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Fiction

Dead Men in Central City

Horses were the most unreliable, most unfortunate creatures ever to walk the Earth. And yet, Ricardo was immensely sad that his was gone. He and his pretty tamed Mustang mare, Bandita, had been back and forth across the west for six years, and now she’d taken a bad step—a hole, a sharp rock, he hadn’t been able to figure out which—fallen down a hillside, and broken not one but two legs.

Traveling on horseback through the Rockies at night, accidents happened. His own neck had snapped in the fall, twisting wrong when Bandita came down on top of him. He’d heard the crack. Half an hour of lying still and staring at treetops healed him well enough. But she was mortal. The whole time, he’d listened to Bandita groan in pain, working herself into a sweat as she struggled to stand and fell back again, her broken legs unable to support her. Once he was upright, he’d done the only kind thing he could and ended it for her with his .45. He lay next to her for a time, taking in her last warmth and working to remember her, because she deserved to be remembered. Coiled up a couple strands of hair from her tail because he wasn’t sure why. Just that he had a braided band made up of tail hairs from all the horses he’d cared about over the centuries.

He gathered what gear he could carry, saddlebags and blankets, left her to the scavengers and moved on. The sky was turning gray, dawn was close, and he desperately needed a place to bed down for the day. He was in the middle of forest, miles from the next town with no sign of shelter anywhere.

He did not panic. He’d lasted this long and been caught in more unlikely situations than this. He could always find someplace out of the sun if he just took a moment and looked. Around here, plenty of mine shafts were dug into the rock, out of the light, if he could find one. The fall had turned him around a bit, but if he remembered right there were plenty of small towns between here and Denver. Maybe not much more than miners’ cabins and a general store, but they’d do.

Finding high ground, he paused and took a deep breath, tasting every scent that came to him. Felt eddies in the air, sensed creatures that had passed this way, and knew what might be waiting for him over the next hill. He found prey, a concentration of warm human blood rising. More than blood, he smelled the smoke of wood and coal fires, masonry and painted wood. The collected smell of horses and livestock kept in corrals. There was a whole town nearby.

Central City. Had to be. If he could get there in time, he might even be able to spend the day in a bed instead of a dank mineshaft. He tasted another breath, checked the direction, murmured a quiet prayer to the gray sky—he still prayed, taking it on faith that He was listening—and ran.

Trees blurred; the air turned to wind around him. He drew on some other force, a demonish power that flowed into him from some unknown source. From the first he’d been suspicious of it—but he would use it when he had to. It meant he could run. A shadow in the night. If only it were night.

His last bit of borrowed blood turned sluggish in the growing light. He didn’t have long. He kept to shaded gulches and gullies—away from the hilltops that would get the first rays of morning sun.

He could smell the town, sense people waking up with the dawn. He might or might not make it. At this moment the only creature more unfortunate than his horse was very likely him.

Then, coming around the next gulch, down the next slope, he found a road. Not much of one—dirt packed down by wagon wheels and dozens of horses. Not a main route, this probably went up to mining claims in the hills. But the way opened up. Just a few more minutes, a few more yards of speed—

And there it was. The mining boomtown of Central City, tucked in the mountains above Denver and looking to Ricardo’s eyes like a beacon of civilization. Two main streets intersected each other; another dozen side streets ran off from them. Solid rows of buildings three and four stories tall lined up. Maybe not pretty, not sturdy—the town had grown from nothing in just a few years after all—but it made a good showing.

One storefront had light shining through the windows, faint with the dawn but still visible. The sign said “saloon” and “rooms to let.” There, he’d go there.

The edges of the peaks sheltering the town lit with golden sun. Ricardo didn’t look, he just moved, drawing the very last bit of life in him, very nearly flying down the main street to the saloon door, stumbling inside and slamming it behind him, as the light outside grew.

Inside seemed darker than it should, the lanterns weak and the furniture brown and stained. The mirror behind the bar was dusty. But there were people here, a few who’d stayed up all night drinking and playing cards. They might continue through the day.

Three men at a faro table, another at the bar. One behind the bar who might have been the proprietor, and at the back door a matronly looking woman who seemed to be just getting started for the day. For the most part, despite their tired eyes and roughshod appearances, they smelled good. Full of warm blood, and he was hungry.

Except—the man behind the faro table smelled ill.

