William Marshal, the flower of Medieval chivalry, lay dying. The old man had defeated more than five hundred knights in his career, rising from a landless knight to become the Marshal, the first Earl of Pembroke, and Regent to the young and impressionable King Henry, the most powerful magnate in England. Such honors may have rung hollow for an ordinary mortal approaching the end, mere paper titles. He could not wrap himself in them for warmth, nor soothe his hurts with them. Most men call for their mother at the end, or their God, and forget earthly dignities. The Marshal towered above all those men even on his deathbed.
Fever spread through his body like the devil’s breath, cold sweat near to boiling on his brow. The sheets scratched the backs of his hands, each thread a needle point. Delirium held him aloof from the conversation. England’s pillars of order were there arguing over the Regency: Hubert the Royal Justiciar, the Bishop Peter, and others. Also Pandulf the…papal legate? Yes, and young King Henry, third of his name, whom he called Hal in private. They swam around the bed, wavering in his vision, their words muted, kept from him by illness. That, as much as the stink of his own death, exasperated him.
The Marshal sighed. The expenditure of breath silenced the dispute. “Pandulf,” he said, voice rasping from a parched throat. “Step near.” A blurry form came closer, and there was a slight pressure on the mattress. He lifted his head as far as he could, blindly addressing the room. “England is pressed by enemies abroad, and threatened by the barons here at home.” His voice, at least, remained strong. “This blessed plot, our England, must call upon the Lord for salvation. Unto God’s judgment I now give over our future. I name you Regent, Pandalf, putting England into God’s hands.” His declaration spoken, the Marshal fell back onto his pillow.
“I am honored, Earl Marshal, and will serve England well,” Pandulf said, shocked into plain speech.
This roused a rabble in the chamber, loud enough that even the Marshal understood many of the sharp words. “It is done,” he chided them. “Leave me to die in peace.” He reached out to Pandalf, still leaning on the bed, and clutched the Cardinal’s sleeve, holding the man in place. Once the yelling faded away, the Marshal spoke. “Send for Aimory de St. Maur, Pandulf. I fear my time is short, and I have business to attend with England’s Master of the Temple.” The pressure eased from the mattress as the Papal Legate moved away. “Still there, Hal?”
“Here, my Lord Marshal.” King Henry spoke like a forgotten schoolboy called to the class’s attention.
“Sire, I pray God that if ever I pleased Him, He give you the grace to be a gentleman. If you follow the example of some evil ancestor, I pray Him not to grant you a long life.”
“I will not fail you, nor will I fail the realm,” the King said, choking on tears.
He spent several solemn moments there with the King, speaking not one word but sharing sentiments words could never express. An understanding passed between them.
“Aimory de St. Maur,” Pandulf announced from the doorway.
The King departed silently, without bidding, Pandulf at his side.
“Marshal, attend,” St. Maur said. “The rites have been spoken, the rituals completed. It pleases me that you give yourself to God. In this world, you have had more honor than any other knight for prowess, wisdom, and loyalty. God granted you His grace for a purpose, and He calls on you now to repay that grace. Serve Him, in this world and the next, wherever it may be.” He lay something over the Marshal’s chest—a Templar’s mantle. “You depart from the age with honor. Go with God.”
The Marshal wept with joy at St. Maur’s words. The Templar and his newest recruit spent hours praying, conditioning the dying man’s soul for his new life to come. When they completed their prayers, St. Maur left upon a promise to find the Marshal’s youngest son Anselm and send him to his father.
As the Marshal waited alone, a flush of vigor crept through his limbs. Time reversed its spiteful wrath, infusing him again with the vitality that had once spurred him to greatness. He had gone to war at the age of seventy, after all. He had led the van at the Battle of Lincoln, and marched on London afterward, casting off the Dauphin’s yoke. Perhaps death hadn’t the strength to defeat him just yet.
“Father, you called for me,” his son Anselm said, entering the room.
“Go to the stables and saddle my horse,” the Marshal said, throwing off his covers. He sat up and put his feet on the floor. The delirium abated. He felt better than he had in years. Most likely he was experiencing a false summer, a final surge of energy before his end. He determined to make the most of it.
Anselm got over his initial shock at his father’s transformation. A crooked grin bloomed on his face. “At your command, Father,” he said. “I’ll ride with you.”
“Good. Oh, and fetch my armor as well,” he said. “It’s a dangerous time for us all, and who knows what my spurned magnates might dare.”
“Plate and mail for you, and a chain hauberk for me,” Anselm said, then left the room with a sprightly step.
The Marshal encountered no difficulties making his way to the stables. Everyone thought him closeted with St. Maur, not wishing to interrupt their holy proceedings. He pulled on a worn old pair of boots and threw a robe over his bedclothes. With the addition of a hooded cloak, low over his face, he passed as a household knight going about his business. He stuck to back hallways and little-used passages to avoid notice.
Anselm waited in front of the stables, holding the reins of two mountainous warhorses. His son had gone so far as to have them armored too, the barding clanking as the horses whinnied and pawed at the ground. The Marshal glanced around before he exited his manor.
“It’s all right, father,” Anselm said. “I dismissed the grooms and hostler once they were saddled. The hostler put up an argument, but I stared him down. Thought you might like privacy on this ride.”
“You take after me, all right,” the Marshal said, striding across the yard.
“Is that why you left me nothing in your will?”
“You complain at a time like this?” he asked, pausing in front of his son.
Anselm broke into a broad grin. “No complaints. I’ll forge my own fortunes, like you did. I figure to match your accomplishments, or exceed them. I haven’t decided which.”
The Marshal gave an answering grin. “Step inside and arm me, Anselm.”
Once they had armed and taken to horse, the father and son rode out into the countryside. Rolling hills of lush grass, dotted with vegetation and teeming with game, passed beneath their horse’s hooves. Large copses of trees, almost small forests themselves, carpeted many of the saddles between the hills. Briar tangles often guarded the boles, providing shelter for hares and cover for badger setts. Interspersing the landscape, the two rode through many a babbling stream, rocks jutting up from the shallow waters, tinkling in song.
A sharp desire rose in the Marshal’s breast as he trotted through a field lined with gorse. Giving head to this sudden need with a whooping cry, he spurred his horse to a gallop. The steed pounded at the turf, hurdling forward with increasing momentum. Anselm raced along with him, riding in his periphery.
In seconds, the Marshal had come upon the far-flung verge of gorse. The horizon sparkled above the bushes, but he could see nothing beyond. Without hesitation he urged his horse into a great leap, meaning to traverse into the next field. Instead, a hidden gully fell away beneath him, declining to a stream far below. The Marshal realized he would plunge to his death. Dying bothered him not at all; he had already prepared himself for it. But his son had leapt along with him.
“Anselm!” he cried out, distraught at how his recklessness would rob his son of life before attaining his twentieth year.
The shock of water spread over him, seeping through his armor, blanketing him in chill. Rather than making him cold, the water comforted him, like a healing draught, to be bathed in instead of imbibed. He wondered why he hadn’t been battered to death by rocks, and marveled that he still sat his saddle.
“I have need of you, My Marshal,” a voice spoke from inside his mind. “Serve, protect, and be My strong right arm. My grace will be your armor.”
The Marshal blinked hard, shook his head, and awoke to a stunning landscape reminding him nothing of his beloved England. Stands of trees only hinted at shared ancestry with English conifers; Berkshire grass put this black stuff to shame; bushes hung like underfed, poorer cousins of gorse, spotted with yellow flowers. Anselm too gaped at the unfamiliar flora, as unable to put names to them as his father.
