Deadlands Homebrew Playtest 3, 4, 5.

Having survived their night at the Sheep Station, they were keen to get going and as soon as they could get everything together, they did. It meant leading the coach and horses and was slow going, but they weren’t far from dawn, so their slow pace didn’t last long. Traveling at a decent pace they put the Sheep Station and its lifeless hill behind them and came to the turn off to get to Big Dan’s camp. Sitting in the back of the coach, nursing his injured foot, Rubber Dan recognized the area and leaned forward and casually pistol-whipped Mr Gaslin unconscious.

Curly and Rubber Dan had never taken a coach across the little ford that led to the trail they intended to take into the hills, so they were carefully navigate it now. As they did so, two riders appeared on the road from Laramie, saw the coach crossing the little river and passed on. The posse decided to do nothing against these looky-Lou’s.

The river forded, they continued on and before long the hill levelled out and they found themselves overlooking a wooded meadow, in which lay a dilapidated ranch. They spotted men among the near trees, keeping sentry on the comings and going. The ranch had obviously lain untended for a while, but now the cluster of buildings had an air of being inhabited and fixed up a little. They were met, before they got too close to the buildings and Curly debriefed the rough looking men who greeted them.

A few things were evident from this first conversation: Chicago, Sy, Bob and whoever else was supposed to meet up with Curly and Rubber Dan still were missing. Which meant the posse’s gear and horses were still missing. And the men Curly talked to were decidedly less excited to see these newcomers once they heard about their “amnesia” with regards to their bank robbery money.

Callie, Bartimus, Mars and Lewis were led in to see Big Dan, who was just getting some breakfast. Having eaten nothing in the past 24 hours and only stale bread for a week prior to their attempted execution, they were famished and slurped down all the sourdough biscuits, bacon, eggs and coffee on offer. Big Dan was a short, square-shaped old black guy, with big snow-white Wilford Brimley mustaches. He explained that he and his crew had previously had a ranch in what was now the Sioux Territories and after getting booted out they’d run afoul of the law. He seemed to regard this as a temporary set-back, as – he explained – law and outlaw tended to be differentiated rather subjectively this far west.  It was often a matter of how much money you had at hand.

Wait did I say mustaches? No he has big… whatever these are. Damn, Texas Cowboy, that’s a look.

SPEAKING OF WHICH… Big Dan was led to believe that they did NOT in fact have the money he thought they would. He showed them the note he had received: a bribed deputy had brought the note to Maria while she was in town buying supplies. She had brought it to Big Dan and Big Dan had sprung into action. The note was in Lewis’s handwriting and written on a piece of paper torn from the back of a book – Bartimus’s copy of Hoyle’s Book of Games. It requested a jailbreak and promised $500, which Big Dan assumed they could pay because they presumably had the stolen bank loot stashed somewhere… right?

Dan wasn’t expecting them to arrive in camp laden with bonds and bullion, but he didn’t expect them to deny any part in the robbery. It turns out he’d spent a bunch of money on bribing Deputies, and he would find out later that day that he’s lost three men – Jeff, shot as they fled in the cart; Bob and Sy killed as they caused distractions and retrieved the horses and gear. Dan had an idea of how they could pay up though – a job had come up in Laramie that he and his folk weren’t able to take on account of their temporary outlaw status. But it paid well and would go some way to paying off their debt.

The new arrivals to Big Dan’s camp were fed and baths were drawn for them, temporary clothes laid out while their filthy laundry was washed. Theodore Gaslin was sequestered in an unused shed. Chicago eventually arrived, horses well run and tired. He’d had to circle way wide to avoid the Marshalls who came back to town. He let them know that Sy and Bob hadn’t made it. But all their meager possessions were returned to them (Bartimus’s copy of Hoyles did indeed have a page torn out of the back). Our amnesiac-outlaws interviewed Maria and her husband Angel who were in town during the 4th and tried to get a picture of what happened.

In short, they were enjoying the festivities in Cheyenne and the small amount of fireworks when there was an almighty boom. They discovered that the corners of two neighboring banks had been blasted open and their vaults raided. The Marshalls who were gathered in town (for some reason) were hot on the trail and by morning, they’d hauled four out-of-towers out of the boarding house they’d been staying in and dragged them of to the hoosegow. There was a quick trial and within a week they were climbing the scaffolding. The money (various different amounts have been floated, but they are all astronomical) has never been found. They were known as the Centennial Bandits.

The posse agreed that they should take the job (Big Dan has given them a small line of credit at the general store that Angel uses in Laramie) but were pretty suspicious of Big Dan, beyond him being an outlaw. They seemed to think he may have a hand in their bank-robbing-blackout. Bartimus, no stranger to messing with people’s memories had a creepy feeling about their amnesia – that they should all recover their wits just before their hanging suggested a very powerful and precise cruelty.

