Drifter

The drifter arrived late one afternoon, during a violent sandstorm that tore the boards off the roofs and blocked out the prairie sun. It stripped the paint from the church walls. It tore the rope from the gallows, left as a warning to bandits. It leaked through the wooden shutters at the saloon, showering the few patrons who were willing to brave the devil winds for a bit of drink, a hand of poker and a warm body to bed. Anybody with a bit of sense in their heads stayed home and bolted their doors and windows. The storm was one of the worst in any townsperson’s memory, and in a small town like Werther, Kansas, memories ran long.  So it was that the drifter arrived on his pale horse without ceremony or notice, and stopped by for a drink.

The wind was blowing the wrong way, so when the stranger opened the door to the saloon, not a single person took notice except the barman, who takes notice of any potential source of income. Naturally, the stranger took up a seat near this man and motioned for a whiskey. As it happened, the barman could not be bothered to notice the stranger for long, because a heated conversation was going on between the town’s sheriff and the blacksmith. Apparently the sheriff had been caught red-handed with an Ace of Diamonds up his sleeve, and was quickly moving from sheepish to angry. The blacksmith had had quite a bit more to drink than the other players had, and was leading the charge. After a short debate, the blacksmith took a wild, drunk swing at the sheriff, who decided to arrest him for assaulting an Officer of the Law. The very drunk man was easily subdued, though the sheriff made a show of twisting his arm behind his back and marching him around. Due to the storm, the sheriff opted to lock the blacksmith in a back room. The matter of the poker game was, of course, not mentioned again and the pot was divided equally and quietly.

Throughout these events, the drifter had been sitting quietly, sipping his whiskey, apparently taking no notice of his surroundings. When the sheriff disappeared with the inebriated smith, the drifter asked the barman for another, and a second glass. He had a smooth, educated voice, the barman would later recall, as if the man was European Royalty, but his accent was no different from the barman’s own. Furthermore, the man had a ratty-looking old hat that came up to two points at the brim from wear and tear. However, when the sheriff came back and occupied the stool adjacent, the drifter offered him his second glass..

“Fine day to be a lawman, ain’t it?” The drifter offered. The sheriff looked at him funny, then decided to laugh.

“Fine, yes, oh fine indeed.” The sheriff agreed, and the matter was settled. The two men clinked glasses. “So what bring you to these parts, stranger? Mighty brave of you to go riding in this storm. Mighty cruel of you to that horse of yours, if I might say so myself, that’s a fine strong horse.”

“I’m what you call a travelin’ salesman, a man of the road, so my horse and I are fast friends. You’ve a good eye, sheriff. I ‘spect nobody else even noticed me come in.”

“Aye, not a thing slips past these here peepers. Best shot in the whole county, I reckon.”

“Much to shoot in these parts?” The barman was pouring them their next drink, and he later recalled a most definite twinkle in the drifter’s eye.

“I’ve much to be grateful for, stranger,” the sheriff replied. “Me Colt hasn’t seen action since that pack o’ coyotes decided to raid old man Petersen’s place down on Elm.”

“I’zzat so?” The drifter replied. The two continued to talk for a while, trading news and giving the barman work to do. Then the drifter came back to his topic. “I reckon this place had its fair share o’ bandits an’ scoundrels, seein’ you got yourselves a right tall gallows. Towns I come through settle for trees, but you folks got yourselves a proper hangman’s gallows.”

“No sir, this here’s a right peaceful sort.” The sheriff finished his whiskey. “That old thing’s for folks passing through, tell them not to start no trouble nor disturb our peace. You ain’t the trouble sort, now are ya stranger?” By this time the sheriff had developed a blush to rival the whores’ pacing above them, and a certain wobbly look to his hands. The lawman was starting to like this fellow, buying him drinks and being so friendly.

“Now am I right in sayin’ there, officer,” the stranger said in a low voice, “ that you wouldn’t mind a bit o’ rough an’ tumble every now an’ again?” He glanced at the back room as he said so. The sheriff stuttered and looked around, but one of the patrons had paid for a song and all eyes were on the pretty songstress.

“Well, I… wouldn’t mind at all, really… bit of excitement… I suppose if nobody got hurt… don’t matter none, Lord see fit to bless us…” The sheriff managed.

“An’ you wouldn’t mind a bit o’ respect none neither, show ‘em who’s boss?” The drifter made a pantomime of hanging. “This here’s your town, ain’t it? Why, If I were sheriff, no low-down yeller smithy would reckon o’ taking a shot at me, sodden or no.”

“Now look here, mister…” the sheriff began in a low voice. “I done no like your way of speaking.”

