Jens Rushing brings us a Space Western/Fantasy, in three parts. Part 1 introduces our heroine: Dixie O’Dell. — ed, N.E. Lilly

Dixie swept and reswept the house. She would permit no speck of South Texas dust to remain; Bat was coming home tonight. She hadn’t seen her husband in six weeks, and she wanted their little house spotless. For two days now, nervous energy had compelled her to scrub dishes and polish furniture, mend the screen door, tack down loose shingles, shoe the mare, and demolish and rebuild the chicken coop. Truth was, housekeeping bored her to tears, and six weeks with no other occupationhad made her a little crazy. But, goodness, she thought, the house sure is clean. All for Bat. She envied him, out riding the range while she was stuck at home. She’d been raised under a big sky and a wandering star, and without Bat, this home life was hard.

They hadn’t been married for more than two weeks before he left town, but that was the life of a Ranger. Dixie was proud to be married to a gentleman of the law, but she did wish, she admitted to herself, that she had gotten a little more of her husband before Colonel Woodrow had formed up his little posse. Still, if they caught that murderer Gomez, it was all worth it. It didn’t do to have murderers on the loose.

Hooves on the gravel caught her attention. She stepped onto the porch. Her heart leapt to her mouth — and caught there. It wasn’t her tall, tanned Bat with his homely and half-cynical air trotting up to the house, but Colonel Woodrow. He dismounted, took off his hat, and gave her a “Ma’am” that told her everything.

“Well, if this isn’t a pleasure,” she said.

“Perhaps you’d like to sit down,” he said.

“I’m fine on my own two feet. Looks like you could use a seat, though.” The Colonel seemed on the verge of passing out. They sat on rocking chairs on the porch — her and Bat’s chairs.

“Ma’am,” he said, crumpling his fine Stetson into a wad, “it is my sad and terrible duty to inform you that Bat has passed away.”

“Strong, healthy men of twenty-four don’t ‘pass away’, Colonel,” Dixie said, trying to keep her voice from breaking.

“Oh, Mrs. O’Dell, I’m so sorry,” the Colonel cried. “God, this is awful.”

“What happened?”

“Oh, ma’am, I honestly can’t tell you. Let’s respect poor Bat and let those terrible circumstances lie.”

“I reckon I need to know.” Dixie was navigating the conversation with the detachment of a Red River pilot at the Cypress Springs logjam, but her grief threatened to deluge her at any moment.

“It was Gomez who killed him. We had him at Laredo, and he slipped his tether. Got two other fine men as well, and now he’s across the river.”

“Is he clear past the reach of justice?”

“Afraid so, ma’am. We can’t duck back and forth across the river anymore like we used to. He’s gone. But that don’t concern you, ma’am. Don’t fret over the fates of murderers. Justice will find them out, one way or the other.” He stood. “I need to get back to Austin, but I am truly at your service. Send word if you need me, and I’ll be here quick as a jackrabbit.” Woodrow fished in his pocket. “I have this for you. It was Bat’s. I figured you’d want something to hang onto.” In his hand was Bat’s Ranger badge, a five-pointed star imperfectly cut from a silver peso. Dixie took it. She had pinned it on Bat herself. That memory stung her, and finally the dam burst. Grief drowned her. Dixie began to weep silently.

“I’m powerful sorry,” Woodrow said, and left with a final tip of his hat. She hardly noticed him. For now there was only the cold star in her hand, and her insoluble loss.

Well, cryin’ never did anyone a lick of good,” she said after a few minutes, and tamed her disheveled brown hair, wiped her eyes and sniffed a few times. “Not that I’m not sad for you,” she said, “but I find doin’ is so much better than belly-achin’.” Still holding the star, she entered the house and studied her reflection in the half-mirror above the woodstove. Brunette, widow at eighteen, too many freckles on her nose, but with sly blue eyes that were quite fetching when not puffy from crying. What am I to do with this person? she wondered.

She studied her body. A little shorter than most women, but strong and lean from working on her father’s ranch. Wide hips, taut posterior, small but firm breasts — a body, Bat had told her more than a few times, built for loving. Dixie wasn’t displeased with the sum of her parts. She rather liked her parts, and had loved that she could make a present of them to her husband, who was now cold and dead in Laredo…

It seemed clear to her that there was only one thing she could do. Her father had told her a lot about a woman’s place, but he had told her more about family pride, and letting no injury go unanswered. “Bein’ a lady don’t enter into it,” he said, one day when a neighbor boy had pulled her hair. “You punch him in the nose.” And she did. (The young boy was Bat.) Now, the thought of her husband’s murderer laughing at the collective might of the Texas Rangers boiled her blood, while the thought of this man free to kill again chilled her. This would not stand.