They all glanced up at him and stared. Ricardo imagined he looked a mess. At the best of times he presented a handsome, aristocratic figure, with dark hair, a firm jaw and fine nose. But now he was dusty, grimy, and probably had a panicked gleam in his eyes. He noticed a spatter of blood on his beige shirt from shooting Bandita, and his dark pants were torn. He looked like a man in trouble.

He reminded himself to breathe, so as to appear normal. Straightening, he settled his saddlebags firmly over his shoulder and convinced himself—and the rest of the room, he hoped—that he knew what he was doing.

Stepping up to the bar, he told the man, “I’d like a room. One without windows if you have it. Or a corner of the cellar if you don’t.” He set coins on the polished surface of the bar.

The barman stared at him. Swallowed visibly and stammered. “We . . . I mean . . . what do you mean . . . no windows?”

“I mean I’m sensitive to the light. No windows.”

“I—I’m sorry. We’re all full up.”

“You are not all full up, Frank. Sell the man a room, why don’t you.” The faro dealer spoke with an accent—light, lilting, southern.

The barman really couldn’t seem to decide what to do. He glanced back and forth between Ricardo and the dealer like one of them was holding a gun to his head, but he didn’t know which. Ricardo didn’t have time for this—he couldn’t look that terrible, could he? Surely a town like this had seen worse.

Fine. They couldn’t do this politely, Ricardo would manage in his own way. He leaned in; Frank gripped the edge of the wood, almost as if he knew what was coming. He watched Ricardo, which made it very easy for Ricardo to catch his gaze. Catch his gaze and fall into it, grabbing hold of a corner of the man’s will and twisting.

“You’d like to give me a room with no windows. You have something for me, don’t you? My money’s good here. You’re happy to help out.” He spoke low, persuasively, and his words filled the man, whose gaze softened. He nodded with understanding.

“We’ve got . . . something. Not much of a room. More like a closet. But it ain’t got windows.”

“That’d be fine. I’ll take it, and I want to be left alone.”

“Right. Sure. Upstairs. Second door on the left.”

“And no one will bother me.”

“Of course not, sir. Of course.” He reached under the counter for a key and slid it across the bar. Ricardo took it gratefully. Only a few more moments and he could collapse. Worry about blood tomorrow.

He turned to the stairs, and out of the corner of his eye saw the faro dealer nod to his players, stand, and nonchalantly make his way over, as if he just happened to want a stroll across the room at that moment, and they just happened to meet at the base of the stairs. The man glanced into the tumbler of whiskey he held, swirling the amber liquid. He also held a handkerchief, which he’d coughed into a couple of times already. Lungs rotting from the inside out—Ricardo could smell it.

Ricardo waited. The man obviously wanted to say something.

“Remind me never to sit down to cards with you, sir,” he said finally. His grin seemed amused.

So, the faro dealer noticed that, did he? Ricardo hadn’t planned on playing cards; most games of chance weren’t, and he wasn’t interested. But did this man really understand what he had seen? The hair on the back of Ricardo’s neck stood up. “I’m not much for cards myself.”

“Your wisdom impresses me.”

The gambler stood out with his precise way of speaking, his polite bearing, and his fine clothes. Shirt starched, jacket pressed, tie neatly knotted. He drew the eye, a calm pool in the grungy saloon. A man like him didn’t have to go out and dirty himself in the mines and the town, when people would come to him and hand over their money.

“Thank you, Mr.—”

“Doctor, if you please, sir. Doctor John Holliday.” The handkerchief disappeared in a pocket, and he held out a hand for shaking.

Ricardo knew that name. Everyone knew that name. “A pleasure.”

“The pleasure is mine. Gratifying, meeting a fellow man of manners way out here.”

“Indeed. My name is Ricardo Avila.”

“You are from Mexico?”

“Spain.” Really, though, he’d only spent the first eighteen years of his life in Spain, and the next two centuries in Mexico. He sometimes said the latter, when the situation warranted. In this place, he judged it would be better to be from Spain. “Though I have not been back there in some time.”

“Won’t you have a drink with me, sir? I suspect you have some fine tales to tell of your recent travels.” He gestured at his whiskey, nodded to a chair, and Ricardo lamented that it was sunrise. He was dead on his feet, nearly.

“My deep apologies, sir. I need to rest after the night I’ve had. Can I take up your invitation tonight?”

