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Read an Excerpt from the Weird West Anthology DEAD MAN’S HAND edited by John Joseph Adams

Check out this excerpt from the new weird west anthology Dead Man’s Hand edited by John Joseph Adams. It’s from a story by one of the contributors, Walter Jon Williams.

Here’s how the anthology is described:


From a kill-or-be-killed gunfight with a vampire to an encounter in a steampunk bordello, the weird western is a dark, gritty tale where the protagonist might be playing poker with a sorcerous deck of cards, or facing an alien on the streets of a dusty frontier town.

Here are twenty-three original tales—stories of the Old West infused with elements of the fantastic—produced specifically for this volume by many of today’s finest writers. Included are Orson Scott Card’s first “Alvin Maker” story in a decade, and an original adventure by Fred Van Lente, writer of Cowboys & Aliens.

Read on the for the excerpt…

“The Golden Age” (Excerpt)
by Walter Jon Williams

Alta, California
Spring 1852

So here we are, sitting in ambush on the Sacramento River down below Sutter’s Mill, and I still don’t know what it’s about. Of course I’m not a complete raving imbecile, I know the ambush is about the gold that’s coming down the river. What I don’t understand is why I’m dressed like Admiral bloody Nelson, and talking like a toffee-nose imbecile, and waiting for a man dressed like a carrion-eating bird to swoop down on us.

I want the gold, but more than that, I want answers.

When I first arrived in Alta California, I found myself a lucky man. I served as a topman on one of the first merchant ships to sail through the Golden Gate after Commodore Stockton secured the place, and therefore I was one of the first to hear of the strike on the American River, where gold nuggets were said to be just lying on the ground. I promptly deserted my ship-along with the other sailors, and all the officers, too.

I got to the gold fields ahead of the rush. I wasn’t a forty-niner, I was a forty-eighter. And by Jove, I found those nuggets just lying there, and more than a few of them.

But it wasn’t long before you had to do more than stroll along the riverbank to find gold. You panned up and down the stream, hoping to find enough ore to justify building a rocker box or a sluice box. You could stand or squat in freezing water for hours, and often enough you found nothing at all. Tens of thousands of people were flooding into the territory-not just Americans, but Mexicans, Chinese, Mormons, Australians, and even a gang of Kanakas from Hawaii. Turn your back for an instant and your claim was gone, and maybe your gold with it.

It was impossible to carry on alone, so I recruited a gang of fellow gold-seekers-we called ourselves the “Gentlemen of Leisure,” though we were anything but. I tried to get as many sailors as I could, because sailors know how to do things-build structures, haul ropes, stow supplies, handle the canvas we used for our tents. About half were English, like me, and the rest came everywhere from Tipperary to Timbucktoo. Soon they were calling me “Commodore”-as a joke, like.

There was absolutely no law. No constables, no judges, no sheriff, and no military because all the soldiers had deserted and run to the gold fields. If you had a dispute, you settled it yourself.

Settling one of those disputes was what brought me up against the Condor.

The winter of ’49 had settled in, and most of our party decided to take the Sitka steamboat down the Sacramento for a little vacation in San Francisco. We’d staked ourselves a decent claim on the Middle Fork that was bringing in a steady amount of income, nothing spectacular but regular. Some of the more ambitious of us argued for striking off to other parts in hopes of finding better paydirt, but we decided to postpone that decision till the spring.

There were a couple lads who offered to stay on the claim over the winter, which should have made me suspicious. But I was eager to spend the gold I felt burning in my pockets, and if I felt any doubts, I brushed them aside.

When I had first landed in San Francisco, it was a little mission station called Yerba Buena, but the place had the new name now, and it was a fine time we had there. The growing town was a perpetual buzz of activity, because it was in the act of transforming itself from a tiny settlement of a few hundred people to the city it is now. We paid nothing for lodging, because we moved into one of the scores of abandoned ships in the harbor. That allowed the Gentlemen of Leisure to spend our money on the things a sailor enjoys: drink and ladies. Though it has to be said that both were expensive.

Still, I managed to save enough of our funds to buy supplies for the return trip and the mules to carry them. So it was that we rollicked into our camp on the Middle Fork one fine April day, only to find a bunch of Australians working our claim. Working with our flume, which we’d built, and our sluice box, which we’d left in place back in December.

If I’d had an idea that any of this was going on, my approach would have been more cautious, but instead I just strolled right into the camp leading one of our mules and blinked in surprise at all the activity going on around me. And before I could think, I opened my mouth and shouted out.

“What in blazes is going on here?”

One of the Australians waded out of the shallows and confronted me. He was a well set-up cove, over six feet tall, with tattoos sprawling all over his powerful arms. He wore a Bowie knife in a scabbard at his waist. He loomed over me liked a big redwood, and I didn’t like the look of him at all.

“We’re workin’ our diggins, mate,” he says. “You have any objections?”

