Chapter 1


He stared out at the horizon. His eyes focused on where the fire of the morning sky met the yellows and greens of the open prairie. The West was always beautiful, but nothing compared to it this time of year. It was breathtaking.

Most centaurs up this early would focus on the beauty of the sun rising. Maybe even relax with a cup of coffee or meditate, but not Duke Stihl. He was looking for someone deep in that horizon. Someone that had eluded his grasp one too many times, and like Duke it had gotten old.

“It’s only a matter of time Bart,” He said aloud with dry lips as if the wind itself was the only thing listening to him. He unscrewed the cap to his canteen, and took a short but satisfying drink of water. After he swallowed the sip he wet his bottom and top lips by rubbing them against each other softly which relieved a little of the dryness.

Bart Smith was close. Duke could feel it in his bones like that nagging left hip of his that always ached before it rained.

In sort of a sick way it was like Bart was the closest thing Duke ever had to a friend. He knew him better than his own family, and it was hard for a dedicated Marshal to keep friends. It didn’t help that Duke didn’t trust many folk anymore either. The world was passing him by like some sort of old relic that someone would dig up many years from now. It seemed that centaurs were out for themselves nowadays. The days of helping your neighbors just because it was the right thing to do were fading like the red of the morning sky as it painted itself blue.

Duke pulled his knife from his belt and lifted a hoof. He cleaned a few stones and dirt from the deep crevices with the tip of the knives blade, and tossed them to the grass below. He turned and looked back toward the morning sun behind him and squinted. It was rising fast, and he was wasting time thinking. That was for the Doctors, Lawyers, and snake oil scumbags. Duke wasn’t dumb, but he was not much of a thinker. He was a doer. A creature built on instinct. He was a hot-blooded spirit armed with a hand that didn’t share many handshakes, but made many hands shake. He was the last of a dying breed. A true honorable centaur that always got the bad guy. Except for that one who kept getting away.

He was a legend among all centaurs. The law loved him and the bandits hated him, but they all knew who he was. He was on the upper side of fifty, and had been bringing in the bad guys for a long time. Too long he sometimes thought. He wore a black cowboy hat with a gold sash around it that covered most of his salt and pepper hair. A matching beard wrapped around his chin. His shirt was a dusty white button up that much like Duke was in need of being washed. Covering that was a brown leather vest that blended in nicely with his brown leather belt. Nickel-plated revolvers rested on each side of his waist. His hide was a dark brown with large white spots, and was highlighted by a tail that matched the wild hair under his hat.

Duke stood tall stretching his arms above his head and grunted as he heard a few cracks in his back. His tail whipped a bit against his backside to swat away a few curious flies. His hand returned the knife to his belt, and traded it for a handkerchief. He dusted his badge off and looked it at blankly. The gold glimmered in the low light of the morning.

“This used to mean something,” He said to the golden star on his brown leather vest that read Sierra Marshals.

He turned to the smoldering campfire and trampled it with his hooves to assure it was out.

Duke felt rested now. This was his first true sleep in three days. It was only for a few hours, but that was all that was needed for a centaur even at the ripe age of fifty-seven years old. It was hard for a centaur to get a good sleep outside of his home. You’d have to find a good tree to lay your torso and head against while your lower half slept like a horse. You could either sleep standing up or lying down if your legs were tired. Even nature had its inconveniences and cruel jokes.

Marshal Stihl as many referred to him was as real and as close as any centaur could get to justice and honor. He had brought in more criminals than any Marshal in the history of Sierra. He also killed more than any of them too. He preferred to take them alive, but if it was a good old fashion standoff they wanted, then Duke would oblige them with a quick death.

Duke had been chasing Bart aka Blackheart Bart for almost twenty years now. He was always so close to his trail, but he proved to be just as smart as Duke, and would lay low and hide for a while. Sometimes Duke wondered to himself if Bart was outsmarting him. But then he would remind himself he just doubted his intuition, and regain focus. The other Marshals either gave up over the years or were too corrupt to trust anymore, so Duke handled this one alone. Many of his peers joked about retirement, but he wouldn’t even think of it until he got Bart.