Chicago suggested not working the horses overly hard over the next few days – they’d recover from their tough two days. So they rode into Laramie at a sedate pace. Theodore Gaslin had been set free, bewildered, a little concussed and with no story to tell of the high level presidential summit that is supposed to have taken place.

In Laramie they rode directly to the place Big Dan had told them needed help – the Wyoming Stock Growers Association. They were shown into the small exclusive clubhouse/hotel that served as the headquarters of the Association by a smartly dressed butler named Carberry. He took their hats (Bowler for Bartimus, fetish-bedecked Western hat for Callie, Topper for Mars and a nice wide brimmed Montana Peak Stetson for  Lewis) and fixed them refreshments while he alerted the members as to their arrival. They met with Carter Johns, president of the association, Stephen O’Neill, member and Dirk Van Houten, a cattle detective on the Association’s payroll.

Oh! Oh that’s a real thing? I… er… I did not know that and I’m very sorry about all the slander that I’m about to turn into libel.

Johns, a tall, powerful and elegant man, gave them the job’s brief: someone was attempting to ruin the Association’s reputation and he wanted to know who and why, he wanted an end to it and he wanted it done quickly and with discretion. He explained that one of the Association’s members Mrs Brill, had approached him over a week ago, livid. She claimed he had sold her some heifers that had literally fallen apart within 24 hours of their purchase. He, he said, had done no such thing; but Mrs Brill could not be persuaded. She left in a fury. Within a few days Mr O’Neill came to him, furious that a fellow member Edward Bailey had sold him cattle that had also fallen apart within a day. Both Mr O’Neill and Mrs Brill had been adamant that they had met with their co-member, formalized what seemed to be a good deal and taken the cattle back to their ranch, only for the cattle to dissolve into heaping piles of garbage.

The WSGA is one of  the town’s greatest assets while almost all the rest of the West is afflicted by the twin blights of Prairie Tick infestation and Texas Fever, the WSGA’s carefully exclusive stock management has kept their little part of the world free from both plagues. This allows the WSGA to supply the railroad from Laramie (the current railhead) all the way down to Denver (its home) and they are making a FORTUNE doing it. But this has a cost – the eternal defense of their stock lines, and vigilance against disease as well as co-operation between ranches that would typically be rivals. It takes a lot of organization and this attack against WSGA members seems designed to split the WSGA asunder – Mrs Brill has already intimated that she will withdraw from the eight ranch axis. If it wasn’t for Mr O’Neill coming to Johns first, chances are he’d have done the same. Other than jealousy, Johns claims there is no reason why anyone would have it in for the WSGA; the town’s wealth relies on it.

The party left the meeting and walked in to a surly bunch of ranch hands massed outside the WSGA – disgruntled Brill hands flaunting the WSGA quarantine that had been placed on the Brill and O’Neill ranches since the unpleasantness. The cowpunchers looked like they were spoiling for a fight, but Mars reached out with his winning personality and persuaded them that what they really wanted was to mosey on along to the saloon and baptize their tonsils with the smooth taste of Grandad Turkey, whisky of choice in these parts. They did, to the silent and unacknowledged surprise of Carberry.

“Folks around here… etc. etc, you know the drill.”

Their first port of call was to go see Dr Lester Callings, large animal veterinarian. It became evident that he had never been called out to investigate the dead/dissolved cattle, even though the WSGA believed he had.

They rode with Dr Callings to the O’Neill ranch, a professional, small ranch an hour’s ride out of town. There they were met by ranch hands who were maintaining the quarantine, but let them through when they saw they were on WSGA business. They were led to the barn that the O’Neills had cordoned off – and shown a disgusting heap of trash. Oh, sure, it had rotting cow hides and bones, but they weren’t looking at the skeletal remains of the heifers they had heard of. Nope, this was a pile of garbage; they dug out cloth fragments, wooden, fragments, disintegrating paper and even a rusting can lid from tinned peaches. The O’Neill cowboys reiterated the story that they’d heard from O’Neill: a good looking group of heifers was brought in, and by morning they’d dissolved into this pile of detritus.

Next, they headed over to the Brill Ranch. As they approached the ramshackle and disorganized shanty at the heart of the ranch, they saw men pouring lamp oil over a low pile in the middle of a cobbled together corral. Despite their attempts to get there faster, none of them could coax their horses into action – with Mars being catapulted over his horses head when she balked at the fence. Callie attempted to get their attention by firing into the air, which caused a general hubbub amongst the ornery and tetchy Brill clan.

Eventually they were able to speak to the furious Ma Brill, who told much the same story as the O’Neill crew – heifers brought back from town, dissolved within 24 hours. By suggesting to Ma Brill that their testimony would be able to bring the quarantine to an end and restore the goodwill of the WSGA, they were able to get her cooperation.

