The Last Ride of La Araňa
Deep Vein, Texas was a mining town. You could tell by the tools hanging together in disorderly rows, available for purchase outside the general store and the dust that hung thickly in the warm air like mist that would never lift. Copper Point, the dark spire of stone where the mines carved into the earth, loomed like a giant tombstone in the distance. It was a town used to machinery, to the grinding, impersonal mechanics of great contraptions and corporations. And yet, it seemed unused to its newest arrival - Marshal Bartholomew Brass. Brass - called Bat by his friends - was a machine, an automaton metal man with a round face shaded by a broad black Stetson, softly glowing electric eyes and a handlebar moustache of polished brass. He wore a dark suit, vest and tie, twin polished revolvers resting on his hip, and rode a faithful sorrel mare. Brass trotted his mount to the Grand Central Hotel, the largest structure in Deep Vein, and swung down from the saddle. The little mining town hadn't seen a machine like him before.
Brass tied his horse to the hitching post. He glanced up and down the main street of Deep Vein and then out into the distance. The town had gone cold and quiet and Brass supposed he knew why. White tents stood in disorderly rows under the shadow of Copper Point. The copper miners had gone on strike, demanding union from Steele Industries, the mine owners. Now they made their camps and blocked the entrance to the mines, waiting for the bosses to break and give in. They had divided the town, with every citizen backing the company or backing the workers. Brass had fought in the West during the bad years of the Civil War - which had been the purpose of his creation - and he knew how a cause could divide a small town as if towering walls had sprouted around each house.
But union matters did not concern the US Marshal Service. The capturing of fugitives did. Brass finished his knot and walked into the hotel. He stepped into the polished lobby, his boots clicking on the smooth tiled floor, and strode easily to the main desk. The concierge, a rail-thin fellow with a pomade-drenched moustache, stared at Brass like the automaton was leaving a slime trail. He rested his hands on the desk.
"The service entrance is around the back," he suggested.
"What was that, son?" Brass asked.
"The service entrance. Used for automatons." The concierge spoke slowly. "Please use that entrance. We have guests of note here. In fact, we have Ransom Steele - of Steele Industries - himself. It won't do for machines to use the front door."
"Steele have anyone with him?" Brass wondered.
The concierge sputtered his answer. "This is too much! An automaton cannot-"
"No." Brass opened his coat, revealing the encircled brass star of his badge. "But a marshal can. Now, I don't mean to darken your doorstep or leak oil all over your nice clean floor. I'm here for a meeting. Fellow name of Crowfoot - Chief Marshal Lemuel Crowfoot - has called it. So how about telling this machine where it's taking place?"
The concierge pointed meekly to the door at the far side of the lobby. "The parlor," he managed.
"Obliged." Brass walked past him and moved to the carved door. He opened it and walked inside to a small sunroom with wicker tables and chairs before a wide window overlooking Deep Vein's main street. Two slab-faced bodyguards in identical dark suits and bowler hats stood by the door and two more men sat the table by a jug of untouched water. Both opened their coats when Brass walked in, revealing the revolvers on their hips. One fellow at the table raised his hand dismissively, like he was waving a way a fly and the bodyguards went still.
This fellow had to be Ransom Steele. "Marshal Crowfoot," he said, nodding to Brass's boss. "I trust this is the automaton of whom you spoke - the one who you believe may solve my considerable problems." Steele wore a fine, pearl gray suit and vest and his bowler hat rested on the table. He didn't sport a diamond stickpin or a colorful tie or any element of flash. From his neatly parted hair to his carefully shaven and composed face, every inch of him seemed designed to show as little emotion as possible. He turned to Brass. "Come here," he ordered. "Steele Industries manufactures automata. Let me have a look at this one."
Chief Marshal Lemuel Crowfoot turned to Brass and nodded slowly. He had graying hair and a rumpled dark suit, one eye covered by a black patch. His pointed beard and moustache and growing gut showed his age - and why he now led marshals instead of riding at their head. "A quick look," he told Brass. "Humor the man."
Brass approached Steele. He waited while Steele's eyes traveled up and down. "You said Dr. Josiah Gridley built him?" Steele said. "Yes. I can see Dr. Gridley's handiwork. And his weakness. He made his machines far too free-minded. They are willful and disobedient and possess too many marks of distinction. That moustache for instance - it is quite unnecessary." He pointed to Brass. "The cost of manufacturing such a machine must be staggering and for such a small return."
"Mr. Steele?" Brass asked. "How about you tell me how I can help you and then we'll talk about the return." He pulled up a chair and sat down. He turned to Crowfoot. "Saw some tents out by Copper Point. Miners on strike, I believe. That got something to do with why you called on me?"
Steele bristled. "They are attempting to unionize. To demand that I recognize their right to tell me what to do." He rammed a fist on the table. "The workers tell the boss what to do. A reverse of nature, sir. A despicable reverse of nature. The miners, you see, are mostly Mexicans and poor whites. Border trash, who have not the sense to know better. But don't worry." He clasped his hands together. "I am having some stern tutors brought in, who will quickly educate them."
"But you didn't hire us to talk union matters," Crowfoot suggested. He seemed eager to change the subject.
"Indeed I did not." Steele reached into his coat. He withdrew a folded wanted poster and set it on the table. "Recently, three stage coaches containing Steele Industries payrolls have been robbed. After the first robbery, I dispatched guards to protect the coaches. The guards were killed to the last." He tapped the table. "The robber is known as La Araňa - the Spider. I am not certain why the primitive local population has granted him that name." He turned back to Brass and Crowfoot. "I want him hunted down, captured and I want to look him in the face as he dies."
"And why have you asked me all the way down to Texas to run down your quarry, sir?" Brass asked. "Fellow like ought to have plenty of folks he can call for help."
Crowfoot leaned over and unrolled the wanted poster. "Have a look and see," he said.
La Araňa glared back, staring out in etched black and white between a bandana and a plug hat. But Brass could see the round eyes of tinted glass and the square-shape of Araňa's face. No question about it - the outlaw was an automaton. Brass pushed the wanted poster back and came to his feet. "You want this outlaw machine brought back. I can handle that, I reckon. But I'd be grateful for any information you could give me about this Spider. Where he comes from, who he rides with, where he hangs his hat - any of that would help."
