This summer I’m working on fiction pieces large and small for a tabletop RPG setting. The piece below is one of the vignettes I’ve written to give a glimpse into one of the setting’s environments. By way of explanation, this is a setting for Pathfinder, a game that includes Gunslinger as a character class. Gunslingers are ranged combatants with fancy tricks, all built around the mystic power of black powder as developed in a high-magic fantasy setting. Fantasy isn’t normally my bag, so this has been a stretch and a very, very, very fun one.
Below is the raw first draft of one of these pieces, so forgive any errors. It is at least complete and self-contained. As I read over it now I see plenty of imperfections but mostly I’m just really thrilled I got to write a Wild West scene involving orcs and gnomes and half-elves and… quarter-elves? Memo to self: explore idea of “one-drop rule” equivalency in fantasy setting with diminishing degrees of elven-ness or human-ness across generations. I’m sure it’s been done, but it’s worth thinking about anyway.
The cover image for this blog post is by Doug Kline, available under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC-BY-2.0) license.
Anyway, enjoy the brief tale of Ruth the Gunslinger!
“Don’t do it, Ruth.” Sheriff Tong’s small, sharp voice was that of a parent wearied of disciplining a persistent and bothersome child. She was standing on the plank sidewalk running down the middle of the town, her posture casual, even lazy, but Tong was wearing all the symbols of her office – the star, the hat, the bandolier – and she had her orc mount nearby. “You know it won’t do anybody any good.”
“Bull, Tong,” Ruth said. She reached up and adjusted her hat, pulling the brim closer down over her brow. The breeze blowing in off the prairie was panting and dry, exhausted by the effort of getting itself to town. It gave no relief from the constant heat. It just reminded Ruth she was already too hot under the leather armor and its denim padding. Sweat was rolling down her back, trying to make an escape. “Don’t get in my way, Sheriff. I don’t aim to regret anything I do today.”
“I mean it, Ruth.” The Sheriff clicked her cheeks and the orc, obedient to a fault, grunted from behind its iron mask and lifted the gnome onto the saddle it wore on its shoulders. It was a big one and Sheriff Tong had gotten rich – by local standards – studding it out to breeders in other towns. Ruth had always hoped she’d never have to see that thing bearing down on her with Sheriff Tong taking aim from up top.
Tong settled into her saddle and tugged the orc’s reigns to make him turn to face Ruth. “You’re not going in there.”
Ruth stopped at that, hands on her hips, and turned to face the Sheriff. “And why not? Plenty other people do. Good people, Sheriff. People go in there and come back out different.” Ruth pointed at the end of the row of ramshackle buildings, half of them abandoned now, their proprietors dead or run off, some of them still dying one lozenge at a time at the sugar shop behind the whorehouse. Ruth had always wondered why it was called “sugar.” The stuff was supposed to taste sweet, but all she knew was people who ate it tended, in turn, to be eaten by it.
“Nothing illegal about that, no matter what it does to ‘em.” The Sheriff had settled onto her saddle and crossed her arms. “But going in there and shootin’ up the place is going to go poorly for you, Ruth, for all kinds of reasons. I know you’re angry but you got to give me time to do something about it the legal ways.”
Ruth lunged forward a single step, her half-elf features sharp as knives in her fury. She swung her pointer finger around at the Sheriff. “The legal way? You are the law in these parts, Tong. There’s no law other’n what you say there is, and you’ve sat here and watched the town die around you. And why? It’s easy enough to guess. That orc looks like he’s eating pretty good. We don’t grow a third of the wheat we used to but you’ve got plenty of bread to give him. Your star’s pretty shiny. Your hat’s pretty new. Did you send all the way to Biashara for that? This ain’t Perfection country, Tong. You can’t sit there and do whatever you like and have nobody notice and nobody say anything because you’re ranked and all. You’re the Sheriff, sure, but you’re no good at it. You’re supposed to take care of this town and instead you’ve gotten rich off its worst disease.” The syllables came out of Ruth’s mouth amid spittle, her lips twisted into a fist. “You want to tell somebody not to do something? You go in there ahead of me and tell ‘em they’ve got to give me back my daughter before I let black powder do the persuading for me.”
Tong cracked the reins against the orc’s mask-muzzled jaw and dug her spurs into its armpits to nudge it forward, ahead of Ruth, positioning herself between the gunslinger and the sugar shop. “Ruth, listen to yourself. You’re talking crazy. You’re making baseless accusations. I might be inclined to decide that’s slander. On top of that, you’re making threats.”
“I’m making promises,” Ruth shot back. Before she knew it, her hand was on the butt of the pistol on her right side, though she stopped herself before she drew. That was tough on her: the not drawing. It had always been so easy to solve her problems with the guns. That had been her whole life in this town. She’d seen Sheriffs come and go. Some had been friends, some had been enemies, most had been a little of both. Ruth had been kind enough to conduct her particular business – shooting trouble, robbing the occasional coach, enforcing the will of someone able to pay – in other counties, other towns. She’d never given the various Sheriffs of this town an excuse to come after her. That was how it worked in the Jurisdictions: no law higher than the Sheriff, and once you were out of their territory their law only reached as far as their personal influence. It made for a lot of chaos, and Ruth was the sort of gunslinger who could make a good living navigating that kind of storm.
This day, though, this one day, Ruth wanted to get through a problem without drawing her guns. She knew what happened once they were out, what they told the people opposed to her. The guns let everyone know the talking parts were over. Reason no longer applied. People might come to agreement before any shots were fired but it was never because they wanted it in their hearts. Some of the slingers who saw themselves on a path of righteousness called their guns their “peacemakers,” but Ruth never bought into it. The guns didn’t make peace. They made silence. There’s a difference.
