The “local” Mayor dies, leaving a vacuum in the power structure. Gunplay ensues. — ed, N.E. Lilly
West of the Texas Nebula
I’ve heard it said that running away from your problems never solved anything, but I’ve learned to get out of Dodge before the shooting starts.
Only this time, I was almost a little too late.
At last night’s banquet, while honoring the visiting dignitaries from Tau Ceti, Sol’s Mayor, Wit Thomason, had a heart attack. He spent a good couple of minutes twitching on the floor, soiling his finest suit, right there in front of aliens, citizens, and everybody.
This morning, in bed but cussing, he’d tried to shrug it off. He told the Posse to put the word out that it was an allergic reaction to the interstellar dust our esteemed guests had inadvertently brought with them, but we knew we weren’t fooling nobody. People already figured he was ill before he made it obvious at the dinner reception.
Word was that Doc Brown had ordered bed rest and urged Wit to cancel the event, or at least use a movingchair when appearing in public. But Thomason knew that staying out of sight would damn him as much as attending the festivities sitting down. So he’d spent the day prancing about town, making a ruckus and showing off his manly vigor.
Only anybody paying attention couldn’t help but notice the sweat on his lip, his fevered brow, and the occasional shakes that sat him down even though he played that it was his idea. And there were a lot of interested parties paying attention.
Me and Wendell had it figured it was even odds that he’d drop before sunset, but the tough old coot surprised us. He made it through the banquet—well, almost—and it looked like he might even recuperate if he got the chance. I suspected he wouldn’t get one. But I wasn’t gonna wait around to find out.
Normally in a situation like this, you’d worry about which of the sons would take over, but Thomason had just the one boy. And Brett was a lanky, timid little man with shaky hands and nearsighted eyes. I didn’t figure him to show any ambition, and since no one respected Brett enough to consider him a contender, he’d probably fumble his way through this thing alive if he didn’t do anything stupid.
That left the usual suspects to attempt a coup—the town’s gunslingers and some of the higher-ranking members of the Posse.
Gunslingers, we had a few. Bart Blackstar and Chester Gitts were a couple of the fastest draws in this part of the galaxy and there was no doubt they’d make a run for power—and try to become legal bullies. One young hotshot or another who didn’t know any better would probably give it a go, as well. I could see Denny Clairboix or Whiskey Tim throwing their hat in the ring.
The Posse was harder to reckon. Thomason had never endorsed a successor—that would have been painting a bull’s-eye on the man’s back and handing one of us his pistol. Royce Bowland had served the mayor the longest, and pride alone would force him to make a claim. Problem was, he had too much love for the old man to be the first to act, and I was betting that someone else would catch him flat-footed before he ever had the chance. Wendell wasn’t smart enough to win, but he certainly was dumb enough to try. The others could go either way. I made a mental note to shoot Spikey at some point just for the hell of it; I never did trust his slimy ass.
I decided it was time to pack my bags.
The trick to provisioning was not to pack too much. You look a tad conspicuous if you canter off to a shuttlebay carrying a rack of lamb on your shoulder. You’ve got to remember that the next watering hole’s never all that far away. So I made sure that my saddlebags weren’t much heavier than usual. Not that my chestnut mare, Tally, didn’t nicker in complaint anyways. She was as stubborn as she was strong.
Wendell walked up while I was tying on the last of my bags.
“Where’ve you been all afternoon?” he asked. He was trying not to sound suspicious and doing a bad job of it.
“Had to run some errands,” I grunted and waved my left hand vaguely towards Tally as a bit of misdirection. I stared him square in the eye. “Why?”
His scowl softened and his expression became a little uncertain. “You really haven’t heard, have you? Someone’s done in Royce.”
So it had started already.
I drew with my right and put a bullet into Wendell’s big fat head. That’s what he got for asking questions first. It was too bad, I sort of liked Wendell, but I couldn’t risk him deciding he needed to take me out.
No one came running at the gunshot, not the rarest song sung at the best of times in these parts, and anybody worth their snuff already knew they’d be hearing a lot more singing before too long.
I took Tally down the alley and wasn’t ten paces from the jail when a piece of lead took my hat off. My left hand fired back before I had time to turn and look at what it was doing. Seventeen year old Denny Clairboix dropped into the dust, a hand clutching his chest. I was lucky. He’d planned a good ambush and an older, steadier hand wouldn’t have botched his first shot.
