Burden of Souls blank2

Only three people trudged behind the coffin-laden wagon.

He assumed the woman in the black dress was the widow. Her face was veiled, but her back was straight and she moved as freely as the cloying mud allowed; a young widow. A small bookish man peering through rain-smeared spectacles laboured next to her, struggling to hold an umbrella over them both in the wind. Behind came a cadaverous looking old bird clutching a dog-eared bible to his chest. A preacher.

Amos pulled his horse to the side of the road; if that wasn’t too generous a description for two mud-choked ruts. It meandered towards a town that occupied a low slung hill; the only feature on the vast tableland of grass. He took off his hat and let the rain sting his face as the little procession passed. The widow glanced up at him hesitantly, before nodding an acknowledgement. From behind the shadows of her veil he got the impression of an attractive woman with no intention of crying. There was sadness, not unexpectedly, coming off of her, but interspersed with those dull grey waves came prickly spikes of fear too.

The preacher flicked a glance in his direction as well, but he quickly dropped his eyes and scurried along, his body bent forward against the driving rain. He looked terribly unhappy with his lot. The preacher was suffering, a physical pain beneath a terrible craving.

The third man, his jacket flapping in the breeze, ignored him, and Amos tried to do the same to the hot, fetid desire that was rolling off of him like a burning fever.

Whoever was being buried had not warranted much in the way of gestures from the rest of the town. What did you have to do to end up with only two mourners and a sour-faced preacher at your funeral?  

As the wagon bearing the coffin rattled on towards the cemetery, signified by a small forest of crosses poking above the surrounding long grass, he let the rain wash the scent of their souls from the air before he replaced his hat and pushed his weary horse on towards the town.

Out here, where seas of grass washed towards too far away horizons and the earth squatted beneath colossal skies, it amounted to civilization.

He slipped his coat back and made sure his gun was free to draw.

Civilization, he had found, tended to suck.

*

Small unfussy wooden houses, some little more than ramshackle huts, spilled down the lower slope of the hill and onto the surrounding pancake ground of the plains.

HAWKER’S DRIFT, a sign proclaimed as he reached the outlying buildings. Underneath, in smaller writing; A Peaceable Town.

The settlement was larger than he’d first thought, the road becoming a respectable Main Street after it lifted up the slope to run along the top of the hill, which was long, flat and broad. Numerous small streets splintered off into clusters of compact wooden buildings before it reached a square.

The rainstorm seemed to have sluiced the place of its population. The boardwalks that rose above the thick mud on either side of the street were deserted, save for a few old timers watching the world wash by with distant faded eyes lost behind clouds of pipe smoke.

A large glass fronted palace, Jack’s Saloon, took up most of one side of the town square along with a few shops and eateries, the others holding a church and meeting hall, a stables, livery yard and a gunsmith. An impressive four storey mansion, sitting behind precise manicured lawns, filled the entire north side of the square bar one corner, where the Sheriff’s office nestled up against the big house.

The only other thing of note in the square was a large wooden gallows sitting plumb in the middle of it. A sturdy wooden pole, with two beams forming a cross at its top from which four nooses could be hung.

Guess there’s not much to do here in the winter…

Amos eased himself from his mount. He led the horse into the stables and paid a gangling youth with buck teeth and dull, flat eyes enough to shelter his ride for the night.

Carrying his saddlebag over one shoulder and his rifle in his free hand, he stood outside the stables and let the rain pitter-patter on the brim of his hat. His eyes flicked between the saloon and the gunsmith.

He was tired and saddle sore, but he was low on shells.

He headed towards the gunsmith. In his experience, there was no such thing as a peaceable town.

The gunsmith was housed in a simple, but well maintained, two-storey wooden building. The front was whitewashed and bore the sign John X Smith – Gunsmith.

Inside, the store was empty save for a wooden counter facing the door, the faint dry smell of gunpowder and grease, and a shaven-headed black man tossing spent cartridges towards a bucket by the door.

“Business is slow today,” the man said, landing a cartridge in the bucket with a metallic rattle.

“It’s a peaceable town?”

The gunsmith flashed a smile and straightened up, “So people say; guess that’s why they let a black guy own so many guns.”

“John X Smith?”

“That’s me.”

“X?”

“Makes for an easy signature.”

Amos placed his saddlebag on the floor and his rifle on the counter, “I need shells.”

“How many?”

“Couple of hundred for the rifle, same for this,” he tapped the handle of the pistol on his hip.

