford’s unrequited love, the sorrowful woman who still stank of the first deputy, she needed to die. To fulfill what he had deciphered in his memory’s journal. She needed to die as Buford approached.

“Stop dragging your ass along the ground, slow as a slug! Damn you! Get in there!”

Obsidian snarled, calmed himself with the thought of an end. Buford. He needed to be turned. Changed. Called into the fold. Driven to his totem so that Obsidian may rest.

He was two burning buildings away from Maddie when Sheriff Cross stepped out from behind. Winchester rifle in his hand, he thrust it forward and shot Obsidian in the back. Obsidian fell, turned. Saw the tin star, saw the face above it. Not Buford.

“Just kill him and get me the woman! I can taste it! So sweet!” Lydia screamed and in her feral excitement began biting at Obsidian.

Obsidian kept his eyes on the Sheriff. Ignored his lover. He smiled through his bloody teeth and stood. The mist forced the bullet out of his back and began running its tongues along the wound channel. Spinning new threads of flesh like a web, yanking each strand taut as a cable and closing the hole. His blood refused to seep out, disobedient to the laws of nature. In a bare moment Obsidian was healed.

The Sheriff stood there baffled. He saw the scar which ran down Obsidian’s face, recognized him from the wanted poster.

“You no good sonofabitch!” The Sheriff shouted, taking aim and stepping forward. “A plague like you needs a round between the eyes!” He fired again, but this time faded in and out of sight as the flames cast orange and black shadows around him.

“Show yourself, yellabelly!” Sheriff Cross reloaded what he had spent, began emptying shells into thin air. A single scorpion chittered at his foot, fire riding it like it was the most natural pairing in the world. Sheriff Cross saw the thing and jumped away even as his pant leg caught alight. He stomped out the flame, shot at the scorpion. It snapped open into a million segments of shell and sparks. But the next one just took its place. The Sheriff shot at the new scorpion, and then a rattler.

Sheriff Cross spun in circles and saw a ring of low-crawling blaze closing in. The outlaw’s swarm of flaming heralds had him surrounded. Choking.

“Sonsabitches! Sonsabitches! I’ll be damned!” Sheriff Cross began emptying his weapon.

“That makes two of us,” Obsidian said. He reappeared with the utterance. Outside the mounding ring, the outlaw watched as the sheriff fired off every bullet he had, then went to work swinging with the rifle’s butt end until it broke. All the while fire danced as high as his hat, higher until it was well over his hopes of getting out alive. He batted with the shattered pieces of the Winchester, fell to his knees and was painted red, orange and yellow.

Obsidian turned and walked towards the house as the slithering funeral pyre towered behind him.


Obsidian

Obsidian woke from a dream and stared at the cool desert sky.

Something sleek and black skittered across his nude chest. Its tail formed a drooping C; a single teardrop of venom dangling from the stinger tip. Obsidian looked down and saw the coal black scorpion halt mid-stride as a rattler’s head wove up along his chest. Obsidian could feel the thing’s dry scales run along the flesh of his ribcage and inner arm; rising from its coiled nest in his body heat. The rattler’s tongue flicked in staccato whips, inspecting the head of the scorpion. It was an odd sight, but Obsidian had seen stranger things.

Obsidian stirred and dozens more scorpions scattered outward from under him as if they were cockroaches dispelled by light. Tails lashed in all directions around him; more snakes disturbed by him rousing and taking away their warmth. Desert spiders and fat lizards dismounted his legs, arms.

Blankets of low-crawling beasts were strewn across his naked form, nestled under his chin, slithering between his fingers and folded around his groin.

Obsidian turned over the palm of one hand and a yet another rattler laid its head there. He stroked its head with his thumb, feeling the sharp tickle of its flicking tongue trying to repay his attention.

A small sand-colored scorpion flitted along his nose, his lip. Its stinger hovering over his eye. Obsidian held his mouth open and the thing scampered inside. He shut his jaw and began to chew as he sat up. The desert creatures scampered away.

He rose and saw the easy morning in the east. A speck on the horizon, the morning silhouetted Red Clay River, as if the sun itself wanted Obsidian to travel there and shoot it. Shoot all of Red Clay River.

That part of his dream was clear. The town in smoldering ruins; lashes of flame still trying to rub the sky. A silhouette of a damned man with his satchel and guns strolling off, the heat from the town pushing him away.

Around him was a dilapidated outpost. Long abandoned, it was nothing more than sun-bleached timbers collapsed in a broken circle. Obsidian slept under an old hanging tree. He put his hand to its twisting bark, deeply creviced with a century’s worth of living.

He had pushed a railroad spike into the trunk. Dangled a satchel from it. He opened the top flap, gently laying the old leather off to the side. A carnival of impossibly fat, worm-like appendages slithered inside it, wagging up as the crisp rays of morning touched down. Obsidian ran his hand through it the way he would a woman’s hair. They all played under his palm like supple skin.

He gripped the things as he would the hair of that woman he was taking from behind and twisted the pile. Under them was a disembodied head, a face, which he rotated up until his empty, soulless eyes met its dead and glazed ones.

“Empower me,” he said. The eyes in the face blinked, and looked up to meet his gaze. She smiled around skin that was withered and hung in half-peeled sheets like river birch bark. Her whole face was a gray mask of what was once absolute beauty, but now was so decayed it was void of anything besides corruption in the most rancid form.

“Where is his family?” She asked, a coy smile over teeth which had rotted so long ago Obsidian replaced them with small polished stones.

“Cease your pestering, woman. There will be time for death.”

“And the time is now,” she said.

“I grow weary of this same conversation. You have said nothing of value in centur—”

“Feed us,” Lydia said. The Black’s tendrils crawled out of the crooks and shadows, encircling them. They undulated and pulsed with hunger.

“I grow weary of many things, really.” Obsidian said, staring into her eyes and seeing The Black’s presence in there, deep. He spoke to that presence, “and another thing is how you order me through the mouth of my lover.”

The Black disappeared from her gaze, and then the woman was back, as if her headspace and soul where her own. Lydia smiled again, this one too carnivorous for Obsidian’s liking. “I speak for myself, and I say feed us.”

Obsidian sneered, yanked Lydia’s head from the satchel and held her up, face to face. The worm-like appendages she had instead of hair tensed and slashed about; glistening with an inner moisture that made them look all the more alien and organic. She scowled.

The Black rushed in. Foamed up into a wall as dark and ominous as an approaching storm front, a half-mile high and mere feet away from the pair. Fury surged through it and the wall rippled with mounting tension. The outer walls of it spread like cancer, swallowing up the desert for endless miles to each side.

“It follows me too closely, Lydia. I have warned you about your pet.” Obsidian nodded to the storm front of The Black, buzzing with potential so close to Obsidian’s nude skin that his small hairs were tickled by its quivering.

“We have needs.” She said, her sandpaper dry tongue slithering out of her mouth and dangling down past her severed neck. It curled playfully, probing. Its licking tip fondling around the inside of her open throat where Obsidian cut it off so long ago. Lydia, a ghastly head with a mane of worms for hair, she cast Obsidian a sexual look as she licked herself coyly. “We have so many needs, my lover.”

We have our curse.” Obsidian looked away. “Nothing more.”

“Feed us.”

“In due time.”

Now.

“And how would you like me to do that?”

But all at once The Black’s storm front was gone. Vanished. The roar ceased. Lydia flickered her eyebrows and smiled, peering over Obsidian’s shoulder.

“Oy! You! Naked boy! Is some circus missin’ it’s man-whore?”

Obsidian turned around, sheathing Lydia inside the satchel as he did so. There, ponying their way off of the dirt road were three riders. All had their rifles out and pointed at him.

Obsidian dropped the satchel and felt satisfied at the thump and grumble from the bag hitting the stony desert floor. He stepped towards them.

“Him’s bold for a nekkin fella, ain’t he?” One asked. The man was greasy and dressed in more coonskin than any single encampment of fur traders.

“Yeah,” the first man said. “I reckon he’s eatin’ that plant them savages eat to see the gods or some such.”

“Peyote they call it.” The third man said. He was so heavy set his horse groaned under his weight. “I call it horseshit.”

“That it,” The first man said. “Hey fella, fancy meetin’ you here. All alone, nude as a baby. You just keep communin’ with the gods and meanwhile we’ll kindly lighten your load.”

“The three of you intend to rob me? I feel a tickle of humor in my belly at the thought.”

“You’ll be feelin’ a tickle ‘o hot lead in yer belly if ya get stupid, now.”

Obsidian raised his hands high and made a show of being nude. “As you can see, I am unarmed.”

The first man slid off his horse, rifle high. “I got this here fixed right ‘tween yer silly eyes, partner. Wanna see how steady I am?”

“Yes.”

The three men peered slightly puzzled, shared their looks back and forth. “Can you believe this?” the third man asked. No one answered.

The man approached, his muzzle shortening the distance with every breath. Ten paces away and heat rose up in the man’s intestines. Seven feet away and the man became nauseous. Three feet and he could taste bile. Up close and personal and his vision swam. Ill.

But he kept his rifle steady. It kissed the skin between Obsidian’s nightmare-black eyes, and from this distance the man could see how the surface of those very eyes shimmered with a quality best reserved for haunted memories.

“Fire upon me, or meet death.” Obsidian said.

The man coughed a nervous laugh. A bead of sweat rolled off his forehead, salting the air as it dripped down. Obsidian could smell alcohol in that sweat. The muzzle wavered, then the first man’s trigger finger twitched.

In slow motion Obsidian’s head snapped back, ripples deep enough to carve bone passed from his face through his hair. His brains painted the air behind him and his skull cracked. A portal opened through his forehead, and the killer could see the long-dead hanging tree through it.

But Obsidian stood.

The man lowered his rifle, astonished. Numb. “You … I mean .. what in the sam hell … ?” The man leaned around Obsidian, saw nothing that the corpse might be leaning against to keep him on his feet. Put his muzzle against the top of Obsidian’s chest, pushed. He did not fall. The man looked perplexed, and then saw Obsidian’s eyes blink.

“What in the blue blazes—”

Stitches of flesh darted between Obsidian’s gaping wound, harpooning into the opposite end of his inner skull. Yanked, pulled the ends together. Tiny red threads of blood or flesh or something else wove up and down the tears of his wound, reconnecting the skin and bone. Even with his face only a third reattached, Obsidian smiled. The gunpowder burns and tattered flesh looked like a nightmare reflection of his happiness.

Even his voice was torn in half as he said, “As you can see, I am unarmed.”

The man swung his rifle up, finger on the trigger. As the round blew out of the errantly muzzle, Obsidian swung a low jab. Connected through his guts to his spine.

Obsidian stepped back as powerful as a titan yanking on the string on which every planet in the universe was a strung bead. He tore the man’s spine out of his gut, stripping up and out his chest like he was deboning a fish. His ribcage and finally skull pulled free. A deluge of organs cascaded down onto the dirt, and his hollow flesh collapsed to the ground like discarded laundry.

Obsidian regarded his prize for a moment, the sleeve of blood up his forearm from the punch. Sprayed with gore. Tasting the copper of hot blood. The coils of intestine making sloppy loops at his feet. The rifle round between Obsidian’s eyes, healing even now.

The Black rushed in, ravenously lapping at the act of killing like a starved dog. Though the robbers could not see the frenzy, the vile force behind Obsidian’s curse devoured the act of the slaughter like demons feeding on sin rather than the lie, adultery or wrath itself.

“Feed us,” Lydia said.

“Woman, I should have never spared you the indignity of your fate. Had I known then …”

“I was worth it, my love.”

Obsidian snickered, turned his attention back to the two other robbers who were still frozen at the sight of their gutted compatriot. “Parts of you were worth it,” Obsidian said under his breath and began walking forward. “Not your head, though.”

The men tried to flee. Obsidian held his arms open, the skull and spine of the first man dangling from his fist. “As you can see, I am unarmed.”

Across the desert plains, through the scattering of cacti and thinning brush, across the sea of wind-swept sand grains and stone, their screams echoed off forever.

***

As Buford stepped out into the sun, the Sheriff come walking back, hands full of paper, head full of the mayor’s piss and vinegar. They stopped, exchanged glances.

“What you think, Deputy? You think Hornsby will be saddlin’ up come next week?”

“Saddlin’ up for you?” Buford asked, squinting in the harsh light. “No, I don’t.”

“Very well. He goin’ ride off to California like he been sayin’? Finally gonna do it?”

“No,” Buford said. Looked at the dirt on his boots. Looked back up. Knew it had to be said because it was true. “I reckon he’s done with this world’s problems.”

“Don’t say that.”

“Can’t help it.”

The Sheriff looked away for a long time. Saw the line of his fellow brothers who had worn the badge and lost it being called home to the feet of the Lord. Didn’t want to see Hornsby join the end of that line.

“I buried only two deputies in my time, you know that, Buford?”

“I do.”            Buford began to walk away and Sheriff Cross called out his name. Buford turned around, walked nearer.

Sheriff Cross rubbed his face and spoke low. “You’ve been honorable to Hornsby. I mean that. He was good enough to trust with a badge and for that I thank him. You … you and that badge were meant to be just as he was meant to be with Maddie. I hate sayin’ it but it’s true. I know you wanted Maddie as your wife, but it ain’t the way of this world.”

“Done?”

“All I’m sayin’ is, if he’s alive, bring him back that way.”

“You think I’d leave Hornsby for dead?” Buford adjusted the brim of his hat to make sure the sheriff could see his eyes. “Come back, take her as mine?”

Sheriff Cross shifted from one foot to the next. Cleared his throat twice before Buford felt his lip curl up.

“Now, what I mean is—”

“Stop. Stop ‘fore this goes south.”

“Love does strange things is all I’m sayin’.” The Sheriff finally muttered. “Maybe this all came out wrong, Buford—”

“Doubt it.” Buford began to walk away. “I do right, even if it costs me. You know that.”

