TALES OF THE FAR WEST Preview: Excerpt by Scott Lynch
The short story anthology Tales of the Far West is now available, in print and digital format from the official FAR WEST webstore, as well as Amazon.com (paperback and Kindle), Barnes & Noble (Nook), and other sites. Featuring a dozen tales from critically-acclaimed and award-winning authors from the fantasy, science-fiction, horror and adventure genres, Tales of the Far West kicks off Adamant Entertainment’s line of Far West fiction, which will include novels, further anthologies and more. Far West Kickstarter backers have already been sent email detailing how they can download the book in the digital format of their choosing (If you haven’t received this email, please drop me a line.
To give you a taste of what’s in the book, we present the following excerpt, from “He Built The Wall To Knock It Down”, by Scott Lynch (author of the Gentlemen Bastards Sequence fantasy novels).
by Scott Lynch
He called himself False Note. It wasn’t his real name. Hell, it wasn’t even his real fake name.
He was old but unbent and his sins hung on him like bark on a tree. That was my impression the first time I ever saw him, keeping his own company in the darkest corner of Tychus Sload’s Lucky Sky Diamond Diversion Parlor. He looked like a man waiting for a funeral to break out, or a man who’d make one if it didn’t get there in good time.
I knew the dust on his boots wasn’t working-day dust or wasting-time dust like mine. That dust he trailed was old bad news stretching back across leagues, years, and lives.
At a glance, my eyes saw clear. Trouble was, I was twenty-two, and those eyes weren’t fastened to anything worth writing home about. If I’d had brains enough to fill a rattlesnakes’s ball-sack I’d have spun on my heel and gone anywhere else that night, anywhere a man like that wasn’t waiting for something.
But I was twenty-two, invincible in my own stupidity, and I was at the frayed end of a bad employment situation in a nowhere-town that had never seen any good ones. Ain’t That Something, they called it, because the gods need places to point at and laugh.
Ain’t That Something had been hitched to a silver mine but the vein was thinner than a whore’s rouge, and when it ran dry the crowds and money waiting past the eastern horizon elected to stay over the horizon. Ten days’ ride north of the Bloodiron, up into the shadow of the Eagles’ Claws, Ain’t That Something was a dry misfire of a town and I got a hell of big surprise when I showed up aiming to make my fortune.
Sload’s Lucky Sky Diamond had the same problem. Lavishly built in expectation of great things, what it got instead was us, night after night, the dregs too damned stubborn to give it up or too short-sighted to save our gambling money for the long haul back to anywhere.
We crept from sober to drunk under the yellow light of oil lamps hanging from brass sculptures of tigers and dragons. Their haunches were spread to receive copper wire that would never be laid; their mouths gaped for glass bulbs that would never be shipped within a hundred leagues of that place. We drank Sload’s worst until the images on the cards swam like hot desert air, then we went to our beds on all fours. You could have gathered up the sum total of our wit and good fellowship in a thimble.
There were six of us worth mentioning that night. Tychus Sload was a given, a snuffed candle of a man, a Seccesh war veteran who’d saved thirty years to build his dream then sunk it by building where he did. At the table with me was Jozan Shung, swollen like a toad, who carried a sawed-down coach gun and called himself Scattergun. When he got tight he acted like the rest of us did, too.
Hot Molly had what you might call a rugged natural geography and a limited acquaintance with bathing. Her temper named her. There was no place in the civilized east for a blacksmith, even a skilled one, who’d put a client’s head between hammer and anvil for late payment. Now she hunted work town by town on the frontier, where murder was less disqualifying in most trades.
Next to Molly was Timepiece, formerly the discount sort of bad man who’d thumped indentured workers for one Chartered House or another until he’d been aged and beaten out of the game. His left arm was ten years gone. He had a colorful story about some admirably-endowed bandit queen with a hatchet, but when Timepiece moved just right I could spot the scars of grep fangs on his shoulder and collarbone. His replacement arm was rusty steam-cobbler piecework, hacked up from old farm tools and busted Drudges. He loved the name Timepiece, and thought it was because he set the pace for the sad circle of bummers around him. Actually it was because his godsdamned arm made more noise than a box full of wind-up clocks.
