“For God looked upon their evil twisted form, and the angels of light cast these demons down upon the Earth, through a chasm of hell fire, to feast upon the flesh of the living” -Unknown survivor
The vast wasteland fell in all directions, desolate and lifeless. Dry grass and shrubs dotted the godforsaken surroundings, and the rising sun crept upward on the horizon, bathing the earth in pale morning light. The relentless cruel wind blew in from the North, sucking moisture and life from everything that it touched. Like a sharp blade scraped across the land, it killed everything in its path. A new day had begun, harsh and unyielding.
A rusted shovel impaled the cracked earth, removing the top layer of dry dirt. It swung again, piercing the freshly exposed soil. The man holding the shovel now stood in a shallow hole, shoveling dirt onto a small pile next to him. Behind him, the rising sun moved even higher against the sky, and tormented him with the heat of a day that had only just begun. Silhouetted in an orange halo, he stood there for a moment measuring the growing hole with his gaze. He stood tall. And lean. A lone figure against a backdrop of despair and grief. His gaunt chiseled face had leathered from years of living in the baking sun. His rough hands held the handle of the shovel with an iron grip, strengthened from the life he had lived in this rugged country. He bent over again and continued digging, removing soil from a patch of land that could barely support any form of life. Even the drought-resistant local vegetation had not grown there for a decade. Some said that this land was cursed. That nothing would grow there, except fear and doubt. They were right, and he hated them for that.
The mound of dirt continued to grow as the man removed shovel-full after shovel-full. He pulled out an old worn handkerchief and wiped sweat from his brow, and then slipped it into his back pocket. He rechecked the size of the hole and continued to dig, this time working at the edges to make it a little longer. The hole started to take shape. Three feet wide and five-and-a-half feet long. A small shallow grave.
The blazing sun continued to move even higher behind him, burning his neck and extinguishing any hope he had of passing through the day without the fear of what may come. He speared the shovel into the dirt mound and wiped greasy beads of sweat from his forehead, then turned and disappeared toward a small neglected homestead farther up the hill. An old rectangular fence line marked what used to be a small yard, now broken and in disrepair. Inside, arranged gracefully on the dining table, was a woman’s body wrapped neatly in a stark white bed sheet. He walked over to a small side table tucked in the corner and poured a glass of water from a tall hand-made pitcher. He sat down next to the body, calmly sipping on water and staring out of the window at the bleak landscape that surrounded him. It was a dead world that had festered in his mind, pushed him to the limits of human resolve and tested his sanity. The heat of the day was slowly creeping into the small home, penetrating the thin wooden walls that he had erected so many years ago. The unbearable silence of an empty home weighed heavy on his mind. It wasn’t long ago that she had hoped for children, playing and scrambling across these wooden floors, now worn and cracked with age. Faint outlines of his dirty boot prints marked the floor. But he couldn’t worry about that right now. She had always cleaned the floors, delicately sweeping out the bits of dirt through an open door way, singing as she worked inside the home. Their home.
The man gently picked up the body, cradling it in both arms, and carefully walked back down the hill toward the freshly dug grave. He laid the body down and stepped back into the hole, pausing for a moment to make sure she would fit. A pair of women’s lavender boots stuck out from one end of the bed sheet. Size 8. Recently cleaned and polished. He reached down and covered them, and then picked up the body and gingerly placed it into the grave. He adjusted the sheet, smoothing out all of the wrinkles and any sign of imperfection. The morning she died he had gone into their bedroom and taken this sheet from the bed in which they had spent so many nights together. He had carefully slipped the boots onto her lifeless feet and wrapped her in the bed sheet, knowing that these things had served their purpose, and they would now decay beneath the earth along with everything he had loved.
As the sun continued to beat down upon him, he covered the body with dirt and smoothed the surface with the edge of the shovel. His job was done. Everything that he knew was now lost and buried. He picked up a makeshift cross, fashioned out of cedar branches found in the dry creek bed that hadn’t flowed since last spring. He used the end of the shovel to pound it into the ground at the head of the grave, and then carved the name into it with a rusted buck knife. Jane Marshall.
