Chapter 1 – The Sheriff

Normally it was a quiet kind of town, the sort of town you could raise a kid in, with only a few gunfights a year and all the outlaws hanged in public, as was good and proper. It was a testament to the Sheriff that Angeltomb, the biggest town in the west, was so well organized and well mannered, even though it was most full of people.

Everyone agrees that there’s nothing quite like people for ruining a town.

Maybe it was his advanced years that had given the Sheriff wisdom and patience. Maybe it was the gun at his side, a long silver thing that caught glints of lights that weren’t there and had a pearl-polished handle that never got dirty. Most folk reckon it’s the mustache though. You know a town’s gonna be alright, having a Sheriff with a mustache like that, big and bushy, yet still neat and tidy. It was a moustache of stories and mystery.

High Street didn’t have any people on it now but two, and it was particularly quiet because it was frozen in time. You could tell on account of how the tumbleweeds hung in the air, and how the bullet a few feet from the Sheriff’s face didn’t clear up his sinuses in a very permanent sort of way.

The Sheriff’s mustache twitched a bit, as he stared down that little lump of lead. It was the only sign that he was worried, but you can tell a lot from a mustache like that. The Sheriff was the type of man to give a world-weary chuckle in the face of almost certain death, but ‘almost certain’ is a far ways from ‘certain’, and he sure wasn’t chuckling now.

On the other side of High Street from the Sheriff, gun in hand, Dead Lead Jones seemed a lot less worried. Perhaps it was because the nastiest of outlaws never had to worry about a darned thing. Could’ve been because he didn’t have a bullet waiting all patient in the air for him like the Sheriff did. Maybe he was just always that relaxed when time rippled to a sudden standstill.

Halfway between the Sheriff and Dead Lead Jones, hands in her pockets, MaryB’ell casually looked back and forth between the two, then looked up at something that wasn’t there.

“Well now, howdy there partner,” she said cheerfully. “Looks to me like you’ve stumbled onto this little scene in media res. Them’s some fancy latin words for when someone sees fit to drop you in the middle of this here story without tellin’ you who’s who or what’s what. I can’t say I much like it as a narrative style myself, but there’s some as say it’s a legitimate method of startin’ things out with some action.”

MaryB’ell shrugged in the universal gesture of ‘to-each-their-own’. “Maybe you’ll like it better’n I do.”

“Are you, uh…” the Sheriff cleared his throat, “are you talking to me, MaryBell?”

The smile slipped off of MaryB’ell’s face faster than the shine off a grifter’s nickel. “Does it look like I’m talking to you, Sheriff?” she asked coldly.

“I, uh, can’t rightly say, ma’am, on account of I seem to be frozen in time,” the Sheriff said sheepishly.

“Do you have any rootin tootin idea what I’m sayin’?” she asked, stalking over to him in a way that made her white-gold spurs jingle. MaryB’ell hadn’t quite caught on to the human notion of swearing yet, but what she lacked in know-how she made up for in venom.

“No ma’am, I can’t say that I do,” the Sheriff replied, his speech slightly stilted by his frozen lips, “and also, I don’t think ‘rootin tootin’ is a real phrase.”

“Well then it sounds like I ain’t talking to you, then, am I?” MaryB’ell snapped. “Tarnation, you don’t even know what I’m here for.”

The Sheriff furrowed his brow for a moment, like he was working on a math problem. “Well, I’ve still got four bullets in my Heavenly,” he finally said, “I reckoned you were here to save my sorry hide.”

“You’ve got four bullets, sure enough, but how many of them you reckon you can fire before this one,” MaryB’ell flicked the bullet in front of the Sheriff’s face, making it ‘ping’ but not changing its course, “gets mighty comfortable in that hat of yours?”

“Now listen, MaryB’ell,” the Sheriff said. “I always got the impression you don’t like me very much. Maybe it’s something in your tone of voice. Might be how you phrase a word here or there.”

“Could have been the fact that the first words I ever said to you were ‘I can’t wait to watch you die’,” MaryB’ell said helpfully.

“That did contribute to my suspicions, yes,” the Sheriff said, “but this is pretty cold, even for you. You could save me.”

“Now what sort of story would that be, if it started out with an angel saving you?” MaryB’ell scoffed.

“This doesn’t much feel like a story to me,” the Sheriff said.

MaryB’ell rolled her eyes and gave a wry and knowing smile over his shoulder at something that wasn’t there. “Listen, Sheriff, none of this is my doing,” she said patiently. “I didn’t make you come this way at high noon, I didn’t make you pick a fight with Dead Lead Jones. Only reason I’m here is that you hold a Heavenly, and you’re about to die. You have to tell me who the Heavenly is going to. Got to bequeath it, is the technical phrase.”

The Sheriff took a deep breath, and took his time. His eyes flicked from the bullet bound for his face, down High Street to the frozen Dead Lead Jones, to the angel by his side, and even up to the high noon sun.

“Well,” he drawled, “I don’t trust a lot of folk. You can’t, in my line of work. I think I’ll bequeath the Heavenly to the person I trust most. I bequeath it to myself. But you Angels, you’re timeless, ain’t you? So let’s say…myself fifty years ago.”

He half-grinned, making it clear as he could under the circumstances how clever he thought he was.

“What a shock,” MaryB’ell said quietly. Something about the bitterness of her tone must’ve caught the Sheriff’s attention, because even in his dire straights he looked at her with a question in his mustache.

MaryB’ell continued in that same bitter, quiet voice. “You wanted to know why I hate you, Sheriff? Answer me this. How many bullets left in that Heavenly right now?”

“Four,” the Sheriff answered, confused.

“And how many bullets when you first mysteriously found it, so long ago?”

“It’s been a long while, but I reckon about twenty-” the Sheriff stopped suddenly. His eyes didn’t precisely widen in horror, but to his credit, his face was frozen. “I take it back.”

“I’m chained to that damned thing until the bullets run out, Sheriff,” MaryB’ell said, technically not swearing since she meant the ‘damned’ literally. “Mighty hard goal to reach when you keep refilling the thing.”

“I take it back,” the Sheriff said again, “I unbequeath it.”

“You always do,” MaryB’ell reached across his frozen body and slipped the pretty pearl and silver gun from his holster, taking a moment to look down at her name etched on its butt. “Never seems to matter much, though.”

She had already turned away from the frozen scene when the Sheriff spoke again, so quietly that she barely heard it.

“I’m sorry, MaryB’ell,” he said.

“Yeah, well,” MaryB’ell slipped the Gladius into her own holster without turning, “don’t reckon that matters much either.”

 

***

 

Despite her less-than-personable first words toward him, when time resumed and the bullet continued its journey with a wet ‘slap’, MaryB’ell had turned away. By that time she was already making her way between the old buildings on High Street, her wings rustling as they unfolded from her back.

“Sorry you had to see that, partner,” she said, lifting off the ground with a few gentle flaps. “Sort of a grim start to a cheery little western romp, so I don’t blame you if you’re a mite unsettled.”

With a sudden motion MaryB’ell stretched her wings to their full width, and the darkness and flame nestled in each feather shone dark and bright all at once, glinting from her halo and her white-gold spurs. An ironically devil-may-care grin passed the angel’s lips as she looked down at the city.

“Still,” she said thoughtfully, “that’s Angeltomb for you. It’s all manner of cheery and grim, light and dark. It’s what you call a dichotomy, fancy word for a lot of contrasts.”

Just before she slipped backward through time, she turned her grin toward something that wasn’t quite there.

“I reckon you’re gonna like it a lot.”