Another chapter in the serial. No, I have no real idea where this whole thing is going. You’re all just along for the ride with me.
I reckon it was a few minutes before noon when I followed Graves out to the courtyard of the inn, or bar, or whatever you want to call it. It was hot enough to melt the leather right off your shoes, and the dry desert heat made the concrete shimmer. “What are we gonna do?” I asked.
“We ain’t gonna do nothing. I am gonna talk to the Sheriff, and maybe kill him. Or maybe he’ll kill me. Or maybe, just maybe, we can come to some kind of understanding that doesn’t leave one of us lying in a pool of blood and brains.”
“But you doubt it.”
“But I doubt it.” Graves was dressed as much like a man going to meet his bride as a man going to meet his Maker. He shaved when he got up that morning, something he only did on Sundays most weeks. I still didn’t need to shave even that often. He wore a clean pair of pants, with leather chaps and his good riding boots, not the low-heeled things he usually wore when we were in town. His shirt was black, and not the worn-out faded black that clothes get when they spend years in the sun. No, this was a deep, midnight black of dark water at low tide, or a patch of starless sky. He even took special effort to brush the worst of the dirt off his hat, and ran a damp rag along the felt to clean it up as best he could.
Around his neck hung his Bullet. On a black leather cord, his Bullet lay outside his shirt, painted jet black just like his shirt and his boots. I’d never seen Graves wear his Bullet in plain view like that. Most of the time he kept it tucked inside his clothes, touching his flesh. I asked him why one time, and he said “Death come to us all, Wayland. It might as well be warm when it gets here.” Ever since that day, I wore my Bullet next to my skin, too.
We don’t wear badges. Badges are for Sheriffs and Deputies. Badges are for laws. We ain’t about the law. We’re about justice, which sometimes rides alongside the law, but it ain’t never the same thing. But every Brother, somewhere on his person, will have a black-painted Bullet to remind him of who he is, what he has sworn to uphold, and what will someday end him. Graves knew his day was going to end with a bullet, he just wasn’t sure who was going to catch it.
I reckon we stood in that baked concrete courtyard for most of half an hour before a string of six men on horses charged in like their asses was on fire and we had the only trough of water. They were all big men, Hybrids every one of them, with the jeweled eyes, high features, and delicate bones of the Voltarr-Human interbreeding. Every one of them wore a badge. They were all men of the law, and I had a bad feeling they didn’t give a damn about justice. The Deputies made a ring around Graves and me, their horses pawing and stomping and snorting inches away from our faces. Graves stood like a statue, looking at the mouth of the alley. He wasn’t worried about the warmup, he was waiting for the Main Event.
And the Main Event walked down the alley mere moments after the Deputies peeled off from surrounding us and formed up in an orderly rank of six men on the far side of the plaza, The Sheriff, and even before I caught sight of his badge there was no question that’s who this was, walked down the alley slowly, his spurs jingling with every step like a metronome. Ching…Ching…Ching…Ching. He stepped into view, and even for somebody who spent the last three years dealing with some of the worst sons of bitches in the West, he was an intimidating figure. It was apparent even as he stalked through the shadowed alley that he was a full Voltarr. That put him over seven feet tall, with a delicate face almost like a woman’s, only even finer in the details, and an upswept hairless skull under his black Stetson. His long arms swung down almost to his knees, and each of his fingers was longer than my hand. He moved with a lethal grace, like vids I’d seen of tigers, almost gliding with every step.
I’d never seen a full Voltarr before. Most towns have Hybrid Sheriffs, and some just have a Deputy. Some of them are Hybrid, but some are even full Human. Having a trueblood alien as Sheriff said something about the value Carson City held for our occupying lords and masters. His jaw swept down just like his skull swept up, and came almost to a point with his narrow mouth and chin. The dominant feature of his face was the huge pair of emerald-green faceted eyes that were in constant motion, flicking up and down Graves, then over to his men, then at me for half a glance before dismissing me as no threat. Ching…Ching…Ching.
He came to a stop ten yards across the courtyard, his cloak billowing royal blue in the slight breeze. “You were told never to return to Carson City, Brother Simon Graves.” It wasn’t a question, just a pronouncement of fact.
“Yeah, but I figured since the man who said that was dead, it probably didn’t matter none.” My head whipped over to Graves, and I’m sure the look of shock on my face was hilarious. I’d never known this man to provoke anyone, and now he’s bringing up the fact that he killed the Sheriff’s father in front of everyone.
“You were warned about the consequences should you return,” the Sheriff’s voice never wavered, never changed cadence. He just went on with his proclamations like Graves didn’t speak.
“Now you are here, and found guilty of criminal trespass, and unauthorized return from banishment, which is the violation of a direct order from a duly appointed Sheriff. You are a lawbreaker, Brother Graves, and I am here to hand down your sentence. Do you have anything to say for yourself before I pass judgement on you?”
Graves stood up straighter, if that was possible, and looked across the courtyard. “I do not acknowledge your appointment, your authority, the authority of these thugs you brought with you, or the authority of the bug-eyed bastards who dropped you off here. I do not give a good goddamn about your laws, or your rules, or your desires. I am a Brother of the Gun, and I bring succor with my left hand and call down Justice with my right. And I will kill you and every piece of half-alien trash you’ve got if any one of you thinks to clear leather on me.”