“By Christ, where are we?” the lad wondered.
“By Christ indeed,” the Marshal said to himself. “In ways, it reminds me of the Holy Land, but I know we are far from there,” he responded aloud.
“It’s hot enough for it,” his son said, wiping sweat from his brow.
“You’re only wearing chain, boy. I remember boiling in my plate and mail on Crusade.” He paused, reflecting on their circumstances. “Anselm, I must apologize for your queer change in circumstances.”
“Have you turned to deviltry, then?”
The Marshal laughed, a full, booming sound. “No, son. When I plunged over the hill, God spoke to me. His will brought me forth into this forbidding land. Unknowingly, I have led you here too.”
Anselm took time to absorb what his father told him, then gave a sharp nod. “I’d have called you a warlock, if you’d told me a similar tale by fireside. Riding here in this impossible land, I can only accept your words.”
“I fear you’ll never make it home.”
Once more, the young man flashed a familiar grin. “But what an adventure we’ll have, Father.”
Anselm’s bold words made the Marshal sit straighter in his saddle, and he knew he had been fully restored to health. His many years had not been erased, but his fatal illness had been expunged, at least for now.
A piercing cry cut through their conversation. Both men whipped their heads toward the sound’s source, a clump of squat trees across the grass to their west. They reined their horses around and cantered for the trees.
A rope hung from a crooked branch, and the reins of a skinny horse tangled around a lower branch, holding the animal in place. A large, unkempt man in filthy clothes struggled to fit the dangling noose around a smaller man’s neck, who had his hands tied behind his back. He did a bad job of it, swearing as he failed. The aggressor let off such an overpowering stench the newcomers smelled him even as they rode into the small clearing.
The grimy ruffian gawked at them, shocked him into silence, but soon gave out a wheezing laugh.
“Lordy me, what have we here? A troupe of thespians? Don’t you know you’ll roast in all that metal, boys?”
The Marshal took off his helm. “Who are you, and what offense has this man given?”
“Ain’t a man in New Mexico don’t know me,” the rogue said, then clouted his victim on the ear for trying to wiggle free. “I’m
Dirty Dave Rutabaugh.”
“Dirty’s right,” Anselm said.
“Don’t you sass me, boy,” Rutabaugh said. “I’ve cut on men for less.”
“What crime warrants this man’s hanging?” the Marshal wanted to know. Repugnance for the villain grew inside him with every word.
Rutabaugh hesitated. “Cheated me at cards. Should have shot him dead on the spot. Hanging’s too good for the cur.”
“It’s a lie!” the man yelled. “He tried to rape my daughter, and I struck him for it.”
“Shut up, you,” Rutabaugh said. He backhanded the man so hard he fell unconscious to the ground.
The Marshal drew his sword. “Cut him loose, knave.”
Anselm put his hand on the hilt of his sword, but the unarmored man they faced offered little threat.
Rutabaugh pulled a weirdly-shaped cudgel from an odd sheath belted around his waist. Formed backward, it had a fat handle and a slim metallic body. “I’ll kill you both, or do you think you’re bulletproof?”
The coarse laugh Rutabaugh used to punctuate the threat broke the Marshal’s reserve of patience. Urging his mount forward, he raised his sword above his head, ready for the killing stroke. The idiot raised his cudgel and pointed it toward the Marshal, sealing his own doom. He would be dead in moments, so—
An incredible boom ripped through the air. His horse reared and pawed at the air with its forehooves. A solid fist slammed into the Marshal’s breastplate, stealing his breath for a moment. The choking black cloud that followed almost suffocated him. He brought the horse back into control with pressure from his thighs, caught his breath, and faced down the warlock.
Dirty Dave Rutabagh stared at the Marshal, mouth hanging open, then looked down at the object in his hand. He glanced back up as the Marshal’s sword swept down, slashing his arm. Rutabaugh howled in pain and dropped his magic cudgel, clutching the bloody wound.
“The penalty for Satanic magic is death. Prepare to leave this world.”
Rutabaugh opened his mouth to scream, but the Marshal cut off the sound by plunging his sword through the criminal’s breast. He steadied his arm and pulled back, recovering his sword from the corpse. Rutabaugh fell lifeless to the dirt. The Marshal dismounted and walked to the body, while his son slid from his saddle to tend the unconscious man. He considered wiping the blade clean on the dead man’s clothes, but feared they would only stain it further. Grabbing up a fistful of grass, he used it instead.
“Oh, my head’s been split,” the fallen man groaned. He opened his eyes and took in Anselm’s visage. The sight made him blanch, and he trembled. “Don’t hurt me, sir, please.”
“Relax, goodman,” Anselm said. “You’re safe now. My father did for the rascal who would have hanged you.”
“You killed him. You killed Dirty Dave Rutabaugh. Oh, there’ll be hell to pay for this, gentlemen.” He levered himself to his feet, only then realizing Anselm had cut his bonds. “I’m obliged to you for the rescue, don’t get me wrong, but Hoodoo Brown’ll shoot you dead for what you done.”
“What’s your name, fellow?” Anselm asked.
“John Duggan,” the man replied. “Yours?”
“I’m Anselm, and this is my father, William Marshal, Earl of—”
“Have no fear for us, Duggan,” the Marshal said. “If this Hoodoo Brown is anything like dead Rutabaugh here, we’ve nothing to worry about.”
“It ain’t just Brown. He’ll set the whole Dodge City Gang on you.”
“Dodge City Gang?” Anselm asked, puzzled.
“Yes sir. Group of Kansas gunmen who come to New Mexico. Didn’t you know they own Las Vegas, just yonder?”
“So this Hoodoo is a local tyrant?” the Marshal asked.
“You could say that, sir,” Duggan said. “He’s the Mayor, Coroner, and Justice of the Peace all rolled into one, and he’s appointed his cronies to similar positions. They may be officials, but Brown and his gang just use their titles to rob trains and hold up stage coaches.”
“This Hoodoo Brown robs local nobles?” the Marshal said, surprised. “Why hasn’t the king sent men to deal with him?”
Duggan scratched his head. “Where in tarnation you come from? You ain’t from around here.” The Marshal stared at him. “Well, I thank you, friends, whoever you are. I need to collect my family and leave here before Hoodoo Brown sets his men on me. I suggest you do the same.”
Duggan loosened the reins of the dead man’s horse, mounted, and rode away through the trees.
“We should follow him,” Anselm said.
“No, we’ll backtrack this dead villain’s trail.”
“Father, a woman’s honor has been soiled.” The Marshal raised an eyebrow and glanced at his son, whose cheeks flushed crimson. “Chivalry dictates we ride to her aid and make sure she escapes unmolested.”
“Chivalry may demand it, but God demands otherwise. Don’t look so surprised, boy. I’ve followed the chivalric ideal my entire life, but God sent us here to break Hoodoo Brown’s power. Can you doubt it?”
“No, father,” he said, sulking.
The Marshal laughed and cuffed him fondly. “You’ve always had a soft spot for the maidens, eh Anselm?” The observation made the young man blush deeper, drawing another laugh. “Come, let’s examine his belongings.”
They gagged, barely able to keep from retching on the ground. The dead man’s body odor had been horrific while he lived, and his loosed bowels made the smell worse. For all his poor hygiene, they found a fistful of gold coins scattered through his pockets, along with assorted useless articles. Three items caught their especial interest, though: the strange cudgel, his odd belt and a pouch of wrinkled brown leaves.
