The sun was burning its way into the ground when the town came into view. The shadows made it look bigger than it was, a mere scattering of buildings rising from the grass and dirt like ships at sea. The distant clunk, clunk of a piano and yellow light at the windows of one building suggested there might be something a little more exciting than a feed store or a trading post.
Shanks picked up the pace and shifted his bag from one shoulder to the other. His brow was burned by the sun, but that was the price to pay for wearing a bowler. As the heat leached out of the air it began to sting and the hairs on his hands pricked up. Hot to cold, same thing, every day. American weather was so much more… predictable than the weather back home.
He strolled past the first couple of buildings and the ramshackle fence that marked the edge of the town. There was flickering candlelight and from the open window came the grotesque sound of someone being violently sick into a bedpan again and again and again. He could smell the acid of the bile, practically taste the stale sweat and rancid sheets through the window. Someone was very, very sick indeed.
His head jolted the other way, the same sounds from the neighbouring house. This wasn’t a very good sign, not a good sign at all. His feet trailed in the dust of the roadways at the crossroads of the town and his eyes adjusted to the increasing darkness. He saw the huddled shape of a woman at the well, coughing and shivering as she worked the pump at the well.
“Need a hand miss?” She jumped. Coming out of the darkness his voice mus have come as a shock, especially with his accent. Hardly the typical drawl. She turned and eyed him, her eyes weren’t as white as he expected in the darkness. Bloodshot and yellowed.
“Thank you kindly,” she shuffled aside, coughing and dry heaving. He could smell the same foul sweats coming off her as he unbuttoned and pushed up his sleeves, setting to the pump with gusto.
“Sickness in the town?” The bucket sloshed over and he grasped the handle, lifting it, balancing the weight against his bag.
“Yes sir. Couple of weeks now. People dying. Good people. Town’ll be gone if this keeps up.” She shuffled on, picking up her lantern and leading the way through the dark and dust to her house.
“No doctor in town?”
“No sir, and I would stick around if I was you. You’ll catch it too,” they walked in silence the rest of the way to her door. “Thank you kindly again sir and please, take my advice.”
“I’ll consider it miss.” He tipped his hat from habit as much as anything else and set down the bucket on the porch. “You take good care of yourself.”
“And you sir, god bless.” She vanished into her house, dragging rather than lifting the bucket and that was that. He paused a moment to consider whether to stay or not but something wasn’t right. Plague or not. He tongued his cheek and turned around, back towards the saloon.
The glow of the doors was almost blinding in the new darkness, a pair of swing-hinged saloon doors making a line across his sight. Blinking as he pushed on through into the smoke and the drink and the growling chatter, the clatter of the piano. Of course, all that stopped the moment he stepped through the door.
You would have though a Moon-man had stepped through the door from the way they reacted. His eyes adjusted to the burning lamps in moments and revealed a mob of faces sat around pock-marked tables. Many of them sick, gleaming with sweat, fear in their eyes, trying to drink away their concern from the look of it. Now he rolls up, a stranger in a funny suit with a plummy accent and it was obvious there was going to be some sort of trouble.
“Ladies. Gentlemen,” Shanks smiled and tipped his hat, walking past the tables, careful not to brush against anyone or even to quite meet anyone’s eye until he’d dumped his bag by the stairs and turned to the bar.
“I don’t suppose you have any whisky my good man?” The barkeep was a dried up old stick of a man with wisps of wild white hair. He looked like he was already dead, a skeleton serving up drinks. Shanks couldn’t tell if the old man was sick or not.
“Bourbon? Sure,” the man turned, hands reaching cadaverously for the shelves of bottles, knuckles like walnuts.
Shanks sighed, bourbon just wasn’t the thing, not one bit. This looked like the barkeep’s best so it didn’t warrant a fuss. “Don’t water the whisky do you sir?”
The man laughed, it sounded like someone playing the washboard, dry and rattly. “Me Mister? No, I whiskey the water.” He slapped down a glass and sloshed a generous measure from the bottle into it, taking more coins than it was worth from the fistful Shanks slapped down on the counter, but he didn’t raise a peep.
“Do you have rooms?” Shanks took a sip and silently swore a blue streak that would make a navvy blush at the cloying, sickly burn of the liquor.
