6,200 Words

Rhett Walker had always been a creature of unsettled dreams. When he woke on one particular night, somewhere in the dusty nowhere of west Durango, he couldn’t quite remember what had caused him to bolt upright, breathing heavy and screaming his throat raw, his hand already on his gun. His forehead burned as if someone had held a lit match there, but when he touched it, his skin was cool. Whatever had woken him, it had apparently happened entirely inside his head, as had the shouting, because the disinterested calm hanging around the general area suggested the night didn’t give half a damn.

The rest of his posse slept peacefully, or at least scowlingly, in the case of Coyote Dan. Rhett checked each body in its place around the campfire, making sure his people were alive and breathing. Firstly, as always, there was Sam Hennessy, close enough that Rhett could feel the warmth of the sunny-blond cowpoke’s outstretched hand. Dark-haired Dan slept on his back like a corpse, while his sister Winifred was snuggled down on her side, curled protectively around her pregnant belly. Earl, the obstinate Irishman, snoozed in donkey form, his snores whistling through hairy lips. And there was Cora off in the wagon; she would have to worry about her own mortality, as Rhett wasn’t going to risk his by poking his head in her door. It didn’t do to disturb dragons, especially when they were already annoyed with a feller.

Even the horses were tranquil in their herd, heads down and tails swishing occasionally. The moon hung high, snobbish and thin and cold, and the fire had died to black-furred cherries.

Rhett stood and looked out into the starlit night, tossing out all his senses, human and monster. For while he looked like a man, half black and half Comanche and all simmering rage, he was actually a monster, the same sort of monster his destiny made him chase, and his body was that of a girl, much as he hated it. Just now, he was more worried about the darkness without than the darkness within. Far off, something paused, just a smudge on the horizon. A figure, a shadow, fast as a hare. His belly gave a shrug. Whatever it was, it wasn’t worth chasing.

He lay back down, eyes open and watering, waiting. When the thing was far enough that the Shadow didn’t care anymore, he sank into an uneasy sleep.

§

The next day felt longer than usual, as if the sun demanded one more punishingly hot afternoon before it agreed to acquiesce to autumn. Rhett and his posse were frachetty and short-tempered, and even the horses snapped at butterflies. When a small, crooked town wiggled on the horizon, Rhett looked back over Ragdoll’s dusty rump to meet Sam’s squinting blue eyes.

“You feeling as parched as I am?” he asked.

“Reckon a glass or two might smother all the sand I been swallowing,” Sam agreed.

“Time is of the essence,” Dan reminded them, prissy as a preacher.

“Can’t go thirsting myself to death before I finish this damn quest.” Rhett threw a look to Dan’s sister, who dozed in her mare’s saddle. “Winifred might appreciate a ball of soap, say, or something green from town to keep her teeth in their sockets.”

Dan shook his head. “You know a dirt-town like this one won’t have oranges at any price, fool.” But as he said it, he nudged his chestnut with his knees, changing course. Cora stopped her wagon by a stand of mesquite and waved them on, and Earl, still in donkey form, dropped his feelings on the trail in front of Rhett in the form of a steamy, green pile before trotting back toward the wagon. It had happened that way many times, and Rhett was just fine with leaving the two most contentious members of his party away from the prying eyes of the townfolk and keeping Cora and Earl out in the wild, where they both felt more comfortable.

It was evening, and normally, walking up to a town like this one, the posse was glared at but left alone. Three brown people and a blue eyed white boy were a strange enough grouping, no matter that three of them wore Ranger stars. This time, however, folks seemed to whisper more than usual, and one feller looked them up and down and took off running down the street.

“That ain’t friendly,” Rhett observed.

“It’s not too late to turn around.”

“You shut the hell up, Dan. Our course is set, and I ain’t yet wet my whistle.”

Dan sighed. “Things don’t generally go well when you’re in this bad of a mood, you know.”

“I ain’t turning around.”