He knew there would be more than just Bart. He never traveled alone, but he was too close to give up just because his guns needed to do more work to make up for the unfair fight. Life isn’t fair His father had told him. So why the hell would your enemy be?

“Today’s the day Bart,” Duke said to himself with a grin and pushed off the ground like he was in the race of his life. His hooves moved fast over the prairie with the sound of rolling thunder underneath him. The dust below formed a cloud around his hooves. His revolvers bounced a little in their holsters as he galloped past a sign that read TEXALL 12 Miles.

Ahhh Texall He thought. Bart’s last stop ‘fore he reaches the Blackwelder Mountains. Would have spent the night there, but my presence usually gets people all riled.

Texall was the last town in Sierra before land ended and water began. A centaur did about as good in water as they did running backwards. Swimming was for the merfolk his grandfather always told him about, for they had fins and gills.

Bart’s planning to hold up in them Blackwelder Mountains I bet Duke thought. He’d have made a final stop in Texall to rob some food and supplies. Maybe even abused a lady or two and kill a man ‘fore he calls it a day. Some tin badge wearing sumbitch Sheriff who thinks he is a crack shot will try to take him on, and end up hooves to the Lord. Then I reckon he’s off to the Mountains. Right up Randall Pass. That’s the only clear road that a centaur could make it on.

Centaurs were almost as bad at rock climbing as they were at swimming.

“C’mon you old bastard! Move your hide!” Duke yelled to himself as he felt the wind whip against his face which caused the small hairs in his beard to tickle his skin a little. He pulled his revolvers one at a time. He checked his ammo even though he had checked it many times the night before, but then again he always checked his rounds before a fight. He was sure to be ready when Bart finally showed his ugly mug, and when he did he aimed to make it even uglier.

The Sun was higher in the sky now as Duke could see Texall through a squint. Not far now He thought. Just up ahead.

A loud growling noise caught his attention as he cocked his head to the right. A few hundred feet away a wolf like animal was chasing after him, and it was gaining speed.

“Fixing to get you some lunch boy?” Duke asked as if he expected the beast to answer him.

Wood-wolf Duke thought. Looks hungry. If I had enough food on me I’d throw you some, but I can’t take any chances at this point. I’ve been rationing my food for the last fifty miles. I am almost out of coin, and I am not ‘bout ready to start stealin’ like Bart does.

The wood-wolf’s snarling mouth growled and panted as its eyes stayed focused on Duke’s galloping legs. It’s two front teeth protruded from its mouth like a beavers. They were large and as solid as bone. If it were able to split a small tree in half to build its home, then it wouldn’t take long to get through hide, flesh, and bone. It definitely wouldn’t take long for it to down a centaur by chomping down a few its legs. Like the trees it was used to chomping on, Duke would fall hard.

Damn that thing’s fast Duke thought. Faster than any wood-wolf I’ve ever seen.

Usually out here in the open prairie few things could touch a centaur like Duke’s speed. Now in rougher terrain Duke was like a cat on ice, but here on the flat land with nothing but dust and prairie grass the centaur ruled the plains.

The wood-wolf was now within a few hundred feet of Duke, and it all made sense to him now. The fury. The speed. The determination. This thing had lost its mind. Duke could see that the wood-wolf’s jaw dripped a thick bubbling froth that whitened its tongue. Its eyes were as glazed and shiny as a new piece of glass. Duke could now see that this animal had the madness.

The madness was a dangerous disease. It would take over your mind slowly. First, you might feel fatigued and decide its time to rest. Only problem is you wake up with blood oozing from your eyes or puking your guts out until all you got left is the dry heaves. It could and would kill you in a few days to at most a few weeks. The last part of the process was the worst. You roamed around looking to eat on other red blooded animals while your mind was completely decayed away. The only known cure was a bullet to the head.

This guy doesn’t have much longer Duke thought. He felt himself getting angrier and angrier with each thought as his heart raced faster. He’s had the madness for quite some time. If he gets those chompers on any part of me, I’m a goner. If I’m a goner, then Bart walks free. If Bart walks free, then more will die. Sorry little buddy at this point it’s you or me.

