DRIFTER ON THE PLAINS OF MID-WORLD
A KAZEI 5 ELSEWORLDS
Part 3

Written By Michael Surbrook

Based on the film High Plains Drifter with influences from Stephen King's The Dark Tower.

Chapter Ten: Preparations

The Stranger looked down at the 'City of Largo Volunteers' from under the brim of her hat and wasn't impressed. For a militia they were a ragged bunch, what with a one-eyed sheriff, a preacher for the Man-Jesus, a barber who looked more inclined to shoot himself than any would-be enemy, and the usual assortment of carpenters, undertakers, leatherworkers, coopers, and so on. Not a single hard-caliber in the bunch—which was why they'd hired her, when you got right down to it. But, on the other hand, they were out here, each had a long file (as well as a few scatter-guns), and they were looking to her for guidance and leadership.

Striding back and forth before the saloon, the Stranger drew herself up to her full height (which wasn't much to be honest), and fixed the 'Volunteers' with a gray-eyed stare. "All right," she said pacing back and forth, making sure to look each person in the eye. "You don't want to get shot. You don't want your shops or houses burned. You don't want your loved ones touched. You don't want anything to happen." The Stranger paused and glanced down the line, which shuffled uncomfortably. "Except you're afraid to do anything about it. Or you don't know how...."

It was with much huffing, puffing, grunting, and groaning that the Volunteers clambered up onto the roofs and upper balconies of the buildings lining the main street for Largo. The Stranger pointed out many the same places she'd indicated to the sheriff, positioning gunmen behind the facades facing the street, or along the roof ridges of several buildings. As for herself she collected a beer from Aoi and stood out in front of the saloon, drinking it slowly as she waited for the wagon to appear.

Shoko and the Puma Sisters came roaring into town in the form of three grain sacks done up into vague humanoid shapes. Another bag served as the head with features drawn on in charcoal. Tied to a rail mounted on a small wagon, they looked like three crude scarecrows about to be taken out into the fields for the season.

The setup was very simple. Sheriff Ling Ling Li, Sandra Blackmore, and a drover would ride in André and Ayane's wagon, which in turn would be pulling a target wagon, to which the targets representing Shoko, Anna, and Uni had been attached. The City of Largo Volunteers were to fire on the mocked-up harriers and hopefully, literally blast the stuffing out of them.

It had seemed like a good idea at the time.

As shots flew the Stranger winced slightly. What the Volunteers lacked in marksmanship they made up for in enthusiasm. Rounds kicked up dust, smashed into the target wagon, punched holes in walls, and shattered windows. Ling Ling looked to be having the time of her life, while Sandra seemed torn between screaming in fear or laughing hysterically. The drover, for his part, remained stoically at his post, bring the wagons down the street, around, and back again.

Taking a drink of beer, the Stranger paused at the sound of the sidewalk creaking, then set her glass down.

"I don't remember lending my wagons to be shot up by those goddamned fools out there," André snapped. The Stranger could hear his boots on the wooden slats of the deck, as well as a second set—Ayane, his Lynx partner (and lover, she presumed). She took another sip of beer.

Annoyed a being ignored, André dropped his hand to his belt knife, nodding at Ayane to do the same. The Stranger had one hand on the rail and another on her beer and nether was near her gun. One swift strike and it would be all over.

"You' two are gonna look awfully silly with those knives sticking out your ass."

André blinked at that and glanced at Ayane. The Stranger stood motionless, watching the wagon tear by in a cloud of dust as Ling Ling yelled "Fire! Pull those triggers! Come on!" while shots peppered the air. Her free hand blurred and moments later four shots rang out, each one neatly separating a Puma's stuffed head from its burlap body, while the last sent Sheriff Ling Ling's top hat flying.

"You two still here?" the Stranger rasped.

André and Ayane exchanged another glance. "No, we was just goin'."

The wagon rolled to a stop in front of the Saloon's elevated porch. "Damn!" Sandra exclaimed, glancing from the Stranger to target wagon and back again. "Can you do that every time?"

"Damn right she can," Ling Ling stated with a look of pride.

Sandra looked at the three headless targets, her face creased by a smile. "We're not gonna have a thing in the world to worry about. This is gonna be a picnic!"

The Stranger absorbed this estimate of her shooting prowess stoically, looking almost embarrassed as she motioned with her beer glass at the street. "All right, keep 'em after it, huh?"

* * * * *

The Stranger stepped around the back edge of Aoi's saloon to find two Tepachi sitting in the shade, enjoying a drink and some lunch. "You men carpenters?" she asked around her cigar.

"Sĺ, seľorita." one nodded. "We do rough fixings."

"Could you make some big tables that a lot of people could sit at?"

"Like for a festival picnic?"

The Stranger nodded, gesturing with her cigar. "Exactly."

The two men glanced at each other, mulling the request over. "Well, you could use sawhorses and one-by-twelvers," one said, with a slight hesitation, as if he wasn't sure what was being asked for.

The Stranger nodded again, "Could you have them ready for me by tomorrow morning?"

Now both men nodded, warming to the idea. "If we have the lumber."

"You'll have the lumber." The Stranger gestured to the two men. "Come on with me."

Having watched this scene from the rear entrance to her saloon, Aoi felt she needed to say something. "You really plannin' a picnic?" she asked, not sure of what she was hearing or what the Stranger was planning.

"Any objection?" the Stranger responded, glancing over to her.

"No," Aoi replied with a shake of her head. "Just it's the damnedest thing I ever heard of."

The Stranger took a puff on her cigar and grinned. "You haven't heard the funny part."

"What's that?" Aoi asked, with a sinking sensation.

"You're furnishing the beer and whiskey."

* * * * *

Hans Adler set a length of window framing in place and tapped in a nail to hold it steady. His hotel was doing fine, even in times such as these, with plenty of residents and an excellent manager and cook, in the form of Sarah J Ferrari, despite her being a southern blue-skin and all.

"Preacher," he said greeting the black-haired woman as she stepped around the edge of the building.

"Good morning, Brother Adler," the Preacher replied with a smile.

"Mrs. Lake was just asking about you."

The Preacher stopped and clasped her hands together. "How is the dear old soul?"

"She's chipper as a jaybird. I don't know how she does it."

"She's got the strength of her faith, Brother Adler. Praise God and the Man-Jesus. The strength of her faith." The Preacher lifted her face and hands to the sky before resuming her walk. "Too bad about your barn," she said in passing. "Termites?"

Adler looked away from his carpentry. "There's nothing wrong with my barn. It's sound as a mark."

The Preacher looked surprised. "How come those two Tepachi is tearin' it down?"

"What?" Adler exclaimed, dropping his hammer before turning on his heel and running.

Crossing the street, he found things just as the Preacher for the Man Jesus had said. Two Tepachi, who normally did odd jobs around town, were busily ripping the sides off of his barn. His barn! Wasting no time, he shoved the nearest one to the ground and then grabbed the other, pushing him into the fence. "What do you greasy bastards think you're doing to my barn?" he snarled, figuring in a few moments there would be two less Tepachi in the world.

"Exactly what I told 'em."

Adler turned to find the Stranger and Ling Ling, compete with badge, gun, and top hat, sitting on the rail fence, smoking cigars and looking rather contented with themselves.

"We're requisitioning your barn, Adler," Ling Ling stated in an authoritative tone. "Any objection?"

Removing her cigar from her mouth, the Stranger gestured at the two Tepachi. "You men can go back to work."

Adler was at a loss. Nothing made any sense, hadn't since the Stranger had come to town. "Would you mind tellin' me what the hell's goin' on here?"

"You can help out too," the Stranger said, apparently ignoring the question.

"You want me to help you tear down my barn?" Adler sounded on the verge of tears, or, at least, utter confusion.

"Wait a minute," Ling Ling glanced at the Stranger. "Maybe he'd be better use if he'd help us collect the few little items we're still missing."

"Items?" Adler cried. "What items? What for?"

"You got the list, Sheriff." The Stranger nudged the well-endowed Elvan. "Read it to him."

Ling Ling produced a small pad of paper, squinting slightly as she tried to make out the writing. "We still need bedsheets... one barbecued steer... and 200 gallons of red paint.

"Red paint?" Adler asked, with an incredulous tone.

"We're counting on you for the bedsheets." Now the Stranger was pointing her cigar at him.

Adler stood up straight and tried to pull himself together. "Is there anything else?"

"Yes, there is," the Stranger nodded. "How long's it gonna take you to get everybody out of your hotel?"

"What?" It seemed now that Adler might in fact have gone insane, since nothing else made sense.

"Everybody out." The Stranger's voice was now a flat rasp, with a faint hint of menace in it. "How long is it gonna take?"

"I just can't--" Adler looked over at his hotel and gestured with one hand. "I got eight people living in rooms up there in my hotel. Where are they gonna go?"

The Stranger took a long drag on her cigar and studied Adler through a cloud of smoke. "Out."

Chapter Eleven: Fresh Horses And Fresh Clothes

Heading out across the bright white of the salt plain, the three Pumas had walked, and walked, and walked, and just when it felt like they'd reach their limits, they walked some more. The heat and haze sucked water from their bodies, while the glare blinded their eyes. By late afternoon they were covered in dust and their already threadbare clothes were even more ragged. Finally they reached the scrub that had been a green smudge on the horizon back at the prison. The trio headed west from there, up country, their going easier as the elevation went up and the temperatures went down.

Having spent the last year in a far too small cell, all three of them felt utterly bone tired and ached all over. At times, each was tempted to call it quits and collapse, but a dark glare from the other two would dispel that notion. The desire to see the town of Largo reduced to ash and many of its prominent citizens swinging in the bright sun at the end of a rope spurned them on, drove them to push themselves to the limits of their endurance. Finally, when all three had to admit they couldn't go any further, they plunged down into a thick stand of cottonwoods, and under the cool shade spotted...

"Water!" Anna cried, pointing towards the bright sparkle in the setting sun.

As one the three women broke into a run, stripping off their threadbare and filthy prison rags. Only their gunbelts—and the weapons residing within—were treated with any respect, and even these were tossed more than laid aside. The only pause in the headlong rush came when it was time to remove trousers and boots, resulting in the rather undignified sight of three tall Pumas hopping on first one foot than the other as they tugged their cracked and dusty footwear off.

Uni was the first to hit the river, virtually throwing herself into the cool expanse before coming up blowing and spouting. Anna followed, rising to run her hands through the sodden mass of her mane, combing out water, sand, and tangles. Shoko paused at the water's edge, tail flicking to the left and right as she scanned the seemingly isolated area. It seemed they were alone, but looks could be deceiving, and the last thing they needed was to be caught unarmed out in the wastes. Slavers, reavers, and harriers could be found out here, as well as Slow Mutants and strange beasts from parts unknown. Ears twitching at the faint sounds of the wind and birds in the trees, she took her time making sure the surroundings peaceful were are peaceful as they seemed.

"C'mon, Shoko!" Uni yelled. "The water's fine!"

Anna nodded in agreement, before bowing to rinse her hair in the flowing water. Uni reached over and tugged on her near-twin's tail, causing Anna to overbalance with a squawk and a fountain of white spray. Chuckling to herself, Shoko plunged in after them.

* * * * *

Their clothes, washed as best as they could in the swift flowing river water, hung from branches, drying in the late sun. The Pumas lay naked in a patch of the same, soaking up a little warmth and drowsing contentedly. For the moment, Shoko felt at ease. Anna and Uni were snuggled up on either side, the sun felt warm on her face and breasts and the cool breeze was welcome, drying her body even as her skin prickled from the slight chill, resulting in nipples that were currently rather distractingly erect. But it didn't matter, they were out of that damned dank, dark, shithouse of a prison and on their way to Largo, where they would pay back all the indignities they'd suffered behind bars a hundredfold.

