Become a Fan
The Pistoleers: Chapter 1
By Willy W Earls
Monday, October 08, 2007
Rated "R" by the Author.
Nuclear War... and the centuries that follow in which mankind must struggle against the poisons of a forgotten society.
What bit of the world hadn’t been scorched by the Final War had been poisoned, but still humanity struggled to survive. Generations of exposure to toxins and inbreeding have taken their toll. Each tribe in the wasteland seemed to become a unique race of human as birth defects and mutations became commonplace. The human form was to become as twisted and deformed as the planet itself.
In the limestone caverns of southwest Missouri one community was able to exist and even thrive as so many others withered away. The people of Springfield knew a sheltered life beneath the irradiated wasteland, living off food reserves and stored supplies. All they lacked was protection from those without, a defense against desperate armies prepared to steal and murder for their greed. But protection could be bought, and the people adopted a group of militant survivalists. The group defended the caverns, taught justice and war, and became the law enforcement for the city. They became the Pistoleers.
Centuries have passed and the wastelands withdraw as the Earth heals itself. Springfield has expanded beyond the caverns and once again become a city, stretching for miles and extending law deep into the wilderness. People lost and forgotten for centuries, trapped within the desert, are rescued and join the Springfield Federation under the protection of the Pistoleers. Law, Order, and Prosperity is spreading within the Midwest.
But from the northeast comes an unknown threat, a hidden army that shadows the horizon. This army promises death and war, slavery and torture, all in the name of salvation. The Pistoleers are ignorant of the fact that they are the single remaining threat against this army, and therefore a target. A new war is beginning, one that may end in the Earth burning anew if the Pistoleers cannot match the power of an overwhelming new civilization.
Among the stunted, twisted cacti and the charred pine tree skeletons of the mid Missouri wasteland perched two children. They sat on the middle pair of exercise bikes in a row of six, pedaling furiously under a straw canopy that held the crisping sun at bay as effectively as a rake may hold a mound of sand. Behind them was the open well that for centuries had been the source of water and life for their tribe. The irony was that though the well seemed to offer a limitless supply of water, to drink too much would cause a man’s gums to bleed, his throat to burn, and plants to wither. But the water, even poisoned, had meant life for the people and for the shriveled crops in their purgatorial wasteland oasis. Certain death rode the dust devils throughout the dunes and ruins, and if adventurous men wandered out of the wasteland they wandered so with the flesh dripping from their bones.
But fortune had come to the tribe, and though the aching boys sweat furiously over their labor they were proud and thrilled with the work. With the coming of the pedaling machines were pumps, pipes, hoses, filters, tanks, and faucets. The faucets were magic themselves as they poured forth water even more pure than tears. Never had anyone seen such water, so unlike the brown froth from the well and the yellow drizzle like hot piss that fell from the sky. The boys were pedaling the water right up from the ground, cleaning it through the tubes and filters, and when all six bikes were being pushed the water would flow down hoses and spray amongst the crops. And now the green, brilliant corn was stretching for the sky! The tribe had more food than they could eat, a miracle to people who had never before known their bellies to be full.
For now, only two bikes needed to be pedaled rather than all six, for the crops were not thirsty and the tanks were all full. The boys worked their bikes to run water into the two community showers, one for the women and one for the men. They now bathed with water! No one of the village had ever heard of such a thing, and it was a great event for all to strip and cleanse themselves in more water than any of them had drunk in their lives! The boys at work were the only one’s in the village working so, but their honor was far greater than their exhaustion.
“My dad said that the Pistoleers might want me in their city for training,” one boy piped on his bicycle.
The boy spoke of the wondrous men who had marched into the tribe of Sedalia months ago, calling themselves Pilgrims in search of ancient tribes and ancient treasures trapped in the wastelands. The Pilgrims had suits and medicines to protect themselves from the poisons of the desert, what they called “radiation,” and within the party were the great Pistoleers who carried thunder and lighting in their weapons. The Pilgrims promised wonders for the tribe of Sedalia so that they may grow, prosper, and share their wealth with the great city of Springfield. The elders had agreed and within a week the men of Springfield had returned in wagons pulled by huge beasts, animals call “bulls”, with their metal miracles. The men spoke with people of the tribe and announced that some people of Sedalia may be welcome to live and work in the great city once the small tribe was stronger and able to spare the labor.
The other boy was silent, neither he nor his family had met with the Pioneers or Pistoleers and so nobody had noticed their abilities and been offered work in the city of Springfield. At least not yet, but surely they would return and his family would have their chance. But for the moment the boy couldn’t brag about such things, but he had seen something remarkable that may hold equal awe for his friend.
“I saw down Darla Minkin’s shirt yesterday,” the boy said, the one who wore thick bands of cloth around eyes that only peeked through narrow slits.
The other boy, the one with huge, flopping ears, slid a foot off a pedal and scraped his shin. “You did not!” he accused as he begun pedaling again, although a bit slower. “You’re a liar, Tony!” The two boys were quiet for a moment before the second boy begged. “What’d you see?”
Tony grinned. Baxter was his best friend but Baxter was much more popular with the other boys and even the men of the tribe. Tony felt more than a bit proud to hear envy in Baxter’s voice for a change. Baxter was popular because of his long, dangling ears, of course. Baxter could hear all sorts of things that nobody else could, like the rustling of a rabbit in a deep burrow, and he was often taken on hunting parties. Tony couldn’t do anything special like that, Tony could only see heat, but that was useless in the desert where everything was always hot and his vision was a blur of reds and oranges. Except on night, at night he could look out over the scrub and sands and see hundreds of animals, their flesh red hot against the blue shade of the cooling ground. But the men didn’t want to hunt at night, they couldn’t see, so Tony was never taken hunting.
But his eyes were becoming useful. The corn had grown tall and cool with all the water, and to Tony the rabbits and birds glowed orange between the cool green and blue of the corn stalks. Crows, they were called, and crows had never had a reason to come to Sedalia before unless someone or something died and could be eaten before it was buried. Now Tony had a very important job, he would sit and watch the corn and rush in to chase away the flashes of heat that were rabbits and crows.
‘I could be much worse off,’ Tony thought. He could be without any mutation at all. It would be horrible to be normal, like the few normal kids in the tribe who had to wash the spit out of their hair every day. Most normals eventually walked into the wasteland either to search for other tribes or for ancient treasure with which they’d buy their own love and respect. Maybe Tony was better off with his eyes after all. Maybe he could meet the men of Springfield and maybe there’d be work for him in the great city with his special eyes.
“C’mon, Tony! What about Darla’s shirt!?”
“Oh,” Tony muttered, and looked at Baxter from between his headbands. The skin of Baxter’s face was a mask of warm yellow and orange with green forming the eyes and nose. Like a fluorescent skull, almost, but that’s how everyone looked to Tony. Blue beads of sweat were sliding down the boy’s face and his green ears flopped as he pedaled.
“Well,” Tony began, gasping as he pedaled. “Me, Huey, and Bob were out here yesterday pedaling for the garden when Darla Minkin came down with a pitcher of water for us.” Tony stopped to swallow, his mouth suddenly moist with the thought of the cool, clean water… or perhaps the girl. “Anyway, Darla was sweating and her blouse was sticking to her, which was totally awesome!”
“Awesome!” Baxter agreed reverently. “She’s the only girl our age who has breasts.”
“Yeah,” Tony agreed, unaware that he was pedaling faster. “So Darla gives water to Huey and Bob but when she gets to me she’s almost out, so she puts the pitcher down so she can tilt it and get the water out of the bottom …” He paused, glancing at Baxter who’s cheeks had begun glowing a darker orange. “And her shirt came unstuck and I saw down it all the way to her bellybutton!”
The boys were silent for a while as they imagined it, both pedaling furiously. Tony hadn’t mentioned that he saw more, that he’d seen half of Darla’s nipple, and he wouldn’t because that was a picture that he’d keep for himself until he died and went beyond.
“Wow,” Baxter gasped. “Everything? She wasn’t wearing anything underneath?”
“Nuh-uh,” said Tony. “All the way down to the waist of her pants. But don’t you tell anyone that I saw, Baxter, or I’ll tie your ears together!”
But the other boy had hardly heard. “Wow,” he gasped again and the two boys pedaled for a while. “Y’know,” Baxter said, “I’m getting awful thirsty. Do you think anyone will bring us something to drink soon?”
Tony was smiling to himself as he looked towards the tribe, mostly hidden by a swell of a dune. They could both hear laughing and shouting, their people were still showering, and Tony could even see the green shadow that was the spray of cool water. But far to the northeast in the hot desert that was little more than a dark, red blur he could see something else. There was darkness on the horizon; huge, cold blue shapes that floated like clouds above a long line of hot figures. He didn’t know what the flying shapes were, they were the color of cold metal tools like the bikes and shovels, but the figures must be men. But they were huge men, still so distant yet so tall and wide where they marched out of the wasteland. Bigger even than the Bulls that had pulled the Pilgrims’ wagons.
‘The Pistoleers,’ he thought, ready to spring from his bicycle and yell as he ran all the way to the village that the heroes had returned. They men of Springfield must indeed be great if their people were so huge and their tools so wonderful as to float through the air. But Tony didn’t run because there was something else. Arrows of white heat were lancing out from the floating shapes and the color was wrong to Tony. Nothing was that white, that hot, except for the sun or maybe deep inside the largest fire.
“What’s that sound?” asked Baxter, his ears flopping as he looked around. “Bees? Do you hear bees, Tony? I think I hear bees…” And then Baxter jumped backwards off of his bicycle.
