A stiff breeze cooled the sweat that clung to Garth’s forehead. He lifted his Stetson and wiped his brow on the rolled up sleeve of his dusty grey shirt. He’d never been accused of being tall. In fact he was somewhat shorter than average. Maybe that’s why he took to gun slinging. Names like “Small Fry” and “Shorty,” fired his temper. He’d started a lot of fights he was too small to finish…
…Until he learned to shoot.
No one mentioned his size now, at least not to his face. Not if they knew him. Garth McCants was a name most men feared.
Those that didn’t, learned respect at the nose of Garth’s Colt Peacemaker.
He wasn’t the fastest hand with a gun. He’d faced faster and still lived, because he knew how to kill.
Trouble was, once your name gets around, you have to keep on killin’. He’d sent twenty two men to hell with his Colt, nine of them were real gunfighters.
Number ten was waiting in the next town.
The challenge came by telegram, a first for Garth. Most men came with itchy trigger fingers and a gut load of false courage. There were others as well, killings Garth had been paid well for.
He’d have ignored this latest challenge—you never knew when a stray bullet might catch up with you—but fifty thousand dollars was hard to turn down. Still, he was pretty well set for life. He didn’t need the money.
If the telegram hadn’t been addressed to Shorty McCants he might have let it go.
The messenger had knocked once, tacked the telegram to Garth’s door, and run for the hills like the hounds of hell were yapping at his heels.
Luc Burns and his gang had a death wish, and Garth was going to grant it. Carefully of course, he wasn’t stupid after all. He wanted to live to spend his hard earned money.
The money weren’t no lie either. Garth had checked on that first. The bank manager at Colston had received a telegram as well. A bank draft was left with Garth’s name on it. He need only return with a set of ten special guns and the money was his.
His horse Brin—a five-year-old, bay mare of Montana stock—trotted along a half-seen trail that stretched into a purple and gold sunset. Dust devils danced through scrub brush and cactus.
Brin slowed, as a lone tumbleweed rolled across their path. Garth listened to the wind, hearing only the steady thud of Brin’s hooves thudding over the cracked hardpan.
If the telegram was right, Garth should be seeing the town pretty soon.
They pushed on through the sweltering heat. Just as the top edge of the sun slipped below the horizon, the town appeared out of thin air, as if it had been hidden by the waves of heat rising out of the baked, red earth. Garth pulled up on the reins with one hand and snatched the Colt from his holster. He opened the loading gate and thumbed the wheel to the chamber he kept empty—Colts had a bad habit of going off in the holster.
Dropping the reins for a moment, he pulled a cartridge from his belt and loaded it in the empty chamber, then eased the hammer back slowly.
The challenge read: one man every hour from dusk till dawn, but some men weren’t above shooting a man in the back. Garth pulled the holster up across his right thigh, slid the Colt back into place and nudged Brin onward.
A light twinkled ahead, then another. A third light blinked on in line like orange stars hung low to the ground—pole lanterns were being lit along the main street. Garth gathered the reins in his left hand, and rested his right hand on the smooth handle of his Colt, while Brin set a steady pace toward the lights.
The street was quiet as he rode in. Beaded sweat turned cold as it trickled down Garth’s back. His shoulder ached where he’d taken a bullet. He felt someone watching and turned his head side to side. People ducked into doorways and shuttered their windows. A printed notice with his likeness drew his attention to the jail’s outer wall.
He pulled up on Brin’s reins and dismounted. There were no warrants out on him. He’d never drawn on an unarmed man. Garth ripped the notice down and stared at it. There were no words, at least none that he could read, only jagged lines with slashes and dots like chicken scratches at the top and bottom.
A hefty sheriff with a graying handle bar moustache opened the door.
Garth shoved the notice at arms length into the sheriff’s face. “What’s the meaning of this?”
The sheriff laughed. “That’s just ole Luc having some fun. Said you might not take kindly to it. Thought it was a good joke.”
“The graveyard’s full of funny men. Where and when am I to meet this Luc and his boys?”
“Right here, but you got an hour ’fore the first un shows up. The saloon’s open. Drinks are on the town and there’s a friendly card game if you fancy your luck.”
Garth tipped his hat, turned back to Brin, grabbed her reins, and planted a foot in the stirrup to mount. He was halfway up when the sheriff spoke again.
“Oh, I almos’ forgot. Ol’ Amos is gonna ring the church bell ever’ hour when it’s time to start.”
Garth threw his leg over Brin, found his seat and nodded. He pulled out his pocket watch. 7:05. He had some time to kill.
He rode down Main Street a little easier than before. Luc Burns seemed to be on the up and up.
It’s too bad he has to die.
A jaunty tune sashayed out of the saloon as Garth approached. He slipped down, tied Brin to the hitching post, and pushed through the swinging doors.
He studied the room as he moseyed up to the bar. “Whiskey.”
“Yes sir, Mr. McCants. Luc says nothing, but the finest for you.” The barkeep took out a dusty bottle of Kentucky Red and filled Garth’s shot glass.
It burned smoothly as he gulped it down and called for another. This one he sipped, as he turned and faced the room.
