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 held very still and waited for the ‘bang.’ When it didn’t come, I relaxed ever so slightly, but didn’t move or say anything.
I won’t say I’ve never seen a wizard with a shotgun, particularly out west. However it is unusual. With a wand you don’t have to worry about wet powder or a misfire.
“Mister,” said a voice off to my right, “stand up nice and slow, and keep your hand away from your gun.” So he saw a pistol. Not a wizard, I thought, which wouldn’t be a consolation if he blew my head off. I did as he’d asked, keeping both hands out from my sides, palm forward. “Now turn around.” I turned.
It was the Dandy, standing ten feet away in the shadow of a tree. A dull brass star was pinned to his jacket and the shotgun was pointed at my chest. Happily, his hands were steady so I didn’t worry about him shooting me accidentally. On the other hand, there was nothing to stop him from shooting me purposely. His eyes narrowed. “Don’t I know you mister?”
“Yesterday,” I offered, “when the wagon came into town.”
The Dandy squinted and nodded his head. “Want to tell me why you’re creeping around the mine?”
“Mr. Smith suggested I take a look.”
“On your belly, like a snake?”
“Have you no sense of smell? I had no idea what I was going to find over that ridge.”
The Dandy wrinkled up his nose and the muzzle of the shotgun dipped by an inch. “Even so, you shoulda made arrangements.”
“With whom? Where? There’s no assayer’s office in town.”
The Dandy, or I should say Deputy Sheriff, lowered the shotgun until it pointed at the ground and frowned. “Well, you still shoulda,” he said without answering my question.
“May I put my hands down?”
“Yes…” said the Deputy, none too surely. A Deputy… though I saw no sheriff’s office in town, let alone a sheriff. I wondered if his entire group were deputies. They hadn’t been wearing badges the day before. I asked the obvious question,
“Who’s the sheriff? May I speak to him?”
“What do you want to speak to him for? I thought you wanted to look at the mine? So do you want to, or not?”
“Of course,” I said. To my relief he de-cocked the shotgun then turned it to rest the barrel against his shoulder. “Well, go on, then,” he said, waving his free hand at the rise.
I walked with the prickly feeling you get when there’s a man behind you with a gun, but the smell that hit me when I topped the rise drove all other concerns out of my head. A shallow gully just the other side of the hill served as a combination toilet and garbage dump. The stench was unbelievable. A wide variety of putrefying carcasses crawling with maggots were mixed with every manner of refuse common to mining camps.
The privy was open to the elements, little more than a series of boxes nailed to boards laid across the gully. We crossed to the other side over a wooden plank not nearly far enough away. The gully was very shallow at this point, the bottom only a foot or two below the plank, but trust me, you wouldn’t have wanted to walk across any other way.
The camp was empty, the tents old and ravaged by the elements, but whole. Apart from the pits used for cooking fires, the camp had a strange deserted quality about it. When men work and live in a place for a time, they leave their mark, some indication of their preferences and peculiarities. As I’d gotten the impression that the mine had been in operation for a few years, it was all the more odd that I didn’t notice any such things. It had the feel of a temporary encampment, neat, efficient, and functional… but that was all.
Why hadn’t they constructed a barracks? Why didn’t any of the men live in town? Perhaps the men were being forced to work… but there weren’t any guards at the mine entrance, and they’d come into town the night before of their own free will. There was definitely something going on, but there was still no way to tell what or if it was any of my business.
I turned. Unless I were to go into the mine, there was nothing more to be learned here, and I didn’t think he was about to agree to a tour. Giving a shallow nod of my head, we headed back.
“Next time, I suggest you make arrangements. You’re lucky I didn’t blow your head off.”
Hard to argue with that. He escorted me to the road and stopped on the edge of the camp to watch me go.
How had he managed to sneak up on me? For a moment I had a terrible feeling of being woefully unprepared, that I had badly underestimated people in this town. Then I noticed something—sound. Sound of the wind in the trees, sound of small things scurrying in the underbrush, the various small sounds of life. There was nothing unusual in this, except for the fact that while I was in the camp, I hadn’t heard any of that. I hadn’t heard anything, which matched the appearance of the place, but should have been impossible. There should have been sounds drifting up from the mine, the sound of pickaxe on rock, of stones being tossed onto piles, the squeal of wheel on track, but there had been none of that.
