Author's Note: Okay, this one requires a bit of explanation.
This snippet was the result of a challenge from willwrite4fics. Basically, the idea was to take a scenario often found in badly-written fiction and, using GI Joe characters, try to do it right. My initial urge was to send the Joes to Hogwarts, but when that fell through, I did the next best thing and swapped genres on them.
Please note that this, unless I'm absurdly inspired by something truly bizarre, this will not be continued. My goal was to set the scene, introduce some characters and how they fit into the world of the Old West, and in general give you the sense that you'd tuned in about a quarter of the way through a '50s spaghetti Western.
Note also that this story contains use of an ethnic slur. It's one that's not used today, but I included it for historical accuracy and to give a sense of where the characters stand in relation to each other. I don't believe in what it stood for or think that this kind of language should be used lightly. However, we should bear in mind that during this period of history, Asians in America didn't exactly have a lot of respect; Snake-Eyes, a white man freely associating with the Japanese, would be ostracized (at best) for his choice of company.
Overall, I enjoyed writing this, and I hope you enjoy reading it. The Western genre option is severely underused!
Disclaimer: G.I. Joe and all associated characters and concepts are property of Hasbro Inc, and I derive no profit from this. Please accept this in the spirit with which it is offered—as a work of respect and love, not an attempt to claim ownership or earn money from this intellectual property.
A Fistful of Shuriken
by Totenkinder Madchen
Nevada, 1870 . . .
The woman sighed, pushing her sweaty hair out of her face. It was almost evening, but the town of Pitt, Nevada was still as hot as an oven. Of course, her location didn't help either; it was a busy day at the smithy and farrier, Krieger & Sons Proptr., and after a few hours working next to the forge even stepping outside into the hundred-degree weather felt like a cool bath.
She suspected her grandmother would be extremely surprised if she could see her granddaughter now. The Kriegers had been Easterners originally, a well-to-do family with a very large farm; Paul Krieger had married Mary Courtenay, of the Peoria Courtenays, and his in-laws had been extremely good to him. (Good enough that the woman, who was now mopping her face with a damp rag and cursing Nevada and everything in it, had been saddled with the unfeminine name of Courtenay Krieger.) Unfortunately, unwise gambles on livestock had soured that relation, and the promise of cheap claim land out West had lured the Kriegers away from the grassy pastures of Illinois. Courtenay had been nine at the time, and she had been considered precious for as long as she could remember, taking dancing and piano lessons, and even being asked to recite before the President when he visited Peoria. Yet the move out west had been good for her, she knew now. If the family, broke and ashamed, hadn't made the trek—well, she wouldn't have discovered her passion for this kind of work. Granted, she would also have been much, much more comfortably off, but you couldn't have everything.
Oh, there were some difficulties. She did tend to get the stink-eye from traveling preachers. But the people of Pitt were hardy folk with a nose for talent and a wry appreciation for a good joke, and Courtenay's talent with wagons bought a lot of goodwill. Sure, there were the violent and unfriendly neighbors, and the raids from the next town over, and some of the folk were downright irritating . . .
Speak of the devil. A pair of shadows appeared in the doorway, and Courtenay glanced up, mopping her face a little.
"Good morning, Miss Krieger," the shorter of the pair called out cheerfully. His name was Steinberg and he was a relative newcomer to Pitt, but he had a deft hand—a little too deft—with racing a buggy. The men of Pitt had nicknamed him Clutch: "because he leaves you clutching the board and hoping the horses don't run away," as Deputy Hauser had put it. He had to be rich, because he wrecked buggies on a regular basis and yet somehow got ahold of more, a fact which made him popular despite his recklessness. His companion was, as ever, the Indian Spirit Iron-Knife, who maintained a remarkable calm in the face of Clutch's occasional lunacy.
"Morning, Clutch," she said, wiping her hands on a cloth. Two years ago, the prospect of addressing a man by anything other than his proper surname would have caused some serious fan-quivering . . . But Courtenay would be the first to admit that she'd always had a rather strident personality (something even a parochial girls' school hadn't been able to knock out of her), and things were different in Pitt. Besides, "Mr. Steinberg" was the kind of name you used for a druggist or a doctor, not the man who had proudly announced his discovery that if you hitched a four-horse coach team to a lightweight buggy and took a corner hard enough, you could actually bounce the buggy over a good-sized shed. She couldn't use that kind of name for him.
Especially not when she'd been the one to discover that fact first.
"How are the repairs coming?" Clutch said, squinting over her shoulder. He was a bit of a farrier himself, and was always eager to be part of the process whenever he'd wrecked another set of wheels, but Courtenay didn't particularly trust him with her tools. She finished cleaning her hands, making sure to take her time before answering him.
