Another chapter in the ongoing serial. Sorry I missed posting this yesterday, I had a lot of other stuff going on and it slipped my mind.
It was near to sundown when we rode into Carson City, and Graves looked over at me with a grim look on his face. “Keep your tone civil, boy. The Sheriff in these parts don’t take much to the Brotherhood.”
“What does that even mean?” I asked.
“It means that he don’t like nobody questioning his authority, and that goes double for people he thinks is likely to take the law into their own hands.”
“Ain’t we on the same side as the Sheriffs?” I was naive then, no matter how wise I thought I was.
Graves gave a snort that almost sounded like a wheeze. “Boy, ain’t you paid attention to nothing besides shooting and whoring the whole time we been riding together?”
I didn’t answer that. Mostly because shooting and whoring were my two favorite things, and we both knew it. “So the Sheriff don’t like Brothers. I reckon I don’t care. If there’s a good lawman in town, we most likely won’t have to do nothing anyhow.” Brothers were often called in to act like constables in settlements too small to have a Sheriff or a Deputy of their own. Carson City was the biggest place I’d ever seen, so I felt sure there were probably a dozen Deputies. I couldn’t imagine there would be much for us to do.
“You’re right, Way. If there’s a good lawman, we don’t have anything to worry about.” I didn’t notice it at the time, but he never said what we’d do if the lawnman wasn’t good.
We rode along the main thoroughfare, Graves leading on Louise, me following on Mazy. She was excitable around all the people, and between trying to keep my horse under control and whipping my own head around at the bright lights and the paved streets – real, paved streets! I was about useless at paying attention to anything around me, I was so drunk on the sights and the noise of it all.
After a good quarter hor of riding through town, Graves led us down a narrow side street, just barely wide enough for the horses and a person to walk abreast. He slid down off Louise, and I followed suit, keeping tight to him in the sudden crush of people. I stroked Mazy’s neck, whispering calming nonsense words to her as her eyes rolled.
“She don’t like all these tight spaces,” I murmured to Graves’ back.
“Not much further,” was all he said. But, true to his word, he led us another dozen yards or so, then the alley opened up onto a wide courtyard with a big patch of open sky overhead. Mazy settled right down as soon as she had a clear view of the clouds and open air around her, and I felt my own chest loosen. A dirty-faced child of maybe twelve ran up to Graves and took the reins right out of his hands. I snatched Mazy’s lead back when he reached for mine, and the boy looked up at me, his eyes wide. That’s when I realized it wasn’t a boy at all, but a fine-boned hybrid girl, slight of build with round, deep blue pupilless eyes that marked her as part Voltarr.
“I sorry, sir,” she girl said, and her voice was scratchy, like her hybrid voicebox didn’t work quite right. “I take horses to stable. Louise is old friend here. What is new horse name?”
It took me a second to untwist the stunted syntax, then I just said, “Mazy.”
“I take Louise. I take Mazy. To Stable. To Food. To Water. You go to inn with Gravesman.” I handed over the reins without a word, and she stepped right up to Mazy. Even as a yearling, Mazy dwarfed the half-alien girl, but the child showed no fear. She just bumped her forehead right into Mazy’s long nose and snuffled up against her like she was another horse. Whatever she said to the horse in whatever language she said it, Mazy didn’t pull away, just went quietly away with the child.
I shook my head and started off after Graves, who was almost to the door of what I reckoned to be the inn. It had a sign over the door with a pair of crossed bottles, and from the rudimentary reading lessons Graves had inflicted upon me, I knew that it said “COLD BEER INSIDE.” Those were my favorite words at that particular moment, so I hurried across the courtyard into the tavern.
I stepped inside the dim room and blinked, trying to force my eyes to adjust from the bright sun outside. At first glance, it was a typical saloon, the kind every town has a couple of. A wooden bar stretched the length of one wall, with a man behind it moving dust around with a rag that probably held more germs than some hospitals. A pool table sat ignored in a clear space near the back wall, where a pair of doors led to his and hers restrooms. A dozen round tables took up most of the floorspace, with an upright piano abandoned against the wall opposite the bar. I spotted Graves sitting at one of the furthest tables from the door, already set up with a bottle, two glasses, and a vantage point that let him see the entrance and every other table in the place.
