The Great Castle glowed under the early summer sunshine. Outside the immaculately maintained walls, peasants worked the rolling green fields surrounding the storybook structure, beginning their unsung labours for the summer growing season that sustained the kingdom throughout the bitter winter season. Migratory birds, having returned from wintering in the south, roosted and cooed on the clay rooftops and spires of the castle, providing a soundtrack for the inhabitants that they would enjoy for many months to come, until fall returned and the cycle would begin anew.
Inside the top of the North Tower stood Baron Von Wardstein, Sir Kyle, and Archduke James, beneath the oaken roofbeams where the pigeons fluttered. After the success of their crusade to Duke Georg’s lands, they had spent numerous weeks recuperating at the castle in accordance with the ministrations of castle chefs and varying maids of uncertain virtue. “Bruises heal, chicks dig scars, glory lasts forever,” Wardstein had remarked gleefully, clearly revelling in the heroic status bestowed upon the men as they had returned from their dangerous journey.
Now however, it was a return to the necessary business at hand. With them was McStogey, alive and well. King Paulus was nowhere to be seen, as he was overseeing a new vineyard he’d been working on recently.
“So this here is the Main Crystal,” he was saying. “It powers the smaller remote crystals you’re all holding. It takes ages to replenish the energy field here, and the jump to different times and places rapidly extinguishes power, and it’s worse the farther you are from the source, both time and place.” The man feigned understanding, turning over their glowing blue handheld crystals as McStogey went over the details. “Your crystals are your link to our time and place. They will let you know when you’re almost out of energy – the colour fades from blue to a darker, less vibrant violet. When that happens, you only have a short time to enact them and make the jump back to our time here before they go dark.”
“Imagine if you’re like, with a maiden or something, and forget about the crystal that night, and it goes out on you?” James joked. “That would kind of spoil the party, am I right?”
McStogey levelled a hard look at the men. “If you allow your crystals to extinguish before making the jump back to our time – then you can’t come back. Not unless you can find an energy source powerful enough to replenish your handhelds. But good luck with that. The Main Crystal here is recharged only after many months, even years of absorbing enough energy from metals we have discovered in the mountains that can power it. We don’t why this works, but it does…but it takes a lot of time. So even if you could find a power source, it might take you years to generate the energy you need to return here.”
Wardstein was growing bored. He always ignored the possibility of negative outcomes, since he always succeeded. “Ok, so we jump back in time, kill Duke John’s assassin, or maybe also Gordon the Slim as a bonus, secure the future, use the crystals to come back before they go out. Easy peasy, lemon-squeezy.”
“Well, it should go alright,” Sir Kyle reasoned. “We will know everything about where we’re going and what to do – this Gordon the Slim fellow doesn’t even know we’re coming for instance – and also we have our supercool magic weapons to aid us,” he added, patting the Holy Avenger, which glowed on his belt. Sir Kyle had taken to polishing the blade to a lustrous shine every morning, just in case the King happened to want to take a look at it and thus note Sir Kyle’s fanatical dedication to detail. So far it hadn’t happened, but Kyle was ready.
“Ah, yeah – about that,” McStogey said. “You can’t take anything with you on the jump. Not even clothes, they won’t make the journey. Just your bodies. Strangely though, the handhelds you will make the trip just fine – who knows why. Maybe due to the connection to our own time here. But at any rate – no weapons, clothes, or supplies. You’ll need to source all that when you arrive.”
James thought this over with growing concern, having grown very attached to his magical knife. “What if I swallow my Goblin Dagger? You said just my body, right? That way it would be in my body and I could maybe regurgitate it later on, and – “
“Are you nuts?” Wardstein yelled. “It’s too big, and anyway you’d kill yourself trying!”
McStogey sighed. “Guys, lookit. It just won’t work. Give it up.”
