A splash of warm, piss-smelling water washed over me like a baptism, shaking me from my coma. I lay sprawled up against a shanty tavern wall, blood running down my left leg. The damn thing throbbed. Beneath me, the hard, cracked dirt dug into my palms, above, the sky danced with heat waves, blurring my vision.
“They shot you,” Sibyl said, flinging the empty bucket at the wall next to me. Her new body was elegant, curving in all the right places. A week ago she’d had to shave twice a day to keep her feminine appearance. Now she was completely post-spell. I’d paid a Karankawa elder to shape her body however she wanted. Sibyl had caught my heart at a charitable moment.
“Must’ve shot from behind,” I said.
“Or had the jump on me. I’m a caster for Christ’s sake.”
“Mayberry caught you cheating at Hold ‘Em. You got too loud whispering your illusions. Mayberry went at you but you were too drunk to handle him. He cracked your head with a bottle of rotgut and Jamie blasted your femur. Whole thing happened before I could scream, let alone get around from behind the bar. I chased them outta Trans Tavern. But they’ll come back along with every card player in Odessa that you’ve cheated with your illusions.”
I looked down at the wound. Blood oozed out of a hole in my jeans. Just regular bullet penetration. No spells. I’d recover, if I could flee Odessa before the angry mob hanged me. It was high time I chased off to some other town, anyways.
Sibyl continued. “Jamie robbed everything in your wallet and Mayberry wanted to take your caster gun, but I told them any spells they shot out of it would backfire on them. Caster curse.”
“Good girl. Help me up; this devil-trodden Texas ground ain’t easy on my bones.”
“You’ll get blood on my blouse.”
“You’ve me to thank that you fill it out so nicely, now be grateful and help me up.”
We stumbled back into Trans Tavern—Sibyl was still shaky, getting used to her new body. Only the usual pre-spell and occasional post-spell dancing girls perused the saloon. A lone man practiced throwing darts at a dartboard next to an oil painting of the gulf coast. Above the bar, a pair of deer antlers and beetle horns hung askew.
Indeed, a trickle of blood from my forehead dropped onto the velvet of Sibyl’s blouse. I wiped it off with a fingernail as she set me down at the bar.
Sighing, she poured a Tanglefoot. It stank of being cut with turpentine.
“Thanks,” I said.
“It’s not for you. It’s for me.”
“Come now. My hangover and heatstroke are almost as painful as this damn hole in my leg. Pour me a glass.”
“I will not.”
“Just a sip.”
“Rick, you need to go. Hide.” She looked genuinely worried for me and that made the pain of my hangover abate, but not my leg. “I’d say run for the station, but you’d never make it on that bad leg. They’ll be watching the street like raptors, ready to hang you for this. How many people have you cheated? How much money have you stolen?”
“Stolen ain’t the right word.” I snatched her glass and poured a tad on the gash in my forehead. “Can’t know how much for sure. How much does a new body cost?”
“Oh, put it to sleep. I’ve heard enough about my breasts this or my bosom that. I’m sure you’ve enjoyed them as much as I have. Ought to let Mayberry’s mob shoot your other leg and hang you from a tree . . . They will come. And when they do, Christ, what’re you going to do?”
“Guessing you don’t got a wagon, nor pullin’ beetles . . . You got a safe room somewhere in the saloon? Figure I’d stow away until I can pull this lead outta me and get healed up. Could be a few weeks. Then I’ll bug off on the next train to San Antone. Get the hell outta here.”
“No, Rick.” Sibyl snatched the glass back and swallowed the rest. “We don’t have trap doors or revolving walls. And Jamie knows all the nooks and crannies of Trans. It’ll be impossible to hide you here. Can’t you just heal yourself with a spell?”
“Were I not such an idle caster, I’d not be so limited.” I shook my head and motioned to the bullets on my ammunition belt, each glowed with a slightly different color than the last. “No heal shot. Bit of a hassle to come by.”
