Currently reading: Novella: By The Fire (The Stranger) – Chapter 6
Novella: By The Fire (The Stranger) – Chapter 6
Posted on 14th October, 2017 - By Jonathan Hezzlewood
Another chapter set in the world of The Stranger is here.
After a filling evening meal, Jayne and James head-up stairs to eager to fall asleep in a comfortable bed; after the previous night led in prickly hay. Meanwhile, The Stranger steps out into the nighttime air for a little refreshment.
By The Fire (a tall tale of Stranger times): Chapter 6
The Dry Stein was the usual affair. A bleak interior, with various people dotted around the room. Men and women were sat around tables, gambling away their earnings. Faro still the popular choice it would seem.
He walked over to the bar and stood between two stools, the one to his right was empty, the left seated Mister Littleton; who was leaning over talking to a gentleman sat at his side, and one leaning across the bar – clearly not the barkeep – as another man was busying himself serving others around the bar.
He sat back on the empty stool and looked around the room, there were prospectors, miners and of-course gamblers aplenty. In the far corner, a grey-haired man; wearing a shabby bowler hat was seated at the piano, playing a tune – all hammer and tongs – trying to impress the female company that lingered; all smiles and bossom. He played it fairly well considering the man’s attention was mostly focussed on the two swellings protruding out of her bodice.
“What’ll you be having?”
He turned back, the barman wiping down the bar top in-front of him, spectacles hanging low on his nose.
The man nodded and drew a bottle of Bourbon from under the counter and splashed a glass. The stranger nodded thanks and looked down at the glass, his palms resting on the wooden surface. The sound of another little-ditty started up, accompanied by laughter from the pianist and his parlour girl.
A disagreement had started somewhere behind him, one of the gamblers being accused of duping another, nothing unusual when you combine firewater and money.
Since attending the bar he had picked up on snippets of the conversation Mister Littleton and his companions were having. They were speaking in low, hushed voices. Against the drunken laughter, arguments and off-key music it was difficult to make out the entirety of the discussion, but there were odd words he could make out.
“… miners ……… been talking … ……… supposedly happened … on the Grassflats. ………… more dead, mutilated.” It was the man to the side of Littleton who spoke.
“Must … a dozen … my count.” Littleton added.
“And those … just … ones that …… been found.” Said the man leaning across the bar, before refilling his own glass with a bottle centred between the three of them.
The music stopped. The man in the bowler hat was now hastily leaving with his young lady. He groped at her behind as they exited through the batwing doors. Her giggle carried through into the – now, much quieter – room.
The stranger turned back, picked up his glass and drank. The barkeep – quick on the return – filled up the glass once more.
“I tell ya, no chance you get me up there now.” Hushing his voice further, the man to Littleton’s left finished with a nervous laugh.
The stranger passed over another 50¢ and drank. The barman raised the bottle once more, but halted when the stranger held out his hand, covering the glass.
Littleton downed his shot. “It all went to shit once that gaunt-looking son’o a bitch showed up with his religious ballyhoo.”
“The preacher was bad news. Something just didn’t sit right, false smile, same calm, toneless voice whenever he spoke.”
“And empty eyes too. Hell even the dogs kept clear.” Littleton poured himself another shot.
“What preacher?” The stranger asked, turning Littleton sharply by the shoulder, bourbon spilling over his fingers onto the bar top as he did.
Shocked at first by the sudden force with which he turned, Albin Littleton’s eyes relaxed slightly upon the recognition of a familiar face. “O-oh, h-hello Mister Jones.”
“Tell me, the preacher?”
“A-a M-mister Hades-” Albin’s eyes darted back at his bearded friend – still leaning across the bar – who downed another shot, showing no concern. The stranger’s grip tightened on his shoulder. “-h-he arrived a few moons back, set up a parish and several days ago just vanished.”
“Yeah, and half the towns folk with him.” The stranger looked at the bearded man whilst he talked. The man stood straight, a thin strip of paper in his hand and stepped out of the bar towards a lantern; the sole occupant of an otherwise empty table. “Men. Women.-” he lit the spill in the flame, and held it to the tip of the cigar in his mouth. He drew in and exhaled a cloud of smoke. “-Children too.” The man dropped the burning paper onto the table and walked back to his spot behind the bar.
The stranger’s eye stayed with the flame as it flickered its last, the paper turning to cinders. Good thing the table was clean.
Bowler hat man had returned, without the girl. A dollar lighter for a back alley quickie.
The piano started up again.
“Disappeared one morning, several men appeared … …… left w… him-” The man removed the cigar from his mouth. “Cloyd…-” the noise continued. “CLOYD!”
The man playing the piano, missed a key as he halted.
“You’ve had your fun for the night. Now fuck off!” The cigar was back in his mouth, his eyebrows raised in surprise as the bowler hat man sat there, seeming to struggle with what to do next. He took the cigar out again, and without speaking gestured towards the building’s exit with his hand.
