This is Part Five 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 Mayor was right. The cuisine was adequate. An indifferently cooked pork chop with a brown gravy that had more color than flavor and lumps that I hoped were mushrooms. On the other hand, the mashed potatoes were runny and perfectly smooth. The turnips were under-cooked. I’d had worse.
Apart from the proprietor, whose name was Albrecht Quince, and his wife Alice, I dined with the burly, if clean-shaven blacksmith, Lukas Baker, the president of the bank, Johannes Smith, and his wife, Dorcas. The conversation was as interesting as the gravy.
“So, you work for the railroad, Mr. Crow?” asked Mr. Smith. “It must be very interesting work.”
I could see he was much interested in what I had to say. My answer was a nod. I took as much pleasure in his disappointment as I disliked his lack of candor. My ’employment’ with the railroad had never come up. I guessed that the Mayor had sent him to find out about me.
“That is a lovely flower,” said Alice, nodding at my badge. “Where do they grow?”
“Down south, ma’am.”
“So,” said Smith, leaping at the opening, “Your business brung you up from the south then?”
“No.” I let him mull the contradiction. Smith tugged at the corner of his bushy white mustache as he failed to entirely suppress a frown.
Mr. Baker perked up. “If’n you been riding long, you’ll be needin’ to re-shoe your horse.”
“Unfortunately not,” I said, explaining my horse’s ‘accident.’
“Tsk,” said Smith. “Most unfortunate.”
“Some might see it as such,” I responded.
Smith looked up suddenly. “What do you mean?”
“If my horse hadn’t broken his leg, I wouldn’t be here dining with you fine people.”
Mr. Smith nodded and Mrs. Quince smiled, but both Mr. Baker and Mr. Quince stared at their plates.
“Do you often dine at the hotel?” I asked.
“Of course not,” said Mr. Smith, practically turning his nose up at his plate. “We have the best cook for a hundred miles…” He caught himself and wiped the scowl from his face. “But it is… I mean, I like to… my wife and I like to fellowship with our neighbors.”
“Naturally. So how long have you worked for the Mayor?”
“Ever since… what? No, I run the bank,” said Mr. Smith, flustered. Mr. Quince hid a smile behind his hand, but not before Smith noticed and shot a scowl at him. The smile disappeared instantly and his former nervousness returned. His wife’s face blanched, while Mrs. Smith carefully studied the pattern in the tablecloth. The interplay was quick, but not at all subtle. Whatever else the people in this town were, they were not masters of intrigue. I was sorely tempted to suggest a game of poker.
“My mistake,” I said, deciding that it would be best if I acted as though I hadn’t noticed anything amiss. “So this town of yours, is it mining, then?”
“Why yes,” said Smith. “How did you know?”
“Something that Mr. Quince said about there not being any horses, just mules for prospectors.”
Smith gave Mr. Quince another look that made the man squirm as though a fire had been lit under his seat.
“And I noticed a ‘49er on the way into town.”
“That old rummy? Yes we have a few of those, hoping for a rich strike. I reckon they’re wasting their time. The only sure thing is a vein of silver in the hills. Not the largest, not the smallest, and not the easiest to work, but it seems a long way from being played out.”
“That the mayor’s interest?”
Smith paused for a moment before answering. “No secret in that. He’s the one who discovered it. The whole town pretty much grew up around him. Land around here isn’t good for much else, but we do have the only water anywhere ’round, so if you’re looking for a place to run the railroad through, you could do a lot worse.”
I nodded. “Coal?”
“If there were some assurances, exclusive contracts, say…” He let the comment hang in the air for a moment, so I nodded my head. Let him read that however he wanted. “I’m sure you could be accommodated.”
I didn’t see how he could guarantee that the surrounding hills contained coal, but that was neither here nor there. I thought back to the Corporal who’d rode into town, wondered if he was indeed the one who’d shot poor Percerval and if he’d recognized me. If he had, it hadn’t been communicated to Smith, who believed my ‘accident.’
I glanced around the table, addressing my next question to all present. “Do you folks happen to know who those fellows came riding into town making all the fuss? The ones with the green sashes?”
Mr. Baker’s face turned dark, while Mr. Quince and his wife became carefully neutral. Mrs. Smith didn’t hide her look of disgust. Mr. Smith made a waving motion with his hand. “Oh they don’t mean nothing,” he said airily. “They’re good boys. Just a little high-spirited is all.”
“They work for the Mayor?”
“They work for the mine…”
“They don’t look much like miners.”
“They don’t look like much of anything,” said Mr. Baker under his breath.