Duke slowed his gallop to a complete stop he as sighed. He watched the deranged beast get within fifty feet of him. He pulled the shotgun off of his back and cocked it in a motion so fast that if someone blinked they might have missed it.

The beast leaped into the air with a feral growl as it lunged toward Duke. Its paws and claws rose above its head and its hind legs were spread wide and ready to land as it prepared to attack it’s much larger prey.

“C’mon buddy! Come and get it!” Duke yelled as he spun his right arm out, extended it, and aimed the shotgun. He pulled the trigger and fired a shot into the wood-wolf’s now open mouth.

The kill was swift and precise. One shot was all it took, and the beast was on its back writhing.

The wood-wolf’s once feral growl had now ceased. In fact there was no sound coming from the beast’s mouth anymore. It just lay there on its and squirmed with a hole blown through what used to be its head about the size of an apple.

Duke was one of the best shots in all Sierra. He didn’t enter any of those trick shot demonstrations or contests, but any centaur alive knew Duke’s skill. The only other centaur that was thought to rival his shot in all Sierra unfortunately was the centaur he was chasing.

“You’re at peace now little buddy,” Duke said tipping his hat at the dead beast. He was somewhat saddened by what he had to do. He knew it wasn’t the wood-wolf that was trying to kill him, but the madness. But now the beast’s pain and suffering was all over. He could move on to Texall, and more importantly to Bart.

Duke galloped into Texall to the sound of screams, cries, and panic. Not the usual sound coming from a nice shore town such as this one. These were the sounds that the symphony Bart and his gang had been playing everywhere they’d been. Baker Hill, Sweetwater, Patch, Flynt, Sheff and now Texall. They were different towns, but it was always the same thing. Innocent people shot and killed, banks robbed, and of course the marks that were always left behind. Always those damn marks. A large HH left burning in the middle of the towns, and even if Duke had gotten there too late it still smoldered long enough for him to make it out.

HH or Hell Hooves were what Bart and his bandits called themselves. They were blight across all the land of Sierra, and they needed to be stopped. These people don’t deserve this Duke thought as he slowed down his gallop. They’re just ladies, kids, and honest working folk that are just trying to get by and support their families.

When he entered the town Duke looked around and observed everything like a hawk. He took in every little thing he could before anyone could distract him. He didn’t see anyone hiding out or watching him when he arrived. Just people screaming and crying, buildings on fire, wagons tipped over, and windows smashed. The usual Hell Hooves welcoming party.

Texall was a simple coastal town. It bordered the Blackwelder Mountains and wasn’t far from the West side of the AEris ocean. It was one of the main port towns in Sierra. If one was looking for goods to be shipped in or shipped out, then Texall was the best place. There were the usual spots that occupied small towns. There was a bank, saloon, jail, hotel, variety store, grocery and ammunition shop.

This job is getting old Duke thought as he sighed. But get yourself together. These people need you.

A loud cry of agony snapped his attention to his left. It was a young stallion, not more than ten years old lying on the ground with his right front leg twisted beneath him. He came upon a female centaur wearing a blue summer dress with a matching bonnet and an older male centaur wearing a white shirt, black tie, and a black bowling hat. They appeared to be the boy’s mother and a doctor.

Duke galloped over to the downed stallion and tipped his hat to the others.

“Ya okay boy?” He asked in a voice he felt not his own. Duke may have been amazing with guns, but he was horrible with words, and he especially hated talking to civilians.

“His legs broke,” The male with the black bowling hat said not looking up. Instead he concentrated on wrapping bandages around the boy’s leg.

The mother cradled the stallion. She stroked his head as if to say everything will be okay.

“Howdy mam,” Duke said.

“Hello,” She said barely giving him any of her attention. She kept her eyes focused on her son.

“Look I know now is not a good time,” Duke sighed and removed his hat. “I do apologize for your son mam, but I need to ask you a few questions if I beg your pardon. I assure you if I didn’t need this information then I’d mozy on and handle this myself. But as a Sierra Marshal on a quest for a bad centaur I am afraid I need all the information I can get.”

She turned her gaze to him. It was as cold as the winter wind, and the black makeup smeared under her misty eyes made her look even angrier. She replied with a simple and irritated “Go on.”

