Arizona Territory, 1885
Anvil Flats was the kind of place people went to be forgotten, and dreams went to die. It was a small collection of decrepit buildings, most of them abandoned, slowly being swallowed into the desert that surrounded them. At the eastern edge sat a train station, but when the gold rush in California had died down, the railroad had gone north, leaving the boom town to wither.
Less than a hundred souls called the town home that spring, many of them as decrepit as the town itself. Gold miners who had gotten stuck on their way to, or from, California, drowning their sorrows in home brewed spirits at the only saloon in a hundred miles. Former soldiers from both sides of the war, looking to escape the ghosts that haunted them, travelers with no means to move on, and a small few that had never had another place to call home.
All of them saw the place for what it was, the end of their road. They stayed for lack of the means to go elsewhere, or because there was no where else to go, and waited for the end. They walked the few, dust choked streets, shadows in a world that had forgotten to care that they ever existed.
David Morris was one of them. Born in Boston, raised in a well to do family, he had lost everything after his wife’s death. With nothing left, he had struck out for California, his daughter Lucy in tow, but had only made it as far as Anvil Flats before being robbed of his last few dollars. An attempt to win enough money to leave the town in a poker game had landed him the title of the inn and saloon, shortly before the previous owner had been shot for having an ace up his sleeve.
Bull Hadly was another of them. A criminal of the worst sort, Anvil Flats was the last place in the world he could walk freely without facing a hangman’s noose. With only his two younger brothers for company, he tried desperately to recapture the wild days of his youth, but found that even the bored Sheriff couldn’t be bothered to chase him down, leaving the once feared outlaw to drift, irrelevant and pointless even at the dead end of a forgotten road.
David and Bull were just two of the residents of Anvil Flats, which caused their paths to cross frequently. Bull had an eye for the lovely young Lucy, a fact David didn’t care for, keeping the former banker and the outlaw in a perpetual stalemate of antagonism. It was the way of things in the town. Nothing ever happened, but was always threatening to.
Until the day the Maiden came.
She arrived with the dawn, astride a pale stallion, wrapped in a dirty gray duster, a matching hat pulled low, leaving only the long spill of pale blonde curls that fell past her shoulders to show her as a woman. Even then, few of the residents could be bothered to pay much heed, lost souls too wrapped up in their own torment to see the angel of death riding in their midst.
David saw her as she entered the saloon, taking a seat near the window, where she put her feet up on the table and ordered a beer from Lucy. The handful of gathered drunkards that rested in the shadows of the room from dawn to dusk barely glanced away from their own amber reflections, any more than the aged whore Mirelle broke her absent stare into nothing to see the newcomer.
A drifter, passing through, and nothing more. Hardly worth raising an eyebrow to, they all knew. She would either be gone before anyone knew her name, or fade and become a ghost such as they. Life, as it was, continued without pause, and no one could be bothered to take heed of the subtle change theirs would take in the coming days.
She remained that way for some time, and David was content to let her be. He polished glasses as Lucy refilled the ones that were drained, and the king in the saloon was silence.
It vacated its throne with the arrival of Bull, trailed by his brothers, the self proclaimed gang of the Hadly Boys. Where Bull was broad, Moses, the second born, was lean, with eyes that darted constantly. Where Bull was tall, Samuel, the youngest, was short, with a vacant look in his face that spoke of more than just being slow.
David rested a hand on the shotgun under the bar as Bull approached and Lucy fled to the relative safety of her father’s back. He walked with an arrogant step, an affectation he carried like a drunk did a bottle, as he crossed the room, sending the denizens of the saloon deeper into their drinks least they draw his ire. Behind him, Moses slid around the room like a viper, while Samuel just stared off at nothing at all.
“David,” Bull drawled as he leaned on the bar, hands resting in plain sight. Both men knew David already had the shotgun aimed.
“Bull,” he replied, wary of the bigger outlaw all the same.
“Lucy,” Bull added, tipping his hat in her direction. “You sure are a vision to these weary eyes.”
She nodded, never looking directly at him. “Good day, Mr. Hadly.”
“No need to be so formal, Lucy,” Bull told her with a smile that was neither warm, nor comforting. “We’re all friends here.”
“I beg to differ,” David retorted sharply. “Now, I believe I’ve told you enough times that if you aren’t looking for room or drink, not to be stopping in.”
Bull nodded, still smiling his predator’s grin. “You have, David. In fact, you’ve been most direct in that. I respect it, too.”
“Then either choose one, or be on your way,” David said.
“I think a beer would be right refreshing, then.” Bull made sure to keep his hands in sight, not doubting for a moment David would kill him. “What about you, Moses?”
The middle Hadly laughed, a short, barking sound, as he continued circling the old timers in the room. “Right refreshing, Bull.”
“Well, there’s two,” Bull told David. “What about you, Samuel? You find a beer refreshing right about now?”
“I’d like to have her,” Samuel replied in a soft, distant voice.
Bull’s smile faded slowly, like a candle burning down, as he tried to grasp that. It wasn’t like Samuel to speak a want one of his brothers hadn’t given him permission for beforehand. The eldest of the Hadly Boys blinked a few times as he turned from David to see what his brother was talking about.
He hadn’t seen her when he had entered, his eye fixed on Lucy, but he felt he should have at least noticed the gray figure in the corner. She was, if nothing else, new, and that was always worthy of at least a passing glance.
Bull looked to Moses, who could only shrug, equally unable to grasp their youngest sibling’s sudden independence. With no help coming there, Bull pushed away from the bar and took in the weak willed Samuel.
