Charlie Earl had been mortally injured on a hundred separate occasions – almost always shot, but sometimes burned, beaten, hanged, stampeded, dragged behind a horse, thrown off a cliff, all too often stabbed, and once bitten by a diamondback when he chose an unfortunate spot to make water – but none of that would make the hundred-and-first time any easier.
He drank warm whiskey from his bulls-eye canteen and tied his horse to the trunk of an old desert ironwood that'd be lonely if it weren't already dead. Brawley Gallup – known around most parts as Kid Lucky – was just around the bend, near the rail bridge over Ghost River.
Time to kill another killer.
Charlie approached carefully; he had to make certain he had the right person. If he went and killed an innocent man – or heaven forbid an innocent woman – he might well fall out of God's favor. Charlie was special – chosen – but for everyone else there were no second chances in the West.
A black-hatted man in a heavy duster stooped over some contraption, a box with a handle sticking out the top. Charlie had the drop on him.
"You Kid Lucky?"
The man ceased his tinkering. "Can't say I've ever used that name m'self." He raised his hands and turned around, standing upright. His face showed hard years.
"Thought you'd be younger," said Charlie.
"I was, back when they started callin' me that. Time's done a number on me."
"You admit you're Kid Lucky then?"
The black-hatted man kept his hands up but subtly squared his stance. "That's right. And what do you reckon you're gonna do about it?" He spat and smiled crookedly.
"I've got the Lord behind me, and we bring divine retribution. You've murdered children, and now your lucky streak's over."
"Most fellas say women and children. Maybe you ain't so godly yourself." He raised an eyebrow mockingly.
A mournful whistle rode the wind across the gorge. Kid Lucky's eyes shot down to the bizarre box beside him. Charlie saw an opportunity, drew his revolver, and fired. He missed, as he often did, and Kid's eyes popped open like corn kernels over a camp fire as he glimpsed Charlie's six-shooter. It was one of a kind, made from some coal-black metal and plated with carved bone. Charlie happened across it some years ago in the desert by pure chance, back before God happened across Charlie.
Meanwhile, Kid Lucky turned out to be a quick draw, which was no real surprise, and Charlie found himself with hot lead in his guts. He fell to his knees and held his belly with his forearms. That wailing whistle came again, closer now. A train. Kid kept his gun on Charlie, but looked intently now at the box.
"What is that thing?" asked Charlie. "Won't hurt to tell me; I'm done for." Or so it appeared.
Kid Lucky squinted as he considered. "Live another minute and I'll show you."
The ground rumbled with the power of the oncoming locomotive. It reached the bridge, MP proudly adorning its face – must be a Marshall Pacific line – belching thick black smoke from its stack. As it crossed the bridge, Kid Lucky brought his boot-heel down on the box's handle. The bridge exploded in the most magnificent spectacle Charlie had ever seen. One rail car after another plunged into the rapids below. The twisting of steel and splintering of hardwood mocked the screams of the doomed passengers.
Charlie toppled over, dead at last. And then it happened for the hundred-and-first time.
His body drank his blood back up from the dirt. The rail cars reassembled in midair. The bridge inhaled a great ball of fire, and Kid Lucky's gun ate the bullet from Charlie's gut. Everything ran itself backward like a clock unwinding, and no one would be the wiser. No one but Charlie.
"Maybe you ain't so godly yourself," Kid Lucky was saying.
The train whistled.
Kid looked at the detonator.
Charlie drew his revolver and fired.
He over-corrected and missed again – it often took him few tries to get it right. Charlie expected searing pain to blossom in his gut. But this time Kid shot Charlie square in his shooting hand, and his gun dropped to the dirt. No one had ever shot the gun right out of his hand before. What were the chances of that? He was momentarily bemused.
The train wailed.
"Kick it here," said Kid. His voice took on a wild quality.
Charlie kicked the six-shooter over the edge, down into the river where he'd seen a trainload of innocents meet their collective fates only moments ago, in another time. "Oops."
"Just as well," said Kid Lucky, and he shot Charlie in the stomach.
Charlie groaned and fell again to his knees. Kid Lucky kept his gun on Charlie, but with his other hand he produced a second revolver from his vest. It looked just like Charlie's.
"It wasn't God that was bringing you back, son. It was that gun; it's cursed. How you think I got so lucky myself?" The ground rumbled as the locomotive appeared before the bridge, emblazoned with a golden MP.
"No," Charlie sputtered. "I've been killin' murderers, bandits. Bad folks. I'm doing God's work. You must be the devil."
Kid Lucky smirked and kicked the lever atop the detonator. Charlie felt the explosion's heat on his face, and the train sailed again shrieking into Ghost River far below.
"You should know by now," Kid Lucky said, "God and devil is two words for the same thing. The folks on that train; only I know what they were gonna do, 'cause I've already been there. If one of us is righteous, it's me."
Charlie tried to get up, but dying was always such a tiring affair. He closed his eyes, as he'd done a hundred times before, and wondered if it really could be the last.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
D. Roe Shocky is a Chicago-based science fiction author who enjoys day trips to the other corners of the speculative fiction map. He claims he's working on a novel, but he's become a pretty decent long-distance runner in the meantime as he tries to literally run from that particular commitment. Keep up with him - his stories, not the running thing - at www.warmuppages.com.
This story took first place in our Western Story Contest!