Sheriff Cross, ashamed and wishing he’d never stuck his foot in his mouth, he could only nod. “I know, Buford. I’m sorry.”

***

The saloon doors swung open and both the travelers turned on their stools. They hadn’t moved an inch since the lawman laid out the drunk like a derailed locomotive hitting a canyon wall. This time, the pianist stopped playing.

Buford strode forward with an intimidating gate. One traveler swallowed so hard he coughed. Buford held up the wanted poster. “Where?”

***

Obsidian’s mind was his last respite.

In it he had trained his memory to organize everything like a scrap book. He imagined the pages opening, the thick, musky scent of the old sun-dulled pages. The creak of the spine flexing. From the privacy of his head he turned page after page, picking up scraps which would fall out of the nook between pages where they were stuffed.

There he kept a journal of all the things revealed to him—no matter how obscure or inconsequential—through his dreams.

His dreams were the only thing he still owned. He opened the front page and saw a sketch he had made millennia ago of how Lydia used to be. When Lydia was his as well. They were each other’s. He had drawn the sun and moon and stars around her, paling in comparison to her.

Through the pages, his chronicling of a thousand lifetimes, his renderings of her had become scarcer. The Black was originally their watchdog, the hound at their heels. Their punishment. But slowly it had corrupted her, usurped her. He couldn’t remember when their arrangement had become such. Feed us.

He studied the pages of his own mental handwriting, dissecting the words from AD 1237 as compared to BC 212 then against AD 1788 and back to AD 31. So on and so forth, his journal a veritable tome of snippets and snatches from the fog of his prophetic dreams and—

Obsidian stopped on a page. Scrutinized. Made a connection. Turned back. Jaunted between the two, examined their opposite sides and then referenced something else entirely and then read them out of the sequence he had written them in and made a few notes in the dirt with his fingertip and then …

On a page far back he saw a sketch from so long ago he had forgotten he’d ever made it. Detailed. A man. A single man wearing a long duster and wide-brimmed hat. When Obsidian made the drawing he was on the outskirts of a battlefield where the combatants wore chain mail and did their slaying with blades.

The man had dark features. Rough, as if he were hewn from stone. His angles and snarl were just as Obsidian’s were, but somehow there was a clarity—a purity—in his eyes that Obsidian never noticed, even while he sketched it until he saw it just then.

In the man’s hand was a six-shooter. On his chest, a star. A badge. Like that bounty hunter’s.

Obsidian read clues back and forth, connecting puzzle pieces scattered to him through obscure dreams across the millennia. The final piece rested on the page with the man. The new deputy. The answer.

Obsidian stood. Smiled with a joy he hadn’t felt since he was mortal. He dare not say it out loud, but he knew he had it. An answer.

It seemed even in curses, there could be a divorce.

***

The road was a never-ending trail of rocks and dirt, scoured over countless times by the hooves and boots of travelers before Obsidian.

Stretches of nowhere, like unfurled tapestries, painting a path to each barren horizon. He had walked these things before, countless the world over. The desert here was the same as the pebbled shores of Greece and the snow-crusted, jagged rock of the European mountains and the tropics of the humid hideaways the pirates used. And thousands of others.

He slid off his own horse and gathered rocks and kindling and made a fire. He had no flint. Never needed it. Knew an old trick. Snapped his fingers and a spark lit bright as his rage.

Obsidian finished his work and took a pull of water, saw the plume of dust coming up from miles away. Even then, Obsidian knew. All that the gods had dumped on him, now they were delivering.

The clues made it all very clear. As the rider approached, his dust plume growing ever greater, Obsidian turned behind himself and saw the tongues of The Black reaching ever nearer to him. They had never come this close. Seems his plume was growing greater as well.

***

Buford could clearly see a horse as he approached. It was tied to a large mound. Looked like there was another horse, sprawled along the desert floor. A fire. No man. No obstructions, no hiding places. Nothing to duck behind besides the horse itself.

Buford circled and looked for a perch where the rider could lay out and use a sighted rifle. Nothing. This area as wide as one could see was blown level by racing winds. Tumbles of weed would roll here and there, doing cartwheels in the arid expanse. Some felled, dried trees stippled the walk. Rocks here and there. But flat lines dominated, as oppressive as the crushing foot of a giant.

“To hell with it then,” and Buford rode up to the strange horse. He slid down and saw what the mound was. Drew his iron. Felt sick to his stomach.

The mound was Hornsby’s dead horse. A rattler slithered along it, pushing a scorpion out of its way.

“Son of a bitch,” Buford said, snarled. “Hornsby, you shoulda never risked it. What am I to tell Maddie, who even now has the faith in me to find you alive? Damn you.”

***

Obsidian stood very still, holding his breath. Remained invisible as long as he did.

The stranger, a man much more fierce than the last deputy, combed the area. A few times this man came so close to him that if he’d just’ve budged an inch here or an inch there they’d have touched. And if they touched, it might be too much to resist to take hold of him and kill him.

When the rider turned his back, Obsidian exhaled and quickly sucked in another large breath. He wanted to keep watching for as long as he could.

Because there was something about this deputy in Obsidian’s memory book that made him stand out. For one thing, he wasn’t getting ill.


Obsidian

Deputy Buford threw a haymaker across the drunk’s jaw. The man spun on his heels like he was one of those French dancers—and a trail of spit, whiskey and blood slung out from between his teeth. He dropped cold on the sawdust, the whole bar shook but the pianist never missed a beat.

Two travelers at the bar stared at Buford, tipped their beers. “That the law in this town, deputy?”

Buford let the sting of the punch evaporate from his knuckles, breathing in through his nose and out through his mouth. Calming technique he learned from a Chinaman who would lay a desert scorpion on Buford’s naked arm to learn the tranquility. He took in both travelers. Scuzzy and dirty from the road, half-liquored up. And at this hour in the morning.

“Yes it is.” Buford said. He bent over and grabbed the drunk, lifted him by his collar. Drug him out, the man’s boot heels carving tracks through the sawdust.

Daniel the barkeep leaned over to the two strangers, said, “Deputy Buford was born and raised in this here his town. Worn a badge eight years. As you can plainly see, he only asks once.”

“Man lets his fist do the talkin’, I reckon.” Said one traveler. His tremendous mustache moved more than his lips did as he spoke.

“That he does.” Daniel said. Turned and looked at Missy, one of the whores. She just stood off to the side, gathering up the strips of her dress that the fighting drunk had torn off when he decided it was time to treat her like an animal. “And he keeps the working girls safe in ways I never could. Hell, he defends any woman like she was his mother.”

The other traveler barked a dry laugh. Wet his throat with the rest of his beer. “Probably got a family full ‘o whores. Only reason a man would slug another man over a woman who’d take anyone to bed for a fistful of dollars.”

“May be,” Daniel said in a tone reserved for warnings. “But either way, I want your business as long as I can get it and Buford’ll kick your wanderin’ ass across this saloon next if he hears that talk. So, my advice is to avoid insultin’ Buford’s mama—God rest her soul—or anyone else, ‘cuz I’m tired of scrubbin’ blood off this here counter.”

Neither stranger said anything. The bottoms of their glasses did all the talking from then on.

***

“You seen Hornsby ‘round?” Sheriff Cross asked as Buford slammed the jail door on the fighting drunk.

“No.”

“You know where he went last?”

“Hunting a bounty.”

“Just what I need … one of my deputies goin’ off on his own. Again. How many times this make it, him huntin’ outlaws?”

“Number four.”

“Four damn trips without notifyin’ me. Him and me are goin’ have a talk when he comes back.”

Buford raised an eyebrow. “You got me.”

Sheriff Cross smiled. “Yes, that’s true. But I hired Hornsby first, not that it matters I guess.” The Sheriff used his knife to tap a wanted poster. “This fella? He the bounty?”

Buford gave a single glance. Nodded.

“Ugly bastard,” Sheriff Cross said. “They’s all ugly bastards, though.” He studied it closer. “What you think he did to earn this knife scar down his face and neck like this?”

“Crime, I reckon.”

“Smart ass.” The Sheriff leaned back in his chair, mulled it over. “A man should die from that kind of cut. And such an odd name as well.”

“Hey! What’s his name?” Came from the other cell. Sheriff Cross turned and saw Amos, an old timer who spent his days in the bar and his nights wherever he thought he could sleep it off. The Sheriff himself found Amos in a stable the night before, so drunk he pissed himself and so furious about it he was yelling at the horses. Better to sleep it off in a cell than to get trampled under hoof.

“Why you care?”

“Because, Sheriff … what else I got now?” Amos laughed just a little. Shrugged.

Sheriff Cross showed him the poster. “Name is Obsidian.”

Amos went white as ivory. “That’s a load of malarkey. And don’t think yer funny teasin’ me neither.” His lip twitched; a quiver. His eyes crawled along the opposite wall, searching for anything besides what the name Obsidian meant to him.

Buford walked forward. Looked to the poster, then at Amos with eyes that started to burn like he needed to punch another man. “You know him?”

“Now Deputy, I saw a man once that was named some such thing, and he had a scar as I’ve said, but he ain’t comin’ ‘round here. The man I knew was in Virginia. He shot a lot of men the day I knew him. Burnt down the town.”

“But not you? He didn’t shoot you?”

“No. He shot other—I hid.”

“Explain that.” Buford said. Amos caught himself swallowing hard, jiggling his Adam’s apple like a yo-yo. He shuffled his feet and suddenly they became very interesting to old drunk Amos. That deputy was harder to read than an old back trail and harder to break than a mesa, but when he told someone to explain that, then that someone knew they weren’t stepping right with Deputy Buford.

And an ass-kicking was aimed their way if they didn’t get back on them tracks.

“That can’t be the same Obsidian I’m talkin’ ‘bout, Deputy, cuz the one I met was back in 1820. When I was ‘bout knee-high to a June bug.”

Buford leaned over to a copy of the poster hung on a wall and tore it off like he was field dressing a deer. One quick downward yank. He went to Amos, shoved the poster forward a scant inch off of the old man’s face. “Look.”

A thin trickle of sweat beaded down Amos’s cheek. His eyes darted away. Like seeing a ghost.

“Same man?” Buford said. Amos said nothing. “Bullshit.”

Amos’ jaw trembled. “Can’t be. Can’t be.”

“Isn’t.” Buford went to his chair. Lit up a cigar and checked his guns.

The Sheriff leaned up. “Now Amos, we wasn’t teasin’ ya about this here outlaw. I had no idea you know him … but you say he was from your childhood? You can understand why we’re askin’ for an explanation.”

Buford looked up. “Hornsby is out hunting him.”

Amos leaned his head against the bars; fear drew lines through his forehead and under his eyes. His head filled with bewilderment, screams, sizzling blood and fire.

“I was young. Somewhere between grass and hay, I reckon. That Obsidian fella, he strolled into town for God knows what and the locals didn’t care for ‘em. They said so. I reckon he was just passin’ through, but people— they testified that man made them ill just bein’ there. Like he put off somethin’ … somethin’ vile. I dunno. Mammy kept me away from the worst of it.

“The biggest, meanest drunkest man we had came and messed with that Obsidian the very night he strolled into town. Name was James Smith. He was built like a prized ox, stubborn as one too. Wanted to fight the stranger. And the stranger obliged. But Obsidian’s punch, it killed James. I swear on my mammy’s grave. That I did see. James’s head … as funny as it sounds, it spun ‘round on his neck. Almost a full turn. Obsidian, he just kept on strollin’ through.

“Some of James’s partners, well, they staged a shootout. Was gonna surprise Obsidian with lead. Only, ain’t no surprisin’. Cuz Obsidian, even though they was all hidden, he knew where they was. And he killed ‘em.”

Sheriff Cross raised an eyebrow. “The outlaw knew where a surprise posse was hidden? How could it be? He pay off an tattle tell or somethin’?”

“Nah,” Amos looked like he needed a fresh drink. “Said he saw it in a dream.”

“He killed children?” Buford asked. A thick curtain of smoke gushed up from the cigar, mixing with the unnerving glow of gray from his eyes. Sharp black flecks floated in that gray, cutting whoever looked too deeply. “Answer me. He killed children?”

“Yeah. Bunches.”

Sheriff Cross raised an eyebrow. “He didn’t see your hiding place?”

“Don’t know.” Amos rubbed his eyes, scrubbing away the recollection. “Just … don’t know.”

“Where’d you hide?”

Amos rolled his head along the cell bars, as if to massage out some poisoned memory. “Under my mammy’s dead body.”

The Sheriff coughed. “Well—”

“I still smell her perfume, feel her leechin’ heat sometimes. I go on the big drunks to rid myself of that. Hell, I go to the bar—”

The doors slammed opened, and three shadows spilled across the room. Everyone looked up to where Mrs. Maggie Hornsby stood with her two little boys. “Sheriff,” she said, trying to keep her eyes from tearing up. “Have you seen my husband?”

Amos, Red Clay River’s old codger, town drunk and nervous hoot, he looked away. He remembered when his own mammy asked that question. Amos remembered how it turned out.

***

Stones crunched underfoot as Obsidian climbed up a jagged outcropping.

When Obsidian reached the summit he had a view of the cactus patches and scrub, smattered about like lichen on the sea floor. His horse was content to wait at the bottom, chewing on a handful of oats. The wind played with his duster’s tails, flipped his bangs like a snapping banner. His eyes scanned the flat pan of the desert expanse, seeing lifelessness an feeling at home.

The newborn sun was still fat and pink on the horizon, yellow spilling into its belly just a little more each moment on serpentine fingers. Gold stained its edges, shot orange runners out into the further sky. Feeling its way out. Almost as if the sun were nervous to illuminate a landscape where Obsidian had been for fear of what it would be revealing to the world.

