By David Hogg
Sheriff “Black Jack” Jackson had been good for Gomorra. Befitting his legendary status as the fastest and deadliest of all gunfighters, the former outlaw’s tenure had brought relative peace to the turbulent mining settlement known across the Great Maze as ‘Doomtown.’ In the wake of the destruction wrought by the machinations of Ivor Hawley’s circus, he had helped the town to rebuild. Under his watch, law and order had been restored to the streets, and prosperity blossomed following the discovery of new ghost rock veins in the surrounding outcroppings abutting the Maze. The largest band of outlaws in the area, The Sloane Gang, had fallen into disarray following their leader’s descent into madness and subsequent disappearance. Their numbers dwindled, and they no longer posed a major threat to the safety of Gomorra’s citizens.
His was a story of great success, but unfortunately like the fates of many storied gunmen of the West, it didn’t have a happy ending. Sheriff Jackson had been shot dead. With his reassuring presence no longer treading the boardwalks, the shadows in Gomorra seemed to grow longer and darker by the night.
* * *
Dave “Slim” Gorman and his companions weren’t afraid of the dark. Their opportunistic predations brought trepidation to the hearts of folks as they stumbled on their journey from the lights of the saloon to the safety of their beds. As such, the remnants of the Sloane Gang found themselves very much at home in the evening’s gloom. Despite that, Slim was on edge. He took a swig from his hip flask as he surveyed the gathered outlaws making preparations for that night’s job. The gang had definitely seen better times, and had been leaderless before he stepped up with his plan. A plan they were about to put into action. Slim surveyed his crew as they made ready to move out. Marion Seville picked dirt from his nails with Francine, his prized bowie knife. Seated at a corner table, Sanford Taylor gazed reverently into the box of stolen tin stars he carried with him, as though for good luck. Alice Stowe scowled at the night, clearly not impressed by José Morales’ jovial comments. Beside him Miranda Clarke eagerly buzzed with anticipation of yet another easy score. Elsewhere in town Slim had faith that Sammy Cooke and Antoine Petersen were ready to perform their roles.
The collective mood was clearly mixed, and Slim hoped tonight could dispel the unease that had plagued them since Mario Crane’s chaotic leadership. They might have run the town for a short while back then, but Crane’s unpredictable violence had everyone on their best behaviour to avoid offending him. The consequences of crossing him had often proven fatal. If this robbery didn’t succeed he didn’t know what he could do to stop the remaining members drifting away like the Aims brothers and Pancho Castillo, seeking richer pickings elsewhere. He hoped that if nothing else, tonight would at least reignite the wild spark within their hearts and allow them to live without fear like they had once before.
The Morgan Cattle Company payroll wagon was an ideal mark, the kind of target that would not just yield a lucrative score but also send a message to the town that The Sloane Gang had returned with a vengeance. The Morgan Research Institute was the perfect place to hit it. Their security wasn’t as strong as the mines and ranches with their roving patrols of company regulators, but the haul was still likely to be valuable. Elliot Smithson’s contacts revealed that Morgan’s scientists received chunks of ghost rock in addition to their regular silver coinage. Its location in town meant that the gang knew not only the Institute’s location, but more importantly several likely escape routes. This was the wagon’s last run of the day, and it was due to hit town in the evening, so any noise and gunshots would hopefully get lost in the raucous clamour of Gomorra’s nightlife and delay a response from the law. Not that Slim worried about the Sheriff’s office interrupting proceedings. Their most fearsome Deputies had left town too. The current man in charge, Dr. Dayl Burnett, spent more time tinkering with gizmos than he did at the shooting range. He was no more a threat than the researchers they were about to rob. Running all of that through his head again bolstered his confidence. They’d scouted the location. They had a plan. Nothing would go wrong.
