"Son, what d'ya know 'bout the Wild West?" Abel shifted on his tiny ass just so he could feel a little warmth down there from the friction against his damp, coarse pants. He shivered from the bitter cold of the endless Winter that bit at them—young Abel and Church, the old crow sitting across the pitiful campfire from him. Why Church dragged him all the way out in the middle of nowhere after having only met him yesterday, Abel didn't know. What inclined him to follow Church anyways?
"Shit, gramps," Abel answered him, restless from the chill. "The hell are we doin' all the way out here? I don't even know you."
"You know me," Church said, picking up a stick and prodding the embers. His glassy, blue eyes were either gentle or senile. Maybe both. "I told ya', the name's Church. You only need to know a man's name to know the man. Now," he returned his gaze to Abel, "don't go makin' an old coot like me repeat myself. The cold: it steals yer breath, so words a' precious, 'specially questions."
"What's so important about questions?" Abel squinted. His eyes were sharp, gray, and cruel with youth.
"Boy," Church glared at him.
"Fine, fine," Abel rolled his eyes. "What do I know about the Wild West? Just a bunch of lame stories my uncle learned from his grandpa, who learned them from his grandpa and so on. My uncle says it's all bogus, though; that whoever started the stupid tradition got the stories from a bunch of old movies and stuff. Like I'd care about movies anyways. What use are they if we can't watch 'em, huh?"
"Ah, yes. Movies," Church chuckled, leaning back against the pale, dead tree behind him. "I 'member movies. Old Wayne and Eastwood, the poor bastards."
"Psh," Abel said, shaking his head. The hell did this geezer know about movies? No one's seen one for going on two and a half thousand years—not since the end of the war; not since the Winter began. "Whatever. What about the Wild West, then?"
"Why d'ya think they called the West 'wild'?"
"Don't know, don't care," Abel huddled closer to the flames, stretching out his tattered, gloved hands—hands that could've been pinching him something from some nobody so he could buy himself a decent meal. "What does the Wild West have to do with why you took me all the way out here? I'm starting to regret ever coming with ya'. Should'a bit my lip and let you turn me in to the sheriff."
"They called the West 'wild,'" he continued, "because—way, way back when Eros was still the United States of America—during the ancient frontier era, when the law of the Union stretched only as far as the eyes of its enforces, ruffians like ya' and yer lot ruled. For all the good the law did, the land was still lawless, and greed and corruption reigned. The sheriffs and marshals did their darnedest to uphold civility, but between the outlaws, the ruthlessness of the more war-like natives, and their own desperation, they stood little chance."
"Old man," Abel grunted, "what the fuck does this have to do with me? It's cold as shit out here, and—."
"Boy," Church's eyes snapped up. "If ya' know what's good for ya', you'll shut'cher mouth and let the man whom ya' owe yer freedom to speak." He stared the young thief down across the flames, sitting silently for a few moments to let the desolate sounds of the nuclear Winter impress the importance of Church's story onto Abel. Some forlorn creature off in the distant gloom cried out, but their gaze remained locked. Abel finally broke contact, and Church smirked. "As I was sayin'. Back then, in the Wild West, many of the good, law-abiding enforcers stood no chance against the evils of desperation. But there were a stalwart few who tried, and they were known as the Copper Cadre. Even if the libraries of the world still had functioning digital records today, you'd find no mention of the Cadre.
"They were a fine group of upstanding citizens, they were. Respected by all who knew them; hated by all who feared them. They were a transient bunch, ya' see. They traveled across the West on horseback from town to town, cleaning up the streets and collecting on the government's bounties. Any small fortune they'd rack up from the bounties collected, they gave to the towns. But as all good things go, the end came eventually for the Cadre.
"Ya' see, there was this one really bad man—a real cruel sonuva bitch. No one 'members his name, but only a small handful would recall tales of the Pale Gunslinger. He ran himself a clockwork operation, and controlled a vast majority of the trade routes in the West. No one was outta' his iron sights; not even the Copper Cadre. The Cadre was making too many waves with all their good-doin', and the Pale Gunslinger didn't like that, so he hatched a plan. On the road back to a town they had already liberated, the Cadre was ambushed by a small army of outlaws lead personally by the Pale Gunslinger. A firefight broke out. The Cadre fought valiantly and most of the Pale Gunslinger's men fell, but they were outgunned.
"Before the battle ended in favor of the outlaws, the last lawman of the Cadre called out to the Pale Gunslinger for a duel, knowing the bastard loved a challenge. If the lawman won the shoot-out, he demanded the outlaws to disperse. If the Pale Gunslinger won, he could continue his ways unchallenged. The Pale Gunslinger liked his odds because he knew that, even in the remotest chance he lost the duel, his gang would never keep their promise to a lone lawman. What he didn't plan for, though, was the lawman's dead-shot accuracy and whip-crack speed. The opponents were matched evenly, and both fell in the duel. The Pale Gunslinger croaked instantaneously. The lawman, however, was one tough sonuva gun."
"So the outlaws finished him off and went their way," Abel interrupted. "End of story. Now will you tell me what it has to do with me, or can I go?"
"No," said Church.
"The fuck, man?" Abel got up. "I listened to your boring-ass story, so we're even, right? That's what you wanted, right? You bailed me out of a bad sitch, and I hear you ramble on about shit that doesn't matter anymore!"
"Sit yer ass down and shuddup, boy," Church growled, stomping his foot into the cracked permafrost. "I didn't save ya' from a cold night behind bars just'a drag your wet ears out into the colder wasteland to tell ya' a story. The story is only part'a it. It's a…what'chu call it? A prelude. Besides," he waved for Abel to take his seat, "the story ain't over." Abel continued to stand for a few moments; then, grumbling and cursing, he sat back down. "Thank you. No more interruptions 'til I'm finished?" With a grimace, Abel agreed with a subtle nod.