Graves was usually the level-headed one. For him to throw down a gauntlet like that, he had some kind of score to settle with this Sheriff. It didn’t matter what kind of grievance he had, through, because his words lit a fire in the Sheriff and his men. They drew as one, and as they reached for their guns, time slowed to molasses. Everything kept moving, but at a crawl, as if my mind sped up and the rest of the world kept right on at its normal pace.
The nearest Deputy’s palm slid into the crook of his gun, the webbing between his thumb and forefinger nestling right behind the hammer on his pistol as his fingers grazed the leather of his holster. Over his shoulder, I saw the man next to him reach across his body for his pistol, slung low across his waist in a fancy-looking cross-draw rig that improved neither speed nor accuracy. Just inside the periphery of my vision, I registered a bunch of faces disappearing from windows and ducking back behind doorjambs as the whores and drunkards took cover.
I drew my Colt and stepped up to Graves’ side. His pistol was already barking, taking the first Deputy to draw in the meat of his thigh. The man went down with a strangled curse, his gun falling to the dirt beside him. Graves put his left hand out on the barrel of my Colt, pushing my arm down until it pointed at the ground. “The rest of your men don’t have to die, Sheriff. You can just haul the stupid one out of here, patch him up, and pretend like we never saw each other.”
“Why would I do that, Brother Graves?” The Sheriff asked, his high-pitched voice and heavily accented speech making him sound even more alien than he looked. The voice just didn’t fit the body, which fit with what I’d alway heard about the Voltarr, that they talked like fingernails on a chalkboard.
“Because you’re a ratfucking alien coward like your chickenshit father, maybe?” Graves said, the smile creeping across his face telling me that he never wanted to avoid violence at all, that he wanted to kill these men — all of them, and nothing I could say would change that.
The Sheriff didn’t respond to the latest insult, just drew his own pistol and fired. Graves was on the move before the alien cleared leather, putting bullets in two more Deputies before they even knew the fight was underway. I knew how it was going to unfold, Graves and I had practiced this kind of scenario before, when he was teaching me. He went right, aiming for easier center body shots instead of the more definite kills of a head shot. I went left, taking the side with the downed Deputy, and fired six times in half as many seconds. Two Deputies went down, but the third kept his head, and almost took mine because of it. He led me as I sprinted left, and put a round right in the center of my chest.
I tumbled up onto a porch and collapsed behind a water barrel, prodding at my chest with wondering fingers. I found a bruise, but no blood. The strange vest Graves made me put on before we left the bar had done its job. I was still alive, but from the shooting still going on around me, that wouldn’t last long if I didn’t do something, and fast. I took a second to reload, then got up on one knee and rested my Colt on the top of the barrel. My ribs felt like Hell’s own fire was burning in my chest, but I was alive.
The scene that greeted me was a grim and bloody one. Five of the six Deputies were dead, and the last one, the first man Graves shot, was on his knees with his empty hands high above his head. Graves stood over him, his Colt leveled at the blubbering man’s head. The Sheriff stood unmoved in the center of the courtyard, unfazed by the carnage scattered around him.
“These six deaths are on you, Sheriff. These deaths are the legacy your father left you. This blood is the payment for his sins and yours, and it isn’t near enough to wash this town clean.”
“I have done nothing, Brother Graves. I am the duly appointed Sheriff of Carson City, just like my father before me.”
“Yeah,” Graves spat. “You are just like your father before you. I could see that from the girl’s face when I rode into this courtyard.”
The Sheriff knitted his non-existent brow. “What girl? The Hybrid child? She is not of my get.”
“No, she wouldn’t be. But she is yours, nonetheless. Just like all the others I’ve heard tell of, all through NorCal and even into the cities of Advent. The Sheriff and his Hybrids, for sale or rent. You can do whatever you want with ‘em, because they ain’t human, and they ain’t Voltarr, so nobody cares, do they?” Graves almost spat the words, and a fury I’d never seen contorted his face.
“She is mine, that is correct. I bought her fair and square from her father. I paid him a good horse and two mules for her.” The Sheriff’s voice didn’t even change as he talked about buying that little girl just like he’d buy a saddle. I felt my finger tighten on the trigger against my will as I thought of the girl that took my horse to the stable. She was young, far too young to lay with a man, much less be treated the way Graves was talking. Hybrid or no, she was still a person.
“Well, maybe her papa will come back and haul your corpse to be buried on his fine new horse,” Graves said. “Until then, every complicit son of a bitch is going to die, then I’m going to put you down like the dog you are.”
“Please, mister, I didn’t—“ The man on the ground didn’t even get a chance to get started groveling before Graves put a bullet in his head. He swung his Colt up to the Sheriff, but another shot rang out before he got the gun up. Graves looked confused, then looked down at his belly, where a darker stain grew on his black shirt.
My gaze flicked back to the Sheriff, but his hands were empty. Then I glanced up, and a man stood up on the roof of a nearby building, rifle in his hand. “I got him, Sheriff!” the man called out.
Graves dropped to his knees, his Colt falling to the dirt beside him. My vision went red and I charged out from behind the barrel, murder on my mind and a pistol in my hand.