"We aren't sure of the particulars," Crowfoot explained. "We think he was some sort of mining instrument, which suffered a kind of breakdown. The others in his gang are mechanical men as well. All have to be destroyed." He paused. "And we don't know where he hangs his hat."
"That, Mr. Brass, is your job to ascertain," Steele added.
"I got Marshal Knot in town and already sent him to look for any information regarding Araňa's whereabouts. He's in the Hell's Half-Acre of Deep Vein, searching as best he can." Crowfoot reclined in his seat. "I suspect he'd appreciate your help."
"A fair assumption," Brass agreed. He touched the brim of his hat to Steele. "Don't you fret, sir. I've tracked men and I've tracked machines. I've yet to let one outrun me." He turned back to the door of the parlor. Crowfoot stood and walked with him. They passed the two bodyguards and entered the lobby. Brass turned back to his boss."Knot's a good man and a good marshal," he said. "Any reason why he couldn't be here, to listen to our talk in person?"
Crowfoot fidgeted, suddenly a little uncomfortable. "Knot's colored," he said. "This kind of place wouldn't let a colored fellow in through the front door."
"They don't let automatons in neither," Brass said. He turned on his heels and walked through the door. The concierge stared at him the whole way. Colored men, automata, Mex miners - all of them didn't get much respect in Deep Vein, or anywhere in the country, come to think of it. Men like Ransom Steele certainly didn't give them much respect, and here Brass was, like some metal dog that the robber baron could use to run down his quarry. Brass shook the thoughts from his head. It didn't matter. He was a marshal and he wore the badge. He had a job to do.
The Hell's Half-Acre - the sporting section of town - wasn't far from the fashionable Grand Central Hotel. It featured a few gambling joints and dance halls. The biggest was as an oversized saloon called the Sunken Shaft. Brass rode his sorrel mare over the entrance of the saloon and hopped down. He wondered if they would be take kindly to an automaton strolling in through the front entrance- when the batwing doors sprang open and Marshal Avery Knot tumbled into the street. Marshal Knot had skin like dark coffee, stained with the dust of the trail, a broad-brimmed hat and an oversized moustache. His tired eyes flicked up to glance at Brass, who stared down at him and offered a hand. Knot didn't take it. He pulled himself up and straightened his battered black duster.
"It seems they aren't well-disposed to marshals," Knot said.
Brass shrugged. "Could be they're just not well-disposed to you, Avery."
Knot let out a deep laugh. "Could be." He reached into his coat and withdrew his sawed-off shotgun. "What do you say we head on inside and change their dispositions some?"
They walked in through the batwing doors together. Most of the Sunken Shaft's patrons had cleared out, leaving only the hard cases ready to meet the two marshals. Brass stepped easily into the shadowy interior of the bar. The bartender automaton, his head a sloshing jug of whiskey, continued polishing his glass without a care as four burly barflies - miners, most likely - faced off with Brass and Knot. One barfly, a broad-shouldered fellow with tobacco stains over his union suit, tried to charge into Knot and run him out again. Knot slammed the handle of his sawed-off against the miner's head and took him straight to the ground. Another miner picked up a chair to hurl at Knot. The sawed-off thundered, blasted the chair to scrap in the fellow's hands.
The other miners rushed for Brass. "Metal cabrone!" A Mexican, with a shaggy growth of beard that failed to hide the curling scar on his cheek, smashed a bottle hard against Brass's face. Brass took the blow. He let the bottle shatter, ignoring the glass bouncing against his metal eyes and scratching the filigree that curled around his sockets. He slugged the miner, driving a fist hard into the man's gut and watching him fold. The other miner went for the revolver on his belt, but Brass drew first. He pulled his revolver, cocked the hammer and pointed it into the miner's surprised, red face.
Everything went quiet in the saloon. "Let that gun belt of your hit the ground," Brass ordered. It fell away. Brass released his thumb from the hammer. "Knot? You okay over there? Your partners don't want to dance anymore?"
"I don't think they do, Brass," Knot agreed. "Best lower your own pistol."
But the Mexican who Brass had slugged came to his feet. "Dog!" he roared. "I am Manuel Ortega and I have seen too many friends die in Steele's mines to give in to his enforcers! Araňa' is a hero! He strikes back against the bosses and gives his takings to the people. I will never betray him!" He slugged Brass, punching his fist into the automaton's metal belly. It only hurt his own hand. He stumbled back and Brass grabbed his arm. Ortega spat in the automaton's face. Brass tensed his grip.
"Brass..." Knot's voice was calm. "Easy now."
Brass forced his anger to fade. He looked at Ortega and thought back to the case at hand. "I ain't here to trade insults with you. I'm looking for La Araňa. Now, I suppose that you work at the Copper Point mine. Might be why you're so keen on beating me down. You know anything about Araňa? Anything at all?"
"Go to Hell, you metal bastard!" Ortega wailed.
"If I did, I suppose I'd melt," Brass said. "So I better do my best not to." He tightened his grip. Ortega sank down to his knees and Brass kept squeezing. It was easy for Brass to hurt people. Dr. Gridley had seen to that when he had built him - a machine to win a war. But he had also built Brass to protect people and Brass didn't much care for hurting people that couldn't fight back. It was a relief to him when Ortega glared up at him, his eyes wide and defeated. Brass let go. "Well?" Brass asked.
Ortega didn't meet Brass's eyes. "The old diggings, south of Copper Point," he explained. "Go there, you cursed automaton - servant of greed. Araňa will see you destroyed and I will be glad to know that you are gone from the world. Do you think Steele will weep when he learns of it? Do you think your masters will care?"
"I suspect he won't mind," Brass said. "But then again, I suspect he doesn't care for much of anything, besides his fortune." He turned away from Ortega. "You think he's telling the truth, Knot? Shall we go on and prove him right or wrong about Araňa killing us?"
"Yeah," Knot agreed. "I don't want to linger here."
That was probably a wise decision. Brass and Knot walked out of the saloon, ignoring the hateful stares behind them. Brass hopped onto his sorrel mare and Knot headed to his own horse, a sturdy mustang he had found and broken in the Indian Territory. They mounted up and turned their horses away from Deep Vein, then put spur to the animals and rode. Brass glanced over his shoulder and saw the miners in the Sunken Shaft Saloon, watching him go. He could feel the hate in their eyes - that of something human hating something that ain't.