“Well do I know it by now, Shadow.”

They had just dismounted by the half-built saloon when they heard the jangle of men who thought themselves important. Looking up, Rhett counted a sheriff and half a dozen deputies, or perhaps they were just the meanest and most bored fellows about the town who hadn’t taken up real jobs and felt more powerful on the law’s side of a gun. Their horses’ lips frothed, their bits too tight, and Rhett knew right off they weren’t going to see eye to eye. And that was before he was looking down the black eye of a rifle.

“You’re under arrest,” the head man shouted.

“Well, shit,” Rhett muttered to himself. “We’re really not gonna get along.”

Sam stepped in front of Rhett, his hands up in the universal gesture for being a reasonable feller. “What’s the matter, Sheriff?” he asked, as most white folks had kinder words for someone even whiter than them.

The sheriff spit a plug of tobacco on Sam’s boot. “That scrawny cur in the middle is pulling a jailbreak, and I reckon you’re helping him.”

For once, the entire posse was surprised. Rhett had done plenty to get him in trouble, but jailbreaking was not currently on his list of sins.

“Hate to disappoint you, but we just got here.” Sam pulled back his saddle blanket to show a desert-day’s worth of sweat and dust. “Been riding since daybreak, only stopped to drink at a creek and hunt some rabbits. He’s not your man.”

Rhett almost snorted. Little did that sheriff know.

“We got witnesses that say different, including me. That little shit got caught red handed. And like I told him this morning, we don’t look kindly on horse thieves.”

“Well, hell,” Rhett said, straightening up. “Who does?”

The sheriff nudged his horse closer, so close his rifle poked Rhett in the shoulder. Rhett fought the urge to flick it off like a deer fly—or grab it with both hands and shove it back hard enough to break the man’s teeth.

But the sheriff kept on. “Don’t get smart with me, boy. I seen you. We all seen you. And I don’t know how you got out of jail or what happened to your eye or whose ass I’m gonna kick for letting you sneak out, but you’re going right back in. Go on, men.”

Two of the fellers hopped off their horses and advanced, one with a clinking set of irons and one with his finger on the trigger of his pistol. At least they were human, Rhett figured, and the sort of humans who didn’t know monsters existed. That gun kept aiming for his gut instead of his heart, which meant that if the feller was as dumb as he looked, Rhett might live through taking his bullet. Such was the silver lining on the dark cloud of being a monster: There was only one way to die, and most humans didn’t know what the hell it was.

“I’ll go peacefully,” Rhett said, throwing a look at Sam and Dan. “Y’all get Winifred back to the wagon and come see what can be done. A little bird told me it would all be alright.”

Understanding exactly what that meant, Dan nodded solemnly, while Sam tipped his hat. Winifred just looked dog tired, and also like even if she figured Rhett deserved a little mistreatment, this wasn’t the way to go about it.

“Be careful,” Sam murmured. His hand rose like he wanted to clap Rhett on the back, but the cocking pistols suggested he shouldn’t do that.

With Rhett’s hands up, the sheriff’s men claimed the gun belt holding his two revolvers and his Bowie knife before yanking his arms down behind his back and clamping on the irons. It was not, Rhett thought, a nice feeling, and it reminded him all too well of his time in the railroad camp when he’d lost a toe—and when he’d failed to defeat his enemy. That hadn’t been the first time he’d faced a villain who wasn’t a monster, and as far as Rhett was concerned, this probably wouldn’t be the last. The sheriff and all his men were as human as human could be, and the town in general was mostly lacking in monsters, save for the soft rumble in his belly when he faced the saloon. A few harmless vampire whores would be no trouble, and Rhett didn’t pay them mind. The only other sense he got of an unrelated monster in the area came from further down—right in the direction they were marching him as he followed behind the sheriff’s sidestepping mare and her angrily twitching tail.

