For the last few weeks I’ve been scurrying to finish up judging on a large contest. I’ve had to “reject” thousands of stories. I hate the word “reject,” because it doesn’t really express what I want to say.
Very often I will read the opening to a story and it is obviously the first work of a very young writer. It may have a multitude of problems—from simple typos, to a lack of understanding as to how to set a scene, to clunky dialog. I know that I can’t accept the story for publication, but at the same time, I wish that I could shout some encouragement to the budding writer, much the way that my mentor Algis Budrys did to a young Stephen King.
I think that people need encouragement. It may be the only thing that will spur a young writer to greater effort.
So what does the word “rejection” mean to you as a writer? I think it’s simply: “Try harder.”
A lot of fine works get rejected. The bestselling works in nearly every genre experienced rejection. Lord of the Rings was rejected by several American publishers. Dune was rejected by all of them. Gone with the Wind made its rounds through every major publisher. Harry Potter was rejected by all of the biggest houses, and Twilight was rejected by a dozen agents before it got picked up—yet all of these novels became the bestsellers in their fields.
So does that mean that these were all bad novels? Of course not. It means that the author didn’t find an editor with a matching taste, a matching vision, right at the first.
Very often when I read a manuscript that is close to being publishable, I think, It’s a shame that the author didn’t try a little harder to . . . That’s what “rejected” means to me.
I was talking to international bestselling author Laurell K. Hamilton last week, and asked her to confirm a rumor that I’d heard. With her first novel, she received over 200 rejections before she made a sale. She said, “When people tell me that they’ve been rejected five or ten or twenty times, I just tell them that ‘I don’t want to hear about it.’”
Laurell has the perfect attitude toward rejection. Try harder.
Here is one of my short stories that I published on Amazon last year, Hellfire on the High Frontier. When Morgan Gray meets a stranger that might be God or might be the devil, he agrees to travel to the “High Frontier” and try to gun down a clockwork gambler, in a journey that will take him to a dead god’s heaven, where feral angels are the least of his problems. You can read the full short story below.
You’ll find more short stories like this one for $.99 on Amazon under my name, David Farland.
Hellfire on the High Frontier
Morgan Gray sat alone, peering into his crackling campfire, eyes unfocused, thinking of girls he’d known. In particular, there was a dance-hall girl he’d once met in Cheyenne. What was her name—Lacy? She’d had red hair and the prettiest smile—so fine he almost hadn’t noticed that she’d worn nothing more than a camisole, bloomers, and a green silk corset while she lay atop the piano and sang.
Out here on the range, there was little more to do than cook his beans over the campfire and remember. For weeks now, he’d been trailing a skinwalker, a renegade Arapaho named Coyote Shadow, but the skinwalker had taken to bear form and lost Morgan in the high rocks of the Wind River Range.
A schoolmarm murdered, her child eaten. Morgan hadn’t been able to avenge them.
Sometimes you lose a trail, he knew. Sometimes you lose the fight. You have to figure out how to keep fighting.
He downed some coffee, as bitter and cold as the trail.
Out in the rocky hills, a wolf howled. It sounded wrong, a little too high. Could’ve been a Sioux warrior, hoping to count coup. Morgan would have to watch his horse tonight, sleep with one eye open.
The burning ponderosa pine in his campfire smelled sweet, like butterscotch boiling over in a pan. Some pitch in the heartwood popped. A log shifted, and embers spiraled up from the fire. They rose in balls of red, and seemed to expand, dancing around one another as they sped toward heaven.
Morgan watched them drift higher, wondering when they’d wink out, until time stretched unnaturally, as if the embers planned to rise and take their place among the stars.
Suddenly, The Stranger took form across the campfire, a shadow solidifying into something almost human, sitting on a rock.
Morgan had met him only once, seven years back: a man in a black frock, like a traveling preacher. He wore his Stetson low over his eyes and had a wisp of dark beard. The spurs on his boots were made of silver, with glowing pinwheels of lightning. The cigar clenched between his teeth smelled of sulfur.
Could’ve been an angel. Could’ve been the devil. Morgan’s gut told him that The Stranger was something different altogether.
“Long way from Texas,” The Stranger said in a deep voice, lips hardly moving.
Morgan had no authority outside of Texas. So he kept his ranger’s badge in his vest pocket. “Justice shouldn’t be bound by borders,” he said. “The whole world’s gone crazy.”
The Stranger smiled. “Got a job for you.”
Morgan should never have asked this stranger for help seven years back. Might have been better to just let his horse, Handy, drown in the quicksand. With folks like The Stranger, there is always a price.