“Just after sunset, maybe?” Holliday suggested.

And wasn’t this ominous? Ricardo had to remember to draw breath in order to answer, “That’ll do nicely.”

“Tonight then, sir.”

Holliday watched him rush up the stairs.

• • • •

As he was informed, the closet had a bed, a chair, barely enough room to navigate around both—and no windows. Ricardo locked the door, propped the chair in front of it for good measure, and collapsed just as the coming day pulled him out of consciousness. Somehow, he’d made it through another night.

Hours later, the sun set, and he awoke in darkness uncertain where he was until he retraced his steps. He’d had to kill Bandita. He’d managed to find shelter. And Doc Holliday was dealing faro in the saloon downstairs.

Well then.

His veins burned, his mind throbbed. He didn’t get hungry, but his heart gaped, empty. He’d gone several days without new blood. The situation would not stand—he could feel every heart in the place. The saloon had filled with patrons. He didn’t just hear their voices echoing against the floorboards. He could hear their hot, beating hearts, and he wanted them all.

He had not lasted this long by not being very careful at times like these.

Even without windows or a lantern, he could see a little. He straightened his clothing, rubbed a hand on his stubbled face. He needed to get cleaned up. He took the chair away and carefully opened the door to look out in the hallway. Fortunately, he only had to wait a moment before the matronly woman from last night appeared, climbing up the stairs.

“Oh sir! You’re awake! Been waiting to hear from you—you were quiet as the dead in there.”

“No doubt,” he said. “If I could trouble you for a few things? A lantern maybe, some water?”

“Sure thing, give me just a minute.”

He learned that her name was Hannah O’Shea, she was the barman’s wife, and they made a decent living running this place. When she came to set a basin and lantern on the chair, which was also a washstand apparently, Ricardo carefully closed the door behind her. She turned at the sound, and he caught her gaze. Murmured words of comfort until she drifted into a stupor, settling on the bed as if she slept. He took her wrist and drank from it.

Not much. Not enough to do serious harm. A few swallows of rich blood, which filled him with fire and life. The burning in his veins settled, the thirst quenched. Hannah might be a little dizzy for the evening, but he held her gaze and reassured her that all was well, she just needed to drink some water and eat a little something, it was probably the heat made her feel a little off. She agreed, apologizing for nodding off like that, and he gently sent her off to the rest of her business.

It was not a perfect system, but it worked well enough in emergencies. He could now safely move among the saloon’s patrons without fear of losing himself. Time was, he had friends who knew what he was and were willing to offer up some of their blood for him. He’d been so grateful—not just for the blood, but for the companionship. Now—he’d been alone in the wilderness too long.

Denver. Denver would be different.

He washed, shaved, put on his spare shirt—smelled a little of horse, but he aired it out the best he could. Put on his coat. He trusted he made a presentable enough picture.

At last, he emerged. He probably didn’t look too awful.

The saloon was exactly what he expected, full of miners and cowboys, workmen and itinerants finishing their day by drinking and gambling the money they’d earned. The place was popular, the bar and tables full. Several card games were in progress—and yes, Holliday was still at the table against the far wall. A crowd two deep gathered to watch. Man had a reputation, after all.

Ricardo sidled up to lean against the bar, to take stock of the place, to think for a minute about what he needed to do next. Get a horse, get to Denver, settle in. Place like this ought to be just a stop on the road. But he was intrigued. He’d met legends before and knew he was seeing something special.

“Get you a drink?” asked the barman—Frank, Ricardo remembered.

“Whiskey,” Ricardo said. “Just a bit.” He didn’t drink—not in the usual sense, anyway—but it was good to have something in hand to blend in. Frank poured him a shot, and Ricardo had a thought. He asked, “How long has Holliday been in town?”

“Just a few days. On his way to Leadville, I hear, but there’s plenty of action in town, he decided to stay for a few.”

“And you get the usual cut?”

He grinned happily, and Ricardo thought about all those miners and prospectors working to get rich at entirely the wrong end of things.

Ricardo leaned in. “You have any work needs doing around here? I’m looking to earn some cash before I head out. And I wouldn’t mind sticking around to see the action.”

The barman nodded in perfect understanding. He could charge admission to watch Holliday deal faro. “Been a little short handed. What all can you do?”

“Anything,” Ricardo said.