Rhett’s suspicions were confirmed when they stopped in front of a building he reckoned was the jail—not because he could read, but because it had wide-spaced bars on a high window, the metal gleaming a new, shiny silver. Still, what the Shadow felt in the pit of his stomach wasn’t the prodding ache of something dangerous, some monster actively doing harm that he needed to destroy. The Shadow’s sense never wavered, and Rhett had become well-accustomed to telling the difference between a monster that looked harmless but wasn’t, and a monster that was generally all right and just having a bit of a bad day.

This monster? It was a milksop of a thing.

The sheriff dismounted, left his mare for someone else to tie up like a goddamn bastard, and prodded Rhett in the back with his rifle until he was through the door and standing on a rough dirt floor, carved out of the desert and still jagged as a fresh wound. There was just one cell, and it was not empty if the blanket-wrapped lump curled in the corner was any indication. That lump, Rhett’s stomach informed him, was the monster—but not one that required swift justice.

“Go on in,” the sheriff said as he unlocked the cell’s door with a key from the ring hanging on a nail on the wall. “Then we’ll talk.”

“I reckon those bars will offer me some protection,” Rhett observed, and the rifle nudged him harder than was necessary until he stood in his first jail cell.

The door slammed shut behind him, the key clicked in the lock, and everyone stared at him like he was dumb as a possum. Rhett shrugged.

“Is that it?” he said.

“Back the hell up so we can take off the irons, fool,” the sheriff said. “You know how it works.”

“I don’t, but you’re the one with the key.”

Rhett obliged them, and the manacles were removed, roughly, as the bars bit into his back. He turned to face them, rubbing his wrists, and tried not to look as spiteful as he felt. White folks, he knew, didn’t like it when brown folks looked spiteful, even when there was plenty of reason for spite.

“You ready to give us your name yet?” the sheriff said.

“Hellfire, you’re the one who dragged me into the cell, and you don’t even know who I am?”

The sheriff’s face went over a shade of burgundy that would’ve been funny if Rhett had been armed.

“You talk a hell of a lot more than you did before, and now you done stole a Ranger’s star to boot. I reckon you’re gonna hang, boy.”

Rhett shrugged. “I surely hope not.”

“We’ll see. But first, I want you to pull that blanket off whatever you left behind when you ran.” The sheriff inclined his beard to the lump in the back corner, huddled against the sap-leaking wood walls.

Rhett’s eyebrow went up. “You ain’t even looked yet?”

The sheriff’s face suggested that he felt ridiculous admitting such. “I make the rules here. I see an escaped convict in the street, I don’t skip home to fold blankets. Now lift it up.”

Rolling his one good eye, Rhett turned and took the few steps toward the blanket. Whatever was inside it made a convincing argument that a feller about Rhett’s size might be dozing underneath. It was even moving slightly, as if breathing. Most importantly, however, it tipped off the Shadow’s senses.

Whatever it was, it was alive, and it wasn’t human.

Although Rhett didn’t like to consider himself the fearful sort and he had faced horror after horror in battles of various kinds, he also didn’t reckon he was the type of man to go whipping blankets off monsters that clearly didn’t want to be bothered. But there were several jumpy men pointing guns at him through the bars, and he was also vain enough to want to know who the hell had been playing at being him.

Hell, Rhett didn’t even really want to be Rhett, so who the sweet goddamn would?

“I’m about to pull off this blanket,” he whispered when he was close enough to touch it with his boot. “But it’s not because I want to.”

“Do it, boy!” the sheriff barked.

So, Rhett did.

With just his fingertips, he whipped off the blanket and uncovered the most terrifying thing he’d seen in a while—

Himself.

§

“What the sweet goddamn?” he muttered softly, followed by, much louder and a hell of a lot more belligerent, “Who the hell are you?”

“I’m asking the questions here!” the sheriff boomed, and Rhett turned to look at him because it was easier than looking into his own upturned face, which was sleepy, frightened, and in possession of two whole eyes, unlike Rhett himself. After losing one of his own to a silver bullet, he’d liked his face even less.