“The blood tasted better at sunrise on the beaches of the Ottoman Empire,” Lydia said. She always sounded so near her tongue could lick his earlobe. Obsidian raised an eyebrow but did not turn. They rarely spoke anymore.

He cleared his throat, churning like ash and rock. “I found it best on Hadrian’s Wall, peering north into Caledonia.”

“I was never satisfied there.”

“Nor anywhere.” Obsidian said, a sneer.

A scorpion skittered out from underneath a rock and ran across his boot. Soon came a second, and a third. He watched them mindless flit around, and turned his eyes skyward to look for a circling vulture.

In Missouri he had seen veritable seas of field mice rushing in like tides, as well as the solitary brown spiders that men had been afraid to touch. The spiders dwelt in the old folds of clothing and forgotten woodpiles, killing men with a single bite when disturbed. In the southeast it had been all manner of insects. The further into slave territory he was, the more of those things had wings and stingers. But the bugs down there …

In England it had been beady-eyed rats. Too many for an army of men with clubs to pound into extinction. And forever across the expanse of Europe it was some other rodent or bird of prey or crawling thing.

Behind him coyotes howled. Maybe a mile away.

“They’ve found him,” she said. “That bounty hunter.”

“He was a deputy. And he’s long dead.” Obsidian said. “I spared him the indignity of being eaten alive.”

“Soft,” she said and clucked. Her voice was like serpents. “I want his family.”

“You always want more.”

We always want more.”

At the mention of we a single tendril of black smoke curled around the base of the boulder. Thick enough to be a horse. Lydia smiled; coquettishly ingesting its movements with her eyes. She had grown t love it like a loyal pet. And it came when she called.

The Black felt along the earth and stone, undulating as it was, bulging here, recessing there, alive and yet a mist. Malevolence pulsed through it like lightning through storm clouds. It stalked in fog patterns; scheming. It depressed and form a mouth, a thousand mouths, all wanting to be fed.

Obsidian cocked his head just enough to follow the The Black’s tentacle around the outcropping. From every crevice and cranny, anywhere a shadow laid, The Black poured forth. It merged into a great pulsing cloud, low-lying and expansive. As the hills and valleys of its mass churned like roiling fire smoke new folds appeared. It was endless, and yet it could compact its mass into nothing.

“You always want more,” Obsidian said and jumped down to the desert floor. His boots struck and the dry earth shot out a multitude of cracks.

We always want more,” she said. She giggled, and it was like an echo through Obsidian’s mind. Dried seeds falling along the length of a rain stick, deafening and insane.

He walked around to his horse. Tied off to it was Hornsby’s horse, pus leaking from its weakening eyes. Flies darting about. Its small muscles tremored; ill with Obsidian’s pestilence. Adjusting his pack, he looked at the path he had ridden. Cacti withered and twisted into shriveled mockeries. A dead courser bird was already putrefying, lying near a small stone it had been perched upon as Obsidian rode by. A healthy mesquite tree browned and shed its leaves, forming a dead halo skirting its base. Only its thorns were left.

Widening out into a V, a wake of death. Cutting him off from any new life, leaving him only with Lydia. Why it spared his pack animals he never asked, but the effect—the steady drain of life—always slowed down on his horses. Obsidian considered it the one grace he received along with all his punishments. He should suffer eternally, but at least he wouldn’t have to walk everywhere.

He mounted and from inside his satchel, her voice came again.

“The deputy’s town is due north. We want more. We want his family.”

He scratched at his stubble, lit some tobacco. “Stop with your annoyances.”

“We want—”

But Obsidian spurred his horse into a gallop and her voice was drowned out by the rush of air.

Soon they met a river. Obsidian looked up and down the length of it that he could see, and figured they were at one of its widest points. They were at a deep bend, and the water rushed around it. Foaming, churning over a cluster of rocks collected in the crook of it. Obsidian dismounted and took the animals by their reins. Walked to the edge, which was little more than a slop of clay and dead wash-brush.

He stepped inside, sinking to his ankle. His own horse trotted behind him, lazily chewing on another handful of oats as he led it through the tumolt. Hornsby’s horse advanced with more trepidation. Because Obsidian stepped directly into the whitecaps of the river.

Hornsby’s mount snorted and tried to buck at the shock of it all. Instinct reared its head. But even as the water rushed at them, it separated down a seam. He slogged through the silt, drawing the animals behind him. The river carved up into two walls, and not a single bead of overspray came inside the cone it formed around him. Refused to touch them. Refused to touch Obsidian.

They emerged onto the dry bank and Obsidian allowed the horses a moment to calm down and then they left.

***

Hornsby’s wife paced back and forth in the office like an animal does when it knows a thunderhead is coming. She was elegant, even under her worry. Her boys sat obediently, both stuffed into the Sheriff’s own chair and were scared for their mother.

Sheriff Cross had left. Business with the mayor. He had full faith Buford could handle this. There’d be no way Hornsby would be foolish enough to get into so much trouble that he’d be in real danger. Probably just went too far without water for his horse or got lost chasing ghosts. Buford would sniff ‘em out, give him a good lashing and tow him home.

Buford watched Maddie pace in silence. He sent smoke rings to the ceiling, saw her run an unsteady hand through the thick hair on both her boys’ heads. Saw her eyeball the wanted poster and give a shudder.

“When’d he leave?” Buford asked, tapping ash from his cigar into an empty boot he’d taken off a dead man. He traded it for three bullets to the man’s chest. The dead man seemed fine with the arrangement.

“Day before yesterday, after supper,” Maddie Hornsby stopped her pacing, shook her head as if to shrug off the foreboding feeling her husband had met his end. She reached out and snatched the cigar from Buford’s hand. Began smoking.

“Want your own?”

“This’ll do just fine, thank you much.”

“After him?” Buford motioned to the poster.

“Yes. He wanted that bounty. Thought it would—thought it would help us.”

“Travelin’ west money.” Buford set his eyes upon her even as she refused to look at him. “He told me so.”

A confession as bold as any he’d ever gotten. “Yes, yes it was. Traveling money. No one wants to live and die in this town.”

“I understand.” Buford didn’t wince at the comment.

“I’m sorry, Buford. I know your own kin settled this here town. Died here.” Maddie ashed into the boot, sniffed away a tear. “I’m sorry if my tone ain’t congenial. I really am.”

“Tone’s fine.”

“No. I … insulted you. I know you love this town. I just want to hear the ocean, feel the sea breeze. Maybe—”

“Tone’s fine.” Buford checked his guns. Maddie smoked in silence. Finally Buford asked, “What’d he say about the outlaw?”

Maddie thought for a moment. “He said … well, the man was wanted for murder. I forget where. Back east, I think. Expressman rode through, brought these posters. You know, put ‘em up everywhere, this side of the Mississippi is what my husband said. Heard something about the outlaw havin’ warrants all about, in the territories and in the states. Big fish. Maybe one of the biggest.”

“Why’d he go alone?”

Maddie just shrugged. Buford knew. Hornsby was a good man; a good provider. But if he asked Buford or the Sheriff to go with him, or even if he formed a posse, well, Hornsby would be sharing his traveling money. The cash that bought his wife her ticket to the ocean. It might’ve been too lean a catch if he had to share.

“How’d he know where’d look?”

“Rumors, I guess.” Maddie said. “I know he talked to some strangers passin’ by. They stopped him, said they were lookin’ for a lawman. The way my husband said it, these strangers passed Obsidian on the road and recognized him from a poster. Came into town and told my husband. I—I didn’t ask much. I didn’t want to know.”

“No shame in it.” Buford said. He felt Maddie’s sorrow drift over to him. He hated how it tasted.

She looked at him with plain eyes, welling with tears. “I love him dearly, but you know … he ain’t … you when it comes to dealin’ with bad men.”

“Your husband’s a good man.” Buford looked away. He stared down plenty of fools who challenged him with bullets, stared down death itself and never flinched. But this frail woman, a woman he still held a candle for, talking about her husband, he couldn’t face her just then. They both knew it. Something invisible sat in the room with them, a quiescence, a palatable knowing that somehow the man in the wanted poster had plucked the deputy from this earth. Hornsby was dead.

Buford rubbed his face. Breathed in through his nose, out through his mouth. Watching Maddie suffer unwound the coils of his soul. “Maybe if I had made one decision different, I woulda been an outlaw. Just one. Maybe. I might not be such a good man but I hold the law. Your husband, it woulda taken a lot more than one different decision for him to be a bad man. He ain’t got evil in him.”

Maddie, removed from her sorrow, said, “It’s rare to hear you say so much.”

“That’s because I don’t say much.”

“I need him back, Buford. I do.”

“I know.”

“Please.”

“I’ll saddle up.” Buford stood, looked at Maddie. Snatches of memory careened back to him, from far away when they were kids.

Buford scratched away those memories like dried mud on his boots. Maybe if he hadn’t had all the grit that he did, maybe if he could smile and charm the way Hornsby did, Maddie would’ve been his. But as it was, while he stared at the woman he never fought for back when they were kids, he knew damn good and well she was fretting over the man she did love. The man who gave her children. Married her, gave a solid roof and food on the table. Listened to her hopes and dreams, fought to make them real.

Buford never married, except to his badge. Only thing I could love, Buford would say. Hell, only thing’d love me back.

In the Sheriff’s office, in the here and now, heat from the day rising up and dust from the road with it, Buford cleared his throat.

“Strangers found him, eh?” he asked, making sure his throat was clear. “Same strangers in the bar?” Buford rolled his head, popped his neck. Flexed his hands. Made sure his belt hung just right. Picked up his hat, turned to the door.

Maddie exhaled long and hollow, smoke drifting like tendrils up into the ceiling. “Don’t know. Maybe. One was short with a dark leather overcoat; the other was your height with a fairly grand mustache.”

“I know ‘em. Where will you be?” Buford asked, back to Maddie but looking over his shoulder just enough to take her in one last time.

“My sister’s. Over yonder.” Maddie jerked her chin northward, at the far end of the main street. The Sheriff’s office was at the very south end. “Just before the eastern road to the rail road platform.”

“I know the one.” Buford opened the door to the outside world. “I’ll find you there.”

“Please Buford, bring him back.”

“I will.”

Buford left, and Maddie took her boys into her arms and cried.


Ballad of Jeremy Diggitt

“You sure that’s all you’ll need? I know you’re good for it. You can pay me back whenever you . . . “Ethel said, her head cocked.

Milla interrupted her friend. “Thanks, Eth, but you have your own troubles. I can’t owe anyone, especially now.”

“I can write anything I want off as a loss. Damaged stock. Those crickets can be ornery.”

Milla smiled and patted her daughter on the head.

“You hear this, Gin-Gin? People don’t do this for each other in a big city like Burroughsville. That’s why we moved out here.”

Ginny nodded under her mother’s hand. She was looking at the hovertruck that had pulled up outside.

The airlock door slid open and four men in dusty Mars suits stepped through, their helmets still inflated and locked in place.

“Well, you can’t stop me from gifting Ginny something.”

Milla inhaled sharply to complain, then stopped. Ethel handed the little girl a cupcake with pink frosting.

“There’s a cricket-free guarantee on that one,” Ethel said, winking.

Ginny smiled and took the treat.

“You seen any rogue cargo drones around here?” one of the men said over his external phones. Too loud. Too intentional. Aggressive.

A chill ran through Milla.

“Let’s get home,” Milla said to her daughter, nudging her forward.

One of the men stepped into her path. A chrome-faced visor stared down at her.

“We lost one somewhere near-about your place, Mrs. Diggitt.”

***

The man in the grey exosuit climbed out of the exterior airlock accompanied by a blast of frost. An empty Kwikmeel bar wrapper flew out into the orange-tinted dark, flitting up. Mars loomed heavy in the sky, threatening to suck everything into its mass. The numbers claimed that Phobos had just enough gravity to prevent falling off it’s surface, but cold physics were no comfort, standing there, looking at the God of War hovering overhead. The assassin kept his visor down, eyeing hand-grabs and footholds. Reg’s corpse swelled up a half-size in the zero pressure, snugging tight in the door frame.

The assassin yanked hard. Again he yanked, with only centimeters gained, then planted his feet on either side of the door and pulled hard. Reg was plucked free. The assassin scrabbled for a hand hold, then reached out and grabbed Reg’s foot before he floated away. Blood and bile had already begun to boil out of Reg’s mouth, freezing into globby strands. The assassin paused to watch as a meter-long stalk of ruby coral crawled out from Reg’s open mouth. Reg wobbled to a standstill, his head propped back at an awkward angle by the ruddy stalk.

The assassin pulled his way to the side of the building, careful not to lose grip. Nestled in the shadows was a coffin-shaped box. He pulled it out into the open where Reg waited, coral branch now rooted into the ground.

Digging through one of the many pouches on the buckymesh box, the assassin pulled out a hand-held rocket and strapped it to Reg’s swollen foot. Blue veins cracked beneath the corpse’s skin like old porcelain.

Aiming the rocket up at the Mars-filled airless sky, the assassin pushed a button and stood back. The rocket yanked dead Reg up like a grisly balloon.

The assassin looped his arms and legs through straps on the box, wearing it like an oversized backpack. A kick, and the assassin pushed off the ground. With a puff of nitrogen, wings unfurled, stretching out like a giant bat. The craft swooped upward into Mars’s atmosphere.

***

“I’m sorry, Mr. Diggitt, the satellite feed over the Burroughsville region has been black for the last two hours. We have no way to confirm your claims.”

Sounding more like a growl, Diggitt grunted a yes. On screen, the deputy stared back at him, looking more amused than concerned.

“I have evidence right here.”

Diggitt held up the dented sliver of metal to the screen.

“These marks here say it was a Turtle drone that trashed my crops. I’m sure you can find out who is operating them in my area, can’t you?”

The deputy leaned back in his chair and rolled his neck on his shoulders. Diggitt dropped the shard onto the table with a clank.