Mr. Baker raised his voice momentarily, “I believe they are responsible for security. Running off claim jumpers and suchlike.”
Claim jumpers? I thought it highly unlikely to say the least, but I nodded my head as though accepting the answer.
“How long you reckon to be in town, Mr. Crow?” asked Mr. Baker, his voice surprisingly soft.
“Until the next stage?” asked Mr. Quince.
I nodded again. “More’n likely.”
“Not much to do in town, I’m afraid,” said Mr. Baker.
“Though I’d be happy to give you the use of my horse and carriage while you’re here… so you survey the surrounding hills,” said Mr. Smith. “For the railroad.”
“That’s most generous.”
“Think nothing of it.”
“Don’t know if you’re a sporting man, but could I interest you in a game of cards later? A few of us play. Nothing formal, mind. Just between friends.”
“I’d be delighted. Will the Mayor be joining us?”
“He may. We play at the back table in the saloon. Would seven be convenient?”
“That would be fine.”
The saloon was much more lively than I’d expected, if lively could describe the row of men half propped-up by the bar, or scattered around tables. All miners. None of them looked up when I came in, but stared fixedly at their drinks.
“Mr. Crow! Back here!” shouted Mr. Smith, though a conversational tone would have sufficed in the muted atmosphere. I nodded and made my way over. Mr. Quince was seated to Mr. Smith’s right and a man I did not recognize to his left.
“This is Dillon Marshall, my assistant,” said Mr. Smith.
“Pleased to meet you,” I said.
Mr. Marshall mumbled something I couldn’t quite make out, but it sounded polite. He was neither young nor old, handsome or ugly; the sort of man you forget the instant he stepped out of the room.
I sat to Mr. Marshall’s left just as the swinging doors banged open behind me and three pairs of boots came stomping in, accompanied by the ching-ching of two pairs of spurs. I adjusted my chair slightly so my back wouldn’t be to the door and I could see the three men out of the corner of my eye without turning my head or appearing to pay them any noticed.
It was three of the men from earlier, the man with the patchwork coat, Piebald, the giant Wild Man, and the Vaquero. They were slapping each other and laughing and carrying as if they were already three bottles in. The other men in the bar shrunk into themselves a little more.
Wild Man and Vaquero went to the bar and ordered a bottle of whisky apiece, while to my displeasure Piebald came right over and pulled out the chair next to Mr. Quince. No one looked particularly happy about it, but neither did they stop him.
“Why hello gen-tell-men. Lookin’ to start a card game? You don’ mind if’n I join you?”
There were a few grumbles around the table that could have been assent.
Piebald’s head swiveled to me. “How ‘bout you stranger. You mind me settin’ in on yer game?” There was no mistaking the challenge in his voice, the heavily accented disrespect. If his tone was bad, his breath was worse. It smelled like a possum had crawled up and died inside a poorly cured buffalo hide. To be fair, it might not have been his breath. It could have just been him.
“It’s a free country,” I said, never taking my eyes off his, and giving a slight nod to the chair at his hand.
“I’m obliged mister Foo Boo Goo Goo.”
“It’s Mr. Crow,” I said, keeping my voice amiable, as though explaining to a child. He was too dense to notice.
“I thought you had one of them Chinamen names,” he sneered.
“I do,” said I. I leaned back slightly and slid my left leg forward an inch so that my wand was clear of the arm rest, my hand relaxed and poised above the ivory and silver handle. “You couldn’t pronounce it. So you’re welcome to call me Mr. Crow. You can pronounce that, can’t you? If that’s too hard for you, you can stick to Mister.” Though I hadn’t gotten louder, I let my words have a bite that even this flea-brain could recognize. Chairs around slid back and men stepped out from behind me. I could see his friends at the bar straighten and shift their jackets so as to free their pistols. I tensed my right leg, ready to push myself over backwards and roll if necessary.
Time always seems to slow down for me in these instances, and the silence seemed to go on for minutes before Piebald slapped the table and brayed like a jackass. At once the tension went out of the room and everyone went back to their drinking, though I remained mindful of his friends at the bar.
“I like you, mister. I’m gonna enjoy taking your money,” he said as he plopped into his chair.
I smiled at him. “Stranger things have been known to happen.” I knew the type: loud mouth, big ego, small brain. Quick to anger with no self-control. If he didn’t draw on me, it was because he was scared. Not of me, but of someone else, and that someone else didn’t want me dead. Not yet, in any case. It wasn’t hard to guess who, but the question was why?
