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February 8, 2009
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Stanley Steamer grunted in surprise at what looked like the world’s biggest lump of silly putty. “Sorry, doll,” he said, “but I gotta get going.”

He held out his palm, and the deadly mouth opened in his hand. Gum Belle’s shapeless body shook as he unleashed another blast of fatal fire…

…and slurped aside. The gout of flame splashed harmlessly against the floor. Stan swiveled his arm around to take another shot, but the flamethrower belched like a fat man with indigestion: empty. He caught the hint of Belle’s smile, as primitive and pure as a child’s sand drawing, before the pink blob lunged for him, corkscrewed into a liquid lance, and poured itself through the flamethrower’s nozzle.

And into his arm.

Stan could sense her, oozing through his forearm, a bad pastel grease sticking to his instruments. There was a tick and a warm rush, as the flamethrower cycled over to its reserve fuel line, and he flicked the ignition. But nothing happened. She must have gotten to it already. Stan growled and hoped his nerves weren’t showing.

“Ya got some nerve, doll, goin’ for a man’s privates like that. Figures you’d shut down the flamethrower first. Smart, for a skirt.”

No answer.

“I got defenses in there,” he lied.

No answer.

“Creezus.” He smacked his forearm with the heel of his other hand. Rattle her cage. Yeah. “I’m gonna kill ya. You hear me in there, doll?”

“That’s Belle, clanky; Gum Belle.” The voice was tinny and soft, and it didn’t sound very worried at all, which was bad. It didn’t sound like she was in much of a rush, either, which was worse. “Maybe you ought to write it down. Wait. Don’t you need both hands for that?”

“Whaddaya -- ”

The arm she’d invaded suddenly went sluggish and heavy, and he knew it was lost to her. Reaching beneath his shirt, he twisted a complicated set of valves and knobs in his shoulder and managed to seal off its main hydraulic lines. The flamethrower whirred shut as the arm went utterly limp. Stan staggered with their dead weight, but he still gave her a stage chuckle. “I got ya now, doll. Yer trapped. I’m gonna build up a mess’a steam pressure, then open the pipes and poach ya alive in there.”

“I wouldn’t want you to go to any trouble, clanky,” said the tinny voice. “I’ll find my own way out.”

And with that, she twitched his failsafe cutoffs aside like dressing-room curtains and seeped into his shoulder, slow and deliberate.

This time, he could feel her. It was like somebody had jammed a caulk gun up his ass, and was taking their sweet time emptying it.

A cold sweat that was 75% high-grade oil broke out on Stanley Steamer’s forehead.

                                                         * * *

The bell chimed, the elevator doors opened, and Deadeye cut across the lobby like a shark, firing his six-guns into the air. “Awright, you varmints! Git on the floor! Now!”

Deadeye had robbed his first bank in 1870, before Devil’s Gorge and the freak storm that had pulled him a good fifty years ahead of his time. A lot of things had changed since then, but folks’ backbones still had the same melting point: yelling and gunsmoke. The lobby crowd screamed and shouted and cried, but they fell on their faces, hands on their heads, trembling like matchfires in a twister.

A stealthy scuffing sound, off to his right. Deadeye snapped his head over and saw two security guards halfway to their feet, nightsticks in hand. He could have let them stand all the way up, but his side hurt something awful, and he was in no mood to play games. He snapped the hammers, his thumbs twin blurs, and set the guards back down with thunder and lead. They had risen as men. They fell like dolls.

“Anyone else feel like the Lone Ranger?” He turned on his heel, sweeping his gaze around the lobby. “Figgered.” Deadeye holstered his Colts, pulled a fresh piece of paper and his tobacco pouch from his breast pocket, and rolled a cigarette while Eddie and his boys finished cleaning up. He had just taken his first puff when he saw the familiar flashing lights of the law on the street outside. “Consarn it,” he grumbled. “You done yet, Eddie?”

Eddie the Rat jogged back from a wastepaper basket in the corner, the Generator case in his arms. “Done.”

“Put the box on the floor.”

Eddie frowned, but was too smart to question an order from someone who could shoot his big nose off his face from a mile away. As he set the case down, Deadeye replaced his pouch, pulled out his guns and hunkered low, a rattlesnake ready to spring. “Stay behind me, boys.” He kicked the case across the floor; it skidded across the lobby and knocked the doors wide open. He bounded out right after it.

There were an easy twenty lawmen outside, tumbling from their noisy automobiles and motorized bicycles. When they saw him, they went for their guns, which were all buttoned up and tucked in like children sleeping beneath leather comforters. Undo this snap, flip aside this clasp, work the damn thing at an angle just so a body could get a grip on the holster. All because some folks were afraid to see a sheriff with a shooting iron. Wyatt Earp would’ve turned over in his grave.

But not Deadeye. His old six-shooters were as reliable as ever, his hands were as fast as ever, and in the space of a gasp, the bodies were as dead as ever. Some hadn’t even slapped leather. He felt a little guilty about that, but when a man’s piece ain’t the same as his privates. You don’t wrap ’em up the same afore you use ’em.

Then again, the deck was a little stacked, seeing as how he’d just used twelve chambers to kill twenty lawmen. The Skull had made it so he never needed to reload. Something about matter reconstitution and energy transference. So long as it still killed folks the same as it did in 1870, he could give a damn about what 1930 had to offer.