Tony vaulted from his own bicycle, ready to race Baxter into the village and be the first to announce that the Pistoleers had returned, but Baxter was just lying on his back in the dirt. Tony laughed, thinking that the boy was being dramatic at the return of the Pilgrims and Pistoleers, but Baxter was twitching in the dirt. Tony could see the white-rimmed hole in Baxter’s forehead, a hole that was not bleeding but Baxter’s color was changing. Baxter wasn’t moving, and his body was already cooling.
The buzzing that Baxter had heard was everywhere, following the arrows of white heat all about. The straw canopy was red with flame and when Tony looked he could see that the giant men in the desert were so much closer and taller than any of the huts in the village. And the cold, flying shapes, flying discs, held much smaller figures from which the lights were spearing out. They were pouring out of the northeast and towards the dune over which Sedalia was nestled. The thought slid into his mind like a needle, ‘The Pistoleers came from the south.’
Tony feared for his people but already the air above Sedalia was growing orange with the heat of fire, and screams were carried on the wind.
‘The Pistoleers,’ he thought again and jumped for the bikes. The pumping bikes were harnessed in place with belts on the wheels, but the men of Springfield had also brought real bikes that every people member of the tribe had taken great joy in learning to ride. After waiting six days Tony had gotten his turn and after two hours of practice with others he’d quit falling down. Almost. The pumping bikes were not for riding and Tony wept as he tore the straps and belts away, but still the chains and gears and wheels were there.
Tony hauled the bicycle from its stand and pointed it south, where he hoped Springfield was, as he threw a leg over and balanced on the seat. Still the cries were echoing over the hill, although fewer and weaker, and the tears that soaked the cloth around Tony’s eyes didn’t blur his special vision at all. All there was to be seen ahead of the boy was the bright heat of the wasteland, flecked with the cooler shades that were cacti and dead trees. He began pedaling, his foot often scraping the speeding dirt as he fought for balance, and Tony of Sedalia weaved south into the wasteland.
Under an unforgiving sun stood two gunmen, their eyes measuring each other from under the shadows of wide brimmed hats. Between them stretched over fifty yards of bleached gravel, dirt, and scabs of pavement. Twisted cacti grew like tumors in the ancient street and to either side lay the crumbled shells of buildings, choked with vines and brush. The men stared into one another as their hands posed motionless near gun belts. A rifle shot cracked in the distance, spooking a cloud of birds from the brush… but neither man twitched.
One was a tall scarecrow of a man and the other a squat tank of muscle, but the men wore identical long gray jackets that slapped lazily about their square-toed boots, coarse jeans, and knit shirts fastened with rawhide laces. The taller, leaner gunman wore the golden badge of a law officer, however. More striking than the emblem that glowed under the furnace sun was the trailing hatband. It was a length of scaled hide that whipped in the hot wind, drifting in and out of sight as if peeled from a ghost. It was the skin of a Geckoman, a bloodthirsty mutant that could turn invisible, and High Sheriff Curtis Weston was the only man who had ever killed such a creature. The High Sheriff had killed dozens, in fact.
The other gunman was more than a foot shorter than Weston but he was literally as wide as he was tall. A solid block of man with his hat squeezed about a huge skull that was nestled upon the bunched muscles of his shoulders like an egg in a carton. One would think that the brute were cut for wrestling rather than shootouts, but High Sheriff Weston was well aware of the speed in those tremendous arms. And as if reading the lawman’s mind, the bear of a man slapped leather.
Weston’s own hands dipped for his holsters, and as his blood soared the world stopped. The swirling grit froze in midair, the grass ceased to weave, all things became sluggish as Weston’s perception of the world was supercharged. It was his mutation, his father’s legacy, his father who had been the one and only master of such a feat until the day of his murder. Curtis Weston was literally the fastest man alive, and perhaps the deadliest gunfighter in the Midwestern Wastes.
Weston’s fingers wrapped around the pistol hilts and jerked the barrels towards his rival who appeared to be dragging his own weapons through air as heavy as tar. Weston’s fingers squeezed the triggers, fire bloomed like a jagged flowers, and two bullets were on their way to their target as Weston fired another pair. The revolvers were thundering, but so was Weston’s skull. The pain was beginning, the pain that his father never knew but which crippled Weston each time he used his trick, each time he threw his brain into high gear and watched the world about him slow to a crawl. White fire continued to burst from the gun barrels as the lawman’s agonized mind tore itself apart.
The first bullets struck the other man below and above the heart, the impact sending ripples along his coarse flannel shirt. The bear had finally gripped his guns and was pulling them free, dropping one as a third bullet bludgeoned his right shoulder.
Weston’s guns were hot and all twelve chambers were empty. Bullets hammered into his rival’s torso but still the hulk of a man stood and lifted his remaining gun. Two final bullets plowed into the man’s stomach and he began to stumble backwards.
‘Twelve,’ Sheriff Weston thought, marveling. ‘Full rounds and the monster still stands!”
Weston’s smoking revolvers slipped into the holsters at his thighs. He strode forward, pushing against the air as if he was underwater, and as he walked he reached into his jacket and pulled a sniper’s pistol from one of many hidden slings. He had the long barrel leveled on the huge man as the other finally aimed his own revolver. Both men fired.
The slug slammed into Weston’s chest as forcefully as an enraged bull might have kicked it and he felt his boots leave the dirt. The lawman was falling backwards through the air and only just saw the broad hat pop from the bear’s head as Weston’s own shot struck home. He struck the ground, the wind coughed from his body, and as the dust billowed he was careful to hold his arm above the ground. He was fallen, but he would not see dirt spoiling the workings of his fine gun.
The thunder in his skull gave a final, twisting wrench and blissfully evaporated. He lay in the ancient, wasted street and watched brown clouds pour across the sky. The world had sped up again and High Sheriff Curtis Weston lay on his back in the same street where he himself had dropped hundreds more. This was the first time he had fallen and it would be the last. The lawman smiled and closed his eyes.
The stocky gunman was spread-eagled on the ground with both of his heavy revolvers fallen in the sand. A long, thin shadow approached, sliding over his body like a shroud. On the man’s chest was a silver badge emblazoned with the words “Springfield Pistoleer” and “High Deputy Hammers.” The shadow bent, an arm reached out, and the badge was snatched from the shirt. Above the place where the star has been was a cracked rubber pellet, caught in a fold of red flannel. High Sheriff Weston bent over and plucked it from the fallen man, savoring the lazy heat that oozed from the pellet before flicking it into the weeds.
The large man cracked an eye and gazed up at the man standing over him, the man holding his own silver badge. Hammers smiled and began to croak.
“Curtis, you’re a cheat” he said, and brought one meaty fist up to point a huge stub of a finger at Weston’s ribs. “That damned Ruger has a damned magazine, for god’s sake.” Hammers coughed and hauled himself up onto his elbows. “And I still won! What do you say to that, Skinny?”
High Sheriff Weston spoke and though the blinding sun was in his eyes Michael Hammers could see the man’s smile in his voice. “Had the slugs been lead instead of rubber, would you not be dead a dozen times over?”
“It’s now Sheriff Hammers, thank you very much!” Hammers said, his grin widening, as he took the hand that was offered and lurched to his feet. “Lead, rubber, silver, shit… if you hadn’t taken that cheap shot my heels never would have seen daylight.” Hammers brushed himself down and bits of rubber tumbled into the dirt.
Weston’s hat rose just a bit as his eyebrow arched. “A Sheriff?” he asked, eyeing the man who was bent over to sweep his hat and guns from the scrub. From the barrels of both huge revolvers a fine grit of sand spilled, Weston grunted his disgust. The weapons would have to be taken apart and cleaned well or else they may jam or even misfire. The High Sheriff wasn’t impressed that he had effectively disarmed a trained killer, only dismayed that a fellow Pistoleer’s guns had be soiled.
The arrogant thug deserved a kick in his ass for his tongue, but of course Weston knew better than to try the stunt. Michael, only five and a half feet in height, weighed something over four hundred pounds and the bony plates layered between the youth’s muscle and skin were especially thick in his ass. Weston wasn’t going to gamble a broken toe against the chance to push the kid’s face into the dirt.
“Yup,” confirmed Michael, rising to his feet and donning his hat in a flourish of dust. He brushed a finger against his stubbled cheek where a rubber bullet had scraped a dark smudge. “That was the deal, if I recall. The day I drop you in the street before you do me I become a Sheriff; that was the deal of my apprenticeship. I say that you went and disqualified yourself, anyway, for cheatin’ with that goddamn Ruger!”
Weston scowled at the boy’s swagger, if only to drown the grin that threatened his own dry lips. The boy had become a fine shot and deserved to win, and either way Weston could never have reloaded before Michael would have shot him down. Michael’s badge disappeared into Weston’s pocket, for it wouldn’t do for Sheriff Hammers to keep his former medal. It was the teacher’s place to keep the badge of the apprentices who had bested them, a reminder of their simultaneous success and failure, and this would make two such tokens for High Sheriff Weston.
“I’m sorry about that high shot, Michael,” he said. “Headshots were out, I know, but…”
“Which one?” asked Michael, chuckling as he first poked at his smudged cheek and then the dent in his hat. “Hell, coach, are you sure you’re not just pissed at me for something? If I’d known you’d be getting the shakes so bad I would have worn a helmet!”
Men had died for such words with to Curtis Weston, both before and after he’d become a sworn Pistoleer, but Michael Hammers was one of the very few who could poke at the gunman’s disability and live. Some people believed that it was their friendship that stayed Weston’s hand but most others thought that Michael Hammers might be a hard man to kill, even by a High Sheriff.
It had been nine years since Weston and a small posse of deputies had been called to one of Springfield’s most notorious bars, The Rusty Bullet, to still a fight. The lawmen had burst through the front doors, ready to bring peace to the raging war within either by word or by gunfire. However, the men had stopped short of the doorway when they witnessed not a jumbled bar brawl but nearly a dozen burly drunkards circled about and pummeling a single man.