The men grunted in frustration, accepting the inevitable without further question, just like it was a waste of time questioning why they had been chosen for this incredibly important mission in the first place. This task was certainly a step up from the delivery of a spice chest to James’ cheerful uncle, but no matter. Details like those weren’t worth investigating. These three had become hard, pragmatic men.
“Well, I guess we’d better get this show on the road,” Wardstein concluded. The other men nodded agreement. For lack of anything else to do, they all stood at attention, preparing themselves for the journey through time.
McStogey nodded proudly. “All right then. All I have to do is –“
At that moment, Queen Constance burst into the room, her ankle-length hair billowing behind . “James!” she cried. “I can’t let you go without a big goodbye hug!”
“Mo-om!” James squirmed with embarrassment.
“Woo, just look at your little outfit! Sir Kyle, when the boys were little, Wardstein used to come over and visit with his mother, and they’d all play together in the backyard. It was so cute. So cute. And James and his brother with their little matching outfits, it was just so adorable. You know Wardstein, you and James have the same hair! Look at that!”
“Is that right,” Sir Kyle grinned. Wardstein himself began to grow uncomfortable. “Uhm, Aunt Constance, we kind of need to get going, and –“
“Oh, I know, I know. You’re just all grown up now,” she said, eyes watering a little. “You boys be careful. Be good. Okay?”
“Okay!” James nearly screamed. He gestured at McStogey, who flipped a switch he’d mounted to the Main Crystal, and light filled the room.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Wardstein opened his eyes, and then immediately squinted, such was the intensity of the sunlight he beheld. He was lying in the dirt. High overhead, he noticed vultures circling his position, screeching distantly. Sitting up, he took in his surroundings, surprised at what he saw. Low shrubs and boulders crowded the landscape in his immediate vicinity. Maybe the trees hadn’t grown here yet a hundred years ago, he thought. At least he wasn’t cold. He was sweltering, actually, even though he’d arrived without clothing, as unfortunately promised. He grimaced in annoyance. Getting shirts the right size was always a problem. He wondered why it was so hot here.
Looking around, he saw James and Kyle rousing themselves and probably experiencing the same thoughts as he was. “I don’t get it, where are we?” James wondered. “I have never seen land such as this.”
Sir Kyle thought it reminded him of the Dust Bowl days back on his family manure farm. Hard times indeed. Even the farm though hadn’t been plagued with such sparse vegetation and stones. Looking into his hand, his heart nearly stopped at what he saw. “Guys!” he yelled. “Look at your crystals!”
Wardstein opened his hand and saw that his was dark. Darker than a witch’s teat, as he liked to say. “Uh-oh!” he yelled.
James gaped, seeing that his crystal was also depleted. He slapped it in frustration. “Great! Just great! So what do we do now?!” he cried.
Just then was the sound of a man clearing his throat, and they all turned to see a strange figure, perched casually upon a horse. Foolishly, he was wearing no armour that they could see, but merely a long cape-like cloak which was covered in dust that hung nearly to his unsual-looking high leather boots. Odd-looking metal devices of some sort hung at his waist, and a wide-brimmed hat of a style none of the men recognized was mushed upon his head. He poked the brim with his thumb, and smirked a mixed look of curiosity and amusement at what he saw.
“Looks like you boys be travellin’ light,” he remarked.
Although the stranger didn’t appear to be hostile, James, Kyle and Wardstein found themselves instinctively reaching for their weapons. As their hands grasped nothing but air though, each of them simultaneously betrayed a look of surprise and tried to play it off as though they were merely trying to scratch an itch. The rider grinned knowingly and chuckled.
“Hwell-well—I thought you boys was fighters! I reckon if you’ve seen somebody fixin’ to keel you even once, it’s somethin’ you don’t soon fergit.” Clearly unafraid, the man expectorated and a rope of brown saliva hit the ground.
