Walking side by side with Kerral, dressed in a three piece suit one of the townsfolk had lent him, Reed Autry was the most relaxed he’d been since he’d come to the small mining town of Croll. The feeling may have been linked to the snake head wine sloshing in his belly, but it didn’t matter. The town streets were an endless stream of color and noise in welcome of a festival week, bled together and smeared across the landscape. Venturing into the fray was as potent as any drug or drink, having the potential to set one stumbling out reeling.
Kerral Fowlcrest, just barely past her sixteenth year, steered him to a booth where dry desert sands, rock, and dirt met the town. The line already formed there was a dozen people thick. “What do you think so far?” she asked him as they took their place and waited.
“Can’t believe how busy this little hellhole of a town gets,” he replied with boyish awe. Ponderous with substance, Reed’s reserves had all but melted away like soft metal in the sun. “All them business types and railroad workers. Swear, I ain’t ever seen anything like it.”
Her voice was deep and quiet as she laughed and gave him a half sincere shove.
“So you’re enjoying it?”
As his head bobbed, strands of reddish gold hair fell over his forehead and into his eyes like a scraggly veil. “Having a great time.”
And it was the truth. Thoughts of the small farm he lived on and his old life with his sister as his only caretaker were as far from his mind as they could be. Ceralina, the girl he’d left behind — not just left, but, well, he wasn’t going to let that memory ruin his mood. His thoughts of her lay wrapped in a shroud of his most protective thoughts, and tucked in a corner of his mind where they couldn’t stray tonight. It was a relief, to be able to let his guard down and enjoy himself. No doubt it was Kerral that helped achieve such a feat. He was glad for the girl’s presence, even if it was just for the festival; one night where he could forget what had brought him here, who he was, and the past that insisted on dogging him to what appeared was going to be his ending days. It didn’t matter that he knew he would soon have to do what was best for him and leave the town and Kerral behind. He’d only stopped to get his bearings, anyway. The week next would be a month that he’d been living in Croll, and that was far longer then what pleased him. Pursuit by the military or not, he’d have to venture further on, or try going back home.
And he still didn’t know what his legal standing was back there. He could either be a wanted an, or a a vague and forgotten blip on an unmanned radar. Tomorrow, somehow, he would have to try and gather information, maybe get a letter on down the system to his sister.
The line moved fast. Reed signed his name on a chalkboard and was handed a tag with a number, then told to stand on the sidelines where a small crowd was socializing. A table was set there, laid with many firearms crafted of various metals and polymer synthetics. He approached with Kerral in tow, appraising each piece with a careful eye, hefting some that snared his interest. They were all old weapons, tarnished and passed between owners more than a dozen times.
“This one,” Kerral said and passed him a gun whose barrel was thin and elongated. The hand grip was made of smooth nickel, and it had enough heft that the butt could be used as an efficient club.
Reed raised an eyebrow at the unique piece. “Impeccable taste, Kerr,” he remarked.
“That one was mom’s. Dad donated it after she passed on.”
Flicking the hammer back, Reed aimed out towards the desert and pulled the trigger. With the chamber empty, all the gun did was let out a metallic click.
“It better. Remember what you said this afternoon? About any weapon I choose?”
“Even if I didn’t, don’t think you’d let me forget,” he joked.
It was not long before the whine of feedback split the night like a rotten fruit, gathering everyone’s attention. Ozen Pastor, the man in charge of the trade post, stood on a low wooden deck addressing the onlookers.
“Settle in, folks,” he called out like a carnival barker. The crowd roared in reply. “We have quite the competition this year. I don’t know if we can stand all the excitement.” Boisterous laughter followed. “Why don’t I introduce our contestants so we can get on with the gambling.”
Each contestant came up to the stage and formed a line as they were called, greeted by whoops and cheers as Oz announced them. There were shooters of all types. Girls, boys, adults. Not uncommon for a mining town, where gender roles were thrown out in favor of a steady stream of workers.
