The dust of the road puffed and swirled around the boots of the running man. He had been running for days now without respite, and still they gained. He’d seen the pictures of his face plastered all over the dying town, a reward given for his capture underneath it, one large enough that most of the residents would be desperate enough to try for. He’d known that if he stayed, his remaining days could be numbered in single digits. So he ran.

The bounty hunters would be after him as soon as they saw that picture. The ink was still wet, so he had some time, but not much. He hadn’t even stopped to say good-bye to the few people had met; sheep, all of them, he thought disgustedly. He’d stolen a little food, mounted his horse, and ridden like the devil himself was after him. Not that it was an inaccurate description. The bounty hunters had been known to give that impression, not to the few who escaped them, but to those who watched them take their prey.

It briefly occurred to him to wonder how and why he had come to this situation. He didn’t even really remember entering the town, but his time there had been largely spent so blitzed he could barely stand, so it was no real stretch to assume he had entered the city limits that way. He preferred to spend his free time drunk; it took away some of the depression from the general state of life at this point in time. Sadly, the world had become so decayed and decrepit in the last ten years that most of the population who could spent most of their time in a similar fashion. In his more sober and introspective moments, he thought that this was probably part of a vicious cycle, contributing to the downfall of society. Not that he particularly cared about that either. Especially now, when he had bigger problems to deal with.

He risked a glance backwards, and swore in fright. His horse had foundered a fair ways back, which was unsurprising, given its age. But still, that meant that he had to run on foot… and he was getting extremely tired. He ran, and kept running until his legs felt like molten lead, and then he ran faster, until he couldn’t feel his legs anymore. And then he was falling, swearing, and hoping he’d gotten far enough to outrun them before the darkness clouded his vision.

The boot heel to his jaw woke him up. It wasn’t a particularly well-meaning boot heel either. He could feel something snap in his jaw, and he wasn’t sure if it was muscle or bone or tooth. He rolled over to his side, spat out blood, and the boot heel revisited his side none-too-gently. "Up, maggot." The voice was harsh, gravelly, and deep. A voice made for bringing crowds to a frightened silence and ambushing unwary gutter-trash in the night. He risked a glance up.

He couldn’t see the face of the man who had finally gotten him for the glare of the sun. From the mid-torso up, the bounty hunter was just a black shadow against the sun. Silver on the belt gleamed through the tarnish, and the hunter’s pants were stained yellow from the dust. The boots that were kicking the fallen man were pointed at the toe. The better to kick you with, my dear.

"Get up, maggot." The bounty hunter started to kick again, and the man flopped sideways, dodging. This made his existing bruises hurt, but since he acquired no more of them he didn’t really mind too much. At this amount of movement the bounty hunter stopped kicking, briefly. In order to acquire no more bruises, the man slowly stood up. He still couldn’t see the bounty hunter’s face for the glare of the sun. He was starting to wonder if the other had placed himself that way on purpose.

"Theodore ‘Red Ted’ Harding, you stand condemned of robbery, armed robbery, highway robbery, murder, rape, arson…" His catalogue of faults went on, and Harding tuned out. He’d done it all before, after all, so why did he need to hear it again? The bounty hunter’s impatient silence told him he was done.

"Yeah. And? So shoot me already, and get it over with. That’s what you guys do, isn’t it?" Now that death had come for him, Ted was finding it strangely boring. The bounty hunter sounded like a goddamned judge. Harding had had enough of judges when he’d been assigned to the work gang. Probably why he’d gone back and murdered the bastard later.

"Not exactly. Theodore Harding, we have been instructed to offer you a choice." The bounty hunter sounded almost smug. His lack of a face was really starting to get on Harding’s nerves, though. Harding stared at the other man suspiciously.

"What sort of a choice?"

"You can die in the dirt like a dog." The bounty hunter’s voice took on a note of undeniable glee at the though. Harding thought sourly that maybe there was such a thing as enjoying one’s job too much. "Or you can join us."

Harding blinked. This wasn’t the sort of thing that one heard from law enforcement officers or even bounty hunters every day. And since the latter were about as close as anyone got to the former these days… "Why? Why me, why now?" This offer was making him deeply suspicious. He’d never heard of anyone being invited to join the bounty hunter’s ranks before.

The bounty hunter shrugged, an enigmatical gesture. "Because you were chosen. Because you were deemed suitable. Because you were found to possess a certain attitude towards humanity which is necessary in our chosen occupation. And because it was thought that you were not in a position or state of mind to refuse." Harding wasn't sure, but he thought the bounty hunter was giving him a particularly unpleasant smile. This did not reassure him.

"And if I say no, I die, right?"

"That is correct."

Harding stared at the bounty hunter, thinking. He didn't like this offer, which sounded like it was something he would have said no to if it meant anything other than his life, and he didn't like the fact that he still couldn't look the bounty hunter in the eyes. He hadn't had a problem staring someone down since he was fourteen, and now he couldn't even look the guy in the face. It bothered him more than he thought it ever should have.

But then, the bounty hunter was right. What real choice did he have? At least this way, he'd still get to be the big bad, in a way. And he didn't know who he'd have to take orders from, but it had to be better than the bastard who bossed him around on the work gang. "All right, yeah. I'm in."

"We knew you would be," the bounty hunter said, and he stepped forward and smiled. Harding stared at the hunter, at his pale, dead face, and then started to scream. He screamed, and he screamed, and even the screaming was not enough to cover the sound of the gunshot as the bullet tore its way through his heart.

The man woke up dead, like all the others. He awoke at dawn, and pulled his boots on. It didn't occur to him anymore where he had gone to sleep, or why he awoke in the barracks-style building with so many others, or why there was a pair of six-shooters next to him on a small uniform bedside table, or why he didn't feel the need to break his fast. He simply woke, dressed, armed himself, and went out to recieve the days instructions.

"Here are today's assignments," a sexless voice announced, seemingly from thin air. "Bradley Roarke, guilty of multiple murder, arson, and parricide..."

The list rattled on, and the man who had been Theodore Harding headed towards a picket line of vacant-eyed horses. A faint, unpleasant smile turned up the corners of his lips. It was going to be a good day, the dead man thought.

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