Together, he and Knot rode across the open Texan prairie. The sun beat down on the tall grass, pierced with the occasional spur of rock or cluster of bright wild flowers. They skirted Copper Point and the camp of the striking miners, then headed south for the old diggings that Steele Industries had long abandoned. It was a beautiful country, but Brass wasn't watching it. Instead, his eyes rested on the dusty ground in front of his horse or focused on the horizon. He didn't say much, simply kept his mare moving along at a good clip. Knot rode next to him and matched his pace. Brass didn't speak to him as they rode to their destination.
Knot let out a slight cough. "You okay, Bat?" he asked. "Ain't got a spot of rust on your behind or nothing?"
"My behind's nicely polished, Knot," Brass replied.
"Then what's bothering you?"
"It's this job." Brass realized the truth as he spoke the words. "I didn't like hitting that poor Mexican fellow. He's been treated like a piece of machinery by a greedy bastard like Steele. He's trying to fight back by helping an outlaw like Araňa, who really is fighting back and we beat him down and go after the automaton he admires."
"Sure you ain't just jealous of Araňa's popularity?" Knot asked.
"I don't like wasting my time. There are dangerous outlaws - the sort who hurt innocent people - and that's who I ought to be going after."
"Bat, Araňa is a dangerous outlaw. He's held up stages and shed blood. He's killed people and gone on the run and we are US marshals and so we must capture him so he may face justice. That is our lot." Knot sighed. "I been an outlaw myself. I know that desperation makes men do stupid things, but if they're a danger, they've got to be stopped and it's our job to stop them. Sometimes, we might not agree with it - but we ain't rightly got a choice."
"Like we're machines - turned on and set to a task," Brass mused. "Yeah. Maybe we are." He slowed his horse to a trot and pointed up ahead. "Yonder's the old diggings. Looks like the perfect place for Araňa to hide."
The diggings consisted of a deep gouged pit, like a wide scar carved in the ground, with ancient wooden scaffolding leading down into the earth. Tunnels led from the scaffolding, heading deep under the earth. A few vultures soared overhead, hovering in place like paintings in the clear, blue sky. Inside the pit, the long rows of wooden scaffolding presented the perfect place for a sniper to hide and command the ridge line- and that's just what Araňa had done. Brass stared down and used his advanced mechanical eyes to zoom in. He saw the glint of two rifles, gleaming against the shadows of the mine, and reined in his horse.
"Knot!" he shouted, just as the first bullet hit the breeze. "Bushwhackers!"
The shot cracked into the dust between their horses. Knot and Brass needed no more warning. Man and machine dropped down and fell into the dust. More bullets whined down. Brass and Knot lay on their bellies, staring down into the pit. Shots blasted up dirt around them, causing it to fly into the air in chunky fountains. Brass looked back at the diggings and the scaffolding. He noted the three figures, standing tall on the second story. Both glinted in the sunlight along with their rifles. They were automatons, just like him.
He turned back to Knot. "Still got that old buffalo rifle of yours? Why don't you take it out, throw some lead their way. I'll get my repeater, close in and sort them out." He could see the concern in Knot's eyes. "Hey. I can take a few rounds and have the engineers iron them out later. You take a round, they start fitting you for a pine box."
"True enough," Knot muttered. He stood up and scrambled to his horse, then grabbed the buffalo rifle from the sheath on his saddle. Bullets hummed past him, one punching a hole through the brim of his hat. Knot turned the heavy rifle back towards Araňa's automata and opened fire. The buffalo rifle sounded like cannon fire as it boomed out over the desert. It made the automata pause, giving Brass the time he needed to grab the repeating rifle from his own saddle. He tucked the gun under his arm and broke into a run, rushing for the edge of the large pit. Araňa might be there or he might not be. Brass intended to find out - or at least stop those damn metal men from shooting at him.
Quickly, he reached the edge of the pit and hopped down. More bullets cracked in his direction, blazing up from a gap in the scaffolding. Brass ducked behind a stack of old crates. Splinters flew as the whining shots struck home. The automatons had fine firearms - probably stolen from stage guards. Brass drew out his rifle and waited. When Knot's heavy rifle thundered again, he stood up and moved. He hurried down the scaffolding, found a large gap in the frayed, sun-blasted wood, and leapt down to the second story.
The automatons turned to face him. They had the thick arms and legs, broad-shoulders and cylindrical heads of simple machines, working models designed for manual labor. Their faces had been carved into their heads, with crude smiles and round cheeks. Their heads ended in small smoke stacks, which would occasionally belch out a little gray cloud and they wore sets of overalls and colorful bandanas tied around their necks or arms. Brass ducked low and waited as they unloaded their shotguns and rifles at the crates.
Then he stood and turned the repeating rifle on them. He fired with mechanical precision, blasting out a well-aimed shot, working the lever and firing again. The foremost automaton took two shots to the upper chest, each causing an eruption of sparks and clanging metal before it toppled over. Brass turned his gun on the second automaton. He blasted a bullet into the machine's metal face. The steel bent, broke under the shot and then the head exploded in a thick cloud of smoke. Brass turned to face the third automaton - and then froze. The metal man's shotgun had already been aimed in his direction. The automaton had Brass dead to rights.
Knot's buffalo rifle sounded over the old diggings. The shot took the automaton in the side, knocking it down and making it stumble. Its shotgun thundered, blasting splinters from the wood under Brass's feet. He fired back with his own rifle, punching two, then three shots into the automaton. The metal man stood by the edge of the scaffolding and the force of the bullets proved enough to send him off. He toppled over backwards, his thick metal limbs flailing as he tumbled down and struck the bottom of the pit. Brass could hear the ringing crunch from where he stood.
Then it was quiet. Brass looked back at Knot and touched the brim of his Stetson in thanks, then scanned the scaffolding for any sign of Araňa. A deep groove in the rock, hollowed out for the old mine, seemed a likely place. Brass raised his revolver and closed in. " Araňa!" he called. "You in there, boy? Best come out. I know you're a machine and don't feel much. I don't feel much either, come to think of it, but getting shot will still hurt like Hell. And I'll shoot you to pieces if I have to." He stepped into the shallow cave and raised his rifle.