He walked into the bedroom and retrieved a clean shirt from the dresser and a new handkerchief, and then poured the rest of the water into a clay basin and rinsed his face, cleaning off the sweat and grime from the morning’s chore. He put on a worn pair of leather boots that had seen every square inch of this land. Placing fence posts, tending cattle, and building a life. Now they would take him away from this desolate land and help him seek a new life out west. From the bottom drawer of a wooden dresser he retrieved an exquisitely decorated oak box. Inside, wrapped in clean red velvet, were two Colt revolvers with silver handles. They were perfectly weighted for his hands, a true extension of his arms when he held them. He slid them into holsters that hung at his sides and walked into another room. He reappeared carrying a heavy leather satchel over one shoulder, and then walked out back to a wooden gate where a chestnut horse was grazing peacefully on the last bit of hay that this dead land could afford. It only took a few minutes to tack-up his wife’s horse and fit the saddle. He adjusted the straps and cinched them tight around the girth, and then climbed into the saddle and spurred the mare forward. He took off at a gallop and rode hard toward the horizon. A thick cloud of dust hung on the path behind him as he disappeared into a mirage that engulfed his senses and consumed him.
• • •
The Virginia City Mining Company had built a deep pit that scarred the land and filled the air with a haze of dirt. The dust hung loosely over the work site, polluting the lungs of men who worked sixteen-hour days extracting gold, silver and platinum. Mules worked to their death hauling loads of freshly split rock out of the mine, and broke their whip-marked backs to remove these precious metals from the earth. The open pit was encircled by a network of walkways and wooden stairs that descended deep into the mine, spiraling around until they disappeared into tunnels that spider-webbed out to where the men worked deep underground. The men who worked in this mine lived in a camp composed of makeshift shelters and tents. For them, poor living conditions were well worth the consistent paycheck that they spent on liquor and female companionship. For many people in town the miners were nothing but trouble. These men would often drink and fight, earning themselves a night in the local jail, until they sobered up, paid a small fine and went back to work. For others, the economic boom was well worth the trouble. The town had grown quickly, and with it came all of the evils that followed men with money.
A gangly young man came sprinting out of the tunnels with a worried look on his face. He threw down the lantern that had guided his way out of the darkness and continued running up a series of wooden stairways. He turned a sharp corner and nearly slipped, but caught himself on a roughly built wooden railing. The next set of stairs he took two at a time, using the railing to pull himself upward. In his other arm, he carried a long object wrapped in a dirty piece of cloth. He reached the edge of the open pit and continued running down a boardwalk that ended near a small makeshift structure.
He stopped just outside of the small office and placed his hands on his knees, desperately trying to catch his breath.
“Mr. Richards--,” he said, nearly out of breath and panting loudly, gripping a stitch in his side. But no one answered.
“Mr. Richards!” he yelled, carefully holding out the long object.
The young man waited outside for a few moments, finally catching his breath from the steep run out of the mine. He stood upright as the wooden door cracked open and a tall dark man stepped out, neatly dressed and well groomed. His hair was slicked to one side and he wore a gray and black tailored suit, with a gold chain attached to a handcrafted watch that rested in his jacket pocket. He was noticeably rich, and carried himself like any man would who owned a gold mine. This was Jack Richards, a powerful land baron who made his living using people to push himself to the top. He only cared about himself, and money. Mostly money.
“What, boy?” he barked at him, pulling out and checking the gold watch, like he was already late for something.
“Mr. Richards. Sir. They--, they found something. In the mine.”
Aaron handed the object to Jack, who promptly unwrapped it, already pissed that he was pulled away from something he thought was more important. It was a human femur. He held it out farther away when he realized what it was, as if it would give him a disease. He twisted it around and examined it at a distance.
Another man stepped out from inside the office. He was much younger than Jack with clean-cut hair and a blonde beard flecked with orange. This was Clay, Jack’s right-hand man and second in command. He made sure that everybody did their job, and if they didn’t, he made sure that they were punished accordingly. Clay took the long bone and held it carefully, holding it up to the light and rotating it around in his hands.
“This is human. Where did they find this?” Clay asked.