“Kill you?” Wardstein smiled peaceably. “I’m afraid you’re mistaken, my good man! We were merely—HRNNNFFFFF!” The Baron hurled his crystal as hard as he could, but it bounced harmlessly off the horse’s flank and clinked to the sand at its feet. The animal merely snorted in annoyance and repositioned itself slightly.
“HEY NOW!” the rider scolded. “Don’t you be scarin’ ol’ Socrates like that! It’s okay boy, they was juss—NIEETTTT!” The man’s face, formerly just a silhouette under the shade of his strange hat, was suddenly illuminated, and the rider raised a hand to shield his eyes from the light that was presently blinding him. Below, James was using his time travel crystal to reflect the sun’s rays into the stranger’s face. The boys observed the man was about fifty, with a week’s worth of gray whiskers bristling on his tanned face.
“NOW, Kyle!” James yelled. “Quick, while he’s still stunned!!”
“RIGHT!” the knight answered, cocking his fist and charging towards a tall cactus just behind the man and his horse. He threw a wild punch with all his might, but fortunately missed and avoided what would certainly have been a grievous injury had he connected. Off his balance, he then toppled over and ate sand. Reflexively, the knight then pawed at his scalp to check for damage. Yes, there was still damage, he realized; but thankfully, no fresh damage.
“Damn!” cursed Wardstein. “Kyle’s glasses wouldn’t have survived the journey, either! Good hustle, thou—“
Suddenly there was a deafening report and the men found themselves standing in a cloud of acrid smoke. They fanned their faces in confusion as the thick mist rolled away slowly on the breeze. The rider had reached for one of the mysterious, shiny iron devices he wore about his waist and was pointing it skyward. “I think you best drop that there object, young feller!” he growled. James did as he was told and let his crystal fall to the ground.
The man engaged something on the back of the metallic device with his thumb, causing it to emit a tight clicking noise. Breathing heavily, he leveled the apparatus at Wardstein, and sensing that it was something dangerous, the Baron raised his hands in the air.
The man huffed his annoyance. “Now y’all quit with that funny business and perk yer ears! Hmmph! And juss this mornin’ the preacher done told us, ‘Do on to others as you’d have them do to you!’ Shee-it!” He spat again. “You know, this ain’t the first time I’ve come across fellers out here who ain’t wearin’ a stitch! ‘Course it’s usually on account of them buzzards pickin’ at their bones and scatterin’ them about!” The rider nodded up at the sky and the men took closer note of the birds this time.
“Now,” the horseman continued, “without no water or vittles, you boys is as good as dead out here, and I think y’all knows it, too!”
“Do you mean to say it is your belief that we are cognizant that death will soon take us?” Kyle offered. “Because that had crossed my mind, yes.”
“Kyyyyle!” said Wardstein said through his teeth. “Are you trying to get us killed?”
“Hey, give me a break!” the knight whispered defensively. “I can barely understand the guy!”
Kyle frowned and made a mental note to stop punching things when ordered, especially if it was James or Wardstein doing the ordering. He squinted his eyes tightly, this time managing to locate the rider, blurry as he was. Kyle may not have grown up at court in the lap of luxury like James and Wardstein, but that didn’t matter in this instance. He understood by the man’s plain speak that he too came from humble origins. By the sounds of it, like him, he had been raised a god-fearing man. Kyle called to mind one of the first lessons his parents had taught him when he was a boy: honesty is always the best policy.
Kyle coughed significantly and everyone looked his way.
“Sir, please forgive us,” he smiled. “I think we simply got off on the wrong foot. You see, we are from the distant future and have travelled back in time to…correct an error of sorts.” Nearby, James and Wardstein gestured wildly for Kyle to zip it, but the knight was only able to focus on one thing at a time. “Now,” Kyle continued, “I have no way of knowing whether you are the error that needs correcting, I must admit; but given your folksy manner of speaking, it’s my guess that you are not. Perhaps if you could point us in the direction of the nearest settlement we will find the error we are looking for. So we can…correct him.”