Someone cleared their throat from behind me, and I turned to see a large man with a green feather sticking out of his cowboy hat. I hadn’t seen him as we’d entered but he must have been in the saloon the whole time. His smile was a bit too handsome and not unlike a snake oil salesman’s; it was the kind of smile that, were I well inside a bottle of rotgut, I’d like to punch the teeth right out of.
“Pardon, friend. My name is Ziel. I heard you two arguing from down the bar, saw a man shoot you over cards earlier. I believe I can aid you tremendously.”
“Sorry, we’re not friends and I’m not interested. I’m a caster.” I revealed the caster revolver on my hip. Red runes blazed up the barrel like hellfire. “I can handle myself.”
Sibyl flashed an angry look at me. “Listen to what he has to say. Maybe he knows of a place where you can hide.”
Ziel’s grin grew wider. “Indeed you are a caster. Rick, was it? I have a proposal for you, one that could save you from your card-swindled victims.”
“Sibyl, you seen this guy before? Heard of a Ziel before? I’ve been in Odessa a few months now and I’ve never seen you.”
“Rick, I’m a traveler, not unlike yourself.” He shifted his duster behind his hip to reveal a casting gun, much like mine, only with green runes. I could read a mix of Apache and Celtic etchings threading the barrel. The craftsmanship rivaled the best I’d seen.
My gut sank to the moldy saloon floorboards. Casters were bounty hunters, usually killing monsters and the like, but a crooked one might cannibalize his own. And surely, if I didn’t already have a price on my head in Odessa, I would when word got around. Damn illusions. Damn cards. Damn cursed rotgut.
“What do you want then, caster?” I asked.
He pulled a purse full of green and greybacks from his satchel and placed it on the bar. “What I propose is a duel.”
When Sibyl heard him say that, she stopped pouring his drink. I shook my head. “And why would I duel you for a purse half full of dead currency from the confederacy? You are infernally thick.”
“I’m not finished. I don’t duel in the traditional caster way. Here is how it works. If you want what’s in that purse, you load three of any spell into your gun. We go outside. Take your time. Fire away when you like. If you scrape me with just one bullet, you win the duel. If you miss all three spells, in three days, I have my chance to hit you with any three spells I choose. Ten paces. High noon. All that. For both of us.”
“Are you slow? I don’t want what’s in that purse. That amount of money won’t pacify the mob when it gets here.”
“Ah, you are right. But there is something else in this.” He reached over and peeled off a crumpled greyback to reveal a shining golden bullet. Again, Apache and Celtic symbols reflected off the casing, this time I could make out healing signs. There were other, smaller runes all over the slug, but I couldn’t read all of them. Not only was this a healing spell, it would be a damn powerful one at that.
“What is that?” Sibyl asked, looking at the glowing slug.
“That . . .” I squinted at the bullet making sure it wasn’t an illusion. “That’ll fix my leg.”
“But . . . Why?” she asked.
I nodded at Sibyl’s question. “Exactly. Ziel, why this offer? You suicidal? Three shots from ten paces? Whatever spells I want? And what do I have to offer in return? I’ve nothing. Jamie and Mayberry raided my wallet.”
“You offer your neck. Three day’s time, it’ll fetch quite the bounty. And as for the three shots, well, you’re drunk, losing blood, I can see from your pale eyes that you’re a soul eater and haven’t ingested a Karankawa soul decoction to fortify your aim or spells for days. You won’t hit me. You can’t.”
I stood up from the bar but winced in pain as my leg stiffened and refused movement.
“No, Rick.” Sibyl raised her voice. “Don’t. This is some trick.”
“Obviously a sucker bet,” I said.
“Think quickly Rick,” Ziel said. “The mob’ll be here soon. Don’t you want that leg healed? Maybe you’ll just hop away from Odessa like wounded game.”
“The hell with that.”
We stood ten paces apart in the slum alley behind Trans Tavern. Dust scratched across our boots like little twirling tornados. Above us, linen hung like specters, suspended between the saloon and a neighboring shanty. Sibyl had cursed at me and refused to come out, but Ziel had convinced her that we needed witnesses so she brought out a dozen dancing girls to hide behind as we dueled. Almost insignificantly, the purse of money lay between Ziel and I, a golden bullet glowing at its heart.
