The Duel – A Steampunk Short Story

Bullets - Illustration for steampunk story The Duel

A hot morning in August, 1885. The bustling town of Twin Hills, California. Russell Porter strolled to the street corner and unfolded the legs on his suitcase, transforming it into a display table. Russel was quite the display himself, a blond dandy in his early thirties dressed in a white silk shirt, crimson jacket and trousers, and gold cufflinks that flashed in the light. As the early shoppers appeared, his baritone voice rang out. “Jewelry, perfume, watches! Cheaper than the shops! I’m selling everything but true love. And that’s only because you can’t buy it. However, I do know a place where you can rent it by the hour.”

A crowd gathered, mostly women eager to examine the merchandise and the dashing salesman. He opened his jacket and showed off dozens of gold and silver necklaces hanging from pins in the black lining. He reached under his shirt and produced a chain. Hanging from the chain were thirty diamond engagement rings.

A gravelly man’s voice came from the back of the crowd. “Ladies and gentlemen, do not buy from this swindler! He is a scoundrel and a common thief!” The voice came from a tall man in a brown bowler hat. He was older than Russel, with gray in his beard and at his temples.

Russel jabbed a finger at the stranger. “You dare question my honor, sir? I ought to box your ears!”

“You have no honor to question, you four-flusher!” His face reddened with anger. “I have no doubt that every single item in your case is pilfered! I saw you in Dalton Valley, picking the pockets of new arrivals on the morning train. I would have dragged you to the police, but you hotfooted it before I could apprehend you.”

Scowling, Russel closed up his case. He could see he wasn’t going to make any more sales today. “You, sir, are a liar and a windbag! Let’s settle this with pistols at dawn!”

The man laughed darkly. “Young man, I accept! Let’s shake on it.”

Russel smirked. The same quick reflexes that made him an excellent pickpocket also made him a blindingly fast quick draw. He was as fast as a cobra and just as deadly.

The crowd parted to let the tall man through. He was in a short sleeved work shirt. For the first time, Russel could see that the man’s right arm was made of banded steel. It was a prosthetic, one of the latest models developed for soldiers who had lost their limbs in the war. It didn’t have a sense of touch, but in other ways, it was superior to flesh and blood. It was certainly faster. It could move like a snapping bear trap.

“I’m going to die,” Russel thought. His mother had always said his mouth would be the end of him one day. It looked like she was right. He kept his fear from his face. He shook the man’s metal hand, which was surprisingly gentle, considering it could easily crush his bones into dust.

“I am Captain Butch Hardgrave, retired. Before I lost my arm, I was the fastest draw in three counties. Afterwards, I just got faster. Enjoy your last few hours of life, young man. I would advise you to spend the time getting right with God.”

“I have no interest in religion,” Russel said, folding his arms, “or your guff. Once the sun rises, let us meet on Main Street in front of the clock tower.”

“I will see you there.” As he walked away, he took ahold of an iron lamppost and squeezed, crumpling it like paper. He called over his shoulder, “I shall inform the undertaker to have a coffin ready.”


That evening, Russel met up with his friend Wyatt Grayson at The Kraken, the town saloon. Wyatt was a few years younger than Russel but far more successful. As a result, he had a constant smile on his face, even when he wasn’t drinking. He owned a pawn shop that Russel supplied with jewelry of dubious origin. Wyatt had a knack for business but wasn’t the charming salesman that Russel was.

“You’ve always got a plan,” Wyatt said. “What are you going to do about him?”

“I found out where Hardgrave lives,” Russel said. He checked over his shoulder to make sure no one else was within earshot. “That gossip Constance Flannery said he came into some money during the war and bought an old ranch just outside of town. I’m going to break in while he’s sleeping and steal his mechanical arm.”

Wyatt’s eyes widened. “Stealing a prosthetic from a veteran? That’s low, even for you. The man risked his life to keep our country together.”

Russel groaned. “This isn’t about politics. This is about saving my hide.”

Wyatt shook his head. “That’s just fimble-famble. Just do the honorable thing and duel the man. After all, you’re the one who demanded it.”

Russel threw up his hands. “What’s honorable about dueling a machine? You might as well ask me to fistfight a Gatling gun!” He pulled a few coins from his pocket for the hooch and tossed them on the counter, leaving in a huff.

Wyatt checked his pockets. His money was gone. Again. “I have got to stop arguing with him,” he thought, sighing. “It’s getting expensive.”


The ranch house was large enough for a family of a dozen or more, sky blue with a wraparound porch. The windows were all dark. Russel crept to the back of the house, which was shielded from the road by a patch of pine trees. He pried open a window and slipped inside, silent as a shadow.

A shaft of moonlight shone on the floor. He was in the kitchen. A small, square table still held the plate and wine glass from that night’s dinner. On the plate were the remains of a T-bone steak and a few boiled potatoes. A house like this would have a large dining room, but Hardgrave didn’t seem like the type of man to use it. Russel couldn’t imagine him having friends, let alone throwing dinner parties for them.

Something click, click, clicked across the hardwood floor. A dog, the biggest Great Dane he had ever seen. Half its skull had been replaced with metal, along with its entire lower jaw. The metal portion of its skull was furless and stamped with the US Army logo. It let out a low growl, its eyes burning red.