Sheriff Tong reached slowly, casually, and very visibly for the butt of one of the wands in the strip of leather across her chest. “Ruth,” she said. “Stop. I mean it.”
Ruth took her hand from the gun. She folded her hands behind her back to give them something else to do, drew a deep breath through her nose, let it out in a rushing flutter between her lips, and held Tong’s eyes the whole time. “We both do, Tong. We both mean it.”
Tong blinked, slowly, but it betrayed something: regret, perhaps for something she hadn’t even done yet but knew was coming.
Ruth took the chance and pressed her. “Tong, I like you. You’ve been a good Sheriff. Go in with me on this. It’s not too late to save this town. It’s not too late to make it right. You walk in there by my side and they’ll be telling stories about us so long from now they won’t even remember our names, just how brave we were – how brave you were – when we did the right thing for everyone instead of the easy thing for us.”
Tong’s grip on the wand faltered for a moment. Her hand fluttered there, over her heart, and Ruth saw the uncertainty in the Sheriff’s eye.
“They’ve had my daughter in there a month,” Ruth said. “I never taught her the way of black powder, Sheriff, because I wanted something better for her. I’m not ashamed of what I’ve done, but I ain’t proud of it, either. I wanted her to do something she could be proud of. I sent her away to that school and everything so she could learn some proper skills nobody else around here would have. Now they’ve probably killed her. They’ve wasted all that time, all that money, all my beautiful daughter’s life.” Ruth’s voice shook for a moment, but it didn’t crack. The gunslinger was too practiced for that. She’d faced heartbreak enough times – caused it enough times – to know how to push the heart aside when there was work to be done. “Most people don’t make it past two weeks in that place. I know. I’ve seen the bodies come out the back at night. I’ve seen them burn the pyres. I’ve smelled that smoke drift across the town in the darkest hours. But I’ve never seen my daughter come out that back door, so I know she must still be alive. She’s a strong one, but sugar breaks everyone in the end. How much longer can she be that strong? Look how long I’ve waited to do this, Sheriff. Look how many times I’ve given you the chance to do the right thing instead. Don’t act like I’m being rash. Don’t pretend I’m going off half-cocked.”
The Sheriff clucked her tongue and her hand fell away from the wand entirely. “Oh, Ruth, you dumb old mule.” She let out a sigh of open pity. “You don’t even know what’s going on, do you?”
Ruth stood there, perfectly still, not responding. She was going to make the Sheriff spell it out for her. Better that than take a stab and be wrong – or be right. Ruth could feel the truth she’d feared most rumbling around under the surface of the moment, just ahead, waiting to leap out and eat her like a monster from some adventure story.
Sheriff Tong stuck her fingers in her teeth and whistled loud, with that high-pitched gnome whistle she used sometimes to call her orc from the other end of the street. The door of the sugar shop flew open and an ancient orc mare stepped out, her tits in slings. “Greenie,” Sheriff Tong said, not even bothering to use the orc’s name, unless the slur was her name. “Go get your boss. We got business in the street. Tell her to hurry.”
The old mare went back in and a few moments later the door opened again. Out walked Louise, Ruth’s daughter, wearing her alchemist’s vestments. She was as hale and hearty as ever, the blood of whatever fleeting human had fathered Ruth making his granddaughter, Louise, stand taller than Ruth, softer than any elf, prettier than any orc, towering over the gnome Sheriff’s natural height. Her voice was louder and deeper than just about anybody’s in town and even with the constant burns from chemicals and the way the mutagens made her hair turn stringy over time, Louise was a force to be reckoned with. She’d gotten that much from her mama, at least, Ruth liked to say.
“What is it, Tong? I got sugar to shake out.” Louise’s eyes were hard as any rock, her voice just as steady as it could be about the business at hand. That was when Ruth couldn’t avoid any longer what she’d feared the whole time. Her daughter wasn’t in there eating sugar until it killed her. Louise was in there making the stuff. Louise was eating the town, one person at a time, one soul, and Ruth couldn’t use black powder to save her from that. Ruth could stop her or not stop her, but no, not save her. It was the sort of situation made for mothers, and Ruth had only brought guns.
“That’s right, Ruth.” Tong’s hands were on the reins of her orc.
The old orc’s eyes were just visible behind the iron mask he wore – iron, in this heat, every day, not even taken off to eat. Ruth had seen how Tong fed him, loosening a screw on the front and opening a door in the grate so the orc could just shove a spoon of gruel into its mouth. You’d think that might get messy, but the orc had learned to do it slowly and very precisely so he never wasted a speck of what little food he got. He’d been beaten, whipped, trained, and starved until he could put up with any abuse, any suffering, if it were dispensed by the Sheriff who owned him.
It wasn’t a bad metaphor for the town, Ruth thought. The orc was broken and would die before long and the world would be in a little less pain, when you added it all up, after it passed. Ruth thought the same might be true for the town. Louise would kill everybody in it with the sugar she made in her alchemy lab and she’d buy the law off with a few baubles and some good grub until the law was the only other living being left. Ruth wondered which of them would kill the other then: when Tong realized she’d run out of town to Sheriff, or when Louise realized she’d run out of clients to strip of what little gold they’d scraped together on a cow-pie prairie like this one.
Ruth couldn’t imagine waiting for that to happen. It wasn’t in a gunslinger’s blood to walk away from a dying animal, letting it suffer. If this town was mortally wounded, and it was too late for Ruth to do anything other than fix it with her guns, so be it. The least she could do was put it out of its misery. It was what the powder always wanted anyway. It wouldn’t be easy, not if she thought about it, but that was another thing the powder always wanted: to take care of a problem before anybody had much chance to think.
The first one was dead before they even realized Ruth had drawn.