“Thank ya mam,” Duke flashed a smile. “I reckon a centaur named Bart did this. Bart and his band of reckless outlaws that call themselves the Hell Hooves. I aim to find these centaurs mam. I aim to make ‘em pay for what they did to your boy. What they did to your town, and what they did to countless other innocent folk like yourselves. But I need to know if you saw what direction they went. If you could help me mam it would be much obliged. Thank ya.”

“They went that way,” She said pointing toward the mountains. “They went south. Five of ‘em.”

Duke nodded. “Thank you mam. Good day to you and a speedy recovery for your boy.” Duke said as he tipped his hat between his fingers and turned to look to the South. “Good day to you too Doc.” He finished as he turned to gallop, but someone grabbed his arm.

“Wait sir,” She said in a much more focused and now angrier tone. Her once cold eyes were now full of fire.

Duke stopped and looked down to her. He managed a smile.

“You make sure you make ‘em pay mister,” She said. “Put a bullet in every last one of those bastards. For my boy, for me, and for this great land that we love so much.”

He smiled and nodded and turned his head back to the South. He spoke to her, but kept his eyes toward the Blackwelder Mountains just where he expected Bart to be.

“I’ll see to it he pays for his crimes mam. That much is a promise.” Duke responded.

“He’s not worthy of your jail Marshal,” She said still looking at his badge. “Kill him. Kill them!” She began to raise her voice and waved her hands in the air like a crazed woman in church.

Duke didn’t respond. He just looked at her for a moment. She might have a touch of the madness herself He thought. Though I suppose anyone who’s seen their child get hurt might act a little off.

“Now Marie calm down,” A young centaur approaching them wearing a silver badge that read Sheriff said. “Get a hold of yourself. This town has had enough death and pain for one day, and this kind Marshal here just wants some answers. I know your boys hurt, but Doc Walker here’s gonna fix him up real good.”

“This idiot has been fixing him for hours,” She barked. “He’s about as useful as our good for nothing Sheriff.”

Duke did his best to hide his smirk.

“Howdy stranger,” He said ignoring her comments and turning his attention to Duke. “Name’s Jake. Jake Williamson. I’m Sheriff of the wonderful town of Texall. If you have any questions about the bandits who did this, then I’d be glad to help ya Marshal.”

Duke turned and looked into the eyes of Sheriff Williamson. He didn’t like Sheriffs, Deputies, or Guards. They were all the same. They were just a poor centaur’s version of a Marshal. In Duke’s eyes Sheriffs barely raised their gun and hid behind a loud voice and a shiny toy version of a real badge.

Sheriff Jake Williamson stood a bit shorter than Duke, and was a little smaller in build too. He was a dark skinned centaur with a skin tone that matched his chestnut hide. His hair was short and black and sat neatly under his tan felt cowboy hat. He wore a grey shirt that was rolled up at the sleeves with a black leather vest. Pinned to his vest was a silver starred badge that read Sheriff. His belt was black leather and held a single gun on his right hip in its holster.

“Pretty badge Sheriff… That tin?” Duke asked with a sarcastic smirk. “Got all the answers I need, but thank ya kindly. This wonderful young lady here pointed me in the direction of the scum I’m looking for.”

Jake ignored the Marshal’s rude comment and raised his brow. He reached up and took off his hat to scratch his head. “Well that’s good Marshal. Real good actually.” He continued. “The only problem I see is your one and there’s five of those scum you’re chasin’. How about my deputies and I escort you? They looked to be headin’ to the Blackwelder Mountains over yonder. We know the land well and these fellas are all are great shots.”

The Marshal turned his head and examined the Sheriff’s deputies. One old and drunk with his front hooves up on a railing, and prairie grass hanging from his mouth with his eyes closed. He was catching some shut eye while the town that actually needed him was a mess. Two of the other deputies were barely over the age of eighteen. They showed it with the way their eyes followed the hind end of every pretty centaur lady that galloped by. There could be one hundred bandits with one hundred guns killing everyone in town. If there was one pretty lady between them all these fools would see only her.