That man had been Michael, perhaps fifteen at the time but still built like an bull, shorter than any of his attackers but again twice as wide as most. As the Pistoleers gaped one of the bar patrons shattered a table leg atop the boy’s skull, a blow that hardly seemed to faze him. He’d spun like a top, clipping two men, and plowed a gnarled fist into his assailant’s chest. From across the bar the lawmen could hear the crackle of bone as the man collapsed onto a table.
In mere heartbeats the lad was bludgeoned with chairs, pool cues, and broken bottles. Just as Michael hauled one of the gangers in by the shirt collar and began to tenderize his face, High Sheriff Weston spotted another thug draw a slim pistol from beneath his jacket. Weston’s own revolver flashed and the thug’s hand evaporated into a rain of blood and gristle.
The thunder of a gunshot stopped all time and movement in the musty little bar. Several innocents ducked under tables or through doorways but the guilty mob swiveled their gaze towards the door.
And so Michael Hammers began his career with the Pistoleers as he threw down his bloodied offender and cried petulantly, “They started it!”
“Is your head still aching, coach?” asked Michael.
Michael was looking back at him from their assortment of pistols and rifles laid out upon the pitted hood of an ancient automobile. Where the wreck wasn’t overgrown with weeds and vines it was fused to the earth with tendrils of rust.
“Let’s head down the street to the rifle range,” Michael grinned. “Now that I’m a Sheriff it may be time for you to learn a few new tricks.”
It was a fine idea, they weren’t due back in Springfield for hours yet and Curtis may have been able to embarrass some humility into the kid with his far shot. But in the process of picking out their rifles both men froze. Men who were used to spending time in the wilderness never noticed the background noise of whirring bugs and chirping birds until all such sounds died, leaving a silence that thundered within straining ears.
“You’ve lost your chance, kid,” Curtis breathed as he nodded down the street. “A new gang just strolled into town.”
Michael followed his gaze towards the rubble of collapsed buildings and saw the swarm of squirrels. He started a curse, but locked the words behind his lips since the faintest sound or scent could lure the critters their. One or two weren’t bad, but dozens of squirrels with their swishing tails bristling with poisoned barbs meant death.
“Are we packing?” Curtis asked.
Michael slowly reached towards the wrecked car and laid his hand upon a shotgun. “Buckshot,” he whispered.
Curtis nodded. There were dozens of the squirrels springing over the rubble and across the street, moving in a group like a flock of birds. With the shotgun Michael could wipe them out in an explosive cloud of shot, but that was only if they stayed grouped. If the little bastards fanned out…
One of the squirrels stopped to crouch in the street and look at the statues of men. The critter scampered away from the pack and up to Sheriff Weston’s boot. Neither man twitched or even looked at the animal as it chattered questioningly. The animal squeaked once before spinning and lashing its tail at Curtis’s boot, burying a bundle of needles in the leather.
The men remained motionless and the squirrel chattered once more. “Do you taste like chicken?” it seemed to ask before disappearing back down the street and into the brush after its herd.
The Pistoleers were lifeless bits of scenery for several minutes until the chorus of wildlife hummed itself into a dull roar. Without a word the men began collecting their guns and rifles. Curtis bent and carefully plucked the bundle of needles from his boot, grateful that none had slid through the tough leather.
“Y’know, I’ve heard that squirrels used to eat only nuts and shit like that,” Michael declared as one handgun after another vanished within the folds of his long jacket.
“You don’t say?” asked Curtis, grinning as he shouldered a long rifle with three mounted scopes.
“Yup. The little turds didn’t kill, didn’t even eat meat, and they were so tame that little girls could put them on a leash for pets! Hell, people used to eat squirrels, not the other way around!”
“You don’t say…” Curtis began before he spun, crouching as he hauled twin revolvers from inside his dark jacket.
Michael had known that they were not alone only a second later, and the gaping twin barrels of the shotgun swung up over Weston’s shoulder as he himself twisted about to cover the High Sheriff.
“Nothin’ stopping you from eating the squirrels,” said the new arrival as he walked towards the Pistoleers. Curtis and Michael craned their necks to see up into the speaker’s face. “Might as well eat your hat or your belt, though. Tough little buggers.”
Curtis holstered his irons and rose smoothly to his feet. He was head and shoulders above Michael but to see this man eye-to-eye would take a decent ladder.
“Damn, Tommy, we just about plugged you! Do all Ghosts have a death wish?” asked Michael. He thought about what he had said and chuckled at himself.
Tomiathan glanced at Michael and then at Curtis, nodding respectably. He was, in fact, a Ghost of Kansas. Mere years ago an excavation group had braved the wasteland and trekked into the Kansas plains where they discovered that grass grew totally white and stretched to the horizon. They had found no ancient relics, the fields had eaten what little Kansas had once offered, but instead come across white buffalo stampeding through the bleached grasses. The ghosts of men appeared to be sprinting after the beasts, running not on the ground but atop the high grass. They didn’t float or fly, their knees merely came to the height of most men’s shoulders.
The Ghosts of Kansas were an entire tribe of albino men and women whose terribly thin arms and legs were longer than most normal men were tall. Tomiathan was the only Ghost to live in Springfield so far, employed as a messenger for the Pistoleers.
“The Judge wants you,” he said to Curtis, and that was all. He grasped the spear that he held, ten feet long and only a little taller than he, and leaned on it.
Curtis shrugged, picked up the rest of his gear and walked past the tower of man as Michael gathered his bundle and followed.
As an afterthought, Michael glanced back and asked “Hey, Tommy, do you want a ride?”
The Ghost only stood there, as if deaf, leaning on his spear with the wind blowing through the white buffalo hides and bones strung about his torso.
“Hmph,” Michael grunted. “Damned savages.”
The Pistoleers emerged from the tumbled and overgrown ruins of Target Town, once known as Strafford and now used as a training course and firing range for the Pistoleers of Springfield. One of the few aspects of the small city that had been restored was the train track that stretched west to east and gleamed in the sun, upon which stood their transportation.
It wasn’t much to look at when compared to other bits of rusted wreckage and forgotten relics. Most would associate it with a large, homemade liquor still perched on top of a trolley with a few cranky gears, levers, and seats poking about. But in fact it was one of the more sophisticated examples of steam-powered engineering that Springfield had to offer.
Curtis climbed onto the platform, stowing their guns and equipment while Michael walked to the back of the machine to survey the tanks.
“How’s it look?” asked Curtis. He had no idea how the machinery worked, only enough to operate it if he absolutely had to.
Michael listened to its innards tick and whir and nodded his approval at the few glass gauges, many of which held needles that hovered in the red. The pair of huge magnifying glasses hadn’t shifted enough with the midday sun in order to catch all of the light but plenty of heat had been focused onto the boiler. The boiler looked hot enough, steaming angrily in the humid air, and Michael could almost believe that it was glowing.
“I’d say she needs about four gallons of Firewater,” he called, readjusting the glasses and sending intense bars of sunlight blazing into the equipment. “The lenses were off and the boiler looks a bit tired,” he lied.
Curtis produced a ring of keys as he jumped from the contraption and headed for the concrete storage shed at the base of a small water tower. Inside the shed was a wall of shelves holding dozens of plastic jugs, a few unmarked grain sacks, footlockers, and a metal wheel set into the wall. Above the wheel was a message stenciled onto the bare concrete.
“By orders of the Judge, the Target Town water tower is to be locked at all times. Purified water resources are not to be given freely to non-citizens unless authorized by a High Sheriff. Sharing resources with pirates is punishable by excommunication and/or execution.”
The wheel spun under Curtis’s grasp without protest and the water far above gurgled. From the shelves he hoisted four plastic bottles of nearly clear liquid, one of which trailed an ancient and faded paper flag waving the name Pepsi. The shelves themselves wore a line of red writing, although written more crudely.
“Concentrated Methernalter. NO open flames near the Firewater. NO drinking the Firewater. Violators will be shot with a pumpkin gun. Jeremiah Geiger, Chief Engineer.”
The angry message was new since Curtis’s last visit to Target Town, a few jugs must have gone missing. Jeremiah had invented the fuel he’d titled Methernalter, although most people called it Firewater, with the same process he’d used to invent hundreds of other marvels. He invented by mistake. Yet with all his creations he was violently possessive. The locals, both citizens and Pistoleers, occasionally abused the potent fuel as a whiskey substitute. Never mind that Firewater was more apt to give a man temporary blindness before it gave him a good drunk, the hardass who could tip back the stuff without coughing up blood often won a small fortune in bets.
Jeremiah had built his steam engines only to realize that Springfield lacked the fuel to fire his boilers and rocket his contraptions around. His brainchild was to give up on making the fire hotter but to force the water to boil quicker. Gasoline had become a myth long ago, but from breweries he obtained methanol, ethanol, ether, alcohols, and a few other noxious liquids that actually lowered the boiling point of water when mixed. The inventor had been ecstatic with the results and began heating his engines with focused solar heat rather than coal.
The fact that Jeremiah’s Firewater produced hallucinogenic gas when boiled, evaporated with contact to oxygen, and was violently flammable was of little concern. “Your eyebrows will grow back!” he’d roared, and went on perfecting his engines.
The bottles were paired off by long ropes of leather that Curtis hung over his shoulder, and as he left the shed he tugged on a mounted hose that swung away from the water tower, over the tracks, and banged against the boiler. Michael appeared and liberated two of the bottles from Curtis and hoisted himself onto the trolley platform that groaned and shifted under his weight.
“Someone got artsy with the tower again, Curt,” he said as he grasped Curtis’ outstretched hand and pulled him aboard.
