Game of Drones: The Western Adventure CONCLUDES!

James: 

On the trail leading back into Tombstone, Christian Bloodlust let out enough slack in the reins for his horse munch a bit of grass; but rather than eat, it merely sniffed at the foliage and shook its mane, almost as if to say no.  The rider then patted the animal affectionately on the flank–almost as if to say sorry.  The previous nine or ten stops had clearly provided ample time for grazing.  Wanting to stay well back of Sheriff McKeegan and the three men that were apparently marked for death, Bloodlust was forced to travel at their pace, which, if one were being complimentary, might be described as ‘idle.’   Honest?   ‘Cuckoo-kuh-crazy.’

Ahead, the riders had stopped again.   All but McKeegan apparently needed to defecate.

Bloodlust heard one of the men shout in the distance, but he was too far away to make it out.   He guessed it was McKeegan though, who presently threw his hat to the ground and then dismounted to collect it.    The laughter of the other three was faintly audible.

Removing his pocket watch from his waistcoat once more, Bloodlust examined the time and sighed.  The journey back into town should have taken a little under an hour, but so far it had been just over three.  In hindsight, had he set out when he saw the men readying their mounts back at the Westforest ranch, he would now be relaxing with a book in the rooms above his failing collection business;  but he instead decided to watch them leave and then ride down to the property in an attempt to learn more about who he was pursuing.   Though what he found there had only left him with more questions.

Back at the office, Luke Farson, as he had introduced himself, provided few details about his motives, and in return, Bloodlust tried to stay just as aloof, accepting only a retainer for the ‘investigation stage.’   He said this as though he did this sort of thing all the time, because the small fee, at least, would be enough to cover the next month’s rent.  Win-win, he thought, if he chose to skip on the job.  He had one day to decide, Farson warned him, and a maximum of two to follow through on the work.  Otherwise, the small fortune of five hundred dollars that was on the table would be forfeit and open to “the next scary-lookin’ savage,” he said would “probably do the job for less anyhow.” From what Bloodlust had observed so far, this would either be the easiest money he ever made or something that might get him killed in a hurry.   He double-checked the single-shot .22 rifle he had in his saddle holster to confirm that it was loaded.   Good,  he thought.   If trouble found him before he found it, he would be ready.   He called to mind the advertisement he had tacked up all over town.   That’s what had got him into this situation.

“’Collector,’” he muttered to himself.  “Monetary debts, not people’s lives!
He made a mental note to practice his smile in the mirror to try and make it look less sinister, but then decided that simply commissioning a friendlier portrait would be easier.   That, and maybe changing the wording to be a little less ambiguous.   He yawned.   “Oh my, excuse me,” he said, forgetting he was alone.  His parents had raised him well.  The midday heat had passed now and the radiating sands were also beginning to cool.  Tossing his long black hair to the side, he reached into his saddlebag and produced a leather-bound journal.   Opening it to a marked page, he readied a pencil as his obsidian-like eyes narrowed and studied the four riders ahead a moment.    They still weren’t moving.    He began to write.

August 21st, the year of our Lord (Jesus) , 1886:

Early this morning, a strange encounter: into my office walked three men, the leader of whom—‘Farson,’ he said—wished to employ me to kill not one, not two, but THREE people!   This man wore an almost triangular moustache and had deeply-set eyes, coloured an icy blue, which somehow gave the impression of being ageless, almost as though they had seen the passage many centuries.  This, obviously, is impossible, as he couldn’t have been more than forty or forty-five.   He kept one hand under a jacket he wore draped over his shoulders like a cape, where I expected to see him clutching a deadly weapon of some description; but curiously, I observed him obsessively rotating a dark, biscuit-shaped crystal, which rather vexed me.   In retrospect, perhaps that wasn’t too out of the ordinary.   If I had a finely crafted crystal such as that, I too might be in the habit of  fondling it.  In any case, I insisted that I was not a murderer-for-hire and that this type of work was not my profession.  But he did not wish to take no for an answer!   Given that my visitors were all carrying guns on their belts, I did my best to appease them by listening carefully.  The stranger’s diction was curious, for although he spoke in a drawl common to the area, I was somehow left with the impression that this was an affectation.  He seemed to insert strange, obsolete words into his speech—ones that have not been in the common vernacular for many centuries.   Almost as though he was from another age.   But again, this is obviously an impossibility—in all seriousness, he was fifty at the most.  If I see him again, I must ask what he uses on his skin.  But…I digress.

It was with some hesitance that I accepted a small fee ‘for my trouble’ and agreed to head out to a property he described outside of town called the ‘Westforest Ranch,’ where I was told the men were holed up.   Farson and his men left and soon after I saddled up my horse and headed out for the place.

When I reached the property, I saw three men outside shooting guns at all manner of targets.  I’d say they were gunning for ‘everything that moved,’ but they were equal opportunists it seemed and shot a great deal more than that, whether it moved or not.  Although they were all much smaller than myself, ranging from around six to six-foot-two or so, each wore gun belts and bandoliers of ammunition about them.  The largest of them practiced with a short, double-barreled shotgun and seemed rather adept at using it.    The other two, each slim gentlemen, fired volley after volley of pistol rounds.   All wore enviable beards.   (Sadly, despite being of a proud European lineage, I have never been able to grow much in the way of facial hair.)   What was not revealed by Farson was that the three men all wore deputy stars, and also, that Sheriff McKeegan, who visited, was an acquaintance.   If I do end up accepting this job, it’s almost certainly going to mean skipping town, I realize, since everyone already seems to think that I’m not only an Indian, but a murderous one!   And if three law men end up in boxes?   There’d be a lynch mob outside the Bloodlust Enterprises in no time flat!

I watched all four lawmen set off for Tombstone and then ventured down to the house where, alarmingly, I found a pile of dead savages along with who I presume were the bodies of the Westforest couple.  All were riddled with bullet holes.   It was unclear who had killed them, but as the deputies were the only living souls I encountered, my guess is them.   The bodies were all stacked in the sun on a pile that buzzed noisily with flies.   They had evidently been used for  target practice too.

Inside the home, signs of a shootout.   Lots of blood.   On the wall, written in the gore,  foot-high letters, dried brown, read, ‘SIR-KYLE WAS HERE!  ’; above it, in two-foot high letters, ‘BARON VON WARDSTEIN TOO!’; and above that, in five foot letters, “BUT MOST IMPORTANTLY, ARCHDUKE JAMES, SON OF KING PAULUS, WAS HERE!   ALSO, I WIN.  HA HA!’

…I did not know quite what to make of this.   Farson warned that they were possibly ‘crazy.’   This assessment is beginning to look accurate.

On their trail now, following them back to—
Bloodlust ceased writing and was struck with the sensation that he was being watched.  Whirling around in the saddle he observed two near-naked Indians atop palominos, looking at him.  Each smiled in a friendly manner.  “Ya-ah-tey! Odda-guytok, bonash-tey!”  said one, waving jovially.   “Saka-wah madeeshtek, oo-wigan?

Each continued smiling and looked to Bloodlust expectantly, clearly waiting for a response.

“Look,” he replied, clearing his throat.  “Primitives of the desert: I do not speak your silly, gutteral language, so, please, be on your way.  I am busy. BIZ-ZEE, understand?  Go on, off you go.  Shoo now!”

The natives looked at one another, confused, and then to Bloodlust.    The other spoke now, smiling just a little less than before.   “Been-suh-wan, mee-osh sack-a-nan?”    He gestured to Bloodlust’s fine woolen suit and nodded to his companion.

“Yes,” replied Bloodlust.  “Tailor-made in Philadelphia.   In finery of this quality, a man can go just about anywhere in society and fit in.”   He sneered at the riders.   “Well…most men.”

Guh!” shouted the second Indian, pointing at the suit again, then to his own chest.   He repeated this action several times.  “Guh-waht!”  he nodded, producing a dead armadillo caked in dried blood, which he held by the tail.   “Guh-waht!” he repeated, pointing at the carcass and then to Bloodlust’s attire.   He smiled again and nodded his head up and down.

Bloodlust rolled his eyes and sneered.

Oot! Oot!”  said the other rider, reaching with one hand into a satchel of his own.  “Guh-INNNNN-stay,” he said, pointing his friend’s armadillo, and then to an enormous buffalo tongue he extended in offering.  “Guh-innnnn-stay!”   He pointed back and forth between these vile objects and then to the suit and back to their bare chests.

Bloodlust felt the desire to throw up.  “You have got to be kidding,” he said, shaking his head ‘no’ from side to side and pointing to the hills.  He hoped these strange men would leave him be soon so he could get back to civilization.   They seemed to get the message, and as they turned, they barked what sounded like words of contempt back at him.

“Yeah-yeah, nice to meet you too,” he scoffed, turning his mind back to the job at hand.   But the four men were now nowhere to be seen.   McKeegan and…James, Wardstein, and Kyle, was it?   So it would seem.   But ‘Archduke’?  ‘Sir’?  ‘Baron’? Bloodlust studied his notes carefully.   Who were these weirdos?   He slapped the reins and carried on.
* * *
As they entered Tombstone once more, Sheriff McKeegan looked over his shoulder and spied the silhouette of the rider far in the distance.

“Why do you keep doing that?”  Wardstein barked.

“Yeah, what gives?”  said James, looking backwards the way they came for himself.   He struck a match off Kyle’s rough, scabby head and lit a cigarette.  “There’s nothin’ back there, McKeegan.”

Kyle itched at his scalp and glanced for himself.   He did not miss his spectacles.  He saw what McKeegan had noticed, only with his younger eyes, in even greater detail, observing the long, flowing hair on the rider behind them.

“It’s a lady!”  Kyle exclaimed, smiling.   “An enormous lady!

“That ain’t no lady,” McKeegan scowled.  “It’s an Injun that took up shop in town a while back.   Scares the children something awful with those bills he posts all over town.”    McKeegan pointed at one that was nailed to a post.  “Goes by the name ‘Christian Bloodlust’ if you can believe it.   Funny thing is, the feller’s got it in his head that he ain’t an Injun on account of him going to school.   Nearest I can figure, anyway.”

The boys studied the image.

“He’s a baaaaaad man!” said James, pointing his pistol at the sign and dry-firing it.   Clink-Clink-Clink-Clink!-Clink!

“How do you know?”  Kyle asked.  “You’ve never even met him.”

“Well just look at him!  He’s clearly evil.”

“Yah Kyle, just look at his FACE!”  Wardstein added, pointing his Peacemaker at the sign too, for good measure.  “I’d like to explode that head!  Just like those cans, you know?”

Kyle studied the face and frowned.   He had to admit, it did look pretty menacing.   Behind it though, a friendlier, more familiar face caught his eye: the redheaded woman he had met the other day at the dual.   She was dressed smartly in a scarlet dress of fine silk that verily glowed in the amber sunlight, and was presently twirling a parasol over one shoulder.

“Well if it isn’t our savior!” she smiled up at him from the boardwalk, holding her young son’s hand.  “And here I was thinking you up and left our little town!”

“Technically, that’s exactly accurate,” said Kyle.  “Though as you can see, here I am riding into it again.”

There was a pause.   Kyle felt the urge to light a cigarette to fill this pause, but he was already smoking one and thought it would look weird if he lit another.  He decided that he would fill the pause with words, lest it go on too long and become awkward.   “Your dress is pleasing to the eye and accentuates the curves of your body.   The fabric looks soft, but…not as soft as your skin looks.   Though your skin, if we’re being honest, doesn’t look quite as soft as your son’s.  Not that I want to touch your son’s skin.  Just…an observation.   I mean—”

“—oh my God,” said Wardstein under his breath, wincing. James grinned widely and turned to McKeegan with a silent ‘wow.’

The woman only hesitated an instant, blinked, and turned to her boy.   “William, mind your manners now and say hello to mister—why, I do declare!  Where are my manners?   We have yet to be formally introduced, have we!  I’m mizzzzz Rebecca Finch and, well, you’ve already met my son William, haven’t you, mister…?”
“I’m Kyle.”
“And your friends?”
“Uhm.  This is Wardstein.”
“Hey,” said the big man.
“And this is James.”
“Ma’am,” said the Archduke, tipping his hat.  He pointed to the deputy star on his belt.  “Happen to notice these?  Means we’re a big deal now.”  He pointed his revolver at young William’s face.   “So don’t you get any ideas, hear me?”   The boy quickly disappeared behind his mother’s skirts.

“Yes, that badge looks very nice on you, young man!” said Rebecca in a patient tone.  “Where you boys staying?”

“Apparently we’re being put up in the Tombstone Hotel,” said Wardstein, looking to McKeegan.  The Sheriff gave a slow nod.

“That ramshackle ol’ place?”  exclaimed Rebecca, looking up at the facade of the hotel.   It looked to the men that it had seen better days. “I will not hear of it!   No, you boys are staying in my establishment, The Tombstone Cathouse!   I won’t take no for an answer, and that’s all there is to it.”

Wardstein and James high-fived one another from their horses while Kyle teetered his head back and forth as though weighing the idea.  He nodded.

“Well,” he thought. “I have always considered myself a ‘cat person.'”

**

Luke Farson sat silently by the fire, listening to the occasional pop and crack that rose from it.  The men with him all slept with varying degrees of disarray haphazardly around the campsite.  He considered the logs being consumed by the flames.  Not unlike himself, he thought bitterly.  He too had spent his share of time in the fire.  But instead of being reduced to ash as these logs soon would be, he emerged from it re-forged and with a purpose.  A great wrong had been done to him, and he would right it no matter the cost.  No matter what avenues of power he needed to walk down, no matter what he must provide to strike a deal he would bring down the one who wronged him.

Luke Farson, as he called himself here, laughed a bitter laugh.  Friends were a waste of time, and a liability.  He had never cared for them, himself.  Still, he appreciated the irony that the friends of his greatest enemy would be the ones to finally allow him to get his revenge.  “Not long now, McStogey,” he whispered to himself.  “Not long at all.”

McKeegan swooned in the heat.  Somehow the three men he was with had turned a simple journey to town into a chore.  Their horses were somehow lathered, and now Wardstein was complaining he was hungry.  Again.

“We have no more food,” McKeegan told him snappily.  “I didn’t pack for a day trip.”

“You would think a Sheriff would be better prepared,” Kyle said, and shrugged.

McKeegan glared at him.

“So you mean to tell me we have to go the rest of the way with no food?” Wardstein asked, testily.

“We can see the town from here!” he shouted at him.

“James -start a fire.  Kyle – kill your horse.”

James alertly dismounted his horse and began rummaging for a flint stone.  Kyle hung his head for a moment before leaning down to tenderly say a few words to his mount, and then his boots hit the ground as well.  He drew his pistol reluctantly.

“STOP IT!” McKeegan screamed at them.  He took off his hat and threw it in the dirt.  “No fire!  And no horse killing!  Both of you, mount the hell up!  We will be in town in literally 10 minutes!  No exaggeration!”

Kyle looked relieved as he re-holstered his weapon, then got back on his horse.  James followed suit after throwing the flint he had found into the surrounding scrub.  McKeegan just shook his head.