“Tell you what, Diggitt, you don’t tell me how to do my job, and I won’t tell you how to do yours.”

Diggitt leaned in to the screen and yelled, “I don’t HAVE a job anymore because someone smashed my crops, and it’s your job to find out who did it! How about you start by asking Moses Clayburn where his fucking Turtles have been for the last two hours!”

The deputy looked off-screen and hissed a hot breath out from his nose.

“I think we’ve got all we need from you, Mr. Diggitt. We’ll be in touch if we find anything.”

The screen blinked back to the menu.

Diggitt cursed and glared at the Red Island One Communications logo in the corner of the screen. He picked up the metal shard and tapped it on the table. The logo gleamed in an animated loop, Mars rotating in the ‘O’ of the word ‘One’. Diggitt bit the inside of his lip.

“This should be interesting . . . ”

Diggitt tapped open a line to Red Island One.

Anne, the voice of the AI interface asked which department he wanted.

“Emergency . . . Gretchen Anderson,” Diggitt said.

“One moment, Mr. Diggitt,” said Anne.

Gretchen’s face popped up on screen and a gurgle churned in his guts. Even after all these years, she was still pretty. In microgravity, faces swelled just enough——age lines disappeared. Too practical to care about her looks, she had cut her hair short. Too busy to acknowledge the emergency blink, her head dropped off screen and came back in profile, not looking at who was calling.

“Sorry, we’ve had some problems up here today, what can I do for you?”

She leaned out of frame again, then returned. Her eyes twitched wide when she saw Jeremy’s face.

“Jer. It’s been a while. I didn’t expect to hear from you again.”

“Sorry, Gretchen. It just got too . . . complicated.”

“I know. You said. For me, too.” She looked off screen for a moment, took a breath. “I’ve been busy, anyway. We’re starting to cover Tharsis next month. Thirty new satellites.”

Hearing the words coming out of her own mouth, realizing how pathetic she sounded, her eyebrows knitted.

“You’re doing well for yourself,” Jeremy said, forcing a smile. “Good to hear.”

“Yeah.”

Gretchen shook her head and flicked her eyes above the monitor. A bleeping alarm pulled her away.

“Pause?” she said, her hand already reaching out to switch him off.

“Sure.”

The screen flipped back to the Red Island One logo. Jeremy rubbed his face and coughed.

“What did you expect? Of course she’s angry,” he muttered.

Nine years ago, they had been in the same Mars habitation training classes, learning emergency routines and maintenance of air scrubbers, how to drill for water, how to signal satellites for help. They had gotten close. They were talking about a future together when he met Milla, and Gretchen took the job on Phobos. Diggitt knew he had hurt her, but that was a long time ago.

Her face returned to the screen.

“Sorry. You would not believe the sol I’m having. One of our people went missing.”

“Missing? Not many places to hide up there.”

“Exactly. No ships leaving either, but no trace of one of our techs.”

Her eyes focused on a spot somewhere off screen for a moment, grasping at a theory. She blinked the thought away.

“What’s going on with you?” she said.

“What happened to your satellites over B-ville?” Diggitt said, something knotting in his throat.

Gretchen laughed and shook her head. “Business then. Okay. Well, Mister Diggitt, our tech working on that problem is the one who disappeared about an hour ago. Red Island One ain’t that big, but he is——size of a full grown bacon tree, and we can’t find a trace of him anywhere. Why? . . . and how did you know we’re black?”

“Someone trashed my crops, Gretch. I think it was another steam farmer, name of Moses Clayburn. He’s been trying to get me to sell for months. I think he got someone to hack into one of his drones so it would look like an accident. Had to be someone with satellite access.”

“Son of a bitch.”

“I’m pretty sure Clayburn paid off the local enforcers. They were the ones giving me static. Told me about B-ville going black.”

Gretchen tapped her fingers on her workstation.

“Son of a bitch. Okay. I’ll see what I can find out.”

“Thanks. I owe you one.”

“You sure do, Germy.”

She smirked and blinked off.

Diggitt leaned back in his chair. Guilt pulled through him like a rusty cable. He had clearly seen the pain in Gretchen’s eyes. She had hoped that they would end up together, even after his daughter was born. Milla never found out about that last time when Gretchen visited Burroughsville. He looked at the clock. More than an hour had passed since he had talked to his wife. It never took her longer than an hour to get back from the farm. He called up her blinkstick.

***

Moses Clayburn was proud of his chair. His big, overstuffed  wood-and-upholstery throne smelled like ancient cigarettes and cedar. Visitors to his office would quickly understand Clayburn’s status when they saw the shiny black wooden chairs surrounding his huge oak desk. Earth items, especially the heavy ones, were the most expensive to ship to Mars.

He pulled out the top drawer just to feel the wood slide apart. Something heavy rattled inside, and the musty scent of Earth curled up his nose. Moses pinched back a sneeze and closed the drawer slowly, relishing the finely crafted solidity of the thing. It thumped shut just as his com bleated.

“Milla Diggett here to see you,” said the synthetic voice of the AI named Anne.

Milla walked in, carrying Ginny in her arms. She was flanked by the four men in Mars suits, their helmets deflated on their backs.

“Kidnapping now, Clayburn?” Milla barked.

Moses scrunched his face like he had smelled something foul. “Mrs. Diggett, such a strong word, kidnapping. You were escorted.” He rose and gestured to one of the polished black wooden chairs at the edges of the room. One of his men pulled it closer.

“I wanted you to be here if your hot-headed husband got the wrong idea.”

“What wrong idea would he get? The one where you had our crops smashed? Hell, everyone knows you’ve been trying to push us off our land. How would he get the wrong idea? How would anyone?”

Clayburn smeared his face into mock surprise. He long-grunted and raised his finger.

“Seyopont policy is very clear on . . . please sit.” Again, he gestured to the chair.

“I’ll stand.”

“Seyopont policy states that if the registered person or persons assigned to a parcel of land are unable to produce sufficient cubic meters of water vapor per month . . . I forget the exact numbers here, but that’s hardly important at this juncture . . . unless you meet the quota, the land may be claimed by another interested party. It’s all in your contract.”

Milla glared at Moses. He nodded his head and continued his thought.

“I heard that your crops had been . . . compromised. And I put in a bid to——”

“Compromised?!”

“You’re upset. That is entirely understandable after such a loss. I hear the Burroughsville retraining center is quite nice, and I’m certain that wearing orange will bring out those beautiful green eyes of yours.” He smirked. “Please. Sit.”

“How can you live with yourself?” she growled.

“SIT DOWN!”

Two men jammed down on her shoulders. Ginny whimpered and held tight to her mother as the antique Earth chair creaked under their weight. Clayburn cleared his throat and composed himself.

“Now I have some representatives of Ares Aqua on the way, and we need your husband present to blink-sign the documents. I figure once he realizes you’re late, we can——”

Milla’s blinkstick bleated.

“Ah!” Moses smiled to his men and raised his palm to her. “Perfect timing. Didn’t I say?”

The men chuckled.

Ginny clung to her mother’s neck as she blinked in to answer.

“Hi, hon . . . Yeah, I know, I’m . . . no. No, I’m not . . . Jeremy, listen to me. I’m at Moses Clayburn’s. He brought me here. He wants us to . . . No. He wants us to sign some documents.”

There was a long silence. Milla softly yes-grunted twice, then put her blinkstick away.

“He’s on his way.”

***

The assassin’s inflatable dropkite skirted the thin atmosphere, skimming the outer layers. Conducted through the straps, he heard the wings creak as they flexed into the white-hot reentry. The stats in his helmet were clean, though. Right on target.

The dropkite’s AI set the flight pattern into wide spirals, slowing its descent. A panorama of the lowlands scrolled across his visor—the crumpled expanse of Xanthe Chaos to the south, the water-etched Tiu Valley rolled by next, followed by a pop-up inviting him to the Pathfinder museum. The planetfall so far was drone-perfect, right by the numbers, but it was the beginning of storm season on Mars—gusts ripped sideways out of nowhere, tearing apart unsuspecting aircraft. If the drone overcompensated for one of those gusts, the flight could be over real quick.

The cratered flats of the Golden Plain curled under him as he circled north of Burroughsville, careful to avoid any incoming traffic to Casablanca Spaceport below. He scanned the sky. Nothing. The satellite must still be black——no permitted landings.

The target landing site to the east of B-ville slowly curved into view. The kite straightened out for the final descent. Swatting away a pop-up advertising the Viking Lander Museum, he switched to manual. The kite shimmied, but stayed on course.

A sideways gust gnawed on the right wing, dipping it low, pulling the nose right for the dirt. He threw the toggles back, making the coils scream in protest as they bent the wings hard, like a duck coming in for a pond landing. Slowing . . . pulling up. The nose tapped the bottom of the horizon line just as the deck knocked into him. The belly of the kite shrilled as it scraped against the regolith, scouring micro-tears into the diamond-hard fabric, heating up. The nose about to tuck, the kite was ready to flip. He pulled the brake, deflating the wings forward, slowing the craft. All his blood pulled into his face as he was slammed into the protective shell. The body of the kite bounced up, the deflated wings dragged behind, slowing it. Another bounce. Another, and the flopping mass of blackened buckymesh rolled to a stop.

He peeled himself out of the dropkite and tapped into the satellite feed. Still black. No evidence of his descent. Only two kilometers away from the target drop, he sent up an EM flare.

***

Alarms wailed. Clayburn checked his screen——the security cameras showed Diggitt’s rover speeding down Clayburn’s field of steam pylons, smashing the tops off of them with an extended crane, taking out the monitor units.

“Stop him!” Clayburn said, slamming his fist into the oak table top. The four men rushed toward the door.

“No, you stay here. Get your men on it,” Clayburn said, rubbing his hand.

The four men blinked into their systems and directed their men to shoot out the wheels if they had to, but to be careful not to pop Diggitt’s suit.

Outside, thirty men jumped onto hoverbikes and tore off to intercept the rover.

Milla was stroking her daughter’s head, whispering in her ear when Clayburn laughed.

“Your husband doesn’t have to be alive to sign the documents, mind you. I just need his eyes intact. We can’t have his suit blowing out.”

The chirp-squeal of a blaster echoed down the hallway.

Clayburn jumped. Milla gasped and petted her daughter’s hair.

“Mick, Go see what that was!” Clayburn coughed, pointing to the open door.

One of the men unsheathed his blaster. He stepped into the hallway. A blaster bolt hit him square in the chest. He jumped a meter into the air and fell to the floor, twitching.

The three other men spread out to either side of the door with their guns ready.

“Jeremy? Is that you?” Milla called, desperation cracking her voice.

“You both okay?” Diggitt called back.

“We’re fine,” she sighed, sharing a smile with Ginny.

“How many of them are in there, hon?”

The men looked at each other and Clayburn, who stood, dumbfounded. This wasn’t part of the plan. Clayburn scowled and stabbed his finger at the doorway, mouthing something urgently to his men.

“Three and Mr. Clayburn.”

“You shut up,” Clayburn finally said, now quivering his outstretched finger at Milla. He yelled into his com, “Get back here now. He’s outside my office!”

Diggitt’s heavy footfalls neared the door. The three remaining men gripped their weapons tight. Jeremy peeked into the room. His suit was dusty and red, his helmet resting on his back—the shoulder lights of his harness switched off. He held his finger up to his lips as Ginny smiled at him.

     Clayburn saw Diggett’s shadow fall against the door frame. Clayburn jabbed his finger again at the open door and glared at his men. The closest man moved. Ginnny’s eyes followed him. Reading his daughter’s face like a tracking device, Jeremy crouched and aimed.

Clayburn’s man turned into the hallway and got a crotch full of plasma. He shrieked, dropping his gun. He cracked his head onto the door frame, and spasmed on the floor, boot heels chattering on the tile, froth billowing from his mouth.

Diggitt picked up the fallen man’s blaster and ran down the hall away from the office.

“This is ridiculous! Shoot him already!” Clayburn barked.

The two remaining men yes-grunted and inched toward the door, guns ready. One gestured to the other in tactical sign language. A nod of acknowledgment from the other. Back-to-back, they lunged into the corridor.

Nothing.

One gestured to the other to follow him to the far end of the corridor.

“Don’t fall for that!” Clayburn yelled.

Milla raised an eyebrow to him.

“What’s wrong, Moses? Afraid he’s got the right idea about you after all?”

Clayburn sneered and opened his desk drawer. He pulled out an antique pistol and aimed at her.

“I told you to shut up.”

Three tightly bunched blaster shots echoed down the hallway. Ginny clenched her mother’s neck. Milla nodded and told her daughter to hush.

“Daddy’s okay.”

Clayburn loaded bullets from a box into the pistol as one set of footsteps clapped down the hall.

“Gator? . . . Markley? . . . answer me,” Clayburn said, sweat rolling down his cheek.

The footsteps stopped. Clayburn snapped the gun shut and aimed into the empty doorway. He pulled on the trigger, testing the pressure. No give. He pulled it back to his chest again to examine it.

“You messed with my crops, and you took my family, Clayburn,” Diggitt said from the hall.

Clayburn fiddled with his gun, clicking levers. When he looked up and aimed again, Diggitt was smiling in the doorway, blaster aimed at Clayburn’s face.

“Seyopont says guns like that are illegal, Moses. Tends to put holes in pressure walls. They find evidence you used one, you’ll be taken down for more than just wrecking my crops.”

Clayburn opened his mouth, closed it, then opened it again. “I’m willing to take that chance. All I need from you is your eyes, Mr. Diggitt. This little beauty won’t boil them white, unlike that blaster of yours.”

“For the record, mine is set to stun. And for the record, I spent ten years in Guatemala, fighting in the Water Wars. I’m willing to chance that I’m a better shot with this blaster than you are with that old piece of crap you’re holding.”

Clayburn’s pistol shivered.

“So why don’t you drop it, Clayburn, and let me and my family go?”