“Tend bar? Clean the place? Deal with riff raff?”

“Oh yes,” Ricardo said, a curl on his lip. He didn’t even have to catch the man’s gaze and twist his will to make him believe. Holliday brought in business, but he brought in trouble, too, and they were trying to balance the both. A strong young man behind the bar might help with keeping folk in line.

Four nights in, Ricardo had become familiar, part of the furniture. He’d demonstrated his value to Frank—after that first shot of whiskey, he didn’t take another drink. Nothing better than a sober barman. He’d stopped two fights already without fuss or trouble. Just grabbed the miscreants by their collars, looked them in the eyes, and walked them out the door. Had a knack for it, Frank observed happily, and gave Ricardo a bonus both times it happened. If regular folk felt safe in his place, they’d come spend their money.

Ricardo could bend this whole town to his will. Gather to himself a whole collection of servants who worshipped him. This was what his kind normally did, what they were made to do.

He’d heard the arguments, and he did not like them. He didn’t want servants; he wanted friends, just a few. But they died so quickly, and the older he got the quicker they died. More than three centuries, and the paradox of his existence was still revealing itself to him.

Holliday was always at his table when Ricardo emerged for the night, and rarely retired before he did. Coughing kept him awake, he said, and if he was awake he might as well be making money. Every couple of hours he’d come to the bar to refill his drink, and he’d talk. Each night, a little more.

“I have heard of some folk having a sensitivity to sunlight,” Holliday said, drinking off the last from his tumbler and holding it out for more. Ricardo obliged. “Your condition appears to be most severe.”

They had done this dance for four days. Somehow, Holliday knew what he was and seemed to be watching for bodies stashed under the bar and studying Ricardo’s mouth for a glimpse of telltale fangs. But Ricardo was very careful.

“I manage,” he said. He could always find a man or two in back sleeping it off. A couple of girls he could pay for an hour of company. None of them remembered what he did to them. He never drank from anyone twice. He was able to gather some strength before the next leg of his journey. “As a medical man, you must see that kind of thing a lot.”

“Oh, not so much. You have to know what to look for.”

“And of course, you do.”

The man’s moustache shifted as he grinned. “Of course.”

“It’s a topic you’re interested in, I gather.”

“Certainly. I’ve heard such good stories. Like yours. Traveling ‘cross the Rockies on horseback at night? Why ever would you do such a thing?”

“The train was all booked up.” In fact, the train had been watched, and he couldn’t risk getting cornered. After what had happened on this trip, he might risk it next time.

Holliday chuckled. “I can tell you are a man who always finds a way. A survivor.”

“Yes,” he murmured. “I am that.”

“Any advice? For someone who might like to survive?” He waved a hand in a casual gesture, and Ricardo had a strange thought. Holliday was dying, that was clear. Cough by cough, his life ebbed. Ricardo could smell it, a miasma that hung about him—unlike everyone else in the room, he didn’t smell like food.

He had no advice. Not really. “I keep to myself. Try not to bother anyone.”

“And if they bother you?”

Ricardo glanced at Holliday sidelong. Holliday had never once met his gaze. He looked in his glass, he studied the crowd, traced the grain in the wood of the bar. But he knew better than to look in Ricardo’s eyes. Ricardo just about came straight out to ask, how? How did he know?

“Well then,” Ricardo said. “I send them on their way as politely as I can.”

“Amen, sir.”

Ricardo had been in Central City for ten days when he figured it was time he moved on. Holliday had made noise about doing likewise. As fascinating as this stop had been, as much as he was sure there were more stories to learn, Ricardo was starting to get a reputation, and people were starting to know him. This was too small a place for that to be healthy. He’d been through about as much of his food supply as he could without doubling up and raising questions. Best to get a horse and head on out.

One more night, he decided. One more night of watching Holliday, of watching people watch Holliday, and then maybe he’d have his own story to tell about the man. Holliday had been dealing for an hour or so already. His regulars and more than a few folk passing through surrounded his table and took part in the action. The night was perfectly normal. Which made it all the more jarring when a chair clattered back as a man stood up from the faro table and shouted, “You cheat! You’re a lying cheat!”

A young cowboy type stood pointing at Doc Holliday. He was not a regular.

Ricardo set down the cloth he’d been using to wipe down glasses and moved around the bar. The room had gone still, conversation falling quiet, everyone looking over.

