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Taken He Cannot Be
THINGS DIE. THIS IS THE LESSON THAT EVERYONE LEARNS. Some do not learn it until the instant before death, but we all learn it. We pass our final exam by dying. Dr. John Henry Holliday earned his diploma from the school of life at a younger age than most. At twenty, he had been told that consumption would kill him in six months, yet at thirty, he still lingered around the campus. He supposed he was a tenured professor of death, which made him laugh, which made him cough, which made him think about the man they had come to meet and kill.
He rode through the midsummer heat beside his best friend, Wyatt Berry Stapp Earp. They had both grown beards to disguise themselves, and they had dressed like cowboys instead of townsmen. No one who saw them pass at a distance would recognize the dentist-turned-gambler or Tombstone's former deputy sheriff, both wanted in Arizona on charges of murder.
They rode to kill John Ringgold, better known as Johnny Ringo. Wyatt had said that Wells Fargo would pay for Ringo's demise, and Doc had always believed in being paid to do what you would do cheerfully for free.
He did not know or care how much Wells Fargo might pay. He was not sure whether Wells Fargo had made an offer, or Wyatt had merely assumed the coach line would show its gratitude for the death of the last leader of the Clanton gang. Doc knew Wyatt had asked him to come kill Johnny Ringo, and that sufficed. Had anyone asked him why he agreed, he would have said he had no prior engagements. The only person who might have asked would have been Big Nose Kate Elder, and she had left him long ago.
The brown hillsstirred frequently as they rode. The two riders always looked at motion-in a land where bandits waited for their piece of wealth from the booming silver mines, you always looked. They never expected more than sunlight on quartz, or dust in a hot puff of wind, or a lizard darting for food or shelter. Vision was simultaneously more powerful and less trustworthy in this dry land. The eye saw far in the parched atmosphere, but it did not always see truthfully.
The unicorn showed itself on a rise. Doc never thought that it might be a wild horse. Though it was the size of a horse, it did not move like a horse, and he had never seen a horse with such white, shaggy fur, and that long, dark spear of its horn left no doubt, at least not in a person who lived by assessing situations instantly, then acting.
Doc acted by not acting: He did not flinch or blink or gasp or look away in order to look back. If this apparition was his private fantasy, he would not trouble Wyatt with its existence. If it was not, Wyatt would say something.
And Wyatt did. "Doc?"
"What's that critter?"
They rode for another minute or two. The unicorn remained on the ridge. Its head moved slightly to follow them as they passed.
Wyatt said, "What's a unicorn?"
"In Araby they call it cartajan.Means 'lord of the desert."'
"I can see that."
"'The cruelest is the unicorn, a monster that belloweth horribly, bodied like a horse, footed like an elephant, tailed like a swine, and headed like a stag. His horn sticketh out of the midst of his forehead, of a wonderful brightness about four foot long, so sharp, that whatsoever he pusheth at, he striketh it through easily. He is never caught alive; killed he may be, but taken he cannot be."'
"Huh. Shakespeare or the Bible?"
"Some old-time Roman named Solinus, translated by some old-time Englishman who might've supped with Master Will and King Jim."
'61 ain't never seen no unicorn before."
"Nor yet. That's a mirage. A will-o'-the-wisp. The product of a fevered brain."
"I reckon you're contagious, then."
Doc laughed, then coughed, then said, "Well, ain't no one known to've seen one before. Not for sure. An that's written down is travelers' tales, 'bout things they heard but never saw."
"We're the first to spot one?"
"In centuries. Far as I know."
"What do you think a circus'd pay for a critter like that?"
Doc laughed and coughed again. "Have to catch it first. It being a bastard of the mind, I reckon it'd race as fleet as a thought."
"Faster 'n horses?"
"S'posed to be."
"We could comer it in a box canyon, maybe."
'That horn ain't s'posed to be for decoration."
"Animal worth anything dead?"
"Depends on die buyer."
"Could stuff and stand it in a penny arcade. I seen a mermaid once. Looked like a monkey and a fish sewed together, but you got to admit, a sight like that's worth a penny!"
"At least." Doc was rarely reluctant to tell anything to Wyatt, but he hesitated before he finally said, "Horn's s'posed to cure most sicknesses." He coughed. 'Turn the horn into a drinking cup, and it takes the power out of poison. You can smear its blood on a wound, and the wound'll heal right up. Some say its whole body's magical. You're s'posed to eat its liver for something, but I forget what. There's folks who say it can make you young again, or live forever, or raise the dead."
"Any o' that true?"
Doc shrugged. 'Three minutes ago, I would'a said it was all proof a lie lives longer than a liar. Now I'm not so sure.
"Let's find out." Wyatt drew on the reins. As his horse halted, he dropped to the ground and pulled his rifle from its boot on his saddle.
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