* * *

Christian Bloodlust spurred his horse to his left, crossing through some light brush before intersecting a path that would take a circuitous route to the north and then eventually into town.  He had seen enough of his quarry and wanted to get back home to eat.  He also needed to decide what he wanted to do next.  He tried to calm his mind as he rode, but it was proving difficult: the chance meeting with the savages earlier had left him on edge.  It wasn’t that he feared them, and he certainly felt no pity – indigenous people had had their time on this land and they had wasted it.  America would be a great place of education and art and tolerance.  Eventually, the walls of inequality would be brought down and the entire population would transcend what their European forefathers had tried to force upon them.  Christian allowed himself a brief smile, imagining the respectful people and brilliant minds and benevolent leaders this great country had in its future.  The people would probably not even need a police force, he thought, and if there was one he felt assured the would be equitable and fair to all men.  No, it hadn’t been their being hopelessly pathetic that had bothered him; it had been the sense of belonging he had felt.  As if they were kindreds.  When they had first made their strange offerings his initial reaction had been, of course, disgust.  But there was a small part of him, somewhere he could no longer locate, that had believed a succulent tongue, armadillo carcass and leather vest had been worth his suit.  Curious.  And curiouser still, when they had shown their displeasure he had felt an overwhelming urge to slay them and mutilate their bodies.  Nothing too gross, mind you.  Maybe he’d just take some of their hair.  And the skin, too, so the hair kept a bit better.  Plus he imagined you could make a good sun umbrella out of them that way.  He stopped himself, again.  Where were these thoughts coming from?  He had never experienced anything like that before, to his knowledge.  Where was this bloodlust coming from?  He pulled his horse up and sat completely still for a moment before exploding into laughter.  His deep, booming voice carried across the plain.

“HA HA HA HA HA!  HA HA HA HA HA!  HA HA HA HA HA!”

Meanwhile, a thousand miles away a train lumbered down through small town Missouri, towards St. Louis.  There it would stop for a time.  The drivers would change, and some of the passengers would be replaced by new faces.  Some cargo would be offloaded to go on different trains, or barges or storefronts.  Other cargo came on board to replace it, too.  Whether it was timber, metal, or something more nefarious.  The conductor waiting to take the train for its final 1,400 mile run over to Arizona sat alone in a bar.  He had drank a copious amount of alcohol over the last few days since Chuck, his Chief Engineer, had shown him the tally list, but none of it could break his sobering train of thought.  They were meant to be taking Native bones through Native territory to go to some thrice-damned museum.  And the Indians didn’t figure to be too happy about it.  He just prayed the passengers never got wind of it.

“Another whisky,” he said.

The bartender looked at him, skeptically.

“You deaf?” the conductor asked him, placing a bill on the table.

**

For the first time, Sir Kyle was somewhat disappointed by the lady in red, Rebecca.  She’d told them they’d be staying at a cathouse, so he assumed there’d be a lovely assortment of animals to play with – maybe even some cat bags for his use as well!  It was difficult to not spur his horse into a gallop to Rebecca’s heavenly residence.  But no, as they arrived, he saw it was only a palatial mansion, built recently in the finest contemporary style, in stark contrast to the faded boards of the Tombstone Hotel.  He saw a few beautiful girls on the wide porch, giggling happily, who waved at his approach.  He detected the whiff of cooking meats, vegetables, and underlying all that, freshly roasted coffee.  He sighed in disappointment.  Not a cat in sight.

Kyle was about to ask if perhaps the cats were kept out back when the double doors of the mansion banged open, and  a dusty looking man tumbled out.  He was followed by a burly looking man in a too-tight blouse, its seams taut with rippling layers of fat.  This man booted the other in the backside, sending him rolling down the stairs.

Rebecca seemed displeased, if not very surprised.  “Hondo!  What’s all this about?”

The big man fussily brushed his shirt.  “Miss Rebecca!  This fool done came and did it again!  He should be banned for good!”

A woman pushed through the doorway, and pointed an accusing finger at the man lying at the foot of the stairs.  Her face and hair was smeared with what  could only be excrement.  “Squatter is all he is!” she screamed.  She dug a clot of waste from her hair, and savagely whipped it at the prostrate man, who groaned feebly as the hot turds splattered across his face.  “We don’t need your kind here!”

Rebecca was inclined to agree.  “Saul, you best go on home now,” she said gently.

“It’s Saul!” James exclaimed.  “He gave us our clothes and a ride to Tombstone,” he added unnecessarily for those listening, just in case they had perhaps forgotten this man.

Saul shrivelled in embarrassment, tears welling in his rheumy eyes.  “I can’t help myself,” he moaned pathetically.  “I was under control for a while, but then the Cowboys came back for me.  Gave me a scare, that bastard Farson.  Said he’d do things to me.  My land, I would tell him anything he wanted, why threaten me?” he wailed.   A crumb of feces rolled from his cheek into his open mouth and he choked, and wailed again.

Wardstein swung down from his horse.  “This Farson, he’s with the others, who killed Brent Westforest?  And, uh, also his wife?”  Sir Kyle’s mouth automatically popped open to protest this falsehood, but James punched him in the kidney to keep him quiet.

Saul calmed.  “That’s him.  He’s looking for you boys.  Lord knows why.  Heard I brought you into town.  I thought he’d kill me right then and there just for the pure hell of it when I told him you all carried those fancy jewels.  Once he heard that, he said he’d ruin me unless I told him everything.”

Wardstein didn’t like that at all.  Which was unsurprising, since he didn’t like much of anything.  “Where is this man now?”

“Yeah!” James added.

Saul staggered to his feet.  “I don’t know boys, surely I would tell you too.  He’s on the plains.  All I know is he’s planned something wicked, and for some reason he’s after you, real bad.”

“Goodnight Saul,” Rebecca told him gently.

He looked her over pensively.  “What about one more, ‘Becca?  For old time’s sake?”  Rebecca chuckled in embarrassment.

Sir Kyle suddenly snapped to attention.  “WHAT did you say?!” he boomed.

Saul failed to note the danger in Sir Kyle’s sudden change in demeanor.  “Why, Rebecca and I used to be together.  It was she who got me into squatting in the first place!  Isn’t that right, ‘Becca?” he leered closer to her, reaching for her with a filthy paw.  His eyes grew crazed at the sight of his obsession – sad old man, but a lunatic above all else, it seemed.   “So what do you think, ‘Becca…one more time for good old Saul?”  He his hand crept ominously to the old throat-cutter he had strapped to his belt.

The cold rage Kyle had so recently discovered in himself whipped through him like winter wind.  “Time’s up, Saul,” he grated.   His hands blinked to his gunbelts and the nickeled pistols flashed for an instant before their gleam was overtaken by the dual tongues of fire he unleashed from each hand, each shot so unbelievably fast it was nearly undistinguishable from the last, the light from each illuminating the stone face of the knight.

Wardstein and James exchanged looks, shrugged, and pulled leather, fanning their pistols empty into the shuddering carcass of Saul, his body a torn waste of sagging and bleeding tissue.  He fell to his knees, a bubbling scream rising from his lips.  His pistol empty, Wardstein stepped forward, reaching for his shotgun over his shoulder like a barbarian sword, whipping the muzzle into Saul’s grizzled maw, his remaining teeth snapping as the muzzle stopped at the back of his throat. He tugged both triggers, and Saul’s wrinkled head exploded with a sensational burst, chunks of skull and torn cerebellum pattering to the earth.  A red mist hung briefly and fell.  Wardstein ejected his empties, reloaded, and jammed the shotgun into Saul’s groin and fired again, a hellacious ravine appearing where Saul’s sorry manhood had been.  He reached for more shells.

“Enough!”  McKeegan cried.  “He’s dead, for god’s sake!  You can’t just kill anyone you like!”

Wardstein was untroubled.  In fact, he felt awesome, as he usually did after some killing.  “Hey, you saw it.  Didn’t you?  He was resisting arrest!  Am I right fellas?”  James nodded enthusiastically, and Kyle simply stared, the battle rage slowly fading from his senses.

“He wasn’t under arrest!”

“We’re deputies, aren’t we?”

“Well, yes.”

“This guy was giving us trouble, right?”

“He was going home!  He – “

Sir Kyle snapped back into focus.  “And he was threatening the lady here.  He was a danger to all those around him.  And if not now, then later on,” he said, looking up the stairs at the soiled woman.  He turned to Rebecca.  “A knight always defends the honour of a lady,” he declared, the timbre of his voice still booming across this strangest of battlefields.  Rebecca looked at him adoringly.  “I don’t do squatting anymore,” she whispered up to him.  Upon hearing that, Sir Kyle was suddenly himself again, breaking into his usual goofy grin.  “That’s so swell!  Listen, do you have any cats here then, or what?”

“Maybe something like that,” James remarked.  He was watching Wardstein introduce himself to the giggling girls on the porch, giving the soiled one a wide berth.  Moments later, he pushed through the entrance of the house, each of the girls following him inside.

XXX

Farson lay in his bedroll, a candle sitting beside him on the sand.  The rest of his men snored around him, farting occasionally.

Earlier in the day, he’d attended the Tombstone Telegraph station, and had “requested” a passenger manifest from the train currently en route to Tombstone.  He’d seen a recent newspaper story suggesting who might be aboard, which had got him started on the idea for this entire plan to begin with…but he had to be sure.  Scanning the rough paper, at last he saw the name he was looking for.  “Sir Charles Parsons.”  He remembered the journal story well.  This man Parsons.  Limey.  Young guy with spectacles, standing proud in a suit in Boston someplace beside the marvellous invention he was bringing through Tombstone.

He smiled wickedly.  One point twenty-one gigawatts, he mused, remembering the breathless details of the newspaper story.  That sounded like a lot.  He wondered though, what the hell was a gigawatt.  He reached down into his pocket, turning the dark crystal over and over again in his fingers.  It was cold, like his heart.

He reckoned it was probably enough.

He blew out his candle.

**

Following Wardstein’s lead, Rebecca took James and Kyle by their hands and led them up the steps to the porch.   “Right this way, gentlemen,” she said, switching seamlessly into the role of hostess.  She and Saul had shared a long and storied history, it was true; but at the end of the day, she was a businesswoman above all else. “Hondo?  Be a dear and see to the mess out front, would you?”

“Yes ma’am!” he replied, heading obediently down to the gory walkway.  He paused and surveyed the scene a moment, stroking his beard.   He wondered how he would go about cleaning up such overkill.  Dustpan and broom, followed by the mop, perhaps.   Though the pulpy fragments of scalp, bone and flesh that had rained down between the geraniums and blades of grass would be trickier, he thought, and would begin to stink pretty soon if he didn’t collect it all.   And Miss Rebecca would be cross if that happened.   Hondo had seen plenty of shootings in Tombstone, but the only comparable thing to this carnage was when he fought the Federals at Shiloh as a younger man and witnessed what grapeshot could do at point-blank range.  Back then, though, it was the Tennessee buzzards that saw to the leftovers.  He felt a cushiony sensation under one of his size fourteens and lifted it to see one of Saul’s eyes staring back at him. “Aww, Christ on a cracker!” he muttered.

“The Tombstone Cathouse welcomes you, gentlemen!”  Rebecca continued on above, leading the two deputies into the foyer. The smell of sweet tobacco smoke welcomed them next, and both James and Kyle found themselves grinning as they took in the sights and sounds of the place.

James nodded in silent approval at the numerous chandeliers that glowed from the high ceilings.   Below, the elaborate, Bacchus-themed carvings amidst the scrollwork on the staircase’s bannister reminded him of decadent banquets back home.  He also thought it would be fun to slide down that railing a little later.   Finally a place in this dumpy down where I can feel at home!

From an adjacent parlour there came soothing piano music, and as Kyle craned his neck to have a look, he saw a dark-skinned fellow seated at a baby grand, and beside it, a large, rectangular table with a low, netted partition at its centre.  A well-dressed, middle-aged man stood on each opposing end, and both was paired with completely nude young woman!   All four held a small paddle and were engaged in a noisy game of batting a ball back and forth.  As Kyle watched, transfixed, the man at the far end of the room jumped as the ball bounced his way, and with a surge of energy he violently swatted it downwards at his opponents. The girls both shrieked and giggled as the ball ricocheted off the table and then clattered across the hallway to Kyle’s feet.

YES!” shouted the aggressor, who then slapped the backside of the girl beside him with his paddle in triumph, her alabaster flesh rippling into small waves.  To Kyle’s surprise, she only giggled at this, so he made a mental note to employ this approach in the future.  “That’s game, Ken!  Next round’s on you!   Hey, uh, you feel like playing the next one, deputy?”  he asked, catching Kyle’s eye. “This guy’s no competition!  ‘Table Tennis,’ they call it–the newest thing outta England!   How ‘bout it?”

Realizing that everyone in the parlour was now looking his way, Kyle suddenly felt a bit uneasy.   A part of him wanted to join in and play, but a larger part didn’t want to commit.   Once Rebecca found him a cat to play with, he wanted to be able to give him or her his full attention.

“Well,” he replied, “I’m uh, a bit sore from the saddle, folks.  So how about you count me in for the game after that?”

Kyle had no intention of playing though and picking up the ball with a smile, he threw it back to the players, accidentally bouncing it off the piano player’s head.   The man flinched in surprise and flubbed a chord badly.

“‘Eyyy!  Watch yo’self, crakkuh!” he shouted over his shoulder, and the girls tittered in amusement once more.

“Now-now, everybody play nice, y’hear?”  said Rebecca with a smile.  She turned to James and Kyle.   “‘Paradise a-la Carte,’ we’re fond of saying—whatever you desire, we’ll do our best to provide it!”

“Do you have something in a Calico?”  Kyle asked, producing a small canvas bag.  “I mean, I’m not picky or anything, but they’ve always been a preference of mine.  Something about their asymmetrical patterns appeals to me, I think.”

James rolled his eyes.   “Kyle, would you quit taking things so literally all the time?   This is a den of iniquity!   A brothel!”

“Surely is,” came a voice from the porch.

The two deputies turned and saw McKeegan on the porch, looking their way.

“Oh—,” said James.   “Sheriff, I apologize, I forgot you were there.   You may go now.”

“Yes, I’ll uh—I’ll be on my way in a moment,”  he replied.   “But first I just wanted to remind you fellas to keep your guard up.   From what we saw earlier, Christian Bloodlust is on your trail for some reason, along with that Farson character Saul was talking about before you blew him to bits.     What was that nonsense about ‘jewels’ he was talking about, by the way?”

“What, these?”  James asked, producing his time crystal from a vest pocket and throwing it to the Sheriff.  “You can have it if you want.  It’s no good to me anymore.”

Kyle ahemed.   “James, maybe you’d better hang onto that?”

“Maybe I’d better hang onto that,” James amended, snatching it back and giving McKeegan a sour look.

“Boys, listen, I’m just worried for you, that’s all, and—“

“Would you beat it already?!”  James yelled.   “We’re fine and want to party.   Back to your hovel, wherever it is.”

Wardstein suddenly rejoined them, and was fiddling with his belt.

“That was quick,”  Kyle said to him.

