goes like this... Following
the American Civil War, the Spades were forced to leave
their firstborn, Jonathan, with a tribe of
friendly Indians because someone may have been
after them. They settled in the Wyoming frontier town of
Paradise, so named because the Deadlands had not
reached it yet, with their two other sons, Willie
Jay and the youngest, Virgil, but were
killed by unknown hands before they could retrieve him.
Johnny was raised by Indians until his early adulthood, when the tribe was wiped out mysteriously. Finding them dead when he returned from a lone hunting trip, he took to traveling, looking for his real family, becoming a marshal in the process. Eventually, he found Paradise and his two brothers.
By then, having grown up without their parents for most of their lives, the somewhat badly adapted Willie Jay had become a prospector mining the family land and Virgil, calling himself "Ace", was a professional gambler not always on the right side of the law (indeed, studying to become a huckster). Jonathan's goal thus became to reunite his family and keep his brothers out of trouble.
Recently... When Simone Lorcquet came to town, she shook things up, and not just with her singing at the theater house. All three brothers found her interesting though it would be Ace who would court her more actively.
Not that it was all fun and games! Ace had to deal with a rather nasty loan shark by the name of Oily Pete, and Jonathan had to contend with the racist Sheriff Vaugnharvey. And what of "model" citizen Jeremiah Dark, a rich rancher from the South who knew their parents and seemed to be hiding something? It sometimes seemed like their only friends were Mayor Thorndike, who was a friend of their parents, and young Jesse Waylons, Johnny's dime novel-addicted deputy.
They were never able to prove that Dark was behind the hijackings of multiple caravans bringing supplies to the town by outlaws masked with yellow handkerchiefs, and when the supplies ran too low, the brothers went (not all voluntarily) to a nearby Comanche village to trade for some.
A few Native games later, and they had the stuff, including a shield made from the pages of a Bible and a dagger with a strange inscription. This clue leads the brothers on a quest to find its owner, an outlaw who may have stolen and hidden a gem of great value. But before they follow up on it, the Comanche that helped them, now attack Paradise because they've fallen victim to a disease (curse) from something traded to them. The town is defended, and in the process, Ace makes friends with one of Oily Pete's men, sympathetic Jimmy "Da Gun".
Now following their leads, they ride to Salvation, and then to Rosary, all the while disturbed by dreams of wolves come to revenge themselves on the owners of weapons used to kill Comanche. A gem will be found in Rosary's cemetery that allows the brothers to at least pay off Ace's debts.
On this trip they meet Lupita, an explosives smuggler Johnny has to bring to justice, but she gets away (without her merchandise). Willie Jay seems interested in her, but he kinda smells, you know?
Back home, Ace decides he'll go to Casper soon to participate in a poker tournament, and then there's another attack on a convoy. Johnny rides out to stop them and but his horse panics and he isn't able to help. Deep questions as to the effects of this first Shift are explored, but no answers come up. Investigations into the hijackings turn up nothing even with the help of Auntie May, an old Native friend of Johnny's. Meanwhile, Willie accompanies Ace to the card tournament, but so do a number of luminaries from Paradise.
When asked to throw the game by Oily Pete, Ace refuses, but still gets his ass kicked by Lupita who may be cheating. A bar fight starts and one of Lupita's gunpowder barrels outside explodes, gravely injuring Simone and killing Dark, though he soon reappears quite alive (dark magics are suspected as he isn't Harrowed). The brothers visit Simone at the local doctor's, again mystified by a Shift, they try to collect their wits before they are sent on an expedition into Comanche territory. On the way, they find a clue to the identity of the convoy hijackers - an old piece of map with Dark's signature at the bottom.
The brothers come across a damaged steam engine with limbs that attacks them in a canyon, and they must neutralize it. Further in the canyon, they find a discarded piece of the automaton, that could have carried explosive ordnance. The next settlement they pass tells them the Native village they have been interacting with has been completely destroyed.
Upon their return to Paradise, the town is attacked by ghouls, and Dark claims someone has betrayed Paradise to the forces of evil. The brothers volunteer to prove it wasn't them despite their frequent trips to Indian lands.