“Well, by all means,” Rhett said. “Ask him something.”

“Who the hell are you?” the sheriff said, and it came out sounding right stupid.

“I … I’m … nobody,” the other Rhett said, in Rhett’s exact voice, but with a vastly different expression and an accent that he couldn’t place.

The sheriff turned to Rhett, as did all the gun barrels, almost like a group of dogs catching a smell all at once. “You’d better have a name, boy.”

So much for playing it coy. “I’m Rhett Hennessy, and I’m a Durango Ranger of the Las Moras outpost,” he said, “on the way back to report to my captain after a scouting mission.” Turning to the version of himself still cowering on the ground in a way that Rhett himself never would, in a set of oversized clothes that Rhett would not have chosen, he said, “Now it’s your turn.”

The other Rhett stood and shook his head, his face scrunching down into an obstinate scowl that looked much more at home there. “No, I’m Rhett Hennessy.”

“Bullshit!” Rhett hollered, and on instinct, he punched the other Rhett full in the face.

The other Rhett’s head rocked back into the wall, and he slumped to the ground looking surprised and dazed—again, not the face Rhett himself would’ve worn if someone had punched him. Under any circumstance he could consider, Rhett’s answering face would’ve been driven by fury and ferocity, and that expression would’ve been backed up by a fist already in motion.

Clearly, whoever this feller was? He was less Rhett than the real Rhett.

For one tiny, terrifying, terrible moment, Rhett pondered if perhaps he wasn’t the real Rhett, after all, and then he tamped that dangerous thought riiiiiight back down.

“You got a twin?” the sheriff asked.

Rhett shook his head. “Met my mama for the first time a few days ago, and she assures me I do not.”

“What about you?”

The other Rhett stood up, rubbing his jaw, his eyes going over sly and resentful. “Sure do. His name is Bob, and he’s standing right there. He’s a horse thief. He’s the man you want. Shoot him now, before he does something worse. You saw how violent he is.”

It took everything Rhett had not to punch him again and prove him right.

“You send a man to the Las Moras outpost and the captain will ride here himself on his fastest horse to claim me,” Rhett said. “The two Rangers outside will vouch for me. I’m bona fide. And whoever this fool is, he’s a goddamn liar.”

The sheriff looked between the two Rhetts as if he’d seen a ghost, or at least a mighty big paperwork problem, and his men shared glances, unsure.

“What do we do?” one of them asked.

“Yeah, Sheriff,” Rhett added, “what do we do?”

Far as he reckoned, everybody there knew that Rangers outranked local sheriffs, but they also knew that white sheriffs didn’t cotton to brown Rangers and that said paperwork could be doctored to introduce all sorts of unfortunate accidents. And between Rhett and the sheriff himself, they both knew nobody was going to waste manpower sending some fool off on his pony toward a Ranger station that wasn’t even marked on most maps, especially not for a brown Ranger suspected of horse thievery.

Looking disgusted, the sheriff tugged on his beard. “You two boys figure it out. I’m going to the damn saloon to have a drink. I want this mess sorted out by morning.”

“Sorted out?” Rhett asked.

The sheriff sneered. “I can hang one of you or I can hang both of you, but we only got one gallows, so you fellers can pick who goes first. So, figure it out, Mr. Ranger. C’mon, boys.” They were almost out the door when the sheriff added, “McGinty, you stay behind to guard. And no complaints. I know you got whisky hid in here somewhere to keep you busy.”

One of the men peeled off, looking annoyed and running a hand through hair that stuck up like a rooster’s comb. He sat behind the lone rickety desk—at least until the others were gone. Then he climbed on the desk and pulled a burlap-wrapped sack from the eaves. He’d already started guzzling from the dirty brown bottle before the door was shut.

“Guard duty, huh?” Rhett started.

McGinty didn’t stop drinking as he shakily pointed his revolver at Rhett.