Anselm held a leaf up to his nose but recoiled from the smell. He dabbed at it with the tip of his tongue, and coughed in result. “It must be edible, or else why would he carry it? I’ll keep it in case we find ourselves starving, but I’d be hard pressed to try it even then.”
When Anselm began to strip the clothes from Rutabaugh’s body, the Marshal objected.
“We may need the clothes,” Anselm said. He gestured at their armor. “We don’t fit in with the locals here. I’ll wash them in the next stream we come across, don’t worry.”
The Marshal couldn’t argue with that. He took off his gauntlets and picked up the cudgel, noting how smooth the fat end fit into his fist. It had been fashioned to be held just so. Made from forged metal, with a wooden handle, it had moving parts. He pulled a short, cylindrical object from the belt and held it up to a part of the handheld machine.
“I think this is meant to go inside it,” he said, gaining his son’s attention. “Some kind of projectile, I’d warrant. I’ve no idea how it works, or what magic powers it has, but if a ruffian like Rutabaugh had one, I’m sure Hoodoo Brown and his other henchman will too.”
“Whatever it is, it can’t penetrate plate armor.”
The Marshal rubbed at a black mark on his breastplate, where a projectile from the miraculous machine had struck him. It scored but didn’t damage the armor in the slightest. “I doubt chain mail would have stopped this. It’s not even good against sword thrusts, let alone arrows and worse. We must be wary, Anselm. Stay behind me whenever possible.”
“Let you take all the blows?” The idea plainly didn’t sit well with the young knight. “If you so order, father.”
The hard-packed dirt would have defied spades, let alone swords, so they had little hope of digging a proper grave. Even a criminal like Rutabaugh deserved to be laid to rest, however, so they gathered rocks and built a crude cairn over his remains.
The Marshal pulled his helm on, and then his gauntlets. “Now, let’s find out where Dirty Dave came from.”
Anselm took over, leading his horse and keeping his face close to the ground. They made slow progress, but he had been an accomplished tracker back in their home country. True, the vegetation and the dusty earth in this place differed from England’s, but horse tracks were horse tracks, whatever the ground may be.
Just as nightfall arrived, and the Marshal considered making camp, the echo of music and raucous laughter floated to them around a bend in the trail. Anselm mounted and looked to his father. The two men set their horses to a walk. They rode forward, around a thicket of twisted trees, and topped a hill. From there they looked down on a ramshackle village of wood, smoke and brazen humanity.
At first glance it had to be a village, because the shoddy wooden buildings had been constructed in crude fashion. Even so, it stretched out in both directions below them, and covered every inch of the valley floor. Walkways built with wooden slats fronted buildings, and bizarre torches confined in glass lit the thoroughfares. Mounted men rode up and down the streets, while pedestrians kept to the side or stuck to the boardwalks to avoid trampling. Many buildings poured loud conversation, music, and revelry into the town, creating a cacophony of confused sound. All these weird details washed over them, but none surprised them more than the city’s construction material. Las Vegas was a city built entirely from wood, a notion so alien it shocked them both into silence.
Anselm recovered himself first. “I have a notion, father. This world is nothing like ours, and if we blunder into the city right now, we’ll end up dead.”
“What do you suggest?”
“I’ll change into Dirty Dave Rutabaugh’s clothes and walk into town.” He scrunched his nose. “An awful sacrifice, I know, but we need information about Las Vegas. I want to know the proper way to act and speak, so we don’t attract too much attention.”
The Marshal nodded. “I’m loathe to send you into danger alone, but you’re young and resourceful, well suited to the task. I’ll take cover amongst these trees and await your return. If you aren’t back by morning, however, I will take apart Las Vegas board by board to find you.”
Night enclosed the Marshal as he awaited his son’s return. Nature came to life after he settled in, filling him with unease. A wolf-like creature howled over and over, and he kept his hand on the hilt of his sword. Insect chirruping tickled his ears, raising the hair on his arms because of how different it was from what he used to hear in the English countryside. He rued an earlier decision to have Anselm help take off his armor, which he could not don again until Anselm returned.
His son returned within a few hours. Gone were Dirty Dave’s pungent rags. He instead wore an outlandish suit of clothing topped with a silly hat, and carried a lantern and a parcel.
“I see you’ve dressed out as a native,” the Marshal said, rising to his feet. He sniffed the air around his son. “You’ve found a bath, too.”
“I thank God for it,” Anselm said, setting down his lantern.
“Tell me about Las Vegas.”
“I loitered a while in the city, listening to conversations, and managed to pick up some patterns of speech. There are so many different dialects and even languages spoken here we’ll have no trouble fitting in. Las Vegas is a kind of marcher city, bordering on great wilderness, so it attracts all manner of people.”
The Marshal smiled. “Good. Rutabaugh’s money spent well, I see. You look ridiculous, but I assume it’s a fashionable style here. Clothes for me?” he asked, motioning to the parcel.
“Yes, Father,” Anselm said. “Oh, and the most important detail I discovered concerns weaponry.” The Marshal’s eyes flashed with interest. “They have things called guns, projectile weapons fueled by something called gunpowder.” He spent time explaining the different varieties of guns and the rudiments of how they worked.
The Marshal took in this new intelligence. “I heard about gunpowder when I went to the Holy Land. It’s something from the Far East.”
“I watched a man shoot someone dead with one of these firearms, as they sometimes call their guns.” Anselm’s face went grim. “The bullet exploded his chest. I don’t think your armor should have a prayer of standing up to gun shots. Mere chain, definitely not.”
“I suspect God’s hand in it, though we mustn’t depend too much upon this protection.”
Anselm nodded agreement. “Go ahead and change. I’ll pack up the horses’ barding and our swords in the meantime. I secured us a room above one of the town’s many taverns.”
The Marshal took a long time figuring out how to fasten his new clothing. It fit him uncomfortably tight around the chest and thighs, in stark contrast to the loose robes he used to wear, though the suit sagged in the armpits and dragged a bit in the dirt. At least it didn’t restrict his movement. He found the suit distasteful, but it would do.
Anselm had finished with the horses. In a moment of inspiration, the Marshal strapped on Dirty Dave Rutabaugh’s gun belt. The belt sagged to the side with the pistol’s weight, but it felt right to him.
They kept to themselves and minded their own business, riding through the town without incident. The Marshal took his immersion in this new environment in stride, ignoring the discomfort the queer place inspired in him. Anselm led him to a tavern and inn called the Grand Hotel. They stabled their horses in the back. Instead of entering through the tavern itself, the young man took him up a back staircase to their room. The chamber held a strange assortment of the unknown and the familiar. The stuffed mattress, chamber pot, stool and desk, if crafted differently, all existed back at home. The lights Anselm called gas lamps, the fine mirror in the corner, and the thin glass in the windows told the Marshal they had landed in a more advanced time. The gun’s weight at his waist corroborated it.
“I need to learn more about this Dodge City Gang,” the Marshal said. “The problem is, I know so little of this city’s ways, I worry I’ll give myself away.”
“If you don’t mind a little play acting, we’ll be just fine,” Anselm said. “You can play my grandfather, a man fully into his dotage. I’ve learned enough of the local brogue to pass as an outsider traveling through town.”
The Marshal took off the gun belt and held it out to his son. “You’ll need this, if we’re to play our parts.”
Anselm strapped on the pistol belt. They both looked longingly at their swords, but knew they couldn’t wear them. Slipping them under the bedcovers, in case anyone came snooping into the room; they stepped into the hall and descended into the rowdy atmosphere below.