But, hell, Morgan had loved that gelding.
“A job?” Morgan asked. “I catch ’em. Don’t necessarily kill ’em.” He’d seen too much bloodshed in the war. After more than ten years, the scars were just beginning to heal.
Morgan wasn’t afraid of a fight. Once you’ve stared death in the face a few times, nothing riles you. Yet . . .
“He’s good with a gun,” The Stranger said. “Few men would stand a chance against him. He’s a clockwork gambler, goes by the name of Hellfire. Shooting one of them . . . it’s not the same as killing flesh and blood humans. . . .”
It should be more like stomping a pocket watch, Morgan realized. Clockworks were all springs and gears inside. But Morgan had known a clockwork once, a soldier by the name of Rowdy. Morgan swore that the thing was as alive as any man of flesh and blood. Rowdy had once joked, “Us clockworks, we got souls same as the rest of y’all. Ours are just wind-ups.”
“What did this gambler do?” Morgan asked.
“Fought alongside Jackson at Chancellorsville,” The Stranger said, as if to ease Morgan’s mind. “Is that enough?”
Morgan had always hated slavers. “The war’s over.”
“But this old soldier still kills,” the stranger said. “Not sure why. Some say he took a knock from a cannonball in the war. When the gears turn in his mind, he cannot help himself. The last victim was a boy, sixteen years old. Hellfire called him out. Before that, he shot a Chinaman, and before that, a snake-oil salesman. Each killing is four months apart—to the minute.”
The Stranger spat into the fire. His spittle burst into flame, like kerosene, and emitted a rich scent that reminded Morgan of blackberries, growing thick on the vine beside a creek.
Morgan suspected that The Stranger was right. This gambler needed to be stopped. But killing a clockwork wouldn’t be easy. Their inner parts were shielded by nickel and tin, and you never knew where their vital gears hid. Thirteen Comancheros had had a bout with one down on the border a couple years back. Rumor said it had taken twenty-three bullets to bring him down. Eleven Comancheros died.
Clockworks were quick on the draw, deadly in their aim. The Stranger called this one a “gambler,” but clockworks had been created to be soldiers and guards and gunslingers.
“What brand is he?” Morgan asked.
Morgan ground his teeth. He’d hoped that it might be some cheap Russian model, built during the Crimean War. The Sharps clockworks had a reputation. Going up against one was almost suicide.
Yet Morgan had taken a handout from a stranger, and he’d known that there would be a day of reckoning. “Where do I find him?”
“Heading toward Fort Laramie . . .” The Stranger said. “The gambler is like a bomb, with a fuse lit. In four days, six hours, and seven minutes, he will kill again.”
The Stranger turned into an oily shadow and wafted away.
Morgan hardly slept that night. Gold had been discovered in the Black Hills, and prospectors were crawling all over the wilderness north of Fort Laramie, the biggest supply depot in the West. Tens of thousands were riding in on the new rail lines.
The Indians didn’t like it. After getting pushed around for years, Sioux holy men like Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull were on the warpath, trying to drive off the miners, much as they’d tried to hold off the homesteaders and buffalo hunters.
Only this time, the way Morgan figured it, there was going to be a bloodbath. You can only steal so much from a man before he has to push back. Morgan didn’t fancy blundering into such a mess. Some Sioux had big magic.
At dawn he rode east toward Frenchman’s Ferry, climbing over the hills. A day later, he found a single skinwalker’s track between two boulders, in a land covered by worn sandstone rocks and sparse grasses. The creature had been leaping from boulder to boulder, hiding its trail. But it had come to a place where the rocks were too far apart.
Like many skinwalkers, Coyote Shadow had turned himself into a beast once too often, and now he’d lost himself. His print was something halfway between a human foot and a bear’s paw. Coyote Shadow had become only half a man.
Much like me, Morgan thought. He’d carried a torch for Sherman, had forced womenfolk from their houses and set entire cities aflame. Sometimes folks had refused to leave their homes, and he’d heard the women screaming in the fires.
He forced down the memories.
Morgan slid from his saddle and studied the print. The dusty ground here had given easily, yielding a deep track with crisp ridges. The track looked fresh—hours old.
Morgan searched the bleak landscape: sandstone thrusting up from broken ground, dry grass and sage, and little else.
During the heat of the day, any sane Indian would have stopped in the shade, though there wasn’t much of it here to take solace in
Morgan’s mare nickered and shied back a step, as if she’d caught a dangerous scent.
Morgan sniffed. Between the iron odor of rocks and dry grass, he smelled an undertone—like garlic rubbed in fur.