“In the new shaft on the north side of the mine. Where we found all that silver last month,” Aaron said.
Jack took the femur and covered it with the small piece of cloth and tucked it under his arm. “Who else knows about this?” he asked.
“Just a few of us. But--, the whole area is covered in bones, sir. Must be Indian,” Aaron speculated.
Jack glanced over to Clay, shooting him a knowing look.
“Alright, son. Don’t tell anybody else about this. Keep your mouth shut.”
Aaron looked at both of them for a moment, like a well-trained dog expecting a treat for good behavior. Then he spun on his heels, nearly tripping over his own feet and ran off back toward the mine. Jack turned to Clay and handed him the femur with a deep furrow in his brow.
“You know what to do. Move the remains. Keep digging.”
Jack moved back toward the office, but paused in the doorway. “Nobody finds out,” he demanded, then disappeared back into the dark office and slammed the thin wooden door behind him.
• • •
On a distant hillside overlooking the mine, three mounted Washoe warriors sat in silence, watching as several men worked diligently to remove human remains from the open pit. They carelessly tossed the remains into assorted barrels in the back of a wagon. The men had no respect for the dead as they ripped their bones out of the earth and removed them from their final resting place, laughing and making jokes as they worked. One of the men climbed into the back of the wagon when they were done and sealed the barrels shut. When he was finished he moved to the driver’s seat, grabbed the reins, and whipped the mules forward. The mules struggled against the heavy loaded wagon as they dug their feet into the dirt and pushed hard. The man whipped again as the mules reached the steepest part of the embankment out of the pit, but they soon cleared the load and continued down a dirt road. The three other men, now armed with rifles, joined the wagon on horseback and the party disappeared over a small hill to take the remains to a location where they would never be found again.
Angered beyond reason, one of the warriors turned his horse and rode off, and the others followed close behind. They left the hillside and rode fast across an open plain, descended a steep hill and maneuvered toward a dry riverbed, which they followed for several hours. When they reached the edge of their territory, they left the riverbed and crested a long hill. A winding single-track dirt path led them to a lively village that sat at the base of the hill, hidden in a bowl surrounded by steep cliffs. A natural barrier, these cliffs prevented any attack on the village, unless it was a head-on assault.
A young Washoe boy ran down the winding trail to meet the approaching riders. They reined their horses and stopped short of him. The warrior in front dismounted from his horse in a single swift movement, landing in front of the boy. He was tall and well built, with a long black ponytail bound together with thick leather. This was the Chieftain’s son, Itza-chu.
“Where is father?” he demanded, as he spoke in the native tongue of his people.
The young boy pointed to a large warm-weather hut near the center of the village, constructed out of cedar planks and deer skin. Smoke was rising from a hole in the roof, and billowed upward into a white pillar that dissipated into a calm wind.
Itza-chu ran over to his father’s palatial hut and threw back the leather door. A large fire roared in the center. Dried herbs and flowers hung on the walls, and filled the hut with a soothing aroma that took hold of him and calmed his nerves. Next to the fire, his father sat cross-legged with closed eyes as he chanted an ancient prayer, and rocked back-and-forth with his hands moving through the air above his head.
“Father…” Itza-chu murmured. But Essa-queta didn’t answer. Itza-chu sat down next to the fire across from his father and waited for him to finish. Essa-queta was a man of great faith and continued his prayer without pause. Itza-chu grew annoyed and shifted around on his haunches, and stared at his father unblinking.
When Essa-queta had finished, he opened his eyes and calmly looked at his son, who was glaring back at him from across the fire. He was a stern man, with a long face and dark eyes. His long hair was loose and draped across his shoulders, as it always was when he prayed to the gods.
“You seem troubled,” he presumed.
“Yes,” he answered, finally getting his chance to speak. “The white men who dig at the mine have uncovered a grave site.”
“A grave of our ancestors,” Itza-chu said, becoming more agitated.
Essa-queta sat in silence and collected his thoughts about the situation. He possessed great wisdom and never took any decision lightly. His son, on the other hand, was still young and quick to take action, often without thinking of the consequences.
