or, sky outlaws
They did not belong on Earth. They had each been different, all their lives, and recognized it in each other from the first time they met, though they never guessed that they were related, till many years later.
The dark and the light one, each proficient in his own way, at different things—the one, the fastest draw that not only the West, but the whole world had ever seen. His reflexes were, in fact, superhuman. It was easy for him. He was too good.
The other, the dark one, was also fast, though not as miraculously fast. His gifts lay in his tongue. It was silver, able to convince anyone of anything—even the light one, sometimes.
Together they were unstoppable. And that was bad for them. For they were young, and headstrong, impulsive and selfish. It was so easy for them: too easy.
They took. They stole. They had never fit in, had always been different, each forcing himself into the mold of humanity, yet never seeming to quite mesh.
When they found each other, marveled in how powerful they both were, it went to their heads. Inseparable, they became outlaws. Let others change for them—let them pay for never accepting the two all those years when they tried so hard to fit in.
Now, they were less careful of their gifts. They flaunted what they had once been wary about—the superhuman speed, the superhuman gift for convincing others.
For a time, it seemed nothing could go wrong. Though they did not yet know who they were, they felt stronger than anyone else, invincible, and they lived this way, arrogant and heedless—spending water like money because there was always more.
Sometimes, their consciences troubled them. Yet it was so nice to be a team in this, that each kept his doubts and guilts silent, lest he lose his partner.
Then the bounties grew higher. The stakes more dangerous. The people they hurt, harder to ignore. They knew…even if they could not say it.
And then one day they did say it, both relieved that they had been feeling the same way, and appalled that it had taken them so long to verbalize it.
They went to an old friend to talk about amnesty, and found they both wanted it as bad as a drowning man wants air—to be free from that heavy weight of evil that they had slipped into.
They wanted out; and they wanted out together. They would stick together, be good, earn that amnesty; they promised each other.
But their deeds had attracted another set of attention: the attention from their home world. Sheriffs came from the stars, shining men who dazzled, who frightened even Curry and Heyes. They, who had been adjusted to look and feel like humans, could not even look at these shining ones without getting a headache, they were so bright and perfect. It hurt; it was like seeing yourself as a bug instead of the giant you thought you were.
And the sky-sheriffs were displeased. “You have misused your talents and abilities. Now you must pay.”
They tried to explain they were sorry, were changing their ways, were seeking amnesty and atonement, but the sky-sheriffs had little patience for words. These two had caused so much harm, stealing from so many humans, carelessly causing suffering for want of wages when the trains and the banks could not pay.
They had not thought much about these things, yet they knew the sheriffs to be right, and even the silver tongue did nothing to change it.
Punishment was meted: “You will lose a measure of your abilities. You, fast-one, will be slower. Still fast, but you must work for it each time. You must be ever-alert. And you, speaker, will be ever persuasive, yet you will be met and matched everywhere with wits suspicious and stubborn, difficult to talk round. You will both learn what it is like to be vulnerable, to feel hurt. You can be injured. You will feel pain, and weakness, and hunger, the way a human does, instead of barely at all as you have before. You will wander this earth till you have set things right—not for everyone you hurt, but for enough people to make up for everyone you hurt. You will be hunted all the while.”
They truly were different, always would be, and now they knew why.
The good thing that came from this visit, along with all the pain and sorrow, was that they learned they were cousins, born on that distant world, sent here for confusing purposes they had almost certainly not fulfilled.
The two belonged together, as much as they had always felt they had, though they had been born in different states in different years, with different families, looks, and abilities. It was enough; it was almost enough to make the coming ordeals worth it.
Now it seemed they did nothing but ride, hungry and tired, in dust and fear. Each time they stopped to rest in an unfamiliar town, hoping for some brief respite from the travel and hunger and danger, they were recognized. Or somehow got into trouble. Or someone found them out. And always, they had to worm their way out of it.
