The gunslinger hauled himself out of his chair and crossed the room. His boots knocked hollow against the wooden floorboards. He pushed open the doors, and the creak screeched in the eerie silence of the street.
The gunslinger walked out onto the verandah. He expected to see the soiled doves displaying their wares for drunken cowboys, or gamblers stumbling from one saloon to the next. At least one brawl should have spilled out into the street. The gunslinger saw and heard no one. Not even the howl of a plains coyote drifted on the night air.
The gunslinger walked down the street. He looked at the empty buildings, peering through windows and poking his head around doors. He wanted to call out but he realised he didn’t know where he was. He didn’t know any names to call. A breeze gusted down the street, and cards skittered around his feet. He bent to pick them up. Two aces, two eights and a Queen. The memory of a gun shot crashed in his ears as he looked at the bloodstained cards.
I must be dreamin’, he thought.
He reached the railroad. A black horse stood alone in the middle of the square in front of the shack that served as a station. It whinnied when it saw him, and nodded its head. The gunslinger walked over to the horse, marvelling at the sheen on its midnight coat. He ran his fingers through its dark mane, the silver streaks sparkling like starlight in his hands.
“Who do you belong to, big fella?” asked the gunslinger.
The horse turned his head and nodded at the fine leather saddle on its back. The gunslinger shrugged, put his foot in the stirrup, and boosted himself up. He swung his leg over the horse’s back and settled into the saddle. The stallion whinnied again, and set off at a trot. They set off over the railroad tracks. The gunslinger spotted a wooden sign beside the rails. Hand painted letters spelled out the name ‘Sticks’.
At least I know where I’m leavin’, he thought.
He tried to guide the horse but the stallion stayed true. The gunslinger gave up hauling at the reins and sat back in the saddle, watching the moonlit plain go by. The horse broke into a gallop, and ran towards the hills that rose from the plain like sleeping levianthans.
The gunslinger held tight to the reins as the horse careered down a path into a narrow valley. Skeletal trees clung to the sheer rock walls on either side, and the stallion’s hooves kicked up a fine spray of pebbles and sand.
The horse came to an abrupt halt as the valley widened into a small quarry. A young woman sat bareback on a pearl grey horse. Her black lips broke into a grin, and she waved as the black stallion brought the gunslinger nearer.
“You’ve made it!” she exclaimed. Her voice buzzed with a millennia of rot.
“Who are you? Where am I?” asked the gunslinger.
“Well you’re Wild Bill Hickok, and you’ve just come through the valley,” replied the young woman. Stars glittered in the depths of her midnight eyes.
“Care to explain that to me, little miss?”
“Why don’t you ride with me?”
The young woman rode down the trail away from Wild Bill. The black horse trotted after, flicking his tail. Wild Bill stared at the young woman when the horses drew level. The horses whinnied a greeting to one another.
“See, you have to understand that you’re dead,” she said.
Wild Bill stared at her in disbelief, unsure he had heard her correctly.
“I know, I know, it’s a lot to take in at once. But you’re dead. You’ve been dead for quite some time but that hasn’t stopped you wandering about through time, has it?”
“Yes. Those blasted cards. You’ve been disrupting the timeline, shooting anyone that got the Dead Man’s Hand - or at least ensuring they got shot themselves. I’ve been trying to catch up with you for a while now.”
“So you’re....” Wild Bill’s blue eyes widened.
“Death. Yes. And you’ve been rather upsetting my system.”
The trail led into a lush meadow. Moths flickered above the emerald grass, their wings reflecting the light of the stars overhead. The sound of running water and laughter filled the air. Shades of people long gone drifted to and fro, pausing to converse with each other, the echoes of their voices reaching through the ages. Wild Bill recognised some of them as people he’d shot.
“I like you, really, I do. You’re one of the Universe’s true characters, Mr Hickok. But it’s time for you to find some peace now,” said Death.
“I guess I am kinda tired,” said Wild Bill. He stroked his moustache as he gazed across the meadow. His body convulsed in a deep yawn.
“You rest now. Leave the death side of things to me.”
“Alright, miss. I guess you know best and all.”
Death leaned over, and kissed him on the cheek. Wild Bill’s eyes closed for the final time.
* * *This is the final installment of a loose trilogy based around the Dead Man's Hand, the hand of cards allegedly held by infamous gunfighter Wild Bill Hickok when he was shot in the back while playing poker in a Deadwood saloon on August 2, 1876.
Part I : Part II