His name was Fane, and he was my hero. He wasn’t immortal, exactly, but close enough. Fane was the sheriff, and darn if he wasn’t invincible.
The first time I ever seen him, he was standin’ in the middle of main street of Clever Gulch, wearin’ that black hat, with his slick duster hiked back and the fingers of his good hand caressin’ the ivory of his pistol. Pap steered our horseless buckboard out of harm’s way, around the side of the livery barn and safe from the brewin’ shootout.
The sky was the color of faded blood, streaked with dark red clouds that threatened rain. I remember that day, it were so hot and all. Bein’ from the east, we weren’t used to that kind of heat. Sky’s always red out west on them days, when the fat-bottoms of the clouds threaten to re-stain the ruddy dirt—and everythin’ else it touches. The Red Devil they call it, cause it takes the devil of a scrubbin’ to get that color out.
I mulled over whether the awful hidin’ I’d get from Pap would be worth it, and decided to risk it. See, I simply had to get a peep on that there showdown. So I hopped down from the wagon, faster’n a calico jack with a fire-stick up his backside, and ran to the corner.
“Chuck!” Pap yelled after me, but I paid him no due. My mind were made. I’d read my dime novels till the pages was worn through, but I didn’t never think I’d lock eyes first-hand on a real live shootout.
The horses in the livery stall beside me was trompin’ and clompin’ and raisin’ a ruckus. Somethin’ electrifyin’ and fascinatin’ was in the air; and it weren’t no airship. I sensed the pins and needles even before we’d drove into that dingy town, and them horses must’a felt it too. It might’ve been on account of the brewin’ storm, but I liked to think it was somethin’ more than that, like it was the beginnin’ of some great adventure.
I peeked around the corner of the stables and saw townspeople linin’ the boardwalks, doin’ their darnedest to keep out of the line of fire. The menfolk pressed their ladies behind them in case a bullet strayed their way. Fane—I learned his name soon enough—stood with his back to me. I swallowed down a lump, glad I hadn’t missed the action. The other fella was overstrung like a tangle of barb wire, and twitchy to boot. He wore tan, fringed leathers and had a long barrel pistol on his hip, the tip of its holster tied to his leg gunslinger style—but he didn’t look like no gunslinger I’d ever imagined. He had stringy dark hair tied back with a beaded headband, and his dark eyes was as twitchy as the rest of him. He shifted and shuffled his feet as he faced off against the sheriff (not that I knew Fane was the law at the time, but bein’ smart, I caught on right quick as it all played out).
“You don’t want to do this, James Blackfeather,” the sheriff said. His voice warbled tinnily; it sounded like he’d swallowed a harmonica, and was over-loud, even though he weren’t shoutin’. The lawman’s tone, though, was as solid and cold as a block of ice. “Just come along, peaceful-like, and you can spend a week or three in jail. Beats spendin’ eternity in a pine box.”
I shivered, despite the swelter.
The criminal, James, spasmed like someone’d poked him. His eyes went narrow and mean. He spat out a curse, one I’d never before heard in my eleven years in this world. Then he hollered, “Yaint gonna put me in no hoosegow. I done nothin’ wrong, and even if I did, I’m a sovereign Skree, and you caint touch me.” His attitude was all highfalutin’—like the silver-spooners back east—except this fella spoke low and common-like, with an accent I didn’t know. He was an Indjun, I learned. His tribe were native to the rough lands north and west of Clever Gulch.
“The treatise don’t let you get away with crimes in the Free Territories,” Fane told him in that same solid temperament and tinny, musical voice. “I’ll give you to the count of three to lay down that widow-maker and come along peacefully.”
Somethin’ was different about Fane, other than his voice. Where the Indjun was edgy and restless, the fringe on his getup writhing like so many snakes, the lawman was still as iron. When he did move, it was fluid and exact, like one of those steel horses I’d seen at the Federated States’ Fair.
I would’a sworn that James was of a mind to turn tail and run for the hills. He was squirmy and restless, like he had spiders in his britches.
