This wasn't exactly the way Robert Emery Waldorf had planned to spend his afternoon.
"Come on, mista!" The whore cackled in his face, her breath smelling of whiskey and old cheese. "Juss six dollas fa two owas!"
"Why not? Ya don't like pretty girls?"
She pushed her breasts together as if that were supposed to make her rotting, yellowed teeth and cold sores more appealing.
"I prefer those who've seen a dentist recently."
The girl narrowed her eyes.
"Why you masha!" She stomped away.
Rob sipped his drink, staring at the shelves of alcohol in front of him. He sighed. Chicago sure was a weird town.
He couldn't seem to catch a break. He'd run from his problems back home, only to run into new ones here.
Rob was a bank robber. Or, at least, he tried to rob a bank. Once. He’d gotten involved with some unsavory folks, and their plans ended in a fiery explosion when their demolitions “expert” forgot how to wire his dynamite. He’s in pieces now, but Rob and the other fellas escaped in a stolen stagecoach loaded with cash into the desert, chased by the sheriff and his posse. They managed to ditch the authorities, but the bastards Rob called partners had planned to double-cross him all along. He was shot and left for dead in the middle of nowhere. His only option was to make the several-hour walk back to the town he’d just left, and turn himself in.
Three days after his incarceration, he got busted out by one of his ex-partners. The guy told Rob he was also cut from the deal and wanted to team up for revenge. There was to be a big shindig in an abandoned shack five miles out of town, and their two-timing friends were to be in attendance. Rob was to watch and wait for his ex-partner-now-partner-again’s signal to attack, at which point they would steal the money back.
Rob went to the meeting, but didn’t wait for a signal. He was courteous enough to bring the booze to the party, although he’d taken it upon himself to stuff flaming rags into the bottles. The whole place went up in flames, including the money. No one was left alive.
Now Wanted county-wide, Rob decided it was time to skip town for good. After erasing his identity and all traces of his existence, Rob left San Francisco using his measly earnings from the gold rush on a one-way to Chicago.
Immediately upon arriving in Chicago, he'd received a telegram from a man named Goddard Bryar, who said he wanted to meet Rob at his home in Angelou to discuss a matter of great importance. Rob was surprised to receive such a message, as he had gone to great lengths to go off the grid and distance himself from anyone who might know him. However, Bryar had ended the letter by mentioning he knew Rob's father, who had disappeared mysteriously when Rob was young. Rob figured if this old coot had gone to all the trouble to find him, he might as well go see what he wants.
The floor shook and glass tinkled as the doors to the saloon crashed open. The place fell dead silent.
"YOU! AT THE BARRRR!"
The man had a drunken drawl that matched his uneven steps as he clinked slowly toward Robert.
"I hear youda sumbitch what said some awful nasty things to ma woman!"
Rob swirled a finger around the lip of the dirty glass.
No rest for the wicked, huh?
"Whatchu gotta say fer yerself?!"
The man was still sauntering towards Rob. He walked down a cleared path the whispering saloongoers had made for him with a confident swagger. Small time. Big talk.
"You come 'round here, talkin' like you own the place, and you think you kin juss waltz away like you're in a Sunday parade?"
Rob picked up his glass and drained the rest of the whiskey. The man was very close. Almost close enough.
"Well, I tell you what, boy - You gon' get a lesson you ain't never forget."
His breath was raggety and warm against Rob's neck. Close enough.
"I'm gon' learn you not ta come in ma town an' - "
The man stopped.
"Whatchu call me boy?"
The jerk was dumb and drunk, but he was quick. He had halfway pulled his pistol before Rob was completely facing him. A swift kick to the chest sent the large, bearded man in black leather stumbling backward, dropping his gun to the floor. Rob whipped back his poncho and thrust his left hand forward, revealing an oversized, pitch black, cast iron revolver. There was a BOOM and a flash of light as a bolt of molten metal blasted from the barrel in a shower of embers. It punched right into the gunslinger, launching him off his feet and sending him sailing back across the room and out the swinging doors of the saloon. There was a hiss as steam sprayed into the dry air of the saloon from a vent on the left side of the hand cannon.