“No, Efficient!” Wardstein replied, turning to wave at a the woman at the top of the stairs.   “Isn’t that right, Charlotte?   Ha!  Charlotte the Harlot!”

“Take a bath ‘fore you come back for seconds,” she replied, casually lighting a cigarette.

“Oh, hey McKeegan,” said Wardstein, ignoring the pudgy hooker’s snide remark and lighting a cigarette of his own.  “Shouldn’t you like…not be here anymore?”

“Fine, I’m a-goin’!   Straight to the undertaker’s to tell him to get your coffins ready, that is!”   He spat in annoyance and hopped down to his horse from the porch.  “Daggum idiots!  You try and do somethin’ nice for somebody too—”   he muttered, spurring away into the night.

The men barely noticed though, as they were all leering at a slim, yet perfectly curvy redheaded girl of about twenty or twenty-one walking seductively their way.   She held a glass of whisky and wore nothing but a sheer silk petticoat, through which every contour of her milky skin was visible.   Her eyes had a mysterious, hypnotic effect on the deputies, as Rebecca thought they might.

“—This is Hannah,”  Rebecca narrated.  “Our best girl.”

Wardstein watched enviously as she cozied up to James and handed him the glass of whisky.

“You’re cute!” she said.

“Why do I always get ‘cute’?”  James wondered aloud, then gulping his whisky down and grabbing her round the waist.  “Big deal though, right?   You’re the ‘best girl,’ and that’s what matters!”

“That’s rrrright!”  Hannah purred, dragging a finger seductively across James’s lips, down his bearded chin and to his shirt.   “Ooooh, and I love your clothes!   They’re so bloody and grrrrrrr-ross!

James turned Wardstein and Kyle and crunched his face into a tight smirk at that remark, but shrugged his shoulders in the standard ‘I know, but who cares?’ fashion as he made for the upstairs rooms.  “Gentlemen, enjoy…’table tennis,’ I guess!  Ha!”

“Hmmph,” Wardstein huffed.  “Probably should’ve surveyed all this buffet had to offer first.   Hey, that reminds me—what have you got to eat in this place, lady?”

“Follow me, boys,” said Rebecca.   “Kitchen’s this way!”

The men smiled and eagerly followed, and Kyle decided he would like to punctuate the moment by hearing Rebecca’s giggle sounded like, and slapped her firmly across the buttocks as the men in the other room had done.

KYLE!   Mind your manners!  she scolded, giving him a light slap on the cheek and causing him to redden in confusion.

As Wardstein and Kyle waited at the kitchen table for Rebecca to bring them their meal, a pair of wild eyes watched them from the shadows outside.   Observing them was a crouched Christian Bloodlust.  He’d considered Farson’s proposition carefully and had empirically arrived at what he thought was the best decision.   He needed money, and Farson said he could provide plenty.  The men he was following were reckless and possibly stupid, and he knew he had natural attributes that could end them—all of them— and quickly.  Efficiently.   Yes, he thought.  These three die tonight.   

“Hey buddy!”  came a voice.

Bloodlust looked over and saw Hondo leaving his cleanup work and stomping his way.

“Buddy, we don’t allow Injuns here!  Specially ones that like peepin’!   So why don’t you get the hell—“

But Hondo was unable to finish his threat and collapsed to his knees before toppling.

Bloodlust stared into Hondo’s wide eyes as he held the head he had twisted off his broad shoulders in his enormous hands.   He raised it above is own and showered his hair and face with blood that dripped hot from the exposed knot of spinal column.   It felt good to him.  It felt right.

He continued his watch over the men in the kitchen and formulated his plan.

**

A man could get used to this, Kyle thought as he lay back on a plush bed and took a long drag off a freshly lit cigarette.  There was a glass of chilled wine beside his guns on the table at the side of the room, though it sat untouched.  He had asked for one to try and impress Wardstein, but the man had simply huffed and roughly grabbed a bottle out of the nearest serving woman’s hands.

“That’s cleaning solution,” they had told him as he raised the bottle and began downing it.  He had had only enough time to level a weak backhanded swing at Kyle before collapsing into a pile on the floor, grasping at his stomach.  Kyle had enquired if he would be alright, but hadn’t really gotten a good answer so he just left.  Wardstein was tough, and Kyle thought it probably wasn’t the first time he had accidentally drank something from a poorly marked bottle.

So now Kyle just sat smoking his cigarette waiting for Rebecca’s return.  He hoped she had a cat.

Kyle heard the door open behind him and his thoughts came out in a rush.

“I’m sorry Rebecca, but I just can’t see anything happening between us.  I mean that whole business with Saul just left a bad taste in my mouth.  No pun intended.  Or no, let’s say I meant it, it was pretty good.  Anyway, I don’t think I would enjoy your charms, so if you could just send a girl with a little bit of self-respect, but not too much,  I would be much obliged.”

There was no immediate response and Kyle felt a twinge of guilt for having been so blunt.  He turned to say more, but was brought up short when the area he expected to contain Rebecca’s red-framed face instead had a large barrel shaped chest filling it up.  It was still red-framed, though with blood instead of hair.

“I guess I wasn’t clear about it, but I don’t swing that way,” he told the huge man.

The man just stared at him in response.

“You aren’t here for that, are you?”

The man shook his head and Kyle sighed.

“You are that Bloodlust guy, probably.”

“I am,” he said finally.  His voice was deep and solid.  This was not a man given to flights of fancy.  Kyle imagined him ordering steak for dinner but being told that they only had chicken.  It didn’t turn out well.

“I don’t s’pose you’d let me grab my guns,” he said pointing.  “I won’t shoot you.”

“Why would you want them, then?”

Kyle cursed himself inwardly, his bluff having been called.

“How about calling for my friends?”

The large man shook his head again.

“Did you kill the redhead?”

“No.”

Kyle cursed inwardly again.

“I’m coming with you, aren’t I?

A nod.

“Can I get my pants?”

“No.”

This time Kyle cursed out loud.

Wardstein straightened slowly, hiding a grimace.  The contents of his stomach were spilled out in front of him.  It was mostly impossible to discern what was what, other than the soapy bits.  His stomach was on fire, but it beat the active volcano it had just been.

“Food?” asked a timid girl.

“Water,” Wardstein replied roughly.  “Then whiskey.  Then water again.  Then more whiskey.  Then food.  Then whiskey.  Then a woman.  Then whiskey.  Then bed.”  He was a man of action.

The girl scurried away and Wardstein closed his eyes for a long moment.  He needed something to maim, he was starting to think too much.  A voice interrupted his reverie.

“Uhhh….Wardstein,” said a hesitant Sir Kyle.  Wardstein thought about maiming a little more before opening his eyes and turning to his companion.

“The hell do…you?..want?” Wardstein said, his sentence broken by the fact he needed to crane his neck to see the unexpected figure of Christian Bloodlust behind his friend.  He was holding a fork to Kyle’s temple, who himself was wearing no pants.  Instinct kicked in, and Wardstein raised his hands in supplication, a large smile coming to his face.

“Hey, buddy.  Let’s talk about this, yeah?”  Wardstein chuckled good-naturedly, then launched himself at the man mid-laugh.  He would show this overgrown Native what was what.

His face encountered a stone wall.  It was funny, he thought to himself, but he didn’t remember there being a wall between him and the man he was about to hurt very badly.  He got to his knees, slowly, and shook his head.

“Stay down,” the Native told him.

“Lucky punch,” Wardstein said, and got to his feet.

“I don’t think it was lucky,” Kyle said, then shrugged when Wardstein shot him a look.

Wardstein charged again, and once again found himself on the ground.

“Stay down,” the Native told him again.

“Ughhh,” he said, fighting to hold on to consciousness.  “I know what the problem is,” he continued, spitting blood.

“Is it that he is much stronger and faster than you?” Kyle asked.

“Ha! Fat chance.”  Wardstein said, struggling upright once more.  “It’s my belt,” he said with conviction, and with a dramatic motion ripped it off his waist.  “Now let’s tango, big man.”  With that and a yell Wardstein once again launched at the man, and this time everything just went black.

James lounged back on his bed, contemplating asking for a pedicure.  Sometimes people thought you were weird if you wanted one, but they were savages.  James knew he would, in time, kill or otherwise dominate every one of them, so he wasn’t overly bothered.  He decided he would just wait for Hannah’s return and the whiskey she had promised.  Perhaps she knew something of foot care, she had other talents that were of a similar vein.  Still, James found himself longing for the scullery maids of his youth.  They said that an animal killed while terrified doesn’t taste the same.  James could not agree more.

The heavy noises from down the hall caught his attention.  Hannah was a small girl, and making that much noise would have been impossible.  Unless she is bringing me a keg, James thought and giggled.  That was obviously it.  He had mentioned his love of craft beers in passing earlier, and the enterprising young woman had gone and found some.  James shook his head.  Even though it was his due, he still couldn’t quite credit it when things did things like that for him.  A whole keg!  Wardsteins gonna be super jealous!

A loud bang came from the door, then a prone body was thrown inside.  James recognized Wardstein from the hair.  Kyle entered next, with a huge man behind him holding a fork menacingly to Kyle’s head.

“What’s this about?” he asked.

“Come with me,” said the big man.

“Or else what?”

“Or else I stick this fork in your friends’ brain.”

James shrugged.  “I could care less, buddy.”

The large man looked confused for a second, but recovered smoothly enough.  “You are coming with me either way.  This is the only exit the room has.”

“I’ll just stay here.”

“I-I…will not let you,”  he said, obviously confounded.  James smiled.

“You are that guy, yeah, ‘Flowerlover’?”

“Bloodlust”

“Close enough.  Why you after us, anyway?”

“Money.”

“Money!  We will give you more money.  How easy is that?”

“I am a man of my word.”

“You are a stupid man, then.”

“I keep my promises.”

“And you think whoever is paying you will?  You are as daft as you are obviously Native.”

“I had considered that.  That is why I am taking you to him.  Alive.”

“Oh my God!” James exclaimed, and put his hands on his head.  “You are really new to this, aren’t you?  You’re gonna get double-crossed doing that.  Like, guaranteed.”

“They will respect the deal.”

“Yeah, right.  What you need to do, yeah, is lock us up in some building only you know where it is.  Then you take like a finger or a hand from one of us, Sir Kyle obviously, to take to a meeting.  You give them the finger or hand or arm or whatever to show you have us.  You get your money, you give them directions to us.  Easy-peasy.”

“You sound as if you have done this kind of thing before.”

James simply smiled.

“That is too much work though, now,” Bloodlust continued.  “No time.  Plan continues.”

“How you gonna even find these cowboys?”

“They will find me.  At the iron horse.”

“Ah,” James said.  “Can I grab my pants?  He looks ridiculous.”  He pointed at Kyle.

“Sure, but hurry up.”

“Woot!”

_________________________________

Wardo:

The sun had set hours earlier, but many of Farson’s men remained awake around the campfire.  Some drank, other watched the hypnotic sworls of colour boiling through the burning branches of Joshua tree.  Thus they heard an approaching wagon, and they stood, hands alternately on battered tin cups of cheap whiskey or pistol butts.  Some both.  The full moon hung luminous over the land, and varied mongrel bands of coyotes could be seen skipping through its silvered bands of moonlight on the plains, with puffs of desert sand thrown in their wakes like freshly fallen snow.

Farson recognized the tired farm horse of Saul before Christian Bloodlust materialized from the gloom.  Of Saul, there was no sign.  Farson spared it no further though, as Bloodlust himself immediately commanded the remainder of his attention.  His typically billowy hair was matted with blood, as were the paws that gripped the creaking reins.  Tugging the horse to a trudging halt, he leaped to the earth, his coattails a raven’s wing in the muted light.  Behind Farson, his men shifted uneasily as the enormous native approached.

Farson looked over his strange appearance.  “You need to wear a smock the next time you’re finger-painting the cave, boy.”  A lackey barked laughter in the gloom.

Bloodlust ignored this.  He understood that Farson made jokes because he was afraid of him.  “I am here to honour our agreement.”  He smiled and Farson felt a chill.

“All three?”

“In the wagon.”

“I wanted them alive.  Crispy Christ on toast, Bloodlust!”

“They are alive.   Ah, this blood is someone else’s.”

“Oh.”  Farson thought about that.  He shrugged and gestured to his men, who attended to the wagon.   Momentarily, he was presented with his long-sought quarry.  They scowled at him, as though they could kill him with a mere look.  He chuckled.  They weren’t so tough when trussed up like chickens.

“Did they have them?”

“They did.”  Bloodlust reached into his possibles bag, and withdrew the contents.  Three darkened crystals, lying inverted like tiny pyramids in his palm.  Farson felt a thrill of joy at the sight.

Bloodlust reached into his pockets.  “Here, also, is their absurdly fancy and unnecessarily powerful weaponry.   Perhaps your men could use it.”  He tossed the assortment of firearms at Farson’s feet.  Sir Kyle could just see the proud gleam of his nickled pistol butts beneath a layer of dust.  He bit his quavering lip.  Stay strong, he thought.  Think of a cat.

Farson turned, holding the crystals aloft to his prisoners like a championship cup.  “You arrogant morons,” he seethed.  “You thought you could just come here and do as  you like!  Just like always!  Isn’t that right – Archduke James?”  He tossed the crystals to Baby-Faced Mitch, who cackled dwarvishly.

“Who wants to know?” James sneered.  He routinely encountered people who knew him, but who he hadn’t bothered to remember.

Farson gargled a clot of phlegm in rage.  “Truly incredible, your arrogance.  I don’t know if I should kill you first, or save you for last.”

“This is really boring!  We’re all waiting for you to introduce yourself,” Wardstein bellowed.

“I am Roy Beefheart.  I am great-grandson to Gordon the Slim.  It was your ancestor, ‘Archduke’, who was the ruination of my family’s name.   Who stole the throne from my great-grandfather.  Descended from whom I am now the rightful heir as king.  I have been waiting for this moment now for many years.”

“Like, I don’t even know you,” James dismissed him.

Farson barked harshly.  “You wouldn’t anyway, even if you deigned speak with me.  I was a mere tub of a squire in the castle.  I knew everything about you, but I could do nothing about it.  Until the day – “, Farson chuckled bitterly –  “until the ‘glorious’ day I was promoted to a servant position.  On that day, finally I was able to get close to you. Finally.  Outside that moron McStogey’s workshop.  I was so close,” he hissed in remembrance.  “I was outside the door when you used these crystals to travel through time.  I entered the chamber after McStogey was gone, managed to find a crystal of my own, and decided to follow you and finish what my great grandfather could not.  But I arrived here in 1859.  And here I remained.  Until you got here.”

“Wardstein, play a lute for this man’s troubles,” James laughed.  “Imagine that!  Trying to follow us around? That was your plan? A servant?  Servants have no brain!  We’re royalty.   It’s remarkable you weren’t assigned to arse-cleaning duty!”  Wardstein and Sir Kyle laughed hysterically at this man’s obvious idiocy.