He’d been hunting the creature for months, and now he resented finding it. He was on his way to kill the clockwork gambler.
But justice demanded that he finish this monster.
He searched uphill. A pile of sandstone boulders stood at its crown, with a single rock jutting up from it in a small pinnacle. Yucca plants and a few junipers grew tall in the pinnacle’s shadow.
The skinwalker is up there, Morgan realized. He could be watching me.
Morgan studied the shadows. Nothing stirred. Perhaps the skinwalker was sleeping.
Morgan tied his pony to a mesquite bush, pulled his Winchester from the saddle holster, and began picking his way uphill, weaving behind rocks and bushes in case the skinwalker tried to take a long shot.
Fifteen minutes later, Morgan reached the rocks, and in the shade of a juniper found some crushed grass where the skinwalker had bedded. He’d left only moments ago.
Biting his lip, Morgan leapt to the far side of the rock and scanned the landscape. He saw the skinwalker, rushing uphill toward the next ridge, a lumbering mound of shaggy fur. His long arms swung with every stride, and he ran low to the ground, like an ape, but Coyote Shadow still wore the scrap of a loin cloth. He moved fast, faster than a horse could run.
The creature was more than two hundred yards out, and as he neared the ridge, he turned and glanced back.
Morgan had time for one shot before the sorcerer escaped. He crouched behind a rock and steadied his aim. The skinwalker saw him, whirled, and doubled his speed.
Morgan’s hands shook. Mouth went dry. Heart pounded. He gasped.
He didn’t want it to end this way—shooting the skinwalker in the back. Morgan had imagined catching Coyote Shadow, taking him to some town where a judge would see that he was hanged proper.
Morgan forced himself to stop breathing, lined the skinwalker up in his sites, and squeezed gently.
The rifle cracked and jumped in his hands. The skinwalker didn’t jerk or stumble. Instead, his stride seemed clean, uninterrupted, as he disappeared over the hill.
Still, that didn’t mean that Morgan hadn’t wounded the beast. Morgan once had seen a rebel lieutenant die in combat—he charged into battle, swinging a sword in one hand and shooting a revolver from the other while bullet holes blossomed on his chest like roses. “Charging Dead,” Morgan called it.
So he took note of the place where the skinwalker had stood as Morgan fired, near a large rock with a yucca plant, then hurried to the spot.
He found the monster’s tracks and studied the ground for blood, a clump of hair, hoping for any sign that the skinwalker was wounded.
Morgan tracked the monster over one ridge, then another.
As the sun began to wallow on the horizon in a leaden sky, and bats wove through the air, he admitted defeat. Not a drop of blood could be found. He’d missed.
That night, the moon hid beneath bands of clouds, and a south wind from the Gulf of Mexico smelled of rain. Morgan camped without a fire, not wanting to risk setting the prairie alight.
He couldn’t sleep. He’d ruined Coyote Shadow’s rest, and he worried that the skinwalker might come creeping into his camp, hoping for vengeance. So for long hours, Morgan lay quietly listening for the crunch of a foot in the prairie soil with his pistol in hand, just beneath his blanket.
As the hours stretched, he dozed sporadically, but would wake again with a start. A screech owl hunted nearby, flying low, shrieking every few minutes as it tried to startle mice from their hiding places.
Long after midnight, Morgan decided to relax and put his hat over his eyes. Suddenly it was knocked away, and he rose up and fired blindly, just as the owl winged off.
His hat lay on the ground next to him. The bird had swooped low and struck it. Apparently the bit of rabbit fur on the brim looked too much like a varmint to the owl.
Morgan turned over, indignant, and after many minutes he slid into an uneasy slumber.
He dreamt that he was in a shop, where a tinkerman with a big, white handlebar moustache and penetrating blue eyes worked at piecing together clockwork soldiers.
One soldier lay like a patient on a surgeon’s table. The tinkerman had its chest cavity open and was grasping something inside: it was a huge golden coil spring, nearly lost amid gears and pistons. Part pocketwatch, part steam engine, the insides of the clockwork soldier were somehow more greasy and filthy than Morgan had imagined they could be.
The tinkerman nodded toward a crate and said in a deep Georgia drawl, “Son, would you be so kind as to fish a heart outta that box?”
The shop had bits and pieces of clockwork everywhere—a shelf of expressionless faces, waiting to come to life; arms and legs hanging from the rafters like dry sausages in a Mexican cantina; tubes and gizmos lying in heaps on counters and on the floor.
Morgan looked into the box. He found dozens of hearts in it, barely beating, covered in grease and oil, black and ugly.