Kyle smiled and gave a thumbs-up to a couple of shrubs that did in fact look a great deal like a naked James and Wardstein. The real James and Wardstein however a little ways off and rolling their eyes at one another. Meanwhile, the rider studied Sir Kyle closely.
“Damn, I think you boys is already half-cooked!” The rider reached alongside his saddle and produced a large circular object. From the sound of it, liquid was sloshing about within. The man tossed it to the ground. “Alright, you boys drink up and follow me. My house ain’t far, and I’ll see what I can rustle up to clothe y’all. It’s the Christian thing to do, I reckon. Geet on, Socrates!”
The man jostled the reigns lightly and Socrates began a light trot. Wardstein and James collected the canteen, and then their crystals, and set to following Socrates and the rider.
“C’mon Kyle!” Wardstein called over his shoulder. “No, other way, Kyle, just—therrrrre you go.”
“My God the sun is hot,” Kyle said, wiping the sweat from his face.
“Might have sumthin’ to do with your twig and berries hangin’ out, I reckon.”
“What is that word?”
The man looked at him for a second, then turned to James and Wardstein. “Your pals got a mighty hurt on his head there. Might wanna have him checked out in town. Does a body no good, that.”
James shrugged and Wardstein nodded. Kyle thought briefly about explaining that the damage was purely superficial, but a particularly colorful butterfly floated past and distracted him. He tracked its looping path as it flew, a dash of color in an otherwise dreary landscape. As it traversed in front of them the horse lunged and snapped it out of the air, chewing once and swallowing noisily. That didn’t seem right to Kyle, but no one else had seemed to have noticed. He wondered if he was having another of his ‘episodes’. He shrugged mentally. They would come sooner or later anyway. No materiel meant no den pipe. And no den pipe meant jonesing. And jonesing meant hallucinations and murderous rages. He had explained it all to James and Wardstein before they left during tea time with that delightful badger, so he knew they were prepared. Ah, that badger. Benny, he called himself. Eating all the food. Kyle let out a giggle inadvertently.
“What now?” Wardstein asked him.
“Nothing. Just Benny.”
“Who the hell is Benny?”
Kyle laughed. Wardstein let out a long sigh. He was probably tired.
The men and their guide crested a light rise and saw a ramshackle homestead revealed. A few chickens roamed the yard and a smallish barn off to the side hinted at larger livestock being around somewhere. The sickly sweet smell of manure filled Kyle’s nostrils and he felt a sense of calm. Like a huge weight was lifted from his shoulders, or that he got a sweet seat on a particularly comfortable couch. He felt as if he was being released from a daze.
“There she is, boys. My piece of heaven.”
“It’s…nice,” James said non-committedly.
Wardstein nodded. “I like the, uh…fences?”
“Yeah, she sure is pretty. A man could do a lot worse, these days. What with the Injuns and those McHaskinly brothers roaming the countryside, taking from good, hard-working folk. ‘Taint right.”
It was Wardsteins turn to giggle. “’Taint,” he repeated.
“No. No ‘taint’.”
Wardstein guffawed now. “Hahaha! No ‘taint. Get it, James? No ‘taint?”
James smiled and nodded. He seemed uncomfortable in his nakedness. The man did love his clothes. Wardstein seemed disappointed and mumbled something to himself.
The man turned back to look to the three of them, but his gaze focused on something far behind them. His expression dropped. “Hells bells. Speak of the devil and he shall appear.”
They all turned around now and saw a cloud of dust approaching.
“No time to make it to the house for you boys, I reckon. We’ll have to meet them here.”
“Who are they?” Wardstein asked.
“The McHaskinlys. The meanest, blackest, orneriest, most truculent, belligerent, unlikeable, poor hygeined gang of hardcases around these parts.”
The cloud of dust resolved into six riders on horseback.