Farson purpled.  “I have what I needed, fool.  I will use your crystals to take my trusted men back to our time.  I will annihilate that idiot McStogey and your entire family and take what is rightfully mine.  Not before I’m through with you, of course,” he added.

“So.  In summary, this delivery satisfies all conditions of our arrangement,” Bloodlust cut in.  “I will now be requiring payment.”

“Oh, you’ll be getting your due,” Farson smiled easily.  His eyes flicked to the side and nodded, and a shot rang out in the dark.

Bloodlust’s reflexes were tuned to a supernatural degree, and knew Farson’s thought before even he did.  He’d already begun a roll to the earth when the gunshot erupted to his left.  He reached for the snuffbox he always carried in his pocket, and somersaulting upright on one knee, he side-armed a deft throw across his body.  The snuff box, engraved with golden cherub motifs from a little shop he frequented in San Francisco, flashed through the air, impacting the sternum of the would-be assassin at the edge of the campfire.  The box blasted entirely through the man’s torso, detonating with a puff of premium tobacco on a boulder beyond.  The man dropped his rifle, hosing blood like city fountain.  He looked down, staring in amazement as his still-beating heart clung suspended from his ribcage, which presently dropped to the earth like a bison turd.  He looked up and watched everything he’d ever known fade from his sight.

The men around the campfire erupted into action.  Bloodlust however was already three steps ahead; the sleepy collection of Cowboys stood little chance.  The nearest opponent hadn’t even reached for his pistol, merely gaping at the scene unfolding, while the man behind him was already raising his sidearm.  Bloodlust rolled to the earth again, his hand flashing out to snatch the cast iron pan resting in the fire while he did.  He rose in time to make a micro-adjustment of his grip on the pan as the pistoleer fired, and he expertly deflected the bullet into the belly of the first.  The contents of his gut ruptured, fanning across the Sir Kyle in a fragrant sheet.  Sir Kyle shrieked in disgust, completely losing the mental image of that nice calico he’d been hanging onto.

“Untie us!” Wardstein raged.  He began hopping ineffectually.  James and Sir Kyle followed his lead, hopping in a vague orbit around Wardstein.

Bloodlust however was beyond reach.  His spirit had been transported to another place.  A place where perhaps a part of him had always lived.  He reached for his tunic with both hands, ripping it apart to expose the bronze torso, upon which each pectoral muscle was tattooed his name.  Another Cowboy approached with his rifle; Bloodlust stabbed forth with his matchless speed and power, snatching the head of this foe, raising him from the earth as he uselessly discharged his weapon.  A brief flex, and the man’s head crushed like a grape, a hot dough of skull contents oozing through Bloodlust’s blackened fingers.  The man’s dying body spasmed and he fired again, the shot penetrating Bloodlust’s bicep.  He grunted in annoyance as Wardstein managed to catch the stray bullet with his raised wrists, neatly cutting his binds.  “Boom goes the dynamite!” he exulted.  He rapidly untied James as Bloodlust continued his demonic rampage around the killing field; overwhelmed by the moment Sir Kyle had passed out and was lying unconscious nearby on his face.

“They’re getting away!” Wardstein yelled.   Racing into the dark was Baby-Faced Mitch, and farther ahead, Farson.  He cursed vile epithets, knowing his mighty shotgun was useless at this range.  Farson had disappeared over a ridge and there remained only Baby-Faced Mitch, who jostled amusingly on his oversized horse as he fled.

James looked down to his 30-inch Sharps rifle.  “No, they aren’t,” he said flatly.

XXX

“I had one of those,” Brent Westforest told James, admiring his buffalo rifle.  Wardstein and Sir Kyle were still inside the ranch house with Mae, finishing their meal.  For unknown reasons, James had decided to go outside with Brent.  “I used to be a sharpshooter for raids on Injun camps.  You any good with it?”

James fumbled clumsily with the action.  “Good enough,” he carped.

Brent scowled.  “Let’s see, then.  Do you see that orange rock out there?  That’s five hundred yards from this spot on a straight shot.  You see that thing sitting on top?  That’s a bucket of urine.  I put it out there to ferment.  Shoot that bucket.”

James eased to the ground, raising the precision peep sight to accommodate its maximum range.  He settled the bead on the urine bucket, which wobbled maddeningly in his sight.

“Close your left eye, maggot.  What are you shooting with it?  All you care about is the other one looking through the gunsight,” Brent said.  “Flex your toe, dig it into the dirt like you’re about to take off running.  You’ll take the shot on the exhale, after you set the trigger.”

James made the adjustments and clicked the set trigger, taking all but a single pound from the main trigger, controlling his breathing.  The urine bucket steadied under the bead, and he touched off the rifle.

The massive Sharps uncorked a cannonating blast.  The slug thundered across the plain to the orange rock, impacting the soft sandstone just beside the urine bucket.  Shards of detonating rock shredded the bucket, draining its contents across the once-pristine face of the stone.

“Sometimes close is good enough,” Brent laughed.  Mae suddenly burst from the cabin with a plate in her hand.  “What was that?!” she cried.  Brent jumped.  “Dagnabbit woman!  I warned you about surprising me like that, you’ll get yourself killed one of these days!”

XXX

James shuttered his left eye, tucking the fine walnut cheekpiece of the Sharps to his cheek.  “Sometimes close is good enough,” he mumbled.  He settled the bead of the massive rifle on his target, and all distractions fell away.  The campfire.  The screams of dying men.  The incredibly foul odour of Kyle lying nearby.  He watched Baby-Faced Mitch flee in the moonlight and considered the beauty of the moment before he squeezed the polished trigger of the rifle.

The head of the galloping horse exploded in a scarlet flower of shrapnel, the slivered bone fragments shredding the tiny body of Mitch to dogmeat.  The two bodies pitched to the earth, and at last, all was still.  James had time to admire the starshine on the scattered crystals, once held by a great man named McStogey many hundreds of years ago.

Farson was gone.

___________________________________

James: 

Wardstein, Kyle and James stood motionless about ten yards away from Christian Bloodlust, all three suddenly wary of making even the slightest movement and having it interpreted as aggression.  In front of them they watched the enormous native walk from one mangled body to the next and surgically slice their scalps away with a large blade.   On his face he wore a grimace even more terrifying than the one on his advertisements.   It was the biggest, brightest smile he could muster, because for the first time in his life, he felt truly alive.

Opening his pocket-watch, Bloodlust looked to the photo of the elderly white couple on the front cover’s interior, frowned, then chucked it into the sand.  Impressed with the symbolic nature of this action, he instantly regretted doing it without an audience there to appreciate its significance—an audience besides morons who believed themselves to be time-travellers, anyway.  He turned and looked at the men he had kidnapped and noticed them all avert their eyes.     These scared idiots would be lousy poker players, thought the Indian.

“…Hey Kyle?”   whispered James through his teeth.   “Psssttt!   Kyle?”

“…what?”

“Dibs on that watch.  Also, I realize that slurry of excrement you’re coated in is probably making your skin super itchy right now, but try not to give in to the temptation: it might set this guy off!  You don’t want to be killed with some improbable object, do you?”

“Nice try, James, but I’m not getting ‘snuffed’ like that dude over there,” the Knight replied.  “Besides, if I were you, I’d be more concerned with that enormous rifle you’re holding.  Must be getting pretty heavy about now, huh?”

James tensed slightly, one of his eyes betraying a slight twitch.

“What, this thing?  Light as a feather!”

“Guys, don’t sweat it,” said Wardstein.  “That primitive has got to know he’s no match for all the three of us!  He caught a lucky break back at the whorehouse, collecting us one by one in our skivvies!”

“Wardstein, I’m not so sure about that,” said Kyle, glancing down and remembering that he was in fact still in his tighty-whities.   “None of us have crushed a man’s head with our bare hands like we just saw him do, you know?  I mean, before we traveled through time, we just killed whoever annoyed us with our awesome, enchanted weapons and nobody stood even a chance!    I don’t think our current weapons are enchanted per se, but I they’re definitely a little gaudy, no?    No, I think this guy is smarter than you give him credit for.”

“First of all, Kyle,” said Wardstein, “no, if I’ve learned anything it’s that cultures different than ours are rarely deserving of our respect.  Ergo, this guy Bloodlust is a big, dumb animal!”  He flexed his biceps.   “Also, I could totally crush a man’s head with my bare hands.   Maybe not your unusually thick skull, but definitely a woman’s or a child’s!  Grrrr!!!”  Wardstein slowly mimed the action and chuckled at the mental image he conjured.

“Wasn’t that wicked, by the way?”  asked James.   “How I wasted that kid as he tried to make his getaway a minute ago?   That horse’s head was like, POP!  And that little tyke was all, ACK!!

“Pretty sure he was adult who simply looked like a kid,” said Kyle.

“Oh.  Well, we’ll chalk it up as an adult and a kid, then.  It’s only fair.”    James examined his rifle’s stock and wished he had more panther teeth to mark his body count.  One adult panther tooth and one baby panther tooth.    “You really think these weapons of ours are too…’gaudy’?   ‘Cause I was actually thinking this rifle, or at least my pistol, would be a lot better if it were made of solid gold!

“Uh, no,” Wardstein scoffed.   “It’s strictly a Child Kill.   So what if the guy had to shave a bit of peach fuzz or had a few extra words in his vocabulary, you know?  Those things didn’t enter into the equation when you shot him in the back as he fled.”

“Yeah, well…sometimes close is good enough!”

Wardstein turned to Kyle and frowned.   “Why does he keep saying that?”

Noticing the hushed chatter from the men, Christian Bloodlust quickly knotted the hair of the damp scalps together and attached them to his belt as he made his way to the men.  The tattered remains of his business suit were now almost completely saturated in blood and gore, and as he stomped closer, he found himself wondering what he would say to these three.   What was the customary greeting when trying to buddy up to people you just tried to sell to a lunatic for a lot of money just a few moments earlier, he wondered.    Fortunately a topic of interest presented itself and, dawning a pair of spectacles, he stooped to pick up what he saw on the ground before him:  a small book, misted with blood.

“Whoa, do you think he’s going to eat it?”  James whispered a little too loudly.

“It’s a book, ‘Archduke’ James,” replied Bloodlust.   “Books are for reading, not eating.”

“Yeah, but you and your kind would probably try to eat a book if it was like, filled with illuminations of tasty-looking food though, right?”   James continued.

Bloodlust sighed.   “Not me.”

“Not even a little lick, maybe?”  Wardstein offered.

“Would you please just let me read this?”  Bloodlust asked patiently.    He realized that getting along with these three was likely going to be difficult, but he also knew that it was a necessary that he try.   He had failed in the collections business;  failed in the bounty-hunting business; and with a sizeable body count under his belt, it wouldn’t be long before either Farson or the law would be after him, he was certain, and—

“—Wait a minute,” said Bloodlust, interrupting his own train of thought.   “Why are you guys wearing deputy stars?   You don’t look like the law to me.”   He adjusted his glasses slightly, which looked rather incongruous given the general state of his appearance, and zeroed in specifically on Kyle.   The others, James and Wardstein, carried themselves with a certain arrogance, but Kyle, standing in all humility in his underpants and cowboy boots, seemed like he was of the land, somehow.

The three men shrugged and began to relax a bit.   They had almost forgotten that they were wearing the shields.

“Some dead guy gave them to us,”  said Wardstein.

“Well, he wasn’t dead when gave them to us,” James amended.   “But they were his dying wishes.   His wife gave them to us.”

“And she is presumably—”

“—also dead?”  James asked.  “Yes.   Natural causes, though.”

“Meaning, when you shoot someone in the face they naturally don’t live too long,” said Wardstein, snickering.

Bloodlust looked at the men speculatively.   “Why would you shoot a woman in the fa—“

“—Bup-bup-bup!” said James.  “We’re getting sidetracked.  “Continue!  Who knows, that book may speed things along, story-wise.”

Bloodlust flipped to the cover page.   “It says here, ‘From the pen of…Luke Marion Farson!

“The bumbling low-life who time-travelled here in an attempt to exact his revenge by killing me!”  exclaimed James.   “Read on, savage!”

“Errm, yes,” said Bloodlust.  “I’ve been paying attention.   It appears to be a day planner or some kind.   Today’s entry says, ‘Reconvene with the cowboys and await delivery of the three so-called deputies, by way of the Indian Delivery Boy, who I will not only stiff on the payment, but eliminate!’   There he has drawn a crude picture of a guy with a spear, who I presume is…well, we all know who it represents.”

“If only someone had predicted that double-cross, huh?”  said  Kyle sarcastically.

’Afternoon – After eliminating the four morons, redirect Parsons and cargo from Tombstone Central to Auxiliary Track for Next-Day ambush at 9:45am’?   Hmm.  ‘Track.’   Must be referring to the train tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow?”  Wardstein asked.   “Morning?   At 9:45am?    Yeah, you’re not the only one who can pay attention!  What else does it say?”

“Well, let’s see here.”    Bloodlust adjusted his bi-focals on the tip of his nose.  “‘Evening – my plan set into motion, retire back to Tombstone just in time for my weekly-scheduled Squatting appointment at the Tombstone Cathouse with Ms. Rebecca – the dirtiest prostitute in all the West!’”

Wardstein turned to Kyle.  “Ha!  Go figure!   And she said she was ‘done with squatting!’”

“Kyle, I know this may seem like a reason to dismiss her, but look at the bright side – this lady seems to be down for anything!

“That’s right!”  yelled Wardstein.  “Sure, she has a kid–no good, I agree.   And she might be getting a little long in the tooth, yeah, but – if she’s into squatting, who knows what else, you know?

Kyle weighed this information in his mind.   Maybe he had been too rash in distancing himself from Rebecca.   He would think it over some more.

X X X

Meanwhile, Luke Farson, bested again, limped slowly along the tracks from the great exertion he had expended in his escape.    He had at last arrived that the lever he searching for.

“Those idiots may have thwarted my attempts to get their crystals for now!”  he seethed.   “But if they found that book like I planned, tomorrow morning they’re going to play right into my hands!  Mua ha ha ha ha!”

Farson squeezed the cold steel of the lever’s apparatus and heaved it with all his might.   Beneath his feet he watched the track alter its course for any trains heading towards Tombstone.

“PAUL?”

“Yeah, boss?”  replied Farson’s lackey.

“…how do you feel about squatting?”

______________________________________

Kyle: 

Night had come quickly.  Time was like that, Kyle knew.  It would run its course more or less normally until you needed it and then it would take off running.  Kyle was fairly certain it had to do with “gravity”.  He had heard the term bandied about in his days at the monastery.  It was all a bunch of mumbo-jumbo, really.  Everyone knew that the sun was a wheel of a chariot that was driving across the sky.  The simplest answer was often the correct one, after all.  But still, gravity decided how fast things moved, so the more gravity in a situation the faster the time moved.  Kyle smiled to himself.  Science was easy.

“What’s with the face?” James asked him.  “You look like you are pondering something heavy.”

Wardstein scoffed.  “Ponder?  This one doesn’t ponder.  This one goes off on tangents that could be legitimately described as psychotic episodes.”

“He still makes faces.”

“True.”

“Yeah,” James said, nodding. “So what’s with the face?”