“Caster Rick, the witnesses, boy-whores, are ready. Let your half of the duel begin.” He stuck his chest out like an arrogant mustang.
“Yah. Mind what you call the ladies. Their service is just as honorable as yours or mine.”
“Call the abominations whatever you like. As you were, Rick.”
“If you find them abominations, why were you in Trans?”
“Felt the presence of a fellow caster. Decided to stick my head in.”
Prick. I’d enjoy putting a bullet in Ziel. The pain in my leg did cause my hands to quiver slightly. Or maybe it was the hangover. Or lack of a decoction. Whatever it was, at this distance it wouldn’t matter. I could be wearing flannel long johns in Anchorage, Alaska on New Year’s Day and I’d still blow a hole in his chest. And I’d only need one bullet to do it.
From my ammunition belt, I plucked out the first round my fingers fell on—a minor earth spell that glowed green—and chambered it. I holstered the gun, winked at where I thought Sibyl might be hiding in the crowd of dancers, and drew, firing from the hip. My spell, aimed at Ziel’s right thigh—I didn’t really want to kill the caster—curled away in a green streak, and buried itself in the ground before his feet. A thorny vine sprouted from the ground and darted for his boot but redirected, withered, and blew away to dust before it could reach its target. He returned my wink.
Must have some cheap ward for protection. Shouldn’t be too hard to break. The scent of roses and gunpowder issued from the barrel of my gun. Fresh earth spell. I chambered a spell with a bit more bite. This time, I aimed at his center of gravity.
The kick of my gun numbed my wrist and the blast deafened my ears. Flinching dancers screamed and shielded their eyes from the blazing brightness. I staggered, nearly spent from casting the spell and buckled due to my shot leg. When I regained focus, Ziel posed firm, the ground around him scorched as if Satan himself had pissed a ring around him. He was laughing.
“Whoreson,” I whispered. “The hell kind of protection you have?”
He reached inside his shirt and pulled out a small bottle tied around his neck. “Apache blood and rattlesnake venom in a glass vial made from the melted sands of Ireland.” He shook the small trinket, then eyed it closer. “Oh look what you did, there’s a hairline crack up its side. Impressive. So, Rick, do you have enough energy left to shatter my ward? You look to be on your last leg.”
“Shut up.” I was on one knee, teeth gritted. If I cast too powerful a spell at this point, it could put me in a coma.
But I didn’t really have a choice. If I could just down him, his healing bullet would set me on track to ditch the hell outta Odessa. I chambered the strongest thing I had in my ammunition belt.
For the second time that day, I woke up to warm water doused on my face. Ziel knelt over me smiling his snake oil grin and tossed the golden healing slug at my chest.
“Know what? I’m a nice guy. Keep the spell. Think you might need it. Look like you been through quite the fuss.” He reached into his shirt and pulled out the vial. A crack split like a dozen lightning bolts shined in the noon sun. “Almost broke the ward. It won’t last much longer. Anyway, be seeing you in three days. Try to elude the mob ‘til then.”
As I fought for consciousness, Ziel turned and, gently moving a corseted dancing girl out of his path, left the alley. A couple of the girls helped Sibyl drag me into the Trans. I nodded in and out as they dumped me on the ratty saloon floor. It smelled of turpentine and rotting dip.
With strong hands, Sibyl shook me back to consciousness. “Texana said Mayberry’s headed this way from across town. Should be here any minute. What do we do?”
Most of the girls were wandering off, no longer interested now that I’d lost the duel. I handed Sibyl my gun and slid the healing spell over to her. I didn’t have the energy to cast the spell and even though Sibyl wasn’t a caster, she wouldn’t faint just from firing the one spell. I needed her to heal me.
I motioned for her to pick up the gun. “Shoot me,” I whispered.
“Are you slow?” she screamed. “I’m not going to shoot you. I don’t know what I’m doing. I’d never seen a caster gun before you came to Odessa!”
“It ain’t goin’ to hurt me.”
“Rick . . .”