“And our newest addition, Mr. Reed Autry,” Ozen said.
The cheering wasn’t as enthusiastic for him as it was for the others, which didn’t come as a surprise. Besides Kerral and her father Ferris and some of the kids he’s played ball against, he hadn’t made many friends. His own avoidance of the townsfolk, and the hours he devoted in the desert in solitary contemplation and target practice were likely to blame for that. He took his place and waited for Oz to finish. The gambling tables at the forefront of the crowd opened and were rushed. The clerks did their best to record the bets and collect the money as fast as possible, and Reed saw Kerr smile and wave at him from one of the tables. Then he and the other contestants were guided further out into the desert, where someone had set up a row of targets. They stood some pretty distance away, colored beige so that they blended in with the rocks and dry brambles that surrounded them.
The crowd soon joined them, and the shooters went up four at a time. Reed found himself next to a thin, tanned young woman and a boy no older then twelve. They both held their guns like professionals, though, and hit the targets dead center as well as he did. He was sure he didn’t want to find himself on the wrong end of either of their barrels.
With each round, people who didn’t hit the targets were weeded out. Reed took aim with cultivated precision, confident he wasn’t going to miss for reasons short of acts of god. The gun was lighter and quieter than any he was familiar with, but he could tell from the way that it struck the target that it was a fine weapon. Kerr had not steered him wrong.
Over an hour later, all contestants had been disqualified, and Reed was surprised when Ferris saddled up beside him. He hadn’t realized the heavyset tavern owner had stayed in the competition round after round, and for the first time since the event had started he felt his confidence slipping. Ferris was a man with many years of experience, after all, and Reed had only a handful under his belt.
He eyed his opponent, sweat beading on his forehead. Ferris gave him a huge grin that let him know just how close he might be to losing.
Well, hell, he wasn’t going to allow that to happen.
Their line of sight was directed to their targets by Oz’s booming voice. Reed squinted and judged the distance quickly, the nickel biting into his palms as his two-fsted grip tensed. He cocked his weapon and squeezed the trigger. The vicious crack of hammer pounding metal casing sliced the surrounding silence apart. Even better then he’d aimed for, his bullet hit the center of the target, and he heard Oz call out the direct hit. Reed grinned and pointed the weapon skyward, ready to break into a victory dance.
But then another shot went off, and he shifted his gaze just in time to see Ferris’ bullet sink straight into the bright colored heart of the bull’s eye.
“You look like a viper just jumped up and bit your balls,” Ferris commented, bursting into uproarious laughter.
Reed, whose brows were drawn across his forehead in a frown, and his lips pressed tight, looked over.
Ferris thrust a hand out.
“You’re a real good gun man, Reed,” he continued. “They’re call a draw for sure, us so equally matched. Come on, let’s go enjoy the victory feast and collect our winnings.”
Ignoring Ferris’ offered hand, Reed steadied his gun. The mirthful look on the bartender’s face was replaced by one of concern. Reed didn’t miss once as he emptied the gun chamber into the target. Under the assault, bits of stuffing burst free of it, fluttering trough the distant night sky like the dander of desert flowers. The gun gave a few angry clicks as he tried to keep shooting. Around him, the crowd had fallen into a stream of chatter, the gun shots ringing out ignored.
It was then that Reed turned, cocking his head at Ferris. A slow smirk crawled across his features, as dark and foreboding as the sprawling desert night around them. Nodding and shoving the weapon into his belt, he walked off without a word.
Kerral found Reed on the other side of town, next to where the huge boulder dictated to approaching traveler’s where the Croll town limits began. He was sitting in the sand, the suit he wore coated in a fine dusting of the stuff as if he’d been rolling around in it. The gun lay on his lap, his fingers stroking the barrel. He felt her approach, however, and looked over his shoulder. There were some stragglers from the festivals, drunks and lovers dotting the landscape, but not close enough to intervene with each others’ affairs. Kerr crouched beside him, her dress skirt brushing the ground.
