Barry Me Not!
by Ron Schablotski
A tale of the Wild Weird West
As it happened, dying was the easy part, Barry Slade mused while adjusting to the shock of his present condition. Exactly what that present condition was he could not say. Before today, Barry had been an U.S. Marshal keeping the peace throughout the territories. Mostly he rode the Kansas plains, where he gained a reputation as the Fastest Gun Alive. That's what the dime-novels called him. Of course, when you call a dust-bowl like Keystar City home, there isn't too much competition for the title.
Keystar had one thing going for it; it was at the halfway point across Kansas on a long dry trail through the western territories. It was little more than a stop-over right now, but with the coming of a promised railway station to look forward to, Keystar might become a center for travelers; a genuine gateway city from east to west.
In fact, Barry even died in Keystar; shot down in the midday sun by a hotshot calling himself the Two-Gun Kid Flash. Even as the bullet was passing through his heart, Barry couldn't help but be impressed by the speed and accuracy. A single slug had pierced his chest, and another entered the barrel of his revolver, making his own round backfire in the chamber. He remembered being relieved it was a clean kill; with that kind of fancy shooting the kid could have easily disabled, crippled, and disfigured him, leaving him several agonizing moments before giving up the ghost.
If only Slade could get the ghost to give up him.
Now he was standing over his own grave on the hill facing Keystar. Although this was the first time he had seen the Earth since his death, he knew it well. He also knew instinctively that the demon-steed called the Night Stallion was to arrive shortly, to carry him forth toward the night's diabolical labors.
Out of the corner of his eye, Barry Slade spied a deep puddle twinkling with moonlight. Despite his fear, he could not resist going over to it, looking for his own reflection. The face he saw would haunt him more than any other tortures Hell could throw at him. Gone was the form of man; he was naught but a twisted mockery of life and death, an amalgam of what is and what is not, a hideous combination of himself and a Navajo spirit called He Who Rides The West Wind.
Faust had told him the merger would be mutually beneficial, giving him the extra life force he required to survive that bloody October night so long ago, and providing the North American demon a body to reside in. He was dying when he agreed to the pact, and it seemed the only way to save himself or Miss Hope.
Barry didn't know anything about the colored showgirl when she first came to town, but he did know she was likely to run into trouble out here in the Kansas Territory. The war between the states was over, but many people didn't care for the idea of letting Negroes live in their community, unless they were servants. A lot of Keystar's newer residents even came from Missouri to protect themselves from the perceived threat of free blacks that were certain to take up arms against their former masters.
So Slade made it his business to ensure the delicate Barbara Hope didn't receive the same harassment other freemen got. This didn't please too many folks, but everyone still turned out for her singing debut at the Metropolis Theater, where she was billed as the Black Canary. There was no denying her remarkable voice and talent, and she soon became a favorite, performing twice daily three nights a week.
But outside the saloon she was just another colored girl. The fact that she performed on stage only brought her unwanted solicitations, and a reputation she didn't deserve. The Marshal did what he could to keep the rumors from spreading, but that only made it worse on Barbara. Before she had been in town more than two months she was being accused of prostitution, with the Marshal as her favorite client.
Barry did like her, but he wasn't interested in any woman in Keystar, colored or not. His heart still stung from the loss of the only love in his life, a lady named Cinnamon. Cinnamon made her trade as a bounty hunter, and proved herself a match for any man unlucky enough to face her. Her skill with a revolver was nearly equal to Slade's own. Cinnamon didn't die, she didn't leave him, she simply woke up one day a different person, completely different. That morning a stranger rose from Cinnamon's bed, a French-Canadian outlaw who rode with her brother as one half of the notorious Trigger Twins. This new person wearing Cinnamon's skin had no recollection of Marshal Slade, and recognized only that he represented the law and was therefore her enemy. Aurora's Enemy, because that was her name now. She was Aurora, she spoke with a thick French accent, and she was a Malform. It wasn't evident by her features, but when a woman leaps off her horse and takes to the sky like a giant! bird; well, there aren't too many other explanations for such things. He didn't pursue her; it would have done no good. Aurora would never have anything to do with him. His one hope was that one day she would be Cinnamon again, and that Cinnamon would remember him.
