On the trail leading back into Tombstone, Christian Bloodlust let out enough slack in the reins for his horse munch a bit of grass; but rather than eat, it merely sniffed at the foliage and shook its mane, almost as if to say no. The rider then patted the animal affectionately on the flank–almost as if to say sorry. The previous nine or ten stops had clearly provided ample time for grazing. Wanting to stay well back of Sheriff McKeegan and the three men that were apparently marked for death, Bloodlust was forced to travel at their pace, which, if one were being complimentary, might be described as ‘idle.’ Honest? ‘Cuckoo-kuh-crazy.’
Ahead, the riders had stopped again. All but McKeegan apparently needed to defecate.
Bloodlust heard one of the men shout in the distance, but he was too far away to make it out. He guessed it was McKeegan though, who presently threw his hat to the ground and then dismounted to collect it. The laughter of the other three was faintly audible.
Removing his pocket watch from his waistcoat once more, Bloodlust examined the time and sighed. The journey back into town should have taken a little under an hour, but so far it had been just over three. In hindsight, had he set out when he saw the men readying their mounts back at the Westforest ranch, he would now be relaxing with a book in the rooms above his failing collection business; but he instead decided to watch them leave and then ride down to the property in an attempt to learn more about who he was pursuing. Though what he found there had only left him with more questions.
Back at the office, Luke Farson, as he had introduced himself, provided few details about his motives, and in return, Bloodlust tried to stay just as aloof, accepting only a retainer for the ‘investigation stage.’ He said this as though he did this sort of thing all the time, because the small fee, at least, would be enough to cover the next month’s rent. Win-win, he thought, if he chose to skip on the job. He had one day to decide, Farson warned him, and a maximum of two to follow through on the work. Otherwise, the small fortune of five hundred dollars that was on the table would be forfeit and open to “the next scary-lookin’ savage,” he said would “probably do the job for less anyhow.” From what Bloodlust had observed so far, this would either be the easiest money he ever made or something that might get him killed in a hurry. He double-checked the single-shot .22 rifle he had in his saddle holster to confirm that it was loaded. Good, he thought. If trouble found him before he found it, he would be ready. He called to mind the advertisement he had tacked up all over town. That’s what had got him into this situation.
“’Collector,’” he muttered to himself. “Monetary debts, not people’s lives!”
He made a mental note to practice his smile in the mirror to try and make it look less sinister, but then decided that simply commissioning a friendlier portrait would be easier. That, and maybe changing the wording to be a little less ambiguous. He yawned. “Oh my, excuse me,” he said, forgetting he was alone. His parents had raised him well. The midday heat had passed now and the radiating sands were also beginning to cool. Tossing his long black hair to the side, he reached into his saddlebag and produced a leather-bound journal. Opening it to a marked page, he readied a pencil as his obsidian-like eyes narrowed and studied the four riders ahead a moment. They still weren’t moving. He began to write.
August 21st, the year of our Lord (Jesus) , 1886:
Early this morning, a strange encounter: into my office walked three men, the leader of whom—‘Farson,’ he said—wished to employ me to kill not one, not two, but THREE people! This man wore an almost triangular moustache and had deeply-set eyes, coloured an icy blue, which somehow gave the impression of being ageless, almost as though they had seen the passage many centuries. This, obviously, is impossible, as he couldn’t have been more than forty or forty-five. He kept one hand under a jacket he wore draped over his shoulders like a cape, where I expected to see him clutching a deadly weapon of some description; but curiously, I observed him obsessively rotating a dark, biscuit-shaped crystal, which rather vexed me. In retrospect, perhaps that wasn’t too out of the ordinary. If I had a finely crafted crystal such as that, I too might be in the habit of fondling it. In any case, I insisted that I was not a murderer-for-hire and that this type of work was not my profession. But he did not wish to take no for an answer! Given that my visitors were all carrying guns on their belts, I did my best to appease them by listening carefully. The stranger’s diction was curious, for although he spoke in a drawl common to the area, I was somehow left with the impression that this was an affectation. He seemed to insert strange, obsolete words into his speech—ones that have not been in the common vernacular for many centuries. Almost as though he was from another age. But again, this is obviously an impossibility—in all seriousness, he was fifty at the most. If I see him again, I must ask what he uses on his skin. But…I digress.
It was with some hesitance that I accepted a small fee ‘for my trouble’ and agreed to head out to a property he described outside of town called the ‘Westforest Ranch,’ where I was told the men were holed up. Farson and his men left and soon after I saddled up my horse and headed out for the place.
When I reached the property, I saw three men outside shooting guns at all manner of targets. I’d say they were gunning for ‘everything that moved,’ but they were equal opportunists it seemed and shot a great deal more than that, whether it moved or not. Although they were all much smaller than myself, ranging from around six to six-foot-two or so, each wore gun belts and bandoliers of ammunition about them. The largest of them practiced with a short, double-barreled shotgun and seemed rather adept at using it. The other two, each slim gentlemen, fired volley after volley of pistol rounds. All wore enviable beards. (Sadly, despite being of a proud European lineage, I have never been able to grow much in the way of facial hair.) What was not revealed by Farson was that the three men all wore deputy stars, and also, that Sheriff McKeegan, who visited, was an acquaintance. If I do end up accepting this job, it’s almost certainly going to mean skipping town, I realize, since everyone already seems to think that I’m not only an Indian, but a murderous one! And if three law men end up in boxes? There’d be a lynch mob outside the Bloodlust Enterprises in no time flat!
I watched all four lawmen set off for Tombstone and then ventured down to the house where, alarmingly, I found a pile of dead savages along with who I presume were the bodies of the Westforest couple. All were riddled with bullet holes. It was unclear who had killed them, but as the deputies were the only living souls I encountered, my guess is them. The bodies were all stacked in the sun on a pile that buzzed noisily with flies. They had evidently been used for target practice too.
Inside the home, signs of a shootout. Lots of blood. On the wall, written in the gore, foot-high letters, dried brown, read, ‘SIR-KYLE WAS HERE! ’; above it, in two-foot high letters, ‘BARON VON WARDSTEIN TOO!’; and above that, in five foot letters, “BUT MOST IMPORTANTLY, ARCHDUKE JAMES, SON OF KING PAULUS, WAS HERE! ALSO, I WIN. HA HA!’
…I did not know quite what to make of this. Farson warned that they were possibly ‘crazy.’ This assessment is beginning to look accurate.
On their trail now, following them back to—
Bloodlust ceased writing and was struck with the sensation that he was being watched. Whirling around in the saddle he observed two near-naked Indians atop palominos, looking at him. Each smiled in a friendly manner. “Ya-ah-tey! Odda-guytok, bonash-tey!” said one, waving jovially. “Saka-wah madeeshtek, oo-wigan?”
Each continued smiling and looked to Bloodlust expectantly, clearly waiting for a response.
“Look,” he replied, clearing his throat. “Primitives of the desert: I do not speak your silly, gutteral language, so, please, be on your way. I am busy. BIZ-ZEE, understand? Go on, off you go. Shoo now!”
The natives looked at one another, confused, and then to Bloodlust. The other spoke now, smiling just a little less than before. “Been-suh-wan, mee-osh sack-a-nan?” He gestured to Bloodlust’s fine woolen suit and nodded to his companion.
“Yes,” replied Bloodlust. “Tailor-made in Philadelphia. In finery of this quality, a man can go just about anywhere in society and fit in.” He sneered at the riders. “Well…most men.”
“Guh!” shouted the second Indian, pointing at the suit again, then to his own chest. He repeated this action several times. “Guh-waht!” he nodded, producing a dead armadillo caked in dried blood, which he held by the tail. “Guh-waht!” he repeated, pointing at the carcass and then to Bloodlust’s attire. He smiled again and nodded his head up and down.
Bloodlust rolled his eyes and sneered.
“Oot! Oot!” said the other rider, reaching with one hand into a satchel of his own. “Guh-INNNNN-stay,” he said, pointing his friend’s armadillo, and then to an enormous buffalo tongue he extended in offering. “Guh-innnnn-stay!” He pointed back and forth between these vile objects and then to the suit and back to their bare chests.
Bloodlust felt the desire to throw up. “You have got to be kidding,” he said, shaking his head ‘no’ from side to side and pointing to the hills. He hoped these strange men would leave him be soon so he could get back to civilization. They seemed to get the message, and as they turned, they barked what sounded like words of contempt back at him.
“Yeah-yeah, nice to meet you too,” he scoffed, turning his mind back to the job at hand. But the four men were now nowhere to be seen. McKeegan and…James, Wardstein, and Kyle, was it? So it would seem. But ‘Archduke’? ‘Sir’? ‘Baron’? Bloodlust studied his notes carefully. Who were these weirdos? He slapped the reins and carried on.
* * *
As they entered Tombstone once more, Sheriff McKeegan looked over his shoulder and spied the silhouette of the rider far in the distance.
“Why do you keep doing that?” Wardstein barked.
“Yeah, what gives?” said James, looking backwards the way they came for himself. He struck a match off Kyle’s rough, scabby head and lit a cigarette. “There’s nothin’ back there, McKeegan.”
Kyle itched at his scalp and glanced for himself. He did not miss his spectacles. He saw what McKeegan had noticed, only with his younger eyes, in even greater detail, observing the long, flowing hair on the rider behind them.
“It’s a lady!” Kyle exclaimed, smiling. “An enormous lady!”
“That ain’t no lady,” McKeegan scowled. “It’s an Injun that took up shop in town a while back. Scares the children something awful with those bills he posts all over town.” McKeegan pointed at one that was nailed to a post. “Goes by the name ‘Christian Bloodlust’ if you can believe it. Funny thing is, the feller’s got it in his head that he ain’t an Injun on account of him going to school. Nearest I can figure, anyway.”
The boys studied the image.
“He’s a baaaaaad man!” said James, pointing his pistol at the sign and dry-firing it. Clink-Clink-Clink-Clink!-Clink!
“How do you know?” Kyle asked. “You’ve never even met him.”
“Well just look at him! He’s clearly evil.”
“Yah Kyle, just look at his FACE!” Wardstein added, pointing his Peacemaker at the sign too, for good measure. “I’d like to explode that head! Just like those cans, you know?”
Kyle studied the face and frowned. He had to admit, it did look pretty menacing. Behind it though, a friendlier, more familiar face caught his eye: the redheaded woman he had met the other day at the dual. She was dressed smartly in a scarlet dress of fine silk that verily glowed in the amber sunlight, and was presently twirling a parasol over one shoulder.
“Well if it isn’t our savior!” she smiled up at him from the boardwalk, holding her young son’s hand. “And here I was thinking you up and left our little town!”
“Technically, that’s exactly accurate,” said Kyle. “Though as you can see, here I am riding into it again.”
There was a pause. Kyle felt the urge to light a cigarette to fill this pause, but he was already smoking one and thought it would look weird if he lit another. He decided that he would fill the pause with words, lest it go on too long and become awkward. “Your dress is pleasing to the eye and accentuates the curves of your body. The fabric looks soft, but…not as soft as your skin looks. Though your skin, if we’re being honest, doesn’t look quite as soft as your son’s. Not that I want to touch your son’s skin. Just…an observation. I mean—”
“—oh my God,” said Wardstein under his breath, wincing. James grinned widely and turned to McKeegan with a silent ‘wow.’
The woman only hesitated an instant, blinked, and turned to her boy. “William, mind your manners now and say hello to mister—why, I do declare! Where are my manners? We have yet to be formally introduced, have we! I’m mizzzzz Rebecca Finch and, well, you’ve already met my son William, haven’t you, mister…?”
“And your friends?”
“Uhm. This is Wardstein.”
“Hey,” said the big man.
“And this is James.”
“Ma’am,” said the Archduke, tipping his hat. He pointed to the deputy star on his belt. “Happen to notice these? Means we’re a big deal now.” He pointed his revolver at young William’s face. “So don’t you get any ideas, hear me?” The boy quickly disappeared behind his mother’s skirts.
“Yes, that badge looks very nice on you, young man!” said Rebecca in a patient tone. “Where you boys staying?”
“Apparently we’re being put up in the Tombstone Hotel,” said Wardstein, looking to McKeegan. The Sheriff gave a slow nod.
“That ramshackle ol’ place?” exclaimed Rebecca, looking up at the facade of the hotel. It looked to the men that it had seen better days. “I will not hear of it! No, you boys are staying in my establishment, The Tombstone Cathouse! I won’t take no for an answer, and that’s all there is to it.”
Wardstein and James high-fived one another from their horses while Kyle teetered his head back and forth as though weighing the idea. He nodded.
“Well,” he thought. “I have always considered myself a ‘cat person.'”
Luke Farson sat silently by the fire, listening to the occasional pop and crack that rose from it. The men with him all slept with varying degrees of disarray haphazardly around the campsite. He considered the logs being consumed by the flames. Not unlike himself, he thought bitterly. He too had spent his share of time in the fire. But instead of being reduced to ash as these logs soon would be, he emerged from it re-forged and with a purpose. A great wrong had been done to him, and he would right it no matter the cost. No matter what avenues of power he needed to walk down, no matter what he must provide to strike a deal he would bring down the one who wronged him.
Luke Farson, as he called himself here, laughed a bitter laugh. Friends were a waste of time, and a liability. He had never cared for them, himself. Still, he appreciated the irony that the friends of his greatest enemy would be the ones to finally allow him to get his revenge. “Not long now, McStogey,” he whispered to himself. “Not long at all.”
McKeegan swooned in the heat. Somehow the three men he was with had turned a simple journey to town into a chore. Their horses were somehow lathered, and now Wardstein was complaining he was hungry. Again.
“We have no more food,” McKeegan told him snappily. “I didn’t pack for a day trip.”
“You would think a Sheriff would be better prepared,” Kyle said, and shrugged.
McKeegan glared at him.
“So you mean to tell me we have to go the rest of the way with no food?” Wardstein asked, testily.
“We can see the town from here!” he shouted at him.
“James -start a fire. Kyle – kill your horse.”
James alertly dismounted his horse and began rummaging for a flint stone. Kyle hung his head for a moment before leaning down to tenderly say a few words to his mount, and then his boots hit the ground as well. He drew his pistol reluctantly.
“STOP IT!” McKeegan screamed at them. He took off his hat and threw it in the dirt. “No fire! And no horse killing! Both of you, mount the hell up! We will be in town in literally 10 minutes! No exaggeration!”
Kyle looked relieved as he re-holstered his weapon, then got back on his horse. James followed suit after throwing the flint he had found into the surrounding scrub. McKeegan just shook his head.
* * *
Christian Bloodlust spurred his horse to his left, crossing through some light brush before intersecting a path that would take a circuitous route to the north and then eventually into town. He had seen enough of his quarry and wanted to get back home to eat. He also needed to decide what he wanted to do next. He tried to calm his mind as he rode, but it was proving difficult: the chance meeting with the savages earlier had left him on edge. It wasn’t that he feared them, and he certainly felt no pity – indigenous people had had their time on this land and they had wasted it. America would be a great place of education and art and tolerance. Eventually, the walls of inequality would be brought down and the entire population would transcend what their European forefathers had tried to force upon them. Christian allowed himself a brief smile, imagining the respectful people and brilliant minds and benevolent leaders this great country had in its future. The people would probably not even need a police force, he thought, and if there was one he felt assured the would be equitable and fair to all men. No, it hadn’t been their being hopelessly pathetic that had bothered him; it had been the sense of belonging he had felt. As if they were kindreds. When they had first made their strange offerings his initial reaction had been, of course, disgust. But there was a small part of him, somewhere he could no longer locate, that had believed a succulent tongue, armadillo carcass and leather vest had been worth his suit. Curious. And curiouser still, when they had shown their displeasure he had felt an overwhelming urge to slay them and mutilate their bodies. Nothing too gross, mind you. Maybe he’d just take some of their hair. And the skin, too, so the hair kept a bit better. Plus he imagined you could make a good sun umbrella out of them that way. He stopped himself, again. Where were these thoughts coming from? He had never experienced anything like that before, to his knowledge. Where was this bloodlust coming from? He pulled his horse up and sat completely still for a moment before exploding into laughter. His deep, booming voice carried across the plain.
“HA HA HA HA HA! HA HA HA HA HA! HA HA HA HA HA!”
Meanwhile, a thousand miles away a train lumbered down through small town Missouri, towards St. Louis. There it would stop for a time. The drivers would change, and some of the passengers would be replaced by new faces. Some cargo would be offloaded to go on different trains, or barges or storefronts. Other cargo came on board to replace it, too. Whether it was timber, metal, or something more nefarious. The conductor waiting to take the train for its final 1,400 mile run over to Arizona sat alone in a bar. He had drank a copious amount of alcohol over the last few days since Chuck, his Chief Engineer, had shown him the tally list, but none of it could break his sobering train of thought. They were meant to be taking Native bones through Native territory to go to some thrice-damned museum. And the Indians didn’t figure to be too happy about it. He just prayed the passengers never got wind of it.
“Another whisky,” he said.
The bartender looked at him, skeptically.
“You deaf?” the conductor asked him, placing a bill on the table.
For the first time, Sir Kyle was somewhat disappointed by the lady in red, Rebecca. She’d told them they’d be staying at a cathouse, so he assumed there’d be a lovely assortment of animals to play with – maybe even some cat bags for his use as well! It was difficult to not spur his horse into a gallop to Rebecca’s heavenly residence. But no, as they arrived, he saw it was only a palatial mansion, built recently in the finest contemporary style, in stark contrast to the faded boards of the Tombstone Hotel. He saw a few beautiful girls on the wide porch, giggling happily, who waved at his approach. He detected the whiff of cooking meats, vegetables, and underlying all that, freshly roasted coffee. He sighed in disappointment. Not a cat in sight.
Kyle was about to ask if perhaps the cats were kept out back when the double doors of the mansion banged open, and a dusty looking man tumbled out. He was followed by a burly looking man in a too-tight blouse, its seams taut with rippling layers of fat. This man booted the other in the backside, sending him rolling down the stairs.
Rebecca seemed displeased, if not very surprised. “Hondo! What’s all this about?”
The big man fussily brushed his shirt. “Miss Rebecca! This fool done came and did it again! He should be banned for good!”
A woman pushed through the doorway, and pointed an accusing finger at the man lying at the foot of the stairs. Her face and hair was smeared with what could only be excrement. “Squatter is all he is!” she screamed. She dug a clot of waste from her hair, and savagely whipped it at the prostrate man, who groaned feebly as the hot turds splattered across his face. “We don’t need your kind here!”
Rebecca was inclined to agree. “Saul, you best go on home now,” she said gently.
“It’s Saul!” James exclaimed. “He gave us our clothes and a ride to Tombstone,” he added unnecessarily for those listening, just in case they had perhaps forgotten this man.
Saul shrivelled in embarrassment, tears welling in his rheumy eyes. “I can’t help myself,” he moaned pathetically. “I was under control for a while, but then the Cowboys came back for me. Gave me a scare, that bastard Farson. Said he’d do things to me. My land, I would tell him anything he wanted, why threaten me?” he wailed. A crumb of feces rolled from his cheek into his open mouth and he choked, and wailed again.
Wardstein swung down from his horse. “This Farson, he’s with the others, who killed Brent Westforest? And, uh, also his wife?” Sir Kyle’s mouth automatically popped open to protest this falsehood, but James punched him in the kidney to keep him quiet.
Saul calmed. “That’s him. He’s looking for you boys. Lord knows why. Heard I brought you into town. I thought he’d kill me right then and there just for the pure hell of it when I told him you all carried those fancy jewels. Once he heard that, he said he’d ruin me unless I told him everything.”
Wardstein didn’t like that at all. Which was unsurprising, since he didn’t like much of anything. “Where is this man now?”
“Yeah!” James added.
Saul staggered to his feet. “I don’t know boys, surely I would tell you too. He’s on the plains. All I know is he’s planned something wicked, and for some reason he’s after you, real bad.”
“Goodnight Saul,” Rebecca told him gently.
He looked her over pensively. “What about one more, ‘Becca? For old time’s sake?” Rebecca chuckled in embarrassment.
Sir Kyle suddenly snapped to attention. “WHAT did you say?!” he boomed.
Saul failed to note the danger in Sir Kyle’s sudden change in demeanor. “Why, Rebecca and I used to be together. It was she who got me into squatting in the first place! Isn’t that right, ‘Becca?” he leered closer to her, reaching for her with a filthy paw. His eyes grew crazed at the sight of his obsession – sad old man, but a lunatic above all else, it seemed. “So what do you think, ‘Becca…one more time for good old Saul?” He his hand crept ominously to the old throat-cutter he had strapped to his belt.
The cold rage Kyle had so recently discovered in himself whipped through him like winter wind. “Time’s up, Saul,” he grated. His hands blinked to his gunbelts and the nickeled pistols flashed for an instant before their gleam was overtaken by the dual tongues of fire he unleashed from each hand, each shot so unbelievably fast it was nearly undistinguishable from the last, the light from each illuminating the stone face of the knight.
Wardstein and James exchanged looks, shrugged, and pulled leather, fanning their pistols empty into the shuddering carcass of Saul, his body a torn waste of sagging and bleeding tissue. He fell to his knees, a bubbling scream rising from his lips. His pistol empty, Wardstein stepped forward, reaching for his shotgun over his shoulder like a barbarian sword, whipping the muzzle into Saul’s grizzled maw, his remaining teeth snapping as the muzzle stopped at the back of his throat. He tugged both triggers, and Saul’s wrinkled head exploded with a sensational burst, chunks of skull and torn cerebellum pattering to the earth. A red mist hung briefly and fell. Wardstein ejected his empties, reloaded, and jammed the shotgun into Saul’s groin and fired again, a hellacious ravine appearing where Saul’s sorry manhood had been. He reached for more shells.
“Enough!” McKeegan cried. “He’s dead, for god’s sake! You can’t just kill anyone you like!”
Wardstein was untroubled. In fact, he felt awesome, as he usually did after some killing. “Hey, you saw it. Didn’t you? He was resisting arrest! Am I right fellas?” James nodded enthusiastically, and Kyle simply stared, the battle rage slowly fading from his senses.
“He wasn’t under arrest!”
“We’re deputies, aren’t we?”
“This guy was giving us trouble, right?”
“He was going home! He – “
Sir Kyle snapped back into focus. “And he was threatening the lady here. He was a danger to all those around him. And if not now, then later on,” he said, looking up the stairs at the soiled woman. He turned to Rebecca. “A knight always defends the honour of a lady,” he declared, the timbre of his voice still booming across this strangest of battlefields. Rebecca looked at him adoringly. “I don’t do squatting anymore,” she whispered up to him. Upon hearing that, Sir Kyle was suddenly himself again, breaking into his usual goofy grin. “That’s so swell! Listen, do you have any cats here then, or what?”
“Maybe something like that,” James remarked. He was watching Wardstein introduce himself to the giggling girls on the porch, giving the soiled one a wide berth. Moments later, he pushed through the entrance of the house, each of the girls following him inside.
Farson lay in his bedroll, a candle sitting beside him on the sand. The rest of his men snored around him, farting occasionally.
Earlier in the day, he’d attended the Tombstone Telegraph station, and had “requested” a passenger manifest from the train currently en route to Tombstone. He’d seen a recent newspaper story suggesting who might be aboard, which had got him started on the idea for this entire plan to begin with…but he had to be sure. Scanning the rough paper, at last he saw the name he was looking for. “Sir Charles Parsons.” He remembered the journal story well. This man Parsons. Limey. Young guy with spectacles, standing proud in a suit in Boston someplace beside the marvellous invention he was bringing through Tombstone.
He smiled wickedly. One point twenty-one gigawatts, he mused, remembering the breathless details of the newspaper story. That sounded like a lot. He wondered though, what the hell was a gigawatt. He reached down into his pocket, turning the dark crystal over and over again in his fingers. It was cold, like his heart.
He reckoned it was probably enough.
He blew out his candle.
Following Wardstein’s lead, Rebecca took James and Kyle by their hands and led them up the steps to the porch. “Right this way, gentlemen,” she said, switching seamlessly into the role of hostess. She and Saul had shared a long and storied history, it was true; but at the end of the day, she was a businesswoman above all else. “Hondo? Be a dear and see to the mess out front, would you?”
“Yes ma’am!” he replied, heading obediently down to the gory walkway. He paused and surveyed the scene a moment, stroking his beard. He wondered how he would go about cleaning up such overkill. Dustpan and broom, followed by the mop, perhaps. Though the pulpy fragments of scalp, bone and flesh that had rained down between the geraniums and blades of grass would be trickier, he thought, and would begin to stink pretty soon if he didn’t collect it all. And Miss Rebecca would be cross if that happened. Hondo had seen plenty of shootings in Tombstone, but the only comparable thing to this carnage was when he fought the Federals at Shiloh as a younger man and witnessed what grapeshot could do at point-blank range. Back then, though, it was the Tennessee buzzards that saw to the leftovers. He felt a cushiony sensation under one of his size fourteens and lifted it to see one of Saul’s eyes staring back at him. “Aww, Christ on a cracker!” he muttered.
“The Tombstone Cathouse welcomes you, gentlemen!” Rebecca continued on above, leading the two deputies into the foyer. The smell of sweet tobacco smoke welcomed them next, and both James and Kyle found themselves grinning as they took in the sights and sounds of the place.
James nodded in silent approval at the numerous chandeliers that glowed from the high ceilings. Below, the elaborate, Bacchus-themed carvings amidst the scrollwork on the staircase’s bannister reminded him of decadent banquets back home. He also thought it would be fun to slide down that railing a little later. Finally a place in this dumpy down where I can feel at home!
