Sanctum, in the Oklahoma territory, was an island in a sea of open prairie. On all sides, the scrubland stretched out endlessly, with no watering holes, no habitations aside from abandoned wagons and skeletal cabins, and no company except for the hungry fangs of rattlesnakes. But because of the nature of Sanctum, its location suited the city just fine.
Sanctum was a city of outlaws, a town founded by road agents, murderers, gunslingers and worse. It stood around the only oasis in miles, and no one who didn't know it was there would care to look for it. When criminals needed a place to lay low where the law wouldn't even think to look, Sanctum was their chosen destination. It stretched out in a disorderly sprawl, with cluttered buildings squatting in muddy streets. There were a few industries catering to the outlaws, but mostly the town's residents sucked back whiskey, watched the sun cross the wide open sky, and waited for the world to forget about them.
After the sun slipped into the murky distance, and night fell on the patchwork streets, the town started to show a little more activity. Gambling dens started going to work, where robbers wagered and lost their loot to the faro and roulette table. Saloon keepers who had managed to bring in rotgut whiskey and coffin varnish over the desert started up business, wiping the blood off their floors and pouring the drinks for their captive audience. Inns and hotels offered their customers any service, and from the half-collapsed shacks on the city's edge to the two-story grand boarding house in the center of town, a brisk business was done.
Nobody charged their customers too much. Nobody started arguments with drunks or disputed a gambler's winnings. Everyone in Sanctum wore iron on their hips, and gunfights were about as common as brown Oklahoma dirt. There was no law in Sanctum, no rules beyond what a fellow could impose with a six-gun and Bowie knife. Bodies were tossed in the gutters, fed to the pigs or simply left out into the desert to feed the vultures, their sightless eyes looking up at the broad sky. It was a riotous city, hospitable as a tiger's belly, but to many it was home, or at least a refuge.
Because one rule, an unspoken, unbroken code, that kept Sanctum safe. Nobody squealed to the law. That breach of conduct would be simply unthinkable, and the rowdies, gunmen, and toughs that filled Sanctum's streets, made sure that their lips were guarded whenever they were elsewhere. If someone did break that one law of Sanctum, there was no telling how dreadful the punishment would be.
In the Muddy Rose Saloon, some of Sanctum's finest citizens gathered for an evening's drinking, fighting and gambling. There were half a dozen of Mexican banditos, hiding up north from some trouble with the Federales or a pissed off hacienda-owner with connections. Cattle rustlers, in from half a year of raiding the drives, sucked back whiskey and fingered their bullwhips. Bank robbers traded stories, petty murderers reminisced about their killings, and military deserters looked over their shoulders. There were Fenian terrorists singing songs of Ireland, dynamitards dreaming of anarchy, and Kiowa, Apache, and Commanche warriors counting their scalps and lamenting what had brought them here.
In the shadowy corner, watching every outlaw with a hawk's relaxed eyes, Nero Van Wessel sipped sarsaparilla and kept one hand on the pearl-handle of his Schofield revolver. Nero was a gentleman thief, a robber with class – or at least, that's how he styled himself. His pearl gray coat, vest and striped tie were immaculate, and his matching bowler hat rested at a cocky angle. His blonde moustache was perfectly trimmed. He nodded his head in tune to the tinkling of the Muddy Rose's half-busted piano.
Dr. Julius Torrent sat next to him, sitting on his hands and nervously looking about the room. "I don't like these environs, Mr. Van Wessel," Doc Torrent said. "I'm not ashamed to sayit, but the people here seem to possess a low and desperate character. They are thoroughly unpleasant. Did you know that a severely inebriated fellow uttered something about my mother? Needless to say, I was flabbergasted beyond the power of speech."
"I know it's not exactly a millionaire's row, Doc, but we must do our best to flourish in such lamentable surroundings," Nero said, smiling as one of the buxom barmaids passed with a tray loaded full of whisky pitchers. "I suppose I will survive this hardship." He looked past the bar girls and spotted the two remaining members of his gang approach. "Ah, here's Slugg and Kilpatrick now. Hello, gentlemen! Enjoying our evening?"
"About as much as a fellow can, what with the little amount of dinero you gave us for the night," Slim Slugg muttered. He patted his protruding gut with a gnarled hand. "Shoot. I had to choose between eating a fine dinner or settling on chicken gizzards and whiskey. Now what kind of a choice is that? A damn bad one."
Nero shrugged. "I apologize for the paltry per diem, but our budget isn't exactly bursting at the seams. We'll have to ration." He hoisted the sarsaparilla bottle. "For instance, I, thrifty soul that I am, stole this from a sleeping drunk outside this fine establishment." He sighed. "We must all make sacrifices."
Doc Torrent looked from Slim Slugg to Nero. "But I thought we had netted quite the sum after robbing those Tongs in San Francisco?"
"It was a decent amount of greenbacks, but most of its gone now," Slim muttered. "Sanctum's got a goddamn entry fee, and it's been raised since the last time I passed through these parts. I reckon the bastard running the place is getting real greedy, raising the tax like that. After paying our way inside, we ain't got much cash left."
Kilpatrick sat down, raising a shot glass to pursed lips. "This swill ain't worth much," he said. "And we do need another job, boss. Do you have plans for anything?"
"As much as I'd like another large take, I'm afraid laying low is the order of the day," Nero replied. "I did gun down an officer of the law, and I'd like to remain incognito, if I can help it." He turned to Slugg. "Do you, perhaps, know of any possible targets outside of the borders of our beloved homeland? Our sunny neighbor to the south, Old Mexico, for instance?"
"What are you gonna do? Steal some beans or burros?" Slugg slapped his knee. "Nah, I'm just fooling. There are some things I could look into. But it ain't much, I'll tell you that for nothing." He reached for his bottle. "It looks like we may just have to hold out here, sitting back and sipping whiskey until the lawdogs give up the scent. Shouldn't be long, but it might be one hell of a bore."
At this, Nero gave a quick smile. "Oh, I wouldn't worry about that, Mr. Slugg. Excitement seems to stick with me like flies around dung." As he spoke, two men came walking through the saloon to join the Van Wessel Gang.