“Thinking.”

“Yes, we established that.  God.  What about?  Cats?  Farson?  Squatting?”

“Probably cats.”

“Actually, I was considering the temporal flow that seemingly binds our corporeal forms.  That was of course leading me to consider the Second Law of Thermodynamics, as it inevitably would.”

His two companions stared at him blankly, and Kyle thought he heard a grunt of acknowledgement from the massive figure just ahead.

“This one…”  Wardstein said.

“Thermodynamics?  More like Hermodynamics.”  James laughed uproariously.

“Huh?”  Wardstein asked.  “I’m on board with mocking him, obviously, but I don’t get that.”

“Oh,” James said, making his face straight.  “It was as if I was calling into question his gender.”

“Ah!  Hahahaha!  Of course.  Hermaphrodite, Hermodynamics.  I get it.”  He turned back to Kyle.  “More like Hermodynamics.  Hahaha.”

The two men revelled in the mockery for a moment.

“But what if it had more to do with sexually transmitted diseases, though,” Wardstein said.  He flashed James a grin.  “Like he has a dynamic form of herpes.”

“He probably does,” James replied.

“I’m literally right here,” Kyle noted.

“Hmmm,” James continued.  “I like that punchline better, but it doesn’t fit as well.  Unless we made it Herpodynamics.  But then I feel like we are wasting time tracing lines that aren’t there.  No.  Hermodynamics it is.”

Wardstein nodded, but he looked unconvinced.

“Entropy is not a laughing matter,” rumbled a deep voice from up ahead.  Christian Bloodlust had been mostly quiet so far, but he seemed invested in this subject based on his monotone.

“The hell is entropy?” James said, not really caring.

“The Second Law of Thermodynamics.”  Bloodlust sighed.

James sighed back at him sarcastically.

“The second law of thermodynamics states that in every natural thermodynamic process the sum of the entropies of all participating bodies is increased,” Kyle said.

Bloodlust scoffed.  “In the limiting case, maybe.  For reversible processes this sum remains unchanged.”

“True,” Kyle agreed.

“Sure.  Let’s listen to the Native and the moron,” James said sarcastically.

“Look,” Kyle said, “Think of it like this – Paulus has a sweet Kingdom, right?”

“Heir to the throne!  Woot!”

“Right, well if it were all alone in a vacuum nothing would ever change.  It would just be Paulus and his castle and his…stuff.”

“Okay.”

“But when things are introduced to this.  Like, say, Wardstein and yourself, things can only go in one direction.  And that direction is down.  In a spiral.”

“A death spiral?” Wardstein asked, eyebrow raised.  Both Kyle and Bloodlust nodded.

“Wait, wait.  So you are saying I have no choice but to ruin my father’s Kingdom?”

“Well, no, but –“

“Woot!  Free reign, Wardstein, free reign.”

Wardstein shrugged.  “I have free reign whether Mr. Herpodynamics thinks so or not.”

“I thought we were going with Hermodynamics?”

Wardstein shrugged again.  “Just to be clear though, you are comparing me to one of the fundamental forces of the universe, right?”

“I guess so.  Sure.”

“Good.”

Farson hitched up his pants and fastened his belt, turning away as Paul scuttled down to the river.  He hadn’t lost any respect for the man just now, he simply turned away because it was disgusting.  A man had to do what he had to do, even if it was appear to be a complete patsy in front of his mortal enemies.  Farson felt his rage rising, but tamped it down.  He didn’t extinguish it, though.  No, he was building up a mighty bed of coals.  Once the wind was blowing right they would fan into a firestorm.  Why am I talking to myself in metaphors?, Farson wondered.  It was unfortunate he had lost most of his crew, but it was what it was.  A voice from the darkness jolted him out of his reverie.

“Farson.”

Farson recognized the clipped English of a McHaskinly.  He remained silent.

“Luke Farson”

Farson still stayed silent, noting the position of the speaker from the sound of his voice.

“Yellow-bellied, double-crossin Luke Farson.  That kinda rhymes.”

Farson finally replied.  “You talk about yellow-bellied while standing out in the dark.  Come into the light.”

Clinton McHaskinly walked into the range of the dying fire, his right hand hovering near his holstered gun.

“Where are your cronies?” Farson asked him.

“I could ask you the same thing.”

Farson motioned towards the river.  “Paul is down there.  He is the only one left.  But I don’t need my cronies like you do, Clinton.  Where are they?”

Clinton tittered.  “They are around.”

“Does your brother know you are here?  Wouldn’t want him getting upset with you.  He may tell your ma.”

“Jesse is dead.”  Clinton said flatly.

Farson was truly surprised at this.  Jesse was a hard man who did what was necessary without any qualms.

“How?” he asked Clinton with more than a little suspicion in his voice.

“Not the point.  Doesn’t concern you anyhow, you are about to die a dog’s death.”  Two men holding rifles at the ready emerged from behind Clinton as he continued.  “We was gonna hang you, but then decided the rope was too expensive.”  He chortled.  “Then we thought about dragging you behind some horses, but then they may get hurt and you ain’t worth that either, are you?”

Farson shrugged.  He wasn’t really paying attention anymore.  The man to Clinton’s right had problems with his vision, especially in low light.  He would be careful when he took his shot with his rifle.  The other gunman carried a shotgun but wasn’t yet close enough to do lethal damage.  The gap would need to be lessened before the shot was taken.  Clinton himself was fast enough with the pistol, but always aimed for the head like a moron.  He made his decision.

“How’d you kill your brother, Clinton?” Farson asked, a little bit mockingly.  “You’d never have done it face to face,” he continued.  “He’d have killed you faster than you could beg for his forgiveness.  You are a coward, Clinton McHaskinly.  How did you kill your brother?”

Farson could feel multiple pairs of eyes on him from the darkness, watching.  If they had guns drawn it was as good as over, but he could feel them listening.  He had been popular enough amongst the men.  He pushed onward.

“Did you have him killed, Clinton?  Hire some Native hitman to take care of your problems?  Did you call your ma, Clinton?  Say your brother has been mean to you and not sharing his toys?”

Clinton McHaskinly seethed visibly, his hand shaking at his gunbelt.   Farson kept going.

“I know you were jealous.  Everyone knew it.  People feared your brother.  Respected him.  You couldn’t even get laughs for your stupid puns.”

“Enough!” Clinton screamed.  “Enough, Farson.  That has always been your way, to sew distrust.  You are out for yourself.  You don’t care about the gang, you don’t care about anything.  So what if I killed my brother?  He was gone crazy, getting us killed doing reckless things.”

“We are a gang of criminals.  Risks are going to have to be taken,” Farson said simply.

“Then why was it always me taking them?!  He would sit back and smoke his pipe and get his eyes clouded.  He was delusional and paranoid.  He was only taking his meals from me, at the end.  I had to test his meals in front of him.”

“So you poisoned him.”

“Yes.”

“Coward.”

Clinton exploded in rage.  “Kill him!” he yelled at the top of his lungs.

Farson was moving before the words were fully formed.  He didn’t reach for his gun, but instead stepped back quickly, ducking while he kicked the bucket of water that he had collected onto the fire.  A hiss of steam rose quickly as the area plunged into darkness.  Farson lowered himself to the ground, easing out his pistol.  He scanned the horizon and looked for the starless, man-shaped parts of the sky.  He saw one and fired once, rolling immediately away after he had done so.  A noise alerted him to the rifle carrier and he squeezed out another shot with deadly precision before again changing his position as drastically as he could.  Clinton’s pistol fired two shots at where he had been.  Farson listened hard but heard no movement.  The fool had not moved after he had fired.  Farson took aim and fired once, low.  A groan answered the report of the pistol.

“Drop your weapon, Clinton.”

“I already did.  You shot me in the shin.  The pain is unbelievable”

“I was aiming for your knee.”

“Oh.”

Farson addressed the darkness again.  “Men.  Join with me, I am robbing a train tomorrow.  After that I am disbanding the group.  Y’all can make your own way.  One last big hit.  Who is in?”

A murmuring of assent greeted him.

“Good,” he continued.  “Now let Paul go.”

Moments later footsteps approached.

“I thought we was done for” Paul said.

Farson nodded.  “Light the lanterns.  I’m gonna brief our new friends.”

“What about him?” Paul asked, pointing at the whimpering figure of Clinton McHaskinly.

“Tie him and leave him, for now.  Gag him if he gets too loud.  There are some sturdy trees around, but I don’t feel like climbing in the night.”

He walked over to Clinton and lowered himself slowly so they could see each other clearly in the faint light.

“You hear that, Clinton?  Rope ain’t too expensive for me.”

________________________________________

Wardo:

Norman the train conductor dozed, lizard-like, in the early morning sun.   Bound for Tombstone in a straight shot, he expected absolutely no issues.  The boiler was fully stoked, hot, and making good time, so he relaxed on his stool, feet propped in the window.   The warming desert air tickled his toes and he was reminded of the way his favourite beagle licked his feet, though immediately also saddened because he was unable to find a woman who would do the same thing, so he had to rely on the old hound for now. He was happy he’d brought two bottles of whiskey aboard to entertain him during this truly boring stretch of track.  He couldn’t think of a better place to be drinking than while rolling safely down a line of track that didn’t offer the most meagre twist over hundreds of miles.

And so it was that Norman was completely oblivious to the train switch.  Paul crouched behind some rubble, prepared to kill the conductor should he stop the train before the switch, but he had worried for nothing.   He saw the dirty feet poking from the window and smiled as he immediately grasped its significance – nobody on that train was going to notice it had been redirected, not until it would be far too late.  As the train roared past, he whooped a terribly-accented Pawnee war cry.

*****

Bloodlust lay on his belly, peering into the distance with his spyglass, engraved by a man of some reknown hailing from New York City.  He’d wanted gold accenting when he’d commissioned the work, but of course with the brass telescope body, the effect of the gold simply would have been lost, so he went with the silver in this case.  Pure Sterling inlay, naturally.  He’d been pleased on a subliminal level that the scrollwork on the spyglass was a pattern remarkably similar to that which had been put onto his snuff box.  He winced now at its necessary loss.  He knew he’d never find another one quite like it.  He wondered obscurely if the spyglass was lonely, missing its mate.

“Looks like Farson has found himself some new men.  I award him credit for his resourcefulness,” he remarked.

“Lemme see!  I wanna seeee!”  James complained.

Bloodlust ignored him, slapping away his reaching hands like he was a beseeching toddler.  “More men, though undoubtedly – Stop that.  Stop that, immediately – undoubtedly not as well versed in his particular language of mayhem, I’d warrant.  Likely a desperation measure with local rabble to fill out his gang numbers.”

“Undoubtedly,” Sir Kyle agreed immediately, angling his hips so that Bloodlust could get a good look at his fancy pistols, which glinted hotly in the sun.  He tried to match his facial expression with Bloodlust’s, something he’d read about before – apparently one’s ability to make an authentic connection had a lot to do with body language mimicry.  He had no idea if he was making an impact on this man, but he knew the alpha dog when he saw him, and wanted to make the right impression.  He grimaced at this small betrayal of King Paulus.

“Stop sucking up, Kyle!  It doesn’t matter who those guys are, they’re nobodies!  Do you hear me?  We have to take Farson out!”  Wardstein shouted.

To James’ dismay, Bloodlust collapsed his spyglass.  “I am inclined to agree.  This man must be eliminated.”  Wardstein whooped.

Sir Kyle’s stomach churned at what he must say.  “Er, right.  So he’s after the train at 9:45.  Why do we care though?  This isn’t our time, after all.  So what if he robs the train?  Bloodlust isn’t after us anymore, and Farson was unable to take our crystals back.  So aren’t we like, in the clear?  Can’t we go back to the cathouse maybe?”  And see Rebecca, he added mentally.  His stomach, full of breakfast beans, roiled in excited anticipation.  Soon, my pet, he thought.

“There are so many reasons!  Because we’re deputies.  We do this!”  Wardstein beat his fist into his palm, emphasizing his point.

Bloodlust turned.  He tossed a gold piece to James.  “I’ll tell you why we proceed.  Flip that coin.”

“You’d decide our entire future on a superstitious coin toss?  No wonder your people are being massacred!” James sneered.  “What’s next – a sacrifice to the sun god?  Too bad we ate that last chicken at breakfast!”

“Call it.”

“What for?”

“Destiny brought us together to this place.  We all have but one destiny.  It is how it must be.  I allow you this chance, if it comforts you, to choose the lay of the coin.  But the outcome was writ by the same unseen hand that led us here and placed that coin in your palm.”  He flexed his pectorals, and his tattooed name rippled obscenely.

“You talk a lot for a guy who’s supposed to be a stoic.  Laconic.”

“Nevertheless.”

“Fine.  Heads.”  The gold piece flew in the air, singing remotely, catching the rays of the sun and glowing its proud, civilized light.  It landed without bounce in the sand, and all the men saw the eagle on its face.

*****

Farson stood on the shoulders of a newly-minted gang member.  “Steady down there!  Steady!” he yelled.  He lacked for a spyglass, so this would have to do.  The two of them were perched atop a boulder, and Farson was peering into the distance, looking for the smoke signal from Paul that would confirm the train had been successfully diverted.  “What time do you have, anyway?”

The man below wheezed with exertion.  His name was really stupid, like Stubby or some other such nonsense.   “Time?  My watch!” Stubby yelled.   “It’s…in mah pocket!  You want I should – “

“Never mind, shut up.  I know it’s early,” Farson barked.  He squinted…and then he thought he saw it.  Yes.  A broken, wispy trail of smoke on the horizon.  That guy couldn’t even put out a decent Injun smoke signal, he thought.  But he got the point across at least.

“Good, I see it!  Now – “

That’s when the bullet crashed into Stubby’s jaw.  The vaporized flecks of mandible hissed and scattered across the sand below like a sheet of hail.   He stared up at Farson, his rolling eyes bugging, his mouth a gaudy gape that could now accommodate a wine bottle.  “Gahhh!  Gahhh!” he shrieked.  The second bullet was more on its mark – it landed in the back of Stubby’s yawning throat, catastrophically destroying his spinal column, brain stem, cerebellum, and occipital lobe, in order.  The massive .45-70 slug erupted from Stubby’s scalp and flew into the distance, its mission in life now complete.  Farson felt Stubby’s shoulder’s slacken beneath his feet, and he caught a fetid whiff of waste as his relaxing sphincter released its contents.  He turned his face to the sky.

WHAT the F –“

*****

At the last moment, Norman spotted the sign.

END OF TRACK 1 MILE

Oh, Christ! He thought.  He fell off his stool to his knees, pulling the brake with all his might.  Outside, the steel wheels screamed as the mighty locomotive fought the brakes.  Firework sprays of sparks flew the entire length of the train, from the wheels of every car, as inside passengers tumbled to the deck like playtoys.  He heard screams – but a moment later he realized it was himself.

