The world's last wizards protect the 19th century from their lost parents' nemesis.
| Mel Sampras watched the big Comanche chief ride up the street toward the Frisky Piebald, touching off fires in the buildings to his left and right as he came. Mel was scared; the wound he took back in the Comanche War was a constant reminder of his cowardice. He had taken a bullet in the hip as he ran like a jackrabbit from the Injuns. And they was live 'uns. These here dead 'uns were just too damn much for him to face. If Heath hadn't told him to stay here and guard the saloon, he figured he probably would have run for the hills by now. Well, maybe he should have run anyhow, because it looked like stayin' here wasn't no better than goin' back to the front lines.
The chief didn't have no braves with him, but Mel knew he didn't need 'em. That damn lance of his was worth fifty walkin' dead braves.
"Mel?" Millie came up behind him and looked out at what he was seein'. "Oh, my God..." she held little Pete Burnley tighter to her chest. The boy was still out cold. He was breathin', though, and that was something. Mel was supposed to be his protector. Millie's too, for that matter. He looked at the girl, saw the fear in her eyes, the need. She was real pretty, Millie was. Mel would have liked to court her, but what would a pretty girl like her want with a crippled coward like him? He never could get up the nerve to ask her.
Now, it looked like he never would. That damned Comanche was goin' to burn this place down around them. So, he thought, he had a choice: he could stay in here and die like the coward he had always been, or go out there and die like a man, and maybe give Millie a runnin' start while he kept Ten Bears busy.
"Millie, I want you to take little Pete and head out the back. Go south as fast as you can. Get the hell out of town. They might not even chase you. I've got a feelin' that what they want is right here."
"Why don't you come with us, Mel? You can't do nothing here."
"I been running for too damn long, Millie. It's about time I turned around and faced what's chasin' me."
Millie looked at him for a long moment, and there was something in her eyes that Mel liked seein'. Then she got up on her tiptoes and gave him a kiss.
"Be careful, Mel."
She turned and headed out the back.
Mel cocked his Winchester and went through the bat-wings already shooting.
Leroy Sykes was a happy man. Heath Burnley was trussed up and belly-down over the back of his mule, right in front of them saddlebags full of pretty silver bullets the two townsmen had on 'em when they got themselves killed. The master wanted him to bring the Sheriff back to him. It kinda pissed Leroy off, 'cause he just wanted to kill him, but he figured the master had ways to make the bastard suffer that would be a lot more satisfyin' than just shooting his ass. So, he led the mule... it used to have a name, Leroy thought, but he couldn't remember what it was. He led the mule on out of town and back up the trail toward the castle. Them two rev'nants that used to be the Sheriff's buddies, what'd he call 'em? Huey and Dave; that was it. Huey and Dave shuffled along behind.
The Chief and his damned dead Injuns stayed behind to finish up burnin' the town, which was fine by Leroy. Even with the master's fog damping down his nerves, it was gettin' so Leroy was scared to turn his back on that Ten Bears. He didn't want to end up shufflin' around like Huey and Dave, with a tomahawk stuck in the back of his head.
"You a lucky man, Sheriff," said Leroy, just to distract himself from them thoughts. "You prob'ly gonna outlive everybody in Rattler's Fang. By a couple hours, anyways."
"I'll," he grunted, it's mighty hard to talk when you're belly-down on a walkin' mule, "outlive... you too, Sykes, if... I can get loose... for a minute."
"Hah! That's the spirit, Sheriff. You just keep on hopin'. Right on up to the bitter end." Leroy had himself a good laugh. He laughed until his own belly ached. It felt good. He hadn't had one of them in a coon's age. "Oh," he said, remembering something else that might be worth a laugh, "I bet I know somethin' you don't know, Sheriff."
Burnley didn't say nothing, just rode along, real quiet-like.
"Don't you want to know what? No? I'll give you a hint. I killed your brother Pete." He laughed again. "Oh. I guess I done give it away, didn't I? Well, I ain't never had much patience." The belly-laugh he got out of that one lasted damn near all the way to the castle.
The place didn't seem quite right without all the dead Injuns standin' around, but Leroy wasn't goin' to complain about somethin' like that. For the first time in a long while, he actually felt safe comin' through the gate. Well... safer, anyhow.
He turned to the dead townsmen. "You boys take the Sheriff offa..." What the hell was that mule's name? "...the mule. We gotta take him downstairs."
They went to pull Burnley off of the mule, and the arrow in the one's chest poked the animal. It brayed and bucked and kicked the rev'nant clear across the bailey. It slowly got up and shuffled back to the task.
"Break off that damned arrow, would you?" Leroy shook his head as he watched the dead man struggle to snap the hardwood shaft. "Help him out, there, uh, Huey." Huey went over and they both started to wrestle with the thing. They couldn't seem to get a good angle on it. They stumbled around for a minute, then they fell. The arrow snapped off in the fall.
"Well, that worked out, anyway," Leroy said cheerfully. Now git your asses up and take the Sheriff down offa that mule. Dave, you get the saddlebags the Sheriff was nice enough to send out to us." Dave took the saddlebags full of silver ammo and slung them over one shoulder. Then he and Huey started to wrestle the Sheriff off the mule's back, while the animal shied this way and that, tryin' to avoid 'em.
Damn. Dead or alive, it sure was hard to get good help.
Finally they got him down and half-walked, half-carried him down the stairs and passages that led to the master's Earthfont.
This was another place that Leroy hated. The rotten-egg stench was enough to make him lose his dinner, if he'd had any dinner, which he hadn't. The heat was brutal, and that damn lava bubblin' and gushin' up out there in the middle of the floor made him nervous, too.
The one thing he did like about the place was all the silver coverin' every damned inch of the walls and floor. That much silver would keep a man in whiskey and whores for a good long time, he thought. But he didn't think about it for very long, because the master was standin' next to the Earthfont wrapped up in red light. That right there was the scariest thing of all. The master raised his arms and bolts of bloody red lightning crackled and snaked all around him. He started talkin' in that foreign language and weavin' one of his knots out of the red bands of light that trailed off his fingers.
"Shackle the Sheriff to the wall over there, boys," Leroy told Huey and Dave. "Looks like the show's about to start."