“You weren’t fooling, Reed,” she said, her voice quiet. “You’re a damned good shot.”
Reed nodded in acknowledgment but said nothing in reply. She wet her lips, lowering herself until she was seated next to him.
“Ma was good, too. Almost as good as da with that gun,” she went on. “But, hell, ain’t nobody really as good as da around here.”
“Should’ve beat him,” Reed snapped, his voice as cold as the desert night.
“You may as well have, far as everyone’s concerned. Not every year there’s a draw.”
“I’m the best gunslinger back home. I worked myself up from the scrap heap. I earned my reputation. Now some backwater ass puts me on the spot.”
This time when Kerr spoke her tone rung with vexation.
“And so did my da. He was a military man.”
“He was?” Reed paused, memories he hadn’t tapped in a handful of years
flickering. He brushed them aside. “But you hate the military. That don’t make sense.”
“I have my reasons. But my da was military before he was a miner and a tavern owner. He ain’t no backwater ass, and either am I. Nobody in this town deserves to be called that.”
“It’s common language.”
“Doesn’t make it right, Reed.”
Reed sighed and drew his knees up.
“I like you. I don’t know why, but I like you a whole lot more than anyone that ever came through here. You seem like someone worth trusting, and it’s been a long time since I’ve uttered such nonsense.” When he didn’t answer, she went on. “But you haven’t really been forthcoming with dad and I. And from what you shown us, the only conclusion I can come to is that you’re a limp pricked son of a prudish saint. You haven’t even properly tried putting your feelers in the wrong places.”
His gaze whirling on her, it struck him, then, the haunted look on hr face that ran deeper then the youthful pout of her lips and dusting of freckles. Something he hadn’t realized that was in her or that he hadn’t been paying enough attention to notice. Maybe they had more in common than he had garnered. But before he could muster the words to pan for the nuggets of information, she stood up and dusted herself off.
“I think I’m going to go on and get to bed,” she said without looking at him. “I bet you’ll have a wicked hangover in the morning, so I’ll lay out some remedies in your room. And remember, you still owe me.”
Looking up towards the sky, he thanked her with a nod as she walked off without saying anything else. Outside the town limits, the sky was brighter, an endless field of stars. Cera had loved to spend nights gazing up at the sky, just staring at the constellations, trying to remember their names and origins for hours. Something in his chest clenched as he realized there wasn’t going to be any of that any more. Those days had been snuffed out right quick. Whose to say it would have worked out, anyway? But even not knowing what the future might’ve brought for Cera and him wasn’t consolation. It was just more pain. More than he wanted to bear tonight.
He considered sitting up all night and watching the sky fade to a velvety, ethereal dawn, but decided against it. After the lingering thoughts he had all but pulled up by the roots, he couldn’t muster the interest. Instead he lifted off the ground and turned in the direction Kerral had gone.
And heard the soft click of a gun being cocked behind him.
It was a sound Reed was familiar with and had long ago learned to recognize. He came to a halt. The gun was behind him, pointed at his back. The noise had been close, tipping him off.
“You’ll want to dispose of any weapons you have.” The voice was gruff, as if its owner had choked on glass at some point. It was also unfamiliar, nobody from town.
Reed glanced at the gun he was still holding and then bent to set it on the ground.
Reed inclined his head in answer.
“Reed Autry, I’m placing you under the custody of the law,” the voice said. “You are to comply with my orders. Any resistance will be grounds to consider you a threat and take necessary precautions.”
Reed felt his heart stop, then thump back to life with a lurch. His suit, already damp with sweat, clung to him like a shroud. He angled his head, not much so that it would be noticed, but enough to glance out the corner of his eye. One of the out-of-towner lawmen he’d seen roaming the streets of Croll earlier stood at his back, body poised as if expecting a tussle. He wondered how the man had slipped past his guard and kept his presence unknown.