As he holstered his smoking revolvers, the armored car they had used for the Confidence job rumbled down the street, bowled two police automobiles aside like haystacks, and skidded to a stop next to a bank of police motorized bicycles. Deadeye covered Eddie’s men as they piled inside. Eddie looked a little ashen-faced. Deadeye didn’t blame him. There were a lot of bodies piled around, most of ’em in blue. None of ’em were pretty.

“You coming, sir?” Eddie almost seemed too afraid to even ask the question.

Deadeye kept his eyes on the horizon. “I don’t much care for automobiles. I’ll take Rosie.”

Eddie, always a prudent customer, didn’t ask anything more, but hopped inside the car and closed the back doors. A second later, Deadeye heard the cough and rumble as it shifted into gear and took off in a duststorm of exhaust. He bent down to pick up the case.

There was the unmistakable clap of a pistol shot, and the armored car’s front tire exploded. The monstrosity squealed to one side, slammed into a the curb, knocked over a fire hydrant, and crashed onto its flank, a slain dragon. Water spewed into the air from the broken hydrant like Old Faithful on the Fourth.

Deadeye dropped the Generator case and flowed into his quick-draw stance, swiveling about with his whole body, searching for a puff of cordite smoke, the hint of an outline, the gleam of cold steel, any clue that might give him a clear shot. But the water was everywhere, drenching the street in a fine mist, casting false rainbows everywhere he looked. It pattered off the brim of his hat, rivered down the seams of his face. He squinted to keep any spare drops from getting into his eyes and tried to listen, but he heard only the hiss of ersatz rain, the roar of open pipes, the gurgle of a well-exercised sewer…

Splish.

Deadeye whirled, a viper of spray and muscle.

Ricketts stood twelve feet off, soggy as a Louisiana whore, with his .45 pointed smack dab at his head.

“Don’t try it,” he growled.

Ricketts wasn’t fooling around. It was plain as a cheater’s face on the Mississippi Queen. Deadeye could see it in his eyes. Some fellas, you couldn’t see anything there. Those were the bad ones. They’d buy rounds all night, then burn the saloon down just for kicks. The Hanged Man was like that. You looked him in those pale peepers of his, it was like staring into an empty desert.

But not John Law. He was easy to read. There was a Bible in those eyes. Book of Ricketts, Chapter One, Verse One: You make a move, you skinny bastard, and I will give you a third eye and a second asshole. Amen.

Deadeye scowled and spat his ruined cigarette to one side. He hoped Stan was happy tangling with that Belle snake.

                                                         * * *

As it happened, Stanley Steamer was not very happy tangling with that Belle snake.

“Awright, doll. You made yer point. Yer tougher than I am.” He had a hard time talking. She had fouled up his lower jaw, so he was forced to speak through clenched teeth. “Now get outta my body, and I’ll turn myself in. Swear.”

That Belle snake, however, was unconvinced. “I’m tempted, but I figure you’ll just try to deep-fry me if I unclog you now.” Her voice came from behind his eye this time. That creeped him out. “Besides, I always knew I was tougher than you. That’s not my point at all.”

Stan stiffened. “Then what is it?”

Pop.

It was a small sound, barely audible. The ping of a pebble striking a sheet of metal.

Only it came from his arm.

Stanley Steamer looked down and saw something that made his heart twitch in his cast-iron chest. The third piston in his bicep had just bulged out. Not much, barely enough to strain the weld lines, but…

“Well, now, isn’t that interesting?” asked the coy, teasing voice behind his laser eye. Stan swallowed hard. “Let’s see…what if I…”

Ping. Poing. Two bolts on his knuckles flew off.

“My goodness, this is fun!” Astonishment as fake as a wooden nickel. “I wonder if…deep breath, now…”

“Hey now, waitaminnit -- ”

A low hissing sound was his only answer, and suddenly his body felt a little too small for just the two of them. Stan gulped as he saw his suit jacket strain against its seams.

He was starting to think he should have sat this one out.

                                                         * * *

Deadeye raised his hands. “Okay, John Law. You got me fair and square.”

Ricketts didn’t relax. “I’ll bust open the champagne and party hats when you’re behind bars.”

“That what you call that thing on your head? A party hat? Looks more like a sufferin’ bastard to me.”

“Put your hands on your head and turn around.”

Deadeye shrugged and did as he was told, his spurs chiming like muffled bells in the water. He had time to admire the view as Ricketts eased towards him. A good-sized crowd was edging in off the street. Just gawkers. No more cops. None of Eddie’s boys had come out of the truck yet. That meant he’d have to assume the worst. Deadeye licked his lips and tried to keep the shake out of his voice

“I reckon you might want what’s in that there box over yonder,” he said.

From the corner of his eye, he thought he saw John Law’s face cloud over for an instant.

“Course, you could cuff me now, but the Generator’s a mite valuable. I’m no Doc Sorenz, but I am given to understand that ’lectricity and water ain’t on friendly terms. And I don’t rightly recall if I closed that case up tight.”

Ricketts shifted his weight from his left foot to his right, but said nothing.

“Might want to get it out of the rain, afore it…well, I ain’t sure what it’ll do.” Deadeye screwed up his face and pretended to think. “Might be as it’ll stop working. Might be as it’ll blow up. Might be as it’ll just kill us both dead. Then you won’t be able to uncork that French beer of yours.”

“Shut up,” Ricketts snapped.

“Just as you say.” Deadeye’s palms itched, but he forced himself to stand at ease and wait. John Law was no fool.

It didn’t take Ricketts long to decide.