“They disgrace their remains!” Itza-chu yelled, having grown more impatient with his father’s silence. “Their lust for gold has offended us! Offended our ancestors!”
“Calm yourself,” Essa-queta demanded. He reached for a dry log from a stack beside him and placed it into the burning fire. Fresh flames licked the raw fuel and turned the dry bark into black fingers of burnt wood that curled around themselves, and slowly turned into new orange coals at the bottom of the pit. Golden embers spiraled up from the growing fire and disappeared through the hole in the roof. The fire grew hot and the radiant energy drew beads of sweat from Itza-chu’s forehead.
“I will not live forever my son. And someday--, you will take my place.”
Essa-queta turned and pulled a bundle of sage from a hand-woven basket from behind him. He threw it onto the fire and wafted the pungent smoke with his hands, inhaling deeply.
“If you are to lead our people, you must find peace with these white men,” he instructed as he continued to waft the smoke through the hut.
“But--,” Itza-chu started as Essa-queta held up his hand and silenced him.
“You will go to them. You must speak with them and make things right. It is your duty to your people,” he commanded.
He threw wild herbs onto the fire and closed his eyes, beginning to pray again as his son threw back the leather door and left the hut. Itza-chu walked back through the village and found the two warriors waiting for his command. He mounted his horse and the three of them rode off out of the village. They climbed back up the trail and disappeared over the hill, fueled with the passion that only young men can have. Itza-chu was determined to make things right, and needed to prove to his father that he was a born leader, with the will to take action to protect his people.
• • •
The sun moved high above a hardpan alkaline desert, scorched from centuries of burning heat. An expansive sea of cactus and dead grass extended for miles in either direction, with no end in sight. The landscape was uninhabited, except for a few desert scorpions that hid deep underground, where the soil was still cool and clung to the frost that had gathered during the cold nights. A figure on horseback moved in the distance, silhouetted by the yellow horizon. He had traveled a long way to get this far west and had left his former life, and dead wife buried behind him. He guided the horse, Larken, toward some unknown destination and steered her through the wasteland that few would cross during the hot summer, and even less would make it through alive.
His clothes were heavily weathered and his hat was caked in dirt. A worn handkerchief hung loosely around his neck, ragged and torn from the sun and wind. The two Colt revolvers hung at his side and rested firmly in custom fit holsters that had been measured perfectly to grab them at any moment. A Winchester rifle was secured in a holster at Larken’s side, the top of which had rubbed against his saddle, and wore the leather thin at that spot.
He urged Larken onward and pushed her forward in the midday heat. His head hung low from the long miserable journey. He had spent weeks in the wilderness surviving on scrawny animals and small pools of salted water, many of which had completely evaporated. It had been years since he traveled through this country and he remembered it well, but the ground seemed harder when he slept, and his back ached in the mornings. The time he had spent sleeping on a soft mattress had taken its toll, and he wasn’t that young man anymore, the one who had spent countless nights under the stars and dreamed of what may come.
A jackrabbit bounded in the distance before stopping briefly to inspect a dead shrub. Its skinny legs pushed again and it sprung forward to another patch of dry vegetation, eagerly looking for a meal. The man looked up at the distinctive sound the jackrabbit made as it skipped across the salted earth. His eyes were blue and deeply piercing. He pulled out his rifle and placed it firmly to his shoulder, and cocked it as he took aim. A single shot rang out across the desert and echoed through the low hills. It was the only sound that could be heard for miles and signaled a night he wouldn’t spend hungry.
Later that evening, the Gunman sat next to a roughly built fire that was surrounded by small stones he had found nearby. He watched as the skinned jackrabbit roasted on a stick, skewered length-wise. Larken grazed nearby on small stunted shrubs that barely clung to life in the arid soil. It was a pitiful meal, even for a horse that had survived this land for so many years already. But at least it was something.