A space had formed around the table—a number of players took up their cash and rushed away, and they couldn’t be faulted for it. That left the cowboy type, a beardless kid in boots, trousers, a plain shirt and bandana around his neck, sandy-colored hair brushing his ears, and a fiery look in his eyes. He wore two six-shooters in holsters on his belt.

Ricardo had a feeling this wasn’t about faro.

Holliday hadn’t moved. He sat straight as always in his chair, one hand holding his ubiquitous handkerchief, the other tapping on the box from which he’d apparently dealt a double, if Ricardo read the board right. Banker won half the stakes on a double, and Ricardo wondered how many pairs Holliday had dealt out of that box. Didn’t really matter, faro was an easy game to cheat at, and in any case you didn’t just stand up and call Holliday a cheater. At least, most folks didn’t.

“Might you repeat yourself, sir? I don’t think everyone heard you clear enough,” Holliday said, leaning back.

“You cheat! You fixed the deck!”

The corner of Holliday’s lip curled up. “You’ve been betting so little, how do you even notice you’ve lost?”

The cowboy looked like he wanted to lunge across the table at him, but he restrained himself. Ricardo watched, fascinated.

“Doesn’t it bother you? Me calling you a cheater?”

“Boy, I’ve been called so much worse. You seem quaint to me.”

The young man snarled. But still, he didn’t start the fight Ricardo was sure was coming. He was ready to grab whichever fist shot out first.

“Doesn’t this blowhard bother any of y’all?” the cowboy called out to the rest of the room, to his fellow players who’d pressed even farther away. “You sit here every night and let him take your money! Why!”

“Kid, you know who that is?” a voice hissed from the crowd, and the cowboy’s hard gaze turned straight back to Holliday. Of course he knew exactly who Holliday was. It was why he’d come here, and his expression twisted, trying to come up with something to say that would get the gunfighter out of his chair.

Holliday read him right. He’d probably seen a dozen of these young hotheads in his time. Ricardo hoped Holliday would stay seated, tell the kid to simmer down. Maybe buy him a drink. Not egg him on, because something about this didn’t feel right. But alas.

“Your ploy is weak, sir,” Holliday said carefully, directing the words like gunfire. “If your intention is to get me out on that street to challenge me on some point of honor—well, my honor’s not worth so much. You want to try against me you just need to ask.”

“Doctor,” Ricardo warned, moving close. The young cowboy had a kind of madness that told him that challenging Doc Holliday was a good idea. He wanted to be famous.

There were easier ways. Write a novel. Invade a country.

Holliday stilled his warning with a hand and a smile. He had his own madness—the fearlessness of a man who was already dying. “I want to see what he’s going to do with his fine guns there, and his heap of pride.”

“All right then. I challenge you.” The cowboy spoke calmly, but a sheen of sweat glowed on his brow.

While the two men faced each other down, Ricardo glanced at the crowd. Everyone wanted to watch—this was a story they’d tell their grandchildren, for certain. But most of them didn’t want to get too close. Most held back—except for two other men, nondescript white men wearing respectable coats and laundered shirts with neat ties, boots that had seen miles, and holsters tucked away under coats. When the excitable gentleman challenged Holliday, these two each took half a step forward.

This was a trap, Ricardo was sure of it. The cowboy wouldn’t be so confident if he had come here alone.

Holliday pushed back from the table. “Not even a glove to throw down. These are fallen times, aren’t they?” When he flipped back the edge of his coat, a casual move meant to look like he was only straightening the garment after standing, he flashed a glimpse of his revolver. Everyone murmured. There was going to be a show.

The other two men had already left the room, ducking out by some other door in the commotion.

Holliday and his challenger marched together toward the front door like gladiators entering the arena. Not so far off, really. Ricardo took Holliday’s arm and pulled him aside. “He has two friends waiting outside for you. This won’t be a fair fight.”

Holliday clicked his tongue, as if disappointed but not surprised. “They never are.”

“But you’re still going.”

“I have a reputation to maintain.”

Ricardo blinked at him. “A reputation for what?”

“Surviving.” He tipped his hat and winked at Ricardo, who decided he liked the man immensely.

• • • •

Time was, a duelist would need a second, and Ricardo almost asked Holliday for that honor. But the lanky man marched to the middle of the street before he had a chance. Life in a young country was not so formal.