“Take off the guns. No fast moves. Keep those hands away from your sides. Unbuckle the belt…that’s it. Drop it!” He jerked his head away from the stalled armored car. “Kick it that way. Hard!”

Deadeye did it all. No complaints.

“Now, move and you’ll be missing a head.” Ricketts backed away towards the case.

Deadeye turned his head to the side and watched with his good eye, silent and still. He was wet, and cold, and his shoulders hurt from keeping his arms so high, but inside, he was as wound up as a saloon piano. He’d get one chance, just one. If John Law didn’t slip up, it was all over.

But it was too wet for that, the box was small, and Ricketts was a steer of a man. He had to crouch down to reach for it, and as he did, his left shoe slipped on the pavement with a squeal and he almost lost his balance.

It was the opening Deadeye needed. He spun around, lunged forward, and his spur flashing as he kicked at Ricketts’s face. Its spokes turned red, and the G-man hissed and reeled back, clutching a cheek that looked more like a set of fleshy drapes. The .45 snapped up, but Deadeye caught the hand holding it by the wrist, jerked it aside, and slammed his fist into Ricketts’s eye. There was a satisfying jerk, and the automatic sploshed to the ground. The gunslinger kicked it away, sent it rippling off into a forest of gawking ankles as he hauled Ricketts to his feet and snapped his knee deep into the man’s stomach. Deadeye spared the big idiot a desert-dry smile as he sagged to his knees.

“Ain’t so tough without a shootin’ iron, are you, John L --”

Ricketts hit him with a gut shot.

It was great left-handed wallop, from the shoulder, with a burst of old-pro power behind it. His kidney went to the mat. Deadeye’s mouth dropped open, gasping in a silent scream, and he clutched the white fire that passed for his belly with both hands as Ricketts surged against him.

They fell with a tremendous splash, the momentum sending them sliding across the pavement. Ricketts punched him once, twice, thrice, and Deadeye’s nose blossomed with fresh blood as the graze on his ribs sent lightning lancing along his side. He raised one hand to protect his face, fumbled about with the other, searching for something, anything to even the odds…

His palm fell on a familiar handle, and Deadeye grinned, his face a red mess, as he swung his recovered six-shooter up to blow Ricketts’s forehead straight to Dodge City.

                                                         * * *

“Feeling nervous, clanky?” said that awful, cheery voice. “I get the same way around tight spaces. Maybe if I loosen things up a little…”

Another pneumatic whoosh, another bulge, another creak of strained metal. The seeping whine of escaped steam; it filled the vault like a fog. She’d ruptured something. One look at the pressure gauge mounted on the back of his palm told Stan that he was losing strength fast. He whirred and groaned, closed his good eye, and tried not to faint. He settled for falling down on his ass.

“This don’t mean nuthin’, doll,” he gasped. “I figure Deadeye’s turned your boyfriend into Swiss cheese by now. Hell, he’s probably halfway across town with the Galvanic Whosits. Maybe you oughtta worry about stopping him instead of me.”

Stan made a silent apology to the poor one-eyed bastard for siccing Belle on him, but right now, he needed her away from his innards and out that door. Once was gone, he’d jury-rig some repairs and get her back something awful -- if she bought his line.

“I think the old such-and-so can take care of himself.”

Goddammit.

“You Board types are always underestimating him. It’s really kind of unfair. I mean, he’s not special like us. Well, like me.” That horrible, squirming intelligence wriggled down deeper, deeper…“You’re more like my gran’s water heater with legs.”

“I’m insulted, doll.”

“So is my gran’s water heater.” Another hiss, and his right shoulder bent out at a very uncomfortable angle. “I’m more interested in what you can tell me about the Skull.”

Stan stood as straight as a man on his knees can. “I don’t squeal.”

“Your body will, if I keep piling on the pressure.” Belle’s voice came from his chest now. “What’s have we here?”

Stan’s eye flew open. He decided to answer her as calmly as he could.

“That would be my boiler, doll.” Not important, nossir, nothing to see here. Move along, move along.

“Ohhhh. It’s kind of like your heart, right?”

Goddammit.

                                                         * * *

Ricketts rolled across the ground as Deadeye jackknifed to his knees and fanned the hammer.

BLAM! BLAM! BLAMBLAMBLAMBLAMBLAM!

Bullets spanged and sprayed all around him. The crowd was scattering, screaming; panicked feet pounded and splashed past him, across him, on him. Bodies fell around him, and a heavy mix of cordite smoke, scared sweat, and worse invaded his nostrils. Ricketts’s head swam with old memories. Muddy trenches…useless uniforms…bloodstained helmets. Flashes in the night. The gas. And the rain. The rain that kept No Man’s Land an open grave. It was all over him, drenching him, staining him, fouling him…

No. No, not the rain. Water. Clean water. From the hydrant. He was in the city. And it wasn’t the Great War. Just a little war, a dirty little war against dirty little men. And to fight them, he needed a gun.

Like the trusty old .45 that he saw in the gap between two fleeing legs.

Ricketts grunted as he threw himself forward, sliding across the flooded street. A thoughtless foot kicked the automatic, sent it spinning it to the right, and he thrust out his hands, wishing that he had Belle’s conveniently adjustable reach. His fingers brushed the cold, slippery steel, and he reflexively clawed at it, scrabbled with his water-softened nails at the textured grip, twisted his elbow against his ribs as he drew his body inward, toward the gun, willing it to stay there, just stay there, I’ll be with you soon, baby. In that moment, he loved his battered piece, truly loved it, as a man loves a lost dog. It was the center of his universe; the scientists were wrong about the poles, the world turned on that gun.