"It's going well. But you know you have to be patient; you boxed the axle on that last jump." Courtenay crouched down and examined the pieces of metal carefully arranged on a long strip of canvas. "Look at this. Honestly, Clutch, you need to learn that you're never going to get a buggy to fly. My mother treats Irishmen better than you treat these things!"
Clutch accepted the rebuke with only minor grumbling, but he seemed reluctant to leave. "How soon can you have it fixed?" he asked, crossing his arms. "It's important."
"Another one of your mysterious trips out into the desert?" Courtenay said. She didn't look up, so she missed the significant looks exchanged by Clutch and Spirit Iron-Knife. "You must be racing; I can't think of anything else that would put this kind of wear on the shafts. Why don't any of you tell me when it's happening? I can drive anything with wheels on it, and you know that."
"Well . . . we'll be sure to next time," Clutch said quickly. He shot another glance at Spirit Iron-Knife. "Listen, I have something I need to double-check. Spirit, you'll wait here while Miss Krieger fixes the buggy, correct?"
"That is correct, kemosabe," Spirit responded. Clutch nodded to him and Courtenay as he hurried out the door, his neckerchief askew. Courtenay tsked between her teeth as she glanced up to spot the driver's retreating back.
She made sure that Clutch was good and gone before she made eye contact with Spirit. "So," she said as she picked up a pair of tongs, "he still hasn't figured out that 'kemosabe' means 'soggy shrub,' has he?"
"What he doesn't know won't hurt him," Spirit said calmly.
Meanwhile, twenty miles outside of Pitt . . .
The land was bleak. Rocky, barren, harsh, and unforgiving, a desert without even the courtesy to provide the cacti and lizards, it was responsible for the eclectic population of the town itself: nobody with anywhere greener to go would willingly stake a land claim within a hundred miles of the place, and the people who did come there were often harsher and more alien than the land itself.
In one end of a small box canyon, a camp had been set up near the mouth of an old abandoned mine. The miners had been digging for gold, but the seam had run dry years ago, and now it was rumored that the place was haunted. For certain it was unsafe; even the crazy desert prospector, Dusty Tadur, didn't go near the place.
Now, though, four horses had been hitched to a dead tree, and tents had been pitched on a relatively flat piece of sandy dirt. Two men were crouched by the campfire, their hats discarded now that the progress of the sun had thrown this end of the canyon into shade, watching while the third member of the group brewed coffee on the hot embers.
"You know," that third said as she carefully lifted the coffee pot out of the fire, "it's not that simple. I saw him during the War; he was in with Quantrill's Raiders, burning the hospitals. He was actually thrown out for going too far. This mayor business doesn't sound like him."
"Ah agree, Scarlett," the bigger of the two men said, unwinding his tattered green bandanna. "But even if it ain't, that don't mean we shouldn't be ready for a fight. He's got that Scotch bastard on his side, and he's a clever one, even if he thinks he's in the Gawddamn dark ages with that mask a' his."
"Duke" Hauser, the deputy sheriff of Pitt, surveyed the pair with mixed feelings. He had his confidence in Chief Sheriff Abernathy, who in turn had stated his absolute confidence in these . . . what were they, anyway? They weren't lawmen, but then they weren't bounty hunters either, and despite the heavy Southern accent, Mister Wayne Beach (what kind of a name was that?) carried a rifle that was clear 11th Illinois Cavalry issue. And the woman, dressed in men's clothes but with a figure that couldn't be mistaken for anything manly and a long rope of bright red hair that showed where the name "Scarlett" had come from . . . He couldn't figure her out. All he really knew was that they were part of some kind of 'plan' that Sheriff Abernathy was putting together, and that the sheriff had asked for Duke's help in getting it all coordinated. "Keep them out of trouble," Abernathy had said.
And to be fair, Duke understood why the sheriff might have tried assembling a posse like this. Springfield, Utah, was only about a day's ride over the border from Pitt, and from the day of its very recent founding the town had been nothing but trouble. Its inhabitants never seemed to work or produce anything, and they certainly weren't old money, yet it was growing rapidly and attracting all kinds of dangerous characters. More than once, marauders from Springfield had taken it into their heads to harass Pitt, thundering through town and smashing everything they could get their hands on. Sheriff Abernathy had mentioned that he had some "old friends" from his own war days that might help, but what they were putting together seemed to be a little more coordinated than the tar-and-feather party he had expected.
"Quantrill, huh?" he said, crossing his arms. "Are you certain you're talking about the same Mayor of Springfield here, miss? Broca's no prize, but I'd have thought he was a little too much of a coward for something like that."
