“We’ll need a couple of people,” Hiraul said, adjusting his hat to clip his long, pointed ears to the sides of his head. “A horse thief, for one. Can’t have anyone at the livery seeing us on a poster and putting two and two together.”

“Already done,” said Votal, harrumphing through his beard. “My boy Nvar. Sister’s son. Family. We can trust him, and he’s already stolen enough horses to equip a cavalry division.”

Hiraul arched a delicate eyebrow. “A dwarf horse thief?”

“He’s a quarter human on his father’s side, he can reach the stirrups,” snapped Votal. “Lithe as a willow too.”

“Someone who can deal with explosives next,” Hiraul continued. “Got to stop the train. I think I know someone. Neridi. She was in artillery during the war and her father owes me a favor.”

It was Votal’s turn to scoff. “A woman and an elf?”

“You remember how hard-pressed we were for troops as well as I do,” snapped Hiraul. “And if nothing else, no one will believe her story.”

“All right, all right,” Votal said. “But that’s not all, is it?”

“We need someone on the inside, on the train. A human, or somebody that can pass as one.”

Votal pondered this a moment. “One of Quint’s Raiders? They clipped their own ears after all.”

“The train will have an escort. Military. You’d better believe that they’ll have an etherometer and be checking everyone that boards.”

“So where does that leave us?” said Votal. “My boy Nvar isn’t passing an etherometer. You won’t pass muster on one of those if you’ve got so much as a great-grandparent who isn’t as human as President Graham.”

“I know. It’s a tough proposition…a human working for us when the old war means nobody trusts anybody else. But I think I know just the guy.”

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“RANGER SULLIVAN!”

Jake started, jerking his chin out of his palm and focusing on the desk in front of him. Otto Luther, the last remaining Ranger rookie for the time being after the promotion or expulsion of the rest, was standing at the desk with a pile of receipts for reimbursement.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” Jake said. “My mind was elsewhere.”

“That’s okay, mine was too,” said Otto. “Back to that Orleans madam and her wiles, and the man I had to kill in cold blood in front of her…”

“That never happened,” snapped Jake.

“Well, it could have! Play along, we’ll get people talking at least.”

Jake sighed. “Just give me your receipts. The excitement of being a deputy marshal under virtual house arrest begins.”

Otto dropped a pile of paper scrips, and Jake wearily began to go through them with his good hand, copying each into a ledger in ink.

“Box of 20 rounds, .45 Colt cartridges, Scroggins’ General Store…one breakfast platter, with eggs, Portia’s Saloon…one iron horseshoe, Strasser & Niece Smithy…one-” Jake paused and flipped through the remainder of Otto’s receipt stack. “…make that seventeen receipts for ‘ladies of the evening’ and ‘services rendered’ at the Fantastic Filly in Dunn’s Crossing.”

“And you know what goes in there, don’t you?” said Otto, waggling his eyebrows suggestively. “It’d be a ‘shame’ if that got out, wouldn’t it? Poor, sweet, safe Otto is really a stallion in disg~//122.31.822

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~//122.31.822ver the desk. “Otto,” he said. “Whorehouses do not give receipts.”

“They might if they’re a classy establishment!” Otto cried.

“Otto,” Jake continued. “Even if whorehouses did give receipts, they would not be reimbursed by the Rangers as they do not constitute Ranger-related expenses.”

“Sure they would,” countered Otto. “Says so right in the by-laws that we are to be reimbursed for the ‘riding of mounts’ and the ‘exhaustion and keeping of mares, mustangs, colts, fillies, and geldings.’ The Fantastic Filly is a good, hard ride if you catch my drift.” More suggestive eyebrow action; Jake half expected them to leap off Otto’s face and frolic about on his desktop like hairy caterpillars.

“Otto,” Jake added, “even if whorehouses gave receipts and we decided to reimburse said receipts as ‘riding expenses,’ you have already used your allotment of ‘riding expenses’ for this month. You will have to pay for your escapades out of your own pocket…”

“Aha!” crowed Otto triumphantly. “So you agree I did have them! So you may let it slip out that I had them!”

“…if in fact you had them at all, which I doubt,” Jake continued with a deep, rattling sigh that made his mostly-healed wound ache from inside. “Or, considering that these receipts spell ‘Dunn’s Crossing’ with a 5, you’ll be responsible for paying whoever forged them out of your own pocket.”