His nails slipped once. Twice. The .45 squirted away half an inch.

With a gasp of effort, Ricketts hooked the fingernail of his index finger in the tiny seam between the butt and the clip. Before his piece could slip off again, he rolled over, smacked his other palm across the gun, and scooped it up.

Thank you, baby, thank you.

Ricketts flopped onto his back and aimed the .45 across the line of his body. All he needed was one good shot…

                                                         * * *

Deadeye threw his gun belt around his neck and picked up the Generator case with his free hand as he spun round and set off into a loping run. His graze hurt something awful, the damned mist was messing with him, and no one in the crowd was polite enough to give him a clean shot at Ricketts, who had probably got his paws on one of the many guns lying around. High time to skedaddle.

Behind him, he heard the G-man’s harsh voice raised in a warning shout. Deadeye didn’t look back to take aim, but pointed the Colt over his shoulder and let off a few rounds, snorting back blood as he sprinted into the back alley. All he needed was Rosie, and he’d be in the clear.

                                                         * * *

“Just so we’re clear, that’s everything you know?”

Stan grunted and thrust out his steam-shovel jaw. “Everything.”

“It still strikes me as funny that you don’t know what the Skull’s planning to do with the Generator. And I don’t mean, funny, ha-ha; I mean, funny, hmmm-hmmm.” Belle’s voice dropped down a dangerous octave, and the pressure increased everywhere, until Stan suit felt as though it was about to split like an overcooked bratwurst. “Are you sure you’re not holding out on me?”

“Positive, positive!” he howled. “The Skull don’t let on what he’s up to, he never does. I work for him cuz the pay’s good and he keeps me rolling in scrap metal and lubricants.” He screwed up his face like a cast-iron infant. “Gaw darn it, woman, do ya know the price of DW-40 these days? It’s like Prohibition out there!”

Belle sighed, and the strain went down, if only a smidge. “Yeesh, okay, I get it, you’re stupid and gullible. Calm down, already. I wasn’t going to kill you.”

Stan sniffled. “You wasn’t?”

“Nope,” she chirped. “But that doesn’t mean I’ll turn my back on those fists of yours, either.”

The parts of Stan’s face that could go pale, did go pale, as the hissing began again, harsher and more purposeful than before. Stitches popped, seams split, and a ripping scream wrenched from Stanley Steamer as all four of his mechanical limbs exploded like Fourth of July firecrackers.

Metal and steam flew everywhere, along with gobs of sloppy pink goo. Hot shrapnel bit meaty chunks from what little of Stan’s body still had chunks to rip from, and he felt a cold, wet sensation in his belly that could only be a boiler leak. Dazed, he tottered for a moment, then crashed to the ground, a helpless stump, his mechanical guts grinding fitfully. Hot water oozed from his ruined arms and legs like heart’s blood, and Stan felt the grim shudder of his emergency cutoffs trying to stanch the flow.

A slimy, pulling sensation from his shoulders and hips distracted him from the fact that he was uncomfortably close to kicking the bucket, as four featureless pink snakes slithered from his stumps. As they joined together with a quartet of polite squinching sounds, he felt fingers tweak his ruined arms and legs, squeezing the open pipes shut. The leaking stopped. A hard fury rose up in him, as impotent as his wounded pride, as Stan realized that she was determined to make him live with the shame of his cowardice.

He glared at her as the pink mess sculpted itself with soft squelches and precise pinches, gained form and detail and color, until Belle rolled her neck without a crack of nonexistent vertebrae and gave him a smile.

“Let me ask you something, doll,” he rumbled.

“Shoot.”

“Why did ya have to blow up my legs?”

Her smile turned a little sheepish. “Sorry, clanky, but I couldn’t turn my back on those feet of yours, either.”

That smile made him wish he still had his laser eye, but she’d busted it back when she’d been crawling around behind his face. Stan settled for baring his teeth at her and growling. Gum Belle just kept on talking, as though they were the best of friends.

“Ricketts has probably picked up the Generator by now, so I’ll go do the fun part and stop that raid on the receiver were smart enough to tell me about. In the meantime, just sit tight and wait for security to come pick you up.” She made a sound between a gasp and a hiccup, and he realized she was laughing at him. “Sorry. It’s just…sit tight. I…hoo. That’s a good one.”

Stan growled harder. His throat hurt.

“Anyway, I did my best to make sure I didn’t doom you to a slow and painful breakdown, but you know us silly women, we’re just no good with our hands.” Her smile sharpened. “But hey, at least we have hands.”

“Doll, you better laugh while you can.” Stan smiled around his bolted jawbone. “Trust me, the Skull don’t just win. He makes sure everyone else loses.”

Her playful smile evaporated, and Belle leaned down, close enough to kiss him. In a moment of weakness that he would remember until the end of his days, Stanley steamer flinched.

But she only patted him on the head. “That’s funny, because I don’t like to lose. Bye.”

And she slithered off down the hall. The last thing he heard was the gooey snap of her gum as she popped a fresh bubble. Stan was alone, left to brood on his failure and his helplessness.

No need to worry about the Generator, though. He’d squealed, all right, but even a squealer knows to hedge his bets. That broad was dumb as a stump if she thought Ricketts was ever going to get his hands on anything but a bucket of trouble.

                                                         * * *

Ricketts knelt on the ground and held his hands tight to the wound. Blood welled up from between his fingers in a slick, sickening stream, and he gritted his teeth and pressed down harder.