“You planning on doing a lot of shooting?”

“You never know in my line of work.”

John X Smith didn’t need to ask what kind of work he did.

“Mind if I take a look at your piece?” He nodded towards the pistol.

Amos hesitated for a moment, but he had no sense that the gunsmith was doing more than showing professional interest. He slid the gun across the counter.

John X Smith juggled the gun in his hand for a moment before raising and aiming it along the counter. He half-cocked the weapon as if he were going to start peppering the far wall with slugs. Instead, he lowered his hand and spun the chamber a few times before turning back to face the gunslinger with a little nod.

“This here is a fine piece of work,” he stroked the barrel almost reverentially before reversing the gun and handing it back.

“I know.”

Smith took the rifle from the counter and swung it round to face the wall, squinting along the barrel, “…this, however’s, got a heavy kick and pulls to the left slightly?”

“You know your guns.”

“Always on the mark my friend,” he returned the rifle to the counter and winked, “that’s why they call me X.”

“Do people call you X?”

“People round here call me lots of things, but I generally prefer John X… distinguishes me from all the other Johns...” he held out his hand across the counter. Amos took it, trying not to show his reluctance, but he got nothing from the man other than that his grip was firm while his skin was gnarled and rough. He didn’t look much past forty, but his hand felt like it belonged to a far older man.

“John X…” Amos nodded.

“You?”

“Amos.”

“First name or second?”

“Either works for me.”

“You planning to stick around town for a while?”

“Maybe, if there’s work, just passing through otherwise.”

“We’re a long way from anywhere out here, not the kinda place you pass through to get to somewhere else.”

“I’ll take those shells now.”

“Not a man for questions, huh?”

Amos shrugged.

“No problem with that… probably best to keep things to yourself anyways…” he sank down behind the counter like a folding sail. Boxes being rummaged the only sound to be heard over rain hitting glass.

“Some weather…” Amos muttered, moving to the window and watching the rain make the mud dance.

“Oh, we gets all kinds a strange weather out here,” John X announced, bobbing up momentarily to drop a box of shells on the counter before diving back for more.

The sky had darkened noticeably even since he’d entered the store; the clouds he could see above the grand house opposite were bunched like great bruised fists poised to deliver the coup de grace to a bloody, punch-drunk foe.

“That’s a fancy house for a town a long way from anywhere?”

“Yeah… the Mayor’s place.”

“Civic duty pays well here then?”

The gunsmith twitched a shrug, picked up his rifle and hoist it to his shoulder again, “You want me to take a look at this? Think I can get her firing true.”

Amos glanced back at the Mayor’s residence. Small town, small men. None of his business, unless someone was paying enough.

“Sure, so long as you don’t break it.”

John X chuckled, “I only break hearts...”

“How much?”

“Let me take a look, come back tomorrow and I’ll give you a price.”

“And the shells?”

“Pay me when I’m done.”

“You’re a trusting soul?”

“I’m a good judge of character, besides, this is worth more than those shells, even if it does kick like a bitch mule in heat.”

“Fair enough,” Amos returned to the counter and stuffed the shells into his saddlebag, “they do rooms at the saloon?”

“Sure… if you don’t mind a bit of noise.”

“Bawdy is it?”

“Oh, it’s a long ways from here to the next den of iniquity, so people make the most of it.”

“Not a God fearing town then?”

“Not God people fear here…” John X held his eye for a moment, “…but I’m sure the saloon will do you fine and they got plenty of girls too if you need one to help you sleep. Some of em are even pretty.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” Amos bid him farewell and let himself out of the store after hoisting his bags back over his shoulder.

The sound of an empty shell spinning around a bucket mixed with the thudding patter of the rain as he closed the door behind him. He stood under the gunsmith’s awnings for a while, looking across the square, past the gallows to the Mayor’s house.

It was a very grand place; especially for a faraway little town like Hawker’s Drift. It loomed over the other buildings huddled around the square and was the only one to have been built of brick rather than wood, though mock gothic wooden towers had been added to each corner and several smaller ones protruded from the roof.

Ignoring the deluge he sloshed through the mud of the square towards the saloon, rather that skirting around and sheltering under the shop awnings. His coat and hat had kept him dry enough out on the plains.