From an adjacent parlour there came soothing piano music, and as Kyle craned his neck to have a look, he saw a dark-skinned fellow seated at a baby grand, and beside it, a large, rectangular table with a low, netted partition at its centre. A well-dressed, middle-aged man stood on each opposing end, and both was paired with completely nude young woman! All four held a small paddle and were engaged in a noisy game of batting a ball back and forth. As Kyle watched, transfixed, the man at the far end of the room jumped as the ball bounced his way, and with a surge of energy he violently swatted it downwards at his opponents. The girls both shrieked and giggled as the ball ricocheted off the table and then clattered across the hallway to Kyle’s feet.
“YES!” shouted the aggressor, who then slapped the backside of the girl beside him with his paddle in triumph, her alabaster flesh rippling into small waves. To Kyle’s surprise, she only giggled at this, so he made a mental note to employ this approach in the future. “That’s game, Ken! Next round’s on you! Hey, uh, you feel like playing the next one, deputy?” he asked, catching Kyle’s eye. “This guy’s no competition! ‘Table Tennis,’ they call it–the newest thing outta England! How ‘bout it?”
Realizing that everyone in the parlour was now looking his way, Kyle suddenly felt a bit uneasy. A part of him wanted to join in and play, but a larger part didn’t want to commit. Once Rebecca found him a cat to play with, he wanted to be able to give him or her his full attention.
“Well,” he replied, “I’m uh, a bit sore from the saddle, folks. So how about you count me in for the game after that?”
Kyle had no intention of playing though and picking up the ball with a smile, he threw it back to the players, accidentally bouncing it off the piano player’s head. The man flinched in surprise and flubbed a chord badly.
“‘Eyyy! Watch yo’self, crakkuh!” he shouted over his shoulder, and the girls tittered in amusement once more.
“Now-now, everybody play nice, y’hear?” said Rebecca with a smile. She turned to James and Kyle. “‘Paradise a-la Carte,’ we’re fond of saying—whatever you desire, we’ll do our best to provide it!”
“Do you have something in a Calico?” Kyle asked, producing a small canvas bag. “I mean, I’m not picky or anything, but they’ve always been a preference of mine. Something about their asymmetrical patterns appeals to me, I think.”
James rolled his eyes. “Kyle, would you quit taking things so literally all the time? This is a den of iniquity! A brothel!”
“Surely is,” came a voice from the porch.
The two deputies turned and saw McKeegan on the porch, looking their way.
“Oh—,” said James. “Sheriff, I apologize, I forgot you were there. You may go now.”
“Yes, I’ll uh—I’ll be on my way in a moment,” he replied. “But first I just wanted to remind you fellas to keep your guard up. From what we saw earlier, Christian Bloodlust is on your trail for some reason, along with that Farson character Saul was talking about before you blew him to bits. What was that nonsense about ‘jewels’ he was talking about, by the way?”
“What, these?” James asked, producing his time crystal from a vest pocket and throwing it to the Sheriff. “You can have it if you want. It’s no good to me anymore.”
Kyle ahemed. “James, maybe you’d better hang onto that?”
“Maybe I’d better hang onto that,” James amended, snatching it back and giving McKeegan a sour look.
“Boys, listen, I’m just worried for you, that’s all, and—“
“Would you beat it already?!” James yelled. “We’re fine and want to party. Back to your hovel, wherever it is.”
Wardstein suddenly rejoined them, and was fiddling with his belt.
“That was quick,” Kyle said to him.
“No, Efficient!” Wardstein replied, turning to wave at a the woman at the top of the stairs. “Isn’t that right, Charlotte? Ha! Charlotte the Harlot!”
“Take a bath ‘fore you come back for seconds,” she replied, casually lighting a cigarette.
“Oh, hey McKeegan,” said Wardstein, ignoring the pudgy hooker’s snide remark and lighting a cigarette of his own. “Shouldn’t you like…not be here anymore?”
“Fine, I’m a-goin’! Straight to the undertaker’s to tell him to get your coffins ready, that is!” He spat in annoyance and hopped down to his horse from the porch. “Daggum idiots! You try and do somethin’ nice for somebody too—” he muttered, spurring away into the night.
The men barely noticed though, as they were all leering at a slim, yet perfectly curvy redheaded girl of about twenty or twenty-one walking seductively their way. She held a glass of whisky and wore nothing but a sheer silk petticoat, through which every contour of her milky skin was visible. Her eyes had a mysterious, hypnotic effect on the deputies, as Rebecca thought they might.
“—This is Hannah,” Rebecca narrated. “Our best girl.”
Wardstein watched enviously as she cozied up to James and handed him the glass of whisky.
“You’re cute!” she said.
“Why do I always get ‘cute’?” James wondered aloud, then gulping his whisky down and grabbing her round the waist. “Big deal though, right? You’re the ‘best girl,’ and that’s what matters!”
“That’s rrrright!” Hannah purred, dragging a finger seductively across James’s lips, down his bearded chin and to his shirt. “Ooooh, and I love your clothes! They’re so bloody and grrrrrrr-ross!”
James turned Wardstein and Kyle and crunched his face into a tight smirk at that remark, but shrugged his shoulders in the standard ‘I know, but who cares?’ fashion as he made for the upstairs rooms. “Gentlemen, enjoy…’table tennis,’ I guess! Ha!”
“Hmmph,” Wardstein huffed. “Probably should’ve surveyed all this buffet had to offer first. Hey, that reminds me—what have you got to eat in this place, lady?”
“Follow me, boys,” said Rebecca. “Kitchen’s this way!”
The men smiled and eagerly followed, and Kyle decided he would like to punctuate the moment by hearing Rebecca’s giggle sounded like, and slapped her firmly across the buttocks as the men in the other room had done.
“KYLE! Mind your manners! she scolded, giving him a light slap on the cheek and causing him to redden in confusion.
As Wardstein and Kyle waited at the kitchen table for Rebecca to bring them their meal, a pair of wild eyes watched them from the shadows outside. Observing them was a crouched Christian Bloodlust. He’d considered Farson’s proposition carefully and had empirically arrived at what he thought was the best decision. He needed money, and Farson said he could provide plenty. The men he was following were reckless and possibly stupid, and he knew he had natural attributes that could end them—all of them— and quickly. Efficiently. Yes, he thought. These three die tonight.
“Hey buddy!” came a voice.
Bloodlust looked over and saw Hondo leaving his cleanup work and stomping his way.
“Buddy, we don’t allow Injuns here! Specially ones that like peepin’! So why don’t you get the hell—“
But Hondo was unable to finish his threat and collapsed to his knees before toppling.
Bloodlust stared into Hondo’s wide eyes as he held the head he had twisted off his broad shoulders in his enormous hands. He raised it above is own and showered his hair and face with blood that dripped hot from the exposed knot of spinal column. It felt good to him. It felt right.
He continued his watch over the men in the kitchen and formulated his plan.
A man could get used to this, Kyle thought as he lay back on a plush bed and took a long drag off a freshly lit cigarette. There was a glass of chilled wine beside his guns on the table at the side of the room, though it sat untouched. He had asked for one to try and impress Wardstein, but the man had simply huffed and roughly grabbed a bottle out of the nearest serving woman’s hands.
“That’s cleaning solution,” they had told him as he raised the bottle and began downing it. He had had only enough time to level a weak backhanded swing at Kyle before collapsing into a pile on the floor, grasping at his stomach. Kyle had enquired if he would be alright, but hadn’t really gotten a good answer so he just left. Wardstein was tough, and Kyle thought it probably wasn’t the first time he had accidentally drank something from a poorly marked bottle.
So now Kyle just sat smoking his cigarette waiting for Rebecca’s return. He hoped she had a cat.
Kyle heard the door open behind him and his thoughts came out in a rush.
“I’m sorry Rebecca, but I just can’t see anything happening between us. I mean that whole business with Saul just left a bad taste in my mouth. No pun intended. Or no, let’s say I meant it, it was pretty good. Anyway, I don’t think I would enjoy your charms, so if you could just send a girl with a little bit of self-respect, but not too much, I would be much obliged.”
There was no immediate response and Kyle felt a twinge of guilt for having been so blunt. He turned to say more, but was brought up short when the area he expected to contain Rebecca’s red-framed face instead had a large barrel shaped chest filling it up. It was still red-framed, though with blood instead of hair.
“I guess I wasn’t clear about it, but I don’t swing that way,” he told the huge man.
The man just stared at him in response.
“You aren’t here for that, are you?”
The man shook his head and Kyle sighed.
“You are that Bloodlust guy, probably.”
“I am,” he said finally. His voice was deep and solid. This was not a man given to flights of fancy. Kyle imagined him ordering steak for dinner but being told that they only had chicken. It didn’t turn out well.
“I don’t s’pose you’d let me grab my guns,” he said pointing. “I won’t shoot you.”
“Why would you want them, then?”
Kyle cursed himself inwardly, his bluff having been called.
“How about calling for my friends?”
The large man shook his head again.
“Did you kill the redhead?”
Kyle cursed inwardly again.
“I’m coming with you, aren’t I?
“Can I get my pants?”
This time Kyle cursed out loud.
Wardstein straightened slowly, hiding a grimace. The contents of his stomach were spilled out in front of him. It was mostly impossible to discern what was what, other than the soapy bits. His stomach was on fire, but it beat the active volcano it had just been.
“Food?” asked a timid girl.
“Water,” Wardstein replied roughly. “Then whiskey. Then water again. Then more whiskey. Then food. Then whiskey. Then a woman. Then whiskey. Then bed.” He was a man of action.
The girl scurried away and Wardstein closed his eyes for a long moment. He needed something to maim, he was starting to think too much. A voice interrupted his reverie.
“Uhhh….Wardstein,” said a hesitant Sir Kyle. Wardstein thought about maiming a little more before opening his eyes and turning to his companion.
“The hell do…you?..want?” Wardstein said, his sentence broken by the fact he needed to crane his neck to see the unexpected figure of Christian Bloodlust behind his friend. He was holding a fork to Kyle’s temple, who himself was wearing no pants. Instinct kicked in, and Wardstein raised his hands in supplication, a large smile coming to his face.
“Hey, buddy. Let’s talk about this, yeah?” Wardstein chuckled good-naturedly, then launched himself at the man mid-laugh. He would show this overgrown Native what was what.
His face encountered a stone wall. It was funny, he thought to himself, but he didn’t remember there being a wall between him and the man he was about to hurt very badly. He got to his knees, slowly, and shook his head.
“Stay down,” the Native told him.
“Lucky punch,” Wardstein said, and got to his feet.
“I don’t think it was lucky,” Kyle said, then shrugged when Wardstein shot him a look.
Wardstein charged again, and once again found himself on the ground.
“Stay down,” the Native told him again.
“Ughhh,” he said, fighting to hold on to consciousness. “I know what the problem is,” he continued, spitting blood.
“Is it that he is much stronger and faster than you?” Kyle asked.
“Ha! Fat chance.” Wardstein said, struggling upright once more. “It’s my belt,” he said with conviction, and with a dramatic motion ripped it off his waist. “Now let’s tango, big man.” With that and a yell Wardstein once again launched at the man, and this time everything just went black.
James lounged back on his bed, contemplating asking for a pedicure. Sometimes people thought you were weird if you wanted one, but they were savages. James knew he would, in time, kill or otherwise dominate every one of them, so he wasn’t overly bothered. He decided he would just wait for Hannah’s return and the whiskey she had promised. Perhaps she knew something of foot care, she had other talents that were of a similar vein. Still, James found himself longing for the scullery maids of his youth. They said that an animal killed while terrified doesn’t taste the same. James could not agree more.
The heavy noises from down the hall caught his attention. Hannah was a small girl, and making that much noise would have been impossible. Unless she is bringing me a keg, James thought and giggled. That was obviously it. He had mentioned his love of craft beers in passing earlier, and the enterprising young woman had gone and found some. James shook his head. Even though it was his due, he still couldn’t quite credit it when things did things like that for him. A whole keg! Wardsteins gonna be super jealous!
A loud bang came from the door, then a prone body was thrown inside. James recognized Wardstein from the hair. Kyle entered next, with a huge man behind him holding a fork menacingly to Kyle’s head.
“What’s this about?” he asked.
“Come with me,” said the big man.
“Or else what?”
“Or else I stick this fork in your friends’ brain.”
James shrugged. “I could care less, buddy.”
The large man looked confused for a second, but recovered smoothly enough. “You are coming with me either way. This is the only exit the room has.”
“I’ll just stay here.”
“I-I…will not let you,” he said, obviously confounded. James smiled.
“You are that guy, yeah, ‘Flowerlover’?”
“Close enough. Why you after us, anyway?”
“Money! We will give you more money. How easy is that?”
“I am a man of my word.”
“You are a stupid man, then.”
“I keep my promises.”
“And you think whoever is paying you will? You are as daft as you are obviously Native.”
“I had considered that. That is why I am taking you to him. Alive.”
“Oh my God!” James exclaimed, and put his hands on his head. “You are really new to this, aren’t you? You’re gonna get double-crossed doing that. Like, guaranteed.”
“They will respect the deal.”
“Yeah, right. What you need to do, yeah, is lock us up in some building only you know where it is. Then you take like a finger or a hand from one of us, Sir Kyle obviously, to take to a meeting. You give them the finger or hand or arm or whatever to show you have us. You get your money, you give them directions to us. Easy-peasy.”
“You sound as if you have done this kind of thing before.”
James simply smiled.
“That is too much work though, now,” Bloodlust continued. “No time. Plan continues.”
“How you gonna even find these cowboys?”
“They will find me. At the iron horse.”
“Ah,” James said. “Can I grab my pants? He looks ridiculous.” He pointed at Kyle.
“Sure, but hurry up.”
The sun had set hours earlier, but many of Farson’s men remained awake around the campfire. Some drank, other watched the hypnotic sworls of colour boiling through the burning branches of Joshua tree. Thus they heard an approaching wagon, and they stood, hands alternately on battered tin cups of cheap whiskey or pistol butts. Some both. The full moon hung luminous over the land, and varied mongrel bands of coyotes could be seen skipping through its silvered bands of moonlight on the plains, with puffs of desert sand thrown in their wakes like freshly fallen snow.
Farson recognized the tired farm horse of Saul before Christian Bloodlust materialized from the gloom. Of Saul, there was no sign. Farson spared it no further though, as Bloodlust himself immediately commanded the remainder of his attention. His typically billowy hair was matted with blood, as were the paws that gripped the creaking reins. Tugging the horse to a trudging halt, he leaped to the earth, his coattails a raven’s wing in the muted light. Behind Farson, his men shifted uneasily as the enormous native approached.
Farson looked over his strange appearance. “You need to wear a smock the next time you’re finger-painting the cave, boy.” A lackey barked laughter in the gloom.
Bloodlust ignored this. He understood that Farson made jokes because he was afraid of him. “I am here to honour our agreement.” He smiled and Farson felt a chill.
“In the wagon.”
“I wanted them alive. Crispy Christ on toast, Bloodlust!”
“They are alive. Ah, this blood is someone else’s.”
“Oh.” Farson thought about that. He shrugged and gestured to his men, who attended to the wagon. Momentarily, he was presented with his long-sought quarry. They scowled at him, as though they could kill him with a mere look. He chuckled. They weren’t so tough when trussed up like chickens.
“Did they have them?”
“They did.” Bloodlust reached into his possibles bag, and withdrew the contents. Three darkened crystals, lying inverted like tiny pyramids in his palm. Farson felt a thrill of joy at the sight.
Bloodlust reached into his pockets. “Here, also, is their absurdly fancy and unnecessarily powerful weaponry. Perhaps your men could use it.” He tossed the assortment of firearms at Farson’s feet. Sir Kyle could just see the proud gleam of his nickled pistol butts beneath a layer of dust. He bit his quavering lip. Stay strong, he thought. Think of a cat.
Farson turned, holding the crystals aloft to his prisoners like a championship cup. “You arrogant morons,” he seethed. “You thought you could just come here and do as you like! Just like always! Isn’t that right – Archduke James?” He tossed the crystals to Baby-Faced Mitch, who cackled dwarvishly.
“Who wants to know?” James sneered. He routinely encountered people who knew him, but who he hadn’t bothered to remember.
Farson gargled a clot of phlegm in rage. “Truly incredible, your arrogance. I don’t know if I should kill you first, or save you for last.”
“This is really boring! We’re all waiting for you to introduce yourself,” Wardstein bellowed.
“I am Roy Beefheart. I am great-grandson to Gordon the Slim. It was your ancestor, ‘Archduke’, who was the ruination of my family’s name. Who stole the throne from my great-grandfather. Descended from whom I am now the rightful heir as king. I have been waiting for this moment now for many years.”
“Like, I don’t even know you,” James dismissed him.
Farson barked harshly. “You wouldn’t anyway, even if you deigned speak with me. I was a mere tub of a squire in the castle. I knew everything about you, but I could do nothing about it. Until the day – “, Farson chuckled bitterly – “until the ‘glorious’ day I was promoted to a servant position. On that day, finally I was able to get close to you. Finally. Outside that moron McStogey’s workshop. I was so close,” he hissed in remembrance. “I was outside the door when you used these crystals to travel through time. I entered the chamber after McStogey was gone, managed to find a crystal of my own, and decided to follow you and finish what my great grandfather could not. But I arrived here in 1859. And here I remained. Until you got here.”
“Wardstein, play a lute for this man’s troubles,” James laughed. “Imagine that! Trying to follow us around? That was your plan? A servant? Servants have no brain! We’re royalty. It’s remarkable you weren’t assigned to arse-cleaning duty!” Wardstein and Sir Kyle laughed hysterically at this man’s obvious idiocy.
Farson purpled. “I have what I needed, fool. I will use your crystals to take my trusted men back to our time. I will annihilate that idiot McStogey and your entire family and take what is rightfully mine. Not before I’m through with you, of course,” he added.
“So. In summary, this delivery satisfies all conditions of our arrangement,” Bloodlust cut in. “I will now be requiring payment.”
“Oh, you’ll be getting your due,” Farson smiled easily. His eyes flicked to the side and nodded, and a shot rang out in the dark.
Bloodlust’s reflexes were tuned to a supernatural degree, and knew Farson’s thought before even he did. He’d already begun a roll to the earth when the gunshot erupted to his left. He reached for the snuffbox he always carried in his pocket, and somersaulting upright on one knee, he side-armed a deft throw across his body. The snuff box, engraved with golden cherub motifs from a little shop he frequented in San Francisco, flashed through the air, impacting the sternum of the would-be assassin at the edge of the campfire. The box blasted entirely through the man’s torso, detonating with a puff of premium tobacco on a boulder beyond. The man dropped his rifle, hosing blood like city fountain. He looked down, staring in amazement as his still-beating heart clung suspended from his ribcage, which presently dropped to the earth like a bison turd. He looked up and watched everything he’d ever known fade from his sight.
The men around the campfire erupted into action. Bloodlust however was already three steps ahead; the sleepy collection of Cowboys stood little chance. The nearest opponent hadn’t even reached for his pistol, merely gaping at the scene unfolding, while the man behind him was already raising his sidearm. Bloodlust rolled to the earth again, his hand flashing out to snatch the cast iron pan resting in the fire while he did. He rose in time to make a micro-adjustment of his grip on the pan as the pistoleer fired, and he expertly deflected the bullet into the belly of the first. The contents of his gut ruptured, fanning across the Sir Kyle in a fragrant sheet. Sir Kyle shrieked in disgust, completely losing the mental image of that nice calico he’d been hanging onto.
“Untie us!” Wardstein raged. He began hopping ineffectually. James and Sir Kyle followed his lead, hopping in a vague orbit around Wardstein.
Bloodlust however was beyond reach. His spirit had been transported to another place. A place where perhaps a part of him had always lived. He reached for his tunic with both hands, ripping it apart to expose the bronze torso, upon which each pectoral muscle was tattooed his name. Another Cowboy approached with his rifle; Bloodlust stabbed forth with his matchless speed and power, snatching the head of this foe, raising him from the earth as he uselessly discharged his weapon. A brief flex, and the man’s head crushed like a grape, a hot dough of skull contents oozing through Bloodlust’s blackened fingers. The man’s dying body spasmed and he fired again, the shot penetrating Bloodlust’s bicep. He grunted in annoyance as Wardstein managed to catch the stray bullet with his raised wrists, neatly cutting his binds. “Boom goes the dynamite!” he exulted. He rapidly untied James as Bloodlust continued his demonic rampage around the killing field; overwhelmed by the moment Sir Kyle had passed out and was lying unconscious nearby on his face.
“They’re getting away!” Wardstein yelled. Racing into the dark was Baby-Faced Mitch, and farther ahead, Farson. He cursed vile epithets, knowing his mighty shotgun was useless at this range. Farson had disappeared over a ridge and there remained only Baby-Faced Mitch, who jostled amusingly on his oversized horse as he fled.
James looked down to his 30-inch Sharps rifle. “No, they aren’t,” he said flatly.
“I had one of those,” Brent Westforest told James, admiring his buffalo rifle. Wardstein and Sir Kyle were still inside the ranch house with Mae, finishing their meal. For unknown reasons, James had decided to go outside with Brent. “I used to be a sharpshooter for raids on Injun camps. You any good with it?”
James fumbled clumsily with the action. “Good enough,” he carped.
Brent scowled. “Let’s see, then. Do you see that orange rock out there? That’s five hundred yards from this spot on a straight shot. You see that thing sitting on top? That’s a bucket of urine. I put it out there to ferment. Shoot that bucket.”
James eased to the ground, raising the precision peep sight to accommodate its maximum range. He settled the bead on the urine bucket, which wobbled maddeningly in his sight.
“Close your left eye, maggot. What are you shooting with it? All you care about is the other one looking through the gunsight,” Brent said. “Flex your toe, dig it into the dirt like you’re about to take off running. You’ll take the shot on the exhale, after you set the trigger.”
James made the adjustments and clicked the set trigger, taking all but a single pound from the main trigger, controlling his breathing. The urine bucket steadied under the bead, and he touched off the rifle.
The massive Sharps uncorked a cannonating blast. The slug thundered across the plain to the orange rock, impacting the soft sandstone just beside the urine bucket. Shards of detonating rock shredded the bucket, draining its contents across the once-pristine face of the stone.
“Sometimes close is good enough,” Brent laughed. Mae suddenly burst from the cabin with a plate in her hand. “What was that?!” she cried. Brent jumped. “Dagnabbit woman! I warned you about surprising me like that, you’ll get yourself killed one of these days!”
James shuttered his left eye, tucking the fine walnut cheekpiece of the Sharps to his cheek. “Sometimes close is good enough,” he mumbled. He settled the bead of the massive rifle on his target, and all distractions fell away. The campfire. The screams of dying men. The incredibly foul odour of Kyle lying nearby. He watched Baby-Faced Mitch flee in the moonlight and considered the beauty of the moment before he squeezed the polished trigger of the rifle.
The head of the galloping horse exploded in a scarlet flower of shrapnel, the slivered bone fragments shredding the tiny body of Mitch to dogmeat. The two bodies pitched to the earth, and at last, all was still. James had time to admire the starshine on the scattered crystals, once held by a great man named McStogey many hundreds of years ago.
Farson was gone.
Wardstein, Kyle and James stood motionless about ten yards away from Christian Bloodlust, all three suddenly wary of making even the slightest movement and having it interpreted as aggression. In front of them they watched the enormous native walk from one mangled body to the next and surgically slice their scalps away with a large blade. On his face he wore a grimace even more terrifying than the one on his advertisements. It was the biggest, brightest smile he could muster, because for the first time in his life, he felt truly alive.
Opening his pocket-watch, Bloodlust looked to the photo of the elderly white couple on the front cover’s interior, frowned, then chucked it into the sand. Impressed with the symbolic nature of this action, he instantly regretted doing it without an audience there to appreciate its significance—an audience besides morons who believed themselves to be time-travellers, anyway. He turned and looked at the men he had kidnapped and noticed them all avert their eyes. These scared idiots would be lousy poker players, thought the Indian.
“…Hey Kyle?” whispered James through his teeth. “Psssttt! Kyle?”
“Dibs on that watch. Also, I realize that slurry of excrement you’re coated in is probably making your skin super itchy right now, but try not to give in to the temptation: it might set this guy off! You don’t want to be killed with some improbable object, do you?”
“Nice try, James, but I’m not getting ‘snuffed’ like that dude over there,” the Knight replied. “Besides, if I were you, I’d be more concerned with that enormous rifle you’re holding. Must be getting pretty heavy about now, huh?”
James tensed slightly, one of his eyes betraying a slight twitch.
“What, this thing? Light as a feather!”
“Guys, don’t sweat it,” said Wardstein. “That primitive has got to know he’s no match for all the three of us! He caught a lucky break back at the whorehouse, collecting us one by one in our skivvies!”
“Wardstein, I’m not so sure about that,” said Kyle, glancing down and remembering that he was in fact still in his tighty-whities. “None of us have crushed a man’s head with our bare hands like we just saw him do, you know? I mean, before we traveled through time, we just killed whoever annoyed us with our awesome, enchanted weapons and nobody stood even a chance! I don’t think our current weapons are enchanted per se, but I they’re definitely a little gaudy, no? No, I think this guy is smarter than you give him credit for.”
“First of all, Kyle,” said Wardstein, “no, if I’ve learned anything it’s that cultures different than ours are rarely deserving of our respect. Ergo, this guy Bloodlust is a big, dumb animal!” He flexed his biceps. “Also, I could totally crush a man’s head with my bare hands. Maybe not your unusually thick skull, but definitely a woman’s or a child’s! Grrrr!!!” Wardstein slowly mimed the action and chuckled at the mental image he conjured.