Moses Clayburn hesitated. The muzzle of his gun dipped slightly, then raised again to center on Diggitt’s chest.

“I could have shot you just now, but I didn’t,” Diggitt said. “There are two ways this can go, Moses. One, you shoot me dead right here, and you get three hundred more pylons on your registry.”

Clayburn blinked sweat from his eyes.

“Two, you let me walk out of here with my wife and daughter, and I tell Red Island One to not send out this video I’m streaming to them right now. It’s up to you.”

Diggitt pointed to his harness cam. Clayburn’s aim wavered, then lowered. Diggitt held his gun straight.

“Ginny, come here, kiddo,” Diggitt said without taking his eyes off of Clayburn. Clayburn glowered at Diggitt from under his wiry eyebrows. Ginny ran to her father and hugged his waist. Jeremy patted her on the back.

“Why aren’t you wearing your density harness? You don’t want to get bird-boned, do you?”

“Sorry, Daddy.”

“Hon? Come on, hon. Let’s go home.”

Milla stood up. The chair creaked. Clayburn scowled. Milla Diggett backed out of the room, watching Clayburn. Her daughter smiled up at her. Jeremy Diggitt chanced a look over at his wife.

Clayburn raised his gun. Diggitt shot. Clayburn spun, throwing his gun against the wall.

“GAH!” Clayburn yelled, shaking his hand as it jerked in spasms. He clutched his arm.

Diggitt aimed his blaster at Clayburn’s face. “I could have ended you right then, Moses. That was your third chance. You won’t get a fourth.”

Clayburn glared. His com bleated. AI Anne said, “Sir, the Agent is here to see you.”

***

Diggitt pulled his wife and daughter down the halls of Clayburn’s complex to the rear loading dock.

“What are we doing?” Milla rasped.

“Clayburn’s men will be back any minute. Head through the airlock.”

“We don’t have suits,” Milla reminded him.

“I know, hon.”

“Your rover’s not coming back, is it?”

“No, hon.”

“Well how are we going to——”

Jeremy kissed his wife. Her lips tasted of salt and her breath held the acid tang of fear. He peeled away from her and pointed to the airlock door.

“Go. I’ll catch up on one of their bikes.”

“Where are you going?” she said.

“Clayburn’s men. Don’t want them holding us up. Now go.”

Ginny ran to Jeremy. He squatted down and she hugged him tight, the plush cat patting against his back.

“Go with mommy now, Ginger Snap.”

He smiled, straightened her hair with his palm, then kissed her on the forehead.

“I’ll be right behind you.”

Milla pulled her daughter away, and gave her husband one last glance. A dead mask stared back at her. She had seen that face before, when he had thoughts about the war. She forced a smile and ran to the airlock.

The outer door glowed green. Through the window, she saw the markings of their family car sealed into the dock.

“Daddy called the car for us?”

Milla opened the door.

“My clever man.”

***

Diggitt shadowed the wall as boots scuffled on the floor of the next room. The rest of Clayburn’s men were back. From the sound, there were ten or twelve of them. They found the two men Diggitt had shot, unconscious on the floor of the hallway. There were mutters of hushed conversations. Clayburn was giving them more orders over the com. Everything got quiet then.

Diggitt peeked into the room. A blast left a scorch on the far wall. Diggitt ran in place, making it sound like his footfalls were disappearing down the hall. The men piled into the hallway the chase him.

One. By. One. They fell. Diggitt popped each one that followed with a blast to the chest. Five. Six. Seven . . .

The bodies shivered on the tile, hiccupping and farting as their limbs and organs spasmed. They mopped the frothy spittle spewing from their mouths with their own faces and hair.

Inside the adjoining room, boots scraped the floor and weapons clicked. The twitching limbs in the hall ebbed to a standstill. Diggitt backed out down to the end of the hall, hid around the corner and waited for the men inside to move.

***

Milla checked the vehicle for damage. She reviewed the programming log showing that Jeremy had set the car to leave Buncha Farms and drive to Clayburn’s rear gantry. Somehow, he had gotten through Clayburn’s security codes. It was that woman from Red Island One. Milla suspected something had been going on between them, but she never thought he would bring her in on a family crisis.

She fought down her jealousy and felt her daughter beside her. Ginny was staring out the window, clutching her toy.

“Hey, it’ll be okay. Daddy will be fine,” Milla said, patting Ginny’s head.

Ginny nodded, then looked down at her cat for comfort.

“Nekochu, will daddy be okay?”

The AI box in the stuffed cat purred and said, “Your daddy is strong and careful, Ginny. He’ll do everything he can to make things right.”

“I know, but will he be okay?”

“Of course he will!” the blue cat giggled. Ginny hugged the doll.

“I told you to get going!” Jeremy said, making them both gasp.

“Daddy!”

Diggitt held his arm with his gun hand, scorch marks on his forearm.

“What happened?”

“Let’s get out of here,” he said, pulling a satchel of blasters into the back. “Clayburn’s men will be out for a while, but we gotta get to the house and grab what we need. I blinked my brother. We can stay with him until we clear this all up.”

Milla ran over to her husband and hugged him tight.

“I told you I’d find a way to catch up. You should have left.”

She kissed him. Hard. Pulling back, she grabbed and wriggled his ear.

“Ow,” he said, smiling.

“Baka,” she said, pushing a frown through her wet smile.

“Diggitt!” called a hard male voice from the hallway.

Jeremy turned cold, scowling as he pulled away.

“Let’s go now,” she whispered, clinging to him.

He shook his head and held up his hand to quiet her.

“One way or another, you’ll sign.” The voice didn’t belong to Clayburn.

“Who is that?” Milla said.

Diggitt shook his head and unholstered his gun. Milla put her hand over his gun hand and pulled his face to meet hers.

“Let’s go,” she said.

“They’d just follow us. Shoot out the car windows . . . ” Jeremy looked at his daughter and lowered his voice. “You have to get home, start packing. There will be nobody to bother us after this. We’ll start over. Maybe in Tharsis. The space lift is gonna start being built soon, and there will be more than enough jobs——.”

“Come out in three seconds, or I start shooting up your family, Diggitt.”

Milla took her hand off of his gun and nodded. Jeremy stepped onto the airlock ramp. At the end of the hallway, stood a man in a grey exosuit, dusty and blackened, like he had emerged from a pit of hell. His helmet was still inflated, shining back a tiny refection of Diggitt. A gauss gun——a dart-projecting magnetic pistol——was pointed at Diggitt’s chest.

“Whatever happens here, Clayburn gets your land. You did something stupid——you used your rover. It’s all recorded, Diggitt. You and your family are going orange whether you like it or——”

Diggitt fired and dropped to the floor. The assassin’s dart pealed over his head. He heard a pop behind him. The assassin convulsed to the ground.

From inside the car, a keening wail. Depressurization? Was the car popped? He jumped into the vehicle. Diggitt’s eyes flew wide. It was his wife that was making the noise. She was screaming.

Milla cradled little Ginny in the passenger seat. Tears streamed down her face as she shook the slack-faced child.

“Ginny! Ginny!”

The color pulled from his daughter’s face as the hole in her chest poured red onto the floor. Milla looked up at him with silvery eyes rimmed with red.

“Jeremy.”

Diggitt turned away. Snapping open the release on his gun, he unlocked the inhibitor, revealing the red label underneath warning him that his weapon was now unsafe and illegal. He snapped it shut and marched over to the assassin. He fired twelve shots, shattering the faceplate, boiling the eyes white, scorching the face black, shattering the teeth. Green and yellow froth boiled out as the body spasmed from each shot.

“Jeremy!” yelled Milla.

He turned to face her. She was pointing and screaming his name, but the sound was drowned out by a concussive explosion.

Diggitt felt his the air punch out of his lungs. His chest burned red hot as he spun on his heels. Clayburn. Clayburn stood with a smoking antique pistol in his hand.

His vision going grey, Diggitt aimed and fired. Once. Twice. Three, four, five, six times. Clayburn bucked on floor, his face seizing up into mask of gasping terror, staring with egg-white eyes.

Diggitt fell. Milla rushed over and held him.

“No, no, no, no. Jeremy!”

Milla leaned over and tasted his last breath.

***

‘The Ballad of Jeremy Diggitt’ was a song sung in villages all across Mars that year. By Spring, and the end to the paralyzing dust storms, the song had spread throughout the Solar System, giving birth to Martian Blues.

His wife kissed his chest as he exhaled
his last breath.
Dusty red, dusty red.
One day we all pray the water will stay
and flow freely like Diggitt’s own blood.
Rusty dead, rusty dead.


Ballad of Jeremy Diggitt

Jeremy Diggitt pulled free a shard of crumpled metal from the Martian dust. He huffed out a disgusted sigh and surveyed his ruined crop field. Something had crushed every one of the 312 steam vents, leaving nothing but piles of tortured metal. Although wind had scoured away most of the evidence, traces of tracks remained in the red dust in too precise a pattern for a human driver to have made them. He scanned the grid of imprints and a match came back from the Mesh: a late model Turtle cargo transport drone——the same kind of vehicle that his neighbor Moses Clayburn owned.

“So that’s that,” Diggett said, tucking the tortured metal into his tool satchel.

Automated Cargo drones don’t aim for obstacles——and certainly not more than three hundred of them. Someone must have hacked the drone. Diggitt knew from his own rover that drone pilot programs are over-sensitive. Even after upgrading to the most forgiving terrain algorithms, his rover’s AI took almost twice as long to navigate to the next village, avoiding every potential hazard, including every rock larger than a boot.

A dust devil danced on the horizon. The vanishing tread marks were proof that intentional malice had been at work here. Moses Clayburn was the only one who had a motive——harassing Diggitt to sell his land. The field of Winchester terraformation pylons was the only thing keeping Diggitt’s family from going back to the zero-credit retraining centers. He had lived like that back on Earth, working minimum wage, dressed in an orange duty suit. An image of his wife and daughter wearing those same overalls flashed through his mind, and his face swelled with rage.

Mars was supposed to have been his new start, but troubles had followed him from Earth. He had done everything he was supposed to——followed the rules, paid his dues. All for nothing.

‘Help us breathe life into Mars’ the ads had said. After the war in Guatemala, Diggitt had no life to come back to in the States——his parents, his sister and her boys had died during the famines. The Seyopont Conglomerate had offered to subsidize the cost of his move to Mars. They had promised him a good job, and if he married, Seyopont would give him a family living unit, the first year of air, and a parcel full of Winchester steam pylons, which earned credits for every cubic meter of steam vented into the thin Martian air.

The anemic wisps of water vapor streaming out of the crushed pylons were the last dying breaths of his dreams. Diggitt clicked into the com relay and blinked over to talk to his wife, Milla.

***

     Ethel, the stock clerk at Buncha Farms and long-time friend of Milla Diggitt, arced her finger through the air. “And that cricket went right into the batter.” She poked 6-year-old Ginny Diggitt on the nose.

They all laughed. Milla placed a bag of green beans into her cart as Ethel arranged a tray of cupcakes in the display case.

“Did you get it out?” asked Ginny, squeezing her plush toy cat.

Ethel yes-grunted in the Martian manner and laughed.

“I had half a mind to poke him right down in there and cook him up, he gave me so much trouble. But yeah, I got him out.”

Ethel held a cupcake up to Ginny’s nose. “Or did I?”

Ginny giggled and dodged the pastry. “Ewww.”

The wind outside rained pebbles onto the domed roof with a loud grating hiss.

“Storm season’s coming,” Ethel said, looking up. “They say it will be worse this year.”

“I saw that too. Air’s getting denser,” Milla said. “I guess all that steam we’re pumping into the air is working.”

Ethel coughed a yes-grunt. Milla’s blinkstick bleated. She reached down to her hip and pulled the device to her face. The earpiece chimed softly, confirming the connection.

“What’s up, babe?” she said.

“Where are you?” Jeremy couldn’t keep the distress from his tone.

“I told you I was picking up some food at Buncha Farms today. What’s wrong?”

The wind scraped another wave of pebbles across the roof, bathing the market dome in white noise.

Ginny looked up at her mother. Milla patted her on the back.

“Nekochu, I’m scared,” Ginny said to her doll.

The AI box in the blue cat purred and said in its iconic stuffy-nosed-girl voice, “There’s nothing to be a-scared of, Ginnypoo. This dome is made by ExoTerra, the only hab to grab. They’re built to stand up to worse than this.”

“All the crops?!” Milla hissed.

Ethel turned, concern cracking across her face. Ginny grabbed the doll tighter.

“Okay. We’ll see you back home in about an hour.”

Milla blinked off and sheathed the blinkstick.

“What’s wrong?” Ethel asked, wiping her hands in her apron.

“Someone smashed our pylons,” Milla said, rubbing her temples. Her other palm stabbed angles in the air. “Tire tracks all over the field.”

“Oh, no.”

“Looks like we can’t afford any of your cupcakes today,” Milla said.

Milla tightened her lips into a white line and looked down at her cart of groceries.

“Oh, sweetie,” Ethel said, reaching out and embracing her. “Let me know what we can do.”

Milla yes-grunted and sniffed back her anger.

***

     Orbiting high above the planet in Red Island One, a communication facility built on Mars’s closer moon, Phobos——Reginald Jost floated in a harness over his work station. His belly swelled out from between the straps as he drank from a sipper of Strawberry Smilk. On his screen, a shiny beetle-like object treaded toward a chasm. The image wavered as a cloud of dust passed under the satellite camera. Reg activated a filter to enhance the image. It was important that he confirm what happened next. The drone had completed its task, smashing those pylons, and now evidence needed to be deleted.

Warning lights blared. The blinder hack he had slapped onto the cargo drone’s AI was fragging.

“Ten more meters. Come on.”