So there was Jozan, Hot Molly, Timepiece, and your dutiful scrivener, all sitting at a table just past midnight, while Tychus Sload listlessly polished glasses that had never been used and that stranger, that waiting stranger, drank his tea in an island of shadow between the jaundice-colored lights.
“Heavens,” said Timepiece, his voice as grit-clogged as the gears of his arm. “Why heavens, just look at this hand. I swear if these cards had tits I’d marry ‘em.”
He set his cards down paint up, and the rest of us were done in. As he’d promised, it was a marriageable spread. His fourth or fifth in an hour. Still, he laughed like he’d done something clever and his arm went whirr-click, whirr-screee, whirr-click as it swept the little pile of clipped silvers toward him.
So went the game, most nights. Timepiece had two nested machines bolted into that godsdamned arm, and one was a pointlessly complex channel-fed card-sorting mechanism that was noisier than the rest of the affair put together. He was hellfire proud of it, even spent hours fussing over it with oil and jeweler’s tongs. If he’d loved the rest of his arm half as much it would have been a museum piece.
Anyhow, it was no secret that when he used that thing to deal a hand it tended to miraculously come out in his favor. We pretended not to notice. He’d cheat us, we’d cheat back in turn, and when stumbling-off time came we’d all be back to equilibrium, losers together, less the price of our drinks.
That was most nights. The night I met False Note, I got wound up and sent the game right off a cliff.
I’d love to blame it on that quiet stranger, waiting for whatever wind he thought was going to blow, but that’s not even a near-truth. I was drunk in the deadliest way, deep enough to be prickly but not deep enough to be numb and slow. I was in a bad humor, too, dwelling on the idiocy of my situation, grudging Timepiece those precious silver bits he scraped up even though I knew I’d probably chisel them back just as soon as he quit dealing.
“Hell, Timepiece, you’re already married to the secret of your success.” I took a long slow swallow of whatever Sload was passing off on us that night (lead sugar, vinegar, grep piss— gods knew) and it didn’t make me any smarter. “After all, ain’t like that arm of yours can get up and walk away whenever it wants to.”
That opened a hole in the conversation. Timepiece had gathered the cards and now he slotted them into his arm mechanism in groups of five or six, slowly and deliberately like a man feeding shells to a carbine. The ominous silence stretched and his bloodshot eyes were on me all the while.
“You got any inclination to clarify that remark?” he said at last, too softly.
“If you’re gonna keep that thing rigged up to four-flush us, don’t you think you ought to have the courtesy to vary the miracle every now and then? Maiden’s Tits, it’s more regular than the sun and the moons!”
With that, I broke the magic for good. When you’re sitting at a table like that, you can call one another scoundrels, murderers, grep thieves, ingrates, and fancy dancers of the cheapest persuasion. You can joke about being crooked as a general and constant state of affairs. But what you can’t do, what you can’t ever do, is accuse someone of cheating right then and there. Not unless you’re ready to play for blood.
Click. Timepiece shoved the last bunch of cards into his dealing mechanism. Sha-chock. The arm primed itself for the next deal. Timepiece still hadn’t taken his eyes off me. Hot Molly and Jozan Shung were giving me the stink-eye, too. They weren’t real tight with Timepiece, but they were sure tighter with him than with me. Somewhere behind the booze and bitterness my better judgment was waking up. Too late.
“Why, I do believe that touches on my honor, you skinny little serpent-tongued son of a bitch,” said Timepiece. Now he sounded downright jovial, but there was no mistaking what burned behind his eyes.
He reached out with his metal arm and took my just-emptied glass in its misshapen hand. Gears ground, pistons popped, and tinkling fragments rained on the table.