As the hare cooked on the open fire and dripped brown grease into the flames, the Gunman leaned back against his saddle and gazed at the brilliant stars overhead. Billions of small blue specks hung tightly against a deadly black sky. The night was going to get cold and he knew that a warm meal and a well-fed fire would keep the cold from creeping into his bones and taking hold of his spirit. He leaned forward and stirred the golden embers as the fire cracked and spit fresh flames into the air. He grabbed the roasted hare and poked its side with his finger, then slid it off the stick and sunk his teeth deep into its thigh. Warm juice ran down his chin as he consumed the lean stringy meat and filled his belly for the first time in three days. After the meal he laid his head against a blanket roll and slipped off into a deep dream.
The next morning, the Gunman rode hard across the sterile country and wove around cracked rocks and large Socorro cacti, a silent army that surrounded him in the bright sun. He left the patch of mute warriors and continued steadily toward the west, relentless in his pursuit of starting a new life. For three days he rode Larken through the harsh land and found only one small pool of water that was almost too salty to drink.
The nights in the desert were brutally cold and the Gunman was ready to sleep in a soft bed again. Every night he dreamt of the woman he loved, dancing in the kitchen of their home and moving gracefully among the pillars of sunlight that fell through the windows. It seemed that the farther he travelled west, the more he thought of her. He often rode for hours with no other thoughts but her long golden hair. But sometimes these dreams would turn into nightmares, visions of his dead wife rising from the ground, ugly and torn from decay. He awoke from these dreams in a cold sweat, and hated himself for it. He wondered how a man, who had loved her so much, could dream of the unthinkable.
The ground began to slope upward as they neared the end of the alkaline desert and passed among boulders that jutted out from the ground in all directions. The surrounding shrubs were green from a recent rain, but it was still a wasteland that he wanted to soon forget. A place he hoped that he would never have to travel through again. He climbed a hill covered with Buffalo Grass and Yucca, and halted Larken near the top, where he overlooked a shallow bowl on the other side. Far below sat a small town nestled firmly at the base, with several roads that brought supplies and fresh men to work in the mines. He sat there for a moment surveying the energetic town and watched as men and women went about their business as usual. He spurred the mare forward and descended down the long hillside toward the outskirts.
After reaching the bottom of the hill, he trotted down a dirt road cut deep with wagon wheel ruts formed after the last rain, and passed by a freshly painted sign that read: Virginia City, Nevada. Population 510. It was the last stop he would make before heading into California and making his way to the coast.
At the edge of town, the Gunman dismounted in front of the local stable, the Silver Shoe Hitching Post. He led Larken over to a trough of dirty water and she began to drink deeply as he dipped his hand into the water, and rubbed the back of his salted neck. Cool beads ran down his back as he watched a feral dog hunting for scraps of food in a nearby alley.
An old man stepped out of an open barn door and walked with a vicious limp. He approached Larken and held out a bright red apple. She flicked her tail at the many flies that had begun to surround her and obliged the man by eating half of the apple with one bite. The old man patted her neck and scratched her nose as she finished the rest.
“Howdy. Name’s Jay,” he said as he stepped forward to shake the Gunman’s hand.
The Gunman stood and firmly shook Jay’s hand, who had a surprisingly strong grip for his age.
“What can I do ya’ for?” he asked.
“I need a place for my horse. We’ve traveled a long way and need to bed-down for the night.”
“Well…I’m sorry to say we’re full up at the moment.”
“I’ll pay silver.”
Jay’s eyes brightened at the word silver. He was a nice man, but a businessman nonetheless.
“I’m sure I’ve still got some room. No problem. No problem at all.”
Jay pulled out a foil pouch from his back pocket. He opened it and fingered a large wad of chewing tobacco into his mouth, then cheeked it with his tongue as he spoke. “How long you stayin’ for?”
“As long as I need.”
“I see. Okay. Well…let’s get your horse settled inside then.”
Jay grabbed Larken’s reins as he spit brown sludge in the dirt, turning to lead her to the barn. Larken was a keen horse with a remarkable ability to sense someone’s true nature. She must have trusted the old man. She had never spent more than a night or two inside of a barn and had lived her entire life on the open prairie.
