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Posts Tagged ‘Shanks’

A jolly Wild West tale, just in time for ‘Good Riddance Day’.

An Englishman abroad in the Wild West will find himself hard-pressed to remain a gentleman. Still, there’s a steel in such men that formed an Empire and the cattlemen of the new frontier should know better than to tangle with an Englishman when his dander’s up.

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Shanks didn’t waste much time after the wagon had rolled and the gang had ridden out. He got a watered whisky from the bar and watched them go until the dust was a fading column in the far distance. He didn’t say a word to anyone else and when Elaine tried to coax something out of him he hushed her with a raised finger and went to get his things.

When he came back down the stairs, weighed down by his bags and properly dressed the barman and the saloon girl were waiting on him, standing between him and the door with a look very much like concern. He sighed and shifted his bag on his shoulder, arching an eyebrow at them. “Yes?”

“You goin’ after ’em?” the barkeep looked less drunk than usual. Not that this was a hard thing to do by any stretch.

“Yes Sir, I believe I am.”

“On foot?” Elaine spoke up, pursing her lips and twisting her mouth to the side of her face disapprovingly.

“Yes.”

“I got a horse you can take. You’d catch ’em if they’re keepin’ pace with the wagon.” the barkeep spat to the side, onto the boards.

Shanks smiled and shook his head. “Gracious of you, but I believe I’ll stay on foot. They think I know something and I think their guilt is going to lead me there. A horse is going to kick up dust. I’ll be better on foot.”

“You could walk it slow, at least then you’d be fresh when you catch up to ’em.” Elaine took a step forward, hands towards him imploring.

“Madam, me and horses don’t get on. The first one I mounted bit me, the last one I mounted died. I’ll stick to my feet.” Shanks smiled again, tipped his hat to the lady and stepped around her. Pacing back out into the light and onto the trail.

The shallow ruts lead up the gentle, slope away to the north and east, crowded with hoof marks. The town didn’t get much traffic at the best of times and these newer tracks stood out like a sore thumb to even an amateur tracker. It certainly wasn’t anything like trying to chase down a fox with the Berkshire Hunt. Shanks re-shouldered his bag and set off, teeth gritted, in slow, steady, dogged pursuit.

***

Voices carry a long way when there’s little to stand in their way and in the bright light of day you can see for miles over the oceans of scrub and grass. Here, there, dotted, standing out on the horizon were lumps and bumps, a nest, a ‘herd’ of rocks lost in the ocean of brown and green.

Shanks paused and hunkered down as the wind turned and carried distant voices to him. Even on his belly he was only barely beneath the level of the grass. Getting up to where they seemed to be was going to take guile and cunning. Not for the first time Shanks wished he had a rifle, but most of the time I paid to seem less dangerous.

A deep, calming breath and he tugged his bowler down to his brow, casting about for anything that might give him a way to get closer and he was struck, suddenly, by the sight of a single buffalo, perhaps three hundred yards away. A great, shaggy beast that just seemed to be standing there, in the middle of nowhere. A beast out of its proper place, just like he was. Divine providence? He wasn’t the sort to put much credit in that sort of thing but it might serve.

Shanks stayed low, tutting at the dusting his suit was getting as he scrambled across he ground, closer to the buffalo. Two-hundred yards… one-hundred… that great horned head turned towards him and doleful brown eyes stared at him, but the beast just stood there, listlessly, ignoring him, even as he stalked it.

Another few scrambled, crawling steps and Shanks’ fingers hit something taut and dusty like a drumskin, it snapped and crackled under his weight and he pitched over onto his side, sending up a small puff of dust from the tinder-dry grass and stifling a cry of alarm. He twisted his head and looked and suddenly things made an odd sort of sense. There were bones and dry skin everywhere, skulls and ribs and hooves. A graveyard of buffalo of which this one remaining beast must be the only survivor.

Shanks sat a moment, shaking his head, the sheer waste of it all would give even a hard-bitten man pause. They’d just been left to the buzzards. Shot and left. Not even used. It didn’t seem… thrifty.

“Well old boy…” he ducked his head a moment “old girl, I think I know who might have done this so how about giving me a little bit of a hand eh?” He slid up, hunched over, next to the warm, sweaty stink of the husky beast and gave her a pat on the flank.

The old girl was a stubborn beast, but solid and shaggy. Concealed behind her and moving her along with pats and sweet nothings murmured into the creature’s ear. Closer and closer to the stony mounds that rose from the plains. It was painfully slow going, but it was going.

The voices got clearer as they skirted past the horses. Shanks cocked an ear to hear what the deuce they were on about.

“Ain’t nobody been here Dan.”

“He knew though, he knew what was up. The only way he could know is if he came through here.”

“How’s your hand Dan?” there was some laughter at that.

“Shut your goddamn mouth Jack, and this time you can go down there and check, again. He must have left some sign down there.”

“Aw shit…”

“And the rest of you idiots can get a fire goin’ and brew some goddamn coffee.”

Shanks risked a glance around the buffalo. That fellow there must be Jack, parting from the group and trudging reluctantly towards one of the big boulders that rose from the grass. Shanks picked his moment and darted after him, breaking free of the buffalo and darting into the crack in the rock the man had slipped into, following the fading glimmer of a lit match, the only light.

It was a wide crack, worn smooth either side, two or three men could have climbed into it. It was smooth, slippery, cool, damp even in the daytime sun and in the stirred air from the passage of the man before him there was a foul and rancid stench that almost made him cough, but that would have been a bad idea.

The light went out and then was struck again, a fresh match in the darkness. Shanks was right behind him. The light from the match shimmered on water and gleamed from the walls as this man, Jack, covered his mouth with his neckerchief and crouched over the pool at the base of the cave. It was water, but it was also a foul, soupy mess. The cadaver of a bloated cow carcass floated, blown up like an obscene balloon and seeping foulness into the water.