Otto turned away from the desk, disconsolate. “You don’t know what it’s like,” he sobbed, “people always thinking you’re boring and harmless and weak.”

Jake gritted his teeth. At least Virginia’s idiocy had been in the saddle, about real things, instead of trumped-up notions of what it meant to be a Ranger influenced by bad newspaper articles and worse books.

“I just need some rumors, some innuendo, to get my reputation started. I’ve tried everything I can think of, and a few things other people thought of, but even with all the Ranger duties I’ve been discharging—I brought the dismissals to Prissy and Virginia!—people still think me a milquetoast babyface and a plain fool.”

When no response was forthcoming, Otto turned around. Jake’s desk was vacant, and the cotton drapes around his open ground-floor window were fluttering in the breeze. In the distance, he heard a rider spurring a horse out of the Ranger stables.

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“Well, this is a fine situation you’ve gotten us both into, isn’t it?” Milton said, his doughy face brimming with contempt. Beesen was tempted to smash the butt of his rifle into the ex-major’s jaw to try and roll out some of the lumps, but necessity stayed his hand.

“You hear me up there?” the calvaryman with stripes shouted again. “This is the 5th United States Cavalry ordering you to surrender the fugitive Isaac J. Milton. We won’t ask again!”

“That you, Ed Campbell?” cried Milton. “Quit your negotiating and shoot this son-of-a-bitch already!”

“You shut the hell up, sir,” the man–Campbell, apparently–cried. “Do you think we’re here to take you back to the stockade, Milton? Go before a judge and a jury of your peers and all that bullshit?”

Milton seemed suddenly aghast. “What?” he snapped.

“I’m gonna be square with you, on account of that’s the decent thing to do when a man’s about to die,” Campbell continued. “Me and then men here, we think that what you did was just fine. Saved us the trouble of clearing the territory of savages. Lots of people in town do too. But here’s the thing, Milton: those ornery boys back east, with their newspapers and their bleeding hearts, they got wind of what you did. It’s an embarrassment to the brass now.”

“Who gives a flying shit about the brass?” Milton cried, a hint of desperation in his voice.

“We do, when we’ve been promised a month’s pay a man to make sure that ‘the Butcher of Silt River’ eats a .45-70 breakfast.”

Milton had gone quite pale. “What are your terms, then?” Beesen shouted.

“You give us Milton, we let you go,” Campbell said. “With the promise that if you breathe so much a word of what happened here you’ll get the same vittles as Milton. Unless you’d rather wait for the Dog Soldiers, of course. They’ll kill you both, and they’ll do it like a slow roast, honey glazed.”

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“I would like,” said Beesen, “to declare my intent to pursue the bounty on one Major Isaac J. Milton, wanted by agents of the United States Government for the crime of resisting arrest and impeding federal marshals in the performance of their duty.”

The deputy sheriff’s lips twitched under his waxed mustache. “You wouldn’t be the only one,” he said. “But what do I care? It’s a federal bounty and federal money, none of my business.”

“I’ve been advised to leave a paper trail wherever I go,” Beesen added drily, “for the purposes of my own safety.”

“Hmph,” grunted the deputy. “Well, you can leave your paper trail elsewhere. Maybe the Sears catalog in the privy would be more appropriate.” He spat a bitter mouthful of tobacco into the spittoon.

“I am detecting a note of hostility,” Beesen said.

“You’re damn right you are. People around here are apt to give that man his space and his privacy. Major Milton is a bit of a folk hero to people around here for what he did at the Battle of Silt River.”

“It wasn’t a battle,” Beesen said. “It was a massacre.”

“Whatever you want to call it, the man mucked the savages out of the territory and opened it up for settlement,” the deputy sheriff said. “That may not carry much weight back east, but out here it makes him a goddamn hero.”

“Let me tell you a little bit about that hero,” growled Beeson. “When he ordered his troops to open fire on unarmed women and children at Silt River, my friend and commanding officer Justin Davies refused. Instead, he promised to testify against Milton at the inquiry, and for that he was murdered in cold blood. I mean to see justice done upon him.”

“So it’s a personal matter, is it?” The deputy sheriff leaned forward in his seat. “That’s a bit different. Not that the distinction’ll mean much to many around here. I’ll write your name in the book and give you a piece of advice if you promise never to darken that door again, Mr. Beesen.”

