This is Part Eight 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 could hear The Amazing Andrew’s unbroken stream of wheedling behind me as I sidled over to the bank. The 49er I’d seen the day before was standing more-or-less upright in the narrow space between the mercantile and the bank, though it may have been the closeness of the walls that was keeping him that way. He watched me with bleary, red-rimmed eyes as I passed. His lower lip worked and he muttered something unintelligible before his eyes crossed and he focused on something closer than his nose and further than the horizon.
As far as banks went I’d seen smaller, but not by much. What it lacked in size, it made up for in sturdiness. The walls were orange stone block, constructed from rock pulled from the surrounding hills. Two narrow windows flanked the heavy wooden door. The windows were shuttered and the door closed.
Painted above the door on a large wooden placard was the word ‘bank,’ the blue paint sun-bleached and worn by wind and rain. The letters may have at one time been outlined in black and gold, but all that was left was a shadow.
I walked up and leaned against the wall and found it was still warm from the heat of the day before. I rolled a cigarette, pure sarsaparilla essence (though to outward appearance it would appear to be normal tobacco) and lit it with the flick of my thumb and forefinger.
I tiled my head back against the door frame and took a deep pull, while straining to hear through an inch of wood. The voices within were heavily muffled, but I could just about make out what they were saying.
“—told yer. Ain’t been — —- —- since that stranger ‘n the gypsy.” The words were heavy with frustration, and were clearly from Piebald. “The —- a card sharp, and — stranger… I told —, he’s dangerous.”
“That’s why — — — leave him alone!” replied Smith.
“I — see why — still breathin’,” rumbled the Wildman.
“Yes, — Willis was as good a shot — — thought he —, — wouldn’t have a problem,” said a fourth voice with a Spanish accent.
Willis? The Corporal?
“Enough,” said Smith, with more whine than command in his voice. “What we need to do now is—”
“Hey stranger!” bellowed the 49er in a voice twice as loud and half as phlegmy as it should have been. He came tottering over on heavily bowed legs with the habitual stoop that comes from years of bending over a tin pan on a river bank or crawling around in confined spaces. “You ain’t fixin’ to jump mah claim are yah?”
I thought about how to quiet him down, but it was too late. The voices within the bank had stopped, and I heard the stomping of boots. The door flew open and Piebald took half a step out. His colorless gray eyes narrowed and he scowled at me. “What—”
“This varmint is aimin’ ta jump mah claim!” The old prospector was hopping from foot to foot with one fist raised above his head.
Piebald looked at the 49er, turned back to me and then back to him, eyes blinking rapidly. “What…? You…. But there’s no…”
“Whatchu gonna do ‘bout it?” the 49er demanded.
“I’m not here to jump his claim,” I said.
Piebald focused on me. “Then why—”
“I said he’s here to jump mah claim! I’m gonna be watchin’ you mister! Me and old Bessy knows how to deal with claim jumpers!” The spit from his tirade nearly cleared the tangle of his beard. He turned and stalked off, listing first to the left and then to the right as if crossing the deck of a ship tossed by a heavy gale. I could hear his incoherent rambling long after he disappeared from sight.
“You—” said Piebald, raising his finger. I pushed by him. “Hey!”
The Vaquero and Wildman looked over at Piebald’s cry, surprise and uncertainty on their faces. Smith was slouched in a chair, guilty look on his.
The bank was a single, large room. Mr. Smith was behind a large, rather ornate desk to the left. A plain wooden table and chair stood opposite him, piled high with neat stacks of papers. Behind that were two filing cabinets and a shelf with several large books. A large, hand-drawn map was nailed to the wall. In the back of the room, behind a set of bars that stretched from wall to wall, was a large, modern safe. Much too large for a town this size. From what I saw, an average hat-box would have been more than sufficient.
“Mr. Smith,” I said, touching the brim of my hat.
“Good morning, Mr. Crow.”
“If you’re busy, I can call later.”
“No, no. Nothing important,” he said with a shake of his head. “These gentlemen were just leaving.” The other men didn’t move a muscle. There was a tense silence for a moment before Mr. Smith said, “We can finish up our, ah, business later,” a conciliatory note in his voice,
“Let’s go,” said Piebald behind me. I smiled at the Wildman before stepping aside to let him and the Vaquero to pass. They banged the door shut behind them.
“So,” said Mr. Smith, “What can I do for you?”
I decided to ask about the safe, and added a polite comment about its size.
“Oh, that? Impressive, isn’t it?” Mr. Smith smiled. “We had that brought in when we first hit the strike. Thought it was going to be the biggest in the territory, but it didn’t turn out that way.” He sighed. “Well at least you can say that what we do have is well protected.”
I smiled back. “Indeed.” I nodded at the vacant table. “So I take it the bank also serves at the Assayer’s Office?”
“And the post office,” said Mr. Smith just as Dillon Marshall came bustling in.
“Good morning Mr. Marshall.”
“Oh!” said Mr. Marshall, as if surprised to see me. “Good morning Mr. Crow.” He dropped into his straight-backed chair, eyes downcast. Did the man ever look up?
“So how may I help you?” asked Mr. Smith.
“I thought I might take you up on your generous offer.”
“To borrow your buckboard.”
At first Mr. Smith looked at me like as if I was a two-headed calf, but his surprise passed quickly.
“Oh, ah, yes. The buckboard. Whatever do you need it for?”
“I thought I would take a ride around. Get a lay of the land. I know you say the location is ideal to run the railroad through, but all the hills around the town could be a problem.”
“Oh, I see, I would be happy to show you around.”
“I wouldn’t want to impose. I’m sure the town’s business must keep you quite busy.”
“Oh, it’s nothing my assistant can’t handle… for a little while, at least.”
The comment was a little sharper than it needed to be, and it drew a look from Mr. Marshall. I thought that for a moment there was a spark there, anger or defiance. In fact, I thought he was about to say something, but like a fog descending, his expression went blank. “I can look after things for a spell, Mr. Smith,” he said, shifting the topmost paper from the tidy, if Brobdingnagian pile in his inbox.
“Sure you can,” said Mr. Smith. “When would you like to leave? I can have the buckboard brought over shortly.”
“That would be fine.”
“Dillon, you heard the man. Stop lounging around and fetch the buckboard!”
This time, there was no mistaking the look on Mr. Marshall’s face. He froze, both hands palm down on his desk and I could see the muscles in his neck working and his jaw clenching and unclenching as if trying to say words his mouth would not release. After a second or two, however, the fog of complacency again descended, and the man’s shoulders slumped, and his face relaxed into his normal bovine expression. “Yes, Mr. Smith. Right away.” If Mr. Smith noticed any of this, he gave no indication.
Mr. Marshall bustled out, and Mr. Smith made idle chit chat about the constancy of the weather, the supremacy of Georgian tobacco, and the pros and cons of statehood. I nodded my head every once-in-a-while or grunted when his tone of voice suggested the need for it but saw no need to add to the clutter in the air between us.
Fortunately, the wait was short. I heard the sound of hooves outside and the creak of wood and iron.
“I think that is Dillon now,” said Mr. Smith unnecessarily.
We stepped outside just as Mr. Marshall was hopping down.
“Sir,” he said, handing Mr. Smith the reins.
“That will be all. I believe you have work to do.”
“Mr. Crow,” Mr. Marshall said to me with a slight tilt of his head before going inside without a word or a look at his employer.
“Don’t pay him any notice,” said Mr. Smith with a grunt as he hauled himself into the buckboard. “You know these bookish sorts. Mind always on figures, never on the real world. He don’t mean anything rude by it.”
I merely nodded as Mr. Smith flicked the reins and we were off.