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author: rick hollon
e-mail: cretaceousrick [ at ] yahoo dot com


Orell was my name at the time, there on the backwater timepoint of Khoury. I was cooling my heels in the territory lockup in Ogallala, nabbed on suspicion of caravan robbery; the train from St. Joseph, bearing an extradition warrant for Orell Watford, alias Tom Kenning, alias Wabash Willy, alias Horace Wendell, alias Susan Gomez, etc., was delayed by a bridge that had collapsed into the Kickatus. The summer rains drawn in from the Gulf were heavy that year, dividing the Plains into islands squeezed between the soupy brown floods roaring down from the Front Range. I remember the monotonous hammerblows of hail tink-tink-tinking off the tin roof that day like a mechanical blacksmith turning out cheap arrowheads for the Northward trade. Sheriff Razan, blessings upon her, had permitted me a deck of cards with which to while my time away; again and again I made to cast my fortune, but met only with equivocal twos and nines.

The first I knew of the stranger was a shout in the street, followed rapidly by the sounds of gunfire and running boots on the deck out front. The sheriff roused from her doze with a hand on the butt of the six-iron at her hip, but before she could stir the door bust open and a shadow stumbled in, pistol dangling from one limp arm, her other hand pressed tight against the bicep. The stranger was huge, an offworlder for sure, her shoulders filling the outline of the door. There was another shot and a whine of ricochet, and the stranger kicked the door closed, drew the lock quick as blinking, and staggered to Razan's desk, bleeding all over the floor.

I glanced at the next card in my hand. Jack of spades.

"See here," the sheriff began, on her feet now, six-iron in hand, but the stranger dropped her own piece on the desk and offered a weak smile.

"Hope you got enough deputies," drawled the stranger, her accent thick and Rearward -- my ear placed it somewhere in the Permian colonies, perhaps even as far Back as the swamps of Carbon. Before Razan could react there was a stampede of boots outside, and a storm of fists against the door drowned out the sound of hail.

"Sheriff, better watch out," came a man's shout. More bits of advice and less wholesome interjections got mixed up in a general tumult of imprecation. In the midst of it I caught three words: thief and Molenaar and witch. "Open up, sheriff," the man hollered again.

Razan stepped smartly to the stranger, holstering the six-iron and easing the woman onto the desk in one smooth motion. "What's this? Who are you?"

The stranger grimaced and nodded toward the brandy bottle half-hidden in the rosewood curio against the wall. The sheriff lowered her onto her back, snatched up the stranger's weapon, and had the bottle uncorked before the stranger spoke. "Name's Temulin. Got enough hands? Trouble's coming." She accepted a swig of brandy before nodding to Razan, who tore strips off the woman's sleeve and dribbled brandy over the wound. Temulin hissed through her teeth but made no other sign.

I tossed the jack onto my bunk with the other cards and swung to my feet. The pounding and shouting had ceased, as if after conference a leader had been selected. Next came the same man's voice from before. "Sheriff, you all right in there? That there's a dangerous criminal and witch. We rode her out from the Molenaar place not two hours ago." I recognized the voice: Reverend Smits, sometime deputy, sometime revivalist, sometime 'hippus-thief (though never proven to the satisfaction of a jury of his peers). I sauntered up to the bars of my cell and caught the sheriff's eye. She shook her head and finished wrapping Temulin's arm.

"I'm all right, Smits," Razan called, tying a hard knot in the temporary bandage. "This is the first I'm hearing of it. The galvanic still works, last I checked. Who authorized this posse?"

"A community's got a right to protect itself," the reverend hollered, then went on in a more reasonable tone, "Whosoever buys into witchcraft shall have no share in the hereafter, sheriff."

"There's no law against it in this territory, reverend," Razan called, and helped Temulin to sit on the desk. The big woman steadied herself with her good arm before helping herself to another jolt of the brandy. "Theology's your line, Smits, and the law's mine. What laws've she broken?"