“Hands behind your back,” the other man commanded. But Reed stood unmoving, as if he were made of stone.
“What are the grounds for this?” Reed questioned, a hint of amusement enveloped in his tone.
“You’re being accused of murder in the first degree,” he was supplied. “Put your hands behind you.”
“Oh, I don’t think so.” Reed said and turned quickly to face the other man.
The lawman flinched, the gun jerking in his grasp but not going off. Reed regarded it with the weariness of a snake handler. This was a rookie in his field, if he were that easily caught unawares, and a rookie’s grip on a trigger was not infallible.
“Can’t arrest me for a flying accusation like that,” Reed remarked. “You have no reason to be going around suspecting me of nothing.”
The lawman’s reaction was to tighten his grip on the trigger. He locked gazes with Reed, his forehead wrinkling with worry lines.
“I have my orders.”
“From who?” Reed pressed, giving a snort. “The big boys back home? You follow me here? Maybe Gideon-“
“The Sheriff’s dead,” the man cut him off, his voice like a dog’s warning bark. “Someone gutted him like a dog.”
Reed felt someone slam him in the gut with a fist, or at least that’s what it seemed like. The ground swayed like tree limbs in a breeze as the words were absorbed and digested. It took him mere seconds to stitch the information together. His chest heaved with his breath, his mouth working. This wasn’t about him and Ceralina. The situation had gone from bad to dire in the span of several heartbeats.
“You think it was me,” he breathed, the obvious statement solidifying his theory. “You think I was sent to kill him?”
“We had a very useful tip from a man who claims you’re an old friend. Told us what you did for a living, the motives you would have. Even told us where you’d likely be fleeing.”
The steel band had returned, squeezing Reed’s chest like a giant fist.
“Henry.” It was little more than a whisper.
“Yes, /Sheriff/ Milton. He was appointed upon sharing his information.”
Reed couldn’t breath, the air choking in his throat. He swallowed hard, his ribs starting to ache.
He was launching himself towards the lawman before he could realize how enraged he was, a battle cry torn wailing and blood-soaked from his throat. He didn’t care if the man shot him. Henry’s betrayal had shifted something loose in his mind, and he was a rabid animal, swinging his fists, butting his head. He connected with solid flesh and bone more than once, heard the crunch and thud of things being broken and battered. The man undulated beneath him, scrabbling at him with his fingers. Dust rose up around them, stinging their eyes, obscuring their vision. Suddenly a gun slid into Reed’s palm, cold and sleek. He lifted it high above himself, swinging the butt down with full momentum. It thumped against the side of the other man’s head, and he screamed like someone being savaged by wild dogs. Reed brought the gun down again on his head, and again. Until there weren’t any more noises or cries; until a black, glossy blotch matted the man’s hair. Only then did he rise, breathing through clenched teeth, and looked down at the destruction he had wrought; only then that he realize the man at his feet wasn’t breathing and the full extent of what he had done.
He flung the weapon away and backed up. He couldn’t stay here. Someone was bound to have heard the noise and would come to investigate. He didn’t think the town folk would mourn the lawman’s life, but a dead man was a bad omen. It meant trouble for them, and he was linked to that trouble. That there was more of the law blending in amongst the crowd meant the repercussions were not to be undermined, and that their arrival would be swift.
It turned out he didn’t need to make any decisions from there. A scream split the night, rising high and lingering. At first he thought someone had spotted him, crouched over the body, splattered by its blood. But no. The sound was coming from the heart of the town, where the festivities were still going in full swing. From where he was, he could see people rushing forward, forming a circle around something.
None of his business. He had to get rid of this body. That was what was important.
With a glance around to make sure nobody had witnessed the scuffle, he hefted the corpse across his shoulders, and stole off into the desert.