Under the bed was a Colt Single Action Army. With charming condescension, Bat had showed her how to use it, aiming at a half-dozen of tin cans twenty yards distant. She had smiled through his lecture, then put a hole through each of the cans, one shot apiece.

Dixie tore off her gingham dress and hunted for a pair of riveted jeans that she kept for riding. She matched it with a light flannel shirt and a leather belt, into which she tucked the revolver. She stuck her straw hat on her head and forced on her boots. She almost pinned the silver star to her blouse, then returned it to her pocket.

Her mare, Honeyfoot, was ready to go and whinnied with delight when she saddled her. “Been cooped up too long, old girl,” she said affectionately. She slapped Honeyfoot’s haunch and ran a brush through her mane.

The road through the hills was dusty and rough. She flew down it, passing a surprised Colonel Woodrow. “Ma’am?” he shouted after her. “Where’re you goin’?”

“Laredo,” she cried over her shoulder, and then the winding road over the pitching, arid hills obscured him. Before her was the open country and the biggest sky known to man.

San Antonio passed like a dream, and she entered the desolate land beyond, the rolling range good for little but grazing. She crossed the Pecos, hardly a stream this late in the summer, and within four days entered Laredo, a dusty place with just enough shacks to graduate from “town” to “city”. Here Dixie paused, not quite sure what to do next. “Well,” she reckoned, “I’m a mite parched, so let’s see to that first.” She tethered Honeyfoot outside a likely-looking saloon and entered. The swinging doors smacked her on the back, and she suddenly realized the absurdity of her situation.

Women didn’t enter seedy, plank-built saloons unescorted, and ladies refrainedfrom entering them at all. But she had ridden for days, dammit, and nothing would wash the dust from her throat like a beer. She blinked in the low light and walked inside, mindful of the eyes on her, willfully ignoring them. Most of the customers were ranch hands idling away a Sunday afternoon, but one of the patrons stood out. A slim Mexican dressed all in black chatted idly with the bartender, and Dixie absently noted that his clothing was immaculate of dust, quite a feat on a hot, windy summer day. His belt was studded with silver and turquoise, and the clasp of his bolo tie was a single large stone set in shining silver braid. He smiled warmly at her, and she felt a little more at ease. “Have a seat, señorita,” he invited, in precise English. “I am overcome with surprise at such a gentle beauty in such a den of corruption as this.” His eyes twinkled.

“Beg pardon,” growled the bartender.

“Pay no mind to these proletarian beggars and thieves,” the dapper man said. “Tend to your own flight from this cesspool, lest your soul be endangered.”

Dixie deflected this with a polite smile and ordered a beer, which the bartender retrieved after a moment’s confusion. “I’m mighty grateful for the warning, Señor...?”

“I am called El Lobo,” he said, with a twist of his thin moustache.

The bartender burst into laughter. “Don’t mind him, lady. His name’s Martinez, Ramon Martinez.”

“In some circles I am known as Ramon Martinez,” Martinez admitted.

“It’s a pleasure, Señor Martinez,” Dixie said. The beer was working wonders in her parched throat. Already she felt more comfortable. After the patrons’ initial curiosity, they seemed to have forgotten her, and this Martinez set her at ease. “Ridin’s hard work.”

“Whence did you come, my dear?” Martinez said.

“Near Austin.”

“That is indeed a difficult journey, through rough country. And, pardon my curiosity, but did you make it alone?”

Dixie nodded.

“With no consideration of marauding Apache or bandit?”

“Shucks,” she said, “I guess not.”

“Truly, yours must be an errand of great import.”

Dixie agreed but said no more. Martinez’s probing might be idle curiosity, and it might not. Gomez probably had many friends, as all outlaws do, and she intended to reveal no more of her purpose than necessary. That said, she wasn’t sure how to go about searching for the information that would lead her to the criminal.

“I hear some Rangers were murdered here a few weeks back,” she tried, feeling stupid and obvious.