Stretching her arms over her head, and arching her back, Shoko wriggled a bit into the grass and closed her eyes. Time for some rest. The killing would come soon enough.

* * * * *

Memphis glanced up from the cookfire and the water boiling over it to see a tall, dark-skinned and red-haired Puma come striding into his camp as if she owned it. "Hey!" he cried, standing up. "You should know better'n to walk in a man's camp and--" The sharp crack of a pistol cut off the rest of his nascent diatribe as a small red hole blossomed in the middle of his forehead. Dropping a ladle, Memphis toppled face first into the grass.

Pistols out, the three Pumas continued forwards, ignoring the corpse for the time being. The amount of gear scattered around the camp indicated there were more range riders then just one man. As if on cue, a man with skin the color of coffee beans hove into view, his arms full of dry wood. "What the hell is goin' on?" he asked a second before a bullet from Anna's pistol sent him tumbling backwards. For her part, Uni promptly dashed into the screen of trees behind the campsite, emerging a few moments and one gunshot later.

"Well, Shoko," Anna said, glancing around, "It looks like we got three fresh horses and a hot breakfast."

Nodding, Shoko raised a hand and gestured at the campsite. "Let's stay a while. We can eat and get packed." She dropped her hand to point at one of the bodies. "'sides, he's got himself some snappy clothes."

Chapter Twelve: Second Thoughts

Jason Stone stared out the window as Ling Ling and Sandra tore by in a cloud of dust, the wagon they were riding in bouncing and swaying. Shots rang out, and contrary to last time, none came through his window. A few, in fact, looked to actually hit the stuffed Pumas, although Jason had to wonder if that was a result of skill, luck, or simply throwing a ton of lead into the air. With a sigh and a shake of his head he turned back to his desk, the faint sounds of "faster" and "fire" following him, as Sheriff (and Mayor) Ling Ling exhorted her fellow townsfolk to greater efforts.

Sitting down at his desk, Stone didn't bother to look up as the door opened. He didn't need to, he knew Simon Heller had just come in, and by the sound of it, he wasn't alone.

"Any improvement?" Heller asked.

"Some,' Stone replied, setting some papers aside. "They haven't shot anyone yet, and I think the windows are safe."

Heller nodded distractedly, watching as the wagon went by on yet another circuit of main street. Behind him, Hans Adler stood, looking nervous, hat in hand.

"Hans and I were thinking," Heller said, "Maybe we were hasty in our decision."

Now Stone looked up. "What do you mean?"

"Maybe we don't need any outside help to solve our problem." Heller stepped away from the window and walked over to Stone's desk. "Hell, Jason, maybe we don't even have a problem. Every harrier that ever got sent up, went away saying they'd come back and get even, right? But can you actually remember anyone ever comin' back and doin' anything? I can't think of one. Can you?"

"You want to get rid of the gunfighter, is that it?"

Heller leaned on Stone's desk, looking him straight in the eye. "Jason, we've got to before it's too late. She's making a mock of this whole town. Making that Elven the sheriff."

"Kickin' my own people out of my own hotel," Hans Adler added, pointing out the window and in the general direction of the hotel. "Got half of the women in town sewing bedsheets together. Got those Tepachi down there building long picnic tables. Aoi Hari barbecuin' a whole damn steer."

"Some kind of a picnic," Stone agreed.

"Right here in our own town," Heller snapped.

"Sounds pretty good to me," Stone replied, his tone calm, a sharp contrast to his two rather agitated companions.

"What do you mean?" Heller asked suspiciously.

"It sounds like a good idea bringin' everything out in the open."

"This whole thing's all for nothin'," Adler declared, gunshots punctuating his sentiments, "Those three Pumas are probably all three blind drunk in some Nogales saloon."

Stone nodded agreeably, "Well, if they're dead drunk in Nogales, we'll know in a few hours. Surely we can put up with the woman for one more day?"

"No!" Heller replied, even more agitated then before. "She's got this whole town so people are turnin' on each other."

"What's the matter, Simon? Anybody special turn on you?" Stone asked slyly.

"You want to spell that out, Stone?"

"Spell it yourself." Now it was Stone's turn to stand up and place his hands on his desk, leaning over to face Heller directly. "I'm not gonna jeopardize everything I've built here because some blond bitch in heat threw you out of bed."

"Don't talk to me that way!" Heller yelled. Yes he'd dallied with Evelyn from time to time—Theresa too, both at the same time even, but who hadn't?

"I'll talk to you any way I like!" Stone shot back, his ire up now that his authority was being questioned. "I'll say what I have to say while I'm running this company."

"Say it, but you could listen once in a while yourself!" was Heller's retort. The two men leaned over Stone's desk, faces close together, unwilling to give an inch. Adler wrung his hands, unsure what to do, only hoping that if violence were to ensue, he'd be spared.

Abruptly, Stone sat back down, giving his partner a crafty look. "What's the matter? Not gettin' your fair share of the profits?"

"It's not the profits," Heller answered, his anger gone as quick as it had come, "This whole business has gone sour—ever since that deal with that former marshal, Nys."

"We had no choice in that matter and you know it." There was no way Stone was going to take the blame for that. No way in hell. "The big mistake was hiring that woman Nys in the first place." Sure, she'd been talk, and strong, and fast, and fine to look at, but she'd also been honest.

"You did that all by yourself," Heller pointed out, happy to get a little dig in.

That also set Stone off again, but he swallowed his anger (and a bit of pride) and continued, "Look, we can trust one another. We have to. This whole town had a hand in what happened." He stood back up and pointed at the well, his gesture encompassing all of Largo. "Why do you think Shoko and the Pumas kept their mouths shut all this time? Hunh?" Eyes narrowing as he glared at Heller, Stone answered his own question. "Same reason everybody else did in this town. One hangs, we all hang."

Pausing Stone took a deep, and calming, breath. "Now, Heller, you just grit your teeth a little bit longer. The gunfighter stays till I say otherwise. You understand?"

Heller did grit his teeth, and then turned on his heel and fairly stormed out of Stone's office. "There it is, just like he said," Adler said in his wake, "That stranger's got everybody turnin' on everybody."

Chapter Thirteen: Private Rooms

Paula Lars staggered towards the hotel's main doors, weighted down with bags of clothing. Behind came a young girl, dragging a small trunk. While the girl stared resolutely ahead, pointedly ignoring most everything going on around her, Paula spared a glance for the dark-garbed stranger who leaned back in her chair, feet up on the rail, calmly smoking a cigar. "Being put out in the middle of the night!" she snapped venomously. "The nerve of that woman!"

Standing next to André and Ayane's wagon, Ling Ling did her best to direct traffic. No mean feat considering the flaring tempers and general aura of unease. "Right here. Folks, put your bags right here in the wagon," she repeated, gesturing to open spots in the back of the buckboard. "All right, folks. Just put your bags in the wagon."

The Preacher watched the goings on with a look of disbelief. She wasn't sure why people were being forced out of Adler's hotel, but she knew it was wrong. It was wrong and someone needed to do something about it. Stepping up to the wagon, she tapped a distraught-looking Adler on the knee. "What's going on here?"

"What the hell does it look like, Preacher?" Adler replied with a snarl. "They're emptying my whole hotel. Throwing out payin' guests, right into the street—just to make room for our new guardian angel," he added with a sarcastic lilt to his voice.

Ling Ling gave Adler a withering glance. "She likes to be by herself, more or less."

Adler decided to ignore the Elven and turned back to the Preacher for the Man-Jesus. "You can see who's runnin' our town now."

"She's sitting right over there, Mr. Adler," Ling Ling pointed out. "If you don't like it... why don't you just go over there and tell her she can't?"

Fuming, Adler twisted around, one hand raised and clenched into a fist. "Ling Ling... someday soon someone's going to step on your pointy-eared head, you conniving bitch. And when they do, you're going to be nothing but--" The rest of the threat went unheeded as Ling Ling dropped on hand to the butt of her pistol, turned on her heel and walked away, hopping to the ground beside the wagon to continue the loading.

Digesting all of this slowly, the Preacher decided she needed to make a stand. Needed to tell the Stranger she'd gone too far. Defending Largo from harriers was one thing, but this? This couldn't go on. Setting her tall hat firmly atop her head, she stumped up the steps to confront the Stranger, who sat there, calm as could be, wreathed in cigar smoke.

"See here," she said harshly, "you can't turn all these people out into the night. It is inhuman, sister. Inhuman!"

The Stranger turned her head slowly, breathing out a cloud of smoke as she took her cigar from her mouth. She gave the Preacher a slow ankle-to-neck examination, noting the stark black clothing, the obvious hints of curves underneath, and the flowing locks of rich black hair. The Preacher felt a tad uncomfortable with the silent assessment, especially since she wasn't sure if the Stranger was looking at her as a potential threat or possible bedmate (she'd heard about what the Stranger and Evelyn had done in the barn—who hadn't?). "I'm not your sister," was the rasped reply.

"We are all sisters and brothers in the eyes of God and the Man-Jesus," the Preacher replied, feeling smug.

The Stranger gestured at the crowd in front of the hotel. "All these people, are they your sisters and brothers?"

"They most certainly are!" the Preacher replied with indignation.

The Stranger smiled, which sent a slight chill down the Preacher's spine. "Then you won't mind if they stay at your place, will ya?"

That made the Preacher take a step back. Stay at her place? The Church? She looked at the crowd and then back at the Stranger. Right, she knew what needed to be done. Turning around quickly, her waist-length tresses flying out behind her, she held her arms out in a placating gesture. "Friends, don't worry," she said soothingly, "We shall find haven for you in our own homes—and it won't cost you one cent more than regular hotel rates."

Behind the Preacher's back, the Stranger rose out of her chair with a smirk. Ms. Ferrari had just come out onto the porch, which meant—"My room ready?"

"The best in the hotel," Sarah replied in a tone as icy as her skin. "One for entertaining your many new friends in town, and one for sleeping, if your conscience lets you sleep."

"I sleep just fine, ma'am." the Stranger answered with a smile.

"Is that so?" Sarah sounded skeptical, as if she thought the Stranger probably never slept.

The Stranger gave Sarah's well-toned body a glance. "You care to see for yourself?"

Eyes flashing a mixture of shock and rage, Sarah spun around and stormed away, vanishing into the shadowed depths of the hotel.

Shrugging, the Stranger glanced over to where Hans Adler stood, silently watching the exchange. "You tell Miss. Ferrari there'll be three for supper. I like chicken, fried."

"And anything else?" Adler asked in a defeated tone.

"Yes..." the Stranger replied slowly. "Best bottle of wine in town."

Chapter Fourteen: Death Of A Marshall

Best bottle of wine in town. She'd found it all right, as well as the second best, and was currently about three-quarters of the way through it. Feeling rather content, Ling Ling Li swayed back and forth as she walked down the planked sidewalk connecting the buildings on the east side of town. The Stranger was up in the hotel, entertaining Evelyn and Theresa, the town whores. Ling Ling didn't like them much, mainly because they'd been none too subtle about trying to get into her bed. She didn't lay with women, and didn't sleep with David Lam either. He may be her master (or had been until recently), but her body was her own.

The sound of boots on wood made her turn to look behind her, long ears twitching slightly.

"You're out late, Ling Ling."