Finally though, after an unknown length of time, the train eased to a stop.  Steam chuffed from its stack almost in frustration.  Norman sat up, replacing his jaunty engineer hat on his head.  That was close, he thought.  Peeping out his window, he saw to his immense surprise a cloud of dust trailing dozens, perhaps even hundreds, of angry looking Indians, galloping to the train mounted on wildly-painted horses.  Norman shrieked in fear, and reflexively scuttled into the corner beneath the control deck.  His whiskey bottles had flown off someplace while the train had screeched to a stop, so nothing was going his way today at all.

He wished for a second pair of underdrawers.

_________________________________________

James:

Grasping the pocket watch from the ground, James smiled and dusted the case off on his shirt.  He stole a quick glance at the other three who were standing some yards behind him, Kyle now pointing to Bloodlust’s pectoral tattoos and nodding in a complementary fashion;  Wardstein, seemingly uninterested and quite possibly jealous, trailing invisible enemies with his revolver, mouthing ‘boom’ and adding a bit of mock-recoil every second or two.

By all appearances, James’ trip to collect his prize had remained covert, as he had wished it to;  but he thought it best to pretend as though he was emptying his bladder, just so no one got suspicious.  Realizing that he had yet to actually do that this morning though, he unzipped and did so for real, arcing his stream into the gaping mouth of one of the men Bloodlust had massacred the night before.  The urine churned and began to froth, the foam quickly overflowing and cascading down the corpse’s cheeks as he stared unconcerned and wide-eyed up at the sky.    James found it an amusing image and began to make gargling and gagging noises as he laughed to himself.   “–Arggle-ofck!  I’ve haddanufff! Choke!!  Ackle-urkle-glork!  Okay, a little more!!  Sooo thirsty!  Ha ha ha ha!”     The flow then weakened and dribbled to a halt, causing James to frown slightly.   But, looking back to the shiny gold watch where he caught a glimpse of his handsome reflection, which caused him to smile again.  Opening it, he observed a small fottergraph of a feeble-looking, wrinkly white couple on the interior and the frown returned.

“Eugh!” he exclaimed, scratching at the image with his fingernail.  “Can’t have that!  Not on my watch!” 

After some effort, the glue that was binding the picture to the case broke free, and the little disc flipped to the ground.  James then gave it a stomp into the dirt and sent those two to hell with a twist of his heel.   He examined his acquisition and nodded in approval at the improvement, giving it a good wind.  Glancing at the sun now he wondered what time he should set it to.   He had never been very good at astronomy.  Surely it was before 9:45am though, when Farson planned, according to the diary at least, to divert and rob that train that was bound for Tombstone proper.  James lowered the brim of his hat slightly against the glare.  The band had been developing a white ribbon of salt from his brow sweat recently.  Back in time this would of course be unacceptable, and the mark of a lowly field worker.  But here, in future times, the Archduke felt as though he was beginning to blend in.   The other guys, too.   Minus Kyle, he supposed, ever since Bloodlust had forced him to wear his underpants out of the whorehouse;  but he was confident that this would be remedied shortly.

“Now what was that second thing I wanted to do again?”  he wondered aloud.  “Ah, of course!”

Walking over to Baby-Faced Mitch, the midget who was gunned down the night before, he laughed at the state of his corpse.  Even if the fragments of bursting horse skull hadn’t killed him instantly, he clearly would have suffocated in no time by the looks of it:  his head was completely buried in the sand, his boots pointed skyward, his gloves dangling from each sleeve like ornaments from a piece of yarn that ran through the back of his little jacket.   James stooped to collect the crystals that were still scattered across the ground.  Luckily Farson had not counted on their laziness, as he could have easily doubled back and collected them under cover of night if he wanted to.  James wondered what the man’s obsession was with these things—ever since they time-jumped they’d been nothing but a burden to lug around.  Though on the flip side of the coin, Farson’s story of waiting for decades in this wasteland, hoping against hope that he’d live long enough to meet up with the three of them and exact his revenge for being a unfortunate enough to be born a jealous peasant of an inferior bloodline?   Pretty pathetic.    James admired the dedication on some level, though:  the guy growing increasingly insane and bitter year after year as he watched more and more wrinkles appear on his face in the mirror.  A part of him wanted to be nice and simply give Farson Kyle’s crystal. However, a bigger part of him wanted to keep him from getting the things solely because his desire to possess them was so much greater than his own.    

James strolled back to the other three now.  “Hey uh, you guys know what time it is?”  he asked, still fumbling with the watch.   “We don’t want to miss Farson intercepting that train, do we?”

Bloodlust looked at the watch in James’ hands.   “I see you’ve found my heirloom timepiece.  Swiss-made, you know.  Twenty-one jewel movement; solid 18-carat gold case, accented with pure platinum and the finest of engravings;  accurate to plus or minus one second per day, if wound routinely.”

“Yeah, it’s all that stuff,” said James with a raised eyebrow, looking at the spinning cogs and gears even more closely through the sapphire interior case back now.  “Except for the bit about it being ‘yours.’   This is mine.  I built it myself.  In my workshop!

Clearly confused, Bloodlust looked to Kyle and Wardstein, who both shrugged, not wanting to betray a tell.   They found it amusing to watch the extent of the Archduke’s childishness from time to time, particularly when it was directed at someone else.

“James, you—you are clearly not telling the truth.  My…adoptive parents gave me that watch to commemorate my graduation from univer—“

“—from university?  Oh, have you been?   You sure like flaunting that education of yours, Bloodlust.”

“Yeah, do you think you’re better than us?”  asked Wardstein, giving Bloodlust a critical look.   “You’re wearing nothing but your underwear and a few tattered bits of your suit!”

Bloodlust took note and tore the remaining fabric away, no doubt confident in his mountainous appearance.   All that remained was his underwear, which was a deerskin loincloth for some reason.  Kyle watched and slowly began to unbutton his vest too, but Wardstein shook his head ‘no’ at him and he stopped.  Bloodlust paid them no mind, though.

“James, I know for certain that’s my watch.  On its interior you will find a tin-type photograph of the two who gave it to me.”

“Oh?  Let’s just have a look then!”    He opened the watch and confidently showed it off.   “See?!   You’re a liar!   Also, even if this had been the watch we watched you discard over there—which it isn’t—-you would have done so under your own volition.   Essentially giving it away.  And now you’re demanding it be…returned?    They should coin a derogatory term for that kind of behaviour!”

“Oh, I’m the liar?   You gentlemen are the ones saying you’re time travellers!    I’ve only heard about that nonsense in works of fiction!”

Suddenly from in their midst their came a flash as bright as the sun and all four shielded their eyes.  When they withdrew their arms there was a fifth man present.

“MCSTOGIE!”  exclaimed all but Bloodlust.

“Hey-hey, what’s up, guys?  Up high, Kyle!”

The Knight slapped McStogey’s raised hand and smiled.    “Hello there, McStogie.   It’s good to see a familiar face, I’ll admit.”

“Thanks!   Hey, where are your pants?!”

“In a whorehouse!” Kyle replied, nodding enthusiastically at his explanation, which was hardly an explanation at all.   “Hey, you wouldn’t happen to know what time it is, would you?”

“Whorehouse?  Hmmph.”   McStogey produced a small, black, handheld device coated in glass from his pocket and slid his thumb across it.   “11:04am.  Why?”

Crap!”  Wardstein yelled.   “That means the train has already—hey, what is that thing?”

McStogey, apparently not hearing Wardstein’s question, continued tapping on the strange contraption with both of his thumbs, smirking slightly.   He then looked up at the others, who were waiting expectantly for a response.   “What are you guys staring at?”

“I asked you what that thing was, you dork!”

“Look, never mind that now!  I just got back from the very distant future, okay?   I got it there, and that’s all you need to know.  If I started talking about all the stuff that’s going to unfold in future years, I’d be here all day!   Plus, it might have unintended, dramatic consequences and blah-blah-blah. ”

“Hold it!”  Bloodlust yelled.   “McStogie, is it?   Are you telling me you really did travel through time to join us just now?   And that these three have done the same?”

“That’s exactly right, you—you, scary son of a bitch, you!”

“This is Christian,” said Kyle.   “Christian Bloodlust.”

“’Christian,’ huh?”  said McStogey doubtfully.   “Ha!   Whatever you say there, Kyle.”

“I—I’m sorry I doubted you men,”  Bloodlust stammered.   “Tell me this one thing then, traveller, I beseech you:  what becomes of the Native peoples of these lands in future times?   Do they triumph over the relentless westward expansion of the white men?   Do they rebel and quash their myopic and selfish race to use up all of the land’s raw materials?  Its natural resources?   Tell me—are they successful?”

McStogey smiled patiently at the Native and nodded.  “Christian, I really shouldn’t divulge what has yet to pass, but…I’ll make an exception just this once because you seem like a good guy—everything works out just great for the Natives, okay?   Couldn’t be better.”

“Thank you, McStogie, I appreciate your candor and your honesty!”

McStogey turned to Wardstein, Kyle, and James, his lips pursed, his head shaking grimly.    Then, clapping his hands:   “Alright men!   Seems you have to see a man about a train!”

“Yeah, we know, McStogey,” said Wardstein.   “We found that Farson guy’s journal which outlined his plans.   9:45am is when he was set to rob the train, but we missed it!    It must have some important significance though, because he planned to do that after killing us, which he totally failed at thanks to Bloodlust here.   As a matter of fact, he spilled quite a bit last night, telling us that he was the descendent of someone he believes is the rightful heir to King Paulus’ throne?    He seems pretty determined to take it out on James, and has waited years for us to arrive.    He’s kind of a moron, though:  he wanted our crystals, but…we’ve still got them too.”

“Yep,” said James, returning them to the other guys.

“Haven’t you guys figured this out yet?”  asked McStogey.   “Yes, this Farson guy has a hate-on for James.  One so fierce that he felt compelled to travel to the future to kill not only him, but all of you!   Once his task is completed ‘out of time,’ he’d simply have to travel back and dispose of the rest of your lineage, James, and undo all the successors leading to the rein of your father!   Uh – that sound about right?”

Everyone stared blankly at him, but nodded along as though they were keeping pace.

“Anyway, unfortunately for ‘Farson,’ as I guess he calls himself now, by the time you guys had left, the boosting crystal at the castle had only enough to juice to send him years shy of where you landed.   Seeing as how your crystals are still depleted of energy there, I can only surmise he’s attempting to collect them all in attempt to travel BACK to the FUTURE!”

“Don’t you mean back to the past?”  said Kyle.

McStogey blinked.   “Right!   Sorry, did I screw that up?   This is pretty confusing stuff, isn’t it!”

“Tell me about it!”  James agreed.

“So as I was saying,” McStogey continued, “big deal if you missed the train.   The guy’s objectives, as you’ve no doubt already surmised, but which I just so kindly reiterated, are obviously A–to kill you;  and B—to get your crystals.   And he’s done nei—-“

“—NEITHER!”   Wardstein yelled.

“So we’ve unintentionally been kicking all kinds of ass?!”  James asked.

“That’s right, guys!  Up high, everybody!   You too, Bloodass, c’mon!”

Just as the four raised their hands to connect though, McStogie vanished in a flash, leaving the words “Too slow!” hanging in the air.   Kyle, James and Wardstein laughed at this, but Bloodust only groaned, visibly annoyed.  “Well gentlemen—sounds like we have work to do!”

“Actually, Bloodlust, you stupid moron,” said Wardstein, “it sounds like we can continue taking our sweetass time, as per usual!”

______________________________

Wardo:

Nearby, Farson walked calmly alongside the engine car of the locomotive—or as calmly as one could with the muzzle of a rifle jabbed in his back.  Holding it there was the Indian chief who’d agreed through Paul to allow safe passage, and behind him, his dozens of warriors, who were chattering to one another in their common language, whatever that was.

“What tipped you off to my planned double-cross?”  Farson asked him.  “Something that idiot Paul said?”

“On the contrary,” the Chief replied.   “I had to look no further than the colour of your skin, Farson.   I’ve never trusted the white man, and things have worked out just fine for us so far, isn’t that right, boys?”   The men all hooted and cheered at this and the chief laughed also, nudging Farson hard with his .45-70.   “Hurry it up!  ‘Paul’?  That what you call him?   Ha!  Why’d you send that guy to us, anyway?  He can barely speak your language, let alone ours!  That smoke signal he sent?   It was total nonsense!   Anyway, we thought it would be more expedient to double-cross you instead.”

“Why?   I’d have given you the Indian bones, as promised.”

“We don’t want any goddamn bones!   We want the booty!  The money you’re undoubtedly after!”

“Oh, the money I’m after.   Silly me.   Well, good on you for figuring that out too, I guess.   Truth is, there were no Indian bones anyway.”   Farson looked up at the windows of the two passenger cars behind the steam engine, each of them framing the white faces of city folk making their way west.   “Don’t worry everybody, once they get what they’re after, these men will be on their way,” he shouted.    Inside, the pitiful shrieks from the women folk seemed to be agreeable sounds to the warriors, who grinned expectantly.

Farson lead the group to the first of the cargo cars behind.   “To my knowledge, the money’s in there boys.   Why don’t you, uh…open it up and see for yourself?”

“As if I’d fall for that!”  scoffed the Chief.    “YOU open it!”

“Well, seeing as how you’re going to kill me anyway,”  Farson sighed and climbed up to the sliding door and gave it a heave.  “Yep, it’s here, just as I expected.”

The Indians craned their necks and squinted to adjust their vision to the dark contents of the train car, but before they could, they saw the flash.   Then  unceasing cacophony of .45-70 blasts, Farson, a crazed look on his face, furiously working the crank on a tri-pod mounted Gatling gun!

NOBODY GETS THE BEST OF LUKE FARSON!”  he cackled.  NOBODY!  WAHA HA HA!”

Outside the car, the Natives, whether attempting to shoot back or flee, were systematically torn to pieces by the ferocious barrage.

**

Rube Dibble sipped his whiskey and took in the scene.  The train he was on had been stopped for a few minutes and there was panic all around him.  He looked down to see that his whiskey bottle was still upright and then back up to the frenetic car.  There were Natives streaming on board, intimidating passengers into giving them their shiny watches and billfolds.  Women were screaming, and men were making a great show trying to stand up for them.  Once it became obvious that the infiltrators weren’t feeling very rape-y the men stopped trying to be heroes and instead moved on to attempting to hide their wealth.  It was no use.  Rube watched as the Natives extracted anything that could be of any worth from the trains occupants.  They were business like and efficient.

Rube sighed to himself and swished his glass around absent-mindedly.  Life sure could be crazy.

“Hey, you,” said an approaching brave.

Rube made a ‘who me’ gestured.

“Yes, you.  Sitting.  Give us your belongings.”

“I’d prefer not to, in honesty,” Rube told him.

“Can you not see what is happening here?”

“Train robbery.  Pretty first-rate, too.  I’m impressed.”  Rube expanded his arms to encompass the scene.  “Orderly, all things considered.  And you lads seem well behaved, given the circumstances.  I thought your kind was supposed to be all scalp-y and whatnot.”

“Well people have been co-operating.”  The brave looked at him expectantly.

“Hmmm.  Was the threat there supposed to be implicit?  I’m not good with inferences, I confess.”