Temulin coughed and murmured, "No time for this, sheriff," but Smits' voice came strong and clear through the door. "Attempted murder, for one. Black magic's against the laws of this territory, surely, when a man's life is at peril, sheriff."

I heard a scrabbling sound then, like rats under the floorboards. I caught the sheriff's eye again and this time she nodded, unhooking the big ring of keys from her belt and tossing them through the bars. I caught them as noiselessly as possible and worked a familiar key into the lock. My gate creaked open and Razan winced. The noises stopped, so she yelled out, "Whose life, Smits? Old Man Molenaar? His boys? Who're your witnesses?"

There was murmuring outside, and the reverend hastened to reply, "Colchak and O'Connor. Old Man Molenaar's hired hands. They're here and eager to sign affidavits. Unbolt this door, sheriff, and we'll make it all nice and regular."

As he spoke, Razan rummaged through the curio, tripping the galvanic key hidden there -- three taps -- before locating a lumpy canvas bag, which she passed gingerly to me. We both ignored the reverend's words, keeping an ear instead on the renewed scrabbling beneath our feet. Temulin looked from one to the other of us, questions unspoken.

"Sheriff?" Smits hollered, and then Razan handed Temulin back her weapon and knelt, six-iron in hand, behind the desk. I fumbled through my bag, found a smaller purse full of powder, pinched out a dose.

Get ready, Razan mouthed to the stranger, then she flung up the trapdoor and I flung down my pinch of powder. The man skulking there beneath the floor gave a cry and curled up, arms around his head, and Razan pulled Temulin to her feet and together they ran down the steps. I covered my mouth with a free hand and followed, jumping over the huddled man, hearing yells and fists pounding again at the door before I swung the trap shut and blinked in the darkness.

"Hurry," Razan said, striking an electric torch and casting a dim tube of yellow light down the tunnel. A more unnecessary word has seldom been spoken.

***

The lawman's bolthole tunnels for what seems like miles beneath the streets of Ogallala, but I've noticed dark confinement tends to magnify distances. Ogallala, needless to say, doesn't possess miles of streets to tunnel under. Scarcely a furlong is sufficient to fetch the sheriff to the tumbledown warehouses down by the banks of the Niobrara, hard by Diagho's stables, where reserve mounts are kept. Yet in the wavering electric beam, fingers trailing along dripping rock so as not to miss a sudden turn, our footsteps chuckling back to us like a dozen assassins in wait, it seemed to me we skulked halfway to Medicine Bow before Razan motioned us to a halt, switched off her light, and advanced with her six-iron ready. She whistled, soft.

"Sheriff," came Diagho's hoarse whisper, and Razan and I breathed easier. Light opened up on us at the top of another stair, Diagho's big friendly smile loomed above the steady glow of a paraffin lamp. Behind him I glimpsed Pham peeking down at us, clutching a rifle almost as big as he was. Up against the wall behind Pham I saw two men, no doubt left to guard the bolthole by Smits and his posse, gagged and lassoed together, blindfolded too -- Diagho and Pham did good work. I tried to eyeball them, but things were rushed just then, and Ogallala's just big enough that not even I knew everyone on sight in those days.

I helped Temulin, whose wound was starting to tire her sore, up the last steps into the warehouse. In the light of Diagho's lamp I got my first real look at the stranger's face, up there a full head above mine. Her skin was brown and weathered, her cheekbones broad and smooth like leather-hard clay, epicanthic folds hidden in birds'-feet wrinkles. Her eyes seemed small in that expanse of face, watery and yellowed. Her black hair was bobbed short and shot with gray. She panted with the exertion but kept her mouth set in a stoic line.

Razan leaned close. "Can you ride, ma'am?"

