Pale lantern light sliced through the slits in the barn wall. Eldridge Fane crouched down behind the cover of a sickly-looking bale of hay. His joints whined and clicked, far to loudly for his liking, and several choice curses ran through his mind. His body hadn’t been made for stealth, and no amount of caution, no furtive creeping, could mask the racket the gearworks emitted. Of course he’d been meaning to ask Lolly for months if she could do something about it, but things being what they were, he hadn’t gotten around to it. That and sneaking was for slinks and cowards. Talking to Lolly’d have to wait. Right now there was the boy to rescue.
If Fane was right—and he knew he was—his quarry had gone straightaway to the Landis Barn. Their careless boot tracks, along with the struggling lad’s scuffles, had pointed the way, sure as a gun. Fane figured they had mounts waiting for them inside, ready to high tail it out of Clever Gulch, so he’d approached the barn cautiously, expecting the doors to fly wide in an explosion of thundering hooves. But so far, all was quiet.
Why in tarnation they’d kidnapped the lad, only these desperadoes and the devil himself knew. The boy’s parents—farmer folk, from the look of them—had only arrived in town earlier that same day. They didn’t look rich, despite their travel-weary second (or third) hand horseless buckboard, so ransom wasn’t the motive. It could be a trap, of course; snatch up the target, leave an easy-to-follow trail, then hole up inside the barn and ventilate the unsuspecting lawman as he came through the doors. It was possible. Unlikely, but possible. Still, Fane had no intentions of blindly moseying into an ambush.
His eyes, such as they were, had adjusted nicely to the darkness, compensating for the lantern’s amber shards that leaked through the gaps in the wall. The light inside would be adequate for what needed to be done here. No reason to activate the sensors in his goggles. Besides, he didn’t want the desperadoes inside to spot their tell-tale glow.
With a whisper, Fane’s suspicions were confirmed.
“You think he’s comin’?” spoke a hushed, unsteady voice from inside the barn.
“Shuddup, Taggert,” a second voice hissed in a heated undertone, brooking no argument.
A sullen silence followed. The warm night air was quiet tonight, with barely a breeze, and Fane’s ears caught a heavy snort, followed by the faint scrape of restless hooves within the barn. Then he heard another sound; a faint, struggling, pathetic muffle. That would be the boy, Chuck.
Fane rose, intent on quiet, but the damned mechanicals in his body had other notions. A shrill grating emanated from his right hip joint, and his left knee popped loudly, expelling a small puff of hissing, whistling steam.
“Shhh. Listen,” whispered one of the men inside.
Fane sighed. The jig was up. No use sneaking now.
Charly Landis would no doubt curse him, but only a fool’d go round to the door and wade into certain ambush. So Fane lurched at the planks, striking them with his mechanical arm. The barn wall exploded to flinders in his wake, and he made a mental note to assure Mr. Landis he’d cover the damages when this was over.
The three horses inside the barn kicked up in protest over the sudden shock and noise, screaming and violently pawing at the stall’s slats. Dust billowed in the light from the tarnished lantern which hung from the rafters. In the circle of shadow directly beneath the lantern stood a wide-eyed man. His long, dirty-yellow mustache drooped down around a crooked-toothed and gaping mouth, and a long, thin billy-goat beard dangled loosely below his lower lip. A young boy—twelve years or so—mouth gagged by a dirty yellow bandana, stood captive, clutched in the desperado’s arms, a long range knife pressed at his throat.
“Let the boy go,” Fane ordered, drawing the right flap of his duster aside to reveal the authority of his badge. The motion also unveiled his ivory handled Lawmaker, freeing it up for easy draw. If the varmint knew what was good for him, he’d comply. Sometimes the mere sight of a firearm was enough to cow a weak-minded outlaw. Unfortunately, this wasn’t one of those times.
“One step closer and the boy’ll have a brand new smile, a big red one.” The man’s voice was full of forced bravado. Fane had seen this hard case earlier that evening, at a monte table in The Double Sun, one of the men who’d come into town with the Bollinger family. He hadn’t much liked the looks of the man, with his eyes full of scorn and venom. He was trouble. But now, fear and revulsion covered the man’s wilting visage as he stared down the Sheriff of Clever Gulch.
Fane knew his looks were an imposing fright to most folks, so he was used to such reactions from strangers.
Now the lad, Chuck Bollinger’s expression was entirely unexpected. Fane imagined the boy would’a been stock terrified, but that weren’t the case. His eyes were narrow slits, angry. His shoulders were set, and he seemed ready to spring away given a moment’s chance, were it not for the long knife against his throat. This boy had some grit to him, Fane’d give him that. A little line of blood trailed down his neck where he’d been nicked by the quivering knife, and this only seemed to rile the boy further. Hell, the boy had better composure than his captor. This could get out of hand real quick.
“Look, Taggert,” Fane called out, his voice tinny, filtered as it was through the modulated mask that now served where his mouth once had been, “if you kill the boy, there’ll be nothing stopping me from ventilating you. On the other hand, if you drop the knife and let him go, you need only spend a few days in the calaboose—”
TO BE CONTINUED…