“Kinda,” the barkeep spat into a glass and wiped it with a filthy rag before he nodded across the room. Shanks followed his gaze.
The woman had been very pretty, once, but drink and hard life had faded that like a pressed flower. She was already drunk from the way she was swaying. The dress wasn’t bad but her boots looked a little worn and there were more feathers on a roasted chicken than there were left on her boa.
Shanks rubbed the bridge of his nose with his fingers and thumb and drew a few more notes from his bill fold, laying them on the bar. “I’ll take the room then,” he slugged back the foul colonial brew and drew himself up to walk across and talk to the woman.
“Madam, I should love the pleasure of your company this evening,” he gave a little bow and a smile and could see the accent working its magic as he bleary eyes focussed.
“You talk real nice mister. It’d be a pleasure,” she swayed as she stood and bobbed a clumsy curtsey. That’s when the inevitable happened and the hand of fate he’d sensed since he came into the bar fell down upon his shoulder.
“Mister. I don’t know who you think you are but Missy Elaine here’s spending the night with me,” the man coughed and Shanks could feel the heat radiating off the man’s hand. He had the fever, same as most of the people he’d seen.
Shanks turned to face the man, tightening his grip on his walking stick as he did so. “I really don’t want to cause any trouble here sir, but the young lady’s company is already mine. My money’s on the counter and I really do need a comfortable bed for the night.”
The man was a sweaty mass of beard and stringy muscle, half starved and his fear was palpable. Shanks might have taken pity on him at any other time but not today. If he showed a little weakness to the other desperate men in here he’d be robbed and murdered before you could say ‘boo’. This was a desperate town on the edge. “I got the fever mister. Might be my last night on this Earth and I’ll be taking the lady upstairs or you’ll be dragged out by your boots,” he glanced down, “shoes. Ain’t no high falutin’ fella from back east cutting in on me.”
Shanks clenched his jaw and shook his head slightly. “I really must insist.”
That did it.
The feverish would-be-lover hauled back a fist and swung, brushing the top of Shanks’ bowler as he ducked below the wild swing. In that same ducking movement he slammed his cane down hard onto the man’s boot, crushing his toes.
The amorous bastard barely had time to swear before Shanks thrust upward, smashing the pommel of the sword up, hard, into his jaw, crushing teeth and sending him sprawling back into a table, smashing glasses and scattering drinks.
Only one of Romeo’s friends had the wherewithal to think about intervening, fumbling for the crummy old gun at his belt. Shanks twisted the pommel on his cane and drew two feet of steel from the body of it. Holding the point of the blade to the old man’s throat. “Let’s not shall we? We can always say we did later.”
The old man nodded and raised his hands as the others scurried about, righting the table. Everywhere Shanks went it was the same, having to prove himself one way or another over and over and he was damn weary of it. The blade slid home again and clicked into place and he offered his hand to the lady.
“Miss Elaine, shall we retire?” he smiled, she laughed and together they made their way up the stairs and into the little room above the bar.
There was a bed and a lamp, which the drunken lady lit before she helped herself to a drink from a bottle set on the dresser. Shanks set his bags down and hooked his hat on the back of the door, loosening his cravat. A bed, it had been a while. It would be nice, especially warm.
“So,” a gloved hand snaked clumsily around him from behind. “What is it you like Mr Back-East?”
“Way, way back east Miss, and you can call me Shanks,” he gently took her hand and pried it away from him.
“Well Mr Shanks, you bought yourself a fine ol’ time with what I saw down there and you’re a cleaner, better spoken man than anyone in this one horse town. So name your pleasure.”
Shanks took her gloved hand and lifted it, pressing a kiss to her fingers. “I’m afraid my pleasure doesn’t run to ladies Miss Elaine, but one must keep up appearances.”
Her mouth dropped open and she snatched back her hand, covering. “You’re a gosh-darned Mary? Well don’t that just beat all!” and she burst into peals of, not altogether unpleasant laughter.
“I need the rest and you look like you could do with a night off,” he shrugged and flopped back onto the bed, kicking off his shoes with a groan of pleasure. She followed him, kneeling at the end of the bed still laughing.
“Well alright, but you got to tell me all about your travels.”
“And you have to tell me all about the town.”
“It’s a deal,” and they shook on it.