Temulin's nod set Diagho and Pham into motion. Diagho put out the lamp as Pham, rifle in hand, swung open the big warehouse door. I helped Temulin after him, ducking my head against the downpour. The hail, at least, had stopped, but the rain was still heavy enough to drown an unwary bear-dog. Diagho's mounts waited with long-suffering expressions, reins looped loosely around the posts in front of his stables. As I remarked before, those two do good work.

Five of the mounts were chalicos, horseheaded and zebra-striped knucklewalkers propped up on arms taller than a man, the business ends of their claws tucked up and away off the ground. Two more were dicers, slow-moving but sturdy beasts already loaded with supplies, their low heads swaying as if they didn't quite trust their own beady little eyes that feed was not around them somewhere. Diagho came up, hooked the extinguished lamp on his saddle, and helped me boost Temulin onto her chalico. Pham was already mounted, tugging his beast's head this way and that, standing in the stirrups to catch a glimpse of pursuit. We couldn't hear anything over the rain.

"Where to, sheriff?" Diagho said, hoisting his body -- nearly as big as the offworlder's -- easily into his saddle.

Razan looked at Temulin. "I'm not wholly clear on what's going on. Temulin, point us on our way and explain as we go."

Temulin let go a deep breath, as if she'd rather the sheriff had waited to summon the territorial army from St. Joseph before letting us set out, and nodded west. Diagho whistled and all our beasts moseyed into a trot, the dicers padding along obediently behind the chalicos, which sank to their knuckles in the mud. Pham and I brought up the rear, me with my bag, he with his rifle, though I confess he was a better rearguard than I -- I rode as close behind Temulin as I dared, hanging onto her every word.

***

There's a tale like this on each of the worlds. (And contrary to the judgment of the Intercessor on Xiao Kang, where I got clapped in hoosegow for blasphemy some years back, I have visited all of the worlds at least once, even Hawksbill.) Long ago, the yarns say, there were the Gods. The Gods discovered the doors between times and opened the worlds to us. How they did so, and how they otherwise employed their powers, differ in the telling. But all the stories agree that, eventually, the Gods passed on, as all things do in time, and much of their knowledge and power was lost with them. None now travel between worlds except on slow, temperamental timeships; none walk between times as the Gods were said to have done in their days of rule.

But traces remained, precious hints, tantalizing artefacts. I've sought them now and again, on other worlds, under other names. It's something of a hobby of mine -- a precarious hobby that has gotten me into considerable scrapes before, as many of you may well recall, even if you didn't know it was me you heard tell of.

"We heard of it on Carbon," Temulin said, and I congratulated myself for my ear for accents. "A stranger came. Long, long journey. Her timeship was unregistered, and badly damaged. There were marks of a fight, inside the hold and out. Scorch marks. Broken computer. Empty couches. The stranger was alone, and dying.

"My -- my friend," and here her voice caught for a moment, "my friend met her. Heard her story for herself. Before the Duchess took the stranger away. Before our village was -- unmade. Before the swamps were let in to drown it."

The sheriff reached out a hand to steady her, to comfort. The touch was momentary, as our mounts had begun the hard climb up out of town, out of the floodplains, into the high prairies and gallery forests rolling away west, and the sheriff needed both hands to rein her chalico out of a muddy sump.

"We hid in the swamps. It is what we do, what -- what our village used to do. Flatcroc hunters, boat people, long-swimmers." She seemed to feel my eyes on her and looked back, small eyes noting and appraising. I looked down at my chalico's brown mane, matted in the rain under my hands. "It was her plan, my -- my friend's plan, that one of us -- one of us should get here. Before the Duchess and her spies." She sat up straighter, despite the pain and weariness her wound must cost her. "Money we had for only one passage. I begged her to go, to get out, to get this -- this trinket of the Gods. To sell it, if need be, to establish herself on another world. A far world. But she -- oh."

Diagho whistled again, up at the front, and beside me Pham expertly swung his chalico to face the rear, as pretty a maneuver as was ever taught in cavalry school. As for myself, I strained my eyes to see what it was had caught the stableman's attention.

