It’s a long way to Gomorra from Shan Fan. Wasn’t always that way, and still only about eighty miles as the raven flies. ‘Course, the raven gets to look down and across nearly forty miles of dark, fissure-strewn waterways known as the Great Maze where Death is a maze dragon lunging forward or a band of pirates coming hard to port. Then again, Death sometimes flits between the sharp-fanged wave shadows blending in with the night. Occasionally though, a man slips in and out of the Maze while Death simply shrugs its shoulders, not caring one way or the other.
All of which ‘splains why Jon Longstride is a day and a plug o’ chaw into taking the long way north and around the Maze. The bay mustang’s easy lope follows the trail as it gradually descends into some low-lying marshes that locals call the tules. Jon decides it is as good a time as any to check his back trail.
For a late spring day, the view is clear across the Maze until it embraces the fog-covered hills hiding Shan Fan from view. His old friend, the wind, brushes past, picking up speed as it rushes towards the Sierra Nevadas far to the east. Nickering softly, ol’ Don Diego slows to a stop and looks towards the tufted bulrushes. A small herd of elk interrupts their grazing to stare back. The main portion of the herd consists of eight does, each about the same size and half the weight of a horse. Each of the does are accompanied by a gangly fawn or two. After a quick flick of their tails, the herd collectively wheels and hightails it further into the swampy thickets, fawns bouncing awkwardly behind. Longstride wistfully recalls the great herds of his youth. The formation of the Maze, along with the subdivision of the once vast Spanish land grants by the Americanos, limits where elk herds now roam.
Longstride knows that unlike other ranchers, Nathaniel Morgan’s genius stemmed from realizing that California was not the Staked Plains of the Texas and New Mexico prairies. Instead, the misnamed “Great Valley” of California undulates in a series of rolling hills and oak-dotted scrublands. Disdaining quarter-mile sections of barbed wire or “Devil’s rope,” the late cattleman relied upon a keen understanding of topography and watercourses to provide natural boundaries and grazing locations for his stock.
Continuing towards the Blake Ranch, Jon muses that while cattle pay the bills, horses remain the stock in trade for the cowboys and vaqueros who actually round up wayward cattle for market. With the Sloane Gang getting ornery, Jarrett Blake’s latest request was for some roans and pintos. Longstride’s trailing remuda of horses contains a brace of each type. He personally favors mustangs as they have great endurance for the long days on the trail and patrolling the range. For close-in work, however, the dappled pinto blends in well with the mottled terrain of the California hills, perfect for turning the tables on a would-be ambush. In the sudden frenzy of a gun battle, however, the roan’s fearlessness and quick cuts quite often carry the day. Truth be told, the horses are an elaborate decoy. At the end of the trail, it is nice if Blake gets ‘em, but if the horses end up in Sloane’s mitts, they will have done their job.
Longstride’s mission was more than just horses. One of Morgan’s top scientists, Elander Boldman, had a special request. Courtesy of Shan Fan’s artificers, Longstride had thus stashed a little something extra in his saddlebags. On top of that, the marshal in Shan Fan had given Longstride a packet of warrants and billets to deliver to Gomorra’s sheriff.
* * *
“Someone’s coming, ‘scope him,” Lawrence Blackwood whispers to the swarthy Mexican sprawled next to him in the oak copse.
Pancho Castillo kneels up, extending a well-worn brass spyglass for a closer look at the black dome hat with twin feathers atop the wiry man at ease in his saddle. Pancho steadys a hand on Blackwood’s shoulder and whispers back, “It’s Longstride.”
Anyone else would have squeezed off an errant shot, but nothing fazes Blackwood anymore. The former Confederate scout was a veteran of the original Southern hit-and-run skirmishes, and later the desperate fighting across the no-man’s land of the western plains and canyons. Pancho’s clasp is no more than a fly’s buzz as Lawrence keeps steady aim with his Sharps buffalo rifle.
“Take him down?” Lawrence asks. “We can use them hosses.”
“Longstride’s un buen hombre,” replies Pancho.
“I don’t care how good a man he is. Do I plug him for the ponies or not?” Blackwood retorts.
