The Taking of Ironside

Trinight breeds men as harsh and unforgiving as it is.” – Local Tringht saying

The Taking of Ironside.

The sun beat down hard on Duncan Halleck as he made his way though the dirt streets of Douglas. Taking a handkerchief from a back pocket, he wiped sweat that was starting to run down his bald head.

Ah, Douglas, the boom town of Trinight—or the closest thing to a boom town this planet would ever know, thought Duncan. Everyone knew the quick growth of Douglas had been due to the installation of the new steam train that ran between Red Rock Canyon and Darkstar. Douglas was the only other stop on the line, hauling raw ore from the mines to be exported to other planets. The job could be done faster with an anti-grav rail, but the Crimson Cartel was not in the habit of investing such tech on backwater planets. Tech like that was expensive to import and expensive to install. No, these people would only get what could be fabricated on-planet, and that was simple enough.

Duncan looked down at a small GPS device strapped to his wrist. “One more saloon to go, then the real work starts,” he muttered out loud. As Duncan opened the bar doors, the busy saloon came to a halt. This didn’t surprise Duncan, considering the way he was dressed. He wore a high-grade combat vest with no shirt underneath, a pair of scatter pistols hung in hustlers under his arms, and the handle of a lever-action blunderbuss could be seen sticking out of a harness on his back. That much firepower was rarely needed, but Duncan would have felt naked with less.

As the people stared at the stocky man, clearly wondering what his intentions were, Duncan spoke out in a clear voice. “May I have your attention, please?” He knew he already had it, but thought it best to be polite, “My name is Duncan Halleck and I represent Alcome Industries of the Crimson Cartel. I have been authorized to hire ten men to guard the cargo car of the Ironside train between here and Darkstar. Any man with a weapon and the will to use it is welcome to apply. Applicants must register by the train station by tonight.”

A man shouted from the back of the saloon, “How much this job pay?”

“Fifty spacer credits,” Duncan replied. He knew the credits would be a dealbreaker for some; they wanted gold, and nobody traded in gold outside of this planet. His own home planet had gold in such abundance that the stuff was practically worthless. The only money anybody used outside of the Emperioum was spacer credits; anything else was simply raw material for spacer tech.

Duncan walked out into the hot noon sun and made his way to his “office,” which was a small table under a tarp by the train station. He sat down and began cleaning one of his scatter guns—not that it needed cleaning. He hadn’t fired it in what felt like ages, but he was always sure to keep it in good working order. He missed the good old days, running with the Bloody Talon mech company. He had joined when he was seventeen and quickly became a top lieutenant. Back then, he could count on a firefight before breakfast, and he fell asleep to the sound of gunfire in his head. For thirty years, he had run with Bloody Talon, until they forced him to retire. They threw promotion after promotion his way, but he wouldn’t take them. Never wanted to become a logistic clerk worrying about payroll.

That’s what I’ve become, he thought to himself, a clerk. He knew having worked his way to head of security at his age was an accomplishment, but he now spent more time behind a desk taking reports than heading up missions. The only field time he had gotten in the last six months was this “package job,” and that was as bad as babysitting. Nothing about this job made any sense. Why was he picked to guard this box and why was he to recruit from the local population instead of his own men?

Duncan was rolling these thoughts in his mind when a shadow fell on the table, snapping him back to reality. In front of him stood a tall man of thirty with black hair and a heavy mustache. He wore a black hat and a white shirt with a black vest that must have been unbearable in the sun’s heat. Duncan pulled out a small data pad from his pack and began filling out the application.

“Name?”

“Eli” responded the stranger.

“Last name?”

“Just Eli.”

Duncan looked up from the pad into the stranger’s dark crimson eyes and tried to get a read on him. There was something about this man that seemed off-putting. It wasn’t odd around here for people to withhold their last names—most didn’t trust the Cartel completely—but this man had an air of power about him as well. As though, with one gun, he could wipe out a whole town.

“I assume you will want payment in cash, then.”

“That would be helpful.”

Duncan paused for a brief moment and then asked sharply, “What weapons do you have?”

Eli pulled a silver, nickel-plated top-break revolver from a holster at his side and laid it on the table. A fine gun, thought Duncan, but then he noticed a second gun still tucked into the man’s gun belt. “What about that one?” he asked. The stranger looked at it as if he had forgotten it was there.

“No ammo,” he plainly replied.

Duncan look over the man’s gun belt and saw at least fifty cartridges in the shell loops.

The man, seemingly reading his mind, said, “They don’t fit.”

What kind of man carries an unloaded gun with no shells to fill it with? But as the day was getting hotter and Duncan was beginning to lose interest in the man, he decided the top-break would do just fine.

“OK, Just Eli, be at the train station at 6:00 am. We leave at 6:10,” he said, and left it at that.

 

The sun was setting by the time Duncan made his way back to the hotel. He was tired, but he had his ten men. Not the ten men he had wanted, mind you, but ten men nonetheless. He arrived at the hotel anxious for a hot meal, a strong beer, and a soft bed. When did you start looking forward to these things? he chastised himself. You used to stay up all night drinking and playing pool, fighting your buddies and chasing women.

Duncan pushed his way though the crowded hotel bar. It was busy tonight, with men drinking and gambling. A group of young men were challenging each other to knife throwing at an old dart board. Duncan watched with a passing curiosity as one of the knives found the bullseye and the men cheered.

It wasn’t so long ago that I could have beaten them all, he thought to himself.

Wasn’t it? A thought came unbidden into his mind. It’s been 10 years, maybe more. But by all means, go over to them and try a throw. Make a fool of yourself.

Duncan sighed softly to himself and began climbing the steps to his room. For the first time in his life, he felt old.