Martinez clucked his tongue. “Sadly, yes. Lawlessness stalks our streets, and reaps a harvest of suffering. May I purchase your next potable, madame?”

Dixie consented. Martinez continued. “A posse on the trail of that ruffian Gomez. He ambushed them and dispatched three of their number, then escaped over the river.”

“How could one man defeat three Rangers?” she said, with an air of naïve wonderment, trying not to sound so deliberate in her questions. “It don’t seem possible.”

Martinez twisted his moustache, which she guessed was his equivalent of a shrug. “Oh, madam, one hears legends of extraordinary cunning and skill associated with that man. Even dark whispers of witchcraft, some say.”

She shuddered. “Witchcraft?”

“Si. He consorts — they say — with the devil, and calls on him to strike his enemies. Hardly surprising, when one considers the state of the bodies.”

Dixie blinked uncomprehendingly. “What state is that...?” Woodrow was right; she didn’t want to know.

“Señorita, to frame a description in words would wither your charming ears, which are lovely as twin blossoms of bougainvillea. I apologize, but I could not commit such herbicide.”

“So you’ve seen the bodies, then?”

“I confess I have. Curiosity is my curse,” he said with a gleam of straight, white teeth.

“He means he’s nosy,” the bartender said. “And he couldn’t resist sneakin’ a peek.”

“Thank you, mi amigo, for that shining description,” Martinez said. “Señorita, what you hear is merely the grumbling of an overlooked churl.”

Martinez might not be entirely savory, but if he made everyone’s business his own, then Dixie might be able to make use of him. Certainly, she thought, she would deal with worse types before this business was over.

“Have they at least laid those poor souls to rest yet?” she asked, wide-eyed.

“No, madam, they are yet within the undertaker’s care. I don’t believe he knows what to do with them.”

“Whatever do you mean?”

“Whether to bury or scatter them. You’d have to see for yourself to understand.”

“May I?”

“It hardly falls within my purview, madam, to deny you access. Only I wish you would not, for to gaze upon those poor bones would shrivel your arresting and magnetic eyes, which are like unfurling azaleas in your skull.”

“You’ll make a girl blush,” she murmured.

“But if you were intent on it, you will find the undertaker’s office downtown, across from the courthouse.”

“Much obliged,” Dixie said. She tried to pay for her beer — Martinez insisted otherwise. He kissed her hand as she left, as if he knew no other way to bid farewell to a woman. She departed a bit flattered and a trifle confused by his behavior, and found the undertaker’s office quickly enough.

It was a drab and uninspiring place, as such places tend to be, with two models of coffins on display in the front room. The sleepy clerk blinked his nonplussment at her, and finally managed a “Yes?”

“I’m here to see the bodies of the Rangers who were killed a while back.” This only served to increase his confusion, and consequently his blinking.

“Ma’am?” he said.

“One of them was my husband,” she said, her voice as level as she could make it. “I’d like to see him, please.”

“If you’re dead certain, ma’am.”

“I am.”

He showed her into the back room, where corpses in various states of embalmment inhabited cheap pine coffins. She pressed her handkerchief to her face against the smell of formaldehyde. The clerk made an apologetic gesture, as if she were seeing his unwashed undergarments scattered about instead of a half-dozen dead men. He indicated a row of drawers set into the wall. “I’m terribly sorry I can’t tell you who’s who,” he said.

“No one identified them?”

“Uh — you’ll see, ma’am.”

He pulled open a drawer. Dixie drew back with a sharp gasp. The clerk slammed the drawer shut. “I’m sorry, ma’am!” he cried. “I thought you had some warnin’.”

“I did,” she said. “Plenty of it. But... not quite enough. Let me take another gander.”

The clerk opened the drawer; Dixie steeled her nerves and examined the body within.

“Body” was hardly an apt term. One-quarter of a fleshless skeleton lay in several inches of a fine gray powder. Her first thought was to wonder why they had not dusted the drawer; then, the clerk bumped the drawer and the slight vibration caused a minute amount of the bones to crumble into dust.

“We don’t know how,” the clerk said, his voice tremulous, “but they were whole men when we put them in here, not a mark or a wound on ’em. I don’t know what happened, but I do know it didn’t happen quite right.”

“Men dead two weeks don’t look like that,” she breathed. “That ain’t right. Wait!” she cried. As the clerk closed the drawer and pushed the remains out of the light, a faint green glow became visible. “What’s that?”

