The Brass Wyrm

The inside of the ramshackle barn was a study in juxtaposition. Grimy horse leads and tack supplies hung on walls beside gleaming firearms, troughs of water sat back-to-back with steam-powered generators, horses filled their mouths with green alfalfa and plodded around sophisticated machinery with glowing lights and polished interfaces. And at the center of it all, one of the most beautiful flying vessels I had ever laid eyes on. Back in the Union Army Balloon Corps, we used single-gondola craft that was carried aloft by the quintessential balloon shape. Because of their close resemblance to crafts of whimsy, many generals saw us as nothing more than carnival-deserting dreamers. With the role we played during the States’ first battle with the Menace, however, the military began to see the balloon as a valuable intelligence-gathering asset. In Europe, some balloons had been equipped with fixed-placement guns and small bore cannons much like privateer vessels of the old days.

The vessel in the barn was far beyond the title of balloon; this was an honest-to-God dirigible, the first prototypes of which were being tested in Europe. The balloon section was a massive off-white muslin tube, given structure by dark varnished wood and brass lashings. Underneath was a wooden structure not unlike that of a midsize sailing ship. There were interior compartments including a quarters level towards the stern, all of which were topped by a fighting deck equipped with many standard armaments and a few pieces that escaped my knowledge. At the stern, aft of the crew quarters, sat a large, highly stylized steam engine that provided power to the three wind turbines that steered the vessel. I dropped my pistol back into my holster without taking my eyes off the beauty in front of me.

“Who the hell are you?” I asked the old man.

He responded with his usual slightly-wheezing laugh and walked in, motioning for me to follow him.

“You like ‘er?” he asked.

I responded that I did. My answer came out sounding much more awestruck than I meant, which sent the old man into another bout of laughter.

“Well, she’s yours. This is what I wagered yesterday in the card game. I call her The Brass Wyrm.”

“Worm?” That seemed like an odd name for a fighting vessel.

“With a ‘y’, not an ‘o’. Wyrm with a ‘y’ is what they called dragons in medieval England. Huge, fearsome, flying beasts that breathe fire. Smart guy like you, I’m sure you can see why the name seemed appropriate. Come on in and take a look at ‘er.”

“You know, you never answered my question. About who the hell you are. Or were.”

The old man looked at me for a time as we walked towards The Brass Wyrm. Finally, he asked, “You the new lawman?”

“Yep,” I said, not sure what this had to do with anything.

“You know what that means? Or why they chose you? Or who chose you?”

“I was tasked with coming to Phoenix to serve as sheriff by President Lincoln himself. As far as I know, they chose me because I have a knack for dealing with the Menace in unconventional and effective ways.”

The old man grunted. “Know how long our last sheriff lasted?”

Before I could answer, the old man continued.

“Two months. It’s mighty dangerous out here. Some of our lawmen would get assigned without a clue of what they had comin’. I suspect those were placed here as show until they found someone they thought what could do the job. They told you the lay of the land out here. That means they think you can do something about it. Maybe so.

“But with the greenhorns we been having out here, someone else had to help this town stay alive. That’s who I am. And that’s where The Brass Wyrm comes from. But I’m getting’ to be too old to captain ‘er anymore. I slow down my crew. Incidentally, the dunderheads from the bar are two members of my crew and I’m sure they’d be happy to help you out.”

That was sort of a confusing speech. I wasn’t sure how to reply. Did the old man mean he had been flying around town, taking pot shots at the Menace from his airship? That seemed like a good reply.

“Do you mean you’ve been flying around town, taking pot shots at the Menace from your airship?”

“Potshots! No sir-ee. We rained wholesale slaughter down on them. But aside from the incorrectness of ‘potshots,’ yes. That’s what I did.”

“But who are you? How did you build this ship? Why would you take on that responsibility?”

The old man walked over to one of the gleaming consoles, kicking horse manure away with a flick of his boot toe. He pointed to a daguerreotype that hung on the wall; in the picture a middle-aged Confederate General posed, one hand on his officer’s sabre, the other behind his back.

“That’s me. I was the general in charge of a detachment tasked with opening up a route to the Pacific Ocean so the CSA would have a port that wasn’t crawling with bluebellies. We weren’t the first group to attempt it, but none of the others had reported back. We assumed you folk had killed them. But that wasn’t so. We encountered the menace before they showed their face at Vicksburg. On our first night in Tucson I lost four men. From the amount of blood on the ground, I figured it wasn’t Union soldiers. I considered the possibility of some natives, but something still felt off. We followed the trail of blood and large footprints to the San Xavier del Bac Mission. We attacked, killing all three of our assailants. But they took out half of my remaining seventeen men. Three of them took out twelve soldiers! The next day, I gave up fighting the Union and concentrated on the Menace. The men who survived the Mission siege followed me. A few years after Vicksburg, I met a man who called himself a steamsmith and had him build the Wyrm. And now, she’s yours.”

