Ocelot struggled to wakefulness accompanied by the persistent feeling of his head smacking lightly and repeatedly against something.
As he opened his eyes just a crack, the feeling resolved itself into a more general one of his entire body jostling back and forth. He was seated, leaned sideways against something padded; his ears were full of the harsh sounds of rough wheels rolling over packed earth and the distant clip-clop of horses' hooves. Reluctantly he opened his eyes the rest of the way, afraid of what he might see.
He was sitting in a small cubicle, which was clearly the source of the jostling. Next to him, Kestrel leaned on his shoulder; Winterhawk was next to her on the other end of the seat. Across from him Joe took up most of the other seat, with 'Wraith leaned against the wall opposite Winterhawk. All of them appeared to still be asleep.
Ocelot stared at them, noting that their clothes were not the same ones they had been wearing last time they had been awake. All five of them (he looked down at his own clothes to verify this) were attired in outfits that looked to Ocelot as if they would be at home in the Old West: he and Kestrel wore jeans, plaid shirts, leather vests, and boots; Joe had dark pants, a leather vest with no shirt, and heavy boots; Winterhawk was dressed in a dark suit with a string tie; and 'Wraith wore a light gray, severely-cut suit. Ocelot was so busy examining his teammates' and his own clothing that he almost missed the other "difference" that had occurred.
'Wraith and Joe were not metahumans.
His eyes widened as he looked at them. Both looked similar as humans to their metahuman appearances: Joe was huge, broad-shouldered, and dark-skinned, with long shining black hair in a ponytail replacing his usual Mohawk; 'Wraith was tall, thin, and long-limbed, a pale-complexioned face and light blond hair substituting for his normal albino skin-tone (which he usually covered with makeup) and white hair. Still, though, they were clearly as human as Ocelot himself was. What the hell's going on here? he wondered.
He didn't have much more time to think at that moment, as the others were stirring. Joe groaned and sat up straight, wedging 'Wraith further into his corner and rousing him as well. Next to Ocelot, Kestrel yawned and stretched, and Winterhawk opened his eyes. "Welcome to I don't know where," Ocelot said conversationally.
The four other runners took a moment to sort themselves out, staring at each other. "What the hell—?" Winterhawk began.
"That's what I wanted to know," Ocelot said. "I think we're in a stagecoach."
Joe grabbed the roll-up blind covering the coach's small window on his side and pulled it up. Outside, a grim landscape covered with scrubby brush and small bushes rolled by at a leisurely pace. "What are we doing here?"
Kestrel looked around. "And where are Gabriel and Stefan?"
"Maybe they're driving," Joe said, only half-kidding.
"Don't think so," 'Wraith said slowly.
Winterhawk shook his head. "Nor do I. I think we're in this one, whatever it is, on our own."
"You mean because we were alone before we got here?" Kestrel asked.
The mage nodded. "I don't think we ended up where we were supposed to, at least according to what Harlequin said. We were supposed to be near the Bridge, but I didn't see the chasm anywhere. And then the Dweller—"
All five runners frowned involuntarily as the memories of the Dweller's tests came back to them. "The Dweller..." Kestrel echoed. "I'd pay a lot of money never to have to go through that again." She looked at Joe and 'Wraith. "And what happened to you guys?"
"The metaplanes," 'Wraith said as if that was self-evident.
"What he means," Ocelot clarified, "is that sometimes people change based on what part of the metaplanes they're on. Sometimes they're not the right metatype, or their cyberware doesn't show up, or like that. At least that was the way it was last time we did this."
Winterhawk nodded. "I imagine that, wherever we're going in this barbaric conveyance—" he shifted uncomfortably in his seat for emphasis "—they don't have metahumans there. Hence, 'Wraith and Joe must be human."
"Great," Joe muttered darkly.
"So where are we going?" Kestrel asked, rolling up the shade on the other side. The landscape was identical to that visible out the first window.
"And who's driving this thing?" Joe added.
"I think we're gonna have to wait until it stops to find out," Ocelot said with a sigh.
"Moo," 'Wraith agreed.
Kestrel glared at him. "That's the second time you've said that since we got here. What the hell does 'moo' mean?"
"It means," Winterhawk said, "that the last time we were all here together, the scenarios we were presented with lent themselves to merely following along with the script until some sort of final climax was reached. Deviating from the script generally resulted in either frustration or a failure to achieve the intended goal. Rather like cattle in a chute, we all agreed."
"What I said," 'Wraith pointed out. "Moo."
"So..." Kestrel mused, "what you're saying is that we're on our way somewhere, and, say, jumping out of the stagecoach wouldn't be a good thing to do."
"Yeah," Ocelot said, nodding. "You'll just hurt yourself for nothing." Truth be told he had been considering the same course of action himself, largely based on his hatred of confined spaces. However, the open shades had been sufficient to alleviate his feelings of being trapped. 'Wraith had similar problems, Ocelot knew, but he too seemed to be dealing with them.