It was in an unfamiliar bed that he woke up screaming. He kicked out, hearing a wet crash as he knocked over a basin of water. Someone was shouting at him, and strong arms went around his chest. His mind refused to accept reality and he doubled his efforts. His nightmare lingered like an apparition, Ceralina’s blood-flecked mouth closing around his flesh, the hard edge of her teeth feeling like the edge of a razor.
He wailed, shoving with the flat of his palms at his captor.
“Ker, I can’t hold him. Go fetch the doctor.”
The familiar voice brought him up from the depths of the nightmare. Cera’s image wavered, than faded altogether and he was left staring up at Ferris. Half cradled in the large man’s arms, he blinked several times at him. And then he let his breath out in a rush and fell back against the bed. Ker came and stood next to her father, looking down at him as well.
“Alright, Reed?” Ferris asked after a minute or so had gone by.
He nodded, staring up at the ceiling rather then them.
“Here, drink some water,” Ker insisted. He took the glass she offered, swallowing several mouthfuls, wincing as the cold liquid slipped against his dry and raw throat. “You’ve been out cold for almost a day.”
He tried to wrap his head around that fact and was rewarded with a budding headache. He remembered what should have been the night before, his tussle with the soldier. His violent outburst. The dead body he had fled from. He sat up with start, causing Ker and her father to jump.
“There was a lawman,” he said, his voice a croak.
Ker and Ferris exchanged a glance.
“Never you mind that. You’re unwell. I was just asking Ker to bring the doctor up, but I’ll go get him myself.”
As Ferris closed the door behind him, Reed whirled on Kerral, his eyes shot through with small red veins.
“How did I get here?” he questioned her in a clipped tone.
“I imagine you walked,” she answered, unphased by his manner. “Or stumbled. I heard you come in and go straight to your room. Then you were carrying on for a good ten, banging and shouting, cursing. You made racket enough that if it weren’t a festival night, you would’ve woken someone up.”
“And after that? What did you hear?”
“Nothing. You quieted down and I figured you’d fallen asleep. Figured you was just having a drunken fit in the first place.”
“And outside? Did anything happen the rest of the night?”
She hesitated before replying, looking down at the floor. Growing impatient, and desperate to know, he prodded at her.
“Ker? Did something else happen that night?”
“Got a couple of people ended up in the doctor’s that night. Just fell ill all of a sudden. Two of them died outright, and the rest ain’t having an easy time of hanging on. No explanation why, either. We seen the sickness before, just don’t know what it is.”
Ferris chose that moment to stroll back in, a short, squat man dressed in medical whites towed behind. Reed raised an eyebrow at the professionalism he recognized in the man, and immediately knew that he must have practiced his trade in one of the bigger cities at some point in his career. His doctor’s bag was neat but weighted down with all the latest in gleaming and wicked metal utensils. He introduced himself as doctor Arnt, rolled up his sleeves, and went to work on his patient.
After a few minutes in which the doctor asked him routine questions and checked him over, Reed was pronounced fine, and was dressed and in the backroom of the tavern shortly after. Ferris was busy and Kerral had been silent since she’d told him about the sick townsfolk, keeping to herself as the three of them worked.
Later in the afternoon, when there was time enough for a break, Reed took his journal to a card table he often took meals at, and filled three pages. He was approaching the fourth when Kerral came and sat down across from him.
“What are you writing?” she asked in a casual manner.
“About the festival night. Things that I remember from it.”
“Oh.” Her skin turned a deep shade of red. “About that. I’m not sure what exactly I was doing, calling you those names. You just got me perturbed, and they just slipped out.”
“They did, eh?” Reed set down his pencil and grinned at her. The book was shut and secured closed, and he folded his hands atop it. “Don’t worry about it. I can’t argue that there wasn’t some truth to them.”
“You’re a decent guy. You didn’t deserve that.”
The grin faltered, and Reed’s expression soured.
“Don’t say such foolish things.”
“You didn’t, least not by me.”
But Reed was shaking his head.
“Ker, I’m not about to explain, and you don’t need to know. But I asked you to trust me before, and I meant it. I am not a nice person, or even a good one.”
