Chapter One: The Showdown

"Not far now,” I yelled over my shoulder. Pa lay drunk in the wagon rolling behind the horses I guided, laid out from two pints of gut warmer drained before noon. Left me to finish a drive alone again. One cowboy, two hundred heads, and there’d be hell to pay if any disappeared. Pa’s been for certain about pulling in more pieces.

I pulled my shadowmaker lower on my face, squinted into the sun-drenched horizon past hoodoos sprouting from the badlands, and chewed at a piece of straw. It didn’t taste like anything, but kept my mouth wet with saliva and tricked my mind. Can’t remember where I picked up the habit. My skin had long ago darkened and tightened from the everyday sun, and long, wavy black hair had turned brown and flattened.

Not many drove the Old Road. No fresh grass or fresh water this way, and dry heat sucked moisture from bone. Wasn’t any shorter either, still a week’s ride to Junction, the first border town to the east. Not even marshals roamed this far from Homestead. Something else brought cowboys over the desert. Freedom. Liberty from the Syndicate and the gallows, no hangin’ for using what burned within.

A kick of my heels spurred Marrow to a slow trot along the cracked, dusty trail slowly funnelling between two cliffs. I passed a section of scorched rock, eyes following a wave of black growing higher and wider. Stretching from my saddle, I reached out and dragged fingertips against the surface. Sparks flickered and faded, the still air broken by sizzles and hisses. I gazed at the blue fire glowing through but not burning my saddle gloves, an ever-present itch just beneath my skin begging to be set free. The Blaze. Wicked, but powerful, even then urging me to wield the flame. But I didn’t.

Daylight slipped away, and I managed to drive the herd to Junction without issue, no need to draw upon the Blaze. The cattle marched quiet over a crest of rock and down until the ground turned to yellow, brittle weeds and prickle shrubs barely moving a breeze blown in by the dusk.

“Evenin’, ma’am.” A farmer walked besides, hauling a bundle of harvested corn.

“Evenin’.” Kept chewing my straw, staring straight ahead. Too many faces in my life, coming and going through the Outskirts. Didn’t need another.

“Quite the shadowmaker you got there. Never seen one like it.”

“That right?”

“Would pay a good share of pieces for it.”

I pulled on Marrow’s reins and stopped, turned my head and glared down at the farmer. My shadowmaker used to be Ma’s, quick as she was. One day she’d not been quick enough. With her last breath she had told me to wear it well, make her proud. Wore it every day since, though I wasn’t no fighter and likely never would be—not if I spent my days driving cattle. Pa had tried to take the shadowmaker from me once, probably for sellin’—the famous shadowmaker of Giddy O’hare—but I had fought back something fierce. That day I discovered the Blaze. Pa never tried again.

“It ain’t for sale.” I put ice and poison into my words, easy for a cowboy. The farmer took the hint and hurried away, circled wide around the herd now marching well ahead of me. Several other labourers scurried back to town, sometimes shifting heads and casting glances my way. Not many came by the Old Road, and those who did, like her, brought trouble.

Pa roused by the time the horses and wagon rolled up to the town’s gates, shaking his head and spitting the leftovers. No praise, no gratitude for lining his pockets, but I didn't expect any. Ten years since my first drive, and never a word of encouragement or smile. Just work. Pa didn't even pony for any new gear, and I spent most of my pieces getting equipped. Most. My fingers traced the single piece sitting my pocket. The beginning of my way out.

I nodded the brim of my shadowmaker at locals slack-jawin' at our entrance, just two cowboys and a two hundred heads. Gates opened, allowing me and Pa to steer the cattle inside, set to eating grass and standing around. We sauntered into the town like black thumbs, gawked and pointed at by old folk and youngins’ walkin the streets. Not too many cowboys came this way, only once in a while. More pieces for less work in the Core. Junction and its folk settled on the inner perimeter of the Outskirts, or the outer edges of the Core, depending on how you looked at it. Close enough to attract trade, get fed, but too far to earn respect, be protected. The Syndicate didn't care about towns like these. If bandits came, they came, and people moved on. Life on the brink, some called it.

Always looked forward to drives to border towns. The people shined brighter, played harder. Maybe that's why Pa took more contracts in these parts, never hard to find a game of vapour, far enough away from roaming marshals to gamble without fear of the gallows.

