“Wrecking Party” (Excerpt)

Check out Dead Man’s Hand, a new anthology from editor John Joseph Adams featuring stories of the Old West infused with elements of the fantastic. Dead Man’s Hand is available May 13th in the U.S. and May 30th in the U.K. from Titan Books!

From a kill-or-be-killed gunfight with a vampire to an encounter in a steampunk bordello, the weird western is a dark, gritty tale where the protagonist might be playing poker with a sorcerous deck of cards, or facing an alien on the streets of a dusty frontier town.

Dead Man’s Hand contains twenty-three original tales produced specifically for this volume by many of today’s finest writers. Included are Orson Scott Card’s first “Alvin Maker” story in a decade, and an original adventure by Fred Van Lente, writer of Cowboys & Aliens. Other contributors include Tobias S. Buckell, David Farland, Alan Dean Foster, Jeffrey Ford, Laura Anne Gilman, Rajan Khanna, Mike Resnick, Beth Revis, Fred Van Lente, Walter Jon Williams, Ben H. Winters, Christie Yant, and Charles Yu.

Below, read an excerpt from Alastair Reynolds’ story, “Wrecking Party.”

 

 

Wrecking Party

Arizona Territory
1896

 

We caught him wrecking the horseless carriage on Main Street a little after two in the morning. It was a hard rain that night, the kind that keeps most folk indoors. Hardly ever rains in Arizona, but when it does it comes down like something Biblical. Our wrecker must have thought he had the town to himself. But Doctor Hudson was abroad, returning late from attending a birth at the ranch in Bitter Springs. He had already attempted to remonstrate with the wrecker. This earned him a powerful swing from an iron bar, the kind gangers use to lever up railroad tracks. The Doctor dodged the bar, and after scrambling up out of the mud he came to my office, where Tommy Benedict and I were sipping lukewarm coffee and wondering if the roof would hold against the rain.

I buckled on my holster and revolver, leaving Benedict in charge of the office.

“You recognize this man, Doctor Hudson?”

“Haven’t seen him before, Bill. Looks like a wild man, come down from the hills. Smells like he’s got half a gin house inside of him, too. He’s riled up about something.”

It didn’t take us long to find the wrecker still at work in front of Quail’s saloon. The horseless carriage was already in a sorry state. Under the violence of the bar, the machine clanged like a cracked bell. Pieces of it were already in the mud. One of its lamps had buckled, turning it squinty-eyed. I couldn’t help but think of a dog being beaten, cowering against the next blow. It was stupid because the horseless carriage was just a thing, made by men from metal and rubber and leather. It didn’t have a soul or a mind. But it looked pathetic and whimpering all the same.

“Be careful,” Hudson warned as I neared the scene.

Mindful of what had nearly befallen the Doctor, I drew my revolver and held it up to the sky, the barrel catching the rain like a chimney spout. “This is the Town Marshal!” I shouted. “Stop what you’re doing!”

But he didn’t stop, not even when I’d fired a warning shot. The man just kept swinging away at the machine, seemingly more enraged with each strike. One of the mudguards had come off now.

I told Hudson to go back to the office and summon Tommy Benedict. I circled around the wrecker, peering through the rain as it curtained off the brim of my hat like Niagara Falls itself. Not that it excused the wrecker’s actions, but it was a fool thing of Parker Quail to leave his horseless carriage out there like that, in the mud and rain, letting everyone know he was rich enough to own that fancy German toy.

I kept a wary eye on both the wrecker and the saloon. I didn’t want Parker Quail or his men getting mixed up in this. Chances were good they were all sound asleep after a heavy evening of drinking and carding. But I watched the windows all the same.

If I could just time things, get that bar off of him. But I wasn’t quick on my feet these days. Even less so on a cold wet night, when the bullet in me started wriggling around.

I took a lurch for the bar and missed. My leg buckled under me, and I went down in the mud. Lightning flashed, lighting everything up in black and white. The wrecker really did look like a wild man, all rags and beard and crazy long hair. Enraged by my attempt to spoil his fun, he lunged at me with the rod. Thinking fast, Doctor Hudson grabbed my shoulder and tugged me sharply out of harm’s way, my posterior skidding on the mud.

“That wound playing up again, Bill?”

I pushed myself to my feet, now just as muddy as the Doctor. “You did the best you could for me. Dig any deeper, you’d have come out the other side of my leg.”

Hudson nodded—we both knew I was lucky to have kept that leg at all, after that Union bullet went into me in ’62. Better men than me were walking around on pegs. But on a damp night that Yankee shot sure did like to remind me it was there.

Thankfully, Benedict was quicker than either the Doctor or me. Before he signed on as deputy, he’d wrangled cattle. Now he came with his rope and had it around the wrecker on the first try, like they were both part of the same circus act. Hudson seized the chance to scoop up the iron bar. Benedict and I got hold of the wrecker and hauled him like a sack of horse oats back to the office. He put up a struggle all the way back, and Benedict and I lost our footing more than once. By then it really didn’t matter how much more mud we had on us.

I thanked the Doctor and told him to go and get some shut-eye.

