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Wayne Kyle Spitzer
Paladins: A Post-apocalyptic Western
Copyright © 2018 Wayne Kyle Spitzer. All Rights Reserved. Published by Hobb’s End Books, a division of ACME Sprockets & Visions. Cover design Copyright © 2018 Wayne Kyle Spitzer. Please direct all inquiries to: HobbsEndBooks@yahoo.com
Based upon “Flashback,” first published by Books in Motion/Classic Ventures, 1993. Reprinted by Hobb’s End Books, 2017.
All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental. This book contains material protected under International and Federal Copyright Laws and Treaties. Any unauthorized reprint or use of this book is prohibited. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system without express written permission from the author. This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you are reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.
They were in bad shape, and Williams knew it. The quill raptors had struck just when they were most vulnerable—when they were still waking up—and while they were able to fend them off (Ank did most the fending, because Williams had taken a quill early in the attack), the melee had left them cut up and exhausted. Worse, it had left Williams delirious—no matter that he’d managed to pull out the quill before it could deliver much of its poison. Enough remained that walking was difficult even on the smooth, level highway, plus he’d begun to see things—like the huge, Googie-style sign which read: WELCOME TO DEVIL’S GORGE: LIKE THE OLD WEST, ONLY BETTER.
To say its oversized gunslinger and buxom saloon girl statues were incongruous with the bleak, rain-drenched landscape would have been an understatement, but there they were, bidding them welcome to a town “forgotten by time, alone against its hills, where adventure and thrills await!”
“You seeing what I’m seeing, Ank?”
The big ankylosaur didn’t respond, not so much as a mew. His gait, however, had slowed—enough to convince Williams that the sign was real and he was seeing it too. Sure enough, after they had taken the indicated exit, a town appeared—a town straight out of Gunsmoke, only this one was surrounded by a tall cyclone fence, its upper edge crudely festooned with concertina wire and its base reinforced with sandbags. Moreover, it was inhabited, for Williams could clearly see people rushing to greet them—or so he thought until two of the men took hold of the gates beneath the head arch and swung them shut. After that, all that was left to do was to approach the fence with hat in hand so to speak and inquire if perhaps there were a doctor.
“There’s a doctor,” said a man dressed all in black—a man wearing a badge—who reminded Williams for all the world of the gunslinger played by Yul Brynner in Westworld. “But care and medicine are rationed, like everything else here. What’s happened? And what are you doing with this ... thing?”
Williams started to speak then paused, wondering if he’d finally lost his sanity. For it wasn’t just the man in black who looked like he’d stepped out of a western—the entire crowd was dressed in much the same manner, as though they’d raided one of those old-time photography boutiques you used to see at the State Fair. “Quill raptors,” he said at last, and added, “They caught us early this morning, before it was even daylight. I took a quill in the arm, my, ah, playing arm. As for this ‘thing,’” He indicated the ankylosaur. “His name is Ank.”
Ank mewed at the sound of his name and stepped forward, causing a riot of steel as several men aimed their rifles, including the man in black. Williams hurried to place himself between his friend and the weapons. “He’s gentle as a cow, I can assure you. Note the eyes ... there’s no light in the irises. No presence of ... them.” He indicated the queer lights in the sky, which bled in and out of each other silently. “He hasn’t been touched, you see. Not like the others.” He turned to face Ank and gestured with his hands. “Sit, Ank. Lay down. It is time to sleep.”
The great beast, which was the size of a small bus, looked at him, flies buzzing about its cow-brown eyes. At last it lowered on its haunches and everyone gasped—everyone, that is, except the man in black, who only tightened his grip on his smoky-barreled weapon and seemed to calculate cold equations.
“That’s it, Ank,” said Williams patiently. “Now lay down. It’s time to sleep.”
More gasps as the great, armored, turtle-like creature slid its front legs forward—then sloughed over on its side, causing rainwater collected in the mudpuddles of the ruddy road to splash and the fence to rattle slightly from the impact. Someone giggled, a woman—a woman dressed as a saloon girl—whom Williams was attracted to the instant he saw her.
“That’s enough,” said the man in black—the Sheriff, the Marshal, whatever—and the tittering stopped. “So you can make it do tricks. My question is—can you make it kill, also? Can you say, ‘Sic ‘em, boy,’ for example, and send him crashing through this fence?”
Williams approached the ankylosaur and stroked him between the eyes. “Crash through the fence—possibly. But kill? No. Not people. Not in a million years. He likes people. There’s, ah, no accounting for taste.” He made eye contact with the Marshal. “I dare say he even likes you.”
