By David Wesley Hill
from Black Gate 13, copyright © 2009 by New Epoch Press. All rights Reserved.
Charles Duke rode out of the desert after five hard days and found himself in badlands.
Ravine followed ravine. Crevasse pursued crevasse. Eventually the landscape flattened into a severe gray plain. A couple miles off, a town fanned out from the base of a mesa, this similar to the formations Duke remembered from Arizona and New Mexico, although he was a million miles from either place. Or a million years. He still hadn’t figured out which.
The town was ramshackle and ugly and had an air of transience although it was obviously decades or centuries old. It reminded Duke of the shantytowns back in California in ‘49 and ‘50 during the madness of the gold fever. Even at a distance he could tell it had the same stink, too, the stink of sweat and blood and greed.
The sun – a weak orange scab altogether different from the yellow orb that lit the skies of Texas in the year 1879 – was setting behind what could only be a saloon, a brick cylinder painted turquoise. Through the oval windows came the noise of conversation, the clink of glass, unfamiliar music.
Duke hitched Boone, his old gelding, to a post next to a beast that walked on two legs but had no arms and wore a saddle upon its hump. Stirrups hung on either side of its neck.
The animal whinnied and retreated to the end of its tether while spitting furiously, soiling Duke twice before he managed to dodge out of range.
“Now why’d you have to go and do that,” he muttered, more to himself than to the creature, observing ruefully that the rancid green stuff blended right in with the other stains of travel on him already.
He did what he could with his appearance, which wasn’t much, brushed off the brim of his Stetson, and checked his guns, Colt ‘73 Peacemakers with cut-down barrels. Both were loaded.
Duke’s holsters were cut low before and behind in order to accommodate a quick draw. For the same reason their noses were secured to his thighs by rawhide straps. As he reseated the pistols, the saloon door opened and a god stumbled out.
Well, maybe not a god, Duke admitted after further inspection, but close enough to one as to make little difference. The deity was seven feet tall, with the noble features of a statue and the muscles of a prizefighter, his complexion as pale as alabaster. He was also dead drunk.
“I know you,” the god mumbled to Duke in a voice that rang like music despite his inebriation. “I know what you are, and I do not care for you.”
The words were in no language Duke had ever heard, yet he understood them well enough, as if the god were speaking English or Mexican. The same magic that had stolen Duke from the banks of the Rio Grande, and transported him to this alien world – wherever it was, or whenever – had made him fluent in the local language. The problem was the folks who’d kidnapped him had been poor magicians. They’d known enough to summon him, but not how to send him back home after he’d handled their business, a stint of demon hunting, leaving him stranded in the damned desert he’d just crossed with nothing to show for his efforts but a couple hundred pounds of worthless gold.
The god swayed but managed to remain upright. His clear gray eyes focused on Duke, who felt as if he were caught in the glare of an oncoming train or in the radiance of a lighthouse.
Duke wrenched his gaze away. “Considering as how we’ve just met, I figure your appraisal is somewhat premature,” he replied mildly. “My name, friend, is Duke – Charles Duke. What I am is a businessman. Profit, not loss, that’s what I’m about.”
“Profit!” On the god’s tongue, the word became anathema. He pointed a marble finger at Duke. “Your life is built on sand. You have confused pragmatism with purpose, and this is a fatal error. The void within your soul daily grows larger. Soon it will consume you, and you will be nothing … nothing…”
The god doubled over and was ill. On his back, the stumps of wings, capped with pale scar tissue, flexed in sympathy with his heaving.
Duke nodded politely and stepped past. Drunks were all the same, it seemed, mortal or immortal. After one too many, even deities stopped making sense.
The saloon was smoky bedlam. An unwholesome assortment of clientele jammed around tables on which rattled octagonal dice. Women and female things moved among the crowd, serving customers and soliciting. Duke edged by a creature the size of a dog with two human heads on flexible stalks, and reached the counter. The bartender had a single eye in the center of his forehead and breath so foul that Duke could smell it despite the other stinks.
“I’m looking for a man,” he explained.
“Try next door. We don’t serve long pork here.”
“You misunderstand me, friend. I’m looking for a man of power. A wizard – a magician.”
“It’s Rascale you want. Over there.”
The bartender hooked a thumb toward the end of the counter. Despite the crowd, there was an empty seat beside the person in the last space – a promising sign, Duke thought as he settled into it.
At first glance Rascale appeared little more than a child. His eyes, however, added centuries to his age. A reptilian patina filmed them, burying the pupils beneath purplish cataracts. His voice was flat and dead.
“I can indeed return you to your own place and time,” Rascale said before Duke could ask the question. “Specifically, I can return you to the principality of Texas. To the village of Laredo. To an era so remote that the continent of your birth has sunk beneath the waves, and risen again, on four separate occasions. The protocol, although complex, is well within my competence.”
Duke shook his head admiringly. “I’ve come to the right fellow, no doubt about it,” he said. “Tell me, friend, what’s this protocol of yours going to cost?”
“One hundred grains.”
“One hundred grains of what?” It wouldn’t be gold, Duke knew. He’d learned the hard way how little value gold had here. The last place he’d been, they’d paved the streets with the stuff.
“Of good? You don’t say.”
Rascale uttered a thin hiss. “You labor under a philosophical delusion,” he admonished Duke. “Good is not an abstraction. It is a physical element, with the atomic number 1,324,577. It is, however, quite rare and cannot be synthesized.”
Rascale pointed through the window to the mesa rising south of town.
“The plateau contains concentrated deposits of pure ore,” he explained. “But it is inhabited by a tribe of gods, who forbid mining and slay all who make the attempt. Fortunately, natural erosive processes leech the good from the mountain. Streams wash the particles into the lowlands, where they can be reclaimed by panning. Typically a year’s effort yields a dozen grains.”
“You don’t say,” Duke mused, remembering California and the squalid conditions the mad bastards there had endured for the sake of gold, up to their knees in ice water half the time, drunk the other half, and dead broke regardless how much dust they sifted from the muck. Duke had been hardly more than a kid, but he’d seen soon enough who was making money, and it wasn’t those who took the gold out of the ground but the banks and speculators and the outfitters selling penny cigars for five dollars each and mules for five hundred. He’d seen, too, the large mining companies moving in on the small independent claims, as cougars chase coyotes from their kills. Which was why he’d signed on with Pendleton Associates, an armed security service. He’d figured his particular skills would be in demand, and he’d been right.
“Well,” Duke went on, “panning ain’t a job I’m partial to, Mister Rascale. Not for a day. Much less for nine years.” Which was about how long he figured it would take pay off the magician at a dozen grains per annum.
The wizard’s sneer exposed tiny gleaming teeth serrated like saws. “You will do no panning, Charles Duke,” he stated. “I know who you are.”
First the maimed god. Now Rascale. What was it about this place? Duke wondered. Everyone claimed to know him. It would be unnerving, if he were a superstitious man.
At that moment the doglike creature with two human heads collided with Duke, wrapped four spindly paws around him, and refused to let go.
The complete version of “The Good Sheriff” appears in Black Gate 13.