[Colorado, 1877]

Willie Kennard rode into the town of Duffy dangerously late, looking back over his shoulder at the height of the sun and squinting. He dropped down from the old mare he’d borrowed off Wilson Hayes and hitched her to a post.

Every step shifted two days’ dust and grit off his long coat, and his thighs ached so bad it felt like he’d been punched in the groin.

“You’re a fool to walk into Duffy,” the old Pawnee man Willie had hired as tracker muttered when they’d split up outside of town on the bluff. “Once night comes, you won’t need to be worrying about your quarry. It’s the town that’ll get you. They’ll string you up. Whether or not you’re wearing a silver badge.”

Judging by the stares the white folk sitting outside the hotel gave him, Willie knew it was truth.

“Help you?” an older man with a long beard asked in a hard voice.

“Looking for the Sheriff,” Willie said. “I need his help finding a man that might be hiding somewhere around these parts.”

“What kind of man?” the old timer asked. It was a pointed question.

“The murdering kind,” Willie said.

“Sheriff’s at the Longfellow Ranch,” said a dapper man crossing the wooden slatted walkway. He looked to be a store owner of some kind, in his carefully pressed suit.

“Now why’d you go tell him that,” spat the old man.

“Cuz he’s a Marshal, Pat. You see his star?” the shop keeper said. “And cuz it’s getting late.”

They glared at each other, and then the old man pointed a wizened, crooked finger down the other side of town. “Ranch is down that way.”

Willie looked down the dusty road, sunk deep with wheel tracks and horse shit. Then he looked back over his shoulder at the sun, moving toward the horizon.

Best to get on with it. He sighed.

He tapped a finger to his hat at the younger gentleman and made his way back to the horse.

As he rode past, he asked, “What’s the Sheriff doing at the ranch?”

“Indians mutilated the cattle,” spat the old man. “Damned heathens.”

Willie spurred the horse into an awkward gallop, the best it could manage, leaving a plume of dust in the air that set the old man coughing.

§

Willie rode up onto the ranch hard. The damned horse was heaving and bitching about the work, but he didn’t pay it much mind. Dropped out of the saddle while the mare still trotted down to a slower pace, left it with a muzzle flecked with foam and turning circles in the dirt.

His boots scuffed up dust as he ran for the door, glancing around.

“Hello, Longfellow Ranch!” he shouted, right hand dropped low to brush aside his coat. He put a palm to the Colt’s grip.

The faded gray wood of the door creaked as it opened slightly. “Who’s that?”

“I’m looking for the Sheriff of Duffy,” Willie said. “I’m Marshal Willie Kennard.”

“Marshal?” A ruddy face frowned from the gap in the door, looking out at Willie. “Never seen a negro Marshal before.”

“Don’t imagine there’re many of us,” Willie said. He tapped the silver star. “But here I am, nonetheless.”

The dark green eyes flicked down, noted his draw stance through the crack in the doorway. “You seem agitated, Marshal Kennard. Mind if I ask why?”

“Been tracking a murderer through the scrub a couple days,” Willie said. “Tracked him to Duffy. Hoping I could rely on your help.”

With a horrible creaking sound, the door opened the rest of the way. “I’m Sheriff Bostick Keen. Come on in, I’m talking to Dr. Longfellow here about what happened to his cattle recently.”

Willie’d seen them on the way in. The cattle ripped open, ribs exposed and drying in the sun, tongues lolling.

“Dr. Longfellow is getting us a drink of water,” the sheriff said.

Sheriff Keen had a puffy, round face but was a stick of a man, really. Wind-swept lean. Meant he didn’t hide in his office, but walked out in the windy grit. Did his job.

Willie respected that.

Dr. Longfellow came back into the room with a tray of glasses and a pitcher filled with water fresh from the well. Beads of sweat rolled down the rounded belly of the pitcher.

The ranch owner bent forward to pick up a glass and fill it.

Willie stared at the man’s neck.

Before the sheriff could move, Willie drew. As Dr. Longfellow straightened, he looked at the barrel of the Colt, as if for a second fascinated by it.

The gunshot filled the room with its violent crack, and Dr. Longfellow’s brains splattered out across the wall behind him. Only, the brain tissue was all wrong. Black goo, filled with insect-like fragments that dripped down toward the ground. No blood. What looked like a wasp’s stinger the size of a thumb was stuck fast in the plaster.

Sheriff Keen screamed like a child, raising his hands in front of him, then recovering and reaching for his gun. “What the hell …” he started to say, then stopped and looked at the oversized stinger. It twitched and wriggled slowly. Not a slow man, he realized something wasn’t right. “What was that in his head? What was that?”

Willie pulled his left piece out and aimed it at him. “Turn around,” he ordered.

The sheriff took a deep breath, his eyes wild and wide. “No.”