Didn’t mean Ricardo couldn’t do his part. He walked a little way down the street, steps crunching on dirt, and studied the surroundings. The tops of buildings, the hidden alleyways. For all his time in the west, in some of the roughest places one could ever tell tales about, Ricardo had never seen an actual gunfight. Not like this, with two faced off, hands at their sides, waiting for the draw. His pulse, if he’d had one, would have been racing.

Few souls came out to watch. Most stayed indoors, crowded at windows. No one wanted to get in the way of a stray bullet. Almost no one, anyway.

He used his nose, his eyes, his other senses, listening for every heartbeat, every spot of heat moving through the world around him. And there they were, easy to spot for someone like him: one of the men had climbed to the roof of the saloon and lay flat, invisible in the darkness. He aimed down the barrel of a rifle, right at Holliday.

The other was in an alley across the street, pressed into the shadows like his compatriot. His pistol was still holstered—he was backup, then. Holliday had three men gunning for him, not one, and it stood to reason that the one on the roof wouldn’t wait for a polite count of three to fire.

The gunfighters’ breaths fogged in the chill night air. Ricardo’s did not.

He focused everything he could feel, everything he’d learned, all that power he’d struggled to understand and fed with blood. Blood was the price for what he was, and there were rewards he’d resisted in the early days. But he’d learned to use them well.

The man on the roof breathed slow and steady, his muscles tense, and Ricardo could just about feel the tension in his trigger finger, a muscle contracting, pulling on a tendon. The man in the alley was calmer, just there to clean up whatever mess the others made. Ricardo would have to deal with him, but not first thing. With his eyes, he watched the tableau before him, Holliday and the cowboy who hadn’t even had the decency to introduce himself—he likely expected to live, to be able to tell everybody the name of the man who shot Doc Holliday. They were a good fifty paces apart, hands at their sides, each waiting for the other to flinch. The young one looked like he stood at the edge of a volcano; Doc Holliday smiled, his skin pale with illness until it almost glowed.

Once this started, it would go quickly, but Ricardo could move faster than any of them, and he wasn’t afraid. Another reward for the price he paid.

That trigger finger on the roof squeezed, and Ricardo stepped into the street. To observers he would look like a blur, a shadow that had detached itself from the night and somehow appeared to suddenly stand in front of Holliday. When they thought back on the moment, they would say that he had always been there—he must have come out to the street with Holliday, or maybe he had run to warn him. Something. However it happened, he was there, and the bullet from the rifle struck him.

The shot pounded into his chest and he stumbled. Three more shots fired, cracks of thunder in his ears, pounding waves of force that struck the air and brushed against his skin. Three shots, and he looked to where they came from, where he must stand so that the bullets would strike him instead of Holliday.

But all three shots came from behind him, from Holliday.

First, the cowboy standing in front of them fell. He’d drawn, he’d gotten that far as soon as the shot rang out, but for all his bluster he was too late.

The man on the roof was next. He’d been aiming down the rifle for a second shot, probably wondering how the first had gone so far awry—obviously it had, since Holliday was still standing. But Holliday was at just the right angle to get him first. He slumped over his weapon and lay splayed on the roof as if he had dropped there from the sky.

Holliday shot the cowboy, the man on the roof, and the one from the alley had just stepped out and raised his revolver when the last shot fired, and the man fell. He lay groaning for a short time, a strangled attempt to cry for help through blood bubbling up his throat. The sound a dying horse might make. Then he died, and that was that.

Holliday hadn’t moved, merely pivoted his arm, and killed them all in less time than it took to inhale.

Ricardo touched the place on his shirt that now had a hole in it, where a little bit of blood had stained the fabric. Then he adjusted his coat to hide the spot. Holliday, replacing his gun in its holster, saw him do this but made no mention of it.

“Hey! Hey, are you all right?”

A stout man with a bushy gray moustache came running up the street. He was the sheriff, a temperance man who never set foot in the saloon, but someone must have gone to get him when trouble broke out. He grabbed Ricardo’s shoulder, as if he expected him to fall over any minute now.

“I’m fine,” Ricardo said. “Thank you.”

“I could have sworn you got hit!”

“Just a bad angle,” Ricardo said. “He missed.”

“Thank goodness for that,” Holliday said.