“Broke un caballo for me down Mexicali way a few years back. Don’t let Morgan’s purse fool you. Longstride’s loyal to his horses more than any boss. We may be able to use him. Oh, and don’t touch the horses either.”
“Well, if we ain’t gettin’ nothin’ out of this bush-sittin’ then why in tarnation are we out here in the swamps?” snaps the exasperated rifleman.
“Basta, amigo. Just scoutin’ the southern route just to see if Morgan Cattle tries to sneak anything through this way. We scouted … saw a man and few horses … No mas, no menos. And yeah, we’re far enough from town that we ain’t makin’ it back for the Circus,” Pancho replies.
Lawrence hisses a retort, “YOU ain’t makin’ it back to the Circus to spark that ol’ snake charmer. I don’t give a jackelope’s horns about a clown show.”
Miffed, Pancho bites down on his unlit cigarette. “Señorita Avie is quite the lady.”
Blackwood continues to track Longstride’s progress through the edge of the tule rushes until the Indian and his remuda disappear into the oaks that mark the slow grade up to Gomorra. Only then does Blackwood reluctantly lower his rifle.
* * *
Don Diego doggedly sloshes through the marshes. Looking ahead, Longstride notices a stand of oak trees about a half-mile ahead where the wisp of a trail rises up towards the oaks that lay beyond. Off to the right, he catches a slight blur of motion. Too bright to be a coyote, too quiet for a bird, most likely it is someone watching the trail. He is still a good half day away from the boundaries of Morgan Cattle’s grazing lands and the Law Dogs certainly are not the type to skulk around in the underbrush.
“Only the Sloane Gang has reason to scout the area south of Gomorra, and only the Sloanes need to conceal themselves,” Longstride muses as he keeps the horses moving forward at a steady gait. An acknowledging gaze invites a bullet’s kiss, so he continues to face forward as he leads the horses along. He is glad that the distance is sufficient that the lurking watchers can not see the sweat beading beneath his hat and running a soft river down his angled jawline.
The harsh, drawn-out cackle of a Steller’s Jay welcomes Longstride to the blasted remains of chaparral scrub. Gnarled oaks stand sentinel despite their blackened agony. Twisted roots sprawl among the remnants of the Great Quake’s upthrusts in a perpetual Indian wrestle grasp. Nature’s ongoing fight against the encroachment of the Maze confounds all but the hardiest and most savvy of travelers. Longstride deftly guides the mustang between jagged outcrops and low hanging brush alike. At a trickling stream, Longstride pauses to let the horses drink their fill before heading towards higher ground for the night.
Out here in the West, the elements conspire to beat a man down and leave him no better than wall crawler food. That said, he still prefers the solitude of the California badlands to whatever passes for creature comforts of city or town alike. Longstride’s battered rucksack contains hard tack, sour dough starter, and yucca poultices. Besides the saddlebags, Don Diego also carrys two large goat-skin bladders of water. A Bowie knife offers sufficient protection whenever self-defense is warranted. During the day, Don Diego owns the wool saddle blanket. At night, however, its scratchy but familiar warmth is reserved for Jon Longstride. Tomorrow would be spent riding to first the Blake Ranch, and then to Gomorra.
* * *
Jarrett Blake was from four generations of itinerant horsemen, but the first of the line to actually settle down and ranch his own land. Ever sensitive to the prevailing political winds, Jarrett had allied himself early on with Nathaniel Morgan. Even after the man’s untimely death, the Blake ranch continued to provide Morgan Cattle with the best steeds around. It also helps that Jarrett Blake is as quick with a gun as a rope and his cowhands are likewise ready to fight at the drop of a hat or the cock of a pistol.
* * *
Morning’s ride finds Longstride passing beneath an archway adorned with a Lazy B that indicates his arrival at the Blake Ranch. He notices the main ranch house, nestled against gently sloping pine-covered hills. Hearing the rhythmic cadence of hoof beats, Longstride turns to see four mustangs galloping across the grasslands with two cowhands herding them toward a large split-rail fence corral. Together, they expertly cut a sorrel-colored stallion out of the herd and into the corral where a taller white-hatted cowboy deftly ropes it as his own mount digs in. Rearing up with flashing hooves, the captured mustang is having none of this day. Undeterred, Jarrett Blake reels in the rawhide riata and deftly brings the mustang to its knees. “Take them hosses over to the main barn. Miguel will set ‘em up there.” With nary a sidelong glance at Longstride or the cowhands, Blake patiently continues breaking the mustang.