Russel tossed it the T-bone, hoping there was enough meat left to distract the dog. The dog opened its mouth unnaturally, terrifyingly wide and downed the entire bone in a single gulp. It resumed growling.

He picked up a chair and, thrusting it like a lion tamer, forced the dog to retreat. With his other hand, he grabbed a cast iron pan from a rack on the wall and swung it at the dog’s head. The pan clanged against the dog’s metal skull, but the dog appeared not to notice. He forced the dog back into a large pantry and closed the door. The dog pounded against the door and barked.
Down the hall, the wooden floor creaked. Hardgrave’s voice called out, “Jasper! What’s wrong, boy?”

Russel tossed the chair and pan aside and ran for the window. He made it to the tree line just as light came through the kitchen windows. As Hardgrave passed in front of the window, shirtless, Russel noticed something odd. He was wearing his prosthetic arm, but Russel couldn’t see any straps or buckles. It was as if the arm were attached to him, just like a natural limb. “I couldn’t have stolen his arm,” Russel thought. “Even if I had made it to his bedroom, I would still be doomed.”


He headed back to town with his tail down. He couldn’t beat Hardgrave, so the smartest thing to do was avoid the fight. He had missed the last train, but he was just in time for the late stagecoach to Dalton Valley. He could keep heading north, start over someplace Hardgrave would never find him. That was the best part of being a pickpocket: you could find work anywhere. He walked back to his room above The Kraken and packed a bag. He bought a ticket for the stagecoach and boarded, taking a seat near the back.

The driver fired up the steam engine. It would take a few moments for the boiler to get the large vehicle moving. He hopped back in his seat and blew the whistle, calling passengers to board.
Just as they were about to leave, another man got on. Sheriff Quinn. Black hat, white mustache, two pearl handled pistols on his belt. He had been hounding Russel for months, but had never found any conclusive evidence to pin him to any of the thefts in the area. He grinned widely. “Well, lookee here! Russel Porter! Ya can’t head off to Dalton Valley. Ya’ll will miss out on all the fun with Captain Hardgrave tomorrow morning!”

The sheriff forced an expression of compassionate concern and turned to the two dozen other passengers on the coach. “I’m sorry, folks, but tonight’s trip is cancelled. Ya’ll will be issued tickets for tomorrow afternoon’s coach.” He turned back to Russel. “And don’t try hoofing it, neither. My deputies are out patrolling the edge of town, cleaning up our recent coyote problem. Anyone out walking would risk getting shot. Accidentally, of course. So stay in town where it’s safe, ya hear?”

Russel threw up his hands. “You can’t do this to me! It’s not right!”

Sheriff Quinn laughed. “Ya’ll should have thought about what’s right a long time ago.” He jerked a fat thumb at the doors. “Now git!”

Russel trudged back to his room above The Kraken and tossed his bag on the bed. The late night stagecoach had been his only chance. The next train didn’t leave until ten in the morning. If he couldn’t avoid the duel, he would have to fight. But that didn’t mean he had to fight fair. “If Hardgrave can use machinery in a duel, so can I.”

During his conversation with the town gossip, Constance Flannery, one of the many stories she had mentioned was the gun shop owner, Hector Ramirez, developing a new self-defense device. It was intended for women and men of delicate constitution, anyone who didn’t want to carry a firearm but still wanted to be able to defend themselves. “It sounds like the kind of thing that may give me an edge in the duel. I just have to nab it. Hopefully Hector is at the usual place…”

Hector wasn’t at Madam Lambert’s, Madam Leroy’s, or Madam Le Roux’s. There was one more brothel in town to try, a new place called The Pink Porthole. Russel waited by the door for an hour and, at last, Hector arrived. He was drinking from a flask and swaying to music only he could hear.

“What am I doing?” Russel said as his face fell. “My wife would never forgive me! I can’t do this. I must be going.” He turned and bumped into Hector’s shoulder. “My apologies, mister. Excuse me.”
He hurried to the gun shop, Honest Hector’s Firearms, and stood at the front door. He lit a match and took out Hector’s keys. Several were obviously for padlocks. One was engraved with a house number. One was worn and scratched from heavy use, and almost too bent to fit in the lock, but it worked.

He lit a match and made his way through the gun shop. There wasn’t much to see. Most of the guns were locked up in safes or cabinets. A few shelves still held cheaper pistols, single shot Derringers, and ladies’ guns.

Behind the counter stood a steel door with several locks. It took him some time to figure out the right combination of locks and keys. He went through half the pack of matches and burned his fingers many times, swearing loudly. At last, he had the door open. Inside was Hector’s workshop. It was windowless, so he felt safe lighting a lantern.
The room was lined with counters and cabinets. On one side of the room was the gun manufacturing equipment, the forge, grinder, and some machinery he didn’t recognize. On the other side was electrical equipment, rolls of wire, gauges, a generator, and various gadgets and gizmos. In the center of it all, surrounded by tools and notebooks, was a shiny, silver bracer, like something that would be worn by an overdressed archer.