"So," Kestrel said, neatly changing subjects, "does somebody want to explain that whole Dweller thing to me? I get that it was some kind of test, and I guess we passed it, but—" she shivered. "It would have helped if you'd told me how real it was."
'Wraith nodded soberly. "More so than last time."
"Hell yeah," Joe agreed. "I hope it wasn't real." He looked at Winterhawk, his eyes hungry for confirmation.
"What did you see?" the mage asked. "If you don't mind my asking." He looked around at the team, clearly including them all in the question.
"Don't want to talk about it," Ocelot muttered.
Winterhawk nodded. "I understand. My episode was quite emotionally painful—I would imagine that all of them were. Let me just say, though, that if we can analyze the individual tests, we might be able to find a pattern among them. As it is, I think anything we can discover that will help us will be valuable."
'Hawk's teammates immediately recognized his favorite coping mechanism: when things became too difficult to deal with on an emotional level, he tended to retreat to the ordered, rational processes of the scholar. In a way it was comforting to all of them; it shifted the harrowing situations a step away from personal and into the realm of something to be studied. "Okay," Ocelot finally said. "I'll tell you what it was. But I ain't goin' into details."
Winterhawk nodded, waiting.
"It was a guy from my old gang. One of the ones who got killed during the job where I got the money to get my cyberware. He was tryin' to get me to fight him. Said I didn't deserve to be a Predator, 'cause I deserted the gang."
Kestrel spoke slowly. "Mine was one of my old team members. Raptor. He tried to make me feel guilty because I didn't die with them. It worked, because I do feel guilty about it." She paused. "He told me I shouldn't trust Gabriel, because dragons always try to screw you over. That I should join up with him and the other guys so we could be a team again."
Joe didn't seem to want to speak, but he forced himself to do so. "I saw Bear," he said. "Or at least I thought it was Bear, but it wasn't. Bear wouldn't make me choose between my friends and him. He told me not to trust Gabriel either. Bear said that he and Stefan were using us as pawns. That they didn't care if we survived or not."
"He's got that half right," Ocelot muttered.
Winterhawk ignored him and looked at 'Wraith.
'Wraith looked right back at him. "Yours?"
'Hawk paused a moment, closing his eyes. "Mine was Nigel," he said quietly. "He had no trouble making me feel guilty about things I've done in my past."
Everyone knew about what had happened with Winterhawk's son years ago—Ocelot had even told Kestrel about it in general terms—so they all merely nodded sympathetically.
Only 'Wraith was left now. The silence dragged out as he tried to compose the words to describe what he had experienced. Finally, he uttered only one word: "Desire."
Winterhawk frowned. "Desire?"
"Rejected me. Offered a second chance."
"If you turned your back on your friends," Ocelot put in, following the line.
'Wraith nodded. For several moments the only sounds heard were the rolling of the wheels and the steady clop of the horses' hooves.
"So..." Winterhawk said slowly as the silence dragged out too long, "It sounds like the common threads among all the experiences are guilt or anguish over something each one of us has done in the past, and a pull between those events and remaining on this quest."
Ocelot nodded. "Somebody doesn't want us to go."
"Or," Joe added in his I'm thinking this over as I go tone of voice, "they want to make damn sure we do want to go."
Winterhawk stared at him, nodding. "Yes—that sounds more plausible. The Dweller was testing us to make sure that we were truly committed."
"Sometimes I think we should be committed," Kestrel muttered under her breath.
"So what's it all mean?" Ocelot demanded.
"P'raps nothing," Winterhawk said. "We've passed the test, so we're allowed to continue. It's just interesting to me that the Dweller chose similar scenarios for all of us. And that we've all got something in our past to be guilty about."
"Everybody has something to be guilty about," Joe pointed out. "What's interesting to me is that we're alone. That Gabriel and Stefan got sent off somewhere else."
"Maybe they're just off havin' a beer somewhere," Ocelot said sourly, but his tone indicated that he didn't really believe it.
"I doubt that," Winterhawk said as if he took Ocelot's comment seriously. "I have a feeling they've got their own trials to face—ones that don't have anything to do with us."
"So we'll meet up with them again later?" Joe asked.
"Probably," 'Wraith said.
"I hope so," Kestrel said. "We haven't got any idea what we're supposed to do, do we? We came here to destroy whatever piece of this Enemy thing that got over the...Bridge, right? That's what Gabriel said. But we haven't got a clue how to find this Enemy. So we need them."
"Patience," 'Wraith said.
"Yeah," Ocelot agreed. "I don't like it, but if this works like last time, everything'll happen when it's supposed to. That is," he added, "if we don't screw up."
Joe, apparently convinced that this was true, was tiring of the conversation. "What to you figure we're supposed to be?" he asked, looking down at his clothes.
Everyone else, glad for an excuse to forget about their predicament for a few moments with something mundane, took some time to more closely examine their clothing and check their pockets for clues. 'Wraith found the first major clue sitting at his feet. Leaning over (it wasn't easy next to Joe, even for someone of his slim stature) he picked up an old-fashioned leather briefcase. He laid it across his lap and opened it as the others looked on curiously.