“Wasn’t that wicked, by the way?” asked James. “How I wasted that kid as he tried to make his getaway a minute ago? That horse’s head was like, POP! And that little tyke was all, ACK!!”
“Pretty sure he was adult who simply looked like a kid,” said Kyle.
“Oh. Well, we’ll chalk it up as an adult and a kid, then. It’s only fair.” James examined his rifle’s stock and wished he had more panther teeth to mark his body count. One adult panther tooth and one baby panther tooth. “You really think these weapons of ours are too…’gaudy’? ‘Cause I was actually thinking this rifle, or at least my pistol, would be a lot better if it were made of solid gold!”
“Uh, no,” Wardstein scoffed. “It’s strictly a Child Kill. So what if the guy had to shave a bit of peach fuzz or had a few extra words in his vocabulary, you know? Those things didn’t enter into the equation when you shot him in the back as he fled.”
“Yeah, well…sometimes close is good enough!”
Wardstein turned to Kyle and frowned. “Why does he keep saying that?”
Noticing the hushed chatter from the men, Christian Bloodlust quickly knotted the hair of the damp scalps together and attached them to his belt as he made his way to the men. The tattered remains of his business suit were now almost completely saturated in blood and gore, and as he stomped closer, he found himself wondering what he would say to these three. What was the customary greeting when trying to buddy up to people you just tried to sell to a lunatic for a lot of money just a few moments earlier, he wondered. Fortunately a topic of interest presented itself and, dawning a pair of spectacles, he stooped to pick up what he saw on the ground before him: a small book, misted with blood.
“Whoa, do you think he’s going to eat it?” James whispered a little too loudly.
“It’s a book, ‘Archduke’ James,” replied Bloodlust. “Books are for reading, not eating.”
“Yeah, but you and your kind would probably try to eat a book if it was like, filled with illuminations of tasty-looking food though, right?” James continued.
Bloodlust sighed. “Not me.”
“Not even a little lick, maybe?” Wardstein offered.
“Would you please just let me read this?” Bloodlust asked patiently. He realized that getting along with these three was likely going to be difficult, but he also knew that it was a necessary that he try. He had failed in the collections business; failed in the bounty-hunting business; and with a sizeable body count under his belt, it wouldn’t be long before either Farson or the law would be after him, he was certain, and—
“—Wait a minute,” said Bloodlust, interrupting his own train of thought. “Why are you guys wearing deputy stars? You don’t look like the law to me.” He adjusted his glasses slightly, which looked rather incongruous given the general state of his appearance, and zeroed in specifically on Kyle. The others, James and Wardstein, carried themselves with a certain arrogance, but Kyle, standing in all humility in his underpants and cowboy boots, seemed like he was of the land, somehow.
The three men shrugged and began to relax a bit. They had almost forgotten that they were wearing the shields.
“Some dead guy gave them to us,” said Wardstein.
“Well, he wasn’t dead when gave them to us,” James amended. “But they were his dying wishes. His wife gave them to us.”
“And she is presumably—”
“—also dead?” James asked. “Yes. Natural causes, though.”
“Meaning, when you shoot someone in the face they naturally don’t live too long,” said Wardstein, snickering.
Bloodlust looked at the men speculatively. “Why would you shoot a woman in the fa—“
“—Bup-bup-bup!” said James. “We’re getting sidetracked. “Continue! Who knows, that book may speed things along, story-wise.”
Bloodlust flipped to the cover page. “It says here, ‘From the pen of…Luke Marion Farson!”
“The bumbling low-life who time-travelled here in an attempt to exact his revenge by killing me!” exclaimed James. “Read on, savage!”
“Errm, yes,” said Bloodlust. “I’ve been paying attention. It appears to be a day planner or some kind. Today’s entry says, ‘Reconvene with the cowboys and await delivery of the three so-called deputies, by way of the Indian Delivery Boy, who I will not only stiff on the payment, but eliminate!’ There he has drawn a crude picture of a guy with a spear, who I presume is…well, we all know who it represents.”
“If only someone had predicted that double-cross, huh?” said Kyle sarcastically.
“’Afternoon – After eliminating the four morons, redirect Parsons and cargo from Tombstone Central to Auxiliary Track for Next-Day ambush at 9:45am’? Hmm. ‘Track.’ Must be referring to the train tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow?” Wardstein asked. “Morning? At 9:45am? Yeah, you’re not the only one who can pay attention! What else does it say?”
“Well, let’s see here.” Bloodlust adjusted his bi-focals on the tip of his nose. “‘Evening – my plan set into motion, retire back to Tombstone just in time for my weekly-scheduled Squatting appointment at the Tombstone Cathouse with Ms. Rebecca – the dirtiest prostitute in all the West!’”
Wardstein turned to Kyle. “Ha! Go figure! And she said she was ‘done with squatting!’”
“Kyle, I know this may seem like a reason to dismiss her, but look at the bright side – this lady seems to be down for anything!”
“That’s right!” yelled Wardstein. “Sure, she has a kid–no good, I agree. And she might be getting a little long in the tooth, yeah, but – if she’s into squatting, who knows what else, you know?
Kyle weighed this information in his mind. Maybe he had been too rash in distancing himself from Rebecca. He would think it over some more.
X X X
Meanwhile, Luke Farson, bested again, limped slowly along the tracks from the great exertion he had expended in his escape. He had at last arrived that the lever he searching for.
“Those idiots may have thwarted my attempts to get their crystals for now!” he seethed. “But if they found that book like I planned, tomorrow morning they’re going to play right into my hands! Mua ha ha ha ha!”
Farson squeezed the cold steel of the lever’s apparatus and heaved it with all his might. Beneath his feet he watched the track alter its course for any trains heading towards Tombstone.
“Yeah, boss?” replied Farson’s lackey.
“…how do you feel about squatting?”
Night had come quickly. Time was like that, Kyle knew. It would run its course more or less normally until you needed it and then it would take off running. Kyle was fairly certain it had to do with “gravity”. He had heard the term bandied about in his days at the monastery. It was all a bunch of mumbo-jumbo, really. Everyone knew that the sun was a wheel of a chariot that was driving across the sky. The simplest answer was often the correct one, after all. But still, gravity decided how fast things moved, so the more gravity in a situation the faster the time moved. Kyle smiled to himself. Science was easy.
“What’s with the face?” James asked him. “You look like you are pondering something heavy.”
Wardstein scoffed. “Ponder? This one doesn’t ponder. This one goes off on tangents that could be legitimately described as psychotic episodes.”
“He still makes faces.”
“Yeah,” James said, nodding. “So what’s with the face?”
“Yes, we established that. God. What about? Cats? Farson? Squatting?”
“Actually, I was considering the temporal flow that seemingly binds our corporeal forms. That was of course leading me to consider the Second Law of Thermodynamics, as it inevitably would.”
His two companions stared at him blankly, and Kyle thought he heard a grunt of acknowledgement from the massive figure just ahead.
“This one…” Wardstein said.
“Thermodynamics? More like Hermodynamics.” James laughed uproariously.
“Huh?” Wardstein asked. “I’m on board with mocking him, obviously, but I don’t get that.”
“Oh,” James said, making his face straight. “It was as if I was calling into question his gender.”
“Ah! Hahahaha! Of course. Hermaphrodite, Hermodynamics. I get it.” He turned back to Kyle. “More like Hermodynamics. Hahaha.”
The two men revelled in the mockery for a moment.
“But what if it had more to do with sexually transmitted diseases, though,” Wardstein said. He flashed James a grin. “Like he has a dynamic form of herpes.”
“He probably does,” James replied.
“I’m literally right here,” Kyle noted.
“Hmmm,” James continued. “I like that punchline better, but it doesn’t fit as well. Unless we made it Herpodynamics. But then I feel like we are wasting time tracing lines that aren’t there. No. Hermodynamics it is.”
Wardstein nodded, but he looked unconvinced.
“Entropy is not a laughing matter,” rumbled a deep voice from up ahead. Christian Bloodlust had been mostly quiet so far, but he seemed invested in this subject based on his monotone.
“The hell is entropy?” James said, not really caring.
“The Second Law of Thermodynamics.” Bloodlust sighed.
James sighed back at him sarcastically.
“The second law of thermodynamics states that in every natural thermodynamic process the sum of the entropies of all participating bodies is increased,” Kyle said.
Bloodlust scoffed. “In the limiting case, maybe. For reversible processes this sum remains unchanged.”
“True,” Kyle agreed.
“Sure. Let’s listen to the Native and the moron,” James said sarcastically.
“Look,” Kyle said, “Think of it like this – Paulus has a sweet Kingdom, right?”
“Heir to the throne! Woot!”
“Right, well if it were all alone in a vacuum nothing would ever change. It would just be Paulus and his castle and his…stuff.”
“But when things are introduced to this. Like, say, Wardstein and yourself, things can only go in one direction. And that direction is down. In a spiral.”
“A death spiral?” Wardstein asked, eyebrow raised. Both Kyle and Bloodlust nodded.
“Wait, wait. So you are saying I have no choice but to ruin my father’s Kingdom?”
“Well, no, but –“
“Woot! Free reign, Wardstein, free reign.”
Wardstein shrugged. “I have free reign whether Mr. Herpodynamics thinks so or not.”
“I thought we were going with Hermodynamics?”
Wardstein shrugged again. “Just to be clear though, you are comparing me to one of the fundamental forces of the universe, right?”
“I guess so. Sure.”
Farson hitched up his pants and fastened his belt, turning away as Paul scuttled down to the river. He hadn’t lost any respect for the man just now, he simply turned away because it was disgusting. A man had to do what he had to do, even if it was appear to be a complete patsy in front of his mortal enemies. Farson felt his rage rising, but tamped it down. He didn’t extinguish it, though. No, he was building up a mighty bed of coals. Once the wind was blowing right they would fan into a firestorm. Why am I talking to myself in metaphors?, Farson wondered. It was unfortunate he had lost most of his crew, but it was what it was. A voice from the darkness jolted him out of his reverie.
Farson recognized the clipped English of a McHaskinly. He remained silent.
Farson still stayed silent, noting the position of the speaker from the sound of his voice.
“Yellow-bellied, double-crossin Luke Farson. That kinda rhymes.”
Farson finally replied. “You talk about yellow-bellied while standing out in the dark. Come into the light.”
Clinton McHaskinly walked into the range of the dying fire, his right hand hovering near his holstered gun.
“Where are your cronies?” Farson asked him.
“I could ask you the same thing.”
Farson motioned towards the river. “Paul is down there. He is the only one left. But I don’t need my cronies like you do, Clinton. Where are they?”
Clinton tittered. “They are around.”
“Does your brother know you are here? Wouldn’t want him getting upset with you. He may tell your ma.”
“Jesse is dead.” Clinton said flatly.
Farson was truly surprised at this. Jesse was a hard man who did what was necessary without any qualms.
“How?” he asked Clinton with more than a little suspicion in his voice.
“Not the point. Doesn’t concern you anyhow, you are about to die a dog’s death.” Two men holding rifles at the ready emerged from behind Clinton as he continued. “We was gonna hang you, but then decided the rope was too expensive.” He chortled. “Then we thought about dragging you behind some horses, but then they may get hurt and you ain’t worth that either, are you?”
Farson shrugged. He wasn’t really paying attention anymore. The man to Clinton’s right had problems with his vision, especially in low light. He would be careful when he took his shot with his rifle. The other gunman carried a shotgun but wasn’t yet close enough to do lethal damage. The gap would need to be lessened before the shot was taken. Clinton himself was fast enough with the pistol, but always aimed for the head like a moron. He made his decision.
“How’d you kill your brother, Clinton?” Farson asked, a little bit mockingly. “You’d never have done it face to face,” he continued. “He’d have killed you faster than you could beg for his forgiveness. You are a coward, Clinton McHaskinly. How did you kill your brother?”
Farson could feel multiple pairs of eyes on him from the darkness, watching. If they had guns drawn it was as good as over, but he could feel them listening. He had been popular enough amongst the men. He pushed onward.
“Did you have him killed, Clinton? Hire some Native hitman to take care of your problems? Did you call your ma, Clinton? Say your brother has been mean to you and not sharing his toys?”
Clinton McHaskinly seethed visibly, his hand shaking at his gunbelt. Farson kept going.
“I know you were jealous. Everyone knew it. People feared your brother. Respected him. You couldn’t even get laughs for your stupid puns.”
“Enough!” Clinton screamed. “Enough, Farson. That has always been your way, to sew distrust. You are out for yourself. You don’t care about the gang, you don’t care about anything. So what if I killed my brother? He was gone crazy, getting us killed doing reckless things.”
“We are a gang of criminals. Risks are going to have to be taken,” Farson said simply.
“Then why was it always me taking them?! He would sit back and smoke his pipe and get his eyes clouded. He was delusional and paranoid. He was only taking his meals from me, at the end. I had to test his meals in front of him.”
“So you poisoned him.”
Clinton exploded in rage. “Kill him!” he yelled at the top of his lungs.
Farson was moving before the words were fully formed. He didn’t reach for his gun, but instead stepped back quickly, ducking while he kicked the bucket of water that he had collected onto the fire. A hiss of steam rose quickly as the area plunged into darkness. Farson lowered himself to the ground, easing out his pistol. He scanned the horizon and looked for the starless, man-shaped parts of the sky. He saw one and fired once, rolling immediately away after he had done so. A noise alerted him to the rifle carrier and he squeezed out another shot with deadly precision before again changing his position as drastically as he could. Clinton’s pistol fired two shots at where he had been. Farson listened hard but heard no movement. The fool had not moved after he had fired. Farson took aim and fired once, low. A groan answered the report of the pistol.
“Drop your weapon, Clinton.”
“I already did. You shot me in the shin. The pain is unbelievable”
“I was aiming for your knee.”
Farson addressed the darkness again. “Men. Join with me, I am robbing a train tomorrow. After that I am disbanding the group. Y’all can make your own way. One last big hit. Who is in?”
A murmuring of assent greeted him.
“Good,” he continued. “Now let Paul go.”
Moments later footsteps approached.
“I thought we was done for” Paul said.
Farson nodded. “Light the lanterns. I’m gonna brief our new friends.”
“What about him?” Paul asked, pointing at the whimpering figure of Clinton McHaskinly.
“Tie him and leave him, for now. Gag him if he gets too loud. There are some sturdy trees around, but I don’t feel like climbing in the night.”
He walked over to Clinton and lowered himself slowly so they could see each other clearly in the faint light.
“You hear that, Clinton? Rope ain’t too expensive for me.”
Norman the train conductor dozed, lizard-like, in the early morning sun. Bound for Tombstone in a straight shot, he expected absolutely no issues. The boiler was fully stoked, hot, and making good time, so he relaxed on his stool, feet propped in the window. The warming desert air tickled his toes and he was reminded of the way his favourite beagle licked his feet, though immediately also saddened because he was unable to find a woman who would do the same thing, so he had to rely on the old hound for now. He was happy he’d brought two bottles of whiskey aboard to entertain him during this truly boring stretch of track. He couldn’t think of a better place to be drinking than while rolling safely down a line of track that didn’t offer the most meagre twist over hundreds of miles.
And so it was that Norman was completely oblivious to the train switch. Paul crouched behind some rubble, prepared to kill the conductor should he stop the train before the switch, but he had worried for nothing. He saw the dirty feet poking from the window and smiled as he immediately grasped its significance – nobody on that train was going to notice it had been redirected, not until it would be far too late. As the train roared past, he whooped a terribly-accented Pawnee war cry.
Bloodlust lay on his belly, peering into the distance with his spyglass, engraved by a man of some reknown hailing from New York City. He’d wanted gold accenting when he’d commissioned the work, but of course with the brass telescope body, the effect of the gold simply would have been lost, so he went with the silver in this case. Pure Sterling inlay, naturally. He’d been pleased on a subliminal level that the scrollwork on the spyglass was a pattern remarkably similar to that which had been put onto his snuff box. He winced now at its necessary loss. He knew he’d never find another one quite like it. He wondered obscurely if the spyglass was lonely, missing its mate.
“Looks like Farson has found himself some new men. I award him credit for his resourcefulness,” he remarked.
“Lemme see! I wanna seeee!” James complained.
Bloodlust ignored him, slapping away his reaching hands like he was a beseeching toddler. “More men, though undoubtedly – Stop that. Stop that, immediately – undoubtedly not as well versed in his particular language of mayhem, I’d warrant. Likely a desperation measure with local rabble to fill out his gang numbers.”
“Undoubtedly,” Sir Kyle agreed immediately, angling his hips so that Bloodlust could get a good look at his fancy pistols, which glinted hotly in the sun. He tried to match his facial expression with Bloodlust’s, something he’d read about before – apparently one’s ability to make an authentic connection had a lot to do with body language mimicry. He had no idea if he was making an impact on this man, but he knew the alpha dog when he saw him, and wanted to make the right impression. He grimaced at this small betrayal of King Paulus.
“Stop sucking up, Kyle! It doesn’t matter who those guys are, they’re nobodies! Do you hear me? We have to take Farson out!” Wardstein shouted.
To James’ dismay, Bloodlust collapsed his spyglass. “I am inclined to agree. This man must be eliminated.” Wardstein whooped.
Sir Kyle’s stomach churned at what he must say. “Er, right. So he’s after the train at 9:45. Why do we care though? This isn’t our time, after all. So what if he robs the train? Bloodlust isn’t after us anymore, and Farson was unable to take our crystals back. So aren’t we like, in the clear? Can’t we go back to the cathouse maybe?” And see Rebecca, he added mentally. His stomach, full of breakfast beans, roiled in excited anticipation. Soon, my pet, he thought.
“There are so many reasons! Because we’re deputies. We do this!” Wardstein beat his fist into his palm, emphasizing his point.
Bloodlust turned. He tossed a gold piece to James. “I’ll tell you why we proceed. Flip that coin.”
“You’d decide our entire future on a superstitious coin toss? No wonder your people are being massacred!” James sneered. “What’s next – a sacrifice to the sun god? Too bad we ate that last chicken at breakfast!”
“Destiny brought us together to this place. We all have but one destiny. It is how it must be. I allow you this chance, if it comforts you, to choose the lay of the coin. But the outcome was writ by the same unseen hand that led us here and placed that coin in your palm.” He flexed his pectorals, and his tattooed name rippled obscenely.
“You talk a lot for a guy who’s supposed to be a stoic. Laconic.”
“Fine. Heads.” The gold piece flew in the air, singing remotely, catching the rays of the sun and glowing its proud, civilized light. It landed without bounce in the sand, and all the men saw the eagle on its face.
Farson stood on the shoulders of a newly-minted gang member. “Steady down there! Steady!” he yelled. He lacked for a spyglass, so this would have to do. The two of them were perched atop a boulder, and Farson was peering into the distance, looking for the smoke signal from Paul that would confirm the train had been successfully diverted. “What time do you have, anyway?”
The man below wheezed with exertion. His name was really stupid, like Stubby or some other such nonsense. “Time? My watch!” Stubby yelled. “It’s…in mah pocket! You want I should – “
“Never mind, shut up. I know it’s early,” Farson barked. He squinted…and then he thought he saw it. Yes. A broken, wispy trail of smoke on the horizon. That guy couldn’t even put out a decent Injun smoke signal, he thought. But he got the point across at least.
“Good, I see it! Now – “
That’s when the bullet crashed into Stubby’s jaw. The vaporized flecks of mandible hissed and scattered across the sand below like a sheet of hail. He stared up at Farson, his rolling eyes bugging, his mouth a gaudy gape that could now accommodate a wine bottle. “Gahhh! Gahhh!” he shrieked. The second bullet was more on its mark – it landed in the back of Stubby’s yawning throat, catastrophically destroying his spinal column, brain stem, cerebellum, and occipital lobe, in order. The massive .45-70 slug erupted from Stubby’s scalp and flew into the distance, its mission in life now complete. Farson felt Stubby’s shoulder’s slacken beneath his feet, and he caught a fetid whiff of waste as his relaxing sphincter released its contents. He turned his face to the sky.
“WHAT the F –“
At the last moment, Norman spotted the sign.
END OF TRACK 1 MILE
Oh, Christ! He thought. He fell off his stool to his knees, pulling the brake with all his might. Outside, the steel wheels screamed as the mighty locomotive fought the brakes. Firework sprays of sparks flew the entire length of the train, from the wheels of every car, as inside passengers tumbled to the deck like playtoys. He heard screams – but a moment later he realized it was himself.
Finally though, after an unknown length of time, the train eased to a stop. Steam chuffed from its stack almost in frustration. Norman sat up, replacing his jaunty engineer hat on his head. That was close, he thought. Peeping out his window, he saw to his immense surprise a cloud of dust trailing dozens, perhaps even hundreds, of angry looking Indians, galloping to the train mounted on wildly-painted horses. Norman shrieked in fear, and reflexively scuttled into the corner beneath the control deck. His whiskey bottles had flown off someplace while the train had screeched to a stop, so nothing was going his way today at all.
He wished for a second pair of underdrawers.
Grasping the pocket watch from the ground, James smiled and dusted the case off on his shirt. He stole a quick glance at the other three who were standing some yards behind him, Kyle now pointing to Bloodlust’s pectoral tattoos and nodding in a complementary fashion; Wardstein, seemingly uninterested and quite possibly jealous, trailing invisible enemies with his revolver, mouthing ‘boom’ and adding a bit of mock-recoil every second or two.
By all appearances, James’ trip to collect his prize had remained covert, as he had wished it to; but he thought it best to pretend as though he was emptying his bladder, just so no one got suspicious. Realizing that he had yet to actually do that this morning though, he unzipped and did so for real, arcing his stream into the gaping mouth of one of the men Bloodlust had massacred the night before. The urine churned and began to froth, the foam quickly overflowing and cascading down the corpse’s cheeks as he stared unconcerned and wide-eyed up at the sky. James found it an amusing image and began to make gargling and gagging noises as he laughed to himself. “–Arggle-ofck! I’ve haddanufff! Choke!! Ackle-urkle-glork! Okay, a little more!! Sooo thirsty! Ha ha ha ha!” The flow then weakened and dribbled to a halt, causing James to frown slightly. But, looking back to the shiny gold watch where he caught a glimpse of his handsome reflection, which caused him to smile again. Opening it, he observed a small fottergraph of a feeble-looking, wrinkly white couple on the interior and the frown returned.
“Eugh!” he exclaimed, scratching at the image with his fingernail. “Can’t have that! Not on my watch!”
After some effort, the glue that was binding the picture to the case broke free, and the little disc flipped to the ground. James then gave it a stomp into the dirt and sent those two to hell with a twist of his heel. He examined his acquisition and nodded in approval at the improvement, giving it a good wind. Glancing at the sun now he wondered what time he should set it to. He had never been very good at astronomy. Surely it was before 9:45am though, when Farson planned, according to the diary at least, to divert and rob that train that was bound for Tombstone proper. James lowered the brim of his hat slightly against the glare. The band had been developing a white ribbon of salt from his brow sweat recently. Back in time this would of course be unacceptable, and the mark of a lowly field worker. But here, in future times, the Archduke felt as though he was beginning to blend in. The other guys, too. Minus Kyle, he supposed, ever since Bloodlust had forced him to wear his underpants out of the whorehouse; but he was confident that this would be remedied shortly.
“Now what was that second thing I wanted to do again?” he wondered aloud. “Ah, of course!”
Walking over to Baby-Faced Mitch, the midget who was gunned down the night before, he laughed at the state of his corpse. Even if the fragments of bursting horse skull hadn’t killed him instantly, he clearly would have suffocated in no time by the looks of it: his head was completely buried in the sand, his boots pointed skyward, his gloves dangling from each sleeve like ornaments from a piece of yarn that ran through the back of his little jacket. James stooped to collect the crystals that were still scattered across the ground. Luckily Farson had not counted on their laziness, as he could have easily doubled back and collected them under cover of night if he wanted to. James wondered what the man’s obsession was with these things—ever since they time-jumped they’d been nothing but a burden to lug around. Though on the flip side of the coin, Farson’s story of waiting for decades in this wasteland, hoping against hope that he’d live long enough to meet up with the three of them and exact his revenge for being a unfortunate enough to be born a jealous peasant of an inferior bloodline? Pretty pathetic. James admired the dedication on some level, though: the guy growing increasingly insane and bitter year after year as he watched more and more wrinkles appear on his face in the mirror. A part of him wanted to be nice and simply give Farson Kyle’s crystal. However, a bigger part of him wanted to keep him from getting the things solely because his desire to possess them was so much greater than his own.
James strolled back to the other three now. “Hey uh, you guys know what time it is?” he asked, still fumbling with the watch. “We don’t want to miss Farson intercepting that train, do we?”
Bloodlust looked at the watch in James’ hands. “I see you’ve found my heirloom timepiece. Swiss-made, you know. Twenty-one jewel movement; solid 18-carat gold case, accented with pure platinum and the finest of engravings; accurate to plus or minus one second per day, if wound routinely.”
“Yeah, it’s all that stuff,” said James with a raised eyebrow, looking at the spinning cogs and gears even more closely through the sapphire interior case back now. “Except for the bit about it being ‘yours.’ This is mine. I built it myself. In my workshop!”
Clearly confused, Bloodlust looked to Kyle and Wardstein, who both shrugged, not wanting to betray a tell. They found it amusing to watch the extent of the Archduke’s childishness from time to time, particularly when it was directed at someone else.
“James, you—you are clearly not telling the truth. My…adoptive parents gave me that watch to commemorate my graduation from univer—“
“—from university? Oh, have you been? You sure like flaunting that education of yours, Bloodlust.”