Willie cocked his head. “No?”

“If you gonna kill me, do it right to my face.”

“Most likely, I won’t kill you,” Willie said. “But I do want to see the back of your neck. If you don’t show it to me, chances are you do end up dying. I gotta make sure you’re not like him. You understand?”

Keen’s face scrunched up in defiance and anger. Finally, after several short breaths, he screwed up his face in disgust and turned around.

He trembled a bit, expecting the shot.

But Willie nodded. “You’re all right.” He slid the two Colts back into their holsters. “I apologize for drawing on you.”

Keen yanked his own, overly large revolver out, but Willie ignored him. He moved around the house, kicking open doors and looking into rooms as the sheriff followed him, gun aimed. Willie paused in front of a store room in the back. Looked at the bodies on the ground.

“See that?” he asked Keen.

The sheriff’s green eyes took it all in. Shattered human ribs poking through broken skin. Glazed eyes staring at the ceiling. The wife, the two children lying in her arms. “Like the cattle,” he said.

“Like the cattle.”

“How’d you know?” Keen asked.

“Seen it before. Some men attacked a camp I was providing protection for. Wasn’t pretty.” Willie remembered muzzle flashes and glazed eyes, men with broken legs dragging themselves toward him.

“Would he have gone for me?”

“Guessing so.”

“Then I owe you my life,” he said. “But I still gotta take you in.”

Keen waved the gun at Willie, pointed outside. There was a horse and wagon waiting.

Willie looked at the old mare. “Sheriff, I got the impression I wouldn’t be welcome in Duffy after sunset. That was the word. You telling me I got that wrong?”

The sheriff shook his head. “Putting you in the jail. For protection.”

Willie raised an eyebrow incredulously. “Protection?”

“The cattle. It isn’t just Longfellow’s farm. They’re all over the place,” he said. “All around town.”

All around town.

“There’s a Pawnee tracker I hired to help me get here. He’s just outside the other side of Duffy,” Willie said. “If you don’t mind, I’d like to pick him up or let him know to run like hell. If that’s all right with you.”

Sheriff Keen nodded. “After what I just saw, I’d say that’s fair. But my shotgun’ll be resting here on my lap, and you’re still coming with me.”

Willie nodded. He had time to think about what to do next on the ride out. Time to decide whether it was better to lay in with the people of Duffy or leg it out into the dark wilds knowing there were strange things out there.

He got up in the back of the wagon, looking around the farm.

The sheriff urged his horse forward, and they rumbled out over the dirt road in the dim light of a nearly setting sun.

§

“Damn.”

Willie stood on the edge of the wagon and looked down at the tortured body of the Pawnee man who’d led him here. They were well into dusk, the last sliver of sun slipping down under the trees. Residual orange light dappled the scrub.

“Never even got his name,” Willie said, a bit of anger touching his voice. “What a thing.”

The sheriff looked over at the horizon. “Figure we got time to bury him?”

“No difference to him now, and I doubt that’s a good idea, tarrying here. I think it’s time we got moving along,” Willie said.

“What are they?” the sheriff asked. “I know I saw what I saw. Enough to turn my wits shaky.”

Willie nodded. “You saw what you saw. And I don’t know what they are either. I just know they overrun us. We set up camp for a night, on the way to the gold strike outside your hills. They killed the men I was being paid to shotgun for. Murdered them before I understood what was going on.”

“But why? What did they want? What demonic thing is happening out here?”

“Never really had a chance to ask,” Willie said. “Been moving behind them and trying to get my revenge since they hit.”

He’d been turning over the idea of overpowering the sheriff and walking out into the desert. But to do that he’d have to steal the man’s horse and leave him without a gun here.

Not a fair thing to do to a man in these circumstances. Not with what might be out in the dark. And Willie was a man of the law. Sure, most hated him. But there was a respect he’d come to expect, and that had been earned by being a stickler for rule of law. Drilled into him even earlier by the army and his years in uniform.

Sheriff Keen was a fellow officer; leaving him out here alone was not a brotherly thing.

And the murderer who’d escaped Willie’s camp was somewhere around Duffy. Willie had sworn he’d bring justice.

Willie sat down on the bench in the back of the wagon and tugged his hat down lower. “Sheriff, what kind of trouble are your townsfolk going to make for me?” he asked.

Keen shifted uncomfortably in his seat. “Well …” he said. “I’ve been thinking on that. I can pass you off as someone I caught and lock you up, keep you under watch. But that could end up going the wrong way. I’d rather explain to the mayor what’s happening. Because if those things are all around Duffy now, what happens when they start coming in? Either way, I’m getting you to safety and standing outside with a shotgun.”

Willie thought about the shambling forms ripping through the darkness of the camp toward him. It might be dangerous back in the cell. But certainly not as dangerous as it certainly was out here. In the dark.

