Spurlock Bar, Torton
November 28, 862 AF
Maggie Spurlock tucked a stray lock of her too curly hair behind her ear and scrubbed at the spot on the bar again. The bar was a much classier place when Pa was alive, back before Baron Gordon Wright took over the surrounding area.
Since then, anyone who didn’t have to stay moved on, so help was harder to come by. Handling the place on her own was getting harder and things were going downhill.
When a shadow fell over the spot she was trying to clean, Maggie looked up. The western sun was shining, backlighting a man’s form in the door. His coat seemed to glow, it was so white. His hat was black, with a flat brim that didn’t sag the way most hat brims did and a fancy hat band.
Probably a new bullyboy, she thought. Baron Wright hired a new one every now and then.
He came over to the bar, apparently ignorant of the fact that at least half the people in the place were watching him. “I’ll have a beer.”
“Three pinches.” Maggie didn’t quite sneer. She didn’t expect this dandy to have ever panned for gold.
“Of gold dust. This is a mining town, people usually pay in gold.”
He reached into his coat and came up with a silver coin. “This do?”
Maggie turned the coin in her hand. She rarely saw silver. She nodded. “That’ll get you a beer.” She pulled a mug from the rack, then tapped a keg.
The stranger sipped his beer. “Seems pretty high for a beer.”
“Not a lot grows in Torton. About everything has to be shipped in. Including the makings for the beer.”
He nodded understanding, then frowned. “I figure at this rate I’ll be broke about sundown tomorrow.”
“Maybe you should ask the baron for more money.” Maggie kept the scorn out of her voice with some effort, but the man surprised her with his response.
He laughed. “I’ll consider it, if you’ll tell me where to find him. I’d like to meet the baron who gives his money away. It’s not the sort of thing nobles are known for.”
“You don’t work for the baron?” She watched as the man shook his head. “And you don’t even know the baron? How can that be?”
“Why should I know him?” His face showed what seemed to be honest ignorance.
“The only ways into town are from the baron’s lands or from the bad . . .” She paused. “You came out of the badlands?”
The woman’s voice squeaked on that last question. Sam forced a grin. “Sure. There’s no law against that, is there?” Sam was beginning to wonder what was going on. The badlands were about three hundred miles across and had little water, but they weren’t really all that dangerous. They were mostly just sand and rock, with the occasional spine plant and cragbeast. He had cragbeast pelts with him, in fact.
“Where’d you come from? There’s nothing out there.” The young woman bit her bottom lip, and waved toward the west. “No water, no people.”
“Ah . . . well.” Sam didn’t want to lie, but he and Alen had decided that it was best if he pretended to be a cragbeast hunter. There were always a few people willing to dare the badlands. “I’ve been hunting. Haven’t been in a town in onto half a year.” Sam wasn’t comfortable saying it since it felt like a lie, even if it was the literal truth.
The woman gave him a look that said she didn’t believe him.
“I have half a dozen pelts with me. And more at my camp.”
Cragbeasts were native to this planet, something he hadn’t known till he had gotten to the homestead. They had very tough skins that made excellent boot leather and quite tasty meat, although it was missing some essential nutrients. Eating a diet of cragbeast produced a condition similar to rickets, according to Alen. They worked fine as long as you stayed away from the liver and had Old Earth foods as a good part of your diet.
And speaking of diet . . .
“Where can I go to eat? And I’ll want to rent a room for the night.”
The woman seemed to pull herself together. “Oh, we’ve got a dining room.” She pointed. “Just go in there. And rooms are upstairs. You want a bath, that’s extra.” She looked around, then seemed to spy the person she was looking for. “Hiram, you take the bar. And stay out of the whiskey.”
An old codger who looked about a hundred years old stopped his useless sweeping of the back corner. “Yes’m, Miz Maggie.”
Sam took a harder look. No, not a hundred years old. Just rode too hard for too long, like a lot of people out here. Hiram Bray probably wasn’t more than fifty or so, but his lack of teeth made him look older. He followed Maggie through the door.
“You can sit there.” Maggie waved at the table, already set for two people. “I’ll go get dinner finished up. Not a lot of call for it these days, so I do the cooking myself. I’ve got beans and cornbread ready and warm. Take a few minutes to fry you a steak.”
Sam’s mouth started watering at the thought. He hadn’t had cornbread or beans in ages. “Skip the steak, Miss Maggie. A double helping of the rest.” He drained the beer. “And one more beer, please, ma’am.”
Maggie hadn’t seen a man eat beans with greater enjoyment in her life. This man looked to be starving for them. Half a skillet of cornbread later, he leaned back in the chair and burped, then blushed about it. She hid a grin. “Need something else, stranger?”
He shook his head and hid another burp. “Call me Sam. And, no, ma’am. Those were about the best I ever tasted, but I’m gonna explode if I eat another bite.”
Maggie cocked her head to the side, then sat down at the table. “So, you know your way around the badlands?”
“Some. More than most. They’re not as bad as people think. You’ve got to be careful of your water. Travel in the cool parts of the day and at night. Find shade when it’s hottest.” His eyes were heavy, as though he was about ready to sleep.
Maggie got up and got him a room key. “Upstairs. Second door on the right. You look like you could use some sleep.”
Once he was gone, Maggie went back to the bar. While she was busy feeding Sam, several more men came in, but none of them belonged to the baron. “Ed, Walt? How about a drink? Hiram, bring us a drink. Whiskey. The good stuff.”
Maggie Spurlock’s father was the mayor for years before he died. Ed Wilton was the sheriff, until one of the baron’s men took over two years ago in a rigged election. Walt Grange was the city clerk and judge. He kept the job, trying to protect the townspeople as best he could. It was a losing battle, but he tried.