“Yeah, do you think you’re better than us?” asked Wardstein, giving Bloodlust a critical look. “You’re wearing nothing but your underwear and a few tattered bits of your suit!”
Bloodlust took note and tore the remaining fabric away, no doubt confident in his mountainous appearance. All that remained was his underwear, which was a deerskin loincloth for some reason. Kyle watched and slowly began to unbutton his vest too, but Wardstein shook his head ‘no’ at him and he stopped. Bloodlust paid them no mind, though.
“James, I know for certain that’s my watch. On its interior you will find a tin-type photograph of the two who gave it to me.”
“Oh? Let’s just have a look then!” He opened the watch and confidently showed it off. “See?! You’re a liar! Also, even if this had been the watch we watched you discard over there—which it isn’t—-you would have done so under your own volition. Essentially giving it away. And now you’re demanding it be…returned? They should coin a derogatory term for that kind of behaviour!”
“Oh, I’m the liar? You gentlemen are the ones saying you’re time travellers! I’ve only heard about that nonsense in works of fiction!”
Suddenly from in their midst their came a flash as bright as the sun and all four shielded their eyes. When they withdrew their arms there was a fifth man present.
“MCSTOGIE!” exclaimed all but Bloodlust.
“Hey-hey, what’s up, guys? Up high, Kyle!”
The Knight slapped McStogey’s raised hand and smiled. “Hello there, McStogie. It’s good to see a familiar face, I’ll admit.”
“Thanks! Hey, where are your pants?!”
“In a whorehouse!” Kyle replied, nodding enthusiastically at his explanation, which was hardly an explanation at all. “Hey, you wouldn’t happen to know what time it is, would you?”
“Whorehouse? Hmmph.” McStogey produced a small, black, handheld device coated in glass from his pocket and slid his thumb across it. “11:04am. Why?”
“Crap!” Wardstein yelled. “That means the train has already—hey, what is that thing?”
McStogey, apparently not hearing Wardstein’s question, continued tapping on the strange contraption with both of his thumbs, smirking slightly. He then looked up at the others, who were waiting expectantly for a response. “What are you guys staring at?”
“I asked you what that thing was, you dork!”
“Look, never mind that now! I just got back from the very distant future, okay? I got it there, and that’s all you need to know. If I started talking about all the stuff that’s going to unfold in future years, I’d be here all day! Plus, it might have unintended, dramatic consequences and blah-blah-blah. ”
“Hold it!” Bloodlust yelled. “McStogie, is it? Are you telling me you really did travel through time to join us just now? And that these three have done the same?”
“That’s exactly right, you—you, scary son of a bitch, you!”
“This is Christian,” said Kyle. “Christian Bloodlust.”
“’Christian,’ huh?” said McStogey doubtfully. “Ha! Whatever you say there, Kyle.”
“I—I’m sorry I doubted you men,” Bloodlust stammered. “Tell me this one thing then, traveller, I beseech you: what becomes of the Native peoples of these lands in future times? Do they triumph over the relentless westward expansion of the white men? Do they rebel and quash their myopic and selfish race to use up all of the land’s raw materials? Its natural resources? Tell me—are they successful?”
McStogey smiled patiently at the Native and nodded. “Christian, I really shouldn’t divulge what has yet to pass, but…I’ll make an exception just this once because you seem like a good guy—everything works out just great for the Natives, okay? Couldn’t be better.”
“Thank you, McStogie, I appreciate your candor and your honesty!”
McStogey turned to Wardstein, Kyle, and James, his lips pursed, his head shaking grimly. Then, clapping his hands: “Alright men! Seems you have to see a man about a train!”
“Yeah, we know, McStogey,” said Wardstein. “We found that Farson guy’s journal which outlined his plans. 9:45am is when he was set to rob the train, but we missed it! It must have some important significance though, because he planned to do that after killing us, which he totally failed at thanks to Bloodlust here. As a matter of fact, he spilled quite a bit last night, telling us that he was the descendent of someone he believes is the rightful heir to King Paulus’ throne? He seems pretty determined to take it out on James, and has waited years for us to arrive. He’s kind of a moron, though: he wanted our crystals, but…we’ve still got them too.”
“Yep,” said James, returning them to the other guys.
“Haven’t you guys figured this out yet?” asked McStogey. “Yes, this Farson guy has a hate-on for James. One so fierce that he felt compelled to travel to the future to kill not only him, but all of you! Once his task is completed ‘out of time,’ he’d simply have to travel back and dispose of the rest of your lineage, James, and undo all the successors leading to the rein of your father! Uh – that sound about right?”
Everyone stared blankly at him, but nodded along as though they were keeping pace.
“Anyway, unfortunately for ‘Farson,’ as I guess he calls himself now, by the time you guys had left, the boosting crystal at the castle had only enough to juice to send him years shy of where you landed. Seeing as how your crystals are still depleted of energy there, I can only surmise he’s attempting to collect them all in attempt to travel BACK to the FUTURE!”
“Don’t you mean back to the past?” said Kyle.
McStogey blinked. “Right! Sorry, did I screw that up? This is pretty confusing stuff, isn’t it!”
“Tell me about it!” James agreed.
“So as I was saying,” McStogey continued, “big deal if you missed the train. The guy’s objectives, as you’ve no doubt already surmised, but which I just so kindly reiterated, are obviously A–to kill you; and B—to get your crystals. And he’s done nei—-“
“—NEITHER!” Wardstein yelled.
“So we’ve unintentionally been kicking all kinds of ass?!” James asked.
“That’s right, guys! Up high, everybody! You too, Bloodass, c’mon!”
Just as the four raised their hands to connect though, McStogie vanished in a flash, leaving the words “Too slow!” hanging in the air. Kyle, James and Wardstein laughed at this, but Bloodust only groaned, visibly annoyed. “Well gentlemen—sounds like we have work to do!”
“Actually, Bloodlust, you stupid moron,” said Wardstein, “it sounds like we can continue taking our sweetass time, as per usual!”
Nearby, Farson walked calmly alongside the engine car of the locomotive—or as calmly as one could with the muzzle of a rifle jabbed in his back. Holding it there was the Indian chief who’d agreed through Paul to allow safe passage, and behind him, his dozens of warriors, who were chattering to one another in their common language, whatever that was.
“What tipped you off to my planned double-cross?” Farson asked him. “Something that idiot Paul said?”
“On the contrary,” the Chief replied. “I had to look no further than the colour of your skin, Farson. I’ve never trusted the white man, and things have worked out just fine for us so far, isn’t that right, boys?” The men all hooted and cheered at this and the chief laughed also, nudging Farson hard with his .45-70. “Hurry it up! ‘Paul’? That what you call him? Ha! Why’d you send that guy to us, anyway? He can barely speak your language, let alone ours! That smoke signal he sent? It was total nonsense! Anyway, we thought it would be more expedient to double-cross you instead.”
“Why? I’d have given you the Indian bones, as promised.”
“We don’t want any goddamn bones! We want the booty! The money you’re undoubtedly after!”
“Oh, the money I’m after. Silly me. Well, good on you for figuring that out too, I guess. Truth is, there were no Indian bones anyway.” Farson looked up at the windows of the two passenger cars behind the steam engine, each of them framing the white faces of city folk making their way west. “Don’t worry everybody, once they get what they’re after, these men will be on their way,” he shouted. Inside, the pitiful shrieks from the women folk seemed to be agreeable sounds to the warriors, who grinned expectantly.
Farson lead the group to the first of the cargo cars behind. “To my knowledge, the money’s in there boys. Why don’t you, uh…open it up and see for yourself?”
“As if I’d fall for that!” scoffed the Chief. “YOU open it!”
“Well, seeing as how you’re going to kill me anyway,” Farson sighed and climbed up to the sliding door and gave it a heave. “Yep, it’s here, just as I expected.”
The Indians craned their necks and squinted to adjust their vision to the dark contents of the train car, but before they could, they saw the flash. Then unceasing cacophony of .45-70 blasts, Farson, a crazed look on his face, furiously working the crank on a tri-pod mounted Gatling gun!
“NOBODY GETS THE BEST OF LUKE FARSON!” he cackled. “NOBODY! WAHA HA HA!”
Outside the car, the Natives, whether attempting to shoot back or flee, were systematically torn to pieces by the ferocious barrage.
Rube Dibble sipped his whiskey and took in the scene. The train he was on had been stopped for a few minutes and there was panic all around him. He looked down to see that his whiskey bottle was still upright and then back up to the frenetic car. There were Natives streaming on board, intimidating passengers into giving them their shiny watches and billfolds. Women were screaming, and men were making a great show trying to stand up for them. Once it became obvious that the infiltrators weren’t feeling very rape-y the men stopped trying to be heroes and instead moved on to attempting to hide their wealth. It was no use. Rube watched as the Natives extracted anything that could be of any worth from the trains occupants. They were business like and efficient.
Rube sighed to himself and swished his glass around absent-mindedly. Life sure could be crazy.
“Hey, you,” said an approaching brave.
Rube made a ‘who me’ gestured.
“Yes, you. Sitting. Give us your belongings.”
“I’d prefer not to, in honesty,” Rube told him.
“Can you not see what is happening here?”
“Train robbery. Pretty first-rate, too. I’m impressed.” Rube expanded his arms to encompass the scene. “Orderly, all things considered. And you lads seem well behaved, given the circumstances. I thought your kind was supposed to be all scalp-y and whatnot.”
“Well people have been co-operating.” The brave looked at him expectantly.
“Hmmm. Was the threat there supposed to be implicit? I’m not good with inferences, I confess.”
The brave nodded and considered for a moment. “If you don’t give us your valuables, we will cut off the top part of your head ritualistically. We will then proceed to rip up your face and skin as a lesson. Also out of spite. Afterwards your body will be disrespected. Your soul will find no peace in this world.”
“No peace, eh?” Rube asked.
The brave nodded somberly. “Plus the face thing,” he added.
“Right. Can’t forget that.”
The brave opened his mouth to speak, but a huge roar brought him up short. Someone had found a Gatling gun it seemed, Rube thought to himself. The screams from the other cars had mostly ceased, but this new action got them worked up even worse than before. Rube took a quick glance at his whiskey bottle to make sure it was still upright. He looked back at the brave, who seemed confused.
“If I was you I’d be getting out of here about now,” Rube drawled. The gunfire continued at a fantastic rate. Perhaps a minute more, Rube noted mentally. Minute and a half at most.
Again the brave opened his mouth to reply, but this time was halted by a huge hole being blown in his chest. Pieces of his insides and a river of blood exploded outwardly.
“Too late,” Rube said, spitting some of the carnage. A cowboy with a hard, lined face came into view as the big Native fell to the floor. He was holding a shotgun in the ready position and it was more or less pointed at Rube.
“Howdy,” Rube said genially.
“Off the train,” the man grunted at him.
“I like it here, though. I was in New York too long. And Chicago after that.” Rube shook his head.
“Get off the damn train.”
Rube sighed. “Ah well, I could use some fresh air. Which side has the least amount of blood?”
The cowboy grunted again and made as if to push him with his gun, but noticed his whiskey instead.
“Give me the bottle, too.”
“Now that I will not do,” Rube said, his good natured tone slipping ever so slightly. “A man will need a stiff drink out there, I reckon.”
The man took his hand off the gun and made as if to reach for the bottle, but Rube moved first and faster than an eye could follow. Dropping the bottle he pushed the mans’ gun to the side while his other hand drew from his inside pocket. He pressed the gun tight up against the mans’ chest as squeezed the trigger. The report from the gun was muffled, and even in the best scenario wouldn’t have travelled much past the wall of the car. In the current din Rube had barely heard it himself. The man gave him a quizzical look as he slowly collapsed to the floor. Rube reloaded his silenced, single shot pistol and stuffed it back into the inside pocket of his jacket. He reached down and grabbed the shotgun, and then grabbed the few loose shells the now dead man had on his person. He reached for his whiskey and sighed when he noted a cruel twist of fate had it land at an angle, and all of the precious fluid had drained away. That wouldn’t do. He looked out the side window on his car and saw a stricken group of braves attempting to make their way clear of all the carnage. The cowboys were shooting horses and trying to corral them into a circle. The Gatling gun had ceased, possibly out of ammo, but more likely jammed. Messy stuff, Rube mused. But it didn’t change his mission. And he didn’t become the greatest contract killer in the nation by avoiding missions. With a sigh he checked the pair of pistols at his waist and put the shotgun at the ready. He would need to win clear of here, and the folks outside didn’t seem much in the mood for talking. Christian Bloodlust, I hope you are worth it.
The men topped a hill and looked out into the valley below. A long train was there, motionless. It looked like a dead insect. The men scrambling around it resembled nothing more than scavengers, come to take all they could from the fallen behemoth.
“I guess we didn’t miss it,” Kyle noted.
“No thanks to you!” Wardstein snapped at him.
“I get confused. You guys let me take lead.”
Wardstein just shook his head slowly at him. Kyle thought things between the two of them might be coming to a head. Or something was afoot. Either way, extremities were gonna be involved.
“We let you take lead cause we didn’t want to ride with you,” James piped up.
“Well then it is on you,” Kyle reiterated, then shrugged.
“Everyone shut up,” Bloodlust said. “Listen.”
The men became silent and listened, with James exaggeratingly cupping a hand to his ear.
“I can’t hear anything,” Wardstein said.
“Gunfire,” Bloodlust said simply. “And war cries.”
“Natives?” Wardstein asked.
“Well its not the French,” James said.
“Ha, the French. If something involves the French and gunfire you can bet it also involves surrender and capitulation.”
Bloodlust sighed while the other three chuckled good-naturedly.
“There has been treachery,” Bloodlust stated.
“Maybe the Natives will take care of Farson?” Kyle wondered.
“No. Farson is mine,” Bloodlust said, his voice hard.
“We don’t care about Farson, though,” Kyle continued.
“Unless he can get us back to the past,” Wardstein amended.
The four of them stood in silence for a moment, taking in the scene.
“Well,” James finally said, “It is clear what we must do.”
The other three waited for him to continue, but he said no more.
The scene at the train would have unsettled more mediocre hearts. Dozens of natives and Cowboys alike lay slain and broken in various postures of death and ultimate defeat. Hand to hand fighting continued between combatants, with the odd gaudy splash of arterial blood the reward for a particular grunting thrust with a bone-handled knife, or a sudden gunshot lifting a skullcap from its owner like the exploding lid from a Dutch oven.
However, Wardstein, Kyle, and James had borne witness to these scenes in numbers too great to recount. Their personalities had been shaped, even nurtured through the witness and application of deadly violence. They were now well educated in all ways of mayhem. They were surrounded by panicked disorganization, but for the first time since they’d arrived in 1886, the men felt right at home. They exchanged looks, wordlessly slapped leather, and began to cut down any opponent they encountered as they made their way to the train cars. All thoughts of mercy fell away under the imperative that they must reach the train at all costs, and so the desert sands frothed scarlet under their dusty boots as they relentlessly marched.
“We gotta get on that train!” Wardstein reminded everyone, in the event they’d forgotten why they were there. “Farson’s on there for sure – look!” Sure enough, they all saw the shadow of Farson shaking his fist from behind the empty Gatling gun he’d been using and disappear.
“Understood!” Sir Kyle cried. He waited until he saw Bloodlust advance, and then pushed onwards himself. A shrieking savage approached, bathed in the blood of a dead Cowboy, and Kyle fanned his fancy pistols empty into his brown, reeking body. Nearby, the crumping explosions signalled Wardstein employing his deadly scattergun to great effect, followed by the rapid-fire barks of James squeezing dry his Lightning.
Despite their astounding fighting skills, they were making no headway – like a swarm of insects, or perhaps the attack of some kind of pernicious disease, the numbers of rampaging Indians was too great to overcome. Sir Kyle drew a bead on another scampering savage and was rewarded with a mere click from his pistols. Empty! The savage’s wildly rolling eyes settled on Sir Kyle and he began his advance, foam flying from his undoubtedly diseased lips. Defenseless, Sir Kyle could only watch his approach. This is just like what that gypsy at the carnival told me would happen, he thought. At that moment however, Bloodlust strode into view, grasping the flailing arms of the Indian, tearing them from his body with a ghastly yank not unlike a man enthusiastically tugging the skirt from a prospective lover. Gouts of blood sprayed dramatically in all directions, the sanguinary blast blowing Bloodlust’s loincloth into the wind. Sir Kyle gasped at the sight.
“Gentlemen!” Bloodlust called over the din. “I will clear the path to the train! Follow me!” Buttocks flexing maniacally, he began wading through the pitching bodies to the train, slamming the severed arms wherever seemed appropriate to him to speed his progress.
“Okay, I’m coming!” Sir Kyle cried, eyes bugging at Bloodlust’s backside.
“Wardstein! Did you hear that?” James cackled.
“Phrasing, Sir Kyle! Phrasing!” Wardstein chided merrily. He booted a howling savage in the groin as he and James swung aboard the train car where Farson had been, slamming shut the sliding door. Outside, frustrated savages began fruitlessly beating the side of the train car.
“Ha, you stupid savages! We win! Okay, now what?” James demanded.
“We continue to the next car,” Bloodlust explained patiently. Ahead of them, a door into the next car stood open, from which a strange, ascending whine was emanating.
“Nooo! I wanted to load up this big gun and plug me some more savages!” James carped. Wardstein roared in frustration, as he too wanted to kill more natives.
Bloodlust stared. He’d never understand why these strange, pale people wanted to destroy his kind. Likely in the years to come, they’d moderate and would co-exist peacefully, he reasoned sensibly. “Farson is our goal. We continue,” he declared, strutting powerfully to the next car, leaping through the entrance towards the growing noise.
Shrugging, the men followed, leaping through the entrance – and were stopped in their tracks. Farson stood before them, his pistol trained on a younger man they didn’t recognize. The man was fiddling with the controls of an enormous machine, which seemed to have been activated by some unknown means and had now begun to howl. They could see Farson had attached his crystal to the machine with some kind of wiring, and was now glowing a brilliant blue.
Wardstein ignored all these details and got to the heart of the matter, whipping free his pistol. “He’s mine,” he announced in delight. “Any last words, pardner? I got you dead-bang.”
Farson squinted at Wardstein’s pistol. “You’re out, ‘pardner’.”
Wardstein sneered, squeezed his trigger and the pistol clicked. He cursed tyrannically. “Kyle!”
“I’m out! I used all my shells on the natives out there, remember?”
Farson laughed hysterically, the sweet laughter of the victorious. His crystal was now blazing a brilliant white as the strange machine whined ever louder, and he tugged it free from the wires. “You’re finished ‘Archduke’! This machine has restored my crystal, and nothing can stop me now from going back in time and destroying your entire family!” He turned his pistol to the controls of the machine, and fired, destroying the panel. Thumbing back the hammer of the pistol, he turned to the man at the controls and fired again, the bullet thumping heavily into his chest. The man slumped to the floor with a wheeze. Farson grinned, earing back the hammer of the pistol one final time, the gaping bore trained on James. “And now, my dear Archduke. Yes – I will destroy your family. Quite right. But that doesn’t mean I can’t shoot you here myself, too.“
Farson grinned almost sheepishly as the men exchanged looks. “Well, I didn’t expect that!” he yelled. With that, he ran to the opposite end of the train car, hauled open the door, and leaped through.
“Archduke! We have to stop him! Your family! Mr. Bloodlust?” Sir Kyle’s mind swirled like a compass with all the authority figures present.
Wardstein felt something touch his foot, and he kicked reflexively, and was rewarded with a piteous groan. He looked down to see the man Farson had gunned down beckoning him.
“Sir,” he wheezed. “My machine – I can’t stop it. The controls – they’re destroyed. My name is Charles Parsons, and – ”
“I don’t want your life story. What is this thing?”
“It’s…it’s a multistage reaction turbine generator. The rotary motion – “
“What does it do?”
“The generator…creates electricity.”
Wardstein thought of Farson’s now-functional crystal. “So – electricity is energy?”
“Not exactly,” the man coughed, blood spilling from his lips. “In fact, electrons in electricity are actually components of everyday matter, and – “
“Okay, everybody shut up, I got it,” James yelled over the growing din of the machine. “I just attached my crystal like Farson was doing! Looks like this machine will restore its energy so we can go back in time. Woot-woot. Hurry up and gimme your crystals, I’ll do yours too before this thing poops out.” The generator had begun to emit a frightening grating noise, and James hastened to attach the remaining crystals.
Wardstein glared at Parsons. “So this thing does provide energy!” he barked. “You’re lucky you’re already dying! Look, we’re wasting valuable time. We have to get Farson now!”
Bloodlust was already moving to the front of the car where Farson had disappeared, with Sir Kyle close behind.
“I’ll catch up!” James yelled as Wardstein disappeared through the door, tucking the two fully-charged crystals into his pocket and attaching the last one to the machine. “Parsons! You still with us?”
Parsons croaked feebly. “I think so…“
“Hey, now that’s allll right,” James remarked absently as the crystal began to glow. He hoped obscurely that this machine would last until this crystal was charged – it went without saying that charged or not, it would be Sir Kyle’s.
The door banged open and the men were greeted with shrieks from various women. It appeared they had arrived in some kind of dining car. Passengers of all sorts were seated at little tables all around, their meals having apparently been recently served. A nearby woman stared at Bloodlust, and fainted dramatically.
“Well, that’s a little much,” he remarked, placing his bloodsoaked hands on his nude hips. He smiled inoffensively at another woman, and she also paled noticeably. Bloodlust decided to smile more widely, and this woman fainted as well, her face slamming into a plate of eggs with a bang. Bloodlust could only shake his head again at how these people perceived things.
Wardstein took in the sights with excitement. “Awesome! I was just thinking about eating!” he shouted. He reached over someone and collected a generous handful of bacon from a nearby table, immediately jamming it into his mouth. He next pointed to a bottle on the table, which was pushed into his hand by a helpful (or terrified) patron. He began draining it.
“HEY!!” a man yelled nearby, leaping from his chair. “Is your name – “ Wardstein held up a finger, his throat working to swallow as much delicious whiskey as possible.
The man reached into his coat, pulling a scroll from an inner pocket. He unrolled it, and stared in disbelief. “It is! You’re – “
Wardstein continued to hold up his finger as he guzzled.
“You’ve got to be Wardstein!” the man finished in amazement. At that moment, James appeared, spotting a nearby mother with her child. “Hello, bayyy-by!” he crooned. Not too charmingly though. The woman did have a baby after all.
The man goggled at James. “And you! You’re James. Archduke, right? Gotta be!”
James bowed regally, though he maintained eye contact with this obvious servant. “In the flesh. Always wonderful to be recognized when I’m amongst the common people. Wait – why do you know us?”
“It’s all in this scroll!” the man cried. “I thought it was a joke. I mean, we all did down at the exchange!” the man yelled to all those in attendance. “Listen. I’m from Wells Fargo. A few years ago, we got this box shipped to us. It came with this scroll! Listen to this: ‘Deliver to their Excellencies, Archduke James and Baron Von Wardstein’. On this exact date, at this exact location! And you’re really here! I had no idea you’d actually show up!” He passed around the scroll, which also helpfully included a couple of very realistic portrait paintings of men who were unmistakeably James and Wardstein.
Suddenly, the train lurched beneath their feet – the train had started moving. Around them on dining tables, glasses and cutlery began to tinkle subtly.
Wardstein finally finished the whiskey, belching wetly. “Okay, so – glad you’re happy and everything, but you were saying you brought us something?” He tossed the empty bottle over his shoulder.
“Right. This box! Here!” The man stood up from the box he was sitting on – a long, ancient chest, obviously antique. “I even have this chisel to open it up with. Open it up! I’m dying to know what’s in there!”
“Whatever you do, hurry it up!” Sir Kyle yelled, looking out a window. The train had just crawled past a sign:
END OF TRACK, ¾ MILE.
“This train is moving again and we don’t have much time if we want Farson!”
Bloodlust sighed in annoyance. Gonads wobbling obscenely, he strode to the chest, digging his fingers into a crack in the lid. With a sudden grunt, he tore it from its hinges, tossing to the floor with a clatter. A faint musty smell emanated from the box, and all the men leaned forward.
“So – what’s in there?” The Wells Fargo man asked eagerly.
Wardstein squinted into the darkness of the box, drawing from its contents a long object, wrapped in dusty linens. He unrolled it in his hands, and then smiled. “Well, well. Kyle, perhaps you may be needing this.” He turned, irreverently tossing the object. Sir Kyle had time to glimpse a flickering glint of metal, and he instinctively popped out his hand to catch it. He paused long enough to admire for a moment what he held, and then he raised his hand to the lantern glowing on the ceiling, and they all observed the fine metalwork of the Holy Avenger sword, fashioned by hands far greater than his own. Even after centuries in a box, the pristine metal glowed lustily. All those years and dusty days, and once again this masterwork had found its way again to his hand. Sir Kyle felt like he’d met an old friend.
James laughed with excitement. “Fantastic!” he yelled, reaching for the smaller package inside the box. A quick tug of linens and the Goblin Dagger was revealed to all. He held it aloft as Sir Kyle had done with the Avenger, though the effect with the shorter dagger was less dramatic. But because he was taller, the dagger was higher in the air than the Avenger had been, he thought. Hastily, he tucked it back into his belt. “Right back where it belongs,” he remarked with satisfaction.