She turned back, pushing her top hat back from her face with a muttered "Huh?" Heller and André stood there, expressions blank and nearly grim. She stared at the pair rather uncomprehendingly, the wine she'd drunk having been more than enough to muddle her brain.

Taking a step forward, Heller suddenly swung his fist, crashing it into the right side of Ling Ling's face. She went sprawling into the sand, the wine bottle flying, and spent a moment scrabbling for her gun before realizing the situation and crawling into the dark shadows of the wide alley.

Light-sensitive Elven eyes allowed her to scramble into a safe spot between a pile of crates and a stack of barrels. She crouched and turned, one hand on the butt of her gun, the other pressed against the side of her face. Heller and André stood for a moment, studying the deep back shadows, before turning to look to the hotel, and the light that burned bright in a second floor window. Turning back to each other, they nodded and walked off.

Feeling rather ill from the wine she'd drunk and the blow she'd received, Ling Ling decided to stay where she was. She felt a sudden sense of deja vue, in fact. As if she'd been here, in this place, in the dark, before. She looked out into the street, to the front of the hotel and the saloon just down the way. Yes... she remembered now. It had been a night just like this one, and she'd hidden here to get away from David Lam, who'd been agitated and nervous all day, lashing out at her over the smallest trifle.

She'd been here, crouching in the dark when...

Shion Nys, the tall, white-haired, and extremely beautiful (so much so it was rumored she had Elven blood in her) Marshall for the town of Largo, swayed slightly as she made her way down the steps from the saloon. She'd had too much to drink again. But then, in a place as small as Largo, there was little to do but drink. She didn't much like it here in Largo. It was a small town, with small-minded people, who didn't realize they were little fish in a very big pond. Their self-importance annoyed her to no end, as did the pathetic and not-so-subtle attempts to subvert and cheat Barony law for their own ends. They'd hired her to keep the peace, and then complained when she tried to. Hired a trio of Pumas as "troubleshooters," to keep the mine secure, when it was obvious they were meant to be company thugs, strong-arms who'd see to any trouble all right—by battering the malcontent into submission—although she was more than willing to believe they'd probably shoot anyone who got out of line on general principals.

"Marshal."

The voice brought Shion to full alert and out of her semi-drunken haze. One hand blurred to her belt, to draw the heavy shape of her revolver. She actually had the pistol out and pointed to where it seemed the words had come from before the loud snap of a whip cut through the dark. The thin strip of metal-tipped leather wrapped around her hand, reflex causing her to pull the trigger, the loud report echoing in the night air as a cloud of sand and dust blew out from where the round struck the ground.

Gritting her teeth, Shion resisted the pull of the whip, actually managing to both keep her feet and drag her arm away from her attacker and towards the only person she could see. A tall shape, black against the lights of the town, moon and saloon lanterns giving her just the barest impression of rich red locks. With painful slowness she thumbed the hammer back, a second whip-crack marking another lash wrapping around her arm from the other side. The gun fired, the silhouette didn't flinch, and then her pistol went spinning off into the darkness.

The dark figure stepped forward, the light glistening from the faint sheen of sweat on her tanned skin and making her red hair glow slightly. With a sharp grunt she snapped her arm forward, the whip she was holding lashing out to take the Marshal—glaring at her from under flowing white tresses as she struggled against the other two whips holding her gun arm—across the face, the tightly-braided leather slashing the woman's cool gray eyes.

The scream that followed would have been heard by anyone in town. Should have been heard. Should have brought people running to find what had happened. Instead the streets remained empty and quiet. The only sounds being the hoarse breathing of Marshall Shion, the crunching of sand under the boots of her attackers, and the constant snapping crack of whips.

Shoko had killed a lot of people. A lot of people. She participated in range wars up and down the Western Plains, fighting with guns, knives, pikes, blades, and bows. Slow Mutants from the wastes, Elvans from the woods to the south, Lynx harriers, Puma bandits, and human farmers and ranchers. She'd dealt with them all. And she'd never seen someone take it like the Marshall. The woman was strong, hellishly so, strong enough to nearly break loose of both Anna and Uni's attempt to hold her steady. And she'd gotten not one, but two shots off, something Shoko would have never believed. No one, but no one, outdrew Shoko (or the Sisters), never mind getting a shot off. Bringing her arm back, she flicked the whip up and then lashed it forward, wrapping it around the dust-covered Marshall's throat. With a hiss of glee she pulled back with both arms, cutting off the expected cry of pain and bringing haughty, high-and-mighty, Marshall Nys to her knees.

Shion collapsed into the sand and dust of the street. Her attacker's whips had shredded her clothing, slashed her skin and flesh, and left her covered in blood, grime, and dirt. Her gun was gone, spun off into the dark when the metal-tipped lengths of braided leather had flayed the skin from her hand. She rose to her knees for a moment, questing with her left hand, her only good hand now, at her belt, and to the knife she kept tucked there. She sucked in a deep breath, then choked in a spray of blood as the three Pumas snapped their whips around her throat. With a wrench the tight coils of leather were pulled free, but the damage had been done. Her next breath was a hissing rasp, as she fell face down into the street, fingers clutching at the loose sand.

The whips continued to fall across her back, as Shion blinked blood, sweat, and tears out of her eyes. There, silhouetted against the lights burning in many of the buildings of Largo were it's good law-abiding citizens stood and simply watched. Stone and Heller, the mine owners were there, as was Adler and O'Brien. Evelyn watched from the saloon, her arms around Theresa, who licked her lips with hunger at each whip crack. And there, in the space between two buildings, was the Preacher for the Man-Jesus, silent and staring.

"Help.... me...." she whispered, wincing with each slash of the whips. Her blood stained her white hair red, had soaked into her clothing, and was starting to leave spots on the sand.

Hans Adler bit at his lip, but kept quiet. There was no way he was going to get in the way of three armed Pumas. Not to save some busybody Marshall who didn't seem (or want) to understand how things worked in the real world. Besides, they'd all voted on it, hadn't they? It was for the good of Largo, wasn't it? And...

The hotel's door opened as Sarah J. Ferrari stepped out onto the porch. Her blue skin had a curious cast to it in the lamplight, and looked nearly black in the shadows. Face set in an expression of fear, horror, and determination, she started out to the street.

"What are you doing?" Adler hissed as he grabbed Sarah by the arms.

"Hans! Let go of me! You've got to stop this!" She twisted and fought in his grip, blue-black hair flying.

Pushing Sarah back towards the door, Adler ignored her pleas. She was strong, yes, the work she did at the hotel saw to that. But he'd built most of it himself, and hadn't yet given in to soft living. "Not now, Sarah," he stated, as if they were discussing a Harvest Day picnic, dismissing her cries of 'let go of me.'

With a supreme effort of will, Shion raised her head from the dirt, glaring at the cowardly population of Largo, who valued money and gold more than law and lives. "Damn you all to hell..." she hissed with the last of her breath.

Chapter Fifteen: Welcome To Largo

Evelyn sat in front of the small mirror propped up over the table she and Theresa used to get ready. Their room over Aoi's saloon wasn't very large, and was made smaller by the presence of two beds, a dresser, and their so-called 'make-up' table, but it was theirs. Next door they had a second room with just a bed and a table, for 'entertaining.' Although, to be sure, they'd been damn little of that recently. Even the locals had apparently tired of them, what with Stone and Heller not having come to see them in months. Oh sure, they had each other, if it came to that, but a girl needed to eat, and not even rigged games of Watch Me were enough to bring in anything. They'd debated lowering their rates (and their standards), with Theresa going so far as to joke about making up a signing reading "A Buck A Fuck," but so far... nothing.

Brushing her hair out, Evelyn glanced at Theresa in the mirror. The other woman sat on her bed looking... morose? Tired? It was hard to say. She certainly had been angry earlier, what with Evelyn dallying with the Stranger in the stable and all. Perhaps she should have dragged Theresa away from the barbershop when she'd decided to make a play for the Stranger... or maybe not. With Theresa you never could tell. Her moods switched faster than a summer thunderstorm. Oh well, she'd tried to make it up to her, but wasn't sure if it had worked.

Silently, the door to their room drifted open, revealing the Stranger's dark-clad form in the mirror. Evelyn almost dropped her brush, while Theresa looked up with an unreadable expression. "What do you want?" she asked, before Evelyn could even turn around.

"Just a little pleasant company for supper." The Stranger smiled, giving her face a far more pleasant aspect than you'd expect. Evelyn felt her heart race—the Stranger was a rare beauty, under the dust, long coat, and broad-brimmed hat, and the aura of danger and menace surrounding her only augmented the effect.

"What?" Theresa gave the Stranger a dark look and then glanced at Evelyn. "Animal."

Evelyn let the brush drop onto the table and then turned around in her chair. "That was uncalled for, and you know it!"

"Now, now," the Stranger soothed, "there's no need for all that. I have a setting for three at the hotel. It would be a shame to have it go to waste."

"Thank you," Therese sniffed, "but I don't eat with dogs."

Now the Stranger's expression went dark. "You might, if it's a dog that runs the pack."

Silence greeted that comment. The Stranger took the opportunity to walk into their room and close the door behind her. She'd left her coat behind, and wore only her snug-fitting jeans and homespun shirt, which seemed to fit a lot tighter than it should. Both Theresa and Evelyn looked at the Stranger with expressions of desire mixed with a touch of anger and fear. Finally, they tuned back to each other and exchanged a knowing glance.

"Give us half an hour to get ready," Evelyn said, breaking the pregnant silence.

The Stranger let her gaze wander across both of their barely-dressed forms. "You're ready right now."

"We could be readier," Theresa replied with a seductive smile.

The Stranger nodded and stepped back, reaching for the door. "Half an hour."

* * * * *

Evelyn grabbed a chicken wing and began to devour it with all the energy and enthusiasm of a starving wolf. "You know, actually," she managed, between mouthfuls, "I eat like a bird." Theresa nodded in agreement, stuffing a biscuit into her mouth. The Stranger figured the two hadn't eaten this good in months, hence their all out assault on Miss Ferrari's rather fine dinner. As for herself she picked at her food, eating just a little, and snuck glances at Sarah when she figured no one else was looking.

Sarah glanced at the trio and shook her head. The Stranger she'd written off as just another bravo/bully with a gun, but to see Evelyn and Theresa act this way... disgusting, even if they were the town's fancy girls. Closing the kitchen door behind her, she set a dusty bottle on the table. "Here. The best bottle of wine in town. Ling Ling said she found it under in a hole under O'Brien's store."

The Stranger picked the bottle up and turned it to look at the label. "Huh... all the way from the Barony of New Canaan." She held it back up to Sarah. "Get the cork out, would you?"

Hiding her distaste, Sarah collected the bottle and prepared to go looking for a corkscrew. "Do you have any special request for dessert?" she asked, trying not to let the ice creep into her voice.

The Stranger glanced at Evelyn and Theresa, both busy with the chicken. "No, I've already taken care of that."

Brows furrowed, Sarah turned and stalked back into the kitchen, trying to ignore the way the Stranger followed the play of her buttocks under her dress.

* * * * *

Uni looked up from the hoof of her horse, her ears flat, tail twitching, face mostly hidden in the shadowy dark of night. "Can't fix that without a blacksmith or a vet. Maybe both."

Annoyed at the delay, Shoko glared at the horizon, almost wishing her hate was strong enough to destroy Largo from afar. "It'll be hell findin' either one out here."

"Look," Anna said, "I'll tell you something, Shoko. I think we've been pushin' too hard. Like as not, all three of these horses could have come up lame."

Uni nodded in agreement with her sister. "I feel pretty lame myself, not being on a horse after months in that jail."

