The legs of the oak desk scraped loudly against the uncarpeted floor as Sheriff Cheng pushed the heavy piece of furniture to the center of the room, facing the door. Wendy was alone in the Sheriff’s station, all of the cells empty, most of her deputies off duty. For the most part, they were new to the law enforcement profession. Enthusiastic, to be sure, but Wendy didn’t want to dim that enthusiasm by making them work long hours. Especially now that Gomorra was peaceful for the first time since its founding.
Wendy stood up straight, and slowly looked around the small building. Peaceful. Tranquil. Empty. These were words she never thought would apply to the place that was the heart of law enforcement in Gomorra. There were no prisoners in the cells, no outstanding warrants, and no battle plans to be drawn up. Wendy’s eyes came to rest on a series of plaques hanging on the east wall. Hanging there were the posessions - the symbols - of those who had gone before. Coleman’s badge, Corky’s pistols, and so many others. Near the end of the display, an empty plaque hung, emblazoned with her father’s name.
Do not allow other men to limit you. To do so diminishes both you and them. His words echoed in her mind, so close that she turned around, half expecting to see him standing in the door. Empty, just like the memorial display. “Thanks, Dad,” Wendy whispered sadly. There had been objections to her appointment as Sheriff - particularly with the amount of chinese immigrants in the Maze, and the worry of favoritism - but in the end, she took up the badge, and the burden, with the blessings of a grateful town.
She turned back to the wall, and looked below the line of plaques, where an empty space for a rifle was built into the wall. “I guess it’s time to put you to rest, Sheriff,” she said, her voice clearer and stronger than she felt. Slowly, she walked back to the desk, the last pallbearer in the funeral procession. She picked up the final plaque to go on the wall, and read it aloud: “Sheriff Nate Hunter.” She shifted the plaque to her left hand, and trudged to the weapons locker, where the door stood slightly ajar. She pulled the cabinet open, and lifted Nate’s rifle reverently out of its rack. She returned to the memorial wall and hung the plaque underneath the rest. Both of her hands free, she turned the rifle horizontally, and hung it underneath the plaque.
Gently, she drew her fingers along the barrel of the Winchester, but the cold, smooth iron granted her no comfort. She closed her eyes and squared her shoulders. When she opened them again, she gave the plaques a last look, and turned away. A single tear rolled down her cheek, but she made no move to wipe it away. She stood, still and silent, for a moment, then walked to the desk.
Slowly, she eased herself into the chair, still not entirely comfortable in it. Coleman rarely sat in the chair - he usually preferred to lean against the front of the desk when talking to visitors. Nate stood taller than Wendy, so she sank a little bit lower in the chair than she would have liked. All the same, she leaned her chair back against the wall, and placed her feet atop the empty desk.
Gradually, the noises of Gomorra outside the Sheriff’s station resolved themselves into footsteps, clomping steadily up to the door. “Sheriff?” a clear voice called.
“What is it, Carson?”
Carson Gage rounded the corner and stepped into the Sheriff’s station, his lanky form clothed in his usual brown suit, Minister’s collar lending a certain gravity to his appearance. In the old days, this sense of peace would be shattered by the pistols that hung at his belt, but Gomorra was a different place now. As Carson had said when he quit, “Gomorra needs a friend more than a fighter.”
“You look comfortable, Sheriff,” he smiled gently.
She considered that for a moment, then shook her head. “No, Carson,” she chuckled, “I still don’t feel quite right on this side of the desk. I’m just tired. Even three months later, I feel like crawling into a hole and hibernating.” She closed her eyes and leaned back her head, and added, “I don’t think I’m moving from this spot for a while. Not for love or money.”
“That’s a pity, Sheriff. Because it’s time.”
* * *
“...for there the wicked cease from troubling and the weary are at rest. We commit this body to the void with a glad heart...” Carson’s voice caught, and he had to clear his throat before continuing. “Goodbye, Sheriff.”
It was a small memorial, consisting only of those surviving law dogs who served under Hunter. It was a way to say goodbye when the wounds weren’t so fresh. He couldn’t begrudge them that. He’d say his own goodbyes when they were finished. Silently, he watched them kneel down before the grave in turn, and touch the tombstone, each whispering his own eulogy to their fallen leader. First Carson Gage, then Dave Montreal, finally Wendy Cheng.
Blackjack smiled a little. They were good people. He was glad they made it through the storm, but they still weren’t his friends. He’d wait. Slowly, the trio plodded away from the tomb, but the Sheriff and Montreal fell behind a little, and soon came to a stop. Blackjack couldn’t make out what they were saying, nor did he want to. Whatever it was, it was their business.