There wasn't much in Keystar to warrant the presence of a full-time U. S. Marshal, and often his duties took him away from the town. It was on one such trip that he met the mysterious man called Dr. Faust. Faust claimed to have studied medicine all over the globe, and knew techniques practiced by voodoo hougans and Indian shamans that most white men only laughed at. He proved his abilities when the marshal was shot during a raid on a small village being bullied by local cowboys. Barry Slade took three slugs in the belly, and when the local sawbone was unable to stop the bleeding, Faust arrived with his bag of ointments and salves. He applied some ruddy, awful-smelling potion to Slade's wounds, mumbled something that sounded like a prayer, and within the hour Barry's injuries had completely vanished. Faust refused to accept any payment, saying only that some people need saving, and that he hoped he could help the Marshal again someday. When Barry tried to follow him out into the street the medicine man was gone, disappeared as unbelievably as the bullet wounds did.
Months later Barry mentioned Faust to another marshal, Dabney Richards of Grand Springs, Colorado. Richards had a reputation as the Longest Arm of the Law, at least according to the pulps. He was supposed to have chased his quarry clear across the continent once, all the way from New York to California and more, finally catching up with him in Mexico. The slippery bandit's name had long been forgotten, but Dabney became a minor celebrity, and with the civil war still fresh in the minds of America, Marshal Dabney Richards made a fine hero indeed. The two lawmen were taking a breather in a little community called Humanity, after having to run a troublesome Indian gang out of town. They were both certain the townspeople had started the dispute, but the Comanche tribesmen had few rights outside the reservations.
Richards always claimed he had a nose for trouble, and when Slade mentioned Faust, he said the doctor smelled to him like death on horseback. Faust was known to live south of the border, where his alchemist lab was stocked with evil spirits. Some of the locals called him Diablo, the Devil, because of reports that monsters of stone and fire were sometimes seen near his villa. According to Dabney the charlatan lived up to his name and then some. Slade promised his friend he would be wary of any more of the good doctor's magicks and rode back to Keystar the next day.
Things back home had worsened for Miss Hope. The women of the town would rarely, if ever, speak to her. Although the marquee outside the Metropolis still billed her as the Black Canary, locally she was scornfully referred to as the Mockingbird. Her shows were cut back to once every two weeks, except for when travelers stopped there, and demanded quality entertainment.
Slade lost respect himself, for championing the Negro. It came to a head for him when he returned from Arizona one day to find the mayor had decided to elect a sheriff in his absence. He was naturally insulted, but the people had a right to want a lawman who wasn't always running off. Not long afterwards the new sheriff, a man called Frank, created a permit folks had to get from the Mayor to carry firearms inside the city. And they weren't going to let his position as an U. S. Marshal place Barry above the law. The Fastest Gun Alive was left without a gun in his own home.
Barry tried to keep from getting bitter and acknowledged that it did take some of the pressure off him. It left him with less to do, less expected of him in Keystar, although it was a hassle getting the Sheriff to hand over his weapons to him every time he was sent for.
It became more than just a nuisance that ill-fated October, nearly a year after Barbara came to Keystar. An Australian mercenary who called himself Boomerang wanted to test his mettle against the famed American lawman to see who was the faster of the two. Barry refused his challenge to meet him outside of town, and of course neither man could have a showdown within the city when neither one had a weapon. Boomerang was furious, and decided to force him into a duel by holding Hope hostage. When Barry went to the sheriff, Frank told him he wasn't going to have his shooting irons to settle some personal vendetta. And he had no intention of going after this drifter himself just to help the mockingbird.
Slade saw no recourse but to attack the sheriff, slamming his joined fists into his forehead. Frank staggered briefly, long enough for Barry to deliver a haymaker that sent the sheriff sprawling across the jailhouse floor. He took the downed man's own revolver and gun belt, and raced out of town to find Boomerang.
What happened next has replayed in Barry's mind so many times it's like looking at a series of photographs of the incident. Barry found a campfire burning just beyond Baxter Gulch, and he rode straight in, intent on shooting first and asking questions later. What he found when he got there was an ambush. Ten men, all wearing masks, were waiting for him to show up. Marshal Barry Slade was gunned down without ever seeing who fired the first shot. He fell to the ground with at least six bullets in him, and was trampled by his own horse as it tried to escape the hail of lead surrounding it. Barry's eyes clouded over with blood right after one of the bandits removed his mask, revealing Boomerang.