One was a well-dressed man, a dandy with thick sideburns and a long, flat nose. He wore a bolo tie and held a hat with a silver band in his gloved hands, a golden Peacemaker glistening on his gun belt. He bowed low, and extended a hand swiftly, like a scorpion's stinger moving to strike. "Howdy, gents!" His voice boomed, bold and brassy. "Names Ralston Masters, Mayor Masters, and I'm the rightfully elected authority of our little slice of paradise."
The fellow next to him had a mangy mane of hair dripping over his shoulders, and a long unkempt moustache to match. Bandoliers encircled his leather vest, and four revolvers rested on his waist. A tin star was pinned to the brim of his Stetson. "I voted for him twenty-three times!" he said with a laugh. "And in return, he made me the law." He looked at Slugg. "Say, Slim Slugg! What are you doing here, you polecat?"
Slim nodded. "Just getting by, Mad Dog." His voice was soft, his usual bombastic declarations gone. "Working with this here outfit and laying low for a spell."
"Well, it's damn good to see you. Old Mad Dog Hicks always needs some more friends!" He patted his revolvers. "Ah, that's a big fat lie. I got all the friends I need right here on my hip!" He turned to the mayor. "I'm gonna go start something, Mr. Mayor. Lay out a couple of souls for the reaper come morning."
"You go on and kill to your heart's content, Mad Dog," Mayor Masters said. "I want to have some words with Mr. Van Wessel here." He pulled up a chair and sat down opposite Nero, too close for comfort. Behind him, Mad Dog walked outside, and a number of gunshots and screams followed his departure. The night's business continued without interruption. Mayor Masters smiled. "Mad Dog enforces my rule. Keeps things running smoothly. He's got to let off a little steam now and again."
"When I rode with him, he seemed more concerned with taking lives than making a living off robbery," Slim said. "Was why I left him behind." He pointed to Mayor Masters. "And now he's partnered up with you. That don't speak well for the both of you."
Mayor Masters nodded. "You speak truth, friend. I do like being in charge, but I'm growing weary of being king of these miscreants. I fancy a change in scenery, and an increase in my personal wealth." He nodded to Nero. "How about yourself, sir?" He had a squeaky, North Texas accent, his voice turned edgy with expectation.
Nero shrugged. "Keep talking."
"Now, you are well aware that Sanctum has but one banking institution, the First Bank, some bright spark decided to call it." Mayor Masters pointed out of the dirty windows, across the dirt street. "Should be there, if memory serves. There's a whole mess of loot in there, from a thousand different takes. You want Pesos, Yankee dollars, gold bars – it's all in there. No guards neither. It's just that no one's got the gumption to take it. 'Til now, that is."
"Keep talking," Nero repeated.
But the Mayor was already putting on his hat. "No, I think I'll take my leave. I need to know if you folks are up to the task I'll set for you. Meet me and Mad Dog in our manor on the far side of town. If you're still able to." He reached the swinging doors of the saloon and stepped outside, vanishing like a raven into a black night sky.
Nero turned to his friends. "What do you think he meant by that, exactly?"
"Reckon we'll find out presently," Slim replied.
Kilpatrick pointed to the door. "Newcomers, boss," he said. "Don't look too friendly."
There were a dozen of them, harsh-eyed desperadoes in worn buckskin coats. They wore their broad-brimmed hats low, and carried pistols and shotguns in their hands. Black silk ribbons glittered on their arms, looking like patches of the night sky in the low light of the saloon. Their leader was a broad-shouldered man cradling a shotgun, with a drooping walrus moustache. He resembled an angry muskrat, fresh from the water.
"Nero Van Wessel?" he asked. "I'm Big Bill of the Black Band Gang. We just been paid a considerable sum to kill you."
"You get paid up front?" Nero asked, leaning back on his barstool, as Kilpatrick reached for his revolver, Slim folded his arms, and Doc Torrent's teeth started chattering like a malfunctioning typewriter.
Big Bill shook his head. "Nope."
"Bit of a mistake, my friend," Nero said, his boots leaving the saloon's floor. "Now you won't get to spend a dime of that prize money." He suddenly kicked off of the floor and fell backwards, landing hard on the floor. Big Bill fired his shotgun, the bullets sailing over Nero's head. Nero drew out both revolvers and opened fire, planting three rounds in Big Bill's chest.
His friends sprang into action as well. Kilpatrick drew out his LeMat revolver and fired the lower barrel, blasting the hand off of one of his attacker. The Black Band Gang tried to duck backwards and find cover in the saloon. The Muddy Rose saloon's other patrons scrambled for the door, while shot glass and bottles shattering on the ground and adding a musical tinkling to the blast of bullets. Slim Slugg emptied his sawed-off, cackling between the two thunderous shots. Doc Torrent drew out his phlogogun, and glanced around through the smoke and blood to find a target.
The last of the Black Band Gang charged them from behind a table, holding a tomahawk over his head. Doc Torrent blasted his face with the Phlogogun, burning his head away to nothing within seconds. A smell like Texas barbecue wafted through the saloon, and the sparking corpse tumbled to the ground. There was silence in the Muddy Rose.
The barman peered up from behind the bar. "You boys finished?" he asked.
Nero Van Wessel stepped over Big Bill and lowered a revolver at his face. "The mayor hired you?" he asked.
"Yeah," Big Bill muttered.
"Well, let me send you on your way, then." Nero's pistol clattered once more. He looked up at the bartender and touched the brim of his bowler. "We're all done here, my good man. I think we will take the air now. My apologies for the mess." He walked to the swinging door, and the rest of the Van Wessel Gang followed him. They walked down the dark streets, moving through the throngs of outlaws and gunslingers in the flickering blaze of torches.
Doc Torrent stepped up to walk next to Nero. "Mr. Van Wessel, you must see what kind of a dreadful place this is!" he cried. "Gunfights in the twilight, an outright attack on our very lives! By Tesla's holy energies, this is no place for young Claudius!"
That felt like someone had put a burning brand on Nero's heart. He stopped walking and snapped to face Doc Torrent. "You think I'm an unfit caregiver?" he asked. "Bringing my dear brother to such a place as this?"
"Well, not exactly," Torrent said. His words became muddled. "Oh, you know I don't doubt your affection for the boy. And I know he would rather be nowhere else than at your side. But you'll have to admit, it does seem…a bad influence."