Finally, the two shook hands, and continued walking. When they were out of sight, Blackjack stepped out from behind the tree that had sheltered him, and slowly approached the Sheriff’s grave. “I don’t know exactly why I’m here, Nate, other than out of a sense of respect. We fought each other, and we killed each other’s people, but I’d like to think, in the end, that we at least respected each other. Maybe that’s why I left.” Blackjack kneeled down in front of the tombstone, as the law dogs had before him, and placed his hand gently on the headstone. “Sooner or later, if I’d stayed, I would’ve killed you, or you would’ve killed me. I’m glad it didn’t happen that way.”
Blackjack sat back in the grass and took off his hat, setting it in on his knee. “I get the feeling that if I’d gotten to know you, I would’ve liked you, Nate. You always tried to do the right thing, in a wrong town. Hell, during the riots a year ago, we even worked together for a time. I can’t stay long. I don’t think Cheng’d understand. I just wanted to say goodbye. You and I, Nate, we’re old soldiers. We’ve been here since the beginning.”
Blackjack put his hat back on, and stood. Slowly, he began to unbuckle his gun belt. “You’ve moved on. Maybe it’s time we both did.” He lifted his guns from around his waste, and draped the belt over Nate’s tombstone, the guns - one ivory handled, one ebony - still in their holsters. “Rest easy, Sheriff.”
Alone, Jackson walked away, and made his way out of the Elephant Hill graveyard.
* * *
Much of Gomorra had been rebuilt since the chaos, but not all of it. What wreckage remained stood largely untouched. The more unstable areas had long since collapsed, but many entire blocks still stood, dark, shadowy places that parents warned their children away from.
But, as is their wont, children have a way of flouting their parents warnings. So, he sat alone and listened as the children laughed and shouted, games of hide and seek and kick the can in full swing. And he was patient. One day soon, one of the children would see him, one of the children would notice his dirty, soot-stained form among the ruined buildings.
Suddenly, he heard her. The laugh of an innocent young girl chimed out, reaching him as if carried on the small shafts of light that pierced the shadows. “You’ll never catch me!” she cried, as she clambered over a charred and fallen rafter. Her taunting finished, she quieted, and settled into her new found hiding place, only a few feet from the stuffed toy. He rarely moved under his own power, but this time, it would be worth it. He swayed once, twice, then fell off his perch into the young girl’s lap.
The girl yelped, startled out of a years growth, and scrambled to her feet. Clovis tumbled into the dust, losing a bit of his ragged, mildewed stuffing. He landed face down, blinded by the dust, but he knew the girl would pick him up. They always did.
Sure enough, once over her scare, the girl’s hands close around one of his tattered paws, and she lifted him into her arms. “Who are you?” she whispered, hoping to avoid detection by her playmates.
For a moment, Clovis toyed with the idea of telling her, but the reaction wouldn’t be worth waiting another three months in this hell hole for the next child.
“Awww,” the girl whispered, “The bunny is hurt.” She poked at the rents in his fur, and tugged lightly on his protruding stuffing. Clovis didn’t react, but made a mental note to do the same to her if the opportunity should arise. She held him away from herself, and wrinkled her nose. “You’re dirty and smelly, too.” She tucked him under her arm, and began to climb out of her hiding place, careful not to snag him on any of the shattered wood.
“Sarah!” she called as she emerged into the sunlight, “look what I found!”
Shortly, the girls playmates came running. Some of them Clovis remembered from his days in the orphanage, but a few were new. They didn’t seem to recognize him. So much the better.
“He’s so cute, Meribelle!” one of the girls squealed. “Can I have him?”
“No!” reprimanded Clovis’ savior, the one named Meribelle. “I found him, and he’s mine.”
“What are you going to name him?” another girl asked eagerly.
“I don’t know,” Meribelle answered uncertainly, “I didn’t think about it.”
The girls crowded around her, and began calling out suggestions.
Meribelle’s eyes lit up, inspiration striking. “I know,” she declared, lifting Clovis triuphantly before her. “You’re Mr. Fuzzy!”
Inwardly, Clovis winced. Meribelle would pay for that...someday.
* * *
“You’ll pay for this, Baine,” Scott Pierce growled.
“I very much doubt it, Pierce.” Max Baine replied confidently. “I had a long meeting with Sheriff Cheng and the town council, and they’ve agreed to ignore my sins in exchange for running the town’s mining operations. Sweetrock isn’t welcome in Gomorra anymore.” Baine leaned over the his immense desk, planting his right hand on its surface and gesturing to the door with his left. “Neither are you.”