 

 

The next morning, Duncan found that only six of the men showed up for the job, one of whom was sent away for still being clearly drunk from the night before. Out of the five he had left to him, he guessed only five had ever shot a gun before: one by the name of Cole Fisher, who had claimed to be a law man in his younger days (which couldn’t have been too far behind him) and the one called Eli. The other three were as green as they could be.

They took their places in the armored car around the box that they were to guard. The box was made from a rich, black, off-world wood with ornate carvings on the side and metal inlaid in the lid. Duncan had no idea what was in it, and didn’t want to know. His job was to see it safely to Mr. Alcome and that was all he had to concern himself with.

Duncan placed his blunderbuss in a gun rack and took his seat. The ride would be a long and uncomfortable one, but he was beginning to think that it would be a quiet one. After all, if he didn’t know about the box, there was small chance that anyone else did—and besides, what group of thieves would risk their lives on a mystery box?

Duncan’s hopes for a quiet ride were soon shattered due to a pair of brothers he had hired who, for reasons Duncan couldn’t understand, thought that fifty spacer credits were worth fifty gold pieces.This amused Duncan, not only because fifty credits was not nearly worth fifty in gold—a tidy sum on this rock—but that they would never find any businessman willing to make the exchange.

Duncan’s amusement soon vanished as they began to talk at great length as to what they were planning to do with this newly imagined wealth.After the first hour of this, Duncan’s head started to throb. He grabbed his side pack at his feet and told the men he was going to inspect the dining car. The men ignored him—even Eli, who seemed to be sleeping. Duncan turned and made his way out.

 

 

Duncan sat in the dinner car at the front of the train enjoying a beer when the bandits attacked. The train came to an abrupt stop, causing some of the riders to stumble and lose their balance. He knew what was going on even before the screaming started and the shouts of “Get the fuck down!” began. Of all the days these dumb bastards had to hit the train, he thought. This was going to get bad, and by the end of it, some of them were going to wish their fathers had never paid for their mothers.

The bandits entered the dinner car from the back end and began yelling for people to hand over their valuables. Duncan stayed seated in a booth with his back toward the assailants. As they walked past him collecting wallets and watches, he eyed them with a single glance. What he saw did not make him very happy. The guns the bandits carried were old but finely made and in good shape. Their body armor was cheap and second rate, probably traded from smugglers, but Duncan had hoped that they would have no armor at all. These were definitely local boys, and his regular crew would have made quick and quiet work of all of them. But you don’t have your regulars here, do you, old man? he thought to himself. No, all you have are a bunch of wannabe gunslingers who have never fired at anything that could fire back if they missed. Then it hit him: his blunderbuss was still sitting in the gun rack in the armored car with his men. That was bad. Even worse was the fact that he had no extra shells for the scatter guns under his arms. He had left his pack with the shells by the bar located at the end of the dinner car. Four shots, he thought, that was what he had to work with to get him to the bar, grab his pack and dive for cover. After that it was easy—just find his shells, load his guns and blast away whoever was left. That, and not get blasted in the process.

Duncan was so deep in thought that he didn’t notice a bandit was demanding his wallet. Duncan looked up at the man and the gun pointed at his face. The sight of the gun sent a surge through him. He hadn’t had a gun pointed at him in almost ten years, and he found the sensation thrilling, like the memory of an old lover. He heard blood rushing in his ears, his breath quickened slightly, and he felt a sudden surge of adrenalin.

“Wallet, old man. Now!” the bandit demanded.

Duncan’s hand shot out almost on instinct, grabbing the man’s wrist and pulling him down to meet the scatter gun, which seem to materialize in Duncan’s hand. The blast at point blank range cut through the man’s armor, blowing a hole out his back the size of a fist. One shot, one kill, thought Duncan, and with that, he was up. Using the man’s dead body as a shield, he shuffled back toward the bar and his waiting bag. The body took four or five shots until it became more trouble than it was worth. Duncan dropped the body and dove behind a booth. The booth backing provided little cover, but it was better than having his ass in the breeze.

People were trying desperately to get out of the car itself, the bandits were screaming for people to get down, obviously not prepared for this to turn into a gunfight. Good, he thought, soon my men will come bursting through that back door and cut the bandits down. That’s when he noticed that the door was already open, leaving a clear view into the car behind them. Duncan saw five dead bandits strewn about the car, but none of the men who had joined him were among them. One more hard push and he would be at the small bar and his pack. Then, he thought, this fight can start.

The car was all but empty of innocent bystanders at this point, so Duncan jumped up and ran for the bar. Ill-aimed bullets flew past his head as he turned, leaping backwards and firing both barrels of his gun. He hit the wall and landed hard on the floor to find Eli crouched, reloading his top-break.

“What in the great space are you doing here?!” Duncan shouted over gunfire.

“Watching you,” Eli said coolly. “I would have been here sooner but I had some problems of my own.”

“That blood bath back there your handiwork?”

“No one else stayed to finish the job. The men you hired weren’t worth a whole hell of a lot.”

Eli finished loading his gun and handed Duncan his pack containing the extra shells. With the smooth precision that comes with decades of practice, Duncan loaded his guns and snapped the barrels back in place. He nodded to Eli and then jumped from cover. He aimed and shot two men before they even got a shot off. He ran forward toward the bandits with a maddening shout. Duncan didn’t even feel the bullet that bit into his exposed shoulder as he barreled over the man who fired it. Duncan put a boot to the man’s head at the same time that he opened fire at another man’s face.

This is what I was made for! he thought as he reloaded both barrels with his off hand. This is what I live for! He pistol whipped a man in the temple and gunned down a fourth man trying to escape out the end door. When it was all said and done, Duncan stood in a mess of dead men and blood, some of which was his.

Eli calmly walked over to him holstering his pistol and said slowly, “So, are we still planning to get to Darkstar? I have business that needs attending.”

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