“I don’t know, ma’am, I don’t know! The whole business is frankly real eerie. I’d like to get ’em in the ground, but the Ranger Colonel told us to hold ’em in case of an investigation.”

Dixie prodded the skull with her finger. It collapsed into fragments instantly, and the fragments tumbled to powder. “Thank you,” she muttered, and fairly ran outside, wanting to get away from those unnatural dead.

She stood panting in the street, collecting her wits, which were wild as scared jackrabbits, but all she could think of was Martinez’s words of witchcraft. If he couldcall on the devil to strike his enemies — well, a man stricken by the devil might look like the men she had just seen.

Movement in the corner of her vision caught her attention, and she whirled round to see Martinez, his face covered by his hat, going into a shop down the street. Had he been watching her? She had that distinct suspicion. Spy he might be, but she was not bound to tolerate him spying on her. She waited by the door until he came out, slapping a new pair of kid gloves (black, of course) against his wrist.

“Señorita, it is a surprise and a delight to encounter you again!” he said, bowing deeply.

“I’ve had enough of your señoritas,” Dixie snapped. “I want to know why you were spying on me!”

Martinez looked left and right, as if he had just realized that they were in a public thoroughfare, where such discussions should not be held. “Madame, please, discretion is chief among virtues. Step this way, if you please, and this conversation will be most pleasant and comfortable for us all.”

“No. I’ll have it out here and now, but I’ll let you pick the volume. The more forthright you are, the quieter I’ll be. Good evening,” she said to a curious passerby. With his genteel airs, Martinez, she wagered, wouldn’t want a confrontation in the street. But she had nothing to lose in Laredo.

“Certainly, señorita. May we...?” He gestured to a bench on the wide sidewalk. She nodded and they sat. Martinez sighed. “Madam, gentlemen of, shall we say, uncertain income must be more resourceful than most in the pursuit of means. My incorrigible, perhaps alluring, and definitely intriguing quality of curiosity coincides neatly with my chosen vocation — not profession, for the Martinez family is far too gentrified to take professions. I am a broker of certain parcels of knowledge, and I reveal this to you because I suspect that you are in need of my services. You entered the saloon today with a burning question in your brain, visible to me as a bonfire on a benighted mountainside, and nothing would give me greater satisfaction than to provide the answer to that question. But first I must divine the question; thus my spying. I humbly beg your forgiveness, and put myself at your service, for such modest fees as it is my unfortunate burden to request.”

“Can you take me to Gomez?”

“Señorita, if you seek that terrible man, it is within my power to guide you to him. You must but name your price.”

Dixie tapped her chin with a forefinger and pretended to think. She was penetrating lawless, dangerous territory, and she must learn to hide her cunning and instincts, and let others think less of her so she could maintain the advantage.

“Twelve dollars?” she said.

Martinez curled the tip of his moustache between thumb and forefinger. “A queenly sum, miss. I will be honored to escort you.”

The next day she and Martinez splashed across the Rio Grande and left the United States of America. Nuevo Laredo was a collection of shanties, starving horses, and chicken runs. “Avert your eyes, madame, from this nauseating squalor,” Martinez advised her, and they trotted through quickly.

The land became progressively drier and more hostile, graduating from dry plains to rolling hills, and finally mountains appeared far to the southwest. “The Sierra Madres,” Martinez said. “It is known that Gomez keeps his refuge among the pine-covered peaks, though whether he can be found is another matter.” He eyed her. “One wonders why a lone Texan woman seeks this killer.”

“My reasons belong to me,” Dixie said curtly. “It’s part of our agreement that you don’t ask.”

“As madame desires,” Martinez said silkily.

Prickly pear and barrel cacti sprouted from the burnt orange earth, and spindly chollas grasped at them like spiny claws. Several times she had to stop and brush sections of stems from Honeyfoot’s coat before the barbs worked into her skin.

They camped in a valley along a spring-fed stream that made the land bloom with desert flowers: yellow desert sunflowers, white easter bonnets, vervain, purplemat, and the little white blossoms known as coyote tobacco. Martinez built a fire of dead prickly pear trunks, which burnt greasily, and they ate in silence. Afterwards, with the low light of the fire smoldering in his eyes, Martinez began to speak in his smooth, candid tone.