“Sibyl, you gotta do it. Before the mob gets here. The bullet’ll heal me. Now c’mon, chamber the spell. There you go. Yes, point the barrel right at my chest.”
My head lolled back, and I could only hear her gasp, not wanting to pull the trigger.
Thunder roared in the saloon, then everything fell dead quiet. Good Sibyl. The pain abated, but the weariness from over-casting remained. I could run, and shoot any number of ordinary bullets, but one more cast, and I might find myself on queer street. I snatched my gun from Sibyl, who was holding it reverently, still dazed from casting her first spell, then rolled to my feet and gave her a kiss.
“Thanks Sibyl. You were wonderful. Now, I’d leave you a right tip but Mayberry and Jamie took my wallet. Enjoy your new body, hope the dancers are plenty jealous.”
I gave her another kiss and fled the saloon before she could say a word. It was a good thing too, that I left just then, because I nearly bumped into the mob led by Mayberry on my way out.
Fool. I thought. Ziel was a damned fool to give me that healing spell. Did he really think I’d stay three days in Odessa so I could square off with him at the end of it all, if I wasn’t hanged first? Did he think I’d adhere to some sort of moral caster code? The hell with that. Thanks for the spell; I’ll see you when Christ Almighty walks the earth again. Don’t let me keep you waiting at high noon.
So I ran for the edge of town, towards the train station, not looking behind. Wouldn’t be the first town I’d left in a similar fashion.
As I ditched town, I could see the station, people hustling on and off train cars, just on the horizon. I’d be there in time to catch the train, if I hoofed it.
But as I ran, the station seemed as far away as it had ever been, right on the horizon, not getting any closer. Folks clamored aboard. I ran harder. Doors shut and the conductor blew his whistle. In my over-cast state, I gasped, pushing my body as far as it would go—missing the train would spell death in shitty Odessa by the hangman’s noose. In the distance, smoke filled the sky and the train left the station.
That’s okay, I told myself. I’d catch the next one. Surely there’d be another before the day was over. But there the station still stood, still stuck on the horizon, like a horsefly smashed against a saloon window, not a damn bit closer.
I watched the ground as I slowed to a trot. A bush. A Texas horned lizard, weeping blood from a successful ward against a hungry coyote. A crack the size of my knuckle, shaped like lightning. Tan weeds struggling out of earth.
I continued looking down, never changing my direction, until I saw the lizard again, eyes now brown, crusty with dried blood. The same lizard. As if I’d been walking in circles. The station still lingered out of grasp.
I’d been had.
I needed to go back to Trans, find the shell of that bullet and see what the hell Ziel had cast on me aside from heal. The click of spurs sounded behind me. I spun on my boots, only to come face to face with Mayberry and his damn crew—a dozen other card players I’d swindled. Blood glimmered in their eyes and hate pumped in their veins.
Yet he looked past me, through me, towards the station, and stated, “Let’s ambush him, boys. Before he catches a train. We’ll lie in wait for him there.”
At once, they rushed past me, as if I were a plains phantom.
“The god damn hell was in that bullet!” I shouted.
The doors to the saloon easily gave way to my charging shoulder. Surprised patrons looked up quizzically, eyebrows raised at the banging doors.
“Do you see me?” I whispered. After a moment, the patrons went back to darts and drinking, having seen nothing. I raved. “Am I dead? A goddamned ghost?”
No one stirred from their drinks. I scanned the floor, searching for the healing spell’s empty casing. Maybe the etchings could give me a clue as to Ziel’s spell. A glint caught my eye and I bent down to pick up a silver half-dollar, and cursed, slamming it on the table hard enough to make a few drinks rattle.
“Where is it?” I shouted.
“Rick!” Sibyl approached from behind the bar looking surprised. “I thought you’d run to the station. Mayberry and the others went out there looking for you. You’ve got to—”
“You see me!” I said grabbing her. The jar of rotgut she was holding sloshed out from the glass, fell to the floor and seeped into the floorboards. “The casing, have you seen the casing from the spell you cast to heal me?”
She reached into a pocket and pulled out the shell. Hesitantly, she handed it to me. “I was going to keep it, as a memento of you.”