The place looked like any outlaw's hideout. Stacks of gold and a few chests of money set in an uneasy pile in one corner. Another sported a rack of ammunition. A mechanical mule, a clanking, crude metal beast with a thin, pointed nose and rubber ears, stood motionless near the entrance. In the center of the room, his back to Brass, stood Araňa.
Brass raised his rifle, recognizing the outlaw from the Wanted posters. "Turn around," he said. "Slow-like." Araňa turned. Brass saw a spindly automaton, sporting rail-thin legs ending in boots, battered broad-brimmed hat with curled edges and a long poncho that covered his chest completely. "You're Araňa, ain't you?" Brass asked. The automaton nodded. It did not possesses the needed equipment to speak. "Well, I'm here to take you in. U.S. Marshals. My partner will be here shortly to help out. So how about raising your arms or I'll-"
Then Araňa drew. His poncho spun to the side and Brass knew why the world called the rogue automaton Spider. He had eight arms, long and spindly, which folded up and hid under his poncho. Now each arm reached down to his waist, where eight revolvers rested on a sagging gun belt. Brass started to fire. He managed to get off a single shot - just as the first bullet crashed into his chest and knocked him down. He raised his rifle, but Araňa kept shooting. Two more revolver shots banged into Brass's guts. One bounced off his skin and the other stuck inside. He could feel it within him, bouncing against his gears.
Araňa hurried to the mechanical mule. He hopped on, grabbed the reins of the beast and started to ride. Brass managed to summon some strength. He rolled out of the way, narrowly avoiding the clattering hooves of the mule. Brass sighed deeply and tried to get to his feet. The mule reached the scaffolding and Brass stumbled after him. He stepped out of the cave and into the sun, just in time to see the mechanical mule leap into the air, its legs uncoiling like springs, and reaching the first story. The mule turned back onto the open ground and moved into a gallop. Brass ran to a ladder leading to ground level and hauled himself up, each rung making his arms feel weak. He crested the ladder and then collapsed.
"Bat!" Knot's voice made Brass look up. Knot had ridden over, holding the reins of Brass's mare. "You good to ride?"
"I surely am," Brass agreed. He scrambled into the saddle and took the reins. He and Knot turned their horses after Araňa and gave chase. Brass raised his rifle and fired back, trying his best to drop the mule. The mechanical steed skipped ahead, dust flying from its blurred rubber hooves. Brass knew that they would have to run Araňa down.
But that was okay with him. He had forgotten his trepidation for the job. He reached down into the gap the bullet had torn in his chest, stabbing his finger into the steel until it curled around the bullet. He wormed the bullet out and tossed it away. Araňa had bested him and he needed to be caught. Brass cracked his metal legs against the side of his sorrel mare, making it gallop after the metal mule. They were riding back towards Copper Point, the far side of the mountain away from where the striking miners had their camp. That was fine by Brass. Araňa could choose his own place to end it all. Brass would be happy to oblige.
They followed the metal mule, right up to Copper Point. The stout mountain had countless tunnels carved in its base, leading inside and under the earth. Araňa didn't hesitate. He rode straight into the nearest tunnel, the hooves of his mechanical mule clattering on the railway. Brass slowed his mare and turned to Knot as Araňa faded away. "I'm going after him!" he said. "I want you to hurry back to Deep Vein, see about getting some help from Crowfoot!"
"That bullet knock out your sense, Bat?" Knot asked. " Araňa's dangerous. He already busted you up once!"
"And he won't get the chance to do it again!" Brass hopped down from his saddle and ran in on foot, his boots clicking against the stone floor. The mare would only slow him down in the narrow tunnel. Brass hurried away from the light, not giving Knot a chance to argue. He kept running along, hurrying through the mouth of the tunnel and running after the clattering noise of the mechanical mule. Brass forced himself to break into a dash after Araňa. The tunnel didn't dip, but continued straight into the mountain. The sounds of the mule began to slow.
Brass increased the illumination from his glowing eyes, until they shone like a pair of lanterns in the low light. He walked carefully, the lights from his eyes passing over the rough-hewn stone of the mine. Men and machines had slaved here together, carving their way through the earth at the cost of countless lives. Brass tried to push those thoughts from his head. He looked up ahead and then he saw the mule, scrambling further down the tunnel. Brass raised his rifle and fired. He blasted three shots, sending them wailing through the mine. The mule let out a shrieking, mechanical scream and then the crash of broken machinery sounded down the tunnel. The mine had claimed another automaton's existence. Brass drew closer. Araňa was waiting for him.
Then the lantern eyes settled on Araňa, who stood just a few feet from the broken mechanical mule. " Araňa!" Brass shouted. "You stay put now! You know as well as I do that running will only prolong matters. I'm here and you're here. Let's have an end to it." He slung his rifle over his shoulder and neared Araňa, letting his hands fall to the revolvers at his hips.
Slowly, Araňa turned. His poncho had tangled around him when he fell, and he smoothed it out and pushed it aside to reveal his eight revolvers. His hands moved to the handles of the countless pistols, readying to draw. He seemed to realize the necessity of Brass's point. Brass pulled back his own coat. His own revolvers waited. He stared down at Araňa, looking into the outlaw automaton's battered head and dusty glass eyes. The eight-armed machine was fast - there was no contesting that point. He was faster than Brass, perhaps, and could put a great deal more firepower into the air with all of his arms. However, he was a simpler model. Brass could outthink him. That's how he would win.
Araňa drew, eights hands fastening around eight six-shooters and drawing them out together. He leveled the guns at Brass and prepared to draw - but Brass was ready. He didn't draw, aim and fire at Araňa. Instead, he pulled his pistol and fired from the hip, aiming at the splintery wooden support holding up the tunnel above Araňa's head. Brass's pistols were specially designed, long-barreled cavalry models. They fired large rounds and one shot was enough to shatter the support. It ripped through the wood, causing the support to break and collapse. The tunnel shook and then a rush of dirt and stones crashed down from the ceiling and fell on top of Araňa.
Brass moved in quickly as he felt the ground shake under his feet. Maybe that support had been more important he'd originally thought. He hurried to Araňa, weaving around falling chunks of stone and reached the outlaw. Araňa's eight arms reached up to stop him, but Brass's pistol handle struck down first. He bashed Araňa hard in the head and knocked the automaton down, then went to work grabbing the revolvers from his hands and tossing them away - while he kept his own pistol pressed to Araňa's face. When the revolvers were gone, Brass hauled Araňa up and spun him around. He got to work with the spare ropes he kept in his pocket and ended up using each one. Soon, all eight of Araňa's hands were lashed behind his back.
