Ten minutes to high noon. Graeme ran through his Devotionals one last time: Break open the chamber and remove the cartridges. Oil and swab. Polish the barrels and grips until they shimmer. Wipe off the excess. Load the cartridges with their blessed bullets. Snap the cylinders into place. Aim and hover your fingers over the triggers. He found the meditation of the ritual was an effective bulwark against his fear and excitement, even with unfamiliar weapons. Fear was understandable, and to be expected. But the excitement made him feel guilty and ashamed.
Henry downed his whisky and tried not to look at him.
Graeme thrust the dead Slinger’s pistols, with their gleaming ivory grips, back into their hip holsters. The belt seemed to fit his slender elven hips as if it were made for him, though the buckle was on the first slot. It was just as well.
“Will you hear my confession, Piper?” It was traditional before a Showdown.
Piper’s eyes brimmed over. “No,” she sniffed. “You don’t need to confess. You’re goin’ to live.”
Graeme cocked his head and shrugged. “Maybe; maybe not. But first I’m goin’ to kill this son-of-a-bitch. Either way you wouldn’t want me to go to the Otherside with the stain of blood on me, do you?”
“What do you have to confess anyway, kid?” the innkeeper Woodhouse demanded incredulously from behind the bar. “A couple o’ wet dreams? Stole some candy maybe?” He’d picked up the chairs that had fallen when the rest of his clientele had fled, but the cards from a game of Quickdraw were splayed over the table like bodies. The last of a whisky bottle dripped into the sawdust like an open vein.
Graeme managed a hollow laugh. “Somethin’ like,” he admitted. His eyes met those of the barkeep. “What his name?”
“Who, the bloke you picked a fight with? That’s Elroy the Eel, berk.”
Graeme nodded. Elroy the Eel. Bank robber, rapist, and horse thief, before the Hell-Steed had come to him. Old Scratch alone knew what all else since. Slick and fast, the grapevine said. Nine, now ten Slingers, and one Apprentice, dead by his hands. “You might not want to watch this, Piper.”
“Like hell are you gettin’ me to leave,” Piper snapped.
“I’ll hear your confession, Gunslinger,” Henry interrupted. His eyes were a blend of concern and respect. His hand hovered like he wanted to touch Graeme, maybe to reassure him, maybe to shake his hand. But he didn’t quite dare and the tremor ceased. “Hail and good huntin’.”
The street was empty, but Graeme could sense the eyes peering from behind shutters and under porches. He was glad no one was in the open. Lord and Lady knew what would happen if they were. As Colin Walsh liked to say, “Friendly fire ... ain’t.”
His eagle’s eyes marked the dark figure emerging from the saloon down the street. Graeme made his paces towards the shadow, and the shadow paced him evenly. Now came the tricky part.
Once again, he focused his will and his eyes rolled. Buildings faded into grey silhouettes. Just as he suspected, the greenish glow of ectoplasm formed the figure of the dead Slinger. He’d sensed her lingering presence, even after the Benediction, and right now he was glad of it.
“I’m goin’ to need your help, ma’am,” he murmured though lips that barely moved.
He could see the phantom memory of blood oozing from the wounds in her ectoplasm. “Thought you might,” the ghost’s voice whispered in his mind. But she shook her head then in disbelief. “Damn boy, you’re a crazy one! Would have been no shame in refusin’.”
“I disagree,” he said with a wry grin.
“It was the strap on the left holster,” she told him. “It caught just a titch.”
“Would you mind pulling it out of the way for me?” he asked the ghost. “Can’t place my hands anywhere near right now; you know.”
“Sure thing.” The dead Slinger smiled. She reached over and tucked it under his belt.
The dark figure was now recognizable. The silhouette of a man with the wide brim of a black hat. In the Spirit-Realm he was outlined with the flames of his damnation. His eyes were shadows of the primordial void. They shimmered with ecstasy and torment.
Graeme invoked the holy light of the Lady. With the Sight, he saw it fill his body and his aura with its silver soothing moonlight glow. Suddenly all fear was gone.
The Eel stopped halfway down the street in front of the dirigible station. His eyes were blazing with the same excitement that Graeme had recoiled from in his own heart. Graeme stopped too. He realized he was standing next to the voltaic charging station.
Inspiration struck him. He reached out to the electricity stored in the battery. Lightning was the alchemical force of power and speed. It crackled at the edge of his awareness, tingling through his nerves. Graeme stood with his hands hovering over the unfamiliar holsters. Trusting to that same intuition that had served him so well in the past, he closed his eyes.
Perhaps Elroy noticed. The Desperado’s spirit leaped out at him before the ghosts could keen. Graeme reached out with his thoughts and pulled at a spark of energy. It exploded not into his hands, which might touch off the powder in his shot, but into his brain. He opened his eyes and he could see that the Outlaw’s pistols were in his hands. But he was slow. It was like he was moving through water.
Graeme slapped leather and pulled the pistols. His shots came in rapid succession, firing from the hip: ba-BAM! In the Spirit-Realm they left shining silver tracers through the air. When they struck the Desperado, the dark flames around him rippled. White concentric circles spread from the blackhat’s upper torso and the underside of his chin. Blood followed. Distantly Graeme took note of a tiny comet streaking past his ear, hissing hate and death.
Crimson and black soaked the front of the Desperado’s chambray shirt as he jerked back with the impact. Slowly, the blackhat’s arm rose. For a long moment, Graeme stared into the perfect circle of the bore of a gun-barrel. But the pistol fell from the Desperado’s hand to join its mate in the street.
Graeme dropped the gun in his left hand. He reached across his body and fanned the hammer of the pistol in his right. Once, twice, and bullets slammed into the murderer’s heart. A third time, all so quickly, the sounds seemed to merge into one roar of vengeance. The third round left a neat hole in the center of the Desperado’s forehead. It tore off the top of his skull and splattered grey matter and bits of his hair on the street behind.
Graeme reeled and lost concentration. His vision swam back into the Skin-Lands and the Gunslinger’s ghost winked out. But the deed was done. Elroy the Eel lay in the street, gurgling as Dame Rosa had done two hours before. The black stain of Graeme’s sin oozed out around the dying man like whisky in sawdust.
The silence was deafening. After a time, he unlocked his knees and made himself go to the body of the man who had died by his hands. The body was still twitching, but its face and most of its cranium was gone, leaving nothing but bloody meat. How anyone could survive for even a moment with that kind of damage, Graeme didn’t know. Horror and exaltation washed through him in waves. He realized that his hands were trembling. Then the smell struck him; the smell of blood and offal and gods only knew what had lived in the dead man’s guts. He fell to his knees and was sick until his sides were sore.