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About the Author

Tim Pratt has earned a Hugo Award and other accolades. He is a fiction writer, poet, sometime teacher, occasional performance artist, and graduate of the Clarion Writer's Workshop. He has poetry upcoming in Asimov's and other venues. He lives in Santa Cruz, California. His website is http://www.timpratt.org/. More about Tim Pratt at Wikipedia.

Bleeding West

by Tim Pratt

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1.

Kentucky Tom Granger stood in the dust-beaten main street of a town called Tolerance and faced the Spirit of the bleeding west. Wooden buildings lined the hardpacked street, discolored to gray uniformity by the sand-laden desert winds. Tom had crossed the Arizona border to reach the town, but Tolerance was not in Arizona, or any other state, either. Tolerance was simply in the west.

The seventeen badges pinned on Tom's ragged shirt glittered in the high sunlight, one for each lawman he'd killed since coming west. An ancient razor-strop hung around his neck like an untied scarf. His twice-great-grandfather had fought with the Kentucky volunteers in the War of 1812 and helped skin Tecumseh, the Indian chief who fought with the British, in 1814. The dangling strop, made from the flesh of Tecumseh's back, constituted the Granger family's sole heirloom.

Tom wore a pair of Colt .45 Peacemakers with plain wooden grips. He didn't go in for ivory inlays or engraved initials. Tom's guns were killing tools, and in their simple utility he found a powerful symbol of a lost time.

The Spirit of the bleeding west stood under the high noon sun, nevertheless casting an impossible shadow that stretched all the way to Tom's feet. The Spirit didn't move, and Tom couldn't make out anything but its huge hat, and its hands hanging motionless above its gun butts. Tom coughed, then pulled his bandanna over his nose. He'd grown accustomed to dust over the years, but the dust in Tolerance seemed thicker, dryer, and more abrasive. This dust could get into his lungs and slice like diamond chips until he spat blood.

Tom drew a deep breath through his bandanna. "I want to ride with you!" he shouted.

The Spirit, a faceless silhouette, did not react.

A wet, gurgling laugh came from Tom's right. He turned, drawing his gun, and saw a man leaning against a hitching post in front of the Trail Blossom saloon. A dead horse lay beside him in a broken-legged pile, still tied up. The man (or thing, Tom thought, gripping his guns more tightly) wore a black banker's suit and a bowler hat. His gray skin glistened, and while his green eyes had no pupils, Tom could see the amusement there.

Tom lowered his gun. "What's so funny?"

"Oh, nothing," the thing in the suit said. "Just thinking how one man's hell is another man's heaven." He cocked his head. "Come on in, stranger. I'll buy you some firewater."

"You'd better not be laughing at me," Tom said. He glanced up the broad street. The Spirit of the bleeding west had moved on, but it wouldn't go far.

"Stranger," the thing said seriously, "In Tolerance, I'll do anything for a laugh."

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2.

Broken glass crunched under Tom's feet when he entered the Trail Blossom. Overturned tables and chairs littered the sawdust-covered floor. A few men sat in the back, playing cards, and they looked up with sharp-eyed curiosity when Tom and the thing came in. A blonde woman dressed in red (and little enough of it) sat at a busted piano, tinkling keys at the high end of the register. The bar was as utilitarian as Tom's guns. People came here to drink, screw, and gamble, and the place made no pretense to any other purpose.

The thing in the suit lifted a fallen table with one hand and set it upright, then placed a pair of chairs beside it. "Have a seat, stranger. Want a drink?"

"No." Tom sat down, sizing up the heavyset bald bartender and the five card-players in the back.

"No?" The thing sounded surprised. "I don't think I've ever offered to buy a man a drink before and been turned down."

Tom tipped back in his chair. "They say the drunker Doc Holliday got, the faster he drew. I'm no Holliday. When I get drunk, I can't shoot straight, and there might be shooting today."

"Suit yourself," the thing said, and went to the bar. He returned with a shot glass and a thick deck of oversized cards. He sat and shuffled the cards deftly. He had seven fingers on each hand, and delicate webbing between them. "I'm Cosmocrator," he said. "Call me Cos."