“Just hang on tight, ma’am,” he growled. “You’ll be okay.”

“No, I won’t,” the stout matron with the iron-colored hair bugled. “I’ve been shot.

“Grazed. In the arm,” he muttered.

The matron glared at him. “I heard that.”

Ricketts grumbled as he tore a strip of linen from his shirtsleeve, wound it tight around her arm once, twice, thrice, then tied it off. “You’re lucky you’re still alive. Most of these people weren’t.” He helped her up. “Now, go over to that luncheonette across the street and call an ambulance.”

“What about you?”

Ricketts jammed his bowler low over his eyes and flicked the safety from his .45.

“Settle things for the ones who didn’t make it.”

A buzzing, metallic whinny and a plume of black smoke were the only warnings he got before a monstrous stallion shot out of the alley, careening for them like a four-legged cannonball. Ricketts shoved the matron to the sidewalk and hurled himself after her an instant before it roared past them. He had a glimpse of steel flanks, pounding piston legs, a belching exhaust pipe for a tail, coal-fire eyes.

And Deadeye, crouched down low over a clockwork neck, grinning with too many teeth as his mechanical horse leaped over the crumpled corpse of a cop car with the grace of a swooping airplane and thundered down the street, the Generator case swinging from a line of chain on its saddle.

“Did you see that? Did you see that?” The stout matron stomped her foot. “That man nearly ran me over! And what were you doing, mister I’m-Going-To-Stop-Him? Lollygagging around like a typical Irishman. Why, I ought to call the police on you…”

Ricketts didn’t tell her to shut up. In hindsight, it was one of his most astonishing acts of compassion. In truth, however, he was just too distracted by the motorcycle parked by the curb to hear her. It was a patrolman’s bike, complete with the silly blue bubble and bad black-and-white authoritarian paint job. It had come through the firefight unscathed; in fact, it looked as though it had just come off the factory floor, as though there hadn’t been any gunfights, exploding fire hydrants, minor riots, cold-blooded murders, or rampaging three-ton metal palominos anywhere nearby over the last five minutes.

And the keys were even in the ignition. Ricketts raised his eyes heavenward. Sometimes, God knows just when to help a guy out.

                                                         * * *

The thrill of the outdoors had always been a sign of life for Deadeye. Buildings had never held much appeal to him back West. Neither had progress. Some might call his views a mite old-fashioned, but he thought most of the highfalutin’ inventions of the 20th century were a load of hogwash.

Take the automobile, for example. Loud, wobbly, dangerous, stuffy, smelly. It was a coffin with a crankshaft. Deadeye much preferred a good horse under his backside. Easier to clean, cheaper to feed, and when it broke down, you could eat it. Only problem was how durned fast those automobiles went. It took the worm out of a hand’s tequila if he got himself pulled over by a white hat in a horseless carriage just as he was riding off into the sunset.

Leave it up to old Stan to take a stallion’s skeleton, layer it with auto bits, tack on a few fancy gizmos to make her behave right, and call her Rosie, a loveable metal monster that was as fast as any humdrum coupe, and a bushel more maneuverable. She’d seen Deadeye through the Slouch Hat days and kept him out of the hands of the law during Prohibition. She wasn’t as tasty as a real horse, but she was just as reliable.

Deadeye wiped his burning eyes and pulled his handkerchief up over his face in a classic train-robber’s mask. The only problem, he reflected, was the godawful amount of smoke it put out. Stan had always meant to put on some baffles, only he’d been a little short on time since the Skull had called them in on this Generator job. Maybe when it was all over, they’d…

The bright whine of a police siren punched through his happy thoughts. Deadeye looked over his shoulder and wished he hadn’t.

There was John Law, riding on one of those newfangled motorized bicycles. It looked two sizes too small for the tin star, but he was still pulling up on Deadeye as though the pair of them were off to Sunday services. The polecat just wasn’t going to give up.

Deadeye found himself smiling.

“Awright, tin star. Let’s see how you play posse.”

He kicked down on the stirrups. Rosie surged forward, and Deadeye leaned low across her neck as they twisted and juked between honking horns and screeching tires, through four lanes of traffic, the wind in his face as welcome as any saloon girl or whiskey bottle.

Now this was living.

                                                         * * *

Ricketts clung for dear life and dearer balance as he tried to follow Deadeye’s lead. He wasn’t doing a very good job.

The steel horse plunged from lane to lane, zipping through oncoming traffic as quick and easy as a salmon swimming upstream. Ricketts, who liked to think of himself as a sane guy, settled for hopping the bike up onto the median, weaving back and forth to avoid marching ranks of streetlamps as he kept pace. One misstep (missteer? Never mind; it was too distracting to decided) and he’d end up with a wrecked bike and a scrambled braincase.

Dip-swerve, swerve-dip. Between swift-still cars, caught in fitful freeze-frames, he could see the steel horse. A moment’s baleful glare before it disappeared behind a newspaper van told Ricketts that the snapshots went both ways. As the bike roared past another streetlamp, he dipped his hand into his coat, flicked open his shoulder holster, and pulled out his .45. If he was going to win this, he was going to have to take a few risks.

Too bad he wasn’t the only one who realized that fact. Matched stop-stutter flashes, twin muffled cracks, and a hot rush of lead zipped past his right ear; another rang off the nearest streetlamp. Sparks sizzled and popped close against his face. Ricketts blinked like a walking camera shutter, fighting lid and lash to clear the spots from his eyes.