A sign indicated this to be a saloon, not a tavern, which puzzled the Marshal. He knew what salons were, but they didn’t resemble anything similar to the place he had entered. A player belted out music on a large freestanding instrument in the corner, but the din of conversation drowned out the music. Several busty women danced on a small stage nearby, dressed in ruffled skirts and petticoats, their assets threatening to overflow their revealing bodices. Men drank and gamed, and two fistfights broke out before they stepped inside. Acrid smoke masked the whole scene, as if his eyes had been wrapped in gauze, and the smoke stung his eyes. Ridged brass buckets sat at intervals, and many men spit brown fluid into them. For all its chaos and unfamiliarity, though, the Marshal fit right in. He hadn’t always been a nobleman, and he’d enjoyed his share of rough establishments before.
Anselm found them a small table along a wall, and brought them drinks from the bar. The fiery liquor burned the Marshal’s throat on the way down. After slugging the harsh liquor, he sipped a large glass of what the bartender claimed to be cactus wine, but which combined burning hellfire and bitterness in his mouth, reminding him nothing of the normal fruits of vinification. He suppressed a cough and smacked his lips at the heartiness of the peculiar fermented drink. He nursed his eye-watering wine and strained to overhear news of the town.
The noise of many conversations overlaying each other made it impossible to pick out many coherent words, though. He found it hard enough just to talk to Anselm and be heard. The Marshal decided his son would have to circulate through the saloon to try to eavesdrop more closely. Before he suggested it, a fight broke out at a nearby gaming table.
Many fistfights had erupted and died off since they had taken their seats, but this one turned ugly, fast. One man reached for his pistol, but the man facing him pulled his first and shot the man down. A friend of the dead man walloped the shooter with a staggering haymaker, kicking the downed man over and over while he shouted ‘cheater.’ Unbeknownst to him, a man with a drawn blade slunk around behind his back. When he raised the knife to plunge it into the other man’s back, Anselm slammed a fist into his temple. The would-be backstabber fell unconscious to the floor, bumping into his target on the way. The man stopped kicking the purported cheater and turned around, fists held high.
Anselm stood over the fallen knifeman, shaking a sore fist and muttering under his breath. The saloon went quiet in the wake of the deadly fight, all eyes turned to the action.
“You ought not to have done that, son,” a man said in a lazy drawl. The man wore a clean suit and had an easy, self-assured manner. He remained seated in a chair at the table, looking at Anselm past the man whose life had just been saved.
“He ought not to have tried to stab a man in the back,” Anselm retorted. “It’s a cowardly act of attempted murder, and he’ll hang for it, I’m sure.”
“No he won’t,” the man said. “I’m Joe Carson, a Deputy Marshal of Las Vegas, and I’ll say who gets arrested and who doesn’t. You, stranger, just attacked my friend, a law-abiding citizen on official business. If anyone’s neck is in danger of stretching, it’s yours.”
“Your name taints the word marshal,” the Marshal said, rising from his seat. “You’re a member of the filthy Dodge City Gang, if I’m not mistaken, and unfit for public service.”
“Grandfather, I’ll handle this,” Anselm said, motioning him back.
“Gain control of the old man, boy, or he’ll dangle next to you.”
The Marshal took a quick stride forward and slapped Joe Carson across the face. “Be silent, coward,” he said. “I’ve met brutes like you the world over. I’ve not tolerated them before, and I won’t tolerate one now.”
It took Joe Carson some time to recover from his shock. Once he did, his arrogance returned, along with a flush in his cheeks not altogether accounted for by the slap. He rose to his feet, pulling his pistol free in one fluid motion as he stood.
Before he could raise it the Marshal smashed a fist into Carson’s gut, the full force of his strength behind the blow. Carson let out an explosion of air, dropped the pistol, and doubled over in pain. With deliberate calm, the Marshal picked up a chair and broke it across his back. Carson bounced off the table and fell unconscious beside his fallen henchman. The Marshal returned to his own table, sat down, and resumed sipping his cactus wine.
The patrons started to slip out, one at a time or in small groups, including the man Anselm had saved, who offered no thanks. Two strangers had just attacked one of Hoodoo Brown’s picked men, and they wouldn’t want to get caught in the middle of what promised to be swift and bloody retaliation.
Anselm rejoined his father at the table. “Sorry. I can’t abide outright murder.”
“You’ll get no criticism from me. I’d have cuffed you if you hadn’t stopped him.”
Anselm grinned and drank along with his father.
“Gentlemen, I believe your time in this establishment has come to an end.”
The Marshal looked up at the woman addressing them. She was a saloon girl of some sort, though not one of those that had been dancing earlier. Reminiscent of strumpets from their time, she stood there with her hands on her hips, an amused smile brightening her rouged face. Merry eyes twinkled out from her overdone makeup, and cascades of black curls fell across her bare shoulders.
“But I’m still enjoying my drink,” Anselm said with a smile, raising his glass.
She raised her eyebrow in return. “It’s not that I don’t appreciate your gumption, mister,” she said, still smiling. “You’re decent men. It’s just that I can’t abide the killing of decent men.”
“You’re afraid for our lives?” Anselm asked. He leaned back in his chair, set down his cactus wine, and crossed his arms. “We can take care of ourselves, as you’ve seen already.”
The woman rolled her eyes. “Men,” she said. “Fine and dandy, then. You’re Hercules incarnate, only a Titan might give you a contest, and it takes a dozen virgins to quench your lust. Satisfy your ego, boy?”
“It’s not my ego I worry about satisfying,” he returned. “A dozen? T’would only whet my appetite.” He gave her an exaggerated wink.
“Oh, is that so? Perhaps you should forsake those unschooled little girls in favor of more educated women.”
Anselm leaned forward with anticipation. “Are you offering?”
She brushed her skirts to the side, revealing a small revolver tucked into a garter. “Don’t mistake me, mister. I manage here. I don’t dance, I don’t whore, and I can take care of myself.” She looked him up and down. “Don’t think I’d have any trouble taking care of you, boyo.” She dropped her skirts back into place, covering the pistol.
The Marshal laughed aloud, while her target turned red-faced and livid.
“See here, wench,” Anselm said. “I’m a gentleman, and I’ll not be talked to like this by a, a…”
“By a what, lad?” she wanted to know, but he didn’t answer. She let off a peal of laughter. “Oh, I’d love nothing more than to banter with you all night, but we’ve more important matters before us. What’s your name?”
He recovered his wits and grinned sheepishly. “I’m Anselm. This is my father, William Marshal.”
“Well then, Anselm, William, I’m Sweet Maggie Jane, but Maggie will do. If you want to live through the night, you’ll come with me to my late pap’s cabin. It’s as good a place as any to hide.”
“We don’t need to—” Anselm began.
The Marshal pushed off from the table, threw Maggie aside, and dove forward. Joe Carson, the purported Deputy Marshal, rose to his knees and tried to aim his pistol, but the gun wavered from side to side. The Marshal knocked it from Carson’s hand with a hard swipe, grabbed him by the scruff of the neck, and slammed his forehead into the floor. The thick board gave way with a crack, and he threw Carson’s body onto its back on the floor, head broken and bleeding.
Carson’s friend, who had recovered his knife, gaped at the Marshal’s casual brutality. Looking up from the floor at Anselm and his father, the lowlife dropped his weapon and scrambled to his feet.
“Hoodoo Brown, he’ll hear about this,” he stammered, then fled from the saloon.
Maggie gaped at the Marshal, then shook her head and turned back to Anselm. “I’ve got to get you two out of town.”
“Very well,” Anselm said. “Meet us at the stable in ten minutes.”