The barn was dark and crammed full of horses busily munching hay and doing whatever it was that horses did when they were relegated to a life inside a wooden stall. Jay left her for a moment as he pulled another horse outside, and then returned to take her into the open stall. He began to unbuckle the saddlebags that weighed her down, but as soon as his hand touched the heavy satchel, the Gunman stopped him.
“I got it,” he said.
“Oh no, sir. Untacking em’ is part of my service.”
“I said I got this one,” he insisted, and grabbed hold of the satchel.
Jay nodded, took his hands off, and moved toward another bag. The Gunman unbuckled the heavy satchel and threw it over his shoulder as Jay continued to unburden Larken. The Gunman grabbed his rifle and a few other items from one of the other bags, and then pulled out a solid piece of silver and flipped it to Jay, who looked down at it in disbelief.
“Thank you. Thank you, sir!” Jay quickly slipped the silver into his front pocket.
The Gunman knew that his horse would eat well tonight, something that she deserved after carrying him across the desert.
“You’ve got nothing to worry about tonight. Nothin’ at all. Your horse can stay for as long as you like.”
The Gunman unbuckled the last saddlebag and hoisted it over his shoulder, patting Larken on the neck as he left through the barn doors. He turned around the side of the barn and headed toward the center of town. The streets teemed with people buying goods and haggling with salesmen. He stepped onto a storefront boardwalk and maneuvered around a Chinese miner trying to barter for a bag of flower. The salesman was having a tough time understanding him, but even so wanted nothing more than to sell his goods. After moving passed the two men he continued on in search of a place to stay for the night. He needed a soft bed to sleep in and perhaps a drink to warm his belly. An old man drove a wagon full of mining supplies down the middle of the street, pulled by two underfed mules, with a filthy dog sitting next to him. He saw the Gunman and stared with curiosity from underneath his wide-brim hat, and then spat in the dirt and wiped his mouth with the back of his dirty hand. The Gunman was a stranger in this small town, but hoped that he would go unnoticed.
He ignored the old man and kept walking down the boardwalk, and adjusted the heavy leather satchel on his shoulder, trying to keep the strap from digging into his shoulder blade. After the wagon passed the Gunman crossed the street and stepped onto the opposite boardwalk. Rebecca Forred, the town doctor’s wife, had swiftly exited the general store carrying a box full of supplies. She wasn’t paying attention and nearly collided with him, coming face-to-face, an awkward moment for both of them. He quickly stepped aside and tipped his hat, but she said nothing and only scowled as she moved passed him down the boardwalk. After watching her for only a moment longer he turned and continued looking for a place to stay.
He rounded a corner and saw his destination, a sign hanging loosely above a swinging door which read: Bucket of Blood Saloon, and just below, painted in sprawling red letters: Satan’s Den. Piano music played wildly from inside, and he thought that this was just the type of place he was looking for. He moved across the street and dodged a few oncoming horses as they passed. He entered the saloon with the doors swinging behind him. The bartender glanced across the parlor at him as he stood there, but nobody else seemed to take notice. It wasn’t quite noon, but the saloon was already brimming with people eager to get stoned. They would continue to drink and laugh well into the night. Three young men sat in the corner playing poker, still wet behind the ears. Another man sat with them, enjoying a tall beer with a plump whore on his lap. He wondered if they were even old enough to know how to use a gun, or if any of them had spent the night with a real woman, not the kind you had to pay for. The Gunman figured that this would be the perfect place to spend the night. The kind of place where nobody would ask him any questions.
He approached the bar and found a seat, placing the heavy satchel on the chair next to him. Behind the bar, busily cleaning a dirty beer glass was Emmett Dawsen, the bartender and owner of this fine establishment. He was a balding stocky man with round glasses and gray hair. The Gunman slipped off his hat and set it in the chair next to him. He ran his fingers through his dark greasy hair and waited for the bartender.
Emmett put down his rag, pulled out a small glass, and a bottle of whiskey from the back shelf. He stepped up to the bar and poured him a shot. The Gunman grabbed the whiskey and downed it swiftly, and then slid the glass back across the counter. “Another.”
Emmett poured again, more than happy to keep pouring as long as he got paid. Once again, the Gunman took it down. “The bottle,” he asked.