When he saw what was inside, he raised an eyebrow. "Scales," he said. Sure enough, carefully packed against shocks inside the case was an old-style balance scale, along with a series of tiny weights. Each weight was marked, from 1/16 ounce up to one full ounce. On the center pillar of the scale was a seal, labeled Inspected—Department of Weights and Measures. "Interesting," 'Wraith said.
Winterhawk had also found a bag at his feet, but as he picked his up, he discovered that it was of a more familiar type. Made of black leather, its top closure opened to a wide mouth that allowed easy access to the contents. "A classic doctor's bag," he said immediately.
"Okay," Kestrel said. "You're the doctor, and 'Wraith here is—what—some kind of banker?"
"Assayer, I think," 'Wraith said.
"Okay, assayer," Kestrel continued. "So what's that make us?" Like Ocelot and Joe, she had found nothing in her pockets or on the floor indicating her role.
"Good question," Ocelot said. "Maybe our stuff's outside. Maybe it's too big to put in here."
At that moment, the stagecoach came to a lurching stop.
The runners exchanged glances.
There was a thump outside as someone leaped down from the driver's seat. "Last Chance!" a voice boomed. "End of the line! Everybody out!"
The team was only too glad to extricate themselves from the sardine can in which they'd been riding, so they hurried to comply. Joe flung open the door nearest the voice, and less than a minute later they were standing on a dirt road, looking up at the big stagecoach. "Last Chance Line," it read on the side, in gold-painted letters of the classic Old-West style.
"Mind yer heads!" came a voice from above, and then bags began to rain down in front of the runners as the shotgun man tossed them from where they'd been secured on top of the coach. There were several of them, ranging from carpetbag-style luggage through leather satchels through well-worn bedrolls with various implements and smaller bags hanging from them by straps.
"Looks like we're meant to be here awhile," Winterhawk commented as he eyed the growing pile.
Kestrel was already picking through them. "They're labeled," she said. "Looks like they've got our real names on 'em." She picked up on of the bedrolls and showed them the tag: "J. Harvath, Last Chance," it said in spidery, brownish script. Attached to the roll were a small pick and shovel, what looked like a mining pan, and several drawstring bags of various sizes.
The other runners hastened to pick up their luggage: 'Wraith had a carpetbag, as did 'Hawk, while Ocelot had the other bedroll. Joe had two bags: a shapeless suitcase and a huge leather satchel. When he looked inside the satchel he discovered that it contained tongs, hammers, and other traveling implements of a blacksmith. "Guess I'm the local smith," he said.
"Here y'are, lady an' gents. Wouldn't want to be without these." The runners looked up and noticed that the driver was trying to get their attention. He had the stage's strongbox unlocked and opened, and as soon as he had their notice, he carefully handed down weapons and ammunition. To Kestrel and Ocelot, he passed down two aged but serviceable-looking revolvers; 'Wraith got a nearly new long-barreled Colt Peacemaker; Joe got a Remington breech-loader shotgun, and Winterhawk got a small .22-caliber derringer with a pearl handle.
As the runners examined their weapons and sorted out their luggage, the driver and the shotgun man swung themselves back up into the stage's seats. "Good luck!" the driver called. He touched the horses' shoulders with his whip and the stagecoach headed off, leaving the five runners alone.
"Well," Winterhawk commented, stowing his derringer in his suit pocket and hefting his carpetbag and doctor's kit, "here we are."
"Where's 'here'?" Ocelot asked.
"Last Chance," Joe said.
"Huh?" Kestrel looked at him funny.
"That's the name of the town," he said, pointing. Sure enough, the words WELCOME TO LAST CHANCE were lettered high up on the front of the stagecoach station.
"Sounds like a bloody cheerful place," Winterhawk said dubiously.
'Wraith was looking down the street. "Company."
The others looked up immediately from what they were doing to see a middle-aged woman heading toward them. She was dressed in faded jeans and serviceable work-shirt; her jeans were tucked into the tops of brown leather boots. Her only concession to femininity, which looked decidedly incongruous with the rest of her outfit, was a sunbonnet perched on top of her head, its straps tied in a neat bow beneath her chin. As she drew up closer, her face lit up with a tired but sincere smile. "I was beginnin' to wonder if you'd ever get here," she said. "C'mon with me—I got your rooms all ready, and dinner's only just a bit cold. I can warm it up for ya if ya want."
Winterhawk stepped forward. "We were expected, Madam?"
