‘The Bullet Catch’
I was a better bad guy than Pavel. He was our strong man, but he had big baby eyes. I’d make an ugly show of winning, buying pints with his money without sharing. Then, when the crowd was ripe, Pavel would demand a chance to make his money back.
“Fastest bullet in the world? I bet 10 gold I can catch your bullet in my teeth.”
“You’re drunk, Pavey,” I’d say big-n-loud. “Ain’t no one can catch a bullet in his teeth.”
Then, Pavel’d claim I cheated, and people started crowding around. Pavel’d put on his big tent voice and say, “Who has a gold piece that says I can catch this puny cheater’s bullet?”
Most people didn’t believe but wanted to see a guy get shot in the mouth, that being the kind of towns we stopped in.
The more I protested, the more gold the crowd put down. When we’d got a half-circle round us, I’d take aim and then drop my piece, say I couldn’t shoot at my oldest friend. But the crowd was frothed up, so I’d take my first shot, let it go wide and straight through the wall behind Pavel. Ha!
If the crowd hated me before, they hated me worse then. I’d try to run off but if we worked them right, the crowd would haul me back. I’d put up my gun, wrist shaking and fire wide the other direction, make another perfect hole in the wall. That’s when Pavel’d squawk chicken at me, making me good-n-mad. I’d aim with my tongue out and one eye closed for effect and blast a blank right at Pavel’s chubby sweet face.
We had it practiced so he turned his head hard at the sound, fall down with a floor-cracking slam and the crowd would gather all over him. Then he’d flutter his big baby eyes open and give a big grin to the crowd, a bullet between his front teeth.
I made a show of handing over all the gold he’d lost to me in Queen’s War and the crowd had such a good time watching the show that they didn’t mind handing over what they’d bet plus a couple rounds besides, and then we made a show of being good friends again, which people always love to see. It was a great bit. I miss that big boy Pavel. I bet he’s still lifting up chairs of ladies with his pinky fingers in the big tent somewhere. “Lousy at life; amazing at shooting,” he’d always said to me. How right he was.
‘Glaive Meets Ringo’
But now my axe has knocked you close, so while you’re at my feet clutching at that nasty bruise, why don’t you insult me again? Ah, good, good. There’s some courage in you. I can respect a man who spits in the face of a beast.
Perhaps, though, you should think on what you consider beastly. True, my kind lives in the treetops and mountain caves. The patterns in our fur hide us in the vines, brush and thorns. Weaker creatures feed us. But you pockmark our mountains with your mines, draw out the crystal and the gold, then fight over the wells while the mountains crumble. The avalanches draw the beasts, as you call us, closer and closer. Which path is truly less civilized?
Shh, stop shaking, little carnie. This is not the end. There’s still a trophy to claim.
Get up off the ground, you cowardly shivering leaf, and let’s have a roll of dice to prove we can play nice. You can have all my gold if you win. But if you lose, I’m taking that side arm. Oh, it’s special to you, little Ringo? Then you’d best not lose.
And you’d best not cheat. I can smell every move.
‘The Coin Toss’
Ringo swaggered on stage, carrying twin single-action revolvers named Faith and Reason. His thrower, a long-legged juggler dressed in top hat and a short flouncy clown skirt, strutted to the center after him. She set plates spinning on batons, then tossed them up high. Ringo, twirling the revolvers ‘round his trigger fingers, wasn’t much of a show in comparison to the thrower until the first plate exploded mid-air into tiny ceramic shards.
Tightrope walkers quivered above; the strongman lifted benches full of giggling, terrified minions overhead. If the thrower tossed too high or too low, it’d all go to hell, and that was part of the appeal. Ringo stumbled about like he’d been sauced for hours, swaying, one eye closed for focus, leering at his thrower’s gams, but when the plate flew, his guns paused cold at his hips and BANG: Whatever the thrower launched was destroyed.
Children crowded up front, holding out coins they’d pilfered from generous parents: “Me! Me! Mister Ringo, please, me!” The thrower made a big show of plucking up coins from their sticky fingers, then she twirled, tossed… BANG, and then she caught that same coin out of the sky, returning it to the lucky child with a perfect bullet hole through its center. Two at a time she threw – BANG-BANG – then caught one in each palm.
For the finale, she tied a blindfold around Ringo’s head and spun him some. The terrified crowd went silent. Some ducked behind their seats; some ran out. The thrower girl tossed three coins. Arms crossed, aiming over his shoulders, sightless Ringo fired: BANG-BANG-BANG. The thrower whirled, danced, then returned three coins (with faces blasted through) to their rightful owners.
The crowd exploded into standing applause.
How? they bellowed to one another. Impossible!
All the while, the carnie kiddos slipped purses from townie pockets, invisible as ghosts.
Outside the tavern, the broadside is still littered with half-ripped posters of Ringo, two-armed, whole, a perfect shot. Inside, at a round table of mean eyes glaring out over fanned cards, Ringo stares at a blasted coin, rubbing its indentations with his remaining thumb. “Heads, he says, “and I quit gambling.”
The coin flips away from his long fingers, spins fast in the air, lands in his palm and slams down on the table. He makes a show of peeking at it then grins, tosses another chip on the center pile. “I’m in,” he says, and while they deal, Ringo flips the coin again.
“Heads,” he says, “and I stop drinking.”
The coin flies, lands, slams home under his cupped palm. He peeks again, then calls out for another round.
The cards aren’t in his favor, but the cards rarely are. When the pint is empty, Ringo mumbles, “Heads, and I stop fighting. Get a legitimate job, pretty wife, babies, hang up old Reason for good.”
The coin flies, a faint whistle sounding through the hole in its center.