High Plains Centaur




The late morning sun silhouetted the centaur as he stared down at the dead, gutted pig on the blood-covered ground. After a moment he spat in the opposite direction, toward a nearby town in need of a cleaning, a town he'd studied from afar for months: Rush City. A town electing a sheriff that very night. A town in need of a new sheriff . . . though the current one would violently disagree.

He trotted toward the town and destiny. 

His horse body had patches of brown and dirty white like a lopsided checkerboard. Graying brown hair sprouted from all sides of his worn-out, wide-brimmed also-brown hat. An old brown poncho covered his upper body, with only his hands visible. He was all dirty and brown, including his tanned and dirt-stained face, where dark eyes peered out from over a crooked, pointed nose. A jagged scar ran across his left cheek. He was probably around forty, but life had aged him more quickly than most. He had the combined stench of a man and a horse that hadn't bathed in months. 

The town was even filthier. The centaur nibbled on a carrot as he entered, holding it with dirty fingers as he trotted down the dirt road that seemed to be the main street, lined on both sides with small businesses with worn-out fronts. 

"Hey, got some change for a lady?" It was a harpy, perched on the front step of a business of ill repute. The centaur squinted down on her. What a hag! From the neck down, she was like a giant turkey, in a fine black evening dress and high heels, with a necklace of fake pearls around her neck. From the neck up she was a horror, all wrinkles and grease and black leering eyes. She smelled old and rancid. He'd dealt with harpies before; he knew how to deal with them. 

He slowed to a walk as he stared down at her. A tumbleweed rolled along the street between the two. The centaur whipped the poncho aside, revealing crisscrossing ammunition belts and a pair of holstered pistolshawkbeak specials, forged in the caverns of Vernado by the giant dwarves of Vern. Before the leer was gone from the harpy's face, he'd released a dozen shots, tearing the tumbleweed into tiny bits. 

The harpy dove for the ground, covering her head with her hands. "The red-eyed unicorn's gonna get you, stranger!" she shrieked. "Who you think you are, Valorious or somethin'?"

A red-eyed unicorn? The centaur's lips pulled back in a slight sneer even as he shook his head slightly. "I'm gonna clean out this town," he said in a raspy voice, like a cactus scraping a gun barrel. He reloaded and reholstered his guns, pulled his poncho back into position, and continued his walk into town. At least they knew about Valorious here. Good. 

A few of the townsfolk looked up at the sound of gunfire, but then went about their business. A tall, elderly cyclops dressed in black slowly made his way across the street, a gun slung across his waist. Two giggling nymphs sat next to a pair of trees and waved as the centaur passed. A tiny spriggan stood in front of a clothing store, staring at the centaur's poncho. A pointy-toothed vampire stared out of the shadows of a gun shop, which somehow gave the centaur chills down his back. A pair of humans cantered past on horseback. 

The centaur stopped in front of a two-story building in the center of town. A dusty sign read, "City Hall." 

"Whatcha lookin' fer?" asked the large, green ogre sitting on the ground in front in a deep, yet melodic voice. He wore a fancy blue suit and necktie, only slightly dirty, which seemed out of place in this godforsaken town. Two gigantic teeth jutted out of his lower jaw, almost reaching his balloon-like nose. The sparkling eyes were too close together. The centaur almost gagged from his overpowering cologne. 

"This," said the centaur.

"Ain't no 'this' round about here," said the ogre, nodding as he stared intently. "You're a stranger. I can tell cuz I don't know you." 

The centaur ignored him and entered city hall. Inside, a small blue hunchbacked gnome sat behind a desk that was eight feet wide but only one foot off the ground. He held a quill pen in each hand and was rapidly writing with each on the top page on a stack of documents. He finished the page, moved the page to a stack on the side, and began on the next. The centaur was impressed. 

"Scuze me," said the centaur. The ambidextrous gnome froze, both quill pens in the air, and looked up. 

"What can I do for you, stranger?" he asked, still holding both quill pens in 

the air. "Make it quick, very busy, very busy." He sniffed the air, wrinkling his nose. "Hotel around the corner has a bath." 

"This where one signs up to run for sheriff?"

The gnome's eyes went wide, and then he smiled. "Stranger, I think maybe you should get out of Rush."

The centaur spat on the worn-out wooden floor. "I'm running for sheriff of Rush City. Where do I sign up?"