She frowned. "Didn't ya get the telegraph? Oh, for heaven's sake! That telegraph office ain't good for nothin'! That's 'bout the only good thing about the trains comin'—at least it'll force 'em to send up some decent telegraph equipment and somebody who knows how to run it." Suddenly aware that she was blabbering on about nothing relevant, she smiled again. "Well, don't you worry. We'll get y'all set up. I'm Mrs. McMurtry, and I run the one o' the local boarding houses. The respectable one," she added with obvious pride. "Y'all will be stayin' with me. You'll need to double up on rooms, all 'ceptin' for the lady, but they said that ain't a problem. See, with all the miners waitin' to get up to the mountains and all the railroad boys, the whole town's fair to burstin' right now." She indicated their luggage. "Come on, then—bring yer gear an' follow me. It ain't far from here. Oh," she added as an afterthought, turning around to smile again, "and welcome to Last Chance."
The runners picked up their luggage and started off after Mrs. McMurtry. "Nice welcome anyway," Joe said.
"Yeah—wonder what all this is leadin' up to," Ocelot replied.
Everyone fell silent at that point, content to follow along behind their new landlady and take in the sights of Last Chance.
There weren't many. The town seemed to consist of one long main street with a few haphazard tributary streets feeding into the main one. The runners examined the buildings as they walked by down the wooden sidewalk that bordered the packed-earth street itself: there were several saloons and gambling halls, a dry-goods store, a hotel, a general mercantile, a combination livery/feed store, one restaurant (Good Eats—Cheap! a faded sign in the window proclaimed), a barber shop, a marshal's office, an assayer's office that doubled as a bank, a telegraph office, a doctor's office, and an office with Last Chance Line—Victory United Railroad painted on the front in much fresher looking letters than any of the others. Scattered between these labeled businesses were several two-story places that looked like privately owned rooming houses. So far, Mrs. McMurtry had made no move to head toward any of these.
There weren't too many people on the streets right now; it was twilight, the sun only beginning to disappear beyond the far-off horizon. The runners could hear the faint strains of tinny music coming from behind the doors of the various saloons, creating a cheerful cacophony in the middle of the street. A few children played in the streets, but they looked subdued and quickly scurried away as the runners and Mrs. McMurtry approached. One pair was a bit bolder: two dark-haired boys, one a little older than the other, silently observed the six from behind a watering trough as they passed by.
A few more minutes' walk brought them up in front of a weatherbeaten two-story house which, despite the fact that it was painted peeling utilitarian gray, still managed to convey an image of hominess with its cheerful curtains and its line of boots arrayed outside the front door. A small plaque next to the door read, McMurtry's Boarding House—Clean Rooms, Meals Included. "Here we are," their hostess said, turning back around to smile at them. "I'll show you your rooms—you can drop off your things and clean up a bit, and then dinner'll be downstairs in half an hour."
Five minutes later found the runners installed in three adjoining rooms, each of which was clean (as advertised), simple, and small. After everyone had dropped their bags in their respective rooms, the five of them reconvened in the middle of the three rooms, which was the one occupied by Ocelot and Winterhawk. "What now?" Ocelot asked, looking around at the sparse decor of the room. All of it looked like it had seen many years of use but had been nonetheless lovingly patched, mended, and cared for as needed.
Winterhawk leaned on the windowsill and eyed the street below. "P'raps we'll find out something downstairs at dinner."
"Yeah," Joe agreed. Dinner sounded like a good idea to him, regardless of whether any information was to be discovered there.
The dining room was barely large enough to contain the number of people attempting to fill it. In addition to the five runners, the battered wooden table was occupied by three other men: a tired-looking young fellow in his mid-twenties who was dressed in jeans and plaid shirt; a man in his thirties with thinning blond hair and a dark suit; and a paunchy older man in a rumpled white shirt and gray slacks. They watched the runners with interest, but did not speak beyond brief greetings when they sat down.
As Mrs. McMurtry bustled around placing trays of food on the table, the blond man in the suit regarded the runners. "Just come in on the stage today?"
Winterhawk nodded. "About an hour ago. You do seem to be a long way from anywhere up here."
"Ain't that the truth." The older man snorted. "I'm James Waring, by the way. I run the general store."
That seemed to break the ice, and everyone exchanged introductions all around. The runners used their real names, since it was obvious that the metaplanar entities already knew them; the young man in the plaid shirt turned out to be Charlie Smith, while the blond man was Silas Weatherby.
"We won't be so far from everything soon," Weatherby said as he filled his plate with mashed potatoes and stew. "Once the railroad's completed, we'll certainly start seeing an increase in the population, and traveling by something other than stagecoach will become a reality."
Now it was Smith's turn to snort. "Silas, when are you going to get it through that thick skull of yours that the railroad ain't gonna get finished for a couple months at least. No matter how much you and that boss of yours want to get it done, the workers ain't gonna risk their lives to get that trestle finished when the weather's still this iffy. It just ain't safe. We've already had too many close calls."
"Remember who you're speaking to, Smith," Weatherby sniffed haughtily. "And remember too that many of those workers can't live without the money that the Victory United is paying them." He smirked at Smith. "Or has the mining picked up again and no one has bothered to inform me?"
Smith didn't answer right away; he appeared to be trying to get himself under control.