He stood stock still in the center of the room, staring at the woman in gray, eyes fixed on her in a way that was unsettling to the eldest Hadly. However, the thing that sent a chill down Bull’s spine was the way his brother’s hand touched the grip of the revolver at his hip, stroking and squeezing it as if it possessed a life of its own.
It was enough to make Bull feel a bit nervous as he approached, asking, “What you want her for?”
“She’s got purty hair,” Samuel replied, his voice hazy, dreamy.
Bull swallowed, looking back over at David, and felt strangely reassured to see the bartender still had his hand under the counter. He and Moses had always known Samuel was more than a bit off, but had never failed to control him. For the first time, he knew that if he tried, his brother wouldn’t hesitate to shoot him, and for the life of him, he didn’t know what to do about it.
“What you planning to do with her when you have her?” he asked.
“I’m gonna poke her,” came the answer, setting Bull’s nerves on edge. Something in his brother’s voice had gone from off, to terribly broken.
Uncertain what to do, Bull thought about it for a moment and decided it was best to let Samuel have his way on this one, least he find himself on the receiving end of a good deal of pain, or death.
“I suppose I could just go ahead and fetch her for you, then,” he said at last.
“You do that,” Samuel replied quietly.
In his time, Bull had robbed trains, stagecoaches, banks, and more. He’d stolen cattle, horses, and women. Survived gunfights with other outlaws and law men. Never, in all that time, could he recall ever being afraid. As he turned to face the woman in the corner, however, he felt fear crawl up and seize hold of him with a mighty grip, strong enough to make him glance to both Moses and David for comfort.
Both men had their hands on their guns, and Bull knew that if Samuel went to pull, they would put him down, but it was likely he himself would be dead before they could. Then there was the figure before him, and something about her made him more afraid than anything.
Putting on his warmest smile, he walked towards her, saying, “Pardon me there, ma’am, but it seems my brother has taken a bit of a shine to you. I imagine it’ll be an imposition, but I think it best if you not put up much of a struggle, as he’s likely to shoot us both if he don’t have his way.”
She didn’t even look up.
Bull hesitated, a feeling of dread snaking its way around the fear that curled in his gut. Something wasn’t right here.
“I’m being as polite as I know how, ma’am, but if you know what’s good for you, you’ll do as I say,” he told the stoic figure, his smile beginning to falter.
She didn’t so much as flinch, and didn’t even seem to breathe.
A well of anger overwhelmed the dread and fear as Bull stared down at the woman. “Least you could do is look at me,” he said, trying to be imposing, but somehow it sounded pleading.
Silence returned to resume its throne, sensing Bull Hadly’s impotence in that moment. Even the usually disaffected old timers were watching now, staring at the strange scene playing out in the corner.
“I said look at me,” Bull barked, anger getting the best of him as he reached out to snatch the dirty gray hat from the woman’s head.
Bull Hadly stared down the barrel of a Schofield. His anger fled, its tail between its legs, making way for both fear and dread to set up permanent homes in the outlaw’s stomach, twisting his gut so tight he felt his bladder weaken.
He hadn’t even seen the woman pull it. It had just appeared there, pointing at him, a black as death bore that didn’t so much as waver. Tearing his eyes from it, he felt a tremble in his body as he looked to her, into eyes like a forest after the rain, and saw the thing that made his blood run cold.
Her ears. Those long, elegant tapers that rose through the sun gold hair, which had been hidden by the hat till he had been fool enough to yank it from her head. The image of them told the story of his death.
Not even a Half-Orc such as he could hope to outdraw an Elf.
The sound of the hammer being drawn back on the Schofield undid his bladder.
Behind him, Bull heard Moses fumbling for his own gun, and in a blink, a second Schofield joined the first, pointing towards the middle Hadly. Moses went silent as the hammer fell back, his gun only half clear of the holster.
“Back up,” she said, her voice gravel and death.
Without thinking, Bull backed away, staring into those eyes and finding nothing. They were like a dead man’s eyes, empty of emotion, and he knew he would find no mercy from the Maiden.
Beneath the duster the revolvers had been hidden, slung backwards on the belt, below the simple white cotton shirt she wore. Around her neck was a chain of silver, with an unadorned gold ring dangling from it. Bull couldn’t help but think she was beautiful.
“My hat,” she told him.
Bull looked down at his hand to find it still clutched there. Slowly, he tossed it back on the table, where it landed by her feet. Only then did he realize she was still seated in the same position, never moving anything but her hands.
“That the brother that’s taken a shine to me?” she asked, nodding at Samuel.
Bull nodded, stepping back again to be next to Samuel. “Don’t mind him, ma’am. He’s off in the head.”
“Shut up,” she told him, eyes staying on the youngest Hadly, though Bull knew if he so much as moved wrong, he and Moses were both dead.
“I’m going to blow your pecker off, boy,” she told Samuel, who hadn’t moved at all, save for the roaming hand that still stroked and squeezed his gun.
Bull blanched. “Now, hold up a second there. I told you, he’s a bit off, so there’s no need in all that.”
“Why?” The question hung in the air, making the tremble Bull felt more intense.
“If he’s gonna piss, I mean,” he offered.
“Like you have?”
Bull felt himself flush with shame. “I reckon so,” he managed to say.
“Holster it, or I will put you down, boy,” the Maiden said suddenly.
Moses slid his gun back into place and lifted his hand free. “Yes, ma’am.”
She stared at them in silence for a moment, those black guns steady as a rock in her hands. “I’ll let him keep it, and you three your lives, if you pay my tab on be on your way.”
“That’s most gracious of you,” Bull admitted, waving at Moses to do as she said.
