Clothes, ammo, and food. Things that’ll sell even when people are scared and times are hard.

–far too many aspiring shopkeepers

Lucinda Clover, “Lucy” to everyone except for family, clergy, and possible suitors, figured since the law had gone underground, she’d better reprovision at the General Store while she had the chance. Xiong Cheng, “Wendy” to everyone who couldn’t speak Chinese, figured the trip to the store wouldn’t be anywhere near as safe or as quick as Lucy planned. Wendy thus accompanied her friend, not so much to keep Lucy out of trouble, but to back her up when it found her.

The General Store lived up to its signage, that a person could buy “all your goods” inside. Amidst the general panic in town, the ladies’ reputations preceded them. The proprietor, Mr. Homm, welcomed them and especially their ghost rock. Wendy had gone inside, initially to procure non-perishable foodstuffs, but appeared to have gotten into a conversation with a vaguely familiar woman apparently intending to purchase the same items. Lucy remained outside to gather various fruits and vegetables to have something other than dried meat, canned goods, and rock hard biscuits to eat. She was trying to decide between buying a handful of apples or oranges when she suddenly had far more pressing concerns about staying healthy than proper nutrition.

It started with something akin to a grunt from behind her—the kind bored people make when they see something interesting. She next heard the measured tread of several people approaching up the street, neither bothering to run nor hide their approach. Lucy stole a quick glance in the store mirror, sizing them up. Three men. Dressed and acting like they were dangerous, with an arrogant swagger that showed either inexperience or supreme confidence that nobody would possibly threaten them in any way. A posse of some kind?

No, they wore the red bandanas of the Sloane Gang. Even now, most folks wouldn’t start something with her, but Sloaners would definitely be spoiling for a fight. Two she didn’t recognize, but the third, apparently their leader, she had some run-ins with him. Some grifter, who kept insisting that he was a huckster even though he’d never so much as won a game of poker. What was his name again? Moone. It looked like he’d finally convinced someone to give him a chance to prove his grit.

Someone like Moone would normally never have gotten a chance with any gang, let alone Sloaners, and certainly not put in charge of anyone. Even the criminals were falling on hard times. It looked like Moone carried some kind of backpack along with a sort of walking stick? A gun of some kind? Lucy couldn’t get a good look without turning around, and she didn’t want them aware of her surveillance.

She had lost sight of Wendy, but Lucy reckoned the two of them should be able to arrest all three Sloaners. Then again, why bother? The law was in a bad state in Gomorra, and risking two of the few remaining Law Dogs in town for these three didn’t seem worth it. Better to keep a low profile. Hoping to hide her tense posture, Lucy hunched over a little more, picked a few random fruits from the baskets, and entered the store, hoping the men didn’t follow.

Wendy and the woman she was speaking to both looked up as Lucy entered. Lucy now recognized the reddish-blond haired woman as Sloane, former gang leader and their unlikely savior at the siege of the Orphanage. Lucy nodded at her, then turned to Wendy.

“We may have trouble comin’ up behind me.”

Wendy frowned. “How many? Who?”

“Three guys. Armed. Seem to be looking for a fight. Sloaners, I think.” She turned to Sloane. “Sloane, we might need your some help.”

The former outlaw put her palm by her holster, leaving her hand open. She took a step back, and hid behind one of the shelves. “Those dudes aren’t Odett’s minions. I’m not with the gang anymore, but neither is it my fight. By the way, I left Sloane behind at the Orphanage. Name’s Jessica, but you’re still on your own for this one.”

Wendy led Mr. Homm towards the rear of the store that would provide shelter if a fight started as she unslung her shotgun, one that had accompanied her through many previous fights. “Sir, we’ll do our best to keep these men from doing anything rash, but best if you get to safety.”

Lucy put down the fruit she had carried inside, and looked for a defensible spot in case a fight broke out. No such luck. Then, she ran out of time as the door opened.