Morgan picked up the largest, strongest-looking one. It throbbed in his grip, almost slipping away. He handed it to the tinkerman.
“Much obliged,” the tinkerman said.
He thrust the heart into the contraption, piercing it through with the gold coil, and the clockwork soldier jolted to life—hands flexing, a strangled cry rising from its throat. Its mouth opened, and it whined stupidly, like an animal in pain.
The tinkerman smiled in satisfaction. “Perfect.”
Somehow, that pronouncement scared Morgan. Would the clockwork gambler that he was hunting be “perfect?” It sounded presumptuous.
Morgan wondered at that. He said, “When God made man, he only allowed that his creation was ‘good.’”
The tinkerman glanced up, lips tight in anger, eyes twinkling. “God, sir, was not a perfectionist. He failed as an organism. We superseded him.”
The tinkerman smiled cruelly. “He drove Adam from the Garden of Idunn. In some tales, afterward, Adam made a spear and sneaked up on God while he was sleeping. . . .”
Morgan wondered. He’d heard in the war that God was dead. He never heard any legends, though, about how it happened.
Startled from his sleep, Morgan feared that someone was sneaking up on him. He lay still for several minutes, listening for the crackle of a footfall. Thin clouds filled the sky, which was beginning to lighten on the horizon. Morning would not be far off.
Small birds flitted about in a nearby sage. Here in the desert, most birds were silent, unwilling to call attention to themselves.
Morgan felt that something was wrong.
Suddenly, he realized that he hadn’t heard anything amiss. It was what he didn’t hear that bothered him—his horse. He lurched to his feet, swung his pistol around, and peered into the shadows.
His horse was nowhere to be seen.
Coyote Shadow had circled Morgan, stolen his food, his hat, his rifle, and his horse.
Morgan must have worn himself out, trying to keep watch. The skinwalker could have killed him in his sleep, but this Indian was more interested in counting coup, humiliating Morgan, than taking his scalp.
“Hope you’re getting a good chuckle out of this!” Morgan shouted to the horizon.
He turned away from the skinwalker’s path and set off for Frenchman’s Ferry.
Morgan wasn’t the kind of man to chew on regret. In life, he believed that you have to do the best you can. Sometimes you succeeded, sometimes you failed.
He’d lost Coyote Shadow, and by now the renegade was probably heading to join up with Crazy Horse’s men; either that or he’d gone up into the aspen forests in the high country. Morgan figured he’d never see Coyote Shadow again.
Yet he began to regret missing his shot at the skinwalker. He wondered about his buck fever—the shaking hands, the dry mouth.
Too many men, when they get in a gunfight, will draw and fire wild, hitting only empty air. That’s what gets them killed. A more experienced man will take a moment to aim—half a second, if need be—and thus shoot his opponent.
Morgan was fast on the draw and had a steady aim, but he’d gotten buck fever.
His failure seemed a portent.
The clockwork gambler wouldn’t suffer from human debilities. He wouldn’t get excited and drop his gun. He wouldn’t get a case of tremors. He wouldn’t pause because he was having an attack of conscience.
He would just kill.
In some ways, Morgan realized, he’s better than me.
Morgan survived the next two days off strips of sliced prickly pear cactus, which tasted like green beans, and yucca fruit, which were more like potatoes. The odd jack rabbit added protein to the fare.
Four days after meeting The Stranger, Morgan was hobbling along on sore feet, thirty miles from Fort Laramie. If the stranger was right, someone would get killed today. Morgan wouldn’t be there to stop it.
When he reached Frenchman’s Ferry, down on the North Platte, he spotted a miserable little log shack. Bear traps, snowshoes, and other durable goods hung outside. A pair of dogs—half mastiff and half wolf—guarded the door. Its smokestack was roiling, even in the heat of the day, producing black clouds of smoke.
A bevy of greenhorns had just left the post, heading north into the wilderness.
Morgan hurried inside.
At the counter, an aging squaw sat with a basket of big turkey eggs. She hunched over a lightbox—a box with a mirror on one wall, and an oil lamp in the middle. By holding an egg up to the contraption, a person could check it for cracks or the blobs of half-formed fetuses.
The squaw’s blouse was white with red polka dots—a Cheyenne design. But she wore buckskin pants like a trapper, and her perfume smelled imported. She didn’t spare him a glance.
“Look around,” she offered in that Indian way that was more “careful” than “slow.” The shop was filled with merchandise—tins of crackers; barrels of pickles, beans, rice and wheat. On the wall behind the counter were hunting knives, a pair of shotguns—and above them hung Morgan’s Winchester.