I recognized those flattened Australian vowels and was reminded that most of the inhabitants of that country were convicts-and that the British didn’t transport prisoners thousands of miles for little offenses. This might be a criminal gang, for all I knew.

Still, I brazened it out.

“This is our claim,” says I, “so you lads will just have to hook it.”

“You wasn’t here when we arrived,” says the digger. “All we found was an abandoned cabin and some moldy old tents. So this claim is ours now, I reckon.”

It wasn’t till later that I figured out what happened. The two chaps we’d left at our claim were among those who had argued for striking off to find better diggings, and that was just what they’d done: they’d taken our remaining supplies and equipment and gone upriver, and either they’d planned to be back in time to meet us or they hadn’t. I wouldn’t know, as I never saw either of them again.

“I con it thisaway,” says I. “You lot just move on now. Keep the gold you’ve taken-you’ve worked for it. But this claim is ours. You can ask anyone up the Middle Fork or down.”

I was bolder now, because the Gentlemen of Leisure had come up behind me, all nine of them, and I knew I wasn’t alone. By now we were an experienced, well-equipped party, and each of us had a Colt Dragoon pistol, and as well we carried some old Hall carbines and brand-new Sharps rifles for hunting. I had a double-barreled shotgun strapped to the pack saddle of my mule, and a big knife at my side.

If the Australian saw any of this, he decided to disregard it. I could see color rising into his face like a red tide.

“You abandoned your claim, and now it belongs to the Sidney Ducks!” he says, gesturing at his mob. “You clear out, or you’ll get thumped!”

Instead, it was me that thumped him. Remember that I was a sailor, and had been at sea since I was a boy. I’d been hauling rope and rigging all that time, and the sort of labor I’d found in the gold fields wasn’t the sort to soften me. My hands were covered in callus as thick as my little finger, and as hard as horn.

So what I did was slap the Duck across the side of the head with one of my hard, hard hands, and he was knocked silly. He sprawled unconscious to the ground, after which I turned back to the mule to unstrap the shotgun.

My own lads were quick to brandish their pistols and rifles, but the Sidney Ducks weren’t so slow, either, and came roaring at us with shovels and picks and knives and pistols of their own. Bullets whirred through the air. I yanked the shotgun from the lines holding it in place, drew the hammers back, and fired the first barrel at one of the Australians that was coming at me with a shovel. I’d been hoping to kill a grouse for dinner, so the gun was loaded only with birdshot, but it struck him in the face, and he reeled back howling.

That was when I heard the cry of the Condor for the first time, a high-pitched Ky-yeee that echoed from the granite walls of the Sierra Nevada, and then there was a great thumping crash between my shoulder blades, and I went down face-first in the gravel. While I lay stunned, trying to decide whether or not I’d been shot, I heard a wild volley of pistol fire, and a series of meaty thwacks followed by the sounds of bodies falling. My head awhirl, I staggered to my feet, and I turned around to see the most preposterous sight I’d ever seen in my life.

This was a man dressed in a feathered costume, with a large red hood pulled up over his head and down over his face, with only his piercing blue eyes peering out. Add to that a hooked beak made of boiled leather that hung over his mouth and a kind of contraption mounted on his shoulders beneath a streaming cloak.

That and the fact that he was fighting like an absolute demon. He was fighting everybody, my own party as well as the Sidney Ducks. He was punching, kicking, clawing-and sometimes he’d pick someone up and simply hurl him into one of the Jeffrey pines that surrounded the camp.

The stranger was so outlandishly dressed that I thought the camp was being attacked by Red Indians, and I reached down for my shotgun. And that only attracted his attention, for he leaped down the bank at me, snatched the gun from my hands, and flung it into the American River.

“No guns!” he shouted. “Everyone throw down your firearms!”

I watched in surprise as my shotgun disappeared in a great splash. Then rage filled me, and I swung back to the stranger.

“Damn you!” I said. “That shotgun cost me six dollars!” And I swung one of my hard hands at his head.

He slipped the strike easily and landed two blows on my ribs. Which only made me the more furious, so I lashed out again.

I should point out that I’m good with my fists, and though I’m no true prizefighter I’ve been up to scratch any number of times, defending the honor of my ship in ports all over the world. I had every expectation of giving the stranger a good hiding, especially as he was cumbered with that heavy cape and the bits of gear that I could see hanging from the thick belt he wore around his waist.

But the stranger turned out to be a regular Tom Cribb. I never touched him. He cut me to pieces in just a few seconds, and then I felt like a top-maul had just smashed me in the jaw, and I fell into darkness.

[end of excerpt]

Read more in the new weird west anthology Dead Man’s Hand edited by John Joseph Adams!

About John DeNardo (13012 Articles)
John DeNardo is the Managing Editor at SF Signal and a columnist at Kirkus Reviews. He also likes bagels. So there.
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