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.