“What’s that?”

“You’d best hurry. Milton may be a popular man around these parts, but that bounty has some mercenary takers. A group of calvarymen came through day before yesterday looking for him as well, and word has it that the Cheyenne have a group of Dog Soldiers after Milton as well. It’s a dirty stench of greed and revenge clinging to that man wherever he goes, and much as I think he was in the right, I won’t be sorry to see the whole thing over and done with.”

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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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“Who’s this strumpet?” asks my muse as he walks into my writing den–otherwise known as the single room comprising my kitchen and living room.

Sure enough, a young woman in a duster and hat, both heavy with dust, is sitting on the couch, arms folded, and glaring bullets at me. Luckily, the revolvers heavy on her hips are loaded with strictly imaginary bullets.

“This is Virginia McNeill, the heroine of my National Novel Writing Month novel for 2013,” I say. “I’ve been toying with her as a character since 2007 and finally got her story underway this year.”

“Uh, okay, great, sure,” says my muse. “I’m very happy for you. But why is she here, on your couch, which ought to be my place of honor? I am, after all, the imagined personification of your muse, shamelessly ripped off from an author so much richer and more powerful than you that I’m surprised you haven’t been sued back to the stone age?”

“If anyone asks, you’re fair use,” I say. “Or one of Stephen King’s Dollar Babies.”

“Whatever boats your float, slick,” says my muse with a hearty belch. “Now answer the damn question. What’s Annie Oakley doing in my ass groove?”

“I’m cross at him,” says Virginia. “I don’t like how my story turned out.”

“Ohh, and the crowd is crestfallen!” crows my muse. “All those years of thinking about Virginia’s story in the shower and you whiff on it like Casey?”

“I didn’t do any such thing!” I cry.

“I beg to differ,” snorts Virginia. “I thought my characterization was trite and two-dimensional, my character arc was more like a straight line, and that more often than not you were making fun of me.”

“Sounds like she has your number, slick,” says my muse. He tosses the cowgirl a cold beer from the fridge. “Here, have a brewski.”

“I for one think her story turned out well,” I say. “Sure, there are always edits and revisions, but-”

“Did you finish it?” snaps my muse.

“-I feel that I did enough justice to the outline of the tale that-” I continue, trying to ignore the question.

“DID you FINISH it?” my muse says again with exaggerated emphasis. “That WAS your resolution, wasn’t it?”

“It’s finished enough for now,” I say airily, evading the question.

My muse rolls his eyes afresh and turns to Virginia. “Did he finish it?”

“Far as I’m concerned,” she drawls acidly, “he never started it.”

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This entry is part of the NaNo Excerpt Blog Chain 2013 at Absolute Write.

“I tell you, it’s criminal, and I know criminal.” Old Man Morrison was pacing back and forth in the dining room of the McNeill Ranch house. “I saw it when your rotten sister tried to tip my cows, I was it when the O’Callahans were rustling my cows, and I see it now.”

“I’m sure,” said Adam McNeill. Seated at his kitchen table, he had been listening to Morrison ramble for nearly an hour about problems in Prosperity Falls. Time was, Adam would have shown the old coot the door with a Remington in his face for his trouble, not least of which because he had an inkling that the Morrison’s Wonky M ranch had been quietly rustling and rebranding his cows for years now.

But in the atmosphere of fear and paranoia that now ran rampant in Prosperity Falls, Morrison was one of the few Adam could talk to without fear of recrimination.

“The militia took another one of my boys yesterday,” Morrison continued. “For ‘questioning’ as an Ide sympathizer and traitor. Jail’s packed to the gills with ’em! Rangers and the militia is doing as they please and not a soul can raise a finger to stop them.”

“I heard that they seized Scroggins’s store yesterday,” Adam added. “Just threw him into the street and took everything he had for their ‘war effort.’ Deerton’s is the only shop on Prosperity Square that’s still open, and that’s only because Marshal Strasser has them making uniforms for her Rangers and her militia.”

“Militia,” spat Morrison. “Bunch of thugs too low to pass the Ranger Trials even with the bar lowered the way Yale left it.”