Cloyd quickly got to his feet, removed his hat and placed it against his chest as he hastily left through the batwing doors, knocking a man’s beer as he brushed passed one of the occupied tables. The man with the spilled drink cursed.
The stranger signalled to the barkeep for a refill.
Albin’s friend with the beard placed the cigar between his lips once more, and shook his head. In a billow of smoke he added. “Cocksucker!”
Albin laughed a little. “Mister Jones, these are my friends.” He gestured to the man sat at his side. “Lemuel-” then to the man with the cigar. “-and Al.”
The stranger raised his glass toward Lemuel and Al in greeting, and drank.
Al held out his hand. “Ellis Albert Swearengen’s the name, and that there-” he nodded toward Lemuel “-is my brother.”
He had thought the men looked similar, although Al was broader built and Lemuel lacked the facial hair.
Albin interjected. “Mister Swearengen here is the proprietor of the Gem, of Deadwood; South Dakota. He’s an… entrepreneur of, entertainments.” Looking at the stranger, Al nodded, and drew-in his cigar once more. Albin continued. “That’s right, he suffered a similar predicament to myself a few years back when his Gem burned down. But Mister Swearengen being the business man that he is, rebuilt it, larger and more magnificent than ever.”
“Ha. Yeah, the difference bein’ I paid f’the rebuild of both the Gem and your now, aptly named; Smoking Phoenix, for which you’re yet to make a single repayment.”
“T-t-times have been-n h-hard. It’s a difficult time, p-people be willin’ to sleep at lesser places, and h-how am I supposed to win when across from me there’s that festerin’ boil of a whore house, suckin’ the town dry of honest, hard-working folks such as myself?”
Al Swearengen threw back another shot, and placing the glass firmly on the bar top surface he leaned forward, pressing his palms against the edge of the bar. A calm face, with stern eyes stared at Albin’s, which had now expressed the sudden realisation of what he had let slip.
“N-n-not that I consider the Gem of the same,… I m-mean, y-your Gem is truly a sight to behold, and the girls you have are v-very comely.” Tiny beads of sweat had begun to spot his forehead.
Al held his gaze, and – bringing the cigar up to his lips – inhaled once more, savouring the taste before blowing the smoke in the direction Albin was sitting. “Yes. The variety of cunt is plenty fine.” A smile touched his face. He turned to the stranger, and eyes widened he nodded gently, adding. “Well priced too.”
The stranger looked from Al back to the weasel of a man that was Mister Littleton.
“This preacher, a Mister Hades you said. He left with some of the town’s folk? Where to?”
Albin nodded. “’Bout a third of the town, all who felt they had to confess their sins and seek forgiveness, who attended his meetings with the so-called ‘Lord’. All the sinners who-”
His patience wearing thin, the stranger interrupted. “Where?!”
“T-t the north-east.”
Al rolled his eyes. “He headed in the direction of Murkwell. That’s the next town of any worth.” He extinguished his cigar on the bar top. “A few farms and woodlands in-between, but a fairly straightforward trek on horseback.”
Laughter broke out from the other side of the room, teetering off into a drunken giggle.
Lemuel spoke up, without looking at anyone in particular. “Anyone travelling through the woodland instead of around will have to do so on foot. Too tight and too many low hanging trees to traverse atop a horse.”
“Those very same woodlands n’ surrounding grasslands where the mutilations been happenin’.” Albin added.
“Indians? Outlaws?” The stranger adjusted his hat.
“Certainly not human.” Albin’s voice gave a high-pitched squeak as he hiccupped. “Any who travel through the woodland, seem not to make it to the other side. Every now and then, there will be a body, or maybe two on the outskirts, disfigured beyond recognition.”
“Wolves then, or wild cats?” The stranger’s eye looked around the room, clearly unsure of the truth behind the story being told. So many faces, some youthful and inexperienced to the horrors that the world really has to offer, others clearly having endured some of those horrors. All unfamiliar faces, busying themselves with a gamble, a drink, a tall tale – all except one. Across the room, amongst a group of youths sat a familiar face. The face focussed purely on him, staring straight at him. Amo’s unwelcome visitor from the other day. Mister Stratton’s associate Mister Dalton, and his close friend Cooper – if he remembered correctly.
The stranger turned back to face Al, as he continued. “Although I fully understand why you suspect our drunken friend here to be stretchin’ the blanket, I’m afraid what he speaks is true.”
“Why do folks risk the wood if there is a road that stays clear?”
“If you stick to the roads, you can add another day onto your journey. Unfortunately, some people just don’t have that time to spare. Time is money Mister Jones.”
“How deep does it go?”
“Not far. A mile at the most. That’s why people risk it, think’n they can make it. It just takes a long time to travel round it.”
Albin Littleton piped up. “Folks taken to callin’ it the Sorrow Hollow.”
The stranger finished what was left in his glass. “Do you know of a Mister Stratton?”
“He owns the Madam’s Joy. A disreputable man of no care for others but himself.” Al Swearengen leaned forward. “Why do you ask?”