“I know,” Curtis said as his bottles banged onto the metal flooring. “I saw it on the way in. You didn’t notice it until just now?” He turned away from the shame-faced boy, tilting the brim of his hat up to look skyward. The tower was perhaps forty feet tall and the round water tank on top was ten feet wide and made of steel sheets. Someone had been up there digging the hell out of the tank, even busted a few bolts, before finally giving up on the filtered water inside and signing their work.
Spreengfeeld Sharivs can eet shit! was sprawled in brown across the metal tank, and it looked like the author had been writing with his own personal paint.
“Damned bandits,” growled Michael as he spun a cap off of the boiler and began pouring Firewater down the machine’s gullet. “We ought to nuke the whole bunch of them! Just a band of criminals and zombies, probably kicked out of town last week for concealed weapons or petty theft. What we should do is quit revoking their Visitor Permits and put a few bullet holes in their cheatin’ assesaaahhh!”
Michael yelled and dropped the last of the bottles as cool water splashed down his back. He spun, flinging water droplets that hissed and disappeared as they pattered on the boiler shell. Curtis was grinning but it was a hard, cold expression over the dripping hose. “Cool it, Michael. Everyone has rights, both inside and out of Springfield, and that talk could get you into trouble as a Pistoleer.”
But Michael could care less about law enforcement, it seemed, as he shook himself as if trying to dance the water from his clothes. “That water could be contaminated!” cried Michael. “It could be hot!”
Curtis’s smile was real now and he chuckled as he thrust the gushing hose into the boiler and began filling. “It’s not contaminated. There’s a sensor in the tower that dumps the whole tank if there are too many grays of radiation floating around. You know that.” He sighed as Michael quit his dance and settled to pinching at his wet clothes. “Do you think they’d let us blow into town with a cancer cloud behind us?”
The big man was terrified of radiation, Curtis had learned. He wouldn’t set foot into the irradiated portions of Springfield, constantly swallowed RAD-Out pills during trips in wasteland, and generally avoided anything that might give him a dose. Radiation was a way of life in Springfield and the Wasteland yet Michael tended to act like he had been born and raised in a fallout shelter.
“Yeah,” grumbled Michael, throwing himself into one of the four metal chairs that were polished by the butts of many a Deputy and Sheriff. The chair rocked and groaned on its heavy suspensions and Michael propped his legs upon a couple of the various control levers. He smiled “Gear head Jeremiah would really pitch a fit if we turned his steam engine into a nuclear reactor. Let’s go, already!”
Curtis would be sympathetic to Michael’s fear of radiation if the boy wasn’t so obsessed with it; he wore a RadPatch on the back of both hands instead of just one. The adhesive card was a lifesaver in the wasteland, a gauge of film that would change colors depending on radiation exposure, but most Pistoleers wore one only when they were in questionable terrain. As Curtis walked the hose back to the tower, spun shut the water wheel, and locked the shed, Curtis wondered if the kid would ever open up about his paranoia. Radiation seemed to be the Michael’s only concern in life, and a hard one in a mostly radioactive country, but for now Curtis could let him keep his peace.
Back on the trolley, Curtis looked over the equipment once more, checking that the boiler was full and sealed, and once he was satisfied he sat down next to Michael. “Would you care to do the honors?” he asked.
“Hell, yeah,” said Michael, his sour mood lifted as he rocked forward and grasped at several levers. “Pucker your butt because this ride is gonna be the shits!” He pumped one of the long handles a few times and the water reservoir behind the men began to chug. Another yanked control began a low whistle atop the boiler that began to sharpen in pitch and volume. Michael’s eyes were wide, almost mad, and a grin seemed to split his face with huge squares of ivory white teeth.
A second whistle added its voice and then a third. Confused, Curtis looked around at the third whistle atop the boiler, the red one, that was spewing a thick foam of steam. “Michael!” he barked. “Didn’t you cover the second glass!? Goddamit, kid, if you take the rubber off of the wheels, Jeremiah is going to have both of our…”
But Michael had pulled two final levers and the whistles were replaced by a screeching from underneath the platform as wheels spun wildly on the track, billowing with an acrid fog. The trolley lurched forward violently, rocking the men in their seats, and then bellowed down the track with a tail of white steam gushing from the boiler vents.
“Whoo-hoo!” Michael yelled, tugging on the steam whistle. “What do you think, coach? I bet we’re going forty miles an hour!”
Just then a tall form sprinted past the engine, it’s long legs striding almost leisurely as it ran alongside the track towards Springfield.
“Whatever the speed gauge says,” Curtis yelled over the wind and the engine, “I believe Tomiathan there may be able to double it.”
Michael was glaring at the white giant, little more than swinging poles of arms and legs, and grunted, “Damn wastelanders.”
Curtis Weston had one hand clapped firmly on top of his head, holding his hat secure. His scaled hatband was snapping wildly about in the wind, flashing in the sunlight as if it were water. His other hand had a death grip on his metal seat, his fingers barely avoiding the thick support springs that sprang open and slammed shut with the trolley’s shuddering velocity.
“What!?” the High Sheriff roared. The steam engine was all thunder as it coughed great blooms of steam into the sky. “For god’s sake, Michael, slow it down!”
Michael Hammers eased a large lever forward and the trolley’s engine slowed to a content chugging. “I said cows,” he repeated, taking one hand off of his own hat and pointing into a field to their left. Sure enough, Curtis just glimpsed a small herd of cattle before the trolley moved along the tracks and into the trees.
“I didn’t see them,” he confessed. “Did the bulls have two horns or four?”
“More than four,” said Michael. “Do you think they’re meat eaters? I’ve heard that the Farm Masters are buying tame beasts to pull wagons, but the demand for carnicattle had gone up. Their meat tastes wild and sells quicker than ice in the wasteland! The ranchers are even breeding them for domestic… what? Don’t look at me like that!”
Curtis had to admire the boy’s ambition. “And what are the finder’s fees this month for a healthy heard of man-eating cows?”
Michael flashed his tombstone-sized teeth in a charming, if not brutal, smile. “Caught me red handed. Fifty-five dollars a head if they have fangs and can digest both meat and grass; seventy if they have four or more horns and only take their meals red! Plus you get five percent of the cut of every butchered animal. Choice pieces, too!” Michael looked at Curtis with his wide, blue eyes. “Have you ever even tried a carnicow steak, Curt!? You’d trade a week chasing Troggs out of the sewers just for a few bites!”
Curtis doubted that even Michael would trade much of anything to scour Springfield’s drainways for hermits and mutants too cheap to work for a living permit but not too low to live off of the city’s filth and trash. Personally, if he could help it, Curtis avoided eating anything that had mutated so severely as the Black Angus bull, and never mind the fad and frenzy. The animals were grotesque, if not useful. History said that cows were once quite tame, men kept them as pets and they only ate grain and grass. The war changed all that, it seems, and the animals had developed a killing instinct and took to eating raw meat to survive. History claimed that the cows also had four stomachs even before the war, but that was ridiculous. Mutation had adapted the beast into quite a monster with its stomachs, horns, and teeth, and few men were strong enough to keep them tame.
“You saw them first, Michael, so the pot’s all yours.” Curtis’ slight smile was only a twitch of the lip as he added, “Just think about investing in judicial bonds instead of blowing it on booze and whores.”
Michael’s eyes had bugged as Curtis’ generously waved his share of the finder’s fee, but his expression turned to mock surprise and hurt at the mention of his girls. “Whores? Whores!? Wendy is not a whore! And neither is Lyssa. Or Kim, or Heather, or…”
“Whoah!” Curtis bellowed, risking a secure grip upon his bouncing seat to point a finger at his sheriff. Michael had yanked the handle back again and the engine was revving up. “From what I’ve heard, Heather has recently chosen to become a Nanny! I think that leaves you well out of the picture… unless you’ve decided to become a daddy and have the money to pay for it.”
“Well, sure, she’s going to be a Nanny,” Michael admitted, studying the track ahead as if piloting the trolley along two straights bands of iron took great skill. “But, y’know, we can still see each other. It’s a great career move for her, if she can bear new breeds of children she’ll make a fortune more than she ever could salvaging the southern ruins.”
“True,” Curtis admitted, and decided to ease up and throw the boy a bone. “Some women make a lot of money, and a few even manage to keep happy families on the side.” And there certainly were less tasteful and more dangerous jobs than being a Nanny. Some people believed Nannies to be only a rung or two above farm animals; beasts living only to breed stronger and more profitable beasts.
But women had constructed fine lives as Nannies in one form or another since the war. Entire families and tribes may have become stagnant and died out if not for selective breeding. Strong adaptable women, or at least their genetics, had kept a diseased human race crawling along and even transforming into new and amazing species. The Ghosts of Kansas were a prime example of a new species of humanity, every member of the tribe with identical physisiology; the result of centuries and generations of selective breeding until the people were perfectly adapted to their environment. Springfield had become a melting pot, a place in which untold thousands of genetic mutations existed… some random and some bred. That was where Nannies came in, women who traded money in return for nurturing and bearing strong genetic mutations. Sometimes the fathers merely wanted healthy offspring or wealthy businessmen wanted apprentices with valuable mutations.
The previous year, even, a wealthy musician had signed a contract with a successful Nanny and five local men who had more than four fingers on each hand. One man had as many as ten fingers on one hand and eight on the other… all fully functional. The contract was for at least eight children to be born with more than four perfectly functional fingers on each hand, all to be encouraged by their fathers to practice music under the musician.
But children born by Nannies were not slaves by any means, and often had more civil rights than most veteran civilians of Springfield. Whether the breeding was successful, whether the children had unique and useful mutations, the children were still the result of strong genetic heritage and their children or their children’s children may yet still evolve and pass on the traits. Mankind was taking control of its own evolution and making efforts to right the wrongs of the Final War.