Emmett handed him the bottle of whiskey and the Gunman exchanged him two pieces of silver. He immediately poured himself another round.
“Can I get you anything else, sir?” Emmett said.
“A room for the night, if you have one.”
Emmett nodded and pulled out a room key from underneath the counter. “You will find your room on the second floor, at the end of the hallway,” he said, and then turned and continued cleaning dirty glasses in his usual fashion.
The Gunman slipped the key into his front pocket just as the piano music stopped, followed by thunderous laughter. He turned over his shoulder and saw Emmett’s young son Caleb, and their black servant Elijah, both sitting at the keys and laughing uncontrollably. Elijah began to play a slower melody and Caleb followed suit, but still giggled under his breath as he played the high chords. They were an odd duo, but the best of friends nonetheless.
The Gunman turned back and stared into the mirror behind the bar. His hair was disheveled and dark bags hung beneath his eyes. He rotated the empty glass in his hand and watched as small beads of whiskey pooled in the bottom.
As he reached for the bottle to pour another shot, he saw the three young men from the poker game walking up behind him; Johnny, Mason and Eric. He poured the shot and consumed it just as they reached the bar. He could tell by the way they walked that they had been at work drinking all morning, not to mention the smell of booze on their breath.
“You ain’t from ’roun here are ya?” Johnny mocked. “I can tell by the way you speak.”
The Gunman grabbed the bottle and poured himself another.
“I asked ya’ a question, stranger,” he said, getting more agitated at the Gunman’s silence.
The Gunman downed the glass and looked at the men through the mirror. It wasn’t a question of if he could take the boys down, but how quickly he could do it.
“You deaf? Or you just dumb?” Mason added, as he fingered the handle of his knife.
“Nope,” the Gunman answered, finally giving in to their banter.
Emmett stepped forward and pushed the small round glasses back up his greasy nose, sweat collecting on his upper lip. “Let me get you boys a drink. On…on the house,” he said.
“We’re just havin’ a friendly chat here, Emmett. Just mind yur’ own business and go pour someone a drink,” Mason demanded.
The other two laughed as Emmett stepped back, completely defeated by the young men. He hated their words, but had never been a brave man, and he knew they would spend a lot of money on booze in his saloon if he didn’t kick them out.
Johnny hadn’t taken his gaze off of the Gunman and stood there burning a hole straight into his temple. “What’s your name?” he probed.
The Gunman looked down at his empty glass.
“Hey…I’m talking to you. I said...what’s your name?” Johnny questioned, never taking his eyes off of him.
The Gunman raised his hand and the three men stiffened from his quick movement. He slowly raised three fingers and looked at Johnny, unblinking. “Bartender--,” the Gunman started, “--three more shot glasses.”
The glasses appeared instantly on the counter and the Gunman poured three shots from his bottle. He slid a shot over to each of the men.
“Just what the hell is this?” Mason said.
The Gunman raised his own glass into the air. He had sized them up when walking across the parlor and knew exactly what it would take to subdue them if needed.
“Let’s pretend for a moment that I’ve already put you boys in your place,” he said, and raised his glass even higher, “And these shots are my post-asskicking peace offerin’.”
Eric grabbed his glass and smiled, and then raised it to his lips, ready to drink, but Johnny stopped him.
“Just what the hell are you doin’?” Johnny said to him, scolding him for agreeing with the stranger.
Eric placed the glass back on the counter, sorely disappointed that he wouldn’t get a free shot of whiskey. Johnny turned back to the Gunman, and was now seriously pissed off. His young temper had always gotten the best of him, and the booze wasn’t helping. He didn’t know it, but this was a fight that he had already lost.
“You’ve sure got some nerve. Nobody talks to me that way,” he said.
Johnny placed his hand on the Gunman’s shoulder, but before he could get another word out, the Gunman slammed his face with his glass, grabbed Eric’s gun from its holster, and held Mason at bay, and then pinned Johnny down with Mason’s knife. The three were quickly subdued and the saloon had grown completely quiet. Everyone watched as the stranger held the three young men at bay and stood above them like a giant.
