A string of lonely buildings crouched in the shadow of the mountains; a wide spot on a narrow trail leading into a dangerous, little-used crossing. Welcome to Barracuda Flats, Population: Five. A quiet little place most of the time, where the biggest threat to anyone would seem to be boredom. Or so you might think, anyway...but you would be wrong.
On days when there were no settlers, miners, trappers or troops passing through, Barracuda Flats was a very uneventful place to be. Today was such a day.
Sheriff Joe Anders, known locally as Sheriff Joe, wasn’t complaining. In fact, he was sitting out in front of his jail with his chair tipped back and his legs stretched out, reading a book in the sun. From down the street – if you could call a wide track of log-graded earth fronting a straggle of small buildings a street – came occasional sounds of desultory industry from the blacksmith’s workshop and the hotel. And from the other direction, if you were listening closely, might be heard an even more occasional snore as the owner of the trading post napped the empty afternoon away.READ MORE
And that was about it. Barracuda Flats was so small it most likely shouldn’t have been called a town, it wasn’t even large enough to be a village. And it definitely couldn’t be counted as a settlement. It was just slightly larger than your average stage-stop, and that only because it was the last honest-to-God bit of civilization anyone was going to encounter after crossing the Snake and before reaching the other end of the pass. There were a few hardy farmers and small ranchers scattered through the wide box canyons and secretive deep valleys in the surrounding area; there was even a small tribe of Cherokee living peacefully in what was definitely not their native territory just a short ride away, in a tiny valley village they called Ayotlihi. But still, the area was so underpopulated that the territorial governor had appointed the sheriff himself, and arranged for the sheriff’s wages to be paid out from the governor’s own treasury. Because small as it was, off the beaten track as it was, underpopulated as it was…the crossing called Barracuda Flats couldn’t not have a lawman on hand.
Joe Anders was that lawman. Currently relaxing in the sun in front of his jail, enjoying his book, and apparently not even sparing a thought for what trouble might come riding down the road the next day. Joe wasn’t a man who borrowed trouble – although if trouble showed up he wasn’t inclined to leave it alone, either. And he somehow always seemed to know when it was going to show up. At the very least, he was a hard man to take by surprise.
The sounds coming from the blacksmith shop grew more regular, and then took on a musical tone, and he smiled at his book. Joseph Freeman, the blacksmith, had a tin instrument he sometimes played, something like a shallow polished metal bowl that was played like a drum but produced sounds reminiscent of a clockwork music box being wound up at the bottom of a small lake. It was pretty but unusual, and Joe had never seen or read about anything like it before he’d come to Barracuda Flats.
He read a few more lines in the book, finishing up a page, then tucked a scrap of newsprint in to mark his place and stood up, tucking the book into his vest and pushing back the wide-brimmed brown hat he’d pulled down to keep the afternoon sun’s glare out of his startlingly bright blue eyes while he read. He looked up and down the road, saw nothing, and then ambled over to the blacksmith’s shop. Joseph’s workshop was behind the shop, and that was where the music was coming from. Joe went as far as the door, which was ajar, and leaned against the jamb. “That doesn’t sound like a triumphal march,” he called in, just loud enough to be heard over the music, “so I’m guessing the latest experiment didn’t quite work out.”
A watery sort of chord rang out, accompanied by a rich chuckle. “And I’d be guessing that my music did not properly accompany your musketeers,” came from inside the shop in an equally rich accented voice. “You can come in; I was going in and out earlier, so the door is safe at the moment.”
Joe pushed the door further open, grinning, but stayed leaning against the jamb. “What about the rest of the place? And it was sailors, not musketeers.”
The dark-skinned man laughed and slapped his sticks against the tin bowl, producing a dissonant twang that echoed through the cluttered space before setting the sticks aside. “As long as you don’t touch anything? It is all fine.” He waved a careless hand toward the back of the room. “The coffee should be ready. You can touch that, if you are careful.”
“Because if I’m not, it’ll probably blow us both up.” But the sheriff came the rest of the way in, blinking to adjust his eyes to the dimmer light, and wandered over to where an intricate mess of narrow pipes twisted between a small wood-fired boiler, a cistern, a capped cylinder with a pressure gauge on it, and a fat teapot. There was already a heavy porcelain mug sitting in the correct spot, and by cranking a small wheel he was able to set a gear-driven series of events in motion that ran brewed coffee through a series of sieves and filtering cloth and poured the mug exactly full of equal parts of clear, fragrant coffee and steaming, foamy sweetened milk. Joe sniffed appreciatively but handed the filled mug over to its owner before snagging an identical mug off a nearby shelf and starting the process over again to make his own cup. Joseph had perfected his coffee-making machine the previous spring, and he fired it up whenever there was a new shipment of tinned milk to be had at the trading post.