I studied the shell and discovered three runes I’d never seen before. A throat cleared behind me. I turned to see Ziel stroking his green feather. “Trying to figure out what spell you’re under? Wondering why no one can see you? Why you can’t flee Odessa?”
“The hell trick did you play on me?” I said, throwing the shell at his chest.
“Sure, I healed you, or she did. But that’s not all . . . I like to call it a Limbo Bullet. It’s a spell I designed myself. Those who have never cast a spell before won’t see you. And until the spell wears off, you’ll be bound to the location where it was cast. Time passes. Odessa looks for you. Bounty goes up. At the end of three days, I duel you, win, take you in and receive the inflated bounty.” He winked, got up and right before he left the salon, said, “From this corner, I revealed your card illusions.”
And hours ago I’d thought Ziel the fool.
That night after too many Tanglefoot and cactus wines, I pissed off Sibyl with a lewd comment and staggered out of Trans, attempting to break the Limbo spell through sheer, stumbling willpower. Hours later, she found me passed out on the edge of town and brought me back to her place.
I woke up to my own groans, a headache from soul decoction withdrawal. Burning sage from the night before lingered, sweetening the smell of Sibyl’s apartment. For the next two days, each morning I started out attempting to break Limbo, shooting spells across my inescapable barrier, drinking soul decoctions, carving new spells myself. At night I drank rotgut on Sibyl’s tab and slept in her apartment. On the morning of the third day, I was all out of soul decoctions, so using my newly invisible state, I pickpocketed enough greenbacks to buy some decoctions off of a shaman.
“What brings you to trade, stranger?” the traveling preacher asked from inside his deer hide shelter that did well to shade him from the Texas sun. Being a Holy man, he saw me despite the Limbo spell. A clerical collar contrasted the faded tattoos scaring his knuckles. Before him lay a mat with multicolored beads, sea shells, crucifixes and a quiver of arrows, pulsating with simple spells for accuracy and speed.
Preacher. Shaman. Salesman. I’d seen many of these patchwork men traveling through towns after the war.
Before I could ask for soul decoctions, a young woman carrying a crying bundle bulled past me and began whispering to the preacher. Immediate, illogical anger rose in me. At high noon I’d die and the world would abide.
“The other girls say they’ve given their babies to you for three silver dollars and that you won’t sacrifice them to any gods.”
The preacher nodded. “We raise the children until their indentured service is complete. They have the tribe’s protection during this time. Then they are free.”
“How long is that? How long until he will be freed?” She looked down at the crying bundle, baking in the sun.
“When he is a man grown.”
“Preacher, will he be safe?”
“Any member of the tribe who is a servant of the Church has the shaman’s protection.”
She didn’t weep, only handed the struggling babe to the preacher in exchange for her three silver dollars. I had to admit, it was a fate better than many a strumpets’ unwanted child.
The preacher traced taloned fingers over the infant’s pink skin. A smell of gulf breeze brushed past, chilling me, salting my soul with whispered Karankawa chants.
A blue light surrounded the babe.
The mother was gone. The elder preacher held the writhing mass in his arms.
“You have any soul decoctions?” I asked, hoping if I dosed enough, I’d shatter Limbo with a multi-soul enhanced spell.
“A soul eater? Your eyes look too calm to be a soul eater.”
“Been running low for a few days. I need something strong enough to lift a curse.”
The preacher squinted his beady eyes, studying me with genuine fascination. “Ah yes, my perception has faded, but now I see with shaman sight. The curse—a smoky glass bulb—surrounds you, perfectly smooth but impossible to penetrate. This spell you are under appears both foreign and familiar. A dark curse, but not lethal. I see what ails you shall fade quickly by sundown, maybe sooner. A spell this powerful cannot endure long.”
“It doesn’t need to last long to kill me,” I murmured.
“What is that? You still want to break it before the curse runs its course? Hmm. No. I don’t believe I have powerful enough soul decoctions or totems for sale.”
I slumped, defeated. Really, it wouldn’t have worked anyway. At the climax of my brooding, an idea struck me.
