I've been writing short stories. This is another I have high hopes for. This Friday, I'm posting the first couple of scenes. Feedback welcome.
First draft. Subject to change. Please don't quote or post without permission.
The eager, the glory-seekers, the calculating—they come, numerous as grains of sand in the desert, and the gunslinger outdraws them all.
“Ghost,” the gunslinger says to me, “I think that gunslingers, if they live to think of themselves as old, don’t draw any slower—no sir, that’s not what gets them in the end. They lose the stomach for it.”
He stares off into the desert, his hard brown eyes never still.
“The older I get, the younger they look.”
And still, they keep coming.
Artemis Hancock is the gunslinger’s name. He calls me Ghost. I look like a girl he once knew. She is dead—my spies picked up that much, but missed that important detail. The gunslinger thought her apparition dogged him to remind him he once had a conscience.
I’ll let that stand. Ghost I am, and Ghost I’ll be. Artemis will never appreciate the irony, but I do. To my own people, I’m as much a ghost as they’ll ever believe in.
“Do you see that line of sorry-looking buildings down there?” Artemis Hancock asked.
He pointed. Down a natural slope in the land caused by a river valley struggled rude, hastily-assembled boxes made of wood.
I indicated I saw them.
“That’s Stoneriver Valley. I grew up there. I left when I was fifteen.”
“Why do you come here?” I asked. My voice sounded like that of the young girl he remembered.
“I promised I’d come back and make him pay for killing my mother and stealing my life,” he said. “I don’t know why I waited so long.”
“You should know more about vengeance than anyone, Ghost,” he said, and started his horse down the slope.
I kept pace easily, not hampered by the long skirts he’d imagined me in, following his horse as it slid down the loose soil to the solid footing of a dirt road. The gunslinger rode without speaking, withdrawn, as if his mind lingered somewhere in the past. The only sounds were the thunk of hooves in the dirt and the soft padding of my feet.
The wide, silent places of this planet sometimes made the hairs on the back of my neck raise.
The clear, clean air often made distances deceptive. Nightfall found us still some distance from the town. Lights in windows winked on one by one, like twinkling stars hugging the ground, hardly distinguishable from the multitude of real stars which stretched from horizon to horizon—an up-ended, gem-studded bowl.
Artemis built a campfire and knelt before it, cooking the slop he pleased to call food in a small skillet that had carboned over the years to a black crustiness. The contrast of the gleaming, well-oiled gun in his hands as he did his nightly check of its performance gave mute testimony to what he found more important.
He looked up, eyebrows cocked in surprise. I never initiated conversation.
“Why should I know more about vengeance than you, Artemis?”
His brows lowered. He slapped the chamber of his gun back into place with a controlled yet rough movement.
“You know why,” he muttered, then stopped for a long moment. “What I know about ghosts is what I hear around campfires on dark nights. Maybe ghosts don’t feel the need to take vengeance on their killers. Is that it?”
I considered my answer long enough that he grew restless.
“The needs of ghosts aren’t the needs of the living.”
He grunted. “Not much of an answer. What do you need, Ghost?”
“To understand. I need to understand you.”
“Do you? What do the dead need to understand about me? Or about any of the living?”
I moved closer to him. That always made him nervous.
“You deal out death and destruction as if born to it, Artemis. I wonder why?”
He looked at me, his face pale. “I survive, Ghost. I survive.”
He slid his gun back in its holster with a movement nearly too quick to follow even for my eyes.
And I understood something about Artemis Hancock I hadn’t understood before. He had a purpose. That purpose might be the only thing keeping him sane. I gave that piece of data to the Keeper, not willing to risk losing a fact that would take me one step closer to fulfilling the terms of my punishment and returning home.