Everyone except Rob rushed to the doors to see what had happened. They peered out at the body of the man. A bright red flower of blood grew across his tunic.
"He's dead!" One man exclaimed.
They all turned back to the bar where Rob now sat.
"You juss kilt ol' Sammy Braggins! He been a-bullyin' our poor town fer protection money fer ages!"
"You's a hero!"
"Ya got a name, son?"
There was a moment's pause as Rob took a drink of his second glass. This was his chance. Here he was, new town, new face - new name. He had made a good first impression, now it was time to become a legend. Come up with something good... He half-turned his head, his grin illuminated by sunlight, eyes in shadow.
"They call me... 'Solder'."
Rob's boots clinked as he stepped out onto the wooden porch of the saloon. The town was alive this time of day, delivery boys darting among the buildings, cowboys ambling around between the saloon and the general store, and prim women walking by with their chins up and bustles bobbing. Rob tipped his hat to one and smiled. She ignored him. He wiped the sweat from his forehead, smoothed his shaggy, blonde hair back, and resituated his hat. When he stepped into the dirt street, he looked up towards the blinding sun, and the sight vastly juxtaposed to the town he stood in: The floating city of Angelou drifted above miles away, great steel ships docked to its metal skeleton underbelly. That was where he was supposed to meet Goddard Bryar.
His train didn’t leave for another three hours, so Rob decided to make a stop at the blacksmith.
“What kind of metal did you say?” The blacksmith was puzzled.
“Potassium,” Rob replied.
The blacksmith raised an eyebrow. “Whatcha need that fer? Got a deficiency? Go to the general down the street and buy a banana.”
Rob chuckled. “No, sir. The metal, potassium. I need it. Raw.”
The blacksmith went back to polishing the plaque he had been working on since before Rob came in.
“Sorry, ain’t got none of that. Plenty of iron and brass, if you’d like.”
Rob scratched the back of his head and frowned.
“Sorry to have wasted your time,” Rob said, and started for the door.
“Wait,” the blacksmith said. “You got me curious – Whatcha need it fer?”
“This.” Rob pulled out his revolver and set it on the counter with a clack. The gun was huge, larger than a revolver should be, and weighing in around seven lbs. It didn’t appear to have a normal revolving cylinder, just a bulge in the metal where the cylinder would normally be, and three slots that acted as ventilation. There was a round hole on the top of the gun near the hammer.
“Ain’t never seen a gun like that…” said the blacksmith.
“It fires molten potassium,” Rob said.
“Yer shittin’ me.”
“I am not.”
Rob pulled out a metal tube that fit in the palm of his hand.
“I slide a shaving of potassium in here, close the hatch, then press the button. It melts the metal in seconds, at which point I open the hatch and pour the metal into this hole.” He pointed at the round hole by the hammer.
“Pulling back the hammer prepares a ball of molten metal, and pulling the trigger discharges it.”
“Son of a bitch,” the blacksmith said. “Well, wish I had some potassium so you could show me how that crazy thing works, but guess I’ll have to take yer word fer it. Sorry I cain’t help ya.”
Rob holstered the gun. “Ah, it’s okay… I’m sure some will turn up.”
Rob made a few more stops for food and supplies, finishing his shopping by dusk. A faint hint of stars blanketed the lavender sky as he walked through the evening crowds in the dirt road. He was on his way to the train station when he came across a boy selling the evening newspaper.
"EXTRA EXTRA! READ ALL ABOUT IT! MAN KILLS WANTED CRIMINAL SAMMY BRAGGINS IN SALOON! READ ALL ABOUT IT!"
Rob walked up to the kid and took a newspaper.
"That'll be 5 cents, mister!"
Rob scanned the front page:
"A man known only as 'Solder' shot and killed Sammy Braggins today at the Saloon (causin' a major ruckus and a lot of whoopin' and hollerin' 'cause the dumb bastard's dead hope my editor don't read this). Braggins led a band of five dude ranchers around town for several months, using violence to force citizens to pay protection money.