“Never come back here, though, do you understand? Ever.”
“I do, most certainly,” the eldest Hadly said, hating the whimper in his voice.
Behind the bar, David barely noticed as Moses piled crumpled cash before him, trying hard not give the Human any with blood stains on it. The middle Hadly wasn’t sure why, but he felt the Maiden’s eyes burning into his back, knew that Schofield had followed him, and decided it’d be best that way.
“Can I have her, Bull?” Samuel asked suddenly.
No one moved. For a moment, everything stopped as Bull turned to face his youngest brother, staring at him in shock. Moses shoved all the money he had at David, wanting nothing more in that moment than to be far from the Maiden with Schofields.
“I don’t reckon you can,” Bull answered his brother slowly. “Or ain’t you got eyes that can see?”
“I wanna poke her,” Samuel answered.
Both pistols swung to face the youngest Hadly, drifting down. Bull knew, then and there, if his brother was ever going to walk away, if any of them were going to walk away, he had to appease the Maiden in the corner.
“You’ll get over it,” he told Samuel as he pulled back and punched him in the head, dropping the smaller man to the floor easily.
Samuel stayed down, unmoving, as Bull let out the breath he’d been holding. Behind him, Moses stared at the Maiden as she dropped her pistols across her lap, staring at Bull with those empty eyes.
“You’re smarter than you look, it seems,” she said. “Now be gone afore I change my mind and kill all three of you.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Bull said, gathering his unconscious brother and making for the door, the arrogant step he so loved forgotten in his haste to be away from the Elven gunslinger.
He never stopped running.
As the gathered souls stared at the Maiden, David pushed around the money Moses had left, uncertain what he should do or say. “He overpaid,” was what came out at last.
“By how much?” the Maiden asked as she slid her Schofields home.
“A lot,” David admitted.
She nodded as she stood, donning her hat once more. “Then I’ll be taking a room.”
“For how long?”
She paused as she walked to the door, spurs ringing softly in the silence. “Till that runs out.”
With that, she was gone, untethered her stallion and walking down the street, leaving the saloon denizens to grasp what had transpired. None of them had seen an Elf in years, the more refined race resisting the lure of gold that had dragged everything from Dwarves and Humans to Goblins and Trolls west.
“Lucy,” David said at least. “Go fix up our finest room for our guest.”
“There’s blood on that money,” his daughter said softly.
“Better there than on the floor, now get moving,” he answered, shooing her away before turning to Mirelle. “Best you go fetch the Sheriff. He should know what’s happened.”
Duncan Everest was, once upon a time, a practical Dwarf. A New Yorker by birth, a Union officer by choice, in the world after the war, he had found himself lost, and turned to God for guidance. The good Lord, in His infinite wisdom, had lead Duncan to Anvil Flats, where he came to serve as not only a priest, but blacksmith and mayor as well.
He couldn’t say the Sunday congregation was much, any more than he could brag about anything else he did now, but then again, pride was a sin, and bragging the road to it. He was not a very good priest, but he tried, and felt certain that counted for something with the Heavenly Father.
Whether he wore the collar, or the smithy’s apron, or the finer clothing of mayor, Duncan felt the ghosts of his past nipping at his heels, barely held at bay by the flask of whiskey in his breast pocket. The good lads whom he had ordered to their death when he had carried the Lieutenants bars, or the equally good men he had slain by his own hand in the war.
They haunted his dreams every night, and lingered by day, no matter how many hats he wore. No matter how many souls he saved, theirs waited to be answered to, and his courage flagged at the thought of facing them when his judgment came.
So, until that day came, he pounded the pulpit with as much fervor as he pounded the anvil, in the vain hopes his sweat and devotion would ease their wrath, and his guilt. He toiled, and prayed, and knew it was for naught, but carried on, for there was nothing else to do.
Till the day the Maiden came to stand in the door of his stable, an angelic vision of death dealing, looking down at him with an emerald gaze that held neither pity nor damnation. He looked up at her, and felt small, hammer hanging in mid strike.
“You open?” she asked, her voice dragged from the very bowels of Hell, he was sure.
Duncan shook himself, pushing away his imaginings and looked back up at the Elven Maiden, seeing only a woman, and cursed his foolishness. “I am. What can I do for you?”
She nodded at the pale stallion by her side. “Care and feed for my horse.”
The old, bitter Dwarf set aside the horseshoe he worked and doffed his apron, waving her over to his desk. “It’s twenty dollars a week.”
She produced the cash without question, dropping it before him then turning to undo the saddlebags. Duncan’s hand poised for a moment, quill in hand as he watched her.
“What name should I put down?” he asked at last.
She looked to the empty stable. “Does it matter?”
He shook his head. “No, I suppose it doesn’t. Very well, feed and care for a week. If you be needing longer, let me know. Otherwise, if you be the religious sort, we have Sunday services at the church in the town square.”
“You the preacher, too?”
“Indeed, and the mayor and the undertaker when one is called for,” he agreed, setting aside the quill without noting her name in his book.
“May have need of the undertaker,” she said. “One way or the other.”
Duncan looked at the Schofields she wore warily. “Killing ain’t a woman’s work. If that be what you’re looking to do, I’d ask you to pray to the good Lord Almighty to bring you a man and a family instead.”
“Don’t need those last two, and ain’t never had no use for the first, so mind your tongue on the matter, Dwarf,” she said, not with anger, but bluntly.
“As you say,” he grumbled, tucking her money away. “But if you don’t mind, I’ll be praying for your immortal soul all the same.”
