A Sky Full of Stars

Steven Wiles drew his razor swiftly across his chin, ending with a deft flick as he scraped the last remnants of stubble. He set the blade down carefully, next to the six pure silver bullets that stood in a line on top of the small wooden vanity. He splashed water over his face, running wet fingers through his graying black hair. As he reached for a towel he paused, staring into the mirror at the scars that covered his body, a historical map of a lifetime spent on the edge.

He traced his finger along a jagged mark near his navel.

Werewolf in Cheyenne.

He moved upward.

Vampire coven in Chicago. Tumblebleed nest in Reno. Union bayonet at Gettysburg. Walking dead in Atlanta.

His fingers stopped and circled a small mass on his right shoulder.

The Ghostly Gun.

He threw on a fresh shirt and buttoned it slowly.

The Rebs had put out a bounty on the black-clad gunman thinking it was simply a man they were after, but Steven knew better. He had seen the spectre survive hails of gunfire, shoot down entire groups of able-bodied gunmen, and disappear seemingly at will. If there was a God, the Gun was not one of His creations.

He fastened his gun belt and snapped open his Colt revolver. He loaded the silver rounds slowly, listening to the click of each bullet as it settled in the chamber.

He had hunted the pale assassin across half the northwest, and at every turn it had eluded him. Though the scar on his shoulder was a constant reminder of the danger of his quarry, Steven knew he was one of the lucky ones. He had witnessed the destruction the Gun left in his wake. He had attended the funerals. He had buried friends.

He slid into his brown duster and lifted his hat from its perch on the dresser.

Finally, in this little town in the Gomorra Valley, the Gun had remained still for a time, disappearing into the shadows of a traveling circus that had taken root in the outskirts. And if his information was correct, tonight would be his best chance to finally meet his target in the open, away from the safety of the sinister tents.

He opened the window of his hotel room and poked his head out into the cool desert air. Tonight, his journey here would end – one way or another. He tilted his head and stared upward into a clear black night sky … a sky full of stars.

* * *

Kevin Wainright flicked open his pocket watch. Almost time. “Let’s hope your information is correct,” he said, tilting his neck up to the man beside him.

“It is, little man,” Richard Slavin replied, without looking down. “You just stay up here and let the adults handle it.” He patted Kevin on the head and strode away.

Red-faced, Kevin lifted his cane and opened his mouth to shout, stopping short when he felt a firm grip on his shoulder. He turned to see the masked face of Jia Mein staring back,

an index finger pressed to the lips of his porcelain-white mask. Kevin nodded and tugged his waistcoat down to re-center himself. “Are you ready?” he asked the alchemist.

“Yes,” Jia replied softly, his voice little more than a raspy whisper. He produced a small wooden box from his leather satchel. “Our path will be clear.”

Jia rose and descended the hill overlooking the Morgan compound, followed closely by Slade Lighbody. The huckster

repeatedly cut a deck of playing cards one-handed as he walked. Bobo lumbered behind them, his great wooden hammer propped on one broad shoulder.

After Kevin watched the others pass, a shadow took shape from a small copse of trees on the hilltop, sliding smoothly into the form of a man from the behind the pines. Moonlight spilled across the trees, rocks, and even the blades of grass, but it did not fall upon him. Shrouded in darkness, only his white face protruding from under his wide-brimmed hat gave the shadow known as the Ghostly Gun contrast. Kevin gave him a nod, receiving a tip of the hat in return before the mysterious gunman turned to follow the rest, leaving him alone with the coach that had brought them.

“Soon, Ivor will have his prize, and I will be the one to deliver it,” Kevin smiled at the thought.

* * *

“Read ‘em and weep, son.” Irving Patterson fanned his hand onto the table with a grin. “Aces up!”

Nathan Shane tossed his hand down with a sigh. “Damn, old man, how many hands is that, now?”

“I do believe that’s five in a row,” Irving replied, leaning across the table to slide the bills and coins into his pocket.