'I ain't never knowed a man's bad as Sammy Braggins,' Mayor Tom Hinkle said this evening, 'I'm just glad he been kilt.'"
Five dude ranchers? I'd better get out of town quick before they start looking for me.
"How much did you say this was, kid?"
Rob peered behind the newspaper to find the kid had disappeared.
In fact, so had everyone else on the street.
A tumbleweed rolled by. The wind whistled. Rob dropped the newspaper.
He turned to see five men approaching from down the road. They didn't look friendly.
The men stopped about 70 yards away. They stood in a line, blocking the road.
Rob stood perfectly still. A bead of sweat trickled down his forehead, but he kept his cool.
"It's pronounced, 'sodder'!" He called back.
The man who spoke paused.
"W- whatever! We're callin' you out!" His voice cracked.
Rob paused and looked around.
"I - um... I'm already out!"
The men were quiet for a moment. Rob saw the one who spoke look to another, then back at Rob.
"Hey, donkey turd, we ask the questions around here!"
"Well, you haven't asked any questions yet!"
The men were getting impatient.
"Listen you sumbitch! We done heard you kilt Sammy! Therefore, we challenge your ass to a duel!"
"All of you at once? That's hardly fair."
There was a silence. The wind whistled in the narrow street.
Another man spoke up, quieter than the first.
"Well, uh, my daddy always sayed life ain't fair."
"Dadburnit, Carl, I towd you ta stay quiet an' let me do tha talkin'!"
A third man spoke up.
"Hey, Chester, I'ma gettin' kinda hungry. Kin we hurry this up?"
"Why didn't you get food when we was at the general store, I towd you ta grab a bagel er somethin'!"
Rob rolled his eyes.
"Look, gentlemen, this little chat has been very fascinating, but I really must be on my way. I have a train to catch in less than 3 minutes, and I'm not about to let it get away."
The men continued to squabble, one raising his hat in frustration, another stamping his feet and posturing.
Rob took a step back.
"I'll be going now."
Rob turned around and walked the other way.
Damn, thought I'd at least have a few more seconds.
Rob kicked off into a sprint. He hit the end of the block in a few quick paces and rounded the corner, pounding toward the station at the end of the street. He could see the steam already rising in huge plumes from the engine.
He glanced over his shoulder to see the 5 doofuses gaining on him. They were fast, but Rob knew he was faster.
He pushed off each footfall faster and faster, halfway to the station. He wondered why one of them with at least half a brain cell hadn't already pulled out his -
Ah. There it was.
Rob pushed harder, pumping his arms and focusing on the sprint. He figured - no, prayed - the men weren't terribly good shots.
He reached the station and threw his shoulder into the front doors with all his weight. Wood splintered all over the dirty tile floor of Olney Station. Rob stumbled from the impact, but kept his momentum, slipping across the floor and flying past the ticket booth. The station master yelled something, but Rob didn't stop, just barreled toward the platform, the train already pulling away.
He could hear a thunder of footsteps still clopping behind him, but he didn't look back as he burst out onto the platform, sliding around the corner and pushing forward, his eyes on the train he was quickly losing. He pumped his legs harder and harder. He was right on the train as it began to ascend up the slope of the gravity well toward Angelou.
The tail lights on the caboose glared brightly at him in the twilight, mocking him as he desperately reached out for one of the car's metal rails. He looked, almost too late, to see he had run out of platform. With an adrenaline-filled leap, he dove forward for the rail, stretching his fingers out - He touched cold metal. Grasped it. His ribcage slammed painfully into the railing at the end of the platform and he flopped over it, holding on for dear life as the train dragged him.
He clamored over the metal bars at the back of the car and gasped for air, clutching his chest in pain. He didn't think anything was broken, but it was going to bruise pretty bad.
He continued to catch his breath as he looked down at the five angry men at the end of the platform growing smaller by the second. He was finally on his way to Angelou.