Chapter 115:

Chapter 115 - The Obligatory Train Battle Sequence


Stanley mounted the steam engine’s ladder, wind whipping at his hair and uniform as he began his perilous climb to the top. Another boy his age might’ve hesitated–might’ve been cowed by the sheer velocity of the train and clung to the rungs for dear life. Not him, though. He was made of sterner stuff. He had to be.

…Besides, Ken was right behind him, and a man that stupid didn’t deserve to see him sweat.

He pulled himself up and over the edge of the railway car’s hull, then scrambled atop it and gradually found his feet. It wasn’t easy to stay upright, given the intensity of the wind and the unevenness of the locomotive’s roof, but he managed. Ken, however, seemed to excel; he came off the ladder with the grace of a gazelle and slid to a stop at his side, already primed for battle.

“Oho! This is a new one,” chuckled the figure at the fore of the railcar. He wore a long brown duster and a ten-gallon hat, fulfilling the stereotype of a range-bred trainjacker to a tee–he even had a red-and-white patterned bandana obscuring half his face, hiding every one of his distinguishing features except his graying sideburns and a pair of sharp, deep brown eyes. “Never known you porter types to pop up ‘n’ say hello. You’re usually too busy cowerin’ in the coatroom.”

“We’re not your typical garden-variety train attendants,” Stanley replied.

The bandit’s eyes narrowed, flicking to Neverthaw and the pistol on Ken’s hip. “So I see.”

“You’re making a big mistake, trying to knock over this particular train,” the boy continued. “The Armature Express belongs to my father, Alistair Montrevi–you know, the future mayor of Trigger City?”

The man barked a laugh. “I don’t care if he’s the Czar of Larsen! These days, nothin’ rides the rails of the range without Gunn’s say-so. And since he ain’t said nothin’ about you or that Alee-stare Mon-tre-vee of yours, I’m thinkin’ he wouldn’t give half a damn if I took you and yours for everything you’ve got.”

Stanley frowned, jaw working as he tried to come up with a rebuttal. Occasionally, his father’s penchant for working behind the scenes made things difficult; he’d probably told Gunn to keep his involvement in the range’s affairs a secret, even to members of his own inner circle.

That was all well and good for him. But, as one of his operatives, Stanley had to admit that it frequently made negotiations like this much harder than they needed to be.

“You’re one of the Nine, aren’t you?” Ken accused. “That was a neat little trick you pulled, getting on top of the train like that. How’d you do it?”

The stranger smirked, shrugging mildly. “Years of experience, my friend. I’m Ralston Riggs, professional outlaw and ‘mayor’ of Cheggers County. You can think of me as the resident train robber of Gunn’s outfit–I specialize in waylayin’ trains like yours for the good of my fellow Niners.”

He went on to brush aside his duster to reveal a well-worn heater on his hip. Something shiny and claw-like protruded from the barrel, marking it as more than a simple handgun. “This here’s the secret to my success: the good lady Dragatha, my partner in crime. She’s a grapplin’ hook with a mind of her own; a bit of a temper on her, I admit, but she’s never let me down.”

Stanley blinked. “You talk about your gun like it’s a girl. Is that normal?”

“Pretty common among career criminals out here, yeah,” he answered thoughtfully. “Men like me, we have a hard time formin’ real human connections. We work alone, or in a gang full of rowdy types… Always travelin’, never spendin’ too long in once place. Hard to find time to wash, much less find a filly to settle down with. Is it any wonder, then, that we seek meanin’ and fulfillment–things we struggle to get through traditional channels–from the one constant in our lives: our weapons?”

“That, uh… I guess that makes a certain amount of sense. I never really thought of it that way,” Stanley admitted, casting an uneasy glance in Ken’s direction only to find the normally stoic man’s eyes welling with tears.

“Viper? Are you… Crying?”

“No! What?! Shut up! YOU’RE CRYING!” he bellowed. “I’m way too busy doing THIS REALLY COOL AND AGGRESSIVE MANLY THING!” With that, he sprinted forward and charged at Ralston full-tilt, his fist poised to deliver an adrenaline-and-testosterone-fueled punch of devastating proportions.