“And I believe that’s my cue to leave.” Nathan stood and stretched, fighting back a yawn. Most of the men in the bunkhouse had begun to bed down for the night, and being the last man left in Patterson’s poker game had cost him enough. It was about time he rejoined Warren at the mansion. With Lillian out of town on business, their duties now extended to spending their nights ensuring the compound’s security. While the late hours were trying, the pair had made more money in their first month working for Lillian Morgan than they had during the whole of last year.

As he finished sliding one arm through his coat, he heard a loud THUD from outside. Before he had enough time to shoot Patterson a questioning glance, the window shattered behind him, and a small wooden box thumped across the floor, coming to rest near the foot of the card table. The container burst open, green smoke billowing into the room. More glass shattered as additional boxes crashed through the bunkhouse windows from all sides. Men fell limp from their bunks as the thick smoke enveloped the cramped room.

Nathan tried to pull his bandana over his mouth, but it was too late. He felt tired, his muscles suddenly unable to obey the simplest commands. He fell to one knee, bracing himself against the overturned card table. As his vision darkened, he cocked his revolver, squeezing off one round at the ceiling before falling to the ground.

* * *

Lane Healey stalked the deserted halls of the Morgan mansion, relishing the quiet. The rest of the men were at Patterson’s regular poker game, a game that Lane had been cordially invited to stay away from. Joining Lula Morgan’s camp had its benefits, but the camaraderie of the men was not among them. Not that it mattered; the tide of the Morgan Cattle Company was turning, and only fools chose to swim against the current.

As he made his way toward the staircase, a gunshot cracked the silence of the night. Instinctively, Lane dashed to the other side of the hall, pressing his back to the wall by the nearest open window. He craned his neck and quickly scanned the grounds below, but the pale moonlight revealed nothing. He slid the window open and sighted his rifle as he crouched low, balancing the long barrel on the sill. The landscape doubled in size as he took aim through the custom scope.

He scanned the pathway to the bunkhouse. All quiet.

He pivoted his view left towards the Gadgetorium. Nothing.

As he swung his view towards the front gate, he could make out several figures moving toward the mansion in the moonlight. As he strained for a better look, his eyes widened as the entire left side of the gate was ripped from its hinges by a large … man?

Without hesitation, Lane squeezed the trigger. The towering figure reeled backwards, and the gate fell to the ground with clank.

What the hell is out there? he thought, steadying himself for another shot. As he scanned for his target, a thick black mist began to rise from the ground, forming a swirling wall in front of the gate. He cursed as he searched for anything to draw bead on, but all his targets had melted behind the dark veil. Slinging his rifle over his shoulder, he sprinted down the hallway, sharply rounding the corner to the staircase. There, he crashed headlong into another man, knocking them both backwards.

As he regained his bearings, he instinctively drew his sidearm, only to find another pistol cocked and aimed at his temple. The perpetually annoyed eyes of Warren Graves stared back.

Lane holstered his sidearm. “I’m flattered Graves, but we’ve got bigger problems.”

“What the hell is going on, Healey? I heard gunshots.”

“I don’t know,” Healey replied, picking up his rifle, “but I doubt it’s good. Is anyone else still here?”

“Just the Swede,” Warren replied. “He’s downstairs … in the kitchen.”

“Good,” Lane said with a grin. Arvid Mardh would be worth three of most other men if things went south. He had always doubted that Mardh was called “The Butcher” just because of his day job. He checked the ammo in his sidearm. “Grab Arvid,” he said. “And be ready for anything.”

* * *

“What now?” Slavin asked, nodding towards the black fog that concealed them. Behind him, Slade was trying to keep Bobo calm. The burly clown’s overalls were torn where the bullet had torn through, and a small trail of black blood ran down the length of his arm, pooling on his rolled cuffs. If he was in pain, it wasn’t obvious. To Slavin, he just looked angry. “How do we get in?”

“A distraction,” Jia replied. From the mire of the black fog, a dark figure appeared, the smoke curling into the form of a man in a long, black duster. Slavin watched The Ghostly Gun draw his weapons and disappear through the wall of smoke in the direction of the mansion.

Soon, the sound of gunfire followed.