“Yeah,” Adam said, thinking ruefully of how many of his ranch hands he’d lost to prison and impressment—or fleeing to Dunn’s Crossing. “Or impressed to fight against their will. I’d raise holy hell about it, or gimp downtown to do something myself, but Marshal Strasser has the City Council in her pocket. Bunch of sheep, letting themselves be led around by Sullivan when she’s just on Strasser’s leash all the same. And the woman took over Strasser Smithy and threw her own uncle out on the street—you can’t reason with a creature like that.”

“You sound like you’re about ready to yellow-belly it to Dunn’s Crossing,” said Morrison.

“No. I don’t care if half the town has gone, either. My parents worked hard to build a life here, and I’ve worked hard to keep this ranch going. Nothing’s going to get me squealing out of Prosperity Falls with my tail between my legs.”

“Not even that rotten sister of yours?” Morrison said, arching an eyebrow over one cloudy eye. “Running off to go join up with the Ide, trying to overthrow Prosperity Falls from without even as Strasser breaks it up from within?”

“Don’t you say a word against her, Morrison,” Adam snapped. “Virginia’s got a lot of my parents in her, and they didn’t always think things through either. I love her, and I trust her, and if you so much as suggest that I do things any differently, I’ll rebut you with my Remingtons.”

“All right, okay, whatever you say, Adam.” Old Man Morriosn held up his hands in a gesture of surrender. “Guess you’ve got more than a little of her in yourself.”

“The responsibility of running a ranch tends to bury it deep, as I’m sure you know,” Adam said. He was about to continue when a heavy knock sounded at the door.

“Dale! Jeanette!” Adam cried out to his replacement ranch hands. “Whoever that is, let them in so I can tell them to go to hell for bothering me when I’ve got company!”

Before they could do so, if they even heard the command, the front door splintered inward. Two militiamen—identifiable by their pressboard Ranger badges—entered, guns drawn. Rangers Otto Luther and Shemaiah Talbot followed, their deputy marshal badges glinting in the late-day sunshine. Behind them, Marshal Ellen Strasser. Her outfit was immaculate, and she sported her old Colt Lightning revolvers with new ivory grips and the golden mashal’s badge buffed to a fine shine.

Morrison grasped for his double-barreled shotgun, which he’d left on the kitchen table, but Adam waved him away. “Marshal Strasser,” he said. “I’m honored by your presence. You’ll forgive me if I don’t stand, but I’m sure you know my leg’s no good.”

“Adam McNeill,” Strasser said. “You’ve ignored my requisition order. The people of Prosperity Falls need your head of cattle to feed the punitive expedition the Rangers are planning into Ide country.”

“Oh, I haven’t ignored the order, Marshal Strasser,” said Adam. That much was true; he had torn it up and burned the paper. “I’m afraid I was never properly presented with it is all.”

“And yet you are sitting here, well-fed—and armed—at your table while Rangers and militia go hungry for want of beef,” said Strasser icily. “That, to me, smacks of a lack of civic virtue. Or, to be less generous, conspiracy.”

“Oh, these?” said Adam, nodding at the twin Remington model 1858 revolvers on his table. “They are heirlooms. Belonged to my parents.”

“I’m sure you are aware that the requisition order extends to personal weapons as well,” said Strasser. “Even a pair of antiques like that could be made useful. And yet you’ve chosen to hoard them.”

“I keep them loaded with a blank charge and use them to startle cattle and wake up my sister,” Adam said. “Hardly hoarding, and they’re doing me more good than they would any fool used to cartridge guns instead of cap and ball.”

“Ah yes, your sister,” said Strasser. “Virginia. A name sure to eclipse even that of Jubal Sullivan in traitorous infamy.”

“Don’t you say a word against her,” said Adam, his calm slipping a bit. “I will not have my sister, no matter what she is held to have done, slandered in my own home.”

Strasser raised her eyebrows. “Perhaps your…lethargy…in complying with my lawful requests has something to do with that? Could it be that you, too, are in league with the Ide, plotting the destruction of everything I am sworn to protect?”

“Yes, I’m sure the Ide have great need for antique guns, cattle malnourished from confiscated feed, and fighters with useless legs.”

“Perhaps you’re right,” Strasser said. She nodded curtly to her escort, who began to advance with their guns drawn. “Even so, you might be a useful tool in bringing that girl to heel. A useful example to anyone else with your same…recalcitrance… as well.”

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