Last Stand

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The Gunslinger and the Desperado drew.  Their hands were smears of colour flashing as they streaked towards their targets.  The crash of shots rang out.  The scent of brimstone filled the air.   Graeme Walsh watched from his horse with narrowed gunmetal eyes knowing at once that the Gunslinger had drawn her last.

The Gunslinger’s shoulder splattered blood.  Her arm jerked and her shot went wild, shattering the window of Joss Smith’s alchemy shop.  The Desperado’s second bullet found the Slinger’s square chin and tore it off.  Blood and bone sprayed into the air.  The Gunslinger’s second shot ripped a hole in the sleeve of the Desperado’s duster. The other three flashed past like silver lightning.  One of them sang past Graeme’s ear.  The Gunslinger fell, the pistol flying from her flailing hands.  The man in the black hat marched forward, fanning his pistol’s hammer back until the chamber was empty.  The Gunslinger was struck three times before she hit the ground. Her body twisted and jerked as the bullets ripped into her in a horrible, bucking dance.

Graeme had never seen anybody shot before.  His father had warned him that it was nothing like they described in the stories.  His stomach twisted like a coiled lariat.  The stallion beneath him tossed his head in challenge.

Blood was already pooling on the broken pavement around the fallen body by the time the Desperado reached her.  The air reeked of it.  The dandelions and plantain growing between the cracks were splashed in red.  He studied the dying Slinger and her dead Apprentice with his coal-black eyes and nodded just once.  His blond mustachios twisted up into an easy smile that came nowhere near his eyes.  For a moment, the silence was so loud that it rang in Graeme’s ears.  The Desperado stepped over the groaning, broken shells of what had once been living people and made his way towards the saloon.

There are law-abiding town-folk in that saloon.  That thought galvanized him.  Before he knew he was going to speak, he heard himself say, “I reckon that’s far enough.”

Some small part of him wondered at how calm and flat his own voice sounded in his ears.  His hunting rifle was leveled and braced against his shoulder.  The ozone hum and crackling blue light of the magazine indicated it was charged and ready.  No Gunslinger’s weapon, this.  It was a newfangled voltaic rifle, powered by technomancy.  An inferior weapon to the holy guns of the Slingers maybe, but then, Graeme was not a Gunslinger; not yet.

Beside him, astride her graceful mare Piper had her own rifle leveled at the Desperado.  Their horses moved not at all, though no hand lay on the reins.  Gunslinger steeds, these, born and bred to serve the Order and trained by their own father’s hand.  The Desperado turned in the deserted dusty street to regard them with a jaundiced eye.  He gave them both a long, considering, dead-eyed gaze.  Graeme glared back.  A shutter still swung loose in the wind, creaking, creaking.

The Desperado spat.  “You ain’t goin’ to start something you can’t finish, are you, boy?” he snarled in a cold rasping baritone.  His eyes were darker than coal-black.  No Apprentice then; this man had sold his soul to Hell and leased it back at compound interest.  “You’re so wet behind the ears I don’t reckon you can sprout a beard yet.”

Graeme turned his head just slightly so that the Desperado could get a glimpse of the pointed ear sticking out of his hair under his hat brim.

The Desperado’s eyes narrowed.  “Fuckin’ faeries,” he growled, almost under his breath. “Well, guess I got no real idea how old you are.  But you smell like children to me.  Why don’t you go back to your farm and leave the grown-ups to do their business?”

Graeme thought about the Gunslinger this man had cut down.  He could still hear the gurgle and wheeze of her struggle to breathe.  He could smell the iron of her blood seeping into the dust.

“I don’t think so.”

The clack–click of a large caliber weapon being cocked got everyone’s attention.  A man in a newsboy cap and vest was pointing his prosthetic arm at the Desperado.  The prosthetic was a double-barreled shotgun.  Graeme wondered how he could handle the recoil until he saw the pressure gauge and the shock absorbers.  “I won’t let you in me bar,” the man with the prosthetic snapped in the close-clipped tones of a foreign accent.  “We don’t need your kind ‘ere, hey wot?  E’s empty.  Let’s kill ‘im, kids, and be done with ‘im.”

He must be a foreigner, thought Graeme, to make such a bald threat.  Desperadoes were trained like Gunslingers.   This blackhat just might be able to reload and shoot them all where they stood before anyone could pull a trigger.  If he hadn’t fired his chambers empty they’d be dead already.

The Desperado’s black eyes stared back at the three of them like a scrublands rattler’s.  His iron spurs jangled a little as he slowly tapped one foot with ill-concealed impatience.  His eyes flickered to the bronze spurs of a Gunslinger’s Apprentice bolted to Graeme’s own scuffed dun boots.  They gave the lie to his bluff, but maybe that would work out in his favour.

A smile like black clouds before a tornado spread over the Outlaw’s face.  “Then I call you out, boy.  I reckon you’ll honour a Showdown.”

Piper’s eyes widened and she gravely pursed her lips.  She shook her head just a little, almost a twitch.  But Graeme’s answer came from his soul, hard as the words on a tombstone.  He nodded.

The Desperado’s eyebrow raised.  “Noon, then,” he grunted.  With that, he sprang into the saddle of his devil-horse mount and galloped out of town.  Graeme’s stallion bared and gnashed his teeth at the Nightmare as it swept by in a cloud of flaming hooves and brimstone.

Slowly Graeme lowered his arms.  They were shaking.  Piper lowered her rifle too.  Her bottom lip trembled as tears began to swim in her eyes. She blinked rapidly and reached down to pat her horse, scrubbing at her eyes on the sleeve of her duster

The foreigner lowered his prosthetic shotgun.  Then he tipped his hat.  “They call me Cockney Pete.  But me name’s Woodhouse.  Picked a fine day to come to town, kids!  Why don’t you come sit and ‘ave a drink on the house?”

“Well, that’s right kind of you,” Graeme mumbled.  He tipped his hat in return.  “Think I could use one.  But duty has to come first.”  He knelt beside the two bodies in the street – the Gunslinger and her Apprentice – and pulled the stopper on his canteen.  This would be the second time in two days that he had delivered a Benediction. Only the second time ever, really, he thought.  Damn!  Was that only yesterday?

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