"Back off, Uni," Shoko snapped. "Maybe we ought to leave you and the horse here."

"Now, Shoko, Uni didn't mean nothin'," Anna said. "She can ride double with me until we come across somebody." She glanced at her two companions and their mounts. "We'll all need fresh animals."

"All right! But quit cryin' about it." Shoko shook her head, pushing her heavy mane back from her face, her ears flicking up and down in agitation. "I'll tell you what, though. Soon as they find those bodies they're going to have a huntin' party out for us. And I want time to take one year of my life out of Largo before we move on.

"How long is that going to take, you figure?" Uni asked, as she mounted up behind Anna.

"A lifetime for some of 'em," Shoko replied with a grin, as she drew her pistol. Bringing the muzzle up next the animal's head, she pulled the trigger, the report loud in the quiet stillness. The horse made an odd grunting noise, snorted, and then toppled over into the scrub. Nodding to her companions, Shoko turned hers around, and started off for Largo.

* * * * *

Hans Adler stood at the podium and faced the crowd gathered in the Church of the Man-Jesus. Presently, there were more people here than the church had seen in an age, a fact that didn't seem lost on the Preacher, who stood to one side and wrung her hands. "Fornication and sins of the flesh," Adler announced, loudly. "That's what's going on under my roof right now while I'm talking to you. That stranger has taken over my hotel and thrown good, honest, decent folk out into the night."

Sandra smirked, figuring that what was annoying Adler even more was that he wasn't one of the ones committing 'sins of the flesh.' "Why didn't you stop him, Hans?" she asked. "You've got a gun."

"Shut your mouth, Sandra," Adler snapped back. "We're tired of giving you money for doing an incompetent job."

Standing up, Sandra clenched her hands into fists, fully intending to teach Adler a painful lesson. "Don't you talk to me that way!"

Eyes wide with astonishment (and a touch of fear), the Preacher stepped forward, arms outstretched, "Everyone! Please! Look at us!" she cried. "Sweet God and the Man-Jesus, look what's happening to us!"

Mopping his face with a handkerchief, "Adler nodded. "Right, it's just like the preacher says. That stranger's got everybody at each other's throats. She's set herself up like a king." Adler looked at everyone gathered in the room as he spoke. "She's got you all snake-fascinated, every damn one of you. This crazy picnic. Two hundred gallons of blood-red paint. It couldn't be worse if the devil himself had ridden into Largo."

* * * * *

Evelyn opened her eyes and stared for a moment at the ceiling. The room was calm and silent—somewhat of a far cry from the events of an hour or so ago. Next to her the Stranger slept soundly, her long silky black hair spread over the pillow, her perfect breasts scarcely covered by the sheet. She was so still Evelyn wondered for a moment if she was even alive, but quickly dismissed that notion. Raising her head, she looked across the Stranger to Theresa. The other woman was awake and sliding slowly out of the bed, pausing only to raise a finger to her lips.

Together to two slipped out of the bed they'd been sharing with the Stranger, freezing as she rolled over onto her side. Grabbing some of the clothing scattered on the floor, they dressed in complete silence, only exchanging a quick worried glance. Capable of moving with nary a sound if they needed to (considering the number of drifter's they parted from their money), the two opened the door and stepped into the hall.

The sight of Simon Heller looming out of the darkness made Evelyn's heart jump into her throat and nearly wrecked the whole deal as she (and Theresa) stifled a scream. He glanced at the two of them, dressed in scant, nearly transparent nightgowns, and then jerked a thumb back down the hall, to the stairs. Pushing past, and doing their best to ignore the stares of André, Ayane, and the rest, the pair vanished out into the night.

Tapping the door open a crack, Heller glanced inside at the motionless shape of the Stranger. Nodding to the four figures behind him, he stepped into the room, hefting the thick length of hickory André and Ayane had armed everyone with. As the others gathered around the bed, Heller grinned at the shape under the bedclothes. "Welcome to Largo, you fuckin' bitch," he growled, bringing the club down with bone-cracking force. As if on cue, André and Ayane did the same, and then the rest joined in, rapidly reducing the bed to a tangled wreck.

Outside, on the landing that went past the bedroom window, the Stranger puffed her cigar alight and then touched it to the fuse of a small bundle of sticks of blasting powder, before tossing in the open window. It bounced across the bed, much to the surprise of Heller, André, Ayane, and the rest, finally coming to a stop in a corner of the room.

Heller froze for a moment at the sight of the hissing, smoking bundle. Dropping his length of hickory, he pushed on André's shoulder. "Let's get out of here!" he exclaimed in a panic.

Calmly making her way along the second floor landing, the Stranger jumped over the railing to land on the exposed strip of first floor roof of O'Brien's store. She then took a few hurried steps (one never knew how fast a fuse would burn after all), before dropping down to the relative safety of the far side of the store. A moment later, most of the upper floor of Adler's hotel vanished in a blast of white light and yellow flame. Glass shattered, the railing and support columns splintered, and the roof collapsed with a crashing groan, sending a spray of wood fragments into the street.

The explosion rattled the windows of the church and shook the ground. Inside everyone leaped to their feet, voices raised in a chorus of yells and a few screams. Within moments, the doors were thrown open and people started to stream out into Largo's main street.

Apparently unconcerned that her shirt was unbuttoned, the Stranger went virtually bare-breasted into battle. She held her revolver at arm's length, pulling back the hammer with her thumb. The first shot caught one of Heller's thugs as he came down the external stairs, pitching him through the rail to hit the ground ten feet below in cloud of dust. The second took André in the chest, toppling him from the stairs and through the hotel's grand front window. The third was aimed at Heller, but he pushed a blast-dazed Ayane from behind, so she caught the bullet in the throat and crumpled onto the bottom of the hotel's stairs.

Heller took this moment's respite from certain death to duck into the hotel, grabbing Sarah as she came out of her room to see what all the noise was about. She screamed in fear as he wrapped one arm around her neck and grabbed for for her wrists with his free hand. They struggled there, for a moment, in the hotel's hall, until the sound of boots marked the arrival of the Stranger.

She wasted no time with words, but simply pointed and fired. Heller spun away from Sarah, sending her to the floor as he staggered back and fell as well. Fueled by pain and fear, he scrambled out the back and ran for the stables.

"Simon!" Evelyn shouted as he ran past. "Where are you going? Simon? Take us with you!"

The two barely-dressed women dashed after the fleeing man, their cries frantic. "Simon, you bastard!" Theresa cried. "You better take us with you!"

Ignoring them both, Simon Heller vanished into the stables, as both Evelyn and Theresa followed. The Stranger, for her part, having come out of the hotel's rear entrance, wisely decided to stay out of the stable's shadowed darkness and await a clear target.

"Where are you going? Don't leave us here! She'll kill us!"

The cries became more frantic as the crunch of a horse's hooves on sand came closer. Finally, Heller appeared, mounted and trying to lash his horse into a gallop. Evelyn clung to one leg, Theresa the other. With a grunt, Heller kicked Evelyn away and then spurred the horse, causing Theresa to pitch over into a pile of hay.

Watching all of this over the barrel of her gun, the Stranger shook her head in frustration. Too dark and too busy for a clear shot.

Chapter Sixteen: A Lesson In Cruelty

"Oh, no! Oh, no!" Adler repeated as he came up the street, staring in disbelief at what had once been a fine hotel. He tripped over debris, stumbled up the stairs, and looked around, dumbfaced, at the ruins. "My beautiful hotel," he moaned, staggering down the main hall. "They promised me they wouldn't--" He voice died as he saw the Stranger walking towards him, buttoning up her shirt and casually smoking a cigar. She didn't way a word, just looked at him, which Adler felt was even worse than her actually speaking.

Watching her head out to the front, Adler suddenly felt a giddy sense of relief followed by renewed despair. "Ruined," he said to the air around him, as Sarah slowly made her way to the front. "A total loss."

In front of the hotel the people of Largo had gathered as moths to the flame, to look upon the new wonder, only the latest in a string of similar events since the Stranger had rode into town. "Didn't even touch my store," Johnnie O'Brien observed with a gesture before slapping Sandra on the arm. "I want you to watch that pilfering," he said, waggling a finger in Sandra's face. "I hold you responsible, Sheriff."

"I'm not your damn sheriff," Sandra growled back, her one good eye narrowed in anger.

"You." The Stranger's voice cut through the impending argument. "I'll need one, two--" she glanced at the remains of the hotel's stairs. "Two over there," she counted, before turning back to the town's undertaker. "I'll need four boxes from you." She then glanced over at O'Brien. "And shovels from you, so these people can dig the holes."

Taken back by the request, O'Brien was at a loss. "Well, I thought perhaps we could--" he stammered.

"Right now." The Stranger's tone indicated she had no interest in discussing the matter.

"Yeah," O'Brien replied in a defeated tone. "All right, everyone."

"Ehhh..." Sandra wasn't sure if her next questions were going to get answered, or get her killed, but she forged ahead anyway. "Were you here? I mean, did you see anything?"

The Stranger glanced up at the ruined second floor. "Somebody left the door open and the wrong dogs came home."

"Yeah..." Sandra agreed, realizing she had no idea what to say or do next.

"Get a shovel, will ya?" The Stranger was starting to sound irritated, and Sandra had seen first hand what happened when someone irritated her. "Yeah," she replied, glad to have an excuse to get away from the hotel and the Stranger's cold gray stare.

As the Stranger came down off the hotel's porch and stepped into the street, Jason Stone made his move. "I hope you're not going to blame us for Simon Heller's stupidity, because the rest of us here," he indicated the town behind him, "have, uh, have an agreement with you."

"Right now I don't feel too agreeable." Stone felt as if he was being looked down on by the Stranger, which was impossible, seeing as how she was at least half-a-foot shorter than he was.

"Well, um..." Stone swallowed his nervousness. "Maybe a little bonus will make you a little more appreciative."

"How little?"

"Five hundred a head."

"Five hundred an ear?"

"Done," Stone nodded his head. "Done."

The Stranger took a puff on her cigar and headed back into the hotel. Stone let out a breath and tried to relax.

"$3,000?" Adler whispered into Stone's ear. "You promised that bitch $3,000 after what she did to my hotel?"

"Promising's one thing. Paying's another," Stone whispered back. "She may just catch a bullet."

"You and Hans can grab shovels too," The Stranger said from the hotel's front desk.

Sarah shook her head in amazement. "I knew you were cruel, but I didn't know how far you could go."

The Stranger took a long drag on her cigar, took it from her mouth, and looked at Sarah through a cloud of smoke. "You still don't."

Still shaking her head, Sarah moved away from the front desk and out into the hall, gesturing at the surrounding wreckage. "It doesn't matter to you. I don't know where you're going to sleep now. Bodies everywhere." She turned back to the Stranger, "All the rooms are ruined except for my room."

The Stranger digested this for a moment and then cocked her head, giving Sarah a wry grin.

"Wait." Sarah didn't like that look. Not at all. "Wait a minute."

Tossing her cigar out into the street, the Stranger's hand blurred, catching Sarah's wrist. For a moment she wondered at the coolness of the woman's touch, then realization set in. "Oh, no! Let go! Let go! Hans!"

With strength that belied her small frame (Sarah was taller than the other woman after all), the Stranger fairly dragged Sarah into the back of the hotel. "Hans!" Sarah yelled at the motionless form of her employer, "Don't just stand there!"

Both wrists now caught, Sarah found the Stranger to have a grip like a vice. Heller she'd managed to fight to a draw, but this woman was something else. "Let go of me! Stop!" Her cries fell on deaf years, prompting a slight change of tactics. "Look, you don't need me. Let go! Let go of me! I don't even like...."