The gnome glared at him. "You don't hear so good, do you? I figger" The gnome stopped as he was looking into the centaur's drawn pistols. "On the other hand, there's nothing like a good election. Just write your name down and I'll put you on the ballot for the election at tonight's town meeting. The sheriff won't be happy." He handed the centaur a piece of paper, quill pen, and ink. 

The centaur returned his guns to their holsters. "Nice to give the townsfolk a choice, ain't it?" The centaur wrote his name and handed the piece of paper back. The gnome read it.

"Your name is Centaur?"

"That's good enough." The centaur backed toward the door—no point taking changes—and then quickly turned and left. 

The ogre stepped sideways to avoid a collision. "Hope you didn't mind my listenin' in. So you's is running for sheriff?"

The centaur stared down at him wordlessly. 

"You do know Sheriff Hell runs this town? Watch yourself cuz he and his buds'll be lookin' to run you out of town with a few big holes in that fine horse body of yours. Watch out for the Vamp and especially the Unicorn."

"You going to vote for me?" asked the centaur, pushing aside his poncho so that one of his guns appeared. It's always good to be persuasive. 

"You gonna fix the crime problem?" asked the ogre, nodding and seemingly unafraid of the gun. "Them elf gangs been robbing all the stores. And the vampire keeps lookin' at me funny."

"Won't be no crime when I'm sheriff."

"Then you got my vote. If you promise to get a bath. But folk like me, we only get zero point six votes."

"That's going to change."

"Not with Sheriff Hell around."

"He ain't gonna be around after tonight. So where's this town hall meeting taking place?"

"At the saloon, right over there, right after sundown." The ogre pointed. 

"Then that's where I start my campaign." 

"But why would anyone want to be sheriff here?" the ogre asked. "Ain't nobody good in this town."

"Then we'll make sure they get what's coming," said the centaur. He decided he'd better take the gnome's and ogre's advice about the bath. He found the hotel, and spent half an hour soaking in the hot, soapy water in the special tub they had for ogres and other large folk. Then he put on his freshly cleaned poncho, care of the hotel staff, combed his hair, and sauntered over to the saloon. He stepped through the swinging doorway. 

It was the largest saloon the centaur had ever seen. There were about thirty tables, and it was already jammed for the lunch hour, though it took a moment to see that through the dense tobacco smoke. Dozens played cards at the tables, from every species in the civilized and uncivilized world, and talk and laughter filled the room. In the corner three leprechauns played the sad waltz I Was an Old Pirate Who Only Got Pyrite on their violins, while the vampire from the gun shop sat nearby, listening with rapt attention. A manticore, a satyr, and a dryad sipped beers together at one table, while a group of sprites and pixies hooted and giggled at another. Behind the counter an aging, bald human bartender in an apron and purple Nysa flat hat was busy fixing drinks while a female green goblin in a pink dress and a matching ribbon in her black hair fixed sandwiches. The place smelled of manure, tobacco, and cheap whiskey. 

"What'll it be?" asked the bartender in a grizzled voice. 

"One water," said the centaur. 

There were sputtering gasps, someone dropped a glass, and the violins came to a shrieking halt. The bartender stared at him with blazing eyes out of a face like burlap. 

"You want a what?" he asked.

"One large water," said the centaur. "On the rocks."

"Get out of my saloon," the bartender said. Someone giggled.

"Not till I get my water," said the centaur, staring down at the bartender. He flipped his poncho to the side, revealing his two hawkbeaks. Some people needed encouragement to do the right thing. 

The bartender paled, and then nodded. "I'll have to melt some ice. It's expensive; I have to buy blocks of it from the Barbegazi up in the mountains. The only water we got here is ditch water, which we use to wash dishes and for the horse trough. You don't want that." 

"I'll pay for it," the centaur said, pulling his ponchos back into position, but with his arms underneath, holding the pistols. 

"You do that," said Sheriff Hell from the swinging doors entrance. He was a frowning dwarf with a white Stetson hat stood, wearing a five-sided star on a blue vest. Sheriff Bell, alias Sheriff Hell. He wore a leather jacket with too-large brass buttons up the front. His hand was on the single revolver slung from his side; the centaur recognized it as an Atlantis Special, carved from the tusk of a mammoth. His boots nearly reached his sagging belt, which barely contained his belly. 