To try to smooth things over, Waring spoke up: "Friends, please. We've had this argument a hundred times before, and I for one am getting right sick of it. We've got newcomers in town—let's try to make them feel welcome, instead of forcing them to listen to our disagreements." He looked at the runners, noting their attire. "It'll be good to have some help for Andy Sutton, the smith," he said to Joe. "You look like a big strong young fellow. Ever since he hurt his leg last fall, he ain't been able to keep up with things like before." To Winterhawk, he added, "And you're the new sawbones, right?"
"After a fashion," the mage admitted. He had already tested his magic up in the room and found that it still functioned, so at least he could do healing. If called upon to perform any more feats of medicine, he'd just have to bluff.
Silas Weatherby looked at the remaining three. "I hope you gentlemen and lady don't have any plans to make your fortune here by mining. Ever since the gold in Quimby Creek dried up, there hasn't been much money to be made there. Most of the townfolk who counted on the gold have either moved on or settled down into other jobs. Once the railroad's here and Last Chance becomes a real town, it'll be easier for you to find something else to do."
"Yeah," Smith added, more than a hint of bitterness in his tone. "Or you can start up with Victory United and work yourself to death gettin' the tracks laid three months early so they can have their parties and bring all their bigwigs up here to look at all the sad SOBs who gave their lives for the damn thing."
"Smith!" Weatherby said sharply. "Any more talk like that and you might find yourself looking for employment elsewhere. You do have a family back home to think of, do you not?"
Smith glared at Weatherby, but the glare quickly turned to a sullen scrutiny of his plate "Yeah," he muttered under his breath. "'Scuse me, everyone." Standing quickly, he pushed his chair back and stalked out of the room.
Weatherby watched him go. "An excitable young fellow, but a good worker nonetheless," he said. Everyone present could hear the smirk in his voice. After a moment he too rose, picking up his plate of stew. "I believe I'll eat in my room—I have some business I must tend to. Please excuse me, lady and gentlemen."
When he was gone, James Waring turned back to the runners, shaking his head ruefully. "It's like that almost every night. This has been the worst in a long time, though."
"What's going on with the railroad?" Joe asked.
Kestrel nodded. "Can you give us the story?"'
Waring paused to take another bite of stew and chew it thoughtfully before speaking. "There's a lot of tension in Last Chance right now, 'tween the railroad and quite a few o' the townfolk, especially the ones who came up here hopin' to strike it rich minin' gold, only to find out that the gold had run out and so had their funds. With all the folks around lookin' for work and not bein' able to afford to get out of town, the pickin's have been slim, workwise. That all changed when Victory United showed up, sayin' that they wanted to build a line clear through from civilization up here to this God-forsaken nowhere of a town. They said they'd put us on the map, make us a real town. A lot o' folks jumped at the chance—and even better, they hired every able-bodied person who showed up willing to work, and paid 'em pretty good, considerin'."
Waring leaned back in his chair and shoveled in another mouthful of stew, pausing to undo the top button on his trousers to make room for his ample stomach. "That all happened about a year ago. Ever since then, they been layin' track, mostly from their end, but lately they been startin' in from this end too. There's a big canyon a couple miles out from town—they been workin' on buildin' a trestle so's they can have a bridge across the canyon. The whole thing's scheduled to meet up just outside o' town in a week or so, but the folks at V. U. have been pushin' that schedule hard. They've been promisin' lots of extra pay if the crews can get the whole thing done in three days."
"So the workers are protesting because the railroad is pushing them too hard?" Kestrel asked.
"That, and there's some who think that the whole thing's too dangerous this time o' year." Waring mopped up the last of his stew with a crust of thick bread. "It hasn't been long since the snow up in the hills started to melt, and the weather's been variable 'round here. If it starts to rain too hard, what with the water already comin' down from the mountains, it could wash out the whole trestle—and anybody who happens to be on it at the time."
Ocelot refilled his water glass from the pitcher in the middle of the table. "What was that Weatherby said about 'bigwigs' comin' in?"
Waring looked rueful. "Well, now, you've hit the sticking point for a lot of folks. See, Victory United's got some kind of high mucky-muck who's got it in his mind that he wants to stage a big celebration in Last Chance to commemorate the line gettin' finished. I guess this line is some kind of showpiece for 'em, and heads are gonna roll if it doesn't get done on time. That's why Weatherby and his boss—a fella name o' Grimmer—are pushin' folks so hard to finish. The guy's due up here in three days, and if the track ain't finished and he has to get ferried up here in a stage, he ain't gonna be happy."
"So all this work is so some corporate asshole can get his picture in the paper," Ocelot muttered, feeling his anger rise.
Waring appeared a bit confused at first, but nodded. "Yeah, I guess that's about the size of it. But since the V. U.'s pretty much the only game in town—at least if you want to make any kind of decent money—they're callin' the tune. And it is true that once they get it finished, there's likely to be a lot more traffic comin' through Last Chance, which oughta make things better for everybody."