“But you’re good to everyone here. You help pop and me out. You haven’t hurt no one.”
His glance was sharp and didn’t go unnoticed by her.
“Who, Reed?” she asked, being blunt.
“The differences are settled. It doesn’t matter. Not the first nor the last”
“The other night?”
“Yes. Probably what my fit in the bedroom was about that night. I hardly remember.”
The answer seemed to please her. She sat back in her seat, picking at the wooden surface of the table. Reed realized she was more subdued then her usual self. Gone was the strict and giddy demeanor, replaced by something darker around the edges. His thoughts turned to the festival night, when he had glimpsed beneath the veil and saw the vise of a much older woman in Kerr. It made him wonder again, but he was promptly interrupted.
“Whose Cera?” she asked after a long stretch of silence.
Of all the questions she had to ask… There was a box-paneled window on the room’s north side, and clouded light filtered through the dingy curtains. He turned his head towards it and closed his eyes.
“I told you,” he said with a sigh. “I’m not going to talk about these things.”
“You were screaming her name,” she went on, as if she hadn’t heard him, and played with the end of her braid.
His eyes remained closed and he rubbed at his forehead.
“You lost your mom, didn’t you?” he countered, and opened his eyes in time to see her nod. “What was it like?”
“Terrible. Awful. I was close to her, and she taught me to read and to fight while dad was on active duty. For a long time it was just her and me here. Then she got sick, along with about a dozen others. Same situation as the townsfolk now. Doctor Arnt couldn’t help them. Dad quit the military and came back home to take over the tavern and raise me.” She paused. “I miss her lots, still. To me, this will always be her place.”
Reed asked if she had any tobacco, and she produced a pouch. He rolled a cigarette, lit it, and she surprised him again by doing the same.
“Well, it’s the same with Cera,” he commented. Her story, though melancholy, was not uncommon, and he had heard many like it before. It was routine in towns like Croll, where there were diseases of the lungs lying in wait for the miners, soon to be discovered by unfortunate contact. Though he felt for her loss, he didn’t think anything he was capable of saying would comfort, so he didn’t bother. “I lost her.”
“Is that why you came out here?”
The end of the cigarette burned bright as he dragged hard off it, releasing the smoke through his nostrils like a pissed-off bull.
“Partially.” He drew the ashtray over. “I don’t know why I’m telling you this. I don’t plan on staying here forever, you know.” He didn’t add that that was because the law back home probably thought he had killed sheriff Gideon Harkens. He couldn’t guarantee they wouldn’t be coming to Croll again with reinforcements.
“Maybe you want to tell someone,” she suggested.
“I don’t think so, kid. I operate alone.”
“Except when you’re drinking with me and da. You tend to go all loose-lipped, you know. Can’t shut you up.”
He couldn’t help but laugh at that, and they swept into lighter conversation. As the afternoon wore on, she brought a deck of cards out and they smoked tobacco and played Gin until Ferris called them to supper. By that time they had eased down into a relaxed state, and when the meal was done and it was time to open the tavern for the night, Reed decided to stay with them and help keep bar. He greeted the earliest patrons with grins and head nods, but as it got busier, it was harder to make individual salutations. Instead he fell into the work, pulling bottles and filling glasses as if he were born to do it. In truth, he had done it a mere handful of times, but it wasn’t hard to begin with, and he found a rhythm.
Ozen was the first to strike up a conversation with him as he hefted his bulk and perched himself upon a bar stool.
“How ya doin’, sharp shooter?” the corpulent man called.
Reed brushed back his disheveled bangs and smiled at him.
“Keeping up with the crowd. Yourself?”
“Grand, just grand. Say, you never came to collect your earnings.”
“I wasn’t aware I had any, Oz.”
“Sure ya do. You stormed off so fast I didn’t get to tell ya.”
“Nobody likes to lose.”