Kicking the door open to Sarah's room, the Stranger pushed her away, so she fetched up against the wall near her dresser. Another kick and the door closed with a slam. The Stranger than removed her hat, setting on one post of the bed, and then her shirt, to reveal a magnificently proportioned and muscled torso. Sarah felt her eyes widen slightly at the sight. Not since Marshal Nys had she seen anyone with a figure like that. Blinking way such thoughts and memories, she reached out to snatch up a pair of long-bladed scissors.

Settling herself down on the bed, clad only in her black denim trousers, the Stranger ran her hands through her hair, using her fingers to comb her long, flowing tresses back from her face. With a sigh of pleasure, she laid down, finally glancing Sarah's way.

"What are you going to do with those?"

Thinking of the Stranger's speed and strength, Sarah suddenly felt foolish, but steeled her resolve to not be taken without a fight. "Defend myself."

"Against what?" the Stranger asked with a tone of curiosity.

"It's no secret what you did to Evelyn."

"Did?" The Stranger rose up on her elbows.

"The other day in the stable."

"Ahh..." The Stranger dropped back down on the bed, her breasts bouncing in a slightly distracting manner. Sarah flushed slightly. What was it with this woman? She may be able to twist everyone else in town to her will, but Sarah was determined to not be so easily manipulated. "As I recall," the Stranger continued, "she enjoyed that quite a bit."

"I promise you, I won't."

Closing her eyes, the Stranger settled herself onto the bed. "You flatter yourself, Ms Ferrari."

Her flush of embarrassment become one of anger. "I flatter myself?"

"Hmm...." The Stranger nodded. "I'd love to oblige you, but I've got to get my rest sometime."

Sarah nearly dropped the scissors in disbelief. "Oblige me?"

Opening her eyes, the Stranger rolled over onto her side, a smirk twisting her lips. "But if you come back in about a half hour... I'll see what I can do, all right?"

That did it. She lunged forward, scissors held high. "Why, you low-down, stinking bitch--" Her tirade was cut off as the Stranger's hand once again closed on her wrist. The scissors went flying, to clatter into a corner. A twist of her shoulders, and the Stranger had Sarah flat on her back, looking up at the other woman's face. Her waist-length hair formed a tent around them , shadowing the Stranger's features, through which her eyes seemed to gleam with hunger.

Sarah's attempt to scream was cut off as the Stranger's mouth pressed to her own. For a moment she was surprised to feel how warm the Stranger's lips were, while the rest of her body seemed so cool. She struggled, futilely, as the other woman seemed to be as strong as a Lynx, and held her to the bed with ease. One hand was sufficient to trap her wrists, while the other undid her blouse and then slid inside, to gently cup her breast, thumb stroking her dark blue nipple erect.

Closing her eyes, Sarah tried to resist the Stranger's kiss, gasping first for air when the Stranger pulled away, and then for pleasure as Stranger's tongue brushed across the tip of her nipple. Sinking into the bed, she stopped struggling, instead arching her back up and pushing her breasts out of her blouse. Yes... the Stranger may be cold and cruel to be people of Largo, but her lips were so very warm.

Chapter Seventeen: Hell

Bright morning sunlight streamed through the window, illuminating the Stranger as she slowly dressed. Sarah regarded her from her vantage point on the bed. She was still nude, not feeling the need to get up just yet. It wasn't like there was anyone in the hotel who needed her services, now was there? Besides, the morning sun felt good on her bare skin.

"Have you ever heard the name Shion Nys?" Sarah asked abruptly.

Tying her handkerchief around her neck, the Stranger glanced over at Sarah. "I've heard a lot of things. Why?"

"She was town marshal here." Sarah sat up and then gestured to the window. "She's lying out there in an unmarked grave." She shuddered slightly at the memory of Shion's body lying in the blood-soaked dust. She'd rather liked the tall, white-haired woman, and apparently had been the only person in town who did. "They say the dead don't rest without a marker of some kind. Do you believe that?"

Placing her hat on her head, the Stranger quirked an eyebrow. "What makes you think I care?"

"I don't know." Sarah felt a slight chill run down her spine, then realized the question was one more of curiosity than sarcasm. "She's the reason this town's afraid of strangers. I was going to warn you about that. Pretty funny."

"What's funny?"

The question stopped Sarah dead for a moment, and forced out a laugh. "You ask me that in a blown-up hotel, with seven dead to your credit already?"

The Stranger shrugged. "I was just stopping by for a bottle of whiskey and a nice hot bath."

"All right," Sarah replied with another laugh, "If you say so."

"You don't believe me?"

Falling back into the bed, Sarah shook her head. "Whatever you say is fine with me." As the Stranger made for the door, she rose up on one elbow. "Be careful. You're someone who makes people afraid, and that's dangerous."

The Stranger stopped at the door and looked over at where Sarah lay on the bed. "It's what people know about themselves inside that makes them afraid."

* * * * *

The crunch of shovels in dirt marked the burial of the André, Ayane, and the other two men the Stranger had killed the night before. The people of Largo, tired, sweaty, and covered in dirt and grime, mostly leaned on their shovels and watched as O'Brien and Korey finished filling André's grave. "I don't know if we shouldn't mark the grave somehow," Aoi asked rhetorically, mopping at her face.

"Sandra?" David Hark the undertaker asked, looking somewhat uncomfortable in his top hat and black vest.

"I don't see any need," Sandra replied, holding her hat in her hands and fiddling with it nervously. "Ain't likely anybody's gonna cry over 'em anyhow." Well, 'cept maybe Ayane, and then, only the menfolk who liked to watch her tail twitch when she walked by.

Ling Ling turned away from the burial scene and made her way to the Stranger, who stood in front of the sign giving the town's name. She was busy painting something on it, although Ling Ling stopped too short to see exactly what.

If the Stranger noticed the bruise on the Elven's cheek, she gave no indication, simply setting down her brush and pot of paint before speaking. "You know what to do."

"Yes, sir, captain," Ling Ling said with a salute and a grin. Turning around, she set her hands on her hips and stood up straight. "All right! Everybody grab a brush and start in."

O'Brien stood up straight and leaned on his shovel. "You mean, you want the whole place painted?" Ling Ling looked over her shoulder for the Stranger's response.

"Everything."

Arms crossed over the handle of her shovel, the Preacher looked up from under her broad-brimmed hat. "You can't possibly mean my church, too."

"I mean especially the church." The Stranger's voice didn't change pitch or timbre, but her tone certainly brooked no argument. The Preacher looked away at that, her face one of sadness and confusion.

"All right." Aoi said with a sigh. "I'll paint if you say we've got to... but when we get done, this place is gonna look like hell."

Chapter Eighteen: The Lonely Death Of Simon Heller

Blood. It was spattered over the ground here and there, forming dark spots in the dirt and marking lengths of dead wood and scattered stones. The Stranger leaned over on her horse and gave the drops a long, hard look. Simon Heller was dying, no bones about it. She'd caught him in the arm, must have, else she'd found his corpse by now. As it was, she was content to follow the easy-to-read trail all the way to the end. She'd see him dead, one way or the other.

* * * * *

Now fully dressed, Sarah J Ferrari sat in front of her mirror, brushing out her hair. Last night had been... interesting, to say the least. There were four new graves in the cemetery outside of town and the hotel was a wreck, all courtesy of the black-haired and dark-garbed Stranger, who now ruled Largo as her private fiefdom. She shuddered slightly. Largo hadn't been right since Marshal Nys had been killed. Hadn't been right at all. About the only good thing to come out of last night was the discovery that the Stranger made for a gentle and passionate lover, something she would have never expected, and an experience she doubted she'd ever consider again.

"Hello, Hans." Sarah said, as Adler came into the room. He looked somewhat distraught, not to mention sweaty and disheveled from digging graves all night. He nodded at her, glanced at the bed (now made) and then opened up the wardrobe, pulling out a fresh change of clothes.

"I want you to go to that meeting with me, Sarah," he said, pulling on a shirt and adjusting his tie. "It's very important."

Calmly, Sarah set her hairbrush down and turned to face Adler. "No. Not now, not ever."

"They are still your neighbors!" Adler yelled, a bit taken aback by Sarah's bold statement. What was it with the Stranger? he wondered, who seemed to sew dissent and trouble where ever she went. And just what had she done to Sarah in the night? (Well, he sort of suspected what had happened, but had to wonder if something else had gone on.)

"Yes, they're my neighbors, and they make me sick." Sarah stood up and took a step towards Adler, who actually retreated one himself. "Hiding behind words like faith, peace, and trust."

"Good words," Adler nodded. "Damn good words."

Another step closer. "But we hid a murder behind them."

Adler, in the process of hanging up his sweat-stained clothing from the night before, threw his old shirt down in the bed. "Will you never understand, woman?" he cried. "That wasn't anything we wanted to do. When Nys found out the mine was on Baronial property—it was just a technicality, really—but she was determined to report it." He paused and shook his head. "Wouldn't listen to reason."

"Is that why?" Sarah asked accusingly. "Is that really why it happened?"

"Don't you see, Sarah?" Adler pleaded, sounding almost as if he was trying to convince himself. "The Barony would have taken over the mine. Closed it down. Do you know what would've happened to this town then?" He shook his head, talking more to his hands than Sarah herself. "It would've been the end of everything we've worked on. All of it, all of us. And you too, Sarah." He looked up, his jaw set, his gaze wandering from Sarah to the view out the window. "Sometimes we have to do what's necessary to do, for the good of everybody. That's the price of progress."

"And what's the price of a human life?" Sarah replied, turning Adler's face with her hands so he would look at her. "Ask your good friends if they know that."

Pushing her hand away, Adler shrugged and stepped back. "Your damn conscience. It's sure taken a hell of a while to bother you."

Sarah stung a little from that remark. He was right, it had taken far too long for her conscience to make itself known to her. She should have done this sooner, far sooner. Like right after they'd dumped the box containing Shion Nys's body in an unmarked grave. "I'm packing to leave, Hans. I'm heading back down South, and I won't be coming back."

* * * * *

Anna glanced up from where she was adjusting the tack on her horse, ears flicking at the sound of hooves on gravel. A horse was walking slowly down the shallow gully that led to the bowl-shaped depression she, Uni, and Shoko were currently staying in. They were avoiding the ridges in order to keep out of sight of the people of Largo, who might just be waiting for them. So far, so good. But still... where had the horse come from? And who was on it?

She took a few steps away from her own animal and shaded her eyes with one hand. "That's Simon Heller," she announced to her two companions. "Or what's left of him."

"Well, now, what's he doing ridin' around like that?" Uni asked, poking up her head, ears twitching with curiosity.

"He's come back to pay us back for some jail time that was rightfully his..." Shoko grinned and set one hand on the butt of her gun. "Only he don't know it yet."

"Shoko, help me," Heller moaned from between parched lips. His face was pale and slick with sweat. Hair hung in stands across his eyes, while his white shirt, once clean, was stained dark with blood. "My arm. Help me. Help me, Shoko."

"I'm curious, Simon," Shoko remarked in a conversational tone. "You helped them railroad us, and then you've got the balls to come out here and ask us for a favor?" She shook her head. "Goddamn if I don't admire you."

"Do something about my arm, Shoko," Heller rasped, before sliding off his horse to land with a thump amid a cloud of dust.

Crouching down on her haunches next to the dying man, Shoko produced a length of wood and a knife and commenced to shave one end down to a point. "I am doing something, Simon. I'm sitting here watching you bleed to death."