“Do as you like,” the Maiden replied as she dropped the saddlebags over her shoulder. “It’s your time to waste.”
A shadow fell across the stable as Dixon Wright, the Sheriff of Anvil Flats, joined them, sauntering into the stable with his thumbs hooked on his gun belt, the star on his chest glittering in the sunlight. The Maiden did not look his way, but seemed to notice the Ogre all the same.
“Dixon,” Duncan said with a nod. “What drags you from your office this time of day?”
“Duncan,” the Sheriff replied with a tip of his hat. “Got a visit from Mirelle. Seems we have a new guest in town that’s stirred quite a bit of excitement over at David’s.”
“That be so?” the Dwarf asked, eyes sliding to the Maiden.
“Pulled on the Hadly Boys and sent them scampering, or so I’m told,” the Sheriff responded, also taking in the gray clad woman, and the guns she carried.
Duncan snorted. “Are you here to arrest that guest, or give them your job?”
Dixon chuckled at that, and easy sound that came out genuine. “Neither, you blue coat bastard. Just looking to ask a few questions.”
The old Dwarf flushed a bit at the mention of his former uniform from the southerner. “Bah, be gone, the both of you. I got work to do.”
“Care to accompany me?” Dixon asked the Maiden.
“Do I have a choice?”
“Not really, ma’am, no. You don’t.”
She nodded slowly. “Let’s be done with your questions then.”
Dixon nodded and lead the way, leaving the Dwarf to his work, and his ghosts. Only once they were gone did he dig for his flask and take a long pull. The Maiden had sent his nerves on edge, though he chose to ignore why.
Her eyes were too much like those which still haunted his dreams, and as always, he drove them away with work.
The Sheriff’s office wasn’t much to see. A single room, with two desks and one cell in the back, which had never seen an occupant as far as Dixon knew. Loitering about the room was Buddy, the deputy, better known as the only other person besides Dixon who was ever sober long enough to be trusted with gun.
Buddy was a Human, and not an overly smart one, but he believed in what the badge he wore stood for, even if his boss didn’t anymore, and couldn’t recall a time he ever did. After the war, though, it was this or trying to rebuild what had been left of his life back in Atlanta.
Dixon dropped his hat on the desk as he seated himself, waving for Buddy to drop his tough guy act. Hesitantly, the young man took his hand from his revolver and leaned against his desk, looking at the Maiden in curiosity as she stood near the window, watching the street.
“So, what brings you all the way out here?” Dixon finally asked.
“Lookin for a man,” she replied, her voice sending Buddy’s hand back to the comfort of his pistol, and drawing a look of irritation from his boss for doing it.
“What man would that be? Maybe I can help you find him,” Dixon offered, shuffling papers around on his desk pointlessly.
“I doubt it,” she answered, still watching the street as she dug in her pocket, producing paper and a pouch of tobacco.
“You never know,” Dixon told her with a smile. “I may not look it, but I can be pretty resourceful.”
Her fingers rolled the cigarette without her eyes ever turning to it, a detail the Sheriff didn’t miss. “His name is Lucas Black.”
Dixon felt his smile falter at that. “Lucas Black, you say. As in the thief, murder, and rapist? That Lucas Black?”
“The same,” she answered, lighting the cigarette with a match, struck on the grip of the Schofield with the same practiced ease she’d shown rolling the smoke.
“You a bounty hunter?”
“Something like that, yeah,” she told him.
Dixon looked at Buddy, who seemed uneasy in the Maiden’s presence. The Ogre doubted the young man had ever seen an Elf in his life, much less one who carried themselves like a seasoned gunslinger.
“Hate to tell you this, ma’am,” Dixon said as he leaned back. “But last anyone knew, old Lucas was roaming the Dakotas. It’s pretty doubtful you’ll find him in these parts.”
“He’ll be here, sooner or later,” she said, smoke billowing around her.
Dixon studied her in silence for a moment, unsure what to make of this one. “I’m sorry, but I don’t think I caught your name.”
“Didn’t give it,” was all she said.
“No, I suppose you didn’t,” he agreed. “Any chance you plan to.”
He nodded to himself. “Well, as I said, Lucas Black ain’t in these parts, so I’m not sure what you hope to gain by waiting around here for him.”
“He’s coming,” she replied calmly. “Be sure of that.”
“How can you be so certain?”
“I ain’t left him no where else to go.”
The Sheriff thought about that for a minute, but couldn’t say he cared much for the implications. “Mind if I ask what you plan to do when he gets here, then?”
For the first time since entering his office, the Maiden turned to face him, her dead emerald eyes betraying nothing past the veil of smoke that circled her like an obscene halo. “I reckon I’m gonna kill him.”
Dixon felt a knot form in his gut, one he hadn’t felt since the war had ended, the same sort of knot that use to form just before a battle. “Now see here, ma’am. I am the law in this town, and I don’t take it well when people start showing up threatening to kill other people. This is a quiet town, and we aim to keep it that way. If you plan on shooting the place up, then I’m gonna have to lock you up straight away, do you understand?”
“I got no desire to kill a law man,” she said slowly. “But if you get in my way, I most certainly will shoot you down, Sheriff.”
Buddy knocked a glass over, making Dixon jump half out of his skin. That he saw, the Maiden didn’t even flinch. In those eyes, he saw the truth, and try as he might, couldn’t hold her gaze.
“I doubt he’ll show, if I’m being honest. Lots of miles he could cross into Mexico, if he pleased. Odds are, you’re wasting your time here.” It was true, but at the same time, he felt a bit of a coward for saying it.
“We done here?” she asked.
He nodded. “That we are. Mind your manners now.”