“This must be the prototype,” he thought. “Looks simple enough, just a dial and a trigger.” He slipped on the bracer, adjusted the straps to fit his forearm, and took aim at a pile of scrap metal in the corner of the room. Not sure what to expect, he held his breath and pressed the trigger.

Pieces of scrap the size of dinner plates flew across the room and clung to the bracer, one after the other. It was an electromagnet! He pressed the trigger again and the magnet switched off. The scrap fell to the floor with a tremendous clang. “This will certainly come in handy against Mr. Metal Arm! I might survive tomorrow after all.”


The next morning, Russel dressed in his white suit and headed for the clock tower. Hardgrave and Sheriff Quinn were already waiting in the street. Dozens of spectators lined Main Street, apparently unafraid of stray bullets.

The undertaker was there, standing next to what looked like his cheapest model of coffin. “I got your measurements from the tailor,” he called. “You’ll want a closed casket funeral, I assume? I heard he likes to shoot people in the face. How many people do you expect to come? Are you friends with all the thieves in the county?”

Russel scowled. “You’d better build a taller coffin, because I’m not the one dying today!”

Also among the crowd was a bespectacled man with a notepad, the reporter for the local newspaper. He strode up to Russel and handed him a sheet of paper. “I thought you might like to know, Captain Hardgrave paid for this announcement to run in the morning edition. Any comments?”

Local thief Russel Porter died yesterday in a duel. After a lifetime of pickpocketing, robbery, and grifting, he was laid to rest in an unmarked grave.

Russel tore up the paper and threw the pieces in the street. He furrowed his brow. “That’s not going to happen. I’m going to win this duel. And even if I don’t, this is not how I’m going to be remembered. You’ll see.”

“Although,” he thought, “maybe that’s how I deserve to be remembered. I steal from my best friend. I was going to steal a prosthetic from a war veteran. If I want to be remembered differently, I’ve got to be different.”

Russel found Wyatt standing in the crowd. Wyatt said, “Glad to see you’re doing the honorable thing,” but there was worry behind his eyes.

“I’ve got a plan,” Russel said. “I’m only about seventy percent sure it will work. If it doesn’t, I need you to do something for me.” He handed Wyatt his room key. “Go to my room at The Kraken and take my suitcase. Sell everything in it and give it to the old folks’ home.”

He rubbed his jaw. “I can do that, sure. Does this mean you’re going to quit the pickpocketing business?”

He shrugged. “Maybe I can find a way to use it for good, like teaching people how to spot pickpockets in crowds. I don’t know.” He sighed. “Listen, Wyatt, I’m sorry about all the times I stole from you. I only did it because I knew you could afford it, and you just get on my nerves.”

His eyes narrowed. “As do you, buddy, as do you. Good luck out there.”

“Thanks. I’ll need it. Oh!” He gestured at the bracer. “And this belongs to Hector Ramirez. Make sure he gets it back.”

The sheriff waved for Russel to join them. Russel headed up the street. “Now what in the hell is that?” the sheriff demanded, pointing to the bracer on Russel’s left arm.
“The doctor gave me a wrist brace,” Russel said. “I injured it falling off a horse.”

Hardgrave and the sheriff laughed.

“You city slickers,” the sheriff chuckled, shaking his head. “As useless as a graduation cap on a pig.” He paused to light a cigar.

“Now, ya’ll already know how this works, but the law obligates me to go through the rules each time some goldang idjit decides their honor has been stained or their boots have been scuffed and now they’ve got to shoot each other. Load your guns with one bullet. Just one, damn it! If ya’ll can’t kill each other with one bullet, ya’ll will just have to find forgiveness in yer hearts. Take yer places at either end of the street, thirty paces apart. Listen for the clock to start striking. Once the clock strikes the seventh time, ya’ll will draw and fire. Drawing early is cheating, will get ya plunked.” He put a hand on his pistol. “Got it?”

They both muttered their agreement and took their places. The clock began to strike. The spectators cheered until the sheriff yelled for silence. Hardgrave and Russel held their hands just above their waists, ready to draw. Russel positioned his left arm so that the bracer was aimed at Hardgrave’s pistol.

Five.

Six.

Seven.

Russel pounded the trigger. Hardgrave’s right arm jerked forward as his gun jumped out of its holster and flew through the air. The gun stuck to the bracer with a clank. Russel pressed the trigger again to release the gun. He caught it as it fell, aimed, and fired, shooting Hardgrave with his own pistol.

The crowd clamored in amazement. A woman’s voice screamed, “What kind of witchcraft is this?” Hardgrave had a hole in his gut, but he was still standing.

Sparks and smoke came from the hole. Hardgrave lifted his shirt, revealing an abdomen made of steel plate. Apparently more than just his arm was mechanical. He sighed deeply. “Looks like I’ve got some work to do with the soldering iron.” He put down his shirt and frowned. “I hope you took my advice and got right with God, thief.” He flicked his metal hand and a slot opened in his wrist. The barrel of a Derringer sprang into view. “Goodbye.” He aimed his arm and fired.

Russel fell. With his final breath, he gasped, “Damn you to hell, you dirty liar. I’ve never even been to Dalton Valley.”

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