“Promise me something, sheriff,” he said.

“What?”

“Put a key to the cell in one of my boots, and my guns in a box under the bed. No one has to see them, but I want them there. In case.”

Sheriff Keen thought about it for a long moment.

Then he nodded.

§

The mayor glared belligerently at Willie through the bars of the cell. He didn’t say anything. Quirked the edges of his mouth, then stalked back to Keen’s desk. They started arguing.

Willie sat on the wooden bench and leaned back, sighing.

He could see where this was going.

The mayor wasn’t about to let some “darky” tell them all how some possessed people were out there lurking in the dark. That maybe they’d come attack townsfolk.

Didn’t make no sense, the mayor insisted.

“I don’t care how deputized you are,” the well-dressed mayor hissed. “You don’t come into my town spouting half-crazed bullshit like that and expect any of us to believe you. You killed Longfellow. You may well have killed his family, too. And that Indian the sheriff saw. I think we keep you locked up in here and locked up good.”

Willie didn’t say anything. That was always the better course in these situations.

He just eyed the man levelly until he swore and walked out.

The sheriff checked his shotgun, then sat at his desk. “You think, whatever those things are, they’re going to come for the town?”

Willie leaned back against the wall, relaxing a bit. “Hope they don’t,” he said.

“That all you got? Hope?”

“All any of us ever had, Sheriff,” Willie said as he lay down on the bench and pulled his hat down over his head.

§

He woke at night to the sound of the sheriff cursing.

First he stretched, worked out the kinks in his arms and back, and then splashed water on his face from a small jug Keen had put inside the cell with him.

“They are gathering outside.” Keen drew the rough burlap curtains closed against the flicker of torchlight. “And I cannot see their necks,” he said, clearly exasperated.

“So we don’t know whether they are here to lynch me for being in Duffy after dark, or to kill us and fill our heads with insect parts,” Willie observed.

Keen looked back at him, horrified.

“I’m just saying, either reason is a messy one,” Willie said.

“You’re right. We need to get out of here,” Keen said. “If they’re here for a lynching they’re likely to come after me for trying to help you.”

Willie was already pulling the box out from under his bench. He holstered up and took a step toward the metal bars, and right as he did so the front doors busted open. Three townsmen stumbled in, and sheriff Keen wracked a round into his shotgun. “Now there!” he shouted. “You stay back or I’ll shoot.”

“Sheriff,” Willie muttered through the jail bars, key in hand as he tried to unlock the door. “I’d get in here with me quick …”

They didn’t look like the hanging type, the three that stepped forward. They looked drunk. Vacant eyed. Although once they saw Willie, their heads tracked him.

Sheriff Keen stepped forward. “Get outta here,” he growled.

“We want the nigger,” they growled right back. Willie stiffened. Lowered his hands to his belt.

Keen aimed the shotgun at them. “I’ll shoot,” he said. “Jamie, Nicodemus, Alex, you know I mean it.”

They swung their heads to regard Keen. Willie scuttled over to the edge of the cell. “Sheriff, I—”

Keen fired. Buckshot ripped through all three men, and both Keen and Willie swore to see the black ichor and chitinous pieces mixed with skull slap against the wooden doors. Jamie and Alex slumped dead to the ground, but the one Keen had called Nickodemous jerked forward like a sped-up marionette.

Willie fired from between the bars of the cell, got him twice in the chest, but the man kept on. It took a third shot to get him in the head, and by then the rest of the mob was kicking through the door.

“Keen!”

The sheriff never even backed toward the cell. Stood and reloaded his shotgun, fired, moved to reload again, then pulled a pistol. He threw his keys with his spare hand back toward the cell without a word.

He went down, covered by townsfolk ripping him apart, limb from limb, with one last muffled shot.

And then when they were done, they stood up and looked at Willie.

There were more of those possessed townspeople out there than he had bullets for. And he could hear more of them shuffling around in the dirt outside. They pawed around the sheriff’s remains, looking for the keys to the cell with those vacant eyes as Willie watched them.

He figured he’d shoot as many as he could as they came in, once they figured out how to break through the cell.

Willie dragged the bench out to the middle of the cell, pulled the blanket off it, and set his spare bullets down on the hard top. Checked his two Colts.

Twelve in. Ten loose on the bench.

Thirty townsfolk.

“Marshal, sheriff, you still in there?” shouted someone in the street on the other side of the mob. “Lie down flat! I am opening fire!”

Many other men would have paused or asked a question back.

Willie did no such thing. He dropped and kissed the dirty floor without a second thought, and as he did so the chack chack chack sound of a multi-barreled Gatling gun ripped through Duffy’s main street. The windows exploded, wood cracked, splinters flew around the room. Black ichor stained the bars, Willie’s hat, coat, the floor.