"I suppose you're right," Nero muttered. "But Claudius is at the hotel, in Nelly's company, and she has strict orders not to let him outside. She's a good girl, and he likes her, and I'm certain she won't let him fall into any danger." He stroked his moustache. "But you mean more than that, don't you? You question dragging Claudius into a life of crime."
"I didn't specifically say—" Doc Torrent started, but Nero continued.
"He deserves the finest things in life, doctor. He's a better fellow than I am, in every possible way. And if I have to rob and kill to ensure that, then by god, I will."
Slim Slugg leaned forward. "Sure you just don't plain like doing them things and you're looking for an excuse?" he asked.
Nero silenced him with a glare. "I'm good at them," he replied. "And let's leave it at that."
But Doc Torrent continued, blundering on into another question. "Your parents are quite wealthy. Could not they see to the lad's upbringing?"
Instantly, Nero rounded on the surprised scientist. "Send him back to those pompous devils, Julius? To see him shamed, because he can't meet their expectations, because he can't make himself a vapid little toady? To see him wallow in the guilt and brutality that every high society scumbag covers with a veneer of class? I would not inflict that on him." He turned away, and trudged sourly down the street.
Behind him, he could hear Torrent stuttering out an apology. Kilpatrick stood next to the scientist. "Touched a sore spot," he said. "You oughtn't to have mentioned it."
They reached Mayor Masters' mansion, a shabby old house overlooking the prairie, and found Mad Dog waiting for them on the porch. The manor had been constructed from a dozen huts and shacks, with rotten wood and corrugated steel slapped together. Oil lamps swung in the awning, casting flickering shadows under the craggy roof.
Wordlessly, Mad Dog Hicks motioned them inside. They walked into the bare wooden floor of the manor and found Mayor Masters reclining in a faded overstuffed armchair, a bottle of wine swishing in his hands. Mayor Masters nodded to them as they approached, and waved to some chairs in the corner, urging them to sit as he finished his bottle.
Mayor Masters tossed the empty bottle over his shoulder. It shattered somewhere on the floor. "I take it the Black Band Gang is no more?" he asked.
"That was your test, then?" Nero asked. "I trust we passed."
"And with flying colors, sir." Mayor Masters leaned forward. "Now, I'll be a little bit blunt. Nothing like plain speaking between men of honor – that's me and you, Mr. Van Wessel. I aim to have the First Bank robbed, and if you're obliging, I'll see you as the man to do it."
Nero raised an eyebrow. "You'll provide the supplies?"
"Plenty of dynamite, a sturdy wagon for the takings, and fresh horses." Mayor Masters leaned forward. "Here's how I figure it – you dynamite the rear, dash in and stack everything on the wagons, then hightail it out of Sanctum. I'll have Mad Dog meet you on the eastern road with fresh horses, and then you'll ride on out through the scrublands and get to safety. Then me and Mad Dog will meet you and we'll square up. Two-thirds of the take for you, one third for me and Mad Dog."
"Awful generous," Slim Slugg said.
Mayor Masters grinned. "I'm a generous sort of fellow, Mr. Slugg." He turned back to Nero. "So, Mr. Van Wessel, what do you say to my little proposition?"
Kilpatrick suddenly spoke. "What of 'honor among thieves,' Mr. Masters?" he asked.
Nero stared at Kilpatrick and then turned back Masters. "An Irishman's sense of humor," he said. "Not a misgiving." He held out his hand. "I accept."
"Wonderful news." Mayor Masters came to his feet and nodded to Mad Dog. "He'll bring the dynamite to your room tomorrow morning, and he'll have the wagon and horses waiting for you over by the livery. I trust I'll see a happy return from my investment, Mr. Van Wessel."
"You won't be disappointed," Nero agreed.
Masters nodded. "Oh, I don't intend to be."
They returned to Nero's penthouse suite at Sanctum's biggest hotel for the remainder of the night. None of the Van Wessel Gang said anything, and Nero could feel the tension crackling between them like a coming storm, or the moments before a gunfight. As they walked upstairs to their rooms, Nero turned around. "I sense some misgivings," he said. "Feel free to voice them."
"Mayor Masters is gonna stab you straight in the back, boss," Kilpatrick said. "You can already see him reaching for the knife. He betrayed those poor bastards of the Black Band Gang, he's betraying his whole bloody city, and you can best believe he's about to betray us."
"Paddy's right," Slim agreed. "He's aiming for a double-cross, no two ways about it."
"I concur," Doc Torrent added.
Nero nodded. "I understand your fears, but if we suspect foul play, and prepare for it, we can turn the tables on the mayor and leave him none the wiser. In fact, I think we should do just that. Doc Torrent, would you be so good as to prepare your electro-equines and the carriage? You can use that to transport Nelly and Claudius, and meet us on the eastern road, perhaps before we are joined by Mad Dog Hicks."
"That is well within my power," Doc Torrent replied.
"Splendid." They had finished walking up the rickety stairwell, and stood outside the gilded door to their room. Nero knocked three times. "Please, no talk of this business in front of Claudius, eh?" he asked, just as Nelly Ying opened the door.
The thin young woman smiled at Nero and the gang stepped inside. Nero sat on the chesterfield and produced a cigar, while Slim Slugg wandered off with a whiskey bottle, muttering under his breath. Kilpatrick took up a position in the corner, and Doc Torrent slumped down in an armchair. Nero smiled at Nelly. "Miss Ying, I trust Claudius went to bed at a reasonable hour?" he asked.
"He wanted to wait for you, but he was too tired," Nelly explained.
"Ah." Nero drew out a match and struck it on the coffee table. "Is he happy, Miss Ying? Tell me truthfully, now. I would like to know about my brother's welfare."
"He's happy enough to be by your side," Nelly said. "But he doesn't like be stuck in this room all the time."
"That's good, then," Nero said. "He'll be happy to know that we are leaving tomorrow. And we'll soon be much wealthier as well. You may return to your chambers, now. You have done an exemplary job." He paused. "And we may need you, however briefly, for a small operation tomorrow. I guarantee it will be relatively free of danger."
"You saved my life. I suppose I can help you," Nelly said.