* * *

Warren crouched behind an overturned armchair, lowering his head just before a hail of bullets crashed into the wall behind him. From the corner of his eye, he saw Lane Healey dive behind a wooden serving bar just before three more slugs thudded into the oak. He fired two quick shots back at the aggressor, a tall gunman dressed all in black, with two long pistols drawn. The figure’s shoulder snapped back as one of the bullets landed, momentarily revealing a pale, featureless face.

At the other end of the room, Warren spied the towering Swede locked in combat with an large figure in torn overalls and flaking white facepaint. They danced in a macabre test of strength, leaving overturned furniture and cracked walls in their wake as they jockeyed for position.

Warren poked his head from behind his floral printed shield. The dark figure advanced slowly, guns trained on his position, waiting for a target to present itself. From behind the dark gunman, Graves noticed another man dash through the front doors and up the main staircase. Lane appeared to have seen him too. Warren looked towards the stairs and Healey nodded. Taking a deep breath, he rolled from his hiding place, drawing the fire of the black-clad man as Healey gave chase to the new arrival.

* * *

A back window of the Morgan mansion burst outward, shards of glass raining onto the wet grass. Arvid Mardh landed hard, tasting blood as he slowly picked himself up. His hand groped the damp ground, finally wrapping around the handle of the steel meat cleaver that landed beside him. He winced as he stood, his eyes narrowing as he looked back at the mansion. The creature stepped through the hole where the window had been, a great wooden hammer in its hand and a sadistic smile painted on its face. Arvid pulled a large knife from his belt, raised his cleaver high, and charged, swearing that whatever hell had spawned this nightmare was about to get it back.

He dodged the first hammer swing easily and spun, burying his knife between the creature’s shoulder blades. With a small tug, the knife came loose, an arc of black blood trailing behind. Twice more the clown swung his mighty hammer, and twice more Arvid avoided the blow, countering with deft strokes from his blades. The last cut caught the creature behind the right knee, dropping it to ground. Arvid kicked the wooden mallet away and raised his cleaver high to deliver the final blow.

However, as he brought the cleaver down he felt a sharp pain in his elbow, and his arm fell limp to his side, the weapon tumbling to the grass. He stared at the source of the pain, an ace of hearts that had imbedded itself in his skin, emitting a swirling purple aura. He turned to see a man in a suit and top hat bridging a deck of cards between his open hands. The trickster winked, and with lightning speed, he sent the top three cards of his deck sailing through the air. Arvid felt a cold sting as they buried themselves in his arms and legs, dropping him to his knees, unable to move his limbs.

He watched as the large clown pulled itself up from the ground and lumbered slowly to retrieve its hammer. He struggled mightily, snarling at the invisible bonds that held him as his painted foe shambled toward him, a low chuckle emanating from its mouth. The creature stopped and methodically raised the wooden hammer high into the air. Arvid spat a curse in his native tongue, and the clown smiled gleefully as it swung the mallet down.

* * *

Warren Graves rolled behind a sofa, narrowly avoiding a string of bullets that tore through the fabric behind him. He regained his balance and leapt to his feet, dashing towards the doorway to the kitchen, but as he ran through the archway, he saw a shadow materialize in front of him and stopped dead in his tracks. As the dark gunman took aim, he heard a gruff voice shout behind him, “Get down!”

Warren dropped to the ground as a rifle blast erupted behind him, sending the figure staggering backwards. He heard the click of a Winchester lever reloading, and another blast echoed through the dining hall. The spectre reeled backwards further with the force of the blast. The shooter walked past, firing and reloading smoothly as he advanced, spurs clinking against the wooden floor. Graves watched as the dark figure staggered backward from blasts that would have dropped a grizzly. Finally, the shooter closed in, leveling the rifle close to the figure’s chest. The force of the shot sent it crashing through the kitchen window.

Warren picked himself up and walked over to the window. The man who had saved him cradled his rifle in the crook of his arm, swiftly reloading. Graves leaned through the broken window and looked below, eyes wide. Broken glass littered the ground, but there was no sign of the gunman.

“No one said it was gonna be easy,” the stranger said, handing Warren the rifle. He pulled his sidearm from beneath his brown duster and grabbed a nearby lantern from its sconce.