I looked back to the daguerreotype on the wall. A middle-aged officer with color still in his hair and beard. The old man next to me was just that; old. The time didn’t add up.

“So the man in this picture is you?”

“Yes sir-ee. 1861. These last ten years have been hard.”

There was a definite resemblance in the eyes and jaw, but age had obscured some of the man’s face with leathery wrinkles. Perhaps fighting every day for ten years against an enemy who knew nothing of yielding or surrender could do that to a person. Before I could dwell on that point, something screamed in my mind. Something that didn’t make sense.

“That would have been the Picacho Pass Battle, then? 1862?”

“Slightly afore that. Battle was in April. We were there in February.”

“But still in 1862. I thought the Menace was contained to the swampy areas of the deep South until we pushed them out in 1863.”

“That’s the story, yep. But it ain’t true. I’m not sayin’ anyone’s pulling the wool over your eyes, just that nobody believed our stories until Vicksburg. Out in the West, a mighty lot of things go unreported and unexplained. I have an intuition that the Donner Party may have fallen prey to the Menace, as well as some of the more gruesome mining camp massacres.”

“But that could mean the ones out here are smarter and more organized than the inbred whelps back East.”

“Yep. They are. Been against both and I can tell the difference.”

I began to feel a lot less capable in my ability to do my job if I was facing the insidious, calculating, blood-thirsty beasts they were fighting in Europe. Most of Western Europe has been at war for over six years. Eastern Europe as we know it is gone; all organized resistance was crushed in weeks. Cities became feeding grounds for the Menace and the cobblestone streets of Budapest, Prague, and Kiev have become black with dried blood. Small bands of humans hide out in the countryside and attempt to cross the Donau into the Empire of Germany or the St. Petersberg-Moscow-Don line into the Imperial Russia, though less come through each year. All the desk strategists and field generals in the States believed that our problem was less severe than that in Europe and that we would be rid of it in ten years as an outside estimate. What the old man was telling me spit in the face of that assumption.

I thought for a minute. The old man said nothing, either assuming I was on the verge of breakthrough or having some bad heartburn. I looked at him. I was about to ask him a question, I don’t remember what it was now, when a loud roar came from outside. Both our eyes widened simultaneously. I pulled my modified Smith and Wesson Model 3 from its holster and the old man hobbled to a corner and snatched up a lever action rifle. I chanced a glance between two of the shed’s siding boards that had warped apart from one another.

“Three of them,” I said to the old man.

“Two over here,” he replied.

“Probably two or three at the front. So it’s safe to assume we’re surrounded.”

“Not sure it’s exactly safe, Yank. Two of us against a minimum of six werewolves… I’d rather kiss Lincoln square on the mouth.”

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Out of Town

Before I continue the story about my first few days in Phoenix, I want to give you all an idea of what I’m doing here. I have an associate who is a proponent of the new sciences that have boomed since the war and he has assured me that the new National Dynamic Data Link (NDDL, or Needle) will change the way we communicate. I had resisted him for some time. The recent attacks in Carson City, however, have forced me to reconsider my position. The speed with which other townships in Nevada and California were able to mobilize their militias and come to Carson City’s aid is a testament to the power of the Needle. Thus, I have opened a very new branch of the Phoenix Sheriff’s Office on the Needle.

This will serve as my hub of disseminating information to the rest of the nation as we struggle through these difficult times. In addition to matters concerning the safety of Phoenix, I will also feature alerts relevant to the surrounding towns and recitations of my own personal experiences that others may be able to draw insight from.

The following events took place approximately two months ago.

I returned to the saloon promptly at high noon the next day. After I had whistled Dixie in the sandstorm for a good while, I set off to find my new office. Waiting for me on the empty pine desk was a shiny new badge. I left it where it was as I got dressed the next morning; I wanted to get used to the layout of the town and get to know some of the more important locals before revealing that I was the new lawman. The sandstorm had been good cover for getting into my office the day previous. This day I had to go out a window in the back near the holding cells.

The saloon was called the Red Eye Runner, something I had missed in my haste during the storm. The old man was at the same table where the cards had been dealt. He was grinning and wheezing out a chuckle. His two friends were no where to be found.