"I hear you're running for sheriff," the dwarf continued. "Well, you can just stick around till the vote tonight, and then you can just canter out of town, and never come back." He looked over at the leprechauns. "Why aren't you three playing? Play something happy and blissful, like it'll be tonight after the vote." The leprechauns began playing a fast ditty, Ho Ho, the Gold We Blow!

The dwarf pulled up a chair at a vacant table. Four Boggarts at the adjacent table quickly moved to a more distant one. 

"One double-sized Satyr Brew!" cried the dwarf, snapping his fingers. Then he looked over at the centaur. "Why don't you join me?" He patted a chair next to him. "Have a seat." There were titters of laughter. The centaur stared back with eyes like coal. When someone puts you down, you just have to do it right back, when the time is right. He walked over and stood by the table. 

The two might have engaged in animated conversation over their respective political positions, but they were interrupted by a robbery.

"Give me all your gold and nobody gets hurt," said Blue Bear, a well-known local elf bandit. He was tall yet husky, elderly and distinguished, wore a knee-length blue coat despite the heat, with pointy ears and a long, thin, blond beard, the latter rare for an elf. He held a Kraken Sharpshot, carved from the tooth of one of those great beasts, to the head of the bartender. 

A shot rang out as a bullet from Sheriff Hell knocked the pistol out of the elf's hand. The elf screamed in pain as blood poured from his injured fingers.

"Not a clean shot," said the centaur as the dwarf moved toward the injured elf. 

"You could have done better?" asked the dwarf.

"I could have ricocheted it off your gun and knocked both guns out cleanly. No blood." When someone tries to one-up you, you have to one-up them back. 

"Maybe I like blood. And yours" The dwarf was interrupted by a pistol jabbed in his back. He froze. 

"Drop your gun," said a second well-known elf bandit, Big Grease. He held a pistol on the dwarf even as he combed his greasy hair around his own pointy ears. He was about twenty, tall and skinny, wore a fancy purple shirt with ruffles and black dress pants, and smelled of cheap perfume.

A third well-known bandit, Dirt Boy, appeared out of the smoky shadows. He was also aiming a pistol at the dwarf. A lowly half-breed, half elf and half human, he was also about twenty, very short and fat, with one of his pointed ears torn off. He was dirty and smelled as bad as the centaur had, and allegedly hadn't changed clothes in five years. With his free hand he nonchalantly flicked two fleas off his hairy, bare arm.

"You will regret this," the dwarf said, looking side to side at the two elves. Then he dropped his gun with a clang on the wooden floor. 

Blue Bear picked up the Atlantis special, dripping blood all over it as he examined it. He shook his head. "The mammoth of Atlantis are dying out because of folk like you. Someday they'll be hunted and gone. Garbage like you should be hung." Then he turned to the bartender. "Now, about that gold?"

Three quick shots rang out, and all three elves dropped to the floor, blood spurting from three respective elvish hearts. "Good shooting!" someone called out. The centaur returned his pistols to his holster with a fancy spinning motion. Shaking his head, he said, "Elf blood, dwarf blood, pig blood, it's all the same."

The dwarf nodded. "Stationary targets. Anyone could do that." He bent and retrieved his pistol from the floor, twirling it a dozen times before smoothly holstering it. 

"You think so?" asked the centaur. 

Blue Bear wasn't quite dead. He sat up and tried to raise his pistol, but couldn't. He finally gasped, "Our kin will revenge us and take your gold. We have a way into your bank vault. We'll" Then he fell over and lay still. 

There was ten seconds of silence. Then the centaur called out, "You got my water?"

While the bartender brought it, the dwarf stared at the centaur. "This changes nothing." 

"Get away from him!" the centaur called out. The vampire he'd seen at the gun shop was kneeling next to one of the elves, with his fangs extended, about to bite into his neck.

"Why?" asked the vampire. He was dressed in all black, with a black derby hat, black robe, and black boots. "They are dead, and the mortician will be here soon to take them away. But only after I have had my fill." 

The centaur sauntered over. "They aren't worthy of you or anyone. You, bartender, put the bodies in the corner over there, and let them rot for a day, for all to see." 

The vampire rose to his feet. "I warn you—"

The centaur pointed a pistol at the vampire. But the vampire only laughed. "You think a mere gun can hurt one like myself?"