"As I was sayin'. To the lawman's surprise, the outlaws left him to die without another offense. If there's any honor among thieves and murderers, they respected the lawman for winning against one of the Wild West's best shots. They called him the Last Gunslinger after that. But the lawman didn't die that day. A generous passerby who heard the shootout from a mile off came to the scene and, recognizing the lawman as one from the Copper Cadre, took him to the town. The local sawbones did his darnedest to save the lawman's life, but his injuries were beyond the sawbones' skills. Knowing he had little time left, the lawman whispered many things to his savior. Among the drivel was the lawman's anger for his and the law's failure to stop a gang of misfits like the Pale Gunslinger and his outlaws. Most thought he was just bein' delusional and spouted off nonsense, but the lawman felt convicted that the laws he'd strived to uphold weren't enough to get the job done.
"On his deathbed, the lawman outlined himself a new set of laws, and they were as such:
1. No women; no children; no man without sin.
2. Gold taken is gold ill-deserved.
3. One Hail Mary for one bullet, one bullet for one sin, and every bullet a sure target.
4. No sins left unrepented, and only one chance to repent.
5. One law, under God.
And upon His name, the lawman was dead. He was buried along with the memory of his compatriots in the highest regard in the town's cemetery, and a tombstone was erected on his grave. It read, 'In Honor of the Copper Cadre and their Last Gunslinger.' But this, too, ain't the end of the story," Church said, anticipating Abel's readiness to leave.
"The lawman's work was not finished, and thus the Lord did not allow his passing. Legend has it that he rose from his grave with righteous vengeance in his heart and his final words upon his lips. He took the nickname 'The Last Gunslinger' as his new christening, and vowed to enforce his laws upon the wicked who dared crossed his path. From that day, he called those five proclamations the Law of the West; and where he wandered, the Law followed.
"The Last Gunslinger's new life came with its perks, as he found out. For one, he lived well beyond his years—as long as he kept himself from any life-threatenin' harm. Rumor has it, he lived for three hundred years after his rebirth, and was still a spry enough crack-shot. But goin' on for that long can whittle a man to the bone, as y'could imagine. As time went on, he found he was unable to uphold the Law like he use'ta, so he went looking for a partner. Ironically, his perfect candidate turned out to be a young ruffian and an outlaw. The boy's age fit within the forgiveness of the Law of the West, though, and the Last Gunslinger saw in him great potential. The boy trained under the Last Gunslinger and became almost his equal.
"What the boy didn't know, however, was the Last Gunslinger's other reason for training him. Ever since the lawman began his new life, there was something from his previous life that weighed heavily upon his heart. When he was still one of the Cadre, the lawman had secretly taken a share of the bounties the Cadre collected and gave away charitably for his own gains. 'Member the second proclamation of the Law of the West: 'Gold taken is gold ill-deserved.' The fact that he had kept a portion of the charity for himself was one sin too heavy, and though he had served the Law of the West vigilantly for three hundred years—in his eyes—his sin rightfully deserved the promised bullet.
"And so, when the apprentice was finally ready and of age, the Last Gunslinger gave to him a single bullet. However, the Last Gunslinger also loaded his gun with one bullet, too. Ya' see, the boy had become a man, but it did not forgive him of his childhood sins. As a boy, the apprentice was a pickpocket, and thieved himself a good share of ill-gotten money. The Last Gunslinger had offered him one chance to repent for his sins, but the apprentice was arrogant, and refused to make amends for a petty crime worth no more than three dollars (bills of currency back in the ages of the United States). The apprentice attempted to reason with the Last Gunslinger, but the old lawman was bound by the Law. He was a fair man, though, and proposed a duel as a resolution to their conflict.
"The apprentice kept trying to change his master's mind, but as soon as the Last Gunslinger called 'draw,' it was either kill or be killed. And for the three hundred years of being the quickest draw, the Last Gunslinger wasn't quick enough. The apprentice's shot was quick and true, and the old lawman fell. The apprentice survived his master and became the Last Gunslinger."
Church took pause, and the air was still and cold. The fire, now merely embers, cracked and popped between the old man and the young boy. Abel, finally invested in Church's words, held his breath. Somewhere along the line his heart skipped a beat, and suspicion tugged at the back of his mind. "What," he mumbled, "happened after that?"
"After that," Church sighed, "the apprentice walked away. Under the Law of the West, he had committed no crime by killing the lawman. 'One bullet for one sin.' The apprentice wanted to wash his hands of it all: the Lone Gunslinger and the Law. He rejected his teachings, as anyone would expect him to do. By the Law, he still had to pay for his childhood sin. No amount of Hail Marys could wash away the grime on his penny-pinching fingers; not after refusing to repent when his master demanded him to. So he locked it all up and threw away the key.
"The Law of the West remained in his heart, though, and the title of the Last Gunslinger was branded upon his hide. He, too, lived beyond his allotted time; and when he could no longer run away from the truth, he caved. He took up his gun and all of its heft, and became once more the Last Gunslinger. Since then, the cycle repeated itself, and every Last Gunslinger faced their shared dilemma: the Law, their duty, and their sins." Church looked off into the distance with his old eyes. His gray beard gleamed orange in the dying light of the embers. Abel knew then why Church had told him the ancient tale.
"Curious, ain't it?" the man with a mystery and agelessness about him pondered. "We all get one chance at redemption, and those few who can truly understand and appreciate the Law—those who, one way or another, become akin to the Last Gunslinger," Church turned back to Abel, "completely screw up, and end up right where it all started."