The barrels wound down.

Wounded townsfolk scrabbled around the floor.

“I’m standing up!” Willie shouted. He shook black goop from himself, and then shot the nearest man still stirring. He let himself out of the cell, dispatching anyone that even groaned, and stepped through the door warily.

There was a wagon parked in the middle of the street with a Gatling gun mounted to the back. A grandfatherly black man in a duster with a marshal’s star on his lapel stood behind the still smoking and crackling barrels, reloading the ammunition belt by himself. When he saw Willie, he swung the gun at him. “Show me your neck,” he said.

Willie leaned forward and exposed it.

“Good enough,” the stranger said. He had a shock of white hair that he’d left long. It framed his lined and strong face, off which a strong snowy white beard hung. The eyes glinted in the firelight of the street’s torches.

“Sheriff’s dead,” Willie reported. “My name’s Willie Kennard. Who’re you?”

The man looked around the town warily. “I’m Frederick Douglass,” he said.

“The abolitionist?”

“Yes.”

“Thank you for the assistance,” Willie said, surprised. What was Douglass doing out west? And at this particular moment? “Do you know what in hell is going on?”

Douglass looked down the street. Now Willie heard a faint buzzing in the dark distance of the night lurking around the edges of the town. Like a hive of bees, but lower pitched.

A beam of light lanced out of the sky and illuminated the scrub. Strange, haunting shadows danced and moved across the horizon.

“We’d better get up into the crags and hills,” Douglass said, pointing Willie toward the rider’s bench and the reins. “They’ll have a harder time catching up to us amongst the rock. I’ll tell you what I know as we ride.”

§

The team of horses ran like the devil and dragged the wagon along over the rough dirt road leading out of Duffy. Willie could hardly hear Douglass over the racket of hooves, the creaking wagon, and the bouncing of his chair. Douglass was cleaning the mounted gun and arranging belts of ammunition, grunting with the effort.

“I’ve been appointed a marshal of the District of Columbia, by President Rutherford B. Hayes,” Douglass shouted. “Ostensibly it is so I can bring more of our folk into civil service. And with those strong jobs previously denied to them, we might rise in our stations. I’m the first negro man in this position. We have had many firsts since President Lincoln—God rest his soul—passed emancipation. I see you, and I see a marshal. All over this land, even despite the fact that President Hayes agreed to end Reconstruction in the South, we are making great strides, Mr. Kennard. Great strides.”

That flying beam of light stabbed out and lit up the world like a second sun.

“I know. I served with the Seventh Illinois Rifles,” Willie said, urging the horses on faster. The droning sound, a hellish one if he’d ever heard it, had grown louder. It was associated with that infernal light in the sky. “What is that in the sky?”

Douglass shielded his eyes and looked up. “They’ve spotted us.” He swung the Gatling gun up and squinted through the sights.

The howl of the machine behind Willie deafened him. Shells bounced around the wagon’s floor, smoldering as they struck wood.

The droning sound lessened, and the light dimmed.

“The marshals report directly to the president,” Douglass said, clearing the gun and awkwardly loading a new belt of ammunition. “Sometimes they’re used as instruments of executive policy. In this case, I was asked to find the lost crew of an airship. And the airship, too, if possible. The president chose me because most cattle hands or cowboys in these western territories are either black or Mexican, and he felt I might better navigate these parts with my team.”

Willie blinked. “An airship?”

“You’ve heard of hot air balloons? Lighter than air travel?” Douglass asked.

“I saw one once. In the war. Used to spot troop movements.” The great globule had hung impossibly in the air, tethered to a pine tree by a rope over a bloody meadow growing a black gun smoke cloud that soon obscured the machine.

“Our army built a rather advanced version of a balloon, one capable of moving under its own power. Like a steamship of the air. A wealthy count from Prussia who observed balloons here during the war and was quite taken with the concept of using lighter than air machines for military purposes worked with the army to help build an experimental hydrogen airship. Perfect for avoiding the treacherous and snowy grounds of the territory of Alaska.”

“Alaska?” Willie glanced back at Douglass. “The territories we purchased from the Russians after the war?”

“Yes. President Hayes demanded a modern day Lewis and Clarke expedition. We hardly know what, if any, resources lie in the territory, after all.”

Willie looked up into the sky at the pursuing beam of light. It must be like a lighthouse signal, focused to become a spotting light. And behind it, a floating machine.

“The army is chasing us?” Willie asked.

“No, Mr. Kennard. It looks like they lost control of their machine when they were overrun, just like this town was.” He looked up into the sky and pulled the Gatling gun into position. “I need to fire off another belt to keep them farther back from us again, I’m afraid. They’re trying to get close again.”

An ember landed in the road ahead.