The gang members moved out of the alleyway beside the Killer Bunnies Casino and slipped through the shadows like ghosts to take up their positions outside the Institute. The building was separated from the lively part of town and set back from the street. It was one of Gomorra’s larger structures with a worn looking facade of brick and timber crowned by a large sign bearing the Morgan company name. Lights shone through windows stained by soot and other strange coloured deposits, illuminating a yard strewn with crates and piles of mechanical junk and bordered by a low timber fence. A low humming emitted from the structure, occasionally broken by a crackling sound that caused the lights to flicker off and on. Two bored looking guards stood by the gateway, more intent on the cigarette they shared than observing the passersby in the street before them until an approaching figure attracted their attention.
“Excuse me boys,” drawled Miranda Clarke as she sauntered towards the gate. “You wouldn’t happen to know a place around here where a gal could have a little fun?”
The guard not currently smoking lost interest in the cigarette and swaggered over to Miranda with his thumbs tucked into his pockets, admiring the way the moonlight shone off her blonde hair. He was too busy ogling to notice the knife as it snaked out from behind her back and up through his ribs. The cigarette dropped from his companion’s lips in surprise as he watched his friend collapse to the floor, but before he could react a swarthy hand pulled his head back and a brutally large knife slashed across his throat, almost taking his head clean off.
Slim nodded in appreciation as the guards’ lifeless bodies slumped to the floor. He drew his deck and began riffling the cards as the rest of the outlaws slunk out of the shadows into the yard.
“Good job, the alarm hasn’t been raised. Now let’s get these stiffs out of the way. Sanford, Marion, you two clean up the mess and take their positions. I’ll get into cover on the right. Alice, you’re with me. Miranda, you and José find something to block the lab doorway and then get into hiding on the left. I’ll keep an eye out for Antoine’s signal that the wagon is approaching. Once it’s in the yard we deal with any guards, grab the strongbox and get out of here. Sammy’s going to have horses ready behind Cliff’s for the getaway. Everybody good?”
A wicked grin crept across his face in response to the nods and grunts of approval, and as the Sloane Gang carried out his instructions he set his gaze towards the roof of Charlie’s Place in anticipation of Antoine Peterson’s red signal lantern.
* * *
“Why do I do this again?” grumbled Irving Patterson to himself as the wagon trundled into Gomorra. “Oh, that’s right. Because if I didn’t, no other darn fool would. Honestly, this company would fall apart if it weren’t for me. I need to speak to Miss Lula about getting a raise.” He was in a sour mood. Being sore from spending all day driving the wagon along rough and bumpy trails was even worse when it wasn’t even meant to be his job. He was a ranch hand, dagnabbit, not a regulator. Security work was a younger, faster man’s game.
But since Nathan Shane had gone haring off who-knows-where on a quest for vengeance or somesuch, and that fool Healey had got himself busted up real bad while off on some private errand, there weren’t as many trusted hands to do the important stuff. Dr. Linares had said that Healey was taking to the mechanical skeleton fine, but Dr. Ashbel with his high-falutin’ ‘medical diplomas’ wouldn’t sign him fit to work… Oh well, they were almost at the Research Institute. Finally! Irving couldn’t wait to make the last delivery and then head over to Pearly’s where he could hire a private room for the night and get a nice hot bath to help ease all his aches and pains.
“We made it, folks!” he called to the cavalry escort accompanying the wagon, as they rounded a corner to see the imposing silhouette of the Research Institute looming above the street.
The two men at the gate moved aside to let the vehicle and the riders enter the yard. Irving’s tired mind had already begun to wander and he was too busy contemplating the charms of Gina Tailfeathers to notice anything was amiss as he brought the wagon to a halt. He was swiftly brought back to his senses by the shouts of alarm from his security detail and the clicking hammers of firearms from all directions. A group of men and women, faces obscured by red bandanas, had them surrounded. His escort too had been caught by surprise.
“Everybody stay calm and no-one gets shot,” called Slim.
He kept his revolver pointed at the regulator in front of him as he flicked some playing cards into the air from his free hand. A quick snap of his fingers caused sparks of blue energy to crackle into life around the airborne cards which propelled them towards the wagon’s horses, freezing their panicked motion in place.
“You ain’t goin’ nowhere til we’ve left with the strongbox yer carryin’.”