I had my answer soon enough when Razan fetched out her six-iron and trained it at a copse of cottonwood nigh off the trail. I haven't made it as long as I have in this life of mine by being slow; my hand stole into my bag ready as a businessman with a bribe.

"Come out slow and hands up high," the sheriff called out.

But whosoever was in the trees wasn't having any of that. A shot ruffled the air altogether too close to my face. I had a piece of tusk out of my bag in a trice, breathing warmth into its smooth surface even as Razan and Pham popped their shooters in reply. Sympathetic magic is scarcely an exact science, relying upon timing and circumstance just as the weather does. But like the weather, magic is predictable and comprehensible on a statistical level, and the statistics were in my favor that day. Before our interrogator could loose another shot I heard a coughing sort of grunt from the hill to the other side of the trail.

Our mounts heard that grunt just as clearly, and even mounts as steady as Diagho's get uneasy around a hell-pig.

What I saw and heard was a flash of shapes and rush of sounds more so than a consecutive scene: massive shoulders rushing across the road, the glint of tusks and a burning beady eye, a woman's curse rising to a shriek, the shake and snap of branches and whole trees bowled over in a headlong rush of nasty-tempered Oligocene porker. Temulin's mount was threatening to take off with or without her, and even Diagho had to give his reins a quick tug and twist to keep his chalico steady. Pham was at my side, training his big rifle toward a last glimpse of hell-pig flank before the copse swallowed it up, stringy tail and all. A particular tallish tree got hit with a might wallop, and its occupant treated us to a renewed selection of verbs seldom heard inside temple or mosque. I just had time to lower Pham's barrel and whisper a word of encouragement into the tusk in my hand.

We stood as if on display in the territorial museum while thunder bumped and rolled and got lost somewhere on the floodplain east of us.

Razan was the first one back in motion, favoring me with a sardonic eye before trotting her reluctant chalico a few steps closer to the crashing and cursing in the copse.

"Unload your gun and toss it clear in the road," she called, "and we'll start over on a fresh page."

"Are you off your friggin' nut?" came the response.

Razan nodded at me, and I whispered again. This time the hell-pig (though unseen by me) sat on its haunches and waited, tusked snout snuffling no doubt toward the deadeye up the tree.

"Orell Watford," the shooter yelled, "operating that bag of tricks against a federal marshal's a gamble, and it don't pay off. Take that hell-pig off my tree and we'll talk."

Razan asked the question with her eyes, and I nodded. I whispered a desire for river mud and skinny, crunchy young camels, and after a moment we all heard the snap of branches and the whuff of heavy breath as the hell-pig took off into the long grass and down the hill. I slipped the tusk back into my bag.

Pham and Razan kept their pieces trained on the tree until, after some quieter curses, the marshal's gun came sailing through the rain to land splut in the mud.

The marshal herself came out of the trees a few moments later, hatless and scratched, her brown uniform suit askew. She was a whip-skinny, young enough to be fresh out of the academy in Fremont, but her hands were wiry with tendons and she looked strong.

"Your side-arm, if you please," Razan said, extending her hand down.

Scowling, the marshal unholstered her side-piece and handed it butt-first to the sheriff. "Aiding the escape of a federal fugitive isn't a good bet either, sheriff."

Razan smiled and shrugged. "That's a long discussion, and just now we're pressed for time. Rather than desert you here in the storm, with all sorts of big hungry critters all about," she looked nonchalantly at me, "I must insist you accompany us. Especially if you don't misconstrue it as kidnapping a federal marshal. Is your mount nearby?"