"Except the people who get killed building it," Joe said. He looked about as displeased as Ocelot did.
"Ain't nobody been killed yet," Waring said as Mrs. McMurtry came in to gather the plates from the table. "There's been a few close calls, though. The trestle's gonna be the most dangerous part. Once they get that done, the tracks'll meet up just this side of the canyon."
Winterhawk looked dubious. "They're expecting to finish a trestle across a canyon in three days? Admittedly I'm not an engineer, but that hardly seems likely."
Waring nodded. "Most of the structure's there already. They just have to lay the track and reinforce some of the beams holdin' the whole thing up. They got a lot o' folks out there workin', practically 'round the clock. I think they'll make it." He stood, re-buttoning his pants. "I'm afraid I'm going to have to leave you now, though. I've got some things I need to do down at the store before it gets too late." Bowing farewell, he waddled out of the room.
After he'd left, the runners regarded each other across the table. "I don't get it," Ocelot said.
"What?" Kestrel turned to him.
"What this is all about. Looks like maybe this whole railroad thing is the center of it, but I don't get what we're supposed to do."
"Sounds to me," Winterhawk put in, "like we're either supposed to stop them from finishing that trestle, or else make sure that they do finish it."
"But we don't know which yet." Joe sighed. "If this whole thing's supposed to be a metaphor like it was last time, it sure sounds like we're supposed to stop it, not help it."
"But we can't be sure yet," Kestrel said. "We don't even know if this is the right answer."
"We can't just sit here," Ocelot said, the frustration evident in his voice.
"Yes," 'Wraith said. "We can."
"Moo." When Ocelot glared at him, he added, "Don't have all the facts yet. So we wait."
"And keep our eyes and ears open," Winterhawk added. "It probably wouldn't hurt to at least pretend to fulfill the roles we've apparently been cast in tomorrow. P'raps one or more of us might hear something useful."
Ocelot nodded, running a hand back through his hair. "Okay. Well if that's the case, then I'm gonna turn in. That ride in the stagecoach wasn't very restful, and we could probably all use a good night's sleep." He glanced out the dining room's small window, noting that a light rain had begun to fall; he could hear its gentle patter on the window and the roof.
Ocelot had no idea what time it was when he was awakened by loud pounding on the door, but it was still dark. "Doc!" cried a voice from the other side. "Doc Stone! You in there? Open up!"
Winterhawk was already awake, mechanically sitting up. "What the hell—?"
"I think they're lookin' for you," Ocelot muttered, still not fully aware.
"Doc!" Voice and pounding both got louder. "Please! We got injured folks comin' in!"
"Just a moment!" Winterhawk called, struggling into his trousers.
Ocelot quickly dressed as well. When they opened the door, they saw three men, all of them clad in wet, mud-spattered work clothes, standing in the doorway, shifting from foot to foot with impatience and concern. As soon as Winterhawk made an appearance one of the men grabbed his arm. "Come on, Doc! They're bringin' 'em in now, and some of 'em are hurt real bad!"
All along the hall other doors were opening. Joe, 'Wraith, and Kestrel stepped out of their rooms, each looking like he or she had dressed with the same amount of haste as Winterhawk and Ocelot had. Kestrel approached one of the men. "What's going on?"
Already Winterhawk was being hustled down toward the stairs, barely having time to grab his doctor's bag. One of the men turned back to address Kestrel while still moving forward. "Flash flood. At the trestle. We all knew this was gonna happen one o' these days, but nobody listens."
The three men continued herding Winterhawk urgently along, and the four remaining runners trailed behind. "Did it wash out?" Joe asked, his voice booming over the sound of the men and the rain as they stepped outside.
"What? The trestle?" Another of the men dropped back as he saw that his two fellows were getting their point across and Winterhawk was going willingly with them. "Naw, but there's some damage. A few of the beams washed out."
"That's gonna set the schedule back," Ocelot said sourly.
"Damn the schedule." The man's voice was full of passion. "You didn't see those guys—my friends—gettin' slammed into the trestle and the walls o' that canyon. You didn't hear 'em screamin' for help. And all that bastard Grimmer did was tell us to get the injured out and keep workin'."
"This Grimmer sounds like a real sweet guy." Kestrel's tone dripped with sarcasm. "So what did you do?"
The man snorted. "We told him to shove it up his—" he paused. "—er—we told him we'd be takin' the injured into town whether he liked it or not. Ain't nothin' else gettin' done on that trestle while the rain's like this. He'll just have to wait."
"Where is he now?" 'Wraith asked.
"Who cares? He can rot in hell for all I care where he is!"
One of the other men turned his head. "He's still out at the site with the guys he was able to bully into stayin'. He says as soon as the flood dies down they're gonna have to get back to shorin' up that trestle."
Surprisingly, the men were heading directly for Last Chance's largest saloon. "Stopping for fortification?" Winterhawk inquired.
"That's where we've got 'em. It's the biggest building in town." One of the men shoved open the door and stepped aside to let the others in.