“You got a name?” Warren asked, cocking the lever of the Winchester.

Taking a step through the broken frame, the stranger turned back. “Name’s Steven … Steven Wiles.”

“Thank you, Steven,” Warren nodded, and the two men stepped through the window into the night.

* * *

Gunfire echoed through the manor as Richard Slavin bounded up one side of the twin staircases. When he reached the landing, he dashed down the hall, smiling as his prize came into view. Before him hung a curved silver scabbard, adorned with gold trim and a cloth tassel, displayed with pride on the wall.

“Looks like the old drunk was right,” he murmured, reaching out to touch the blackened leather handle. He traced his finger along the golden curves of the saber’s handguard. Exquisite. Such a piece would fetch a handsome fee to any collector, and the power that lay within was intoxicating to think about. It was almost a shame to put it in the hands of a creature like Ivor Hawley, but a deal was a deal and he held out hope for more deals to be struck before it was over.

As he reached to take the saber from its perch, he heard the cocking of a gun behind him.

“And I thought you’d have wanted something important.”

Slavin sighed and slowly turned, hands raised. Lane Healey, standing tall in his well-tailored brown suit, was a few feet down the hall, pistol trained directly on him. As he began to think of a way to talk himself out of his predicament, Slavin noticed the air behind Lane begin to change, swirling and thickening into a black mist. He smiled.

“Something about this situation funny to you?”

“You have no idea.”

A pair of gloved hands reached out and encircled Lane’s temple. He struggled for a moment at the fine green aura that encircled his head, but after a moment his arms fell slack by his side, sending his sidearm thumping the ground. Soon, his limp figure crumpled to the floor as well, revealing the figure of Jia Mein behind him.

“Is he…?” Slavin began.

“No,” the masked man replied. “He is alive, but he will not remember. We must go. Now.”

Slavin nodded, snatching the saber from its perch.

* * *

The stranger knelt to examine the body, unperturbed by the bloody mess shown in the lamplight cast before him. Warren had turned away at the sight of Arvid Mardh, or at least what was left of him from the neck down.

Wiles cocked the hammer of his pistol and bolted to his feet, holding the lantern before him. “Back to the house,” he said calmly. “Now.”

As the two men began to back up, Graves heard a rustling from the nearby hedgerow, turning just in time to get a glimpse of a massive figure emerging from the brush. He and Steven dove opposite directions, each narrowly avoiding the arc of a mammoth wooden mallet as it smacked against the ground.

As Warren lifted his rifle to take aim, he felt the Winchester being torn from his grasp and watched as it floated through the air towards the hands of a thin man in a dark tuxedo. Steven’s gun was pulled from his grasp as well, suspended in midair as the clown pulled his hammer from the dirt, poised to strike.

Warren leapt in front of the monster, snatching the lantern from the ground and swinging it with all his might. With a sharp ring of shattering glass, the lamp burst against the clown’s chest, igniting its torn clothing in a brilliant orange fireball. The man in the suit stood in surprise, eyes wide as the flames grew higher in the night sky. The creature did not make a sound as the fire raged over it. Instead, it advanced toward Warren with two flaming arms outstretched. He rolled through the grass and grabbed his rifle, taking aim on one knee and unloading until he was out of ammo. The walking inferno staggered, dropping to one knee before finally crashing to the grass.

The firearms that were suspended in the air dropped to the ground as the man in the suit fanned several glowing playing cards in his hand. As he drew his arm back to throw, the bang of a pistol shot split the night, sending the purple cards sailing into the air. The man turned in surprise, and Steven Wiles walked from the shadows, fanning the hammer of his Colt to send the huckster hurtling to the ground, eyes wide.

The world seemed to spin in slow motion around Warren as Wiles helped him to his feet. He wiped the sweat from his brow and grinned, receiving a small nod in return. Suddenly, in the glow of the flames, Warren saw a shadow cross the other man’s face, and in a flash, he felt Steven’s hand push him down. He felt a sharp pain in his shoulder as shots rang out behind him. As he hit the ground, he saw Steven stagger backward with each loud crack, finally falling motionless to the dirt.