The music stopped and so did the card game in the back corner. The only one not staring at Garth was the soiled dove who gathered mugs from an empty table.
“Send that pretty gal with a mug of beer and a couple cigars.” Garth said as he walked toward the game.
“If you’re hungry Mr. McCants, I got day old beans and ham stew.”
“That’ll be fine. Send them as well.”
A spot opened for him at the table. He pulled six sawbucks and a five dollar gold piece from his purse. “What’s the game?”
“Stud with a dollar ante.”
“Deal me in.”
Garth won the first three hands, lost two, and won the next. He refused to think of the fight to come. Thinking too much made a man hesitate, worse than rushin’ a shot. The one time he’d been hit was when he hesitated.
Of course he was glad he had. He’d just killed a gunfighter who’d called him out. A kid darted off the board walk and fell on the man, crying. Garth started to turn away when he saw the kid grab and cock his father’s gun. Garth could have put the boy down, right on top of his dead father, but…
He held up.
And got shot in the arm.
The eight year old boy threw the gun aside afterwards, and ran off.
Despite the blood dampening his sleeve, Garth had been relieved. He didn’t want to kill no kid, but from then on he drew and fired at any gun pointed his way. He’d learned his lesson. No good deed ever gets unpunished.
Garth shook off the memory and picked up the cards the dealer flung his way.
Ace of diamonds.
Ace of spades.
Eight of diamonds.
Eight of clubs and, last of all, eight of hearts.
Aces and eights.
Dead man’s hand.
Garth threw his cards in, stood, and stared death at the dealer.
The man shrank under his gaze, looked to the table, and finally at Garth’s cards. The dealer gasped.
Garth collected his winnings without a word and headed out, as the last bell of the hour shivered into silence.
A man stood by the pole-lantern just beyond the sheriff’s office. The gunfighter had on a black split-tail duster with boots to match. A wide-brimmed Stetson, kept his face hidden in shadows.
Who did this guy think he was?
The sheriff stood to the side twiddling a gold coin. He looked up as Garth drew even with the light. “That’s far enough Mr. McCants. I’m gonna toss this coin way up. When it hits the dirt, draw as if your life depends on it.” He grinned, showing all five of his worn yellow teeth. “It does.”
The coin spun catching the light, rising and falling like a man’s luck. Garth thought he saw a golden skull with burning eyes on the coin’s face, before it bounced in a tiny cloud of dust.
Garth drew and fired, but there was no flash from the other man who stood his ground. The shot should have taken him down.
Garth fired two more plugs into the stranger.
He still didn’t fall. The pole lantern showed the burned holes in the man shirt where the bullets had passed through but there was no blood dripping from the wounds. The gunfighter tilted his head back and the lantern caught the ghost-pale face of a gunslinger Garth had killed a year ago. Hellfire burned in the man’s eyes.
Time stood still as he drew a silver barreled pistol from his holster.
Garth fired twice more, targeting the silver gun. The bullets struck, knocking the gun from the shooter’s hand, but not before a single shot left its muzzle. Blazing brimstone lit a trail as a slug burrowed into the dirt at Garth’s feet. Liquid fire bubbled out of the hole it made in the earth.
Garth’s mouth went dry. His heart pounded in his chest. “What the hell…?”
He looked up. The first ghost had vanished.
A flash of silver caught the light as the sheriff picked up the dead man’s gun by the barrel and brought it to Garth. “That was pretty fair shootin’ Mr. McCants. Next duel’s in an hour at the bell. See ya then.”
Garth dropped the gun where he stood and hurried back to Brin. He grabbed the reins, stepped into the stirrup, and had her moving toward the edge of town before he got his seat.
The sheriff only laughed, as Garth galloped by.
The ground shook at the edge of town.
Brin reared, throwing Garth from her back.
The road split beneath her, revealing the river of fire below. Yellow-red flames flared out. Burning horse hair caught the wind as clawed hands reached out of the fire and seized Brin. Her screams died as they pulled her beneath the bubbling flames.
Sulfur burned tears from Garth’s eyes. Brin!”
“I’d pick up that pistol if I were you. You’re gonna need them all if you want to leave town.” The sheriff laughed, and whether it was a trick of the light or something else, a gleam of fire danced in the sheriff’s eyes before he turned and headed back into his office.
Garth backed from the cracked earth, absently dusting the road off his britches. He chewed over the spot he was in. He couldn’t leave now, but the duels ended at dawn. Maybe he didn’t have to fight. Surviving was enough.
He stopped and picked up the ghost’s gun.
I might need this before the night ends.
He saw a church at the far end of Brimstone and headed for it.
Funny how well the town was named.
No one tended the church, but Garth found a worn bible on the pulpit and opened it as he knelt. He’d never prayed before. He turned the fragile pages.
“Our Father which art in heaven…”
Garth stayed on his knees, begging the Lord to see him out of this hell.
Some time later, Garth heard a noise and lifted his eyes to see the skeletal hands of Amos, pulling the bell rope.
He pulled out his pocket watch. 9:00. He’d spent the hour on his knees, but didn’t get up. If the devil wanted him, he would have to drag Garth outta church.