Simon reached up, gasping at air and Shoko's arm. "Things have changed in Largo," he gasped. "You need me. I gotta tell you about it."

Shoko smirked. "From the looks of your arm, Simon, you've run your welcome out in Largo, and ours too." She glanced up at Anna and Uni, who stood over her, hungry grins on their faces. "The girls want to know how we're gonna get twelve months' back pay, and everything else that's owed us."

"Shoko..." Heller's voice was weaker. "For the sake of the Man-Jesus."

Slapping his hand away worth a look of annoyance, Shoko waved her sharpened stake under Heller's nose. "No. For our sake." She leaned back and looked over to where Largo lay in the distance. "You can help us, and you can help yourself too. Just give me the combination to that big iron box in your office...." She looked back down at Heller with a friendly grin, "And me and the girls will sneak in there real quiet like," she made walking motions with her fingers. "Take what's ours... bring you the rest, or leave it there safe and sound."

Pausing, she patted Heller on the heard. "First, of course, we'll fix up your arm—and set you over there in the shade, with a nice canteen full of water."

"You no-good, worthless, conniving bitch...." Heller gasped.

Shoko shrugged. "You're probably right about that," she said and then leaned over Heller's body. "Give me that combination, Simon.".

"I..." Heller swallowed and tried again. "I wouldn't give you the combination to the gates of Hell."

Nodding, Shoko sat up, glanced up at Anna and Uni, and then rammed the point of her stake into Heller's throat. He gagged and then uttered a wet gurgle, his body bucking and writhing for a few moments, hands clawing weakly at the length of wood buried in his neck. Reaching over, Shoko yanked the branch back out, blinking slightly at the thick spray of blood.

"Uhh... dog!" Anna grinned at her companions as Heller continued to spasm weakly. "Sure had a lot of blood left in him, didn't he?"

"We don't need him," Shoko said, dismissing Heller's corpse with a wave of her hand. "Two blasting sticks will take care of that iron box anyway." She turned to where the horses were tied up, Uni following.

The gunshot cracked out in the still morning air, the round impacting in a cloud of dust and stone fragments next to Shoko's boot. Uni went tumbling, head over heels, to roll behind a low rock wall, while Shoko jumped into the air and then dashed for the cover of a large boulder. Two more gunshots followed, then silence for a moment.

Up on the rise overlooking the hollow, the Stranger placed a single blasting stick, fuse hissing, keeping her head down as she lifted her long rifle out of the way. Down below the three Pumas fired wildly, each convinced they'd seen their attacker.

"Uni? You hit?" Shoko cried, as she fired off another shot. She was pretty sure she wasn't going to hit anything, but it didn't hurt to try and keep the other guy's head down.

"I don't know," Uni replied. "I don't think so. Damn near tore my leg off!" Behind her Anna scanned the ridgeline, firing at every moving figure she saw, which in most every case, was a shadow.

Silence reigned over the hollow for a moment, with all three Pumas squinting in the bright sun and trying to pick out something, anything, that would give them an idea of where their so-far unseen assailant might be.

"Who the hell is that?" Anna growled.

Shoko held her pistol tightly in both hands and pressed herself close to the boulder she was kneeling behind. "Must be Jason Stone," she answered. Sighting carefully, she fired at the stone-covered knoll she was sure the first shots had come from.

The resulting explosion took everyone by surprise, and made all three harriers duck as a shower of small stones fell among them. "What the hell did you hit?" Uni yelled, looking back over her shoulder.

Trying not to smile, the Stranger ignored the gunshots that followed—they weren't aimed anywhere near her anyway—and settled the long gun comfortably against her shoulder. Pausing to take a quick draw of her cigar, she lined up one of the three Pumas in her sights and gently squeezed the trigger.

Anna gave out a scream and leapt over the rock wall that surrounded the small well at the bottom of the bowl-shaped depression. Uni followed, while Shoko scrambled around the to the other side of her boulder. Anna's ear now bore a large hole thorough the center and blood was spattered across the bright gold of her hair. Both Shoko and Uni spotted the dark shape up the slope and fired, their pistol shots kicking up clouds of dust.

"Keep shooting, damn it!" Shoko yelled, feeling all control of the situation had completely slipped away.

"He shot my ear off!" Anna cried, one hand held to her head while the other probed the air with her pistol.

"Somebody up there's playing games," Shoko whispered, knowing that once she found out who, they'd wish it was only an ear she'd have shot off.

"He shot my ear off!" Anna repeated. Uni winced at the sight of all that blood. She wasn't squeamish, but usually it was the other people bleeding, not them.

Shoko spared a glance over her shoulder. "He could've shot your damn head off!. Now get down!"

The Stranger continued her slow circuit of the ridge around the small depression, snapping off a quick round—just to keep the Pumas honest. She had the trio good and spooked, and felt secure that she was out of range of their pistols.

Pressing herself close to the protective bulk of the boulder, Shoko pushed her hat back and studied the ridge. "Jason, is that you?" she called. "Come on out! We'll settle this. Simon was almost dead anyway from that arm! I just put him out of his misery!"

The Stranger felt she had to agree. Shoko had done Heller a favor when you got right down to it. Justice, in its own way, had been done. Puffing the tip of her cigar bright, she touched the fuse of a blasting stick to it and tossed it down into the depression below. Time for her to go and get the town of Largo ready to receive its guests.

The stick detonated with thunderous blast and a cloud of dust, smoke and rock chips. Debris sprayed the three Pumas, the impacts leaving them battered, bruised, and a little bloodied. Ears ringing with the blast, the three Pumas staggered to their feet, coughing and blinking. Anna and Uni clung to each other, the former's ear looking as if someone had taken a bite out of it.

"I'll kill you!" Shoko screamed, wiping at the splinters of rock on her face. Her hand came away speckled with drops of blood, making her even more angry. "You son of a bitch, I'll kill you! Come down out of there, you bastard! I'll cut your heart out!"

"Don't go up there," Uni said, grabbing Shoko's arm by the sleeve. "There might be more blasting powder."

Shaking her head like an angry lion, dust and bits of gravel falling from her thick mane of her, her ears flat against her skull, Shoko stared at her boots, taking deep gasping breathes. "I'll kill him, whoever it was up there," she growled. "I'll kill every man, woman, and child in Largo!"

Chapter Nineteen: "Then You Live With It"

Ling Ling stood, hands on her hips, and watched as two men struggled to erect the cloth banner the Stranger had ordered made from bedsheets. "WELCOME HOME LADIES!" it read in brilliant red letters. The town beyond was red too. All of it, from ground to roof, as high as everyone could reach. Main Street was walled in bright scarlet, capped off by the Preacher's once-white church, now the same shade as everything else. Ling Ling smiled to herself, when Aoi had said the town would look like Hell, she hadn't know how true it would be.

The sound of hooves made her turn, a shiver of fear running down her back. But it wasn't the Puma Sisters coming down the road, it was the Stranger, alone on her pale horse, long black hair flying in the breeze.

Stepping out into the road, Ling Ling tipped back her top hat and waited for the woman. She looked like she might have news, and Ling Ling wanted to be the first to hear it.

Bringing her horse to a stop, the Stranger looked at the freshly-painted town and nodded—everything seemed to be as she had ordered. "The guests are on their way to the party. Gather all the people together," she said.

"Right, captain!" Ling Ling saluted and then gestured to the pair erecting the banner. "All right, men, get that sign up!"

The Stranger guided her horse down Main Street, feeling a sudden flash of memory wash over her. Was it only two days ago when she'd first arrived? It seemed like she'd been here forever. She glanced to either side, nodding in satisfaction at the thoroughness of the paint job. Even nascent buildings still nothing more than framework had been painted, as had Adler's ruined hotel --or what was left of it. The Tepachi were putting the finishing touched on the trestle tables and the food was being set out. To her right the lake glittered in the sun, the water lapping gently at the shore. It would have looked downright festive—at about any other time but now.

Ling Ling jogged past at a trot, waving one hand over her head. "Come on!" she yelled "They're coming!"

Her expression neutral, the Stranger directed her horse over to Adler's hotel. He stood out front, still cleaning up the wreckage, with Korey, the saddlemaker's apprentice, helping him. She dismounted at the front steps and tied her horse to one of the support columns.

"All right, everybody, get a little move on!" Ling Ling's voice came from further down the street.

Looking over her shoulder as she finished tying her horse's leader off, the Stranger settled her gaze on Korey. "I want you up in that tower. First sign of dust, you ring the bell. You hear?" Korey nodded, dropped the scrap of lumber she was carrying, and took off down the street.

"Are you sure this is gonna be all right?" Adler asked as the Stranger started to walk into the hotel.

"It's gonna be all right," the Stranger replied as she passed, her tone not exactly a comforting one to Adler, who took a few steps and peered into the shadowed recesses of the central hall.

* * * * *

Ling Ling fairly exploded through the doors of Aoi's saloon. "She's back! She's here! It's time to get ready!" she exclaimed excitedly as she came up to the bar.

The reaction was to her announcement was underwhelming to say the least. Johnnie O'Brien just stared at her, as did Sandra Blackmoore, Jeremy Luckhestein, and in the back, Jason Stone. Aoi gave her a morose look from behind the bar and continued to hand out bottles and glasses.

"What's the matter with everybody?" Ling Ling asked, mystified. "Wait'll we gun 'em down."

An uncomfortable silence followed this announcement, as the gathered bar patrons exchanged glum looks and downed their glasses of beer, rye, and whiskey.

Jason Stone was the first to set his glass down. "All right, everybody, I think we're expected outside."

Aoi nodded. "I just hope that shooter we hired is feelin' up to snuff."

"Don't worry," Stone said reassuringly, "She'll be fine."

Taking a last swallow form his glass, Stone picked up his long rifle and set his hat on his head. "Let's go," he said, sounding as if he didn't expect to live out the next hour. Everyone else closed their eyes, whispered a prayer or two, and finished their drinks. Sandra went so far as to grab the bottle in front of her, just in case. Collecting their rifles and scatter guns, the patrons of Aoi's saloon made their way outside. Most of them looked like they were expecting to attend to funeral soon—their own.

* * * * *

Shoko, Anna, and Uni rode along the broad drift of sand that marked the lake's eastern shore. The wind was blowing in off of the water, howling around the twisted formations of rock that broke the lake's surface here and there. They urged their horses on at a steady pace, not so fast as to tire them out, but not so slow as to give anyone much time to mount a warning or try to escape. Ears flat, eyes squinting against the wind-borne dust, hats pulled down low and kerchiefs up over their mouths, the three were firmly set—no one would deny them their due.

* * * * *

Having gathered her few belongings (and said goodbye to Sarah) the Stranger exited the hotel, passing Alder on the porch, who was looking to his scatter-gun. She strode purposefully down the walk, donning her coat as she went, a cigar clenched firmly in her teeth.

"Seľorita, can we come to the fiesta?" one of the Tepachi asked eagerly, tapping her on the shoulder.

"No," she replied, without bothering to turn around—or break stride for that matter.

The two carpenters stopped with confused looks on their faces, Ling Ling taking their place, matching the Stranger's stride, step for step. "I want everybody to have plenty of those," the Stranger remarked as she passed in front of David Ganavan's shop and made her way to the saloon.

The Stranger entered the saloon with Ling Ling in tow, coming up to the bar where Aoi still stood, obviously nervous about the upcoming shootout. Nodding to Aoi, and to Ling Ling, she picked up a bottle and started to pour herself and Ling Ling a drink.

