I wrote this story for Machine of Death, Volume II, a collection of short stories about, basically, a machine that can predict how (but not when) you’re going to die. Unfortunately, they had almost 2000 submissions for 30 possible slots, and this one didn’t get in. I’ve read some the other rejected submissions people have posted and it seems I’m in good company, so I can’t wait to see the stories that actually made the cut.
Sal Barker rode into town looking for the notorious outlaw Joshua Burke. Stepping into Blind Willie’s saloon he was amazed. Most days, there were only a handful of windswept and dirty men sitting at the bar, but today the room was packed with respectable-looking people, and there were even some women in the crowd.
“What’s goin’ on here?” Sal asked.
“Blind Willie’s bought a crazy new invention,” someone in the crowd told him. “Just got it in from San Francisco last week.”
“New invention?” Sal sneered, “All these people in here for some kinda slot machine?”
“It ain’t no slot machine,” Blind Willie said, hobbling towards Sal and waving his cane in the air, “It tells ya how you’ll die.”
“That so?” Sal asked, “How you gonna die then, Blind Willie?”
“Cordin’ to this machine, a ‘STAMPEDE,'” Willie said, holding out a small piece of tape with the word printed on it.
“Hell of a way to go,” Sal said, patting Willie in the back in mock sympathy, “Had a cousin got caught in a stampede, nothin’ left of him at the end but a stain on the ground. Anyone in here seen that bastard Josh Burke?”
“He was just here,” Willie said, “Even tried out the machine hisself. You oughta give it a try too, Sal.”
The crowd murmured in agreement. Sal was almost a legend around these parts, and not necessarily in a good way. Quite a few people in the room wanted to know how he’d die for reasons besides idle curiosity.
“Sounds like fun,” Sal said, “But right now I gotta find Burke. He say where he was headed?”
“What’sa matter?” a voice from the back of the room shouted, “You yeller?”
The room got quiet. Sal slowly turned around, searching for the man who’d dared insult him. The crowd parted to reveal an obviously drunk man sitting on a bar stool. The drunk’s red face turned white as he realized he’d just done something very stupid.
“Nobody calls me yeller,” Sal said, stepping forward.
“Give ‘im a break, Sal,” someone in the crowd murmured, “He’s from out of state, he don’t know you.”
But Sal’s target wasn’t the man at all. He stepped past the drunk up to the machine that had attracted so much attention. It was an ugly thing, made of metal, with gears sticking out every which way and a single lever, like a slot machine.
“How’s it work?” he asked, staring at it suspiciously.
“Put a coin in the slot, then put your finger in the hole and pull the lever,” Blind Willie said, stepping up behind him and pointing to each part with his cane. “Machine takes a bit of blood, then spits out a piece of paper that tells you how you’re going to die.”
“How’s it know?” Sal asked.
Willie just shrugged. “Alls I know is, it works. The man who invented it got ‘BROKEN NECK’ and what do you know, next month he falls off a cliff.”
“I hear he jumped,” someone said. “Couldn’t bear to face what he brought into the world. Thought it was possessed by the devil or some such nonsense.”
Sal dropped a coin in the slot and stuck his finger in the small hole. As he pulled the lever with his other hand, he felt a small jab from the needle and the gears began to turn. The whole saloon stood in silence as the machine clanked and sputtered for what seemed like an eternity. Finally, it ground to a noisy halt and a small piece of paper slid out of a slot in the front.
Sal tore off the slip and stared at it wordlessly.
It read “OLD AGE.”
A few months after Sal got his prediction, Sheriff Williams visited him to offer him a job.
“I’ll tell ya the same thing I told ya years ago,” Sal said, “Go piss up a pole.”
“Now look,” Williams said, “Things are different now than they were back then. A gunslinger like you can’t die of old age, you know better’n I do that folks’ve been treatin’ you different ever since you got that prediction.”
Sal sighed. “I’ve never run away from a fight in my life, but when people think you’re gonna die of old age, they assume that it means you’re a coward. Even if ya stand and fight, you’re still a coward. You know you’re not gonna die, so even when you’re facing’ a loaded gun, you’re not taking any risk. It’s like killin’ a man with his back turned to you.”
“I know you ain’t a coward,” the sheriff said, “And that’s why I’m here. There ain’t many men as good with a gun as you are, even less who are guaranteed to walk away from a fight alive.”
“That machine don’t mean anything,” Sal said. “It’s just a toy made by some mad scientist out in California.”
“That ain’t true, Sal, and you know it,” the sheriff said, shaking his head. “You’ve seen the newspapers. Everyone who’s died after usin’ it, it’s been right. Times are changin’. First the railroads, now the death machine. The days of the wild and free gunslinger are comin’ to an end. Sure, everyone knew that kind of life was dangerous, but having to stare at that strip of paper telling you you’re going to get shot and die? Takes a real strong man to keep doin’ it, and ain’t many up to it. Lots of folks are settling down to honest jobs.”
Sal sighed. Williams was right, of course. There wasn’t a lot of work for him even before he stuck his finger in that damned machine, and his fame was all but gone now that everyone thought he was a sham.
“It’s either this or wrangling cattle ’til that prediction comes true,” Williams said, getting up to leave.
“What the hell,” Sal said, “I’ll do it. At least this way I still get to shoot people.” He sighed. “Tell me one thing though, sheriff, what’s yours say?”
Williams smiled.”I never got a prediction myself,” he said, “Guess I’m just too scared to find out.”
“Joshua Burke,” Sal shouted at the outlaw, “You are hereby under arrest for two counts of bank robbery, three counts of horse theft and six counts of murder. Drop your weapons or we’ll shoot!”
“Come and get me, geezer!” Burke cackled. Sal winced. Apparently Burke had heard what his prediction was, too. The outlaw opened fire on the lawmen.
Sal dove into an alley and Williams dropped behind a pile of barrels as Burke’s shots rang out around them.
“Alright,” the sheriff said, “On the count of three.”
Sal shook his head. “You don’t know if he’ll kill you, sheriff. I know I’ll be OK, let me handle this.”
Williams looked at him gravely, and nodded.
Sal jumped out from the alleyway and fired in Burke’s direction. At the same moment, the outlaw finished reloading and started shooting in his direction again. Sal felt a fiery, stinging pain in his leg that knocked him to the ground. Gritting his teeth, he peered through the smoke, noticing Burke had stopped firing too. Gripping his bleeding leg, Sal stood up and limped over to where Burke had been standing.
The outlaw was sitting in a pile of his own blood, a glazed look on his eyes. As Sal reached him, he looked up and grinned wryly.
“Didn’t think you had it in you, old man,” he said, coughing blood. He reached into his coat and took out a scrap of paper. He passed it to Sal, closed his eyes, and was still.
The paper read “GUNSHOT.”
“You did it!” Sheriff Williams said, coming up behind Sal and slapping him on the back. “After all this time, you finally put him down like the dog he is.”
Sal nodded slowly, stuffing the paper into his pocket. The sheriff didn’t notice, as he’d just looked down and seen Sal’s wounded leg.
“That don’t look too good,” he said, “We better get you to a doctor.”
A few minutes later, Sal was sitting up on the doctor’s table, staring at the bullet that the doctor had just pulled from his leg.
“You were lucky,” the doctor said as he bandaged the wound, “The bullet came real close to hitting a major artery. You would’ve bled to death. As it is, you might end up with a limp, but you’ll live.”
But Sal already knew that.