More titters—from the saloon girl and one other, a ruggedly-handsome man who was also wearing a badge, but not dressed all in black. “I would remind the deputy of his duties to Devil’s Gorge,” said the Marshal, and to the saloon girl: “And saloon girls of their place.”
“And I would remind the Marshal that there’s a sick man standing hat in hand outside our gates ... and that I’ve got a duty, as well.” A man stepped forward from the crowd—an unarmed man. A mild-mannered man in a trim vest who looked as though he might be a barber ... or a country doctor. “A raptor quill doesn’t have to be a big thing if it’s removed promptly, which this young man has done. But that wound has to be treated.” He looked up at the Marshal with his own cow-brown eyes. “Most of us came to be here through these gates and under similar questioning ... I see no reason why we should turn this one man away.”
“I agree,” said the deputy.
“So do I,” said the saloon girl, clearly not remembering her place. “Can you play that guitar, mister?”
“Williams,” he said, and took off his hat. He approached the fence at once cautious and cavalier. “And ma’am, I can play this guitar like the angels sing. Once my arm heals, you understand.”
“Well, that settles it,” said someone else. “Ain’t none of the saloon’s been the same since the power went out. A little live music would be good for morale.”
“And what about his ‘friend?’ Are you just going to tie him up with the rest of the horses?” The Marshal was beyond annoyed. “Him in here, it out there. Do you see what could go wrong here?”
“I see that that dinosaur would be a site more useful than a mule for getting things done around here,” said Someone Else. “Why not let him in? You can see with your own two eyes there’s no alien fire in ‘im.”
“Jesus, Mary and Joseph,” the Marshal said at last. “You people take the cake, you know that? You really take the fucking cake.” He lowered his weapon at last. “All right. Looks like it’s just not my day. I’ve got two deputies down with the flu and that means I’m not in a position to argue with the whole damn town.” He made eye contact with each and every person who had gone against him, including his own deputy. “But, when you find the time, the more vocal of you might want to take a walk out to Serpent’s Butte ... and remember our shared history.”
He turned to Williams. “You’ve got some time on the inside, I ain’t saying how much. But the thing stays outside the fence. The rules of Devil’s Gorge are simple: Make yourself useful. Don’t break the law. And check your weapons at the armory until called upon to use them.” He motioned to his deputy. “Open the man door.”
Williams turned to Ank. “Okay, stay. It’s time to sleep. Back. I will be back.”
He stepped through the man door but was stopped by the Marshal.
“Your guitar case. I’ll need you to open it up.”
Williams paused as though taken aback. “It’s just a guitar ...”
“Then you’ll have no problem showing it to me.”
Williams looked from the Marshal to the deputy, and finally the saloon girl. Everyone nodded.
“Okay,” he said, and crouched, opening the case. He looked up at the Marshal. “Satisfied?”
“As long as you don’t play it in my company.” He spat upon the ground. “I’ve got no use for a guitar man.”
They all started walking, everyone talking at once (except, of course, the Marshal, who watched Williams’ every move, his lips pressed tightly closed).
“You can stay at the inn above the Long Branch Saloon,” said the girl, “if you’ll agree to play your guitar in the tavern most nights. Can you play anything else? There’s a beautiful piano set up just past—”
“How did you and that beast ever hook up, anyway?” asked Someone Else. “I ain’t never seen anything like it. Say, do you think we could get him to—”
“A raptor quill is nothing to fool with, son, even if it was removed quickly,” said the doctor. “First thing we’ll do is clean up that wound. Then we’ll make sure no remnants got left behind when—”
“Don’t let Marshal Rimshaw here scare you— not too much, anyway,” said the deputy. “Everyone knows he’s just a big pussycat. Decker’s the name, by the way. John Deck—”
There was a tremendous crash! behind them and they all turned around, and Williams was horrified to see that Ank had rolled over the security fence like an M1-A1 Abrams tank, and was now plodding to catch up with them.
Marshal Rimshaw wasted no time and had already squeezed off several rounds before Williams was able to holler to the others, “Hold your fire!”—and to his amazement, they did. Rimshaw’s slugs, meanwhile, only bounced off Ank’s armor with complete impotence—until the Marshal got wise to the problem and sighted one of the creature’s eyes. He was just beginning to squeeze when Decker knocked his barrel away with his own and targeted Rimshaw himself. “Not today, Marshal,” he said, adding, “Maybe tomorrow. Maybe the next day. But not today.”
Neither of the men moved or said anything for what seemed a long time. At length Ank lumbered up to them and began licking Rimshaw’s face, knocking his hat off with his great, slimy tongue and lapping at him again and again until it seemed he had been dunked into a trough of fetid water.