Next errand is delivering the assorted bits and parts to Elander Boldman. Longstride had last been to Gomorra about two years ago. Since that visit, he had mostly worked the rangelands between Shan Fan and Lost Angels. For every tale told about the Storm, there was a different version not only of what actually happened, but who or what had survived. Thus, he has no idea what to expect upon his return to to the place called Doomtown.
Without the remuda in tow, Don Diego makes good time and the sun is beginning its downward arc across the Maze as horse and rider rounded the bend, arriving at the outskirts of what now passes for Gomorra. Where there had once been the rolling hills of the Coast Range, there remains a blasted clearing. All sixteen acres of Gomorra teeter on a cliff edge overlooking the Maze that Longstride had gone so far out of his way to avoid. Whatever he expects, it is not this mixture of opulence and squalor sprawling amidst played-out ghost rock shafts and a few scattered remaining oaks.
Most of the buildings that had survived the Storm are the worse for wear after a year of abandonment. Just south of town, however, the hastily erected crosses of Boot Hill stand defiant against further depredations, natural, supernatural, or otherwise. A mausoleum guards those deceased citizens who did in fact try to take some of it with them and the undertaker’s office stands poised, ready to accept new business.
It is impossible to miss the big tent sprawling across most of the clearing between Boot Hill and the road. The Sioux encampments of Longstride’s youth had used tanned hides and light, but sturdy, poles that suited horse transport by mobile bands. The circus big top, however, appears to be made of thick canvas and telegraph poles, lending it an air of permanency. Judging by the stream of folks exiting town to queue up in line, a performance is about to begin.
“No time for that,” Longstride chides himself, “I still need to deliver Mr. Boldman’s device.” Fortunately, the Morgan Cattle Company’s base of operations in Gomorra is just on the north side of the road, opposite the circus encampment.
His eye catches the glint of sunlight reflecting off glass. Compared to the ramshackle wood and stucco of Gomorra, the three story brick of the Morgan Research Institute is built to withstand the huffs of supernatural forces or the puffs of nature’s vagaries. Acrid smoke belches from the roof’s smokestack and even the babble of town and circus folk can not mask the steady rumble of gears and heavy machinery emanating from within.
First, Don Diego needs rest after the long ride. Longstride turns the mustang through the gates of the Circle M and finds an empty stall. He then whistles to a stable-hand who brings fresh water for the trough and then promptly forks hay into the feed bin. Longstride shoos the liveryman, however, as he starts to remove the saddle and blanket for grooming. Some things a man does for his horse himself. That and nobody, but nobody, gets a hold of Mr. Boldman’s delivery.
The stable abuts the eastern wall of Morgan Research, so Longstride shinnies under the fence and quietly raps once and then twice. After a long moment, a door swings inwards and he quickly darts inside. After the afternoon glare, it takes a moment to adjust. Seeing the assistant standing before him, Longstride simply states, “Mr. Boldman, please,” whereupon he is led down the dusty corridor to a small lab on the right. Now accustomed to the dimness, Longstride is immediately dazzled by the return of light, this time from flashing sparks dancing to the angry bee buzz of an arc welder. Swearing as he quickly averts his gaze, Longstride ducks back out into the hallway. The sparks fade and he cautiously peers back into the lab and sees a shock of curly white hair escaping beneath the upraised visor of a welder’s hood.
“Boy howdy, y’all better knock next time, else sure as my momma made the best hominy ‘n grits, y’all gonna burn yer peepers right out.” With that, Elander Boldman lets out a booming laugh. Normally, one expects the face to contrast with the rest of his features, but instead it appears to melt back into the darkness. Soot marks and singed brows from recent failed experiments only make it more difficult to distinguish the short, dark-skinned man’s actual features.