"Good to hear." Nero leaned back and puffed on his cigar. It tasted ashy in his mouth, and made his tongue itch. He stubbed it out on the coffee table and left before it was finished, then checked on Claudius. The boy was sleeping peacefully, Bee resting on the pillow next to him. Nero pulled up the covers around his brother's thin shoulders, and smiled sadly. He went to his own room and sank into the king-sized bed. He lay awake for some time before slipping off into sleep.
Next morning, Mad Dog Hicks dropped off two dozen sticks of dynamite at their room. "Just like room service!" he laughed, and Nero didn't like the way he caressed the candy-red explosives. He set them down on the coffee table and looked around the room, his eyes suddenly fixing on Claudius. The boy wore his pajamas and a robe, and was just eating breakfast. "You're brother brought you here, boy?" Mad Dog asked. "You ain't gonna last long, and I'll tell you that for free."
Nero took the sticks of dynamite. "That will be all, sir," he said curtly. "Thank you."
But Mad Dog Hicks continued to leer at Claudius. "Look at that damn half-pint! I always wonder how much blood folks got in them, and I bet that boy would just plumb burst if I batted him with a bit of stove wood."
"E-excuse me?" Claudius asked, stepped backwards.
"Goodbye, sir." Nero stepped in front of Mad Dog. He let his hands fall to his revolver, staring straight into Mad Dog's glaring eyes. "I'll see you later, but I think you have served your purpose." Mad Dog looked back at Nero, narrowing his eyes. The two men stared at each other, and Nero didn't blink or move a muscle, his mouth set in a grim line.
Finally, Mad Dog nodded and stepped back. "Until we meet again, partner," he said, chuckling to himself as he walked away. Nero sighed deeply and sat down next to his brother.
"Who was that fellow?" Claudius asked. "He seemed pretty rude. And crazy."
"That's Mad Dog summed up nicely," Slim Slugg said. "So, Mr. Van Wessel, how we gonna do this robbery, exactly?"
Nero handed the sticks of dynamite to Doc Torrent. "Could you create a timed detonating device, doc?" he asked. "A crude one, perhaps, or using a simple timepiece, but I'm certain your genius could come up with something."
"Oh, Indubitably." Torrent drew out a watch from his waistcoat. "It should take me no more than a moment to create a timed explosive device. When do you want it to go off?"
"An hour after it's been set." Nero looked at Nelly. "And make it unobtrusive, if you please, something that could fit inside a lady's skirts without being apparent." He smiled at Nelly, worming his way towards her across the room. Nero could see the young woman's eyes dart about the room in sudden panic. "Now, now, it's nothing to be frightened over," he said. "I simply want you to deposit a little money off at the First Bank. And something else as well."
Claudius looked up at his brother. "Nero, that's dangerous. Miss Ying could be hurt!"
"No." Nelly patted Claudius's shoulder. "Your brother has given me room and board, and I have done nothing but look after you, which is an easy task. I'll help him with this." She turned back to Nero. "And if it goes wrong, then my ghost will come back and destroy you."
"A fine arrangement. Deposit the money, and the, ahem, other thing, and then return here. Doc Torrent will provide transportation for you and Claudius to a pre-chosen rendezvous point, on the eastern road." Nero nodded to Kilpatrick and Slim Slugg. "Let's fetch the wagon and the horses and get them ready, gentlemen. I believe everything is in order here."
Slim Slugg and Kilpatrick stood up. Kilpatrick slung his Sharps rifle over his shoulders, moving in long easy strides. He paused to give Nero a probing glance, like he was trying to break him down with just a gaze. Slim Slugg followed him, closing his sawed-off with a practiced flick of the wrist.
Together they walked downstairs. They didn't mention their fears about the job, but Nero knew they were there, as obvious as fish beneath the waves of the ocean. For the whole day, Nero could feel them staring at him, whispering amongst each other and fingering their weapons with nervous anticipation. He considered confronting them about it, but chose against it. Better they should be on edge, just in case they were right about the mayor betraying them. Nero kept himself busy, putting all thoughts but the job out his head.
They worked quickly, going to the livery stables and procuring the buckboard wagon and a team of four horses. The wagon was good quality, and the sleek horses were rested and ready. Nero wasn't sure where Mayor Masters had plotted their trap, and he said so. "I say, if Mayor Masters wants to stab us in the back, he sure isn't doing himself a favor, giving us this fine wagon and steeds," he told Kilpatrick and Nero.
Kilpatrick gave a typical laconic response. "We can't ride them if we're dead, boss. And if he's not, he can."
Slim Slugg patted his sawed-off. "Keep your flap buttoned, paddy. We'll just have to be ready when the time comes. I reckon you can handle those shooting irons, but you'll be all right. And don't you worry about me."
"I wasn't," Kilpatrick retorted.
Nero held up his hand. "That's enough." He hopped onto the wagon and took the reins, while Slim rode shotgun and Kilpatrick clambered into the back. They rolled out of the livery and onto the open streets of Sanctum. The town was going about its daily business – sleeping off the last night's hangover and nursing its wounds. Drunks snoozed peacefully next to battered corpses in muddy gutters and on the wooden board sidewalks. An occasional stray dog or horse without a rider would amble through the dingy streets, but otherwise Sanctum was as still as a painting.
They rolled the wagon down the main thoroughfare of the city, and stopped it before one of the saloons, this one overlooking the bank. Nero leaned back in his seat, reaching for another cigar. He scanned the street and then spotted Nelly Ying walking towards the First Bank, a purse slung over her shoulder. It would be a small matter to leave that purse in an empty corner of the bank, and wait for the fuse to burn down. Nero doubted the tellers and guards, if there were any, would be much aware of their surroundings.
He watched Nelly vanish inside the large open doors of the First Bank. It was an adobe building, looking dirty gray in the clear sun. There were a few rusty bars over the window, but nothing more. Like Mayor Masters had said, outlaws went to Sanctum to hide out, not to commit crimes, and their bank wasn't guarded very well. This job should be easy as pie, but Nero still felt like he had swallowed rat poison.