"Silver bullets," said the centaur.

The already pale vampire went paler as he slowly backed away. "You have not heard the last of this," he whispered.

"Yes I have," said the centaur, extending an arm with the pistol. "Bang!" he said.

The vampire soundlessly ran out of the saloon.

"Now, can you put those bodies in the corner?" 

The bartender looked over at the dwarf. 

"Do as he says," said the dwarf. "They are scum and should be treated as such. But leave some room—there'll be a really big body joining them tomorrow." He glared at the centaur. 

The centaur stared back at the dwarf, who could have walked under him barely bending. Then the centaur looked about, and saw that all eyes were on him. 

"I'm running for sheriff," he cried out. "I'm here to clean out this town. You need a real sheriff, not one who needs someone else to do the sheriffing. I'll see you all tonight." Several patrons began to clap, but stopped at the look they got from the dwarf.

"And you," said the dwarf, pointing at the centaur. "Tomorrow at sunup. You and me, just outside this saloon, we're going to have it out." He parodied shooting the centaur with his finger as his gun, and said, "Bang."

"I'll see you at sunup," said the centaur. "But after I beat you in the election tonight, you won't be the sheriff."

"Then there'll be an opening one minute after sunup," said the dwarf.

There was silence for a moment. Then the centaur threw back his head and laughed. With the tension broken, the rest of the room joined in, even the dwarf. 

"Good one," the centaur said. "Sunup tomorrow, little guy." At that, the room became silent again. The dwarf rose to his feet, his eyes silently screaming insults, then stomped out of the room, slamming the swinging doors so hard that one of them broke off. The centaur smiled inwardly; that was payback for the 'Have a seat' comment. 

"A bit overdramatic," said the centaur. He downed his water in one big gulp. "I think my campaign's going well." Many in the room nodded. "Vote for me, and I'll clean out this town. I guess that's my campaign slogan." He glanced at the leprechauns. "Play something lively." As he sauntered out the door they began to play the old folk song, One and Two, Let the Gold Accrue!

He spent much of the day going door to door, asking for votes. Word had spread about his shooting the three elf bandits and rescuing the sheriff, and his promise to clean out the town. He was determined to win this election; he had big plans for this town, and they were predicated on his being sheriff. 

He stopped by the bank, which was run by a family of dryads. The floor had thick, plush purple carpeting. The walls were lined with portraits of elderly dryads, presumably past proprietors. He'd been in many banks before, but this was the first one he'd ever seen with oak trees inside. Three of the short but stocky trees had signs taped to them saying, "Teller." The fourth read, "Bank Manager." He approached that one. The tree partially opened up, and out stuck the face of one of the dryads. She was old and wrinkled, with long, silvery hair, and wore a ruffled red vest and a blue bolo tie. 

"What can I do for you?" asked the dryad.

"You know who I am?"

"You're the stranger who saved the sheriff and stopped a robbery at the saloon. You're running for sheriff."

It sounded like the election was going well, if the story had spread already. "Did you hear what one of the elves said just before he died?"

"Rumors fly fast in Rush City," said the dryad. "He said they have a way into our vault, where we keep all the town's gold. But that's impossible."

"Why?"

"Because the vault's walls are two feet thick on all sides, and the combination lock is of elfin design, and cannot be broken, even by an elf. Only I and my three daughters know the combination, and we'd die before giving it up."

"How do you know they'd die before giving up the combination?"

"I used to have five daughters."

The centaur nodded. "I'm sorry about your loss. When I'm sheriff, I'm going to clean out this town. I'll protect you."

There were giggles from the three daughters.

"Did I say something funny?"

"We're not exactly unprotected."

"All I see are the four of you . . . and some trees. Forgive me for saying this, but dryads aren't particularly known for their fighting skills."

"How true," said the dryad. "But we have other options."

Suddenly the centaur was lifted up into the air. Two of the branches from her tree had slipped under his belly and picked him up.

"Stop it, Winston!" cried the dryad as the pair of branches looked to fling the centaur across the room. "You'll damage the paintings!" The branches stopped in mid-fling. "Put him down." The branches did so. 

She smiled at the centaur, her head still sticking out of the opening in the oak tree. "As you can see, we do have some protection. They are the oak folk." Winston did a deep bow; the dryad had to grab both sides of the opening to keep from falling out.