Scarlett and Beach exchanged glances. "Definitely," Scarlett said after a moment. She poured herself a cupful of coffee from the tin pot and drank it off straight, making Duke's eyebrows rise. "A man we know—Faireborn—has friends with the Pinkerton Agency. If you saw Broca's file, you'd choke."
Duke tried another tactic. "Listen, miss. The sheriff sent me here to help with whatever it is you're planning; his exact words were 'keep them out of trouble.' But whatever your intent, I don't think you'll get very far with one man, three horses, and-" He was cut off by a loud snort from Beach, who seemed to find something extremely funny but was apparently trying to restrain it for Duke's sake. Scarlett met Duke's eyes steady on, and for a moment, Duke had the uncomfortable feeling that he was the one being laughed at.
"I didn't mean to offend, miss," he added belatedly. The cool blue gaze was beginning to make him feel uncomfortable. For some reason, she wasn't looking him in the eyes any more; instead, she had shifted, and seemed to be intensely interested in something just beyond the side of his head. What was this, an intimidation tactic? Well, it was working, but Duke Hauser had been a lawman for a long time and didn't own up if he got spooked. "Miss? I'm over here," he added, trying to get her attention back to where it should be.
"Snake," she said calmly. At which point Duke—who had no intention of dying from a rattlesnake bite—leaped to his feet, seized his revolver, whirled in place, and almost had a heart attack.
Someone was standing directly behind him.
Duke was fast, but the stranger was faster. Even as his finger twitched on the trigger, there was a blur of movement, and his gun was wrenched from his hands and sent spiraling across the camp. Duke recoiled, raising his hands instinctively to block a punch, but to his surprise the stranger didn't throw one. Instead, he just stepped back a pace and fixed Duke with a stare that made the deputy sheriff feel like a can of peaches being pried open.
The stranger was like nothing Duke had ever seen, and in his time in Pitt, he'd seen a lot. The man was dressed all in black—not the good coal-black of a well-made suit, but dusty, dirty gray-black, the color of the long evening shadows on the canyon floor. Every bit of metal on him had been dusted with soot or greased with lampblack, making it near impossible to tell just how many knives he carried on him . . . though the number that Duke could spot made the deputy damned uncomfortable. Most of his clothes looked normal, but the black bandanna was drawn up high over his nose, and strips of dark cloth were wrapped around his forehead. Only his eyes and a patch of skin around them could be seen.
"Holy Mary, mother of God," Duke said without thinking. The skin was a wreck: once torn and burned, it had been inexpertly tacked back into place by some hack sawbones, and now it was more scar than flesh. The worst part, though, was that in some way it was all horribly familiar.
"Nice a ya t'join us, Snake-Eyes," Beach said. "Took ya long enough. Anythin' interestin' out there?"
The mutilated man stepped to the side and neatly stole Duke's spot by the fire. The deputy was about to protest, but closed his mouth as Snake-Eyes undid a pouch on his belt and upended it. Scalps thudded into the dirt.
At which point Duke made the connection, and he drew his second revolver faster than he had ever done anything in his life. "Hold it right there, stranger," he said sharply, pointing the gun at the back of Snake-Eyes' head. "I knew I'd seen you before somewhere. We've had your poster up in the office for a year and a half now!"
Scarlett leaped to her feet, but Beach put an arm on hers and pulled her back down. "Ah wouldn't worry, Scarlett," he rumbled. "Reckon this is somethin' we'll have to deal with sooner or later, so let's let the man get it outta his system."
Duke ignored them. No wonder that (lack of?) face had seemed familiar: he only saw it out of the corner of his eye every day in the sheriff's office! The Quiet Man, real name unknown, also called Snake-Eyes and the Iowa Kid. Current reward: five thousand dollars, though it had been raised periodically as the man failed to be caught. Accused of everything from spying during the War to murder, arson, and instigating coolie riots as far back as '49. He had a soft spot for the coolies, they said, but that was pretty much all he gave a damn about. And he took scalps: not scalping anyone himself, but stealing scalps that others had taken. Rumor had it that he burned them. Quiet Man doesn't like that kind of thing, they said.
"Now stay calm, lawman," Scarlett said, holding out her hands as if she was telling a dog to get down. "Snake is one of us."
"He's a wanted fugitive is what he is," Duke responded tightly, not moving his stare or his gun. "And you're associating with him. Don't move a muscle, 'Snake,' you're under arrest."
A sigh from Beach. "Ah told ya this'd happen," he said to Snake-Eyes, who merely shrugged. "Ah'm serious. Ya gotta rethink the way ya deal with folk like this."