“Where’s the other two?” I asked, letting the saloon doors back easily so they wouldn’t rattle.

He grunted a slightly derisive sound. “Them dunderheads are liable to get buffaloed by a ground squirrel.”

I had no idea what that meant, but I agreed with him anyway. As I reached for a chair, the old man waved me away.

“Don’t get comfy, Yank. We got a bit of a ride ahead of us.”

Damn. I had been looking forward to breakfast.

We rode west out of town for a stretch, past several green fields of alfalfa and cotton. I’d heard that citrus grew here, had even seen some on my way in, but my luck wasn’t such that we passed any. I was destined to be hungry all day. Eventually, I could make out a large barn in the distance, though as we drew nearer I began to doubt that barn was the correct term. Shack may have been more appropriate. I started to dread winning whatever was housed inside and ran through a list of the annoying things it could be: rusted scrap, sick cattle, burlap sheets…

We were within five minutes of the building when my senses came back to me. I had ridden well out of town alone with a person – a person of Southern descent – I didn’t know to a deserted shack. This was exactly how the Menace operated, especially if they had been tipped off that I was the new law.

“What’s that off in the distance? Looks like a plume of smoke coming from those mountains,” I yelled to the old man riding next to me. As he peered off in the direction I indicated, I drew my six gun. I pointed it at him, but kept it low so it might go unnoticed. It didn’t. Oh well.

The old man smiled as he stopped his horse.

“Gettin’ worried? Out here past the cotton, don’t many people go. I can understand that.” He slid off his saddle. I did the same, now aiming directly at his heart.

“You think I’m one of ’em?” He squinted at me.

“I’m not sure how you’re riding a horse if you are, but I think I don’t trust you.”

“Let me lead your horse. You can cover me. Ain’t nobody in the barn right now that’ll come out and attack you.”

“Nobody that will attack me, or nobody at all?”

“Nobody at all.”

I handed him the reins to the horse I had rented in Phoenix and we walked the remaining distance. I covered him with my revolver, but my attention was on the fields around us and the entrance to the barn. The old man tied up the horses, walked to the barn door, and stopped.

“Ready to see a real sight?” he asked in a tone that didn’t seem to recognize how close I was to shooting him. Or maybe he just didn’t care.

He waited until he was sure I wasn’t going to say anything, grunted, and heaved the door open.

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Not Used to the Dust

I’m a Yank. A northeastern Yank with furniture building roots. We don’t get dust where I’m from. I’d heard the southwestern territories get dusty, but I never imagined the extent. The stage kicked up a formidable amount of dust, but I could deal with it. Around 5pm, though, the sky was occluded in all directions by a dust cloud. When the storm finally hit, my visibility was cut to mere feet.

I closed my eyes and shoved my nose and mouth deep into my kerchief and made for the nearest saloon. The rotgut helped cleanse my mouth of grit. A group of old Rebs were playing cards in a corner (I could tell they were Rebs by the prominent Bonnie Blues on their coats and bags). The dust was blowing as fierce as ever, so I joined them for a few friendly games before the coy white-hair across from me stared me down. He held my eyes transfixed and held up a lazy finger.

“Yank, ” was all he said.

“I am,” was all I said.

“Tell you what, Doodle, these two’re gonna sit this round out. I got somethin’ good to wager.”

I knew there was some sort of catch. I also knew Arizona and New Mexico Territories were grey zones and that, even though we had banded together against The Menace, Northerners weren’t much liked here.

“What’s the rest of that bet?” I asked.

“You win, you get what I have. I win, you go back out in the street and whistle Dixie.”

I had to smile at that. I had imagined something violent or a wager that I leave town. This seemed like more of a prank and, what’s more, I thought that if I played along the group would respect me.

“Deal ’em,” I said.

It was a low scoring game, as five card usually is. It came down to Queen high and a pair of threes, in my favor.

“Well, shit,” the old man spat and slumped into his chair.

“Again?” I asked.

“You already won, Yankee.”

“I win, you buy us a round. You win, I buy us a round and go into the street to whistle Dixie.”

Without a word, the younger slouch to my right started dealing cards with a goofy grin on his face. I didn’t fare as well on this deal; nine high to three of a kind. The slouch started a slow, low shit-kicker chuckle and the old man grinned. I had the bartender bring over three  shots and stood up to walk outside.

“Yankee,” the old man called, “back here at noon tomorrow for your winnings.”

I nodded and walked out.

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