Willie squinted. Then slew the horses off the road as hard as he could. He reached back with a hand to steady Mr. Douglass, who pitched to the side. The whole wagon tilted onto two wheels and the horses screamed.

And then the world exploded in a rush of dirt and violence that blew Willie off the wagon.

§

“Can you hear me, Mr. Kennard?”

Willie looked off into the night and blinked. Shook his head.

“Are you well?” Douglass asked. The old man was holding him up, helping him stumble through the stunted, scraggly trees and toward a cut in the foothills. Blood ran from one of Douglass’s nostrils.

Willie looked down and saw the front of his shirt stained with dark blood. “Am I hurt?”

“Was the horse,” Douglass said.

“I don’t remember any of it,” Willie said.

“We took a violent tumble thanks to that damn dynamite they were tossing from the airship,” Douglass said. As if to underscore his point, a nearby explosion filled the air with a cloud of sharp-smelling dust. “Fortunately they’ve lost sight of us again, and are randomly tossing the stuff out in hopes of hitting us.”

They hobbled together, helping each other over rocks and up scree toward the cut. The beam of light had died out—maybe they’d run out of fuel for its light. Willie could discern a large, cigar-shaped shadow gliding between the stars and him. Which meant that at any moment a lit stick of dynamite could land near them.

“The last thing I remember is you telling me that airship thing was made by the army,” he said.

Douglass grunted. “One of the last reports before the machine went missing was that they’d found a crater. With a large metal object buried in the center of it. One of the officers sent back a simple sketch via carrier pigeon.”

Both men winced as another stick of dynamite exploded. But this one was farther away than the last, and Willie breathed a sigh of relief. That old instinct to shelter he’d learned from being shelled by artillery hadn’t gone away, but there was no betraying whistle of an incoming shell to help him here.

“There’s a book by a gentleman by the name of Jules Verne called From the Earth to the Moon,” Frederick Douglass said, “where some men from Baltimore build a gun large enough to shoot a sort of bullet with men inside of it to the moon.”

“I have not heard of it,” Willie allowed.

“Well, the illustration the officer sent to us could have been taken right from its pages. It was a scarred and burnt tip of a bullet, nestled in the center of a crater it caused. I believe, from what I’ve pieced together since arriving here, that the creatures that infected the crew of the airship above us, and the townspeople of Duffy, are creatures from another world that arrived on it. That arrived via some kind of machine, like Verne described.”

“These are moon people?” Willie asked incredulously.

“I do not know whether they are from the moon, or from Mars. There is an astronomer, Giovanni Schiaparelli, who said just this year that he has seen canals on the face of Mars. Maybe these things come from there. Maybe from farther away. I do not know. They do not parlay; I lost the men I traveled here with when I tried that futile initial gesture. The creatures are violently hostile.”

Willie nodded as they struggled up loose rock and into the safety of the narrow crevices of a valley made by carved cliffs. He found himself a bit relieved they were not facing demons, but creatures. Even if otherworldly ones. Creatures could be shot. And hunted. “But why are they here?”

“Our world? I don’t know.”

“No, I mean, why Duffy?” Willie asked. “Why did they take the airship? Why did they fly all the way down here?”

“That I can’t tell you,” Douglass said wearily. “Come, there is an abandoned mine just ahead of us. It is stocked with supplies and weapons, and should be easy to defend from the entrance.”

§

They passed a trio of fresh graves just inside the mouth of the mine, which was located in a natural cave entrance at a high point in the rocky canyon-like area of the foothill. A very defensible spot, Willie noted with pleasure before he walked deeper inside. Willie had been around a few gold strikes before. Enough to tell that the timbers looked thick and recently placed. This one had been dug in quick for exploration, then abandoned.

Several crates were stacked deeper inside.

Not surprising to find a mine here, he thought. Just ten miles away was a bustling hill full of prospectors who all used Duffy as their nearest town. The camp he’d been hired to protect had been planning to try their luck there.

“Only one way out,” Douglass said. “But it means we can stop them from coming in if they find us.”

“For a while,” Willie observed. “But we’ll be the rats. And they have dynamite. Better off for us to get our ammunition and stay out front to hold them off than try to hide. How did those men out near the front die?”

“I brought them here. Three other marshals I took with me for this mission. They may have become those … things. But the men I’d travelled with deserved a Christian burial,” Douglass said. “Listen, we just need to last until tomorrow afternoon. Can we defend this mine that long, do you think?”

“In a pinch,” Willie agreed. “But what happens then?”

“Cavalry stationed at a fort forty miles away. I sent for them via pigeon.” Douglass levered open a box full of rifles and ammunition. Willie looked in with approval. He picked up a small pistol that he didn’t recognize.

“What’s this?”

“A Very pistol. It’s a Navy signal device they just designed. It shoots a burning flare into the sky. I’ll be using it to signal the cavalry where we are.”

