This is Part Six 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.
I left the pistols where they lay. There wasn’t any point in retrieving them. The firing pins would be melted, the sear fused to the trigger or some other such damage; the common outcome of magic meeting iron and brass. As they say, it wasn’t my first dust-up.
“I’d say those fellows didn’t take much of a liking to you,” I said, taking Andy by the arm as his legs were still unsteady.
Andy managed a small chuckle. “I don’t suppose they did. Say… you responded so fast. It’s like you knew. Are you using some sort of charm?”
I shrugged. “No. It’s just something you pick up. The way the bartender looked at us while we were leaving. My read for the type of person Piebald is.”
“Wouldn’t a charm be more, er, positive?”
“Sure. But what happens if you forget to cast it? The other thing is if you start relying on magic you stop relying on your eyes and ears and intuition. You look at people but you don’t see them because you think your charm will. Doesn’t always work out that way.”
“Yeah, but what happens if you didn’t notice the bartender’s look?”
“You’d be a little shorter. Well, he we are,” I said as we stepped up to his wagon, which stood at the edge of town. “You’ll be all right, now.”
Andy paused before going up. “You don’t think they’ll come back, do you? Try something else?”
“I shouldn’t think so. In this case, I don’t think a few charms would be amiss. It wouldn’t do to be burned up while you sleep.” Andy shuddered. “I don’t know how long you plan on sticking around, but keep your wand close at hand, or if it isn’t charmed as mine is, wear a pistol if you’ve got one. I don’t think you can count on the law in this town.” At the time, I didn’t know at the time how right I was. “I’ll help as much as I can, but you know that I have no jurisdiction here.”
Andy shook his head. “A pistol,” he said doubtfully. “Never had much use for ’em.”
“Then you might want to light out tonight. There’s some moon, so you should be okay. Get some distance and clean up your tracks and you should be safe.”
“You’re probably right, but I have business to attend to.”
My eyebrows went up and I almost asked him what was so important about selling snake-oil. Instead I said, “Be careful, Andy. Good night.”
“I will. Good night, Atticus.”
That night I slept with the door locked and my holster hanging from the headboard, but without taking any further precautions. If the Corporal decided to take another go at me, I didn’t want to make it too difficult for him.
I awoke just before dawn. Had I taken the room the proprietor suggested, I would have seen the band of pale blue and the golden line of fire on the horizon that preceded the appearance of the sun. Instead, the drawn shade was a lighter shade of black turning to indigo.
In the street, I heard nothing, which was both expected and a bit puzzling. There’d been a dozen or so miners in the saloon, and despite how late some stayed, should be headed to the mine or getting breakfast. But I hadn’t seen a boarding house in town, nothing that would house or feed that many single men. So where did they stay?
Someplace out of town, obviously, but a short walk. I don’t know why this was important to me, but it was. I determined to take Mr. Smith up on his offer, on a horse at least, and take a look around. Perhaps get a look at the mine.
I drifted back down into a half-sleep, still hearing nothing. Eventually a rooster crowed, and I could make out the sound of the hens chortling in their pen out back. A few minutes after that, I heard unshod footsteps downstairs and I could picture Mr. Quince and his wife starting their day.
When the room had gone from gray to golden, I got out of bed, poured water into the basin and went about my morning ablutions. The metal tub out back came to mind and decided to save that for later.
I’d just reached the bottom step as Mr. Quince came up.
“Ah, Mr. Crow. I was just coming to tell you that breakfast will be ready, soon.”
The aroma of bacon and coffee were heavy in the air, and it smelled considerably better than dinner the night before. “Very good,” I said.
“How would you like your eggs?”
“Three. Fried, please.”
“If you’ll take a seat in the dining room, I’ll bring your coffee out right away.”
“Will Mr. Smith be joining us?”
“Why would–” he said before nodding his head and rushing off.
Instead of going to the dining room, I stepped outside. The yellow dog scrounging around under the walkways, and I saw the shop owner going about opening the mercantile. Down the street the blacksmith was shut up, and I could hear no sound from within.
On the breeze, all I could smell was dust and even from the middle of the street, I couldn’t see the signs of cooking fires anywhere around.
“Mr. Crow?” said Mr. Quince from the door, cup of coffee in his hand and confused expression on his face.
I took in a deep lungful of air for his benefit and patted my chest with both hands. “Early morning air,” I said, thought it wasn’t all that early, “most bracing.”
“Oh, yes,” said Mr. Quince, blinking his incomprehension, “would you like your coffee? Fresh biscuits, too…”
I heard footsteps and turned. “Good morning, Mr. Baker.”
“Good morning.” He didn’t look very good, his eyes were bleary and skin waxen. On the other hand, like Mr. Quince, he wasn’t surprised to see me.
“Are you joining us for breakfast?”
“Yes. I take most of my meals at the hotel. I’m afraid I’m not much of a hand at anything that can’t be hammered on an anvil.”