"Ain't it about time we got out there, huh?" Sandra asked, nervously.

"There's plenty of time," the Stranger replied in a low voice, exhibiting a calm certainly no one else in the town felt.

"But they'll be here any damn minute," Sandra continued, glancing at Aoi for moral support.

"I think Sandra's right," Aoi agreed. "We ought to."

The Stranger ignored them both, concentrating on her drink instead.

"What about after?" Ling Ling asked, looking over at the Stranger over the rim of her glass. "What about after we do it?"

The Stranger cocked her head and gave her a questioning look.

"What about after we do it?. After we kill them," Ling Ling explained. "What do we do then?"

"Then you live with it," the Stranger replied in a flat, dry voice as she set the bottle down and headed for the door.

Walking down the saloon's steps, the Stranger stepped out into the middle of Main Street, followed closely by Ling Ling, Sandra, and Aoi. She sipped at her glass of whiskey, looking as if she didn't have a care in the world—or that three hard calibers would soon be entering into Largo with the intent of killing every living thing they saw.

"Where you gonna be?" Ling Ling asked excitedly, "Are you gonna take the first shot?" She and Sandra paced the Stranger, while Aoi had stayed behind, with her Saloon. "Are you gonna get Shoko first? Or maybe you're gonna get all three by yourself?"

The Stranger sipped at her glass and smiled. She stopped in front of the hotel and looked out at the tables, which had been set across the road and covered with bright checkered tablecloths. Several woman were setting out plates of food. Ling Ling took a few steps further and then turned around.

"When are you gonna give the signal?" she asked.

"I'm not," the Stranger replied. "You are."

Ling Ling felt a touch of fear at that and gave a nervous chuckle. The Stranger couldn't be serious, could she?

Having emptied her glass, the Stranger took a long slow look around town. Each roof seemed to have a gunman or two, armed, as instructed with long rifles and scattered guns. David Lam crouched atop his barber shop, looking rightfully nervous.

"You people, move outta here!" Sandra cried, as she made her way up to the picnic tables, waving her arms.

Still turning, the Stranger was amused to see Adler up atop the ruined roof of his hotel, having found his way to the only secure spot left. David Ganavan was getting atop his shop and....

The sound of the church bell echoed through the town. Korey had done her job, kept a sharp eye, and was announcing the arrival of the oncoming Pumas.

"Here they come!" someone yelled.

Satisfied all was in readiness, the Stranger stood for a moment in the middle of the street, looking out to where the Pumas were riding into town. She could see the dust their horses were kicking up. It wouldn't be long now....

Tossing the empty glass aside, the Stranger walked past Ling Ling towards her horse, which stood patiently in front of Adler's hotel. As Ling Ling watched in confusion, the Stranger untied her horse and mounted up. She gave the Elven woman a nod and then nudged her horse into a walk—to the north, out of Largo and away from the oncoming Pumas. Everyone watched her go, faces fixed with expressions of silent confusion. She looked neither left nor right, but simply rode, apparently unconcerned with the town or people of Largo, and their inevitable fate.

Chapter Twenty: Welcome Home Ladies!

Red. The entire town was red. Someone had painted it while they were away. Someone who thought they were being funny. The three Pumas spurred their horses into a gallop and grinned at each other. They'd repaint the town red as well, but they doubted anyone in town would find that to be funny. Shoko's eyes flicked to the sign announcing the town of Largo. Someone had painted it over as well, but instead of covering the whole sign, they'd settled for just one word:

HELL

As they came up to Largo's one and only street, the sight of a banner, snapping in the breeze, reading "WELCOME HOME LADIES!" made them stop. Of everything they'd expected to find,this was almost certainly last on their list. Shoko looked at Anna and Uni and shrugged. It didn't matter. No half-assed attempt by the people of Largo to make amends was going to give them a year of their lives back. No, they intended to extract payment in flesh and blood—and bullets. Drawing her pistol, Shoko slapped her horse with her heels and gave a loud cry, galloping under the sign and into Largo. A moment later, Anna and Uni followed.

Almost instantly there was pandemonium. Ling Ling took one look at the oncoming trio and yelled "Fire! Fire! Fire!" at the top of her lungs, before ducking a shot that took her hat off. Anna whirled her lasso over her head, catching one of the tables and promptly dragging it down the street. Uni did the same, but grabbed Sandra instead. The one-eyed woman got one shot off with her scatter-gun (and hit nothing but sky) before being yanked off of her feet and down the street, screaming as she went.

A few would-be snipers fired their weapons, but the sight of the Stranger riding out of town had taken the fight out of them. Aoi took one look at the three Pumas, who were riding freely in the middle of town, guns ablaze, and ducked over to the far side of the saloon roof, hopefully out of sight and out of mind. David Lam fired one shot only to have Anna put a bullet in his arm. Falling backwards, he slid down the roof of his barbershop to end up flat on his back in a cloud of dust.

Uni had left Sandra in the road somewhere and wheeled her horse around at the far end of town. She found it to be the height of hilarity to see that the church was as red as the rest of town. That must have yanked off the Preacher for the Man-Jesus something fierce. A shot cracked by her head, making her ears twitch. There was someone in the bell tower, someone who'd been ringing a warning bell, someone who thought they could take down one of the Puma Sisters.... Pausing for a moment she sighted carefully down the barrel of her pistol and then pulled the trigger. As she turned away, Korey pitched forwards, long gun dropping from nerveless fingers, to tumble down the church roof, taking out the smoke stack and landing in a seemingly boneless heap in the dust.

"Stop!" the Preacher cried from the doors of her church, trying not to look at Korey's body. She ducked as Uni put a round into the doorjamb.

Shoko wheeled her horse, looking for anyone with a gun. She spotted Jason Stone coming out of the back of the mining office, a long rifle in one hand, a large travel case in the other. Kicking her heels she sent her horse galloping after him, trying to heard him up against the shoreline.

Stone stumbled on the loose stones that marked the edge of the shore and dropped both rifle and case. He ducked behind the outhouse for a second and then sprinted to the beach, sparing only a glance behind him. Shoko was coming and she was coming fast. His hat went flying and as he ran out of beach, he turned, thinking, perhaps, he could reason with the angry harrier. Shoko, for her part, had had enough of words. As Stone raised his hands, she put a round dead center in his chest, paused to cock the hammer back on her pistol, and then fired a second one. Stone staggered back and then fell into the water, staining the cool blue waters with billow of brilliant red.

Hans Adler had seen enough. Scatter-gun in hand, he ducked around to the side of his hotel trying to make his way to the stables, where he might be able to get a horse and get out. Anna fired two rounds over his head, causing him to throw his gun away and raise his hands in the air. "Don't shoot!" he whined as he stumbled backwards. "Please?"

Chapter Twenty One: "Who Are You?"

Largo was burning.

The flames roared in the night, sending up sheets of fire and billows of smoke, most of which was invisible in the dark of night. The Stranger had never returned, allowing the Pumas to run rampant over the town. David Lam's barber shop was a mass of flames, as was the mining office, and the uncompleted framework of a building going up on the south edge of town. Even in the saloon, where Shoko and the Sisters were currently holding court, one could hear the hellish noise, a hissing backdrop to the cries and screams as the three Pumas extracted their vengeance.

Sandra Blackmoore, beaten, bruised, and bloody, slammed onto the top of a table and lay there, moaning in pain. Shoko loomed over her, eyes narrow with anger, her ears flat against her skull. "A party? A party!" she snapped as she reached for Sandra's shirt and lifted her up to eye level, the former sheriff's feet dangling inches in the air. Uni reached out and slugged Sandra in the jaw, tearing her out of Shoko's grasp and sending her flying over a table and into a gaggle of Largo residents. Everyone went down in a tangled heap, but no one moved to help them up again, preferring to stare at the floor and avoid the gaze of the three furious harriers.

Chuckling at the site of the one-eyed woman laying broken on the saloon floor, Shoko gave Uni a nudge and picked up a bottle from the bar. "Welcome-home party, huh?" the tall, red-haired Puma asked as she swallowed a mouthful of whiskey, swirled it around in her mouth for a moment and then spit most out on the floor. "Well, here's to your party," she said, saluting the residents of Largo before hurling the bottle through one of the saloon's front windows. Everyone ducked the shattered glass, hoping desperately to not draw attention to themselves. Jason Stone and Korey were dead, and David Lam had an arm in a sling—not to mention Sandra Blackmoore lying bloody on the floor. The Pumas had shown they'd kill without the slightest hesitation and no one wanted to be next.

"Give me another bottle," Shoko demanded, holding out her hand to Aoi. To punctuate her request, Uni slapped the bar's countertop, causing Aoi to jump as she tried to pry the cork out of a fresh whiskey.

"Give me another bottle!" Shoko snatched the fresh one from Aoi and settled for pulling the cork out with her teeth, spitting out over her shoulder. She took a long swallow and then handed it over to Uni, who drank down her share. The two then gazed at the frightened townspeople pressed up against the walls, faces ugly with anger. "Well, now the party's over."

"Let go of me!"

Evelyn's voice cut through the moment's silence that followed Shoko's ultimatum. Anna came through the saloon doors, pushing Evelyn and Theresa before her. Both saloon girls were disheveled and dirty, their clothing in disarray. "Shoko! Look what I found in the bushes!" Anna crowed, pushing the weeping pair to the floor—and giving Theresa a good swift kick for good measure.

Shoko glanced down at the two women and smirked. "Well, well... look what we have here. Simon Heller's little play toys. Looks like you won't be able to fuck your way out of this one." She nudged Evelyn with the toe of her boot and chuckled darkly.

"We never wanted him to do this to you!" Evelyn pleased as Theresa nodded mutely. "We tried to talk him out of it!"

Shoko knelt down and glared at the pair from under the brim of her hat. "Yeah, yeah... I bet you two just cried yourself to sleep every night—thinking about the three of us in that Baronial prison."

"But we did," Theresa wailed. "We really did!"

Shoko shook her head. "Sure, I can see it all now. You two lyin' there in Simon Heller's bed... just a-cryin' and a-fuckin'. Must have broken your little black hearts. I don't need your pathetic attempts to suck up, I can find better than either of you in any four-bit fancy house." She rose, and reached out to the bar. "Give me that bottle."

Another long swallow later, Shoko twisted her head to work the kinks out of her neck. "Anna," she commanded, "go get the horses ready."

"You got it, Shoko."

As Anna pushed her way past, Theresa and Evelyn struggled to their knees, arms about each others shoulders. "Shoko... you're not going to kill us, are you?"

"We'll see," Shoko smirked before glancing up to catch sight of Anna still standing in the saloon's doorway. "You still here?"

"Damned right I'm still here!" Anna snapped, her damaged ear twitching. "I wanna know who them sons of bitches was that ambushed us. That's what I'd like to know."

Nodding, Shoko set her bottle down and glanced at Uni. "That's what we're gonna find out right now."

It was at that moment that the sharp crack of a whip cut through the night and Anna vanished out the saloon doors, a length of braided rawhide wrapped about her neck. She got of a single, choked cry, before being yanked backwards out of the saloon and down the stairs, to land in the sandy dust of Largo's main road. Struggling to rise, she gave a yelp of pain as a whip snapped across her legs. She managed to get to her feet for a moment before the whip caught one ankle and sent her tumbling down again. There was just the briefest glimpse of a long-haired and long-coated figure, silhouetted by the flames of a burning building and then the whip came down across her arms and face.

Anna rolled in the dust and tried to get up, get away, to escape the stinging bite of the whip. Her gun was gone, lost somewhere in the dark, while her unknown assailant seemed relentless, raining down strokes that tore at clothing and flesh equally.