“And what do you think the cavalry will be able to do against that airship?” Willie asked.

Douglass looked at him with troubled eyes. “Shoot it down with the rockets I ordered them to bring.”

“Rockets?”

Douglass sang, “‘And the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air?’ They’ll get high enough.”

It sounded possible. If the airship was still around.

But a stick of dynamite boomed somewhere in the distance. The possessed crew of the airship seemed obsessed with finding and destroying the two lawmen.

Willie had a feeling they would still be out there.

They broke open a case of canned food and levered it open by candlelight, risking the flicker since they were deep in the mine for right now, and ate cold canned beans with wooden spoons that Willie quickly whittled out of a piece of the crate’s top.

“How’d you end up deputized to be a marshal?” Douglass asked.

Willie tapped a piece of hardtack against the side of the can of beans, an old habit. The long-lasting, brick-like biscuit was fresh though, as nothing wriggled out. “After the war I came out west. Did this and that for some years. Four or so years ago I fetched up near the town of Yankee Hill. They needed themselves a new marshal.”

Douglass raised an eyebrow. “What happened to the old one?”

“Up and died,” Willie said, picking at the hardtack. “Lost two marshals to a gunslinger by the name of Barney Casewit. They tried to bring him in for the rape of a girl of fifteen years’ age. And killing her father when he struck out for vengeance. As well as other murderings. I figured, with the war over, our folk voting and getting jobs, that I would ask for the job. Particularly as they were a town of very scared white folk desperate for a solution, I allowed myself to think that maybe they’d overlook the color of my skin in their desperation for a marshal.”

Douglass laughed. “This man, Casewit, though?”

Willie didn’t laugh. “As hard a man as they come. But then, he’d never been on the other side of a Confederate line of soldiers facing a company of fellow negro rifleman, knowing that they’d never give you surrender.”

Douglass’s smile faded.

Willie continued, “The town’s councilmen asked me to arrest Casewit right there that minute. I don’t know if they were looking for entertainment, or desperate to end that despot’s reign. But I agreed. Took the star, pinned it, and made my way across the street to where Casewit was playing poker with two of his hands, where I then told him he was under arrest.”

“Just like that?” Douglass asked. They both stopped, though, and cocked an ear. No more dynamite had exploded since Willie started his recollections.

The airship was backing off from the hills. Maybe finding somewhere to drop down its crew. Douglass blew out the candle. They’d need to move out front to defend their spot soon.

Willie grimaced and continued. “Just like that. Casewit’s sitting there and he asks if he’s just supposed to follow me. I told him it was his choice: jail or hell. So he stood and reached for a pair of Colt .44s. I shot them both in the holster.”

“What? Why?” Douglass was engaged, but didn’t take his eyes off the entrance to the mine. With his night sight coming back, Willie could see where starlight seeped down to faintly illuminate the wooden frame.

“The councilmen told me to arrest him, not kill him. I was trying my best to do it,” Willie said. “Casewit’s two partners draw, and since no one told me nothing about whether they were to live or die, I shot them both between the eyes. Casewit put his hands up and surrendered. I hanged him the next morning after the trial for raping that girl and his murderings. Bastard kept trying to shimmy back up the pine tree I hung him from, but after twenty minutes or so he finally gave up and hung.”

Douglass nodded. “And then you became their marshal, just like that?”

“Some didn’t much like me as marshal,” Willie said. “Some tried dueling me to get rid of me.”

“Yeah? What happened?” Douglass asked.

“They’re not here to talk about it, are they?” Willie said, leaning back against a crate. If that airship had dropped off more attackers, he needed a rest to get ready for them. “Think I’ll take advantage of your hospitality, old timer, and take the first sleep while you cover the entrance.”

Willie settled down with one of his Colts on his chest and closed his eyes.

§

The sound of a Winchester firing and the lever-action reload snapped Willie awake with his Colt coming up in the direction of the shot. He ran up from the depths of the mine in time to see movement down the hill in the scrub. After fetching a Winchester of his own, he joined Douglass and leaned against a large slab of rock.

“You let me sleep all night down there?” he asked Douglass. “Or did you fall asleep on watch?”

“I wanted the gunslinger you told me about last night to be as fresh as possible for the morning,” Douglass said with a tired smile.

Willie sighted down the scree and rock. “Miners,” he said.

“What?”

“You’re holding off a band of miners. That one’s got a pickaxe.” He looked up at the morning sky and squinted with a sour expression. “Means that airship’s gonna be floating around too any moment.”

One of the miners made a stumbling run up at them. Willie’s Winchester cracked, and the man stumbled and dropped. He began to pull himself along with his hands, fingers digging into the hard soil to drag the rest of him toward the two marshals.

Willie snapped the lever down, back in, shot again, and the body fell still.

