Sedena Vorobyova, assassin-for-hire, glared over the sights of her high-powered rifle. “You should be terrified,” she intoned evenly in her butter-thick but comprehensible Gorky accent. “It’s not every day that someone takes out a contract on your life, least of all goes to the trouble of hiring one from another story.”

“Oh, I’m terrified, I assure you, ma’am.” Priscilla “Prissy” Deerton said. Her elaborately embroidered duster was spotless over fine silk trousers and a matching blouse, with a glistening broach and a pair of fine hard leather boots to match–the benefits of being the daughter of the town haberdasher. “I will endeavor to keep Reynard calm, though I must warn you that, while terrified, I am not so much so as I’d be were you a spider.”

The assassin’s workaday cargo pants and combat jacket were certainly no match for Prissy’s finery–the drawbacks of being the daughter of a long dead Soviet apparatchik who’d drank himself to death. “Reynard?” said she, cocking her head. “Spider?”

“Where? Where?” Prissy shrieked. She undid the button on what looked like a small bulging at the bottom of her coat, revealing a fancy rat with a vaguely cow-like pattern of splotches. “Reynard! Spiders! Go to Pattern Delta!”

Her rat obligingly scurried up one of Prissy’s trouser legs, and Sedena incredulously followed the resulting rat-shaped bulge with her telescopic sight until it emerged above its owner’s starched collar to perch on her shoulder.

Reaching into her pants, Prissy produced a pair of small-caliber derringers—.32 caliber Sharps Pepperboxes by the look of them—and scanned nearby nooks and crannies for eight-legged interlopers.

“It was a question,” Sedena growled. “I didn’t actually see a spider.”

“Oh,” Prissy said. “Don’t scare me like that.”

“Thank you, though, for revealing to me where you kept your weapons,” Sedena added coldly. “On the ground, please.” The .32 caliber blackpowder bullets wouldn’t even make it to her position a short distance down the road, let alone pierce her ballistic vest, but it was always better to be thorough with a mark.

“Spiders are ruthless, you know,” Prissy continued, lowering the hammers on her Pepperboxes and placing them neatly on the ground. “Vicious, remorseless killers…not unlike you in that regard, but where you face my enemies down and kill them honest-like with bullets, spiders sneak around and use venom and poison like assassins in the Crusades.”

“I’m sure they do,” said Sedena, rolling her eyes. “I’m beginning to wonder if all the characters from your story are crazy or at least mildly imbalanced.”

“Don’t you know that aranea mactans, the black widow spider, has a bite that can cause premature birth, heart attacks, false death, actual death, agonizing pain, and pain like unto a thousand suns? They’re tiny, they wait for you under the bed or in the privy, always in wait, and the little red hourglass on their butts gets redder as the hour of your death approaches!”

“Then they must be awfully red right now,” Sedena said grimly.

Prissy, looking for a moment of distraction to dip down and scoop up her oft-abused Pepperboxes, saw something moving in the sand near Sedena—a very large, very brown camel spider. Her eyes widened.

“So where are the rest of your compatriots?” Sedena continued. “I’ve a contract to fulfill and if they’re as weak and pitiable as you, it should be the easiest I’ve ever had. I might even be able to claim a double bounty for bringing you all in alive.”

The camel spider began a leisurely scuttle up Sedena’s boot; for her part, Prissy had gone ashen-colored and could be heard hyperventilating, but with the assassin’s M14 trained on her more carefully than ever, she couldn’t cry out to Reynard to go to Pattern Delta.

“You’re right to be scared, but that’s not going to keep me from learning what I need to learn.”

Reaching the top of Sedena’s boot, the spider continued onto her cargo trousers, oblivious in the way that only arthropods can be that its presence was on the verge of shattering Prissy’s mind.

“I said-” Sedena began. Then she noticed the camel spider herself. The resulting scream echoed off the canyon walls, audible for miles around.

Prissy retrieved her fallen guns and aimed one at the rapidly diminishing silhouette of the assassin. “That’s right!” she cried. “You’d better run!”

The camel spider, flung far closer to Prissy by Sedena’s sudden retreat, began to scuttle towards the only remaining victim possible. Prissy, her face hard, blasted it with her other Pepperbox, flinching only when it seemed like the resulting spray of goo might splatter on her finery.

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The announcer’s voice, warbled by the distance of the WQEH transmitter, breathlessly ran through the series’ back story:

“It’s time once again for the adventures of ‘Gravedigger’ Perkins, the only lawman of the West to earn that grim moniker through his tireless pursuit of law and justice…and his pursuit of evildoers to their graves! But Gravedigger Perkins isn’t tangling with any old small-time thugs, is he cowpokes?”

“No!” cried Sandy.

“That’s right, he’s got two of the meanest outlaws in the West to bring their eternal justice! Daniel ‘Thinker’ Evans, a mastermind of planning and execution! The godfather of crime out West! The Moriarty of the Mojave! And Thinker Evans’ sinister sidekick Robert ‘Shooter’ Dawson! The murderous yin to his boss’s yang, a hardened killer with the second-most skillful gun west of the Mississippi! With Gravedigger Perkins on their trail, it’s anyone’s guess where the adventure will lead!”

The thing is, Harry de Vries was all show. Oh, he looked mean, and he was big enough, and long hours under the hot frontier sun had given him the leathery consistency one expects of a shootist. But the fact was, de Vries was myopic, with everything more than four feet away rapidly fading rapidly into colored blurs. Spectacles were out of the question–who’d ever heard of a shootist using spectacles for anything but reading, and de Vries was illiterate.

Nevertheless, through intimidation, bluff, and bravado, de Vries had been able to establish a fearsome reputation in the territories. Not enough that he could completely do as he pleased, but enough that free drinks were often poured, free nights in the bordellos were not unknown, and anyone who knew his name would think twice about irking him. Few had the stones to challenge someone so ornery-looking and weathered; fewer still had cajones enough to stand de Vries down when that big Schofield came out of its holster; no one had noticed that the aim behind it wasn’t true. So Harry de Vries was a big man about the mining settlements.

All without firing a shot.

Then there was Hanson Everett. He could see clear as an eagle on a sunny day, but something wasn’t quite right upstairs. His own mother had said so after finding Everett hunting for rattlesnakes as a boy, letting them jump out and bare their dripping envenomed fangs before bringing a rock down on their skulls. As an adult, he recklessly sought out danger wherever it presented itself–rustling single cows from the largest and best-guarded herds, picking barroom fights, and generally flapping his gums.

Oh, there had been beatings aplenty, and more than a few stints in local jails. But Everett was smart enough to lie his way out of many predicaments, and he was good-looking enough to disarm many would-be antagonists with a smile (any attempt to refer to him as “Handsome” Everett inevitable led to bloodshed, however). The way Everett figured it, he was like a piece of pig iron in the forge, with each hammer blow making him stronger and bringing him closer to being something to really be feared. And then…well, watch out, territories.

Everett and de Vries met in the Holyoke Saloon in Dunn’s Crossing just short of midsummer; neither would walk away from the confrontation.