"Let's get moving," Brass said, still keeping his revolver's muzzle against Araňa's head. He pushed him further down the tunnel. Bits of rock still tumbled down from the ceiling and Brass forced himself and Araňa to move quickly. Up ahead, Brass could see light where the tunnel ended - a different entrance than the one he had taken. Still, it was better than staying in the tunnel. He made for it and forced Araňa along.
They shuffled together in silence for a while, Brass not having much to say and Araňa not being able to speak. Then they reached the tunnel mouth and stepped out into the late afternoon light. Brass pushed Araňa forward and let him sprawl on the ground. He stared around. "Hell," he muttered. The tunnel had gone clear through Copper Point. Now he and Araňa were right in the middle of the camp of the striking miners.
The miners turned to look at the two automatons. Brass looked back. There were a miserable bunch of men, women and children, wearing frayed work clothes and tattered dresses, sitting around their small, flickering campfires to make what food they could. Dust and dirt from the mines stained all of them. A few carried old rifles or shotguns and they fingered their weapons as they looked at Brass and Araňa. Ortega, the Mexican fellow from the bar, sat on a workbench near the tunnel entrance and he stared in shock at the metal marshal.
"I'm a US marshal!" Brass opened his coat to reveal his badge. He had to control the situation. "This machine is a fugitive and I am bringing him to justice!" He saw some of the miners stand, and looked at the outrage in their craggy faces. They obviously didn't think that he was aiding the cause of justice or anything of the kind.
Ortega came to his feet. " Araňa has helped us!" he cried. "He has stolen money from the bosses and given it to us - and we needed that to buy supplies." He stepped closer to Brass. Araňa remained motionless, waiting. "Now this metal man, this tool of the company-"
"I'm no tool of Steele Industries!" Brass cried. "I work for the US government."
"And is not the government nothing but a tool of the rich?" Ortega demanded. "Another weapon they can use when the poor try to get their rights?" He carried a rusted old revolver on his belt. The other miners reached for their own guns. Brass leveled his pistol at them - but he couldn't kill that many men. Furthermore, he didn't want to. These miners were sick of being treated like machines. Brass felt the same way. They didn't deserve to die.
"You take your hand away from that iron, boy!" Brass shouted, cocking his revolver.
"Or you will kill me?" Ortega asked. "That is just what the bastard Steele would want."
Before Ortega could draw, another gunshot rang through the air. Brass and the miners turned to see Marshals Knot and Crowfoot riding in, their weapons drawn. Knot had his sawed-off shotgun in his hand and Crowfoot carried a long-barreled revolver. Brass's own mare trotted after them. Crowfoot fired again, shooting into the sky. Behind them, a pair of mechanical horses towed a large wagon topped with an iron cage - like something a lion in a zoo would ride in. Brass realized that the cage was probably meant for Araňa. He nodded evenly to his boss and his friend. They had arrived just in time.
Crowfoot reined in his horse and turned to the miners. "Put all your guns on the ground," he ordered. "Put them down carefully or you'll make yourselves enemies of the US Marshal Service. I figure you fellows have enemies enough already. You don't want to be making more - and you sure as Hell don't want an enemy like me. So put down the guns, let Marshal Brass pass and we'll take our outlaw and go."
The miners stared at the marshals. They looked to Ortega. He must have been some sort of leader. Brass decided to try to reason with him. "You don't want a gunfight here," he said. "Not with all your womenfolk and kids around. Give it up, Ortega. You lost this fight."
Ortega turned to Brass. He knelt down and set his revolver in the dirt. The other miners did the same. Brass pushed Araňa forward, moving him towards the cage. "Brass," Ortega said. "Do you think we will ever win?"
Brass paused. "I don't know," he said. "I hope you do." Then he gave Araňa another jab and walked him to the cage. Knot leaned down and opened the cage and Araňa walked inside. Brass slammed the door shut and the lock clicked. Brass walked to his horse and hopped into the saddle. "Obliged for the help," he told Knot and Crowfoot.
"You looked like you was in over your metal head," Knot replied.
"I had the situation in hand," Brass said with a shrug.
"Well, let's get back to Deep Vein before we lose it completely." Crowfoot turned his horse around. "Don't want to keep Steele waiting. He doesn't strike me as a patient man."
He bucked his stout gelding into a good clip and Brass and Knot followed. The mechanical horses joined in, hauling along the wagon with easy, regular movements of their metal hooves. Araňa stayed inside the cage, his eight hands still bound behind him and resembling the spiky spine of some strange monster. Brass found himself staring at the automaton. Araňa had been created to help people. He had been doing just that - helping the sort of people that no one helped, especially not the Marshal Service. And Brass had destroyed his allies, hunted him down and arrested him. Araňa would die, the miners wouldn't get their needed supplies and lose their strike and it was Brass's fault. He knew that fact, cold and inescapable as a well-aimed bullet. There was no way around it.
Soon enough, they arrived back in Deep Vein. A small crowd of townspeople had come out to see the noted outlaw Araňa brought to justice. They lined the boardwalk streets, clustered together and pointing as the metal cage rolled through town. Araňa stared back at them coolly, looking out from under the shade of his broad-brimmed hat with the rolled edges. Brass and the others rode together to the Grand Central Hotel. Steele stood there with his bodyguards, watching everything. He didn't exactly smile when he saw Araňa, but the edges of his lips curled up and his eyes seemed to widen. That was probably as happy as he was going to get.
Steele stepped into the road and removed his bowler hat. "Marshals!" he said. "Gentlemen! I must praise you endlessly for your good work in subduing this rogue machine." He nodded to Araňa. "He stole my money and now he will pay the price. I spoke with the mayor. We are going to hang the automaton tomorrow - for tradition's sake - and then I will have him shot to pieces. A fitting end, I believe."
Brass glared down at Steele. "No trial?"
"He is not human!" Steele replied. "He requires no trial. No, the hanging will send a message - telling the world what will happen if Steele Industries is tested." He pointed further down the street. "And there are my messengers, waiting in the shadow of that water tower, to deliver it to the striking miners of Copper Point. They arrived just an hour ago. I'll dispatch them at dusk."