The saloon’s main bar was large, smoky and well stocked with both booze and men who had nothing better to do on a wet afternoon. A couple of card games were in progress and half the stools along the long ring-stained bar were occupied by men looking at the world through the bottom of whiskey glasses. A few saloon girls lounged around a neglected old piano beneath stairs that led up to a balcony; they looked as tired and limp as the faded feathers in their dishevelled hair.

Amos hovered in the doorway; so many people in one place. He was used to being alone, going days on end without even seeing anyone. He felt their souls scour his skin like sand on a hot desert wind. Part of him wanted to turn tail and run back out into the biting rain. To go back out on to the grass, wrap himself in solitude and pretend that he was still a man.

He blinked a couple of times, snorted out a breath and closed his mind as best he could before crossing the saloon and ordering a beer.

“Whiskey is free,” a young bartender with a disconcertingly lop-sided grin announced.

“Sorry?”

“Whiskey is free!” The bartender repeated, “Well, first shot anyhow.”

“I’ll take a beer.”

“But whiskey is free!”

“Must be rough if you have to give it away.”

“No sir, it’s fine stuff.” The bartender looked a little deflated, “it’s just the law here.”

“The law?”

“Compliments of the Mayor! Every man in Hawker’s Drift gets his first shot of whiskey a day free.”

“Does the Mayor own this place then?”

“No, Monty Jack owns the Saloon,” he nodded in the direction of a portly man with too many chins and not enough hair, who was talking animatedly with a pretty young woman at the end of the bar clutching a canvas bag before her.

“Very generous of the Mayor then.”

“Oh yes, the Mayor is a most generous man sir!” The bartender announced, grinning from ear to ear as he looked along the row of barflies on the other side of the counter. They all mumbled agreement into their booze.

“I’ll still take a beer.”

“But whiskey is free!”

Amos rolled his eyes.

“I’ll take that whiskey if you don’t want it…” the nearest barfly growled, his voice so deep, raw and wet it sounded as if his throat were full of blood.

“I’ll take a beer and a whiskey then.”

The bartender’s smile faltered, “Think the law says you have to drink it yourself.”

Amos leaned forward, “Well I won’t tell the Sheriff if you won’t,” he glanced towards the barfly, “you gonna snitch on me?”

The barfly grinned and pushed a grubby, unsteady finger against his compressed lips.

The bartender looked at Monty Jack, but he was still talking with the young woman, leaning over her slightly to either emphasise a point or stare at her breasts, “Ok then… guess it will be alright as you ain’t from around here. Just this once mind.”

“Thank you,” Amos nodded.

Once the drinks arrived he tossed a coin at the bartender, before sliding the whiskey to the barfly, who snatched it up like a hungry baby at the teat.

“You’re welcome,” Amos muttered, taking his beer and saddlebag along the bar to a stool near Monty and the young woman.

She wore a long coat and a bonnet from which a few blonde curls poked out. He doubted she was more than twenty, she wore no ring and her jaw jutted out slightly in stubborn annoyance.

“But there must be something I can do?”

Monty Jack sighed, “I told you, I don’t need bar staff, kitchen staff or maids. I’ve only got vacancies for one kind of work.”

She followed his gaze to the saloon girls in the corner.

“And I told you already. I don’t whore.”

“You’d make good money… pretty little thing like you.”

“I don’t whore.”

Monty shrugged and held out his hands.

“Anywhere else in this town hiring?”

“Well, I don’t know. Maybe Rosa needs a new waitress or the shops around the square…”

“I tried them already.”

“This ain’t a big town honey…”

“But there must be something!”

“There is,” Monty nodded at the saloon girls again.

“How many times do I need to tell you? I don’t whore. Are you deaf?”

“Well,” Monty said straightening up, “If you don’t mind me saying, you need to brush up on your interview technique young lady.”

“I’m sorry…” she sighed, “…I’ve just come a long way and I don’t have any money. I really need a job.”

“I wish I could help, but I ain’t no charity Miss.”

“What about the big house across the square,” she asked hopefully, “…they must need maids?”

“Well… um... maybe…”

“Guess I’ll try there then, thank you for yo-”

“Wait a second!” Monty barked, making her jump as she turned to leave. Placing a hand on her arm, he asked, “isn’t there anything else you can do?”

“I don’t wh-”

“Yes, we’ve established that!”

“I can cook, clean, make beds, serve be-”

“No Miss, anything else?”

Her eyes flitted around the bar, before settling on the saloon girls at the back.

“I can play the piano?”

“We got someone who can play the piano.”