She eyed him with a frown, gave a sharp nod, and ran off down a hallway.
“Let’s go arm ourselves,” the Marshal said.
“She needs my protection,” Anselm said, cinching a greave into place on his father’s leg. The Marshal had been almost completely encased in his armor, and Anselm wore a rust-stained padded undershirt.
“I warrant Sweet Maggie Jane can protect herself.”
“I don’t doubt it. Trouble is, she’s been seen conspiring with us. The cutthroat who wanted to do me in heard everything, and he’s run off to report it all to his leader. Maggie’s put herself in a precarious situation.”
The Marshal considered his son as he finished tightening the armor’s straps. He gave a short nod. “Maggie did take our part quite publicly,” he admitted.
“All right, she’s no maiden needing rescued, but I doubt she has a man to keep Hoodoo Brown’s gang from murdering her.”
“Perhaps she doesn’t need one.” He helped Anselm slip his chain hauberk on. “Meet Maggie at the stable. She can ride my horse. Guard her on the way to her hidden sanctuary, then come back for me.”
“What will you be about in the meantime?” Anselm asked suspiciously.
“I need to have a conversation with Mr. Brown.”
“Be careful,” his son said. “The plate doesn’t cover everything, and your helm’s slit is big enough to allow a bullet in. You can still be killed.”
“A man can always be killed, Anselm. I’ve a task before me, though, and I mean to complete it.”
They parted upstairs. Anselm, a heavy duster over his chain hauberk, slipped down the back stairwell; the Marshal, little caring how much noise he made, clanked down the main staircase. The people who had trickled back into the saloon after the conclusion of the fatal affair went quiet at his appearance. These rough folk might have been oblivious to violence, but the Marshal presented them a queer mystery.
He ignored their astonished stares and strode through the saloon, pushing past the small double-hinged doors and onto the walkway outside. Had he worn his old tournament armor, he never would have been able to walk far. Then again, he would have needed a squire and a stepstool just to mount his horse. No, this armor had been made for the battlefield, and though it pinched and chafed, its weight spread over his entire body, allowing ample freedom of movement.
The Marshal stepped from the boardwalk and onto the dusty thoroughfare. Before he had taken five paces, a large group of men strode out into the street to his left. He squinted to define their features in the dimly-lit gloom as the company approached. Many wore similar nondescript clothing and carried rifles, marking them as foot soldiers in the Marshal’s eyes. Three wore suits and hats much like Anselm had bought for him, and pistols strapped around their waists. One of the three stood at the head of the company. A short man, his broad shoulders and corded forearms bespoke great physical strength, while the lazy smile underneath his dark eyes radiated confidence. His two companions had badges on their breasts, which Anselm had given him to understand made them marshals like the late Joe Carson. Hoodoo Brown and two of his high-ranking cronies, then.
The Marshal reached a hand toward the hilt of his sword, but Brown held up his own hand. The men stopped not fifty paces away and, to his surprise, Hoodoo Brown left his men behind to approach the Marshal. Even though he already despised this tyrannical brigand, the he had to admire his bravery. Perhaps the man still didn’t believe him to be a real threat. Maybe he was too full of bravado to care. Either way, the Marshal would treat with him.
Hoodoo stopped ten paces in front of the Marshal. “Sir, may I have the honor of your name?”
“Sir, I believe you already have it,” The Marshal said, his voice muffled by his helm. He wanted very much to denigrate the man who stood before him, but refused to resort to insults while Brown yet observed propriety.
“Indeed, I’m told you fancy yourself a marshal.”
“The Marshal, Mr. Brown.”
“You’re a hard man, from what I understand,” Brown said, and hooked his thumbs behind his belt. The Marshal sensed steel behind the smiling facade. A dangerous man, Brown. A warrior as well as a villain.
“You’re a bold man,” the Marshal said. “You place your men in positions of power and use the law to mask your thievery.” He stayed proper even as he spoke his accusation.
“Say rather I have helped Las Vegas prosper,” Brown said, still smiling. “Me and my brethren have invested much of our honest gains back into the city here, making it into the thriving place you see around you. What’s the harm in that?”
The Marshal’s courteous manner faltered. “Honest gains? Now you lie, sir.”
Brown’s eyes flashed hot anger, but he contained it. “Not many men have insulted me in such a manner, Marshal.”
“Why, surely a man can’t go to prison for such a trifle.”
Hoodoo gritted his teeth in frustration, but then let out a coarse laugh. “You may be too honest for my tastes, but I like you in spite of it.”
“Pardon me if I don’t mirror your affection. I find it impossible to like a thief and murderer, no matter how well-spoken he may be.”
“Enough chatter, you sissified dandy. I hope all your honor and dignity sticks in your stuck-up craw. I want you out of Las Vegas by dawn, or you’ll not see noon.” He spat on the ground.
The Marshal thought this as good as throwing down a gage. “I accept your challenge, Brown, but I’ll give you a chance to keep your life. I’m a fairer man than you. There’s little of this night left, so I’ll give you an extra day. If you and your gang do not flee Las Vegas by dawn of the second day, I will strike you down in the name of God.”
Hoodoo put a thumb and forefinger into his mouth and gave out a shrill whistle. His two lieutenants walked forward to join him. The Marshal drew his sword in preparation for battle. “Marshal, this here is J.J. Webb, the Town Marshal, and Mysterious Dave Mather, a Deputy Marshal. Boys, this here is William Marshal. The Marshal, he fancies himself. If you see him after dawn tomorrow, shoot him down, you hear?”
“Yessir,” Webb said. Mather nodded.
The Marshal took in the two men. “I’ll give you the same chance I gave your cowardly leader. Fly from this city before the break of day else, by Christ, I’ll bury you.”
Webb crossed his arms and laughed. Mysterious Dave just stared at him.
“Aw hell, I’m too impatient for my own good,” Brown said with a sigh. He took off his hat and waved it in the air.
Firearms cracked to life through the night in response, pinging on the Marshal’s armor, driving him down. Rifles reported from rooftops, and the gang on the street spread out and shot at him while their leaders looked on and laughed. A rain of pebbles, it seemed, hailed across his plate, and bullets pounded him. Webs of chain mail chinked and fell apart. Heat flared on his brow and along the side of his neck. Pain sliced his calf. From in front, from behind, from all around, gunfire engulfed him. Ten shots, twenty, and more pummeled him mercilessly. The Marshal fell to one knee, helm bowed, gauntleted fists in the dirt, sword fallen beside him.
“He has to be dead,” Brown stated, peering at the Marshal. The armor, blackened almost completely from bullet strikes, kept the body’s condition hidden.
“I don’t see much blood,” Webb said. Mather grunted in agreement.
“Of course, because—”
The Marshal bounded to his feet and recovered his sword in the same motion. He executed a swift moulinet and sheared down into Webb’s neck, cleaving through the collarbone and into his chest. Mather drew his pistol and fired, backing away from the Marshal with desperate haste. Brown too retreated.
“Kill him, you idiots, kill him!” Brown ran down the thoroughfare, passing his pack of hired guns as he fled.
The sword stuck in Webb’s body, and took a deal of wrenching to loosen it. Mather emptied his pistol and, seeing it had no effect on his armored foe, took to his heels and ran after his boss. The rest of the gang advanced, working the levers on their rifles and firing rapidly. The Marshal took another wound near his elbow, hopefully a superficial one. Unnerved by his survival, and by Brown’s and Mather’s flight, most of the shots went wild and missed. The Marshal ignored those few bullets that struck his plate armor.