Shielding his eyes from the fading sun, Brass gazed down the street. Several ranks of automatons stood together under the water tower, looking like statues in stiff rows. Each wore a rigid dark suit and top hat doubling as a smokestack, affixed with a little badge showing a hammer flanked by lightning bolts. Brass recognized the type. He had seen them defending the rich and powerful for years now - and they were built with a brutality that rivaled that of men.
Knot recognized them too. "Hammers," he said.
"The finest fighting machines of the Hammersmith Automated Detective Agency," Steele explained. "Called 'Hammers,' if one wanted to use the vernacular." He nodded in their direction. "They'll disperse the miners this evening." He turned back to Crowfoot and the marshals. "And then all of my assorted problems will have been dealt with. Tell me, Marshal Crowfoot, would you care for a financial reward?"
"I get a wage from the marshal's service," Crowfoot replied.
"But not, I am sure, a very big one. Well, if you change your mind, I will be in the hotel." Steele nodded to his bodyguards. He turned and walked back into the Grand Central.
"You boys be all right?" Crowfoot asked. "I gotta send some telegrams."
He swung down from his saddle and led the horse away. Brass and Knot were left alone in the street. Brass couldn't take his eyes of off Araňa. Knot seemed to notice it. He turned his horse away, heading back to the Hell's Half-Acre part of town. Brass didn't quite notice him go. He watching over Araňa, who stood motionlessly in the cage, and then he turned as well. Right then, Brass didn't want to be alone. He rode after Knot, knowing right where his partner would go. Night was nearing the town and shadows grew from the prairie. Brass tied his horse to the hitching post outside the Sunken Shaft and stepped inside. Sure enough, Knot was at the bar.
The two marshals sat together. "I'd buy you a drink," Knot said. "But that's not something you can do."
"A lot I can't do," Brass muttered. He turned to Knot. "You know how my creator died? Dr. Gridley?"
"Is that a story you want to tell?"
"I believe it is." Brass looked down at the worn table. "Was back in the War Between the States. Me and him were up in Missouri, battling bushwhackers. Confederates had themselves some fine engineers. Created automatons that could travel long distances, strike and raid and fade away. But they kind of skimped on making sure those automatons respected the rules of war or decency - or maybe the machines just learned the wrong lessons from the sort of men they rode with. Either way, we heard that a band of them was heading for a small town in Kansas and our commanding officer told us that he couldn't risk going after them for such a miniscule strategic gain."
Knot looked away. "Sound sense," he said.
"Dr. Gridely didn't take to it. We rode out and battled those boilerplate bushwhackers. Saved the town and got ousted from the Federal Army - and Dr. Gridley caught a slug and died, leaving me alone." Brass sighed, a fuzzy, mechanical groan. "After that, no one knew much what to do with me. They put in the Marshals Service as I weren't wanted nowhere else."
"You're wanted here, Bat," Knot said.
"But I don't know if I want to do the kind of work that's offered."
"Careful, Bat." Knot patted his shoulder. "We're meant to uphold the law."
Brass revealed his badge. He ran his metal fingers over its surface, worn smooth from age. "Maybe," he said. "But this badge means more than the brass it's made out of. The badge means that we protect the innocent from the guilty. What are those miners guilty of? Nothing more than wanting a living wage and decent conditions - a chance to have a say in their lives. Steele's robbed more from them than all the highwaymen, road agents and outlaws in the world." He turned to look at Knot. "I think you realize what I intend to do."
"Have to be a fool not to," Knot said.
"Will you stop me?"
The question made Knot pause. Then he turned to the automaton bartender with the jug for a head and raised his hand. The bartender swiveled his head, the whiskey inside sloshing back and forth and sounding like a churlish laugh, and poured Knot another drink. "I'm gonna have to be very drunk," Knot explained. "To convince myself to help you."
If Brass could have smiled, he would have.
After Knot had enjoyed another pair of whiskeys, he and Brass left the Sunken Shaft saloon. They headed back to Deep Vein's main street and then rode by the steel wagon, where Araňa waited. Brass smashed open the lock on his cage while Knot found three horses that would take them where they needed to go. The Hammersmith Automatons stood in their silent rows, not watching anything. Until they were turned on and set to march, they would not act at all. Brass pulled the cage open. Araňa stared at him, remaining motionless. The two machines regarded each other.
Slowly, Brass approached Araňa. He pulled a Bowie knife from his boot. "I don't know why you robbed them stage coaches and gave the proceeds to the striking Copper Point miners," he said. "Perhaps you misinterpreted some of your original instructions, which required you to help people. Perhaps a sense of justice simply appeared in you. But either way, I respect that decision." He gripped Araňa's shoulder and turned him around. The Bowie knife snaked down, cutting the ropes that bound Araňa's hand. "After this business is over, I will give you a horse and I expect you to ride across the border and into Mexico, where you will never break a law again. Are we clear, Araňa?"
Araňa stared back at him. He did not reply, but gave a very simple nod. Brass nodded back. "Well, I'll assume we are," he said. He led Araňa out of the cage, just as Knot came riding back with the horses. "Now let's be on our way."
They mounted up and rode back through the quiet street of Deep Vein. Night had come to the prairie as they galloped out of town. Araňa rode with them, matching the pace of Knot and Brass. Perhaps Araňa knew nothing but the quickness of drawing his pistols and the joy of killing and helping others - but that was enough to make him a hero to the striking miners and it was enough for Brass. They kept a good pace, crossing the moonlit prairie grasses and nearing Copper Point. Brass could make out the many campfires, looking like orange jewels set against the black fields of night. Knot rode a little bit ahead and then reined in his horse as a gunshot cut through the air. Brass and Araňa rode up to him. They saw that the miners had created a small barricade of supply crates. Their few men stood behind the crates, rifles in their hands.
Knot raised his hands. "Easy there! We mean no harm!"
Ortega stood up from behind the barricade, rifle smoking against his shoulder. "No harm? Our allies in town have declared that Steele Industries are soon to send their gun thugs against us. Now you arrive. You want to talk perhaps? Or arrest more of us?"
Brass turned to Araňa. "Go on and show yourself, son."