After a few minutes that seemed much longer, Nelly Ying walked out of the bank. Her purse was gone. Nero breathed outwards as she walked away. Nelly moved as calm as if she was going for a Sunday stroll, not betraying a hint of nervousness in the even motion of her legs. Nero watched her heading along the wooden sidewalk. He gave her a quick nod, and she sent one back. She returned to the hotel, where Doc Torrent would have the electro-equines and the carriage waiting for her and Claudius.
Slim Slugg looked after. "That Celestial strumpet's one cool customer," he said.
"Don't talk about her like that," Nero said. "She's part of the gang now, you know, and I won't stand to see her insulted."
Kilpatrick coughed. "Pardon me, boss, but you ain't exactly stood up for the well-being of the Sons of Erin whenever Slugg's spewing his hate on them, now have you?"
"That's different," Nero said. "You're not a woman."
"Still have a bit of the gentleman about you, that it?" Slim asked. "Well, boy, I gotta tell you something – robbing banks ain't something a gentleman does. Robbing banks at the behest of a corrupt scum-sucking mayor from a town of thieves, is sure as hell not something a gentleman does, and doing all that with your baby brother along? Now, that's downright deplorable behavior."
"Let's keep our minds on the job, please," Nero said curtly, turning back to the bank. "It's not that dissent in the ranks makes my blood boil, but that I believe Torrent's timer should be running out shortly. And then we'll have something else to keep us occupied."
Kilpatrick nodded. "Understood, boss."
"Yeah, I'll stop flapping my gums." Slim Slugg looked back at the bank and leaned back. "Wake me up when the place blows."
It went off then, and Nero turned away from the sudden burning flash. The sun seemed to have fallen to earth for a few moments, along with a cataclysmic crash. The adobe side of the bank was shoved outwards into the street by a blossom of fire, followed by a great plume of smoke and dust. Bits of gravel tumbled to the ground, along with a few floating paper dollars.
The explosion stirred the town of Sanctum like a mosquito bite rousing a sleeping man. Sanctum woke up slowly, with drunks rubbing bleary eyes and stray dogs barking wildly. Nero knew they didn't have much time. He rode the wagon over to the wreck and hopped off, looking down at the rusty safes, some with their doors swinging open, the piles of stacked dollar bills and a few bars of gold.
"Take it all!" he cried, and tossed a small safe onto the wagon. Slim Slugg hopped off the wagon and worked with him, and soon the buckboard was loaded heavily with the loot. Kilpatrick stood up, covering the streets with his rifle. A curious Sanctum citizen peered out from his doorway, and Kilpatrick sent him away with a bullet through his hat. Nero and Slim worked quickly, and before they realized it, there was nothing more to load.
They hopped back onto the wagon, Nero snapped the reins, and the two horses started off at a gallop. The wagon was weighed down by the profits of the robbery, and the horses strained to make it roll forward, but they still made a decent, trundling clip. Kilpatrick continued to keep his rifle trained on the streets and windows, firing warning shots at whatever bleary-eyed outlaw started after them. But Sanctum's citizens were hung-over, the town still had morning's chill, and their blood was sluggish and thick in their veins.
The wagon reached the end of Sanctum, where the run-down shacks and half-collapsed sheds gave way to the open country. Nero eased the wagon onto the eastern road, which rolled out over the scrubland, unspooling in a straight line over to the horizon. "Any pursuers?" he asked Kilpatrick.
"Nary a one," Kilpatick answered. "But if there were, and I'm certain there will be, these horses won't provide much of assistance. And I only got so many bullets."
"Don't fret, my friend," Nero said. "Mad Dog Hicks should be meeting us presently, with fresh horses and the help we need to take our loot away." He shielded his eyes from the cold sun, and looked down the road. The scrubland went craggy further on, dotted by large boulders and undulations in the earth. Further on, the short grass gave way to gravel entirely, and the tall, jagged rocks made it look like an alligator's back.
They continued riding on, Nero kept his eyes peeled for Mad Dog Hicks. After passing by some tall rocks, they received their sign. A rifle cracked, striking the dirt in front of them. The horses reared up in panic as the dirt kicked up, and Nero struggled to control them. The wagon slid to a rumbling halt. Kilpatrick pointed his rifle upwards, but Nero raised his hand. "We're outgunned," he said suddenly. "Lay down your arms, my good man. It would serve us no purpose."
Sure enough, a small army of mangy gunslingers aimed rifles down from between the rocks. They were buffalo rifles, squirrel guns, old army Springfields and Winchester repeaters, all primed and ready to ventilate the Van Wessel Gang. Nero could feel a sinking feeling in his chest, as he realized the time had come and he was unprepared by it. But it didn't make sense. Why would Mad Dog take the loot now? Why not further away from Sanctum, when there was less chance of it being recovered?
Mad Dog stepped into the road, accompanied by a couple of his men armed with shotguns. Mad Dog Hicks smiled at Nero and hooked his fingers in his gun belt. "Howdy," he said. "Figured I'd meet you here."
"Why all the rifles, my good man?" Nero asked. "Seems an ill reception. We've done what Mayor Masters asked, and are as loyal to him as you are."
"Yeah, well, that's the thing, ain't it?" Mad Dog Hicks gestured down the road, licking his thick moustache. "My loyalty to Ralston Masters is at an end. From now on, Mad Dog Hicks will ride alone. Except for all these saddlebums." He pointed to the wagon. "Get down off there and keep your hands up. I will end your lives in a second if you don't."
Nero stood up, and nodded to Slim Slugg and Kilpatrick. They grumbled as they set down their guns, knowing that it was pointless to resist. Nero stepped down from the wagon, keeping his hands raised. "You're taking the money from Mayor Masters?" he asked.
"You won't get far, Mr. Mad Dog. You can't go down the road or you'll meet Masters, and if you go north or south, the good people of Sanctum will find you, with their money. I'm certain it won't be a happy meeting."
"How you talk!" Mad Dog slapped his knee. "Boy, there ain't gonna be a Sanctum in a couple of hours. Mayor Masters likes burning his bridges, a notion which I share."
Slim Slugg furrowed his brow. "What the hell did that bastard do?" he demanded.