When they opened again it was not the Australian standing over him, but the notorious Dr. Faust. Faust was finishing up some kind of preparations, and asked Slade how badly he wanted to live. He tried to answer, and succeeded only in gurgling up blood. The Doctor took that as "a lot," and told the Marshal he could restore his body, but it would only work at the cost of half his soul. Not understanding anything more than the pain burning through him, Barry nodded agreement to whatever treatment could be administered. As Faust worked his magic, he continually justified his actions to the barely coherent Slade, telling him that this was the only way to save him, and that he would be helping the doctor repay a long-overdue debt, and that he was very lucky his wounds were not worse, or it could have cost him his entire soul. Barry slipped in and out of consciousness several times, and when he finally regained his senses, he knew things had changed.
Faust pulled an onyx slate from his satchel and held it up to Slade's face. "Meet your new best friend," he told him. The visage he gazed upon was a horrible fiend, with a face that could never be fully described by the English language. It was as if some phantom beast had been locked up inside the dark mirror.
Actually, that is precisely what had happened twenty years earlier. Now the shade had a new home, grafted to the Marshal's own essence. Faust explained that the spirit was "He Who Rides the West Wind" and he had been imprisoned by a Navajo shaman to appease his totem during a rite of passage. The wind-walker was ready to live again, and had been looking forward to a material existence for a very long while.
Barry returned to Keystar and was approached by the sheriff, who accused him of attempted murder. The Marshal shot back a curse, and said that if the sheriff was man enough for his job, he never would have fallen so easily. Still wearing the revolver, the so-called Fastest Gun Alive dared the sheriff, or anyone else who felt up to it, to take it away from him. When his challenge went unanswered he tore the tin star off the sheriff's vest and declared himself the law in Keystar; the ONLY law.
When he settled in to his "new office" at the jailhouse, Barry tried to understand what he had just done. Clearly some part of Faust's religious mumbo-jumbo had a lingering affect on him. Maybe there was powerful alcohol in the painkillers. Whatever the case, he decided to turn himself over to the real sheriff immediately. Instead he found that the man locals called Tombstone Frank had been so cowed by Barry's act of bravado he was already clear out of town, reportedly on his way back east. Like it or not, Barry WAS the only law in town again.
Things remained relatively calm for some time after that, although he never was able to find out exactly what happened to Barbara Hope, or who the other ambushers were. The next Spring work began on ground-breaking for the new railroad. This brought migrant labor in from all over the continent, and promised to make Keystar a major hub for the Midwest. The Green brothers came representing Union Pacific, and set up a company store for the work force. With the sudden influx of new goods they brought with them, it was only a matter of weeks before they had to set up a sister store for the general public.
The Greens were likable enough, despite the airs they put on around their workers. Tony was the business man, that was clear. Having studied engineering he knew exactly what had to be done, how to go about doing it, and precisely how much it would cost. When one of his foremen claimed he would have to either go over-budget or not finish by Summer, Tony Green handed him a lantern so he could work through the blackest nights, and told him any money that was beyond his original estimate would come directly from the foreman's wages. Tony was the Iron Man to his men, but in polite society he came off like a visiting nobleman out to win over the whole town.
Oliver Green was quite the opposite, in that he dedicated little time to the management of the workers. He often tended the General Store, and though he seemed slightly arrogant to the locals, those who came to know him discovered it was because of a hearing loss he received from catching Yellow Fever as a child. He survived the illness as a weakling, and came to rely almost exclusively on avoiding confrontations as a way to prevent contests of strength he knew he couldn't win. Ollie was an accomplished rider, and could notch an arrow faster than most men could draw a gun, a talent he taught himself when his brother refused to allow him to keep wasting ammunition. And although his hearing was bad, he had the eye of a hawk, and could easily put an arrow through a man's hand at one hundred and twenty yards, a feat he performed publicly when two laborers tried to loot the stores. Unlike the furor Union Pacific created in Utah two years earlier, this was simply another iron horse expansion project, and did not have the same infantry support that the historic joining of East and West received. Which meant that except for Slade there was only Oliver and Anthony Green to keep things in order in the labor camp.
