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About the Author
Tim Pratt is a fiction writer, poet, sometime teacher, occasional performance artist, and recent graduate of the Clarion Writer's Workshop. He has poetry upcoming in Asimov's and probably some other places. He lives for the time being in Santa Cruz, California.
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Broken glass crunched under Tom's feet when he entered the Trail Blossom. Overturned tables and chairs littered the sawdust-covered floor. A few men sat in the back, playing cards, and they looked up with sharp-eyed curiosity when Tom and the thing came in. A blonde woman dressed in red (and little enough of it) sat at a busted piano, tinkling keys at the high end of the register. The bar was as utilitarian as Tom's guns. People came here to drink, screw, and gamble, and the place made no pretense to any other purpose.
The thing in the suit lifted a fallen table with one hand and set it upright, then placed a pair of chairs beside it. "Have a seat, stranger. Want a drink?"
"No." Tom sat down, sizing up the heavyset bald bartender and the five card-players in the back.
"No?" The thing sounded surprised. "I don't think I've ever offered to buy a man a drink before and been turned down."
Tom tipped back in his chair. "They say the drunker Doc Holliday got, the faster he drew. I'm no Holliday. When I get drunk, I can't shoot straight, and there might be shooting today."
"Suit yourself," the thing said, and went to the bar. He returned with a shot glass and a thick deck of oversized cards. He sat and shuffled the cards deftly. He had seven fingers on each hand, and delicate webbing between them. "I'm Cosmocrator," he said. "Call me Cos."
"Tom." He looked at the cards distrustfully. He'd met a fortune teller in Missouri who read his future with cards like those, and she'd predicted his death in a dry gutter. "Those aren't Tarot cards, are they?" Tom rubbed his single Texas Ranger's star with his thumb.
"No, no. Just a homemade deck. Cards are rare here, valuable as gold. I used to have Tarot cards, but when I came to Tolerance, the pictures changed." Cos made a sour face. "Death became a big cowboy with a straw in his teeth. The Hanged Man hung by his neck instead of his feet, and the Lovers..." Cos shivered. "The Lovers wandered in the desert, raving, and they'd gouged out their own eyes. I don't like to look at them anymore."
Tom took that in thoughtfully. He was not as dumb as most people thought-- perhaps not as dumb as his profession demanded. "Then it's true. This place, Tolerance, stands outside the rest of the world, and the Spirit of the bleeding west still rules."
Cos riffled the cards. "The Spirit lives here. Deserts are hard places, stranger."
"Not anymore," Tom said bitterly. "The frontier's gone. The gangs are all broken up, the boomtowns are busted, and even the law's gotten fat and lazy." He touched the Ranger's star and remembered one lawman with a scar on his cheek who hadn't been fat or lazy, not a bit. He'd almost been too fast for Tom.
"Oh, I don't know," Cos said, grinning. His teeth looked like shards of broken seashell, poking up crookedly from bloodless gums. "There's a sense in which all deserts are one desert. Not in the particulars, maybe... but they have the same nature. Merciless. A proving ground. Isn't that why you came?"
"I expected a different place," Tom said. "You can't ride anywhere without tripping over fences and families these days."
"You expected the James gang," Cos said sympathetically. "Stagecoach robberies. Tombstone at its peak. Sharpshooters. Men calling each other out. Right?"
Tom nodded. "But Doc Holliday's dead of tuberculosis, Frank James is shot in the back, and Wyatt Earp's retired, for good this time." He took the strop from around his neck and stretched it between his hands. "I came west too late."
"So you looked for Tolerance. To find what the west lost."
"The spirit," Tom agreed.
"He lives here," Cos repeated. "Same as the djinns in any desert. First cousin to Shaitan from Arabia, only different in the details. The hat. The gun." Cos smirked. "The sexual diseases."
"I don't know what you're talking about."
Cos sipped his whiskey, not even throwing back the shot like a real man would. "I don't expect you do."
"What are you doing here?" Tom nodded at the poker players. "Those boys are human, at least, men and gamblers and likely fighters. What made you seek out Tolerance?"
Cos laced his hands over his gut. "I'm not from the west. I come from the east, the far east, a different place, ruled by different spirits... including the big one who made the earth. In the early days, I was given dominion over the tenth part of the waters. But then came a conflict... a showdown, you might say... and I sided with the upstart, a djinn named Shaitan."
Tom nodded. He didn't know if he believed Cos, but the story sounded almost familiar, in a sideways sort of way.
Cos shrugged. "The big spirit didn't like that, and as punishment, I'm forced to wander the earth's deserts, and never touch water again." He wiggled his webbed fingers. "The big spirit has a pretty uncomplicated sense of justice." He looked at the ceiling. "Speaking of which, there's some justice coming soon in this town. Or Law, at least, which is the next worst thing."
Tom caressed his badges. "I've dealt with the law before."