"He sent a couple telegrams to Colonel Ambrose Peckham, and told him about Sanctum's existence, location and meager defenses. The good colonel should be arriving in Sanctum pretty soon with all his men, Gatling guns, cannon and cavalry, and he'll get everyone inside arrested and fit for a nice, tight necktie." Mad Dog held his fist over his head and stuck his tongue out, mimicking a hanging man. "I think we'll leave you here to swing." Mad Dog paused and looked at Slim. "Maybe not you, Slim. Care to ride with me for a bit?"
"I don't cotton to traitors, Mad Dog," Slim said. "Ride on alone."
Mad Dog nodded. "Always were a man of principal. Well, I hope them principals keep you from the noose." He pulled himself up onto the wagon and grabbed the reins. "Come on, boys!" he shouted. "We're headed south, going Mexico way, and starting right now!" He slapped the reins urging the horses off the road. The wagon rolled after them, and his soldiers followed on foot. They moved slowly, with so many outlaws walking alongside the overloaded wagons, but then again, they could afford to. In a couple hours, everyone who could chase them would be gunned down or arrested by Federal Troops.
They rode into the distance, gray dust rising after them in a thick column, like an exclamation point of their betrayal. Nero sat down on the edge of the road, putting his hands in his lap. He sighed. "I apologize, gentlemen," he said. "I did not expect this, and now we are in a considerable state of trouble."
Slim patted his boss's shoulder. "Not so considerable," he said. "Have a look over yonder, and see that things ain't as bad as you think."
Nero turned around. He saw a carriage rolled towards them, pulled by metal steeds. The riveted, shiny surfaces of the horses were coated with the dust of the road, as was the black polished reinforced steel of the coach they pulled. Doc Torrent leaned out of one of the windows, and waved to Nero. "Hello, Mr. Van Wessel!" he called. He looked up and down the road. "Um, where exactly did all the money go?"
"It is a long and unfortunate story, Doc." Nero came to his feet. "It seems Mad Dog Hicks has betrayed Mayor Masters. Masters, in turn, has betrayed the entirety of Sanctum to the Federal Army."
"The army?" Claudius poked his out of the other window as Nero, Slugg and Kilpatrick approached. Doc Torrent opened the door for them. "Do we have to fight soldiers and stuff? I don't think that would be a very good idea."
"There may be another way." Nero's mind was moving quickly now, a locomotive getting up to speed. He sat down, stroked his moustache and reached for another cigar. "The townsfolk are now on our side. They'll want their money back, and they'll want to run away from the bluecoats."
Slugg nodded. "If I know those boys like I think I do, they'd rather live to steal another day than go toe-to-toe with the scumbellies. What's your plan, boss?"
"Doc?" Nero asked. "Have you any more of that green luminescence which you used to such great effect on the Texas Pearl steamer job? I think that would come quite in handy in rousing Sanctum from its stupors and slumbers, and alerting them to the nature of things."
Torrent nodded. "But how do you know they won't turn on us after they are woken?" he inquired. "They may be a little miffed that we just robbed them."
Nero shrugged. "You must trust my powers of oratory, and my inherent charm." He patted his knee. "Get the carriage moving, Doc. Turn us around and get us back to Sanctum. I'll do the rest."
"You're getting a plan, boss?" Kilpatrick asked.
"Yes. Its aim is simple – chase down Mad Dog Hicks, see his life ended, and then avoid the reach of the law. All while keeping our lives safe." Nero nodded, more to himself than to his gang. "I don't know how much profit we'll be able to take out of this, but when the citizens of Sanctum catch up to Mad Dog, I think there will be no small amount of chaos. We can take advantage of that, steal what we can, and fade away before the Federals arrive."
"Sounds all right by me," Slim Slugg said. "Get your mechanical nags moving, pencil-neck."
"Very well." Doc Torrent clapped his hands and the electro-equines turned around, and then headed back to Sanctum at a gallop. Nero said nothing during the short journey, keeping his eyes low and his fingers drumming an old dance hall tune on the butts of his revolvers. There were a thousand ways this could go wrong, most of them ending in his swift demise. But that meant Claudius would be in deep trouble, and he couldn't allow that. He resolved to see it through to the end.
They reached Sanctum in the midmorning, and found the town in the early stages of an uproar. The outlaw population was in the streets, staring at the rubble and dust of the First Bank, which had nearly collapsed after losing a wall. They fingered the triggers of their pistols and rifles, chewing tobacco juice and adding the red spit into the muddy, bloody streets. Nobody said much, because everyone knew what had happened and what would happen. The only question was in what direction the outlaw posse would ride.
When the strange wagon came rolling back, they all turned to face it. Nero nodded to Doc Torrent, and he slowed the electro-equines to a standstill. Nero opened the door and stepped out, his hands held up with his palms facing outwards. "Hello, gentlemen," he said, speaking evenly, but loud enough to be heard. "I have some disconcerting news."
"You're the owlhoot that robbed us!" a bewhiskered outlaw shouted, raising a rifle. "We ought to string you up! Then set you on fire! Then string you up again!" The other townsfolk of Sanctum seemed to follow his example, hoisting their guns and gritting their teeth in preparation for the short and bloody end of the Van Wessel Gang.
"Those actions may prove to be unwise," Nero explained. "As for my guilt, I suppose I shall confess to it without argument. Yes, I robbed your little bank. But I must ask – would you fine fellows ever turn down such a target? If you were not full of corn liquor and with plenty of dance hall girls to keep you occupied, would you spurn such an easy windfall?"
He looked over the citizens and saw some of them lowering their guns, but not holstering them. Camaraderie amongst outlaws was sparse, but it did exist. Nero knew he had to have more. Behind him, Slim Slugg leaned out of the wagon with his Winchester, and Kilpatrick did the same with his Sharps.
"Well, what if I told you that you gentlemen can get your money back?" he asked. "And maybe steal some more while you're at? Mad Dog Hicks, your beloved sheriff, has obtained the bank's contents from me, and is currently riding southeast, presumably towards Mexico." He grinned at Sanctum's residents. "He'll be moving pretty slowly, and if we move quickly, we can overtake him. And 'finder's keepers' is a sentiment I'm sure you'll join me expressing."