The fast gun was not always enough, the words not always smooth enough. They got into more scrapes in those years than they ever had in their whole lives till then. The smooth, confident, attractive faces knew lines; knew years; knew suffering. With shooting. With hunger. With being cheated and mistreated, and accused of crimes they had not committed. With having few allies, and fewer yet who would not turn on them or threaten them for their own uses.
They had only each other, and their weakened gifts. These they relied on as never before. This time cemented the bond between them. Neither would ever leave the other behind.
And so they wandered the earth, setting things right for strangers they would never see again (strangers who sometimes mistreated and threatened them), all with little to show for it.
The amnesty slipped further and further into the distance, sometimes nearly appearing only to be yanked away again.
They grew older, stoic in their pain, growing softer instead of harder through it, their sympathy for the weak and the wounded increasing each time they experienced the same themselves. It hurt to realize they had been like the ones who so casually took from others. Now, they gave. And they hated the hurt and the cruel dishonesty, and they protected each other with their lives, their all. For they were all they had, or ever would, till this time of testing and punishment ended.
Hunger raged; sickness burned; wounds festered, yet they always recovered enough to go on, marked and scarred.
They grew old and gray, not before their time as men, but before their time as they truly were. They never seemed to grow older as men do, bending and changing with age, for they stayed young in the face, strong in the limbs, but grew weak and stiff where old injuries plagued; and their hair streaked with gray, and their eyes grew old, as if they had seen too much.
Those who offered amnesty changed office, died, were replaced by others who had barely heard of these outlaws. The offers, halfhearted, persisted when reminders were given: the carrot held out, the stick still threatened (lifetimes in jail).
The cousins remembered the shining men, their relatives, who had visited so long ago to scold and curse them to this forever journey. Sleeping around fires (when they dared, for posses were never far away), they talked of the shining ones, and the skies, and what that other world might be like.
One day their luck ran out. Helping one of the many people who needed their help, Curry was gunned down. Stiffness in his hands slowed the inhuman speed; too many opponents made for impossible odds.
Heyes ran from the hotel, heedless, running to his dying cousin. He too was shot, though he hardly noticed in his effort to get to Curry. They died together, alien blood flowing onto those strange streets they had almost died for so many times: unlauded, unknow.
No-one buried those redeemed outlaws in beautiful graves; no one put flowers on their tombs or remembered their selfless deeds. They were flung in paupers’ graves, their horses, saddles, guns, kit, and three tattered books auctioned off to pay for burials, the little money that was left over quietly pocketed by a corrupt sheriff.
But that night, bright men and very shining visited, and the two ex-outlaws stood up, younger and stronger and more whole than they had ever been in their human bodies, which had been barely big enough to fit all that belonged in them without twisting their souls, their very selves.
Their amnesty had truly arrived.
They grinned at each other, sharing bright smiles they had not worn since the early days, when heedlessly they had taken what they wished. Now they delighted as youths, but with the wisdom of the aged; kindness burned all through their hearts where once had been selfishness.
And the speed was back; and the wonderful words; but these things hardly mattered now, for it was not in the cousins any longer to care if they were better than others, or to prove themselves, or to get their own way. The thing that mattered was life, and each other, and the feeling that they were finally free, they were finally who they were meant to be.
They were taller, brighter, and looked quite different, yet somehow more distinctly than ever like themselves. The smiles that could light up a sky, the handsome faces and tall bodies. The grins they couldn’t keep off their faces as they recognized each other, both so fresh and new, better than having a bath and shave and wearing new suits after a long, hard ride.
They barely glanced back at the earth, as they rode away to the stars with their relatives, who now seemed not so strange and bright, but more like ordinary and distinct individuals they could get to know.
Heyes and Curry linked arms and talked excitedly to one another and to their new family, where they would now truly belong.
But someday perhaps, they would come back to Earth, to see again the people who had frustrated and endeared them equally, those complicated, stubborn, wicked, generous, loveable humans.
And they would again someday stride those streets in light and dark costumes, the fastest draw and the silverest tongue the world had ever, or would ever, see.
They would ride forever, somewhere—always together, light and dark, setting things right and rejoicing in life.