"I can see and feel that," said the centaur, rubbing his belly, which was chafed from the rough bark from the branches. "Still, I'd like to guard this place until the last of the elf bandits is caught. I'll be back tonight."

"Such diligence. The dwarf has never shown such devotion. Perhaps you'll get our vote." The centaur tipped his hat, and soon left. 

As the sun began to set, he looked for a place to eat. Perhaps the saloon would workhe'd seen the goblin woman preparing sandwiches. But he was interrupted.

"Help!" cried a deep, melodic voice. It was coming from a nearby alley. The centaur galloped over and into the alley. There, in the shadows, lay the ogre, held down by the much smaller but apparently much more powerful vampire. As the centaur approached, the vampire thrust his fangs into the ogre's neck.

"Stop!" said the centaur in his most stern voice. The vampire looked up but did not remove his fangs. The ogre continued to cry out. 

"Don't interfere again," said the vampire through clenched fangs. "Dead elf blood is one thing, but pure, living ogre blood is the drink of joy. Plus I'd be forced to kill you, which would be a pity since centaur blood tastes like a wet dog."

"Silver bullets," the centaur reminded him. 

"Dammit, how did you learn about silver bullets?" cried the vampire. "That's supposed to be a secret!"

"Let's just say I've had some dealings with other vampires," said the centaur. "Dead vampires."

"All vampires are dead," said the vampire.

"Deader vampires."

The vampire nodded. "You make a good point." He rose to his feet and straightened out his black robe. "Since you have a gun pointed at me, and mine is still holstered, I will allow this fine ogre to live."

"Thank you!" cried the ogre, rising to his feet. The vampire gave him what seemed a gentle shove, and the ogre went flying into a stone wall, knocking out rock chips and dust. That was impressive, thought the centaur as he kept his face impassive. 

"But hear this," continued the vampire. "This is the last time you interfere with my business. Meet me tomorrow at sunup outside the saloon, and we will have this out."

"I'll see you then," said the centaur.

"You do not seem to understand that I own a gun shop, and have over five hundred years of gunslinging experience. I've fought a thousand duels, and drank the blood of a thousand foes. Tonight I'll take a 12-hour silver inoculation. You'll be dead before your useless silver bullets leave your gun."

"Maybe if I eat some fine food tonight my blood won't taste like wet dog?" asked the centaur.

"That would be helpful," said the vampire. "Perhaps a fine steak, extra rare, would make you more palatable." He slung his robe about himself and disappearedor so it seemed at first. Then the centaur saw the tiny black bat flying in position. It slammed into the centaur, knocking him into the wall, dislodging more rock chips and dust. 

A high, squeaky voice cried out, "Silver bullets don't help you now, do they? Don't forgetsunup!" Then the bat flapped its wings and shot upward and out of sight.

"Thanks for savin' my life," said the ogre, who was noticeably trembling. Not the gunslinger sort, thought the centaur. "You definitely get my zero point six votes! Good thing you had those silver bullets."

"I don't have any silver bullets."

The ogre gaped at him. "You was bluffing?"

"That's what one does when faced with something that can toss an ogre against a wall with a little shove."

"Do you realize what he woulda done to you if he'd aknown you was bluffing?"

"Do you realize what he would have done to both of us if I hadn't?"

"Good point," the ogre said, nodding. "Perhaps I kin treat you to dinner or breakfast?"

"Let's do dinner. My morning is looking rather busy."

The ogre took him to Diomedes' Plate, which the ogre said was the bestand onlysteakhouse in town. The ogre ordered an Erymanthian Boar steak, while the centaur ordered an Yggdrasil salad, hoping this wouldn't disappoint the vampire. He'd have to eat quickly as the town meeting at the saloon would be taking place soon. 

"Tell me about yourself," the centaur asked.

"Me?" The ogre thrust out his two lower teeth in an apparent smile. "I'm just a poor local who hires hisself out fer odd jobs, with no prospects to ever be anything more. Right now I work in the stables, and I sleep there too."

"You dress fancy for a stableogre." 

"Gotta have some self-respect."

"So what would you want to be if you could be something more?"

"There's no chance I could ever go to the university and get educated, so there's no point in wantin' to be."

"You can do anything you want."

"Really?" The ogre smirked, which wasn't much different than his smile. "I wanna fly. Let me know when my purty little wings sprout."