“How’s that for a new trick?” He got up slowly, like some range beast rearing up to make a show in front of its den, which I suppose is exactly what he was. His smile was wide and full of piss-yellow teeth. “You wanna see some fresh miracles out of this arm, you just step right outside and I’ll accommodate your godsdamned curiosity.”
“Well, uh, maybe I was a little hasty, Timepiece.” A little! Maybe water was a little wet and the sun was a little in the sky. My bad weeks in Ain’t That Something had made me careless. I’d fancied myself hard and ready for the world, but I had no arts for hurting folks, not even to stack up against cast-offs like Timepiece, Molly, and Jozan, and that realization was coming on awfully fast.
“Yeah, take it easy, Timepiece,” said Sload. I don’t know if it was the threat to my tender young self or the busted glass that got his attention. Probably the glass.
“He called me a cheat!” said Timepiece.
“He did not,” said the stranger.
It was like the shadows had decided to talk, or one of the sculptures. I mean, I’d guessed the stranger must have a voice of some sort. Hard to explain the tea otherwise. But he’d been wordless for so long, watching us, that he’d faded into the background for me. Timepiece seemed equally surprised at the man’s decision to quit making like wallpaper.
“Now that’s a novel interpretation of recent events.” Timepiece turned his back on me to address the mystery man. I should’ve been insulted, but it was a pretty fair assessment of the threat I posed.
“Cheating’s a marginal sin,” said the stranger, rising casually to his feet. All my first impressions of him came rushing back as he stepped into the light. That brown face had seen some weather, all right. That long hair was the color of a raven that had flown through falling ash. “He accused you of being artless. And that’s. . . much worse.”
“Mister, this ain’t your game, but you just dealt yourself in.” Timepiece lost his feigned joviality. Now his voice and his body matched what I’d seen in his eyes.
I mentioned that Timepiece had a second device nested in his arm, beside the card-game-ruining mechanism. This was a spring-loaded compartment clutch for a short-barreled revolver with cracked ivory grips. A whore’s gun, basically, but nothing bigger could hide in his forearm. Automata squealed and spat that gun into Timepiece’s flesh-and-blood hand. He held it up to catch the sickly yellow light.
“Oh, come on now, Timepiece,” said Sload. “There’s no need for that!”
“Shut it.” Timepiece twirled his sad little shooter languorously and didn’t take his eyes off the stranger. “See, someone makes noise about my honor, I’ll make noise of my own. But I’ll go all the way. All the way, get it?”
“If you had any notion of honor,” said the stranger, his voice cold, “you’d carry a good piece, and you wouldn’t keep it in a metal purse, and you wouldn’t pull it just to make yourself forget how small you are.”
Almighty gods. I thought I’d had everyone’s attention when I mouthed off to Timepiece. Jozan and Molly were clutching the table, they were so excited. Tychus Sload had a look on his face like he was about to shit twenty pounds of hot bricks.
“Show us your iron, you clown!” shouted Timepiece.
The stranger flicked the lapels of his wind-worn duster open just enough to show what he was carrying— a plain leather belt above his slim-hipped jeans. Not a holster in sight.
“I think you’re gonna be awfully surprised if you figure you can hide behind that fact that you ain’t running heeled,” said Timepiece.
“I think your opinions are as worthless as your honor,” said the stranger.
Timepiece’s gun came up. It was dead center on the stranger’s chest from six feet away.
“Mister, you ain’t drunk and you’re provoking me awful fierce. So I tell you now, I swear to the gods, you find a gun or you borrow one, or I’ll put you down like a dog right here on Sload’s floor!”
“You are provoked,” said the stranger. “I invite you to do something about it.”
What happens next? Well, that would be telling. Scott’s tale is barely 15% told here — there’s a great deal more, and another 11 stories besides! Tales of the Far West is now available from our webstore and other vendors worldwide.