“Mr. Sweetrock won’t be happy about this.”
Max Baine laughed. “In case you weren’t listening, Pierce, I don’t work for Mr. Sweetrock any more.” He sat down in his chair, content to let Pierce stand. “I’ve got new bosses, and a new way of doing things. We’ll pay the workers a living wage. We won’t expect the workers to mine in unsafe conditions. Just in case, I’ve set up a fund for the widows and orphans of miners who die in our operations. The first thing we’re doing is building a new orphanage, but that won’t be the end of it.” Baine leaned forward, steepling his fingers. “Sweetrock’s time in Gomorra has passed. This town can stand on it’s own two feet now.”
“And you stand with them?”
Pierce glowered at him, his dark eyes smoldering angrily. “Mr. Sweetrock won’t allow this. I won’t allow this.”
“You have no say in the matter any more.” Baine lifted his quill pen from its inkwell, and began signing work orders for Gomorra’s new mining union. Pierce paced in front of his desk, a caged tiger with no teeth.
A business like knock sounded at Baine’s open door. Pierce stopped his pacing and glared at the new arrival, while Baine set aside his work. “Yes, Ms. Weatherby?” he asked his secretary.
“The deputies you requested have arrived.”
“Thank you Ms. Weatherby. That will be all.” When she left, Baine turned back to his original visitor. “There you have it, Pierce. I’m on good terms with the local constabulary of late. You, however, will be otherwise if you do not leave my office now.”
Pierce stood rooted to his spot, his jaw working in outrage.
“Now, Pierce. Unless you want to be dragged out.”
Pierce’s jaw clamped shut, his teeth clicking against each other audibly. “Fine,” he grated, and stormed out the door.
Max Baine leaned back in his chair, the quill still in hand. “Well,” he chuckled to himself, “back to work.”
* * *
“There’s still work to be done in the Maze, Mr. Williams. An awful lot of it.” Katie Karl extended her hand to her opposite number in the agency.
Cort Williams stood with his hands at his side for a moment, formulating his reply. Finally, he slowly reached out and grasped Katie’s hand. “As you say, Captain Karl, the war’s finally over.” He broke the handclasp abruptly. “But just because we’re not enemies any more, doesn’t mean we’re allies.”
Cort turned, and began to mount his horse. “Windows” Derek watched silently from the back of his steed, his curiously detached eyes riveted on Cort.
Katie snaked out a hand and grasped Cort’s shoulder, turning him back to face her. “Now you listen to me, Mr. Williams,” she snapped. “I know you’re an agent of the US government, same way I operate for the Confederate States. We’re not at war anym-“
“What are you talking about?”
“You and I both know that if the Rangers and the Agency both try to maintain a presence in Gomorra, things’ll only go bad.” He replied calmly, “So we’re leaving. The agency is going to pack up stakes and leave this hole in the ground to the Texas Rangers - for real this time.” He mounted his horse, turning it around so he once more faced Katie. “Know this, though, Captain Karl. Gomorra is yours now. Your jurisdiction, your responsibility. But we’ll be watching.”
With that, Cort spun his mount and trotted away.
Katie could only watch. It was his mistake to make. Slowly, she realized that Cort’s right hand man hadn’t left yet. She turned to face him, and his dark eyes bored into hers. “You are right, Captain Karl, but at the wrong time. I see a time when we will put the bloodshed behind our two nations. But it will cost us everything.” Windows paused, and began to guide his horse after Cort’s. “And more. Do not wait for that day, Captain Karl. You do not truly wish to see it.”
* * *
Nicodemus stepped out into the sunlight, and squinted against its glare. Slowly, he cast his gaze about the town. He was going to miss this place, and all of its opportunities. Just the same, he didn’t belong here anymore. It wasn’t Knicknevin’s kingdom. And it would never be Nic’s. Pensively, he toyed with his deck of cards, shuffling them from one hand to the other.
“I never thought I’d miss this place, Love,” he allowed, “but I suspect it’s time to move on. Build a new kingdom. One that doesn’t stand on the foundation of Kincknevin’s legacy.”
“No!” Zaleos hissed, “This place can still be yours! Revenge can be yours! You need only release us!”
Nicodemus shuffled the cards into his right hand, then fanned them out in front of his face. “Be silent, demon. I was addressing my wife,” Nic snapped. He folded the cards into one deck, and began shuffling again.