The marshal cussed and grumbled and gave each of us sound appraisal of our legal standing, but eventually began poking around behind the copse, calling in a halfhearted way for a mount which, it turned out, had lit out for a neighboring territory as soon as it heard the first grunt of that hell-pig. After more grumbling and hemming and hawing, it was decided the marshal -- whose name, we learned, was Endeley -- would ride behind on my chalico, on her word of honor that she'd cause no trouble for me or the sheriff, at least until Razan had given her a good explanation for why I was out riding posse instead of snug and dry in the territorial lockup. (Why on my chalico? Well, Pham was lighter in his saddle, but needed free agency to wield his rifle; my line of work requiring only quick access to my bag, I tucked that item under my leg and kept my misgivings to myself.) As for Endeley, she kept as firm a grip on my waist as if she planned to haul me across the floods to St. Joseph that way by main force of will.

"Word travels fast," the sheriff commented, nodding at the marshal before swinging her chalico around and trotting down the trail. "Let's hope we're faster."

As I reined around to follow I caught Temulin giving me another appraising glance.

***

Her tale-telling suppressed by the presence of the marshal, Temulin directed us into the sandhill country behind Old Man Molenaar's spread with a minimum of comment. Pham had been a rangehand under Molenaar some years back, so he took the lead, directing our wet and sorry posse in a roundabout route that kept us low and out of sight of any lookouts posted near the ranch, hugging the lakes between dunes, startling clouds of ducks and pigeons from their margins, keeping the cover of reeds and willow brush whenever possible. The dicers never flagged, but our poor chalicos -- neither as fleet nor as indefatigable as their Holocene cousins, Equus -- had begun to droop their long necks and flick their ears in the quiet, ostentatious martyrdom of all their kind. Pham and Diagho conferred with the sheriff and Temulin, out of Endeley's earshot (and consequently out of mine), and before long Pham discovered us a place to rest until nightfall, a cozy hollow deep between the rounded bosoms of the sandhills.

The marshal and I helped rig up tarps for shelter, she keeping up a steady stream of warnings about the fate awaiting me in St. Joseph, detailing with particular care the rickety old gallows -- constructed in haste for a brace of daring murderers in her mother's time, and never improved since then, merely replaced one plank at a time -- while I kept a weather eye open for the mood of the sheriff's conference on the other side of the mounts. Razan herself came in deputation, begged the marshal's pardon, weathered the gale of indignation and disbelief that her prisoner should be removed from her side even for a moment, and took me firmly by the elbow and whisked me away in a lull between gusts. Temulin, I saw, watched me the entire time.

"Have a look," the sheriff said, parking me in front of Temulin, the five of us now huddled together in the last cold dregs of rain. I looked longingly at the tarp I'd just set up, but the look on Razan's face was serious.

Temulin hesitated, then tendered me an amulet of hard yellow resin, scarcely larger than my thumbnail. An unpracticed eye might have seen a piece of mere jewelry, a synthetic pendant freed from some frontier debutante's decolletage. I felt something cold run down my back, something that wasn't the rain. I palmed the amulet and immediately held it to my eye.

The nano implants in my socket sucked greedily at the data contained in the resin, thick and reluctant stuff though it was. Gates, walls, fortresses of encryption resisted then leveled before my onslaught, a city worn away by flood. I got a broad picture of everything and a complete picture of nothing. Much was missing, vast gaps of amnesia cutting through whole swathes of records and diagrams and protocols, but I pieced together enough to be sure.

Temulin hadn't been taking us for a ride. This was the real stuff, fragmentary though it was. A data chip from the time of the Gods. It wasn't merely my natural-born piety, friends, that made my knees weak and threw my eyes wide.

"Molenaar has more," Temulin said. "A library under glass. This was the one I took before his goons found me."

It was the most unnatural motion I'd made in my life, but somehow I convinced my arm to extend to her, my fingers to relinquish the relic to her big rough hand. She palmed it tight, wary of any sudden changes of heart, and kept her eyes fixed on me even as the sheriff leaned between us and spoke her piece.