“We got someone who can abuse the piano,” a well-built young man, who’d been following the conversation while eating at one of the nearby tables, corrected to a smattering of laughter.

“I can sing too.”

“You can?”

“Real good!” She nodded and dropped her bag onto the floor, “You wanna hear?”

“Monty, you sure ain’t got anyone who can actually sing,” the young man chipped in again, mopping up a bowl with a chunk of bread, “less you count Maurie of course, but that’s more like wailing than singing.”

“I guess not,” Monty Jack scratched his bald head.

“Let me sing, just one song. If you don’t like it I won’t bother you no more.”

“Can’t do no harm,” the young man agreed, pushing his bowl away before wiping the back of his sleeve across his mouth.

The woman nodded and smiled brightly back and forth between Monty Jack and her supporter.

“Ok, ok… one song.”

“Great,” she picked up her bag and shoved it into Monty’s arms, “hold this for me!”

“Sure… why not… what’s your name anyhow?”

“Cecilia Jones, people generally calls me Cece though.”

Monty shook his head and looked directly at Amos, noticing him for the first time as Cece negotiated her way towards the piano.

“You’re new in town too aren’t you?”

Amos nodded, “Just arrived.”

“You’re not going to ask me for a job as well are you?”

“Nope,” he replied, “I don’t whore either.”

Monty forced a smile and placed Cece’s bag on the bar. It looked new and unused to Amos, which was odd for a bag that must have travelled a long way to get to a town so far from anywhere.

The saloon girls were watching Cece with a mixture of amusement and disdain; none of them seemed much interested in moving out of the way for her until Monty clapped his hands loudly and demanded to know why they weren’t working.

One by one they slunk away from the piano as Cece took off her coat. She wore a simple white blouse and long grey skirt, unfussy and conservatively cut. She looked totally out of place amongst the gaudy colours of the reluctantly dispersing saloon girls.

She carefully folded up her coat and hung it over the back of a newly vacated chair before taking off her bonnet and shaking out her long blonde curls.

One of the barflies next to Amos blew a long drawn out whistle, “Monty, you sure you can’t get her to whore?”

Monty Jack pulled a face and shrugged. What more could he do? The girl clearly didn’t know a good thing when she was offered it.

The young man who’d been eating at the table glanced at the barfly in irritation. He looked like he was going to say something, but thought better of it and shuffled his chair round to face Cece instead.

He was tall and strong, with mousy fair hair and the sun darkened skin of a man who spent a lot of time outdoors. A farmer or rancher, Amos supposed. He’d noticed the young man hadn’t been able to take his eyes off of Cece. Amos noticed lots of things. It was what he did best. That and killing.

To be honest most of the men in the bar still sober enough to notice their surroundings were staring at Cece, but their expressions were hungrier and easier to read. The young man was the only one who didn’t look disappointed that she’d refused to whore.

Cece settled herself behind the piano; she played a few notes and wrinkled her nose, “This thing’s not tuned right?”

“Don’t worry honey, ain’t anyone here likely to notice,” Monty shot back.

She took a deep breath and shook her head. She likes things just so, Amos thought, and was used to having them that way. Not spoilt, just used to things being right. She really must be a long way from home.

“Very well,” she shrugged, accepting she was just going to have to make do with the battered old piano, “this is an old song my momma used to sing when I was little. It’s not exactly a cheerful tune when you listen to the words properly, but I always like to sing it when things aren’t going too well.” She looked directly at Monty Jack and gave him a smile that was dead halfway between sweet and patronising.

Although Jack’s customers had noticed Cece well enough, they hadn’t considered interrupting their business of drinking, gambling, chatting and flirting with the saloon girls for, but as soon as she’d sung the first line of her song a complete hush descended on the bar.

Even Amos, who usually didn’t find too much in life to smile about, felt the ghost of a grin haunt his face as he listened to her.

Cece had been right, it wasn’t a particularly happy song; it was a ballad about returning troubles and lost love, but she sang it so sweetly that he couldn’t help but find his spirits lifted by it.

She was facing the wall rather than looking towards her audience, but her voice was so strong and clear it filled the whole saloon, like morning sunlight streaming into a room once the curtains were pulled apart; her voice chased all the shadows away.

Amos looked across the room; everybody was transfixed. Even the saloon girls, who he guessed knew a thing or two, were smiling gentle little smiles as if reminded of long forgotten loves from the days before they’d come to sell themselves in the rooms above Monty Jack’s saloon. A couple even seemed on the verge of tears.