The man spat in the dust and continued. “Figures. See that black stallion in the lead? That’s Clinton McHaskinlys horse. We are getting a visit from the big cheese himself, seems.”
The horses were closer now, Kyle knew. He couldn’t see them, but he could hear them. The man was still talking.
“Now don’t be nervous here, boys. These men will feed on your fear. You meet their eyes, hear? I’ll not suffer to be standing with cowards, understand?”
Kyle heard the horses slow to a trot and then walk and then finally stop a few feet away. He could make out vague blobs he assumed were horses, and smaller blobs on top that could only be the riders. This not seeing thing would take some getting used to, but he was adapting.
“Well, well, well,” said one of the riders. He sounded like he was chewing on something. “What do we have here? Old farmer Saul and his pals. I never knew you was into this kinda thing, Saul. Running these naked boys across your pathetic excuse for farmland. Is this what you do for fun?” The man laughed as if he had made a great joke. “Eh boys?” he said. Kyle could tell he was speaking to people behind him. “Running around with three naked men. What he does for fun!” The man continued laughing loudly, but Kyle could not hear anyone joining in. It seemed as if the laughing man caught on to this too eventually, as his laughter sputtered and halted. He said something under his breath that didn’t sound complimentary. “Look, Saul. I don’t care what you get up to in your spare time, really, I don’t. But a hobby like this has got to be mighty expensive, whatever it is. You should really take my offer. It’s a fair offer, Saul. This land is nothing but scrub brush and shite-berries.” Kyle heard the man chuckling and got the impression of him turning around towards his rider companions. “Shite-berries? Nothing?” Again he grumbled to himself.
The farmer, Saul, spoke up then. “Clinton, I wouldn’t sell this to you for all of Montezuma’s gold. I’ll live here on this land like these boys before I hand it over. I’ll make shite-berry pie and eat it with a smile.”
The men behind the ruffian laughed at this, and their leader spun on them. “Shite-berry pie gets a laugh? Y’all need to check your heads. It was the exact same joke.”
The laughter quieted and Clinton turned back around. “You can’t hold out forever, Saul Williams. As tough as you talk, you and I both know you’ll be tilling this land for me one day soon. Mighty soon. Until then, you enjoy your…games.” He sounded disgusted.
Kyle heard the men turn their horses away, back towards the way they had come from.
“Oh, one more thing. Nearly forgot. Happy fourth of July!!” He lobbed something then into their midst. It was a tightly wrapped object, and it was burning on one end.
The farmer reared his horse and yelled out in surprise. “COVER YOUR EA-“
A loud explosion occurred, and Kyle saw lights and colors explode outward from the package. Socrates, panicked, began to rear and kick. Kyle felt something very hard and unforgiving impact his head. His vision went black as his body careened lifelessly a few feet away before collapsing into a heap. Saul struggled with the horse and eventually calmed him down. Everyone stood in stunned silence, the gang of men included.
“HAHAHA!!” Clinton yelled, slapping his hand on his leg. “Right in the head! Y’all see that, boys? Looks like he is down to two boy toys! Eh lads?” He looked at his men to see them all directing a disappointed gaze in his direction.
“That was really dangerous,” said one of them.
“I think that guy is dead,” said another, pointing at Kyle’s lightly twitching body. “That’s just nerves,” he added.
“Plus those fireworks were supposed to be for Skinny Pete’s birthday.”
The leader looked from one face to the other, seeing the same accusations on each of them. He growled and spurred his horse on, away from the farmers property. The rest of the men followed suit, leaving Wardstein, James and the farmer in a small cloud of dust. They looked towards Kyle, who lay face down in the dirt.
“How many times have we seen this?” Wardstein asked no one in particular.
“He’s naked this time,” James pointed out.
Wardstein grunted. “Time to find some manure and make a poultice, I guess.” He started looking around, but stopped when he saw the downed man slowly getting to his feet.
“How the hell?” Saul said.
Kyle got slowly to his knees, and then all the way to his feet. He felt…good.