Wardstein grew annoyed. “Okay, this is retarded! Why wasn’t this box waiting for us at Saul’s place? Couldn’t we have made use of this long before now? I mean – “
A shot thundered inside the narrow train car, and Christian Bloodlust grunted in pain. He squinted through the windows of the car, staring into the distance as boulders and cactii appeared to be accelerating past the train, and then he looked down. A gaping hole bubbled in the middle of his chest between the tattooed letters of his name, and his life’s breath whistled through its ugly scarlett pucker. An exit wound – he’d been shot from behind, apparently. He suddenly felt weak, and dropped to his knees, sagging there momentarily before he slumped to the floorboards of the train car. With great weariness, he turned his face to look for the source of the shot, clocking it at last from the corner of the car. A man stepped from the shadows, smiling faintly, a smoking pistol in his hand. Bloodlust’s lips worked soundlessly.
“Rube. Dibble.” He managed finally.
Farson leaped from the top of the coal car into the engine of the train. He cursed his empty pistol again. His chance to send James straight to hell had now been foiled twice in less than 24 hours! Well. He shaded his eyes to the midmorning sun and saw perhaps one final opportunity to have his revenge in 1886 – the end of the train track only a mile ahead. On the floor lay the pitiful engineer – dead? No, he looked passed out. An empty bottle of whiskey was still clamped in one hairy paw and he snored gustily.
Well, no matter. The boilers were still hot, but he had a few moments to spare to kick things up a notch or two. He booted open the firebox door and grabbed a shovel, and began tossing fresh coal into the firebox, stoking the fire as high as he could in the time he had. When he reckoned he’d topped it out as well as he could, he slammed shut the door and grabbed the regulator valve, pushing it with a grunt. It was difficult, the boiler pressure was now at maximum – but he managed. With a final yell, he shoved the regulator open all the way and was rewarded with a shriek of metal as the enormous metal wheels of the engine spun on the tracks, finally catching hold with a lurch.
And we’re off! Farson thought with satisfaction as the train began to accelerate. He’d remain here for a few minutes before he activated his crystal for his jump through time.
Just long enough to see the train reach the end of the track. He leaned out the window to catch the growing breeze, and to take in the view of the canyon at the end of the rail spur.
Christian Bloodlust lay immobile on the floor of the train car. His critically damaged cardiovascular system was working madly to compensate for the catastrophic loss of blood caused by the gunshot, but he knew the effort was pointless – Dibble’s shot had been critical. Clinically, he sensed the loss of blood pressure in his limbs manifesting itself in cold and numbness. He wondered how long he could last. Already his heart was tiring. Running out of blood to pump. Darkness began to cloud his vision.
“You boys better head on out. The Chief and I here have old business.” Rube chuckled. With a sudden movement too quick to be seen, he turned his aim to James and fired his pistol, the sudden blast lifting James’ custom hat from his head. James and Wardstein dropped to the floor behind some tables and began to crawl for the front of the car.
“Kyle!” Wardstein bellowed. “We gotta get outta here!”
“My HAT!” James added in outrage.
Sir Kyle stared at this person who’d dared to bushwhack Christian Bloodlust. He had no honour.
“No,” he said flatly.
“Kyle!!” Wardstein yelled.
“GO!” Sir Kyle called. His eyes never left Dibble. James and Wardstein pushed through the doorway at the entrance of the dining car.
Dibble laughed gently. “I like the sword – really, I do. I carried one in the war. But then I met Bloodlust, and he taught me everything I know about guns. Didn’t you, Bloodlust?”
“Like shooting a man in the back?”
Dibble looked over Kyle almost sympathetically. “I am the greatest pistoleer in the world. But Christian Bloodlust is the most dangerous man in the country. If I hadn’t taken him from behind like that – “
The Wells Fargo man shouted brief laughter.
“…then it would be me there on the floor, not him. Likely as not lacking for a skull. Now step aside. This is my last job, and you aren’t part of the contract – and when you sign a contract, you follow it. Bloodlust is all I want.”
Time slowed down as Sir Kyle watched him cock his pistol, settling the sight on Bloodlust’s struggling chest. He watched his finger flex, saw the tendon on his hand jump, squeezing the trigger to set fire to the bullet that would end Bloodlust’s life. Sir Kyle knew the battle rage had descended upon him once again.
Without thought for his own safety, he stepped towards the danger, spinning the hilt of the great Avenger, watched the blade hiss by his eyes and catching every increment of lantern light in the train car as it flew. Turning the blade over with his wrists, he saw the hammer drop on Dibble’s pistol as he fired, a tongue of orange flame belching from the pistol muzzle.
Just in time, the uppercutting blade of the Avenger intercepted the path of the bullet. It ricocheted harmlessly with a pong! That stung Sir Kyle’s hands. Dibble didn’t even flinch. He was a gunfighter before all things, and he was already re-cocking his hammer for another shot.
But Sir Kyle had never stopped moving. Lunging forward, he merely continued the swinging arc of the Avenger, and the razor-sharp blade caught Dibble beneath the chin, cleaving his face from his skull as neatly as a slice of meat at Sunday dinner. The gristly visage plopped wetly to the floor, and Dibble began to issue choking gurgles, his tongue waggling wildly where his mouth had been. One remaining blue eye stared in a fixture of permanent surprise, until it popped unrestrained from its reduced socket, dangling like a diseased grape on its optical nerve. Finally, the creature collapsed into a heap of offal with a wheeze.
Nearby, Bloodlust himself gasped, and Kyle dropped hastily to his side.
“You saved me,” Bloodlust managed.
“I live in service – of my king,” Kyle choked, his eyes spilling with tears.
Bloodlust looked him over a last time, almost fondly. “Truly. So a final service, Sir Knight: Save yourself.” He closed his eyes.
Sir Kyle stood up, looking out the window. Another sign had flown by:
END OF TRACK, ½ MILE
He threw the Avenger over his shoulder, barbarian-style. He thought Wardstein would have approved. He got moving.
Wardstein and James perched on a mountain of coal in the coal car, squnting into the growing wind of the train. James wasn’t altogether unhappy that he’d lost his hat after all – he’d decided that this wind was probably billowing his hair in a very attractive fashion. He wished some female passengers were around to look at him, but you can’t have everything.
“Look!” Wardstein yelled. “Farson is at the front of the train!”
“And – woahhh! We’re headed right for that gorge!” James cried. He and Wardstein gaped at the massive canyon inconveniently situated at the end of the train track.
Over the whipping wind, Farson somehow heard the shouting adventurerers. “That’s right, you – you, stinking poofs!” he shrieked with glee.
“We are NOT poofs!” Wardstein roared. “But I can’t dispute the rest!”
“You’re going down, Wardstein! Not me, though!” Farson held aloft his crystal and set about to activate it. “You too, James! Happy landings!”
And that’s when the Goblin Dagger severed Farson’s hand neatly at the wrist, the appendage flying into the wind, forever. Farson’s eyes bugged at his squirting stump.
“Let me give you a hand with that, Farson!” James called, his hand to his mouth. “And it’s ‘Archduke’, you piece of human buttwipe! Wait, no. Subhuman! Subhuman buttwipe!”
An arrow thumped into Farson’s groin, and he shrieked lustily. “And I’ll – ah, I got nothing!” Wardstein yelled. He knocked another arrow in the Elvish Longbow and set it fly, this time taking Farson in the forehead with the magical bow. His body swayed momentarily and then slumped to the deck.
“Why the groin first, Wardstein?”
“Because! I thought it would hurt more!”
There was a shout, and behind them, at the door to the last car stood Sir Kyle, waving to attract their attention.
“Kyle! Come on!” Wardstein roared. “e gotta get out of here!” James dug into his pocket, retreiving the crystals, passing one to Wardstein.
Another sign swept past.
END OF TRACK, 1/4 MILE
“Cripes, there’s no time – Kyle! Catch it!” Sir James reached back with his best tomato-throwing pitch and heaved the last crystal to Kyle – but it fell short, landing in a pile of coal in the middle of the car.
“Come on! Run for it Kyle! You can make it!” Wardstein urged.
Kyle heard a scream, and looked behind. Dozens of passengers pressed against the windows of the car, staring in horror at the approaching canyon.
All those people, Sir Kyle thought. It took a fraction of a second to make up his mind. Whipping free the Avenger from his shoulder, he jammed the mithral tip of the blade into the pin securing the passenger cars to the engine, and levered.
“Gwahhh!” he groaned. With a squeal of metal, the pin slid partially free.
“Kyle, no!! What are you doing?” James screamed.
Sir Kyle jammed the tip of the Avenger into the base of the pin and pushed again with his last increment of strength. With a final ping! the pin popped free. He straightened, and rested his hand on what he knew to be the manual braking lever. He looked at his friends standing on the coal car one last time. A man’s past deeds defend him, he thought. Then he pulled the lever as hard as he could.
Sparks flew the length of the train as all the wheels locked, throwing every passenger inside to the floor. Ahead, the unencumbered engine suddenly accelerated away from the rest of the train, and Kyle knew he had succeeded.
Disappearing behind them, Wardstein saw Sir Kyle raise his hand in farewell, but only for a moment, as he then felt a lurch beneath his feet. Turning, he looked and saw the nose of the train blast through a pile of dirt heaped at the end of the track, and just beyond that lay the limitless depths of the canyon. He and James exchanged looks.
“Jump!” they cried together, leaping free from the train just as they felt it drop from beneath their feet. Wardstein turned in the air, his coat flapping around his legs like batwings, seeing his hat flip up and away from his head, first twenty feet, now fifty feet above him in a blink.
He activated the crystal and everything went white.
Wardstein opened his eyes with a groan. Something was spinning above him, high over his head. Not more vultures, he complained inwardly. But no, it was a device of some kind he didn’t recognize. It seemed to be directing air over him in a not-unpleasant fashion. And he was indoors, the odd device was mounted to the ceiling.
Sitting up, he saw James blinking awake on the floor nearby. He wondered vaguely why every time they awaken from a jump, they’re lying on the ground. At least he wasn’t nude this time, he noticed. He was wearing some kind of garment he didn’t recognize.
“Wakey-wakey,” McStogey said. He was seated nearby in a leather chair with a drink in his hand. Looked like whiskey. Wardstein wanted some. “I took the liberty of dressing you while you were unconscious. Much better than putting on cast-offs at the house of some elderly pervert,” he laughed.
“What is all this?” Wardstein demanded, looking at himself. It seemed foppish.
“It’s called a ‘suit’, Wardstein. Not of armour, just a suit. Men of respect wear them these days.”
“And what are ‘these days’? This doesn’t look like the Great Castle to me.”
“Well, it isn’t. You actually are now even farther in the future than before.”
James sat up, cursing. “Swell! So where are we now? Hum. I actually sort of like my – you said it’s just called a ‘suit’? – It’s got cornflower blue accenting here that I appreciate.”
“Yes, that’s the tie. Glad you like it, all the men here wear them.”
“Wait – everybody has these? Wait a gotdang second!”
“I meant here at the office, they all do. But not every man, of course not. And also, your suit is made from only the finest wools and silks.” James relaxed, secure with the knowledge that he probably was wearing the best suit around.
Wardstein rose to his feet. “What’s the office?”
McStogey stood, and swept his hand to a nearby window. “Gentlemen, allow me to present to you the city of London, England. It is now 1941. The Great Castle, believe it or not, is not far from here.”
“Wow, neato!” Wardstein cried.
“It was converted to a lunatic asylum some decades ago.”
“And you are standing in the offices of Military Intelligence, Section 6. We provide His Majesty with foreign intelligence. And His Highness has never needed it more than in these dark latter days.”
“Intelligence? Well, good thing I don’t see Sir Kyle. That might be a problem!” James joked. “Where is he, anyway?
Sir Kyle trudged along the train tracks from where he’d come. Behind him, passengers disembarked and shaded their eyes to the sun. Now nearly mid-day, and surprise – it was hot again.
Something caught Sir Kyle’s eye, and he bent over, collecting it from the sands. Holding it up, he saw that it was unmistakably Farson’s hand, severed for probably a really good reason. It was still wrapped like a spider around his crystal, which glowed brightly even now under the noonday sun. Kyle smiled, and wondered fondly what joke James would have for this occasion. He slipped the crystal into his pocket and flapped the hand around like a puppet, his lips moving as he tried some possible jokes.
“I knowed you was different. Knowed it the second I laid eyes on you.”
Sir Kyle jumped, squinting into the sun, and saw Red. The white horse she stood astride knickered gently and she patted its dusty cheek.
“Yeah. My daddy always said I’d know the right man when he come along.”
“Who’s your daddy? And what does he do?”
“Gone, praise gawd. But he schooled me.”
“Bet he did.”
Red paused. “ I know youse different, but you a bad man?”
Kyle thought a bit. “What do you think?”
“I’m sure I don’t know.”
“What are you up to just now?”
“Came to see the show, I guess. Goin back to town maybe if you want a ride.”
“I expect I might.”
“You sure you ain’t no bad man?”
“Hell no, I ain’t no bad man. Now – be a sugar and reach me that gunbelt off that dead Cowboy there. I’m out of shells and I might need to kill some more guys on our way back to town.”
Kyle wiped the sweat from his face. Everything was so much work here. Saul only had one horse for riding, he said, so the men had spent the last twenty minutes or so retrieving and fitting some sort of wagon-like cart.
“Tell us about this gang, whatever they are called,” James said to Saul. “I forget what it was.”
“Oh, them. I can’t remember their name right now either, for some reason. But they are a thorn in this particular side of the desert. They showed up about 4 years back, I reckon. It had been peaceful here, for a while. Peaceful as it can be with them savages runnin’ ‘round, I s’pose. But then they came and ruined it.” He spat. “Two brothers. Clinton and Jesse. At first they was no big deal. Amateurs, really. Takin’ the odd head of cattle or maybe some raggedy horse here and there. But then something changed in Jesse. Clinton still stayed the same mule-braying stupid sorry sumbitch he always was, but Jesse… Jesse became mean. His eyes changed.”
“Did you mean to say ‘two’ brothers? I mean, brothers is plural, yeah? Implies two. I think if there were more than two you might need to qualify a number, but otherwise…” Kyle shrugged.
“…And he is always like this?” the farmer asked James and Wardstein.
“Unfortunately,” Wardstein said.
“He’s often worse,” James added.
Saul shook his head. “I s’pose with a head looking like that he’s prolly lucky.” He looked back at Kyle and crossed himself.
“Which one of you boys aims to drive this thing?” he asked them.
“You don’t aim to drive,” Kyle scoffed. “You use those flat ropes on the horses’ faces.”
“I’ll drive the stupid thing,” Wardstein said. “How hard can it be?”
“It ain’t hard, but it takes a firm hand. These are my only draft horses, mind, so you need to be careful. Shouldn’t be too hard, we will keep a slow pace.”
“Whatever,” Wardstein told him.
The man looked hard at Wardstein, squinting.
“My pa said to trust your gut, and to be careful who you show your back to. He was of the opinion that an untrustworthy man should just be shot and done with.” His hands hovered near his belt.
Wardstein yawned. “Your ‘pa’ talked a lot. My father did, too. Told me to respect my elders. I had him encased in stone and placed as a statue on my property. That’s pretty respectful. He’s right up front, near the fountain. Not center, mind. I have one of myself there. But you can see him from the gate, if you know where to look. And the cherry trees aren’t in bloom.”
The two men looked at each other long and hard. Kyle could feel the tension rising. He needed to diffuse the situation.
“Hey Wardstein, your dad isn’t dead. You told me last week that you wanted to carve something for him for his birthday. A pig or something.”
Wardstein growled and turned his glare to Kyle. Normalcy was returning. “I told you that in confidence! And it isn’t a pig, it is a boar. There is a big difference!”
“I am pretty sure the only difference is the name,” Kyle said. “Semantics.”
“One is delicious, the other is manly and delicious.”
James piped up. “You wanna carve for your dad`s birthday? Hahaha. What a joke. Awww, wittle Wardstein make a wittle toy piggy for his daddy? How cutesy wootsy.” He laughed loudly, and pointed at Wardstein for good measure. Saul joined in with an audible chuckle, which seemed to enrage Wardstein further.
“The boar is a majestic creature, not a piggy! And carving is a masculine thing to do!”
“Oh, maybe skull carvings is pretty badass, but you are carving like…plants.”
“I’m carving mahogany. One of the most beautiful woods known to man.”
“Which came from a tree. Which is a plant. Which means you are carving a plant.”
Kyle nodded. He had to agree with James, the logic was flawless. Wardstein growled again. He looked at Kyle.
“This is all your fault, stupid.”
“You told them about the carving.”
“That’s enough,” the farmer piped up. “Y’all are like a bunch of wrens arguin’ over whether they saw an eagle and not seein’ the snake creepin’ up on them.”
“Why are all your metaphors so long?”
“Enough! Get in the dang wagon. Socrates is chafin’.”
“Socrates isn’t the only thing chafing,” Wardstein muttured, adjusting his ill-fitting clothes as he took his seat at the wagons head.
“Yah! Or whatever it is you say!” he yelled, shaking at the face ropes. The horses remained motionless.
“Stop slappin’ my horses in the face! Take those reins and hold them firm.”
Wardstein did as he said.
“Good. Now loosen them just a bit and cluck your tongue.”
Wardstein again followed instructions, and the wagon lurched into motion as the horses began moving. Saul nudged his horse on after them.
“10 miles to Tombstone or thereabouts,” Saul said. “By sundown, I reckon. If’n you can keep from squawkin’ at each other, that is.”
“Well that’s unlikely,” James said.
“Pretty much impossible,” Kyle agreed.
“Don’t interrupt me, peasant!” James screamed.
“I am not a peasant. You Knighted me.”
“I can un-Knight you.”
“I don’t think you can. Your dad, maybe.”
“He’d do it if I asked him to!”
“No, he definitely wouldn’t. He complimented me!”
“He said your head wound looked ‘less festering’. That’s not a compliment.”
“He didn’t even talk to you!”
“We don’t need to talk! We have a connection! He’s my Dad!”
“His constant shame.” This got a laugh from Wardstein
“Shut-up! I’ll take your sword!”
“I don’t even have it.”
“When we get back!”
The wagon rolled on into the desert.
After many hours of bumping through the desert, the wagon rounded the corner of a long ravine and the men were able to make out the nearby outskirts of a town, shimmering in the distance like a vision through a crystal.
“Thar she be, boys,” Saul announced. “Tombstone. Not what she was only a few years ago, but still the place to be. I reckon you’ll find what you need here.”
Wardstein took in the view, generally unimpressed. He’d seen much nicer cities on his various crusades through Europe. He saw a collection of shacks and low wooden buildings that would be at home in the lands of Georg. “Saul, I’m glad I allowed you to live, we never would have gotten this far without your aid,” he allowed, wondering if now was perhaps the best time to leave his corpse in the dust. They had the horses and wagon, after all. He looked at James, who was making throat-cutting gestures and nodding at Saul. Making up his mind, he got his hands into strangling position, and –
“Yep, besides some more clothes, you gotta git some guns,” Saul remarked, patting his belt. He did that a lot.
“What for?” James wondered. Smoking noisemakers were something he was accustomed to seeing on festive occasions back at the castle. “Is today a holiday?”
Saul stared. “Holiday…? Fellers, around here you may as well be nekkid if you don’t got no guns. Those Cowboys you saw will be back. And you wanna be able to shoot one in the face when you see one.” He drew one of his noisemakers from his belt, pointing it at a nearby cactus as they passed. There was another tremendous blast, and the “head” of the cactus exploded into pieces.
“What was that?!” Sir Kyle cried. He had been sleeping facedown in the back of the wagon. He desperately hoped that he hadn’t soiled himself in surprise – his new pantaloons wouldn’t conceal the mess like his armour did. He patted himself over and breathed a sigh of relief. He was okay – for now.
Watching the cloud of smoke dissipate, Wardstein now understood the possible applications of the gun after this demonstration. It was like a noisier, way better bow and arrow. He lowered his hands from strangling position. “Saul, we can get some guns in Tombstone?”
“Hail yes. How be I drop you boys at the Mercantile up ahead? Anything you want is in there, guns, food, everthing.”
“That would be fine and dandy,” James drawled, dropping again into Saul’s weird, but sort of agreeable lingo. He noticed with growing excitement that various articles of clothing were arranged in the shop windows. Maybe an upgrade was possible! He leaped from the wagon and fairly sprinted through the front door of the Mercantile.
Saul watched him go. “Well, I guess this is us,” he said. “I’ll head over to the Tombstone Hotel to play a few hands and then make my way back home. You boys can join me later if you like.” Before Wardstein was able to kill him, he clucked at his horses and was off. He’ll keep, Wardstein thought. Maybe I can try out my new gun on him later. He and Sir Kyle clumped inside the Mercantile, where James had already discovered new clothes better suited to his taste. He was looking at himself in the mirror, sporting a black, wide-brimmed hat with a royal blue headband and a black ankle-length cloak. “And look, a beau veston! James crowed, showing off the fine silk.
Wardstein had spotted something much more interesting. Behind the clerks counter were rows and rows of guns. Both small ones like the kind Saul had carried, and really long ones. The elderly clerk greeted him with a smile. “May I help you sir?” he wheezed.
“We’re looking to go kill some men,” Wardstein began. “I understand that they are called ‘Cowboys’, and a man who gave us a bag of clothes told us we need to be able to shoot them in the face.”
The clerk goggled, but only for a second. He’d seen all types. “Well, how about this?” He reached behind, lifting a long, thick piece and laying it on the countertop. “That’s a sawn-off Wells Fargo 10 gauge shotgun. They used this on the wagon trains as Injun repellant.” He wheezed laughter. “I imagine if you shot a Cowboy in the face with one of these, you’d get your desired result.”
Wardstein always desired results. He examined the two gigantic bores of the shotgun with approval. It was his kind of weapon. “I’ll take it. I also want a small one for my belt, like Saul had.”
“Of course,” Wardstein sneered loudly. “What else could I mean?” The clerk shrugged and laid a large pistol belt on his countertop. “There you go. Colt Peacemaker. Cavalry model for you, big fellow. You look like you’d prefer the long barrel.” Wardstein drew the pistol from the belt, admiring the beautiful black steel.
Sir Kyle had already made up his mind. “I want the small ones too. The, uh, pistols. Can I have two of them?”
The clerk tipped him a wink. “I have a matched pair. But they’re dear,” he warned. “The only set I have, but they are extra fancy grade.”
“I want extra fancy too!” James complained, clocking over to the counter in a new pair of boots.
Sir Kyle pulled both pistols from the offered belt, gaping at their incredible beauty. They looked like they’d never been used. Extra fancy, the shopkeep had said – and they were. The polished white steel glowed under the gaslights as he turned them over in his hands, marvelling that the hand of man could create such instruments. They felt like they’d been made just for him. He read the inscription stamped into the barrels: “Colt Peacemaker, Single Action Army .45.” Weapons fit for a knight, Kyle thought.
The clerk smiled proudly. “They’re nickel plated for the looks. With genuine elephant ivory grips, gunfighter length four-inch barrels. They are almost presentation-grade weaponry.” Sir Kyle was already strapping the belt around his waist.
“Now me!” James yelled. He slapped the countertop. “I want the most powerful gun you’ve got.”
“Pistol or long gun?”
James looked over Wardstein’s menacing shotgun. “A long one, to start,” he said.
The clerk turned, reaching the longest weapon down from the rack, placing it before James. “Sharp’s rifle. 36 inch octagon barrel, single shot. .45-120 caliber with sharpshooter buffalo sights. Oiled American black walnut stocks, inlaid with ebony, commemorative golden medallion, and a row of panther teeth indicating each buffalo the rifle took in its career before the previous owner was killed during a poker game. I have to say that nobody I’ve ever met has ever needed such – “
James hefted the rifle from the counter. “It’s mine!” he exclaimed, pointing the massive rifle out the window. He saw a woman in a long dress walking by, and he tracked her movement through the elaborate sight, giggling in excitement. “Now a small one too. Extra-fancy,” he specified menacingly.
The clerk laid a final belt on his counter. “This is the only fancy grade pistol I have left,” he said. “Colt Lightning. Nickel plated as well, but a shorty 3 inch barrel and bird’s head grips.” James whipped it from the belt, pointing it around the room. “Did you hear that, boys? I have the power of lightning!”
The clerk was writing down a list of numbers with a quill, apparently doing some difficult maths while Wardstein and Sir Kyle obtained hats and ankle-length cloaks of their own around the store.
“If that’s everything, gentlemen – this is quite the order, may I say…can we settle on say…sixty-two dollars?” He looked over his glasses to see Wardstein aiming his shotgun at his face.
“You’re not going to believe this, but I’ve waited hundreds of years for this,” Wardstein said. He pulled the trigger.
James and Kyle braced themselves for a deafening explosion…but there came only silence. Wardstein kept his shotgun trained on the clerk’s face, winced, and then jostled the weapon as he continued to manipulate its two slack triggers. “ERNNN!” he grunted in frustration. “This thing’s BROKEN!”
The man behind the counter shook his head and chuckled as he dipped his pen and began scratching out the articles of clothing the men had grabbed from his list of inventory. “Hundreds of years, you say? Hoo-wee! I’ve had some odd ducks pass through this place, but I think you boys just set a new bar! Though hell, I’ll sell to ducks, dogs, horses, chickens, or any goddamn critter, so long as they spend as well as you folks!”
Behind, Kyle instantly called to mind strange images of well-dressed farm animals who were clumsily dropping gold and silver coins through their wings, paws and hooves, and ‘screaming’ in exasperation. James turned and saw the knight’s eyes widening in horror and quickly pieced together what was going on. “Relax, Kyle. Pretty sure that was a figure of speech.”
The shopkeeper looked up and smiled at Wardstein, who was now closing one eye and looking down the muzzles for obstructions. “Boy, if you ain’t on Vaudeville, you oughtta be, ‘cause this here would bring the house down! A grown man not knowing to pull back the hammers on a shotgun ‘fore he shoots it! That’d have everybody just tickled! You are just a hoot!”