The brave nodded and considered for a moment.  “If you don’t give us your valuables, we will cut off the top part of your head ritualistically.  We will then proceed to rip up your face and skin as a lesson.  Also out of spite.  Afterwards your body will be disrespected.  Your soul will find no peace in this world.”

“No peace, eh?” Rube asked.

The brave nodded somberly.  “Plus the face thing,” he added.

“Right.  Can’t forget that.”

The brave opened his mouth to speak, but a huge roar brought him up short.  Someone had found a Gatling gun it seemed, Rube thought to himself.  The screams from the other cars had mostly ceased, but this new action got them worked up even worse than before.  Rube took a quick glance at his whiskey bottle to make sure it was still upright.  He looked back at the brave, who seemed confused.

“If I was you I’d be getting out of here about now,” Rube drawled.  The gunfire continued at a fantastic rate.  Perhaps a minute more, Rube noted mentally.  Minute and a half at most.

Again the brave opened his mouth to reply, but this time was halted by a huge hole being blown in his chest.  Pieces of his insides and a river of blood exploded outwardly.

“Too late,” Rube said, spitting some of the carnage.  A cowboy with a hard, lined face came into view as the big Native fell to the floor.  He was holding a shotgun in the ready position and it was more or less pointed at Rube.

“Howdy,” Rube said genially.

“Off the train,” the man grunted at him.

“I like it here, though.  I was in New York too long.  And Chicago after that.”  Rube shook his head.

“Get off the damn train.”

Rube sighed.  “Ah well, I could use some fresh air.  Which side has the least amount of blood?”

The cowboy grunted again and made as if to push him with his gun, but noticed his whiskey instead.

“Give me the bottle, too.”

“Now that I will not do,” Rube said, his good natured tone slipping ever so slightly.  “A man will need a stiff drink out there, I reckon.”

The man took his hand off the gun and made as if to reach for the bottle, but Rube moved first and faster than an eye could follow.  Dropping the bottle he pushed the mans’ gun to the side while his other hand drew from his inside pocket.  He pressed the gun tight up against the mans’ chest as squeezed the trigger.  The report from the gun was muffled, and even in the best scenario wouldn’t have travelled much past the wall of the car.  In the current din Rube had barely heard it himself.  The man gave him a quizzical look as he slowly collapsed to the floor.  Rube reloaded his silenced, single shot pistol and stuffed it back into the inside pocket of his jacket.  He reached down and grabbed the shotgun, and then grabbed the few loose shells the now dead man had on his person.  He reached for his whiskey and sighed when he noted a cruel twist of fate had it land at an angle, and all of the precious fluid had drained away.  That wouldn’t do.  He looked out the side window on his car and saw a stricken group of braves attempting to make their way clear of all the carnage.  The cowboys were shooting horses and trying to corral them into a circle.  The Gatling gun had ceased, possibly out of ammo, but more likely jammed.  Messy stuff, Rube mused.  But it didn’t change his mission.  And he didn’t become the greatest contract killer in the nation by avoiding missions.  With a sigh he checked the pair of pistols at his waist and put the shotgun at the ready.  He would need to win clear of here, and the folks outside didn’t seem much in the mood for talking.  Christian Bloodlust, I hope you are worth it.

The men topped a hill and looked out into the valley below.  A long train was there, motionless.  It looked like a dead insect.  The men scrambling around it resembled nothing more than scavengers, come to take all they could from the fallen behemoth.

“I guess we didn’t miss it,” Kyle noted.

“No thanks to you!” Wardstein snapped at him.

“I get confused.  You guys let me take lead.”

Wardstein just shook his head slowly at him.  Kyle thought things between the two of them might be coming to a head.  Or something was afoot.  Either way, extremities were gonna be involved.

“We let you take lead cause we didn’t want to ride with you,” James piped up.

“Well then it is on you,” Kyle reiterated, then shrugged.

“Everyone shut up,” Bloodlust said.  “Listen.”

The men became silent and listened, with James exaggeratingly cupping a hand to his ear.

“I can’t hear anything,” Wardstein said.

“Gunfire,” Bloodlust said simply.  “And war cries.”

“Natives?” Wardstein asked.

“Well its not the French,” James said.

“Ha, the French.  If something involves the French and gunfire you can bet it also involves surrender and capitulation.”

Bloodlust sighed while the other three chuckled good-naturedly.

“There has been treachery,” Bloodlust stated.

“Maybe the Natives will take care of Farson?” Kyle wondered.

“No.  Farson is mine,” Bloodlust said, his voice hard.

“We don’t care about Farson, though,” Kyle continued.

“Unless he can get us back to the past,” Wardstein amended.

The four of them stood in silence for a moment, taking in the scene.

“Well,” James finally said, “It is clear what we must do.”

The other three waited for him to continue, but he said no more.

**

The scene at the train would have unsettled more mediocre hearts.  Dozens of natives and Cowboys alike lay slain and broken in various postures of death and ultimate defeat.  Hand to hand fighting continued between combatants, with the odd gaudy splash of arterial blood the reward for a particular grunting thrust with a bone-handled knife, or a sudden gunshot lifting a skullcap from its owner like the exploding lid from a Dutch oven.

However, Wardstein, Kyle, and James had borne witness to these scenes in numbers too great to recount.  Their personalities had been shaped, even nurtured through the witness and application of deadly violence.  They were now well educated in all ways of mayhem.  They were surrounded by panicked disorganization, but for the first time since they’d arrived in 1886, the men felt right at home.  They exchanged looks, wordlessly slapped leather, and began to cut down any opponent they encountered as they made their way to the train cars.  All thoughts of mercy fell away under the imperative that they must reach the train at all costs, and so the desert sands frothed scarlet under their dusty boots as they relentlessly marched.

“We gotta get on that train!” Wardstein reminded everyone, in the event they’d forgotten why they were there.  “Farson’s on there for sure – look!”    Sure enough, they all saw the shadow of Farson shaking his fist from behind the empty Gatling gun he’d been using and disappear.

“Understood!” Sir Kyle cried.  He waited until he saw Bloodlust advance, and then pushed onwards himself.  A shrieking savage approached, bathed in the blood of a dead Cowboy, and Kyle fanned his fancy pistols empty into his brown, reeking body.  Nearby, the crumping explosions signalled Wardstein employing his deadly scattergun to great effect, followed by the rapid-fire barks of James squeezing dry his Lightning.

Despite their astounding fighting skills, they were making no headway – like a swarm of insects, or perhaps the attack of some kind of pernicious disease, the numbers of rampaging Indians was too great to overcome.  Sir Kyle drew a bead on another scampering savage and was rewarded with a mere click from his pistols.  Empty!   The savage’s wildly rolling eyes settled on Sir Kyle and he began his advance, foam flying from his undoubtedly diseased lips.  Defenseless, Sir Kyle could only watch his approach.  This is just like what that gypsy at the carnival told me would happen, he thought.  At that moment however, Bloodlust strode into view, grasping the flailing arms of the Indian, tearing them from his body with a ghastly yank not unlike a man enthusiastically tugging the skirt from a prospective lover.  Gouts of blood sprayed dramatically in all directions, the sanguinary blast blowing Bloodlust’s loincloth into the wind.   Sir Kyle gasped at the sight.

“Gentlemen!” Bloodlust called over the din.  “I will clear the path to the train!  Follow me!”  Buttocks flexing maniacally, he began wading through the pitching bodies to the train, slamming the severed arms wherever seemed appropriate to him to speed his progress.

“Okay, I’m coming!” Sir Kyle cried, eyes bugging at Bloodlust’s backside.

“Wardstein!  Did you hear that?” James cackled.

“Phrasing, Sir Kyle!  Phrasing!” Wardstein chided merrily.   He booted a howling savage in the groin as he and James swung aboard the train car where Farson had been, slamming shut the sliding door.  Outside, frustrated savages began fruitlessly beating the side of the train car.

“Ha, you stupid savages!  We win!   Okay, now what?” James demanded.

“We continue to the next car,” Bloodlust explained patiently.  Ahead of them, a door into the next car stood open, from which a strange, ascending whine was emanating.

“Nooo!  I wanted to load up this big gun and plug me some more savages!” James carped.  Wardstein roared in frustration, as he too wanted to kill more natives.

Bloodlust stared.  He’d never understand why these strange, pale people wanted to destroy his kind.  Likely in the years to come, they’d moderate and would co-exist peacefully, he reasoned sensibly.  “Farson is our goal.   We continue,” he declared, strutting powerfully to the next car, leaping through the entrance towards the growing noise.

Shrugging, the men followed, leaping through the entrance – and were stopped in their tracks.   Farson stood before them, his pistol trained on a younger man they didn’t recognize.   The man was fiddling with the controls of an enormous machine, which seemed to have been activated by some unknown means and had now begun to howl.  They could see Farson had attached his crystal to the machine with some kind of wiring, and was now glowing a brilliant blue.

Wardstein ignored all these details and got to the heart of the matter, whipping free his pistol.  “He’s mine,” he announced in delight.  “Any last words, pardner?  I got you dead-bang.”

Farson squinted at Wardstein’s pistol.  “You’re out, ‘pardner’.”

Wardstein sneered, squeezed his trigger and the pistol clicked.  He cursed tyrannically.  “Kyle!”

“I’m out!  I used all my shells on the natives out there, remember?”

“James?”

“Uhm, like…”

Farson laughed hysterically, the sweet laughter of the victorious.  His crystal was now blazing a brilliant white as the strange machine whined ever louder, and he tugged it free from the wires.  “You’re finished ‘Archduke’!  This machine has restored my crystal, and nothing can stop me now from going back in time and destroying your entire family!”  He turned his pistol to the controls of the machine, and fired, destroying the panel.  Thumbing back the hammer of the pistol, he turned to the man at the controls and fired again, the bullet thumping heavily into his chest.  The man slumped to the floor with a wheeze.  Farson grinned, earing back the hammer of the pistol one final time, the gaping bore trained on James.  “And now, my dear Archduke.  Yes – I will destroy your family.  Quite right.  But that doesn’t mean I can’t shoot you here myself, too.“

Click.

Farson grinned almost sheepishly as the men exchanged looks.  “Well, I didn’t expect that!” he yelled.  With that, he ran to the opposite end of the train car, hauled open the door, and leaped through.

“Archduke!  We have to stop him!  Your family!  Mr. Bloodlust?”  Sir Kyle’s mind swirled like a compass with all the authority figures present.

Wardstein felt something touch his foot, and he kicked reflexively, and was rewarded with a piteous groan.  He looked down to see the man Farson had gunned down beckoning him.

“Sir,” he wheezed.  “My machine – I can’t stop it.  The controls – they’re destroyed.  My name is Charles Parsons, and – ”

“I don’t want your life story.  What is this thing?”

“It’s…it’s a multistage reaction turbine generator.   The rotary motion – “

“What does it do?”

“The generator…creates electricity.”

Wardstein thought of Farson’s now-functional crystal.  “So – electricity is energy?”

“Not exactly,” the man coughed, blood spilling from his lips.  “In fact, electrons in electricity are actually components of everyday matter, and – “

“Okay, everybody shut up, I got it,” James yelled over the growing din of the machine.  “I just attached my crystal like Farson was doing!  Looks like this machine will restore its energy so we can go back in time.  Woot-woot.  Hurry up and gimme your crystals, I’ll do yours too before this thing poops out.”  The generator had begun to emit a frightening grating noise, and James hastened to attach the remaining crystals.

Wardstein glared at Parsons.  “So this thing does provide energy!” he barked.  “You’re lucky you’re already dying!  Look, we’re wasting valuable time.  We have to get Farson now!”

Bloodlust was already moving to the front of the car where Farson had disappeared, with Sir Kyle close behind.

“I’ll catch up!” James yelled as Wardstein disappeared through the door, tucking the two fully-charged crystals into his pocket and attaching the last one to the machine.  “Parsons!  You still with us?”

Parsons croaked feebly.  “I think so…“

“Hey, now that’s allll right,” James remarked absently as the crystal began to glow.   He hoped obscurely that this machine would last until this crystal was charged – it went without saying that charged or not, it would be Sir Kyle’s.

XXXXX

The door banged open and the men were greeted with shrieks from various women.  It appeared they had arrived in some kind of dining car.  Passengers of all sorts were seated at little tables all around, their meals having apparently been recently served.  A nearby woman stared at Bloodlust, and fainted dramatically.

“Well, that’s a little much,” he remarked, placing his bloodsoaked hands on his nude hips.   He smiled inoffensively at another woman, and she also paled noticeably.  Bloodlust decided to smile more widely, and this woman fainted as well, her face slamming into a plate of eggs with a bang.  Bloodlust could only shake his head again at how these people perceived things.

Wardstein took in the sights with excitement.  “Awesome!  I was just thinking about eating!” he shouted.  He reached over someone and collected a generous handful of bacon from a nearby table, immediately jamming it into his mouth.  He next pointed to a bottle on the table, which was pushed into his hand by a helpful (or terrified) patron.  He began draining it.

HEY!!” a man yelled nearby, leaping from his chair.  “Is your name – “ Wardstein held up a finger, his throat working to swallow as much delicious whiskey as possible.

The man reached into his coat, pulling a scroll from an inner pocket.  He unrolled it, and stared in disbelief.  “It is!  You’re – “

Wardstein continued to hold up his finger as he guzzled.

“You’ve got to be Wardstein!” the man finished in amazement.  At that moment, James appeared, spotting a nearby mother with her child.  “Hello, bayyy-by!” he crooned.  Not too charmingly though.  The woman did have a baby after all.

The man goggled at James.  “And you!  You’re James.  Archduke, right?  Gotta be!”

James bowed regally, though he maintained eye contact with this obvious servant.  “In the flesh.  Always wonderful to be recognized when I’m amongst the common people.  Wait – why do you know us?”

“It’s all in this scroll!” the man cried.  “I thought it was a joke.  I mean, we all did down at the exchange!” the man yelled to all those in attendance.   “Listen.  I’m from Wells Fargo.  A few years ago, we got this box shipped to us.  It came with this scroll!  Listen to this: ‘Deliver to their Excellencies, Archduke James and Baron Von Wardstein’.  On this exact date, at this exact location! And you’re really here!  I had no idea you’d actually show up!”  He passed around the scroll, which also helpfully included a couple of very realistic portrait paintings of men who were unmistakeably James and Wardstein.

Suddenly, the train lurched beneath their feet – the train had started moving.  Around them on dining tables, glasses and cutlery began to tinkle subtly.

Wardstein finally finished the whiskey, belching wetly.  “Okay, so – glad you’re happy and everything, but you were saying you brought us something?”  He tossed the empty bottle over his shoulder.

“Right.  This box!  Here!”  The man stood up from the box he was sitting on – a long, ancient chest, obviously antique.  “I even have this chisel to open it up with.   Open it up!  I’m dying to know what’s in there!”

“Whatever you do, hurry it up!” Sir Kyle yelled, looking out a window.  The train had just crawled past a sign:

END OF TRACK, ¾ MILE.

“This train is moving again and we don’t have much time if we want Farson!”