The eight-armed automaton rode closer. He brought his horse to the barricade and stepped down from the saddle. Then his eight arms raised, each hand held out. The miners stared at him in silence - the kind of reverent silence that belonged in a church. Ortega silently drew a revolver from his belt. He walked over and pressed it into one of Araňa's hands. Seven other miners did the same. When they finished, Araňa was fully armed and ready. Brass watched in silence. This was the kind of praise machines like him never received. He hopped down from his own horse, took the reins and walked it over to the barricades. Knot did the same.
The miners watched him. Ortega stepped apart from their group. "Brass," he said. "Why have you done this?"
"You're gonna need all the help you can, when the Hammersmith gun thugs arrive," Brass replied.
"And you will help?" Ortega asked.
The two marshals stared at each other. "I know what it's like to be helpless," Knot said.
"And I was created to protect the innocent," Brass said. "Figure I should live up to that."
Before either of them could talk more about the matter, a great storm of dust arose from the prairie facing Copper Point. Brass, Knot and Ortega turned to look. Brass used his mechanical vision to zoom in. The Hammers were coming - and they had brought company. The Hammersmith automatons marched in neat rows, rifles resting on their shoulders like toy soldiers fresh from a child's box. Behind them came an armored wagon pulled by a team of four metal horses. The back of it contained a Gatling gun, a weapon with shining brass barrels and a crank manned by more Hammer automatons. The entire army of automata moved at a good clip and would arrive soon. From grim experience, Brass knew that they wouldn't leave many of the miners alive.
Brass turned to Ortega. "Have your boys take cover," he ordered. "It's liable to get lively."
Ortega shouted commands. The miners, along with Brass, Knot and Araňa hid behind the barricade. The Hammers drew closer. Brass pulled his revolvers, cocking each one and waiting. Knot took out his buffalo rifle and pressed it to his shoulder. He turned to Brass and let out a low, deep peal of laughter. Brass glanced back at him, wondering what was so funny. "It's the first time in a long time I had a posse going after me!" Knot explained. "The years go by, but not much changes." The laughter died on his lips. He raised his rifle. "Now here they come."
The first row of Hammers leveled their rifles. They opened fire, sending a volley into the miner' camp. Their fire came indiscriminately, tearing into the tents and striking the barricades. Ortega winced and shouted in Spanish, urging the women and children to take cover in the caves. He shouted again to the miners and they fired back. Knot's buffalo rifle thundered with them and some of the Hammers dropped. The bullets tore into their metal bodies, causing sparks to fly through the desert air. The Hammers crashed down into the dust. Their feet continued jerking back and forth as they lay in the dust. The miners fired at them again until they stopped moving, even as the Hammers shot back. A miner next to Brass, a pot-bellied Texan with a bristly beard, stumbled back as his skull shattered and his brains splashed onto the ground. Knot's buffalo rifle fired again, ripping apart a Hammer's top hat and head in a burst of steel and smoke.
The Hammers marched closer, the second row stepping blindly over their fallen predecessors. They neared the miners' barricades now, drawing within pistol range. Brass stood up, leveled both revolvers at the Hammers and started shooting. His pistols clattered together, blazing into the ranks of the Hammer automatons. He gunned them down, putting bullets into metal and watching the Hammers drop. Next to him, Araňa did the same with eight guns. All eight revolvers blazed together. The wave of shots tore into the Hammers, striking eight of them down in the same second. Brass watched in amazement as Araňa picked his next targets and fired again. A platoon of soldiers couldn't have fought better than the mute machine.
But the Hammersmith automatons still reached the ramshackle barricade. Their numbers aided them, along with their mindless courage. They reached the barricade and clambered up, the long, thin bayonets on their rifles gleaming in the starlight as they jabbed down. A miner reeled back, blood running from a dozen wounds and the Hammers skewered him again until he struck the dust and died. Knot turned to run, pausing to draw his sawed-off and blasted apart a Hammer. Brass stood as well. A Hammer came for him, its bayonet streaking down. The point scraped against Brass's chest, tearing his coat and scratching his chest. The Hammer fired his rifle and Brass shuddered as the bullet tore through belly, cut through his gears and ripped out from his back. He swung up his revolver, slamming the handle against the Hammer's face. Glass shattered and the Hammer reeled. Brass turned his revolver on the automaton and gave him the three remaining shots. When the Hammer went down, he stood up and turned.
"Fall back!" Ortega raised his voice. "Back to the camp, amigos!" He turned to run and the miners, Knot, Brass and Araňa followed him. They hurried further into the tents and the Hammers stepped over the broken barricade, firing from the hip as they advanced.
Brass hurried alongside Ortega. "You must've known what you was going up against!" he cried. "You got a plan to deal with these fellows?"
"I think I do." Ortega dropped down to a long wooden crate lying by one of the tents. He pulled it open and Brass saw rows of candle red dynamite waiting to be used. Ortega grabbed a stick and a snapped a match to life on the ground. He touched the match to the fuse and held it out to Brass. "Will you do the honors, Senor Brass?"
"Please," Brass said. "Call me Bat."
He took the dynamite, turned to the charging Hammers and let fly. The dynamite flew through the air, the fuse sparking down, and landed in the middle of the Hammers. It exploded a second later, causing a great cloud of red fire to blossom in the darkness of the desert night. The sound of the explosion echoed across the desert, seemingly loud enough to make Copper Point shake. The first incoming crowd of Hammers shattered, ripples in a pond struck by a stone. Their pieces rained over the mining camp, their metal bodies bent and twisted as they struck the ground. The miners took full advantage of the explosion. They gunned down the Hammers before they could rise. Ortega grabbed a pickaxe handle and moved around the downed Hammersmith automatons, bringing down the heavy cudgel and smashing apart their metal skulls.
Knot and Brass joined in. A half-broken Hammer rose from the ground, trying to steady its rifle. Knot swung the heavy butt of his buffalo gun into the Hammer's back and pinned it to the earth. Brass lowered his pistol and put a round through the Hammer's head. He looked back at Knot. "Normally, I don't much care for killing automata," he said. "But killing these? I don't mind it at all."
"Good to hear," Knot agreed. "I think we-" Then he grabbed Brass's arm and yanked him to the side. The Gatling gun chattered to life, spitting an endless stream of lead into the mining camp. Bullets still chewed in Brass's chest and shoulders, shredding his metal skin. He tumbled back into the dust and lay there, trying to recover some strength.