He got his vision back just in time to discover that he had just swerved into oncoming traffic.

So much for being a sane guy.

                                                         * * *

High in the saddle, Deadeye growled a select piece of Old-Western color. Ricketts’s cussed bike was damn tricky to get a clean shot at when it had been on that shooting gallery in the middle of the road. Now the wily bastard was jackrabbiting around in traffic with him.

He pumped the stirrups again, fire belching out along with the smoke as he steamed past a milkman driving a square little delivery truck. Deadeye caught the liquid rattle of full bottles, the heavy jounce of overworked shocks.

A crooked smile twisted his face. Maybe he didn’t need a clean shot after all.

Lazily, almost without looking, he spun his Colt back over his shoulder and squeezed the trigger.

                                                         * * *

There was a bang, and the driver of a milk truck up ahead lolled over in his seat, his white uniform stained red. The white box wobbled and lolled like an undead thing.

Ricketts’s balls flew up into his mouth.

In case anyone is curious, they didn’t taste good.

The milk truck’s tires screeched in the death throes of traction, and it toppled over with ponderous grace, twirling in deadly figure-eights across the road. Its siding split open, and wholesome Vitamin D-rich froth spewed in every direction, sparkling with enough broken glass to shred a zeppelin. Panic rippled through traffic like a stock-market crash. Tires eviscerated themselves on glass daggers, cars flipped over, coupes and cabs hurtled over curbs and into storefronts. All was screaming and panic and faceless violence, and the steel horse swam through it like a dark secret. A wheel-turned-Frisbee hummed through the air, and Ricketts ducked his head down before it damn near burred his skull off. The handlebars shook with terrible indecision beneath him, and he knew that he was dangerously close to wiping out.

And that was before the Studebaker spun square into his lane.

“Aw…” Ricketts clamped down on the handlebar and went into a hard turn, but the bike fishtailed with a swift, liquid twist, tires skidding with a hiccupping vulcanized scream. He hauled over, kicked away from the road to keep from falling, willing the bike not to give out yet as he leveled the .45 against his forearm.

The Stude was spinning, but not too quickly. Maybe (said his imagination) that was because it was loaded with a family of eight who had come to the city in their brand-new sedan on a sightseeing tour with their twelve-year-old black Lab named Scruffy, who was blind in both eyes but sweet as an old knit sweater, especially around baby Annie. They had just come back from Holman’s department store, and the trunk was loaded with new clothes for the missus and toys for the kiddies, and, seeing as it was just after lunch, everyone was filled to bursting with hometown cooking from Ma’s Diner. Maybe it was all that weight and love that kept it so slow.

Or maybe it was because the damn thing was a Studebaker, and Studebakers, as every Packard man knows, drive like refrigerators on square wheels.

Ricketts didn’t have time to decide which was true. He only had time for one shot.

He took it.

The .45 went off with a crack that tore through the chaos around him and made his ears ring. A split second later, the Stude’s driver’s-side front tire exploded, and it lurched to a forced stop, the spin grinding away as the sedan’s wheel well crumpled and sparked against the asphalt.

Just then, there was a gap, a generous four-foot gap, between the Stude and the nearest car. Ricketts almost tore the handlebars from the dash as he practically lifted the motorcycle out of its skid, gunned the engine, and screamed through it.

As he passed the Stude’s rear window, he thought he heard a grateful bark.

                                                         * * *

Tarnation.

The road was clear now. Most of the newfangled automobiles had either cleared out or crashed out. It was him and Ricketts now, and Deadeye found himself burning with something that he didn’t quite recognize. He had never met a lawman, nineteeth century or twentieth, who had been this gall-blamed stubborn. Deadeye was almost flattered at the attention. He wanted to wave his hat at the tin star, to salute him for a race well won.

Instead, he flipping back the hammer and sending a head shot right down the lane at him. The bike screeched aside, and Ricketts snapped off three quick ones, courtesy of his cheatin’ man’s automatic. Two chimed off the horse’s flanks, but a third zipped perilously close to Deadeye’s grazed side. He winced. Nothing like a reminder of his own mortality to ruin a man’s day.

This was no good. On a flat road, with the traffic clear, Ricketts’s slim bike gave him good cover, while Rosie made Deadeye a tall and tempting target. He needed to shake things up a little, get to where his four legs trumped the tin star’s two wheels.

There was an intersection coming up. There was a gasoline station…a newspaper vendor…a corner rose bush…one of those elevated city train stations.

Deadeye clucked his tongue against his teeth. He’d take what he could get.

                                                         * * *

The bike swerved and swung crazily along the road as Ricketts struggled to keep up with the steel horse. Deadeye holstered his revolver and galloped head-on towards the next intersection, doing his best to keep himself a moving target. Grumbling under his breath, Ricketts jammed his own piece back into its rig and concentrated on keeping up. It was rough going. This close, the horse’s greasy exhaust stung his eyes and crawled up his nose, wringing harsh coughs from his lungs and swathing everything in clinging black smoke. How Deadeye could stand it up there, he had no idea.

The steel horse swerved suddenly and leapt over what looked like a hedge. Ricketts had no time to turn aside; all he could do was let out a cringing yell, throw one arm across his face, and plow into what turned out to be a rose bush. Thorns clung to his coat and shredded his socks; warm pain lanced along his ankles and knuckles. Tough woody nails screeched for an instant across the bike’s flanks, and soft planting soil churned under its wheels. Ricketts gunned the throttle; leaves and petals flattened against the windshield, melted aside in defeat, and he burst through, his shocks bouncing him briefly against the sidewalk before he charged ahead.