She left without another word, heading down the sidewalk, past his office with a steady, confident gait that made him feel somehow less of a man.
“Boss,” Buddy said, the first words he’d uttered since the Maiden had entered the office. “Them Schofields of hers, I think they was made of cold iron.”
“Noticed that, did you, Buddy?” the Sheriff replied, having picked up on it as well.
“You think they’re magical?” Buddy asked him, his voice soft with reverence at the word.
“Don’t be a fool, boy,” Dixon scoffed. “Magic left this world a long time ago. We Feykin was just too damn stupid not to go with it. Them’s just guns she got, and nothing more.”
Buddy shuffled a bit, saying, “But, why make em cold iron if they’re just guns?”
“Do I look like I know?” Dixon snapped. “God damn it, boy, go make yourself useful. Clean this office up. Something! Just stop blathering on about magic and cold iron.”
Buddy looked chagrined as he shuffled away, but Dixon couldn’t help but feel his eyes wander in the direction the Maiden had gone. Cold iron pistols, on an Elven gunslinger, and a woman at that. The knot in his gut tightened, and he reached for his whiskey to ease it.
Gordon Glitterhill was a Gnome, a merchant, and by all accounts, Jewish as well, though no one had ever inspected that last part well enough to be certain if it was truth, rumor, or any different from being a regular Gnome. Most just assumed it wasn’t.
He had spent the last five years as the proprietor of the only general store in Anvil Flats, and as such, the only one for a hundred miles in any direction. Like some of the residents of the slowly dying town, he had fled here to be forgotten after falling in with a rough crowd.
Gordon had never broken the law, but he dealt with those that did, and when matters had grown more risky than he felt was safe, he had run, looking for a place to disappear to. At Anvil Flats, he had long felt he’d found that place.
He would soon learn that he was wrong. From some people, the ends of the earth wouldn’t be far enough to run to ever be safe. A lesson he would learn in the eyes of the Maiden.
She entered his store, the bell ringing as she did, drawing his eyes up from his ledger for only a moment. She did not linger in the door, so his gaze did not linger on her, but his ears heard the sound of her spurs ringing as she walked the floor of his store, gathering sundries in her arms.
Gordon tended his books as she moved about, content to let the random shopper be. He had no competition in the town, and as such, no need for the hard sell approach to moving the scant merchandise that adorned the shelves. Either he had what they needed, or he did not, and that was the way of things in the town no one cared about.
She approached soon enough, setting down the few things she’d gathered. Gordon set aside the ledger and begin to tally up the expense, still not looking at her overly close. He hated to make eye contact with anyone these days, really, too afraid they’d see the guilt he carried, for the blood spilled by his looking the other way.
“Gordon Glitterhill, isn’t it?” she asked, her voice making the hair on the back of his neck stand tall.
He froze. A stranger that knew his name. Slowly, sweat beading on his forehead, he looked up into those deadly verdant eyes, afraid of what he might find. Only death waited for him there, cold and remorseless.
“Have we met before?” he squeaked.
“No,” she replied, idly turning a jar of licorice by the register. “Though you and I both know the same man.”
He swallowed hard, looking at the Schofields on her belt. “Miss, I doubt we move in the same circles at all.”
“Lucas Black,” she intoned.
Gordon felt like he wanted to cry. “I assure you, I know not Mr. Black, or haven’t for many years. Whatever he’s told you…”
“Shut up,” she said, cutting him off mid ramble. “How much is the licorice?”
“What?” he gasped.
“The licorice,” she repeated. “How much is it?”
“Ten cents,” he managed past the lump in his throat.
She pulled a stick free of the jar, laying it to the side with the rest of her supplies. Though he had not told her the price, a generous stack of cash was laid on the counter.
Then, she pulled a handful of pennies free, and began dropping them one by one onto the counter, saying as she did, “Lucas is coming to town, sooner or later.”
Ding, went a penny.
“When he gets here, he’s going to come looking for you.”
Ding, went a penny.
“I know this, cause you’re the only person left in the world that’ll help him cross the border that I haven’t already killed.”
Ding, went a penny.
“When he arrives, if he contacts you, I want you to come across the street, to the inn, and tell me.”
Ding, went a penny.
“If you do this, you and I can go on being friends. If you don’t, you best pray Lucas kills you, cause I surely will.”
Ding, went a penny.
“Now, Gordon, you do want to be my friend, right?”
Ding, went a penny.
“Yes, ma’am. I most certainly do,” the Gnome stammered, his heart pounding wildly.
Ding, went a penny.
“I’m counting on you, Gordon.”
Ding, went a penny.
“I suspect he’ll come to the saloon first, but if I’m wrong, I need you to let me know, so I can kill him before he kills you.”
Ding, went a penny.
Ding, went a penny.
“Perfectly,” he gasped.
The Maiden nodded and gathered her sundries, sticking the licorice in her mouth as she turned to head for the door. “Have a nice day, Gordon.”
The bell chimed, leaving Gordon alone in his store, where he promptly began to weep.
Night came to Anvil Flats, as it did to everywhere sooner or later, draping the sad little town in velvety darkness, allowing those who lived there to pretend they were somewhere else for a time, or in some cases, nowhere at all.
With it, Lucy Ross carried the dinner she had prepared for the inn’s only guest up the stairs and down the hall, to the largest and best room the place offered. The image of the Maiden had been seared into her mind since that morning, when she had rid the young woman of her most lasting nightmare.
Pausing outside the door, she smoothed her dress and knocked, putting on her best smile. A moment later, the door cracked, and a Schofield greeted her, behind which hovered the dead eyed gaze of the room’s occupant.