The bewhiskered outlaw needed more convincing. "How do we know you ain't spewing lies?" he demanded. "I say we get the mayor, string this fancy fool up and—"
"The mayor has departed," Nero said. He had already appealed to the sense of greed that every thief, robber and hired killer had. Now it was time to appeal to their sense of self-preservation. "But before he did, he went ahead and told the law about Sanctum. An army of Federal Troopers is on their way to arrest us all. I suggest we take our leave."
A silence ran across Sanctum. Far up ahead, vultures wheeled wide on currents of air. There was the one law of Sanctum, the only law, that no one could squeal about the town's location. Mayor Masters had just done that, and Sanctum's people were angry.
But the outlaw with the graying whiskers shook his head. "You're s-spinning lies," he said, the conviction lacking from his words. "The mayor would n-never have—"
A mortar shell struck the center of town. Dust rose from a ball of fire, reaching up into the heavens like a fist. The townsfolk stepped back in terror, and horses reared up and panicked. Silence came after the explosion and Nero looked up, past the sagging houses and into the distance. He could see an indistinct line of blue, moving towards them while puffs of smoke darkened the horizon.
"That will be them," he said, moving back to the carriage. "Now, I'm going to ride after Mad Dog Hicks and the money, before the soldiery arrives. Anyone care to join me?"
Claudius opened the carriage door, and Nero slid inside. The electro-equines started up again, and turned back to the eastern road. All around them, Sanctum was bustling with the activity of departures. The Federal cavalry was riding in fast, a few more cannon shots striking in before them, and the outlaws moved quickly. They mounted horses, piled into rickety wagons, grabbing their guns, money, and coats as they ran to the east. Dust rose up from the hooves of countless horses and boots, turning the whole town a chalky gray. Even the drunks pulled themselves up from their gutters, and started crawling away as the drum of cavalry hooves neared.
Nero nodded to Doc Torrent. "Get us out of here, if you please," he commanded. "We've an army of reprobates at our back, and I suggest we get moving before the Federal Cavalry settles in."
The electro-equines started forward, heading once more down the eastern road. Nero looked out of the wagon, watching the flood of outlaws following them. Horses, wagons, a few hijacked stagecoaches and more made up their convoy, which spread out like a tide along the sides of the road. Men shouted angrily at their horses and each other, punctuating their curses with pistol shots. Nero stayed on the road, letting the citizens of Sanctum form something a little more orderly.
Behind them, in the city itself, the Federal cavalry arrived just as the bombardment ended. The blue coats shone in the sun, along with the glimmer of raised sabers and carbines. They nabbed the lollygagging drunks and gunned down everyone who resisted. Nero figured they'd take the prisoners out to Yuma or some other major prison, another city of outlaws, but one behind bars. He didn't care to learn any more about one of those.
He turned back to Torrent, looking back to the road. "Take us south, Doc," he said, as they neared the rocks where Mad Dog and his gunmen had ambushed them. "Keep an eye out for the wagon, though I hardly think it will difficult to find. And I doubt they'll put up much of a fight, as long as we've got him outgunned."
The carriage rolled off road, the spokes of its wheels jouncing madly as it sped over scrub bushes and gray rocks. Nero held onto his seat as the stagecoach rocked and bucked like an angry animal. Claudius was nearly knocked out of his seat, but Nelly caught his arm and held him in place. He gave her a thankful smile.
Kilpatrick was the one to spot Mad Dog. "There, boss!" He pointed with the muzzle of his rifle, and then looked down the scope. Nero saw a column of dust in the near distance, drawing closer as they rode towards it. There was the wagon, with Mad Dog holding the reins and his thugs walking alongside.
"Can you make the shot?" Nero asked. Their coach was moving, their target was moving, and dust made visibility poor. But Kilpatrick was still resting the butt on his shoulder, breathing in carefully as he looked down the sight.
"It's a hell of a shot." Kilpatrick squeezed the trigger and the Sharps rifle thundered, making Claudius jump in his seat. "Luckily, I'm a hell of a shot."
The bullet tore through the spokes of one of the wheels, and the overloaded wagon came tumbling down. Sacks of money and cash notes rolled onto the dirt as the horses reared up. Mad Dog Hicks was nearly thrown from his seat, but he held on. His men turned around, readying their rifles for the coming fight.
Nero leaned out of the window, turning to look at the army of outlaws behind him. "There he is!" he shouted, drawing one of his guns and firing into the air. "There's your sheriff, and there's the First Bank's contents!"
Mad Dog was smart and turned to run. "Hell!" he shouted, firing from the hip as he ran backwards, then hurled himself forward and into the tall prairie grass, where he started crawling away, staying low to the ground like a snake. His men weren't as smart. They turned around and started to shoot. A bullet sped past Nero's head, another cracked into the wood of the stagecoach. Nero fired back with his revolver, and Kilpatrick cracked off another shot with his scoped rifle.
Then the citizens of Sanctum rode into range and opened fire. They shot from the hip, and drowned Mad Dog's lackeys in a wave of lead. Mad Dog's men were simply overwhelmed, blasted back by rifle and shotgun blasts, and finished off with the shells of revolvers. The battle was over in a few seconds, and then the guns of Sanctum fell silent, leaving a score of bullet-ridden corpses around the broken wagon and loot.
"Pardon me," Nero said, opening the door of the coach. "Nelly, I'd appreciate it if you stayed here and looked out for Claudius. I won't be long. Mr. Slugg, Mr. Kilpatrick, and Doc, would you come with me? I may have need of your weapons and expertise."
"Sure thing, boss," Slugg said, following Nero out onto the prairie. "But what do we do now?"
They looked at the Sanctum townsfolk. All of them stood around the pile of money, holding tightly to their guns and staring at each other. Nero walked out and stood in front of the pile of cash. "I think all the currency here should be returned to its rightful owner," he said. "Except for a small finder's fee for myself and my associates, that is."
A big bellied gunslinger snarled as he waved a buffalo rifle over his head. "Hell with that!" He leveled his gun at the assembled criminals. "All the loot's mine! Anyone don't like it can suck my fat—" His mouth opened, and blood, teeth, brains and a bullet flew out of it. He slumped in the saddle and lay still.
Another outlaw spun his Colt Navy. "There's no need for that sort of talk," he said. "It should all be returned to its rightful owner – me. I'm the only one who patronized the first bank, all that money is mine, and I'll kill anyone that says different!"