“I feel good,” he said. “And plus I can see now.”
Saul dumped a large sack onto his kitchen table. “I wish I could say this was the first time I’ve had a bunch of naked guys with beards and moustaches in my house,” he said. “But – that would be a lie. The truth is, I’ve hired a lot of farmhands over the years, and when they stay in the house, it can get mighty hot in here, so naturally pieces of clothing can get left behind. Take whatcha want out of the bag – unless of course you’d like to make yourself at home the way you are.”
James glared. “Oh, I’ll take the clothes,” he seethed. He considered Saul’s odd language and decided to improvise with a slight flourish to soften the rejection. “I, uh, reckon.”
Saul turned and set about to fiddling about with his foodstuffs. “Coffee’d go down good right about now,” he mused. The men ignored him, claiming various clothing articles from the bag. It turned out Kyle was a pretty standard size and he was able to find a fairly simple set of pants and a shirt. James pawed around in frustration. “Saul, any chance you’ve got a veston in here? I was hoping for an accent colour – blue?”
“A vest? I got no vests. Just grab a shirt. You can get more in town later on, I reckon.” Grudgingly, James settled for a simple white button-down and black pants. Wardstein was able to find nothing but pants that would fit. “I knew it,” he complained bitterly.
“Easy there, big feller. I got a spare poncho here. One size fits all, and any colour you want as long as it’s black.” He shrieked laughter, reflexively spitting more brown juice on his floor. “Ah, shoot,” he remarked. “I do that a lot.”
Wardstein poked his head through the offered poncho and eased into one of the rude chairs surrounding the table. “So, Saul. I gotta say this isn’t what I expected. We uh, travelled a long way hoping to meet the Duke. Duke John? Or maybe Gordon the Slim. Do you know where we could find those guys?”
Saul placed steaming mugs before the men. “Duke? Gord? What the hail are you talking about?” He wondered if maybe the sunstroke he suspected earlier had yet to wear off.
James was losing patience. “Look, forget the names, obviously you’re a simple farmer with few cares beyond the backsides of your livestock. Just tell us how far we are from the castle.”
“T’ain’t no castle.”
“There’s that word again! Where’s the castle. The castle!” James snapped his fingers in annoyance.
“I heardja, there’s no gotdang castle around here. Just more ranches. We’re settin’ just outside of Bisbee, Arizona Territory. Tombstone’s prolly ten mile or more north. Where the hail are you boys from, anyway? Not to be impolitic but you all talk funny.”
“No, you talk funny. And I’ve never heard of these places. None of this makes sense to me.”
“That makes two of us, feller.”
Kyle was scanning the room with his newly-excellent vision. After a few gulps of this strange hot drink Saul had provided, he was suddenly feeling a lot better about things. More alert somehow, mind humming with new energy, though he knew that made no sense.
His gaze settled on an unusually excellent painting that was nailed to the wall. “Saul, what on earth is that?” he pointed. “I’ve never seen a painting so good in my life.” He hoped that whoever had rendered it also did maps, he knew they’d need some, and he did enjoy a fine map. He resolved to ask about that later, and then promptly forgot.
Saul beamed in pride. “T’ain’t no paintin’, that’s a fottergraph. I got that took the night I won $20 at poker in Tombstone this summer. Tombstone Hotel.” He took it down from the wall and showed the men. The image depicted Saul, dressed in what passed for his finery, with a pair of elaborately painted and somewhat undressed women on each arm. Wardstein knew immediately he wanted to visit this place. “Ten miles away or so, you said?”
Sir Kyle’s improved visual acuity spotted something. “Guys! Look at the inscription on the fottergraph!”
James squinted. “Tombstone Hotel, July 4, 1886. What the ‘hail’?”
“The year is 1886?”
“What did ah just say?”