The Sheriff himself was barely full grown. He was maybe in his mid twenties. Duke knew the type. There was only a few types of wannabe tin badges as far as Duke was concerned anyway, and they were made up of cowards and idiots. Jake seemed to be no coward, so to Duke he must just be a young idiot, and idiots usually got themselves and many other good people killed.

You got an old drunk, two young pups, and a tin badge Duke thought. It made him chuckle so hard everyone around him looked at him.

“No thank you Sheriff. Why don’t you stay here and do what you what you should’ve done first which is take care of your town. These kind folk depend on you and your…” Duke paused looking again at the deputies and continued in a mocking tone. “Dep-you-tees.”

“Marshal may I speak to you for a moment in private?” The Sheriff asked.

“Sure just know I’m losing light the more time I waste yappin’, so keep it short.” Duke replied.

The Sheriff and the Marshal walked a few steps. Once they were out of earshot of others Jake continued.

“Okay I get it. I do. I’m a young lowly Sheriff and to you that means nothing Mr. big time Sierra Marshal. Well let me tell you something. It means something to me and I wear this cheap tin badge with honor. I may not be the great Duke Stihl, but to Texall I am the law and them sons of bitches that came through here? I have a stake in seeing them punished. No one comes into my town and tortures my people like this Mr. Stihl. I don’t care who they are and I don’t care how tough they are. Now I am riding up to those mountains with you and I am going to make sure you catch Bart and his gang. Because by letting you go up there all alone no matter how much pride you got and how much grit you got it isn’t gonna mean a damn thing. Not when it’s spilled out on the ground. You’re good Duke. The whole country knows you’re good. But this is five on one. Hell he may even have more than that waiting for you when you get there. I will be damned if I see that animal do this to my town or any other town again for that matter. We tried to get him, but he was out of town before we knew it. We were going up there ourselves, and we still aim on doing so with or without you.” Jake paused and stared at the Marshal for a moment waiting for any kind of response.

“You couldn’t shut up a minute ago and now you got nothin’ to say?” Jake asked.

“Finally a tin badge with a hot blooded spirit. I guess I judged you wrong fella. I’m used to those slow moving cold bloods. Okay. Gather your boys and meet me south of town in five minutes. I’m going to get some supplies with what coin I have left before we leave.” Duke said with a wink, and galloped away.

Jake smiled and nodded. He was almost in shock and began to walk backwards, but did his best to hide his surprise. “Okay. Thank you. You won’t be sorry Mr. Stihl!” He said before turning to his deputies and speaking much differently than he had to Duke.

“Okay let’s go! We’re moving out to help Sierra Marshal Duke Stihl so let’s hurry it up! C’mon Carl wake your ass up!” The Sheriff said swatting old and drunk Carl Thomas’s hooves off of the railing almost knocking him off his chair.

Jake then turned his attention to the town and spoke a little louder. “Everyone stay calm. I am heading out of town for a minute with Marshal Stihl here to catch the filth that did this. We will return soon, and we will return with justice. So sit tight and no one lose their cool. Thank you.”

Had excitement finally come my way? Jake thought as he walked into the Sheriff’s office. He made sure his guns were loaded, and that his deputies did the same. He tried to hide his smile as he stepped back out onto the wooden planks that creaked beneath his hooves.

I am sorry that anyone was hurt and that my town had to go through this pain, but this was what I have always waited for Jake thought. Excitement. Shootouts. Adventure. The kind of things I read about as a boy may have finally come true. Duke Stihl out of anyone walks into my town chasing the most famous bandit gang this side of the Grey River? I have to jump at this chance. I am just glad Duke’s giving me a chance. Sure he’s an old grumpy bastard, but this world and maybe no other world has ever seen a centaur that brave, that honorable, that...

“Son of a!” Jake exclaimed as he snapped out of his day dream and looked up to see Marshal Stihl galloping out of town alone to the South.

Jake threw his hat to the ground and sighed shaking his head.

Duke galloped swift and determined. He wasn’t happy tricking folks or lying to them as it didn’t suit his honor. But he was happy with not having to worry about anyone else that would be killed by Bart. Especially not a group of young wannabe heroes who had more guts than brains.