“I...” Nicodemus paused, and a melancholy smile crossed his face. “I’ll take care of you Delores, as I always have. No one will ever hurt you again, my love. Not Hunter, not Jackson, not Karl, and not Wil-.”
Delores’ sing song voice interrupted him, “Love will die if held too tightly, love will fly if held too lightly. Tightly, lightly, how do I know, if I am loving, or letting love go?”
Nicodemus smiled at his wife. He loved her dearly, despite her eccentricities. She was a Whateley. How could he hold her breeding against her? “I love you, too, Delores. It’s time we left. There’s no room here for people like us.”
As he finished speaking, the stage arrived. The driver inclined his head shortly to Nicodemus by way of greeting. “Where you headed?”
“New Orleans, my good man.”
“This stage goes as far as Denver, and you can catch a train from there. Climb aboard.”
“Thank you, on behalf of myself and my wife.”
The teamster scratched his head, slightly confused, but Nic ignored him. He squared up his deck, and tucked the cards into their box. Gently, he kissed the deck. “Good night, my love. We’ll speak again soon.” With that, he slid the cards into his pocket and boarded the stage, accompanied only by the inhabitants of his deck.
* * *
Jackson leaned against the nearly man sized rock behind him, and watched the Rock Ridge. There wasn’t much to watch. He’d heard that sometime in the past year, the strike had been tapped out, but he couldn’t really believe it. All that blood he’d shed over this piece of land, and now it was worthless. No one worked the shaft, and discarded and broken mining equipment was scattered about the entrance. Silently, Jackson lifted a miner’s pick off the ground. The head was rusted, and splinters of wood were coming away from the handle, but it was otherwise in good shape.
He hefted it twice, getting the weight of it. It was heavy and awkward in his hands. Not like his six guns.
He tossed the pick to the ground and turned to face the speaker. He was a small man, his suit out of place this far from town. As Jackson watched, the man pushed his wire framed spectacles up the bridge of his nose and set his surveyors’ tools down.
“Mr. Jackson, this land belongs to the town of Gomorra.”
“This land used to belong to me,” Jackson replied, “I wanted to see it again, before I left. Besides, the actual mine belongs to the town, not the surrounding land. I checked the deed.”
“That’s a fine line you’re walking, Mr. Jackson.”
“Aren’t they all?”
“Very well. I have work to do, so if you’ll kindly stay out of my way, I can get on with it.”
Jackson chuckled to himself. It was amazing the difference a pair of sixguns - or their lack - could make. He picked his way through the discarded mining implements, leaned against his rock again, and watched the surveyor. Something nudged his leg, and he looked down.
The mangy yellow dog was there, Jackson’s gun belt clamped between his jaws. Bemused, Jackson crouched down next to the animal, and scratched behind his ears. Gently, he removed the gun belt from the dog’s grip.
Standing straight again, he sighed. “I thought I was going to hang these up, Boy. Guess you’ve always known better than the rest of us, though, huh?” As Jackson secured the belt’s buckles, the dog wagged his tail, tongue lolling out in a canine grin.
Something wasn’t quite right, though. Jackson adjusted his belt a couple of times, but couldn’t quite get the guns to sit on his hips the way they used to. With a start, he looked down at the holsters, and discovered one of them empty. His ebony handled six shooter was missing, and only ivory remained.
“Looks like you forgot somethi-“ Jackson began. He never finished the sentence. Something about the dog’s eyes told him the dog hadn’t forgotten anything. Slowly, Jackson smiled, and patted the animal on the head. “Let’s get out of here, Boy.” Jackson left Gomorra, the dog on his heel.
* * *
Dave Montreal slugged back another shot of whiskey, and his vision swam. Slowly, he lowered his head nearly to the bar until it settled. As he lifted it again, the scent of Charity’s perfume washed over him. She leaned against his back, wrapping her right arm around his waist, and resting her left hand on his shoulder. In a throaty voice, she whispered into his ear, “Don’t drink too much, or you’ll disappoint me.”
“I’m not in the mood, Charity.”
Charity’s lips parted in a pleasant smile. “Why doesn’t that line ever work for me?”
“Same reason I can’t - make that couldn’t - tell the Sheriff I ain’t in the mood for law enforcement.”
Charity laughed. She was good at this, Dave decided. He still wasn’t in the mood, but he understood how she could afford the fanciest clothes and finest luxuries.
“Come on, Deputy, loosen up.” She indicated his empty glass with a cocked eyebrow. “After all, it looks like you’re off duty.” She unwrapped her arms, and began to rub his shoulders. “A man like you needs a break once in a while.” The deputy’s shoulders were tense, knotted tight. Charity glanced up to the mirror, making sure there weren’t any available customers, then quietly sat down next to Dave.