“Peace, friend.” The drifter removed his hat and placed it on the table. About the drifter’s face, no two townsfolk could agree on an exact description. Some say his hair was raven-black, and he had cheeks that could cut flesh at forty paces. Some say he was an old fellow, with soft features and softer gray locks that hung to his shoulders like a cat’s tail. The bartender, when asked, told only of the man’s eyes, which were a most brilliant blue. At any rate, the sheriff was immediately calmed. “I have here an offer a fine officer of the law such as yourself might find most appealin’,” the drifter continued. He reached into his coat and produced a journal, bound in red leather and about the size of the hip flask in the sheriff’s own pocket. This item he placed carefully on the table, accompanied by a handsome black quill, strapped to the cover with string. The drifter was meticulous in his motions as he undid the string and set the quill next to the book, before opening it near the front. The page was about half-full of a list of names in a dull rust-colored ink that ran in columns from the left side of the page to the right, comprising four columns a page. “See here, Sheriff…”

“Grady.” Sheriff Grady supplied.

“Sheriff Grady. This here’s a ledger of sorts, a bookkeeper’s ledger, an’ in here’s all mine clients. Now you can see fer yourself, with them peepers o’ yours, that mine’s a fine trade. All you have to do is pick up this here pen and sign your name under them others.”

“What exactly are you…” The sheriff glanced at the drifter quizzically, then at the back room, then at the other patrons of the saloon. He looked hard at the other two poker players in particular, who were stuffing money into the songstress’ stockings. “ Now wait a minute,” Grady paused, “what manner of… payment… would your firm be wanting?”

“I’ve no firm, sir, I’m strictly in this for my own dear self. As for payment, I can assure you sir, it will not be somethin’ you’ll be missin’.” The drifter motioned the bartender for another whiskey, and fingered his glass patiently as the sheriff made up his mind. Finally, with a surprisingly firm grip, he took up the quill. “An’ you won’ be needin’ no ink, sir,” the drifter added as the sheriff gave pause. In a clear, legible hand, the sheriff wrote ‘Seamus Grady’ under the last name in the book. The words came out a brilliantly bright red, but began to lose their luster the minute his hand left the page. “I thank you, sir, an’ I reckon you won’ regret it.” The drifter smiled and knocked glasses with the sheriff once more.

The drifter asked for a room at the saloon soon after that, and paid in real gold for it too, up front, for a full week. He bid good night to everyone in the saloon, charming several of the residents, before retiring early. However, no trace of him was to be found the next day, save his pale horse still in the stable. That night, and every night after, he was discovered jovially conversing with the townsfolk. He could be seen all over the town, not only in the saloon, but also at the surgeons’, the jail, the bank, in all manner of places. He was even found one evening squatting next to a group of boys playing marbles in the sand. Always he had his red ledger with the black quill, and never was he found in the daytime. Rumors abounded as to what the stranger was up to, and nobody ever thought to ask his name. At last, exactly a week after he had first arrived, the stranger left as mysteriously as he had come, leaving no trace of himself save the gold he had spent and fond memories in the townsfolk. Each and every one of them felt happier after he had come, for no particular reason. A handful of them also signed his red ledger, figuring a signature was not a high price for this enigmatic figure’s company.

About a month after these events took place in Werther, strange things began to happen in the town. First, a band of masked rogues abducted the flower of Werther, Miss Lula May Holiday, fresh from her birthday party at the Holiday Mansion. The scoundrels then paraded her through Werther in scant but her undergarments whilst pillaging to their heart’s content. As strange as it seems, the townsfolk were completely unprepared for such a bizarre turn of events. Sheriff Grady was out of town that day, on a coyote hunt at the Petersen farm some distance from town central. By the time a messenger could be sent, the rogues had vanished as quickly as they had come. The Sheriff immediately organized a rescue party, with surprisingly swift dispatch. The day was clear despite the rainy season, and the tracks easy to read. They traced the horses straight to the band’s hideout and raided the place, guns ablaze. Alas, as the rescue party dragged the ruined corpses of the band into daylight, the lovely Miss Lula May had already been savaged by the entirety of the band. Seeing how distressed Lula May was, and knowing the severity with which her father, Doctor Holiday, would treat such a transgression, the Sheriff swore the party to complete secrecy. It was only as they were coming to terms with the events that a second misfortune befell the group. One of their party had unmasked a rogue, and let out a cry of shock. It was one of their own, the young Paul Petersen, his head blown to bits by a Colt 9mm revolver. His face was only recognizable by the Petersen cleft chin, and the marbles were still rolling from his pockets along with all manner of stolen goods. The group immediately set to removing the masks from the other rogues. All told, the five bandits were without exception sons of Werther. Strangely, aside from the unfortunate Mr. Petersen, all of them had died with smiles on their faces.

