"Two Pair! 10s high!"
The meaty fist slaps the lawman's cards on the table, causing the dirty glasses and last bottle of whiskey to jump and wobble. The bar is nearly empty this late at night. Or should it be this early in the morning? I don't know and I don't care. All I do know is Mr Crane won't let me flop down on the sacks behind this here bar until all the customers are either upstairs with the girls or finding other homes for their drunken stumbles.
Heh, even the girls want these imbeciles to lay it all on the line and finish up. Sandy's been drooped over Marv's shoulder all night, but I swear she's decided to sleep there. I caught her drooling down his lapel three hands back, but he ain't noticing anyhow. He hasn't seen much other than the cards and his drink since a couple hours past midnight.
He eyes the turn now, the ungrateful turd of a card he just dealt himself, and curses. I always find it amazing a man can hold so still while cursing and drinking and, well, Mama told me not to use the other word, not even in my own head. No wonder Sandy can sleep on him like that.
"It's yours, Burt, if the Scribed don't have nothing better."
Oh, damn. The fatigue muddling my head is instantly wiped away by Marv's words. Not this again. Why did I give them that last bottle? Now the Scribed outsider will take offence and he'll pull those guns. Then I'll need to go call Mr Crane to tell him the bar is all shot up and he'll blame it all on me, I know he will.
I look from the three me...people at the table, to the balcony for the first floor. Oh, thank you, sweet lord. Angie's there. She'll step in if anything goes down. She might look like the rest of the girls, but one wrong move and they'll be shipping you back to Tombstone in a pine box. The Colt hides behind that stretch of bare back, cocked, locked, and ready to keep the peace. The peace! Please, please don't make her shoot the lawman.
I join everyone else in the room in watching the Scribed. No one calls him that, of course. He's either the man with no name or "Pardner" to most. To us that know him, those on his regular route, he's Boneyard Bill, or Bones if yer brave. I'm not brave.
Bill lifts his chin and stares Marv in the eye, the orange glow of the light from his socket doing nothing to pierce the drunken fog of his opponent. Slowly, the hard white of his fingers move to lay his two cards down, knuckles clicking againdt the wood as his hand unfolds.
"Three of a kind."
Bill's voice echoes in the air, deep and resonant, a sound that throbs through every part of your body and soul until it reaches your brain. And it must be Bill's voice, since we hear it when he moves that sigil-carved jawbone of a mouth. No one cares he doesn't have a throat for breath to pass through. When you live on the edge of the Soul Lost Plains, you get used to people like Bill. You get used to it, or you leave. One way--or another.
Burt stares at the pair of tens Bill drops. There are only four in the deck, this being a reputable house of disrepute, and they are all visible. His face flushes. His eyes bulge. Suddenly, I pay increasingly more attention to the bet in the middle. Oh, jeezus, no.
The flat, silver star sits atop the small pile of favours. It's just possible to make out the word "Deputy" from where I am. I can only imagine what the Sheriff will say when Bill walks into his office, that star pinned to his desert-tan poncho, head bowed so his cowboy hat hides his fleshless, scribed face. He won't bluster, he won't rage. He'll give Burt a whooping he'll never forget and then send Bill out into the plains. And he will go. But, he'll be back, probably with his bounty, and something will need to be done about it.
But that isn't what is going to happen. It's going to be worse, I just know it.
"Ye cheated." Burt's voice is low, dangerous, carring the conviction of a man who knows he is always in the right. And the fear of a man who's life depends on not being wrong.
"You know I didn't."
"That's the third time in a row ye had a ten."
"How do you know that? You didn't see my cards last round."
Burt's face grows redder than I thought possible, and I go looking for the bat. Or a place to hide.
"What ya saying, Scribed? You callin' me a... "
"Boys." Angie doesn't raise her voice. "Take it outside, m'kay? I don't want to explain to the sheriff why I had to put holes in your clothes, you hear?"
Bill turns to Angie, ignoring Burt, who looks ready to ignore the lady. "You don't want that, Angie. You know how I play those games."
The chill air ices over between one breath and the next. Even Burt has lost his bluster, red skin now the colour of snow, or that's the colour they tell me it's supposed to be. His eyes drop to the single bullet atop Bill's stack of favours. One of his special bullets. His soul bullets.
"You were saying. Lawman."
I've heard that tone once before. The time Bill hopped into town, missing a leg, a couple ribs, and half a hip. He hopped to the graveyard and fell on Old Charlie's grave. I didn't see it, but they say he dug the old man up and 'recycled' what wasn't being used. It took three nights for him to finish carving those runes into the bone but, when he was done, he wobbled on out to confront the mob of pitchforks and shotguns.
