“Should you be drinking?” said Albert Cooley, proprietor of Bannack's cheapest saloon, and poured Clint Halverson another shot of whiskey.
“Got to,” Clint said. “For the nerves.” He picked up the glass and tossed back its contents in one gulp.
“Won’t it affect your aim?” Albert pressed . . . and refilled Clint’s glass.
Clint held up one shaking hand. “How am I gonna shoot straight with this? Whiskey’s the only thing that’ll stop the goddamned fear palsy.”
Albert shook his head and began wiping down the bar. “I’d think you’d want all your faculties intact if you’re gonna face Jonas Ritter. He’s killed more men than tuberculosis.”
“Yeah, living a couple of hundred years gives you lots of opportunity to murder folks,” Clint said under his breath.
The saloon was silent as a morgue ten minutes to midnight, so Albert heard him clearly. “There you go with that nonsense. That’s what landed you in this mess to begin with.”
Clint glared at the barkeep. “I’m right, Albert. Everyone knows it, but you’re all too chicken shit to do anything. Jonas Ritter is a monster.”
Albert leaned close. “He is, but not the kind you think. He owns every building in this town. Owns the sheriff. Owns my fuckin’ saloon. He can do what he likes and that includes shooting some idiot who spreads rumors he’s"--he paused and glanced around nervously--"a vampire.”
Clint pushed his empty glass at the barkeep, who dutifully refilled it. “Let me ask you something? You ever seen him in the daylight? You ever seen him fuckin’ eat? Why do people disappear in town all the time and no one does a thing? Why does he want to have a fuckin’ gunfight at midnight, Albert?”
Albert stepped back, lips trembling, fear in his eyes. “So what if you’re right? What are you gonna do about it? You’re a carpenter, Clint, not a gunfighter, and you sure as shit ain’t a vampire hunter.”
“Well, Albert, I’m probably gonna die,” Clint said and drained his whiskey. He looked down at his right hand. It had stopped shaking. He put it on the butt of the ancient Colt Navy revolver holstered on his hip. It was a cap and ball rig, outdated and unreliable, but it possessed other qualities a resourceful man could make use of.
The antique clock in the corner of the saloon struck midnight, a deep hollow bong that sounded like a death knell. Clint took a slow, steadying breath, put his hands on the bar and levered himself up. He was drunk enough to stop the shakes, but not so drunk it'd interfere with his gun hand.
“Time to go, Albert."
Contrary to the dime novels people back east wrote about the west, gunfights weren't common. When they did happened it was quite the event, and onlookers would line up by the dozens, like the crowds that showed up for a hanging. No one dared watch this one and risk drawing Jonas Ritter's eye. When Clint stepped onto Bannack's main street only silence and the man who would probably kill him waited.
The man and monster who ran the town stood tall and straight, like a thin black nail someone had hammered into the dirt. He wore a velvet waistcoat, knee-length breeches and stocking, and a tricorn hat that had gone out of fashion a hundred years ago. The pistol he wore, however, gleamed with new steel and onyx grips.
“Mr. Halverson,” Jonas said and tipped his face up to the moonlight. It was pale and fine boned, the eyes dark and faintly luminous beneath the shadow of his hat. “I cannot abide your slanderous accusations any longer, and now we must come to a reckoning.”
“It ain’t slander if it’s true,” Clint called out, proud his voice hadn’t shook.
“So you think me a monster?” Jonas said with a ghastly grin, his teeth ivory white and too long. “And what if you have divined my little secret? Who would believe such preposterousness?”
“They’ll believe after I gun you down and leave your corpse in the sun to burn,” Clint said.
Jonas laughed. “If I truly am the fiend you believe me to be, how, pray tell, would you 'gun me down'?”
Clint knew Jonas liked to talk, knew he would amuse himself with a long-winded speech before it came to killing. He expected Clint to be terrified enough to just stand there and listen. Thing was Clint learned long ago that enough drink did something peculiar to him. It rendered him immune to fear. That particular trait had often gotten him into trouble, but tonight it was like holy water in his veins.
Clint pulled his pistol with as much speed as he could muster. Had Jonas been expecting it, he could have shot Clint twice before his Colt Navy even cleared the holster. Instead, Clint got off one shot. Maybe it was luck, and maybe it was the Good Lord's guiding hand, but the ball went where Clint had aimed.
Jonas stumbled back, a look on his face no one in Bannock had ever seen: pure and very human fear. He clutched his chest and fell to his knees. “Who . . . who are you?” he said, black stinking blood pouring from his mouth.
Clint felt the shakes returning, but he walked toward the fallen monster and upended his pistol, pushing the contents of one unfired cylinder into his hand. His gun didn't use cased ammunition like the one in Jonas Ritter's holster. It fired something simpler and easier to replicate or change altogether.
Clint held out his hand so Jonas could see the small dark sphere surrounded by grains of black powder. “Who am I? Well, I ain’t no gunslinger, and I ain’t no vampire hunter, Mr. Ritter. What I am is a damn good carpenter who can turn a .36 caliber pistol ball out of ironwood that’ll fly as true as God’s own wrath.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Aeryn Rudel is a writer from Seattle, Washington. He is the author of the Acts of War novels published by Privateer Press, and his short fiction has appeared in The Arcanist, The Molotov Cocktail, and Pseudopod, among others. Aeryn is a notorious dinosaur nerd, a baseball fanatic, and knows far more about swords than is healthy or socially acceptable. He occasionally offers dubious advice on the subjects of writing and rejection (mostly rejection) at www.rejectomancy.com or Twitter @Aeryn_Rudel.
This story took fourth place in our Western Story Contest! Look for it soon in our new contest collection, Tales From the Weird Weird West, coming soon.