A weird western, a gun-toting, cigarrillo-chewing fantasy built from hangman’s rope and spent bullets.
The west has never been wilder. A Steampunk-Western-Fantasy from Guy Adams.
“You wish to meet your God?” the gunslinger asked, cocking his revolver, “well now... that’s easy to arrange.”
Every one hundred years a town appears. From a small village in the peaks of Tibet to a gathering of mud huts in the jungles of South American, it can take many forms. It exists for twenty-four hours then vanishes once more, but for that single day it contains the greatest miracle a man could imagine: a doorway to Heaven.
It is due to appear on the 21st September 1889 as a ghost town in the American Midwest. When it does there are many who hope to be there: traveling preacher Obeisance Hicks and his simple messiah, a brain-damaged Civil War veteran; Henry and Harmonium Jones and their freak show pack of outlaws; the Brothers of Ruth and their sponsor Lord Forset (inventor of the Forset Thunderpack and other incendiary modes of personal transport); finally, an aging gunslinger who lost his wings at the very beginning of creation and wants nothing more than to settle old scores.
A weird western, a gun-toting, cigarrillo-chewing fantasy built from hangman’s rope and spent bullets. The West has never been wilder.
The Good, The Bad and The Infernal is now out in the US and Canada and will be available in the UK from 11th April!
And here, for your delectation and delight, is the first part of this weighty tome....
1. Thirty days ago...
“The Atlantic is a cruel and venomous woman, Father, just as likely to snatch you to her bosom, body and soul, as deliver you to your destination.”
“No mere ocean is capable of taking the immortal soul, Mr Quartershaft.”
“Father, this is why it’s good that you have me by your side; you may be all-knowing in the matters of spirit, but you are like a child beyond your monastery, naïve of the natural world’s cruelties.”
Quartershaft, confident that the monk’s gaze was elsewhere, took a swig of brandy from his hip flask.
“Why, the last time I sailed these waters, I lost two dozen men from my expedition, grabbed by the waves that writhe beneath us like a tuppenny whore earning her change.”
The monk scowled at that and Quartershaft reminded himself that his lewder metaphors were best saved for the country set. “I had to bring the vessel to dock myself, lashed to the wheel by rags from the dead men’s clothing.”
“How fortunate that, though their bodies were lost to the ocean, their shirts were not.”
Quartershaft stared at the young novice who had joined them with a look that he hoped, brandy or not, created the striking profile that appealed to magazine editors the publishing world over. The look that said: intrepid, brooding and authoritative. A man to be reckoned with (or, at the very least, read about). It was a look that he practiced often in the mirror, trying to emulate the sketches that had graced the cover of many a worthy periodical. It was a lot harder to achieve without pen and ink.
“Fortunate indeed, Brother William. Now, if you will excuse me, I must prepare for our landing, peruse the maps, maybe take an hour’s rest. I shall be in my cabin, Father, should you or any of your order find yourselves in deathly peril.”
Quartershaft sauntered below deck, leaving the two monks looking over the prow.
“You really must mind yourself with Mr Quartershaft, Brother William. He seems a sensitive man.”
“He is, begging your pardon Father, an idiot and a liar. A sham, cultivated to sell lurid publications, and nothing more. I cannot begin to understand why you insist on his joining us in our quest.”
Father Martin sighed.
“Money, Brother William; money. Without the financial support of his publisher, we would have been penniless halfway to Plymouth, let alone the Americas.”
“Indeed, and while he may be prone to embroidering the accounts of his previous expeditions, you have no reason to doubt his abilities.”
“He got lost belowdecks twice, yesterday. I found him relieving himself in one of the galley cupboards. Claimed it was an ancient mariner’s trick to waterproof the timbers. Then there is the persistent sound of vomiting from within his cabin, as well as sundry other noises... I dread to think what he does in there away from prying eyes.”
“Nonetheless, William, he may have some use in the journey ahead. And do not forget, without the documents he retrieved during his recent journey to India, we would know a lot less about our sacred destination.”
“If it even exists.”
Father Martin looked disapprovingly at the novice.
“Oh, Wormwood exists, my boy, never doubt it for a moment.”
He gazed back out to sea, where the slim shadow of land grew closer.