Something growled, and for the second time in less than a minute, Duke became uncomfortably aware that there was something lurking at his back. He tried not to twitch, but a bead of cold sweat crawled down the back of his neck as the growl grew louder.
"Wolf," Scarlett pointed out.
Duke blinked. "It isn't actually someone named Wolf, is it?"
"No, just a normal wolf. Timber wolf, from way up north." Scarlett leaned to the side, peering around Duke to get a good look. "Definitely. Timber wolf."
Duke blinked again, trying to keep the sweat out of his eyes. "Is it going to attack me?"
"Well, I'd say that's up to you," Scarlett deadpanned. "Are you going to put the gun down?"
"He's a wanted man," Duke pointed out tensely, trying not to flinch. His grip on the gun wavered ever so slightly. "How do I know he won't make a move?"
"Again, I would like to mention the wolf right behind you."
"Ain't winnin' any favors that way, Scarlett," Beach interjected. "Look here, Hauser, Ah don't think you understand what yer getting' into. Abernathy trusts us, and if that ain't good enough fer ya, then ya can walk away right now, no problem."
Unfortunately, Duke had to admit that Beach had a point. He lowered the gun—slightly—and Snake-Eyes shifted, letting out a low whistle that was slightly muffled by the bandana. Duke relaxed a little as the growl died away, and he risked a look over his shoulder.
That was indeed a wolf: a big wolf, with a scarred foot and patches of gray in its fur. It trotted past Duke, limping ever so slightly but moving much too quickly for Duke's peace of mind, and settled itself firmly next to Snake-Eyes.
"Are we finished?" Scarlett said, leaning across to pat the wolf on its head. Duke holstered the gun again as nonchalantly as possible, trying to pretend that this was just another normal day for a sheriff's deputy in Pitt. He was beginning to wonder just what Sheriff Abernathy had meant when he said "keep them out of trouble."
"I think so," he said cautiously as he moved a little closer to the fire. The wolf had stretched out on the ground, resting its head on its paws, and its eyes gleamed in the firelight. "If you have any more unusual types with you, though, I'd be grateful if they'd approach me head-on. Sneaking around's no way to fight."
"Snake-Eyes would disagree with you, I think," Scarlet said calmly, "but we'll let that be. What's the word, Snake?"
The quiet man inclined his head, bent forward, and began to rapidly sketch something out with one fingertip in the dirt. It looked . . . Duke craned his head, trying to see better . . . yes, it looked like the plan of a town. Snake-Eyes flicked a finger, drawing several winding loops through the center of it, and Duke realized that he was looking at the line of the Cobra Rock River—which made the town Springfield. Scarlett hmmmed in acknowledgment as Snake-Eyes began to mark out places: guard posts, the mayoral office, and outside the town limits, three different encampments.
"Ah thought so," Beach grunted. "Lookit that. That ain't no regular town; they got all points a' entry covered, an' the whole place is sealed up tighter'n General Sherman's ass."
Duke frowned, studying the crude sketch. As shaken and irritated as he was, he had to admit that Beach's assessment was fair: he himself had seen more combat than he'd liked during the war, and as an aide to Lt. Flagg, he knew his way around battle plans. He'd visited Springfield a couple of times, but seeing it mapped out like this made the arrangements much clearer. "It's not a town, it's a fortress," he said aloud. "And it's centered around the mayor's office and . . . what's that other building there?"
With one fingertip, Snake-Eyes drew the silhouette of a bottle over the building. "It's the pharmacy," Scarlett translated. "That's strange. Why would they be protecting a pharmacy?"
"You haven't been in this neck of the woods long, have you?" Duke said, relieved to be on firmer ground here. "Broca's gotten a new friend since he moved here. Brian Bender. He calls himself a pharmacist, but Sheriff Abernathy's run his people out of town half a dozen times for selling patent medicines that kill. Not much of a doctor, but one hell of a poisoner."
"Sounds about right," Beach said. "Broca's always been the sort t'play dirty. Reckon all the others that could've stood for mayor against him got sick all of a sudden, huh?"
Duke was prevented from answering by the sound of hoofbeats. A rider was approaching from the other end of the canyon, hard to see in the fading light. He instantly put a hand on his gun again, but Scarlett waved a hand at him. "It's one of ours," she said. "Trust me."
"How do you know?" Duke said cautiously.
"He's upwind," she said, "and Timber hasn't made a sound." The wolf yawned at the mention of his name, displaying an impressive set of teeth, and settled his head back onto his paws. Duke wasn't quite sure if that was reassuring or not.
Sure enough, though, the approaching rider turned out to be familiar. A little too familiar.