I walked over to him and sat down, the hair on the back of my neck prickling as I put my back to the door, but there was no help for it. I took a glass and poured myself a slug of whiskey, then almost spit it out all over his face when I knocked it back. The bitter taste of watered-down tea filled my mouth, instead of the cutting burn of even bad whiskey that I’d hoped for.
“What the hell is this shit?” I asked, leaning forward and dropping my voice so as not to be overheard by the other tables. “If you paid for a bottle of liquor, that barkeep swindled your ass, Graves.”
He gave me that little smirk he always used when he knew something and I didn’t, which happened with annoying frequency back then, and said, “Harrison keeps a special bottle for me behind the bar. He won’t sell that to just anyone, and I hardly ever share. Every man in here knows that, so understand what a privilege I’m showing you by letting you drink from my bottle, boy.”
I paused in mid-splutter, trying to be subtle as I looked around. Not a soul in the place was looking at us, which told me that every man in the bar was paying very particular attention to every single thing we did and said. I nodded to Graves, poured myself another drink, and sat back to sip it. “I appreciate your kindness, Mr….?” I stopped, unsure what to call him in this suddenly strange new world of subterfuge. I’d ridden beside this man for half a dozen years or more at this point, but I’d never seen him be the slightest bit cagey in his dealings with anyone, nor the least bit interested in hiding who he was. But since we rode into Carson City, he had almost been a different person entirely. I wasn’t quite sure how to proceed.
“You can call me Graves,” he said. I noticed he didn’t mention the “Brother.” We don’t have badges, and we don’t have a uniform, so a lot of the time if a man doesn’t want you to know he follows The Way, he just won’t tell you. There are a few things that give us away, of course – the stillness most of us have, the way our eyes scan every room when we walk in, the walk of a man who’s always ready to turn on his heel and draw down. But those things are usually only noticed by other Brothers, or people who have been around us for a long time. For some reason, Graves didn’t want it widely known that we were Brothers of the Gun in Carson City, and I was at least smart enough to follow his lead.
We sat, and drank, and Graves watched the door while I got more and more twitchy as time went on. Might have had something to do with all the tea pressing on my bladder, too. I got up and nodded to the back of the room. “I’m going to visit the euphemism. Try not to get too drunk while I’m gone.”
Graves just nodded, and I pushed my chair back from the table with a loud screech. Silence blanketed the room as my boot heels clumped across the floor, then the shrill howl of uncoiled hinges on the bathroom door filled the air. I went inside, locked the door behind me, and took care of business. A faded and tattered poster of an overblown woman falling out of a few triangles of fabric hung over the toilet. I’d never seen anyone dressed like that, but as old as the poster was, I figured it was from Before. She was sexy enough, I figured, if you liked blondes with nothing to hide in the world. I washed my hands and looked at the dingy towel hanging by the sink. I looked from the towel, to my dusty jeans, then back to the towel. Finally I shook my hands through the air a couple of times and ran them under my armpits to dry them off as best I could.
I turned around and unlocked the door, but when I pushed against it to step back out into the bar, it didn’t budge. I pushed harder, and it gave a little before slamming back into the frame, almost catching me on the nose. I reared back and threw a shoulder into the door, and this time when it slammed back, a voice came from the other side. “Keep your shirt on, kid. We got a few words to share with your drinking companion, then we’ll let you out.”
“You’ll let me out of this room now or I’ll start pumping lead through this door,” I growled.
“Do you really think that sounds smart, kid?” The voice replied, a chuckle nestled under his question. “You ain’t got nowhere to take cover in there, and I got a double-barrel scattergun pressed up against the door. You got six bullets, but I got two barrels full of shot that’ll cut you in half before you come close to hitting me. So why don’t you just sit back down in there, spend a few more minutes staring at Farrah’s tits, and as soon as my pal is done conversating with Brother Graves, this door’ll open again.”
I backed away from the door, not because he sat he had a shotgun, but because he knew Graves was a Brother. Everything we had done since we stepped into this saloon was to keep that one fact hidden, and he just tossed it out there like a bad penny. I closed the lid on the toilet and sat down, drawing my Colt. I might have to stay in the bathroom, but eventually they’d let me out. When they did, I’d make them regret locking me up in the first place.