When Cece finished, and the last note from the old piano had faded into the smoke and whiskey fumes, the hush lingered around the bar as if everybody had quite forgotten what they were supposed to be doing.

Monty Jack wiped a hand over the few long greased strands of hair that were stuck to his shining scalp and exclaimed, “Well fuck me five ways to next Sunday!”

Which was the cue for a round of thunderous and rather astonished applause.

Cece blinked and blushed in the face of the enthusiastic clapping which slowly abated until only the young farmer was left wildly clapping and stomping his feet. When he eventually realised everybody else had stopped it was his turn to blink and blush, followed by a sheepish grin as he found his seat again.

“Well?” Cece asked Monty once she’d returned to the bar.

“That was beautiful,” Monty replied. He pronounced the word “beautiful” as if it was one he was so unfamiliar with he wasn’t entirely sure he’d got it right.

“Thank you,” Cece beamed, “do I have a job?”

“If he don’t want you,” the barfly next to Amos interrupted, “you can come an sing at my house any day of the week… and Mrs Crane can just pack her bags if she don’t like it!”

“If it meant you were home more she’d be out the door before sunset,” his neighbour at the bar cracked, slapping him on the back.

“Well, it’s against my better judgement, but it’ll sure make a change from listening to all these drunks bellyaching about my whiskey all night long.” Monty sighed.

“Your whiskey is shit,” someone slurred.

“One month trial; bed, three meals a day and you keep half your tips.”

“What about pay?”

Monty looked at her blankly, “Bed, three meals a day and you keep half your tips.”

“No pay?”

He nodded towards a couple of the saloon girls who were trying to hustle up some business at one of the card tables, “If you want to earn more…”

“Ok, ok… bed, three meals and… three quarters of my tips.”

“Young lady…”

“I’ll make a lot of tips,” she smiled sweetly.

“Fuck, I’m getting soft,” Monty sighed, before spitting in his palm and holding out his hand, “deal.”

Cece looked at him like he was holding out a turd, but gingerly accepted his hand anyway.

“We’ve established you don’t whore, but it’s only fair to warn you this place can get rough, especially on pay day. I hope you don’t mind getting pawed on a regular basis?”

“Not if you don’t mind your customers getting slapped in the face on a regular basis?”

The barfly next to Amos laughed, “Hell, gonna be more fun with her here, think I’ll have to come by more often from now on.”

“Stan, you could only come here more often if I let you sleep on the bar,” Monty shot back.

Stan shrugged, “You only gotta ask nice…”

Monty waved one of the saloon girls over, she had a hard careworn face and soft green eyes, “Josie, Cece’s gonna be staying with us for a while, settle her into Mary’s old room for me will you?”

“Sure boss,” Josie grinned, “welcome aboard hun.”

“What happened to Mary?” Cece asked as Josie took her by the arm.

“Oh don’t fret about that sweetie,” Josie smiled, “the rug cleaned up real nice…”

As the two women turned towards the stairs, the young farmer stood up, clutching a beaten old hat before him, “Miss?”

“Yes?”

“Can I ask what that song’s called, it was very pretty, but I don’t think I ever heard it before? I sing a bit too, not as good as you, but I’d love to learn it.”

“I’d be happy to teach you it…” she stuck out a hand which he stared at for a full five seconds before enveloping it in one of his own.

“Sye Hallows,” he smiled.

“Cece Jones… pleasure to meet you.”

“Me too,” he beamed, “when will you be singing again?”

“Tonight, I guess.”

“Great, I’ll probably pop back later then.”

“Not like you to come in at night Sye? Your Ma don’t like you riding out after dark,” Monty grinned as he retreated behind the bar.

“Well, once in a while is ok… for special occasions.”

“I’ll see you later then,” Cece said, turning to follow Josie.

“The song, Miss?”

“Oh sorry,” Cece called back over her shoulder, “it’s called Yesterday…”

Amos swivelled back to face Monty Jack who had started to wipe down the bar with a cloth that was dirtier than the floor.

“Was there a stagecoach today?” Amos asked him.

“No stage till next week… if it even turns up. It ain’t what you call a reliable service. Why?”

“No reason,” Amos shrugged and slid his empty glass across the counter for a refill. As the barman poured he wondered how a girl who had just arrived in town during a rain storm, had a hat and coat that were bone dry…

 

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