Ziel had all of Odessa lined up on either side of the main strip, ready to witness the world’s greatest magic trick. There was no escaping his show. No matter what direction I walked, I approached the center of town.
A town crier wailed, and indeed my bounty had risen. Ziel’s plan was so damn perfect it hurt. Sure enough, there were dancing girls from Trans at his side, waiting for me to appear, ready to remind me and the crowd of what they’d bear witness to. Of our duel agreement.
“Now!” Ziel shouted to the crowd, “Rick, the illusionist, the thief, the plague, the false caster, shall appear to you, dear people of Odessa. And I shall make him pay for his sins against your community!”
His hand blurred, his gun recoiled and a bullet buzzed by my ear. I felt Limbo lift, the metaphorical glass bulb shatter. The crowd cheered Ziel, threw dirt and rocks at me. He nominated a dancer to recount our duel agreement. As she described the three failed spells, I spotted Mayberry emphatically wave his limp cowboy hat.
After she finished, Ziel spoke. “Rick, please understand, after all you’ve put this town through, I can’t trust your word. Remove your weapon.”
Teeth gritted, I unbuckled my holster. Sibyl emerged from the crowd, saying nothing, and kissed my cheek before taking the gun away. I wanted to compliment her form, but worried I might say it all wrong, just like I always had. She backed away.
“Caster,” Ziel hollered. “Are you ready for my half of the duel?”
“Very well, here’s a demonstration of what you have to look forward to.”
His green revolver spat purple fire. The spell swallowed a patch of Texas earth three feet in front of me. Twisted limbs, claws, tentacles flailed towards me from a growing dark portal. Inhuman moans. Putrid stench. I’ll admit, I flinched.
The portal vanished. The crowd gasped, then cheered.
“That’s better than he deserves!”
“Give him a good scare before you send him off.”
“Nah! He ain’t worth wasting another spell!”
But waste another spell he did. This time he shot right above my head. A cloud appeared the perfect size and shape to vomit rain and drench me and only me. Odessa howled with laughter.
“Thanks,” I said. “I was parched in this heat. Per the dueling terms, you’re down to one last spell. Make it count.”
“Eager.” He grunted, and pointed his green gun at me and pulled the trigger.
A blue concussive blast nearly knocked me from my feet. My lungs filled with a salty ocean breeze. The spell ricocheted right back at Ziel, striking him mid chest. That bottled ward he wore for protection burst, staining his shirt with blood and snake venom. A void opened, blacker than pitch. The demons of his spell leaked out, like tongues, licking, tasting for flesh, crawling for him. Then he was gone. Swallowed whole by the void.
I felt the three silver dollars in my breast pocket and whispered a prayer of thanks to the preacher’s protection. I may not have been a free man, but at least I was alive. Silence stung the crowd. Then someone upchucked. Mayberry began shouting. Chaos erupted.
“Sibyl! My gun!”
She threw the revolver as Mayberry’s gang circled me. The preacher tribe’s protection would ward off spells, but not ordinary bullets, so I dove for a barrel of produce—the nearest cover—and planned my escape from Odessa. My debt to the Karankawa tribe and church was just starting, not that I planned to actually fulfill it.
Bullets spat wood, shredding my cover in a spray of barrel fragments. Smoke with the scent of fresh cedar and gunpowder curled from the multiplying bullet holes. I loaded a fist full of spells and, scrambling to disappear in the rabble, I blew Sibyl a kiss and headed for the station.
Bruised, bleeding but triumphant, I stood at the station. I was soaked in the stench of gunpowder and arcane. Spell fatigue blurred my vision but, in the distance, I could just make out an approaching train.
As the train neared, the day grew cooler. Sea salt tinged the air and I shivered. Worry seeped into my chest. Maybe something from Ziel’s bullet still lingered.
The train arrived and car doors slid open. A familiar isolation. An agreement unfulfilled. The three silver dollars burned in my pocket. I stepped forward, but an invisible chain bound me. I felt the presence of the preacher, his leathery hands reaching out, grasping my soul, dragging me back to town.
The car doors slid shut.
• • •
Copyright © 2017 Zach Chapman