"That Molenaar's been a big player in all the adversities and disasters in this territory since I don't know when. No one's been able to pin a thing on him, of course. He's got half the government in his pocket, and the army besides. He keeps his hands clean, and his boys -- well. None of them have seen a conviction in a generation, either." She tossed a surreptitious glance at the marshal; unless I missed my guess, it was noted and returned with interest. "I don't have a prayer to pin a thing on him now." She touched the silver star on her chest, absently. "It's a near thing if I can get away to Kananaskis with my life after this, I'll have you know. And whosoever gets put in that office after me won't be nearly so set against Molenaar's machine as I am."

We were all of us quiet a moment. I touched her arm, forgetting the watchful eyes of the marshal away behind me.

"I can get you as far as Hessapa," Diagho offered, and beside him Pham nodded firmly.

Here Temulin suppressed a start of alarm, stealing looks at first Diagho and then the sheriff. Razan noticed, and stood up straighter, taking a deep breath that pushed the silver star boldly forth.

History is full of speeches, full of heroes who lit a fire under their troops and their forlorn hopes with words of eloquence and noble sentiment.

"Fuck it," Razan said, and laughed.

***

We stole on foot across the sandhills, keeping low so as not to present a bold silhouette to the watchers around Old Man Molenaar's ranch. Our way was lit only by stray stars peeping through tatters in the wrack, clouds stealing away north with reinforcements from the Gulf no doubt swift behind. Crickets and frogs made such a monotonous racket that none, I dare say, could have discerned the approach of a dozen Metamynodon across those hills. Razan enjoined us to strict silence regardless.

Endeley shadowed me, making no pretense of believing Razan's story of cronyism and corruption; before we left our camp in the hollow, she'd regaled the sheriff with tales of botched hangings she'd seen, the suffering and indignity that awaited anyone foolish enough to willfully pursue capital crime within the territory. Aiding a fugitive might not be a capital offense, the marshal hinted, but she had a perceptive eye and could spot the makings of crimes yet unknown in our armed advance upon the Molenaar spread. Razan returned the marshal's side-piece and told her to use those eyes and note all she saw this night.

Diagho had cleaned and loaded Endeley's rifle and appropriated it for himself; it seemed a toy in his big arms. Temulin, fortified by a meal and a couple stuff drinks in the camp, kept by my side, Razan on my other hand. Pham was lost to me much of the march, stealing forward, appearing to whisper a word to Razan, slipping off again as if commanding a magic of his own. Razan followed whatsoever directions Pham imparted in these conferences, leading us round and around those blind hills, scarcely pausing to brush the sharp kicking grasshoppers from her hair.

At last we hunkered down, Pham beside the sheriff, just below the crest of one last rise. Beyond rolled Molenaar's rangelands, his main house some ways down between us and the swollen river.

"Orell," the sheriff whispered, motioning us all close to hear, "what other tricks you have in that magic bag?"

"I don't know. I scarcely had time to inventory after I nicked it off that train."

Endeley snorted. "I saw Razor Bentley kicking ten feet in the air that time, wrenched his shoulder trying to get his hands loose."

"Shush." Razan peeped over the crest, slipped back looking unhappy. "We can't risk a fairy light. It's all open ground. Might there be a night-vision spell?"

I was feeling inside the bag as she spoke, selecting and discarding one cantrip after another. "I can do better than that." I pulled out a golden bug, shiny black in the starlight. I mustered commands, drawing from the specs I'd seen in Temulin's amber amulet, weaving them in with devices and codes I'd memorized in an especially dangerous library in the catacombs of Annovian. I pressed my thumb to the cold wings, whispered my incantation, and set it free. In a moment the grass around us seemed in motion, but it was the grasshoppers, surging forward, gathering together, their sizzle and snap growing like a hungry fire through the prairie. Black clouds of them rose like smoke, stragglers flitting into us, scratching my face in their haste, the whole lot rising into a wall, a column of winged infantry a billion strong.