Then his sword came free, and the Marshal laid about him with a fearsome abandon. Unarmored as they were, men fell like wheat before a farmer’s scythe. One raised his rifle, attempting to parry. The Marshal rotated his wrist and gave an upward stroke, striking the rifle from the man’s hands. A quick downward swipe spilled the man’s brains onto the dusty road. Another shot rang out, then another, and two assailants fell. Seeing the Marshal cut down their friends, and others fall to gunfire, the rest broke and fled into the night.
“Got in trouble without me, I see,” Anselm said. He sat astride his warhorse, holding a smoking pistol in one hand and the lead to his father’s horse in the other, guiding his mount with his knees. Hardened animals, used to battlefield horrors, they had adapted well to the shock of gunfire.
“Where did you learn how to shoot?”
“They stood shoulder to shoulder, father. How could I miss? Come, let’s be off.”
“I had just begun to enjoy myself,” the Marshal said, stepping gingerly forward.
Anselm took in the darkened wreck his father’s armor had become. The Marshal noted that it had no bullet holes or dents, but its luster had been forever lost. The connecting chain mail was left in tatters.
“You’ve taken wounds,” Anselm said.
“Top of my left calf’s the worst.” He grimaced and flexed the leg. “Now get down here and help your father to horse.”
A short ride through the wild brought them to a hollow hidden amongst the hills. A narrow brook meandered into the stunted trees. Anselm led his father down the path and across the shallow stream. There, snug in a defile, sat a humble cabin, thin tendrils of smoke rising from a chimney. The two Englishmen dismounted and tossed their reins over a tree branch, alongside a slim riding horse, to allow their mounts to graze and drink from the stream.
Maggie waited before her cabin, arms akimbo, taking in the Marshal’s battered appearance and Anselm’s swaggering gait. She had replaced her dancing getup with a sensible dress.
“Trying to get yourselves killed again?” she asked in a mock scold.
Anselm’s proud smirk died before it had a chance to blossom. “My father had to offer Hoodoo Brown a chance to surrender, and as his son, I had to ride to his rescue. You understand, don’t you, fair Maggie?” He threw her a rakish grin.
“You’re dimples ain’t the only sweet thing about you, boyo,” she said, admiration sparkling in her eyes. “You got yourself a candied tongue too.”
He stepped closer and prepared to speak, but his father interrupted. “Children, much as I enjoy youthful flirtation, there can’t be many hours left this night. My strength is flagging, I’ve wounds that require attention, and I’m sure you’re tiring too. We need rest. After a bite of food, if it isn’t too much trouble, Maggie?”
“I offer shelter to them as spit on the Dodge City Gang, and you think I’d have problems providing hardtack and jerky? You sure your fancy helmet hasn’t fried your brains, old man?”
The Marshal removed his helm, dipped it in the water, and poured it over his head. Blood washed away with the sweat. He reached up and felt a small round pebble imbedded above his brow. “What’s this?”
Maggie came forward and daubed it with a handkerchief. “Shotgun pellet lodged just beneath the skin. You’re lucky not to be blinded, old man.” She took in the wreck of his armor, and the spots of blood. “Come inside and I’ll tend to your wounds, though they can’t be bad, if you rode all this way.”
The Marshal gave a contented sigh. “Maggie, if I weren’t wed, I’d carry you to straight to the altar, sweetling.”
She laughed and pinched his cheek. “I bet you would, you randy old goat.” She glanced over at Anselm, whose face wavered between amusement and jealousy. “All right, you two, get inside and get some grub into you.”
The cabin’s interior put him in mind of a permanent campaign tent. It had a small living area with a squat table and a few chairs around it in the front. A wooden shelf held foodstuffs and other supplies. In the back, separated by a lone sheet, a pallet of hay and a chest of clothes filled the room. The main difference was the fireplace built into the side wall, and the wood stacked beside it. Elegant in its simplicity, it provided the perfect hideaway for the night.
Anselm took off his father’s armor, and Maggie helped Anselm wiggle free of his mail hauberk. She then ordered the Marshal to sit back, and bandaged his hurts. He had a hard time keeping his eyes from drooping shut as he gnawed on dried meat and stale biscuits. He had long been used to campaign fare, however, so his teeth took over for him.
Maggie told the Marshal to sleep on the pallet because of his wounds and his age, but he would have none of it. “I will not displace a lady from her bed,” came his simple reply, and he ignored her heated insistence.
Anselm assured her his father’s mind had been made, and she huffed into the adjoining chamber and threw a blanket back out. “I’m going to make sure Maggie’s all right,” he said, ducking around the sheet.
Before he wrapped himself in the blanket and surrendered to sleep, the Marshal knelt with his sword point-down on the floor. He prayed, pressing his forehead into the cross formed by the hilt and quillons. Muffled laughter drifted to his ears from behind the sheet as he murmured to God, and he smiled for his son. True, they were engaging in sinful behavior, but a man needed to slake his lust after battle, a truism God surely understood. And, remembering Maggie’s pistol, he had a feeling she had initiated it anyway.
When the early morning light trickled through the leaves just enough to reach the meadow; the Marshal’s eyes snapped open, his senses afire, shaken into sudden wakefulness by a sound from outside. He rolled to his feet, making little noise, and picked up his naked sword. They had been found, for the gentle shuffle of hooves approached the stream, and their own horses whickered in response to the newcomers. He glanced at the sheet, unwilling to call out to the others, but he didn’t need to bother. Anselm slipped into the front room, wielding his sword, followed by Maggie holding a pistol in both hands, pointed toward the ceiling.
If Hoodoo Brown and his cronies had found them already, they faced a quick death. Neither he nor Anselm wore their armor, and only Maggie and Anselm had a pistol.
“Hello the cabin,” a voice called outside. “We’ve come to help. We’re laying down arms. Don’t shoot us full of holes.”
If Brown had set them a trap, the Marshal would rather spring it than go to ground like a rabbit. Ignoring Anselm’s warning look, he yanked open the door and strode into the morning, his sword in a midline guard before him. A small group of hardy men met him with startled looks, eyes flickering to the gun belts, rifles, and shotguns littering the ground at their feet. He didn’t recognize them, nor did they have the arrogant carriage of Brown’s minions. Maggie and Anselm appeared at his shoulders, and the Marshal lowered his sword.
“Why, Archibald Evans, Johnny Durant, what are all y’all doing here?” Maggie asked.
The man she addressed as Archibald stepped forward. “Maggie, gentlemen,” Evans said, holding his hat to his chest. “We’re here to stand with you against Hoodoo Brown.”
“Right,” an unnamed man said. “They done terrorized Las Vegas long enough.”
“Now what are a handful of ranch hands and tradesmen like you going to do against the Dodge City Gang?” Maggie said. Her hands formed fists which drifted to her hips in a familiar pose.
“We can shoot well enough,” Durant said, picking up his gun belt. The rest recovered their firearms too. “And we got plenty of ammo.”
“And Brown’s got more experience, guns and ammo, and his gunmen are more ornery than a cactus-bit dog,” she retorted. “Don’t be a damn fool, Johnny.”
The Marshal cleared his throat. “Durant, you take half the men to the stand of trees yonder and start cutting logs. Anselm, go with him; you know what I want. Evans, you and the rest will come with me.”
“But they’re just—” Maggie began.
“Tired,” a short, mustached man said. “Sick and damned tired of Brown and his bullies. These here gentlemen have dealt the Dodge City Gang a mighty blow, and we mean to help them finish Brown and his crew.”