The Turtle transport’s AI kept squirming through his hack to request GPS data. The drone knew it was headed for a cliff, but it couldn’t confirm just how close it was. It had no control over its movement——Reg had locked it onto a straight path. The only thing that could stop it would be a built-in auto-brake if the AI confirmed the cliff edge. Reg juggled between shrouding the terrain map from the drone’s systems and denying it access to satellite imagery. A wink of terrain data snuck through when the drone summoned a weather request. Reg hadn’t thought of that.

“Clever bastard!”

The drone slammed its brakes and it dragged to a halt, half hanging over the abyss. Wheels spinning in reverse, the Turtle wobbled in place, grinding up a cloud of dust. Reg ran some metrics on the weight distribution of the drone, the traction ratios of the wheels, and the geologic properties of the rock ledge. The numbers came back in his favor. He sipped his Smilk and waited. Wheels continued to spin. A gust from the impending dust storm tore across the vehicle, wiping away the amber cloud that had obscured it.

“Come on. Come on.”

The drone rocked forward in one slow arc, then careened downward into the chasm, bouncing once off the cliff wall before it was lost to the dark.

“Perfection!”

Reg clicked off the recording and took a moment to roll up the Smilk bag. He emailed the video to his contact and tossed the empty sipper over his shoulder. A vacuum scoop fixed to the wall sucked the bag away to be recycled.

“Reg?” a woman’s voice crackled over the intercom, “You patch Meringula Eight yet? I’m still getting black over Burroughsville.”

“Working on it, Gretch,” Reg said, smiling. “The patch was corrupted when I got it. Have to wait for them to resend. Something broke the feed mid-stream. Asteroid, or something.”

A pause followed as Gretchen Anderson checked the navigation charts. Reg clicked over to his hack of her system and watched her screen pop up with the orbit data of asteroids. He had checked the charts. The mining colony Ida had passed precisely between Mars and the base on Earth’s Moon approximately an hour earlier.

Reg smiled.

“Okay, Reg, our supply ship docked twenty mils ago. I’m gonna go confirm inventory, but blink me when you get Eight back online. Readback?”

“Green.”

Reg smirked and switched over to his account, waiting for the payment promised him. He stretched out to order another Smilk sipper from the dispenser and heard the pressure door to his cabin open. Rolls of skin bulged as he twisted in the harness to see who had entered.

A blaster shot slammed square into his side.

The catches on Reg’s harness clinked and rattled as his body convulsed, smilky froth spewing from his mouth. In the microgravity of Phobos, the pink liquid coagulated into globs,then crawled down the wall like a slow-motion snowball. Reg’s rattling and kicking slowed and stopped.

The assassin, wearing a grey exosuit, holstered his weapon and pulled himself over to the bloated corpse. He unlatched Reg from his harness and pulled back his head. Boiled white eyes. Dead. The grey assassin pulled the body by its collar out the cabin door.


Guns of Justice

Copper tailings from the played-out mine at the top of the canyon were heaped up on one side of the camp. The small patch of open ground had once been cleared by logging, but the forest was well on its way to taking it back. Clay Billings huddled close to the cooking fire, propped up against a rotten pine log. Sunlight was filtering down through the ring of surrounding trees, but did little to take the chill from the early morning.

I needs me a doctor,” Clay said, his voice full of the wretched misery of his leg.

“Reckon you might be better served by a preacher,” Panoson bent down and lifted the bandage with the point of a rusty Missouri toothpick.

“Don’t play me bad, Swede.”

“Well, I won’t lie to you Clay. It ain’t pretty,” Panoson said recoiling at the sight of the oozing wound. “Want for me to piss on it?”

“You what?” Clay said not sure that he had heard him right.

“I’ll piss on it. It’ll stop it mortifying.”

“Go boil your shirt. I ain’t letting no plow chaser piss on me.” Panoson had once let slip that his folks were dirt farmers back East and Clay never let him forget it. “Charlie, tell this crazy sumbitch to go wipe his chin will ya?”

“Alright have it your way, it don’t make no never mind to me,” Panoson stood up and threw the knife at a stump on the far side of the fire, its long blade burying deep in the wood with a satisfying twang. “I hope that pill pushing bastard in Salt Creek takes your damn leg off.”

“Hell, let him piss on it if he wants,” Charlie said laughing at the exchange while he pushed corn biscuits around in a cooking pan. “It can’t hurt none. I’m sat down wind and I can tell you it won’t make you stink no worse either.”

“Why don’t you shut your big bazoo, Charlie,” Clay said failing to see the humor in his situation. “It’s you and your dunderheaded brother what damn near cost me my leg.”

Charlie dropped the pan in the fire, slopping bacon grease that made the flames leap up. “I reckon you’re the one who needs to hobble his lip, Clay Billings. I ain’t forgetting you shot me neither. Carry on bad-mouthing Frank and I’ll settle your hash along with that law dog,” Charlie’s bandaged hand was instinctively resting on the handle of shooting iron. He no longer found much that needed laughing at either.

“Easy there Charlie boy, he didn’t mean nothing by it, he’s only funning is all,” Panoson said. “Ain’t that so Clay?”

Clay stated back at Charlie across the fire, his own fingers tickling up the Griswold. “Yeah, like Swede says, I’s just funnin’.”

Justice McCann stood in the tree line at the edge of the camp, her back to the morning sun and her shotgun cocked and held on the three men gathered around the fire.

“Seems like you’ll is a might tetchy this morning,” she said stepping out into the clearing.

“Why you little bitch,” Charlie said, his hand now firmly on his gun.

“Don’t do it mister, I’m loaded with dimes and I’ll be happy to loan you a dollar,” she said advancing on the men, favoring Charlie with a look that would stop a stampede cold.

Charlie tried to stare her down, gave up and hawked a glob of lung butter that landed in the pan and sputtered next to the corn bread. McCann could see Wade lying on the far side of the camp, he looked like he had been roughly handled, but he was still alive.

“All I’m wanting is the sheriff here. I ain’t got no interest in you boys beyond that, there ain’t no lawful papers on ya, so you ain’t worth my time. Skin out and I’ll say no more about it.”

“Go to hell, you gunned down my brother in cold blood, if’n you think I’m gonna let that slide or let that no-good lawman walk out of here, you’re as dumb as you is ugly,” Charlie said moving around the fire putting himself firmly between McCann and the prone figure of Wade Pollock.

“It was hot blood not cold what got your rapin’ brother killed and if you don’t high tail it out of here, I’ll oblige you with the same kind of fucking he got.”

“You don’t but got two barrels in that old burner little girl and there’s three of us,” Panoson said working out the mathematics of the situation.

“I guess you ain’t never seen what a load of tin does to a man,” McCann said narrowing her aim towards Panoson, “at this range I could put pay to your hide and have enough left over for a jug to celebrate. You do them sums.”

McCann saw fear painting Panoson’s cheeks with a flush of red and  turned her attention back to Charlie, knowing well enough that the Swede wouldn’t be first to draw down. She was still mindful of Billings though, who had kept his tongue so far. He sat with his back to her leaning up against the log and craning his neck around to gawk.

“Times a wasting, what’s it to be?” she said.

Clay Billings slipped the Griswold out of his belly holster, moving slowly, like corn syrup in January. He coughed to cover the click of the hammer locking back. Charlie watched him do it out of the corner of his eye and a big shit-eating grin crept across his face.

“Make your move, whore,” Charlie said.

Clay turned, leveling the Griswold at McCann’s head. He yanked on the trigger, igniting the grains of powder that had jarred loose when he dropped the pistol the previous night. The Griswold chain fired, one slug shooting out the barrel and the rest exploding in the gun, chewing Clay’s hand down to a mushy stump. He tried to scream, the sound never made it past the fragment of hot casing lodged in his windpipe and he had to settle for bubbling up frothy blood instead.

McCann felt Clay’s bullet burrow deep into the flesh of her shoulder. The impact of the ball knocked her sideways. She squeezed the Baker’s triggers, firing both barrels and spending $1.80 on Panoson. It tore Swede up from neck to crotch. He went backwards into the fire and died with flames licking up his face. McCann hit the ground a moment later and in only slightly better shape. Her right arm numb, the shotgun gone from her hand.

“You’s all abroad now, girly,” Charlie said, filling the hole in his hand with the blunt end of his Colt.

McCann rolled to her left. Chased by the bark of Charlie’s .45 she scrabbled in behind Clay Billings, who was slumped over the pine log choking on his own blood.

Charlie laughed and fired again; peeling away a chunk of rotten wood and making her hunker down.

“Come out and take your medicine, bitch. If’n you fuck good enough, I might even kill you quick.”

Another slug thumped into the log and McCann pressed her nose to the dirt; smelling death mixed with bacon grease and damp earth.

***

            Wade worked furiously at his bindings. Rubbing his wrists raw and making the rope slick with blood. His view of the stand-off was mostly blocked by Charlie and Swede, but he could see well enough that nobody was paying him any mind. He sat up and scooted across on his backside to the knife Panoson stuck in the stump. He felt around, found the edge and ran the rope up and down, worrying it against the dull blade and making the muscles in his shoulders scream. He heard the loud wump of the Griswold going up, and raised his head in time to see a fine spray of blood arching into the cloudless sky as Swede went down ugly.

The rope finally gave and his hands came free. He tugged the rusty knife blade from the stump and hurled it at Charlie just as he fired on McCann for the second time. The knife sailed end over end towards its target and smacked Charlie on the back of his head, butt first.

“Shit!”

Charlie turned rubbing his head. “Goddamn you Lawman.”

Wade scurried backwards until his ass bumped up against the stump. With no place else to go he pulled up his legs to his chest, set his jaw and waited for the good lord to carry him over. Charlie grinned and took a careful aim.

McCann got to her feet and lunged at the fire. Her right hand hung limp and useless at her side. She grabbed up the cooking pan with her left, ignoring the pain as the hot metal scalded her hand and flung the contents at Charlie. Boiling fat seared up his back. He let out a screech like he’d just been gelded and pumped a bullet into Wade’s kneecap. Charlie folded over clawing at the chunks of soggy biscuit that stuck to his neck and smoldered in his hair. McCann swung the pan at him, putting everything she had behind it.

The noise his skull made when it caved fair turned her stomach.

***

            Clay Billings bled out. McCann managed to patch up Wade to stop him doing the same. She dealt with her own wound by packing the bullet hole with fresh moss and lichens scrapped from the north side of a live pine. Wade stood next to her using Charlie’s broken Winchester as a crutch.

“If you was to shoot him dead, you wouldn’t hear no complaints from me.”

McCann looked down at Charlie. He was making a strange sort of mewing noise and there was a horrible divot in the top of his head like somebody had scooped it out with a spoon. She had an idea that if he lived the highlight of his day from now on would be soiling his long johns.

“You best lock him up. He ain’t worth the lead,” she said turning away.

Charlie’s piece was lying in the dirt; Wade stooped to pick it up. He started to shove it in his belt and then changing his mind he cocked it and fired. His aim was slightly off, but the slug did its job well enough. “I reckon he ain’t worth the paperwork neither.”


Guns of Justice

Bruce picked his way down the stony river bank and splashed out across the shallows. McCann let herself relax a little as the horse gained a footing on the far side. She followed the rutted wagon track that wound up through the scrub pine towards a range of bald hills, the last patches of winter snow on their summits lost in the failing light. This was a hard country, full of rough gullies and broken trails. Here you were more likely to get yourself killed by nature than a bullet. Diamond back rattlers, big mountain cats and grizzlies all called this place home; so did McCann.

She rode on through the gathering dusk. It was long past the time when God fearing folks would have pitched up for the night. McCann wasn’t afraid of God. When her time came she would face him down just like she would any other man and if it turned out there was no room for her in his mansions of glory, then so be it. The other place didn’t scare her either; she seen the devil before.

Right now, her place in eternity didn’t bother her half as much as the riders who were trailing her. She put their number at three or maybe four. Riding hard, but still a good ways back. She hadn’t been completely sure that they were there at all, not until one of their horses gave them up, whinnying when it missed a footing on the rocky ground. Could be they were just headed to Salt Creek, like she was. After all, there was no law against riding at night. You had a hard time finding any sort of law in these parts, especially after dark. McCann thought of the sheriff’s warning.  Shaw’s brother being on her back trail seemed a sight more likely than some honest traveler at this hour. Whoever it was, she wasn’t about to let them ride up on her.

McCann pulled on the reins and gently put her heels to Bruce’s flank, encouraging him up the steep hillside and into the pines. The trees crowded around her and seemed to suck all the sounds from the night, the thick carpet of needles underfoot deadening the fall of Bruce’s hooves as the horse weaved through the knotty trunks. The ground leveled out some thirty yards back in the trees before climbing up again. She turned along the ledge and rode parallel to the trail. When it felt like she had gone far enough, she dismounted and drew her shotgun.

“Don’t go wandering off nowhere,” she told the horse.

Bruce gave her a look that said he’s consider it, but wasn’t making no promises and started cropping from a patch of green shoots poking out of the needles. McCann began circling back towards the trail. The night was clear and there was a good sized moon on the rise, but its pale light didn’t penetrate the thick, syrupy darkness under the pines. McCann moved as fast as she dare, just another shadow in a world already full of them. She slithered down the hillside back to the trail, one hand on her shotgun and the other out to control her descent. She found a crooked pine that leaned out over the path just beyond a sweeping bend; there was plenty of brush sprouting around its trunk, which made for some good cover. She hunkered down and waited, her breath fogging in front of her face as the night air took on a chill.

***

            McCann didn’t know exactly how long she had been waiting, but it was long enough for the cold to leach into her bones. She was beginning to doubt what she heard, maybe there were no riders following. Could be the hills had been playing tricks on her, bouncing sounds around from a whole other direction. Pine flats was better than five miles distant and sometimes on a still night like this you could hear the train whistle like you were stood beside it. The moon cast its eerie light on the deserted trail. McCann propped her shotgun up against the tree and began skinning up the trunk to get a look around the bend.