If Royce was already dead that meant Thomason wouldn’t be long in following. I turned Tally’s head away from my former responsibilities and set her hooves firmly on the shortest path to the nearest shuttlebay. There wasn’t much point left in trying to look casual, so I rode like a bat out of hell.
There was some sort of commotion near the edge of town, so I had to pull up short. Fortune favored me, though. They was all so busy shootin’ at each other that they didn’t see me coming.
Gave me a chance to take in what happened to the last of the loyal Posse. Jordan and Spikey had met their ends staying true to the Oath. Who’da thunk it? Mayor Thomason’s body was propped up against a wagon wheel; he was staring glassily at the holographic blue sky. There wasn’t a mark on him, his heart must have finally given out from all the excitement.
Bart Blackstar and Chester Gitts had turned the road ahead of me into a crossfire. Bart was firing from between the window slats of a boarded up saloon. Chester was hunkered down behind a big stone well with just his six-shooter showing.
Most likely the two had worked together to take down the mayor and his men, then turned on each other the moment the deed was done. I shook my head. If they’d just stuck together they’d be running the show by now.
I shot Chester in the hand and he cursed and dropped his gun down the well. As his other hand came up I dismounted, and his bullets whizzed over my head. He peeked over the lip of the well to see who he was shooting at, and Blackstar blew his brains out from across the road.
“Morning Bart,” I called out, running up to the side wall of the saloon and placing it at my back. All the windows faced the street so he wouldn’t have a shot at me unless he came outside and leaned around the corner.
“That you, Cale?” he asked.
“You never struck me as the mayoral type.”
I shrugged. “Never said I was. It just happens that I’m still standing.”
“Well then,” said Bart cheerily, “how about you and me work together. I’m gonna be needing some good men and it appears that Royce’s old job is now open.”
“Count me in,” I said.
While I was speaking a bullet splintered through the wall to my left. I nearly pissed myself and cursed my momentary lapse in judgment. Another lucky moment. I hit the ground.
“That didn’t work,” I observed.
“I figured, what the hell?” replied Bart.
I was glad he hadn’t said it was ‘worth a shot.’ We were silent for a moment. Tally, standing over by the well, began to scratch at the ground impatiently.
Another horse was coming down the road. I tensed, ready to bolt for better cover, then relaxed when I saw it was Brett. He rode up cautiously, noticed me lying flat, and opened his mouth to speak. I put a finger to my lips; I hoped my standing in the Posse and the boy’s natural docility would stop him. It did.
I pointed towards his father’s corpse and his eyes got real wide. I motioned around the corner towards the door to the saloon.
“What’re you up to out there, Cale?” said Bart, right on cue.
Brett nodded, I didn’t reply. I was busy devising a plan whereby I could use the unexpected arrival of the mayor’s son to my advantage.
Unexpectedly, the boy screamed, “You murderer!”
Jumping off his horse, Brett let loose a wordless howl of animal rage and threw himself through the saloon’s swinging doors, guns a blazin’.
I swear the kid came closer to hitting me than taking out Blackstar, even with me standing behind him like I was. But at least he created a bit of a diversion.
Bart guffawed as he unloaded a few rounds into the boy’s chest, then he smiled and lowered his gun. His grin slipped when I stepped out from behind the falling Brett and he realized his mistake.
Blackstar was quicker than I’d expected, and I think his last panicked pull of the trigger would have done me in even as I put my bullet between his eyes. But he was out of ammo from his earlier exchange with Chester so I’ll never know for certain. Not that I’d want to.
I kicked Brett over onto his back. The kid had breathed his last. At least he’d died trying to avenge his father, exactly the sort of stupid thing I’d knew would get him killed.
Bart’s fine black hat would be of no more use to him, so I took it to replace the one I’d lost. Then I spent a few moments cleaning and reloading my guns.
The deathly quiet finally brought the townsfolk out of hiding like rats after a rain. They all wanted to have a looksee at their new mayor.
I gaped at the gathering crowd. I guess I would never stumble upon a better opportunity to move into a swanky mansion. There wasn’t hardly anybody left alive who could stop me if I tried.
But I gave Tally a drink from the well, led her toward the city limit sign, and waved the town goodbye. Never did have much interest in public office. Too dangerous. I preferred me the cushier job of sidekick. Being a part of the Posse had always served me well—until the mayor’s death did us part. I’ll miss Wit, of course.
But you know, there is always another mayor who needs a deputy with a steady hand, and he’s never much farther west than the next star system. I admit, running away from your problems doesn’t solve much, but I’ve learned to cut my losses. I’d just have to time it better next go round.
I Love Serenity
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