The realization of what was coming next made every gunfighter go for their pistols and guns. They aimed them at each other, then spun to a new target in the next second, each afraid to start firing. Nero aimed both his guns at the crowd, and Kilpatrick, Torrent, and Slugg did the same, but there were more of them than there were bullets in the Van Wessel Gang's guns and everyone knew it. Then again, the outlaws could all turn each other, and that seemed most likely.
"Goddamn," Slugg muttered. "This is a hell of a situation, boss. Biggest goddamn Mexican standoff that I ever did see, and that's the truth."
"What's going to happen?" Nero spun his phologun around to face a new target, his finger held tightly over the trigger.
"Someone will slip, start shooting, and we all go up to Jesus together," Slim replied. "No two ways about, that's how these kind of standoffs end, and it won't be pretty. Only way to stop that is if something else gets these bastards' attention with a heaping mess of dinero around, that ain't likely to happen."
After he spoke, a mortar shell struck the prairie a ways behind the pile of money, safes and gold bars. A fountain of dirt and some fragments of stones flew through the air, pelting the assembled outlaws. Nero turned around and saw a small detachment of blue-coated Federal cavalry approaching. Their general had a yellow Van Dyke moustache and rode with a graceful ease. Mayor Masters rode next to him, grinning at all the outlaws. Nero saw the federals were dragging a Gatling gun behind them, and already setting it up.
"We'd better get a bit closer to the ground," he suggested. "And quickly too." He leapt forward into the dirt, just as the Gatling gun started rattling away. Some of the outlaws fled, but others returned fire, and a fierce gunfight crackled out on that stretch of prairie. Nero stayed low, motioning for his friends to do the same. Bullets buzzed over their heads like angry bees. Bluecoats and outlaws both tumbled dead to the ground around them. Nero saw bullets ricocheting off of the solid steel sides of the carriage, and hoped Claudius and Nelly would be all right inside.
The Sanctum citizens couldn't last against a Gatling gun, and they knew it. They started peeling away, some just giving up on the loot and riding hell for leather into the distance. Other moved out, trying to flank the Federals and pop the Gatling gunners from the side. The great gun fell silent after a while, and Nero decided it was time to stand up. He pulled himself into a crouch, and found himself looking at the boots of Mayor Masters.
"Hello, my good Mr. Mayor," he said. "Does our partnership still stand?"
"I'm afraid it has reached its regrettable conclusion, Mr. Van Wessel." Mayor Masters kicked Nero over, knocking him to the ground. Nero reached for his revolver, and Masters sent it spinning away from his hand with a good kick. Slim drew out his sawed-off, Kilpatrick his LeMat, and Torrent his phlogogun, but they were all covered by the Federal infantry.
Mayor Masters looked out at the outlaws. Many of them lay dead. Others had spread out, and were still engaging the soldiers and sending out scattered, staccato volleys. They didn't pose much of a threat to Masters, and couldn't help Nero.
Mayor Masters pointed to the colonel. His voice went low. "Colonel Peckham and his men have been good enough to support my actions here. He thinks he's getting half of the captured money, so his loyalty can be guaranteed. He'll get a knife across the throat soon as we're back in civilization." He waved to Peckham, who waved back. "I'm afraid you, and he, will find out the hard way how I end partnerships."
"You have a low character," Nero said.
"Hmmm. I suppose I do, at that." Mayor Masters shrugged. "But really, what's the point of thinking high on myself? I've killed twenty, thirty odd men in my time, not counting Celestials and Mexicans. I've robbed banks, lied, stole, murdered, and done plenty of bad things to people. It's my goddamn life. Why pretend to be something I'm not? Why pretend to keep my word?"
"Because it's right," Nero said.
"Heh. You got a good sense of humor." Masters drew out a revolver and pointed it at Nero's forehead. "It's been a pleasure, Mr. Van Wessel."
Nero wanted to think about how foolish he was, but he just stared at the cold line of steel that was the revolver's barrel, and thought about the bullet nestled in there, waiting for the trigger's pull to come out and splatter his brains. But then the door to the mechanized stagecoach slammed open, and Nelly stepped out.
"Mr. Mayor!" she shouted, and Nero saw that she held a stick of dynamite, the fuse already lit. She must have taken it from the bundle given to her, and saved it for a special occasion. "You want that money? You'll have to stop this!" She tossed the dynamite, over the heads of Nero and Mayor Masters, and into the pile of cash.
Instantly, Masters holstered his revolver and leapt at the fallen wagon and the pile of money, safes and gold bars. "Gotta stop it," he muttered. "Cut the fuse, stop it from blowing all this sweetness to kingdom come."
Nero grabbed his fallen pistol and dashed for the stagecoach. "Let's go!" he shouted, pulling up Doc Torrent, while Slugg and Kilpatrick ran madly for the wagon. Nelly held the door, and they dashed inside, Torrent already starting the electro-equines. They turned away from the pile of money, and drove back to the dirt road. The other outlaws and soldiers scattered, not wanting to stick around for the dynamite's blast.
"Why is he doing that?" Claudius asked. "Jumping into the money after the dynamite."
Nero shrugged. "He's given up on people, Claudius. I assume he thinks money will take their place, and he'll risk his life to get more of it."
He looked out the window and saw Mayor Masters rising from the pile of cash, safes and gold bars, holding the dynamite stick aloft. "Got it!" he cried. "Yes! Now all I have to do is—" But he was a few seconds too late. The fuse had already burned down, and exploded, taking up Masters, and all the money with it. The fire ball spread outwards along the prairie, and dollar bills tumbled down in a green rain. Nero reached out, grabbed a burning 100 dollar note, and used it to light his cigar.
"So we got no more money, our hideouts gone, and Mad Dog lived to try and sort us out another day?" Slim Slugg asked. "Shoot. That's no good, boss."
"We came out of it with our lives," Nero replied. "And that's more than I can say for some people. Doc? Why don't you set a course for the south, perhaps New Orleans. We can get a steamer there, and set off for another country. I think the cool climes of South America are calling to me." The 100 dollar note had burned up in his hands and he tossed it out the window. Things were more desperate now, but he knew his gang had the grit to get through it.