They find the true culprits, a Ghoul King holed up where the Deadlands, spreading ever closer, begin. They also discover he is working with Dark and most probably the hijackers that have made their lives difficult. They beat the black hats, but also confront Dark, who shows his hand by admitting he killed their parents, as well as hinting that he too, shifts. The confrontation turns violent as Dark squares off against the brothers with a powerful steam-powered automaton. The town is badly damaged in the battle, forcing Vaughnharvey to declare martial law, and then Dark is finally killed as his exoskeleton sinks through quicksand.
Through this, Paradise gets wind of an operation to kidnap citizens and use them as slaves. Investigating, Johnny is kidnapped as well. He's rescued, of course, and Paradise's mayor approves an attack just outside his jurisdiction, where these villains are apparently set up.
The damage and very public mess of the last few days leads to a trial (of course called by Vaughnharvey) in which Oily Pete tries to frame the brothers. Ace proves him a traitor instead and kills him during an oily escape. The other fallout from this is that Willie Jay is exiled to the state border where he acts as look-out against encroaching Deadlands to further keep him out of trouble (outside his brothers' influence). He leaves and builds himself a shack out there, but leaves his brothers their parents' journal, in which they find mentions of possible shifting on their parts too, as well as examples of a strange language that never changes from shift to shift.
Attending Oily Pete's funeral, Ace is challenged to a duel by Pete's brother Greasy Gil. It will end badly for Gil, who gets his ear chopped off and disappears in the mountains. Meanwhile, Ace can't see Simone because her father Horace Lorcquet has arrived from the East Coast to see what kind of decadent life she's leading and doesn't approve.
Thornedike is later murdered, and Vaughnharvey asks the brothers for help in the investigation. They find that the mayor didn't want to do business with dangerous supporters of slavers, and they had him killed. Johnny and Ace eventually stop a plot by these Southerners to pillage Paradise. Greasy Gil returns briefly during this episode, sporting a wooden ear.
As Horace Lorcquet is elected mayor, putting the brothers' position in jeopardy, they have a librarian named Bartleby investigate the strange script in their parents' journal. He makes headway, but it is stolen by Billy the Kid, a famous gunslinger thought dead. Confronting Billy, they discover he's not only Harrowed but possessed by another's spirit.
Under threat of exorcism, he gives them they key to the odd alphabet - it's the Dark Tongue (no relation)! Johnny then has his Native contact call her friend Django, a rare black bounty hunter, who guides them to the Maze, which hides the secret cult that still uses the language. They are all captured there, and the brothers, referred to by the cult as "shifters" are thrown into a cell... with a man called Twelve. [Click here for Twelve's history]
They discover that Twelve is a shifter too, and while they compare notes, Django breaks them out. In getting back to their ship, they discover that the cultists seem not only to know about the Shifts, but may be able to control or at least initiate them. They succeed in their escape and hightail it out of there, and when they get back home are told by Auntie May that any debt she is owed is wiped clean. Paradise is in mourning, however, for the loss of Simone. She's been taken in the night by a Sioux braves. Mad with love, Ace goes after her, and with the help of Jonathan and Twelve, reaches their lands East of town. They only want Simone to sing a land-protecting song or they will attack Paradise to make sure it does not fall to corruption and spread to their village. So after a Bear Race won by Ace, a deal is made with the braves that Paradise will send someone to sing every 10 years. Returning home as heroes, the mayor warms up to the brothers, and even offers Twelve citizenship.
That citizenship is contested by Vaughnharvey, but it is finally given, though a vision he has of a burning town makes them wary and start to plan their next expedition a little better.
Given a chance to become better citizens, the trio is sent on a mission to protect rich investors from New York on a train going West toward Paradise. They successfully do so and continue to rise in the esteem of Paradise's leadership. Young Jessee Waylons even graduates to full deputy. But while Jonathan and Twelve are on a mission with the kid in Colorado, Ace gets wind that Willie Jay is no longer sending telegraph messages from his position near the border. He undertakes a rescue mission alone and finds his brother in a strange coffin full of oily fluids. In the shadows, Jeremiah Dark lurks, alive and well somehow, and he's stolen something from Willie. Some kind of shimmering particles extracted from his body! In pursuit, the two Spades are distracted by a grouchy Jackalope while Dark escapes.