There were more coming up from the scrubland. How many miners had been out at the strike outside Duffy? He couldn’t remember.

A bullet whined and struck the ground to the left of the mine opening. Willie moved in toward the rock for better cover.

Douglass reached inside his jacket and checked a pocket watch on a long chain. “Six or seven hours to go, Mr. Kennard,” he said, patting the signal gun in his waistband.

The droning sound Willie’d heard last night returned. The cigar-shaped airship passed overhead and floated over the canyon. Steam and black smoke poured from slanted, sideways stacks in a metal basket underneath the massive gas bag.

Willie stared, the miners momentarily forgotten. The thing was the size of a large city building, floating lightly through the air.

“What a thing,” he said to Douglass.

But Douglass was more focused on the crowd lurking behind cover, trying to advance on them. His rifle cracked out, dirt puffed, and the possessed miners hung back.

For now.

§

“I count a hundred figures,” Douglass said, his dust-flecked face lined with exhaustion. Red eyes betrayed the man’s lack of sleep. “I was not expecting so many, so quick.”

And despite a full night’s worth himself, Willie was already tired of shooting at shadows.

“They’re massing for a charge. They’ll be easy to shoot when they come over that open ground, but they’re just too many,” Willie said. “And without a Gatling gun or something as serious, I don’t see how we kill them fast enough.”

“I just had the one,” Douglass said. “I was tracking the airship after I sent the pigeon for the cavalry. When I saw the mob, I thought I’d lend a hand.”

“Was the gun damaged? I can’t remember after the dynamite,” Willie said.

“Dirty, on the ground. And not here,” Douglass said.

The murmuring of the crowd shuffling about the loose rock downhill had been growing.

“If we climb up over the rock, the airship will see us in the daylight and shoot at us or drop dynamite. And if we go down there we’ll face these miners,” Willie said. “If we stay here, we will be overrun before noon.”

“It is a despicable position we are in,” Douglass agreed. “I can bring more rifles and ammunition up for our last stand. But I’ll understand if you want to make a run for it. I, however, will make a stand and fire off the flares before I fall. I cannot imagine what these things would do if they were to get into a city. Think of New York or Philadelphia falling to them. It makes me shudder.”

Willie leaned against the rock and thought of that for a moment, and then decided it was best to focus his imaginations on the present.

“Mr. Douglass, we should take our chances heading over the hills and staying alive,” Willie said. “If we do that, we can alert the cavalry.”

“The airship …”

“It’ll be dangerous, but I think it best we engage with it if we have to,” Willie said levelly. “I will smite these goddamned possessed men out of the sky if I must. But hopefully we can keep running long enough for the cavalry to save us.”

§

They crawled out of the canyon with difficulty, hauling rucksacks with ammunition and several rifles with them.

And the signal guns.

Willie stopped twice to fire back at the horde behind them. Any of them able to climb with any precision dropped off the high hill face.

The horde waited patiently for them to make their climb.

Sweat drenched their dusty, tattered clothes by the time Willie and Douglass topped the hill and began to leg down into the next canyon. For another hour they hiked it, stopped to drink water, and then climbed up the other side.

It felt pointless skirting the foothills of the mountain, but once they had a canyon between them and the horde, they sprinted downhill, back toward Duffy.

“This way,” Willie muttered after a half hour of fast walking.

Douglass said nothing. He looked focused on his breathing, and Willie eventually offered to take the man’s rucksack. Douglass refused with a snarl.

And that snarl turned into a chuckle when the older marshal suddenly realized where they were. “Hell, Mr. Kennard. You wanted an old friend back, didn’t you?”

Horse flesh littered the ground and draped off scrub. Flies buzzed. Pieces of the wagon were scattered around, and the Gatling gun was buried upside down in the dirt.

“We don’t have much time,” Willie said. “Help me drag it into the clear area.”

That horde of mining men would not be too far behind.

§

The gun was mounted in such a way it wouldn’t tilt up to aim into the sky. Why would it? No one had designed it with airships in mind.

But the Gatling would let Douglass hold his own.

They could hear the trampling march of feet in the distance. See some heads wavering over the low-lying scrub. The dust and desert made it easy to spot the first elements of the charge.

Willie grabbed the rucksacks and opened them up, pulling apart a knot and unrolling them. Set on the rock, their small arsenal was at the ready.

He picked up a pair of the signal guns.

Douglass glanced at his pocket watch. “It is eleven. We still have an hour with even the most optimism.”

Willie paid the time no attention. “I’m not thinking about your cavalry,” he said.

“Then what …”

The airship swooped in from the hills with a buzz and swoosh of steam and smoke.

“Shoot at it with your rifle,” Willie said. “Let them know we’re down here.”

Douglass looked reluctant to let go of the Gatling. He picked up a Winchester and fired off at the airship. It adjusted course, bearing down on them.