She turned to see the three men, intent on trouble, enter the store. Moone brought up the rear, carrying that odd looking stick. She did not have time to focus on the item before the two in the front came forwards. One of them carried a gold-filigree pistol holstered low at his belt. The other clearly reeked of too much of whatever swill they still served at the Dead Dog Tavern. Nice Gun pointed at her. “You folks ain’t welcome here anymore.”

“My folks?”

“Law Dogs.”

The men glanced at the large pile of supplies next to her. They drew the obvious, but wrong, conclusion, as they looked back at her with avarice in their eyes. “But we’ll let you go if you pay a fine.”

Lucy thought for a moment. Wendy had insisted that she, not Lucy, was the logical one to trust with their combined funds. Yet the three thugs most likely wouldn’t believe her if she said she wasn’t carrying any money. Two men with pistols and Moone, in close quarters spelled trouble. Lucy shrugged to herself. Wendy was around somewhere, and had a knack for getting her out of scrapes. She gave the trio her most disarming smile.

“Sorry gents, I haven’t got any money. Don’t suppose you’d just move along and leave me alone?”

The one with the nice pistol started his draw. Lucy was faster and her shot left a hole in the door, by way of Nice Gun’s belly. He collapsed to his knees, hands clutching his gut. The other two hadn’t moved yet. They and Lucy circled each other, glancing down periodically at the groaning man, until Lucy’s back brushed up against the exit’s doorknob.

“It’s not too late for us to all walk away. You get your friend here to a doc, he might even pull through.”

Moone shouldered his way in front of Stinky Breath and brought his stick-thing across his chest, awkwardly hefting its apparent weight as he patted the handle. His rictus grin promised more menace than she thought he had in him.

“Putting you down is going to make my name, Deputy Clover.”

He waved his hand, and whispered some words she couldn’t recognize, but the padres would tell her to forget. The air shimmered, then cleared. Travis wasn’t holding a stick. It was a barrel and stock, and the bag on his back was a metallic backpack. With a sense of dread, Lucy realized that Moone wielded a flamethrower. And in the time it took for her to come to that realization, he’d pointed the barrel at her. Moone pulled the trigger. A plume of oily black smoke billowed towards Lucy.

Instincts that had saved her in countless gunfights took over. She threw herself backwards, knocking open the door, and sprawled onto the street, throwing up her hands to ward off the expected flames. In the back of her mind, she realized that this was a foolish idea. If the flamethrower worked, she was dead, hands-in-front-or-not. And if it didn’t, well, now her arms were out of shooting position. A few precious moments passed, as her senses registered that she had not been burned alive. Did the flamethrower misfire? Did Moone miss? It sure made enough noise and had filled the room with enough soot to make her think it had worked fine.

Blinking smoke from her eyes, she reoriented herself. Glass shattering to her right alerted her before her tearing eyes focused on Stinky Breath who had just shot out the store’s window. Smirking with exaggerated care, he levelled his pistol at Lucy. “I’m gonna shoot that tin star clear off your chest,” he said.

Lucy was one of the best shots of the Law Dogs still drawing breath, as well as fast. But nearly prone, half blind, and frazzled? Even as she raised her gun for one last attempt, she knew she couldn’t make this shot in time.

A stock made of stout walnut hardwood, propelled by Lucy’s fellow Law Dog and backed by the weight of a gun that had seen far too much use, swung in an arc as round as a proper Sunday pie. The resulting blow connected solidly and squarely on the back of Stinky Breath’s skull. He gurgled as he tumbled forwards, banging his forehead on the window before crumpling back into the store.

Moone emerged from the smoke-filled store, wiping his eyes clear. He’d been fiddling with his gadget, and this time, it didn’t appear he’d misfire. Lucy let out a curse as she pivoted and fired.

To her surprise, not one, but three shots rang out. Two gave the distinct sound of lead hitting a body. The other rang out as metal struck metal. Moone’s eyes widened in shock and in pain.

Then he and his flamethrower exploded. Lucy, somewhat belatedly, covered up and dove to the ground. When she looked up again, Wendy and Jessica stood nearby, both of their guns smoking. Apparently, Jessica had changed her mind about getting involved. They both gave Lucy a hand up as she skirted Moone’s still-smoldering corpse.