Several things happened in Werther afterward. Firstly, funerals were arranged for the deceased, and five families dredged their coffers to pay the overworked church staff and undertaker. Each of them wanted the most discrete, but respectable, funeral available, and in such a climate Father Jon was adamant about having the large funds equally as available. The Sheriff took a hand in tightening the reins on Werther, recruiting several new deputies (many of them part of the rescue efforts) and replacing the rope on the gallows, which had hung empty since the storm. The move was backed by the aging Mayor Thompson, who enjoyed the “military escort” when he went to church on Sundays. Miss Lula May Holiday was seen with several of these new deputies, young men flashing their badges about all over town, and though rumors began to pile up the good Doctor Holiday was much too busy to listen. For soon after the party returned bearing the corpses of the band, a strange affliction began to spread among the townsfolk. The ill began to arrive at the surgeons by the wagonload, and soon the small affliction became a plague. Though the disease was for the most part not fatal, many of its victims developed putrid sores and boils that needed to be lanced by a trained professional. As such, the Holidays’ surgeon business grew by leaps and bounds. However, the deceased soon began to pile up, and not even Grady’s army of deputies wanted to touch the rotting corpses stacking in the Holiday morgue. The church repainted its walls. Then Sheriff Grady came up with the solution of allowing criminals to serve grave duty instead of jail time; coincidentally, the number of criminal activities had increased dramatically in the interim. Many of these criminals were simply families too poor to continue supporting members stricken with plague. Others accused Grady’s fresh young deputies of abusing their new authority. Grady himself was rolling in the lap of luxury, bribed by both butcher and baker, though none would dare point it out. Tensions escalated in Werther as word got out and traders began to avoid the town. Arguments became fistfights and outright robbery became common. Murders occurred, then hangings, then revenge murders by relatives of the hanged. More hangings. The gallows was coming in mighty useful. Unable to accuse anyone directly for the cause of their troubles, people in the crowd began to recollect that all of these things had started when the drifter came through. Normal passersby were harassed, then bullied, then outright mugged and murdered. Pretty soon the peaceful little town of Werther wasn’t so peaceful any more. At last, when things began to look their worst, and the few had an iron grip on the many, the stranger on the pale horse arrived once more.

He rode in again through a sandstorm, with the sun obscured behind his back. Nobody would have seen him if the day were clear, since the townsfolk had developed a habit of bolting their shutters. The drifter came again to the saloon, and as before ordered whiskey. There were more patrons this time, and more whores, many of whom he had met before. Sheriff Grady was there as well, with a pile of chips before him and a gun on the table. Seeing the drifter, he rose with a boisterous laugh.

“Well there, stranger, good to see you’re alive and well!” The Sheriff chortled, and several of his deputies joined in.

“An’ a good evenin’ to y’all. Werther remembers her guests well.” The drifter said calmly. By this point several of the patrons had gathered around him, a few with their hands on their guns.

“Well, indeed, well. I don’t know what witchery you pulled on us, but you got the gumption to come back, I give you that much.”

“Yes sir, I done come back to collect my pay. A day’s work deserves a day’s pay, wouldn’ you say, Sheriff?”

“What’s the son of a bitch talking about, Sheriff Grady?” Asked a young deputy. The Sheriff’s face had momentarily balked, as had several others’ in the room, but Grady recovered quickly.

“He’s gone batty with witchery, that’s what. Remember what I done said to you about them gallows outside, stranger? Well, since you been gone Werther’s found quite a use for ‘em. We gone through ropes like a pig through shit.” Grady seemed extremely pleased with this statement, and when the drifter gave no sign of agreeing, the sheriff came right up to the bar and spat in his face.

“Congratulations are in order.” The drifter replied. A grin had begun to form on his odd, amorphous face.

“But that might be a tad good for you, ain’t it? No, I got somethin’ special cooked up for you. Boys?” The Sheriff stepped back as the four deputies behind the drifter tackled him to the ground. His coat and hat askew, he didn’t fight back, just kept on smiling. With the whole town watching, the four men lifted the stranger up and into the storm, where five horses had been set up with ropes tied to their saddles. They tied each of the drifter’s limbs to a rope and mounted the horses. The Sheriff came up to the drifter then, who had managed to stand up.

“Its bad manners to kill a man without knowing his Christian name. What do you want on yer tombstone, eh?” Grady asked over the howling wind. The drifter tilted his head, like he was seriously considering it.

“That’d be right decent of you, really. I ‘pose Mister M would do.” He said with a smile. “Pleasure doin’ business with you, Sheriff Grady.” The sheriff’s grin slipped slightly, but realizing the other man’s predicament, he stepped back and gestured to his men. He himself raised his hand over the rump of the final horse.  The sound of whips was heard, but it coincided with a particularly strong gust of wind that swept through Werther. It lifted every skirt and blinded every eye. By the time it was done, only a dark patch remained where the drifter had been standing, with five little trails marking where the horses had run off.

“Well, that’s that.” The sheriff said with a great amount of satisfaction. Back inside the saloon, the bartender had set out a bottle and glass for the drifter at the bar, now forgotten. The sheriff laid down some coin and took up the bottle. As the town settled around him and a minor scuffle started a round of gambling, the sheriff remembered the drifter’s words. He remembered the red book and signing his name. He downed the last of his drink while thinking that yes, it most certainly was not something he missed.

 

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