"Where's the saloon?" Pa shouted at a milkmaid cleaning her bottles under the water tower, spittle dripping down his chin and almost keeling over. The milkmaid soured and pointed to a three-story building nested between a smith and post office. Pa grunted, shook his reins and headed that way. I followed, but cast a sympathetic look to the woman, used to cleaning up after Pa's indiscretions.

"Stay here, Ellie," said Pa, dismounting and stumbling his way inside. I sighed, readied for a long night of waiting for Pa to lose his pieces and pass out with a belly full of whiskey.

Even at the evening hour, people worked. Not just piano players and dancers in the saloon, flickering light and laughter escaping the swinging doors. Outside, the smith hammered iron, forged by intermittent streaks of blue fire from his fingertips illuminating the registration papers hanging from his stall, clangs ripping the air and echoing into the night. Several folk tended horses tied up to posts, lumped straw beneath their stouts and filled buckets, and lit candles near their droppings, the mix of smells confusing my nose.

But the jewel of the evening lay with the Showdown. The Syndicate may not operate on the brink, but the Showdown circuits came this far and further, even to the edges of the Outskirts. Nothing fancy this far out, nothing wild like in the stories from Homestead, and no heroes or legends. Just plain old draw and shoot. Men and women, boys and girls, cowboys and charlatans, farmers and other folk, all roped into the border circuits by some misfortune or another.

When I saw the ring, the gathering of voyeurs around an erected platform, I rushed to the barricade around its edges and found an open space, stepped up on the wood and braced arms over, eager to glimpse the next draw.

Into the opening walked a man, wide steps and jingling boots, white ten-gallon on his head and a bristly moustache below his nose. Forty? Fifty? The wrinkles in his skin stood out despite the dusk. The fighter didn't bother to engage the crowd, focused only on the woman twenty paces away. She wore a striped barmaid's dress, red top, black bottom, frilled and puffy, and blond hair pulled up in a bun. An entertainer, she took time to walk around the barricade and drag a fingertip over the lips of howling locals, then pulled it away, revealing a tiny gleam of blue fire.

"Folks, tonight the Showdown offers you a fight for the ages." The announcer standing in the middle of the platform grabbed the crowd's attention, his words inflected and urgent. "First, a veteran of the circuits, born and raised a fighter, Blaze like you've never seen, I give you Jacob," the announcer elongated his next words, "Two-Twin Jacobs."

I pumped a fist as the rest of the onlookers cheered. Two-Twin was a veteran all right. In every town, I zealously sought information on the Showdown, heard tell of duels near and far, and so I recognized his name. Never seen him fight before, though. Never even seen a bounty poster, no wanted signs for a career fighter in the border towns.

My excitement faded quickly at the sounds of drunken gamblers pouring from the saloon. Pa used to love the Showdown, travel all around and watch Ma fell men twice her size. He had inspired my passion years ago, long before he lost himself to whiskey. Now Pa barely bothered, bristled at a mention.

"And his challenger, a local, you knew her well, stealer of hearts and pieces, life of barmaid in the saloon, now making her mark with her Blaze, it's Miss Poppy!" The crowd roared louder, euphoric with their Junction fighter. "You won't see this again for a hundred turns, I guarantee it. Bet those pieces, place your wagers, pony up if you're so sure. Who will it be, old and steady or young and unpredictable? The clock strikes soon."

The gamblers yelled in unison. Five pieces on the old man! Ten on the wench! Bet he downs her with one shot! Not a chance, sun sets for the old man! Pieces traded hands, flicked in the air, exchanged for slips of paper. Coins rattled in saddlebags and pouches. The commotion almost drowned out shouts drifting from the saloon, where no doubt Pa's game of vapour grew serious.

I frowned, just one piece in my pockets, residue from the last drive. I needed the piece, the first step towards something else, more than driving cattle between holes in the ground. Heard tell of a Showdown gang up near Tallhill, could buy in for training and all that. But the evening air blew different, shooed my caution. Would be a long time until Pa and I made it out west again, or anywhere near Tallhill. And stakes put the barmaid ten to one, offered a jump start toward my something else when I finally got there. New blood and an old man who didn’t look his legend. Seemed clear to me.

“I’ll put a piece on Poppy!” I flipped the metal in the air to the passing bookmaker, who caught it and handed me a slip confirming my bet. I clutched it to my chest and looked up and across the square to the town clock.