Warren spun his head, his shoulder screaming in pain. The dark gunman stepped around the burning corpse, the orange flames highlighting its pale face. It stopped, towering over Warren as it trained its pistol downward to him. As it took aim, another pistol shot rang out, causing the spectre to reel as a hole was torn straight through its shadowy features. An unholy howl erupted from the creature as it staggered backward. It dropped its gun to the ground, hands moving towards the wound at its center, bubbling silver in the moonlight. Finally, with a piercing scream, it dissipated into the night sky, scattering as the wind shook the pines.

Warren crawled over to the motionless Wiles. The pistol was still smoking in the drifter’s hand as he cradled his head.

“Did I … get him?” Steven asked weakly, a thin trickle of blood slipping from his mouth.

Warren paused, not really knowing the answer. From what he had seen of the ghostly gunman tonight, he wouldn’t be surprised if it was still alive somewhere licking its wounds. But as he looked into Steven’s eyes, feeling his chest growing more shallow with every ragged breath, he had to say, “Yeah, partner … you got him.”

Wiles nodded his head and grinned. “Damn … right.” With that, his body went still, a small grin still etched upon his weathered face, eyes still opened toward the sky … a sky full of stars.

Epilogue

“Ahhh!” Ivor exclaimed, lifting the scabbard from Kevin’s outstretched hands, “such a thing of beauty! You have done well, Kevin.”

Kevin grinned and waddled to take his place at Ivor’s side. The ringmaster gripped the hilt of the sabre and drew it slowly from its scabbard. A dull, blue light pulsed from the strange markings that covered the silver blade.

“Delivered, as promised,” said Richard Slavin from the corner of the tent. He struck a match across the tent pole and lit a cigarette. “Now, Hawley, about our deal. Whatever these items are for, I want in. You said –”

“Delivered, certainly … but not without cost,” Ivor said solemnly, removing his top hat and ignoring Slavin’s query entirely.

Kevin pulled a small flask from his vest pocket and poured the contents on the ground. “For Slade and Bobo.”

Slavin sighed and moved closer to the ringmaster. “Our, deal, Hawley?”

“Respect for the dead, Doctor,” Hawley said, his stare a quiet warning. “We have lost family tonight.” He turned to leave the tent, but Slavin followed close.

“I have delivered on everything – everything – you have asked for.”

Kevin waddled behind, shaking his head.

Beneath the open sky, Slavin quickened his pace, reaching out his hand to grasp the ringmaster’s shoulder. “I DEMAND –”

Hawley whirled, reaching out one gloved hand. Eyes wide, Slavin stopped abruptly, suspended mid-stride. His cigarette still burned between two locked fingers.

“You demand?” Hawley said quietly, tightened his fingers slightly. A hollow groan escaped Slavin’s lips, parted in a frozen snarl. “You will demand nothing of me.”

Hawley’s fingers closed tighter. A vein pulsed in Slavin’s forehead as more muffled groans came forth. Finally, Ivor relaxed his grip, and Slavin collapsed to the grass, shaking.

“I … I …” he began.

Breathing heavily, Kevin finally arrived at his master’s side.

The ringmaster spread his coattails with a flourish and bent over, his face mere inches from that of Dr. Richard Slavin. “You have something to say?”

Shaking, Slavin caught his breath and stood weakly, meeting the ringmaster’s stare. “I … must … know.”

Ivor nodded his head slowly. “And so you shall.”

Ivor raised a gloved hand, his eyes widening in a savage mixture of glee and malice. The sky around him crackled with a white glow. Before Kevin could blink, there was a flash of bright light, and Richard Slavin’s limp form crumpled to the ground, his cigarette landing in the soft grass.

As Ivor looked on, Kevin walked over and stepped on the smoldering patch, fervently twisting his foot into the dirt. Small wisps of steam were still rising from the body, curling into the air. Slavin’s face lay frozen in surprise, his mouth wide as if to scream. Kevin stared at the grotesque visage and smiled, unaware of the pair of eyes watching from the darkness at the edge of tent entrance.

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