But the damage had been done. Deadeye now had a healthy lead, courtesy of a brain-dead city landscape artist and something called a “jump,” and he had taken it across the street, over the curb, to the iron stairs leading up, up…

Screams. People were screaming.

At the tram station.

“Dammit.”

Roaring in a tight turn, Ricketts plunged for the stairway, reared the bike up in a clumsy wheelie, and held a deep breath as he mounted the railing and rocketed up, away from the road, climbing to the sky on a slender steel thread. A fall to the left would make him a fancy stain on the asphalt. A fall to the right would only chew him up against the grated stairs. Spaghetti sauce or parmesan cheese, those were his options by way of consolation prize.

Neither had an Irish flavor.

He hit the landing, squealed around, took the second flight. Through the nest of struts and girders that separated him from the passenger platform, he could see panicked shadows, smell oily smoke, feel heavy hoofbeats.

A gunshot rang out, and Ricketts flinched as something heavy and meaty thumped to the platform above. Without a second thought, he opened the throttle wide open. The bike wobbled under his hands, and he felt his weight begin to shift to the right, to the long, long drop below, but before he could fall over the edge, the metal forest cleared around him, the ceiling became the floor, and he burst onto the platform like a one-man torpedo.

The motorcycle howled as it ripped out of the stairwell, soared through the air, and screech-skidded to a stop not three feet from the edge of the platform. Deadeye’s Colt blurred onto him, but Ricketts gunned the engine and roared out of the way in a tight arc, staying within the circle of frightened civilians that huddled against the edge of the platform.

                                                         * * *

Deadeye made a show of tracking the tin star, but he was already spurring himself forward, off the station, leaping over the human sheep.

Onto the tracks.

“Come and get me, John Law,” he called over his shoulder, laughing like a barbed-wire coyote as Rosie clattered down the rails. Behind him, he heard Ricketts shouting for the greenhorns to get out of the way. By the time the motorcycle hit the rail line, Deadeye was a good two blocks ahead.

It was a lead he’d surely keep. That bike was a fair sight speedier on the open road, but Rosie’s four hooves made her the clear winner on the bumpy tracks. Riding the rails was the best idea he’d had in years. With a kiss from Lady Luck, by the time the next platform rolled around, John Law would be miles behind, and Deadeye would be free to hit the road again, meet the others at the Plaza and get a stiff slug of whiskey for that burning pain in his side.

His grin faded as he saw a steely glint up ahead, accompanied by the deep-throated warble of an air horn. Deadeye drew up short, whisked out a gold pocket watch that had once belonged to a Pinkerton, glanced at it and cursed. The 3:10 train was early.

Maybe this wasn’t the best idea he’d had in years.

                                                         * * *

Much like Deadeye, Ricketts tried to curse, but his teeth were too busy trying to chatter themselves to pieces. Not that the poor motorcycle was doing much better: the ties were wreaking havoc on its suspension, and it was only a matter of time before either his wheels fell off or the gunslinger’s metal monster galloped to an insurmountable lead. In fact, he could only barely see it now, a faint dot on the horizon.

A dot that was growing closer. Deadeye had stopped.

Because the 3:10 was getting ready to run them both down.

A ripple of fear, cold as a Michigan winter, swept through Ricketts, tightening his throat, numbing his hands. It was impossible to turn around. The tracks were just too narrow. After a quick glance down (way down) at the street, and a fervent wish for Belle’s talent for impossible escapes, Ricketts gunned the bike’s engine wide open and charged headlong for the train. Time for a hail-Mary pass.

Apparently, Deadeye had come to the same conclusion, because he had already spurred the steel horse to a thudding gallop. As the train rumbled closer and closer, the gunman spun in his saddle, blasting at Ricketts with both barrels, steering with his thighs, his face set in a furious snarl. This time, there was no way to dodge. All Ricketts could do was wobble the bike from side to side in an attempt to be a fidgeting duck instead of a sitting duck. Bullets sparked and whined off the bike’s flanks. One hit the windshield and shattered it into a razor rain that sliced red lines across Ricketts’s face and hands. A last shot grazed his shoulder like a flying brand.

The train’s horn whistled again, getout, getout, getoutofthewaaaay! As it bore down on them, Deadeye holstered his guns, slung the Generator case over his shoulder by its chain, then grasped the steel horse’s reins and leapt from the saddle. Using the reins like a rope, he swung to the side of the train and grabbed hold of some unseen handhold on the 3:10’s left flank as his poor internal combustion equine met the bad side of the public transit system and exploded in a shower of gears and an all-too-anguished shriek. Ricketts flinched.

Maybe his own impending death by choo-choo had something to do with that.

Whoever said that necessity is the mother of invention was only half right. Necessity is the mother of panic, which induces labor to get invention out of the damned womb and save somebody’s butt.

And since few things give a man a case of the trembling bladders more than the prospect of being turned into a wet smear by fifty tons of rolling iron, Ricketts found himself pretty panicked, and, therefore, mighty inventive. Jamming his .45 between his teeth (it tasted terrible, like getting a mouthful of gunmetal castor oil), he whisked off his overcoat, wishing it a quick goodbye as it fluttered off like a woolen kite, then shrugged his shoulder holster off his back and into his hands. He swung his left leg over, settled down, sidesaddle, and waited.