"Who are you?" she cried, as the whip laid open the palm of one hand, bringing a sharp cry of pain.

Inside the saloon Shoko and Uni exchanged worried glances. They'd rounded up everyone in Largo, hadn't they? And there was no one in this pack of sniveling, back-stabbing cowards who'd dare such a thing, right? They could hear Anna's anguished cries, as well as the crack of a whip, but they remained frozen for the moment, confusion stopping them from rushing out into the night to confront their attacker (or attackers, as the case may be).

The rest of the townspeople stood stoically, almost as stunned as the Pumas. Only Sarah showed any reaction, twitching slightly with each whip-snap.

Outside, Anna had curled up on the ground, her injured hand pulled under her body. This left her back open and the Stranger made good use of the target, slashing the shirt to ribbons and doing the same to the skin and flesh underneath. "Don't hit me!" the once-proud Puma whimpered, the pain of her mangled ear now the farthest thing form her mind. "Don't hit me, please!"

Her cries, much like that of a certain Baronial Marshall a year ago, fell on deaf ears. The Stranger continued her relentless lashing, showing as much emotion in the act as a man might when he kills a bothersome wasp. Inside, Ling Ling came to realize what was happening and allowed herself a faint smile. Justice, it seemed, was being done.

The repeated cries of 'please,' inter-spaced with the crack of a whip came to a sudden end as Anna gave a loud choked gurgle. Outside, the Stranger put all of her unnatural strength into yanking on the whip, which was now wrapped around Anna's throat. The tall Puma thrashed for a few long moments in the sand then fell limp.

Uncoiling the whip from the harrier's throat, the Stranger gathered it up in her hands and then tossed over the swinging doors and into the saloon. It landed with a clatter on the floor, causing Evelyn and Theresa to scramble desperately way from it.

Everyone in the saloon regarded the bloody whip as they might a live rattlesnake. Only Ling Ling seemed happy to see it, and grinned openly now. Shoko and Uni stared at it in silence, until Uni finally turned to look at her fellow harrier. "Come on, Shoko. Let's get outta here."

"Shut up!" Shoko replied, waving one hand to forestall any more debate from Uni. Licking her lips, she looked at the whip, to the doorway,.and then to the gathered residents of Largo. "Okay... Everybody out." She motioned towards the door as Uni lifted her scattered gun as way of encouragement.

"Everybody out!" Shoko screamed "Out! Move!"

"C'mon, move!" Uni added. "Go on. Get out!" She prodded a few slowpokes with the muzzle of her scatter-gun. "Hurry up in there. Move!"

Pushing and shoving, the two Pumas herded the people of Largo out into the street. Once the saloon was empty the stopped at the top of the landing and looked down over the barrels of their guns. They could see Anna, dead, laying on her back in the sand. Everyone stood around her in a semicircle, curiosity over her corpse overcoming the fear of being so close to a dead body. Uni kept her scatter-gun close to her hip and looked to the left, while Shoko scanned to the right. But neither saw the lit stick of blasting powder arc out from behind the saloon to land next to Anna's body.

The gathered crowd stared at the hissing length for an uncomprehending moment. Then someone stated in a panic voice—"That's blasting powder!"—and everyone ran as a second stick came sailing in.

Within moments the street was empty, except for Anna's corpse, the two sticks, and Shoko and Uni, who had ducked down to either side of the saloon's deck. There was a tense few seconds as the fuses burned down, then....

Silence.

With no small amount of trepidation, Shoko walked over to Anna's body, trying to ignore the slashed wounds scattered across her face and arms. She bent over and gingerly picked up one of the sticks, only to discover it was a hollow tube and a length of fuse, nothing more.

"Shoko," Uni hissed. "The damn horses are gone!"

Throwing the fake stick into the sand with a curse, Shoko waved at Uni, motioning her down the street. "Go on. Go on!" she yelled, feeling panic starting to break within her. The two started down Largo's main street, Uni skirting the buildings to Shoko's right, while Shoko herself took to the middle of the road.

The only hint Shoko had of more trouble was a strangled cry and the sound of Uni's scatter-gun going off. She whirled to look where her partner was supposed to be, only to see the Puma writhing in the air, suspended by a noose that had been dropped around her neck. Pausing only a moment to wonder who in town could possibly be strong enough to do such a thing, Shoko then ducked down the street, leaving the still-twitching Uni to sway in the breeze.

The burning buildings cast a flickering light over everything, and caused the shadows to jump and dance, making Shoko nearly start at every perceived hint of motion. Her ears twitched, but she could hear little over the crackling flames. She felt the hairs on the back of her neck rise, and her tail lashed the air with nervous energy.

An oil lantern came flying out of the darkness. Shoko fired, shattering it into a flaming mass and then ran forward a few steps to blindly fire into the darkness between two buildings. She continued to dash up the street, now wanting little more than to put the town of largo behind her.

"Help me."

Shoko froze. She knew that voice. Knew those words.

"Help me!"

No. It was impossible. Marshal Shion Nys was dead and buried. She'd seen to it herself (with the help of Anna and Uni). There was no way she could be here. It had to be some sort of trick.

Swinging out the cylinder of her pistol, Shoko pushed out the empty shells and pressed fresh ones home. She tried to keep her fingers from trembling, but felt a shudder run down her spine. Someone was playing games here, and once she found out who, she'd make them pay... and pay... and pay.

Pressing the cylinder closed Shoko, looked up and over, catching a glimpse of movement out of the corner of her eye. There, across the street, in front of the burning mine office, was a shapeless black silhouette. She could see little, beyond the hint of hat, long hair, and a long coat, but the figure seemed real enough. Shoko walked forwards, her thumb pulling the hammer back on her pistol. The figure before her didn't move, be remained steady and still. Shoko grinned. Play games with her, eh? She'd see who'd have the last laugh.

As she came close, Shoko realized the light from the burning building made certain details clearer. It was a woman, a somewhat short woman, standing there, with long black hair blowing in the gentle breeze. Her hat was pulled down low and her coat hung down nearly to her ankles. Her only reaction to Shoko's approach was to pull back the flap of her coat with her hand, freeing up the butt of her pistol.

Shoko had seen such a move before and knew better than to give her would-be foe any chances. She brought her arm up and fired in one smooth motion, aiming for the center of mass At this range, there was no way she could miss.

The silhouette didn't so much as flinch.

The shadowy figured moved then going for her gun. A gunshot later and Shoko's pistol went spinning off into the darkness.

For a moment Shoko stared uncomprehendingly at her hand. She'd never seen someone do that. No one, not even the fabled gunslingers of New Canaan, was that good with a gun. She looked up at the shorter woman, who stood so calmly, stoically before her and shouted out desperately, "Who are you?"

By way of an answer, the Stranger cocked her pistol, then fired once, twice, a third time. Shoko staggered a few steps back, her shirt now wet with blood, and sank to her knees. "Who are you?" she whispered, before topping over into the dirt.

The Stranger said nothing. Did nothing. Just stood there, watching the harrier die.

Hans Adler crept to the edge of his barn and peered around the corner. He could see the Stranger standing there, cool as a water root, her attention solely on the body of the Puma she'd just gunned down. Well, she'd stopped them all right, all three of them, he had to give her that, but at what cost? His hotel, the mine, Largo itself, all ruined, by this self-important bitch who thought she could set herself up as a lord here.

He raised his scatter-gun to his shoulder, intending to make the Stranger pay for what she'd done. He'd....

A pistol shot made the Stranger snap her head around. Who'd fired? And at who? Alder's staggering out into the firelight answered her second question, while the appearance of Ling Ling, revolver in hand, settled the first. The Elven woman said nothing, responding to the Stranger's smile and nod of her head with her own, pained grin. As the Stranger had said, now she'd have to live with it. Although, truth be told, in this case, it wasn't going to be that hard.

Chapter Twenty One: The Stranger's Name

David Hark settled the lid to the coffin in place and then glanced over to the Preacher for the Man-Jesus, who stood there, Good Book in hand, and prayed silently for those who had died the day (and night) before. The sound of horse's hooves made both of them turn to see the Stranger on her horse, heading out of town. They said nothing as she went past, having nothing to say, and realizing that when dealing with the Stranger, it was best to leave well-enough alone.

The Stranger paused for a moment to watch Sarah place a few bags on the wagon she was packing. It seemed she was serious about leaving, not surprising with Adler gone. The Stranger smiled and tipped her hat. She wouldn't soon forget the time she'd spent with the blue-skinned Southerner. She also nodded to Sandra, who slowly, and painfully, did her best to clean up the ruins of the sheriff's office. It seems she'd survived the night in one piece, albeit the worse for wear. Tapping her spurs to her horse, the Stranger rode out of town.

Ling Ling looked up at the sound of the Stranger's horse. Gone was her sheriff's badge, top hat, and gun. Now all she had was a knife, which she was using to carve words into a flat length of plank. She glanced at the Stranger's face, mostly hidden by hair and the shadow of her hat, and then back to the plank, which jutted out of the ground at a slight angle.

"I'm just about done here," she said quietly.

The Stranger looked down and nodded.

Turning to look back up at the Stranger, Ling Ling squinted in the bright morning sun. "I never did know your name."

"Yes you do," the Stranger replied, glancing at the plank and then at the kneeling Elven. The statement made Ling Ling gape in sudden surprise and realization and a chill ran down her spine. The Stranger then touched the brim of her hat, "Take care." A twitch of her heels and the woman's horse jumped forward at a slow trot.

Ling Ling stood slowly, eyes flicking from the plank—in truth a grave marker—and back to the Stranger. "Yes, sir, captain," she said slowly, saluting the retreating figure and putting her knife away. As the Stranger rode off, Ling Ling blinked, wondering how the woman could have gotten so far in such a short period of time. She tried to follow the horse with her eyes, but even her Elven eyesight had trouble picking the animal out of the early morning heat haze. In fact, she soon realize she couldn't see the Stranger or her horse at all. Both had faded into the distance, gone from sight, but certainly not from memory. No... not from memory.

Turning back to the marker, Ling Ling pushed down on it for a moment, making sure it was firmly set. She then brushed the last few stray splinters from the words she'd carved.

MARSHAL
SHION NYS
REST IN PEACE

THE END

DRIFTER ON THE PLAINS OF MID-WORLD
CAST

(in order of appearance)

Marta Nys The Stranger In Black
André Teamster
Ayane Lynx Teamster
Tom Borders Would-be Hard Caliber and Outlaw
Dick Sharp Would-be Hard Caliber and Outlaw
Harry Morris Would-be Hard Caliber and Outlaw
Aoi Hari Saloon Owner
Evelyn Dancehall Girl
Theresa Morraine Dancehall Girl
David Lam Barber
Ling Ling Li Elven Indentured Servant to David Lam
Raven Clark Preacher for the Man-Jesus
Sarah J Ferrari Hotel Manager, Blue-Skinned Woman from Down South
Shion Nys Marshal for the Town of Largo
Sandra Blackmoore Sheriff for the Town of Largo
Jason Stone Mine Owner
Simon Heller Mine Owner
Hans Adler Hotel Owner
Johnnie O'Brien Mayor of Largo
Jeremy Luckhestein Bootmaker
John Sizemore Saddlemaker
Korey Saddlemaker's Apprentice
David Ganavan Gunsmith
William Case Warden
Shoko Puma Hard Caliber and Outlaw
Anna Puma Hard Caliber and Outlaw
Uni Puma Hard Caliber and Outlaw
David Hark Undertaker

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