Today’s prompt has an interesting backstory you can read in full at https://storyaday.org/2021-day-16/ , but the quick version is that a character’s mundane activity is changed by seeing a message on a sign.
My story is about an unusual cowboy, who takes a road less traveled. The whole last scene wound up more rushed and clumsy than usual, but I ran out of hours in the day.
The Clockwork Cowboy
Once sunset graced the lonesome range, Nito opened his chest and turned the dial labeled Sentiment. His optic sensors dilated. “Ahh,” he vocalized.
This could be mistaken for one of those picturesque moments found on postcards: majestic mesas rising from the reddish soil, the sky painted all purple and gold, and an automaton in a ten-gallon hat, moseying along on his clockwork horse.
Okay, maybe postcards didn’t show that last part. Professor Calamity’s Killbots still had a bad reputation, nearly a century after his death. Even the reformed ones.
The scenery made Nito nostalgic for his first time herding cattle, his father teaching him how to throw a lasso, warm apple pie waiting on a windowsill for his return before dark — all things he’d never experienced. But thanks to his maxed-out and broken-off Empathy dial, he had a vivid imagination about other lives. He couldn’t help it if that imagination was often wildly inaccurate.
He tweaked Sentiment down and gave Improvisation a nudge. Lately he’d been trying to learn how to whistle, but it was tricky to do without lips. However, he’d discovered a leaky hose in his shoulder joint that could be pitched up and down depending on how he shrugged. Humans found this herky-jerky twitching highly unnerving — and their discomfort became his own, tenfold — so he only did it while alone.
His tin hand stroked the horse’s carbon fiber mane. “How does this sound, girl?” He convulsed in the saddle to hit the opening notes of My Lizardscale Bounty.
The horse bucked like a wild bronco, trying to throw him off.
“Yeah, you’re right,” he said calmly in mid-air. “A little flat.”
By the time they reached Seven Dagger Canyon, horse and rider had resumed their truce. Nito’s destination lay on the far side, a little town in need of a bounty hunter. Maybe just desperate enough to accept an automaton in the role.
As the canyon’s path divided into seven “daggers”, he spied a crude signpost in the shape of an arrow.
Purdiest View Evar
Horrific spelling aside, it was a tempting suggestion. Nito’s eyes lubricated as he imagined the goodness in this poor, ill-educated person’s heart. They selflessly went to all the trouble of making this sign, just to share their wonderful experience with strangers they’d never meet.
In lieu of flipping a coin, he spun a few dials, trying different combinations to decide what his real opinion was on taking the detour. Of course, as the humans told him, he had no “real” opinion. No soul. Just these dials.
As Sentiment raised, a romantic diversion seemed like a better and better idea. It won out in the end over Practicality and Fealty. He hadn’t actually been hired, yet, so he didn’t owe anybody his time.
He made his choice, and nudged his horse where the arrow pointed.
The canyon sloped upward slightly to meet the last dying rays of the sun. Nito cast a long shadow at his back, almost as big as one of Professor Calamity’s now-extinct (according to rumor and wishful thinking) Mega-Killbots.
In the bad old days — before he’d broken his Empathy dial, so it could never again hit zero — he’d marched in the shadow of those monstrosities. A whole army of killbots vs. an army of humans. No one could say they were surprised by the outcome.
As he followed the “seen-ick” detour in the waning light of day, the canyon walls began to circle around him. He still hadn’t noticed any purdy view- But of course! He’d forgotten to crank his Sentiment up after his internal debate. He did so now, though his feelings didn’t change much. This featureless red rock didn’t evoke anything in particular, no tender emotions, no nostalgia for a life never lived.
Maybe if he fiddled with some other dials…
Before Nito realized, he’d nearly run his horse straight into the back of a covered wagon. It had stopped in the center of a box canyon, where the path dead-ended. Apparently, a whole family of settlers had also come to enjoy the view. Though Nito still couldn’t see what was so great about it.
He dismounted and waved to them, though they were looking around very strangely at the canyon rim. “Good evenin’! Hope I didn’t startle ya. ‘Reckon we both bought what that sign was selling.”
The whole family, mother and father, two children, turned to look at him with mouths agape. The parents carried a shotgun and pistol between them. He was used to receptions like that, and didn’t begrudge them. Wasn’t easy to explain how an automaton weren’t so bad, especially on account of the whole Killbot name.
“Well, lookee what we got here, fellas. Fresh meat.” The voice echoed around the canyon. Nito’s ears extended tiny horns, which swiveled around, to locate the origin. Above.
A man — actually numerous men, a few women — stood on the rim of the box canyon, aiming rifles down at the group. Perfect place for an ambush. Nito reflected that he should have given his Paranoia dial a fairer shake before following some funny-looking sign.