Wardstein remembered McStogey’s boring speech from earlier. “Wait, I get it. This sucks. McStogey must have sent us to the future by accident. He said the farther the jump, the more the crystals get drained. We were only supposed to go back a hundred years. Instead, he sent us into the future – way into the future. And to this horribly hot place that’s apparently also really far from the castle. That’s why our crystals went dark on us.”
“That idiot!” James sneered. He made a mental note to give McStogey the beating of a lifetime.
“So what now?” Kyle asked. He’d finished his mug of ‘coffee’ and was looking significantly at Saul, hoping he’d get the hint to bring him more. Saul however was simply staring into space.
“I say we just kill him, like we usually do, take all his stuff and go to Tombstone,” Wardstein offered.
James was inclined to agree, this entire business with Saul was getting tiresome and he wanted to hit the road. “Okay, but why are we going there?”
“Because. It’s the only plan that makes sense,” Wardstein said, staring at the women in the fottergraph sitting on the table.
“Fellers, you know I’m sitting right here, right? I don’t aim to get kilt, either.” Saul patted the metal noisemakers on his belt.
Wardstein relaxed, considering options. Perhaps Saul could be murdered later on instead, after he helped them out some more. “I suppose,” he offered diplomatically, “that talk of killing is what you would say is, ‘not Christian.’ So, we have decided to take you up on your offer of a meal, and then we can palaver some more about our situation.”
“I didn’t offer a meal…?”
But the men were already clumping into the living room without a look back to wait on easy chairs for their dinner.
The meal Saul prepared for the boys was well received. So much so that within seconds of setting the pot down, it was nearly scooped clean. Wardstein then retreated to a corner with his heaping plate and began hastily shovelling the food into his mouth.
Sir Kyle looked quizzically to James, who nodded. “Yeah, he’ll do that. I don’t think anyone’s ever taken the time to correct him. Hey Wardstein! You do know that buffet isn’t the French word for race, don’t you?” But the Baron didn’t answer and continued to eating, his eyes fixated on the pot in order to gauge how much remained and when best to swoop back in and polish the whole thing off before someone else did.
Kyle grabbed a spoon and loaded a helping onto his own plate. He breathed the scent deeply and smiled. “Saul, I’m a man of simple tastes, but I reckon that I ain’t never seen nor smelt anything so amazing!”
Scraping the pot for what remained, James looked to Saul, who was now relaxing in a chair and wearing a pleased expression. “Listen, don’t get too excited. He said the same thing one time when a cow by our camp site lifted its tail and quirted a stream of diarrhea.”
“I grew up on a manure farm!” said Kyle amiably. “Mmmm! And this tastes delicious too! What do you call it?”
“That there’s reheated beans ‘n’ Heinz tomayter catusp.”
“It smells pretty gross,” said James, tasting a bit. “Pahh! Too sweet! You wouldn’t happen to have any pheasant or venison, would you? Maybe some seared sea scallops?”
“It’s Archduke James, you old coot! Or Your Grace. Not Bob. Okay, well—well what about some of that shite-berry pie you were talking about earlier? That sounds like it might be okay.”
“S’all I got, so I reckon that’ll be all y’GIT.” The old man spat on his floor again and James did the same to try and rid himself of the bad taste. “Hey now! Only I git to do that! What’s with that there prism o’ yers? Darn thing’s a-flickerin’!”
“–can we eat Socrat—hey, you’re right! Looks like these things charge faster than we were made to believe!”
James removed his crystal from his breast pocket and set it on his knee. It was warm to the touch, and everyone crowded about to see what it would do next. Even Socrates poked his head through a window from outside upon hearing the commotion. “Everybody lookit!” said James. “It’s doin’ something!” The men watched as the biscuit-shaped crystal emitted a bright white light and went from being transparent to somewhat cloudy. Slowly, the ghostly image of a man’s head and shoulders began to take shape, growing steadily clearer. Then King Paulus’s smiling face appeared.