“I won’t say another harsh word about the matter,” said Curtis, and he smiled as a grin spread across Michael’s face. “In fact, I kinda look forward to a bunch of mini Michael’s tromping around Springfield and breaking furniture.”
Michael, whose bulk had crushed countless chairs and cracked a handful of doorframes, bellowed laughter and swung a fist at his mentor. The High Sheriff dodged the fist, slow but ponderous as a cannonball, but the movement set the springs in his seat to bouncing him like a child’s Clown in the Box. Michael roared louder and squeezed the trolley’s throttle back another inch, boosting the engine along the tracks.
Michael chuckled and laughed for miles, and Curtis was ready to snap at the fool for some silence. He couldn’t imagine how any man could find the prospect of bearing children to be so hilarious. True enough that he himself was an orphan, or at least that was as much as the High Sheriff had ever learned of his past. The boy kept his history to himself as many Pistoleers did, as if it were a private note to be folded within a wallet and kept within a deep pocket. Such things men didn’t share, and if one was curious one must be bold enough to try to pick that pocket and steal the secrets. Such theft would surely end in a broken friendship, if not broken bones.
Michael’s laugher died off, however, as they rounded a curve and came upon the Strafford City Utilities Sub Station. The high-density power towers, enormous water tanks, and brick and steel buildings had survived the war as well as five centuries of wear and tear only to become the festering home to a host of zombies.
The ruins would have been looted, stripped, and salvaged centuries ago except for the background radiation of the area. For years the buildings had served only as a tomb, ringed by a heaped boundary of skeletons. The skeletons were simply the corpses of the explorers who had gone inside the complex, realized the danger, and had collapsed and died trying to escape the toxins that were already raging in within their bodies. Life was not an option within the compound, until the zombies had begun to arrive one by one. Immune to the exposure and toxins, they had cleaned out the remains of the dead and made the contaminated area their home.
Nobody knew how many zombies lived, worked, and traded within the grounds because nobody but the zombies themselves dared to enter the irradiated area. A team of accountants from the census bureau had visited the facility years ago, in order to tally the population and assess an amount for taxes, and the zombies had welcomed them. The entire crew had been hospitalized with severe radiation poisoning in spite of their medications and protective gear, and ever since the population of the Sub Station had paid no taxes to the Federation.
As the trolley followed the tracks, veering alarmingly close to the high wire fence plastered with boldly painted warning signs, the Pistoleers could see a group of not-so-whole men unloading supplies from an ancient and cranky truck. The men stumbled and shuffled, but the work progressed steadily and although the forms appeared fragile they hauled the freight with a surprising ease of strength.
The zombies weren’t truly undead, only a fool would doubt this, but their haggard bodies often appeared to be little more than walking corpses. These men and women had trekked into the wastelands too often, exploring for forgotten artifacts and riches, or stumbled upon a “hot spot” by sheer accident, and were now paying the price. Toxins leftover from the Final War stewed everywhere, within the air and soil of wastelands and even within the walls of Springfield, sealed away in forgotten containers or simply seeping up from the ground. These people had been consumed by poison or radiation, had watched their bodies sicken and rot, but just when death seemed near their bodies had adapted and even welcomed the disease. Some survived where others would perish as their bones dissolved or their organs liquefied.
A zombie looked like death but often felt no pain, knew no discomfort, and was only unconvinced by his or her disabilities. A zombie’s flesh was tough and resisted the old contaminants, and although a zombie appeared to be rotten flesh and bone they healed quickly when wounded. The wounds became twists and lumps of scar tissue, but the flesh did mend itself. Although hideous to behold many zombies were content with their new resilience, and many adventurers rejoiced at the ability to wander into even the most contaminated ruins to search for their fortunes. Some fools had thought they could become zombies simply by plunging into contaminated areas, and instead they died. Fate, if not luck, decided whether a man would rot or survive.
“Zombies,” Michael muttered to himself. “They should be wiped out or driven out, we don’t need their kind. They’re an infestation.”
Curtis glowered at his Sheriff, considered striking him except that it would embarrass the boy to be punished in front of a group he was so prejudiced against. His embarrassment would turn into hostility, more against the zombies than Curtis himself.
“You know very well that they contribute greatly to the city,” Curtis said, and nodded towards the shuffling forms that watched beyond the fence.
One of the zombies stopped and nodded back in acknowledgement to the Pistoleer, even waving a wasted arm through which bone and gristle gleamed.
“What,” asked Michael, “could these creatures possibly contribute? Half the crap they drag out of the desert is so toxic it glows! Have you ever been here at night? This place doesn’t need torches or electric lights, it’s constantly lit up as if there were a full moon overhead. They can’t trade because their products would make anyone else sick or dead!”
“Lower your voice, Sheriff,” Weston growled. Many of the zombies were now watching the engine rumble past, more than a few staring from hollow eye sockets. “These people, and they are people, don’t sell anything that they can’t clean and their power generators keeps the lights on in half of Springfield.” Weston glanced towards the fence into the eyes of another watcher. “If you’re so eager to purge these people from our presence, young Sheriff, why don’t you jump the fence and start with that one there?”
Michael looked towards the fence and his jaw dropped. Standing on the other side of the fence, bright eyes boring into his, was a little girl. She was pretty; all eyes, long golden hair, and fair skin. Her dress was perfectly stitched pink silk and in one arm she held a pink stuffed bear with a heart emblazoned on its chest, both of the treasures were obviously priceless pre-war artifacts somehow preserved over the long years. The girl didn’t appear to be the gutter trash that wandered the streets or wasteland, she appeared as if cut from a picture from ancient book or magazine. All except her dangling free arm which was nothing but white bone and the leathery scraps of flesh that bound it together.
The girl smiled dazzlingly as Michael, she had all her teeth and they were perfectly white, and waved the hand that was whole and well fleshed as she held the toy bear in the crook of her elbow. Michael was slow to wave back, like a man waving at a dream, and the little girl spun and skipped away from the fence. Only her skeletal arm disturbed her grace where it creaked and flopped grotesquely at her side. She joined a pair of figures who were unloading barrels from the back of a refurbished truck that belched dark clouds of exhaust. The figures stopped what they were doing and hugged the girl, obviously her parents although it was impossible to tell which wasted form was the mother or the father.
Michael was finally silent, turning back to the controls and throttling up the engine. Weston himself was satisfied for the moment, he knew it would be impossible to quash his apprentice’s prejudices but any small step was a victory. He watched the zombies resume their work unloading the barrels which he new contained hazardous wastes from downtown Springfield. Part of the zombies’ trade was to remove wastes from areas where “normal” humans couldn’t hope to enter. The zombies traded for cash, supplies, but most often food since many of their own bodies were toxic enough to wilt crops. Within their installation they converted what wastes they could into fuel for their generators, producing electricity to sell to Springfield, and what they couldn’t burn they simply stored away.
The trucks and vehicles they used were relics in and of themselves, salvaged from the remains littered throughout the country. Ancient combustion engines weren’t practical for most of society because gasoline couldn’t be produced or salvaged, but zombies had access to the wastelands where reserves had lain untouched for centuries. The fuel they found was almost always contaminated, which was another reason that only zombies could benefit from the machines since the exhaust itself was deadly to other creatures. The zombies possessed entire tankers of priceless fuel for their trucks and generators, not a drop of which would be desirable to anyone but themselves.
The zombie society was the most excluded and feared faction of Springfield, but also the richest and most secure. They owned the most unusual and priceless artifacts, but the very contamination of the installation and people was security enough to repel thieves and pirates. The fence wasn’t so much a measure to keep intruders out but to caution the unwary from venturing into certain death.
The steam engine moved on, and the barren ground surrounding the zombies’ facility slowly blended into greenery. For miles stood a patchwork of plains and forests, new growth that had sprang up within the last century or two as the environment became clean and natural once again. It was another example of the ever changing landscape of Missouri, if not all the country, as the wastelands receded. Lifeless, poisonous desert stretched into scrubland full of cacti, lush grasslands, thick forests, and back into desert all in a matter of miles depending on the chemicals saturating the soil. The forests, though beautiful, were becoming a problem to many travelers. For hundreds of years man had adapted to surviving the wasteland, until trees and forests began springing up. The occurring problem was not with man but with animals and nature itself. Weather patterns changed with the altered landscape and species of animals were migrating, emerging, or readapting to their environment.
The squirrels were one example. With the wilderness spreading throughout the wastes the squirrels were breeding, migration, and congregating in larger and more aggressive groups. More than a few camps and homesteads had been found ravaged by the rodents, the gnawed bodies of the victims strung about and covered in poisonous squirrel spines. Hellcats, too, were benefiting from the increase in cover as they were hunting through the brush to spring unseen upon prey. Man and beasts were finding food to be more abundant, be it green or red, than it had been in generations. Creatures were well-fed, strong, and abundant, which all together made the predators more plentiful and dangerous than ever.
Keeping this in mind Weston scanned the undergrowth with the eyes of a hunter and gunslinger. Some arrogant predator might foolishly charge the engine at any time, and it would be wise to shoot down such a beast before it could damage the machinery. Weston had once witnessed a huge bull dig its crown of horns into the side of a loaded wagon and topple the whole construction end over end, killing half a dozen men before the guards armed with shotguns could bring the animal down. Weston saw no such threats, only a few turkeys gobbling from high branches and a buck with three antlers.