She climbed along a thick branch out over the trail, straining her eyes for the slightest movement. Suddenly hoof beats drummed on the hard dirt, the noise seemed to be coming from everywhere at once. McCann scrambled to get down from the tree; her boots slipped on the mossy bark and she was left swinging by her arms above the trail. A black shape came around the bend. Curb chains and stirrups dully reflecting the waxing moon. She dropped to the ground, and dived into the brush at the side of the trail. Moments later the horse thundered by.

“What the fu…Whoa there!”  The rider said hauling on his reins.

Two more riders appeared, one leading a pack horse with baggage strapped to it, both were reining in and slowing from a gallop. McCann hid her face in her duster. She heard the beasts blowing as they passed her and smelt the pungent stench of shit and saddle sweat that came from hard riding.

“Jesus, what’s got you all balled up, Charlie?”

“I saw something back there, by that crooked pine.” Charlie said pulling his horse around and drawing his long gun from its scabbard.

“Probably just a deer or somethin’,” Clay said coming to a halt with Panoson just behind him.

“It weren’t no deer , it was a man. Charlie said and swung his leg over the saddle horn, slipping to the ground.

“You been drinking Regan’s scamper juice again? There ain’t nothing out here but trees,” Panoson said.

McCann peeked out from under her coat. The three men were a few yards off up the trail; their pack horse was stood much closer. The baggage it carried was a hog tied Wade Pollock. He looked like he was already buzzard bait, but the blood dripping from his head could still be proof of life rather than gravity.

“I know what I saw, Swede.”

“C’mon Charlie, we’re only a mile from that old copper camp, let’s go up there and get a fire going,” Panoson said feeling the cold and wishing he was in Regan’s back room with that Mexican gal, Angelique; she knew how to warm a man up.

“You take that shit-bird sheriff up there and me and Clay’ll be along presently,” Charlie said.

Panoson rolled his eyes at Clay, before doing as he was told and trotting on up the trail. Clay just shrugged and fished out a tobacco pouch, tipping the dry makings into a wrap made from the pages of a New Testament. He didn’t know how to read, but he knew bible pages smoked up better than any other book.

“C’mon Clay, let’s you and me take a look-see,” Charlie said.

Clay reluctantly pushed the home spun cigarette behind his ear and wondered why the hell he had let Charlie talk him out of a night of whoring and in to this damn fool escapade.

McCann lay still, not daring to move. With her shotgun out of reach she needed to keep surprise firmly on her side. She listened to the jingle bobs on the men’s spurs chinking; each footstep bringing them closer. Death was stalking these hills tonight, the reaper moving silently through the wooded gullies. McCann didn’t fret; he was here for somebody else.

Charlie had stopped just short of McCann. “Well, Looky here,” he said.

Dropping to one knee and leaning on his Winchester, he picked up a hand gun from the edge of the trail. It was shorter than any he’d seen before and the hammer looked kind of funny to him, like it had been pared down.

“What do you make of that?” he asked passing it to Clay.

“Don’t rightly know. I ain’t never seen a Sam Colt looking like this one.”

McCann swore under her breath. She didn’t need to feel her holster to know that it would be empty, although she did just the same. A greased holster gave you an edge in a quick draw, but not so much when climbing trees.

“See, I told you, somebody’s out here.”

Clay, now more inclined to agree, stuffed McCann’s colt in his waistband and drew his Griswold.

“There,” Charlie said pointing at what looked like an old crumpled wagon tarp lying in the brush.

“That’s nothing but trash,” Clay said walking over and poking it with his foot.

A flash of steel blurred in the moonlight and something warm filled Clay’s boot. He looked down to find the cowhide on his right boot sliced open from shin to ankle. The fine, soft leather was no match for McCann’s skinning knife, which had cut deep enough to score Clay’s shinbone. It took a moment for the pain to telegraph itself to his head. When it did, Clay howled like a banshee.

“Watch who you’s calling trash, mister,” McCann said springing to her feet and taking off up the hill.

Branches whipped and clawed at her face as she ran, opening up old wounds like a lover’s feud. Charlie fired after her, his shots echoing through the canyon and kicking up the pine needles at her heels. The angle of the hill grew steeper and she had to climb on all fours clutching at roots, dragging herself up the slope and deeper into the safety of the trees.

“Dammit Clay, it’s her, get shooting,” Charlie said reloading his own piece.

Clay couldn’t care less. He dropped his Griswold and started scrabbling at his leg. Black powder flared and the horse-pistol went off half-cocked, turning the stock of Charlie’s Winchester to kindling. Now it was Charlie’s turn to holler.

“You son-of-a-bitch, Billings,” he said, hopping around, shaking his hand and spraying droplets of blood from the dime-sized hole in his palm.

Swede Panoson rode up like a parade, gun in one hand, pulling the pack horse along with the other; he held his own reins in his teeth.

“She went off up the hill,” Charlie said pointing after McCann with his wounded hand.

Panoson could see the moon shining through the hole in it. He looked from Charlie to Clay, who had managed to get his boot off and was holding the two halves of his leg together with bloody hands. Panoson thought he would probably live, although he might never walk straight again.

“Well, what are you waitin’ fer? Get after her, Swede.”

Panoson stared up into the inky trees that crowded the steep hillside above him. Their trunks so close together a man could barely squeeze between them in places. He pushed his hat back with a calloused finger. “To hell with that, Charlie.”

***

            McCann lay breathless on a bed of pine needles. She wiped a hand across her scarred forehead, dragging grit and needles over the puckered valleys of skin. The hand came away wet with sweat and more than a little blood from injuries both old and new. She felt neither. The press of cold air filled her lungs as she gulped it down and waited for the pounding in her head to subside. The men were cussing her from below. Calling her a bitch and a whore, telling her she was going to get what was coming to her; saying how they were all going to take turns, after they had prettied her up some with a knotted plow line. McCann had heard it all before, big talk from men who howled at the moon like a pack of mangy coyotes. She smiled as the one with the sliced up foot wailed when they tried to get him on his horse. Moments later she heard them clear out up the trace. She would give it a while longer before she fetched Bruce and rode back down to get her shotgun. Then she’d give them something to howl about.

***

            Wade Pollock felt the sun on the other side of his eyelids and knew that somehow he had made it through to morning. He tested the ropes that bound him hand and foot, twisting his wrists behind his back. There had been no magical loosening of his bindings while he slept. If getting beaten unconscious by Charlie Shaw could be counted as sleeping. He knew the whaling had been to make up for Charlie and his boys coming a poor second to McCann. While that cheered him some, it didn’t make it hurt any less. He opened an eye; one was all he could manage, the other had been swollen closed. The three men were lounging around a camp fire a few yards off. Two were still snoring loudly, the other, Clay Billings, was awake, but too busy with his flayed leg to notice the sheriff had temporarily rejoined the living. Wade felt around in the dirt behind him and came up with a small shard of rock. It would likely take a month of Sunday’s to cut through the ties with it, but having nothing better to do he started sawing at the rope.


Guns of Justice

McCann waited impatiently outside the livery while old man Sayles finished hitching a spike team to his beat up flatbed.  She wanted to be across the river and on familiar trails before dark.

“Could you see your way to hurrying it along some?”

“Alright, missy, don’t go getting knots in your rope.” Sayles tied off the reins and wiped tobacco juice from his whiskers to the back of his hand and finally on to his bib overalls. “That’ll be two bits for the stabling and an extra nickel for feed,” he said.

“A nickel, what you been feeding him on, steak and eggs?”

The old boy just smiled a toothless grin and held out his hand. McCann sighed and dropped some coins in it.

“Thankee missy. You’ll find him back there on the right and your saddle is on the rail. Now, if that’s all you’ll be needing, I’ve got me some pressing business in town,” he said picking straw of a grubby coonskin hat and wedging it down on his bald head.

“Surely,” she said guessing that his pressing business was probably with a bottle.

McCann walked the length of the stable and found Bruce in the last stall. He stood with his back to her absently chewing on his bedding.

“Don’t eat that crud it’ll give you the colic.”

Bruce regarded her with mild disinterest and went back to work on his wood shavings and straw. McCann had named the colt for a man she had known in Bad Rock. That Bruce had got himself shot dead in an argument over a one dollar whore; this Bruce was just as stupid, but he was also fearless. She thought it was funny how often those two went hand in hand.

McCann climbed up the side of the stall and wrestled the heavy saddle on to Bruce’s back. Once she had fixed the billets, she slid her side-by-side into its holster on the swell.

Most in her line of work favored a repeater, but McCann had never cared for a long gun. Her small size made it hard to fire one from the saddle and she’d heard too many stories about the new Winchester model jamming up to trust it in a tight spot. What her shotgun lacked in accuracy it more than made up for in brute force.

“That’s a fine looking horse you got there little girl. I’d give you ten dollars for him.”

Frank Shaw stood at the end of the stall, running his hand across his chin and letting his eyes take a walk all over her.

“He ain’t for sale and he never will be at that price,” McCann said turning to face him.

“Well that‘s no never mind. I ain’t got me ten dollars anyhow.”

“Was there something you’re wanting mister?”  She asked suddenly feeling claustrophobic in the narrow confines of the stall.

Shaw took a step towards her. McCann stood her ground. The truth was she knew exactly what he wanted and if she showed any fear he’d be apt to try and take it.

“I’ll be wanting the coin you got on Johnson for one. Then seeing as that face of yours would turn the stomach of most men, I’d be happy to oblige you with a pity fucking to see you on your way.”

McCann felt her guts knot up. She ignored them and took an inventory of her options. The shotgun hung on the far side of her horse; it might as well have been in Chicago. The way she was stood also put the wooden stall close up against her gun arm, close enough to foul her draw.

“Well now, that would be right neighborly of you mister,” she said concentrating on his hand, knowing that when the music stopped his move would start there. “But if you want to spill your seed then you best try one of them steers out yonder, because I’ll be dead and cold before I take your limp pecker inside me.”

“I prefer it better when they struggle,” Shaw said as if he was considering the proposal, “but I ain’t adversed about to doing it your way neither girl.”

McCann didn’t wait to get beat hollow in a straight draw and dove under the horse. Shaw cussed her and went for his gun. He was a lot faster than he looked. She kept her holster well greased, but he would have taken her if she’d stood still. Her move caught him by surprise and bought her a precious few seconds. She came up on the far side of Bruce, her short barrel colt already cocked as she cleared leather. Shaw opened up, his rounds going high and punching holes through the barn boards above her head. McCann returned the compliment, firing from the hip. She did it without aiming, hoping only to keep his head down. It worked and Shaw ducked out of the stall, she chased him with two more slugs as he dodged behind a stack of feed sacks, one grazed his trailing leg and made him yelp like a heel hound.

“Now I’m gonna bleed you before I fuck you, bitch,” he called out.

“By my reckoning you’re the one who’s doing all the bleeding.”

Her comment was met by a swarm of lead that narrowly missed the back end of the horse and splintered the wood beside her ear. Bruce ignored the gun play and continued to munch on the rank straw; reaffirming both his fearlessness and his stupidity.

McCann counted his six and scrambled to her feet, pulling the side-by-side from her saddle hitch. She edged to the end of the stall and unloaded on the feed sacks. The shotgun biting deep into her shoulder as two barrels of buckshot chewed up a week’s worth of good corn.

“Hey, how do you like them apples mister?”

Shaw didn’t answer. He crouched behind a wall of mortally wounded sacks, his teeth clamped on one end of a filthy kerchief as he tied off the hole in his leg. He slipped fresh rounds in his piece, thinking more now about saving his own hide than getting a piece of the girl’s.

McCann had dropped the spent shotgun and was reloading her revolver when Shaw broke cover. He moved pretty well for a man with a gimp leg, firing at her on the run as he made a break for the door. His shots were going wild. Even so, they sent McCann scurrying to the back of the stall. She waited until she heard his hammer strike an empty chamber and rushed out after him.

The sun had dipped and the shadows were long inside the livery. She could just make out the loping figure of Shaw hurrying towards the doors. McCann hesitated. Shooting a man in the back didn’t sit well with her. She considered just letting him go and then thought about what would happen if she did. She fanned her trigger and put two in his spine. Life was short enough without a giving a man like this the chance to make good on his promises.

Shaw fought against gravity for a moment before toppling like he had been a sawed off at the ankles. He landed face down, his impact cushioned by a pillow of horse shit.

McCann stood over him, the short barrel .45 smoking gently in her hand. Shaw moaned and scraped at the dirt, his fist opening and closing on a handful of shit-covered straw. She could see he was done for; nobody bled like that and lived, although it might take him a while longer to realize it for himself. McCann slid her thumb over the drop-back hammer.

“I got your pity fucking right here mister,” she said and blew in the back of his head.

***

            Wade Pollock eased back in his chair, took a twist of paper and lit his pipe from the potbelly stove behind his desk. In another few weeks the town would be sweating under a blanket of summer heat, but for now the air still had a spring chill about it.

“Well, it sounds to me like a fair fight to me. The little I know of Frank Shaw-or should I say knew-I can’t say as I’m much surprised that he came to a bad end.” He toked hard on the pipe and filled the room with sweet-scented clouds of Lone Jack.

McCann nodded and cut a chaw with a long skinning knife. She thought to herself that if Shaw had come on her in the back country she might just have used the blade to clean his scalp before she sent him on to his maker.

“Then we’re done? “She said, popping the tobacco in her mouth.

Wade regarded his pipe and blew on the bowl. “I believe we are.” McCann nodded and started to leave. “But, it won’t take long for word to get out that Frank was shot in the back. I’ve no concerns about that. The way I see it you done me a favor, sooner or later I was bound to cut his trail. Other folks though, might not be so appreciative.”

McCann paused. “What are you sayin’ sheriff?”