"Good point," said the centaur. "But keep wanting anyway. There are other ways to fly. And while your wings grow, tell me about this town." 

"There ain't much to tell," said the ogre. "Sheriff Hell runs it, the elves rob us blind, the vampire picks us off one by one, and then there's Uni." 

"Uni?"

"Yeah, the Unicorn, and say it with emphasis. I'm not sure who really runs this here town, the sheriff or the Unicorn. He could probably beat up the vampire." The ogre tilted his head and nodded againit seemed a common habit for him. "That'd be a hell of a fight." 

"Who exactly is this unicorn you are talking about?" He'd known about the dwarf before he'd come to town, and heard rumors about the vampire, but hadn't known about a unicorn. He didn't like surprises. 

"That's me, me, me!" cried a deep, sing-songly voice whose pitch wavered throughout and ended with a high-pitched scream. The dazzlingly white unicorn was slightly smaller than the centaur, but seemed to have the energy of ten of him as it pranced about side-to-side, shaking its head up and down and about, staring at them with large, blood-shot red eyes that darted about like a crazed lizard's. Its horn was three feet long and blue, but spattered with blood and bits of gore. "I am the Unicorn, me, me, me!

"Hello Mr. Unicorn," said the centaur. 

"You've caused a ruckus in this town, town, town!" The unicorn continued dancing about, light on its feet like a marionette. Drool dribbled from its mouth. 

"I'm just running for town sheriff, so I can protect the illustrious citizens of this town. Like yourself." He'd better be careful until he figured out what this unicorn was capable of. 

"Drop out of the election. Let the dwarf win, win, win!" The unicorn went still for the first time. "Or die." The unicorn lowered its head, aiming its horn at the centaur. The tip had a bullet-sized opening. 

"Um, Mr. Centaur, or whatever your name is," said the ogre, "I'd listen to him. He killed the last four sheriffs before the dwarf. That horn packs a wallop."

"Then it sounds like this town needs a better sheriff," said the centaur. 

"Leave or I will kill you, you!" said the unicorn. 

There was an uncomfortable silence. 

"Well?" asked the centaur. "Aren't you going to say 'you' a third time?"

"You, don't tell me what to do!" cried the centaur. It motioned with its rifle horn at a dartboard on the wall. "Shoot the dartboard. Shoot, shoot, shoot!" 

"Shoot the dartboard?"

"Yes, yes, yes!"

"Okay." With a fast yet smooth motion, the centaur drew and shot a bullseye on the dartboard. 

Or it would have been, if the unicorn hadn't lowered its horn and shot his bullet out of the air. Both bullets hit the wall off to the side and fell to the floor. It was the scariest thing the centaur had ever seenhow do you fight something like this?

"Again, again, again!" cried the unicorn, shaking its head about. 

"You've made your point," said the centaur, returning his gun inside his poncho. "And yet, I have an inkling I can win this election. Let's see if I'm right, and if I am, we can meet outside the saloon at sunup tomorrow and have it out, one equine to another." 

The red eyes finally settled on his face. "That would be acceptable. Sunup tomorrow, that's when you'll die, die, die!" The unicorn danced over to the wall near the dartboard, where the pointy end of a nail stuck out. It lowered its horn and made a notch on it next to four others. 

"Aren't you jumping the gun?" asked the centaur, keeping one of his pistols aimed at the unicorn from under his poncho as he had from the startthough he'd heard stories about how it was impossible to shoot a unicorn, that bullets just slid off them. "I seem to be alive."

"When I put in their notches," said the unicorn, "so were the other four, four, four!" The unicorn pivoted about and stared at them. "And the other forty-seven I've killed!" Then it lowered its horn and charged into the wooden wall just below the dartboard. The wood sounded like bullet shots as it snapped like kindling. The wall collapsed outward, bringing down half the roof. A cloud of dirt and dust fell on the unicorn, but seemed to slide right off it, leaving the unicorn the purest of white. It glanced back at the centaur, snorted, and then charged out into the early night. From the distance the unicorn shouted, "I'd shoot you now but the whole town must see, see, see!"

"Your morning just got busier," said the ogre. 

"That's one drunk unicorn," said the centaur, his lower jaw slightly down as he stared after the unicorn. 

"Uni don't drink." 