Riding back to town, someone sniped at them – putting a hole in Lewis’s nice hat and grazing his scalp, but no more damage than that. They gave chase, with Lewis attempting to shoot the man’s horse, LIKE A MONSTER. Their horse karma was not with them, perhaps deservedly so and they could not catch the black-clad villain as he fled in the direction of town.

It was getting late when they returned and they went back and forward with Dr Callings as to his safety (he thought he was safe) and what he should do (he thought he should wait at the WSGA). They stopped in at the livery to speak with the hostler, Gustaf. His livery shared space with the WSGA’s corrals in town and he was generally present during daylight hours. He recalled the cattle deals, occurring precisely as described by Mr O’Neill and Johns’ recollection of Mrs Brill’s accusations. He also let them know that the horse he had stabled, which they recognized from the brief chase on the way back from Brill’s belonged to a relative newcomer called Berkshire, who worked for someone Gustaf didn’t know. He and his employer had one of the new houses, but he couldn’t help them with which one.

They retired to MacDaniel’s Saloon as it grew dark and were briefly taken aback by the selection of animatronic taxidermied animals, including a bear that seemed to menace newcomers. They were allowed in with their irons, despite a close look by the mountainous woman who served as the bouncer.

They’d pretty much just got settled when in walked Berkshire and another man who locked eyes with them and advanced as Lewis stepped towards them…

…if time didn’t exactly stand still, it did a real good job of seeming that way… everything was stuck – including the posse. The only movement was out of the corner of their eyes, over by the poker table: the jerky movement of the dealer slowly, dramatically slapping down cards in front of the players. There was an air of menace about the sound. Bartimus tried to tear his head around to see the dealer and was certain that whoever it was in his peripheral vision, it wasn’t that man who had been there a split second before. It was a turbaned figure in bright clothing, with stilted, mechanical movements. As they waited, dozen in time but horribly aware, they heard skirling wild music far off, a steam organ that seemed slightly out of tune or discordant.

When the eighth card had been dealt, time snapped back to its normal flow; Lewis and Berkshire strode towards each other, and Bartimus’ head whipped around painfully. The dealer – a completely regular guy, not wearing a turban or bright clothing – looked confused and lost for a moment before his players began an outcry.

Meanwhile, Lewis confronted Berkshire about his ruined hat. Berkshire attempted to sneer it off (warning Lewis to stay out of matters than don’t concern him), but Lewis, while showing him the holey hat sucker punched him, real hard. Berkshire fell back, the bouncer amazon left her stool and looked ready to pounce. Bartimus riffled his cards and cast some penny ante magic, displacing a greasy wad of tobacco juice from one corner of the floor to right under Berkshire’s boot heel as he tried to rise. He slipped and fell again to a scatter of sniggers from the onlookers.

Stormy-expression on his face, Berkshire left, forthwith. The other man who had come in with him with the cheaply flamboyant clothing was buttonholed and Lewis made him sit at the closest table while he ordered up some whisky. A tiny – TINY – saloon gal brought a bottle and a pair of glasses for the two.

Meanwhile, over at the poker table the players were loudly remonstrating with the confused dealer. They had been dealt two tarot cards, Mars and Callie saw, each receiving the Hanged Man and the Fool. The backs of the cards were identical to the regular cards they were playing with but the dealer swore he hadn’t dealt them in and accused someone of playing a trick on him. MacDaniel arrived with free drinks to calm everyone down and the dealer shakily dealt everyone new cards to start a new round of play. They managed to secure one pair of the cards – either Bartimus or Mars , I can’t remember, probably Bartimus decided the others were of no consequence and scrunched them up and threw them away. But the Hanged Man they secured sure seemed to have a familiar face…

That was the end of their interest in the tarot cards… although to be fair, they had other stuff going on. Their chat with Amos, the fancy clothed feller didn’t go anywhere unusual: he wasn’t sure why they were digging around at the behest of the WSGA, but he sure wished they’d quit it, move on to greener, maybe more profitable and certainly less dangerous pastures. There was a definite hint of “You Are Meddling In Things That You Do Not Understand”. He did mention that he worked for Alphonse  Ogone before proving himself to be a bad pickpocket – unless that was a distraction and he was actually a great pickpocket.

Asking around, Alphonse Ogone was a bit of a mystery, except that he attended a weekly poker game at MacDaniels, the high stakes one that most folks couldn’t get in. Players tended to be the town’s great and good. In particular Philpott and O’Neill of the WSGA, but also Dr Callings. Callie went off to follow Berkshire to see if she could track him back to his house, but he took a deliberately circuitous route, probably out of habit and she lost him. She found Amos though… or rather he appeared behind her and creeped her out some. They turned in for the night, Bartimus getting a room at MacDaniels saloon and Lewis getting accommodation at the railroad camp.