“Although there may be times during our journey when we all wish it didn’t.”
2. Twenty days ago...
They moved as tight as pack animals, hugging the ground as they ran. Four in all, wrapped in dull cloth to cheat lazy eyes. Shadow clothes.
Los Redo Prison sat within a bowl of open land, surrounded by mountains. They ran towards it, virtually invisible against the ill-lit landscape.
Manco snorted and spat a wad of phlegm onto the ground. The dust filled his head. He’d worked here six months and his lungs hurt. He wished he could work somewhere where the air was clear.
Shifting position, he wedged the butt of his rifle against his gut and ferreted in his shirt pocket for tobacco. He slowly rolled a smoke in one hand, tamping down the tobacco and folding the paper around it with deft movements of his fingers. He gummed the paper down with a streak of spit and shoved the cigarette in the corner of his mouth, then flicked a match alight against the crumbling wall at his back, cupped the flame in his palm and lit up. He took a deep lungful and flicked the spent match to the ground, staring into the mountains.
The blade came from the left, sliding across his throat; the flesh parted, releasing blood and smoke. Manco slid, twitching, to the floor.
They came together silently and vaulted one of their number onto the prison wall. Small and stunted, barely more than three foot from toe to topknot, the figure scampered along the edge of the wall before tumbling to the other side.
The wall backed onto a small courtyard in front of the prison buildings, with their corridors and poky cells. There were three guards, shuffling around the gate. The night was silent but for the distant persistence of cicadas.
Three shots rang out and the guards went down.
The midget dropped to the courtyard and, kicking at the bodies as he passed, pulled back the bolts of the gate and let his companions enter.
Henry Jones rolled off his bunk and got to his feet. He pulled his belt tight and adjusted the fit of his trousers around the crotch, then ran his finger around the waistband, making sure his cotton shirt was fully tucked. Slipping his maroon silk waistcoat over his shoulders, he cleared his throat gently, testing his vocal chords. Buttoned up, silver watch chain evenly slung, he reached for his black jacket and pulled it on, rolling his shoulders to get them snug and flicking his cuffs forward. He just had time to run a careful hand over his oiled hair, checking for runaways, before the door exploded.
When the dust settled, Jones twitched his head at the sound of the small feet scuffling into his cell.
“Evenin’ Knee High,”
“Evenin’ Mr Jones, sir,” the midget shouted over the considerable noise of gunfire.
Jones strolled out of the cell and towards the courtyard.
The gunfire had ceased now, the dirt damp with the guts of prison guards.
“Henry!” One of the figures moved forward, pulling the grey cowl from its head to reveal beautiful red hair. A tanned face, inset with sparkling emerald eyes and rich full lips, surrounded by the bushiest and most luxuriant of beards.
“Evenin’ darlin’,” said Jones, giving her a tongue-filled kiss and a firm grab between the thighs, romantic as he was wont to be.
“We’ve got you, baby,” she murmured, stroking the smooth, eyeless skin that made up the top half of his face, and pulling him closer to her. “We can find it together.”
He twitched his head momentarily, grabbed the gun she had slung in her left thigh holster and snapped off a shot to his rear. A wounded guard, who had nursed thoughts of being a hero, recoiled against the bullet and died.
“Sorry, darlin’,” said Jones, “you were sayin’?”
“Wormwood, honey,” she said, “let’s find Wormwood.”
3. Ten days ago...
“Can I hear a hosanna?” Obeisance Hicks, emissary of the Lord and man of means, most surely could.
He cast a look at his fragile messiah, just to check the man’s eyes were open and bowels in order. People could stand all manner of vagaries in their Gods, he had discovered, but a lack of toilet training was frowned upon, ecclesiastically. People wanted their Christ to smell sweet.
“I had a vision this morning,” he went on to explain. “A message from God.” Here he put his hand on the war veteran’s shoulder, stroking the white robes he dressed the man in.
“He was telling me that the people of this town are almost lost to His sight.”
There was a predictable yell of rebellion.
“That is what He said,” insisted Hicks, pointing out at the faces of those gathered around the caravan. “I am merely His messenger. He told me that the devil himself had laid claim to this place, thanks to the help of his ministers and dark priests.”