So the skinwalker had been here.
The gun didn’t interest him right now. The skinwalker had stolen it fair and square. He’d counted coup and sold the gun. No sense arguing with the squaw about who owned it. Morgan would just embarrass himself by admitting that it had once been his.
Of everything in the shop, the things that most interested him were those eggs. Hunger gnawed at him. When Morgan was a child, his ma had often sold eggs to folks in town. She’d taught him young how to candle one, to check it for damage.
“Is Black Pierre around?” Morgan ventured.
“Gone for supplies,” the squaw said. “Back in three, four days.”
The squaw was turning an egg experimentally, studying it. She didn’t look up. Morgan could see how judging such an egg might be difficult. Most chicken eggs were a uniform tan in color. Finding blood spots inside was easy. But these eggs were white, with big specks on them—some sand-colored, others more like liverworts. The shells were thicker than a chicken egg.
“I’d be right happy to buy some turkey eggs off of you,” Morgan offered.
“Not turkey eggs,” the squaw said, “thunderbird! Traders brought them in this morning. Found them in an old geyser vent over in Sulfur Springs.”
Morgan had never seen a thunderbird egg before. Back east, they were called “snakebirds” but had been extinct for at least a hundred years. Down in Mexico, the Spaniards had called them quetzals, and some of the tribes still prayed to the critters.
“Want to see?” the squaw asked.
She held an egg to the hole in the lightbox, and Morgan peered in. Sure enough, the light shining though the egg was bright enough to reveal the embryo inside—a birdlike head with a snake’s body. Many of its bones were still gelatinous, but he could see its guts forming, a tiny heart beating. Its scales were still almost translucent, just beginning to turn purple.
“Well, I’ll be!” Morgan whispered. “Didn’t know as there were any snakebirds left. They’re fading faster than the buffalo.”
“Mmm . . .” the squaw mused. “The world must get rid of the old wonders, so that it can make way for the new.”
Morgan thought on that. He’d seen some of the last real buffalo herds as a child, darkening the plains of Kansas. Now the railroads were coming, and the railroad men were killing the buffalo off. The big herds were a danger to trains.
He imagined the clockwork gambler. Would such things someday replace men?
“Those eggs for sale?” Morgan asked.
“Not to you. They’re for the Sioux—big medicine.”
“How much you reckon to get?”
“My scalp,” she said. “The Sioux slaughtered General Custer last week at the Little Bighorn. I’m going to need some gifts, to make peace.”
Morgan didn’t have a lot of money. He was able to buy back his pony and his hat at the trading post, but couldn’t afford his rifle.
He set off down the Platte toward Fort Laramie, riding overland, well south of the river, far away from the pioneer trails where the Sioux would concentrate their patrols.
When he reached Fort Laramie, the post was full.
People of every kind had taken refuge just outside the fortress walls in tents and teepees—gold miners, fur trappers, homesteaders on the Oregon and California trails, Mormon converts from England and Denmark on their way to Utah, railroad workers of the Chinese, Irish, Dutch, and Negro persuasions, Omaha Indians and a few Comanches, Bible thumpers. Morgan had rarely seen such liveliness on the frontier.
He heard a rumor that there was a plague merchant in town—with bottles of black death and boxes of locust larvae.
Hell, there was even a freak show in town with a three-headed woman, an elephant, and a genuine Egyptian mummy.
The town hadn’t seen rain in weeks, and so as Morgan entered the fortress, he found a rainmaker at the front gates—pounding a huge drum that sounded for the world like the crashing of thunder.
“Come, wind!” the rainmaker shouted. “Arise ye tempest, I say! Let your water soak the gnarly ground. Let cactus flowers bloom, while toads claw up from the mud!”
Morgan sat on his horse and studied the slim man—a tall beardless fellow in a fine top hat and tails, who roared as he drummed and stared off toward a few clouds on the horizon like a lunatic, with manic eyes and a grim smile.
The clouds were drawing near, blackening from moment to moment.
Morgan tossed a penny into the man’s cup. “Keep your eyes on them clouds, Preach,” Morgan said. “Don’t let ’em sneak off.”
“Thank you, good sir,” the rainmaker said, pausing to wipe sweat from his brow with a handkerchief. “There will be rain soon. Mark my word.”
Morgan didn’t want the clockwork gambler to know that he was hunting for him. But the rainmaker seemed like a trustworthy fellow. He hazarded, “I’m looking for a clockwork gambler. Seen him?”
“You a friend of his?” the preacher asked. His tone became a bit formal, suspicious, and he backed away an inch.