Wardstein examined his weapon and took note of two protruding metal things that looked to him like spurs rather than hammers. But seeing nothing else, he thumbed them back. “Hmmph. I knew that. It’s just that this is my first…Fargoo shotgun. So I’m not used to…hammers.”
“Farg-GOO?! It’s Far-GO, son! As in, you’d have to GO pretty FAR to find a shotgun that’ll work without hammers! Hee-hee!”
“Gahhh!!” yelled Wardstein, aiming at the clerk’s face again. “I knew THAT, too!” The shotgun then emitted two metallic ‘clinks’ and behind the Baron, James and Kyle’s shoulders tensed again.
“–just like you knew you forgot to ask for shells too, I suppose? Hee-hee! Boy, I tell you: Tombstone’s mining has all but dried up, but the theatre can still draw a crowd! This town’d just love to see you in a folly! How many shells you need, fella?”
Wardstein noticed Kyle and James snickering now and he huffed in frustration. “ONE! One shell!”
“Edgar?!” someone suddenly shrieked. Alarmed, the Baron turned and saw a woman he presumed was the shopkeeper’s wife standing wide-eyed in a doorway that led to a back room.
“–TWO shells!” Wardstein amended.
“Edgar, I’ll–I’ll get the sheriff!”
“Now-now, it’s okay, Martha,” said the clerk. “I’m not about to call sheriff McKeegan on our best customers to date! Plus, the big one here is a Vaudevillian! You just go on sweeping the back room like I asked you, now.”
“Wardstein, you hear that?” asked James, casually adjusting the brim on his new hat. “He called you a Vaudevillian! I don’t know quite what it means, but I know he thinks it’s funny. You going to take that? Him laughing at you?”
“My goodness, we don’t get many celebrities in here!” the woman brightened, shuffling quickly behind the counter to the man’s side.
“MARTHA! Now don’t you make me tell you twice! These good folks are paying customers in a hurry, and there’s a reason you sweep and dust instead of work the register! You know you can’t keep from blabberin!”
“Now don’t you mind this old billy goat, strangers! He’s all bluster, he is!” Wardstein, Kyle and James watched the woman pull at one of the straps that were slung over the clerk’s shoulders and fastened to either side of his trousers and let it snap back. The man shuddered and his face reddened. “You just give him one of those if ever gets too much for you! Hoo-hoo!”
“Martha, I’m warning you! Get back and finish that sweeping!”
“Oh, you hush! Wardstein, was it? Now that’s a lovely name! This here is mister Cameron. Edgar. ‘Course, everybody calls him Eddy! Isn’t that right, Eddy? And I’m Missus Cameron! Or Martha, if you prefer. Oh, but silly me, you already knew that, didn’t you!” She giggled and batted her eyelashes, raising her hand near to Wardstein’s chin. “Charmed, I’m sure!”
“Look out, Wardstein!” Kyle cried, pointing at Mrs. Cameron. “She’s CHARMED!”
Upon hearing the knight’s exclamation, Wardstein reflexively executed a one-two combination by batting the hand away with his non-functioning shotgun and then throwing a devastating jab into the center of the woman’s face. She was thrown violently backwards, where her head slammed into a shiny, copper box that emitted a loud DING! sound as she bounced off of it and to the floor. Kyle stared in disbelief when, as if my magic, a drawer then opened quite on its own!
“See that?!” said Kyle. “I had a feeling she was a witch!”
“HOO-HOO-WEE!” Edgar yelled, grinning at down at his unconscious wife. “Yer goddamn right, she is! Hot damn! You know how long I’ve been waiting to give her one of those? I almost feel bad taking your money!”
“Oh, we don’t have any money,” said Kyle flatly.
“Hmmm, no money, you say?” Edgar scratched at the whiskers on his chin reflectively. “Well hell, I like you boys! Tell you what—I’ll run y’all a tab and you can pay me when you can! And hold on a minute, hold on!” Turning, he quickly scrambled from one shelf to the next, loading his arms with brown boxes of various sizes. He set them down on the glass of his countertop. “Here—all the ammunition you’ll need for those fancy new weapons of yours! And hell, pick out some nice boots n’ spurs while you’re at it. And a bandolier each! Right there, on the hooks behind you! Go on, free of charge!”
“That is very kind of you!” said James, spinning the cylinder of his new revolver. “Though, fair warning—we will most likely not repay the debt you’re imposing.”
“Hey, you’re funny too! Hee-hee! Nope, nope—you can’t kid a kidder. I know you boys are good for it!”
“No, seriously,” Wardstein added. “We’d rather just blow your head apart and be done with it.”
“Guys, maybe he’s just crazy?” whispered Kyle. “Let’s just take our stuff and go, huh?”
James and Wardstein nodded, realizing they’d rather enjoy what Tombstone had to offer before they started eliminating its residents. They then grabbed the items offered them and made for the door.
The men walked out of the gun shop with arms full and headed over to Saul’s wagon to unload their purchases.
“Time to get changed,” Wardstein said, and marched behind a nearby building already taking off his ill-fitted shirt.
James looked at Kyle, then over towards where Wardstein had gone.
“I think I’ll go see if Eddy has a place where I can change,” he said before turning around and heading into the store.
Kyle tugged at the oddly checkered shirt he was wearing and shrugged. It fit okay. He had gotten a bunch of clothes to fit in with the others, but he didn’t really feel he needed them. He started strolling on towards the middle of town. The whole settlement was only one street so he felt that the others would find him easily enough. Slowly strapping on the belt the store owner had given him, he approached the building Saul had gone into. “Tombstone Hotel” the sign above it read in Gothic-like letters. Stopping outside he fumbled with his ‘guns’ until he eventually got them in their little pockets. Satisfied, he patted their shiny handles.
“You quick with those, mister?” A small boy, perhaps seven or eight, had approached unseen while Kyle had been messing with his belt. He was looking at Kyle with the innocence only a child can muster. So young. So stupid, Kyle thought and smiled.
“I reckon I am, yeah,” he said. This would be a perfect opportunity to try and fit in.
“They look mighty fine,” the boy said, eyes still wide.
“Extra-fancy,” Kyle confirmed. He pulled one out of its little pocket and showed the boy, who let out a low whistle.
“You must be somethin’ special, mister. You ever kill a man?”
Kyle nodded and the boy gasped. Kyle wasn’t sure how to feel about that, it was conflicting. He hadn’t enjoyed killing those men, it had just seemed necessary. Of course hindsight easily showed that it was not, but still.
“William James Finch! Get back here!”
The boy flinched and looked back towards the woman who had yelled and was now approaching the two of them. She was tall, with red hair. Her shirt seemed unaccountably tight around her stomach, though it produced pleasing results just a little farther north. Kyle watched, entranced, as she approached.
“William Finch!” she started again once she was closer, “What in God’s name are you doing? Didn’t I tell you not to go running around talking with strangers?”
“Yes, ma,” the boy said dejectedly.
The woman looked Kyle up and down, then made a noise in her throat.
“Even though this town has dried up, you hardcases still come through, scaring decent folk.”
“You are very pretty,” Kyle said.
“Well…thank you. But you might choose a better time to flatter a lady then when you have a gun pointed at her son.”
Kyle looked down to see she wasn’t lying. The barrel of his gun was pointed squarely at the boy and mere inches from his face.
“Sorry,” he said, and put it away. “Better?”
“You are very pretty,” he told her again.
“Damn hardcases,” she said, turning away. Kyle thought he had seen her blush.
“Let’s go William,” she said, tugging the boy along. He turned to follow, but a noise from the bar grabbed the attention of both of them and they stopped to look. The mostly ineffective doors to the building had crashed open and a rough looking man was stumbling out from them, shouting.
“This town is dead!” he shouted. “Dead!” he repeated for good measure. He stopped and scanned the streets, his eyes resting on Kyle, the woman and her son.
“Well, well, well. What do we have here?” he sneered at them. The man walked towards them, leering at the woman. “Fine lady like yourself…” He trailed off, licking his lips. He came to a stop before them. Kyle could smell the alcohol. “I reckon you’ll be coming with me,” he said, grabbing at the woman’s wrist. Her son stepped up and in the way, knocking the man’s arm away, and receiving a violent cuff to the head in return. He fell heavily and lay sprawled out on the dusty ground.
“Don’t you ever hit my son!” the woman screamed at him.
“Don’t worry none, I can help you make a new urchin. One that knows his place.” He reached out again to grab the woman, but this time Kyle was the one who knocked his arm away. He was a Knight, after all. He let the kid have his shot, but now it was time for adults.
“And just what in the hell do you think you’re doing, stranger?” the man asked him in a quiet voice.
Kyle mimicked him. “I’d say that’s pretty obvious, pardner” he drawled.
“You fixin’ for a fight?” The man had taken a few steps back and was resting his hand on his hip near his guns.
Kyle realized that this had been the point all along. He had been played like a small instrument. He decided that he would play well.
“I reckon I am.” He imitated the other man’s pose. The exchange had gathered a crowd from the bar and the surrounding streets. Kyle saw Saul watching intently. He spied James off to the side, practicing spinning his pistol on a finger. It was a cool move. Wardstein was not immediately visible, but Kyle caught a glimpse of him from the corner of his eye heading towards another one of the towns prominent buildings. A man had needs, Kyle knew.
“You picked a fine day to die, greenhorn,” the man told him.
Thank you. I am a bit of an amateur astrologist,” Kyle said with pride. “But I have no plans on dying here and now, friend.”
The man growled. “10 paces.”
“Be careful, sonny,” Saul yelled at him. “He’s the 17th fastest gun in the West. Plus or minus two. Ranking such things is dicey, admittedly.”
Kyle swallowed hard. It had been his experience that he usually topped out at about the top 25 of anything. Nothing to be ashamed of, certainly, but not elite.
“10 paces.” He nodded.
He looked at the red haired woman who was biting her lip nervously, her son at her side. Good to see the scamp was okay, Kyle thought to himself. Not everyone had as solid a noggin as he did. Turning his back to the man Kyle started walking. He started walking and felt dread envelop him on the very first step. After the debacle Wardstein had went through he was nervous about making some similar mistake. Only this time instead of it saving a man’s life it would cost a different man his. Worse, Kyle was that man. He could feel his hair rising. Six paces in he felt like running and never turning back, but then something odd happened. A deep calm came over him. His mind’s eye saw the scene behind him. The open mouths of in the crowd. The woman with her hands over her son’s eyes. The man taking his eighth pace. And his ninth. Kyle’s foot hit the ground for the tenth time and he spun easily, fluidly releasing the gun from its little pocket and letting the ivory handle melt into his hand. His other hand reached across his body and met with perfect synchronicity at his waist. A single shot rang out. Kyle checked his body for holes. A smattering of applause came from the crowd, and Kyle saw Saul and the woman with her son approaching him.
“Whoo-hee,” Saul said, removing his hat. “I ain’t never in a million years woulda seen that a comin’. You done took him in the neck!”
“So much blood,” the boy said woodenly.
“He didn’t even get his pistol clear, son! My word!”
“Thank you so much, stranger,” the woman said to him, laying a hand on his shoulder. “I am in your debt. I run the cathouse ‘round these parts. Name is Ms. Finch. Most people just call me Red.”
“That’s unoriginal,” he told her.
“Maybe so. But you come by my place before you leave town. I’ll make sure to fix you up with a bed and a shower. And other comforts.” She winked at him and giggled and turned to leave, dragging her grey-faced son with her.
“What’s all the fuss about?” James asked casually. “And who is the bird?”
“You didn’t see it?!” Saul asked incredulously.
“Nah,” James said. “But check this out!” He pulled his gun out and twirled it. The gun did a neat loop around his finger, but had too much speed and ended up clattering on the ground. “…shut up.”
Chandeliers hung from the heavy rafters of the main salon of the of the Tombstone Hotel, winking dimly through drifting clouds of cigar smoke. Below, patrons of the establishment lounged on stuffed furniture around the fireplace, gambled at cards at nearby gaming tables, or gathered around rustic tables in the dining area. Decorations such as these were new to James and Sir Kyle, but bars were the same the world over, and apparently a timeless addition to any recreational facility, so they bellied up to what was familiar, slapping the countertop for the attention of the barman.
Sir Kyle had decided to immerse himself once more in local culture. “Barkeep, I should like a, ‘coffee’,” he ordered. After the shopping trip and subsequent gunfight, he was needing a bit of a boost. He wished he could acquire this magical elixir back home. He wondered if perhaps time travel back to his home time might permit transport of material goods. His heart began to pound thinking that maybe –
“–No coffee,” the barkeep grunted.
“Whaddaya mean, ‘no coffee?’” James seethed. He whipped his Lightning from his belt. “My little friend here says there is.”
The barkeep was nonplussed. This was Tombstone, after all. “Brewed mornings only. Be lots more tomorrow morning.”
Sir Kyle slumped in defeat. He hadn’t realized how much he’d been counting on that drink. He didn’t know if they’d even be here in the morning. “And plus, killing is thirsty work,” he continued his thought aloud. James nodded, understanding that Sir Kyle didn’t realize that nobody else could hear his thoughts.
Wardstein arrived, looking dishevelled but satisfied. He felt validated with the decision to visit Tombstone, and was beginning to entertain thoughts of permanent residency. “Lads,” he remarked. Sensing tension, he straightened to his full height, leather adornments creaking. “What the hell is going on here?”
“Barkeep says Sir Kyle can’t have a drink.” James hissed, easing his pistol reluctantly back into his belt.
“That’s a complete prevarication,” the bartender said. The men stared. “Calumniation.” The men looked at each other in confusion. Wardstein shrugged, reached for the shotgun slung across his shoulder.
“A lie,” the barkeep barked.
“You talk funny, but not funny like the rest of the people in this place,” Wardstein told him.
“Private school education,” the bartender shrugged. “Anyway, no coffee, no. But we do have something else to perk your spirits. It’s absolutely new, guaranteed to refresh and restore.” He squatted beneath his counter, clinking about with the contents of an ice chest he retained behind the bar, at last withdrawing a long, darkened bottle. He whipped an instrument from his belt, applied it to the top of the bottle, and to the amazement of the men, managed to decork the little metal cap with one slick movement. There was a hiss, and the little cap flew into the sawdust at the men’s feet.
“It’s called, ‘Coca-Cola’. Restores vigor. A tonic to cure headache, impotence, and opiate addiction.”
Sir Kyle’s eyes popped. The wonders of this place never ceased. “Sold,” he said, slapping the bar. The bottle slid into his hand. Poking back his hat brim, he tipped the bottle down his throat, taking pull after pull of the ice cold elixir. At last, spent, he took the bottle from his lips, eyes watering.
“Well?” James prodded.
Amazing, Sir Kyle thought. Tingling bolts of energy radiated from his belly, up his throat, and down his limbs to his fingers and toes. His entire musculature fairly hummed with power and energy. His vision, already improved, sharpened to such a magical degree that he thought he could actually count splinters protruding from the woodwork behind the bar. He felt prepared to kill everybody in the room, should that become required. He felt the earth move, and it was still moving. It was the greatest drink he’d ever tasted, and he knew immediately he wanted more. As soon as possible.
“Not bad,” he wheezed. He belched suddenly, and Wardstein laughed in happy surprise. He loved a good burp.
A man approached, boots jingling, clapping Sir Kyle on the shoulder. “Son, you have no idea what you’ve done,” he said.
“You’re in a world of trouble after gunning down that McHackinly …McHackley…ah, that Cowboy in the street. I’m the Sherriff. McKeegan.”
“Well, it had to be done, had to be done. Man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do. Fellow messed with the wrong kid and his mother named Red who doesn’t want another urchin, am I right or am I right likesay?” Sir Kyle babbled.
“Easy, Kyle,” Wardstein smiled.
“His first Coca-Cola,” the bartender explained.
McKeegan continued. “The man you killed, he’s part of the Cowboy gang. The Earp boys mostly took care of them back in the vendetta days, but they only took to ground for a while. The Earps left, but the Cowboys came back. You killed Sonny McHackl…McH…uh, you killed Sonny. And he’s a piece of work. His boys will be out for blood. And there are a lot of them.” Outside the hotel, the men observed a few people loading Sonny’s corpse into a wagon.
“We’ve heard speak of these ‘Cowboys’ before. We will shoot them all in the face,” said Wardstein. James and Kyle nodded agreement, drawing their pistols for emphasis.
The Sherriff looked them over speculatively, stroking his goatee. The Cowboys were a growing problem, and he lacked for men of a certain – providence.
“You boys are good with the iron, are you?”
“We’re good with all kinds of metals,” Wardstein grated.
“Then follow me.”
McKeegan pushed open the Tombstone Hotel’s doors and stepped onto the muddy boardwalk. Kyle followed closely behind and watched the Sheriff reach into his vest and produce a leather pouch. Opening it, he then pinched some of its contents onto a small piece of paper and deftly rolled it into a tight little cylinder, which he placed between his lips. He turned to the knight and raised an eyebrow, observing that he had filled the ‘little pockets’ of his gun belt with two unopened bottles of Coca-Cola and was now holding each of his six-shooters at the ready. The Sheriff cleared his throat.
“Listen, fella, I—wait, what did you say your name was again?”
“Didn’t. It’s Kyle. Or Sir Kyle, if you like. I suppose I’ve been plain ol’ Kyle for longer, so maybe—“
“–Kyle will do fine. Listen, by gunning down Sonny McHaskinly, you’ve really booted a hornet’s nest. The only reason you don’t have an appointment with the noose is because a few witnesses I questioned said it was Sonny who instigated. A fair fight. Even though he was drunk as a skunk.”
“I guess I’m lucky Archduke James wasn’t there at the time,” Kyle replied. “He doesn’t like to leave witnesses.”
“Yeah, the one in there who tried to make coffee appear by pointing his pistol at the bartender? Impulsive as all hell. Used to getting his way. The other one, Wardstein? Mean. And he’s a Baron when we’re from. I mean…where we’re from. You didn’t hear nothin’, you hear?”
The Sheriff paused a moment and watched Kyle blink rapidly at him. “Boy, I’m going to have Doc Winters pay you a visit. Maybe have a gander at that head of yours. Smells kind of ripe, if you don’t mind my sayin’.” McKeegan removed the paper cylinder from his mouth and placed it in Kyle’s. He then struck a match off the checkered grip of his own pistol and set it alight for him. “Here, take a haul off o’ this. Nothing like a cigarette to settle the nerves.”
Kyle puffed manically and inhaled the fragrant smoke. Smiling, he felt a calm come over him. He hadn’t realized that being without his pipes had been causing him anxiety, but now he felt it melting away, and he understood that smoking had become something of a dependency of his. He thought it over and decided he was fine with that. A man needs hobbies, he reasoned. “A ‘cigarette,’ you say? I like these too! The pipe always has been a little cumbersome.”
“Young feller,” said Sheriff as he rolled another cigarette, “what I’m saying is, you’re fixing to scare the everyday folk with those pistols of yours. So you put ‘em away unless you need ‘em.” Kyle looked up and down the dusty street and saw women crossing to the other side and men whispering to one another and staring at him. McKeegan grabbed the Colts from Kyle, lowered the hammers and tucked them away inside Kyle’s gun belt just as the Archduke and Baron exited the swinging doors to join them. Seeing that there wasn’t likely to be any more shooting from the town’s newest stranger, the locals muttered amongst themselves and slowly went about their business.
“What’d we miss?” asked Wardstein.
“Nothin’ much,” replied the Sheriff. “Your friend Kyle and I were just enjoying a cigarette.”
“Hey, neat!” said James, noticing that with the ‘cigarette’ in his mouth, Kyle looked around fifty percent cooler. He then snatched the one McKeegan had just finished rolling for himself and placed it in his own mouth. The Sheriff sighed. He always tried to avoid confrontation when possible, but could see that these boys didn’t play by the same rules. He thought that might prove useful in a town as wild as his and, wanting to stay on their good sides, he struck another match, and lit the second cigarette.
“There you go, James,” he said, throwing the match to the street. “But you buy your own now, y’here?”
“—yeah-yeah,” James replied, not really listening, and being too busy with the cigarette. He inhaled the smoke. “Oh, that’s the stuff! Kyle, does this make me look cool?”
Kyle studied James carefully. “I must say, it does. You look more…defiant, somehow.”
“Yeah? Thought so!” James narrowed his eyes at the passers-by and sneered, coughing only a little.
“Me next!” Wardstein shouted. But just as the Sheriff reached for his tobacco to oblige him, he was interrupted by a gunshot in the street. All turned and saw Clinton McHaskinly standing by the wagon Sonny’s corpse had been loaded into, his pistol in the air. The Sheriff put a hand on the handle of his own, poised to draw.
“McKEEGAN!!” Clinton screamed, leveling his revolver at Kyle. “Look what he done to him! Look how he massacred my boy! I want him HANGED! Tonight!”
“Now Clinton,” the Sheriff replied, “you put that pistol of yours away. I have it on good authority that your boy was drunk, disorderly, and fixin’ for a fight. The whole town’s always known he was a bad egg.”
“You might even say,” James shouted, smirking at the crowd that had once again gathered, “Kyle here went and served that bad egg…‘SONNY SIDE UP’! Eh, everybody?!”
The street burst into laughter and polite applause, causing Clinton to go even more red with anger He fired another shot, this time over Kyle’s shoulder and into the Hotel’s facade. The knight didn’t flinch.
“That was a warning!” Clinton howled. Kyle stared at him coldly. He was beginning to think the talk about the McHaskinly boys was true. They didn’t seem very nice to him.
“Hey Clinton,” Wardstein began. “Are you…crying? I think I see a little tear.”
“I ain’t crying, feller! Juss hot out!” He wiped his eyes and brow of what he pretended was just sweat, holstered his pistol and climbed the seat of the wagon Sonny was loaded into, readying the reins. He reasoned that he wouldn’t get the best of the fight, were he to start one; and with all the witnesses about, he’d only find himself on the scaffold at the end of it, best case. Suddenly, another report echoed, this one much louder.
As the smoke lifted, the crowd looked up to see James had shouldered his enormous .45-70 and was aiming it in Clinton’s general direction. “Hey Clinton?” he said. “Is your mule….dead?”
All in attendance looked at the single mule that was lashed to rigging of Clinton’s wagon. It lay twitching in a heap, its skull completely hollowed out, it’s pink brains in a scattered pile beside it. The crowd once again burst into laughter and wild applause. “ARGGHH!!” Clinton yelled, walking back to the hitch, heaving Sonny’s body over his shoulder and then stomping off.
“Well!” Wardstein shouted. “I don’t think he’ll be bothering us ANY MORE!”
McKeegan sighed deeply. “Boys, I wish like hell that were true. But, something tells me we haven’t seen the last of Clinton McHaskinly and his gang.”
“Naw, I’m betting that’s the end of it,” said Wardstein calmly. “Cigarette! NOW!”
After watching Clinton ride out of town, the Sheriff turned back to the men and gave them an appraising look.
“You boys don’t turn tail at trouble, do you?”
“Not at all,” James scoffed. “We are the personification of courage.”
“That’s all well and good, but you were still a mite reckless for my taste.”
“Well let me assure you sheriff, that was no accident. We hold the lives of others in pitifully low regard,” James explained.
Wardstein nodded his agreement and the Sheriff eyed them skeptically.
“No matter,” he said, shaking his head to himself, “I’ll put in to Reno. See what there is to be seen.”
“About what?” Wardstein asked suspiciously.
“Never mind that, now. If something comes of it we can talk, ‘til now it’d be a waste of breath.”
“Oh, okay,” Wardstein said amicably. Kyle knew anytime Wardstein sounded amicable he was close to doing something violent, but the Sheriff paid no mind.
“For now,” he continued, “You boys would do fine to find a roof over your heads and four legs under your saddle.”
“Kinky,” James said. The Sherriff drawled on.
“Yep, man’s not a man unless he has a horse and a place to get some shuteye.”
“Oh, a horse,” James said, sounding disappointed. “He meant a horse,” he explained to the others.
“I did. And I know just the place for y’all. About 6 miles north and east you’ll find a big ol’ homestead. Man by the name of Brent Westforest lives there with his wife. He’s a hard sumbitch who won’t suffer fools, but don’t let him get to you. Former law man, can’t stand to see the world passing him by. My fate in a few years’ time, no doubt. Anyway, when he retired he bought up a big tract of land. One of the finest around. Then the boom ended and the Cowboys rolled back in. He can’t find enough hands to work it, and if he did no one to sell it to. If he tried to ship it to Reno he’d need an army to keep it out of the hands of the Cowboys. A rock and a hard place, as it were.”
“The point,” Wardstein said testily. “We need cigarettes.”
“Well, what I’m saying is the man has lodgings on his property for farmhands. But there ain’t no farmhands. Likewise with horses.”
“Nah. Those you’ll need to get at the General Store,” he said, pointing. Kyle was walking before he had finished his sentence.
“Get lots!” James shouted at him. “Like…lots.”
“More than that!” Wardstein added.
The three of them stood in an awkward stretching silence.
“So, uh. How long you been Sheriff?”
The man seemed to consider the question.
“Well,” he began, “About 15 odd ye–“
“–Shut-up,” James told him. “He has cigarettes!”
Sure enough, Kyle was ambling through the general store doors, arms stacked with tins. The storeowner was following him out, yelling.
“..hot shot! Think you can just steal from me? McKeegan! Get off your lazy behind! This simpleton is making off with my wares!”
The Sheriff sighed. “I don’t know that you boys are worth the trouble,” he told James and Wardstein. Then he addressed the shopkeeper.