He nodded to Miranda and she carefully moved past the two regulators at the rear of the wagon to seize the cargo. She could see hatred and fear in their eyes as she passed them, but knew as they did that if they were to even attempt to move against her, Sanford would eagerly put bullets through their skulls. She grinned at them from behind her mask and gave a mocking curtsy before reaching into the wagon and cutting the leather straps that bound the paychest in place. Everything was going smoothly. Until it wasn’t.
“What is going on out here?”
A voice came from the door of the Research Institute, which caught the Sloane ambushers by surprise as they had barricaded it so none of the occupants inside could get out. That didn’t seem to stop the pale, dark haired woman who
effortlessly glided through the door and the junk piled against it to confront the robbers.
“Well, this score just got more complicated,” Miranda said to herself as everything around her descended into chaos.
Slim’s concentration broke at this new appearance, and Alice quickly shifted aim to the spectral intruder and loosed off a shot which passed harmlessly through her ethereal form. The regulators she and Slim had been covering took advantage of the distraction and drew their guns, while the ghostly Anarchist, Natalya, drew in a deep breath before letting out an ear-splitting scream that pierced through the riotous night air. The Sloane Gang dived back behind their cover as hot lead began to fly across the yard. Irving found himself caught in the crossfire as he scrabbled around the footboard for his shotgun. Before he could lay a hand on the weapon two shots from Alice Stowe’s revolvers slammed into Irving, sending him sprawling onto the dirt below.
Miranda rolled into the back of the wagon and tried to hide behind the reinforced strongbox they were there to steal. The regulator guards to the rear peeled away from the wagon to seek refuge from the hail of fire laid down by Sanford and Alice, one of them collapsing to the ground as a shot hit home. Miranda took the opportunity to turn her gun against the chest’s padlock. Its smashed steel clattered to the boards and she swung the lid of the box open, but as she reached for the burlap bags within, icy-cold tendrils of black hair whipped up from below to wrap around her, pinning her arms to her sides.
Natalya’s head and torso phased through the wagon’s floor, her long mane now waving fiercely in the air akin to Medusa’s serpentine tresses.
Miranda spat at her as she struggled against the restraining locks. “Who or what the Hell are you? Let me go!”
“Rude little girl, aren’t you,” Natalya snapped back. “Trying to take for yourself money that my associates could use for the benefit of the downtrodden folk of Gomorra.”
“You’re a thief just like us!” Miranda cried. “Let me go and join us instead. You’ll get your share.”
“Sorry dear, you’ll need to make a better offer than that”, said Natalya as she reached towards the strongbox.
The ghost recoiled in pain as a barrage of shimmering cards blasted into the wagon, forcing her back and releasing her grip on Miranda.
“Need some help, chiquita?” called José Morales, grinning as he appeared by the backboard.
“This isn’t worth dying again for,” snarled Natalya with a pained expression. Her form faded until only a small orb of light remained, which then zipped away into the night.
From within the Research Institute there were signs of activity, shouts of alarm and the crashing of something heavy against the door as the inhabitants tried to break out. Slim saw shooters taking up position at the windows, and conjured a dazzling array of lights to temporarily blind their aim. Slim’s posse had subdued or killed the regulators guarding the wagon, and without serious casualties on the gang’s side.
“Miranda, José, Marion, quick! Grab the loot. Alice and Sanford cover us and let’s get out of here!” Slim removed his bandana and draped it over the face of one of the corpses on the ground as the outlaws made their escape with their hard earned prize.
* * *
Sheriff Dayl Burnett took in the scene of carnage. Four dead, two wounded, and one lucky he wasn’t, not to mention a sizable sum of money and ghost rock stolen. He walked over to a bruised and confused Irving Patterson who was sitting beside a dented metal plate vest.
“Mr. Patterson, do you have any idea who these felons were?”
“No Mister Sheriff, sir. Their faces were hidden.”
“Chief, you’ll want to see this,” called Clyde Owens, looking at one of the bodies.
Sheriff Burnett took in the evidence. Could it be true? He’d have to adjust his calculations to take account of this, because if it was, then it was bad news for Gomorra.
A red bandana.
The Sloane Gang was back in business.