Back on the road, they are surprised to find Willie remembers things differently, i.e. he doesn't have memories native to the present reality, and still believes himself a time agent, with all the requisite skills. He hasn't properly shifted with the rest of the world! It also makes it more complicated for the brothers to figure out where Dark discovered the process he put Willie through, because it hasn't translated in his mind. Speaking of a "cyclical time loop" makes Ace twitch to a localized dust storm, and they start pouring over maps to find a possible spot near there where Dark might have developed his techniques, in the hopes of curing Willie's shiftlessness. They ride to a small town called Black Rock, Black being another name for Dark, and on the journey, Willie re-learns the basics of old west living.
They soon discover the town's inhabitants are willing - or at least ambivalent - slaves of Jeremiah Dark. Following clues, the heroes go around the eternal tornado and face off against vulture-like abominations to get to his secret cavern laboratory, inside a ravine. He is not there to get his comeuppance, but the alchemical equipment is there to restore Willie Jay to normal, after which the heroes, with the help of a pair of men sick of being slaves, burn down Dark's laboratory and free the settlement. After the party, they return to their ship, then home.
While neither Jonathan nor Twelve have returned, it's a happy reunion between Ace and Simone as things heat up between them. Even her father seems happier with the match (though Ace's cockiness makes that difficult later on). Things get complicated when Twelve's long-lost mother shows up in Paradise, but before she can tell her story, she's attacked by a spirit and placed in a coma. With the brothers suspected of the crime and the murder of a prominent mad scientist, they are given 48 hours to clear their name and, as it turns out, stop an evil shaman before he turns everyone into a zombie using a concoction he wants to throw down the town's well. Simone is almost corrupted before it's too late, and the boys walk away from the adventure with a stronger friendship with the Sioux ambassador (whose people see dark magic as an abomination), a new one with the town's fixer Bellune, and quite the opposite with a dumb criminal called Helm. When Twelve's mother wakes up, she tells the Spades she used to work with their parents and came in late the day of the accident that turned them and Dark into shifters. After a year of working on the data as lab workers disappeared left and right, Mary and Richard Spade suspecting foul play by Dark (who was pushing to control reality rather than fix what was broken), put everything on a steam wagon and ran away while Dark was off somewhere, casting a spell that made the lab impossible to find without help. After reaching the next town, they all left in different directions. Twelve's mother, discovering she was pregnant with Dark's child, dropped him anonymously at an orphanage while she hid under different assumed names lest Dark track her down. Only now does she feel safe to come looking for her son as she's (incorrectly) learned Dark was dead. She gives the boys a map to the lab, where it probably remains, untouched.
When Ace and Willie try to find it, the mystical fog makes it impossible to reach. Discouraged, the leader of a bunch of scavengers tells them he knows where how to reach the building and offers them a deal: recover a relic in the next canyon over, territory to some strange cult, and they'll get the information. To sweeten the deal, they lend them one of their own as a guide, and also a cook who turns out to be instrumental in passing the cultists' rigorous trading ceremony to gain access to the canyon. They ride there and find it's at the center of a strange gravitic anomaly where objects and dead bodies float around. Their guide Spit-spot takes them to an entire wrecked train suspended mid-air and surrounded by cultists. With some difficulty, they take possession of a large but portable idol responsible for the strange effect. As a turbulent storm rises up, and with Lupita's men after them, the boys use the idol to ride safely out of the rock storm. The scavengers make good on their promise and reveal the location of their parents' lab inside a mountain, and once again using the idol, manage to navigate the strange mists that protect the entrance. There, they discover the truth of what they call shifting and set to destroying the large totem at the center of the compound, just as their parents had prescribed. Then in comes Lupita to give them a head's up that she and her gang have stolen the idol tied behind their horses and are bringing it back to Dark, who has paid them handsomely for it and has rebuilt his lab near Paradise. As the central totem, in flames, threatens to bring the cavern ceiling down, they all race back to the entrance only to find that Lupita's men have betrayed her, killed their horses, all hands lost, and ridden away, leaving her stranded with Ace and Willy. The totem crashes down behind them in a puff of acrid smoke and they begin to despair...
Forced to spend the night, Ace, Willie and Lupita hear strange things in what's left of the cave and the next morning, discover a secret tunnel that leads them to an old steam wagon in a cave that opens on the back of the mountain. Unfortunately, it is cursed and like Dark's men who, decades before, had been cursed for stealing the totem, our heroes are too. Vivid nightmares tell them how Dark had his men steal and transport the totem while he rode away unscathed with his own wagon train, then killed the cursed men without ever touching the cursed steamer. The trio soon discover they can't go home, some force preventing them from driving in that direction. They head to Turtle Canyon instead to do find a mechanic who knows how to deal with the mystical, and run afoul of Lupita's men who have already handed off the smaller idol to Dark. They also run into their old friend Helm, and coerce him into getting the wagon fixed with his own money, while they go off looking for a shaman who could tell them about the curse.
