He walks, this man, in a country where people ride or take the rails. He places one foot in front of the other at a steady pace, following the trail that other man and horses have made. He steps around the piles of horseshit with a nimble step, almost a dancer, hopping from one foot to another with an assured step and an almost childish joy.
He strikes a strange figure this one, especially for the plains, especially on foot. He wears a fine grey suit and bowler hat, under the dust. Despite the beating sun he doesn’t seem to sweat. Any sane man would dress light, cover himself with a duster, wear something tough like denim. Not this man. His only concessions to the task at hand is a walking cane – of all things – and a pair of sturdy boots. At his neck is a cravat of silk and unlike any other man you’ meet in this untamed land he is shaven cleanly, save for his impressively carved sideburns.
Every step kicks up dust and turns the grey of his suit brown up to the knees. His heavy satchel hangs at his side, threatening to pull him over but it just sets him at a jaunty angle, like his hat. A simple bowler lacks a brim to keep the sun from his eyes and surprisingly smooth skin is tanned a deep brown from which steel grey eyes sparkle with a permanent tweak of mirth.
He stops when a rock breaks the monotony of the plains and pauses to rest his feet, sitting on its sun-warmed surface for a drink of tepid water and to scrunch his toes in his boots. America’s big and it’s a long, long way to walk. It pays for a man to take his time, especially if he is doing it to take in the sights rather than travelling for any reason.
Something catches his eye and he turns, spitting a mouthful of dusty water to the side and dabbing his mouth with a handkerchief. There was dust rising on the horizon, further up the trail. A column of it rose into the air above the red and brown of the grasses. The wind whipped the grass in waves and it reminded him, strangely, of the smoke rising from the steamers on the Atlantic. He doubted it was a steamer though, not on dry land. More likely some horses, going pretty fast from the amount of dust.
He wasn’t going to outrun whoever it was and there was no telling who or what they were so there was no point worrying about it. He took another sip of water an slid his pack from his shoulder, setting his cane to the side with it and pulling on his kid-skin gloves from his pocket. It couldn’t hurt to be a little careful.
The column of dust got closer and closer until it resolved itself into two horses, riding along the trail, side by side. He shielded his eyes against the sun and squinted, carefully. Two men, broad hats and dusters, bulging saddlebags. They were riding hard but they seemed to slow when they spotted him, walking the horses until they came into range of conversation.
“Howdy,” the man who spoke wore a broad brown hat. His shirt was stained yellow with sweat and dust and a red kerchief hung around his neck. There was a pistol on each hip and he was wary, pushing his duster back behind the holsters and turning his horse side on.
The second man was a Mexican by the look of him, swarthy and heavily moustachioed with the long points of his lip-brush dangling down to his collar. A bandoleer of shotgun shells crossed his chest and there was a shotgun and a Winchester in the two long sleeves at the front of his saddle.
“Good day to you,” the man on the rock spoke, tipping his hat slightly. The clipped and superior tones of a clear British accent making him seem even more alien and outlandish in such a setting.
“Jesuscristo, I never heard someone talk like that,” exclaimed the Mexican, laughing and leaning forward in his saddle.
“Me neither,” the pistoleer muttered and spat a brown stream of tobacco onto the grass. “Where you from Mister?”
“Civilisation,” said the man with a smile. “London, England.”
“British huh? Don’t know that I cotton to redcoats Mister.”
“Now, now, that was a long time ago. You chaps were killing each other more recently than that.”
The man with the pistols shrugged and cast his glance this way and that before turning back to the gentleman on the rock. “Where’s your horse, hoss?”
“My horse? Oh, it’s not my horse, it’s Shanks’ pony,” the Englishman grinned and tapped his hand against his legs.
“Then you’d be Shanks,” the pistoleer’s horse sidestepped a little closer with a kick at its side, tossing its head but seeming to appreciate the chance to rest.
“Well, I suppose I am. What would be you chaps names?”
“I am Xavier…” the Mexican answered before the man with the pistols waved him quiet.
“You not wearing any iron Mister Shanks?” the pistoleer urged his horse a little closer again, hooves kicking up dust as it pranced in annoyance.
“I didn’t really see the need,” the gentleman shrugged and slipped off the rock to stand, thrusting his hands into the pockets of his waistcoat from which a pair of watch chains depending and swung, gleaming silver in the sun.
“And whut’s in the bag?” the Mexican was staying quiet now, but looking nervous, glancing from Shanks to his friend and back again.
“My tools. I’m a watchmaker, just a hobby you understand? That and my money,” Shanks smiled and rocked on his heels, quirking an eyebrow as he watched the man’s reaction.
“Money huh?” the pistoleer’s hand darted and drew his colt, levelling it at Shanks, eyes narrowed like a hawk stooping for the kill. “Reckon a man as finely dressed as you has less need of his dollars and cents than men like us, down on our luck.”
Shanks kept his hands in his pockets and gently shrugged his shoulders, that supercilious smile never leaving his face. “I dare say you’re right Sir, but it would still be theft.”
The Mexican was even more nervous now, shifting in his saddle, licking his lips at the confrontation. He could see Shanks wasn’t perturbed, nervous, not so much as a bead of sweat on his brow. “Jon, I don’t know about this man. Something’s wrong.”
“Shut up Xavier. Now then Mr Redcoat, how about we start with those fine watches of yours? I know a man in Waco that’ll pay a fine amount of dollars for Stirling silver.” He thumbed back the hammer on his pistol and renewed his aim, hand as steady as a rock.
“I commend you Jon, you know your silver. As you will then…”
Shanks dipped his hands deeper into the pockets of his waistcoat and drew them out with blinding speed. Light danced briefly on a pair of silver-plated pocket revolvers, Webleys, attached by the long chains to the buttons of the waistcoat. There was a double boom and a cloud of smoke as they went off together and the heavy .450 bullets took Jon through his eyes and flung him back from his horse into the dust in a shower of blood.
Xavier sat up, bolt straight in his saddle and stared at the Englishman whose gleaming silvered guns were now aimed with deadly precision at his own face, the hammers already back, he hadn’t even seen him re-cock the gun. “I don’t want any trouble Mr Shanks. I didn’t want to rob you.”
“Good chap Xavier. Why don’t you ride along them hmm? I’m sure you have places to be. Don’t worry about Jon here, I’ll take care of him, or at least the buzzards will.”
Xavier nodded hard, his hat falling back from its head on its ties and he kicked his horse into life, fleeing down the trail as fast as he could. The fear of god chasing him like the cavalry itself was on his heels.
Shanks watched him go and eased down the hammers on his pistols, pushing them away into his pockets and smoothing down the line of his suit. Jon’s horse was placidly eating grass now, seemingly glad to have less weight on its back. Shanks approached it gingerly and rifled through the saddlebags. Not a lot of use, jerky, pemmican, a little water, a handful of dollars and thievings that were of no interest to him.
“You’re bloody lucky I didn’t shoot you. Can’t stand horses.” The creature paid him no heed until he slapped it on the flank and sent it running away down the trail in Xavier’s wake.
Jon’s body didn’t have a lot to offer either, just chewing tobacco – a foul habit – and a few more dollars to add to the collection. Shanks left him there, staring blindly up at the sky through two bloody holes, a warning to other would-be thieves. Americans, so uncivilised.
He paced back to the rock and lifted his pack, pushing it back over his shoulder an snatching up his cane with a spinning flourish. It shouldn’t be too far to the next town, if his reckoning was correct. Might even get there by sundown.
Whistling a happy tune Shanks sauntered on as the buzzards wheeled and landed behind him in a raucous party, fighting over his leavings.