"Not like this." Cos turned over a suicide king. Instead of a sword, the king held a gun with an absurdly long barrel. "You've fought agents of the Law. This is the Law himself, the Lawman, and the ghosts of all your victims ride with him." Cos turned over a red ace and whistled. "He won't be interested in you, though. He'll go after the Spirit, and kill him, and Tolerance will turn into another ghost town, and the bleeding west with it."
"Not if I can help it," Tom said. "He'll have to climb over me to get to the Spirit."
"Well, hell, of course," Cos said without looking up from his cards. "It wouldn't be the west without a showdown."
A high wind rattled the windows. The gamblers in the back of the room exchanged nervous glances. One with long sideburns said "I call" in a reedy voice. The men showed their cards, and the winner raked in the pot without anyone fussing or complaining. They looked at the saloon's batwing doors nervously, though Tom didn't see anything out of the ordinary. The saloon girl stopped tinkling the piano.
"Last call!" the bartender yelled.
"What the hell?" Tom said. "It's high noon!"
"It's always high noon in Tolerance," Cos said. "At least, it always has been. I think night could be falling."
The gamblers put on their dusters and hurried out. The saloon girl followed. Cos smirked at them. The beefy bartender came over, twisting a rag between his hands. He nodded to Tom, then put a hand on Cosmocrator's shoulder. "You leaving, old son?" Sweat beaded on his bald head and ran down his nose. "He's coming. Can't you hear the wind?"
Cos flipped another card lazily. "Why should I leave? I've already been sentenced by a higher law than his. I might stay to see how it plays out."
The bartender looked at Tom, his bloodshot eyes panicked as a broken-legged horse's. "You'd better saddle up, stranger. The Lawman's on his way. Tolerance won't be a haven for the likes of us anymore."
Tom tipped forward in his chair. The legs thumped hard on the board floor. "You're leaving?" he said, his voice low and smooth as a viper's crawl. "All of you?"
The bartender smiled nervously, laughed a little. "It's death to stay. Death and, hell, justice. It's been a good place, but we knew the end was coming..." He shrugged. Cos watched the exchange with appraising green eyes.
"It's a war," Tom said. "A war to save the last bastion of the old west from the rule-makers and the fence-builders." He stood up fast and kicked his chair away. The bartender flinched at the noise. "If you leave, instead of fighting, you're no better than any other deserter."
The bartender frowned and spat. "Stay and die if you want. I'm leaving." He started toward the door.
"We shoot deserters where I come from," Tom said quietly, and drew. He didn't give the bartender a chance to argue or change his mind. People who fought under threat of murder didn't fight their best.
Tom shot the bartender in his startled face, and winced at the loud report.
Cosmocrator raised his glass, looking at the dead bartender. "Rest well, partner," he said.
"I'll get the others," Tom said, not pleased by the prospect of gunning down the gamblers and anyone else who tried to run, but determined to do so. He stepped into the dusty street.
The gamblers from the Trail Blossom lay in a neat row in the center of the street, shoulder touching shoulder, the soles of their boots facing Tom. The saloon girl lay there, too, her red dress already dulled by the blowing dust.
"Yellow," a voice said, and Tom froze. He'd heard that voice in his dreams, hard as a gun barrel, cold as a winter night on Boot Hill. The voice of the west. "Yellow, every one." Tom turned his head and saw other dead men and women lying farther down the street, and doubtless dead people filled the cross-streets, too.
"I'm not yellow," Tom said. He swallowed. "Sir."
"Look at me."
Tom looked at the Spirit of the bleeding west. It sat mounted, in a cracked saddle, and Tom guessed it would stand at least seven feet tall. Built like a normal man, but bigger in every proportion. Tom felt no surprise when he saw it had no face, just a tattered hat throwing more shadow than it should have. A straw dangled, clenched in unseen teeth. The Spirit wore chaps of a strange, too-pale leather, and its huge guns matched Kentucky Tom's exactly, except they were a little bigger. The Spirit sat astride a black horse-shape, a mount composed of coal dust, mud, barbed-wire, and rocks, with shiny bullets for eyes. The Spirit, or its mount, smelled of gunsmoke and blood. "Nice badges."
"I earned every one," Tom said, looking into its dark non-face.
"Saddle up," the Spirit said. "Ride with me."
Tom's horse had died days before, ridden beyond exhaustion and abandoned in the desert. "I don't--"
The dead horse tied to the hitching post stirred, then pulled itself laboriously upright. A broken bone stuck out of its right foreleg. It turned its sightless head to Tom and whinnied. Tom felt a shudder of revulsion, and suppressed it. He put his hand on the saddle horn and swung onto the horse's back. The horse sagged under his weight, and Tom had a horrifying vision of breaking its spine and falling right through its rotten body, but the horse stood firm.
The Spirit cocked its head. "Lawman's coming," it remarked. The wind screamed, and the wooden buildings creaked dangerously. "Let's go kill him."
The Spirit whipped the mount's reins and galloped toward the outskirts of town, leaping over the stacked dead, and Kentucky Tom Granger followed.
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