I heard the doors squeak again and a single set of soft, nearly silent footsteps entered. I hoped it was the Mayor, but was a little disappointed to see it was the Amazing Andrew. He was still wearing his robes, but they were open and I could see the eye-wateringly loud suit he was wearing underneath. The coat was a bright orange with yellow stripes, and trousers were grass green with purple checks. His ruffled shirt was cornflower blue, over which he wore a pink tie. On his feet were moccasins, but even those were beaded with every color stone imaginable.
“Gentlemen,” he said. “May I join you?”
Mr. Smith nodded his head enthusiastically. Mr. Quince shrugged, while Mr. Marshall mumbled something that might have been ‘yes’ or ‘sure’ or a combination of both.
“Hoo-whee!” exclaimed Piebald. “Makes no difference who I take money off’n, no matter how he’s dressed. Where’d you get them duds?”
The Amazing Andrew smiled, taking Piebald’s question seriously. “A little shop in Dunwich. That’s back east.”
“Are we going to discuss fashion or are we going to play poker?” asked Mr. Smith irritable.
“Deal ‘em,” said Piebald.
Mr. Baker didn’t disappoint. His tells were as obvious as a three-legged horse. Normally, I wouldn’t have taken him for much, but he was a cheat. Not the worst I’ve ever seen, but given the present company, his skills at skinning, false shuffling, second and bottom dealing were practically magical. I did not stoop to his level, but used a few wordless spells to put cards back where they were supposed to be. The look on his face almost made his cheating tollerable.
Piebald was a predictable bad player, and after losing a few big hands started to fold with greater and greater regularity, having lost confidence in the cards.
For his part, Mr. Marshall seemed a competent player, but I felt he was holding himself back. Given he was playing with his boss and the volatile Piebald, it was no wonder.
The biggest surprise was Andrew. He was an excellent player, and we split the hands fairly evenly between us, though a bit in my favor.
I took Mr. Smith for a eighty-six dollars and fifty cents with a marker for a hundred-fifty more for when the bank opened in the morning, and another twenty between Piebald and Mr. Marshall. The Amazing Andrew took Mr. Smith for another seventy or so, fifteen from Mr. Marshall and forty from Piebald, which he took with all the ill-grace one would expect.
After the game, Piebald got up from the table and stomped off. I watched as he snatched the bottle from Wildman and alternately drank from it and swore about the game. I caught something about ‘a hopped-up city dandy’ and stopped listening.
“You are an excellent player,” said Mr. Smith stiffly. “Both of you. I hope you’ll allow me a chance to get even in the evenings to come. Unfortunately, I must bid you good-night. Gentlemen.” With a tilt of his head, he got up and left. Mr. Marshall followed on his heels saying ‘good-night’ or possibly ‘food fright,’ though my guess would be the former.
“Thank you,” said The Amazing Andrew after the others were out of ear-shot.
“For keeping things honest. Never got the hang of non-verbal spells.”
“Think nothing of it,” I said.
“No-mag whisky isn’t much to my taste, but may I offer you a drink? It’s the least I can do.” Andrew smiled at me. It was a pleasant smile.
I had a whisky while he had a sarsaparilla. Through an unspoken agreement we avoided talk about our work but shared tales of our travels; his trips up and down the east coast, mine out west. He turned out to be an excellent conversationalist and good company. After so long alone on the trail, it turned out to be most welcome.
The silence around us had slowly changed to emptiness as the miners drifted out in ones and twos. Piebald and his friends were long gone. Only two miners remained, one face-down on the bar, and the other slumped over a table. As it was nearing one in the morning, we thought it a good idea to turn in.
I held out my hand. “A pleasure, Amazing Andrew.”
He showed teeth. “Andy is just fine, Mr. Crow.”
“Between us, Atticus.”
We shook and headed for the door. The barkeep gave us a nervous sidelong look as we stepped through, and something about it triggered a warning in my head. Without saying a word, I pushed Andy hard to the right as I ducked and went left. My wand was out even before the retort of the pistol and the door-frame splintered behind where Andy’s head had been a split-second earlier.
The flash from the pistol left purple spots on the back of my eyes and was so fixed in my mind that I almost didn’t have to aim as I murmured, “Expelliarmus!” There was a flash of red sparks and a yelp as a pistol went flying. There were two more shots, one from three yards to the left of the first and the other from two yards to the right. I snapped off two more spells and two more pistols flew and hit the ground as one.
I heard cursing and three sets of feet running into the night, but I waited a moment longer before straightening. “Andy,” I called, “you all right?”
“Damn!” said Andy, voice hoarse.
I ran toward the sound of his voice. “You hit?”
Andy got unsteadily to his feet. “I tore my sleeve!”