Again, a roar of disapproval.
“My friends,” said Hicks, a man who knew how far to push matters, “you have no need to fear. I do not abandon you. And through me, God does not abandon you either. Behold!”
And with a gentle kick the tame messiah was awoken, calling out and raising his arms to the sky according to his training. Hicks never failed to take pleasure in the response of the crowd, the gasps of holy pleasure as the stigmata begin to flow.
“See how your sins are washed away in Holy Blood, see how I have the best interests of your souls at heart.”
He took a sip of whisky from his tin cup (it paid not to advertise one’s choice of beverage while spreading the word of the Lord; the only spirits crowds like this wanted to see were Holy in nature). He liked to leave a long moment after the blood, just to make sure it had really sunk in.
“We are here amongst you,” he continued, “to save your eternal souls. We want to protect you, oh, yes... we want to see you wrapped up in the warm and loving arms of the Lord. We do! We do!”
He reached into his waistcoat pocket and removed a small glass bottle. He held it up, letting the glass glint in the light so as to add an extra hint of the heavenly. Then he placed the neck of the glass against the false messiah’s wrist and let some of the blood drip inside. Just a little, a couple of drops; nothing robbed something of its mystery more than quantity. He corked the bottle and held it up to the light once more.
“Which is why I want to share this gift, this holiest of relics, this charm against the devil, this potent tonic for Jesus!”
He threw the bottle into the crowd, where it was caught by a young black girl. She held it close to her cheek and sang out in excitement. “Lord, how it sings!” she said. “You can feel God Himself just beyond the glass.”
“Put it away, honey,” said Hicks, “it’s a precious gift.” And she did so, amid the jealous clamour of the crowd.
“Friends!” Hicks shouted, “don’t worry! I have a handful more I’m willing to donate to the holiest, most...”—he allowed a small pause here—“generous-spirited amongst you.”
“I want to show my gratitude,” shouted the girl, holding up a couple of coins. They glinted in the sun just the same as the bottle had done. Holy of holies, Hicks thought...
“I do not sell gifts from the Lord,” he insisted. “If you wish to offer money to my ministry, then I thank you, and I swear to you that it will be used only in the furtherance of the holy message.”
He took the coins from her and dropped them into a small basket at the front of his makeshift stage.
“There,” he said. “In case anybody else might be so Christian in their wishes.”
He brought forward a wooden chest and began to unload pre-filled glass bottles from it, stepping back slightly as the line began to form. Praise be, he thought; God helps those who help themselves.
“Can we please get moving?”
Hicks looked up at the black face of his first ‘customer’ and smiled. “Just as soon as I’ve had a short nap,” he announced, taking another sip of his whisky (from the bottle this time, he had given up on the tin mug now he was out of the public eye).
“It’s alright for you,” she said, despairing of the man who had never quite got the difference between ‘owner’ and ‘employer.’ “You might escape a lynching, if they catch you out as a con artist. They’d hang me up just to pass the time.”
By now Hicks was snoring and there was very little that Hope Lane could do to rouse him.
She gathered up her skirts and shuffled across the caravan to where her beloved Soldier Joe lay. Hicks stored him as you would an animal, boxed away in a straw-lined cage.
Hope unlocked the door and shuffled in next to the man, pulling him up so that his head rested on her lap.
“Never you mind, Soldier Joe,” she said, “we’ll soon be moving on, and then you’ll be able to get a little sun on your face.”
He grunted, dead to the world, and rolled his face against her thigh. Hicks kept him sedated most of the time, fed him on powders meant for cattle, as far as she could tell. Better that than let him cry out, as he was wont to do. Soldier Joe had seen some bad things in his time, she was sure of that. If only the bullet that had taken out a good-sized piece of his brain and most of his sense could have taken the fear away too. When the powders wore off, he screamed like a beaten baby, and nobody did that unless they had something terrible rattling on them.
Soldier Joe tensed up and mumbled to himself. Wumweh he seemed to say, over and over again.
“I’m sorry, honey,” said Hope, stroking his hair, “I can’t understand you.”
“Wormwood,” said Soldier Joe, opening his eyes and speaking as clear as you like. “We need to go to Wormwood.”