Jessica holstered her pistol. Lucy noticed an awkwardness about the motion, as if putting the gun away did not come as naturally to Jessica as drawing it.

“Thanks once more for the help,” Lucy said. You’re a good shot, and we could use someone like you. I don’t suppose you’d consider joining up with us?”

Jessica paused, a faraway look in her eyes. Her expression softened with a wistful longing. Slowly, she shook her head.

“I shouldn’t. Trouble isn’t finished with me yet, and it’s going to catch up with me. I’d rather bring it down on fewer people if I can, at least until I sort a few things out. You’re welcome to travel with me. I’m heading north. It’s not safe here anymore, and some company would be nice. Although you two might find it a bit colder than you’re used to. I hear it snows all the time up there in Canada, and that’s during summer.”

“When are you coming back?”

Jessica shrugged. “No idea. When some of all of this is behind me, I suppose. Maybe not even then.”

Wendy shook her head. “The law’s what we do. I don’t think the life of drifters is quite right for us.” Lucy nodded in agreement.

“Suit yourselves.”

The three re-entered the store.

“It’s alright, Mr. Homm,” Lucy started, “We got’em, but we’re sorry to have shot up your store. I’m sure these three have bounties on them though, and we’ll set you right with the money from that.”

Wendy frowned. “On the other hand, Jessica’s right. Getting openly attacked by outlaws is bad even for Gomorra. Maybe we should consider moving on, at least for now.”

Lucy looked back at her. “To where? Most people settle down in places that don’t have or need folk like the three of us.”

“The two,” Jessica held up two fingers for emphasis, “of you. But if you have to go down shooting, I know a city where the law may be hurting, but hasn’t been put down… yet.”

She had Wendy’s curiosity and Lucy’s interest. “Where?” both asked.

“Tombstone. Seat of Cochise County down there in the Arizona Territory.”

Wendy looked thoughtful for a moment, long enough for Lucy to pipe in and decide for the both of them.

“That sounds perfect!”

Mr. Homm looked at them, his fear from the shootout gone. “Don’t worry about the damages. Those bandits were most likely going to rob me anyways. You want to leave town? Take those provisions and supplies as my thanks.”

Wendy looked thoughtful for a moment, long enough for Lucy to decide for the both of them, extending her hand to Mr. Homm. “Done!”

Jessica caught Wendy glancing forlornly at the stock of her shotgun. She could see a hairline crack at the base, from where it had connected with Stinky Breath’s skull. Wendy was an expert with using guns to knock people out–her skill with the back end of a pistol was even more famous than her deadeye. With the law on the run, however, she’d been forced to use this shotgun in far too many fights, and the cumulative wear had taken a toll.

Jessica smiled, showing an array of pearly white teeth someone with her past had no right to possess. “If you keep treating your guns like that, you’ll need a backup.” She deftly removed Nice Gun’s shooter from his dead grasp, proffering it butt first to Wendy. “This’ll do, just in case.”

Wendy looked at Jessica, then at the gaudy revolver. Necessity won out over standards. Sighing, she accepted the gift. “This thing is going to draw a lot of attention.”

“Just pretend you’re some rich heiress with money but no sense and that she,” Jessica’s eyebrows arched towards Lucy, “is your sensible, put-upon bodyguard”.

Lucy, still trailing wisps of smoke from before, did the only thing she could do. She started laughing.

********

Colm Hay was a man who’d clung to the small successes he’d eked out from a hard, unlucky life. He had arrived in Gomorra years ago hoping to find his fortune as a prospector. And that he did: a poor one. He never did strike it big, and in the years since it became well known that the ghost rock had mostly played out, things had been particularly hard. He wasn’t young anymore, and frankly, he barely got by at all. On the rare days he let himself go to sleep without a drink first, he was terrified of what would happen to him when time took away what little strength he still had in his weather-beaten frame.