“Naw, but ya didn’t. That was some fancy shot. Ferris took the pot, but we got
something else for ya.”
“I ain’t gonna tell ya here.” The man’s double chins wobbled as he laughed.
“But ya gonna like it. Swing by tonight after the bar closes up.”
“Well….” Reed trailed off and noticed that someone at the other end of the bar was signaling for his attention. “Should be able to slip out by midnight.”
“Good, good. Oh, and Reed?”
As Reed refilled the customer’s beer glass, he looked back towards where Oz perched
“Those gunmen that were here festival night were asking about you. They’re gone, but I’d watch my back.”
The return grin Reed plastered on his face was false, held on by force of will. He turned away, losing himself in the throng of customers.
Slipping out at a quarter to midnight, going up to his room to change first, Reed had some time to think about events that had transpired.. At the forefront of his thoughts was the death of Gideon Hawken. Gideon had been the sheriff back in his home commune for as long as Reed could remember. Reed had grown up under his omnipresent but fair rule, and knew the man was a reliable leader. His death was both a blow to the commune that would echo in the hearts and minds of the collective people, and a dark stain on Reed’s family name, as he was the primary suspect. Without Gideon, it was easy for the people to mistrust each other, to grow anxious and troubled like the stories he’d heard about back before his time, and Henry had proven himself cutthroat and inexperienced. There would be bad times ahead home, Reed speculated.
But he had more pressing things to think of. Henry Milton had betrayed him, may have even used him as a scapegoat. He couldn’t fathom how. Henry was aware of Reed’s line of work. As long as he didn’t catch Reed in the act, he turned a blind eye. He was one of, if not the only, loyal friends Reed had made in his life. Trying to figure out what had gone wrong was like trying to piece a wooden puzzle together, picture side down. The pieces were all the same monotonous color, and shape alone wasn’t enough of a clue to fit them together. Maybe local law had known about his relationship to Reed and, upon finding Cera’s corpse, strong armed him into giving information. Maybe they had decided they had to pin Gideon’s death on someone to appease the masses, and Cera’s death had been a case of perfect timing.
And now he had the law hunting him. Sure he’d killed one of them easily enough, but that had been a rookie. And Reed was good, a fit match for a lawmen. But he couldn’t fend them off forever, or guarantee one-on-one confrontations. The problem on his platter was serious. It was time he started moving again, perhaps towards one of the cities where it was easier to play chameleon.
Oz was dressed in a button-down shirt and denim pants when he opened his front door and motioned Reed inside. It was a large house by the town’s standards, with a framed wooden porch and balcony. The inside had a subdued atmosphere, dark wood paneling covering the floor with the occasional animal headed rug spread out, ferocious but frozen in time. The sitting room had a plush couch and two chairs stationed across from a crackling fireplace, and a black and white patterned collage of photos covered the walls. They were old pictures, withered and yellow around the edges. He peered at them until Oz told him to sit.
With a mug of coffee laced with whiskey in hand, he made small talk with the man, laughing and joking when appropriate, passing off the occasional lewd comment. He inquired about the pictures, and Oz grinned like someone who’d happened upon a chunk of precious stones by chance.
“That’s my dad, and my granddaddy, and his daddy,” he pointed out over the fireplace mantle. “My great granddad founded this town. Settled down with some other vagabonds working the mines for gold.”
“So you’re a bit of a town celebrity,” Reed quipped over the rim of his mug.
“No, not exactly.” Oz sighed. “Nobody remembers about my family round here. And I never married or had kids of my own, you see. Fraid that’ll be the last of the founding line when I shuffle off.”
“Never too late, Oz. You still got some years left to spread the love.”
“That’s easy for a youngin’ to say. Look at me. I don’t even know if I could find my prick anymore if I wanted to.”
Oz chortled at his own description.
“You said something about earnings?” Reed cut in.
“Ah, yeah, from the contest. You sit right here. I’ll go get it.”