The dense woods continued on for some time, interrupted occasionally by a patch of barren, diseased soil or perhaps a crumbling building or bit of rusted machinery. All at once, however, the train tracks emerged from the forest as if from a tunnel, and the Pistoleer’s were riding across a wide plain. The land had been clear cut and was evenly mowed for miles around, not even the grass growing more than a couple of feet high. A fang of ancient concrete or steel poked randomly at the sky, such structures had proved difficult to remove, but otherwise the land was flat and clear for miles in either direction. This was the land maintained around the walls of Springfield, kept clear of any and all cover that could be used to an enemies advantage. Entire armies had attempted to march across those fields and upon the city, and not just a few of them had been executed to a man before reaching within one hundred yards of the city. Trained riflemen guarded the high walls of Springfield at all times, and hundreds more would surge upon the battlements at a moments notice.
The fortified walls of Springfield were a mile distant, ringing the stout buildings and factories of the city arranged like stacking blocks. The western wall ran north to south, twenty feet high and composed of smooth concrete, produced in great abundance from the city’s mines and quarries. A frame of scrap metal and junk over which the concrete had been poured fortified the wall. As the land about had been cleared, the thousands of ancient automobiles, chunked masonry, and crumbling machinery had been hauled to the site to form the skeleton of the defense. Even if the armed guards allowed an enemy to get near the wall, it would take a great force to breach its surface.
There were few entrances into the city, and the main gate stood closed before the steam engine and Pistoleers. The track curved towards it, now running alongside a wide road, both of which would pass through the forty feet wide gate. The door was a massive sheet of bolted steel, suspended by a high track and wheel system and supported by huge tires. Upon acknowledgement from the guard the enormous bolts were drawn from the door and it rumbled to the side. Ten strong men hauled at a system of winches and pulleys to maneuver the door. Machines had once done the work, but the men were deemed more reliable than any engine or beast of burden.
The steam engine passed beneath the gate, momentarily in the shadow of the overhead track. A guard hailed down to the Pistoleers. “Ho! Deputy Hammers, I see dirt on your jacket!” the guard laughed. “Did High Sheriff Weston plant you on your face or on your ass today!”
The guards all laughed until the engine chugged back into the sunlight. The gold badge glinted on Michael’s chest and the guards’ laughter dropped like stones into a pool of water. It was against the law to openly mock a Sheriff of the Pistoleers, and the Sheriff was empowered to execute justice as he or she saw fit. The guards could tell that Michael was in a sour mood in spite of his promotion, and while they doubted the new Sheriff would kill them for the mistake they knew that at least one of his guns would be loaded with non-lethal yet painful rubber bullets. Sheriff Hammers was content to glare at the men for a moment, his face breaking into a smile once they were out of sight of the closing gate.
The train track split away from the road and climbed a hill, and the Pistoleers could look down upon one of the city’s industrial districts. The steel structures of pre-war factories had been repaired and built upon in this area, and the factories now produced a variety of goods. Food processing plants, recycling centers that restored salvaged materials, an ammunition plant that stank of sulfur and bat guano harvested from local caverns, and many more provided the city with employment and products. There was always work in Springfield, be it banking or sewer scrubbing, and to be unemployed was as punishable a charge as being a thief. There was work for anyone and everyone in Springfield, and citizens were expected to contribute. There was no reason to go hungry or without shelter within the fortified walls.
As the Pistoleers were leaving the Industrial Park, on their left opened a great depression in the earth. A branch of the road led into this depression, apparently into nowhere, but hidden within were the caverns of the Springfield Underground. Not a natural cavern but a mining facility whose history stretched decades before the Final War, the Springfield Underground extended for miles beneath the earth’s surface in place of the limestone that had been excavated over the centuries. The entire city of Springfield was dependent upon Springfield Underground and probably would not exist if the caverns had not been available during the war. As the war raged, a group of survivalists and citizens had surged into the Springfield Underground, overwhelming security and sealing the vaulted doors against the war without. Deep within the bedrock hundreds of survivalists, citizens, and employees had avoided the death and destruction above. For years the community survived and thrived within the climate controlled environment, living off the ample supplies and food stores contained in the millions of cubic feet of warehouses and factories.
The war destroyed most of civilization, and the resulting decades of nuclear winter and spreading wastelands nearly decimated mankind, but the inhabitants of the Springfield Underground remained safe and well. Their position was envious, however, and aboveground groups sought to overtake the sanctuary. Small armies, even, sought to gain entrance, but the Springfield Underground was a fortress with few accessible entries and it was easily defended. Over the years, however, fuel and weapons grew slim and the survivors were threatened with the prospect of falling before the next raid. At that time a band of military men and hunters arrived at the cavern’s entrance, seeking shelter. They were denied aid unless they offered their exchange of arms and tactical experience in exchange for shelter and supplies. The group was welcomed and they set about arming the inhabitants of the Underground, constructing new weapons within the ancient production facilities and even creating crude ammunition from the raw resources within the caverns.
The Springfield Underground was reborn just as it was about to succumb, armed anew with a guard naming itself the Pistoleers. Any and all attackers were repelled without incident, and as the food reserves of the Underground failed the Pistoleers led bands of inhabitants into the wasteland to hunt and gather fresh food. The Pistoleers trained the community to survive and pass on their skills and activity in the Springfield Underground multiplied as people were put to work with various duties, all focused on the survival and expansion of the Springfield Underground. The society strengthened as more and more people were welcomed into and were even sought out to join the Springfield Underground.
Where most communities within the wasteland were at the mercy of nature, Springfield was not. Aboveground communities would thrive for years before trade winds would shift, blowing in waste and toxins that would either kill the society or force the people to abandon their homes. Many such “ghost towns” existed throughout the country, although many were again filling up as the poisons cleared out once again. Springfield was never to suffer such a fate but continued to grow throughout the centuries. Several times the society spread from the caverns of the Underground, building home and structures, and several times the wasteland moved in and made the locations unlivable. But in the case of Springfield, people merely retreated into the Underground to wait ten or twenty years for their aboveground homes to be cleansed.
So over the years Springfield was able to grow and thrive, either within or without the Underground entrance where the steam engine carrying Sheriff Hammers and High Sheriff Weston came to a halt. The depression in the earth led down to a series of huge caves, the reinforced gates rolled up into the ceiling of each to let in the fresh air as well as the traffic of wagons and carts drawn by man and beast alike.
Michael gathered his satchel of gunnery and leapt from the engine. “I’ll drop these off at the armory and then meet you at the Judge’s chambers. I may even beat you there,” he announced.
Weston looked at his apprentice Sheriff with level eyes.
“Okay,” Michael blurted, “Maybe I’ll also report that herd of carnicattle we saw on the way home.” He shuffled under Weston’s gaze. “It’ll only take a minute, and I need to do it before some farmer beats me to the draw! I’ll hurry and meet you at the Judge’s chambers, don’t worry.”
Weston was silent, but he grinned as he lifted his own satchel of arms to throw to Michael. The wrap of guns and ammo was heavy but the young Sheriff caught the bundle and hooked it under one bulging arm as if it were a stick of firewood. Michael laughed deeply then turned and ran for the caverns, his huge boots thundering along the street. He spooked a pack of armadillos, the animals scattering briefly before grouping together and chasing after the Pistoleer to bark at his heels. Only half of the animals wore collars and license, but they were all surely pets and would follow the Sheriff into the Underground before wandering off to hunt for rodents and bugs in the caverns. Useful creatures, the armadillos, which had replaced the extinct dog as “man’s best friend.” All species of dog had become extinct in the hungry years of nuclear winter as food had become scarce.
For a moment Weston studied the engine, recalling which levers did what. He wasn’t as enthralled with machines as Michael; the most complicated machine Weston was concerned with was a revolver and the workings of that engine of death he was intimately familiar. Weston moved a few levers and the engine jerked to life, bouncing the High Sheriff in his seat before speeding down the tracks. He straightened his hat, the band of which trailed and flashed in the wind.
Within minutes the engine was chugging along the elevated track above the market street of Kearney. For miles the street was an open avenue for the selling and swapping of goods and services at all hours of the day and night. On Kearney street one could barter for clothes, food, utensils, tools, small weapons and armor, jewelry, children’s’ toys, and much more. Many of the shopkeepers sold pre-war memorabilia and history, most of which was damaged beyond repair or useless. One man, Ronald Justice, possessed a reputation as a jeweler. As well as crafting jewelry, he collected and traded antique “high school” rings that he claimed were owned by only the brightest scholars. To find such rings was a rare event, but enough had been removed from old skeletons to prove the level of education in the old world. Ronald Justice wore a ring or two on each finger and toe, each of which had some version of his own name engraved upon its surface. Ronnie Blake, Duke Justice, Justin Reynolds, and other names as he was proud to display upon his knuckles.
Many of the shoppers and merchants were looking up at the track and waving at the Pistoleer. Many more simply stared, and a few looked away or hid their faces. Everyone within the walls of Springfield knew of High Sheriff Curtis Weston and many were intimidated if not frightened by his presence. Weston did not wave but nodded his head respectfully, during which he glimpsed a small boy snatch several knives from a distracted merchant’s display. The boy was off and running even as Weston drew a long revolver from his hip.
“Halt!” he bellowed, his voice booming over the crowd below. The talking and bargaining voices shushed as his voice fell upon him, and his warning thundered over the silence. “Halt for your Sheriff, thief!”
The market had its own law against thieves and cheats. Any man, woman, or child caught thieving was indeed caught red-handed, for nearly every merchant reserved a razor sharp blade for potential shoplifters. Minor offenses would cost someone with sticky fingers to lose one of those fingers or perhaps have a slash carved into their forehead or hand. A more determined thief might lose an entire hand, to be dried and displayed within the booth as a ward against future thefts. The shopkeepers were not above the law, however, and anyone too quick or merciless with their blade may find themselves tossed without the city walls.