The gambling hall had been pressed into service as a makeshift hospital. All around the room injured men lay on gaming tables and on blankets on the floor; some were alternately groaning and screaming, while others were unconscious. A quick glance around indicated about fifteen wounded. Saloon girls moved among them administering doses of whiskey, but they, like everyone else, looked frightened and uncertain of what to do.
"All right," Winterhawk said briskly, falling into his role. "Let's have a look at the most severely injured first. As for the others—"
"I'll take care of them," Joe said.
"I'll help," Kestrel added. "I've got some first aid training." Following Joe, she headed off.
Winterhawk examined the remaining wounded and immediately found the worst of them: a young man in his mid-twenties whose side had been pierced by a large piece of beam. He was clutching his midsection and screaming despite the saloon girl's attempt to quiet him with whiskey. Like all the others, he was wet and covered with mud and blood. The mage looked sharply up at his three escorts. "Has anyone got a problem with magical healing 'round here?"
The men's eyes widened. "You can do that? We've heard of it, but we never thought we'd see it up here."
"I'll take that as a no," 'Hawk said. He pointed at two of them. "You and you—get me some boiling water and the cleanest towels you've got. I'd like to at least make a go of cleaning this out before I heal it, or he's likely to contract all sorts of unpleasant infections." When the men scurried off to do his bidding, he moved on to the next patient.
For the next hour, the room echoed with more screams and groans as still more wounded were brought in by wagon. The five runners moved among the injured, doing what they could. Joe's and Kestrel's first aid skills were well adequate for dealing with some of the more minor and even moderate injuries, while Winterhawk's healing spells took care of the serious ones. Between them they only lost one patient, an older man who had had his skull crushed when the rushing water had dashed him into the canyon wall. Aside from three other men who had been swept away by the flood before anyone could rescue them, it was a remarkably low casualty total. That hardly seemed to be consolation, however, to the weeping family members comforting each other in the saloon's corners.
When the healing had been finished and the patients were being made comfortable, Winterhawk slumped down into a chair next to a blackjack table that had been hastily converted to a hospital bed. All the magical expenditure had taken a lot out of him: dark stubble stood out in sharp relief against the pale of his skin, and his eyelids drooped despite his best efforts to keep them open. By this time, quite a few more of the townspeople, including more of the families of the injured men, had trickled into the saloon, making it suddenly a crowded affair. Slowly the groups sorted themselves out, with the families clustering around their loved ones and the other townspeople hanging nervously around the doors, unsure what to do.
Joe and Kestrel came over toward Winterhawk, where 'Wraith and Ocelot had already arrived.
Ocelot frowned, his anger clear for all to see. "That bastard out there almost got these people killed. If we hadn't been here, quite a few of these guys would have died." Since he had minimal first aid training, he had, like 'Wraith, played courier between the various healers. This had given him an opportunity to get a look at the carnage first-hand. He hadn't liked what he saw.
Winterhawk sighed. "Undoubtedly now that they're healed, the railroad will see no reason why they shouldn't be put back to work immediately."
"Right you are, sawbones," came a new voice from the door.
Everyone looked up to see a shadowed figure standing in the doorway. Several of the townspeople visibly drew back from him, including some of the injured. As he stepped into the room, the runners could see why. Although he wasn't particularly large or impressive physically, there was something about his eyes that made them uneasy. None of them could quite say why, though.
"Who the hell are you?" Ocelot demanded.
The man's unsettling gaze lit on him. "You must be new in town if you don't know me, friend. Name's Grimmer. I'm in charge of the Victory United Railroad in Last Chance." He turned to Winterhawk. "I came by when I heard there was a magic man in town doin' healing. Wanted to thank you. Now that you've got my men patched up, we can get right back to work starting first thing tomorrow morning. The flood was a little setback, but nothing we can't catch up with. We're right on schedule for gettin' finished up day after tomorrow."
"A little setback?" One of the townspeople, a woman in a gingham dress and a knitted shawl, rose to her feet. "We've lost four men tonight, Mr. Grimmer. Four good men, with families and hopes and dreams. You call that a little setback?" Her voice rose to a scream as she lunged toward him.
He caught her by the arm and held her out from him, a strange little smile on his nondescript features. "Now, now, madam. The histrionics really aren't necessary. While it's certainly unfortunate that we've had—an incident tonight, everyone who works on a railroad knows these things happen. But," he added, addressing the room at large, "to show that the Victory United's heart is in the right place, I'm authorized to pay everyone who stays on and helps us get this line finished on time one and a half times' normal wages, plus a free pass for their entire family to anywhere V. U. travels." His gaze swept the crowd; there was something else in it, but it was too faint to pick out. "So who's with me?"
There was much grumbling in the room, but one by one the hands rose. Even most of the injured men who had been healed raised their hands.