…Unfortunately, it never got the chance to connect. The Niner calmly pulled his weapon and leveled it at Ken’s chest, dispensing a long, silver cord with a vicious-looking claw at the end of it. From there, the claw itself did the rest; it dove for his left leg and seized him roughly by the ankle, pulling him right off his feet. Then, before he could even react, it proceeded to brutally slam him against the hard steel of the locomotive’s exterior again and again!

Stanley winced with every blow, stunned by the sheer ferocity of it. After a few seconds of this, the claw tossed Ken off the side of the train like he was nothing, then turned to clack at Stanley himself as if eager to dole out another beating.

“Easy, girl,” Ralston cooed, looking more than a little uneasy himself, “He’s only a young’un. After seein’ what you can do, I’m sure he’ll step aside without a fight.”

“Not likely.” Stanley reached around to pull the weapon from his back, bringing the glacier-white icethrower into his hands. “I may be young, but Neverthaw and I have been through a lot together.”

The boy hefted his weapon and stood with his legs apart, ready for anything. “Give me your best shot, old man.”

For a long moment, the only sound was the rumble of the train and the rushing of the wind. Ralston had a pained expression in his eyes, as if he’d been hoping for him to back down, but as the seconds passed, Stanley could see a glimmer of resolve coming alight within them.

“You asked for it, kid,” he grunted. “Just remember, when you’re all broken and bloody, that Ralston Riggs tried to give you an out.”

That was, apparently, what Dragatha had been waiting for. The grappling hook sheared through the air, shooting toward Stanley like a lunging serpent. Unlike Ken, though, he wasn’t blinded by emotion–he lifted Neverthaw’s barrel with pinpoint precision and blasted the claw with a gout of frigid air, taking care to keep it concentrated on the metal grabber until the thing dropped from the air and clattered to the surface of the railcar.

Ralston’s eyes practically bugged out of his head. “...Dragatha?” He gave his weapon a shake, trying to revive the sentient claw by wiggling its cord, but to no avail.

Stanley looked on with grim satisfaction. “This is the power of Neverthaw,” he explained, bringing the icethrower to rest on his shoulder. “It freezes whatever its vaporjet touches, suspending it in ice for all time. And nothing–not sunlight, not chisels, not even the hottest flames–can loosen its hold. Sorry to break this to you, but your weapon will never work the same again.”

He turned his back on the man, gazing confidently toward the rising sun. “Your life as an outlaw is over. You should retire while you still have your dignity.”

Stanley could practically feel the man having a conniption behind him. In an instant, an eleven-year-old boy had shattered all his hopes and dreams, and there was nothing he could do to change it.

At least, that was what Stanley thought… Right up until the very hunk of ice he’d just created smashed directly into his ribs.

“YOU LITTLE BRAT!” Ralston roared, spinning the cord overhead a couple times before bringing the frozen claw down hard on Stanley’s shoulder. The boy collapsed to the roof of the train, gasping in pain and shock as the Niner wheeled his ruined grapple over his head like a flail. “I’LL KILL YOU!”

The ice-chunk came down on him again, fracturing his left arm and stealing the breath from his lungs. Stanley cried out weakly, begging for him to stop, but his pleas fell on deaf ears; the man was incensed, and hellbent on revenge. Twice more the hammer came down on his battered body, pushing him past the point of coherent thought. He could feel his senses slipping away, giving way to the grasping void of unconsciousness…

But, just before he lost himself entirely, he heard a violent snap… And the ice-chunk fell upon him no more. Too exhausted to move, or even to turn his head, Stanley was left waiting and wondering about his fate right up until his savior stepped forward to announce himself:

“Never turn your back on the enemy, kid,” Ken said. “You did a good job buying us time, though. Thanks to you, he didn’t even notice me climbing back up the side of the train! I can be pretty sneaky when I wanna be, huh? I owe it all to a girl I met once, y’know. She taught me what it was to hide.

“I mean, really hide.”
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