“Work your shit out so I can go home,” the man said before gracing his audience with a lengthy belch.

Rhett sat down with his back against one of the walls, and the other Rhett mirrored his position on the other wall with the corner and the blanket between them. It was not a large cell, especially not when a feller had grown accustomed to sleeping under the wide prairie sky. The other Rhett looked away, all resentful-like, but the real Rhett was watching McGinty. As soon as the guard had taken down enough of the bottle to go over glassy-eyed, Rhett focused his attention on whatever goddamn monster was wearing his face.

“Son, you got five seconds to tell me what the hell is going on before I give you an eye to match mine.” He said it low and sinister.

The other Rhett’s glare shot to McGinty, who was paying them no mind. He leaned forward. “I don’t know. You tell me.”

But Rhett’s gut told him a lot of things, and one of those things was that the other Rhett was lying. That the other Rhett lied a lot. So, the real Rhett’s hand shot out, his fingers fisting in the other Rhett’s oversized shirt to pull him close enough to kiss.

“I know you’re a monster, and I know you’re lying, so why don’t you stop wasting my time and tell me what you are and why you look like me? Because let me tell you something, boy: You tangle with the real me, you ain’t gonna win.”

The other Rhett flinched and turned away as soon as their faces were close. Seconds ticked by without a word, and Rhett tightened his fist and carefully placed his other thumb against the feller’s closed eye. The other feller squirmed and tried to get away, but failed. His eyelid twitched under Rhett’s thumb, the solid ball of his eye a hot knot begging to be popped. Even in the same body, the real Rhett had more power, more control, and more interest in doing damage.

“You really want to look like me, I can help with that.”

“Please!”

“Then talk, you bastard.”

The other Rhett pushed away and scrambled back against his wall, breathing hard. It was right peculiar, watching him. Rhett hadn’t had cause to look in a lot of mirrors in his time, and he’d never worn or practiced most of the faces this feller was making. Fear, terror, sulkiness, resentment, craftiness of the baser sort. None of it looked good on that narrow, warm brown face, which made Rhett hate him even more.

“I don’t know what I am,” the other Rhett finally said. “A man called me a doppelganger once, and I remembered it, because it tasted so strange on my tongue. But I … I have to borrow forms. Otherwise, I don’t look right, like a person should.”

“Your name?”

“My mother … she just called me Child. Before she left.”

Rhett snorted. “That’s no name. I’m gonna call you …” He looked it up and down. “Well, are you a boy or a girl?”

The other Rhett shook his head. “I take on the bodies I borrow. Right now, I guess I’m a girl.”

At that, Rhett snarled. “Not where it counts.”

The thing—Child—just looked confused and shifted uncomfortably. “As you say. This form has brought me nothing but trouble.”

“So it was you—out in the desert last night? Did you … did you touch me?”

Child nodded and unfolded from his crouch, relaxing a little now that Rhett’s fists weren’t doing anything threatening. “I did. Picked you out of the bunch. Figured you were the smallest and least noticeable.”

“Why not Sam, the blond feller? Wouldn’t it be easier to be white?”

The other Rhett’s nose scrunched up in distaste. “When I’m white, people in town expect more out of me. Manners and favors. When I’m brown, no one sees me.”

At that, Rhett relaxed a little. “Reckon I know what that feels like. So, you touched me, and you did your monster thing, and now you look like me. Then you came to this town and got caught stealing a horse. Is that about right?”

Child nodded. “Only way I can get by, really. Stealing stuff. You got any food?”

“What do you eat?”

The look Child gave him felt very familiar, although Rhett was seeing it on his own face for the first time. It was the look that said a feller was dumb as a possum.

“I eat food, dummy. Like I said. What, d’you think I eat rocks?”

Rhett’s fingers made fists, his knuckles cracking. “If you can’t tell me what the hell you are, how do you expect me to know what the hell you eat? Or why you’d need to steal a horse? Nothing you say makes sense. Just get a job at a ranch or sweeping up at a saloon and move on, like anybody else.”