“One,” the sheriff called out. “Don’t make me shoot you.” Fane shifted and widened his stance, meanin’ he’d blocked most his opponent with his body. From my position, through the gap in Fane’s legs, all I could see of James was his fidgety fingers and that foot-long pistol pokin’ out of it’s leathers.
I jumped a mile and nearly pissed myself. “Charles Grover Bollinger! You get back up here this very moment.” Ma was standin’ in the wagon, hands on her hips. She’d used my middle name, which told me she was riled as only a mother could get. I began to turn, to beg her off—even though she’d call it sass—when I heard Sheriff Fane call out, “Two,” then say, “Don’t make me do this.”
I put out my hand, as if that would stop her, and I whispered more harshly than I should have, “Hold on, Ma.” She didn’t take that well, of course. And then somebody near the standoff called out, which pulled my attention back to the street. “Listen to him, Jim,” she said. “You don’t stand a chance against Sheriff Fane.” It was a lady; real pretty and decked out in a satiny saloon dress, frilly at the shoulders. The ringlets of her golden hair bounced in time with her words of warning. She was standin’ in the doorway of the hotel, behind one of them bat-wing doors—for cover, I guessed—but I could see the fancy white ruffles and her tight stockings below the door. I wondered whether that thin wood could stop a bullet.
Before the sheriff got to call out the number three, the Indjun went for his gun. He was fast. So fast I couldn’t follow his draw. The pistol boomed, and the bullet slammed into the sheriff with a loud metallic plunk rather than the meaty thwack I’d expected. A cloud of gunsmoke circled the sheriff like a halo, and he bucked; one foot dug backwards to catch his balance. It looked like a gut shot, maybe, and I thought for sure that he’d crumple to the dusty street, dead or dying.
But that wasn’t how it played out. Before the side-windin’ native could get off a second (or third) round, Sheriff Fane had whipped out his ivory-handled Lawmaker and shot his opponent. He’d flung out his left arm for balance, and I marveled when I saw right through its metal framework, all gears and rivets and spun wire instead of bones and muscle. Another sound of lead on steel rang through the street and echoed off the slat-wood buildings. Indjun Jim hollered in pain and the long widow-maker, painted with his blood, dropped to the red dirt where I could see it through the sheriff’s legs. The gun kicked up a little puff of dust when it landed, like a lament to the last of that day’s dryness.
The street darkened then. A particularly weighty cloud had passed over both suns. They dosey-doed close this time of year, so when clouds blocked them, you really noticed it. And this cloud was thick and deep red, full of Red Devil rain. A streak of lightning shot sideways and lit up the street as Indjun Jim, clutchin’ his bleeding hand to his yellow-belly, finally did turn tail to flee, the coward. He hadn’t dashed more than two strides before the sheriff plugged him, his Lawmaker blooming twice in half as many heartbeats. Two small, rosy wounds blossomed in the back of each of the fugitive’s tan pant legs, one in each thigh. He hit the dirt hard, moanin’ in pain, but still breathin’.
A murmur escaped from the bystanders, like thunder delayed after a distant lightning strike. The sky, as if it realized it should have spoken up after belchin’ out that cracklin’ bolt, bellowed its own thunderous roar, then spat out bloody fury over the town of Clever Gulch. Everyone ran for cover, even those folks what didn’t have fancy clothes to be ruined by the red rain. Everyone, that was, but Fane, the Indjun, and Miss Chrys—the pretty saloon gal—who rushed to the sheriff and fawned over his injury.
Pain shot through the meat of my arm as my Pa yanked me off my feet and tossed me over the buckboard into the rear of our wagon. I landed hard on the edge of one of the burlap covered boxes containin’ our worldly possessions. My Ma clapped me hard upside my head and sent a ringin’ into my ear I’ll never forget. By then the clouds had spattered everythin’ and everyone with bloody, Devil-Red rain. Still, all of it—the clout, the bruise in my ribs that was purple for a week, the whoopin’ where I couldn’t sit right for even longer, and the rain-stains that lasted for a month—was all worth it. I’d been witness to Sheriff Fane’s grit and mettle. And beheld the first of many outlaws laid low by that ivory Lawmaker, and the miraculous metal man who wielded it.