In answer, Morgan pulled the badge from his pocket, a star made of nickel.
“You’re too late,” the preacher said. “He went on a rampage yesterday. He was sitting quiet at a card table, and suddenly pulled out his gun and shot a showgirl. There was a big row. Some cavalrymen drew steel, and seven men died in the firefight. The gambler escaped.”
“See which way he went?”
The rainmaker nodded toward the clouds. In just the few moments since they’d begun speaking, Morgan realized that they’d shrunk and had begun to drift away. “He headed off into the High Frontier, where no one can give chase. There won’t be no posse. Major Wiggins has got more trouble than he can handle, with them Sioux.”
Morgan had heard tales of the High Frontier, but he’d never been there. Few men had. There had always been stories of castles in the clouds, but truth is far stranger than fiction.
“How’d he fly?” Morgan asked.
“Private yacht. He won it in a poker game.”
Morgan wondered. The clockwork gambler was far away by now, more inaccessible than Mexico, almost as remote as the moon.
The rainmaker said hopefully, “Wells Fargo has a new line that goes to the High Frontier. Got to stay ahead of them railroads. Schooner lands next Monday.”
“What day is today?” Morgan could guess at the month, but not the day.
“Today’s a Wednesday.”
Five days to get a grub stake together. Morgan bit his lower lip. He’d seen an airship once, a big copper-colored bulb glowing in the sunset as it sailed through ruddy clouds. Pretty and untouchable, like a trout swimming in deep, clear water.
“The dancehall girl,” Morgan said. “She have any friends?”
The preacher squinted, giving an appraising look, and nodded sagely. “You thinking ’bout going after him?”
It seemed audacious. Hunting a clockwork alone was foolhardy, and few men had the kind of money needed for airfare.
Morgan nodded. “Justice shouldn’t be confined by borders.”
The rainmaker nodded agreement, then thrust a hand into his pocket, pulled out some bills and change, handed them over. “Here’s a donation for your cause, Lawman. Lacy didn’t have a lot of friends, but she had a lot of men who longed for her from afar. Check the saloon.”
Morgan’s heart broke at the mention of Lacy’s name. He remembered the red-haired girl, her innocent smile. He’d seen her before. But what was she doing in Laramie?
She’d come here for safety, he figured, like everyone else. Scared of the renegades. They were like sheep, huddled in a pen.
He’d felt so in awe of Lacy, he couldn’t have dared even speak to her, much less ask to hold her hand. In some ways, she was little more than a dream, a thing of ephemeral beauty.
The preacher smiled and began pounding his drum with extra vigor. “Come, horrid bursts of thunder!” he commanded. “Come sheets of fire! Groan ye winds and roar ye rain!”
On the horizon, the clouds darkened and again began lumbering toward Laramie.
A week later, Morgan found himself in the gondola of a dirigible.
It turned out that Lacy had had a lot of friends in Laramie. Though none was rich enough to afford passage to the High Frontier on their own, and none was mad enough to shoot it out with a clockwork, Morgan was able to scrape together enough money for his passage.
The balloon above the gondola was shaped like a fancy glass Christmas tree ornament, all covered in gold silk. A steam engine powered the dirigible, providing a steady thump, thump, thump as pistons pounded and blades spun.
The gondola swung beneath the huge balloon, connected by skywires. Its decks were all hewn from new cedar and sandalwood; their scent complimented the smell of sky and sun and wind.
City slickers and foreigners sat in the parlor cabin, toasting their good fortune and dancing while bands played.
Morgan could hear their music, smell their roast beef, sometimes even glimpse them dancing. But he wasn’t a railroad tycoon or a mining magnate or a politician.
He’d taken passage in the lower deck, in the “Belly of the Beast,” as they called it, and had one small porthole in his cabin to peer through.
Still, the sight was glorious.
The dirigible reached the High Frontier at sunset, just as the sun dipped below the sea, leaving the clouds below to be a half-lit mass of swirling wine and fuchsia.
One could only find the High Frontier at that time of day—when the sun had set and the full moon was poised to rise on the far side of the Earth. It was a magical place, nestled in the clouds.
Down below the skyship, a silver city rose—elegant spires like fairy castles, with windows lit up like gemstones. The colored glass in those windows made it look as if sapphires, rubies, and diamonds were scattered over the city.
The skyship landed amid glorious swirling clouds, and the rich folk marched down the promenade, arm in arm, laughing and joking and celebrating their good fortune. On the deck, the band came out and played soft chamber music.
Women oohed and aahed at the spectacle, while men stood open-mouthed. Morgan imagined that saints might make such sounds as they entered heaven.