Bloodlust sighed in annoyance.  Gonads wobbling obscenely, he strode to the chest, digging his fingers into a crack in the lid.  With a sudden grunt, he tore it from its hinges, tossing to the floor with a clatter.  A faint musty smell emanated from the box, and all the men leaned forward.

“So – what’s in there?” The Wells Fargo man asked eagerly.

Wardstein squinted into the darkness of the box, drawing from its contents a long object, wrapped in dusty linens.  He unrolled it in his hands, and then smiled.   “Well, well.   Kyle, perhaps you may be needing this.”  He turned, irreverently tossing the object.  Sir Kyle had time to glimpse a flickering glint of metal, and he instinctively popped out his hand to catch it.   He paused long enough to admire for a moment what he held, and then he raised his hand to the lantern glowing on the ceiling, and they all observed the fine metalwork of the Holy Avenger sword, fashioned by hands far greater than his own.  Even after centuries in a box, the pristine metal glowed lustily.  All those years and dusty days, and once again this masterwork had found its way again to his hand.  Sir Kyle felt like he’d met an old friend.

James laughed with excitement.  “Fantastic!” he yelled, reaching for the smaller package inside the box.  A quick tug of linens and the Goblin Dagger was revealed to all.  He held it aloft as Sir Kyle had done with the Avenger, though the effect with the shorter dagger was less dramatic.  But because he was taller, the dagger was higher in the air than the Avenger had been, he thought.  Hastily, he tucked it back into his belt.  “Right back where it belongs,” he remarked with satisfaction.

Wardstein grew annoyed.  “Okay, this is retarded!  Why wasn’t this box waiting for us at Saul’s place?  Couldn’t we have made use of this long before now?  I mean – “

A shot thundered inside the narrow train car, and Christian Bloodlust grunted in pain.  He squinted through the windows of the car, staring into the distance as boulders and cactii appeared to be accelerating past the train, and then he looked down.  A gaping hole bubbled in the middle of his chest between the tattooed letters of his name, and his life’s breath whistled through its ugly scarlett pucker.  An exit wound – he’d been shot from behind, apparently.  He suddenly felt weak, and dropped to his knees, sagging there momentarily before he slumped to the floorboards of the train car.  With great weariness, he turned his face to look for the source of the shot, clocking it at last from the corner of the car.  A man stepped from the shadows, smiling faintly, a smoking pistol in his hand.  Bloodlust’s lips worked soundlessly.

“Rube.  Dibble.”  He managed finally.

XXXXX

Farson leaped from the top of the coal car into the engine of the train.  He cursed his empty pistol again.  His chance to send James straight to hell had now been foiled twice in less than 24 hours!  Well.  He shaded his eyes to the midmorning sun and saw perhaps one final opportunity to have his revenge in 1886 – the end of the train track only a mile ahead.    On the floor lay the pitiful engineer – dead?  No, he looked passed out.  An empty bottle of whiskey was still clamped in one hairy paw and he snored gustily.
Well, no matter.  The boilers were still hot, but he had a few moments to spare to kick things up a notch or two.  He booted open the firebox door and grabbed a shovel, and began tossing fresh coal into the firebox, stoking the fire as high as he could in the time he had.  When he reckoned he’d topped it out as well as he could, he slammed shut the door and grabbed the regulator valve, pushing it with a grunt.  It was difficult, the boiler pressure was now at maximum – but he managed.  With a final yell, he shoved the regulator open all the way and was rewarded with a shriek of metal as the enormous metal wheels of the engine spun on the tracks, finally catching hold with a lurch.

And we’re off!  Farson thought with satisfaction as the train began to accelerate.  He’d remain here for a few minutes before he activated his crystal for his jump through time.

Just long enough to see the train reach the end of the track.  He leaned out the window to catch the growing breeze, and to take in the view of the canyon at the end of the rail spur.

XXXXX

Christian Bloodlust lay immobile on the floor of the train car.  His critically damaged cardiovascular system was working madly to compensate for the catastrophic loss of blood caused by the gunshot, but he knew the effort was pointless – Dibble’s shot had been critical.  Clinically, he sensed the loss of blood pressure in his limbs manifesting itself in cold and numbness.  He wondered how long he could last.  Already his heart was tiring.  Running out of blood to pump.  Darkness began to cloud his vision.

“You boys better head on out.  The Chief and I here have old business.”  Rube chuckled.   With a sudden movement too quick to be seen, he turned his aim to James and fired his pistol, the sudden blast lifting James’ custom hat from his head.  James and Wardstein dropped to the floor behind some tables and began to crawl for the front of the car.

“Kyle!” Wardstein bellowed.  “We gotta get outta here!”

“My HAT!” James added in outrage.

Sir Kyle stared at this person who’d dared to bushwhack Christian Bloodlust.   He had no honour.

“No,” he said flatly.

“Kyle!!”  Wardstein yelled.

GO!” Sir Kyle called.  His eyes never left Dibble.  James and Wardstein pushed through the doorway at the entrance of the dining car.

Dibble laughed gently.  “I like the sword – really, I do.  I carried one in the war.  But then I met Bloodlust, and he taught me everything I know about guns.  Didn’t you, Bloodlust?”

“Like shooting a man in the back?”

Dibble looked over Kyle almost sympathetically.  “I am the greatest pistoleer in the world.  But Christian Bloodlust is the most dangerous man in the country.  If I hadn’t taken him from behind like that – “

The Wells Fargo man shouted brief laughter.

“…then it would be me there on the floor, not him.  Likely as not lacking for a skull.  Now step aside.  This is my last job, and you aren’t part of the contract – and when you sign a contract, you follow it.  Bloodlust is all I want.”

Time slowed down as Sir Kyle  watched him cock his pistol, settling the sight on Bloodlust’s struggling chest.  He watched his finger flex, saw the tendon on his hand jump, squeezing the trigger to set fire to the bullet that would end Bloodlust’s life.  Sir Kyle knew the battle rage had descended upon him once again.

Without thought for his own safety, he stepped towards the danger, spinning the hilt of the great Avenger, watched the blade hiss by his eyes and catching every increment of lantern light in the train car as it flew.  Turning the blade over with his wrists, he saw the hammer drop on Dibble’s pistol as he fired, a tongue of orange flame belching from the pistol muzzle.

Just in time, the uppercutting blade of the Avenger intercepted the path of the bullet.  It ricocheted harmlessly with a pong! That stung Sir Kyle’s hands.  Dibble didn’t even flinch.  He was a gunfighter before all things, and he was already re-cocking his hammer for another shot.

But Sir Kyle had never stopped moving.  Lunging forward, he merely continued the swinging arc of the Avenger, and the razor-sharp blade caught Dibble beneath the chin, cleaving his face from his skull as neatly as a slice of meat at Sunday dinner.  The gristly visage plopped wetly to the floor, and Dibble began to issue choking gurgles, his tongue waggling wildly where his mouth had been.  One remaining blue eye stared in a fixture of permanent surprise, until it popped unrestrained from its reduced socket, dangling like a diseased grape on its optical nerve.  Finally, the creature collapsed into a heap of offal with a wheeze.

Nearby, Bloodlust himself gasped, and Kyle dropped hastily to his side.

“You saved me,” Bloodlust managed.

“I live in service – of my king,” Kyle choked, his eyes spilling with tears.

Bloodlust looked him over a last time, almost fondly.  “Truly.  So a final service, Sir Knight: Save yourself.”  He closed his eyes.

Sir Kyle stood up, looking out the window.  Another sign had flown by:

END OF TRACK, ½ MILE

He threw the Avenger over his shoulder, barbarian-style.  He thought Wardstein would have approved.  He got moving.

XXXXX

Wardstein and James perched on a mountain of coal in the coal car, squnting into the growing wind of the train.  James wasn’t altogether unhappy that he’d lost his hat after all – he’d decided that this wind was probably billowing his hair in a very attractive fashion.  He wished some female passengers were around to look at him, but you can’t have everything.

“Look!”  Wardstein yelled.  “Farson is at the front of the train!”

“And – woahhh!  We’re headed right for that gorge!”  James cried.  He and Wardstein gaped at the massive canyon inconveniently situated at the end of the train track.

Over the whipping wind, Farson somehow heard the shouting adventurerers.   “That’s right, you – you,  stinking poofs!” he shrieked with glee.

“We are NOT poofs!”  Wardstein roared.  “But I can’t dispute the rest!”

“You’re going down, Wardstein!  Not me, though!”  Farson held aloft his crystal and set about to activate it.  “You too, James!  Happy landings!”

And that’s when the Goblin Dagger severed Farson’s hand neatly at the wrist, the appendage flying into the wind, forever.  Farson’s eyes bugged at his squirting stump.

“Let me give you a hand with that, Farson!” James called, his hand to his mouth.  “And it’s ‘Archduke’, you piece of human buttwipe!  Wait, no.  Subhuman!  Subhuman buttwipe!”

An arrow thumped into Farson’s groin, and he shrieked lustily.  “And I’ll – ah, I got nothing!”  Wardstein yelled.  He knocked another arrow in the Elvish Longbow and set it fly, this time taking Farson in the forehead with the magical bow.  His body swayed momentarily and then slumped to the deck.

“Why the groin first, Wardstein?”

“Because!  I thought it would hurt more!”

There was a shout, and behind them, at the door to the last car stood Sir Kyle, waving to attract their attention.

“Kyle!  Come on!” Wardstein roared.  “e gotta get out of here!”  James dug into his pocket, retreiving the crystals, passing one to Wardstein.

Another sign swept past.

END OF TRACK, 1/4 MILE

“Cripes, there’s no time – Kyle!  Catch it!”  Sir James reached back with his best tomato-throwing  pitch and heaved the last crystal to Kyle – but it fell short, landing in a pile of coal in the middle of the car.

“Come on! Run for it Kyle!  You can make it!” Wardstein urged.

Kyle heard a scream, and looked behind.   Dozens of passengers pressed against the windows of the car, staring in horror at the approaching canyon.

All those people, Sir Kyle thought.  It took a fraction of a second to make up his mind.  Whipping free the Avenger from his shoulder, he jammed the mithral tip of the blade into the pin securing the passenger cars to the engine, and levered.

Gwahhh!”  he groaned.  With a squeal of metal, the pin slid partially free.

“Kyle, no!!  What are you doing?” James screamed.

Sir Kyle jammed the tip of the Avenger into the base of the pin and pushed again with his last increment of strength.  With a final ping! the pin popped free.  He straightened, and rested his hand on what he knew to be the manual braking lever.  He looked at his friends standing on the coal car one last time.  A man’s past deeds defend him, he thought.  Then he pulled the lever as hard as he could.

Sparks flew the length of the train as all the wheels locked, throwing every passenger inside to the floor.  Ahead, the unencumbered engine suddenly accelerated away from the rest of the train, and Kyle knew he had succeeded.

Disappearing behind them, Wardstein saw Sir Kyle raise his hand in farewell, but only for a moment, as he then felt a lurch beneath his feet.  Turning, he looked and saw the nose of the train blast through a pile of dirt heaped at the end of the track, and just beyond that lay the limitless depths of the canyon.  He and James exchanged looks.

“Jump!” they cried together, leaping free from the train just as they felt it drop from beneath their feet.  Wardstein turned in the air, his coat flapping around his legs like batwings, seeing his hat flip up and away from his head, first twenty feet, now fifty feet above him in a blink.

He activated the crystal and everything went white.

XXXXX

Wardstein opened his eyes with a groan.  Something was spinning above him, high over his head.  Not more vultures, he complained inwardly.  But no, it was a device of some kind he didn’t recognize.  It seemed to be directing air over him in a not-unpleasant fashion.  And he was indoors, the odd device was mounted to the ceiling.

Sitting up, he saw James blinking awake on the floor nearby.  He wondered vaguely why every time they awaken from a jump, they’re lying on the ground.  At least he wasn’t nude this time, he noticed.  He was wearing some kind of garment he didn’t recognize.

“Wakey-wakey,” McStogey said.  He was seated nearby in a leather chair with a drink in his hand.  Looked like whiskey.  Wardstein wanted some.  “I took the liberty of dressing you while you were unconscious.  Much better than putting on cast-offs at the house of some elderly pervert,” he laughed.

“What is all this?” Wardstein demanded, looking at himself.  It seemed foppish.

“It’s called a ‘suit’, Wardstein.  Not of armour, just a suit.  Men of respect wear them these days.”

“And what are ‘these days’?  This doesn’t look like the Great Castle to me.”

“Well, it isn’t.  You actually are now even farther in the future than before.”

James sat up, cursing.  “Swell!  So where are we now?  Hum. I actually sort of like my – you said it’s just called a ‘suit’? –  It’s got cornflower blue accenting here that I appreciate.”

“Yes, that’s the tie.  Glad you like it, all the men here wear them.”

“Wait – everybody has these?  Wait a gotdang second!”

“I meant here at the office, they all do.  But not every man, of course not.  And also, your suit is made from only the finest wools and silks.”  James relaxed, secure with the knowledge that he probably was wearing the best suit around.

Wardstein rose to his feet.  “What’s the office?”

McStogey stood, and swept his hand to a nearby window.  “Gentlemen, allow me to present to you the city of London, England.  It is now 1941.  The Great Castle, believe it or not, is not far from here.”

“Wow, neato!” Wardstein cried.

“It was converted to a lunatic asylum some decades ago.”

“Oh.”

“And you are standing in the offices of Military Intelligence, Section 6.  We provide His Majesty with foreign intelligence.  And His Highness has never needed it more than in these dark latter days.”

“Intelligence?  Well, good thing I don’t see Sir Kyle.  That might be a problem!” James joked.  “Where is he, anyway?

XXXXX

Sir Kyle trudged along the  train tracks from where he’d come.  Behind him, passengers disembarked and shaded their eyes to the sun.  Now nearly mid-day, and surprise – it was hot again.

Something caught Sir Kyle’s eye, and he bent over, collecting it from the sands.  Holding it up, he saw that it was unmistakably Farson’s hand, severed for probably a really good reason.  It was still wrapped like a spider around his crystal, which glowed brightly even now under the noonday sun.  Kyle smiled, and wondered fondly what joke James would have for this occasion.  He slipped the crystal into his pocket and flapped the hand around like a puppet, his lips moving as he tried some possible jokes.

“I knowed you was different.  Knowed it the second I laid eyes on you.”

Sir Kyle jumped, squinting into the sun, and saw Red.  The white horse she stood astride knickered gently and she patted its dusty cheek.

“That so?”

“Yeah.  My daddy always said I’d know the right man when he come along.”

“Who’s your daddy?  And what does he do?”

“Gone, praise gawd.  But he schooled me.”

“Bet he did.”

Red paused.  “ I know youse different, but you a bad man?”

Kyle thought a bit.  “What do you think?”

“I’m sure I don’t know.”

“What are you up to just now?”

“Came to see the show, I guess.  Goin back to town maybe if you want a ride.”

“I expect I might.”

“You sure you ain’t no bad man?”

“Hell no, I ain’t no bad man.   Now – be a sugar and reach me that gunbelt off that dead Cowboy there.  I’m out of shells and I might need to kill some more guys on our way back to town.”

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