“Mr. Coates, how goes it?”
“Don’t play dumb, Sheriff. I’m being nice and assuming it’s an act. This gunslinger stole from me right in front of my eyes. Thinks he is above the law. Doesn’t even look at me or hear me. Just wants ‘cigarettes’.”
Kyle heard none of this, struggling as he was with a canister. The Sheriff turned back to James and Wardstein, throwing them a pack of rolling papers.
“You’ll need those. Get him moving and go see Westforest. Tell him I sent you and will take care of it. Come back to town in a few days. I’ll settle up with old Coates for you.”
James caught the papers and nodded while Wardstein cuffed Kyle in the side of the head. Kyle snarled at him, putting his arms protectively over the tobacco and showing Wardstein a rictus of a smile. Wardstein levelled his shotgun at him and Kyle shook himself and chuckled nervously.
“Walk,” Wardstein told him.
After some time walking and a huge amount of tobacco consumption, the men came upon the Westforest homestead. They knew that because a sign told them. It was in disrepair and the paint was badly faded, but they had still been able to make it out. Vast fields spread out on either side of them with nothing growing in them. Before them stood a large farmhouse, and spread out behind it like barracks were a number of smaller buildings. A black dog barked lazily at them, not willing to leave its spot in the shade. A woman came out on the front step at the commotion and waved them a friendly greeting. They approached her.
“Morning, gents,” she said to them. “Not often we get visitors nowadays, what brings you to these parts?”
“We are here to see your husband. We need horses and places to stay,” Wardstein explained simply.
“Well the old coot is miserable as ever. Sitting at the table, staring at the walls. Come on in, it’s about time to eat and I always make too much.”
The men put out their cigarettes and followed her inside. The house was dimly lit and sparsely decorated.
“My name is Mae Westforest,” the woman told them. “Brent is just through here.”
The men walked through a small room, perhaps the den. There was a single chair with a rifle by its side.
“Brent,” the woman said in a different tone, “You have visitors.”
“Tell ‘em to get lost,” came a gruff voice in reply.
The men turned the corner to see the person who had spoken. A white haired man dressed in simple clothes, he appeared to be nearing sixty. He had a hard, lined face that didn’t seem capable of showing any emotion other than anger. He stared at the men through barely opened eyes, the stub of an unlit cigar hanging from his mouth. A pistol was laying on the table beside it.
“It’s too late for that,” his wife told him, “I already invited them for supper.”
The man grimaced and grumbled.
“McKeegan sent us,” Wardstein said, getting to the point. “We need a place to stay for a while and some horses for getting around on.”
The man looked away from them pointedly and did not reply.
“Look, I know we are bothering you in your own house and I’m sorry for that,” Wardstein said amicably. Kyle knew it was time to step in.
“We will stay out of your hair. And I am sure that McKeegan will pay you handsomely.”
A grunt was all he got in reply. Wardstein inched his way to his belt, fingers twitching. They were approaching critical mass. Kyle cast around for any distraction he could find, but luckily Mae saved him. She burst into the room with a number of plates, setting one down in front of each of the men. It smelled…earthy.
“It’s not much, but it’s all fresh and homegrown,” she said proudly. Turnips and potatoes and some greens were arrayed in front of the men. Kyle looked at James sceptically, but noticed Wardstein shovelling his mouth full with abandon. “Never pass up free food,” Wardstein had told him solemnly. “If its prepared,” he had later amended after Kyle had brought home a live cow. Kyle shrugged and took his advice. Man he hated turnips, though. The four men ate in silence with Mae watching over them. When they were done Wardstein pushed his plate away and smiled at her. James patted his stomach appreciatively and Kyle held back a dry heave.
“You boys musta been hungry. Wish all men enjoyed my cooking so.” She took a half finished plate from in front of her husband and sniffed. “I’ll grab dessert, if you are inclined?”
Kyle nodded vigorously. He needed something to take that damned turnip taste out of his mouth.
“No, Mae.” The woman stopped mid-step and Kyle mid-nod. It was hard to see everyone with his head pointed down like that. It had been so long since the man of the house had spoken Kyle had forgotten how rough his voice was.
“These boys’ll be leaving now.”
“Brent Westforest! I did not marry such an inhospitable man. Won’t even share his dessert.”
He looked at her in his overly serious manner. “Dessert’s got nothing to do with it,” he said evenly, letting it hang in the air for effect. He turned back to the men. “5, 6 and 7 are clean enough and don’t leak. You can stay there. We will talk about horses in the morning.” He looked towards the door significantly.
“Very well,” James said. “Until tomorrow.”
“Can we have the dessert to go?” Wardstein asked.
“I can’t believe Mae gave us turnip pie for dessert,” Sir Kyle was saying. The men were all relaxing in cabin seven, the roomiest one that actually had extra seating. Wardstein had also claimed that seven was a lucky number, so here they were. “We had it hard back on the farm too, but – in the pie, really?” he shuddered. Fortunately though, amongst his cache of cigarette cans, he’d discovered a tin of beans he’d fortuitously stolen from the General Store. He was wishing James had his Goblin Dagger here in the future, because it would have made a dandy can opener. As it happened, he was considering shooting the can open.
Wardstein relaxed with a cigarette in a rocking chair, yet another incredible innovation of the future he was enjoying. “You know, and take no offense, Sir Kyle, but when I saw a fellow smoking a pipe before, it seemed like a real pansy thing to do,” he mused, blowing fragrant blue clouds around the room. “But these little paper tubes – something about them is just…I don’t know. I feel like my manhood is enhanced even more than it usually is. It also has the benefit of making me feel good after eating, and, that sore throat I had is almost completely gone!”
James was flopped on a nearby couch. “Nothing like a smoke after a meal,” he agreed solemnly, as though he’d been doing this all his life. Outside the cabin, the men suddenly heard angry conversation, and then a screech.
“Sounds like trouble,” Wardstein remarked happily. It seemed he would get to have a real dessert after all. He erupted from the rocking chair, slamming his way through the door of the cabin with sufficient force to send the pathetic barrier tumbling into splinters in the dirt. Sir Kyle was right behind, and presently, after another couple of puffs on his cigarette, James sighed and trudged wearily outside into the dusk.
Perched in a semi-circle on horses were a handful of what could only be another gang of Cowboys – the men remembered a couple faces from their first encounter back at Saul’s dirty homestead. Brent was surrounded, holding his little rifle in a not-quite firing position as Mae cowered behind. An irritated looking Cowboy in a tan leather overcoat was looking down his nose.
“You didn’t have it last month, neither,” he was saying.
“I done told you. You get nothing from me, not ever. You hear me? Ride on out of here and don’t come back.”
“Or what, you’ll send to Reno? Don’t make me laugh. We’ll get your tribute or we’ll burn you to the ground.”
“I don’t think so,” Wardstein remarked.
“Stay out of it son, this isn’t your business,” Brent barked.
“We’re making it our business,” Sir Kyle replied, stepping out of the gloom. He’d replaced the Coca-Cola bottles in his little pockets with the hardware they were meant for, and the ivory pistol butts glowed in the dying light. “Go home.”
The irritated Cowboy’s sneer faltered briefly. “Fight’s not with you boys! Go on back inside your shack while the men settle their business. We’re here to collect our tribute and we’ll just be on our way.”
“Mr. Brent just told you that you’re not getting one.”
“We’ll see about that,” the Cowboy smiled wickedly. In one smooth movement, he turned and drew his pistol, firing a single shot. It thumped into Brent’s chest. He dropped to his knees, and clouds of dust from what he knew now to be the lost, pathetic dream of a quiet life raised about him. Mae screamed, and he raised his chin to his attacker. “That all you got, Charlie?”
“Not even close,” Charlie smiled, and his companions tittered. He cocked his pistol, adjusting his aim to Mae and Brent could only watch, unable to raise his rifle.
A shot rang out, and Charlie’s hand detonated into a bloody mess of lunch meat. He stared in confusion, and then to Wardstein, who’d decided he’d had enough of this man. Thumbing back the hammer of his piece, he considered how the more things changed, the more they stayed the same. Then he shot him.
The other riders sprang into action, but they were too late. Sir Kyle whipped his gleaming pistols from his belt, two instantaneous shots blowing hot grooves through the scalp of the nearest Cowboy, who shrieked terrifically. Late shot, Kyle thought. He corrected his aim downward, fired again and the man dropped to the dirt.
With a yell of excitement, James pulled free his Lighting, yanking the slick trigger again and again, dumping the entire cylinder into a particularly fat one, each shot splattering his tunic with hot gore. With a groan, he slid from the horse, impacting the ground like a falling cow.
Seeing that this encounter hadn’t gone according to plan, the final Cowboy tugged the reins of his horse, spurring him into a gallop. Wardstein tracked him with his pistol, taking the shot, missing. Grimacing, he thumbed the hammer and fired again, this time killing the horse with a perfect shot to the temple. With a final scream, the Cowboy flopped to the earth, and the rampaging carcass of the horse rolled over him, crushing most of his bones, and organs. His lungs whistled briefly out in the growing dark, and then he died.
“Wicked shot, Wardstein,” Sir Kyle congratulated him.
“I was aiming for the rider,” Wardstein said, walking over to Charlie, who yet breathed. He looked up at Wardstein, who aimed down the long barrel of his pistol at Charlie’s face. He squeezed the trigger, and there was a click.
“You’re out, maggot,” Charlie sneered.
“Not even close,” Wardstein told him, reaching for his Fargo shotgun over his shoulder. Holding it in both hands so he wouldn’t drop it, he stomped Charlie’s face with his new boot, and his head exploded like a melon in the sand, which greedily absorbed the offered blood. Nearby, Brent coughed, and the men saw expectorated blood staining his lips. He hadn’t long, they knew.
“You boys started something…something you can’t finish,” he managed.
“No, this is pretty much what we always do,” James said, jamming his pistol back into his belt. “I suppose we’ll take your horses tomorrow and go after those guys and kill them.”
“Every last one,” Sir Kyle added, and Brent raised a forestalling hand.
“No. Not. Not like this,” he wheezed, lips bubbling. His angry eyes burned their last, looking over the men, holding onto the civil ideal that had sustained him all these years in this place. A dream of something better. But he also knew that that once again, this was one of the times when the sword needed to be in the hands of a warrior. “In the house. The vanity,” he wheezed. “You’ll find them.”
“Find what?” Wardstein asked.
“Your shields. Your deputy shields.” His eyes closed, and he slumped finally to the shifting sands. Mae weeping and clutching his hands.
Shields. Finally, something familiar in this place, Sir Kyle thought.
As the sun descended behind the hills, Mae led James, Wardstein and Sir Kyle into her main room once more, though this time with a much heavier heart. Seeing that there were only embers in the fireplace now, she wrapped her woolen shawl tight around her shoulders and struck a match, touching it to the wick of a nearby lamp. Her teary eyes shone like glass as the room grew brighter, and as she looked around, it occurred to her that although this was still her house, it would likely never again feel like her home. ‘Old Widow Westforest’s,’ she imagined people would begin calling the place, once news of Brent’s murder reached Tombstone. Labourers had gone from scarce to non-existent in the last few years, and now, with not even an aging husband to help with the chores, she knew the place was going to slip even further into the red, no matter how many pennies she tried to save by eating an all-turnip diet.
Mae considered the tall, strapping men who had saved her from the Cowboys. They were obviously good eaters, good fighters, and seeing as how they were in need of horses, lodging, and basic supplies, which were a few things the homestead actually still had going for it, she began to formulate a plan. She thought that if these travelers could be persuaded to pick up a pitchfork, lasso, or maybe a broom from time to time, they could lend a hand at—-CLICK!-CLICK!-CLICK!
James snapped his fingers in front of Mae’s face and smiled as he watched her eyes regain a certain clarity and then focus in on him. The woman had just watched her husband die in her arms, after all. “Hey, you kind of spaced out there,” he said. “Hope you’re okay? You know, so you can like…get the presents Brent promised us?”
“Uh–what?” the woman stammered, shaking her head a little.
“‘In the house,'” Wardstein said, doing his best to mimic Brent’s death rattles. “‘In the vanity…you’ll find them…your shields…your deputy shields.'”
Kyle pursed his lips and raised his eyebrows significantly at Mae, indicating that Wardstein had indeed remembered it verbatim. He then mimed a gesture she didn’t quite understand, clenching his left hand into a fist and curling it across his torso at around navel height.
“Boys, I know, I was there,” Mae said finally. “While you were resting your heels in the cabin earlier, Brent guessed Sheriff McKeegan wouldn’t have sent you all the way out here for nothing, and Lord knows those deputy badges could be put to good use, what with all the trouble about.”
“Shields, not ‘badges,'” Wardstein corrected, mimicking Kyle’s gesture.
Mae frowned. “Boys, I was hoping you’d help me bury Brent first? He always told me that when he passed, he’d like to be put to rest beneath the old willow acacia tree out back. ‘Sides, it’s getting awful dark, and at night the coyotes—”
“–SHIELDS!!” James shouted, causing Mae to recoil in surprise. “Sorry,” he amended. “Just–just shields, okay? Shields. Brent isn’t going anywhere.”
Realizing she wasn’t going to persuade the men to do much until they got what they were after, Mae huffed in exasperation and shuffled on down the corridor with her lamp and disappeared into the back half of the house.
“What’s a Ky-oh-dee?” Kyle asked as he looked out the front window and lit himself a cigarette. “Think she was talking about those things out there eating Brent’s face and genitals?”
James joined Kyle at the window and lit a couple of his own cigarettes. He squinted at the many dog-shaped silhouettes outside which, sure enough, were tearing away chunks of Westforest’s corpse and lapping at the tacky pool of blood under the Cowboy whose head Wardstein had stomped into mush. “Whatever they are,” James said, “I could really use a meal.” He slid a heavy brass cartridge into his .45-120 and closed the breech. “What do you say, Wardstein? Kyle? Feel like doing a bagging a few for dinner?” They nodded in agreement and everyone quickly filled their assorted firearms to capacity, but just as they made to exit onto the porch, they observed the scavengers outside were now all standing upright, still as statues. For an instant only their triangular ears moved, but then came a yelp from one of them, and the pack took off like a shot.
“Crap!” yelled Wardstein. “You guys scared them off! God, you’re so—hey, wait a second. What’s that noise?”
A faint, rhythmic pulse began to thump from somewhere outside the house, growing steadily louder. Kyle looked out the window again, frustrated that his restored 20:20 vision wasn’t helping him much in the dark. For once, he wished for his Phal-Helm and all of its amazing visor accessories. “I can’t see where it’s coming from,” he whispered. “Sounds like it’s all around us.”
“They don’t attack any other way,” said Mae, walking back into the room. “What you’re hearing are the war drums of the Apache. Before a night attack, they will pound them with growing intensity to frighten and confuse the enemy. Here, take these.” Mae threw a small star-shaped piece of metal to each of the men, who had only an instant to look at them before Mae blew out the lamp. Before she did, she saw the frowns. “No, not shields of old. These are law badges, boys. Now I ain’t the law, but I was witness to Brent’s last wishes…so consider yourselves deputized.”
Outside, the drums drew closer. Louder.
“Deputiiiiiiized,” James repeated, drawing out the word. “Amazing! YES, I can feel the deputization coursing through me as we speak!” He tensed his muscles and threw his head back in what looked in the faint moonlight to be half yawn, half grimace. Wardstein and Kyle looked at their own badges, wondering when they’d begin to feel it too, but James relaxed. “Seriously though, what are these stupid things?”
“You darn fool!” Mae shrieked. “They mean you’re authorities round here now! Some take that as an honour, some a curse—on account of how people who wear those badges tend to end up dead.”
“Hwell!“ Wardstein scoffed. “We are pretty unkillable, lady. When it comes to death, it’s one of the few instances where it’s better to give than to receive.”
“Yeah!” James reiterated. “Besides, these ‘Patchees’ don’t sound so tough. Who are they, anyway?”
“Fearless warriors,” Mae began, “who are so terrible that—“
“–Fearless warriors?” said James in surprise. “So just like us, you’re saying? We should just invite them in for drinks, eh Wardstein? Maybe hit up the whorehouse after?”
“—I’M IN!” Sir Kyle erupted, remembering the elegant and refined redheaded woman lived in that establishment with her bastard child. “I mean…that could be fun,” he said with a shrug.
Mae shook her head. “The Apaches are wild men, boys! Wild! They’d never socialize with you, and certainly not in town. No, those half naked, long-haired lunatics out there have wanted Brent and I—hell, all of Tombstone, and every other Western city—off ‘their land’ for as long as anyone can remember. More than the Cowboys do, I reckon. And they’ll kill to make it happen. Kill worse, if there’s such a thing. Matter of fact, whether it’s a man, woman or child, they will take a knife to their scalp and—“ She trailed off, looking to Sir Kyle’s scabby head. “—I’m—I’m sorry, son. Anyway, the Apaches, they think they have some kind of claim to these parts, but not a one of them can produce deed nor title like we can. Brent and I, we developed this land!”
Kyle had heard enough. Pinning the deputy badge to the front of his shirt, he slid open the window and stuck his head out. The drums were thumping louder than ever now and sounded as though they were right outside, but Kyle still couldn’t see any ‘wild men’ in the darkness. “Hey Apaches!” he yelled over the rhythm. “This is NOT your land and you have ZERO RIGHT to it! Never did! You’re just mad because old Widow Westforest has more money than you! So listen up: you all need to calm down and go back where you came from!”
Suddenly, the cacophony of drumming ceased and all was still.
“Thank god,” James sighed, smiling. “They’ve left.”
In the same instant their came the sound of breaking glass, and James let out a yell. An arrow and rocketed through the pane and through his hand.
“They’re aiming at the glow of those cigarettes of yours, you idiot!” Mae shrieked, causing James to promptly stomp them out on her carpet. Kyle made to do the same, but a moment too late, as two more arrows zipped through the window he had opened, one of which stuck in his shoulder, and the other finding Wardstein’s upper thigh, slightly above the knee.
“YIPEITY-YIPE!-YIPE!-YIPE!-YIPE!” came a terrible scream from outside, and a muscular man with long black hair wearing nothing but a buckskin loincloth dove through the open window and somersaulted to the centre of the room. He stood slowly, holding a hand axe and staring at Wardstein, James and Kyle. He then slapped his painted chest firmly. “YIPE!-YIPE!-YIPE!” he stated in a calm voice.
“Obviously an attempt to communicate that he’s unafraid,” said James to the others. He winced as he snapped the arrowhead off the shaft of the arrow that had skewered his hand before sliding it out backwards. “THSSSSST! He’s right, in a way. I doubt this will hurt much.” James then angled his .45-120 upwards from the hip, stopping instinctively when he felt it was aimed at the painted man’s face. There then came a most terrible blast from the rifle and as the Apache’s head detonated in a ghastly splatter, the living felt a warm mist across their faces.
Wardstein prodded an ear with one finger and waited for the ringing to subside. “Give me warning before you do that!” he yelled, booting the twitching, headless corpse in frustration. “But that was pretty cool, James! Heh! Sounded like there was more than one drum out there, though!”
As if on cue, two more lean men yiped through the windows, prompting Kyle to pull both pistols. He thumbed back his hammers, tracking their movement. “Everybody but the Apaches, duck!” Wardstein, James and Mae obeyed, and Kyle let two shots ring out, each of them impacting the intruders squarely in their skulls. They collapsed dead on a cheap wooden coffee table, turning it into shards.
Wardstein frowned. “That’s it? I was hoping I’d get to—”
—suddenly, a Wardstein-sized Apache burst through the front door in a wild charge, sending a hail of splinters across the room. Not slowing for an instant, his eyes flashed in the dim light and he made for the Baron, holding a rudimentary knife aloft. Wardstein grinned, raising his Fargo 10 gauge to the man’s waist and pulling both triggers. The blast cut him completely in two, and nearby, Mae was sprayed with a mix of blood, guts, and excrement.
“Ewwww!!!” she whined.
“You see, Mae?” Wardstein said with a smile. “We doing the killing.” He then applied his own deputy star to his shirt, which reminded James that he had yet to do so. Wanting to do it differently than the others though, James attached his to the leather of his gun belt. He nodded, pleased with how it looked.
Outside they heard the whinny of horses and then the clopping of what sounded like a retreat.
Rubbing the fecal matter from her eyes and the corners of her mouth, Mae looked at the three new deputies with admiration and gave a nod of approval.
Her home would survive at least one more day.
After a restful night of sleep, the three men were walking toward the small corral at the back of the property.
“Can’t believe how well I slept,” Wardstein remarked. “I think when I get home I will have to hire a professional sobber. I mean, Mae’s sniffling moaning put my out like a light.”
James nodded his agreement. “A husband is a small price to pay for a nights’ sleep.”
Kyle looked at them askance. He didn’t want to say anything to draw their attention. He had seen the horse he wanted when he accidentally strolled out this way earlier, and he didn’t want to tip his hand. Both men were the type to choose the horse simply to spite him. Or kill it, if it was a particularly unlucky horse. Or maybe the horse would be lucky. Beast of burden, after all. Kyle shook himself. That was a rabbit hole he’d have difficulty escaping. He noticed the two men staring at him, now. He needed to say something.
“Can’t believe how well I slept.”
Wardstein shook his head in annoyance. “You aren’t parrot,” he said flatly.
Kyle’s eyes went out of focus as he thought about what it must be like to be a parrot and Wardstein sighed as he stopped, having reached the outer edges of the corral.
“Not the greatest stock,” James noted.
“I wouldn’t be so quick to write them off just yet,” Wardstein said. “They look sickly and malnourished, sure, but I bet that with a little T-L-C they could be steeds fit for…well not Kings, but something.”
“Duke’s?” James asked hopefully.
“Nah, probably not.”
“No. Viscount, probably. A lowly one, in the hinterlands. The one that never gets invited to anything.”
“Yeah, look,” Kyle said, “That one there still has lots of energy.” He pointed to a horse that was bucking and twisting awkwardly, foam coming from its mouth.
“Look at the grace,” Kyle continued.
“I don’t think that is normal,” James said.
“Pretty sure that’s cardiac arrest,” Wardstein added.
The three men watched without speaking as the horse completed its death throes and landed heavily on the ground stiff as a board. The silence stretched on for a few more moments, as the other horses moved slowly to another corner of their yard and began lazily feeding.
“…a little T-L-C.” Wardstein whispered, but his heart wasn’t in it.
“Ugh,” James said, sounding a bit shaken. “I’ll take the black one, I guess. Black being the color of heroes and all.”
Wardstein nodded. “The bay for me. He looks the strongest.”
Kyle was ecstatic, they hadn’t picked the horse he wanted. He looked lovingly at the roan he had spotted earlier. It was smacking its head against a pole with a decent amount of force for no reason. Kindred’s, Kyle thought.
“Whaddya guys gonna name them?” he asked the other two.
“I’m gonna call mine Secretariat,” he told them proudly.
“That’s a stupid name for a horse,” Wardstein told him.
“Yeah,” James agreed. “Why don’t you call him ‘Seabiscuit’, or something equally pointless?”
Kyle didn’t let them bother him. He was used to their playful ribbing. And also the less playful kicks to his actual ribs. It was like water off a ducks back, or off a particularly well-crafted pair of pants.
“Whatever,” Wardstein said, “We aren’t going anywhere on these guys anytime soon. These guys are gonna need days to get their strength up.”
The thought of more turnips almost put Kyle in a panic, but he was distracted by a warmth in his pocket. It had been there for a while, but Kyle had originally found the sensation pleasant. Now it was starting to hurt. He pulled out his crystal, and there was McStogey, staring at him.
“Dude,” he said, “I’ve been trying to get your attention for like an hour.”
“It was warm,” Kyle shrugged.
“Well now I don’t have much time. Cover your eyes, the three of you.”
They did as he said and still Kyle was nearly blinded by a bright flash of white light. He uncovered his eyes to see Mcstogey standing before him.
“How the hell?” James asked, incredulous.
“Chill,” McStogey said. “This isn’t my corporeal form. I am more just a projection. Like in A New Hope. Though I’m no Carrie Moss, boy howdy.”
The three men looked at him in silence. Kyle noticed his clothes for the first time. They were more similar to the clothes that he and the other two were wearing then they were to the traditional garb in Paulus’ kingdom, but they were considerably brighter and cleaner. He had odd armour on his face, covering only his eyes. The mirrored ovals were far bigger than his eyes, but Kyle figured that stood to reason.
“What are you doing here?” James asked, finally.
“I’m here to help,” he said simply. “You guys look like you could use some. Just call me Han Solo.”
“Who?” Wardstein asked him.
“Never mind. I forget that I have seen things you guys haven’t. Really it is too bad Paulus sent you when he did. Like literally three hours later we figured out how to use these things fully, and let me tell you, it’s pretty sweet.”
“I bet,” said Wardstein, though he sounded nonplussed.
“I’ll take that action!” McStogey snapped, dry washing his hands. After a moment he seemed to notice what he was doing and stopped, looking away from them. “Sorry. I’m a little on edge. Might have started something back in the 70’s. Or ahead in the 70’s. Who knows. I get confused, you know?”
Kyle did know, and so he nodded.
“It’s like, is it right for one man to have this power?” McStogey continued. “The things I have seen, the places I have been. I have walked along the stream of time. Fished in it when I was hungry. Bathed in it while dirty and urinated in it when the need arose. I have seen the beginning of time, guys! Can you even fathom that? I think I am about to transcend, dudes.”
“Want a smoke?” Kyle asked him.
“Sure. What’s with the dead horse?” McStogey asked, pointing.
Kyle shrugged again.