"Steinberg, what the hell are you doing here?" the deputy said loudly as Clutch reined in his horse. "You're involved with these people?" His eyes narrowed. "Is it something to do with all those buggies you keep smashing up?"
"Got me red-handed," Clutch said cheerfully, dismounting with a showy leap. "Snake, Scarlett, Beach, nice to see you folks again. What's the plan?"
"Still workin' it out," Beach responded. "Where's Spirit?"
"He's waiting on the repairs in town. It won't be ready to go until morning, though; even once the axle's fixed, we'll need to put all the armor plating back in ourselves. Can't leave that in for the townies to find."
Duke's brain hadn't quite caught up with events. "Spirit? Spirit Iron-Knife, that Indian? He's in this too?"
"Is he always like this?" Scarlett said crossly to Clutch.
"I think you all just broke him a little, that's all. Pitt's the sort of place that doesn't have any trouble with women working, but even it doesn't have a Snake-Eyes." Clutch exchanged a cordial handshake with the man in question while Duke fought to make sense of the whole mess. "He'll come round in a minute or two. What's he for, anyway?"
Scarlett ran her gaze over the confused Duke, who had the uncomfortable feeling that he was being judged like a prize pig. "He's a good leader," she said finally, "or at least, that's what Sheriff Abernathy says. No sense in wasting a man with battlefield experience. Have you heard from any of the others?"
"Just two. Tadur and Hinton have each been contacted independently by Broca's people—offering them soft jobs if they move to Springfield. Other folks in the area have been getting the same offer. Broca's looking at strong men and prospectors specifically, it seems."
"Thugs," Beach Head grunted perfunctorily. Reluctantly, Duke's respect for the man went up another notch. Only long-time soldiers, men who'd had the chance to mix with foreigners, used that word to describe a violent man or a criminal. Duke himself had picked it up during the messy aftermath of Pickett's Charge, when a British-born surgeon had kept up a constant monologue while stitching up the wounded.
"It gets better," Clutch added, his tone dry. "A lot of them have been taking Broca up on his offer. Tadur says that some real handy dynamite men are in Springfield now. And if all that about the Scotchman and his weapons is true . . ."
There was a long moment of silence around the campfire. Scarlett's face was unreadable, but Beach was frowning, and Clutch rubbed his forehead for a moment as if unsure of what he should say next. Snake-Eyes just put a hand on Timber's head.
Shadows were creeping in, and night was coming on fast. Outside the warm circle of the small campfire, the barren canyon was nothing but pools and walls of patterned shadow. Far off in the distance, a coyote howled, making Duke's skin prickle. The moon had just begun to wane, but clouds were gathering. There was going to be a storm tonight, and a hard one.
"Well," he said finally. The four looked up, seemingly surprised that Duke had spoken, but Duke didn't meet their eyes: he was looking down at the map that Snake-Eyes had drawn. "If you plan to take people into that town, one armored buggy won't be enough. Do you have another driver?"
This time, the moment of silent was more surprised than thoughtful. "No," Scarlett said finally. Her head was cocked as she examined Duke, as if not quite sure what to make of him. "What are you thinking, lawman?"
Abernathy had trusted him to keep a rein on this bunch of old soldiers and outlaws, and Duke would be damned if that wasn't exactly what he'd do. Sure, he was half convinced that the sheriff and all these people were crazy as a rat in a coffee can, but if it was this or another twenty-five years of hustling Bender's men out of town and cleaning up the leavings after Broca's gangs had stirred the place up . . . Well, Duke knew which side his bread was buttered on there.
"I'm thinking I want Broca gone," he said flatly, kneeling down and putting his hand beside the crude map in the dirt. "But the more people you get into that town, fast, the better chance you'll have. Now, I happen to have an idea on that front . . ."
The forge glowed brightly despite the late hour. Most of the businesses had closed for the night, but Courtenay didn't stop work for something as silly as the sun going down, and she had hung a few extra lanterns to make sure that she could see what she was doing while she worked.
There was a rustle of footsteps outside the door, but she didn't bother looking up: she knew for a fact that Spirit Iron-Knife was still in the forge, and if that wasn't an effective enough barrier against troublemakers, she had a pair of tongs in one hand and a hammer in the other. And she didn't appreciate being disturbed.
A few voices were speaking quietly: men, by the tone of them, Spirit and Deputy Hauser easily identifiable. After a moment, boots scraped on the threshold, and she could hear one of them step into the forge. Sighing a little, she glanced up from her work, hammer and tongs still at the ready.
"Evening, Miss Krieger," Hauser said cordially, tipping his hat. "Sorry to disturb you at this hour, but there's a bit of an odd job we thought you could help the sheriff's office with."