The following morning they checked at the railroad camp, enquiring whether or not they had Berkshire or Amos. This led them to discover that Berkshire and Amos had raided their midden heap – which no-one stopped them from doing, obviously. And yes, they had taken on a batch of tinned peaches recently. This was pretty much enough for the posse to put together what they thought had happened: For whatever reason, Alphonse Ogone had directed his henchmen to bring him a bunch of mostly organic trash. He had turned that trash (through means unknown to them as yet) into illusory cattle, passed himself off as WSGA members and swindled the real WSGA members.

The posse was satisfied with taking this story (weird bits excised) to the sheriff Samuel Meyers. They stopped in at Verdad Photography, a place everyone mentioned as being a locus of weird and supernatural stuff. They got their photos taken and left Consuela to develop them later. They went to get the Sheriff, they just wanted to talk to Ogone and Meyers was deferential to anyone doing the bidding of the WSGA. Oh boy, would he regret that. Walking from the Sheriff’s office to Ogone’s house (the Sheriff knew where it was), they walked up the hill to the newly built houses, and Sheriff Meyers confidently walked up and knocked on the door… and someone inside blew his kneecaps off through the door.

police squad GIF

A gunfight ensued, Lewis scrambling to haul the Sheriff to safety, Mars fleeing to the WSGA to raise the hue and cry and Bartimus and Callie circling the house as Berkshire and Amos fired out of the windows. Bartimus ran into Li Po, the as-yet-unmet henchman, who brought two of his closest hatchet friends and set upon the huckster. Bartimus’ cards flew into his hands as he was hacked, and he reached out and scrambled the Chinese henchman’s memories… this bought him enough time to get away. After killing off Amos as he shot at them from the top floor windows, they entered the house, Callie and Berkshire battering each other with rifle butts before Callie eventually came out on top. Li Po surrendered eventually, only just before Callie and Bartimus fell over.

Mars arrived, having secured the townsfolk’s assistance and Carberry and his shotguns. The shooting of the sheriff more or less sealed the deal as far as the righteousness of the posse’s cause went in most people’s eyes. The posse was slow in racing upstairs, but eventually made it up there just as a vibration that made the upper floor shudder ended. It seemed to come from a closet space, but when they investigated, there was nothing in there at all. Amos’s body and the top of his head (no longer attached) lay in a shared bedroom, they searched that before moving on to the next room; that was a much more fancy and well appointed room, evidently Mr Ogone’s room.

The evidence they collected (along with a stash of cash, ghost rock and a few useful objects) suggested that Ogone and WSGA Hector Philpott had collaborated to ruin the WSGA’s reputation. They had the deal in writing and could take this to Mr Johns.

But that wasn’t all they found. On Ogone’s dressing table they found a picture, relatively new, of a sturdily built small man with a look of real… solidity.. to him. He had short dark hair and dark eyes and a slight smirk. He held his hands out, palms up, with what looked like hemped rope strands draped over them, drooping down out of frame.

They found what seemed to be a big wad of paper money, but when they unfolded it, they faint strains of the whirling steam organ music could be heard in the far distance and instead of bank notes, it unfolded into a thick paper poster. It read, in flamboyant eye catching text “Roll up! Roll up! We are coming!”. And under the house, they found a lockbox full of photographs and new-fangled ‘post-cards’. Each showed a small town, or a Main Street labeled with the name of a town.

They presented the evidence against Philpott to Johns and O’Neill who considered their task complete and paid them the agreed price. In terms of discreet… well discretion was a little lacking as the affair ended in a gunfight in town, but at least the townsfolk did not know of the WSGA’s involvement. Johns intimated to them that Philpott had been on the losing end of the recent election for WSGA president, so his actions made sense, although obviously Johns was aghast at the depths of Philpott’s bitterness.

Job done, all they had to do now was to decide how much of their hard earned cash to give Big Dan Garrad, collect their photographs and try to figure out the significance of a lockbox full of postcards and photos of small towns. That last mystery wasn’t solved, but they did discover that each of the towns pictured in the collection had suffered some sort of catastrophe within the past decade – devastating floods, mass deaths from smallpox, conflagration, tornado – turning them into ghost towns.

Despite her best efforts, Consuela can’t get ghosts to stop showing up in her photographs.

Well, that’s creepy, but picking up their photographs turned out to be worse. Consuela warned them that the outcome wasn’t pretty. While each of them had given a characteristic pose for their session the result was different. Each of them was pictured suspended by a thick rope around their neck, face blackened, eyes and swollen tongues bulging from their faces. With horrible certainty, they took out Ogone’s photograph, and found that the ropes he held in his hands lined up with the ropes that strangled each of them. Furthermore, the smirk on Ogone’s face had widened into a broad, rictus grin. And for a moment they heard the wild discordance of the distant steam organ again.