I stopped and looked back. Deputy Dandy was gone, and the camp was already hidden from sight by a bend in the road as well as the slight rise. All I could see were the hills above the camp, but I could still feel the unnatural stillness. A magical stillness. It would take a powerful wizard to cast a silencing spell over so wide an area, but other than the Amazing Andy, I hadn’t seen any other magical folk in the area. So who had done it, and why?
The question worried at me longer than it would normally have done, but I had an ever increasing number of questions and a dearth of answers.
I heard running water off to my right, a stream or brook. The water that Smith mentioned. Without thinking, I turned off the road and walked through the sparse trees. After a few minutes I came to a creek, as nameless and unmarked as the town. Though it wasn’t the Rio Grande or the Missouri, it looked regular, not a wash. I followed it for a bit before heading back to the road.
By the time I was back in town, the sun had cleared the roofs and was slashing across the street at a shallow angle, illuminating the second floors of the buildings with a second floor.
In front of the saloon in the middle of the street stood The Amazing Andrew’s wagon. Its sides had been lowered by means of a series of clever hinges and levers to show an even larger array of goods. His mules had been unhitched and were standing near the water trough and were watching the proceedings with mild interest.
Andrew was walking from one side of his wagon to the other. Today, instead of his robes, he was wearing a long yellow coat over a ruffled shirt and a necktie so bright that you’d be forgiven for thinking a second sun was rising in the middle of the street. His spotless red velvet trousers were tucked into patent leather boots.
“Cure what ails you! Down at the mouth? Up at night? Skin spotty? Pasty? Too dry, too oily? I have the tonic for you!” he barked. “The finest quality goods found west of the Mississippi! Curios from around the world! Gifts for home and hearth! Come and see! A once in a lifetime opportunity… until the next time I visit! Ha ha!”
The fact that the street was empty didn’t seem to bother Andrew at all. Near the beginning of his pitch I could hear some sounds coming from the blacksmith, but now I spied a pair of eyes peeking out from between the front doors. Both Mr. Quince and his wife were standing in front of the hotel, and I could see the owner of the mercantile looking through his front window.
“Don’t be shy! Something for everyone! Whatever you’ve always wanted but never had, or how about something you’ve never known you wanted but can’t live without? Come and see!”
Slowly, people started to emerge from the buildings, drawn by the power of The Amazing Andrew’s voice. I felt it, too, and smiled. There were no enchantments, charms, or spells so he wasn’t doing anything illegal as far as the Mag Marshall’s Office, but I knew a few folks who would have loved to make Andrew’s brand of ‘magic’ illegal if they could.
I stepped up onto the sidewalk and leaned against a post. Hitching my thumbs under my wandbelt, I watched Andrew practice his trade. His stream of banter was constant and effortless as he moved from one prospective customer to the next, demonstrating the uses of a particular tonic, showing the sturdiness of a piece of hardware, or pointing out the delicate artistry of a trinket. Time almost seemed to stand still. I was impressed.
So preoccupied was I by his performance that I almost missed the approach of the three horses. Almost. Coming into town were Piebald, The Wildman, and The Vaquero. Unlike the previous day, they were in no hurry and appeared to be completely unconcerned by Andrew and his wagon. Their eyes told a different story, with Piebald focusing on Andy with an almost palpable ferocity, while the other two shifted their attention between their leader and Andy. I straightened, unbuttoned my coat, and folded back the left flap. I didn’t anticipate any trouble with so many people around and Andy clearly unarmed, but you could never tell with someone like Piebald.
Some people call it wildness, but I’ve never seen a wolf or a bear or mountain lion kill out of sheer cussedness. The only ‘wild’ animal I seen do that walked on two legs.
With so many people clustered around Andrew, the chance that bystanders could be injured was high if Piebald started shooting, and the possibility of my preventing it low.
To my relief, they rode past the wagon without slowing. Andy, having failed to notice their approach, looked up just as they drew abreast of him. To his credit, he barely missed a beat, continuing to argue the benefits of his Superlative Spot and Smell remover to the hotelier. There was no question in my mind how Andrew was able to make his living… though I wondered how someone so oblivious to his surroundings managed to remain living.
The riders continued down the street to the bank where they dismounted and hitched their horses before going inside. I straightened a little more. What business could those three have with the banker? I went over to see if I could find out.