The High Frontier had only been discovered four years back. Who had built the silver castles, no one knew. How the cities of stone floated in the clouds was also a mystery.
Angels lived there—scrawny girls with wings, ethereal in their beauty. But they were feral creatures, barbaric, and it was said that when the first explorers had entered the silver city, the angels were roosting over the arches—little more than filthy pigeons.
Some thought that it had once been an outpost, that perhaps angels had once been wiser, more civilized, and that they rested here while carrying messages back and forth between heaven and Earth.
One guess was as good as another. But a new territory was opening up, and folks were eager to be the first to see it. Morgan couldn’t figure how a man might make a living here. The sky was always twilit, so you couldn’t grow crops. The clouds were somehow thick enough to walk on, but there was nothing to mine.
Just a pretty place to visit, Morgan thought.
When the rich folk were mostly gone, Morgan made his way down the gangplank. A fancy dude in a bowler hat stood at the top of the gangway, smoking a fine cigar that perfumed the air.
He glanced at Morgan, smiled, and said, “Das ist schön, nicht wahr?”
Morgan grinned back. “Sorry,” he apologized. “I don’t reckon we speak the same language.”
Morgan walked down the gangplank, his spurs jangling with every step, and trundled through the city. He imagined that madmen had fashioned the soaring arches above the city gate, now planted with vines and lianas that streamed in living curtains.
Maybe a fellar could grow crops up here after all, he mused, though the light is low. Butterflies and hummingbirds danced among the flowers.
As he entered the silver city, spires rose up on either side. There was something both strange and yet oddly organic about the tall buildings, as if some alien intelligence had sought to build a city for humans. Perhaps dove-men had designed it, or termites. He wasn’t sure.
People filed off in a number of directions. It was rumored that many a tycoon had bought houses here—Cornelius Vanderbilt, Russell Sage, along with royals out of Europe and Russia. Even Queen Victoria had a new “Summerhouse” here.
All the high-falutin’ folks sauntered off to their destinations, and Morgan felt lost.
One fairy castle looked much like another. He searched for an hour, and as he rounded a corner, he found what he was looking for: the wing doors of a Western saloon. He could hear loud piano music inside, and smell spilled beer on its oak floors.
He walked into the saloon and found a madhouse.
On either side of the door were golden cages up over his head, and angels were housed there—small girls, perhaps eight or nine, with fabulous wings larger than any swan’s. Their hair was as white as spun silver, their faces translucent.
But their dark eyes were lined with a thick band of kohl, as if they were raccoons. They drew back from Morgan and hissed.
Unbidden, a dark thought entered his mind. When he was a child, Morgan’s mother had always told him that when a man dies, the angels come to take his soul to heaven.
He could be walking to his death.
A verse from Psalms came to mind, one of his ma’s favorites: “Lord, what is man, that thou art mindful of him? Or the son of man, that thou visitest him? Thou madest him a little lower than the angels . . .”
As if divining his thoughts, one of the angels hissed at him and bared her teeth. She scooped a turd up from her cage and hurled it. Then grabbed a corn cob and tossed that, too.
Morgan dodged and hurried past.
Inside, the place was alive. Dance-hall girls strutted on stage to clanking pianos and catcalls. Men hunched at tables, drinking and telling jokes. It was much like a saloon, but it suffered from the same miserable clientele as he’d seen on the dirigible—European barons in bright silk vests and overcoats. Eastern dudes. Moguls and robber barons.
The beer wasn’t sold in glass jugs, but in decorous tankards, inlaid with silver and precious stones.
The place smelled more of gold than of liquor. Pipe smoke perfumed the air.
But the clockwork gambler was surprisingly easy to spot. In fact, Morgan gasped and stepped back in surprise when he saw him.
The clockwork was obviously not human. His face had been sculpted from porcelain, like the head of a doll, and painted in natural colors, but there were brass hinges on his jaws. When he blinked, copper eyelids flashed over glass eyes.
He wore all black, from his hat to his boots, and sat at a card table with a stack of poker chips in front of him. He had a little gambling kit off to one side. Morgan was familiar with such kits. They held decks of cards for various games, dice made of bone and ivory, and always they held weapons—a pistol and a throwing knife.
The clockwork gambler sat with three wealthy men. By the piles of solid-gold coins in front of him, he was winning.
Morgan steeled his nerves, walked up to the table, and said, “You gentlemen might want to back away.”
The patrons scattered aside as Morgan pulled back his coat to reveal the star on his chest.