"Tom." He looked at the cards distrustfully. He'd met a fortune teller in Missouri who read his future with cards like those, and she'd predicted his death in a dry gutter. "Those aren't Tarot cards, are they?" Tom rubbed his single Texas Ranger's star with his thumb.

"No, no. Just a homemade deck. Cards are rare here, valuable as gold. I used to have Tarot cards, but when I came to Tolerance, the pictures changed." Cos made a sour face. "Death became a big cowboy with a straw in his teeth. The Hanged Man hung by his neck instead of his feet, and the Lovers..." Cos shivered. "The Lovers wandered in the desert, raving, and they'd gouged out their own eyes. I don't like to look at them anymore."

Tom took that in thoughtfully. He was not as dumb as most people thought-- perhaps not as dumb as his profession demanded. "Then it's true. This place, Tolerance, stands outside the rest of the world, and the Spirit of the bleeding west still rules."

Cos riffled the cards. "The Spirit lives here. Deserts are hard places, stranger."

"Not anymore," Tom said bitterly. "The frontier's gone. The gangs are all broken up, the boomtowns are busted, and even the law's gotten fat and lazy." He touched the Ranger's star and remembered one lawman with a scar on his cheek who hadn't been fat or lazy, not a bit. He'd almost been too fast for Tom.

"Oh, I don't know," Cos said, grinning. His teeth looked like shards of broken seashell, poking up crookedly from bloodless gums. "There's a sense in which all deserts are one desert. Not in the particulars, maybe... but they have the same nature. Merciless. A proving ground. Isn't that why you came?"

"I expected a different place," Tom said. "You can't ride anywhere without tripping over fences and families these days."

"You expected the James gang," Cos said sympathetically. "Stagecoach robberies. Tombstone at its peak. Sharpshooters. Men calling each other out. Right?"

Tom nodded. "But Doc Holliday's dead of tuberculosis, Frank James is shot in the back, and Wyatt Earp's retired, for good this time." He took the strop from around his neck and stretched it between his hands. "I came west too late."

"So you looked for Tolerance. To find what the west lost."

"The spirit," Tom agreed.

"He lives here," Cos repeated. "Same as the djinns in any desert. First cousin to Shaitan from Arabia, only different in the details. The hat. The gun." Cos smirked. "The sexual diseases."

"I don't know what you're talking about."

Cos sipped his whiskey, not even throwing back the shot like a real man would. "I don't expect you do."

"What are you doing here?" Tom nodded at the poker players. "Those boys are human, at least, men and gamblers and likely fighters. What made you seek out Tolerance?"

Cos laced his hands over his gut. "I'm not from the west. I come from the east, the far east, a different place, ruled by different spirits... including the big one who made the earth. In the early days, I was given dominion over the tenth part of the waters. But then came a conflict... a showdown, you might say... and I sided with the upstart, a djinn named Shaitan."

Tom nodded. He didn't know if he believed Cos, but the story sounded almost familiar, in a sideways sort of way.

Cos shrugged. "The big spirit didn't like that, and as punishment, I'm forced to wander the earth's deserts, and never touch water again." He wiggled his webbed fingers. "The big spirit has a pretty uncomplicated sense of justice." He looked at the ceiling. "Speaking of which, there's some justice coming soon in this town. Or Law, at least, which is the next worst thing."

Tom caressed his badges. "I've dealt with the law before."

"Not like this." Cos turned over a suicide king. Instead of a sword, the king held a gun with an absurdly long barrel. "You've fought agents of the Law. This is the Law himself, the Lawman, and the ghosts of all your victims ride with him." Cos turned over a red ace and whistled. "He won't be interested in you, though. He'll go after the Spirit, and kill him, and Tolerance will turn into another ghost town, and the bleeding west with it."

"Not if I can help it," Tom said. "He'll have to climb over me to get to the Spirit."

"Well, hell, of course," Cos said without looking up from his cards. "It wouldn't be the west without a showdown."

A high wind rattled the windows. The gamblers in the back of the room exchanged nervous glances. One with long sideburns said "I call" in a reedy voice. The men showed their cards, and the winner raked in the pot without anyone fussing or complaining. They looked at the saloon's batwing doors nervously, though Tom didn't see anything out of the ordinary. The saloon girl stopped tinkling the piano.