Lucy felt her breath catch for a moment, before the pistol raised, the hammer eased back into place. Only when the door swung wide, did she release that breath, her heart hammering wildly beneath her breast.
“I brought you some dinner,” she stammered as the Maiden crossed the room, dropping the revolver back into its holster on the belt draped over a bedpost.
The Maiden said nothing as she moved to stand by the narrow doors that let out onto a small balcony, a tightly rolled cigarette finding its way to her mouth. Lucy hesitated a moment longer before entering, setting the tray down on a small table.
“It’s not much, just stew, but it’s warm, and it tastes well enough,” she said, pouring whiskey into a glass as well.
“It’ll do,” the Maiden replied, not even looking over her shoulder at the girl.
Lucy stood there for a bit, staring at the Maiden’s back, certain her heart would explode from her chest if she didn’t at least try to say what she wished to. Never in her life had she wanted to speak her mind as she did at that moment.
“You’re very quick with your guns,” she said instead.
The Maiden didn’t move, smoke wafting about her as she stared into the empty street below.
“Made old Bull wet himself,” Lucy continued. “Never thought I’d see the day someone could do that. It was right impressive.”
The Maiden puffed her cigarette, remaining where she was as Lucy rambled.
“Something like that, it tends to make a girl feel safe, it does,” Lucy said with a laugh.
“Forget it,” the Maiden said.
Lucy looked at the floor. “I know what you’re thinking, but you’re wrong. I can be useful. Do cooking and cleaning for you.”
“Don’t need either,” the Maiden told her.
“I can do other things, though,” Lucy said, her voice growing plaintive. “I’ve heard stories, about how Elven women like girls as much as men. I can do that, too.”
The Maiden half looked over her shoulder. “Don’t need that, either.”
Lucy felt her face flush with shame. “I’ll do whatever you want, then, if it isn’t those things. Anything to get out of this town. Just take me with you, and I’ll prove I can be useful!”
“Run back to your daddy, girl,” the Maiden told her, turning back to the street. “You won’t find anything with me but blood and death.”
Lucy felt as if she was going to cry. “Please, I don’t want to die in this place.”
“Ain’t my concern,” came the answer. “Best you leave now, afore I have to make you.”
Overwhelmed with shame and rejection, Lucy burst into tears, turning to flee the room, running into the Sheriff as she went. She held only a moment, though, looking at him in surprise, wondering how much he’d heard, before wailing as she pushed past and fled down the stairs.
“I see you have a way with the young ladies,” Dixon said softly as he stood in the doorway.
“She wanted things I don’t have to give,” the Maiden said. “And what might you want, Sheriff?”
The Ogre stood there, rolling his hat in his hands for a moment. “To talk, nothing more.”
The Maiden pushed off from the door frame and moved to look at the meal Lucy had brought, but ended up only lifting the glass of whiskey. “So, talk.”
Dixon closed the door behind him as he entered, dropping his hat on the same bedpost as the Maiden’s gun belt. “It’s been bothering me since we spoke earlier, a woman such as yourself, obviously handsome, looking to take on a killer like Lucas Black. Something about it all seems a bit off.”
“Do tell,” the Maiden said, refilling the glass and handing it to him while she kept the bottle.
He accepted it with a smile. “I see that ring you wear, makes me wonder what a fellow like him could have done to make you hunt him so passionately. I imagine he killed your man.”
The Maiden laughed at that, but there was no humor in it. “Hardly.”
“So the ring ain’t yours then,” he mused. “Your sister’s, then?”
“Still wrong, Sheriff,” she said, taking a long pull from the bottle.
“Any relation at all?”
Dixon pondered that one for a moment. “If it ain’t no relation, then why carry it about?”
She looked at him then, and for the first time, he saw a hint of emotion drift into her eyes. He had expected anger, or bitterness, but instead, he saw sadness, but it was gone as quick as it appeared.
“Because someone has to,” she told him as she turned back to the street. “Because it’s the least I can do now, to carry this burden.”
“Does it have anything to with why you’re after Lucas?”
“It does,” she said softly.
He stared at her back for a long time, trying to find the right words, and failing. “If it’s a burden that you carry, then if you want, I can carry it for you. As a man, and a gentleman, I feel I should offer.”
She laughed again, the same humorless bark as before. “You couldn’t bear the weight of it.”
“It’s just a ring,” he told her.
“A small thing, I know,” she said, looking back at him with the same tinge of sadness. “But it weighs more than you’ll ever understand.”
He nodded and found he couldn’t meet her eyes, instead looking at the floor. “If that’s the way it is, then that’s the way it is, but with your permission, there is something I can do.”
“And what’s that, Sheriff?”
“I can help you finish that bottle of whiskey,” he told her with a smile.
She looked at it, then back at him, and nodded. Dixon held out his glass, and as she filled it, he realized that she was right. The burden she carried, it wasn’t one he could lift.
In that moment, he loved her.
Three days came and went, just enough time for the residents of Anvil Flats to grow accustomed to the sight of the Elven Maiden sitting in the corner of the saloon, her feet on the table, appearing asleep, though the astute observer would see her watching the street.
Lucy avoided her, too ashamed of her own desperate pleas to face the woman again. Though David didn’t know what his daughter had done, he felt certain that somehow, the Maiden had changed her, though perhaps not for the better. Out of respect for her skills with those cold iron Schofields, he chose to let that dog sleep.