And everyone laughed—everyone, that is, except Rimshaw—not out of mean-spiritedness but out of sheer surprise, and because they were convinced the Marshal would begin laughing too. But he did not, and by the time Ank had sated his affection the man who was Marshal appeared to be drenched in anger as well as spit.
“No,” he said at last, and picked up his hat before swatting away Decker’s rifle with surprising violence, “today is just not my day at all.” He wiped his face with his handkerchief and then redonned his cover. “There it is. You’ve all had a good laugh at my expense ... and I’ve had a good reminder of two things I already knew.” He began pacing slowly and everyone gave him a wide girth. “The first is that a 10-ton dinosaur, when left alive to do so, does precisely what it wants to do. In this case, it wanted to get to its master—this man, right here, fucking Guitar Man. A man admitted to this encampment against my wishes and in flagrant disregard of my authority. A man whom any asshole could tell you is and will remain nothing but trouble. The second is that there’s but two kinds of people in Devil’s Gorge—those that are the Law, and those that ain’t. Me and those deputies I trust are the Law. You ain’t.” He gestured at the hills, at Serpent’s Butte. “Now I know none of you have forgotten what happened the last time we went through this. What happened the last time you all acted up. And I’m here to tell you, the same thing can happen again.”
He shifted his gaze to Williams, who had crouched low to the ground with his guitar case and remained there throughout the action, and sneered. “Ready to play a song, were ya? Well know this. You’ve got forty-eight hours to heal up and get on down the road with your stupid guitar and your goddamn dinosaur. If you’re here one second longer, so help me God, I’ll have you shot.”
Several people gasped and Williams realized by looking at their faces that they were reliving a nightmare they had all experienced before.
“And I’ll kill the dinosaur, too. Two shots. One through each eye. Let’s see his goddamn armor stop that.” He moved to leave then paused. “Oh, and Decker, give your firearm and badge to Smithson. You’re fired.” He gestured at the downed gates. “Smithson, guard the goddamn hole.”
Then he tipped his hat to everyone present and was gone.
WILLIAMS WANTED THREE things more than anything in the world when he entered the Long Branch Saloon after being treated by Doc Allen and watering Ank—a tall glass of water for himself (or twenty), a cold beer, and the answer to a single question:
“Why do y’all talk and dress like it’s 1865?”
The saloon girl—her name was Katrina—didn’t respond right away, only sat his water and beer in front of him and busied herself by wringing out a bar towel in the basin. At last she said, “You have to remember, Mr. Williams, this place was a tourist attraction before it was a functioning city. Before the Flashback. Those of us who worked here were encouraged to talk that way—it was part of our job.” She laughed. “It’s funny, because we found ourselves talking that way even when we weren’t at work. My mother said it was because dialects are contagious.” She propped her elbows against the bar and leaned toward him, and he had to struggle not to glance at her cleavage. “Listen to you. You’ve only been here a couple of hours and you’re already saying, ‘y’all.’”
Williams smiled and tipped his beer to his lips; it was warm, stale. She was precisely right, of course. Language was contagious. The entire old-time vibe of this place was contagious. He watched as she bent over a bin of beers and began collecting bottles for the shelf. She was contagious.
“But the clothes ... that Marshal ...”
“The clothes,” She laughed again. “Well, there’s a couple of reasons for that. I guess you would have had to have been here right after the Flashback. We lost power sooner than most, is what I understand. So when the clean clothes started running out we turned toward Fly’s Photo Studio; it was easier than washing everything by hand. You have to understand, things were no different here than they were everywhere else during the Flashback: we were fighting for our very survival. Tyrannosaurs, saber-toothed cats, quill raptors— if it had teeth and claws, it wanted a piece of us. That’s how it all began, anyway. As for why it’s continued, well, look no further than Marshal Rimshaw and his deputies—not Decker, mind you, but his real deputies. The ones who got the illness. Ha! The flu. You should see ‘em: pale and black-eyed as serpents, just lying there in the Rio Grande like zombies.” She leaned toward him over the bar again and he caught a whiff of her fragrance, and there was a stirring in his groin he hadn’t felt since, well, since he couldn’t remember.
“What do you mean, like zombies?”