They quickly finished their meals; it was almost time for the town hall meeting. When they arrived at the saloon, the room was already packed with over two hundred citizens of all shapes and sizes. The dwarf, vampire, and the unicorn were together by a front table. The blue gnome stood next to the dwarf, whispering in his ear. The dwarf and the vampire stared at the centaur, while the unicorn's crazy eyes shot all over the place. 

"All quiet!" cried the dwarf. All sounds instantly stopped. "We have several things to go over tonight, and as usual I expect unanimous approval. I'm sorry to say we'll be raising your taxes again, but it's all for our better good." There were groans, but they stopped instantly as the dwarf dropped one hand to his Atlantis special's handle. The vampire stood at his side, fangs extended. The unicorn lowered its horn, swinging it side to side. 

"What about the election?" called out the ogre, rising to his feet. He was the tallest in the room. At a glance from the vampire, he quickly sat down. 

"The election?" asked the dwarf. There were grunts of assent. "What the heck, let's do it. Just remember what the stakes are." He glanced at the vampire and then at the unicorn. 

Messaged received by all, thought the centaur. 

"I believe we should each give a speech, and then we'll vote," said the dwarf. "You all write your choice on a piece of paper, and then I'll count them."

"You'll count them?" asked the ogre. 

The dwarf smiled. "I'll have the blue gnome count them."

"The blue gnome?" asked the ogre. "You're kidding, right?"

"Are you accusing me?" cried the blue gnome. He dashed at the ogre, both arms raised as if he were going to strangle the much larger being. The ogre nonchalantly grabbed him with one huge hand around the gnome's midsection, and studied him as the gnome kicked and screamed. Finally the ogre shrugged and tossed the gnome at the dwarf. The vampire caught him out of the air. 

"Let me go, I'll kill him!" The vampire stared at the wiggling, fighting creature in his arms for a moment and then conked him over the head with his fist. The blue gnome went silent as the vampire gently placed him on the floor. 

The dwarf wore a forced smile. "I'll have the bartender count them in public, so all can see. Now, let's get started. I'll go first with my speech. Vote for me, and me and my friends will take care of you." He patted the vampire on the back, and then did the same with the unicorn, which snorted as it shook its head up and down. "Win or lose, we will take care of you." The smile faded from his face as he looked at the townsfolk. "And you know something? Maybe I'll reconsider raising your taxes, depending on how one-sided the vote is for me . . . and against this stranger you know nothin' about." He turned to the centaur. "You're up!"

The centaur looked about at the scared people. They outnumbered the dwarf and his two cohorts by a huge amount, and yet none would stand up to them. They hadn't even tried to hire a gunman, such as himself. And yet here he was, running to be their sheriff. But he was determined to win. He knew what he had to say. 

"Vote for me, and I will clean out this town. The dwarf, the vampire, and the unicornI have duels with all three of them at sunup tomorrow, and I will kill all three."

There were gasps, not only from the regular citizens, but from the three he'd just promised to kill, who were now whispering among themselves. Apparently they hadn't compared notes and didn't realize it'd be all three of them against the centaur at sunup. 

"If you elect me sheriff, I'll take care of all three, just as I shot all three elf bandits this morning, saving your little sheriff. It's my profession. Perhaps some of you have heard of me, from my exploits overseas. For I am Valorious the Centaur." 

There were more gasps. All knew of the famed gunslinger, who'd gone town to town in the far off land of Aggar, cleaning out bandits and other criminals. 

"And what would you be doing here?" asked the dwarf, no longer looking so confident.

"I've said it many times," said the centaur. "I'm here to clean out your town. Starting at sunup tomorrow." It was going to be a busy time for him. 

The dwarf slowly clapped his hands several times. "Very good, Mr. Valorious. But consider this. You may be a great gunslinger, but does anyone think you can beat all three of us at once?

"I shot three elves this morning. There were many witnesses."

"They weren't expecting you. We will. Your bullets won't hurt the vampire, will slide off the unicorn, and frankly, I'm too small and quick to be much of a target. And I never miss."

"I've killed far worse than you three, and far more at a time." He turned away from the dwarf and looked over the citizenry of Rush City. "Vote for me, and I'll do what I promised and clean out this town. Vote for him, and I'll still kill thembut then I'll leave you for the elves, and you'll have nobody to protect you. You know who I am and what I can do. That's all I have to say."