As he waited, Reed finished off his coffee and examined more of the pictures. There was one of main street when it consisted of just a general store, a barber shop, and a bar. Each set of photos captured a certain time period in the town’s progress, up until the present modern structures that stood out along the desert backdrop.
Oz shuffled back in carrying an iron box. He set it down on a side table and popped the clasps, revealing a gun. It was a revolver, but not an ordinary one, Reed knew as he came over to get a better look. This one was mint, metal shined to gleaming. The barrel was a faded brass color and the grip was faced with jewels that sparkled and gleamed when they caught the light. Upon closer inspection, they formed a pattern, or an image rather; a figure of a man and woman entwined at the limbs so that they formed an unbroken circle, both blindfolded, a detail he wouldn’t have been able to notice if not for a smattering of red jewel shards across their faces.
“Hell and damn, that must’ve cost a stack of currency and a half,” Reed exclaimed.
“More then you can imagine,” the heavyset man wheezed, lifting the weapon out of the lamb’s wool depression it sat nestled in.
“Don’t underestimate my imagination.”
“This is one of a kind, son.” He popped the chamber, checking it with a nod. “No other one like it in the country.” And before Reed could reply, he leveled the gun at the younger man’s forehead.
It took a moment for it to register. At first, Reed stared down the barrel, unable to react. And then his heart stepped up a beat. He went to take a step back, but Oz clucked his tongue at him.
“Move another step and I’ll shoot ya right in the shins.”
Reed nodded. He felt foolish, having been taken off guard and tricked as if he were an ignorant fool. Life in the mining town must have been making him soft.
“Now, I don’t like trouble in my town. Especially don’t like the folk that cause said trouble.” The heavy man mopped at his brow. “And you’re a whole heap of trouble, boy. Got soldiers on the hunt for you, disruptin’ our get togethers. I don’t know who exactly you are, but I got a nice sum comin’ to me once they come back to collect you.”
Reed said nothing as he continued to stare. He could trip the man up and get the gun away from him. But he’d have to hurt him. Bad enough to keep him away long enough to let Reed gather his things and get out of town. Maybe he’d even have to kill him. The extent of the town’s wrath was unmeasured in that regard. He didn’t want an angry mob dogging him, after all. He decided it was best to wait it out, see what was in store for him.
“Don’t matter if you’re dead, but they’d prefer you alive.” Oz licked porcine lips. “Ya ever been out to the caverns yet?”
“No.” Reed kept his voice flat and neutral.
“Safest place to keep ya in town. Come on, let’s hustle. Quicker we get ya out there, the quicker we can both retire for the night. Soldiers shouldn’t take more than a day or two to get back here.”
Reed raised a quizzical eyebrow, but went out the door and down the porch steps at the command of the other man. The walk to the caverns wasn’t long. Reed counted ten minutes off to himself. His mind was blank, otherwise. He didn’t want to make any presumptions until he understood the situation, and he knew better then to try and talk Oz out of this. They reached a hole in the side of a cavern that was barred off with yellow tape. He stopped at the mouth, leaning in to see what lay beyond, but there was complete darkness. Oz parted the tape and ushered him past it, refraining from following.
“Miners don’t use this one,” he said. “Too many of them poison lizard nests, they say. Best be careful. Nasty animals, they can be.” He lowered the gun at last, putting it back in the rest position at his hip. “It’s a shame it gotta be this way, Reed. Ferris and his daughter like you a whole lot. I’m truly sorry, but I gotta keep this place in order.”
Reed had slid down the craggy wall, crossed his legs, and closed his eyes. It wasn’t resting, more like trying to clear his head. He didn’t bother answering Oz.
The man sighed.
“Look, just stay in the cavern, and don’t try anything funny. I got people guarding you at all hours. You even try to run out of here, and they’ll knock you off like a rabbit dinner. I’ll leave ya a coupla supplies tomorrow mornin.’ I ain’t a cruel man, ya see? Just don’t like trouble.”