Child seemed to be considering something. Across the room, McGinty popped out a loud snore and shifted his face on his sticky desk, the bottle nestled in the crook of his arm and the revolver clutched in his sweaty hand. They were about as alone as they could get, but Child leaned close and whispered anyway.

“Folks can smell I’m different. It’s like when a dog raises up its hackles, staring out into the night. No matter how normal I try to act, no matter how nice-looking the human face I’m wearing is, people seem to shift away when I get near. Nobody’ll hire me on. Nobody wants to be my friend. I keep trying new forms, but nothing works.”

“Ain’t you got a people of your own? Buncha … doppelthingies? Where you could be yourself?”

Now Child snorted. “No. Mama left, and it’s just me on the run. Never met another thing like I am, not that I’d know if I did. Being like me? You don’t know what it’s like.”

Rhett hopped up with his usual need to move when aggravated. He didn’t bother to keep his voice down a bit. The gall of the feller, stealing his form and telling him what he did and didn’t know about living in it!

“I reckon I’m accustomed to not fitting in,” he said. “I know what it’s like not having a people, not belonging anywhere. Never let it turn me to thieving, though. At least not horses from folks who need ’em. Reckon I’d find some sort of way to make do, if I was in dire straits. Sell pelts up north, maybe, or just live a quiet life in the desert. You got a choice about whether to be terrible or not. And I reckon it’s about time you take on somebody else’s form. I don’t care if you fess up to that sheriff or not, but I got important business on the other side of those bars. Unlike you, I got a destiny.”

“I can’t change,” Child muttered, looking down. “Not until I touch somebody else. Can’t go back.”

“Well that’s just dumb.”

“I didn’t make up the rules!”

Rhett held back from kicking Child in the face, but just barely.

“I think I’m done here,” he said.

Unbuttoning his shirt, he walked to the oiled silver bars. Child watched him, curious, as he shucked his eye kerch, boots, shirt, and pants to reveal the girl’s body Child knew well enough was under his clothes. Standing there in his altogether, Rhett noticed and hated when Child grimaced at the twisted flesh revealed by the kerchief, where Rhett’s own eye used to be.

“Let’s see you copy this,” Rhett said, and then he kicked his clothes closer to the bars and shifted into his other form: the bird. A lamb-hawk, its name was. Sam had told him he looked like a right big vulture with a bright orange ruff, but he reckoned he was still small enough to squeeze on through the bars made to hold a human. It wasn’t comfortable, and it took some force, but he made it. Once on the other side of the cell, he turned back into a human and pulled his clothes and boots through the bars. He kept his eye on the sleeping McGinty as he dressed, quickly, and fetched his gun belt from its hook on the wall.

“Let me out,” Child urged. “The keys are right here.”

Rhett stared at him as he buttoned his last shirt button. “Not sure that I care to. You might look like me, but I’m still a Ranger, and you strike me as both unlawful and dangerous. Can’t have you running around, wearing my face, doing more mischief.”

“Then I guess it’s my turn to ask what you are.” Child stood, angry, wrapping his hands around the silver bars.

“Why, I’m a monster,” Rhett said. “I’d think that was obvious.”

“But a different kind of monster.”

“Oh, there’s all kinds of monsters. I’m just a better one than you.”

Rhett looked at the keys, and he looked at McGinty, and he looked at the version of himself trapped on the wrong side of the bars. But letting Child take on McGinty’s form and setting him free—well, that would just mess up another man’s life in another way, wouldn’t it? Who knew who might end up in jail for Child’s thievery? Parents who actually loved their children, lawmen doing good work. No matter what choice Rhett made, it still felt unsettled, wrong. It was like a pebble tossed into still water, rippling out. There was no telling what damage might result from Rhett’s act of mercy. And it gave Rhett a goddamn headache.