RANDALL PASS UP AHEAD the sign read and Duke smiled. He was close. Real close now. He could feel his skin tingling with anticipation.

Duke galloped up the path to Randall Pass. He could feel his legs throbbing and sore from his long journey, but now was no time to slow down.

A bullet skimmed over Duke’s head and ricocheted somewhere off a rock and sent its whistle echoing through the air. More bullets followed suit and Duke jumped behind a large rock barely dodging the last one as he could feel its heat rip by his left arm. He kneeled and pulled both of his revolvers from their holsters quickly. He cocked them both and held them pointed up in the air.

How in the hell could I have missed this? Duke thought. Was I getting old? Slow? Foolish? Maybe I underestimated. Damn. Maybe I overestimated. Either way this was a trap. Bart knew I’d chase him into these mountains. I would never think he’d be right at the beginning of ‘em. Clever bastard.

“Give it up Bart!” Duke yelled over the rock that provided him cover. “You can either come back with me alive or I can leave you here for the birds to eat. Your choice!”

From out behind a large rock face Blackheart Bart appeared holding his smoking revolver in the air. He had messy brown hair that came out from all directions under his black cowboy hat. His eyes were dark brown and stubble covered the lower half of his face. His hide was all black with matching hooves and tail. He wore a dark black button up shirt with a black leather belt that held two holsters. Only one of his revolvers were in there, for the other was in his right hand.

“Of course it’s my choice you old coot!” Bart yelled. “You’re as dumb as you look Stihl! I can’t believe you followed me all this way. I can’t wait to see the look on your face while you’re gasping your last breath and it’s my ugly face you gotta see ‘fore you die!”

“Have it your way Bart!” Duke yelled as he leaned from the rock at an angle and fired a shot into one of the members of Bart’s gang who exposed his right hand. The bullet went out the other side, and the bandit dropped his gun and screamed in agony.

“Ahhhhhhhh! Sumbitch shot my damn hand! I’m gonna kill you Stihl!” Billy Garetty exclaimed as he grabbed his hand and gasped at the quarter size hole Duke left for him.

“Well c’mon and do it Billy. Looks like you’re doing well so far!” Duke said mockingly. “C’mon Bart! You know I’ll pick through every one of your boys like fish in a barrel. So come out now while you still can!”

“Shut it Billy!” Bart yelled out. “Just you and me Dukey baby! Show yourself!”

“You know I am not that stupid Bart! Try again!” Duke yelled back as he walked slowly toward the left side of the large rock he hid behind and gained sight of another one of Bart’s gang. He squinted his eyes and raised his right hand. He fired off another shot. This bullet tore into George Walters’ right arm and ripped through his elbow.

George screamed, and immediately dropped his weapon to the ground.

“That’s two of ‘em useless to you Bart,” Duke yelled. “Those fools can’t shoot for nothing now! Only three more to go and I got all day. I kinda like it up here.”

“God damn you Stihl!” Bart yelled back. “I’m gonna pump you full of lead hero! You’re gonna regret the day you ever messed with me!”

Duke moved further to the left as Bart stepped out and galloped slowly down the pass. It was tough to maneuver on the rocky path, but if anyone knew how to survive, and how to adapt it was Duke. He stayed silent and slowly moved along the path ignoring Bart for a moment as he came barreling down the pass like a mad animal. Duke would use his aggressiveness against his enemy. He kneeled behind another rock for cover briefly. He rose again to fire, and this time he shot Terry Johnson in the left side of his chest. The force knocked the bandit down to the ground with a grunt of pain.

One more to go before it’s you and I Bart. One more to go. Duke thought as he kneeled back behind the rock for a moment before rising again to scout the last of Bart’s gang Jimmy Sheppard.

Duke rose quickly with both guns drawn only to be surprised by a shotgun that stood inches from his face. Jimmy Sheppard stood smiling a mouth full of crooked tobacco stained teeth.

“Hello there Dukey. Long time no talk hey cowboy?” Jimmy said before swinging the butt of the shotgun down into the bridge of Duke’s nose.

“Over here Bart! He’s ov...” Duke heard before everything faded to black and he hit the ground like a sack of potatoes.