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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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Tom reined in his horse under a wooden arch with a steer skull nailed to the crossbeam. The Spirit stopped a little farther on, its mount walking back and forth beyond the edge of town. Tom had entered Tolerance through that same arch this morning, and didn't want to leave again unless he had to.
"Your horse is dead, Tom," Cos said.
Tom jerked, and his horse danced a few feet sideways. Cos leaned against a rain barrel. Poor old cuss, Tom thought. He stays close to water as best he can. "I noticed."
"See that dust storm?"
Tom looked toward the horizon, where a hazy curtain hung. "Yep."
"That's the Lawman and his ghost-posse. Better shine up your badges if you want to scare them. I hear the Earps are riding with him."
Tom frowned. "Morgan? He's the only one who died."
"Virgil, too... or at least part of him. His ruined arm, maybe. And Wyatt."
"But Wyatt's not dead!" Tom protested.
Cos rolled a cigarette, his seven fingers flying. "No, but he isn't a marshal any more. His career as a peacekeeper is dead... and the ghost of that career is on its way. Ghosts ride with the Lawman, but so do memories, and fragments. They're drawn to him, to his big shiny badge, like moths to a candle." Cos licked his cigarette closed and tossed it to Tom, who caught it without thinking. "The condemned man gets a last smoke," Cos said.
"I can't decide if I like you," Tom said, tucking the cigarette into his shirt pocket. "But I thank you. I'll smoke it after we kill the Lawman."
Cos nodded. "I don't know if I like you, either. I'm going back to the Trail Blossom. I'll leave town when the buildings blow over... or I'll wait to congratulate you." He walked over and stuck out his hand. Tom leaned from horseback and shook with him, once. His fingers came away moist. Cos walked back toward the center of town, whistling.
"Tom!" the Spirit said, and Tom kicked his horse forward without even thinking, drawing up along side the towering Spirit.
Figures resolved out of the dust, one clearly in the lead, leaning forward in his saddle. Riding a white horse, Tom thought. Figures.
"Stand true, partner," the Spirit drawled.
The Lawman stopped in a cloud of dust. His posse hung back. Tom's head hurt when he tried to count them. He saw Wyatt Earp, mustache drooping, and Texas John Slaughter, and a few other faces familiar from pictures. Faces familiar from life, too, several belonging to men Tom had killed. None of them wore badges. Some lacked arms, or legs, or eyes, and all of them flickered, as if they had no substance of their own, only bodies drawn from dust and animated by justice.
The Lawman was solid, though, built on the same larger-than-life scale as the Spirit. His clear blue eyes regarded the Spirit coldly. Not a speck of dirt marred his clothes, and his blond hair looked perfectly combed. The gold star pinned on his vest shone like the sun. He chilled Tom's blood, then boiled it. That's the one, Tom thought. The one who broke the west, come to finish the job.
"No place for the law here," the Spirit said.
"The Law makes its own place," the Lawman said. "We're taking you in, or taking you down. Your choice."
The Spirit didn't reply, but for a moment, Tom saw through its dirty cowboy gear, to something fundamental. Something red, made of leaping flames. Something with scorpions for fingers and a face made of smoke. Tom felt chilled, and remembered Cosmocrator saying I sided with a djinn named Shaitan.
But Kentucky Tom Granger had cast his lot, and he wouldn't change his bet at the last minute.
Tom threw back his coat to show off his badges. He didn't know why, exactly; just seemed like it might piss the Lawman off. The Lawman didn't appear to notice, only kept staring at the Spirit, as if they were having a showdown Tom couldn't understand.
The posse, however, became agitated. They looked at one another, and at the Lawman, and back at Tom. A few of them nudged their horses forward, uncertainly.
Tom laughed out loud, and the Lawman jerked in his saddle, noticing him for the first time. Men like that hate the sound of laughing, Tom thought, and laughed harder. He touched his Texas Ranger's badge. "Come on, boys!" he shouted. "You're backing the wrong man!" A few of the ghosts and fragments moved away from the rest, hesitating. He didn't expect the ghosts to believe him, but he'd certainly confused them. If the Lawman's shiny badge attracted them, then Tom's could, too. "Sure, he's got a Godalmighty big badge, but I've got lots of badges! I'm the Lawman here!"
