This is Part Three of a magical western series.
No copyright infringement intended. All publicly recognizable characters, settings, etc. are the property of their respective owners. The original characters and plot are the property of the author. The author is in no way associated with the owners, creators or producers of any media franchise.
The one thing you learn in my line of work is patience. When traveling hundreds of miles on horseback, you can’t rush the horizon any faster than it wants to come to you. Well… I suppose you can, but that’s not the way of the west.
So I relaxed, looked at the ceiling and didn’t think about anything in particular. Most importantly, I listened. Downstairs came the sound of the proprietor and one other, his wife or helper, making preparations for the evening meal. From the street were the stumbling footsteps and incoherent muttering of the ‘49er as he tromped away to sleep off his drunk. I suspected he’d be back before long for a fresh bottle. Other than that, nothing.
Sometimes the absence of sounds can tell you a lot about a place. For example, there wasn’t the sound of children and all the resulting commotion that comes from youthful exuberance. Nor was there the bustle of skirts from dames and granddames as they went about their shopping and errands. There were no carts, no farmers bringing in their harvest, no homesteader picking up bags of flour, casks of nails, lumber or seed. No hammering from the blacksmith, or the whooshing of bellows. There wasn’t any neighing… or the sound of any animals in town. Not even a bird. If I hadn’t seen the dog on my way into town, I wouldn’t have believed it existed. There wasn’t even the lonely sound of sagebrush blowing down the street.
It was the sound of a town that was more dead than alive. One might think that a sort of civic necromancy was all that kept it going, but in my experience, such things were due to prosaic reasons or base motivations, not magical. Usually the basest: profit. But what profit could there be in this tiny corner of the west?
Boards squeaking below my window drew my attention. I got up and went to the window, but whoever it was that made the sound had already entered the hotel. Why hadn’t I heard the footfalls in the street? Curious how quiet the person had been.
I could just make out the obsequious ramblings of the proprietor and a few brief muttered replies through the floor. There were more footsteps, one heavy (the proprietor’s), one faint (the newcomer) as they walked toward the back, and then the sound of the door opening and closing. I exited my room and went to the end of the hall to peer out the back window.
The proprietor was draping a white cloth over a man reclining in the barber’s chair, face obscured by the shoulders and the back of the proprietor’s head. All I could see were dark gray trousers over European shoes, one crisp white sleeve, and a fine, long-fingered hand with a plain gold band on the pinky and a gold ring with a large ruby on the index finger. Even in shadow, the ruby was brilliant, as if alive with an internal fire.
When the proprietor finally stepped out of the way to get his razor, all I could see was slightly thinning dark blonde hair of medium length that was oiled and neatly combed. His face was covered by a hot towel, I could see the steam rise from it. A moment later, the proprietor turned back around and lathered the stranger’s face, disappeared again and I heard the rasp of razor against leather strap.
During the shave, there was a constant stream of nervous jibber-jabber, all one-way, with occasional grunts from the man in the chair. Nothing said was in any way enlightening as to the man’s identity or his occupation. Only the tone of the proprietor was telling; it wasn’t the simpering of a man ingratiating himself to a customer, but fear.
The shave completed, the sheet was whipped off and the man got to his feet. To my frustration, his hat, a Derby, was close at hand and went on immediately. Despite the narrow brim, all I could make out of his face from my vantage point was the tip of his narrow nose and a clean jaw-line.
I could see a gold chain leading to a small pocket with a round bulge in his waistcoat. The jacket he put on was elegant and very finely tailored, and like the rest of his clothing, completely out of place in this nowhere town. There was no gun-belt.
This didn’t necessarily mean anything. From the way he dressed, he clearly worked in town. Not much need for a gun in town. As for the hotelier/barber’s fear, it is not the gun (or wand) that is dangerous, but the man. A dangerous man remains so regardless of what is in his hand; and this man, judging by his economy of motion, and confident, serpentine grace, certainly was.
As if hearing my thoughts, the man paused and tilted his head toward me so that I could see a single lavender eye peer up at me. Without word or gesture on either of our parts, I knew that we would soon meet, though for good or evil purpose I could not say. The man flipped a coin to the proprietor and left.
I returned to my room and stood next to the window, but I did not see the man exit the hotel, nor did I hear any footfalls save the proprietor’s. The street was as barren and silent as before. I gave a moment’s thought to putting my boots and jacket on, but decided to bide my time. We would meet when we met. No need to rush things.
I stood in the window for some time before returning to my bed. Some might wonder why I did not use magic or some enchanted object (of which I had many at my disposal) to divine the identity of the stranger. I believe we wizards have a tendency to turn to magic when a patience and use of our wits would suffice.
Perhaps this mind-set came about through observing the resilience and resourcefulness of no-mag frontier folk. I’ve seen these hardy people survive in environments and under conditions that would surely have killed a wandless wizard. Then again I’ve seen no-mag frozen, starved, mauled by bears, scalped, stripped, and stranded, so take it as you will.
The gathering shadows and the hollowness in my stomach informed me that it was getting on time for supper when I heard the distant sound of hooves and the squeak of an axle badly in need of grease. I was just getting up to investigate when all hell broke loose.