“I mean like zombies, like men who are dead but still walking, or lying there staring at the ceiling. See, something attacked us only a few weeks after the Flashback ... something ... new. At first everyone just assumed it was a rogue raptor, because it didn’t have a pack—that was the first thing. But then it started talking, like a parrot, I suppose, saying things like ‘Pig’ and ‘Eggsucker,’” She laughed her contagious laugh. “Can you imagine? A raptor calling you names as it attacked you? Deputies Creebald and Teller put up one hell of a fight, you can be sure, and they did eventually kill it, with Rimshaw’s help, but all of them were wounded in the fight, and the deputies worst of all. After that, things started changing around here. At first it was just Creebald and Teller acting strangely, abusing their power, you might say, telling me not to forget to paint on my mole, or insisting Doc Allen wear that ridiculous little vest. But then Marshal Rimshaw started getting into the act, as well, and before any of us knew it we were living in a kind of police state. Decker was the only one who didn’t pile on, which is funny, because he was the only one not wounded in the fight with the raptor. It all came to a head when Deputy Teller had his way with one of the saloon girls—Molly, was her name—after which there was a full-blown shootout between the Marshal and his deputies—not Decker, he tried to maintain the peace—and the rest of the town.” She unscrewed the cap from a bottle of beer and took a swig, then concealed it behind the bar. “You didn’t see that. Anyway, the town didn’t fare so well, and now there’s a row of graves out by Serpent’s Butte.” She paused, locking her beautiful brown eyes up in his own. “They were good men, Williams. The best I’ve ever known. And now they’re just as dead as that raptor.” She snapped the bar towel in her hands and then wiped the counter. “And that’s why we all talk and dress this way.” She indicated his empty glass. “You want another?”
“Sure,” he said.
She pulled one from the wall and unscrewed its cap, sat it down in front of him.
At last she said, “So what about you? What’s your story? And how did you come to be travelling with an armored dinosaur?”
Williams took a swig of his beer and then glanced out the saloon window, where Ank was standing with several horses. “Well, Ank and I don’t talk much about it. We just ... sort of crashed into each other at the intersection of his life and mine. As for myself, I guess you might say ... that I’m seeking Tanelorn.” He laughed a little to himself. “Do you know what that means? To be seeking Tanelorn?”
She shook her head slowly, her eyes never leaving his own.
“Yeah, well, who would? It’s something from an old novel—one I only partially remember. But what it means to me is to feel homesick ... not just homesick, but homesick for a place you’ve never been, or don’t entirely remember.” He toyed with his beer distantly, began peeling the wrapper from its smooth, brown glass. “And to want to find that place. See, I wasn’t exactly myself when Ank first found me—rescued me, for all intents. I had, how do you say it? Amnesia. I knew things had been different ... I just wasn’t sure how. I guess I just knew that something terrible had happened, not only to me but to the entire world ... and that there hadn’t been flesh-eating dinosaurs waiting to eat you around every corner before.” Now they both laughed. “And I knew that I’d been separated from something,” He glanced up from the bottle. “Someone, who had been vitally important to me. Someone who was ... is ... waiting for me even now.”
He stared into her eyes which betrayed a hint of disappointment.
“And that they are north of here, somewhere.” He quaffed the rest of his beer and sat the empty bottle on the counter, a little too hard. “And that’s it ... that’s all I know.” He winked at her. “All I want to know, if you want the truth. So long as I’m in your company.”
She quickly recomposed herself, staring back at him with something like bedroom eyes, and said, “I’ve always been a sucker for a man with a guitar. I know you’re still healing ... but you’re sure you won’t play something?”
He didn’t respond right away, only continued looking at her. At last he managed, “Look, Katrina, there’s something—”
And then there was a scream, a ragged, wet, blood-curdling scream, which came from the general area of the downed gates, and when Williams looked instinctively out the saloon’s window he saw that while the horses had remained completely un-phased, Ank had vanished without a trace.
THE MAN—SMITHSON—WAS dead, all right, but his killer or killers hadn’t been content just to carry him away or let him lie. No, whoever or whatever had killed him had felt the need to leave a calling card—his severed head—which they’d sat atop a thick, wooden post so that the vertical railroad tie resembled a grizzly kind of totem pole. Otherwise, save for a nearby pile of spurned entrails, there was no trace of him.
“Now I want you all to take a long, hard look at this,” said Rimshaw, projecting his voice so that everyone could hear him, even those in the back of the mob. “And I want you to remember it next time someone gets the wise idea to question my judgement.”
Williams scanned the crowd, Katrina beside him, trying to gauge their mood, seeking signs of a lynch tenor. Because Rimshaw had a point: if he hadn’t been allowed into the compound the gates would still be standing ... which meant he was responsible, however indirectly, for Smithson’s death—assuming the townsfolk even believed the attack had come from outside. If they believed otherwise, that meant the door was open to blame Ank—regardless if he was herbivorous or not, and regardless of the absurdity that a quadrupedal animal, or any animal, could leave such a gruesome calling card.
Something attacked us only a few weeks after the Flashback ... something ... new.
Something which had talked, she’d said.