The Greens came to be regarded by most as a permanent part of the town, even though the rest of the railroad crew was kept to their camp. One July evening, as the twilight sun shone multi-hued against the Kansas sky a fire broke out at the work site while the Greens were on their way back to their hotel. When the call went up they ran to find Barry Slade, and get his help in stopping the Blaze and controlling the men. A bucket brigade was started, and everyone lent a hand; the town was sitting down-wind of the camp that night. When Barry came to the center of the fire, he began directing water-bearers to wet the near-by buildings before attempting to put out the already spreading flames devouring the company store. It was during this moment of crisis he saw through the heat and smoke the unmistakable figure of the man called Boomerang, passing pail after pail up the chain. Next to him stood the notorious felon Solomon Kane, a giant who was himself wanted for the armed robbery of a stagecoach bearing U. S. Army payrolls for the Territories. And past him stood a half dozen more recognizable criminals, all wearing the denim coveralls on the railroad work force.
The very notion that these men were here in Keystar, and that at least one of them was responsible for the disappearance of Barbara Morse, not to mention his own injuries, drove Barry into a rage. The opened fire on the crew, downing three of them before anyone even knew his gun was drawn. The Greens heard the gunshots and rushed to see what was wrong. Slade screamed at them not to get in his way, that these men were probably the ones responsible for the fire in the first place. Tony grabbed his arm and tried to wrestle the gun away from him, telling him that even if that were true, there would be time enough for justice after the fire was dealt with. The next shot went straight through Tony Green's heart, quite accidentally of course, and the last thing he heard was Barry Slade yelling that this wasn't about justice, it was about Vengeance.
Oliver fell to his brother's side in time to hear those words himself. With a shout of "I'll show you Vengeance!" the younger Green brother lunged at the lawman. The outcome would have been predictable; Ollie simply didn't have the strength to carry through with his attack. Instead of a clean victory for the Marshal, though, both men were felled by the explosion of the dynamite shack, which was being watered down earlier, but was forgotten when the bullets began to fly.
The town was bathed in smoke and ash, with the consolation being that the rest of the inferno was smothered by the blast. Barry well expected another visit from Dr. Faust, but instead found himself carried away on horseback just as the load ignited. The nature of his steed eluded him. It was cold as ice, and outran the explosion with ease. He sustained only mild burns, and when he looked back, he saw that he had been taken clear across town in the blink of an eye.
In the morning everyone gathered to assess the damage and gather the dead for burial. Not so much of the site had been damaged that construction would have to be abandoned, but with both Tony and Ollie Green dead, it would take some time for the company to send replacements. A few survivors witnessed the Marshal's mad attack on the fire fighters, which culminated in at least seven deaths (none of which were the criminals Barry had seen the night before). Talk spread quickly, but it was generally accepted that the men were killed by shrapnel from the explosion, and the sheriff had only been trying to help.
Slade personally was more frightened by his relief from the fire than by the deaths he knew he was responsible for. Forces were at work he knew nothing about, and had no interest in being involved with again. His reflection in the greasy blacked window of the jailhouse once again showed a grim night specter, who looked quite satisfied with itself for its accomplishments.
Barry became more sullen than ever before, fearful that contact with others might lead to another possessed fury. Slade constantly hid inside the jailhouse, poking his face out only to search the streets for the arrival of the Doctor, then disappearing from view once again. Then came the day he was called out, by a boy who had heard the details of the slaughter, and sought to avenge the death of his own father at the marshal's actions. Barry would likely have ignored this upstart, had not the word 'vengeance' once again taken hold of his mind, and forced him to meet the man-boy honorably. He knew that he could disable most men without killing them, and that was exactly what he intended to do with this lad, sending him home with a bloody arm or leg seemed ever more generous than sending him home in a pine box.
But they didn't call him the Two-Gun Kid Flash for nothing, and in less time than it took to slide his fingers into his holster, Barry Slade was feeling the impact of is opponent's own shots. He knew it was over, and in a way, he was glad to be rid of the burdens he carried within him.
Now, a year later, Barry knew there was no such thing as a free ride. The West Wind called to him again, speaking of Vengeance for crimes he knew nothing about. He had to answer the call, he was compelled by the spirit intermingled inside him. Like the Furies of Greek mythology he rode into the night, pausing only to wrap a cloth around his grisly face, on a horse as unholy as his own perverted existence now was. He would see vengeance taken, and that alone gave him some small consolation as Barry Slade finally came to an end, and was born anew as the Speed Demon.
Ron Schablotski has a blurb.
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This piece is © 2002 by Ron Schablotski.
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