As he put a hand on the door to leave, his Shadow sense went on alert. It felt like a stone had plopped into his belly. He didn’t have time to turn back around before Child was shouting, “McGinty, wake up! He’s escaping! The horse thief is escaping!”

For all that he’d been sleeping and drunk as a skunk, McGinty bolted upright, gun in hand, and started popping off shots. A lucky one slammed into Rhett’s arm, and his anger became a live thing, uncontrollable as a rattler caught by the tail. Whipping out his gun, he fired back, six quick shots followed by silence. Normally, Rhett was a sanguine feller, but once bullets were flying, especially at him in particular, he became something else entirely.

In the resulting quiet, he looked closer and saw that his aim had been far better than McGinty’s. The drunk man was peppered with bullet holes, flopped over his desk and glassy-eyed in a far different way than he’d been earlier. Rhett had also busted up his bottle, and the smell of cheap liquor mixed with the hot, coppery scent of blood, twisting up Rhett’s stomach like an old washrag.

He turned back to Child, who cowered in the corner, arms up over his head.

“You goddamn coward,” Rhett said. “That man’s blood is on your hands.”

“Not mine. I never killed anybody. You did that. You’re the monster here.”

Rhett shook his head. “I been through too much to take on your guilt as my own, but nice try. Enjoy whatever comes next.”

Glancing around the room, he saw that there was only one door, and it was the one the sheriff would be coming through, and soon. Nothing brought out looky-loos like a gunfight, and considering this one had occurred in the jail, he figured he’d be surrounded in moments if he didn’t hurry.

“You can let me out! I’ll be good! I’ll do whatever you say!”

Rhett rubbed his eye tiredly and figured this had to be what Dan felt like most of the time when dealing with Rhett himself. “That would mean more if I didn’t already know you were a liar. No, you’re right where you belong. Might as well be wearing my face. Not my first time on a Wanted poster for something I didn’t do.”

“But they’ll hang me!”

“Maybe that’ll teach you to be better behaved.”

Child’s face contorted into something truly monstrous. “You’re a monster!” he shouted, shaking the bars. “See this face? It’s ugly and terrible and cruel! This is the face of a murderer! You should be ashamed, Rhett Hennessy! If you leave me in here, you’re the bad guy!”

Child put his face right up against the bars and roared, and it was like Rhett was looking straight into his own face, cruel and angry and sad, and he had never hated anything so much. Fury burned up from his heart, and his teeth clenched until he thought they would shatter, and he grabbed the bars himself and put his face up to Child’s and roared right back.

Only the thump in his belly warned him that something bad was happening, and he barely stepped back out of range before Child tried to stab him in the gut with his own Bowie knife.

Pulling out his other revolver, he shot Child right in the belly.

With a cry of agony, Rhett watched the other man drop the Bowie knife to cradle a bleeding gut wound. Child sank to the ground, sobbing and grunting, and flopped over on his back. As he lay there, the brown leached out of his skin, leaving it a stony gray. Rhett’s black, frizzy hair folded down to reveal a bald, gray scalp, and his brown eyes went over all black. Child’s lips peeled back over two sets of teeth, its nose turning into slits. It reminded Rhett a little of a chupacabra but less reptilian, more monstrous.

“You shouldn’t have provoked me, idjit,” Rhett muttered.

“Didn’t think you’d actually shoot me,” the thing spluttered through a mouth that was nothing like Rhett’s.

“Then you didn’t know me as well as you thought you did, for all that you wore my face.” Rhett shoved his revolver home in his gun belt and bent to pick up his Bowie knife. “Never did like myself very much. I reckon giving me what I deserve is a rare enough pleasure.”

“Monster,” Child spluttered.

“Yeah, maybe I do deserve that. Maybe that’s two of us.”

Rhett straightened and looked down at the hairless, gray limbs twitching like a spider under a boot.

“That bullet gonna do you in, or do you have ideas about growing back your cut parts, like a regular sort of monster?”