Dixon steered clear of her as well. Despite the time they had spent, sitting on the balcony, sharing a bottle of whiskey, he felt that the woman was beyond his ability to grasp, just as he felt that those hours would mean nothing if he stood between her and the object of her hunt. She would gun him down, and he doubted feel any remorse for it when she did.
Gordon would catch her eye as he came and went, ducking his head and hurrying on his way, the threat she had handed him still fresh in his mind. Like her, he watched the street now, but unlike her, it was with a healthy dose of fear.
Duncan carried on, as he always had, neither approaching, nor speaking to, the Elven Maiden with the dead in her eyes. For him, it was a matter of not just physical fear, but spiritual as well.
Three days came and went, and the town held its breath, waiting to see if the outlaw Lucas Black would arrive as the Maiden had predicted. When he did, none of them found they were overly surprised.
The Half-Demon bore into town as if the Devil himself road at his heels, his horse in a lather as he drew up before the saloon. Gordon found himself standing on the sidewalk outside his store when the red eyed monster dismounted, glaring his way for a moment.
He nearly lost his bladder when Lucas pointed at him. Just as she had said, he had come looking for the Gnome, with the intent to cross the border into Mexico. It took all of Gordon’s will power not to look at the Maiden through the saloon window, least he tip off Lucas, but he managed.
Lucas stood there a moment, then turned his back on the Gnome and headed inside, again as she had said she expected. Gordon fled into his store, and didn’t come out for the rest of the day.
Inside the saloon, Lucas drew his pistol and fired off a round, drawing the attention of everyone inside as he crossed the room. Grinning like the incarnation of pure evil, he approached David, gun waving threateningly.
“Barkeep,” he drawled. “I come for drink, and a woman, and I’ll have both, or you’ll have a taste of lead.”
“Is that so?” David asked, hand on his shotgun.
Lucas grinned. “I’d leave off that piece, sonny, unless you want me to blow your fucking head off.”
David hesitated a moment, a moment that wiped the grin off Lucas’ face. Glaring, he put the gun to David’s head, saying, “Care to test me, barkeep?”
“Daddy!” Lucy cried without meaning to.
Lucas glanced her way, grinning again, and seized her wrist before she could flee. “Daddy, is it? Well, ain’t that something. A right family establishment we got here. Makes me feel at home.”
“Leave her be,” David warned, but released the shotgun all the same, raising both hands in the air. “I’ve done as you asked.”
“That you have, and a smart man you are for it,” the Half-Demon sneered. “Now pour me that drink, while your daughter and I get to know each other better.”
“I said, leave her be,” David snarled.
“Or what?” Lucas shouted, turning the gun to Lucy. “I don’t think you understand the situation here, mister. I said, I want a drink, and a woman. I’ve got the woman, but I don’t see you pouring no drink. Now, if you want your baby here to still be breathing when I’m done with her, you’ll get to it!”
In the silence after Lucas’ tirade, between breaths of Lucy wailing, the heavy sound of a hammer being drawn filled the room. The cold iron barrel of a gun to his head was enough to make even Lucas Black pause, and think about praying.
“Leave the girl be,” the Maiden said. “And holster that weapon, Lucas.”
Enraged at losing his prize, the outlaw did as he was told, saying, “You seem to know me, but I don’t believe I’ve had the pleasure.”
“You will, soon enough,” she answered.
“Is that right?” Lucas laughed.
“Be in the street when the church bell rings noon. I’ll be waiting for you there, unless you’re a coward.”
Lucas’ eyes darkened. “I ain’t no coward,” he snarled. “It’s a showdown you want, I’m more than happy to give it to you, soon as I’ve had my drink, and my bitch!”
“Then I’ll drop you where you stand,” the Maiden replied. “Though, I’d rather do it in the street.”
Lucas pondered his situation for a moment, then nodded. “Fine then. In the street, when the bell rings noon. After I’ve killed you, the girl is mine.”
The press of the barrel left the back of his head. “If you can kill me, I don’t imagine anyone will want to stand between you and anything you want. That’s a mighty big if, however.”
He spun to face her, but she was already gone, stepping into the street, leaving him to wonder who would dare threaten him. The days of late, however, had been strange indeed, and for the first time in his life, Lucas Black had known uncertainty.
“A drink, on my new friend,” he said, turning back to David, who passed him a beer with a scowl.
“May it be your last.”
Outside, the Maiden waited.
Dixon stood in the street, watching as she walked from the saloon towards the stable. He had already told Buddy to make sure and keep everyone inside, having some idea what the Maiden intended to do. Against his better judgment, he followed her.
“Reverend,” she called as she stepped into the stable, drawing the Dwarf from his work. “Ready my horse. I’ll be leaving soon.”
Duncan set down his hammer. “How soon?”
“Right about noon,” she answered. “When he’s ready, send down to the inn for my things and have them ready as well.”
Duncan looked to Dixon as the Ogre arrived. “Anything else you need?”
“Might want to get your measuring tape out, and put on your undertaker’s coat,” the Maiden replied. “Gonna be needing a pine box shortly.”
Duncan nodded, setting off to do as she asked, though he wasn’t sure why. Part of him knew he should appeal to her to abstain from violence, but instead, he just set to work.
“Don’t do this,” Dixon said softly as she walked back out into the street. “That man is a born killer.”
“And what do you think I am, Sheriff?”
He stood there, staring at her as she waited. “He’s gonna kill you, you know that, right?”
“In a few days, a Marshal will be coming,” she replied. “If you like, you can take credit for Lucas Black being put down.”
“Is there anything I can say that will deter you?”
She said nothing more, and Dixon let the matter drop, walking away. Whatever happened next, he knew, he had tried his best to stop it.