“Nobody’s been down here fer crissakes…” Jack set his matches aside and pulled his pistol from his hip and prodded at the floating carcass. It made a darkly comic sight, bobbing around, hooves in the air like the masts of a ship.

“Not until now anyway,” Shanks murmured, right behind the poor man who jumped, swayed and nearly fell in. Then did fall in after a sharp crack to the back of the head with a rock. “One down, four to go, but first…”

Shanks lit a fresh match from the man’s pack and propped it up on the rocks. He carefully stripped off his jacket and shirt, took off his hat and set it all aside, thrusting his pistols into his trouser pockets as he strained and pulled and heaved to take both the unconscious man and the rotting cow out of the water. By the time he was done he was drenched with sweat and foul with the muck that seeped off the cow. It wouldn’t make things better right away, but all in good time.

Now it was just a matter of dealing with the bastards back upstairs. The kind of chaps that would poison the water, just for a tiny bit more land on a seemingly endless plain, they didn’t deserve any quarter. Shanks cricked his neck side to side and held the unconscious man’s head under the water until the bubbles stopped coming, then shoved him next to the rotting cow, which was farting and bubbling as gas escaped from its rotten innards.

He grasped his pistols in his hands and shook the chains loose, feeling his way up in the dark as the match guttered and went out, up towards the light.

Shanks emerged into the bright light of day and the presence of another one of the ranchers. A fat looking man with a greasy beard, chin-string lost in a double chin. “Jack, you sure took your sweet fucking time!”

Shanks didn’t give him the time to realise his mistake, he raised his stubby pistol and there was a thunderous bang as the heavy bullet took the fat man in the chest and hurled him back, bursting his over-stretched heart like an over-ripe watermelon.

Three left.

The others would be warned now, though they’d be shocked for a moment. It was important to move fast. Shanks jumped up onto the side of the boulder and sprang up to the top. Their little fire showed where they were and the horses were stirring now, scared by the gunshot and from up here Shanks could see them all. Two sat dumb around the fire, Dan, good old Dan with the crippled hand, running for the horses.

One of them looked up, saw him, got as far as “L…” before his pistols boomed. Red wounds burst open on the man’s chest and the massive rounds blew through his back, lung matter and shattered ribs spraying the fire, hissing in the flames, bone fragments rattling against the coffee pot before his twitching body fell back onto the lot of it, smothering the flames as he futilely tried to breathe.

Two left.

The other man at the fire had gotten his gun free and fanned the hammer, spraying the air with bullets. Shanks gave a “Damn!” and tucked forward into a roll, splinters of stone and fragmented bullets stinging his bare back like wasps. Off balance he came back up on one knee and fired, before he was ready.

The man by the fire was clicking on empty chambers as Shanks fired, walking one, two, three bullets up the man. His knee exploded into fragments and his leg twisted around on a frayed, fleshy rope before the second hit punched through his stomach and the third took him under the chin and blew out the top of his hat.

Sloppy.

One left.

Dan had reached the horses as Shanks stood up, clumsily holding a borrowed pistol in his left hand he put it to the head of one of the horses and fired. The others scattered, their dead friend falling as though its strings had been cut. Dan fell in behind it, cover, waving his pistol over the top.

“Back the fuck off you crazy shitheel!”

Shanks scrambled flat, below the line of the twitching corpse of the man he’d shot through the hat. It was no horse, but it might stop a bullet or two.

“I don’t even bloody like horses and I thought that was a bit much you callous arse!”

“Like I give a good god damn!” Dan lunged over the corpse of the horse and fired with his shaking hand. It went wide, sending up a puff of dirt yards from Shank’s side.

“You couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn Daniel. Even with your good hand. You know I can shoot you at my leisure. So why not die with a little dignity, on your feet?” Shanks clicked open his revolvers, more than enough bullets left, between them.

“Fuck you you fucking fuck!” Another shot, and another, no chance, they weren’t coming anywhere near him. The stupid bastard only had two left and he wasn’t going to have time to reload.

“Blast it to hell…” Shanks got up, raised his guns and walked slowly, calmly towards the corpse of the horse. He could see Dan’s wide eyes staring over its flank as he tried to steady the pistol in his trembling fist, stabilising it with his injured hand.

It wasn’t enough.

He thumbed back the hammer and fired. It went wide.

Shanks fixed him with a stony stare and kept on coming, yards away only, another bang like a punch in the ears and he stopped, guns raised either side, turning this way and that, lean bare body streaked with sweat, fingers blackened with powder.

“Shot your bolt Daniel. Nothing left,” his eyes narrowed as he sighted down the stubby barrel of one pistol.

“You’d kill a man in cold blood?” Dan tossed his gun and his belt away, raised his hands and licked his cracked lips.

“No,” Shanks lowered his aim and fired, a cloud of smoke and a fleshy ‘thump’ in the moment after it. The round took Dan through the stomach and blood began to drain from him, spilling over the dirt as he swore and writhed, a ball of agony around the wound. “I’ll do worse. Especially to a man of such cruelty and disregard. That wound’s going to kill you. I believe I’ll leave you to it.”

Shanks put his guns away, went back into the cave to get his things and dressed up in the sunlight, ignoring the swearing, grunting man, pathetically trying to crawl to where he’d tossed his gun, a snail trail of blood and guts behind him.

Shanks brushed his shoulders with his hand and took back to the road, shouldering his bag, the man’s swearing and cursing left behind while the placid buffalo ripped at the grass around the dead men. He paused, a moment, to tip his hat to the grand dam of the plains respectfully and then was on his merry way.

It didn’t take long before Dan’s cries and moans were lost in the rising wind.

But the, eventual, single gunshot….

That he heard.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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