“Please, Maggie,” Anselm said, taking her arm. “These men want to help throw off the yoke of Brown’s tyranny. We’d dishonor their courage if we turned them away.”
Maggie looked at the knights, at the men in the clearing, and back to the Marshal. “You’ll be needing spades and such?”
“If you have them to spare,” the Marshal said.
“I got some digging implements in a shed out back,” she replied, a smile blossoming on her lips. “We’re going to give old Hoodoo what for, ain’t we, boys?”
This elicited a series of whoops and hollers, the men waving their hats in the air. The Marshal shared a smile with his son. “Let’s get to it, then,” the old warrior said.
While Anselm, Durant, and their bunch hewed logs for a palisade, the Marshal took Evans and the rest to the mouth of the gulch to dig a ditch across the banks of the stream. It didn’t divert much water into it, falling well short of a moat, but it wasn’t meant to. They angled the ditch into a large scarp on the defensive side, and the shallow water in the ditch’s bottom served to hide short, sharpened spikes. As the ditch progressed, men hauled logs to the spot, and began the laborious task of driving them into the earth behind the scarp. He thanked God for the cabin’s excellent defensive location, and for the narrowness of the defile’s entrance. The Marshal even had them build a little surprise into the log wall. Constructing the palisade still took most of a day’s hard, sweaty work, but their manpower and willpower proved sufficient to the task.
They finished in time for a late dinner. The men had brought supplies with them, so their fare included beans, salt pork, bannock, and whiskey to go along with their jerky and hardtack. Some of the new foods surprised him, just as he was surprised at how familiar the rest was. Maggie insisted they each take a dip in the stream before they ate, and she kept peeking and whistling catcalls.
After dinner, the Marshal gathered everyone together around the fire. “It should take them a while to find this place.” Anselm grunted agreement. “What do you think? In the morning we could establish a few hidden positions above the hollow to provide cover fire.”
Anselm chuckled. “We’ve come a long way from formations of archers in the middle of a field, haven’t we?”
The Marshal readied a reply, but paused when he heard the pounding report of horse’s hooves in the distance, echoing up the cut. “They must have tracked the newcomers to us. Durant, Evans, get the men to the palisade.” He kept his voice measured and calm. “Anselm, fetch our swords, quick. There’s no time to fully arm.”
The pop of fired rounds proved Brown’s men had found their position. Multiple louder explosions marked shotgun blasts. Soon rifles boomed in response. He and Anselm belted on their sword belts; pistols strapped opposite their swords provided a modern counterweight. The Marshal and his son rushed to the palisade, which still held. Every man lived yet, firing into the dark in sporadic bursts. Bullets thudded into the palisade logs and zinged overhead, unable to defeat the wall’s protection, but the defenders found it hard to pick out targets in the dark. The battle stood in stalemate.
Then, with a series of wild screams, Brown’s men rushed forward. They knew the defenders had some kind of cover, but couldn’t have known the extent of the defensive works. One or two fell to hasty gunfire, bodies splashing as they fell in the stream, but there were too many to shoot before they reached the wall. The first line tripped and fell into the ditch, dead or wounded. The next few made sure to account for the ditch, but fell crippled alongside their fallen brethren, feet pierced by the hidden stakes. Still more came, running over the bodies of their allies, scrabbling to find purchase on the scarp leading up to the palisade. This took time, allowing the defenders to lean over the wall and pick them off with pistols, one by one, with deliberate ease. Spirits shattered as men watched others suffer and die, the wave of attack faltered and broke.
“Run, you cowards,” Evans yelled. The defenders gave raucous cheers, mocking their enemies.
“The fight is far from over,” the Marshal said in a loud voice well versed in command. “Brown is a resourceful man, and will not give up.”
“Keep vigilant,” Anselm urged them. “They’ll attack again when you least expect it.”
The Marshal walked up and down the line, checking each man’s ammunition supply, spreading out cartridges and shells as needed. He sent Anselm to prepare their mounts, should they prove necessary. Maggie fought alongside the men, shouting at others to fetch water to quench the fighters’ thirst. Anselm scowled at her, but she ignored him. The Marshal felt pride for them both.
Pinpricks of light winked to life in the darkness as Brown’s gang lit torches and lanterns. The defenders grinned at the sight, took aim at the new targets, and opened fire. They gave out satisfied cheers as a few lights fell, but more took their place. Then the lights rushed forward, held aloft.
“Here they come, boys,” the Marshal yelled, and the defenders poured gunfire out from the palisade.
More attackers fell, yet still they came on. When they had reached a distance of perhaps twenty paces, the lights flew into the air, thrown toward the defenders. Many fell harmlessly behind the wall, or in the stream, and torches bounced without effect from the green wood. Others found brush, though, and not a few lanterns had been thrown. They broke against the palisade, spilling burning oil across its facade. This caught the logs on fire, driving the defenders away from the smoke and the heat.
From above and behind came thunderclaps of gunfire, which ripped into several men, felling them where they stood to be burned along with the palisade. The Marshal turned and looked up, realizing Brown had flanked them, had taken up the very positions he and Anselm had wanted to establish. The heights would have offered the defenders an incredible field of fire against the attackers. Brown’s men used it against them instead.
“Anselm!” The Marshal’s cry cut through the chaos of battle and rang clear in the night. His son led forward their mounts, both fully armored in their barding, better prepared than their masters. The Marshal leapt into the saddle. “Evans, now!”
The man had been leading the few surviving defenders toward the cabin to take cover. They had been cut to ribbons, shot into from behind and above. At the Marshal’s order, Evans rushed back to the palisade. The wall’s center hadn’t burned through, though Evans coughed and held his hand over his mouth to fight against the smoke. When he reached the logs, he grabbed a rope in both hands, and with a mighty heave lurched back with all his weight. A portion of the palisade fell outward atop men climbing up the escarp, knocking them back.
The Marshal wasted no time. He and his mount were of one mind. The warhorse lunged forward, passing through the flames with a hideous equine yawp. Horse and man leapt down over the gaping ditch, filled with mud and dead and dying men. Then the Marshal was amongst the enemy, cutting through them with ruthless efficiency, rending flesh, cleaving bone, hacking at limbs like great human logs. Anselm rode at his side, cutting a swathe through the surprised enemy. A bullet punched into the Marshal’s shoulder, and shot peppered his thigh. Anselm too took wounds, but like him continued to fight. Brown’s men, hardened criminals, had no stomach for it, having never known this kind of battle, nor this kind of resolve. They broke like glass baubles under a sledge, their morale shattered.
Hoodoo Brown and Mysterious Dave Mather sat their horses not fifty yards away, bathed in the fire’s glow from the burning palisade. The Marshal watched as they waved their arms and shouted, trying to rally their men. Gunfire echoed through the night, some from the cabin behind, but much more from the heights. The Marshal ignored the bullets kicking up dirt around him. Corpses and moaning, wounded men littered the ground. None stood nearby to oppose them. “Anselm, ride around and rout those bastards from the heights. I’ll do for Brown and Mather.”
The enemy had been defeated, but the Marshal had to fight against the swirl of retreating men to reach the enemy commanders. His sword urged men to leap from his path, and his mount’s hooves cracked bones and crushed skulls as he rode over others. Brown spurred his mount into the dark. Mather yanked back on his reins, reacting a moment too slow. The Marshal’s sword sheared through his arm and into his horse’s neck in one blow. Before he dismounted to finish the task, he looked down to see Mather crushed beneath a mass of horseflesh, the light of existence extinguished from those enigmatic eyes.