That was the first time I saw the bullets in action. I didn't want to see them again. I didn't want to see the jauntiness return to his step when he was full up again.
Damn, Burt, back down! Back down and save us all the trouble of explaining this to the sheriff.
Instead, colour returns to Burt's face and venom to his words. "You're a cheat, Scribed."
Boneyard pushes his chair back and stands, poncho billowing around his skeletal figure. Humerus, ulna, radius, that's what the doc calls them. Arm bones. They snake out, one of those big black pistols held by the guard on the end of a finger. He places it between Burt and himself.
"That," he points at the bullet, "And that," he points at the gun, "Are for you. Don't anyone say I didn't make it fair. When the clock strikes Rise -- we draw." No one moves when he leaves, saloon gate swinging as he passes.
One breath. Two breaths.
"Who do you want to tell your ma?"
"Who do you want to tell her, Burt? Someone will have to."
"I got this. This time we're on even footing. I'm same as him."
Angie shakes her head and turns to her door, probably to watch from her window. "You're not the same, Burt. You ran and hid the time he came to the cemetery. You didn't see what he done. You didn't see what he is." Her eyes are haunted, their hollowness visible from here. "I'll tell her for you. I'll spare her your stupidity."
Burt stares after her, then at the weapon. Slowly, he picks it up, breaks open the magazine and loads the cartridge. All the while, his hands shake. He doesn't look at anyone. No one looks at him.
"I got this." He starts for the exit, stumbles, straightens, pushes the gate apart. Leaves.
Silence reigns. Marv continued his statue act all the way through. 'Til now. Together, we race for the door and I only just note Sandy's chin smacking into the seatback as he moves. I don't think she was awake long enough to be aware of what's happening.
It's later, earlier, than I thought. False dawn has past and the pinks and purples of morning's first light already streak the skies, fleeing before the rolling thunder of Dawn's Cavalry on the move. The clouds of dust their charge kicks are easily visible, and I pray we won't be dealing with a soul storm today on top of everything else. No warnings were issued, but it's long past due for one.
Burt stands in the centre of Main Street, Bill down by the old church. He's quiet and still, feet spread, shoulders...well, I have to say loose. His face is hidden under his hat, the brim bowed to cover it. He might be grinning, maybe smirking. Can skeletons smirk? He faces the cavalry, appearing ready to meet them in battle, instead of defending his honour against a drunkard.
We all watch, wait. The sky lightens. The cavalry charges. The air is still.
Then, they are upon us, their spectral mounts flashing across empty space, their silent cries echoing from open mouths. They twirl their sabres and kick long-gone spurs into longer-gone flanks. They tear past us--through us--the wave of dust following in their wake, the only physical manifestation of their existence, fleeing before the oncoming light.
And, just like that, they are gone again, the dust billowing around us, slowly turning to motes of purest crystal as dawn breaks across the town. My gaze darts between the combatants and the line crawling up the bell tower, creeping ever close to the old toller. Burt's fingers twitch. Bill doesn't move a non-existent muscle.
The line inches closer. Burt's legs tense. He's ready to act.
Angie's right. He fled. He hadn't seen. She would need to tell his mum.
Finally, the rays strike the bell and, for the first time today, its silver chime rings out over the land. Burt dives. Bill fires. If it were a normal bullet, he might have survived. It isn't.
A spray of colour bursts from Bill's barrel, streams of light putting the sun's recent performance to shame. They twist, and turn, and form beautiful horrors from nightmares. Flying skulls, dead unicorns, demons leaping from unseen air pocket to air pocket. They are their own cavalry charge, and they have spotted their enemy.
Burt doesn't scream; he doesn't have a chance. He has barely enough time to realise what's happening before they are upon him, ripping his soul from his body, snatching it away and roaring into the sky. Their cries and cackles are unheard, but I know I will hear them. Eventually. In my nightmares.
Bill calmly lowers his pistol, raising his canteen in the other hand. He says something then; I know not what. But the spirits hear him. And, though they struggle and plead, they return to the skeleton, drawn to that bottle. It takes forever and no time at all to shackle them to their master, who sends them somewhere only he has ever been.
When the last vanishes from view, he raises the canteen to his jaw and drinks deeply of the nothing. Wiping his arm across his face, he shuts the lid and strides to where what was once Bill lies, retrieving the pistol from the body's loose grip.
"Get me his star, Davey. I got a sheriff I need to talk to."
I do what I am told.