It was several weeks later when Simon’s horse lurched into New Lem. He was walking beside it, cursing it with every breath.
The landscape had turned to swamp five days earlier. The horse had promptly gotten stuck in some quick sand. It had taken him all day to dig it out and get it working again. He hadn’t been able to find a trustworthy source of water, and so all the water he had either went to drinking or to the horse’s boiler. He couldn’t close his left hand; it was so full of grit. His clothes were covered in yellow-brown mud, and he figured he must look half like the golem of Shibboleth Junction.
He looked around the town. He’d been to New Lem before, and not much had changed. There was a new roof on the town hall, it looked like, and maybe one or two new buildings. But mostly, it was the same two-horse town it had been when he’d left it. Three-horse, counting his own no-good worthless hunk of tin.
The buildings were mostly made of wood and stone, in circular affairs that reminded him of the huts they made in the wilder places. Except for the town hall and the old church, there weren’t any taller than one-story. When they needed more space, they’d just make a new building and connect it with the old with round-topped hallways. The town was painted in whites, blues, and greens, and it was said that it was a poor substitute for the home they’d left behind. Apparently there’d been a flood or some such and they’d high-tailed it someplace new.
The folks of New Lem weren’t human, or at least not his sort of human, being somewhat scalier than was usual. Still, they didn’t cheat at poker, and what was a little roughness of the skin to that?
“Howdy,” said a tall Lemian Simon recognized as the mayor. He wore a fancy white suit with golden buttons and a bicorn hat. “Master Heller, is it not?” His English was a little stilted, since he only ever used it on outsiders.
“That it is,” Simon answered. “I’m on my way to Nowhere City. Figure I’ll stay here ‘til the swamp passes over.”
“Well, pardner, thou’rt surely welcome,” the mayor said, crossing his arms. “But see that thou dost not make any trouble this time, or thou wilt hang like the varmint I know thee to be.”
“I’ll keep it mind, sir.” Simon didn’t pay the mayor much mind, or his somewhat insulting use of the familiar pronouns. Some folks insisted on “you” and “your,” but Simon wasn’t particular, especially not with fellow lawmen. New Lem didn’t have a sheriff, so it was the mayor’s job to keep order.
Simon was planning to avoid any trouble. Last time he’d been here, he’d nearly gotten his head blown off when he went after the Unseelie Kid. He could understand why the mayor might be less than pleased to see him. No one ever was, when the Marshal came to call. But he didn’t have any business here this time.
Children watched him curiously as he and his horse made their way up the town’s main street. Some were carrying the animals they kept as pets in these parts, things that looked like a cross between a raccoon and a monkey, with extra long, prehensile tails.
“Will you show us a trick, mister?” said a boy, waving his hands excitedly. His English was easier than the mayor’s. Young’uns always did learn quickly.
Simon smiled. He liked kids. He sometimes wished he had a few, at least so he’d know about them.
He took out one of his pistols and loaded it with a specially marked bullet. He took careful aim, and shot the tower on the town hall. There was a small flash when it was hit, and then it seemed to burst into green flames. After a moment, the flames gathered themselves together into the form of a bird, which flew off into the blue Friday sun.
The children clapped and cheered as they watched the show. Simon got his horse moving toward the town’s one hotel. He just wanted to get his horse stabled and himself into a bath. He was too dog tired from moving through the swamp to think about much else.
He got checked in, and, after stowing his horse and his gear, he got into the bath, and settled in to let it work the dirt from him.
He ended up having to refill it and soak again before he got all the muck off of him. He then worked his hand clean and movable, and went to his bedroom.
He paused with his hand on the doorknob. There was someone inside. They weren’t making any noise, but they’d touched one of his spare guns. He always knew when someone touched one of his guns. The left colt, by the feel of it. They weren’t holding it, but had merely brushed up against it. He concentrated on the sensation, and tried to learn as much about them as he could. There was something familiar…
“You gonna stay out there all day, Simon, or are you comin’ in?” said a familiar voice.
“Ruther!” Simon said, pulling the door open. There was the man himself, twirling that ridiculous handlebar mustache of his! “You sorry son of a dero, what the hell are you doing here?”
“Heard you were in town and figured I’d drop on by,” Ruther said. He was wearing the same frock coat Simon had seen him wearing last, with its ribbons and beads sewn onto it. He had that monocle he always claimed let him see a winning hand, and the ring he’d won off the old soldier in Nemia Gulch. He was a bit paler than usual, but seemed otherwise in good health. He stood just to the side of the mirror on the dresser. Simon was half-surprised he hadn’t been looking at himself in it.
“Well, you’re a sight for sore eyes,” Simon said. “What are you doing so far from Nowhere City?”
“Well, I owed the GearMarshal a favor, and he called it in. Said there were some rumors of trouble out this way, and asked me to look into it. I didn’t have anything else going, so I went."
“Did you find anything?” Simon asked. “I saw something walking around with your face on it. Made me a bit worried.”
“Reckon that was the same thing I met up with,” Ruther said, his face looking more drawn, and his expression a bit more serious.
“How’d you get past it? I was afraid you didn’t make it,” Simon said.
Ruther looked a bit pained. “Well, as to that, Simon…”
“You did make it, didn’t you Ruther?” Simon asked. His hand brushed the top of his six-shooter out of habit.
The air seemed to let out of Ruther. At the same time, he faded slightly, so that Simon could see the bedstand behind him. “I’m afraid not, Simon. I’m sorry. Tried to get here in time, but that damned thing caught me on the way.”
“I see,” Simon said. “Still here to warn me, I’m guessing?”
“Yep,” said Ruther’s ghost. “Came back to do it, and don’t think you don’t owe me for that.”
“What are the rules,” Simon asked wearily. He’d been so happy to see Ruther. He should have seen the signs.
“You’ve got three questions.” Seeing Simon’s face, Ruther hastened to say, “Don’t worry, I don’t count the ones you already asked, Simon. I wouldn’t do that to you. Hain’t we always been friends? Hain’t I always done right by you?”
“You’re right. Sorry, Ruther,” Simon said. After all, it wasn’t Ruther’s fault he was dead. “All right, let’s get to it. What was the thing that wore your face?”
“A child of troubled dreams, born of jealousy and malice,” Ruther said, his voice changing, as though someone else was talking through him. “Sorry I can’t be more specific. I don’t make the rules, you know.”
“Understood. Who let the child loose?”
“He watches from the shadows and waits. He is older than dreams. He seeks to wake the Unwaking. His name is forgotten.” Ruther was fading more now. Simon could make out the grain of the wood behind him.
“Where’s all this happening at?” Simon asked quickly, before his friend could disappear.
“Start at the town of Denner’s Ferry. The trail starts there. Watch for the face, Simon!” Ruther shouted, his voice growing faint. “Beware the face in the dust!” Then he was gone.
Simon stared for a moment. Ruther wasn’t his best friend, perhaps, but he was a good one, and they’d shared bullets more than once, and what more sacred bond was there?
On the floor, where Ruther’s shade had stood, there was a glint. Simon knelt down, and picked up the gold ring that had been on his friend’s finger. One last gift from the dead.
Simon swore. He still hadn’t had a chance to pay Ruther back. He swore to himself that if he ever found a body, he’d make damn sure his friend got a proper burial. If not, he’d just have to find some way to beat five dollars worth of hell out of the nameless bastard behind Ruther’s death.