Some men cried out as they fled, and others ducked as if dodging imaginary bullets. The clockwork gambler just leaned back casually in his chair, as calm as a summer’s morning. His mouth seemed to have little porcelain shingles around it that moved to his will, so that when he smiled, it created a crude approximation of a grin. The creature’s teeth were as white as shards of ice.
“Here to try your luck?” the clockwork asked.
“Your name Hellfire?” Morgan replied.
The gambler nodded, barely tipping his hat.
Morgan felt his hands shaking, and his mouth suddenly dried. He’d never seen a man face death with equanimity the way that this clockwork did. It was unnatural. Almost unholy.
I’m betrayed by my humanity, Morgan thought. Flesh and blood, gristle and bone—they undo me.
In that instant, he knew that he was no match for the clockwork gambler.
“Tell you what, stranger,” the clockwork said. “Let’s draw cards for your life. You get the high card, you get the first shot at me.”
Morgan shook his head.
“Come on,” the gambler said reasonably. “It’s the best chance you’ve got. Your flesh was created by God, and thus has its all-too human limitations. I was made to draw faster than you, to shoot straighter.”
“You might be a better killer than me, but that don’t make you a better man.”
“When killing is all that matters, maybe it does,” the clockwork said.
The silence drew out. Morgan wasn’t sure if he should let the clockwork draw first. He didn’t know where to aim. The creature’s chest provided the biggest target, but it was the best protected by layers of metal. The joints where its neck met its head might be better. But what was a head to this machine? Did thoughts originate there, or elsewhere? The head looked no more serviceable than that of a poppet.
The gambler smiled. “Your human sense of honor bothering you? Is that it?”
“I want justice,” Morgan said. “I demand justice.”
“On the High Frontier?” the gambler mocked. “There is no justice here—just a pretty tomb, the ruins of a grander civilization. This is Rome! This is Egypt!”
He waved his hands wide, displaying the ornate walls carved with silver, the golden cages with captive angels. “This is what is left of your dead god. But I am the future.”
Morgan had heard a lot of talk about God being dead over the years, from the beginning of the Civil War. But the discovery of these ruins proved it to the minds of many.
“Tell you what,” the gambler said. “Your legs are shaking. I won’t shoot you now. Let’s try the cards. I’ll draw for you.”
The gambler placed a fresh deck on the table, pulled a card off the top, and laid it upright. It was a Jack of Hearts. He smiled, as if in relief.
“I didn’t come to gamble,” Morgan said. “I came for justice.”
“Seeking justice is always a gamble,” Hellfire answered reasonably. “Justice doesn’t exist in nature. It’s just the use of force, backed up by self-righteous judgment.”
The gambler cut the deck, pulled off the top card, flipped it: the Ace of Spades.
“You win!” the gambler grinned.
Morgan was all nerves and jitters but pulled his piece anyway, took a full quarter second to get his bearings, and fired. The bullet ripped into the gambler’s bowtie, and there was a metallic zing as it ricocheted into the crowd.
Someone cried out, “Mein Gott!” and a woman yelled, “He’s been shot!”
Morgan’s face fell. He hadn’t meant to wing a bystander. He glanced to his right, saw a fat bloke clutching his chest, blood blossoming on a white shirt.
Morgan ducked low and tried to aim at the clockwork, but faster than the eye could move the gambler drew, aimed, and fired. The bullet took Morgan straight in the chest and threw him backward as if he’d been kicked by a horse.
Morgan fell and wheezed, trying to suck air, but he heard blood gurgling from the hole in his ribs. His lungs burned as if someone had stuck a hot poker through them.
He looked right and left, hoping someone would help him, but all that he saw were frightened faces. He had heard that there was no law on the High Frontier, only money.
No one would stop the killing. No one would avenge him.
As he lay on his back and felt blood pooling on the floor, he fought to stay conscious. The clockwork gambler strode toward him, smiling down, his porcelain face a mockery of flesh.
Morgan realized that he’d been charging dead, from the moment he’d started this hunt. When he’d missed the skinwalker, he should have seen it as a sign.
“Your human tinkermen have made me well, have they not?” Hellfire asked. “You humans, in such a hurry to create. It was inevitable that you would fashion your replacements.”
Over the clockwork’s shoulder, Morgan saw his angels—leering from their cages. One was grabbing at the lock on its golden door, trying to break free, as if to come for him.
But Morgan was on his way out, like the buffalo, and the Indians, and thunderbirds, and all the other great things in the wide world.
The gambler aimed at Morgan’s head. There was no shaking in his hands, no hesitation. He pulled the trigger.
Thus, a new wonder in the world supplanted an old.