“I consider myself, señorita, something of a student of human behavior. I served the Honorable Juarez, peace be unto him, on the day he seized and executed the imperialist Maximilian. I was there when Juarez breathed his last, and the great man who held the nation in his hand confided to me his childlike trepidation at facing the abyss. I have seen much and penetrated the hearts and minds of many. Yet you remain a closed book to me, señorita, an enigma through and through.” Dixie, determined to go unpenetrated, said nothing, and Martinez shifted. After a moment he said, “Yet it is plain that sorrow compels you and roasts like coals in your belly. May I suggest the only restorative capable of soothing wounded heart rather than wounded flesh — tequila?” He drew from his saddlebag a small bottle of golden brown liquid.

What the hell, Dixie thought. She accepted a small cup and sipped it. Martinez threw back a shot and watched her expectantly. She met his gaze and downed hers, wiped her lips, and extended her cup for a refill.

“I admire madame’s strength of palate,” he said, filling both their glasses. He raised his drink and she hers. He probably wanted her tongue loosened so she would confess her reason for seeking Gomez; well, let him try. He would see how well Texas girls hold their liquor.

The silent contest lasted for three more shots. “Really, Señor Martinez, a young lady oughtn’t to drink like this with a man she hardly knows,” Dixie gasped.

“But, madame, I feel that I’ve known you for years. Circumstances have accelerated our relationship, and, truly, you can feel as safe with me as a babe in the hands of nuns.” His speech was the slightest bit slurred.

Dixie stifled a laugh. “Believe me, Señor, I do, I do.” Martinez was studying the night sky above. “What a view!” Dixie said, wanting to keep him talking and to divert his suspicions.

“Si. One feels intimate with the stars when on the range, as if you could grasp them in your hand. I imagine they’re very cold, like drops of ice. Do you know, Señorita, there is a legend among my people that the spirits of loved ones can walk from one to the other at the speed it takes for your gaze to flick from one star to the next, and souls of rare ability can, while yet living, travel this trail winding amongst the heavenly spheres, which are crystalline and chiming with the hymn of creation...”

“Sounds awful lonely,” Dixie said. “Shall we?” They took another drink, and another. She felt hot and sticky and her surroundings were starting to vibrate perceptibly; when she sent commands to her muscles, her muscles took a few seconds to respond. But she still had her wits, whereas Martinez fumbled the bottle.

“Perhaps not, señorita. Tequila depletes the body’s... moisture, and we are in a — desert, with limited supply of same.” He was searching for words, his English breaking down.

“Come on,” Dixie teased. “Do we need to go back to town to find a table for me to drink you under?”

Martinez grimly poured another shot. Dixie downed it. Martinez downed his and set down the bottle, accidentally knocking it over. It emptied onto the dirt. “Madre de dios... fuego de la mierda...” He cursed. He settled against his saddle. “I’m not going to sleep, I’m just resting my eyes,” he muttered, half in Spanish, and soon a quiet snore escaped his lips. Dixie laughed, then slapped her hand over her mouth, and crawled over to the slumbering man. Her hands shaking, she carefully plucked his twin silver-worked revolvers from his belt. She retreated with her prizes, opened the chamber of one, and removed the cylinder, just as her father had shown her. By moonlight she located the firing pin. Using a sturdy hairpin as a fine-tipped chisel, and the butt of the other revolver as a hammer, she knocked the firing pin from its mounting with a sharp blow. She picked it up from the ground and tossed it into the brush, repeated the process on the other revolver, then reassembled the guns and replaced them in Martinez’s holsters, very carefully. He stirred; his eyelids fluttered open and her heart leapt. “Señorita?” he murmured. Then he said something in Spanish that she didn’t quite catch, but the phrase stuck in her mind for its peculiarity. She had a good command of the language, but the more she thought about the sentence, the less like Spanish it seemed, until she was no longer sure Martinez had spoken in Spanish. Dixie knew a little German, too, from all the settlers out New Braunfels or Fredericksburg way, and that last sentence wasn’t German either, or anything like it. It was like no language she’d ever heard.

She put it out of her mind, finished replacing the pistols, and made her retreat. But something she had seen bothered her, and she returned to Martinez’s slumbering form. Dangling from his belt was a jewel about the size and shape of a pecan, but blood-red, in a setting of gold wire. The surface was smooth, yet irregular, like a riverbed rock. It glowed with reflected firelight. It was strange in the company of all Martinez’s turquoise and silver. Dixie thought about taking it. Her instincts told her that it would be important later, and Dixie knew to listen to her instincts. But Martinez might notice it missing. She returned to her side of the fire and settled into an uneasy sleep, laying on top of her own pistol, lest Martinez attempt a similar trickery with her.

Morning brought the expected hangover, though it seemed even worse for Martinez than for her. A mouthful of canteen water washed the thickness from her throat, and a handful of the same roused Martinez from his stupor. His eyes fluttered open. “Señorita... how embarrassing. It appears I indulged beyond my own limits last night.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t remember,” she laughed. “I had a few too many myself. Lemme rustle up some grub.” She boiled some beans and tossed in a few slabs of bacon. They ate, she scrubbed the dishes with a handful of sand, they saddled up and rode out.

The climate became cooler as they climbed into the Sierra Madres. Sage and cacti gave way to broad-leafed shrubs and, eventually, scrawny, twisty pines. Animal life reappeared, too: a trio of javelinas scurried away at their approach, and once she glimpsed a tawny coyote pawing at a dead rabbit. It scooped up its prize and trotted away, unhurried and unconcerned.

“Gomez lives up here?”

“Si, señorita. It is necessary that we move with caution, quietly. Gomez may be anywhere. He moves like a rattlesnake and strikes without warning.”

They crested a ridge. A valley opened below them, and Dixie gasped at what she saw. In the center of the valley was a wide, squat pyramid, carved from titanic blocks of limestone. A stairway on what she assumed to be the front led up to a small roofed building on the top, some kind of temple or shrine, she guessed.

“Good golly!” she exclaimed, overcome by the sight. “What is it?”

“A construction of the Aztecs, the vicious yet noble race that once ruled all of Mexico,” Martinez said. “They are long vanished, but they left remnants of their grand civilization all over the nation. This was one of the temples where they enacted their bloody, unspeakable rites, where Gomez is rumored to dwell.”

“Look!” Dixie cried, pointing. Far below, the small figure of a man or woman was running down the steps, almost falling in his haste to flee. Another person emerged from the shrine and pursued the first, catching him quickly and subduing him with a blow to his head, then returning to the building with his victim draped senseless over his shoulder. Outrage flared in Dixie’s heart at the sight of such violence. “We’ve got to do something!” She spurred Honeyfoot and galloped down the slope, ignoring Martinez’s shout of warning.

She ducked pine branches as they hummed by; she came to a stream and held on tight for one breathless moment as Honeyfoot vaulted over, and grunted as the horse slammed into the bank on the other side and was off again. She had ridden all her life and knew how to handle her weight; she knew, also, to let the horse guide herself, trusting to the mare’s instincts to pick her own footing and choose her own path up and down the rocky slopes.

At the foot of the pyramid she dismounted, then proceeded on foot, her revolver drawn. As she neared the top, she heard a deep, guttural chanting reverberating from the temple. It had an eerie quality that made her neck-hairs bristle, and it was in no language she had ever heard. Rather, she realized with a start, she had heard it once — last night, from Martinez!

She crept up to the shrine and peaked inside the broad doorway. It was a scene from a slaughterhouse. Bright blood coated everything. Two men lay dead on the floor, great gaping wounds in their chests in which blood pooled. A young man was stretched on a low stone altar, his head rocking back and forth, senseless. Above the man on the altar stood another man, and the sight of him froze the blood in her veins. He was a giant in proportion and a gargoyle in countenance. He had a hooked nose, thin lips twisted in a bloodthirsty rictus, and a collection of scars the likes of which Dixie had never seen outside a carnival. His face was dotted with pinprick welts that formed a weird mosaic of loops and radials. His teeth were filed into points. He finished his chant, and plunged an obsidian knife into the unconscious man, who woke long enough for a tortured scream before dying.

“No!” Dixie stepped into the room and raised her pistol. “Hands up!”

Gomez (it must be Gomez) glanced at her and continued his work. He seemed mildly annoyed at her presence, but bound to continue. He twisted the knife in a circle, as if he were coring a man-sized apple, and thrust his hand into the wound. Dixie was transfixed with horror. Gomez buried his arm up to the elbow; he must be tremendously strong. Gomez grinned with satisfaction, and jerked his arm free. In his hand was the man’s red heart. Gomez muttered another sentence in the eldritch language and crushed the heart in his fist. After a moment he dropped the remains.

“Now, pobrecita, what brings you here?” he said in accented Spanish, wiping his hands on his buckskin trousers.

Dixie found her voice. “I’ve come to — to bring you to law.”

This amused Gomez greatly. He put his hands on his belly and laughed, apparently heedless of the revolver fixed on him. His laugh was mirthful and genuine, and cruel. It made Dixie feel like an insect; she didn’t care for it.

“You better hush!” she said, shaking the Colt at him.

“If you want to take me in,” Gomez said, “you’ll have to work for it. You’ll have to chase me a little.”

“Where? I got the bulge on you.”

“Oh, you’ll see in about thirty seconds.”

She heard movement behind her and shot a glance that direction, not taking the pistol off Gomez for a second. He didn’t seem inclined to try anything, but she took no chances. Martinez was trudging up the stairs.

He made the summit and gave a fearful cry when he saw Gomez. To Dixie’s surprise, he threw himself on the floor, his arms spread out before him. “Mercy on a poor exile, my master!” he said in Spanish.

Gomez blinked in confusion. “Matlal?” he said in the same language. “Why do you speak the conqueror’s tongue to me?”

“I’ve been away from Aztlan for so long — I fear my speech will stumble, and I don’t want to mar the holy Nahuatl.”

Gomez grunted as if he didn’t much care, and gestured at Dixie. “Well — what is she doing here?”

“She, my master, is the wife of one of the lawmen you slew. She came seeking vengeance. I thought it might give you pleasure to destroy her, or, if not, you could take her as a bride. So I offer her to you, as a present, hoping that you might remember me to the war chief.”

Dixie could hardly believe her ears. Gomez raised an eyebrow appraisingly. “No. She’s too weak. She would die within days. You can kill her.” Gomez’s eye fell on the red gemstone at Martinez’s waist. “Ah! You have your corazón! I lost mine in San Antonio. If I’d known you had one, I could have used that, and wouldn’t have had to make all this mess. Ah, well, what’s done is done.” Dixie dimly heard a high-pitched whine, like a shrilling violin. A pinpoint of bright green light appeared above the altar. “Here we go,” Gomez said. “It’s been too long, my beloved Aztlan.”

The shrilling violin swelled to a maddening shriek, and the pinpoint widened to a fist-sized globe of light, then a foot, two feet across, and so on, until it was a vertical oval of green light shot through with crackling veins of black lightning. Gomez approached it. She ought to shoot him, she thought, but he was unarmed, she wanted him alive, and — what if she missed? Terror stopped her trigger finger.

She found her voice at last. “Wait!” Gomez paused, annoyed. “What did you do to my husband? How did you do that to him?”

Gomez grunted amusedly. “Pobrecita, I did that with my bare hands.” He stepped inside the oval as if it were a normal door. He vanished. The oval began shrinking slowly.

With his departure, the mesmeric grip on Dixie finally loosened, and she sprang into action at the same time as Martinez. She swung her revolver in his direction, but he already had his out and leveled at her head. “I apologize, señorita,” he said. “I cannot deny that I have enjoyed your company, but it is the wish of my master that you die.”

“Shoot, then, or give up the gun,” she said.

Martinez looked disconcerted for a moment. He pulled the trigger and the hammer fell on — nothing. It clicked. He pulled it again — click, click, click.

“I knew I couldn’t trust you from the get-go,” Dixie said. “I was dead sure of it when you agreed to help me collar a curly wolf like Gomez for twelve dollars! How dumb do you think I am, Martinez?”

“I admit my opinion of madame’s intelligence is rapidly adjusting,” he said coolly, lowering his revolvers.

Dixie glanced at the oval. It was hardly two feet across now. “You’ll find your firing pins back on the desert somewhere. I’m going through, and I’ll take that little jewel of yours.”

Martinez’s eyes widened. “Señorita! I beg you! Without it — I am stranded here forever!”

Dixie cocked the hammer back. Martinez begrudgingly removed the jewel from his belt and tossed it over.

“Now get out of my sight.” Martinez scurried down the steps. The oval was hardly a foot across now. Dixie hesitated just the slightest bit and dove through it.

Jens Rushing Jens Rushing is a native Texan living in South Korea with his wife and dog. He was hatched from an egg. Visit his website for his journal, some stories, and nightmare bursts of galimatias.

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