“Hey, there’s the man! What’s new and exciting in the nation’s capital?”
“Hi Paulus!” said Kyle as he ate his slop. He regretted his outburst instantly, suddenly wondering whether the King had noticed his familiar address, and worse, that he had said it with his his mouth full! Surely he would have, Kyle thought, his mind now racing. But the knight couldn’t determine whether his latest head trauma had exacerbated his propensity to make these kinds of social faux-pas, or whether it had simply made him more attuned to ones he had already been committing! And if that were the case, how long had he been acting in this fashion! He was suddenly convinced of the reason why Paulus hadn’t bothered to put him in charge this time around and scrambled to come up with an appropriate apology, but was instantly self-conscious about appearing too clingy. That wouldn’t do, either. No, he had to get the tone just right, otherwise—
“–Hiya, Kyle!” said Paulus, now grinning even wider. The knight sighed in relief.
“Hi Paulus!” he replied, forgetting that he had said that already. His face went red. You’re such an idiot, you’re such an idiot, you’re such an idiot!
“—Awww, what in the HAIL is goin’ ON!?” cried Saul, removing his hat and quickly making the sign of the cross.
“Guys, shut up, he’s talking to ME!” James sneered. “Kyle, Saul, do I interrupt when you guys get calls on your space crystals?” There was silence. “Darn right I don’t! No-siree-Kyle-Saul. Sorry about that, Dad. Hi! Also, WHAT THE HELL! We’re NOT in the capital, is the point! Not even a hundred years back, as planned. McStogey sent us to 1886! To some place called…Arizona or something! It’s game over, Dad! GAME OVER!”
“Just—just—now, just hold on a minute!” said Paulus, growing visibly flustered. “Listen, I don’t have much of a charge—just enough for a quick call, so we can’t waste any time. Okay–are you sure you’re that far in the future? McStogey couldn’t possibly have messed up that badly! STOGEY! Get down here!”
McStogey then wandered into frame behind Paulus, looking completely disheveled and wearing nothing but a pair of loose-fitting undershorts. “What’s up, Paulus?” he asked, unabashedly scratching at his buttocks. The King’s face fell at the sight of him.
“…crap. On second thought, maybe he could have fouled this up.”
The crystal suddenly darkened, cutting off the transmission. Growling in anger, James aimlessly hurled it, striking Socrates in the head. The horse shook it off once again, but chomped the air a few times in James’s direction to let him know he was annoyed.
“HEY NOW!” cried Saul. “Don’t you go scarin’—“
“—don’t you go scarin’ Socrates like that, yeah-yeah” said Wardstein, who was loading his plate up again. “You hadn’t told James not to though, so chill out. And even if you had, he pretty much does what he wants.”
“Yes-sir-ee-Wardstein, I do! Quick, gimme your crystal, I want to make sure Saul understands.” James and Socrates glared at one another.
“No, no. Probably best not to throw crystals at the horse. For starters, they’re the only thing that’s going to enable us to time jump again, and that’s being optimistic. Plus, they’re, you know, CRYSTAL? God we can be dumb sometimes!” The meal had Wardstein feeling rejuvenated, and he quickly formulated a plan. “Look, first thing’s first. Number one, pick up your crystal and take care of it. You too, Kyle. Number two: Tombstone whorehouse.”
“Woot!” hooted James and Kyle simultaneously.
“Of course, we can’t show up looking like this!” said Wardstein, gesturing to his ill-fitting farmhand clothes. “No, we’ll get set up in Bisbee along the way. Saul, you’re comin’ with. If we run into any trouble along the way, those noisemakers of yours will be certain to scare anyone or any thing that tries to mess with us. Plus, we’re going to need stuff explained to us…introductions….that sort of thing.”
Saul frowned. “These do a lot more than make noi—“
“Hey, just saddle up, will you? We need to get there before the shops close!”
“Well…I suppose I ain’t got nothin’ better to do.”