“A man-” Albin hiccupped “-to s–steer clear of in my-y opinion Mister Jones, o-or whoever it is y-you are.” Amused, Albin smiled to himself, and turned back shakily raising another glass. Whiskey trickled over the lip and dripped onto the floor as Albin pursed his lips in expectation of the sweet, warm liquid he was about to taste.
The stranger took the glass from his hand, using nothing but his fingertips – without spilling a drop, and placed it back on the bar top. “I think you’ve had enough for now Mister Littleton. I expect my breakfast nice and early and you need to be in fit shape to help Miss Pibern.”
Albin looked from his hand to the glass. “Y-y son’o a bitch.”
He let that go.
“Why do you wish to know about Mister Stratton?” Al tried again.
“Just a name I’d heard mentioned a day or so back.” The stranger got to his feet. “Thanks for the drinks gentlemen, take care.” He stepped forward and stopped, turning back he added. “Can you see Mister Littleton finds his way back unharmed. I would hate for my breakfast not to be of the best standard upon daybreak.” He smiled, favouring his left cheek.
“I-I can find-d my own-n way back Mister ‘Man-with-no-name’.” Albin swayed slightly on his stool.
The stranger made his way toward the street, as he neared the batwing doors; the eyes of Mister Dalton followed him. As he passed by, the unwelcome visitor from the farmhouse finished talking to the men accompanying him and got to his feet.
The hinges creaked as metal ground against metal, the doors swung quickly to a close as he stepped down onto the street.
The night air was cool and pleasantly refreshing. As he stepped forward slowly he closed his eyes, breathing deep through his nose. The smell of the salt mines hung heavily in the air.
The hinges creaked again.
“Didn’t think I’d have the fortune to meet you again.”
He stopped and continued to look up the street toward The Smoking Phoenix. The batwing doors squeaked again and again.
He counted the creaks as the doors swung back-and-forth from behind him.
Four, five. Six men.
He looked back over his shoulder, and watched as Dalton walked towards him slowly, hat pushed back revealing locks of blonde hair. A cocky grin spread wide across his flushed face as he chewed. He walked past the stranger and spat – before tuning to face him, a brown dollop of tobacco and spit had landed a couple of feet ahead of where he stood, the Dalton boy another six feet further back still.
The stranger sighed. “See, now I’d consider fortune to be something like, ohh… say… A man such as yourself-” He nodded. “-bein’ graced with a second chance in life.” As he talked he looked to his right, then left – continuing over his shoulder once more. “Havin’ been given’n opportunity to avoid a conflict he had found himself in.” He was surrounded, although the other five men were keeping their distance. “A conflict with which he was most certainly the instigator.”
He looked at Dalton. “To then throw that chance away-” The stranger forced a wince as he took a sharp intake of breath through his teeth before adding. “-by putting himself back in the same situation, well that’s jus-“
Dalton’s smugness faltered as he interrupted. “Ain’t the same. No chance you can take out six of us.” He threw an open hand forward, gesturing to the other men. “I’d consider me havin’ this second chance at you just pure dumb luck!”
The stranger agreed. “Certainly dumb.”
A crowd had gathered on the boardwalk outside the saloon, reminding him of a similar situation he found himself in not too long back.
“Let’s see if you’re as quick to draw as you are to talk.” Dalton pulled his hat down on is brow.
The Swearengen brothers, a drunken Mister Littleton, and roughly twenty others – who had been occupying The Dry Stein – were now watching, most with eager eyes and the hopes of a result to quench a bloodlust that many folks seemed to have.
Al stepped forward, leaning over the hand rail. “Stop fucking about boy! Do not be causing any trouble.”
Dalton looked to Al, and took a step towards him. As he did, something caught the stranger’s eye in the distance. Movement in the shadows along the side of the Phoenix. A man, crouched over, looking from side-to-side crept up the steps and into the hotel, the moonlight making it difficult to stay hidden.
“Keep your nose out of my business you whoring bastard. Get back to Deadwood.”
As Al started to shove his way through the crowd to get past the railing, the stranger set off in the direction of the hotel.
Upon the sudden realisation that the stranger had set off walking, Dalton stumbled back and reached for his gun, shouting. “Stay there you son of a b-”
Before he had even laid his hand against the butt of his shooter, the stranger had grab his pistol – still holstered – and fired from the hip, once.
The flash of flame and sudden explosion of noise stopped Al in his tracks to assess what had happened and who had fired.
As Dalton’s hand fell to his hip; the bright light dazzling his sight momentarily, he reached for his gun, but his efforts were fruitless. He looked down hurriedly, the tips of his fingers groping emptily through the air, his knuckles brushed against his side.
On the floor lay his pistol, only partially sleeved in the holster now, having been shot clean off.
Within the moment between reaching for his gun and realising it lay on the ground, the stranger had reached for his and fired.
Dalton brought his eyes back up from the ground to be greeted with impending doom.
Al watched stunned, playing back the scene in his head. Mister Jones had fired without unsheathing and in the same motion; taken two steps toward Dalton before throwing his right elbow into the boy’s face.
To Be Continued…