Shanks lay awake a while, Elaine snoring drunkenly by his side. In sleep the years fell away from her face and the fallen woman faded, allowing a hint of the girl she’d been to show through. He thought a while, everything he’d seen, everything he’d done, staring up at the ceiling while his mind ticked through it all.
She’d told him all manner of things about the town. About how it had been dying a while. How all the independent ranchers had been chased away by the McLeans and how they were trying to starve the town out, all for a miserable few extra acres of grazing land. It was a familiar story, everywhere he went the ‘wild’ west was being civilised bit by bit, but there were two ways to become civilised. One the one hand there was politeness, decency and community. On the other there was business, dominion and control. Shanks had had far too little of the first, far too much of the second, going right back home to England.
He closed his eyes for what seemed like a mere moment but when he opened them again the sun was streaming in the filthy window and Elaine was silhouetted against it, getting herself dressed.
“It’s late sugar. You want me to get you somethin’ to eat or drink?” she stood still, hands on her hips and giving him a smile. Her face didn’t look like it was used to smiling.
“Hmm… beer if he’s got it. Whisky and water if he doesn’t.” Shanks swung his legs out of the bed. They ached from walking but the muscles were hard and tight as stone. They felt like they wanted to move, not like they were exhausted.
“Startin’ early eh hon?” Elaine laughed and swished her skirts, sliding out of the room to leave him to it.
Shanks dressed, slowly and carefully, checking every detail in the mirror as was his wont. He could do with a shave but there was no barber here and the Americans didn’t seem to worry so much about a chap’s appearance. It could wait. As he set his hat on his head he turned to look out of the grubby window. It must have already been close to midday from the height of the sun and there was a column of dust directly opposite the dusty panes. Due east. Someone else coming in perhaps.
Elaine reappeared with some bacon and bread and a chipped glass of what smelled like turpentine. It would do though. “Thank you ever so Miss Elaine, but don’t let me keep you from your duties.”
She sketched a curtsey and laughed a moment. “Much obliged for your politeness and charming company Mister Shanks.” Then she was away again, leaving him to eat and watch the incoming column of dust.
Shanks swallowed the last piece of chewed up bacon rind as the riders hove properly into view. It wasn’t just riders, though there were a handful of them certainly, but there were also a couple of big wagons, the kind settlers would take west, covered and – from the lightness of the canvas, new.
Shanks wasn’t a man who liked to water his whisky, but with this foul stuff each horrid ingredient helped lessen the impact of the other. He tipped it back and set the glass aside on the wash-stand, forcing the complaining window open to listen to the noise outside.
A few of the sick townsfolk had gathered near the well, drawing water. They became a welcoming committee of sorts for the riders and, shielding his eyes from the sun, Shanks could see each and every rider had a kerchief around their face. A mask for a bandit or someone afraid of the sickness?
Shanks leaned on the windowsill and tilted his head to listen more closely. The big man at the front of the riders slid down off his horse and took off his hat, holding it to his chest, bald pate glowing in the noonday sun like a limelight. Shanks listened to him talk, insincere concerns for the health and well-being of the townsfolk and a much more sincere appeal to them to get into the wagons.
“There’s a doctor up at Heyton. We heard y’all were sick. Came to help. Reckon we can get you up there in a day, get you looked after.” The big, bald man was pretty earnest about that.
Shanks wasn’t buying the charity angle, it stank worse than the Thames in high summer. These people were sick though and they did need help, whatever the source. Shanks closed the window back up and made his way down the creaking stairs, into the saloon, coming up short when he saw the old buzzard of a barman loading his shotgun.
“What’s the matter?” Shanks swept back his coat and hooked his thumbs in his waistcoat, concerned now, eyeing him warily. “I did leave enough money didn’t I?”
The old man cackled and closed the rusty old shotgun with a squeak of protested hinge metal. “You got nothin’ to worry about Mister. One of them McLean boys sets foot across my threshold he’s getting a belly full of shot.”
Shanks paused again, another step, just enough to take him down onto the floor of the saloon. He propped his walking cane carefully against the bar and sucked in his cheeks, looking towards the door. “Maybe I had better talk to them outside then, hmm? By your leave of course. What exactly is it that’s the problem”
Elaine cut in before the old man could speak. “They’ll want us to go too, but we ain’t ill. They’ve tried everything short of outright killing us to get us to leave. Soon as those sick ninnies outside have gotten in the wagons they’ll be coming here.”