Then he closed his eyes and fell back to sleep.
The Union Pacific got you as far as Omaha, but no further. In a few years the Central Pacific line, cutting its way east from Sacramento, would come to meet the western line, and travelling the length of the country would be possible from the relative comfort of a rail carriage. Until then, the long-distance traveller had little option but to decamp from the luxury of iron tracks and make way under his own steam.
“Come along, my dear,” said Lord Forset, raising a wrinkled hand towards the sun as much to keep the dust from his eyes as the light. “They must be around here somewhere.”
“How can one lose a pack of monks?” his daughter wondered, clambering down from the carriage. “They hardly dress to blend in.”
“Quite,” agreed Forset. He pulled a pair of goggles from his pocket and put them on, making him look even more bizarre than he had already.
Elisabeth looked at him fondly. His crumpled suit and mismatched waistcoat. His hair, which appeared to have achieved autonomy from his scalp, writhing in the hot wind and snatching at the occasional piece of litter that flew by. He was quite at odds with his surroundings, but as this could be said of absolutely anywhere in the world, he achieved a universal quality. The only country in which he felt utterly at home was that strange and complex region found between his left ear and its corresponding fellow on the right. Lord Forset was a full-time resident of his own mind; elsewhere, he was only a visitor.
“Lord Forset?” came a call from further up the platform. “Lord Forset?”
It was a young porter. The loser, had they but known, of a bet between himself and his superior as to who would have to deal with the English pair.
“Yes, my lad,” replied the peer, offering a big-toothed grin that made the kid think of sand-blown marker posts.
“Where do you want your equipment, sir... I mean, my lord...”
“Never mind the manner of address, young man. After all, I can hardly be described as any lord of yours, now, can I? We’re many miles away from my country seat.”
“Thank God,” said his daughter.
“Thank God, indeed,” her father agreed, “considering who’s paying. Speaking of which...” He offered a little bow towards Father Martin, who was walking towards them, the rest of his order hanging back.
“Excuse me!” shouted the immediately recognisable voice of Roderick Quartershaft, pushing his way through his religious-minded travelling companions. “Can a man not set one foot out without tripping over a cassock?”
“This young lad wants to know where to put my equipment,” said Lord Forset, turning back to the porter. “Our transport is scheduled to meet us outside. Load everything up and ferry it to the street, there’s a good chap.”
“The driver should be here to meet us,” said Father Martin. “Perhaps he’s running late?”
“Taken your money and absconded for the hills, more like,” announced Roderick Quartershaft, on the back of breath so alcoholic it would have made a Baptist weep.
“I don’t think there’s any need to assume that yet,” said Father Martin. “Has anyone enquired after our arrival?” He turned to ask the porter, but the young lad had already run back to his superior.
“Can’t wait to be shot of us,” said Quartershaft. “No sense of service in the colonies.”
“Not colonies any more, old chap,” Forset reminded him.
“Not for a long time,” sighed his daughter. “Your knowledge of political geography is astoundingly limited, given your reputation as an explorer,” she added. “It sometimes seems startling that you’ve been anywhere. They say travel broadens the mind, after all.”
“It’s a weak man that lets the opinions and beliefs of others affect his own. I can proudly say there’s not a single continent I’ve set my boots on that has altered my perspective on life.”
“Yes,” Elisabeth replied. “You can say that proudly, can’t you?”
Quartershaft smiled dreamily and Elisabeth wondered if he might actually fall over. “I’m glad I impress, my lady.”
“I say,” Forset shouted, watching as one of his crates swung precariously from a luggage pulley, “careful with that! It contains equipment of a most fragile and temperamental nature.”
The young porter waved his acknowledgement just as one of the ropes came loose and the crate plummeted to the ground.
Henry Jones moved unerringly through the crowds of people on the platform. The dark glasses and cane he carried served to discourage undue attention; he certainly had no need of them. Along with the dark suit and wide-brimmed hat, they helped offer a degree of anonymity. By now, a lot of lawmen would be on the lookout for him. It was better for the life expectancy of those lawmen, and casual passers-by, that they not find him. Even had he not been wishing to keep a low profile, he frequently wore a disguise. Henry Jones had the sort of countenance that drew attention. Unfortunately, uppermost in the list of things he hated—a prodigious and changeable list—was people staring at him. Nobody, not even the beautiful Mrs Harmonium Jones, had the slightest idea how he could tell. His mood was so perpetually sore on the subject that nobody saw fit to ask.