Hiram brought a rare glass bottle and three clay shot glasses, along with a deck of cards. Maggie poured generously. Ed and Walt threw back their drinks and she poured again. Maggie looked around the bar again. No one was showing any interest in them, which was just as well. She kept her voice low. “He knows the badlands.”
There was only one way to Gilden City that didn’t go through the badlands and the last two supply trains that tried to take it went missing. The townspeople were convinced that Baron Wright was behind it. If they lost another train, they wouldn’t be able to pay their taxes to the king, putting them in the baron’s power. Things were desperate enough that they were prepared to try the trek across the desert, if they could find a guide.
Walt started shuffling the cards. “Six card stud.” Then, more quietly, “Reckon he’ll do it?”
“He doesn’t seem to be the type to work for Wright.” Maggie shrugged. “All we can do is watch him for a day or two, see what happens.”
“These are good hides. How’d you get them cured so even?”
Jared Beasley, the hideman and bootmaker was a wiry little guy with hands about as calloused as Sam had ever seen. Sam wasn’t surprised by the question. He just grinned and didn’t say a word.
Jared Beasley grinned back. “Can’t blame a man for trying. I’ll buy the lot for two ounces each, if you’ll give me a couple of days to put together the money. I can give you half now, half in two days. That work all right?”
Sam nodded. “I’ll be staying over at Miss Maggie’s place.” It was a fair price, more than he would have expected to get, but less than he would need to get supplied here. He was probably going to have to head for another town to buy the things he needed for the valley.
Jared smiled. “You do that. And watch out for Walt Grange. The man plays a mean game of poker.”
Sam walked into Miss Maggie’s place without a care in the world, until he saw the round shield that was the traditional symbol of a lawman. It was pinned to a fancy vest over a fancy shirt. Not a good quality shirt or a particularly clean one, just fancy. It went with the man wearing it. He motioned for Sam to join him at a table and when Sam was seated, he started the questioning.
“What are you doing here?” Sheriff Sims demanded.
Sam told him.
“Don’t give me that cock and bull story, not dressed the way you are.”
Damn. Sam had known the white coat was going to cause him trouble. “Look, Sheriff. A white coat is good in the badlands. It helps keep you cool in the heat of the day.”
Sims just snorted. “If you’re looking for a job, you need to see the baron.”
Sims gave Sam a hard look. “Hiring on with anyone else would be a real bad idea. Real bad.”
“Wouldn’t be the first bad idea I’ve had.” Sam grinned, trying to lighten the mood. “Nor the last, probably.”
“Might not be the first, mister. But you hire on with the townies, it’ll damn sure be the last.” Then he left.
Sam wondered what was wrong with the people of this town.
That night Sims reported to the baron that the townies had found themselves a gun hand and maybe a guide through the badlands. Baron Wright was not entirely convinced, but sent men in to find out for sure and deal with the matter if he was. The baron probably should have given more explicit instructions, but he had a bit of a blind spot where Smiley Pomeroy was concerned.
Alen whispered in Sam’s ear. “The odds are now twenty-eight to one against you getting the seven you need.” Sam threw down his cards in disgust. He wasn’t sure what it was, but this game sure wasn’t going the way he imagined. Alen was telling Sam the odds based on the cards in the deck and the cards showing on the table. Sam had figured it would give him a “fair” advantage. It wasn’t working out that way.
Walt Grange grinned and raked in the pot. “Sam, you’re going to need our money if you keep throwing away perfectly good hands like that.”
Dave Harris shook his head. “Wasn’t a good hand. I figure Sam needed a seven.”
Sam looked at him curiously.
“Sam, you may be a good hunter and you may know the badlands like the back of your hand but you have the worst poker face I—”
“Gun!” Alen shouted in his ear. “At the door!”
Sam tried to stand up and turn and dodge, all at the same time. He wasn’t the only one moving. Ed, who’d been facing the door, was busy upending the table. Walt was rolling away from it and going for his gun. The table intersected Sam’s left leg as he tried to spin to his right.
Blam! Blam! The first shots rang out just before Sam hit the floor.
Alen was still talking. “Two men at the door. You are their target.”
Sam struggled to get his six-shooter out as he rolled, but the silly ass coat was getting in the way.
Sam felt like he had been kicked in the left shoulder, hard.
A bullet hit the floor, way too close to Sam’s face.
He finally got his gun out and started to get up. “Stay down!” Alen instructed him. “Shoot from where you are.” So Sam stayed down.
This time, he hit one of them. By then, the other one had his second gun out and was lining up for another shot.
The guy jerked in surprise.
His shot hit Sam’s coat, right over his rear end. It hurt, a lot. Sam took careful aim and fired again.
The guy went down as if his strings had been cut. Sam looked for the other one, but he was gone.
Sam slowly rose to his feet. Slowly, because both his left shoulder and his butt hurt like the demons. The rest of the people in the bar were climbing out from whatever cover they had found during the gunfight.
Ed came from behind the table, looked at Sam, then looked at the body on the floor. “You know him?”
Sam looked. “Never saw him before.”
“That—” Maggie pointed to the body. “—is one of Baron Wright’s bullyboys and you know it, Ed.”
“Yep. Sure do. I just wanted to know if Sam here did.” He gave Maggie a look.
“Well, that pretty much puts paid to the notion that he’s a spy for the baron,” Walt Grange said.
“It pretty much puts paid to the notion that I was just going to wait for my money, then go back out.” Sam looked around the bar. His left shoulder hurt and his right buttock hurt worse, but mostly he was just pissed off. “I’ll take your job. Get the train ready. I’ll lead it.”