"Good," Grimmer said. "Weatherby, note down the names. All the rest of you who aren't injured—I'm afraid I'm going to have to let you go." His voice changed to a rueful cluck. "Budget cuts, you know. Unfortunate, but necessary. Last chance, gentlemen." He smiled at his own pun. "Anyone else?"
Even more slowly, the rest of the hands rose. The faces behind the hands were haunted and sad, but resigned to their fate. Grimmer smiled, nodding.
"Are you people fucking crazy?" Ocelot yelled, leaping his feet and turning around to face them. "This asshole nearly got you all killed, and you're gonna go back to workin' for him?"
There was a general uncomfortable murmur around the room; Winterhawk, sitting back leaning on his hand with his eyes closed, picked out snatches of words: "...need the money..." "...don't like it, but..." "...no better job..." "...family to support..."
Again, Grimmer smiled. "Excellent. I knew you all would see things in your own best interests. I'll see you all at the canyon bright and early tomorrow morning, rain or shine. Weatherby?" With an imperious sweep of his hand, he turned and left the saloon with Weatherby following at his heels like a faithful dog.
The murmurs in the saloon continued, but most of them were below the level of audibility for the runners. Ocelot flung himself down in another chair. "It's no use," he said, disgusted. "These people are cattle."
"Good metaphor." 'Wraith turned a chair around and straddled it.
Joe nodded. "They're just doin' what they're supposed to do, right?"
"Looks that way," Winterhawk agreed. He still hadn't come up from his slumped posture. "Doesn't make it any easier to deal with, though."
"You okay?" Ocelot regarded him with some concern.
"Will be. It's a bit harder to cast spells here than it is—where we're from."
"Should we go back to our rooms?" Joe asked. He looked around the room, watching the families of the healed men leading them slowly out. "Not much for us to do here now."
"Uh—sirs? And lady?"
The runners turned almost as one to see a young boy standing around the corner of the blackjack table. Dark-haired and unremarkable looking except for the spark of intelligence in his downcast eyes, he was dressed in smaller versions of the jeans and plaid shirt favored by most of the men (and many of the women) of the town. He looked to be about eleven years old. Winterhawk spoke first. "What can we do for you?" He hoped that he sounded reasonably inviting in spite of looking like Death in a Chair.
"I—er—that is, we—" he indicated another boy waiting behind the table "—want to thank you for saving our pa's life."
Noticing the other boy, Winterhawk realized where he'd seen these two before: they'd been watching from the side of the street has the runners had followed Mrs. McMurtry to the boarding house. "I'm a doctor, young man. It's my job to help people."
The boy nodded solemnly. "Yes sir, I know. But still—can I shake your hand?"
Winterhawk looked at his companions, slight amusement almost making it to his eyes. "Of course. I'm pleased that we could help." He extended his hand to the boy.
After a nervous moment the child took his hand and gave it a firm shake. Winterhawk felt the crinkled form of a scrap of paper being pressed into his palm and kept any reaction from his face. He nodded solemnly as the boy reclaimed his hand, and simultaneously palmed the paper. "You boys had best be getting home now. Your parents will be worried about you."
The boy nodded and hurried off, joined by the other one. The two of them left through the saloon's back door.
Ocelot looked at him strangely. "What was that about?"
"Not now," 'Hawk murmured. Then, louder: "Let's go back to our rooms, shall we?" His expression clearly indicated that he'd share the purpose of the strange encounter as soon as they were away from the saloon.
It only took them a few minutes to get back to the boarding house. The lamp on the porch was still lit, and Mrs. McMurtry surprised them by standing up from where she'd obviously been waiting for them. She didn't say anything, but instead silently went to the porch and turned out the light. She didn't even complain about their muddy boots.
"So," Joe said as they met up again in Winterhawk's and Ocelot's room. "What was with the kid?"
Winterhawk pulled the scrap of paper from his pocket and unfolded it. "Our young friend gave me this." Quickly glancing over it, he held it out for the rest of them to see.
The other runners craned their necks and moved in close to read the note, which was scrawled in pencil in a childish hand: "Meet us tomorow noon in Elkhorn Clearing. It's about Mr. Grimmer."
The runners exchanged glances. "Trap?" Ocelot asked, his gaze traveling uneasily to the door.
Winterhawk shrugged. "P'raps our Mr. Grimmer has a secret."
Kestrel leaned back on her elbows. "The kid seemed sincere enough."
Joe nodded. "I thought so too. Maybe he's trying to help."
"Well," Winterhawk said with a sigh, "I don't know about the rest of you, but I'm knackered. We can't do anything else tonight, so why don't we sleep on it and then tomorrow we'll find out what the little chap has to say."
Everyone agreed that was a good idea, so they got up and filtered out of the room. When they had all gone, Ocelot looked at Winterhawk. "They get weirder every time, don't they?"
The mage sighed. "My friend, I'll wager it hasn't even begun to get weird yet."
Copyright ©1998 R. King-Nitschke. The Shadowrun universe is the property of FASA Corporation.
No part of this story may be reproduced without permission from the author.