Mrs. Quince was laying out our plates as we came inside. The bacon wasn’t quite as done as I liked it, but was thick and flavorful, and to my surprise, the yolks in my eggs ran when I cut into them. Unlike the previous night, the meal was more than satisfactory and we ate in silence.
I sopped up a last bit of yolk and bacon grease with the corner of a biscuit and asked, “So what did you folks make of the gunfire last night?”
Mr. Baker shook his head, but said nothing.
Mr. Quince cleared his throat. “Well, you saw how this town was… can be yesterday afternoon. Can’t say that it happens all the time, but can’t say it was unusual. You know how it is. Small town, not much to do in the way of… diversions,” he said, giving a meaningful glance at his wife who was minding her own business. “And, well, there were no bodies in the street this morning, so I just figured…” Mr. Quince shrugged.
“Diversions,” said Mr. Baker with a sigh. He suddenly sat up straight and looked me full in the face. “If’n the railroad came through this town, it would really mean a lot to us, Mr. Crow. I mean, the town would grow. We could prosper.” There was pleading in his voice, and I suddenly felt bad for the false hope my false identity was giving him.
“Can’t truly say, Mr. Baker.”
The blacksmith’s shoulders slumped. “I understand.” Of a sudden, he stood, nearly knocking over his chair. He dropped a few coins next to his plate and said, “I’d better get back to… get about my day.” With that, he left.
“You’ll have to forgive Lukas,” said Mr. Quince. “He put everything he had into setting up here, but as you saw, this isn’t exactly a boom town. We all keep hoping they’ll find a rich new vein in the mine, but it’s been years. You see?”
It did seem odd, this town barely surviving year after year. Mining towns either boomed or didn’t happen at all, and if they did boom, went bust a few years later when the mines were played out. The only thing I could think was that the Mayor wasn’t working the mine as hard as he could. But why drag things out and stay in a half-dead town year after year? It didn’t make any sense.
I thought it was high time to take a look at the mine, so asked where it was.
“South of town, about a mile,” said Mr. Quince.
Instead of announcing my intent to Mr. Smith by borrowing his horse and buckboard, I decided to walk, leaving through the back door of the hotel. Sure, Mr. Quince could go and tell Mr. Smith or tell the Mayor himself, but I didn’t get the feeling he would.
I walked up through the brush and scraggly trees and into the low, rocky hills east of town. Though the sun was bright it was still a ways ‘til noon and the air was pleasantly cool. Within minutes, I could see the town spread out below me and had a good view of the surrounding territory.
The hills flattened out a quarter of a mile west and the dusty plains stretched to distant purple mountains. North was rougher and no more inviting. East there was more greenery. I wouldn’t call the collection of trees a forest, but there might be further on. Just south of town I could see a barn and several head of cattle, some sheep and chickens.
Set back away so that it couldn’t be seen from the hotel was a very fine house, much too fine for a nameless town the size of this one. Two stories, it was painted yellow with white trim. The high, pointed roof was covered in real shingles and put me in mind of a house of church. A wide, covered porch went around the three sides I could see.
Behind the house was another small house. Unlike the main house, it was rough and unpainted with a sod roof and looked so old that it was practically part of the landscape.
Further south the trees got thicker as the land rose into the hills. Somewhere back there was the mine. I set an easy pace, and though I wasn’t as stealthy as an Indian scout, neither was I going out of my way to announce my approach. To be fair, I didn’t have to try hard.
Though there were large gaps between trees, there were enough to make me difficult to see from any direction, even standing fully upright. The constant rise and fall of the land also worked in my favor as did the lack of wildlife. Here and there I caught the spoor of a coyote, but I had no fear of disturbing a brace of pheasants or any other animal. Not in this terrain.
So I set an easy pace and determined to enjoy the pleasant morning. I remained aware, but not unduly so; if I may be so modest, I deemed the chances of anyone being able to take a shot at me without my first spotting them highly unlikely. Perceval had been shot because of an ambush where there was absolutely no reason for one to exist; now that I knew such people were around, I anticipated where they might be and my eye automatically sought them out.
After half an hour I came to a rise and a whiff of breeze brought a stench that nearly made me gag. I cannot bring myself to describe it, but suffice it to say that if human suffering had a smell, this would be it.
As I neared the top of the rise, I dropped to my hands and knees and took my hat off and crawled the rest of the way. About a hundred and fifty yards away was the entrance to the mine, a black hole in the north-west face of the hill. Around this were a number of rough wooden structures. To one side were a dozen or so canvas tents. A few cooking fires still smoldered slightly in their midst, though there was not a soul in sight. On the other side was a fair-sized corral in which a couple of horses and several mules mulled about.
I was just considering whether I should go into the camp or head back into town when I heard the unmistakable sound of a double-barrel shotgun being cocked behind me.