Coffee finally in hand, Joe appraised the nearest tall stool to make sure all three of its legs were accounted for and were actually legs, and then sat down – carefully, because you could never be certain that anything was what it seemed to be in Joseph’s workshop, even if you’d seen and/or used it recently. He took a deep draught from his steaming mug and licked the foam from his clean-shaven upper lip; it wasn’t yet time to start growing out his winter beard. “Well?” he finally asked. “What happened with the experiment?”
Joseph waved the long-fingered hand that wasn’t holding his mug and shrugged. “I cannot see what is wrong; I have been concentrating on it too much. So I will leave it alone for a time and then return to fix it, that is all.”
“That usually works,” Joe agreed, and took another drink of his coffee. “And then?”
“And then it will be doing what I intended for it to do all along,” the other man grinned. “I will tell you what that is when it happens, not before.”
Joe snorted, but he was smiling. “Unless it blows up, and then I’m gonna have to try to figure it out all by myself while I clean up the mess. If I can clean up the mess without getting blown up myself or taken out of commission by one of your traps.”
“I have every faith in you.” He did, actually. Joseph Freeman may have been a scientist, an inventor – not to mention a damned fine blacksmith – but he knew Joe Anders was at least his equal when it came to thinking his way through a tricky problem. The sheriff of Barracuda Flats was a literate, well-educated man, and he had an inquiring mind. He and Joseph were close in age and of similar temperament, and they had become good friends over the years.
George Mann who ran the trading post was a trusted friend to both men as well, but he was a grizzled old mountain man type who kept mostly to himself out of a stubborn combination of habit and long-standing preference. The two other in-town residents, however, Joseph did not trust so much – hence the traps on his workshop door, and inside the shop itself. Miss Lottie who ran the hotel cum saloon cum boarding house, was a nosy, troublemaking sort of person, and as there was little for her to cause trouble with in a town with a population of five, she was often bored enough to get into things she had better have stayed out of. And her long-time lodger, a doctor named Jacobs who had washed up in the area on a quest for altitude to improve his consumption, had a sly stickiness about him that both Joseph and Joe were hesitant to turn their backs on. Although they didn’t have to worry about him all that much anyway, as he rarely left the confines of his room – and when he did it was only to come down to the saloon portion of the hotel. To be honest, however, nobody who’d ever met him had ever complained that they didn’t see enough of him, and no resident of the area had ever asked him to practice his profession on their behalf.
Luckily, none of them had ever needed to. Joseph appraised his friend over the rim of his mug, thinking about that. Barracuda Flats had needed a lawman because of the traffic that came through the little-used and fairly dangerous crossing – some of the traffic was equally as dangerous as the crossing itself, in fact. And Joe Anders was not a man who backed down if he could help it. It was a miracle that no one had shot him yet, as he wasn’t anywhere near a fast draw. Accurate, yes; Joe could drop a bullet in the center of just about anything he set his sights on. But fast? No. Joe was no gunslinger, a fact of which he was fully cognizant and not at all ashamed. Accuracy was more valuable than speed, to his way of thinking, because that meant that your first shot would always be your last as well. Unfortunately, it also meant that your opponent was going to get his first shot off before you did, which meant you were quite possibly going to be taking a bullet yourself if his aim was any good at all.
It had never come to that yet; Joseph, not one to borrow trouble either, sincerely hoped it never would but knew better than to believe that it wouldn’t. Trouble showed up at the crossing on a regular basis. And he was no hand with a gun himself to back Joe up – he could shoot one, of course, and he had other tricks up his sleeves, but he wasn’t what was going to be needed if something eventually came along that Joe couldn’t think his way out of. Joseph raised an eyebrow at his friend. “You know…”
“I need a deputy, yeah.” Joe’s intense blue eyes twinkled. “We’ve had this discussion before, my friend, and I don’t think you’re volunteerin’ for the job this time any more than you were the last ten times.”
Joseph snorted loftily. “You know I am not a fighter. I am a man of science.”
Joe snorted right back, much more earthily. “You’re also a man who invented a gun that rapid-fires pea-shot from a rotating cylinder when you turn a crank – for someone who’s not a fighter you damn sure know how to bring one to a quick end.”
“Bah.” Joseph waved it off. “That was for wars, which should be brought to a quick end.”
“Amen to that.” Joe saluted the idea with his mug. “The quicker the better, to my way of thinking.” Joseph cocked an eyebrow at him, and Joe sighed. “You know, it’s not like I can pull a deputy out of thin air, or grow one in the ground. And most of what trots its way down our road is more likely to be tryin’ to kill me than it would be wantin’ to sign on to keep it from happening.”
“Very true.” Joseph thought on it a moment more, and then set the discussion aside to be brought up another time – perhaps when he had a better idea. “I suppose we will just have to hope that someday the road will bring us something of more use and less trouble.”
Joe just smiled and kept drinking his coffee.COLLAPSE
Right now some of you may be asking, "Didn't this have a line-art cover once?" And the answer is yes, it did: The original line-art cover illustration was drawn by Eric Hanson. Unfortunately, the original illustration was not large enough to fit the new cover requirements that came into effect in mid-2016, so a new cover design had to be created.