The thing shuddered and sighed, its bald head flailing back and forth and its rows of teeth gnashing. Then it stilled and looked at him, its black eyes gone far away.

“I don’t know,” it said quietly. “I’ve never died before.”

Pulling his revolver again, Rhett shot it in the heart, and Child dissolved in a familiar and comforting puff of sand. All that was left in the cell was a pile of clothes and a pair of too-big boots.

“Lucky you,” Rhett said.

He could hear the jangle of bridles outside, the sheriff and his men on their way. Losing Child wouldn’t mean that much to them, but finding McGinty full of holes would cause no end of trouble. So, Rhett did a thing he never, ever did: He hid. There was barely room in the little broom closet, but he was a small feller, and he held his breath. Before that, though, he used the key ring on the wall to open the jail cell door.

Just as he’d expected, the sheriff and his friends ran in, saw their man down, noticed the empty and open jail cell, and took off running outside. Rhett gave them a few minutes to gallop away and crept out from his hiding place. He helped himself to some bullets from the sheriff’s store, reloading his revolvers. He switched hats with McGinty, for all that he hated the stench of the other man’s sweat. And then he moseyed on outside into the street like he belonged out there.

As he’d so desperately hoped, he found Sam just outside the jail, looking surprised as all hell beside his dancing gelding.

“Rhett, what happened?”

“If you don’t mind riding double at a reckless sort of pace, I’d be glad to tell you a few miles out,” Rhett said. “Just go the opposite direction of where that damn sheriff went, and we’ll figure it out later.”

With his usual agreeableness, Sam hopped into the saddle, pulled Rhett up behind him, and kicked the leggy horse into a run. As they passed the saloon on the way out of town, Dan and Winifred looked up in surprise as they waited with their horses and Rhett’s mare, Ragdoll. Sam didn’t slow down, but his posse knew well enough when to follow Rhett without stopping to ask questions, and soon they were running four abreast into the darkness, Ragdoll’s saddle empty and Rhett’s arms wrapped agreeably around Sam’s waist. They hid out behind some buttes, and when morning came, they found Cora and Earl and got back on the trail. Rhett kept his hat pulled down and his hand on his gun, but the sheriff and his men, as he’d suspected, were not good at finding their quarry.

He tried to forget what it had felt like, looking into his face and shooting a body that, in every respect, was identical to his. It had felt good, he couldn’t deny it. Something about the whole thing didn’t sit well, but no matter how much Sam and Dan asked him what had happened, he just shook his head.

It didn’t do, dwelling on such things.

He had more monsters to kill.

 

Lila Bowen is the pseudonym of Delilah S. Dawson. Delilah S. Dawson is the New York Times bestselling writer of Star Wars: PHASMA, The Secrets of Long Snoot, The Perfect Weapon, and Scorched; the Blud series, Servants of the Storm, the HIT series, Wake of Vultures and the Shadow series (as Lila Bowen), and a variety of short stories in anthologies such as Robots vs. Fairies, Hellboy: an Assortment of Horrors, Violent Ends, Carniepunk, Three Slices, and Last Night a Superhero Saved My Life.

 

Her comics credits include the creator-owned Ladycastle #1-4, Adventure Time comics #66-69, and Jim Henson’s Labyrinth 2017 Special from BOOM! Studios, as well as stories in Star Wars Adventures and Star Wars: Forces of Destiny for IDW.

 

Delilah is the winner of the 2015 Fantasy Book of the Year from RT Book Reviews for Wake of Vultures and the 2013 Steampunk Book of the Year and May Seal of Excellence for Wicked as She Wants. She has earned multiple stars from Kirkus, Publishers Weekly, and Library Journal for Wake of Vultures and Malice of Crows, as well as a star from Library Journal for the Blud e-novella The Damsel and the Daggerman.

 

She teaches writing classes online at LitReactor and lives in Florida with her family.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *