Bluebeard and the White Buffalo:A Rangergirl Yarn
by Tim Pratt
Rangergirl rode her multi-legged magnetic steed across the dusty ground, toward a line of smoke rising against the darkening blue sky. Her mount's whirring legs stirred up a steady cloud behind her, so whoever had the campfire going would see her approach, but since she wasn't tracking a bounty, she didn't worry over being seen. Half a mile from the campfire she ran into a knot of fragile dust-and-starshine ghost-children, which whipped into nothing before the softly humming approach of her steed. Rangergirl smiled. The ghosts meant Gilles de Rais was ahead, and she hadn't seen him in a year. She'd been out here in the bleak middle of the West on long patrol for ages, and an evening's company would be welcome, ghosts and all.
Gilles stood in silhouette, his back to the fire, a long rifle in his hands. The ghosts must have murmured direful warnings of her approach they didn't like it when Gilles made friends. "Gilles, it's me! R.G.!"
Gilles lowered the rifle and raised a hand in greeting. Rangergirl twisted a knob to power down her steed, let it whir to a stop, and dismounted.
"Ma cherie," Gilles said, arms outstretched. Rangergirl embraced him. His ghosts shifted and muttered beyond the edge of the fire, pale dirty faces mournful, teeth bared. They were unhappy, but lacked the substance to interfere with their fellowship.
After initial greetings, the two sat together by the fire, Rangergirl cooking beans over the flame, Gilles smoking one of his noxious handrolled cigarettes. He said the pungent smoke kept the ghosts at bay, and since he'd lost his own senses of smell and taste centuries before, when he first died, the odor didn't bother him.
"Funny our paths should cross again," Rangergirl said. "Maybe it'll be more peaceful than last time."
"We can only hope," Gilles said. They'd first met years before, and fought together against a common enemy: the ancient Aaron Burr, self-proclaimed Emperor of the West and Oppressor of Mexico. Burr had orchestrated a dark plot for conquest from his stronghold in the desert, and Gilles and Rangergirl had thwarted him, bringing his heavily-armed war zeppelin down in flames. Burr was Rangergirl's biggest problem these days, since she'd long since defeated most of her other enemies, including Cosmocrator, the Outlaw, and Kentucky Tom Granger.
"You still working for Prelati?" Rangergirl said. Gilles's master was a wily old sorcerer, wicked and ambitious, and she dreaded the day she'd have to fight him. She didn't relish the thought of facing off against Gilles.
"I serve Prelati as the priests of Death Valley serve the dark god Martu," Gilles said. "Because such service is the only alternative to horrible punishments in the afterlife."
"Right," Rangergirl said. "I knew that. I was just... wondering if maybe he'd given you some time off."
Gilles sighed. "Prelati does not believe in time off. He brought me back from the dead, so my every hour belongs to him."
Rangergirl nodded. "My offer's still open. I can hunt Prelati down for you. This thrall he has over you is neither right nor lawful. You've told me before, all you want is peace."
Gilles shook his head. "Killing Prelati would free me from his spell, and let me die. But in death, I would face judgment for my crimes." He glanced at the ghost-children in their peasant rags, dark-eyed waifs, mostly boys. Each was a victim of Gilles's reign of terror in the early 1400s, when he was a French lord, in the years after he fought alongside Joan of Arc. In those days, Prelati was a conjuror who promised Gilles eternal life in exchange for the blood of children. Gilles's crimes were discovered, and he was tried and found guilty of sodomy, heresy, and the murder of 140 children. Prelati even testified against him at the trial. Gilles was hanged and burned... but days after his death, Prelati restored Gilles to life and health, fulfilling his promise of eternal life, and demanding service in exchange.
Rangergirl looked at the ghosts, too. "I can't believe..." she said, but trailed off. She'd studied up some on Gilles's history after they first met, and the records were contradictory, some calling Gilles a monster who'd killed as many as 600 children, others saying he'd killed one or two at most, others insisting he was innocent, victim of a frame-up job by the Church, out to seize his lands.
"I cannot recall my crimes," Gilles said. "Death ruined my memories. I remember my last years in pieces Prelati, the courtroom, the gallows." He waved his hand vaguely, disturbing a nearby ghost. "Still, what more proof do I need, besides these spirits? But I am not the man I was, and would not commit such crimes again."
Rangergirl stirred the fire with a stick. 400 years had passed since Gilles's death, five long lifetimes, and that was time enough to change someone. But Gilles still served an evil man. "What if Prelati ordered you to harm a child?"
Gilles shook his head. "That was the single point I won. I told him I would rather face the fires of Hell than harm another boy, and he believed me. He may ask me for any other service, and I will give it, but never that. In truth, though he protested, I do not think he minded the concession children are seldom a threat to a man like Prelati."
Rangergirl leaned back on her elbows. "So if you're not on vacation, what're you doing out here?"
Gilles flicked his cigarette toward the ghosts, who shied away. "You are no friend to my master, but I cannot think of a reason you would care to stop me, so... I have been sent to watch over the birth of a buffalo."
"A buffalo?" Gilles had achieved notoriety as a buffalo hunter years before, as part of Prelati's ongoing vendetta against the mysterious and ponderous buffalo spirits that dwelled on the plains.
"I find it a strange task, too. But this is a special buffalo, a she-calf, all white."
Rangergirl leaned forward. "The white buffalo? I've heard of that, from some of the buffalo people. It's a prophecy, Gilles. What do you know about it?"
"About the prophecy? Nothing. I am to meet a contingent of hired soldiers, and guides, who will take me to the birthing place. I am to protect the white buffalo against any who seek to destroy it. I do not know why. My master does not share his motivations with me. What is the prophecy?"
Rangergirl stared into the fire, trying to recall the words the shaman of the buffalo people had used to tell her about the white buffalo. "When the white calf is born, it will herald the rebirth of the West. The great buffalo herds will return, and the braves fallen in battle with the white man will be restored to life. The poisoned waters will run clear again, and the monsters will retreat back into their lairs underground. The white man's grip on the West will loosen, and the land will be returned to those who lived here before. The shaman told me that some white people explorers, trappers, guides would be allowed to remain. But the empire-builders, the ones who want to kill whole tribes and build cities and mine mountains and dam rivers, they'll be driven away." She frowned. "Why in the hell would Prelati want to help something like that? This is a prophecy of the buffalo people, and he hates the buffalo people, right?"
"I think... If the broken nations were reformed, and the white man driven from the West, then Aaron Burr would be cast out, yes?"
"That explains my master's support. Burr is his greatest rival here. Prelati would rather fight with the natives than with Burr's army."
"I guess," she said. "These range wars make strange allies. Do you mind if I come, Gilles, to help you protect the buffalo?"
"It would be an honor to stand beside you again," Gilles said.
Rangergirl wrapped herself in a blanket to sleep, some distance from Gilles and the soughing of his ghosts. Gilles hadn't slept since his death. He just sat up all night listening to the ghosts murmur about their misery and his guilt. Rangergirl stared up at the stars, her eyes naturally drifting to the great buffalo constellation. If this was truly the time of prophecy, then everything would change. The idea disturbed her for reasons too numerous to count, but it excited her, too.
Rangergirl stopped her mount and swore. "Raiders!"
Gilles stopped his steam-sled and shaded his eyes against the midday sun, looking where she pointed. "No. They are flying the pale banner. Those are the men we are supposed to meet." He gestured to a bleached white skin dangling from the handle of his sled, and Rangergirl saw the similar banners displayed on the approaching mounts. "My master hired the mercenaries, and the rest of them are guides."
"I recognize some of them," Rangergirl said grimly. Prelati's taste in soldiers apparently tended toward the vicious and the villainous, but she supposed these rogues could be good protectors, if they were well-paid and well-supervised. But they wouldn't be happy to see her.
"Call me... Joanie," Rangergirl said, tying a bandana around the lower half of her face and pulling her hat down low over her eyes. "I don't want them to know who I am. I've been on the wrong side of a few shootouts with some of these 'soldiers.'"
"Understood," Gilles said. "I'll tell them you are Prelati's new protιgι, and that the mask hides some magical disfigurement."
The mercenaries arrived on a variety of mounts, most mechanical, one a giant scorpion with its claws wired closed and its tail docked. The riders were familiar to Rangergirl from wanted posters and close encounters, a rogue's cohort of the most vicious guns for hire in the West. Rangergirl nodded to Hart and Boot, the sorceress robber-queen and her eerie tulpa henchman, a man created from Pearl Hart's need; to the necromancer Reyes, with the mummified hands of Isaac "Hanging Judge" Parker dangling around his neck like a gruesome necklace; the half-crazy rainmaker Charles Hatfield, his undertaker's suit steaming with water vapor, static electricity crackling in his gray hair; and the nameless night sheriff, a silent shadow-doppelganger of Wyatt Earp. Three tall, pale men draped in buffalo skins sat some distance apart on articulated metal arachnid steeds, a dull green light seeping from the domed power sources behind the saddles. Those must be the guides, though they didn't look like native Indians, unless they were one of the albino tribes from the deep caves. But if that were the case, why were they involved with the birth of the white buffalo? The pale tribes didn't follow the buffalo spirits. Rumor had it they worshipped a strange, fungal intelligence in the deep caverns.
"You the trail boss?" Pearl Hart asked.
"I am Gilles de Rais," he said.
Boot lifted his head and turned his sad eyes on Gilles. While Pearl Hart rode astride a hobbled giant scorpion, John Boot traveled on foot beside her. Rangergirl supposed that, since he wasn't truly human, Boot had more endurance than normal men. "You're Gilles de Rais?" Boot said, voice betraying nothing stronger than mild curiosity. "The inspiration for the story of Bluebeard? A captain in Joan of Arc's army? Child murderer, devil-worshipper, heretic?"
Gilles only nodded.
"I reckon you're fit to lead us, then," Pearl said, and everyone relaxed, some laughing. Introductions were made casually after that, and they accepted "Joanie" at face value. Only Boot looked at her strangely, but she couldn't read his expression the way she could a normal man's. The pale tribesmen didn't speak until Gilles rode over to them, and then they all conferred quietly while the others smoked, drank water, and chatted.
Pearl Hart ambled to Rangergirl's side. She was dressed in almost-theatrical cowgirl garb, like a lady sharpshooter in a traveling show. "You're Prelati's new apprentice, huh?" she asked. "Did he take you on 'cause of your vast magical potential, or just for general fuckin' and whatnot?" Pearl was reputed to have the foulest mouth and the basest manners of any woman in the West. Rangergirl just started at her over her mask, not speaking. Pearl had heard Rangergirl's voice before, during a nasty run-in outside a town called Tolerance, and speaking now wasn't worth the risk.
Pearl sniffed. "No need to get tetchy. Us ladies of the trail should look out for each other."
Gilles, walking toward them, said "Take no offense, Miss Hart. Joanie does not speak, for reasons best left undiscussed."
"Ah," Pearl said. "Prelati thinks women should be seen and not heard, is that is?" She spat, shrugged, and headed toward Boot, loudly berating him for everything from the dry weather to the sorry state of his hat.
Gilles beckoned the mercenaries together. "The guides will lead us to the birthing place, in a canyon half a day's ride from here. We should arrive shortly after nightfall, and the ritual will begin at midnight. Be on your guard there may be attacks on the way. Those who oppose this birth are looking for us." Gilles barked out assignments, and if his cohort responded with something less than military efficiency, it was only because they were such a contrary lot. Gilles and "Joanie" would ride in front of the guards, taking directions from them; Hart and Boot would ride to the left of the guides, the night sheriff to the right, protecting their flanks; and Reyes and Hatfield would ride in back. The guides were to be protected at all costs, and failing that, everyone was to guard Reyes, who could make even dead guides speak well enough to give directions, if the need arose. The pale tribesmen seemed untroubled by the straightforward talk of their possible deaths; Rangergirl supposed they had the true religion, a dedication to cause that outweighed concerns for their personal safety. Rangergirl had always wanted to believe in something that strongly. She'd tried to dedicate herself to justice with that level of devotion, but something perhaps the abstractness and slippery boundaries of the concept, perhaps the inevitable failures of justice she'd seen kept her from fully experiencing the serenity of unshakeable faith.
The group set off across the plains, and Rangergirl reflected that she'd never before had quite so many villains at her back. One stick of dynamite would get rid of the whole lot, and make the West a better place by far. But they were her allies of circumstance, and if this course would bring the birth of the white buffalo and the restoration of the West's natural splendor and bounty, surely that was worth riding at the head of such a rogue's procession.
Rangergirl almost raised her hand to greet the Wild Rangers as friends, until they started shooting. The five Wild Rangers appeared over the top of a ridge, riding goatish unicorns with their horns filed down; the mounts had been imported from the Fayre Islands long ago, after the sorcerer known as the Outlaw unleashed a plague that killed all the true horses in the West. The Wild Rangers were lawmen led by Texas Jack Slaughter, a private militia formed after the whole state of Texas was rendered uninhabitable by the rampaging Things that rose from the gulf four years earlier. Rangergirl had fought alongside Texas Jack and his men many times, and so at first, she was pleased to see the Rangers, but after a moment of looking at her group in surprise, they started shooting.
Hatfield raised his arms and shrieked, white crackles of electricity wreathing him, and lightning split the clear sky, striking one of the Wild Rangers dead. The night sheriff shot one of the men off his mount. Then Boot suddenly had a pistol in each hand, and with three calmly-aimed shots he killed the other Rangers. Rangergirl stared at their bodies, fallen among the scrub brush and dust. How had she come to this, aligned with villains who murdered lawmen? She wondered if she knew any of the dead men personally, if any of them had ever watched her back or saved her life. Was ousting Burr and bringing back the buffalo worth this?
Pearl Hart spat toward the corpses and took potshots at the unicorns, who fled when the deaths of their riders broke their holding spells. "If that's all we have to contend with, this buffalo-birthin' detail will be the easiest money I ever made," she said.
Gilles shook his head. "Those men were scouts. When they do not return, the other Wild Rangers will know they found something." He sighed. "We should move on."
"I gotta piss," Pearl said.
"All right," Gilles said, over the murmured protestations of the guides. "We'll take a break."
Rangergirl dismounted and beckoned Gilles, who joined her, some distance away from the others. She whispered, fiercely, "Those were good men, Gilles why were they trying to stop us from protecting the white buffalo?"
Gilles rubbed his forehead. "Ah, cherie, with you it is always 'good' and 'bad' Jeanne was the same way. You told me the buffalo's birth heralds the return of the Indian nations, the return of the wilderness, yes? But the Wild Rangers want to civilize the West. They are among the very white men the Indians wish to drive away. This is not between good and bad this is between white and red, water and steel, trails and railroads. I know when you think of marauding white men you think of Aaron Burr, ageless in his fort, but the buffalo spirits will not see much difference between Burr and the Rangers. They both want to build towns and cities and armies and laws."
Rangergirl took off her hat and mopped her forehead. In her heart, Rangergirl loved the West that once was, not the West that could be. The wilderness suited her nature. The coming of the white buffalo would change everything, if the prophecies were true cleanse the taint on the demon-haunted Comanche, drive the Things back into the gulf, close the fumaroles from which hell-beasts sometimes emerged, strike the giant vultures out of the sky. She had to support that, even if it meant fighting her old allies, much as it pained her. Burr and the Rangers could retreat back to the East, where their kind had already changed the face of the world to suit them. "All right," she said. "I'm still with you."
"I'm glad," Gilles said. "I would not want you for an enemy."
The villains were a superstitious lot, mostly, and when Gilles's ghosts began to precipitate from the air as night fell, they swore and shied away, except for the necromancer Reyes, who just sniffed.
"Do not fear them," Gilles said. "They are my burden, and will not harm you." The villains were not much reassured, so Gilles took the rearguard, his ghosts trailing behind him, leaving Rangergirl to follow the whispered directions of their pale guides.
Reyes rode up beside Rangergirl, tipping the broad brim of his black hat. His clothes were shabby-genteel, a dusty black suit that had once been fine, and he smelled of juniper berries and the musty fleshlessness of the mummified hands that hung around his neck. "Ma'am," he said, and Rangergirl nodded. She'd never fought against Reyes, had only heard of him, and his reputation was more for self-interest and cowardice than true villainy. "You're Prelati's new protιgι, then? Did he take your voice?"
"Ah, Prelati's a cruel old bastard," Reyes said. "That business with Gilles and his ghosts it's a nasty trick, but I admire the showmanship."
Rangergirl raised an eyebrow.
"Didn't you know?" Reyes said, and Rangergirl realized he was showing off maybe even flirting. "Those sad little boy-ghosts, they're not real. I've heard the stories, about how when Prelati brought Gilles back from the dead, the souls of all the children he'd killed followed him out of Hell. It's a good story, no mistake, but those aren't ghosts. I know ghosts, hungry desperate lost things, I can feel their presence and speak their languages. But those things... they're just a magic lantern show, shadow puppets on a wall."
Rangergirl stared at him. Prelati was just tricking Gilles with these ghosts? That was monstrous.
"Of course," Reyes went on, "that doesn't mean Gilles was innocent, mind you, maybe he did kill 100 or 300 or 600 children, whatever story you believe. But maybe not, maybe it was a frame-up, a way to seize riches from a nobleman without heirs. It wouldn't be the first time something like that happened. I once spent a long night swapping stories with the bones in a catacomb under Paris, and the stories I heard..."
Reyes rattled on, but Rangergirl wasn't listening. What if Gilles was innocent of the horrible crimes he'd been charged with? If so, he didn't need to fear the judgement of the afterlife. As long as he believed in his own guilt, he was a willing tool for Prelati, because serving the wizard was better than the alternative, burning in whatever Hell awaited. That explained why Prelati had conjured false ghosts, and scrambled Gilles's memory after all, if Gilles didn't fear damnation, he might refuse to serve Prelati. Rangergirl had to tell Gilles about this, to let him know that things might not be as they seemed, to
"Over this hill," one of the pale guides said. "The canyon mouth."
Rangergirl beckoned to Gilles, who raced forward on his steam sled, ghosts trailing. "Men!" he shoued. "You will treat those in this canyon with respect. Now that we have arrived, your duty is to guard the canyon. Hatfield, you go up on that side and keep a lookout. Hart and Boot, you take the other side. Night sheriff, you watch the entrance. No one else is expected, so if anyone approaches, stop them. Reyes, you "
"The necromancer must come inside," one of the guides said. "He will be our midwife."
"Gentlemen," Reyes said. "With all respect, I don't know much about birthing calves. My specialty is more the end of life than the beginning."
"You will come," the guide said, and the pale tribesmen all rode into the canyon. Reyes shrugged.
"You and Joanie, follow me," Gilles said, and they passed through the canyon's mouth. The going was narrow and rocky at first, boulders strewn about, but the canyon gradually opened into a dim clearing lit by small fires, the rock walls receding into sky and darkness on all sides. A score of the pale tribesmen milled around, and a shaggy she-buffalo stood at the center of their movement and attention, chained to five wooden posts pounded deep into the soil. The buffalo lowed mournfully. This was not what Rangergirl had envisioned. Shouldn't the mother of the white buffalo be treated with reverence, venerated rather than bound?
"Gods, this place reeks of death," Reyes said, holding a handkerchief over his face. Rangergirl smelled nothing but dust and buffalo, but when it came to death, Reyes could sense things she couldn't.
"Of course," said a new voice, and one of the pale natives approached. He wore a shirt of clattering bone-mail, innumerable knuckle- and toe-bones woven together, and a headdress of slick green moss. He was taller than the rest of his tribe, nearly seven feet, and he moved with the easy grace of a cave fish in a stream. "I am the priest of my people, and this is Blanchard's Canyon, where the last untainted Comanche made their stand against Aaron Burr's army. The Comanche were cut down by the hundreds, and the ground swallowed their corpses rather than let Burr's men take trophies. This place is a temple to death, and to even scuff the soil with your heel is enough to reveal the bones."
"Blanchard's Canyon," Gilles said. "I've heard of it, but "
"As a buffalo graveyard," Reyes said. He still held his handkerchief over his face, and his words were muffled. "The Outlaw's buffalo hunters drove a whole herd into this canyon, blocked the opening, and then killed the animals with shots from the canyon walls. But when they came down to harvest their pelts, the earth opened in great rifts and swallowed the buffalo. This is a sacred canyon, home to an ancient death-god that died itself centuries ago. But enough power lingers to make this place devour corpses and leave only bones in the dirt."
"Until tonight," the priest said. "Tonight, with the coming of the pale buffalo, the canyon will give up its dead, and the slain buffalo and murdered braves will return. From this place, the pale buffalo's power will spread like a ripple in a lake, and all the dead will rise again."
Pale buffalo? Rangergirl wondered about the phrase she'd always heard the buffalo people refer to their totemic savior as the white buffalo. But then, these weren't the buffalo people, so maybe their legends used different words to refer to the same prophecy. Still, it felt all wrong this strange underground tribe, the chained buffalo, the reverence with which the priest spoke the word "death."
Pearl Hart approached. "I told you to stand guard," Gilles snapped.
"Sorry, Frenchie, but we got word from a higher power," Pearl said. "Prelati's out front, and he sent us in to fetch you."
"And her," Boot said, materializing perhaps literally from the shadows behind Rangergirl, and clamping his arm around her throat. She stomped down on his instep hard enough to splinter bone, but he only sighed and pressed a knifeblade against her belly. "Please," he said. "Pearl wants me to gut you, but I'll go easy if you let me."
Rangergirl relaxed her body, but her mind worked furiously. Prelati was here, in the flesh, and if she could kill him, Gilles would finally be able to die and since Rangergirl knew his ghosts were fraudulent, there was probably no harm in letting Gilles go to face his judgement.
Of course, her first priority was to keep Prelati from killing her. The four of them left the canyon, Boot holding a gun to her back. Outside, Prelati stood leaning on a walking stick, his small form draped in a long brown coat, his face hidden by a battered hat. "Ah, Gilles," he said, voice like the scuttling of spider, like the hissing of black rain. "You've always had a weakness for a woman with a mission. But this woman does not have my interests at heart."
"Master, she wants the buffalo to be born, she offered her help. I only concealed her identity to avoid conflict with the others."
Prelati stood before Rangergirl, and said "Would you make common cause with me, woman? You want to bring back the dead buffalo and the dead tribes of warriors?"
Rangergirl nodded, though most of all she wanted to knock Prelati out and then string him up.
"You think you understand," Prelati said. "I haven't laughed in a decade, but this almost makes me want to take up the habit again. No, Ranger, we cannot be allies."
"I will not serve if you kill her," Gilles said. "I have committed atrocities in your service, but I will not stand by if you do her harm."
"Only I preserve you from damnation, Gilles," Prelati said.
"That's a lie!" Rangergirl shouted into Prelati's face. "Ask "
Prelati gestured, and Rangergirl's jaw clamped shut, closed by his nasty magic.
"I will not betray her," Gilles said stubbornly. "The deepest place in Hell is reserved for traitors."
"Due respect," Boot said. "They say you murdered hundreds of children. I suspect that earns you a spot in the deepest Hell they've got." Pearl laughed.
Prelati thumped his walking stick on the ground. The ghost children clustered around him, murmuring, and Prelati shook his head. "No, little ones, not death, not for Gilles. He is still useful. I will spare the life of his friend, then. Aren't I merciful, Gilles?"
"Even my service has limits," Gilles said.
"You stop at betrayal, yes, of course. Unless it's me you're betraying, the man who granted you eternal life."
"I wish I'd never invited you into my house," Gilles said. "That was the greatest mistake of my first life. My friends said you were a charlatan, but I had faith."
"You had no friends, Gilles, only lickspittles and sycophants. And I wasn't a fraud your faith was justified. I promised you dark rites and eternal life, and I delivered. And now I've promised to let your friend live, and I will, for now." He drew a circle in the dirt with his walking stick, and Boot shoved Rangergirl into its circumference. A flash brightened the air around her, and she shouted, the spell of silence suddenly lifted. Purple spots floated in her vision, and she found herself surrounded by iron bars, a round, floorless, woman-sized cage sprung up around her.
"I'll set her free when the birth is over," Prelati said. "It really doesn't make any difference if she survives until then, as long as she's kept out of the way. Boot, watch her. The rest of you, to your places. There are Wild Rangers and shamans of the buffalo people en route, and they mustn't interrupt the birth." Prelati walked into the canyon, Gilles following, Pearl Hart returning to her place on the canyon wall.
Boot had taken her pistols, but Rangergirl reached down for the Derringer in her boot and had it aimed at his chest in an instant. "Get me out of this thing, or I'll shoot you," she said.
Boot shook his head. "The cage has no door, and while I suppose I could lift it off you, I prefer not to."
"I will shoot. I can put the bullet someplace that will hurt."
"Save your ammunition. You might be able to harm Prelati, if you catch him unawares, and you can certainly kill my beloved Pearl, but not me. Pain is my lot, not death." As if to demonstrate, he stuck his knife into his own throat, wiggled it meditatively, and withdrew it, leaving only a bloodless slit. "See?"
Rangergirl leaned against the cage in hopes of tipping it over. No such luck it weighed hundreds of pounds. She was well and truly trapped. "Let me out, Boot, and I'll help you. I'll kill Pearl, and let you go back to nothingness."
"Ah. You make the mistake of assuming that just because I despise every moment of consciousness, I would betray Pearl for my freedom. But, no. Our relationship is more complicated than that. She is my lover and my maker, as well as my captor. Do you hate your mother?"
Rangergirl frowned. "Well, not hate exactly, but "
"Yes. It's complicated." Boot squatted on his heels. "Take your ease. In all likelihood, we'll all be dead soon, once that thing in there is born."
"Thing? You mean the white buffalo?"
"I mean the pale buffalo. The difference is more than semantic. The white buffalo is the bringer of rebirth and renewal, sacred to the buffalo people of the plains. The pale buffalo is something different, sacred to the underground tribes. They hate those of us who dwell above the earth, and after centuries of inbreeding with refugees from various hells and underworlds, their sympathies lay more with the dead than the living. The pale buffalo's birth will not usher in an age of peace and plenty."
"How do you know all this?"
"Because I listen. I comprehend all human languages, and I can be in two places at once."
"Bodily bilocation," he said from behind her, though he was still in front of her, too. "I can be in more than one place at once, as long as I'm not all the way in either place."
Now that Rangergirl looked, she could see he'd gone almost translucent, parts of him shimmering. "Good trick."
"It's easy when you're a sorcerer's imaginary friend," he said. "When the pale buffalo is born, that's it, probably. You'll die, Hatfield, Reyes, maybe Pearl, possibly the night sheriff, probably not Prelati, therefore not Gilles, certainly those three Wild Ranger creeping up on Pearl ah, no, they're dead already, she turned their blood to molten lead. You know, she's been trying for years to tweak that spell so the blood turns to gold instead of lead, but she can't manage it." His tone never altered from its flat, uninflected baseline. "Prelati doesn't care if his mercenaries die, and I'm the only one of the bunch who listened and understood when the pale tribesmen spoke among themselves."
"You could warn them! And there must be other Wild Rangers nearby, you could "
"Oh, but I don't care," he said. "Shall we look in on the delivery room?" His expression became more abstracted. "Prelati is arguing with the priest. He knows the Wild Rangers are coming, and the shamans of the buffalo people will be here soon. Prelati wants to speed things up. He's telling the priest that a midnight birth is just idiot superstition. Apparently Reyes could induce labor early ah, I see, first they'll slay the mother, then Reyes can animate her corpse in order to make her give birth to the buffalo calf. Gods, you begotten things enter the world in a disgusting way."
All Rangergirl's hopes of convincing Boot to help her evaporated. He was a fundamentally alien being, and she could not fathom his fears or desires well enough to threaten or bribe him.
Boot said "The priest is agreeing, reluctantly "
Lighting flashed and crackled, and a unicorn screamed.
"The Wild Rangers are upon us," Boot said. "Hatfield is hurling thunderbolts. It's your cavalry, but they can't ride charging into the canyon, not with Prelati in there, and all the boulders in the way besides. I'd better go check on Pearl." Boot faded, not so much vanishing as sinking into the dark.
"Wild Rangers! To me!" Rangergirl shouted, and banged one of her rings against the iron bars to make a clatter.
Three men appeared, their faces dusty black, and one of them was Texas Jack Slaughter, head of the Wild Rangers, her old friend and more. "Let's get this cage off her, boys," he said.
"Good to see you, Jack."
"Always a pleasure," he said, smiling beneath his vast bristling mustache. He helped his men lift and tilt the cage enough for Rangergirl to scramble out from underneath.
She picked up her gunbelt Boot had left her weapons in the dirt as if they were worthless and buckled it on. "What's the plan?"
"You tell me," Texas Jack said. "You've tussled with these folks already. What's the lay of the land?"
"You know about the buffalo?"
"All we know is what the buffalo shamans told us, that some of the mushroom-suckers from the caves hired a bunch of shadow riders to protect them while they worked some wicked magic bullshit, and that's the sort of thing I'm opposed to on principle. But I assume you're here to catch the bad men and collect the bounties?"
"Not exactly." She described the layout of the canyon, and the forces arrayed against them. "I thought the white buffalo was a good thing," she said. "I can't believe I was so stupid."
"Hush," Texas Jack said. "Having faith ain't stupid. If I didn't think I'd get Texas back one of these days, I wouldn't be able to get up in the morning. As for the plan, well, we already caught Hatfield, got him tied up with rubber straps. Now... shit. Maybe we should hang back until the buffalo shamans show up. They move slow, but they're tough, and they can fight Prelati better than we can. Guns are no match for wizardry, even if the wizard is a damn Frenchman."
"There's no time," Rangergirl said. "They're speeding up the birth. I'm going in. If you can cover me."
Jack sighed. "Boys, get the rest of the fellas together. We're storming the goddamned canyon on goddamned foot." He put a hand on her shoulder. "I can't resist you when you start advocating rash acts of violence. If we survive this, you should come back and play the next hand of our poker game. It's been a year since I called your raise."
"We'll see." They'd been playing a game of Texas Hold 'em for years, one round at a time, with both their futures in the pot. If Jack won, she'd quit the bounty-hunting life and join up with the Wild Rangers. If she won, he'd quit trying to take Texas back from the Things that came from the Gulf, and help her clean up the rest of the West. She had a feeling on the next round of betting he'd want her hand in marriage, and she hadn't decide yet whether to call, raise, or fold on that bet. "Let's tend to business first."
A dozen rangers made a charge, guns barking, as Rangergirl buttonhooked around to approach the canyon obliquely. She paused to take aim at the night sheriff, who was drawing a bead on the Wild Rangers. He moved, and her intended killshot only wounded him in the leg, but that was enough for the Rangers to capture him. Other Rangers were keeping Hart and Boot busy, so she slipped into the canyon unnoticed.
Until she walked into the barrel of Gilles's rifle. He grabbed her arm and pulled her behind a heap of rubble. "Shh," he said. "Prelati might not see you if you stay down." The child-ghosts were agitated, bursting from among the rocks like frightened doves, settling onto boulders, twisting and muttering.
"Gilles, the buffalo is a monster."
"I am not surprised."
"I have to kill it," she said, and darted from her place behind the rocks, toward the chained buffalo, the nervous pale priest, and Reyes, who knelt by the pregnant beast. Prelati was nowhere in sight. The priest and Reyes hadn't noticed her, and if she could just circle around, find a position to get a clear shot, she could kill the pale buffalo as soon as it slid out of its mother.
She didn't make it very far before something swept her legs out from under her. She fell, sprawling on her belly, and a great weight came down on her back, pressing her flat. Gilles spoke in her ear, regretful but firm. "I can't let you interfere, cherie." His knees pinned her down, and she gasped for breath, her face inches from the dirt. If she could only fill her lungs, she could tell him that his ghosts were fraudulent, that he didn't need to fear the afterlife, he could betray Prelati
but as his weight pressed the air slowly from her lungs, she realized how foolish she'd been. Even if Gilles hadn't murdered those children, he was hardly an innocent. He'd committed horrible acts in Prelati's service. The false ghosts might have been a goad at first, a way to ensure Gilles's loyalty, but now they were just habit, something Prelati did to keep up appearances. Even if the ghosts were dispelled, Gilles would still rightfully fear death, and the settling of his life's accounts.
"Can't... breathe..." she gasped, and Gilles eased up a little, enough for her to draw breath.
"I will let you escape if I can," he said. "After everything is done here."
Gunfire and screams erupted from outside the canyon. Hart and Boot, and possibly Prelati himself, were fighting with the Wild Rangers.
Boot materialized beside Rangergirl and Gilles, only half-here while his other half was doubtless occupied murdering Texas Jack's men with bored efficiency. "Look," Boot said, and Rangergirl turned her head to see the pale priest slit the buffalo's throat with a knife almost as big as a machete. The buffalo bucked, heaved, and sagged, but the chains held its dying body upright. Rangergirl had a good view of the buffalo's side, and Reyes knelt behind, murmuring, gesturing with his hands as the dying buffalo's flesh rippled. She watched, fascinated and horrified, as did Boot and Gilles; even the child-ghosts seemed rapt.
Something pale and wet slid from the she-buffalo's hindquarters, and the priest shoved Reyes aside, kneeling to catch the newborn beast himself.
"Gilles," Rangergirl gasped, "you have to kill it, shoot it, please, this is important "
"It's the apocalypse of the West," Boot said. "The way the West was wasted."
"I serve my master," Gilles said, still pressing her down. "It is too late for me to change that."
The pale buffalo lifted its oversized head from the priest's lap and made a sound between a bleat and a cry. Its eyes were milky and blind, and its skin was discolored by fungal patches of a different whiteness than its skin. A wind rose in the canyon, smelling of dust and buffalo blood, and then the earth trembled, not as in an earthquake, but in a more localized upheaval. Bones were rising from the soil, assembling themselves into their former living shapes.
"What is this?" Gilles said, voice low and troubled. The pressure on Rangergirl's body eased further as he shifted his weight back. Rangergirl realized that Gilles still didn't know exactly what the birth of the pale buffalo portended.
"The dead buffalo are rising," Boot said. He sat down cross-legged to watch. "Forming a skeletal herd. And that's just the beginning."
"The dead men will come next, Gilles," Rangergirl said, now that she had all the breath she needed. "The dead braves will come to life, shambling things risen to serve the pale tribes and Prelati. This magic will spread through the West, dead tribes climbing up out of the dirt to serve your master."