The sheriff seemed both nervous and thrilled. “I’ve got a dozen witnesses say that man threatened you, Holliday. Not a person here would blame you for this. If I could just get a statement—from both of you—we’ll call this all finished.”

Holliday had clearly done this dance before. “I’m obliged to you, sir.”

They followed the sheriff back to his office.

• • • •

A couple of hours later, Ricardo offered to buy Holliday a drink. They sat at a table in the corner, and after a round of excited congratulations and well wishes from the onlookers who’d witnessed the fight—and more than a few who wished they had—they were left alone.

Holliday looked exhausted. Usually, he could spend all night dealing cards and nothing more. But that little bit of effort on the street had taken a great deal out of him, and his handkerchief was spotted with blood.

“I thank you again,” Holliday said. “I underestimated those jokers, and you did not.”

“They thought killing you would make them famous.”

“I never did get the boy’s name,” he said, chuckling. The sound turned to coughing, and the handkerchief covered his mouth again.

Ricardo took a deep breath and said, “I could cure you. You would live ageless, forever. There is a price. A difficult one. But you would live.”

Ricardo considered that keeping alive such a man—prone to violence, expert at killing, with an attitude to suit—was perhaps not wise. Giving him the powers that came with his so-called cure was absolutely not wise, not wise at all. But more than either of those things he thought what a shame it would be to lose him. In three hundred fifty odd years, Ricardo had never made this offer to anyone. Not even those he loved best. He wouldn’t curse anyone he loved.

But this man? This man could survive very well with such a curse.

Holliday also seemed to consider, leaning back, stroking his moustache once. Ricardo couldn’t guess what he was thinking. Holliday’s reddened eyes gazed flatly, his expression didn’t flinch—that famous poker face revealed nothing. He brought his handkerchief to his mouth and coughed, as if to emphasize his own stake in the matter.

When he drew his hand from his face, he was smiling. “I do thank you for the courtesy, sir. But to live forever in this sad world? I do not see that as a blessing.”

Ricardo could be forgiven for feeling relieved.

“No, I expect to die on my feet, boots on. I’m almost looking forward to it. Better, don’t you think?”

“I hadn’t given it much thought,” Ricardo admitted.

“What, boots?”

“Death,” he said. Holliday coughed.

“You’ll be off to Denver soon, then.”

“Yes.” He knew of a couple of bolt holes he could use along the way. He wasn’t worried. “Tomorrow night. It’s time.”

“I have heard—there are others like you in the city. Most of your kind stay in cities, as I understand.”

“And how have you heard of such things?”

“You know of a man named Wyatt Earp?”

Ricardo smiled. “Yes. Of course I do. Just like I’ve heard of Doc Holliday.”

Holliday tipped his hat in thanks. “Let’s just say if you ever run into Mr. Earp, you watch yourself. He’ll know what you are just by looking. And he doesn’t much like your kind.”

“Perhaps when you see him again you’ll put in a good word for me.”

“I don’t much expect to see him again.” He sounded sad. Immensely sad. “I’m sorry. I’ll watch out.”

“Good.”

They both looked out the window then. The reflections in the glass had faded, and the sky outside was gray.

Holliday held out his hand. “I may not see you come evening, so I’ll say farewell now. You take care, sir.”

Ricardo suspected that Holliday didn’t much like goodbyes. Ricardo was used to them. “You as well. I’ll remember you.”

“That, sir, will be a kindness I do not deserve.”

• • • •

Holliday was dead two years later. Ricardo read about it in the papers, and that the gambler had died in bed, boots off. Ricardo mourned him and kept the story of their meeting to himself, because who would believe it? But he remembered.

Carrie Vaughn

Carrie Vaughn

Carrie Vaughn’s work includes the Philip K. Dick Award winning novel Bannerless, the New York Times Bestselling Kitty Norville urban fantasy series, and over twenty novels and upwards of 100 short stories, two of which have been finalists for the Hugo Award. Her most recent work includes a Kitty spin-off collection, The Immortal Conquistador, and a pair of novellas about Robin Hood’s children, The Ghosts of Sherwood and The Heirs of Locksley. She’s a contributor to the Wild Cards series of shared world superhero books edited by George R. R. Martin and a graduate of the Odyssey Fantasy Writing Workshop. An Air Force brat, she survived her nomadic childhood and managed to put down roots in Boulder, Colorado. Visit her at www.carrievaughn.com.