This is Part Nine 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.
Mr. Smith gave a half-hearted flick of the reigns and then clicked his tongue when the horses failed to move. In the silence and lack of movement that resulted, I could hear Andrew in the street behind me talking about the superiority of his cast iron skillets. Mr. Smith gave me an apologetic sidelong glance and gave the reigns another, harder flick… then another, and another until his effort was sufficient to draw a response from the horses. With a slight jerk, we started out of town at a snail’s pace.
I could have walked faster, but didn’t comment on it. I was exactly where I wanted to be. After a few minutes of nothing but the dwindling sound of Andrew’s continuous banter and the pat of hooves, Mr. Smith cleared his throat.
After much hemming and hawing, he said, “I’m afraid that I might have misspoke the other day.”
“In my enthusiasm, I may have over-sold the suitability of the town as a railroad stop.” He hurriedly raised a hand as to forestall me interrupting him, though I had no intention of doing so. “Not intentionally, of course. Please understand I love this town and I fear that this colors my opinion. Nothing malicious about it, you see. I never intended to mislead you.”
“Mislead? How so?”
Mr. Smith sighed. “The water, for one… more than enough for our needs, and for growth for some time to come, but nowhere near enough for a thirsty locomotive.”
“And then there’s the issue of the hills. As you can see, our town is surrounded on three sides by hills, so you see running a railway through would be entirely impractical.”
I nodded, thinking that a rail line could easily be run on the level ground a quarter mile north.
“I’m so sorry to waste your time this way.”
“Oh no,” said I. “On the contrary, I find your little town fascinating.”
“Really? Why is that?”
“Just that you’ve managed to do quite well in a location with limited prospects, is all. Says something about your spirit.”
“Oh,” said Mr. Smith, visibly relaxing. “We’re a hard-working, pugnacious lot.”
“Including the miners.”
“What about them?”
“They must be an exceptional lot,” I said. “No hell-raising. Just a quiet beer at the saloon. They didn’t even play poker.”
“Oh yes. Model citizens. Model.”
“I saw their camp earlier.”
“Yes. I went and looked at the mine and saw their encampment. Rather interesting them living that way.”
“Oh,” said Mr. Smith. I could see the wheels in his head turning. “Excellent workers, very frugal as well. As a banker you can understand how much I appreciate that.” He chuckled without mirth. “Yes, very frugal. They will be quite well off when they decide to move on. Very well off indeed.”
I nodded. “A rare breed.” A large group of men without distractions (of the feminine persuasion or otherwise) in a small town who didn’t cause trouble weren’t rare. They were unheard of.
Mr. Smith nodded, his brow furrowed. “Yes…”
We rode in silence until the Mayor’s spread was in view.
“An exceptionally fine home,” said I.
I nodded toward the residence. “The mayor’s home,” I prompted.
“The mayor…” Mr. Smith’s eyes glazed for a moment. “Yes. Of course. Very fine. From what I understand it is an exact reproduction of the family seat back east.”
“Really? How interesting. What about that other?”
“Yes, there. At the tree line.”
“Slave’s quarters?” I said with forced humor.
“Oh, no,” said Mr. Smith, taking no notice at all of my tone. “That’s just… it’s from when the town was first settled, you understand. Hard times and all that. I suppose he keeps it around to remind himself of how things used to be—”
“—and how things could be again,” I said.
“Fortunes come and go.”
“They do,” said Mr. Smith with a note of fatalism that outweighed the circumstances. You would have thought the winter was coming and he lacked the larder to last to spring.
We continued until about half way to the mine, far short of the smell, when Mr. Smith stopped the buckboard. “Not much more in this direction,” he said. “Seeing as how you’ve already looked at the mine.”
“I thought perhaps you could arrange a tour for me.”
“Why would you possibly want to go into a nasty dark mine?” Mr. Smith shook his head. “In any case, it’s quite out of the question. Much too busy and too dangerous for an outsider. I mean, for anyone but an experienced miner.”
“I guarantee you you wouldn’t see anything of interest. A rock is a rock is a rock.”
“By any other name…”
“Begging your pardon?”
“Pay me no mind,” I said with a smile. “Just a small joke.”
“Oh. Ha ha. Yes, I see it now.”
“How about the water you mentioned?”
“Just a couple of wells and a small creek is all. Nothing interesting there,” he said as he turned us around. “I’m sorry, but as I said, there really isn’t much to see.”
I could hear the creek through the trees, a sound which Mr. Smith steadfastly ignored.
“Don’t apologize,” I said, for I had seen quite a bit more than he’d imagined. “Your town is quite charming. By the way, I’ve been meaning to ask. What is the name of this town?”
“Yes. The sign seems to have gone missing.”
“Oh. I shall have to speak to the mayor about fixing that. The name of the town is ‘Harmony.’”
“How appropriate,” I said, my tone as dry as the sagebrush.
“Isn’t it just?”
We came to a stop outside the blacksmith’s. “Ah well, here we are again. Lukas!” Mr. Smith climbed down one side, I the other. Lukas scurried out and met us in the street. “Take care of the horses, will you, Lukas? Thank you.” Without waiting for a reply, he turned to me and said, “I wish I could entertain you further, but I must get back to work.”
“I quite understand. Before you go. The old prospector—”
“The man who had words with me outside the bank earlier. He seemed to be under the impression that I was here to jump his claim.”
“Old Walter? Don’t you mind him. He’s nothing.”
“Does he have a claim? I was under the impression that aside from the mine, there wasn’t much else around.”
“Oh, well. Drink and dreams of fortune. You know how those old-timers are.” I nodded. “I’m sorry, but I really must go now. Good day.”
Mr. Smith rushed off, the door of the bank banging shut behind him.
Ill-concealed around the corner of the bank was the old prospector, I could see his red-rimmed eyes staring at me from under the brim of his beaten, sweat-soaked hat.
“What’s his story, Lukas?” I asked before he got very far.
“Old Two Wallys? Oh, he’s nothing. You know how it is with these old-timers.”
“On account of his name. Walter Wallace We—” He tried a few times to finish the last name, but gave up and started to walk, as if we hadn’t been having a conversation. I watched as Lukas, with a slightly puzzled look on his face, led the horses away. Apart from the sound of the hoofbeats, it was silent. I looked over to see Andrew standing quite still looking at me.
I started over to Andrew, who immediately started to straighten his displays and check his inventory.
“So, how was your morning, Andrew?”
“Fine, just fine,” he said, a shadow of his normally sanguine self.
“Hear something interesting?”
Andrew straightened with a jerk. “Oh, no. No. Not at all.” He frowned and said under his breath, “Impossible.” he added, as if to himself.
“Oh,” he said, forcing a smile. “Getting a good sale price. These frontier-folk drive a hard bargain! Hardly made a dime…”
“I see. In that case, if you would care to be my guest for lunch.”
That got a genuine smile. “Just allow me to lock up…”
“Take your time. I’m in no rush.” I looked around. No rush indeed. The few people in the street drifted from one location to another with a complete lack of focus. It was as if they were sleep-walking or had forgotten where they were going or why.
The more I saw of Harmony and its residents the less sense it made. A town with so little life shouldn’t have survived a month, let alone years. People could suffer privation or violence or uncertainty, but without that wild spark of life, a town would wither and die. The frontier was dotted with many such failed communities. Harmony should have been one of them. There was nothing holding these people together, not greed, not stubbornness, not even good old-fashioned cussedness.
“Well, where shall it be? The hotel, or the hotel?” asked Andrew, brushing imaginary dust from his hands.
“How about the hotel?” I said with a smile.