Movement had ceased in the market save for the child who jumped as if shocked before sprinting all the faster. At this point another merchant or even a shopper would lunge to stop a thief since thankful shopkeepers rewarded such acts if their merchandise could be returned. But a High Sheriff had drawn his weapon and all were wary to keep still or even drop below cover. When the boy failed to stop Weston did not hesitate, but took aim and fired.
The boy yelped as his blood sprayed upon the street. The stolen knives clattered to the ground, as did a finger severed from the boy’s left hand. Weston holstered his weapon as the boy ran off and ducked into an alley. He wasn’t pursued, justice had been served and the boy had been marked as a thief. Hopefully he would learn from his mistake rather than lose more limbs to the blade or the bullet. There were plenty of honest jobs for young men in Springfield and if the child wanted to live dangerously he could always work for the Pistoleers as a spy. Children made good watchdogs, they were small and quiet and seemingly innocent, and the Pistoleers would hire young boys and girls to keep surveillance on suspected criminals.
The merchant rushed up to retrieve his blades, loudly hailing and thanking the Pistoleer. Weston nodded to the man and continued on, although the engine had never stopped. Even as he left the area he could see that the merchant had returned to a booth full of curious customers where the owner would happily auction off the knives rescued by the gun of High Sheriff Curtis Weston. Undoubtedly he would fetch a price far greater than the knives were worth, not a penny of which would go to Weston.
Curtis brought the engine to a halt in front of the Hawthorn Park building at the edge of Kearney Street. The open market had transformed into actual general stores, hotels, and bars. Many businesses and offices were in this area, as well, along with restaurants and dineries. It was the more upscale part of town where the men wore suits and the women wore dresses, and most Pistoleers avoided the area in spite of the fact that the Hawthorn Park building was the main headquarters for the Springfield Pistoleers and guardsmen. Most Deputies and Sheriffs preferred to work out of the Underground or the more down-to-earth sections of the city, avoiding the ritz and glamour of UpTown. There were enough bodyguards and security personnel stationed within the district that the guns of the Pistoleers were rarely needed, anyhow.
A guard approached the steam engine and announced that the Judge was waiting for the High Sheriff in his office. Curtis thanked the guard, a man he didn’t recognize, who jumped aboard the steam engine and piloted it away. The High Sheriff wondered about the guard since he had once felt that he knew almost every soul within the walls of Springfield and could recognize every face. But recently fewer familiar faces seemed to show up as more of the long-term guards and his own Pistoleers were sent into the countryside on missions, and the new guard and security forces seemed to pop up from nowhere. He dismissed the thought, the earth was finally healing and society was coming together and growing, it was only natural that new faces arrive in the city every day.
Curtis stared up at the building before him. The Hawthorn Park building had been built before the Final War and was the tallest livable structure in Springfield. The only bigger building in Springfield, the tallest structure that Curtis had ever seen, was the abandoned Hammons Tower that loomed darkly over Downtown. Perhaps in a few years the huge building would be rebuilt and suitable for humans, but that area of town was still saturated with radiation and toxic waste. Until then the building was twenty-two stories of dark glass and broken walls, the sky could be seen through the holes, and in strong winds the entire frame seemed to sway.
On the top floor of the Hawthorn Park, the tenth floor, Curtis could see the Judge’s office windows and imagine the man looking down upon his High Sheriff who was standing in the street, woolgathering about old buildings and new faces in Springfield. Curtis squared his shoulders and walked through the lobby doors, both of which were held open by stone-faced guards. The lobby itself was bustling with business types and couriers. Curtis felt sorely out of place in his dusty leather, carrying huge guns at his side rather than books and papers. But he was not uncomfortable, it was him and his kind, the roughnecks, who had protected and provided for these people for centuries. He strolled through the sunlit lobby, and although sunlight drifted down from the ten-story mezzanine skylight Curtis Weston’s face was shaded beneath the brim of his hat, and while none of the business types looked directly at him all gave a wide berth.
Curtis headed for the stairs but the elevator attendant, Stumpy, caught his eye. Stumpy’s legs were only a foot long, the bones and flesh fused together, and the friendly old man liked to joke that he saved a fortune on boots. Curtis didn’t trust the elevator a bit, not since the electric motor in the second elevator had fizzled and plummeted six floors. That had been years ago, it had been a very bloody accident, and the Mayor and Judge of the time had been one of the eight occupants who died. The single remaining elevator was powered by reliable human muscle; a dozen huge men stationed in the basement with a system of chains and pulleys. Although the elevator was assured to be totally failsafe still the Pistoleer had his reservations. But then again Stumpy would take it personally if the High Sheriff would not ride his elevator.
“Which floor, High Sheriff?” he asked, beaming up at Curtis who was stepping onto the elevator.
“Ten, please,” Curtis said. A man behind thick glass spectacles approached the elevator but stopped short when he noticed Curtis draped in iron and leather. Mr. Spectacles shuffled some papers for a moment, trying to look as though he’d forgotten something before darting off the way he came.
Stumpy grunted his disgust before closing the wire-framed door. “Damn pencil necks wouldn’t last a day if the lights went out or the walls fell down,” he said as he picked up a telephone receiver. “Express service to the tenth floor,” he said into the phone, and hung up. “Can’t keep the Judge waiting, eh?”
“Not at all, sir, and thank you,” said Curtis. He was watching through the door as the floors passed by. “How’s the family?”
Stumpy perked up at that. “They’re great! The kids have opened their own business! Stump Brother’s Plumbing and Wiring! They’re doing great, they’re the only contractors in town that can just walk around in a crawlspace without bumping their heads on floor joists! The kids say I should quit my job here and join ‘em, but I’d miss my elevators and the faces.” The man looked puzzled for a moment, “Although the faces ain’t always familiar any more, have you noticed? I can’t figure out where everyone’s coming from? There lots of new settlements moving in from the wastes, Sheriff?”
“I can’t say that I know,” replied Curtis. He wondered how many other people were bothered by the population in Springfield, and if he should check with the census bureau. New settlements joined the Springfield Federation all the time, but new workers in Springfield often started out in labor and apprenticeships, not in business and security.
The elevator lurched to a stop and Stumpy pulled the door open. “Tenth floor, High Sheriff! Have a good day and maybe I’ll catch you on the ride down.”
“Thanks, Stumpy,” he said, even as the elevator was lowering. Of course it would be Stumpy who would catch him, the man was the only one who worked the elevators and would probably live in the mobile booths if they let him.
The tenth floor was headquarters for the brains behind the guns of the Pistoleers. Desks were arranged in clusters, all manned by clerks who were busy arranging reports and documents. A few men and women even worked behind the glow of functional computer monitors. These people were busy organizing the data coming in from the field and city. Areas of Springfield with changes to crime rates, reported sightings of pirates and raids outside the city walls, ammunition inventories and supplier data, confidential spy inquiries and reports, and innumerable other bits of data that were used to keep the Pistoleers well informed and well equipped to protect the city and communities about. Many of the data came in by reports from scouts and runners, but Pistoleers and local spies also met with the clerks with specific reports.
Curtis caught the eye of a fellow High Sheriff, Luke Warrenton, hulking over the desk of clerk. The contrast was frightening, Luke slouched like an impatient student in his chair but still he towered over the small woman behind the desk. She was Ms. Pettingbone, a tiny old witch who would be a monstrous Pistoleer is she was as wicked with a gun as she was with her tongue. All of the gunmen knew her and dreaded the occasion when her all too keen eyes fell upon their reports.
“Mr. Warrenton,” the Ms. Pettingbone bleated. “We have witnesses claiming excessive force was exercised on your part against a group of teenagers outside the Central High School campus.”
“But the punks were asking for it!” Luke whined. It was quite a sight to see a man armed to the teeth, not to mention the spikes of raw bone piercing through his coat, cowering before a woman hundreds of pounds lighter than himself. She snickered at his words, drawing a pen from the tight grey bun of hair atop her head and marking further notes on the man’s smudged report. “What did you just write?” Luke begged.
“You reported yourself that the teenagers were merely loitering!” she snapped, ignoring his question as she jotted further notes upon his report. “A loitering offense certainly does not justify breaking the nose and arm of a juvenile. If you would please, repeat your version of the incident and this time maintain your language, Mr. Warrenton!” The woman shook her pen at the veteran, who shrank into his chair as if she were brandishing a sword.
Curtis smiled; he knew all too well the position “Razorback” Luke was in. As a Pistoleer, one was awarded the responsibility of administering justice as he or she saw fit. The law of Springfield did not support prisons, jail cells, or even arrests… Pistoleers dealt with criminals on the spot in almost every case. Warnings, evidence seizures, beatings, dismemberment, and temporary banishment from the city were routine. In the most severe cases a criminal was either executed on the spot or stripped of all belongings and thrown from the walls of Springfield. Some considered this type of banishment to be a fate worse than death.
Pistoleers were equally subject their own laws if they became involved in criminal activity or if they were too heavy-handed with their methods of keeping the peace. If Luke Warrenton was to be punished for his actions a report would be given to the Judge who would decide his fate. A Pistoleer could be punished with anything from reassignment to public stoning to execution. Curtis guessed that Luke would be assigned to a week of clearing squatters from the less contaminated neighborhoods of Downtown, as it was Ms. Pettingbone’s favorite form of punishment.
Curtis himself crossed the room to the desk of his own assigned clerk, Joe, who either had no other name or refused to share it with the world. Joe had a genetic disease that affected the growth of his lower jaw, the mandible was enormous compared to the rest of his head, extending from his face like a shovel with tusks protruding at all angles. In spite of the disfigurement the man could speak perfectly.
“Ah! Hello, High Sheriff!” Joe boomed, his jaw clapping like a bear trap, rising from his desk and taking Curtis’s hand.