Someone would die in Anvil Flats that day.
Lucas stepped into the street soon after, with noon approaching. He took a final pull from the bottle of whiskey in his hand and tossed it away, his crimson eyes taking in the Maiden as she waited, a stoic figure in gray in the middle of the dusty street.
He wasn’t sure how she had known he was coming, or if it was just dumb luck that put her here, and he didn’t really care. He had no problem killing her if she was stupid enough to try and outdraw him.
They stood in the street, staring each other down, the Maiden calmly smoking a cigarette as Lucas tried his best to appear intimidating. The outlaw couldn’t help but grin as more and more residents gathered to watch, lining the sidewalks quietly.
And gather they did, coming out to see what would happen next. For a moment, the residents of Anvil Flats pulled themselves from the mire of their misery and felt alive again, holding their collective breath as the hour loomed.
No one made a sound, the only tune played that of the wind as it blew through the dust choked street. The two squared off, Lucas’ hand hovering, the Maiden calm and unmoving.
Gordon peeked through his window, as Duncan offered a prayer. David and Lucy hovered by the window the Maiden had spent her days watching the street from, as Dixon made ready to finish off the outlaw that he was certain was going to kill the Maiden.
The minutes ticked away slowly, and it seemed, in those last few, as if the entire world fell away, leaving only the gunslingers in the road, and some would say later, they could almost hear God hold his breath.
The bell rang noon. Lucas pulled, lightening fast. Two shots rang through the wind blown town.
Lucas Black, one of the most wanted outlaws in the country, feared by all who had ever heard his name, went wide eyed as his gun hit the dirt. He had barely even cleared his holster when the Maiden had shot it from his hand. Blood blossomed on his shirt and he staggered, then fell.
With her cigarette still dangling from her lip, she had pulled and fired, disarming and killing the Half-Demon before he had known it. Sliding one of her cold iron Schofields away, she walked across, to stand over him, the other revolver leveled at his head, the sun behind hers, a halo of golden fire.
From the sidewalk, Dixon stared, too shocked to move, in awe of what he had seen. No one could be that fast, not even an Elf. It just wasn’t possible.
“I know you,” Lucas croaked, the wind carrying his words to Dixon’s ear. “I know you! We killed you! You’re dead!”
Dixon felt his heart all but stop. Lucas spoke more, but the wind had turned, and he couldn’t hear what was said. It looked as if the Half-Demon was crying as he talked, though Dixon couldn’t be sure.
When he stopped, the Maiden shot him once more and walked away.
No one said anything, or made a move to stop her as she joined Duncan at the end of the street and mounted up. Dixon wanted to call to her, to ask her who she was, but in the end, he simply stood there and watched her ride away, back into the desert from whence she came.
They arrived as one, the next day, eight men riding into town, dirty and tired. They did not make for the saloon, as most would, but turned to the Sheriff’s office, only one of them dismounting and approaching, taking a moment to look at Lucas Black’s remains in the box leaned against the wall.
“Would you be the Sheriff here?” the man asked.
“That be me,” Dixon replied. “Who’s asking?”
“Marshal Lawrence Mann, out of Washington,” the tall and lanky Elf replied, pulling aside his coat to show the badge he wore.
Dixon chuckled. “Welcome to Anvil Flats then, Marshal. What brings you out here?”
The Marshal nodded to Lucas. “He brings me. Care to tell me what happened here?”
Dixon looked at the corpse, then smiled. “I’ve got permission to say I did it, but I don’t think you’d believe that for a minute.”
“I would not,” Mann agreed. “Though I can guess who did.”
“Do tell,” Dixon chuckled.
“A maiden, with golden hair, and a pair of cold iron Schofields.”
The Ogre nodded. “You’d be right. I see you’ve met her.”
The Marshal ran a hand over his mustachioed face, thinking of that blood and rain soaked night in San Antonio. “More or less.”
“Well, I guess you can head on back to Washington, then, Marshal. Ain’t nothin out here left to find,” Dixon sighed and motioned for Duncan to nail the coffin shut.
“Did you happen to see which way she went when she left?” Mann asked.
“Why do you ask?” Dixon looked at him warily.
Mann pulled him aside then, keeping his voice low. “That woman is wanted in connection with almost sixty murders over the last year. If you know where she’s headed next, you best tell me, Sheriff.”
Dixon felt dizzy, unable to wrap his mind around what the Marshal had said. “She headed south, across the border, into Mexico. Least that was the direction she was looking to be heading when she left.”
Mann nodded. “Thank you, Sheriff. Wouldn’t happen to have a telegraph abouts would you?”
“Down at the old train station. Last anyone knew, it still worked, though you’d probably do better to send a rider.”
Mann waved to one of his men. “Percy, go check that telegraph. If it works, send word back to Washington that Black is dead. Oh, and tell them we think we may have a long road ahead of us yet.”
The man nodded and wheeled his horse about, riding to the office. Mann watched as the Dwarf hammered the coffin nails in place, his face unreadable, as were those of the men who rode with him.
“Marshal, mind if ask you something?” Dixon finally said.
“Who is she?”
Mann said nothing for a moment, staring at the street, before rejoining his men, saying only, “I have no idea.”
Dixon Wright would leave Anvil Flats soon after, bound for Atlanta. What become of him there is unknown. Duncan would die the next year, apparently taking his own life, though no one could be certain.
David and Lucy would leave five years later, selling the inn and tavern to Gordon. They made their way at last to California, where she married a nice young banker. Gordon remained in Anvil Flats till his death, twenty years later.
The Maiden rode on.
©-2016 Cain S. Latrani