A nervous laugh escaped his lips as a memory came to him of his poor mother dragging him to church when he a boy.
At the ninth toll the old church faded away and he found himself standing on the Main Street. The Sheriff’s face held a toothy grin. He flung the coin high in the air. Garth drew and fired at the gun hand and again his bullets knocked the gun loose, but this time the burning slug drilled through Garth’s shoulder. He holstered his Colt and grabbed his arm. The burning shot had cauterized the wound as it passed through, but it still hurt like hell. He picked up ghost’s gun, turned it on the sheriff, and pulled the trigger.
Click. Click. He lowered it to his side. The weapon was useless to the living, he slid it under his belt beside the other hell-forged gun.
* * *
Garth stumbled to recover the eighth gun, his eyesight blurry, face fevered. He didn’t think he’d last much longer. Seven holes had burned clean through him. One in each leg. Two gut shots and three in his left arm. His gun-hand had been left whole. The devil was playing with him. Every gunfighter he’d faced was a ghost from his past.
Garth stumbled back to the little church and fell to his knees. “God! I’ll never kill again if you’ll help me make it ‘til dawn. I don’t want to die here!”
Garth checked his watch. 3:29
He knew any of the ghosts could have taken him out. He’d only survived because Luc—Lucifer—wanted his pound of flesh.
Garth sank to the church’s floor, one hand clutching the tattered Bible. The other rested on the handle of his Colt. On the floor, his pocket watch ticked off the seconds. The air shifted wafting the stench of a slaughterhouse in his face. He looked up to find the face of the first gunman he’d ever killed.
The ghost’s voice echoed hollowly. “I’ve been to see my boy. He wears a gun. Practices every day. In ten years he’ll be where you are.”
“How did you get away from this infernal place?” Garth asked.
“The devil gave us an hour in the world and a chance to get even.”
“Vengeance. The first ghost missed, but each man since has sent a piece of your soul to hell.”
“I remember you. I … I spared your son.”
“You spared my boy all right, but the examples we set will bring him to Brimstone none the less. It’s where all gunfighter’s end up.”
“Please help me. I’ll go to your son. I’ll tell him about this place,” Garth begged.
“What good would it do for a gunfighter to talk to him?”
“Look at me!” Garth trembled in fear. “I’ll never kill again.”
“You say that now and yes you’ve one hand on the Bible, but your gun is still clenched tightly in the other.”
Garth pulled the Colt Peacemaker from his holster. He’d had it a long time. He spun the gun one last time and held it out butt first to the ghost.
“I’ll need all the guns.”
Garth gave them up and was left clutching the Good Book to his chest. “What are you going to do?”
“I’m gonna face the Sheriff for you. The devil’s taken my soul, but I’m owed a vengeance. Save my son and we’ll call it square.”
Garth lowered his eyes and the held out a hand. “What’s your name, friend?”
“Chance. My name is Chance Olan.”
Amos rang the bell.
“What’s your boy’s name?”
“I named him after me.”
On the fourth toll, the ghost and guns disappeared, but Garth remained in the church.
It was the guns that took me to the fight.
He crawled to the doorway and peered outside.
Chance faced the sheriff in battle.
Amos tossed the coin.
It hit the ground.
Chance pulled two guns from his belt. Click and fire, click and fire he emptied them into the ground around the sheriff.
Brimstone blazed from the sheriff’s gun, burning a hole through Chance’s chest.
Gun by gun, Chance continued to fire only at the ground.
Fire churned up from the riddled earth in a circle around the sheriff.
Chance pulled the Colt out last and fired a single shot.
Time held its breath. Hot lead sizzled up the barrel of the sheriff’s gun, blocking the chamber. The gun shattered in flash of fire as time resumed its normal pace. The ground under the sheriff teetered and sank, dragging the lawman into the molten furnace of hell. He rose on a geyser and tried to crawl out, but whips of fire wrapped him hungrily and dragged him out of sight. Another geyser spewed from the hole, splattering into the street, reaching for Chance.
Full of holes, Garth could only watch as the flames clawed toward the ghost. White lightning blazed down from a silver-edged cloud. Then blue fire arced around the ghost and he disappeared.
The fiery tongues lashed in frustration.
Garth shut himself inside the church, hoping Hell had claimed all it could.
He stayed on his knees, eyes closed, bible pressed to his heart, praying until sunlight warmed the back of his head. He opened his eyes. Nothing remained of the town, but cracked dirt, tumbleweeds, and the tattered old book. Even the church had disappeared. He heard a snort from behind. Something brushed the back of his neck. He turned. Joyful tears filled his eyes. Brin had been returned, alive.
Holding the bible tightly, Garth used his free hand to push himself up. His fingers found something hard in the dirt. It was a gun. He picked it up. His Colt had been returned as well.
Faces of the ghosts and the promise he had made flashed through his mind. Against a stacked deck, he’d found one Chance in hell to hang his soul upon.
He dropped the Peacemaker in the dirt where he found it. He grabbed Brin’s reins one handed and hauled himself into the saddle. Bible still in hand, he rode into the morning sun. Garth had a promise to keep—one last Chance to save himself from the fires of hell.