“Hello, Joe,” he responded. “I need to report an act of justice within the East Kearny Market this afternoon. A thief…”
Curtis ceased his oration as Joe lifted a hand and smiled, the lips curling up around his huge jaw. “No need, sir, we heard about the incident and I’ve already drawn up the paperwork. I assumed it was you and jumped on the case,” he stated, sliding an immaculately typed form across the desk along with a rubber stamp and ink pad. “A shoplifter running full tilt, ignoring the heeds of the law, has a single finger blown off with ‘surgical precision’ by the sidearm of a High Sheriff riding a moving steam engine more than thirty yards away,” Joe read, rattling off the details like an auctioneer. “At least that’s what one street spy reported, and it was verified by at least two others. If that all sounds accurate please read over the details and stamp your seal.”
Curtis gave the report only a brief glance before wetting the stamp and pressing his seal, his full name and title embossed upon a shield, to the paper. He knew Joe to be the most competent clerk in the office and the man had drawn up thousands of seamless forms for Curtis alone.
“Curtis!” someone bellowed, snapping Curtis’s attention like a whip. Nobody else flinched, apparently the office was used to the window’s rattling with that roar. Across the open lobby was an office equipped with an extra wide door, currently filled by the wide frame of Springfield’s Judge and Mayor, Leonard Matthew Hunt. “Come in, High Sheriff! I’ve been waiting for you.”
“I have this covered,” confided Joe, sliding the report to his own side of the desk and stamping his seal next to Curtis’s. “Wish I could have seen that shooting, though. That kid was lucky; any other man would have blown his whole hand off. Can’t imagine how you do it, and with a pistol at that.” Joe cracked his jaw and went back to his papers.
Curtis strode across the lobby, dust falling from his boots as they clicked against the polished floor. Judge Hunt was taking turns glaring at Curtis and scanning the rest of the room. “Where the hell is that Deputy of yours?”
Curtis reached the Judge, shaking the welcoming hand that folded around his own like a slab of beef. “Sheriff Hammers stepped into the Underground to check in our gear,” he said.
“Ho ho! So the upstart finally passed!” the Judge crowed, his bushy eyebrows rising his with surprise. “You tend to send your apprentices back to the academy with broken bones and bruised prides… did you throw the match or did he take you fairly?” The Judge backed into his chambers, clearing the door and waving Curtis to a chair. Still Curtis had to step wide around the Judge’s frame, a large man with every limb corded with muscle and a stomach that bulged like a keg. “No, don’t tell me how Michael got his badge,” he said as he closed the massive door. “I’m sure he earned it!”
Curtis sat before a massive wooden desk as old as time, its surface sanded and polished countless times over the centuries. The Judge walked around the relic of a desk and sat in a massive chair, his back to the window that displayed white and brown clouds surging across the sky like froth on a river. The Judge’s office was sparsely furnished save for the shelves of priceless books lining each wall, subjects ranging from human anatomy text books to science fiction paperbacks. Across his desk was a modified map of Missouri from the year 2006, many areas carefully color-coded and renamed.
“I have a brief mission for you and your new Sheriff,” the Judge said, skipping to the point. Curtis had been in the Judge’s office countless times, going over books and charts and maps with the ponderous man while they drank bourbon from the Judge’s private stock. The two were old friends but when there was business to discuss neither made time for small talk.
“We’ve lost contact with the radio station at Bennett Springs,” the Judge blurted. He paused, his eyes twitching as they regarded Curtis’s reaction, of which there was none. For a moment more he seemed to consider his thoughts, drumming his fingers nervously, and then continued. “We lost contact five days ago, actually. Scouts have been sent but none have returned, and none of our contact in nearby areas are willing to investigate. The chickenshit guard posted in Conway even went so far as to disable their radio after refusing to look into the issue and I might just hang them for that bit of obstruction.”
Curtis’s mind raced, absorbing and analyzing the facts. He’d been to Bennett Springs and knew it was almost sixty miles from Springfield, and over ten miles from the nearest guard posting in Lebanon. The natural spring erupted from the earth and produced over one hundred million gallons of fresh water every day, totally free of toxins and radiation. The water was further purified and shipped to communities all over the Federation, including Springfield. The pristine waters of the Bennett Springs Park also housed a fish hatchery that breed thousands of trout for harvesting. For several years the facilities there had been manipulated by a cartel that sold the water and fish at outrageous prices. The Pistoleers traded for the facilities, turning it into a free market and dispersing the resources throughout the region as needed. The facilities, arms, water, and cured fish itself were worth a small fortune and the site had been the target of wasteland pirates before.
“There may be pirates in Bennett Springs,” the Judge echoed Curtis’s thoughts. “We can’t be sure. As you know most of our Pistoleers are out of contact in the field. I want a small but elite party to rush to Bennett Springs, evaluate the situation, and report back to me without incident. And you and Hammers are that party. Some of our brothers and sisters were stationed at the water and fish harvesting facilities, and I can’t imagine a situation that would wipe out half a dozen veteran Pistoleers. I know you can handle it and I know you can come back alive.”
In his mind Curtis had most of the mission planned; the supplies they would need, the routes they would take, the days of travel it would require… but nothing was etched in stone. The Judge always had his own plans, recommended by a team of strategists in the Pistoleer’s war conference center in the very same building, so Curtis was ready to accept orders.
All at once the door burst open and Michael Hammers, his huge chest heaving, sidestepped through the door. “Sorry I’m late, I was…”
“GET OUT OF MY OFFICE AND KNOCK, YOU DAMNED FOOL!” the Judge roared. A double-barreled shotgun had appeared in the man’s hands and the bores looked as big as dinner plates. Curtis regarded this as odd… he knew the Judge to hate interruptions but the shotgun was something new. His old friend seemed on edge and for an instance he really wondered if he would shoot Sheriff Hammers.
Michael jumped as if truly shot, backing out and slamming the door with such force that the walls shuddered.
Curtis’s calm gaze met the twitching eyes of the Judge and a child could notice the wild pulse beating at his temples. The Judge cracked a smile as if to say ‘Damn upstarts, always a lesson to learn,’ and returned the shotgun under the desk with a not too steady hand. Something nervous certainly had a hand on the Judge’s shoulder, and Curtis’s wondered what else he could be worried about besides his men in Bennett Springs.
A few moments passed before there was a tentative knock on the door. The Judge cleared his throat and welcomed the Sheriff to enter.
The door opened slowly and Sheriff Hammers walked in, again sidestepping through the doorframe that was too narrow for his massive shoulders. “Your Honor,” he said softly, nodding his head in respect. The Judge gestured to a chair beside Curtis’s, and the big Sheriff looked at it doubtfully. The chair was an average wooden seat, and Michael’s thunderous weight had a habit of reducing such constructions to splinters. Tentatively he eased himself into it, taking most the weight in his straining thighs as he hovered over the groaning wood more than relaxing upon it.
"Hammers, I don’t feel like repeating myself so Curtis can fill you in later. For now just keep any damned questions you have to yourself!” said the Judge, leaning back into his chair and folding his hands across his wide stomach. “Now, for the second half of your mission."
To many the Judge appeared to be a massive man with a massively fat gut, but those who knew him or those who had crossed him knew a bit more. Under the heavy shirt and buttons was no stomach but a coiled mass of sinous tissue. Curtis had seen pictures of octupus and squid from the ancient world and the tumorous mass that occasionally erupted from the Judge's torso resembled tentacles. The Judge apparently had little control of his mutation, the tentacles flailing out with a mind of their own at times or when the Judge was angry. Curtis himself had seen the Judge attacked by a renegade Pistoleer, at which point the Judge himself appeared to burst from his clothes. Within a heartbeat the tentacles had whipped out from the Judge, coiled about the neck and head of his assailant, and simply crushed the man's skull like a piece of fruit. When the tentacles could be pried from the lifeless body, it took three men and the Judge himself, rows of little mouths had ripped and absorbed nearly all the flesh from the crushed skull.
Beneath the Judge's hands those same tentacles were hidden, undulating slightly under the cloth. The Judge patted his midsection the way some men may pat an unruly pet and continued.
"As well as the reconnaissance mission to Bennett Springs I need you both to serve as an escort. We have a criminal who must be taken from the city and banished."
"Excommunicated?" asked Michael, and the Judge glared at his interruption. The new Sheriff didn't notice and followed. "Is it someone we know? A citizen or a..."
"The criminal is NOT a citizen of this Federation," barked the Judge, planting both fists upon the desk. His stomach appeared to boil with his emotions, and the Judge once again folded his hands upon it. "The criminal approached the gates of Springfield this morning and attacked several guards and Pistoleers.”
Curtis struggled to contain the surprise. He could think of few beings, man or beast, which would survive a direct attack upon a handful of trained lawmen within view of Springfield. He could think of only two scenarios... that the criminal himself was extremely dangerous, or that the criminal was not truly a criminal and had been provoked. Self-defense was a legal right within Springfield and the Federation, even against an unwarranted assault from a Pistoleer. Whether or not a citizen could defend themselves against a Pistoleer was another matter.
"This is no ordinary offense, is it, your honor?" asked Curtis smoothly.
The Judge looked at his High Sheriff, his eyes narrowing as his smile widened. "No, it is not, Curtis, but you are to escort the criminal from our city regardless before there can be more bloodshed. Nobody has died... not yet... and for that we are lucky. Lucky that your charge did not kill anyone and lucky that she herself wasn’t killed or even hurt too badly."
"She?" asked Michael. "This is all about a woman?"
"A girl, actually," said the Judge. "A girl of about ten or eleven years of age was able to disarm and nearly cripple three guards of the wall and two Sheriffs before she could be arrested and restrained." The Judge looked into the eyes of Michael as if addressing a child. "This girl is a Mountain Man," he confided, "And that bit of information is not to leave this office."
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