"Last call!" the bartender yelled.

"What the hell?" Tom said. "It's high noon!"

"It's always high noon in Tolerance," Cos said. "At least, it always has been. I think night could be falling."

The gamblers put on their dusters and hurried out. The saloon girl followed. Cos smirked at them. The beefy bartender came over, twisting a rag between his hands. He nodded to Tom, then put a hand on Cosmocrator's shoulder. "You leaving, old son?" Sweat beaded on his bald head and ran down his nose. "He's coming. Can't you hear the wind?"

Cos flipped another card lazily. "Why should I leave? I've already been sentenced by a higher law than his. I might stay to see how it plays out."

The bartender looked at Tom, his bloodshot eyes panicked as a broken-legged horse's. "You'd better saddle up, stranger. The Lawman's on his way. Tolerance won't be a haven for the likes of us anymore."

Tom tipped forward in his chair. The legs thumped hard on the board floor. "You're leaving?" he said, his voice low and smooth as a viper's crawl. "All of you?"

The bartender smiled nervously, laughed a little. "It's death to stay. Death and, hell, justice. It's been a good place, but we knew the end was coming..." He shrugged. Cos watched the exchange with appraising green eyes.

"It's a war," Tom said. "A war to save the last bastion of the old west from the rule-makers and the fence-builders." He stood up fast and kicked his chair away. The bartender flinched at the noise. "If you leave, instead of fighting, you're no better than any other deserter."

The bartender frowned and spat. "Stay and die if you want. I'm leaving." He started toward the door.

"We shoot deserters where I come from," Tom said quietly, and drew. He didn't give the bartender a chance to argue or change his mind. People who fought under threat of murder didn't fight their best.

Tom shot the bartender in his startled face, and winced at the loud report.

Cosmocrator raised his glass, looking at the dead bartender. "Rest well, partner," he said.

"I'll get the others," Tom said, not pleased by the prospect of gunning down the gamblers and anyone else who tried to run, but determined to do so. He stepped into the dusty street.

The gamblers from the Trail Blossom lay in a neat row in the center of the street, shoulder touching shoulder, the soles of their boots facing Tom. The saloon girl lay there, too, her red dress already dulled by the blowing dust.

"Yellow," a voice said, and Tom froze. He'd heard that voice in his dreams, hard as a gun barrel, cold as a winter night on Boot Hill. The voice of the west. "Yellow, every one." Tom turned his head and saw other dead men and women lying farther down the street, and doubtless dead people filled the cross-streets, too.

"I'm not yellow," Tom said. He swallowed. "Sir."

"Look at me."

Tom looked at the Spirit of the bleeding west. It sat mounted, in a cracked saddle, and Tom guessed it would stand at least seven feet tall. Built like a normal man, but bigger in every proportion. Tom felt no surprise when he saw it had no face, just a tattered hat throwing more shadow than it should have. A straw dangled, clenched in unseen teeth. The Spirit wore chaps of a strange, too-pale leather, and its huge guns matched Kentucky Tom's exactly, except they were a little bigger. The Spirit sat astride a black horse-shape, a mount composed of coal dust, mud, barbed-wire, and rocks, with shiny bullets for eyes. The Spirit, or its mount, smelled of gunsmoke and blood. "Nice badges."

"I earned every one," Tom said, looking into its dark non-face.

"Saddle up," the Spirit said. "Ride with me."

Tom's horse had died days before, ridden beyond exhaustion and abandoned in the desert. "I don't--"

The dead horse tied to the hitching post stirred, then pulled itself laboriously upright. A broken bone stuck out of its right foreleg. It turned its sightless head to Tom and whinnied. Tom felt a shudder of revulsion, and suppressed it. He put his hand on the saddle horn and swung onto the horse's back. The horse sagged under his weight, and Tom had a horrifying vision of breaking its spine and falling right through its rotten body, but the horse stood firm.

The Spirit cocked its head. "Lawman's coming," it remarked. The wind screamed, and the wooden buildings creaked dangerously. "Let's go kill him."

The Spirit whipped the mount's reins and galloped toward the outskirts of town, leaping over the stacked dead, and Kentucky Tom Granger followed.

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3.

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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