But if Nito had a heart, he knew it would have swelled. This meant the settlers weren’t frightened of him, after all; they were frightened of the murderous bandits! That was great news. Maybe he wasn’t destined to be feared and hated everywhere he went.
Another voice called, “I don’t think he’s meat at all, boss.”
“Like a hawk, this one. You’ve earned yerself a double share.” The boss crouched down and squinted through the dusky light. “Well, now. Do my eyes deceive me, or is that man made of tin? You bunch hire yerselves some Killbot bodyguard? You must got plenty of spare gold, if you waste it like that.”
“We ain’t never seen him before,” said the mother, trying to shield her family from the rifles that surrounded them. “He’s got nuthin’ to do with us.”
Such selfless nobility, a gesture of pure, irrational love. Nito had never seen love stop a bullet, but he understood the importance of the attempt. Understood, but could not duplicate. He would gladly step in front of the mother, and her family, and take all the bullets for them if his metal body would stop them. But it wouldn’t, so he couldn’t. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Professor Calamity had not installed an Irrationality dial inside his chest.
What he did have was uncontrolled Empathy, and way too much of it. For everyone, without exception. Nito called out, “I know you’re desperate men, and desperate women, and I don’t blame you, times being what they are.”
“Oh, he talks,” said the boss, not sounding too happy about it. “Do they all talk?”
“Dunno,” said another. “Never seen a Killbot before.”
Nito resumed his speech, “Don’t be frightened, I won’t harm you unless I have to. I’d much rather we were friends.”
That drew snickers from around the rim, and even more incredulous looks from the settlers.
“Hold on, boys, now hold on,” said the boss, waving his arm. “Well, gee, tin man, I’d like that, too. Tell ya what. You fill them settlers full of holes, and carry whatever valuables they got up to us, and I might let you join my crew.”
Nito shook his head. “Killing innocent people, even children… is that what you really want to do? Any of you? Is this what you dreamed of doing, when you were young yourselves?”
A bandit yelled, “Yeah it is! My lifelong ambition!”
Nito’s Empathy gears cranked, unable to stop, even when it wasn’t wise. Or practical. Or deserved. “Is this what your mother and father, who loved you and raised you best they could, wanted for you?”
Another joined in, “Try again, tin man. I never knew mine!”
“Mine were bastards!”
But one of the bandits wiped his eyes and wailed, “My poor ma would be so ashamed! How did I get into this mess? I only wanted some easy money I could send back to her.”
The others jeered as the boss hung his head. “Oh, for crying out loud. Will someone shut him up?”
A muzzle flashed. A shot rang out. A bullet plugged Nito between his optic sensors. His head snapped back and his ten-gallon hat flew off.
He blinked to clear his lenses. No serious damage done. He was far from invincible, but his core components were made of sturdier stuff than his tin exterior.
“You couldn’t hurt me, even if you tore me to pieces!” said Nito. “But how is it that a tin man has more compassion for these humans than you do? Can’t you feel the terror coming off them in waves? This proud, brave mother? This tirelessly laboring father? The children they’d die to protect? They don’t even understand what’s happening, they just know they’re afraid.”
“Then I guess we should stop dragging this out, eh?” said the boss, aiming down his rifle. “Enough of this, boys. Gun them all down.”
Well, at least Nito had bought some time. Time for plan B. He drew the six-shooters from his hip.
The battle began not with a gunshot, but with the thud of hooves. A bandit screamed as he plummeted from the canyon rim. Nito flinched, sharing his terror. It would be best if he could avoid too much killing.
The braying of a clockwork horse echoed through the last light of day. A few misfired shots went off as the bandits spun to face this unexpected attacker.
Another handful of the bandits retreated. Nito liked to think he’d won them over. His pistols gave off puffs of smoke with every steady pull of the trigger. The settlers joined in, firing fast as they could.
Nito winged one or two, wincing each time his bullets struck. Then heard the faint sound of bones breaking as his horse kicked again. It felt like his own support struts had caved in, and if he had a stomach, he definitely would have puked.
Between all the confusion, and different sources of attrition, the gunfight was over before he knew it. The bandits were in full retreat.
While NIto reclaimed his hat, the settlers hugged one another and whispered, staring at the automaton with big, frightened eyes.
After a quick discussion, the father stepped forward. “I don’t think we’ll be camping here tonight. We’re headed into town, if you’d care to ride with us, stranger.”
Though their sense of decency compelled them to make the offer, he felt the fear radiating off the humans like a heatwave.
Nito tugged the brim of his hat. “Much obliged, but I reckon I’ll go it alone.”
Thanks for reading!