The Gatling gun kept shooting. Brass craned his head and saw the team of four horses dragging the wagon in, rolling it further and further into the mining camp. The Gatling gun never seemed to end its firepower. Brass watched as miners scrambled to get away. When the Gatling gun's heavy bullets struck home, they sheared off limbs and left great gouts of blood in the dust. This was mechanized death, an impersonal and cold means to kill scores of men. Brass hated it. He turned back to Knot, who was ducking for cover near a tattered tent. Past him, near the dynamite box, was Araňa. Brass and Araňa stared at each other. Brass gave the outlaw automaton a nod. Araňa returned.
That was all the signal that Brass needed. He stood up and approached the armored wagon, his revolvers raised. "Bat!" Knot shouted. "What the hell are you doing? That cart will blast you to scrap if you go near it!"
But Brass didn't stop. He broke into a run and charged for the armored Hammer wagon. His pistols spat lead together, blasting down the Hammer automata protecting the Gatling gun. Two of them dropped without getting a shot off -and then the gunners turned the Gatling on Brass as the team of mechanical horses went into a charge. The whole conveyance raced straight for Brass. He didn't have time to escape.
The first set of hooves struck him and he went down. The metal horseshoes slammed hard onto his steel belly, each one leaving a dent. Brass covered his face and rolled over. He could feel the footfalls crashing home, each like a mix between a prizefighter's punch and a sledgehammer. Still, Brass pulled himself out of the way and then spun his middle around and raised his revolvers. He fired up at the wagon, bringing down the last of the Hammer guards. The Gatling gun turned to face him. Brass heard the bolt clicking back. It was going to open fire and blow him to shreds.
From far away, Brass heard cheering. He glanced up and saw a sight that would stay with him until he rusted into oblivion. Araňa charged straight for the armored wagon. In each of his eight arms, he carried a lit stick of dynamite. Araňa was protecting his people - the only way he knew how. He leapt onto the back of the armored carriage. The fuses burned down. Brass tried his best to crawl away as the Hammers turned the Gatling gun to face Araňa. It was already too late. The dynamite fuses had burned down.
The explosion enveloped Brass. He felt the sudden heat and the out-pouring of smoke. Waves of force wiped over him and he had the sensation of flight, of the wind rustling past him and tearing at his metal limbs and then he struck the dust, bounced, rolled and flew again. When he finally crushed down, his battered metal form had taken enough damage. What passed for his consciousness seeped away from him and he vanished into darkness.
A gentle winding stirred in Brass's belly. Power seeped back into his battered limbs. His eyes flickered to life and he looked up at the Texas dawn - and the worn face of Marshal Avery Knot. His friend had opened his chest and was working a crank inside of Brass, providing some emergency power. Brass would have to add more electricity to himself when he got home, but the crank was enough for now. Knot kept working until more Brass's energy was back and then Brass raised his hand. Knot backed off. Brass buttoned up his shirt, vest and grabbed his fallen tie. He carefully knotted it around his throat. His hat lay next him, half-crumpled in the dust. Brass picked it up, straightened the brim and set it on his head. Then he managed to come to his feet.
He turned back to the miner's camp. The tents were empty, blowing about like the sails of sunken ships. There was no sign of the miners. "They lit out," Knot explained. "After the last of the Hammersmith automatons went down. Headed back to the old diggings, which they figured more defensible." Knot tapped Brass's shoulder and the metal marshal turned. "But we got company of another sort."
Brass turned and saw Chief Marshal Lemuel Crowfoot sitting on his horse and looking down at Ransom Steele and his two bodyguards. Steele stared at the ruined automatons as he continued an endless tirade. "Marshal Crowfoot!" he cried. "Your men assisted in the subversive, insurgent rebellion of my workers - and they helped the noted criminal machine, La Araňa, escape!" He pointed at them, jabbing his finger like he was pulling a trigger. "They must pay. I want the Negro horse-whipped and executed. I want the automaton melted down for scrap! I demand restitution for-"
"Mr. Steele," Crowfoot said. "We at the Marshal Service require evidence before we fling around accusations." He shifted in his saddle and looked at his men. "If you can find some evidence, you're welcome to bring it to my attention. Knot says that Araňa escaped and they tracked him here and witnessed the battle - but did not take part in it and I see no reason to doubt his word." He paused. "If you want to go to war with the Marshal Service, I suggest you prepare to lose. Perhaps accepting a small loss in your massive fortune is a fitting price for peace."
Steele's face reddened. "I can ruin you. I can ruin you all."
That was all Brass could take. He left Knot's side and walked over to join Steele. "Mr. Steele?" he called. "I believe you will take this loss. You'll accept it and then you will listen to the miners' demands and let them have their union."
"And why, you broken piece of metal, would I do that?" Steele asked.
"On account of Araňa's still out there." Brass didn't know if that was true. He doubted anything could survive leaping onto an armored wagon with eight sticks of dynamite burning down. "I saw the entirety of the battle and I did not see him fall. He tore apart those automatons, each of his hands carrying a blazing revolvers. He loaded up your armored wagon with dynamite and blew it to bits." Brass drew closer. " Araňa supports these miners. He is their defender. If you continue to send men and machines against the miners, he will destroy them - and then he'll come for you. And all your fortune won't stop you from an automaton with a grudge. So give them their union, Mr. Steele. Take a tiny cut in your fortune. Keep your miserable life for another few years."
Steele listened quietly. "He is still out there?" he asked.
"Yes, sir," Knot agreed. "I never seen him fall."
The tycoon lowered his head, his bravado loss. "Well," he said. "That changes matters."
"Yes," Knot replied. "I suppose it does." He walked past Steele, heading away from the mining camp. Crowfoot had their horses waiting for them. Brass hurried to keep pace with Knot. They walked out of earshot from Steele and hopped onto their horses. Knot turned to Brass. "Bat," he said. "You know Araňa's probably gone, right? Not much could survive what he went through. He rode himself onto that wagon and died."
"Automatons don't die," Brass said. "We ain't really alive." He gripped the reins of his horse and stirred it to a gentle trot. "But maybe, in the time that we're here, we can do some good. That's what Araňa did. That's what I hope I did as well." He cracked his heels against the sorrel mare, raising her to a gallop. He and Knot rode back to town, the hooves of their horses clattering over the broken remains of the Hammersmith automatons as they rode back to Deep Vein.