The Gunman stared at Johnny, still unblinking with his sharp blue eyes. He held the knife firmly into his cheek and it was clear that Johnny was close to pissing his pants.
“We was just messin’ wid you! Honest. We didn’t mean anything by it!”
The Gunman released them and placed the knife and the gun on the counter. He took another shot of whiskey, grabbed the bottle and the glass, and flipped a piece of gold onto the counter. “For the trouble,” he said as he turned and found a seat in the corner of the parlor. Emmett hadn’t seen somebody spend that much money at one time in his saloon for over two years. He certainly didn’t like people causing trouble, especially some stranger he didn’t know, but he didn’t mind the extra money and quickly excused the Gunman’s actions as he held the piece of gold in his hand.
The three men retreated back to their table and picked up their cards, and each of them sat with their tail tucked firmly between their legs. After a few moments of awkward silence, they restarted their abandoned poker game and the man with the whore on his lap sat laughing at their foolishness.
After finishing his whiskey, the Gunman found his way up the stairs and sauntered down the second floor hallway with his saddlebags draped over his shoulder. He pulled out the room key from his pocket and checked the tag, room #8. He unlocked the door and stepped inside. It was a small room with only a double-sized bed, but he thought it was more than he needed. He locked the door securely behind him and doubled checked it by jiggling the handle. He knew that the door would never hold if someone really wanted through, but it would give him more then enough time to grab a gun and place a bullet through their skull.
He set the heavy bags down on the floor and sat at the end of the bed, breathing slowly and staring at the wall. He looked down at his rough, cracked hands, and then felt the long stubble on his face. It had been a week since his last shave, something he didn’t often go without.
• • •
After a short nap, the Gunman left his room with the saddlebags hidden under the bed and both revolvers holstered at his side. The barbershop was easy to find and he walked through the open doorway to find the barber busy sweeping the floor from his last customer. He was a beast of a man, with thick arms and a sweeping back. The Gunman could tell from the man’s rugged build that he was designed for hard labor, or something requiring great strength, not trimming hair in a small shop.
“Shave and a haircut today?” he asked, sizing up the Gunman as he glanced over his shoulder.
“Only a shave.”
“Looks like you need both, for as long as you’ve traveled I’m guessing,” the barber said smiling.
“Just the shave.”
“Have a seat,” he offered as he set the broom into the corner. “Name is Cutler.”
The Gunman shook his hand and climbed into one of three chairs that were bolted to the wooden floor of the cramped shop.
Cutler pulled a drape over the Gunman’s shoulders and tilted his chair back, and then reached for a small container of shaving cream. He fingered some of the white cream into a bowl and began to lather it with a brush, which turned it into foam. He then rubbed it over the Gunman’s cheeks and neck with his large hands. “I never caught your name, partner.”
“I never gave it,” the Gunman responded.
“Fair enough. I cut and shave a lot of men who expect me not to ask too many questions. I guess the same goes for you,” he said, and reached for a long sharp razor. He dipped the razor into a glass jar of disinfectant and wiped the wet blade on his sleeve. “Tilt your chin up, please.”
The Gunman lifted his chin as Cutler began to slide the blade along his cheek, and black and gray hairs clung to it as Cutler continued shaving closer to his mouth. His movements were quick and confident. This was obviously something that he had become skilled at, but the Gunman still wondered what he had done in his past life. After a few minutes the shave was done and Cutler wiped his face with a hot towel.
The Gunman reached into his pocket and pulled out a small piece of silver and placed it on the counter, but Cutler grabbed it and handed it back to him.
“No sir, on the house.”
“I pay all my debts,” the Gunman said to him.
“I understand. But you’ve traveled a long way through the desert my friend.”
The Gunman could only look at him and wonder how he knew this.
“The dirt on your boots. You’re not the only one who has spent time in those wastelands.”
“Speaking from experience?” the Gunman asked.
“Speaking with the knowledge that men change in the desert, and often come out the other side with more than just a burnt neck.”
“Don’t mention it. I’ll see ya’ around.” Cutler turned and grabbed the broom to finish his chore, and the Gunman left the barbershop and returned to the Bucket of Blood.