“What’s wrong?” she asked mildly.
Dave knocked on the bar to get the saloon keeper’s attention. “Gimme another.” As he watched the amber liquid pour into his glass, he asked, “Don’t you have work to do?”
“I can take a break.” She placed her hand lightly on his forearm. “Dave, I may be a prostitute, but that doesn’t mean I’m not human. Something’s bothering you.” After a moment of silence, she slid her hand off his arm. “But if you don’t want to talk about it-“
“Why are you staying?”
“Here? The pay’s good, the job isn’t entirely unpleasant-“
Dave shook his head, “I mean, why are you staying in Gomorra?” He picked up his shot glass, and stared at his distorted reflection. “A lot of folks died, Charity. Friends, family...lovers. Some of them must have been yours.”
“Deputy, the work I do here is just that: work. I don’t have much time to find a good man, just as many rich men as I can.” She put her hand on his, and pushed his glass back down to the bar. “It’s just business.”
“You oughtta think about a new philosophy.” Dave lifted his glass again, but didn’t drink, instead swirling the whiskey around in the glass. “I had my chance, and I blew it. I decided the job was more important than her. Oh sure, we had some good times. But in the last three months I’ve wondered if I might’ve missed a chance to settle down.”
“Yeah,” Dave whispered.
“Did you love her?”
Dave set his glass down again, and turned to face Charity for the first time. She could see the tears in his eyes. “I...” His voice cracked, and a tear broke free and rolled down his cheek. “Yeah, I loved her. I never said that out loud before.”
Charity smiled, and brushed away his tear. “Then be thankful you had the time with her that you did, however brief.”
Dave’s eyes clouded for a long moment, then he wiped at his eyes, clearing his vision. “I am. But I miss her, Charity.”
In an almost maternal fashion, she patted him on the shoulder as she stood. “I know, Deputy. Just remember what you had, not what you lost. It’ll hurt a little less. I have to get back to work.”
As Charity moved off to make the rounds, Dave took a deep breath. “I guess I should go tell Wendy I’m not resign-“
Dave’s spoken thought was interrupted as a his barstool spun around, and Gordo Andrade grabbed him roughly around the shoulders with one arm, “And this, mi amigos, is the man I came back from hell with.” A rough chorus of cheers erupted from the bar, despite the fact that only the three of them who were there - Dave, Charity, and Gordo - actually believed Gordo’s tall tale of the Last Kingdom. “Let me buy you a drink, amigo!” Gordo declared expansively. “No!” he corrected himself. “Let me buy you a bottle! A case! Enough to water all the fields in the Maze!”
Dave laughed despite himself. “For what?”
“Life, mi amigo!” Gordo shouted happily. “Because life goes on!”
“I’ll have to take you up on that another time, Gordo,” Dave promised, “I’ve got somewhere to be.” Dave walked out of the bar, leaving four bits and a shot of whiskey on the bar.
* * *
“I reckon it’s time to say goodbye to the place,” Charlie mused.
“Yeah,” agreed Bob, “It’s been a long haul. You gonna miss it?”
Charlie shrugged. “I don’t know. Maybe if the Fat Chance was still standing I would, but...” Charlie sighed. “Ahhh. Who am I kidding? Yeah, I’ll miss the place. Demons, Whateleys, outlaws, and all. It’s been an exciting few years.”
Bob smiled. “I never figured you for the sentimental type.”
“If you tell anyone, I’ll gut ya.”
“Fair enough,” Bob laughed.
“How about you?” Charlie countered.
“Sure. It feels good, though, Charlie. I’m leaving on my own terms. Not running away, like before.”
“You and me both.” Charlie added amiably.
“It kind of gets in your blood, doesn’t it?” Bob thought aloud.
Charlie chuckled. “Then bring on Doc Branson and his leeches.” The former bartender crossed himself. “Rest his soul.”
“I hear you, Charlie.” Bob took one last look down the main street of Gomorra, “Just the same, though. I get the feeling I’ll be back this way again someday.”
“Not me,” Charlie grumbled, “I’ve had enough hell for one lifetime. I aim to go home.” As if to prove his point, Charlie stepped up to the ticket window, just barely at his eye level. “One for Kansas City.”
“The tickets are on me, Charlie. Lord knows you’ve given me enough drinks on the house.” Charlie stepped aside, and as Bob stepped up to the window, he winked at his shorter traveling companion. “Besides, I’ve got a few dimes to spare.”