The old man, living just outside town, can help... for a price. Either they pay him in gold - but Lupita's wealth as stolen - or they bring him hair from the Mayor's head (or some other piece of him). A plan is hatched to pose as famous barbers and use Don Benito's love for Mary Read, a female outlaw currently in town. Finding Don Benito completely bald, they end up stealing one of his mustaches and head back to the shaman who tells them that they cannot reverse the curse since the totem has been destroyed, but they can transfer it to the wagon train which was also involved in the Natives' betrayal. Dark no longer personally uses it, but his ranching operation in Colorado might.
Of course, Helm tries to run off with the steam wagon, but he's also cursed, so even though they can't stand him, he has to come with. When they find Dark's Colorado ranch, Ace must find an old wagon wheel and perform the ritual instructed by the shaman to transfer the curse, access given thanks to a bit of fast talk and a lot of whiskey, but out-numbered, escaping the ranch needs more planning. Willie's demolition skills certainly come in handy. Freed from the curse (as the ranch suddenly becomes an inescapable trap for Dark's people), the boys return to Turtle Canyon to drop Lupita off so she can take her revenge on her former gang, and they drive the steamer home to Paradise near which Dark is supposed to have gone. The trip, however, is a series of short (and uneventful) shifts in which the steam wagon becomes a train in space, a Roman galley, a prison bus, a flying carriage over India, a Viking longboat, and finally... SHIFT>
Recently... a stagecoach. As Ace jumps out of it and into Simone's arms, they think they've come full circle and back to their original "shift". But then a skeletal abomination runs into the doctor's office and their memories catch up with them. This isn't the Old West they (also) remember, but rather a world where spirits and demons try to push the population's fears until their territories become evil distorted Deadlands. After the boys dispatch a Bone Fiend come to kill Twelve's mother - though in a way that raises the fear factor rather than reduces it - the boys learn that a contagion has started to affect Paradise, coming from Coffin Rock, the town's unofficial "mirror" on the other side of the mountain. Johnny and Twelve, having returned during Ace and Willie's absence, went there to see what could be done, but haven't returned. So the boys go after them and find Coffin Rock a terrible place on the verge of becoming a Deadland, its remaining inhabitants as deeply depressed as their economy after over-mining the mountain, and terrorized by various undead, spirits and strange blood men creeping through the hills. The church is doing notably well, but whether it's the Fear playing tricks on them or actually real, it seems to be led by a currently-absent Jeremiah Dark. After failing to bring the town from the brink, Ace and Willie decide to go up the mountain and find an old shaman who gives them the tools to save the spirit of the mountain being abused by a great evil.
After saving a few souls inside the mine, the boys find the great evil to be Jeremiah Dark himself, and following him to his special chamber, discover he has built a reality machine, partly powered by Jonathan and Twelve's shifting particles. Caught in a web of broken realities, Ace and Willie keep shifting as they try to reach Dark and free his captives. Once Dark is finally dispatched, Ace races to stop Dark's revenge from beyond the grave - his cult summoning the Devil himself - while Willy Jay tries to prevent all of reality from exploding because of the villain's experiments. To alleviate the multiversal pressure, Willie closes all the portals except the original from before the moment Dark and their parents punched a hole in the universe - the 1950s as pictured in GURPS Atomic Horror - and stabilizes it across all space-time.
The four Shifters (though Johnny and Twelve have lost their powers, it doesn't really matter in a single closed universe) return to what is now Paradise Hotel & Casino in Vegas to resume their lives. Ace finally marries Simone, while Willy makes sure Dark's computer tapes are locked away for good. In fact, the four heroes become the founders of the Agents of SHIFT, an organization that protects the world from this dangerous technology, something their children and their children's children will be responsible for.
75 years later, a bustling American city of tall skyscrapers. A rift opens in the middle of a busy boulevard, beyond it a verdant jungle. A dinosaur stomps out and bowls over a bus. WTF is happening?! Maybe it's time to call in the Agents of SHIFT!