Mrs Jones was also attempting to disguise her appearance, something only really achieved by using a derby hat and a particularly relentless girdle. Her facial hair was a source of great pride, and it would take more than a fear of law officers to get her near a razor, foam and strop.
They also had a crate to negotiate, the contents of which were a little harder to disguise in public and were therefore forced to travel freight.
“There something alive in there, sir?” asked the conductor as he admired the beautifully painted crate on the platform. DR BLISS’S KARNIVAL OF DELIGHTS, it said in curling, scarlet letters, the words sharing space with pictures of roaring lions, chuckling clowns and the snarling face of a top-hatted ringmaster. “Only some of the boys swear they heard something move when they were getting it off the train.”
“It’s just equipment, pal,” said Harmonium in a passable, throaty tone. “Otherwise we’d have filled out the requisite paperwork.”
“Good,” the conductor smiled, “good. Only... we’re supposed to check on all livestock; just for safety, you understand. I mean, I have my passengers to think of.”
“Sure you do,” Harmonium replied, tucking a dollar into his jacket pocket, “and you’ve looked after these two just fine.”
“Oh, well, thank you, sir. Most kind.”
“We particularly appreciated how you left us to our own devices,” added Henry, tilting his thick black lenses towards the man.
The penny dropped. “Oh, naturally. Well, be seeing you, then.” And away went the conductor.
“Rest easy, boys,” whispered Harmonium into one of the discreetly drilled air holes. “We’ll soon have you out of there.”
But before she could receive a reply, everyone on the platform turned towards the air-rending crash of a large packing crate falling to earth and splitting open.
“What the hell was that?” asked Henry. “Someone hurt?”
“I sure hope so, honey,” his wife replied. “What say we go and find out?
“Can I hear a hosanna?” Obeisance Hicks was, as always, inclined to wonder.
On this particular afternoon, his timing was not ideal; the answer was a resounding ‘no.’ The only thing most people within preaching distance could hear was the sound of an almighty crash, followed by considerable panic.
“What in the name of Christ is that?” wondered the not-so-reverent Hicks. He decided that, since his congregation was inclined to abandon the word of God in the hope of finding out, so was he.
“Keep an eye on the messiah,” he muttered to Hope Lane, before wandering into the train station.
She sighed, horribly conscious that he had now drawn attention to her, and nodded.
Inside, Hicks wasn’t the only one wanting to catch a glimpse of catastrophe. He noted, not for the first time, that if there was a way for him to market gawping at the dead and dying, he could pack in the God game for ever. People flocked to blood as surely as flies.
Today they were to be disappointed. As far as Hicks could tell, the crashing sound had been a collection of ironmongery dropped from a height. If it had fallen on anyone, then they were so deeply buried that the gathered crowd had little interest in attempting to save them. There was a good deal of standing around and shaking of heads. That’s the other thing with a crowd, Hicks decided; they all have an opinion and it’s usually the same one. People were dumb as sheep.
“I dread to think what you’ve broken!” cried out one man, with an accent so strongly British that a number of the gathered crowd automatically reached for their guns. There was not a great deal of good feeling towards that particular country; Hicks, being of Dutch stock, couldn’t honestly say he gave a brace of shits on the subject.
“Some of that equipment was irreplaceable,” the man was saying. “Simply irreplaceable!”
As if in agreement, a loud hissing noise erupted from the centre of the piled metal, and the crowd darted back as far as the limited space would allow. Metal clanged and rang out like a church bell under gunfire as a large, crab-like device appeared from underneath the fragments. It sat at the centre of the heap for a few moments, as if content in its nest, and then jumped for the sky.
“Somebody stop it!” the Englishman shouted, and with no further ado, the young woman standing by him began scaling the stationary train.
Hicks decided he may well have fallen in love as he watched her run across the roof of the train in pursuit of the metal creature as it hovered along, like a vulture scanning the ground for carrion.