It vented something from the gasbag and lowered. Willie eyed it as being some five hundred feet off the ground.

“Come lower,” he said sweetly.

And it did, responding to the crack of Douglass’s Winchester.

It passed over the masses of miners advancing on them, some of them shooting wildly in their direction. A brown whale, shifting slightly as the wind bumped at it.

“Mr. Kennard?” Douglass asked. “What do you plan to do?”

“It’s easier to shoot if you wait until you can’t miss,” Willie said, and fired the Very pistol. The flare sparked and fizzed as it arced out toward the airship.

Willie picked up the next pistol and fired. Same arc, slight adjustment based on the course of the last shot.

The first shot still hadn’t hit as he picked up and fired the third.

And then one, two, three flaming orbs of light struck the gasbag.

The first one hit the nose and bounced off. People in the metal understructure were running back and forth, and already the airship was beginning to change course. Lift.

The second ball of light hit a piece of rigging. And stuck. It began to burn merrily.

Willie sighed and picked up the fourth Very pistol. The last one. He looked at the three rifles waiting beside them. The backups for the last stand.

The third flame, the last adjustment, arced over the nose of the airship and toward the area he’d seen the venting. There was enough left over gas in the air still.

It caught.

A wild, dancing flame ran along the top of the airship, and then like a devil it lanced downward. The entire envelope began to glow like hell itself, and then flames burst out from every corner and seam.

The cigar-shaped inferno staggered out of the sky and dropped to the desert floor before them.

When the hesitant crowds of miners walked around the remains of the airship, Frederick Douglass and the Gatling gun raked them with a withering volley of gunfire, while Willie stood on a tall rock and sighted with a Winchester, picking them off one by one with shots direct to the head.

§

Willie walked from body to body, examining them. Douglass followed him.

The cavalry had arrived, following the smoke. They’d help flush the town out. Drag the dead bodies to the street. They’d done the same to the mining camp.

Now Willie could look for the murderer that he’d tracked here. Make sure his job was done.

“I wonder,” Willie mused as he walked down the line of carnage. “Why here?”

“What do you mean?” Douglass asked.

“Why Duffy? Why did creatures from some other world fly their airship all the way from the Alaska territories to Duffy? It was the mine, wasn’t it? Just like everyone else coming here?”

Douglass thought for a moment. “If their machine was damaged, they could have been looking for metals.”

Willie nodded. “That was what I wondered.” He stopped. And squatted. Looked into a familiar face.

Well that was that, then: He’d found the man that had come into their camp. Killed his employer. Killed the other men.

Willie stood up. “Thank you, Mr. Douglass. I’ll be on then.”

“I have a counter-proposal,” Douglass said abruptly. He waved his hand around at the uniformed cavalry stacking dead bodies. “There are still possibly other infected out there, in the countryside. You are a steady man with a gun, and with flint in his heart. We could use you, out here. And elsewhere. With … other things that pose a threat to the nation out here in this country.”

Willie nodded. “I understand. But I was headed east, hoping to find myself a good woman.”

Douglass leaned forward. “Now, I don’t take you as the settling down sort. I asked around about you via telegraph yesterday,” Douglass said. “Learned about you and Billy McGeorge. How’d you bring him in?”

Willie scratched his chin. “Offered a reward. Met him in town when he rode up to discuss the matter with me.”

“He came to you?”

“Well, he wasn’t too happy about the reward,” Willie explained. “Everyone else was offering north of $300. I figured $50 was good enough for him. He figured that was insulting.”

“Insulting?” That smile had come back to Douglass’s lips again.

“Yep. Met his whole gang when they rode into town right in the middle of the street with my shotgun. Ended up shooting one of his men when they drew on me. Led the rest of them off to jail. Hung McGeorge from the same pine I hung Casewit on.”

“Just like that?” Douglass asked.

“Just like that.”

Douglass looked easterly, down the main street. “No room for a man like you back east, Kennard,” he said softly. He gave him a business card. “If you don’t find that woman you call on me.”

Willie nodded.

They’d gifted him a swift horse on Douglass’s orders, though they grumbled about it. Willie left, riding east, leaving Duffy as the sun began to sink toward the horizon in the west.

 

Originally published in Dead Man’s Hand (Titan Books, May 2014).

 

Tobias S. Buckell is a New York Times Bestselling author born in the Car

ibbean. He grew up in Grenada and spent time in the British and US Virgin Islands, which influence much of his work.

His novels and over 50 stories have been translated into 18 different languages. His work has been nominated for awards like the Hugo, Nebula, Prometheus, and the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Science Fiction Author.

He currently lives in Bluffton, Ohio with his wife, twin daughters, and a pair of dogs. He can be found online at www.TobiasBuckell.com.

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