Now the Spirit laughed, a dirty chuckle. A laugh with the pox, Tom thought, which made him laugh all the harder.
The Lawman growled and went for his gun, a shiny Colt with gold and ivory grips. Tom knew he couldn't outdraw him. He didn't try. He whipped the razor-strop from around his neck and smacked the Lawman's oversized hand with it. Tom shouldn't have been fast enough, but he was. Maybe the strop's bloody origin gave it power, or maybe the Spirit lent Tom some extra speed. Either way, the Lawman's shot, aimed for Tom's chest, went wild. The Lawman dropped his gun and yelped. Just like whipping a kid with a belt, Tom thought, pleased.
The Lawman stared at Tom, stunned, and then looked at his bleeding hand.
"About to shoot me in cold blood!" Tom shouted. "Didn't even give me a chance to surrender! What kind of Lawman is that?"
Several of the posse turned their horses and galloped away, dissolving to dust before they got far. A few others moved forward, as if planning to stand with Tom.
"Enough of this shit." The Lawman dipped for his other gun.
The Spirit drew first.
Tom saw the bullet fly, really saw it, moving slow as a gliding hawk. The bullet writhed like a scorpion, a stinger lashing from one end, venomous fangs sliding out of the other. The living bullet smashed into the Lawman's startled face.
The Lawman's hat fell off. A moment later, he tumbled from his horse. The Lawman's hand twitched as if still reaching for his gun.
"Cheap shot," the Spirit said. "I had to take it."
The remaining members of the posse (among them the scarred Texas Ranger Tom had barely killed outside Amarillo) opened fire on the Spirit. Tom's horse screamed and buckled under him, and Tom fell to the dirt, hard. He cracked his head on the hardpacked ground, and all the wind whooshed out of him. I'm hit, I'm hit, he thought wildly, but nothing hurt except his back and his head.
The Spirit fell, too, along with its barbed-wire-and-mud horse. The bullets pounded into the Spirit, making its huge body jerk like a strip of bacon frying, but none of the bullets hit Tom. The posse didn't aim for him, or else their ghost bullets were fit only for killing a djinn.
The posse blew away, dissolving to dust, their pistol shots fading, eventually sounding like nothing more than distant echoes.
Tom's looked at the Spirit's unmoving body, then lowered his pounding head. Goddamn, he thought, and passed out.
* * *
Tom opened his eyes and saw Cosmocrator's face, thin lips, scummy green eyes, and gleaming seashell teeth. "You alive?" Cos said. "Guess so. I wanted to bring you some water, but..." He shrugged. "Shit. You know." He shook a bottle of whiskey over Tom's face. "Want to drink this now?"
"Sure," Tom croaked, and sat up. He drank from the bottle, the whiskey burning his throat but exploding to warmth in his belly.
"They killed the Spirit," Cos said.
Tom looked at the pile of mud and filthy clothes, all that remained of the Spirit of the bleeding west. "But we got the Lawman."
Cos laughed, a little nervously. "Tolerance is still here. The buildings didn't fall down. I guess..." He swallowed. "I guess you're the big gun around here now." Cos looked over his shoulder. "There's people riding around outside town... or maybe ghosts. I got a good look at one, he had a white scar on his cheek." Cos drew a finger down his face to illustrate.
Tom put the bottle aside and crawled to where the Lawman had fallen. The body was gone, but his gold star still glittered in the sand. Tom picked it up. The badge felt warm in his hand.
Tom pinned it to his vest, right above the Ranger's badge. He fished the cigarette out of his shirt pocket and stuck it in his mouth. "Bring 'em on," he said. He clapped Cosmocrator on the shoulder. "Like you said. It wouldn't be the west without a showdown."
Sharing the bottle, they walked back to the Trail Blossom.
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