A couple minutes later, the door swung open a hair, and I could tell the pressure on the other side was gone. I sat for a count of a hundred, giving anyone on the other side plenty of time to get bored or get out of the way, then I stood up and walked out of the bathroom. The bar was empty except for Graves and the bartender, who stood in the same spot he’d held when I went into the crapper, his gaze glued to the surface of the bar like it was the most interesting thing he’d ever seen.
I walked back over to the table with Graves and sat down. “You want to explain why I just spent five minutes trapped in a saloon shitter because some asshole wanted to have a conversation with you?” I was something of a hothead back in those days, and I felt mighty aggrieved at being trapped in a toilet against my will. Never mind the fact that it was a clean and perfectly comfortable toilet, I just needed something to be annoyed at about once a week when I was a young man.
“I don’t,” Graves said, his voice devoid of any emotion. After riding with the man for night on a dozen years, I knew full well he’d tell me, but I also knew that few things amused him more than seeing me get hot under the collar over stupid things. Especially when the stupid thing was me. This time I told myself I was just going to wait him out. I’d show him that I hadn’t just learned how to shoot and ride, I’d learned how to allow things to unfold in their own due time. I wouldn’t rush him, not even the least little but.
But that didn’t mean I had to sit there and drink his godawful tea while I waited for him to get his head out of his ass and talk to me. I stood up, walked over to the bar, and said, “How much for a bottle of whiskey?”
“You particular about a brand?”
“I’m particular there weren’t too many rats floating in the barrel.”
I slapped a quarter round of gold onto the bar top. The man picked it up, bit into it, looked me up and down, and said “This is a dollar and half worth of gold.”
“Then gimme a half dollar’s change.”
“You could leave a tip.”
“I might. But if you don’t give me my half dollar’s change I won’t have a half dollar to leave for a tip.”
He looked befuddled by my logic for a second, but handed me back a couple of silver quarters, along with a pair of glasses and a quart jar of brown liquor. I unscrewed the top of the jar, took a deep sniff, and smiled. This was not sour tea. I slipped the money into a pocket, carried the glasses and bottle back to the table, and sat down.
I held the jar out to Graves, who shook his head. Whatever was coming that made him want to stay clear-headed, it hadn’t happened yet. I poured two fingers of whiskey into my glass, then screwed the top back on the jar. I sipped my whiskey and looked at Graves.
He looked back at me, unwavering in his silence.
I took another sip, didn’t speak.
Graves said nothing.
We went on like that for a good five minutes or more, long enough for me to drain my drink and think better of having another, before Graves leaned forward, put his elbows on the table, and began to speak.
“The Sheriff wants us gone as soon as the sun comes up tomorrow. He says if we’re still in town by noon, he’ll have us both arrested and hang me at sundown.”
“On what charge?” I asked. We hadn’t been in town long enough to break any local laws, and had no warrants outstanding to warrant hanging. There were a few farmers looking for me on account of some dalliances with their daughters, but those were all a week or more by fast horse from Carson City, and none of those fathers had any reason to hunt Graves.
Graves let out a laugh, a dry, reedy thing that sounded like it didn’t get used much. It didn’t to be honest. I’d only heard him laugh half a dozen times in the years we rode together, and they were pretty much always situations just like this – nothing funny at all. “I asked that same question. Sheriff said he had plenty of time between now and noon to come up with something worth hanging me over, and then likened as how he’d probably flog you bloody before he hung me, so I could see you ruined for riding alongside me before I went to see my maker.”
“Good lord, Graves. What the hell did you do to this Sheriff?” I asked, leaning back in my chair.
Graves looked up at me, his grey eyes boring a hole straight through me. “I gunned down his father in the street like the dog he was. Seems the son holds a bit of a grudge for that.”
“What are we going to do?” I could already tell running wasn’t an option. Graves wasn’t a man to retreat, not even if the odds were stacked against him. This time it looked like the whole town was stacked against him, but I knew better than to think that was going to matter.
“Well, come noon I reckon I’m going to walk out into the center of town and shoot the Sheriff right between his damn eyes. Then we’ll see how many Deputies I have to kill to get out of here this time.”