And then the voting began. The bartender had cut up pieces of paper, which he distributed to everyone. Each wrote the name of their candidate and put it in a bag the bartender held. When it was done, he poured the slips of paper onto the bar, and began to call out the votes. It didn't take long. 

"Thank you everyone," said the centaur. Who would dare vote against the famed Valorious? The final tally was 207.6 to fourthe blue gnome had woken up just in time to vote. The centaur turned to the former sheriff. "I'd appreciate your sheriff's badge. You won't need it any longer."

The dwarf stepped away. "You'll have to take it off my dead body tomorrow morning."

The centaur nodded. "Sounds like we have a deal." 

"Do you think it matters who won this vote?" yelled the dwarf. "I really don't care. I run this town. And I've just realized that taxes need to go up even more than I thought. That's what you get for your little vote. I'll let your little centaur play sheriff for a night, and then we'll kill him at sunup." He turned to the centaur. "Oil your gun, Mr. Centaur, and have a good final night." As he strode for the exit he veered off and kicked a nymph who sat on the floor. As she yelped, he stormed out. The vampire and the red-eyed unicorn followed, both staring at the centaur as they left. 

"Some of you heard the elf's threat this morning, that they have a way into the bank's vault," said the centaur. "As my first act as sheriff, I'm going over there to watch over it. You all go home and lock your doorsit might get ugly tonight."

"And tomorrow morning!" chimed in the ogre. 

The four dryads had taken part in the voting. The centaur followed them to the bank. 

"You shouldn't have left it unprotected," said the centaur.

"Why not?" asked the bank manager dryad. "It's locked, the vault is impossible to open, and the oak folk will protect it."

"I don't think you realize just what you are up against. These are elf bandits. They designed your vault, and they can break into it."

"Impossible!"

"There's only one way to make sure. For all we know, they are already in it," the centaur said. "They might have come in from under the floor, and drilled through the vault's floor."

"That would take days, and we'd have heard it. The roots of our trees would have sensed it."

"Let's open up the vault and make sure."

The dryad shrugged her shoulders. "Okay, sheriff. And then we'll leave the place in your hands and the trees, and will return at daybreak."

#

The following morning most of the town's folks gathered at sunup to watch the duel. The only one not there was the ogre, who was staring at the contents of a bag he'd found stuck in his arms when he awoke in his empty stall at the stables. Gold. Enough to pay for whatever he wanted. Enough to get into the university. 

Outside the saloon, the dwarf stood in the middle of the street, practicing his draw, which was mind-numbingly fast. The sheriff's badge was still pinned to his shirt. The vampire used two pistols like the centaur, a pair of dragonbone killers, and was equally fast as he shot out windows from nearby storefronts. The unicorn swung its head side to side, shooting the hats off petrified spectators, never missing. 

Sunup came and went.

#

"Can't you go any faster?" asked the centaur. They'd galloped the first few miles out of town before slowing to a canter. He'd galloped even faster at the start to avoid the oak folk's groping branches, when he'd been carrying all two hundred pounds of gold on his back. Fortunately they had been guarding against robbers coming in, not going out

"That's a lot of gold we're carrying," said Blue Bear on his horse. His shooting hand was bandaged from getting shot by the dwarf. Following behind him were Big Grease and Dirt Boy, all alive and well, with Dirt Boy and his fleas in the back. Each carried fifty pounds, except for the centaur, who only had forty after leaving ten for the ogre. "Besides, we let all the horses out of the town's stables before we left, so it'll take them half a day just to round 'em up." 

Big Grease was rubbing at his ruffled shirt over his heart. "I'll never get the pig's blood out of this. It was my best shirt!"

"You knew you were going to squirt blood from those pig blood packets when I shot the blanks at you," said the centaur. "So why'd you wear your best shirt?"

"I wanted to look good."

"And you did," said the centaur. "And with all this gold, you can buy hundreds of nice shirts." He smiled. Even the real Valorious would have been proud of their scheme.

 "And new clothes for Dirt Boy," said Big Blue. 

"Not a chance,' said Dirt Boy, flicking a flea off his ear as he rode. 

"I kept my promise," said the centaur, feeling energized despite the heavy load on his back. "I told them I'd clean out their town. And remember our dealone-third of the gold goes to Valorious so he can clean up the town." 

The elfs groaned. 






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