“Why’d you do it?” I asked the wild man when we were indoors and Benedict was fetching the keys to open the cell. “What has Parker Quail done to you?”

“Never heard of no Quail,” mumbled our man. Inside the office, the fight had gone out of him. He was slumped down in the chair we’d pushed him into. He seemed more worn out than angry now, all his rage gone from one moment to the next, the way it often did with drunks. He gave off a stench like a barrel of vinegar.

“You were smashing private property,” Benedict said evenly, opening the cell. “That horseless carriage belongs to Parker Quail, as if you didn’t know.”

“Doesn’t matter who it belongs to,” the man said resignedly. “Had to smash it. That’s what you do. You smash ’em. Smash ’em to pieces, so they can’t move, can’t do nothin’. Smash them before they smash us. It’s just another kind of war, just like the one between the States.”

I tried to gauge the man’s years. “You fought?”

“Sure I fought. Did you?”

I nodded. “Hampton’s Legion, under Hood’s Brigade. My war only lasted ’til Antietam, though. Guess I was lucky to get out of it with just a limp.”

“You were Legion?”

“What I said.”

“I was Legion as well.”

I looked at him skeptically. “This far west, that’s some coincidence.”

He truly did look like a wild man come down from the hills. Hair so long and straggly it fell all the way down his face, so you couldn’t tell where hair ended and beard began. No hat, and clothes that were half way to shreds. Boots that were hanging off his feet. Smelled like he hadn’t been near any kind of water, warm or otherwise, in years. Hard to guess his age, too. The grey hair made him look old, but the eyes that looked through the hair, where it allowed, were sharp and attentive. They were clear, too. If he had been Legion, he couldn’t be much younger than me. But the war between the States was thirty years gone.

All of a sudden, I felt a shiver of recognition.

“You got a name?” I asked, with a tingling feeling going right through me.

“You know who I am, Bill. Didn’t realise it was you, ’til you mentioned the Legion. But what are the odds of two southern boys fighting in the same infantry unit, windin’ up in the same one-horse town in the Arizona Territory? Unless we came here together?”

“Abel,” I said quietly, almost as if I didn’t want Benedict to hear me. “Abel McCreedy.”

“Been a while, Bill.”

Benedict sauntered over. He had splashed his face in the basin and washed most of the mud off. “You two acquainted, Bill? Thought you didn’t recognize him.”

“I didn’t, at first. But it’s been—what—twenty odd years?” For Tommy Benedict’s sake I added: “Abel and I shipped west after the war was done. Tried to make a living as bounty hunters. When that didn’t work out, we signed on with the Pinkertons. Later, I ended up deputizing for a marshal in Eloy. Abel stayed with the Pinks… least, that was the last thing I heard.”

“Worked out for a while,” Abel said philosophically. “But you know how it is. Always been better on my own. Tried to go freelance.”

“And?”

“Got myself into some trouble, Bill. Big trouble.” He raised his filth-caked hand slowly, and pushed the hair away from his face. He still had the beard, but there was no doubt now. I was looking at my old partner.

Big trouble. I guess it had to be.

“You’re in a whole heap more of it now,” I said.

“I got carried away out there,” Abel said. “But I had my reasons, Bill. I’m as sane as the day we parted.”

“What brought you into town now, after all this time?”

“Things built up. I guess I was kind of hopin’ our paths would cross, Bill—figured you’d help out an old friend. But then I saw that man’s horseless carriage and it all boiled up inside me and I couldn’t stop myself.”

Benedict was watching us, arms folded. Abel’s story about not recognizing me was obviously a lie, if he’d been looking for me from the outset. “Want to lock him up yet?”

“Hear me out,” Abel said. “Then do what the hell you want.”

I nodded to Benedict. “Stroll over to Quail’s saloon. If no one’s awake, leave it that way. Otherwise, do what you can to placate ’em.”

“And if Quail decides to send some of his friends over to have a word with the man who smashed up his horseless carriage?”

“They’ll be breaking the law.”

“Ain’t stopped them in the past, Bill.”

“McCreedy’s in custody now. That’s all Parker Quail needs to know. Any problem with that, he can take it up with me.”

I waited until Benedict was out of the office. Parker Quail was a constant thorn in our sides. He had made a lot of money from his gambling and whoring businesses, money that he liked to flaunt as often as possible—the horseless carriage was a prime example. He also had a streak of mean in him that would have made a pit viper timid. On two occasions, Quail’s men had broken into the Town Marshal’s office and busted men out of jail. Once to free an associate, another time to enact brutal justice on a man who had crossed Quail. Neither of those things had been during my time as marshal, and I was not going to let it happen on my watch.

Still, I cast a wary glance at our new fortifications, the improved locks and reinforced window bars. Would someone be able to get in?

“For your sake, Abel, you might be better off in the cell. At least until tempers have died down.”

“I don’t care about… who’d you say the man was?”

“Parker Quail,” I said slowly. “You mean this really wasn’t about getting back at him?”

“Told you, Bill. It was about the machine, not the man. It’s always about the machines. They’re all that matter now.”

 


“Wrecking Party” © Alastair Reynolds, 2014

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