“Do be careful, darling,” the Englishman suggested—stupidly, in Hick’s opinion, and in that of many there gathered—before turning away in shock as the young woman made a leap for the escaped device. She grabbed it in its midsection and proceeded to fly over the crowd, in a manner that pleased the gathered gentlemen greatly. Showing a consistent lack of regard for feminine decorum, she swung her legs up and grasped the device between them so as to hang from it more securely.
She initially appeared to be fighting it, but after a few moments, Hicks changed his mind, having been reminded of a business acquaintance who he had often watched buttoning up her corsets post-congress.
“Well, I’ll be...” he muttered. “If she ain’t planning on wearing the thing.”
With a final, triumphant click and a whoop from the crowd, the young woman did just that. She righted herself so that she was now stood upright, albeit several feet above the ground, then grasped a pair of handles, pushed forward and swooped gracefully back to earth.
There was a round of applause and, having disengaged whatever engine the thing possessed, she unclasped the legs and took a small bow.
“The Forset Thunderpack,” announced the Englishman with considerable pride. “In full working order!”
The device in question gave an almighty bang and fell silent.
“And thank God I got it back before it had been operational for more than sixty seconds,” said the young girl.
“Why might that be?” asked an impressed observer.
“It has a bad habit of blowing up if ignited for longer than that,” she replied, “and would have likely taken most of this train station up with it.”
The crowd dispersed quickly after that, but Hicks lingered. He’d seen something that had excited that essential heart of him, the black pulsing mass of his pocketbook. He had seen money.
Eventually he turned around and headed back out to his caravan, disinclined to continue in his never-ending mission to save souls and accrue dollars. He might even stay off the whisky a little, give his brain time to think.
Looking up, he wondered why there was a crowd gathered around his caravan. Then he heard the sound of the dopey-minded motherfucker he offered up for the nation’s prayers. The old soldier was shouting his goddamned face off about something. He couldn’t leave the wet-brain alone for a minute.
“Mind out, now,” he shouted, pulling at the shoulders of the idiots that had clustered around. “Nothing to see here. Man of God... coming through...”
They refused to move, fascinated by the sight of the hirsute figure, his white robes stained bloody as his stigmata gushed forth. And what in hell was that he was shouting?
“God damn you,” Hicks shouted, his temper frail at the best of times. He pulled out his gun and shot a couple of bullets into the air. “Shift your sinful asses, you worthless cocksuckers, or I’ll smite each and every one of you with the righteousness of a Colt .45!”
That had more success, and the crowd slowly dissipated while he clambered up onto the makeshift stage he preached from, wondering how to make the idiot shut up without shooting him.
“Wormwood! Wormwood! Wormwood!” the simpleton shouted.
“What the hell’s Wormwood?” Hicks wondered aloud. “Some kind of tequila?”
“It’s the name of a town,” said someone behind him. He turned to see two gentlemen, one with a long and bushy beard, the other blind. The blind man pulled off his dark glasses to reveal a smooth patch of skin where the eyes should be. “And I’d very much like to hear what else he has to say on the subject.”
Sun-shattered and scorched, the dust fields whipped tails at the sky.
The landscape roasted. A world suited only to the dead and to the reptiles and flies that scurry impatiently through the ribcage cathedrals of carrion. They, in turn, are picked off in hit and run assaults by birds, dipping in and out of this wilderness like pearl divers before returning to the skies where the winds blow fresh and clear.
The air was as thick as cooling cooking grease.
It was a quiet world. The feather-light brushstrokes of a sidewinder’s body seemed loud across the dunes; the occasional screeches of a hawk pierced the silence like a railroad spike. The delicate crunch of a horse’s hooves was almost unknown, an intrusive and unwelcome sound. Yet here it was, startling the snakes and lizards into the shadows of their rocks.
The horse moved gracefully, a ballet dancer moving through the inferno.
Its rider was suited to this world. His flesh dry as parchment. Old, tight eyes looked out over the trail and refused to betray a single thought. The pale overcoat he wore fluttered around the horse, the hem ragged and torn. The leather of his boots creaked like coffin lids.
On he rode. On towards Wormwood.