“Well, by the looks of the rest of them, they aren’t far behind. Lucky for you I have just the thing.”
He reached into his pocket and withdrew three long, slender objects. One end was sharp, and the other looked intended to be pushed on. “Steroids,” he said. He wrapped them up carefully and tossed them to Wardteins feet. “Pointy end goes in, then push the other end down. Horses will be up and around in no time.”
“Where do we stick it?”
“The bum.” McStogey smiled broadly.
“Look, I gotta run. Things to…ah, do, I guess. Whatever. It’s been real. May the force be with you.”
“Wait,” James told him, “How’d you get those things through? I thought we couldn’t pass anything material through the barrier?”
“Huh, what?” McStogey said, exaggeratingly holding up a hand to his ear. “I didn’t hear you, there is interference.”
“I though that you coul-“
“PSSSH, KRRRRR, FZZZZZ.” McStogey was making covering his mouth and making odd sounds. “It’s no use James, I can’t hear you.”
They watched in silence as it took McStogey another couple minutes to get things prepared. He flashed a smile and a thumbs up, and then was gone. Kyle’s crystal was unnaturally cool to the touch.
Wardstein let out a long sigh. As much as he loved his new shotgun and how big of a man it made him feel, he was longing for a bit of normalcy. Would it be so bad, he thought, if we had a normal adventure, for once. He shook his head, then he shrugged.
“Let’s go juice these horses.”
On the ridge, the squat bushes billowed in the hot desert winds around the men, the oven-like breath whispering a word or two from the distant homestead beyond.
Farson once again brought his scope to his eye and glassed the horizon, unsure of what he was seeing. The group of strangers at the Westforest Ranch seemed to be arguing. “…are you crazy?…” he heard now. A large man wielding a scattergun had just shouted, and was now conferring with another, a sober looking fellow sporting a pair of gleaming gunfighter pistols. Around them lay a group of dead horses. Nearby, another man with a blue-accented hat was hopping around in a circle…in a rage? No, hopping in pain. Some strange species of arrows or something else were protruding from his backside. Reaching around now, the man pulled them free, and howled at the sky, posing triumphantly.
At the house, the door opened and the Westforest woman, holding a pie, called to the men. Upon hearing this, the triumphant one whirled on her with an enormous rifle, unleashing a wild shot in her direction. She had no time to scream, as her head tomatoed with a tremendous splash, and her corpse tumbled down the porch steps like a heap of kindling wrapped in rags. The man with the gunfighter pistols hustled over to her corpse and inspected the pie she had been carrying, and whooped with apparent joy, dropping the plate onto the still-fountaining neck of the rancher woman.
The rifleman, apparently emboldened by recent events, began jogging in a circle around the shotgun man, wildly punching at him to instigate a reaction. Shotgun Man though would have none of it, kicking a nearby dead horse in frustration. The gunfighter fellow was now looking at his own reflection in the sitting room window of the house, drawing his pistols menacingly, and then slowly holstering them, sneering at himself in the dirty panes.
Farson had seen enough. Turning to a nearby Cowboy he said, “Tell the boys we’re finishing this. Right now.” He pocketed his scope, and saw The Rifleman uncork another wild shot at the ranch house, shouting in delight. He wondered perhaps if it might be a better idea to tell the local Pawnee about these strangers in their lands. Skilled enemies he could deal with – it was the unpredictability of lunacy he was unsure of, and he’d rather the local natives fall victim to it than the remaining members of his gang. Reconsidering his plan, he called his men together.
“How far from here to the train tracks?” he asked.
In March of 1848, Brains of Many Owls, a wise shaman elder, said that when Stinkflower gave birth to a baby boy under the lunar eclipse, it was a very bad omen. But as the moon slowly began to wax, the sickle-like crescent that emerged from beneath the Earth’s shadow was a coloured deep red, prompting Jitterfox, a younger shaman under Brains of Many Owls’ tutelage, to proclaim: “Ootin beet-sawan, waht instay-me-gone!!”—which, loosely translated, is Apache for, “Hold your horses, you senile old coot!” What followed was a revised prediction: that the child’s life would unfold most fortuitously, and most viciously, in the celebrated warrior tradition of the Apache. Stinkflower favoured this second prophecy and gave her blessing for the the young shaman to name the boy.
Jitterfox decided that from then on the child would be known as Big Bloodlust.
Born in the vast western territories, Big Bloodlust came from a proud and fearless lineage: his father was none other than the great Ruins Many Edges, so-called because of the rate at which he cut and scraped the scalps from those he vanquished in battle. Beginning when he was a boy,Ruins Many Edges had heard stories from his father, a great warrior in his own right, about pale people from the East encroaching on their lands; but by all accounts, these intruders travelled in small groups, were laden with heavy cargo, and were largely ignorant of the secrets of the land, which left them particularly vulnerable to attack—not only from axes and arrows, but being so fair, from even the sun! The Apache laughed at the notion that these strangers would ever pose a threat to their livelihood. All except Brains of Many Owls, who sensed that the newcomers would bring about a great change. Ruins Many Edges balked at the suggestion though, for in his entire lifetime he had only seen two white travellers as a teenager, and it was their dried scalps he would dangle on a strip of a deer hide above the infant Big Bloodlust. Jitterfox advised him that by letting the baby bat at them from his bed of bear hides, and later, teeth on them, he would grow big and strong.
While hunting deer one month in 1849, Ruins Many Edges encountered in one day three times as many white men than he had ever seen before. Later, when Brains of Many Owls saw the six damp scalps with blonde and red-tinged hair on the warriors belt, he proclaimed, “Oon-daht-in-stay, we-gahno!“, meaning, “Hey, remember that thing I said about the bad omen?” But Ruins Many Edges was unconvinced, and after a talk with Jitterfox about how owls “really aren’t the smartest of birds anyway when you think about it, not to mention dorky-looking,” he quickly forgot about the old man’s warnings.
As the months wore on, the white men began to appear in great numbers; so much so that a trail began to wear in the ground from the wagons that carried them. At first this made for easy hunting, since all Ruins Many Edges and his warrior brethren had to do was wait along the marked path for their prey to roll by. After a time though, the white men began to bring their animals, their women, their families. Towed by large beasts of burden, they became too numerous for even Ruins Many Edges and his fellow warriors, and worse, they began to fight back with muskets, reducing the warrior population significantly.
Brains of Many Owls held onto his pride and chose not to revisit the fact that his prediction was coming true—instead, he was determined to help Big Bloodlust. If he remained with the Apache, he felt confident that he would be gunned down by the white settlers, but if he could think of way to get him out of the community, chances were good that he would survive. survive. He began to formulate a plan: Though the white settlers were fearful of their people, he had had some encounters with them, and managed to learn through peaceful encounters that most of them worshiped a strange book and a man who had been nailed to some lumber. Through the few words of their language he was able to learn, he began to understand that they were followers of something called Christianity and that their book encouraged them to help others. Brains of Many Owls decided that these traits of generosity were something he could use to his advantage and determined to create a new identity for Big Bloodlust. One that would inspire the white men to take them with him and raise him in relative wealth and prosperity. At not yet two years old, he was still ignorant of his own people’s beliefs and could still start anew.
One day while out foraging for magic bark and cannabis, Brains of Many Owls came upon a covered wagon full of dead, scalpless white travellers. He immediately recognized the handiwork of Blunts Many Edges. Looking Eastward down the path of the white men, clouds of trail dust were visible on the horizon. Realizing that he had to act quickly, the shaman ran back to the Apache encampment as quickly as his old legs would allow. Spying Big Bloodlust in the arms of Stinkflower, he realized that there was no way to stealthily complete his plan, and that what had to be done could only be accomplished by risking his own safety. But, he quickly decided, he had lived a long life. Formulating a quick story he knew Stinkflower would swallow, he explained that as the senior shaman of the village, he had to anoint Big Bloodlust with the smoke from the sacred fire of a mystical plant that could only be found in a place where women were “forbidden to tread.” Sure enough, she believed him, and relinquished control of the child. Hustling off with him in his arms, Brains of Many Owls reached the wagon and quickly set to work. He removed Big Blood Lust’s apache loincloth and, finding the shirt of a grown white man, he pulled it over the boy.
Looking behind him, more wagons were visible. The old man had but a few moments. He dipped the finger of one of the dead adults in a pool of blood, then his own. Then, he thought of a new name for the young child. One that would inspire sympathy in the people who would soon find him. He would be “Big Bloodlust” no longer. He first scrawled “CARE FOR MY SON…” as though it was one of the dead white men who had written it. Then, his new name beneath: CHRISTIAN BLOODLUST. Beneath that, “…Family Name…much important!”
With that, Brains of Many Owls hustled off to meet his fate at the hands of his fellow Apache. He counted on them being unforgiving when he explained that the young child accidentally fell in a river or gorge or something, but not to despair because he was “now with the ‘Great River’ or ‘Great Gorge Spirit’” or whatever he decided on.
* * * * * * *
Tombstone, Arizona – 1886:
As it turned out, Jitterfox had been right about one thing: Big Bloodlust—now Christian Bloodlust—had grown up fortuitously…but not exactly “viciously” as he had hoped.
After being found on the “White Man’s Road,” he was transported to California with some of the first of the “’49’ers,” as they would soon be called. The family who adopted him, which they believed was the ‘Christian’ thing to do, quickly got to work not only establishing successful gold mining claims, but even more lucratively, they started an import business once they witnessed the unending influx of ill-prepared migrants flood in over the coming years from every corner of the world. If they needed a pick-axe, shovel, ‘vittles,’ playing cards, flour, salt, eggs, firearms, or supplies of any kind, Bloodlust’s family sourced it for them and soon grew fantastically rich. As a result, Bloodlust was sent to the best schools and received an excellent education. When he became a young adult, he was sent to the East coast by way of sail to study the classics and rhetoric where he rose to the top of his class and graduated with honours, though Bloodlust—now a towering six-foot-six, 299 pounds—excelled not only in athletics, but mathematics. Working part-time to improve his resume, Bloodlust took a job as a debt collector and attributed his high recovery rate to his talents with numbers, not really factoring in the fact he was as big as an Ox. Eventually he boarded a train and traveled the railroad that had been constructed in the interim years back to the West, set on returning to California and making his mark with his own debt collection business. However, upon arriving he found that the old mining settlements had all but dried up, and was told of a boomtown called Tombstone, Arizona, where enterprising young men could make a name for themselves. So he journeyed East once more to set up shop.
Bloodlust leased a storefront in the heart of town and hired a local artist to paint his likeness on a sign, which he planned to hang out front. Wanting to put his best foot forward in this new community, he smiled broadly when he sat for the picture and dictated that the sign read:
CHRISTIAN BLOODLUST – Collector! FOR HIRE! — “I MAKE YOUR PROBLEMS DISAPPEAR!”
Standing underneath that sign one hot and dusty day stood three men on the Tombstone boardwalk, the leader of whom held a rifle’s telescopic sight to his eye.
“Christian…Bloodlust…” he read aloud. “…makes problems….disappear? Boys! Would you LOOK at that scary Indian! We have three problems that sure need disappearing outside of town, don’t we?”
The other men looked to one another.
“Uh, yeah Farson, we see it. It’s only five feet away. Maybe you should get your eyes che—“
“—c’mon boys, in we go!” replied Farson, ignoring them.
Pushing through the saloon-styled swinging doors—for Tombstone had no other kind—the three men stood before the walnut desk of Christian Bloodlust, PhD.
“Good afternoon, gentleman,” said Bloodlust as he stood and extended a hand. “My name is Christian. How may I be of assistance?”
“Hey injun!” said Farson. “We’ve got three guys that need killin’! They’re crazy, see? And we don’t like to meddle with the crazies. You, though—you’re probably half-crazy anyway from ‘firewater,’ eh boys?”
Farson’s fellow Cowboys laughed mightily as they knew to do.
“Plus, we’ll pay you well enough! Whadda ya say, injun? Christian, was it? Stupid name for an injun!”
Bloodlust frowned. He wondered why people were constantly asking him to kill people for them. And also, why people assumed that he was an ‘injun’ when, to his knowledge, his parents were white? Thinking on it though, he thought he’d ask for more details, as he was a little cash-poor.
Bloodlust looked to Farson. “…I am not committing yet, sir; but would you at least brief me on the particulars of this ghoulish errand you are proposing?”
Farson grinned knowingly and eased into a chair.
The three Cowboys emerged from Bloodlust’s storefront, shielding their eyes from the sun’s glare. The place they had left was nondescript, other than the painstakingly crafted signage out front. It didn’t really fit the rest of the scene. The giant and obviously Native face it depicted was sobering, and stood in stark contrast to the drunk hardcases and working women among the piano music that wafted from the saloon. Luke Farson looked at his companions, his eyes seemingly empty of thought and jaw slack.
“I think that went well enough,” he said to his men, nodding once. “That one should take care of those strangers.”
“Can we get drunk now?”
“Yer already drunk. We drank a bottle of whiskey on the way here.”
“No,” Farson said. “Not yet. We will get drunker soon. I wish we could right now, too, but we got more of the bosses work to do.”
“Boss never told us to do anything. Last thing boss said was that those three would end up killing each other and to stay away.” He looked away from Farson to his other friend and received a nod in confirmation, which emboldened him. “And if we are being honest, Farson, we was told to keep an eye on you. Boss thinks you’ve been acting a little strange. And I’m starting to agree with him.” His hands were hovering near his belt. Situations like these often disintegrated quickly. Luke Farson never missed a beat.
Stepping forward quickly he placed his hand over the mans holstered gun and pressed down, trapping it there. His free hand drew from his own belt and came to rest directly at his other companions face. Neither of the other men had had time to react. It was silent for a few moments. Farson whispered furiously.
“Listen up and listen good. I’m only gonna say this once and it goes no farther than here.” He waited a few moments until he was sure he had their full attention. “The brothers are fighting. Clinton doesn’t trust Jesse and thinks that the strangers have something to do with it. He wants us to take them out. He told you and the other two to watch me so that you morons wouldn’t go blabbing all over that we were going on some special business. No one will think it’s odd for me to be out alone, but if you came with me for no reason? It wouldn’t make sense. Now as it is Clinton has his five best men out here.”
“His five best?” one of them asked, his chest puffing slightly.
“That’s what he said.” Farson shrugged nonchalantly.
“Hear that, Sam? We are in Clinton’s five best. Us and Farson and Red Paul and Babyface Mitch.”
Sam nodded nervously, a loaded pistol still pointed at his face.
Farson waited a few more moments before nodding at the men. He received two nods in answer then released his grip and holstered his pistol.
“We’re good?” he asked.
“Good. Great, even. What do you need us to do?”
“Just go make camp. Where we were three nights ago should do. Paul and Babyface should be there shortly. They had small things to take care of.”
The two men gathered up there things and walked back towards where they had hitched their horses. Farson watched them go, then turned and began walking in the other direction. Gone was the empty-eyed and slack jawed face, replaced by a look of cunning. Things were coming together, he thought. He pulled a package of beef jerky from his pocket and ripped it open, placing a couple hunks into his mouth before continuing on his way, chuckling to himself. He had written the script, and written it well. Now all that was left was for the actors to play their parts.
Sheriff McKeegan was in a bad mood. It might have been because word had just come down from Reno – he would be getting no help from the State. The letter had been long and stuffy, he had only gotten to the word ‘Regretfully’ before putting it to the torch. Those suits, he thought, those suits don’t know what it is like out here. They can’t even imagine. He shook his head, disgusted. He thought, not for the first time, about walking away. Putting his badge on his desk and leaving. To the ocean. Before he turned into another Brent Westforest. That brought him to the other potential reason for his mood – his two dead friends. He wasn’t sure what had happened on the farm that day, but he had trouble believing those three were innocent of all wrongdoing. Shoulda thrown them in jail and have been done with it. But he needed Deputies. Damn it to hell. Motion from outside caught his attention. A head, barely tall enough to be seen through the window passed in front of the law house. McKeegan readied his gun. Turned out he was a bit of a coward. He couldn’t remember being scared before, but he had deputies. And crazy Westforest out in the boonies to help if things really went sour. Now what did he have? The door banged open and a young man came in, looking frantic.
“Easy, son, easy,” McKeegan said soothingly, putting his gun down. “What’s the problem.”
“The McHaskinlys! I heard them!”
“Slow down, slow down. What’s your name, boy?”
“Mitch, howdy. Nice to meet you. What happened with the McHaskinly’s?”
“I was out in the woods, don’t tell my pa, and I heard three men riding by. I hid ‘cause I thought it might have been my uncles and they’d whip me fierce! Then tell my pa!”
“I won’t tell your dad, boy. What did you see?”
“Hardcases. I knew they was in the McHaskinly’s ‘cause they kept talking about Clinton and Jesse. They were talking about robbing a train!”
“A train, are you sure?!”
“Yessir. They said that everyone in the gang would be there.”
McKeegan rushed to the back of his office, searching through papers. “Next train is in…two days. And no help from Reno besides.” His mind raced, eventually resting on the hardened face of Brent Westforest before turning to ashes. He had more than half a mind just to let that train get robbed. That’s what Brent would have said before he showed up and mercilessly killed every last one of them. Now there was no Brent. But there were three strangers on his homestead.
“Thanks, son. Mitch, was it? You have done me a great favour. I won’t forget it. And if your pa gives you any trouble you send him to me, hear?”
The boy nodded and left his office. McKeegan downed the rest of his coffee, grounds and all, then prepared to leave. Places to go, people to see.
Paul heard a bird call out among the trees to his right, then another in the distance, close to the ground. They weren’t actually birds though, Paul knew. He knew it meant there were a bunch of Indians running around back there. Silent and deadly. Getting their bows all ready to point at him. Pretty unpleasant experience, all in all. But orders were orders.
“Halt!” came a voice as a man stepped out from the trees. The word sounded rough and foreign to him.
“Gai, li husee Pawnee,” Paul replied.
You’re half Pawnee?” the man asked, surprised.
“Guh. Li haven hir Jousan” Paul told him.
“Neat. So you wanna see the Chief?”
“Guh. Okalli frum heesad.”
“Yeah, so I speak English. Pretty well, too.”
“Oh yeah. I guess you do.”
“Plus, I’m the Chief.”
“So pretty much you just wanted to tell me there is a train robbery? Why should I care about the iron giants? They are noisy and smell bad. Like my mother in law.”
Paul laughed politely.
“Okalli –” he began, before being cut off.
“Right, sorry. So me and my friends will be robbing the train. We have more than enough to take it out, but we don’t want everything that is on it.”
“Continue,” the Chief told him.
“The train has a bunch of Pawnee bones on it.”
The Chief looked deadly serious all of a sudden.
“They disrespect our heritage?” he asked Paul in a quiet voice.
“Oh, yeah. I think I heard they pee on them.”
The Chief put his face in his hands.
“Yeah. So me and my pals, we will give you them bones back, as a sign of good faith.”
“What will you want in return? There is always something.”
“We just want you to leave me and my gang alone. Let us ride through your territory, maybe let one or two of us lay low there from time to time. More than reasonable, don’t you think?”
The Chief looked hard at Red Peter, as if trying to read his soul. After a long moment he nodded.
“In two days,” he said. “The drums shall beat.”
On this day, no wind blew, no scree of distant birds broke the desert silence. No scuttle of desert insect caught the eye. The relentless chromium sun beat the earth of every increment of life, leaving nothing but boulders and eternal sands stretching to the horizon and beyond. Except in the near distance, where McKeegan sighted the incongruous lines of the former Westforest ranch house blighting the landscape.
Given the conditions, McKeegan had expected the strangers at the ranch to clock him long before now – there was little to conceal his approaching horse, after all, and he’d begun doubting their horse sense – but as he’d approached, he’d heard the steady beat of gunfire. It had stirred his belly at first, until he realized he wasn’t hearing a gunfight; the strangers were merely discharging their weapons for unknown reasons. Rounding a small boulder, he caught sight of the three outside the house, where they were firing at various targets they’d assembled – practicing, McKeegan realized.
The serious-looking one with the polished gunfighter pistols faced a row of bean cans, standing in the familiar “Tombstone” style. It differed from the “Kansas City” style greatly due to the placement of the feet; in Kansas City, the gunfighter would stand at an oblique, a nearly sideways posture when facing his opponent, to thus offer the smallest possible target. The tradeoff of course, was that only the back hand was ideally positioned to draw and fire, and the front, lead hand was basically useless in the encounter. Though, he’d known the odd snake in the grass to use this hand to distract his opponent with a foul trick or two. He shook his head, remembering the time “Dirty Pete” Calhoon had pointed to the boardwalk with this hand, shouting to his opponent, Kent “Nice Guy” Clark, that he wanted no truck with nude showgirls ruining his gunfight. When Clark turned to look, Calhoon had gunned him down with a single bullet to the temple. McKeegan took solace though knowing that Dirty Pete had been killed that evening in a privy, his head scalped in Pawnee fashion, the greasy tarp left nailed gruesomely to the privy door.
Presenting thusly in the head-on Tombstone style favoured by local rabble-rousers, the serious one drew smoothly with each hand, and commenced to hammering the bean cans with slug after slug, sending them dancing in the dirt. He dropped his empty left into his holster, spun empty the cylinder of his right, and somehow slipped new cartridges into the pistol in the blink of an eye, and fanned this one empty again into a torn tin, simulating a shootout encounter with a grounded, yet still-dangerous foe. McKeekan reckoned though after this display there would be few remaining to shoot back after a run-in with this fellow.
Another in the shooting line, a burly figure in black, suddenly strode forward to a bean can and levelled a sawn-off double scattergun at the remnants, and yanked both triggers in a cannonating explosion. A small, smouldering crater appeared where the can had been.
“Did you see that? I finished him off!” he yelled. “Right in the melon!”
“You sure did,” the gunfighter drawled, rolling his eyes, something the large one caught.
“What was that, Sir Kyle?”
Kyle cringed. “I said you got him! Incredible work, man.” The big one raised his shotgun to the sky. “I…have…THE POWER!!!” he screamed. In the distance, thunder rolled.
I hope Westforest hadn’t been completely insane in deputizing these men, McKeegan thought, approaching. “Hidy, lads,” he greeted them.
The thin one pushed past the other two, levelling an enormous rifle at McKeegan. “Hold it right there! State your business!”
McKeegan sighed, patting his pockets for his tobacco sack. “Boys, we are in a time of need,” he began. “I’ve received word on good authority that a train robbery is being planned in two days by some very bad men.”
“What’s a train?” Wardstein wondered.
McKeegan started. “Train. You know, the iron horse? Runs into Tombstone not far from here?”
“Iron horse!” Kyle cried in amazement. This futuristic land held no end to surprises. Apparently now horses were made by men! He wondered how they handled the rusting problem, given weather conditions, and…well, did iron horses drink water? What about –
“Anyway, to put it plain: I need your help to stop this robbery. As official deputies,” he reminded the three. They all stood a little straighter, remembering the tremendous honour bestowed upon them by Westforest, right before they shot his wife in the face when she foolishly surprised them by jumping out the front door of her house with a pie.
Wardstein, as usual, was game. “I had nothing else planned, and I’ll accept any opportunity to stop evildoers,” he announced.
“Irony is apparently not limited to a description of modern horses,” Kyle remarked. He looked around with a smirk, his smile fading when he realized nobody understood his joke. He kicked the dirt.
McKeegan relaxed. “Well, all right! Come on boys, let’s head back into town and get ready. I’ll put you up at the Hotel for a couple nights. I’ll bill it to the Arizona Territory.” The men whooped.
Observing all this from a nearby ridge, his waist length hair billowing in a breeze that seemed localized to this place, was Christian Bloodlust. He had been watching the men for hours, learning their behaviours. Seeing them secure their gear and spur their horses for Tombstone, he changed his plans and decided to make his move there. He reached for his engraved pocketwatch, holding high the fine timepiece, a masterwork of the hand of man, to the dying sunset light, noting the time with satisfaction. He knew he could make it to town at the top of the hour. Such precision pleased him. He tucked the watch back where it came from, patting the chain to ensure it hadn’t come loose – of course it hadn’t – smoothed the silk of his waistcoat and smartly swung aboard his Pinto. He had the strange urge to utter a bird call. He did not.
* * * * * * *
Farson poked the campfire he’d made out on the plain. In his hand was a large, darkened crystal. He pondered the sight of it. Its maddening lack of colour. He wondered when he’d get the opportunity to use it again.
Presently, Paul appeared, and Farson hastily stowed the crystal in his possibles bag.
“I done did what you did wanted and I…”
“Dagnabbit, what did I tell you about this? Speak Injun. Your English is horrible, you pathetic halfbreed, don’t even try it.”
Paul nodded, gusting a deep breath in preparation. “Guh. Ikpik da ipa. De, ha – “
Farson spat in contempt. “Your Pawnee is even worse! You are a discredit to the savage people everywhere. Back to English.”
Paul sighed. “The Chief is agreeable to the plan.”
Farson grinned. “I knew it would work out, halfbreed or not. Great work, Paul. You may now have some whiskey.” Paul scurried off into the dark.
Baby-Faced Mitch piped up. Amusingly, he had stopped growing at the age of 8, a fact of some ridicule for the men, though it came in handy for Farson’s needs. “Luke, I done spoke to that cornpone Sherriff,” he squeaked. “He took the bait like a Lousiana catfish.”
Excellent, thought Farson, tenting his fingers in the acceptable fashion.
In but a few weeks it will be time for the 2015 bear hunt! I plan to make a documentary. By delaying the publishing of this footage, I have made your wait seem oh-so-short. You can thank me later! (—ater-ater-ater!)
Oh, right. I don’t have an audience anymore.
Oh well! : )