"Hurry!" I hissed, and we scuttled to our feet and chased in the lee of the living storm. I called up fairy lights and cast them before us, lighting our path behind the shelter of the swarm.

Already I heard shouting, the pop of guns distant and near, their owners borne down by the weight of carapace and wing. I ran past blurred struggles in the grass, black piles of locusts pressing down on vaguely human shapes. For the sheriff's sake I'd specified no fatal pressures in my spell, but if the guards insisted on struggling, well -- I hoped they learned quickly.

The locust cloud exhausted itself right at the verge of Molenaar's main compound. Right quick I called back the fairy lights and swallowed them, and the only light left was the electric arc by Molenaar's barn, which attracted the attentions of some last locust stragglers. The gunfire, sadly, had attracted the attention of some human stragglers, who tumbled out of the rangehand barracks even as we watched.

Now it was Temulin we had to follow. She gestured us the other way, around the back of the coughing generator, then pell-mell across an open lawn behind Molenaar's big house -- into an ambush.

Several rounds whined and encouraged us to find the ground with alacrity. I was ready. Even as Pham and Temulin squeezed off shots in reply, I stumbled up, nearly tripped over my damned boot, and flung a wide arc of nanopowder toward the riflemen. It sped from my hand and latched tight to their barrels, munching the iron into harmless filings. It was risky -- some blowback was bound to find its way to our posse's guns and render them useless before long. We had to hurry -- but no one thought to remind us, this time.

Temulin was on her feet and running, bowling over the first of Molenaar's boys who got in her way. I jumped over him, hot on her tail, the marshal scarcely a step behind me. "Assault with nanomaterials," she found the breath to say. "Capital crime for sure --"

"Here," Temulin shouted, flinging open a storm cellar. Something itched me then, some wizard's instinct of misgiving, but I recalled the feel of that data from the amulet, and I followed her right down inside.

***

Old Man Molenaar himself was there, of course, and Reverend Smits next to him, and a dozen of Molenaar's boys besides. Before Temulin could do any damage four of the biggest had jumped on her and, though they had a mighty hard time of it, managed to pull her down flat on the earth floor. All it took was one blow from behind to stretch me out alongside her.

Behind me I heard struggle, Diagho's quiet voice raised to a roar, the sheriff calling out for cool heads and a hasty truce. She and Pham and Diagho were heroes, all of them, but those barrels Smits and the boys held leveled against them no doubt demonstrated the sense of her philosophy.

Just for a moment, Temulin and I locked eyes there in the dirt.

In other years, on other worlds, she and I would be many things. Enemies, partners, lovers, all under a host of different names. All of it set in motion by that day she busted into Sheriff Razan's office in Ogallala, by that night's chase across the sandhills. All set in motion by what I did next.

Marshal Endeley had her knee in my back, no doubt flashing her credentials to the old man, thanking them for their help in nabbing such dangerous criminals, who would surely hang within the week at St. Joseph. Old Man Molenaar rose from his seat on a crate and, as they say, put on his public face, thanking Endeley in turn for capturing a band of thieves red-handed after his property. Razan, blessings upon her, said nothing, thinking perhaps of the next train coming across the river to deliver her to what's called justice in that territory.

Me, I felt that amulet. I knew it as I knew my own hand, felt it there in a pouch around Temulin's throat.

I wasn't the man I am now. My name was Orell Watford then -- a petty criminal, a drifter, a crackerjack hand at magic tricks and card games and decryption, a wanted man with a noose waiting for him. Temulin was just a stranger, after all, an offworlder who chanced upon a remnant of the Gods right here under my damned nose. I think she saw that in my eyes, in that brief moment.

I spat out the fairy lights, and they were angry.

I grabbed the amulet. Temulin made a lunge for me, but I -- for that very brief moment, such an achingly short moment -- held something of the power of the Gods in my hand. Even incomplete, even tatterdemalion as it was, it was enough.

Already in that moment I was in another time.

-End-
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