Johnny had lived his whole twelve years in Dirtville, but even he knew it for a useless dustbowl of a place, like a dried-out patch of prairie grass clinging to the thin, lifeless soil. The fields were all but barren, livestock too scrawny to be worth the effort of eating. Only one shop was still open and its shelves were mostly filled with air. Since the railroad had changed route, taking the trains and travellers with it, half the buildings had been torn down for trade or firewood, or just to get at the prairie dogs nested underneath.
Johnny watched as Dog-Valley Dan slowly paced the main street of Dirtville, his strides weighty with resolve. Thirty-seven cartridge cases glinted on a thong round Dan’s neck, one for every man who’d dared face him in a shoot-out. Thirty-seven corpses, rotting in dusty frontier graveyards.
Dan was an infamous outlaw, wanted in seven states for his exploits on the gunfighting circuit. The last man who’d stopped in Dirtville, a salesman named Hicky, had brought a stack of newspapers and penny dreadfuls describing the exploits of these men, and Johnny had mastered just enough of his letters to read those stories. Like the rest of the townspeople he trembled in anticipation at Dan’s arrival.
As Dan stalked the wide, sandy street folks peered nervously out through flimsy wooden shop-fronts. A small child, running into the open, was whisked away by his mother, a shrew-faced woman in a faded bonnet. The only sounds were the clink of Dan’s spurs and the creaking of the general store sign. Johnny held his breath and gripped his catapult tight to his chest.
A figure in a wide black Stetson emerged from the rickety saloon. Behind him the barkeep, Mr Kent, peered hawk-nosed over the top of the still-swinging doors with their peeling paint. The man in the hat turned to face Dan, fat gloved hand dangling below his holster.
‘You the Cast-Iron Kid?’ Dan asked, his words echoing down the empty street.
The figure in the Stetson nodded, steam rising from his wide shoulders in the midday heat.
‘I hear tell you’re a coward, boy,’ Dan drawled his usual lazy provocation. ‘Gonna prove me wrong?’
The Cast-Iron Kid’s face was wrapped in impassive shadow. With a hiss he strode into the middle of the street and turned to face Dan. The silence stretched out, long and tense, as dust blew against the boarded up storefronts and a tumbleweed rolled down the road.
‘Draw.’ The Kid’s voice emerged, low and scratchy.
Before the words could hit the floor Dan’s pistol was in his hand, bucking and roaring, chambers spinning as he let fly. Six sharp clangs rang out as bullets hit the Kid and ricocheted off into the distance. Dan stared, slack-jawed, as for the first time in his brutal life an opponent failed to fall beneath a hail of lead.
Slowly, the Kid’s coat slid to the floor, revealing a wide chest of gleaming grey, six shallow dents where the bloodstains should have been. He doffed his hat and a cylindrical head reflected the sun’s rays, ridged and flat-topped like an old tin can with dark, gaping holes for a mouth and eyes. Steam emerged from a short smokestack on his back, and every movement was accompanied by a hiss of oiled pistons or whir of hidden gears.
‘My turn,’ came the crackling gramophone voice as the Kid’s hinged fingers reached for his gun.
Sooner or later, every gunslinger and fist-fighter came to Dirtville, drawn by the reputation of the Cast-Iron Kid. Word was the Kid had never been beat, and for the fast-draw fanatics of the Western Territory, that sounded an awful lot like a challenge. Johnny figured no other boy saw so many famous faces, not even the sons of politicians in Washington or rich business folks up in New York. From the stoop of Elmer Klief’s porch he watched the Kid take on Desolation Sal and Wilson Payne, Gettysburg Phil and Running Hammer, leaving each one cold in the dirt. One time, the sheriff of neighbouring Harper’s Fall raised a posse of a dozen men and rode them into Dirtville to bring justice for those the Kid had killed. They lynched the metal man out by the old well, hanging him from an oak so dry and shrivelled it barely even bent beneath Cast-Iron’s weight. But he soon got bored of swinging, tore the improvised gallows clean out of the earth and beat the posse into a rich dark smear. That fall, crops grew round the old well for the first time in years.
Some fights took it out of the Kid, but he always got patched back up. If Johnny kept quiet he got to sit in the smithy while the town’s elders, like old Mr Moore the watchmaker and Heinrich Altman the railroad engineer, tinkered with the Kid’s innards to keep him in shape. They cleaned pipes and calibrated gears while Jim Roe’s wife Ellen, who everyone knew was the real strength at the smithy, beat the dents out of that shining carapace. As the years passed Johnny got older and the adults a little greyer, but old Cast-Iron stayed just the same.
The Stranger rode into town on a white horse named Ghost, past the derelict station and the tiny, cramped graveyard. There was little soil to be dug this side of the mountains, and most of it had to be kept for the malnourished crops. But that didn’t stop folks dying, so the gravedigger had taken to planting the deceased vertically, feet first in deep, narrow tunnels. The bleached crosses clustered tight on Boot Hill.
Johnny sat by the side of the road, stretching out the cord on his home-made catapult. As The Stranger approached Johnny let fly, shattering one of the old bottles perched on a nearby fence. Then he reached down into the dry dirt, fingers seeking another good sized pebble.
‘That’s mighty fine shooting,’ The Stranger said. ‘Reckon you must be the best shot this side of Tombstone.’
Johnny loosed a sharp flint which clattered ineffectively off the fence. He shook his head.
‘Try these,’ The Stranger said, pulling a handful of ball-bearings from his bag and placing them beside the boy. Johnny picked one up, feeling the cold lead weight in his palm.
‘What’re they for?’ he asked.
The Stranger shrugged.
‘Engine stuff,’ he said. ‘I had a buddy used to work the railroads, gave me them for luck.’