The train filled his vision, became his whole world, screaming at him, almost atop him. Bits of the steel horse were still caught against its front wheels, and they sent up showers of screeching sparks as the 3:10 ground them into shavings. Ricketts flicked his eyes up at the windshield and caught a glimpse of the conductor’s face, ashen and waxy, his fear-blanched lips mouthing something that was probably best left unheard.

Then Ricketts twisted the handlebars with his elbows and swerved to the left.

With a heavy lurch, the bike fell onto its side, just as he knew it would. On these tracks, it was inevitable. But it fell so that it was under him, instead of on top of him, and that was what mattered. Ricketts planted his feet firmly on its gas tank and rose into a half-crouch, riding the bike like a Hawaiian surfboard as it hopped the tracks, white fire blazing from its underside. It slid to the left, away from the train’s manslaughter-prone path. Ricketts held his holster loose and ready in both hands, a police-issue garrote, looking for the first protrusion. The moment he saw it, he’d lash the holster around it and hang on for dear life.

The bike had almost made it when the train clipped its rear wheel, shearing it off as neatly as a chef joints a chicken. The motorcycle spun clockwise with the force of the impact, slamming hard towards millstone wheels and razor rails, throwing Ricketts off-balance, ruining his concentration. Given the gravity of the situation, there was only one course of action he could follow.

Ricketts yelped, teetered backwards, and fell.

                                                         * * *

                                   Don’t miss the next exciting chapter of

                                   GUM BELLE CONQUERS THE UNDERWORLD:

                                                     “THE SKULL
                                                               STRIKES THRICE!”
</b>
Thrills! Chills! [Insert Witty Topical Reference Here]!

Will Ricketts become a smear on the pavement? Will Gum Belle stop the second half of the Phantom Skull's master plan in time? And where's Jenkins in all this mess?

Find out now: [link]

For a full-sized version of this week's header, go here: [link]

AUTHOR'S NOTES:

This chapter was a lot of fun to write; the chase between Ricketts and Deadeye -- in fact, their whole showdown -- had been rattling around in my head for years, and it was great to get it all out on paper. Of course, it didn't turn out the way it did in my imagination, but that's how these things tend to go, I think. For example, I originally had the chase slated to be in a tunnel, until I remembered that Uptown had elevated rail lines.

As a side note, there was over a year of downtime between the last chapter and this one. If you're a first-time reader, count your lucky stars that I'm getting a little better at posting things at a fairly regular rate. ;)
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:icondragon-the-tribrid:
Dragon-the-Tribrid Featured By Owner Apr 4, 2009  Hobbyist General Artist
Whoa, Deadeye's from the past? That's a cool touch, it makes what could've been a fairly generic but characterful gun fighter into someone worthy of being among a super villain group.

I loved that chase scene, it sounded really dynamic but I got a bit lost around just before they were on the tracks. No problem though, I managed to figure out what was happening.
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:iconstretch-ink:
Stretch-Ink Featured By Owner Apr 4, 2009
Yeah, Deadeye's a character who's been rattling around for some time. He first made a very early (and much changed) appearance in an aborted Wild West story I did back in 2005, along with a prototype of Stanley Steamer. That's one reason the two of them are kind of buddies. He evolved into what he is today when I was working on a never-commenced Mutants & Masterminds campaign. When the time came to fill a seat on the Board, he seemed a natural choice.

As an aside, I've been tinkering with a possible period story for Deadeye, set back in the West again. No stretching or anything, just old-fashioned gunslinger action. Hopefully, it'll still be enjoyable even without the "fanservice." ;)

Thanks for the feedback on the chase. I hope it wasn't too confusing. I often get very, very taut and inentionally fragmented during action scenes, the better to illustrate the rush of the moment, but I have been known to go overboard from time to time. You got the general gist of things, though? That's good.
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:icondragon-the-tribrid:
Dragon-the-Tribrid Featured By Owner Apr 5, 2009  Hobbyist General Artist
Maybe doing a series of 'origin stories' for the Board of Crime could be a good idea? It might help to have something different to think about when you get stuck on the next Gum Belle chapter.
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:iconstretch-ink:
Stretch-Ink Featured By Owner Apr 5, 2009
That's what I was thinking. Oddly enough, I got around 500 words done on the Deadeye origin earlier this week -- right before my brain busted through a particularly stubborn problem on the next Belle chapter. Go figure. ;)
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:icondragon-the-tribrid:
Dragon-the-Tribrid Featured By Owner Apr 7, 2009  Hobbyist General Artist
Sounds cool! And doing something else to give one problem a break can sometimes lead to coming up for a solution to said problem!

I wouldn't mind seeing Madame 415 and Stanley Steamer's origins.
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:iconuncle-ben:
Uncle-Ben Featured By Owner Feb 8, 2009
Woot!
Oh yeah!

Excellent action chapter!
It was well broken up with bits of humor and well worded passages.

Really well done!
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:iconstretch-ink:
Stretch-Ink Featured By Owner Feb 8, 2009
Thanks; I'm glad you liked it!
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:iconuncle-ben:
Uncle-Ben Featured By Owner Feb 8, 2009
Yeah, I did.

I have a feeling we haven't seen the last of Stanley Steamer ... I expect a newer and improved version will make himself known before the end.
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:iconstretch-ink:
Stretch-Ink Featured By Owner Feb 8, 2009
...

;)
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:iconuncle-ben:
Uncle-Ben Featured By Owner Feb 8, 2009
Oh! Score again!

I really need to keep these in notes ...
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