Recomposing himself, Longstride hands over the oilskin wrapped packages. Not being dismissed, he stays to satisfy his curiosity as Boldman unwraps the packages and reveal their contents. Metal tubes and intricately crafted gun parts sprawl away from the wrappings and across the table. It does not mean much to Longstride, but then again, he is a horseman and not a gunslinger like Morgan’s enforcer, Lane Healey.
Elander Boldman appears pleased while sighting down the longest of the cylinders, chortling, “It’ll be a good piece of work, and jest y’all wait until Sloane’s boys get a tasty morsel o’ what this lil’ baby’ll dish out.”
Longstride still has warrants to deliver to the sheriff’s office, three blocks straight into town, catty corner to the town square. Giving Don Diego some well-deserved rest, Longstride decides to leg it there on his own. Past the field where the circus tents were encamped, stands an estate that is at once both desolate and imposing. Even the ravages of the Storm can not fully hide the mansion’s former grandeur and power. Jon notices a brief flash of motion behind the windows and wonders whether or not the the place remains occupied by mortal flesh, or only by ghostly spirits and memories.
The glass and metal of Morgan Research shines in the fading light, but Progress’s beacon quickly dims as the hardscrabble remnants of Gomorra show only unfulfilled promises. Once past the Pony Express, the whole block south of Main Street is a hodge-podge of ruined wood, stone rubble, and the odd squatter’s tent. Still standing, the Town Hall is nevertheless a patchwork of scaffolding, facades, and hastily done repairs hinting at both the necessity of government and desperate lack of resources to completely rebuild.
Boisterous piano music cascades over the town square. Not everyone enjoys the circus. Charlie’s Place still does brisk business when the Circus performs, while other establishments such as the Killer Bunnies Casino give Charlie’s a run for Gomorra’s ghost rock, hard-earned or not. Across from Charlie’s, the crudely painted six-pointed star above the word “Sheriff” painted in large red letters indicates that Longstride has reached his destination.
Despite housing the law for the roughest town in California, the sheriff’s office is actually a repurposed former saloon. Peering over faded batwings, Longstride glances around before spying a young girl sitting at what used to be the bar.
“May I come in?” Longstride queries. “Warrants for the sheriff.”
“Who’s puttin’ out warrants for the sheriff, f’the luvva Pete?” she replies. Despite her age, she seems very comfortable with the Colt Peacemaker holstered handle-butt forward at her left hip.
“Sorry missy, I meant I’m to deliver these warrants TO the sheriff.”
“Clover, Lucy Clover,” replies the girl as she waves to the back office. “Sheriff Montreal’s back there. Sheriff, ‘body here to see ya ‘with a new batch of warrants,” she calls to the back office.
“Y’all come on down,” a gravelly voice carries into the bar room.
Sheriff Dave Montreal is a big man who does not easily fit into his worn suit. His stubble fights for space on a grudgingly clean-shaven face. Longstride reaches into the pouch, proffering the rolled up packet to Montreal. Gomorra’s sheriff reaches across, unwraps the warrants, and then fans them across his desk.
“Warrants are about as useful as a glass hammer ‘round these here parts. Townsfolk are too cowed to lay a trigger ‘cross Sloane’s gang, and my deputies don’t need no excuse to plug ‘em.”
“Sloane’s, Sloane’s, some hoity toity grifter out of Shan Fan,” Dave recites in a bored monotone. After each one, his large hands easily ball up each poster and with a practiced half-turn, he tosses it into the waiting fireplace. “Sloane’s, a card shark fleecing Union soldiers at Ft. Lincoln, and…”
Longstride glances over at the poster giving the sheriff pause. Realizing that the bald-shaven Asian man gracing this billet is no ordinary thug, he gives a quizzical look and asks “Is he somebody special?”
Dave Montreal rubs his stubble while returning the poster’s baleful glare. “Dunno, never had one from Devil’s Armpit before. Only a day or so hard ride southwest of here and I’ve never heard of any trouble brewing there before. This one has the air of leadership about him.” Tapping the poster where the chest would be and reading aloud the words “Wanted: Dead or Alive for theft and robbery,” Dave continues, “mark my words, Tou-Chi Chow is no ordinary thug.” Setting aside the poster, Dave slowly shakes his head and ruminates half to himself and half to Jon Longstride, “Takes all kinds, I guess it just takes all kinds.”