"No," Gilles said, but Rangergirl could not tell if it was disbelief, denial, or outrage. The pale tribespeople were shouting with joy, the newborn buffalo whined piteously in the priest's arms, and the herd of skeletal buffalo grew, first five of them, then a dozen, then a score, spines and ribs and limbs rising and joining, the resurrection an eerily quiet event, just clacking bones and the low howl of the wind. The sounds from outside the canyon were diminished but ongoing, occasional screams and gunshots testament to the fact that the Wild Rangers were still fighting.
"Oh, it's true," Boot said. "It won't be just the tribes, either everyone who's died violently in the West, from murdered settlers to defeated gunfighters, will return from the dead to serve the tribes and every person they kill will rise again to join his army. The underground tribes and Prelati are still dickering over how to divide up their new empire."
"No dead man will ever rest in the West again," Rangergirl said. "They'll all become monsters. They'll all become " she hesitated, but had to say it "just like you."
For a moment, she thought Gilles was unswayed, but then the pressure of his knees on her back let up. "Yes, yes," he said. "Your point is well-taken."
Rangergirl sat up in time to see Gilles walk to the center of the canyon, where the skeletal buffalo stood, surrounding the priest and the mewling calf. Gilles stepped up onto a boulder to reach a better vantage point, towering over the silent white herd, and aimed his rifle with the ease of long practice. He fired. The boom of the shot echoed in the canyon, and the pale buffalo's bleats ceased as its head snapped back. The strange wind ceased instantly. The priest, pierced by the same bullet, fell as well. Gilles lowered his rifle, and for a moment, all was silence. Then the child-ghosts began to shriek, and Gilles dropped his rifle to the ground, covering his ears with both hands.
"That was surprising," Boot said, barely audible over the shrieking, and faded from view.
Rangergirl had expected the skeletal buffalo to collapse when the pale calf died, but the resurrective magic was more durable than that, for they remained standing, every pair of eye sockets fixed on Gilles. As the pale tribespeople cried out in rage and dismay, their voices joining the wails of the ghosts, the skeletal herd surged forward, stampeding toward Gilles, who did not try to escape.
The white stampede knocked Gilles from his boulder to the ground, and the dead things trampled him with their sharp hooves, churning his body into the ground. Rangergirl started forward, drawing her useless pistols, but Reyes of all people held her back. "Let the dead bury the dead," he said, and Rangergirl stood still. Throwing herself into that herd would only kill her, and wouldn't help Gilles. Besides, in a way, this was the best thing he'd committed an act of courage and sacrifice, and now he would die. If there was any redemption to be had, Gilles had earned it.
The screaming of the child-ghosts faded as they disappeared, wisping away to the nothingness they'd been drawn from.
The herd of skeletal buffalo bolted en masse for the canyon's entrance, raising a great cloud of dust in their wake. When the dust settled, there was almost no sign of Gilles left, just his broken rifle and fragments of clothing and bone. As she watched, the earth rumbled, split, and gaped, swallowing Gilles's remains into the darkness below. When Gilles's body was wholly consumed, the earth closed again. Similar cracks opened to swallow the priest, the dead buffalo calf, and its mother, until the canyon seemed strangely empty, with only the living left behind.
While the remaining Wild Rangers rounded up the people from the underground tribes, Texas Jack touched Rangergirl on the shoulder. "You stopped something bad from happening," he said.
"Not me. It was Gilles."
"Yeah. I'm sorry, darlin'. I know he was your friend. But at least he's at peace now."
"Oh, Gilles isn't dead," Reyes said, as one of the Wild Rangers tied his hands behind him. "He's been ground into bone meal, yes, but he's still alive as alive as he has been for the past 400 years, anyway. Only Prelati can grant Gilles release, and he hasn't bothered to do that yet." Reyes shook his head. "Gilles might even still be conscious. He's certainly suffering. I guess leaving him alive in little pieces is Prelati's punishment for his betrayal. I told you that old wizard was a cruel son of a bitch."
"Rangergirl," Texas Jack said. "Don't listen to that old fraud, he's just messing with your head. I don't like that look in your eyes. Just settle down, help me catch Hart and Boot, and round up those bony buffalo, and then we can go finish that card game "
"No," Rangergirl said. She'd couldn't remember the last time she'd been so exhausted, but she couldn't stop, not now. Gilles had done the right thing, even though it was hard, and he hadn't had a night's sleep in over 400 years. "Reyes is telling the truth. I know Prelati." She scuffed at the dirt with her heel, over the spot where Gilles had been trampled. Not knowing if he could hear, she said "Remember that offer I made you, Gilles? To hunt down Prelati and set you free? I'm going to make good on that."
"I can help you," Texas Jack said.
She put her hand on his shoulder. "You've got enough to do. You have your mission, and I have mine. Don't worry about me."
"Don't get killed," he said. "We've got a game to finish."
"There's worse things than getting killed," Rangergirl said, and both Reyes and Texas Jack nodded in glum agreement, looking at the place where Gilles had fallen.
Hitching up her gunbelt, Rangergirl walked out of the canyon, into the night, toward the oncoming sunrise.
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