He then realized all gunfire had ceased. Anselm had driven Brown’s men from the heights. The battle was won, but at great cost. Only Durant, Sweet Maggie Jane, he and his son yet lived. Durant wept over his fallen comrades, and Maggie held Anselm close. He looked a boy again as he melted into her embrace.
“Brown yet lives,” the Marshal said, dismounting. “I have a promise to keep.”
“You have more wounds to dress,” Maggie said. “You got to rest, William.”
“Bind them up, then I shall arm,” the Marshal said. “God will grant me rest soon enough.”
“God smiles upon us, father,” Anselm said. “I doubt there’s a living soul in Las Vegas willing to give the Dodge City Gang aid any longer.”
“Praise be to God,” the Marshal said, his smile shining through the smoke and firelight. “I must finish His plan.”
“I’ll help, Mister Marshal,” Durant said from behind them. He stood there before his fallen friends, bleeding from the side. His face reflected sorrow and rage.
“No, this is a task for me alone,” the Marshal replied. “You’ve done enough, my brave friend, sacrificed enough. Rest now. Take your ease. Maggie will tend you.”
The man nodded, weariness overtaking him, and tears flowed freely down his face.
Anselm helped him arm. The Marshal stopped his son when he made to put on his hauberk. “Nay, Anselm, thou shalt not accompany me. Needs must I slay His enemy myself, with mine own strength. It is as God hath willed.”
Anselm nodded, obedient to his father and to God. Tears stood out in his eyes, unspilled pools bespeaking frustration. “Aye, father,” he said, mirroring the Marshal’s heightened speech. “It shall be even as thou sayest.”
The Marshal pushed on his helm, used a nearby rock as a step to mount his horse, and galloped into the night.
The Marshal rode into town as day broke, dawn’s blood-red rays cresting Las Vegas like a crimson crown. A small knot of men, hardened types toting rifles and wearing guns, fled down an alley at the knight’s appearance. He knew how striking he looked, covered from helm to heel in armor, riding atop an ironclad steed, both of them covered in sprays of blood. The townsfolk kept indoors; the saloons sat silent. Las Vegas held its breath, waiting for the final chapter of this violent saga to finish.
He searched the town for hours, knocking on doors, asking gentle questions of frightened people. His strength flagged, sapped by his many wounds. None claimed to have seen Brown since he rode from Las Vegas the night before, at the head of his gang. Many suggested he had already fled town. As he spoke to more and more people, their fear relented, and they opened up to him. Citizens offered him cool water. Quenching his thirst lent him renewed vigor. Soon small throngs gathered to meet him as the Marshal made his way down the main street, telling him which saloons Brown frequented, offering opinions about where he might have gone to ground. He met them with courteous words and thankful kindness, searching suggested buildings. Nothing. Hoodoo Brown had fled the Marshal’s wrath, and by extension God’s righteous vengeance.
A ruckus broke out inside a house up the thoroughfare in a building the Marshal had yet to reach. The door exploded from its hinges and Hoodoo Brown tumbled out to land flat on his back in the dusty road. He clutched a case under his arm and held onto a pistol in his other hand. Two burly men had thrown Brown from the house. Brown aimed his pistol first at one, then at the other, waving it back and forth.
The citizens of Las Vegas turned on Brown, a mob forming, moving down the road and along the boardwalk. They closed in, ready to tear him limb from limb. A man called for a rope, a woman for tar and feathers.
Into this tumult, the Marshal spoke. “Good people,” he said, without raising his voice. At once, the confused shouts began to settle into a low mutter. Brown gaped back up the way at the Marshal, wavering in the throes of inaction. “This man, this criminal, this coward, Hoodoo Brown, stands condemned by God to death at my hand. Let no man touch him, nor harm a hair on his damned head.
“Brown, I made a sacred promise when last we spoke. I told you to flee Las Vegas before dawn this day, to raise the oppressive yoke you’ve used to strangle this town. You responded without honor, and tried to have me murdered.
“Your schemes have failed, your villainy come to naught. None here will succor you, nor help you escape. Make your peace with God, Hoodoo Brown, for you shall have none from me.” The Marshal whipped his sword free of its scabbard.
The blistering noontime sun beat down upon the thoroughfare as the showdown ordained by God played out. Brown, watching his death march inexorably toward him, turned to flee. His feet tangled up on each other, and he dropped face-first into the dirt. He threw away his case and rose to run, looking back at the Marshal gaining steadily. Brown backed away from God’s armored fist, ready to crush him for his misdeeds. He brought up his pistol and fired once, twice, aiming for the narrow slit in the Marshal’s helm, but the bullets ricocheted off and the Marshal never flinched or slowed. Brown emptied his gun, sure to hit his mark as mere feet separated them, but his hand shook as terror gripped his coward’s heart, and every bullet flew wide.
“God has passed judgment on thee for thy sins, Hoodoo Brown,” the Marshal intoned. “Thy time is at an end.”
The Marshal loomed over him, sword raised to strike. Hoodoo fell to his knees, sobbing, crying for mercy and his mother. He denounced his titles, disavowed his evil ways, promised to make good, to help the poor and raise up the wretched for the rest of his days. Brown hung his head in surrender, pleading with the Marshal, asking only for life, for a chance at redemption.
But God wasn’t listening, or if He were, He turned a deaf ear to Brown’s pathetic abasements. The Marshal’s sword glinted in the noontime sun, crashed down with holy retribution, and smote Hoodoo Brown’s head clean from his neck. The tyrant was no more. God’s will had been done.
The people of Las Vegas recoiled from the terrible blow. No hearty cheers celebrated Brown’s demise as his blood soaked into the dirt. His death was ugly, brutal. They were used to killings, and had formed many a lynch mob, but none of the townsfolk had ever seen a man beheaded before. The Marshal fell to his knees, planted his sword tip-down on the ground before him, and prayed. The people around him drifted away, back to their homes and businesses, putting the awful interlude firmly behind them.
Anselm arrived soon after, Maggie riding beside him. The Marshal bathed and changed into a suit of clothes. He and Anselm cleaned their arms and armor, packing them up, hopeful never to need them again. Then he, his son, and Maggie went into the Grand Hotel and shared quiet drinks. The Marshal had developed quite a taste for cactus wine. The saloon filled around them, and the people found silent joy in Hoodoo Brown’s removal from power. Soon enough the saloon burst with the din of unreserved revelry as Las Vegas celebrated their freedom from oppression.
A great weariness came upon the Marshal then. He excused himself and stepped out to take the air. He sensed a queer wanderlust well up inside his breast, tugging him onward, away from Las Vegas. By the time he saddled his horse and brought it around in front of the saloon, Anselm and Maggie had stepped outside onto the boardwalk, arms around each other. The Marshal gave his son a tender smile.
“Father,” Anselm said. He hesitated. “I’m staying here with Maggie. I love her, and am loathe to leave her.”
“As if he had a choice in the matter,” Maggie said. She hugged him close, but the tender look they shared belied her bluster. “I couldn’t live without him now, truth be told. I love him too.”
The Marshal smiled, for he had already known their minds. “I wish you the best of luck. May your life together be blessed, and may your children be many, and strong.”
His son smiled back, and Maggie nodded her farewell. The Marshal mounted his horse and took up the reins.
“Where will you go, Father?”
He looked down the thoroughfare at the road out of town, the sun retreating over the distant mountains. “Wherever God leads me.”
The Marshal felt the ache of his wounds, a visceral reminder of what he had overcome. “God’s will be done,” he breathed. Pulling his horse around, he rode away from Las Vegas, into the sunset. Into another land.