‘Don’t you need ‘em?’ Johnny asked.
The Stranger looked round at the barren valley full of pale, weather-beaten buildings with cracked windows and loose tiles.
‘Not as much as you, I reckon,’ he said.
‘You here for Cast-Iron?’ Johnny asked.
The Stranger nodded and pulled two dimes from the pocket of his vest. ‘What can you tell me about him?’
The boy pursed his lips, sucking thoughtfully.
‘He’s real iron,’ he said, accepting the coins. ‘Ma says the menfolk built him to draw folks in, on account of the railroad don’t run through here no more, and there ain’t no other way to make a living round these parts.’
He poked a finger through a hole in his oversized shirt.
‘This here came off of Oklahoma Slim. Mr Klief got his pants, on account of his old breeches didn’t have no backside left to ‘em, and Sally Altman got his jacket to keep her warm in winter. He had a whole bag of gold too. The mayor took it to the traders at Harper’s Fall, got us all manner of grain and tinned food. When we heard you was coming Ma said we’d eat well this winter.’
The Stranger rose slowly to his feet and stood gazing at the distant hills. The wind blew long, dark curls of hair across his stern face. There was a long silence, broken only by the rusty creaking of the general store sign.
‘What’s your name, boy?’ The Stranger said at last.
‘Johnny,’ the boy replied.
‘Thanks, Johnny,’ The Stranger said and raised his hat before turning back towards his horse.
Johnny plucked one of the lead balls from the dirt, rolled it around in his grubby fingers. He glanced nervously up the street into town, but nothing moved except the tumbleweeds. Still clutching the ball-bearing he ran after The Stranger and whispered conspiratorially in his ear.
‘Bullets bounce off of him.’
The Stranger nodded, tethered his horse, and strode up the long street into town. Stopping outside the general store he rolled up his sleeves, unhooked his spurs from his boots and plucked a two-by-four from the barrel by the door. With a calm, quiet tread he stepped into the shadow of the saloon and placed himself next to the creaking door, back pressed up against the wall, plank raised firmly in two calloused hands. There he waited.
After twenty minutes Johnny heard the rattle of the bar door followed by a whirring of gears. The Stranger hefted the plank up to his shoulder and, as the Kid’s looming shadow passed, swung out with all his might. There was a clang like a cathedral bell and the gleaming barrel head flew away, leaving steam pouring from between shiny shoulders. The Stranger struck again and again, splinters flying as he battered the Kid with his improvised club, sending the dented body reeling back into the street, dust spurting beneath each heavy footfall. With a thud that echoed down the whole valley Cast-Iron’s gleaming shell crashed to the ground, a lone gearwheel tumbling out of the gaping neck-hole and rolling to a halt at Johnny’s feet.
The Stranger cast aside the splintered remnants of his club and leaned down over the heap of dusty metal, sweat dribbling down his face in the noonday heat.
‘That’s for my buddy Dan,’ The Stranger said, mouth finally lifting in the hollow image of a smile. But his grin turned to a grimace as the headless body stirred, rising from the packed ochre earth and reaching out towards him. Cold steel hands clamped round The Stranger’s throat, tightening and twisting with ruthless mechanical might. The man’s eyes bulged, foam fringing his mouth, and even though Johnny looked away he could not escape those desperate rasping breaths or the final sickening snap.
Johnny took one last look at the graveyard, thinking of all the wanderers and lawmen he’d seen dropped into its pits as he grew up. Sure, some of them had been mean, and more had been villains of the West’s worst sort, but that didn’t make it right. In one hand he clutched his catapult, a sturdy frame of wood-scraps and rat-glue, an object of his own making, not scavenged from some poor sap sleeping on Boot Hill. In the other he hefted the thing he’d gone to Tombstone for, trading in his fifteenth birthday hat. Sheriff Peterson’s hat, still smelling of hair-cream and blood.
He stood outside the saloon and called for the Cast-Iron Kid, called him every dark curse-name ever muttered and more he’d dreamed up on the long lonely journey back to Dirtville. At last the doors parted and the Kid strode into the street, piston innards hissing.
‘What is it, little Johnny?’ the gramophone voice asked.
‘Its my turn,’ Johnny declared. ‘I’m calling you out, like those other folks did.’
The Kid let out a long, mirthless laugh.
‘This how you get to become a man, is it?’ he asked. ‘Well, little Johnny, let’s see what make of man you are.’
Johnny pulled back on the sling, rubber straining, scrap-wood creaking, the smells of sweat and rat-glue cutting through his fear. The Kid started to laugh again, the sound circling and repeating. Then he fell silent as something struck his chest with a clang, a wide iron bar marked ‘N’ and ‘S’ at either end. Gears froze as the magnet’s power flowed through them, sticking each one to the next. The street was filled with tinkling and whirring as delicate springs and ratchets caught fast and snapped. The Cast-Iron Kid stood motionless, joints stuck in place, steam seeping through the gaps. His firebox backed up and choked on its own fumes, sending clouds of soot-black smoke pouring from his mouth and eyes. Fingers spasmed, stretched back on themselves and burst apart in a hail of tiny articulated plates. Then with a thud that echoed back from the mountains the Kid fell forwards, showering Johnny with dry, lifeless desert dust.
There was no space left in the graveyard for the Cast-Iron Kid, so they melted him down and sold him as engine parts. Years later, folks passing through Harper’s Fall would tell of the sheriff there who sat on his stoop running two ball-bearings round his hand, one of worn lead, the other of cold cast iron.
The first story of Riding the Mainspring by Andrew Knighton will be published on 23rd March, 2016. Bookmark Steampunk Journal to keep up to date with the latest news, reviews, articles and previews.
Buy: Amazon $2.76 Kindle
Author Website: Andrew Knighton website