Wade started making smoke signals again and continued. “Frank had a brother, Charlie. Now Charlie, he ain’t the biggest toad in the puddle, but he keeps with that Clay Billings and Swede Panoson, that’s some low company and no mistake. All I’m saying is watch your back. I’d hate for to see you end up next door, in your Sunday best burying clothes.

“That’s kindly of you, but seeing as I don’t got no best, you had better tell that other Mr. Shaw if’n he comes around, I’ll be happy to discuss matters with him at a time of his choosing and then if it pleases him, I’ll send him right along to his brother,” she said and spat a gob of squash into the fire.

Wade couldn’t help liking this gal. She was rougher than fresh sawn timber, but she had a deal of sand and that tallied pretty high in his ledger. “I surely will,” he said grinning around the stem of his pipe. “But I’d appreciate it if you could see your way clear to killing that son-of-a-bitch someplace else. I got me a passel of paperwork needs doing already.”

“In that case, I’ll not to add to it,” McCann touched her hat. “I’m much obliged to you sheriff,” she said and left him to his pipe.

***

            Wade was working late. His disposition soured by long hours spent trying to decipher the illegible chicken scratches of his predecessor. Judge Brown was arriving on the noon train and he would catch the rough side of the old coot’s tongue if the dispositions weren’t in order.

The door banged open, bringing down another cloud of dust. This time he managed to save the papers. The sight of Charlie Shaw stood there fingering the handle of his Colt did little to brighten Wade’s mood.

“Where is the little bitch?” He asked the question out of the side of his mouth, the rest of it being already occupied by an ugly sneer.

Wade could smell the liquor on him at twenty paces and knew well enough that rumination and whisky made for a poor mix. Wade made a mental note to stop hanging his gun on the back of his chair and keep the damn thing on his hip.

“Go home Charlie, you’re drunk,” he said, sliding his hand under the desk and palming a derringer from a concealed shelf.

Charlie did the opposite and stepped forwards. Panoson and Billings came in behind him and fanned out like the blades on a pocket knife. Wade quickly weighed them up. Billings looked like he was fool enough to do something with that old Griswold he wore across his fat belly, but by the time he got that smoke wagon out of its leather Wade could have shot him and had the hole to bury him half dug. Panoson didn’t rate much higher. The Swede had a flap holster and scared eyes. Wade didn’t pay him no more mind and turned his attention back to Charlie.

“We ain’t going nowheres ‘till I gets some justice for Frank.”

“Seems to me Frank got all the justice he had coming, Charlie. Getting all het up about it ain’t gonna do him no good now; you neither,” Wade said leaning back his chair on its rear legs and sliding the derringer inside his shirt sleeve.

“He was murdered, shot in the back and that ain’t lawful,” Charlie said.

“Frank drew down first, and around here I decide what’s lawful and what ain’t.”

“The bitch shot him in the back,” Charlie said, emphasizing every word as if he were talking to a Chinaman or a simpleton.

Wade felt his blood rising. He wore the badge in this town, you didn’t have to like it, but you damn well better respect it. “Well, if Frank wasn’t in such a hurry to run away from a girl then he’d have got his self shot someplace else instead. Would that make you any happier?”

“You calling Frank yella?”

Charlie was madder than hell and fired words at the sheriff like they were made out of lead. Wade took a moment to consider his reply, giving both the accusation and Charlie time to fester. Panoson looked nervously at Clay, who just shrugged and scratched his table muscle. Wade only had two shots in his derringer. He probably couldn’t kill Charlie with either of them at this range, but he could try.

“If’n the boot fits son,” he said.

Charlie wasn’t a fast as his brother and his anger had the better of him. He fumbled his six out of its holster. Wade shook the derringer into his hand. Flame spat from the little gun and Charlie grunted as the ball raked across his shoulder, sending his own shot ricocheting off the stove pipe. Wade instinctively ducked and overbalanced on his chair. He fell backwards, his head connecting with the potbelly stove, putting him out cold and his second round harmlessly into the roof.

Charlie rounded the desk, one hand clamped to the crease in his shoulder, blood oozing through his fingers and staining his shirt. He leveled his gun, drawing a bead on the unconscious sheriff.

“Easy there Charlie, think about it for a minute,” Panoson said moving in alongside him and putting a hand on his gun arm.

Charlie shook it off.” Stand clear Swede, this won’t take but a minute.”

“I ain’t sayin’ not to Charlie. Just not now is all. What if he’s the only one who knows where the girl is at?”

Clay moved quickly to close the door, taking a careful look around outside as he did. The street was deserted, but the shots wouldn’t have gone unnoticed. He wasn’t adverse to Charlie beefing the lawman, although he wasn’t about to get his own neck stretched on account of it.

“Reckon Swede’s right fer once. Killing him don’t put us no closer to finding the bitch what done for Frank and like as not we’ll have a posse on our back trail afore morning.”

“What then?” Charlie said without relaxing his aim.

“Take him along, beat it out of him, then you can kill him all you want,” Clay said.

Charlie considered it for a moment and then holstered his gun. “Alright then,” he said and laid a meaty kick into Wade’s ribs, “might as well take his strong box along too.”


Guns of Justice

The Jailhouse door banged open, bringing down dust from the rafters and toppling the stack of papers on Wade Pollock’s desk.

“Goddammit!”  Wade said shading his eyes against the bright spill of spring sunshine that invaded his office.

A man stood in the doorway, he was nearly as wide as he was tall and looked about ready to chew up iron and shit out nails. Wade knew him right off; his picture was pinned up across from his desk. The wanted poster showed a buzzard-eyed killer with a huge beard. It was a good likeness. But Cory Johnson could only truly be appreciated by seeing him in the flesh. Wade twisted in his seat, reaching for the gun that hung from on the back of his chair.

“Where’s the sheriff?”

The female voice stopped Wade cold, his gun half clear of its holster. There was a dull smack as wood met meat and Johnson collapsed to his knees with a grunt. Behind him stood a girl—or at least something close to a girl—holding an old Baker side-by-side, stock first.

“You’re lookin’ at him,” Wade said continuing to pull his piece in spite of the fact that he could now see Johnson’s hands were tightly bound, or maybe because of it.

The girl leaned and spat tobacco juice into the coffee can by the door. It gave Wade a good look at her face and the terrible scars she carried there.

“What happened to Miller?” she asked.

“Been dead about a month, I’m running things around here now. Wade Pollock’s the name.”

“In that case, this here belongs to you,” she said flatting Johnson completely with a well-aimed kick to his kidneys.

Wade looked from the gasping Cory Johnson to the girl and then to the crowd that had gathered in the street outside. “You best come in then, and close the door, that is unless you want the whole damn town knowing our business.”

***

             Wade had been a lawman for better than ten years, most of that time spent working in cow towns like Pine Flats. He’d seen plenty of men who made their living chasing bounty. They were gray-backs for the most part; hard eyed, soulless killers who had lost more than a war. When you told them dead or alive, they only ever heard dead. He wouldn’t have given this girl a prayer against any of them, yet somehow she had bested Cory Johnson and what’s more she’d brung him in alive.

He got his prisoner squared away in the cell out back without any trouble. Johnson didn’t seem to have any fight left in him; in fact he looked sort of relived, which was unusual for a man likely headed for the end of a rope when Judge Brown came in on the Tuesday train.

“So what happened to Miller, he kill himself with Regan’s liquor?” the girl asked when he returned to his office.

“Something like that.”

In fact it was nothing like that. Miller had been found up in the hills with his guts ripped open. The fur trapper, who brought the body in, told Wade it was the work of a snow beast. Said he’d seen the critter his self, two winters ago, and went on some about how it was white as a blizzard and had quills like a porcupine. Wade put the killing down to a grizzly and the rest down to whiskey talk. He had assumed the stories he heard about a female bounty hunter in these parts were just more of the same. Now it seemed that particular tall story had some truth to it.

“Best we settle up and then you can be about your business, miss,” Wade said.

He bent to unlock the strong box and watched her from the corner of his eye as he counted out silver dollars on to his desk. He thought she must have been a pretty little thing before her face got those god-awful scars. Most womenfolk would have combed their hair forwards to try and hide the worst of it, but this girl wore hers pulled back in a horse tail so those crooked welts and deep healed burn scars were plain to see. He wanted to know how she came by them, but thought that asking might be impolite. Wade always tried to be mindful of his manners around women. It didn’t matter to him that this girl looked like a range bum in her old faded duster, or that she chawed tobacco and carried Sam Colt on her hip, after all was said and done she was still a woman, of sorts.

“Thirty pieces of silver that’s the same as the bible says Judas Iscariot got paid for Jesus. Ain’t seemly if you ask me,” he said when he’d finished.

“Reckon you’re right, a son of God should be worth more than a son-of-a-bitch,” she said scooping up the coins.

Wade nodded. “I’ll just need you to sign this here bill of receipt,” he said inking a quill and holding it out to her.

The girl hesitated for a moment and then took the quill. She stared hard at the paper he laid on the desk in front of her.

“If’n you don’t know your letters, just make your mark at the bottom.”

“Like as not I can write well enough for your reading sheriff,” she said and signed the bill with a flourish.

“I didn’t mean nothing by it Miss . . . Justice?” Wade said peering at her signature. “It’s just that a lot of folks in these parts don’t have much schooling. Not like yourself, them’s some fine letters.” He said blowing on the ink.

“I just go by McCann and there ain’t no need to put nothing in front of it neither,” she said. “Now, what can you tell me about Franklin here?” She pointed to a wanted notice he had tacked up above his desk.

“James Franklin? Well he’s a scaly bastard and no mistake.” Wade suddenly realized he was cussing in front of a female and pulled himself up short. “That is to say he’s a mean one, beggin’ your pardon.”

“Don’t fret none sheriff. I ain’t the kind to blush when a man airs his lungs. You go right on ahead.”

Pollock smiled, warming to this peculiar creature. “Well, last I heard tell Franklin was in Salt Creek ‘bout two weeks ago. He shot a man called Augustus Ward in the Pump Handle.”

“I should imagine that made his eyes water some.”

“I think you got all down but nine there. The Pump Handle is the name of the saloon they got there in Salt Creek,” he said trying hard to keep a straight face.

McCann grinned, showing off an even row of tobacco stained eaters. “I know it. I was just funnin’ ya.” She bounced the coins on her palm. “Well, it was a real pleasure doing business with you, sheriff.”

“I’ll say the same to you Miss McCann. Now, you ain’t figuring on going up against Franklin are you? He’s a stone cold killer.”

“Like I say, there ain’t no miss, it’s just McCann,” She said and reached over to pull down Franklin’s poster. She rolled it neatly and pushed it inside her duster. “Good day to you, sheriff.”

Wade suddenly found himself feeling sorry for James Franklin.

 

***

            Pine Flats was a cattle town much like any other. Regan’s Saloon and a newly built boarding house jostled for space with stores and the other assorted businesses along the small but prosperous main street. The stock pens that brought Pine Flats most of its wealth started where the town left off and stretched out behind towards the railhead. When the corrals were full they held upwards of 5000 head. Beef from all over the territory came through here on its way to the slaughterhouses back East.

The town had stood still long enough for God to find it and for the inhabitants to start thinking of themselves as respectable. Justice McCann didn’t have much use for respectable; it didn’t make for a lot of work. Most of her business was conducted in the rough country across the river. The prevailing winds of law and order blew the trash out that way, and just like those she hunted, McCann liked it best when she was one step ahead of respectability.

She left the sheriff’s office and headed towards the livery. The building next door to the Jailhouse was the Undertakers. She supposed that was right handy for both of them. In front of the shop a rough pine coffin was propped up against the hitching rail while a painfully thin man in a frock coat fussed over the coffin’s occupant. The corpse had been dressed in a suit of Sunday clothes and a posy of wildflowers had been pushed into his hand. She thought it made him look like he was about to go a-courting, the illusion being spoilt some by the grayish flesh that hung from his face. That and the neat bullet hole in the center of his forehead. The Undertaker looked up and stared at her intently for a moment before tipping his stovepipe hat. McCann got the feeling she had just been measured for one of his boxes and hurried on.

She walked down towards the stables, glancing at the finery for sale in the stores as she passed. Bone china tea cups from England and expensive perfumes from New York, both were about as much use in the back country as tits on a boar. She paused for a moment outside a dressmakers’ and examined the fancy looking garment in the window. The sign said the dress was pure silk and came from Paris, France. She wondered what it might be like to go parading around in one of those things; the huge bustle making you look like a sheep on its hind legs. But her mind was mostly on the new sheriff. She was used to men making assumptions about her. Most thought she was weak because of her size or inept because of her sex; some saw the scarring on her head and took her for simple. Wade Pollock had been quick to realize she was none of those things and that showed he had a deal of sense. He was a hard man to put an age to; past being lean, but still handy looking and a ways from going to seed yet. She had him somewhere close to forty, old enough to know his business that’s for sure.

McCann realized she was still gawping at the dress. She turned away. It didn’t have any pockets for tobacco or shells.

***

            Frank Shaw leaned on the rail fence of a stockade and chewed the end of an unlit cheroot. The brim of his hat hid most of his narrow face in shadow; the rest of it lurked behind three days of salt and pepper stubble.  He saw the scarred up piece of calico come out of the sheriff’s office and watched her idle in front of the dress store. He found it hard to believe she had taken the coin on Cory Johnson. His elder brother Charlie said only a fool would go up against that mad dog without a posse of ten good men at his back. Frank couldn’t see no ten good men, just one scrawny looking little bitch.

The love of honest toil did not abide in Frank. He and his brother had grown up mean and lazy in equal parts. Charlie might have thought he had all the smarts, but Frank knew there was more than one way to make a dollar. Why risk going up against a killer like Cory Johnson when you could take an easier road? Maybe he would take himself a little something else too. She wasn’t much to look at, but he reckoned she’d taste just as sweet as honey. He felt a stirring at the thought of it, pushed off the fence and followed her down Main Street.