Shanks nodded and tugged the brim of his bowler down to better shield his eyes. He took a deep breath and plunged out of the saloon doors into the sun to be met with abrupt silence.
“Who the shit are you?” the big bald man grumbled, wedging his hat back on his head, the rest of his boys turning to look, other than the one holding all the horse’s reins and being pulled this way and that for his trouble.
Shanks smiled and gave a slight bow, “Shanks Redcoat, at your service Mister…?”
“Dan, Daniel McLean. You sick greenhorn? Like the rest? We’re takin’ ’em up to see a doc in Heyton.” Dan didn’t seem to be much of a trusting fellow. His hand was on his iron even while he want from ‘shit’ to what counted for polite conversation for cowboys.
“Me? No. Just passing through. I see you’ve got all the townspeople in your wagons there. Any reason you’ve not left yet?” Shanks sidled over towards the well and tipped back his hat, bringing up the bucket one-handed while he waited for his answer.
Dan took his time, rocking on his heels, relaxing his gun hand and trying a smile on for size. It looked even more strange and out of place on his ugly mug than it had on Elaine’s. “Jus’ got to get the rest of ’em out of the saloon.”
“Oh, I see,” the bucket reached the top, Shanks lifted it out and set it on the side. Picking up the ladle, or ‘dipper’ and gesticulating with it. “I wouldn’t if I were you, chap in there has a loaded shotgun and doesn’t like you very much.”
“Much obliged for the warnin’ Mister Redcoat, but they’re likely sick too. Mebbe I can persuade ’em to come out peaceable like.” That smile became a sneer and the bald man’s hand went back to his gun, all too easy a reflex for this fellow.
“I could talk to them on your behalf. If you like?” Shanks thrust the dipper into the bucket and brought it out, splashing water onto the dusty ground. “You must be parched after such a long ride. Why don’t you and your friends have a drink of water while they cool down a bit. Then I’ll go talk to them.”
Daniel’s eyes swept to the saloon and back to Shanks, he tried that uneasy smile again. “Aw hell, ain’t no need for that. Ain’t thirsty.”
Shanks dipped his head and looked up from his nose to the big bald man. “I can see how cracked your lips are. I insist. Or perhaps you’d just prefer something out of a bottle? From the saloon?” he stepped forward, dipper out to his side, bringing it forward, almost brandishing it. The bald man stepped back as though he were carrying a rattlesnake.
“Hell,” Dan’s hand ducked and pulled, he ripped the gun out of its holster and fired. The dipper shattered into shards of wood as the heavy bullet smashed through it. Everyone jumped at the report of the gun but there hadn’t been one bang, but two.
Shanks held his own pistol in his left hand, the chain running back to his waistcoat, smoke curling from his pistol as he shook the splinters from his hand. Daniel hadn’t come off so well. Shanks’ bullet had smashed into his gun almost the same instant he fired and the metal body of the pistol had fractured. Razor sharp pieces of metal were stuck out of his meaty fist and forearm at crazy angles and blood dripped to the dust.
The men were too astonished to act. Shanks fished his second pistol out and one in each hand kept all the men covered. “I think it’s time you left Mister McLean. You and your friends there. Best leave now if you’re going to get these sick people to Heyton. I’m sure the saloon can wait. Aren’t you?”
“My goddamn hand!” Dan curled around it, a ball of pain. One of his boys went for his own iron and got a bullet in the dirt at his feet for his trouble.
“Gentleman, that’s all the bullets I can afford to waste on warnings. Now, if you’d be so kind as to bugger off, we can put this nasty little incident behind us. Won’t that be lovely?” Shanks gave them his most withering, most patronising smirk and kept each gun steady as a rock until they scraped Dan up off the ground and took to their horses.
“You’re fucking dead Redcoat! Dead!” the big bald man felt safe to shout that from the back of a horse, heading away.
“Ta ta!” Shanks turned away and shoved the brimming bucket back into the well with a loud splash. The smirk faded to a look of grim determination and he strode back into the saloon.
This would not stand.