This was one of the few times his luck hadn’t been all bad. The last two weeks had been kind enough that he’d be able to afford a bed, shower, and warm food for a little while before having to venture out again. Then again, his luck had not really changed either. Two days out from town, he’d taken a nasty fall and twisted his leg. He wasn’t too banged up other than that, but found himself hobbling along. His bag dragged behind him, making a ruckus as he clanked down the trail. He hoped nobody with bad intentions found him.

“Would you like some help?”

Colm looked up. On a nearby outcropping stood a hearty, if somewhat haggard, a man. He didn’t look dangerous, but Colm Hay was painfully aware of his bag, its contents, and his injured vulnerability.

“N-no, I’m fine.”

“Sir, I can see your leg is bothering you. Please, let me help.” The man looked so earnest. Colm leaned away from him, protecting his bag.

“Why? How do I know you aren’t here to steal my stuff?”

The man leaned forward, to meet Colm’s gaze. “Sir, I used to be a lawman. It’s important to me that I help people out, not hurt them. I swear, I won’t take any of your things.”

The man’s sincerity won Colm over. He sagged slightly, slumping against a rock. The other man wandered off, returning some time later with some wood. He then started splinting the injured leg, talking all the while to ease the tension and distract Colm from his pain. Colm learned that his name was Mario Crane, a former police officer from New York, who had moved on because he was tired of the unpleasantness that came with the profession.

His work done, Mario stood up, looking down at Mr. Hay’s neatly splinted leg. “You should make better time now, and won’t be in as much pain. Thank you. I… I don’t get much chance to help out anymore, and I miss it. I appreciate you giving me the chance.” He turned to leave.

Colm got unsteadily to his feet, testing the splint. “Thanks.” The moment finished, his normal wariness reasserted itself. “But I’ll be more relieved once you’re gone and I’m safely alone again.”

Mario stopped and twitched. His neck turned, displaying his face in profile. Colm saw the same man’s features, but now contorted in an almost inhuman expression of malice and predatory glee.

“I am grateful for your doubt. Oh yes, this’ll make what’s about to happen so much more fun for me and painful for you.”

That was not Colm Hay’s last sight, but it was the last coherent image he viewed. From that moment until the fast following end of his life, everything else crawled past in a blur of pain and terror.

Mario Crane looked at his sticky hands. As he remembered his whereabouts, his thoughts turned to dread. Then he noticed the remains of the work one of the things inside his head had done, and he knew only despair.

One nice thing. That’s all he had wanted. A moment of respite, of being the man he was before all this torment had happened. Just to help another person who needed it. To not have to worry about what he might do next. To just be human.

And they wouldn’t let him have it. Not now, not ever. Oh, they would gladly let him be around people most of the time, but it was all a lie. To lull him, and those unlucky enough to be around him, into lowering their guard, so the demons could strike again. And there was no way out. The things wouldn’t let go. He fell to his knees, screaming. Even now, he could hear them whispering. Soon, those whispers would be words, then orders, then imperatives, and he’d do what they wanted. He wasn’t strong enough. He’d never be strong enough to wrest control.

He was a lawman. Not a monster. He looked at his hands, around, at the holster at his belt. No good. They wouldn’t even let him die. Not the thing in his head, and not the thing at his belt. One or the other would stop him.

…unless…

He looked down at the gun, meaningfully. “You win,” he whispered.

Mario’s hand went for the pistol holstered at his side. Two voices shrieked at him, drowning out everything other than basal instincts. Each demanded total submission to its whims. But, for a moment, the two demanded submission to separate whims. He had offered to let Sloane take over, but whatever it was that kept him animate, wasn’t having any of it. It hurt both physically and mentally. Worse, they fought over his head, and his body, like a toy, breaking the spirit of someone who knew he’d never again have a choice in who he was or what he would do.

He clung to that pain even as both voices rose in pitch. For he, Mario Crane, was not just damned, but damned twice over. Damned to always kill. Damned to never die.

He staggered off, barely aware of where he was going, fixated on one pseudo destination: away from Gomorra. Into the depths of the Maze. Away from civilization.

Away from humanity.