Less than one minute to the hour. Two-Twin and Miss Poppy stared at each other, oblivious to their surroundings, hands by their sides, index fingers extended from balled fists and thumbs stretched out. No regulators on their fingertips, no rules out here. The quicker draw took the day, the slower dead to rights and left to mercy. Sometimes they got it, and sometimes they didn’t. Life on the brink.

A crow hovered above, its caw clear and crisp. The frills of Miss Poppy's dress billowed in a faint breeze, and Two-Twins lip twitched, his moustache moving in unison. Silence fell about the crowd until only the ticking clock cut the evening. I heard my breath, squeezed a gatepost and leaned forward, afraid to blink.

Chime. The fighters reacted at once, too fast to perceive. Two-Twin snapped his hand from his side and pointed his extended index finger at Miss Poppy, the hint of a flame at his fingertip. He pushed his thumb down, a trigger, and his Blaze combusted with a sharp, loud crack. Blue fire shot toward Ms. Poppy in narrow, parallel beams, straight as a blade. But the barmaid pivoted in a circle at the chime, feet shuffling, frills raised and twirling, until she came back around and faced Jacobs. The twin beams singed her puffy blouse but missed their mark. As she finished her rotation, in one fluid movement, she clapped her hands together, index fingers side by side, cracking the air louder as her Blaze ignited, unleashing a rippling stream of blue fire, more flat than tall. It caught Two-Twin in the chest and knocked him ten feet back and to the ground, crumpled against the side of the barricade.

The gamblers roared, deafening the cries and whoops from the saloon, and pieces started changing hands again, diving deep into saddle bags, matched by curses and laughter. A man ran over to wear Two-Twin lay, dead as a doornail, a giant hole burned in his coat and a swollen bruise on his lifeless chest. The man stretched out a rope, took measurements for the coffin. Miss Poppy curtsied to the body before rounding the observers to collect her winnings. I tipped my shadowmaker at the defeated fighter, extinguished faster than greased lightning. Ma always said to respect the dead, especially Showdown fighters. Honour ain’t dead if even one person remembers, she said.

When the barmaid circled to where she stood, I held out her chit, beaming. “I picked you!”

Ms. Poppy returned the smile. “Smart girl.” She looked at the paper, frowned. “Just one piece?”

“Sorry, it’s all I have.” I jerked her thumb behind her to the saloon. “Pa’s in there spending the rest on whiskey and vapour.”

The fighter smiled, big and bright. “Gotcha. Bobbeh,” she waved to the bookmaker,” pay this doll her money.” Bookmaker Bobbeh waddled over until he stood next to the barmaid, head coming level with her shoulders. He inspected my paper and flipped seven pieces over the gate.

Hell, I had forgotten the rake. No matter, seven was still better than one. Ms. Poppy turned away, but before she moved on I blurted her mind. “Where did you learn to do that?”

“Do what, honey?” The barmaid looked over the side of her shoulder, eagerness on her face to keep collecting.

“Control your Blaze, make it ripple.” I held out my hands, tiny sparks at the tips of my fingers. “Mine just explodes out, you know? No focus.”

“Takes time,” said Ms. Poppy. “But a cowboy like you probably doesn’t get much opportunity to practice, drive to drive, marshals at your back.”

“You ain’t wrong.”

Ms. Poppy laughed, curled her finger and beckoned me closer. I leaned in and the barmaid whispered, “Only place you’re going to learn is in the Showdown, honey, where the money’s good. Not worth the risk otherwise; not even in the Outskirts. Tell you a secret, though. It’s not how pretty you make the Blaze; it’s how fast you are, how precise. Worry about that first before you look to entertain.” Ms. Poppy left with a wink, off to gather the rest of her prize.

I jumped down, boots sinking into mud which I scraped off as I made my way back to the saloon. Raised voices continued to seep into the deepening night, the game far from over, Pa still afloat, somehow. I rattled the seven pieces in my pocket, a fortune. Briefly, my mind flashed a new saddle. But no. Instead, I strolled through town looking for a market open at the late hour, which I found. Two pieces bought freshly ground coffee, a few husks of corn, and jerky. A hearty breakfast for a new day, and something to take the sting out of Pa’s hangover.

Satisfied, I sat on the porch, crossed my arms on my knees and rested my head, settling in for a later night than expected.

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