The Gunslinger was no stranger to the saloon. If he’d had to count, he’d probably been in a dozen before, and he reckoned he’d probably be in a dozen more before some unlucky piece of lead found its way into him. He’d never been in one quite like this.
The jangling piano music and the raucous laughter and chatter had caught his ear even before he entered the place, a rough and tumble kind of warm and comforting. Out in the desert between where he’d come from and where he was going, a fellow started to hunger for sounds like that, even if they didn’t belong to his own home.
As soon as the Gunslinger swung open the saloon doors, the chatter and noise inside it came to a stop. In the corner, the piano player who had been jangling out an upbeat tune gulped and cut off his tune, and every head in the place swivelled to focus on the man.
Now the Gunslinger was a hard man, tough as a tumbleweed, but that kind of attention will leave an impression on the roughest feller. He gave himself a self-conscious once-over, but there was nothing too untoward about his appearance. Sure, his black leather duster was covered in dirt, his spurs and boots were muddy, and when he checked that his 10-gallon hat was in place it produced a small cloud of dust. Yes, his grizzled face had stubble rough enough to sand a board, and his squint was a mean lookin’ thing. Still, plenty of Gunslingers looked plenty worse when they rolled into town.
It was so quiet that the saloon doors creaking closed behind him pushed him into action. If there was one thing the Gunslinger knew, it was that no amount of attention should keep a man from acting. Each footstep seemed too loud as he walked the well-trodden path between the doors and the bar, and every eye in the quiet saloon followed his journey with unblinking attention.
The Gunslinger was starting to get real agitated now. Did they not see the colt pistols hanging at his belt? Angeltomb was supposed to be the biggest town in the west, did they not know that this is what a proper gunslinger looked like?
“What’ll it be, mister?” The barman rubbed a dirty glass with a dirty rag. At first the Gunslinger was disgusted, but then like a bottle thrown in a barfight, comprehension struck him. The saloon wasn’t crazy, it just had a good sense of showmanship.
“Gimmie a drink,” the Gunslinger said, now more at ease. The barman smacked a glass onto the bar and took a bottle of whiskey from the shelf, but the Gunslinger put a hand over the glass before he could pour. “None of that, gimmie a real drink,” he said.
Behind him, the patrons murmured appreciatively, and the barman gave him a look of manly respect as he reached beneath the counter, pulling out a black bottle with no label, and the Gunslinger relaxed a touch more. He understood, now, what sort of people these were.
The Heavenlies had been a commodity more precious than the gold rush, and more people had flocked West as a result. It stood to reason that, since the majority of the Heavenlies were collected here in Angeltomb, those flockers had settled, hundreds and hundreds of bright-eyed city folk, eager to throw on a pair of spurs and a ten-gallon hat to “fit in”.
Hadn’t taken long before there was more new blood in the West than old. In Angeltomb of all places, the Gunslinger should’ve expected it. Behind him, the saloon door swung open, and the conversation and piano playing stopped. The Gunslinger smiled into his drink.
By the fourth shot of his “real drink”, he hardly noticed the strange behavior. Hell there were even benefits to it. By the eighth, he didn’t even need to lift his head from the bar, he could tell if the person entering the saloon was new to the place or a regular by the way the patrons reacted. The latest patron entered, and a slight shuffling and quieting, though not outright silence, told the Gunslinger it was someone important but not new.
“Evenin’, Sheriff,” the barkeep said, pulling another glass from beneath the bar. “The usual?”
“Better make it two usuals, Henry. The saddle’s been rough and the day rougher.”
The Gunslinger hadn’t been expecting any one particular voice, but this voice in particular was high pitched enough to be noteworthy. He picked his head off the bar to look to his right, and then watched the small boy clambering up on to the stool next to him.
The kid had the tousle-haired look of a young boy who didn’t much care for indoor life. His face was tanned, his hair was brown, his duster was brown, and all three had the healthy coating of dirt that comes with a hard day’s work.
For a moment, the boy ignored the Gunslinger’s stare, drumming his fingers on the bar, but then he turned and met the Gunslinger’s gaze. “Got somethin’ to say, stranger?” he asked, his chin set at a dangerous angle.
The Gunslinger mused for a moment, then shook his head. “Don’t think I do…Sheriff, was it?”
The boy lifted a finger to his duster where the shiny silver badge was pinned. “No jokes to crack, no wise to make?” he asked. “Gonna ask me if I’m drinkin’ shots of apple juice?”
“Doesn’t seem smart, mouthing off to the Sheriff,” the Gunslinger tapped his glass again, and the bartender refilled it. “And if you’re washing down a hard day with apple juice, I don’t think you’re doing it right.”
The Sheriff nodded, small eyes clearly searching the Gunslinger’s face for a trace of sarcasm, then he turned back to the just-poured shot of whiskey and downed it.
“I like you, stranger,” the Sheriff said. “You strike me as a stand-up sort of feller.”
“Don’t know about that,” chuckled the Gunslinger, “I’m a gunslinger, you see-”
He had moved his duster back to expose one of the colts at his belt, and now he froze as the muzzle of the Sheriff’s modified Remington pressed up against the side of his chest. The kid hadn’t even put his drink down, wasn’t even looking at him, and the draw had been so smooth the Gunslinger had almost missed it.
“Don’t like you that much, stranger” the Sheriff said quietly.
“That was my fault,” the Gunslinger slowly, carefully moved his hand away from the gun at his hip and let his duster fall back in place. “Probably would’ve been more careful if you’d been a bit older. Definitely will be more careful from now on.”
“Good,” the Sheriff holstered his Remington again, “and thank you for the honesty.”
“That is my one redeeming quality, Sheriff, I’m an honest man,” the Gunslinger grinned. “Matter of fact, I have a feeling you’ll find I’m too honest for my own good.”
“Not many honest men in life, Gunslinger,” the Sheriff set the empty glass down on the bar carefully. Despite his short stature, the liquor didn’t seem to affect his speech, although there was a slight wobble when he turned back to the Gunslinger, “in fact, narrow that down to ‘human man’ and you’ll be the first I’ve met.”
He gestured to the holster on his other side, where the butt of a beautiful pearl and silver gun peeked out.
“You’re a bit cynical for someone with an Angel on his side,” the Gunslinger said.
“It was the Angel taught me to be cynical,” the Sheriff tapped his nose, then reached down and tapped the bar. “She also taught me that whiskey makes a rough day go by a little smoother.”
As the barkeeper refilled the glass, the Sheriff glanced at his suddenly-quiet talking companion.
“So what brings a gunslinger to Angeltomb?” he asked, “not much work here for you wild types, not with as many mercs and hired hands and bounty hunters as we have.”
“Oh, I’m glad you asked,” the Gunslinger said. “There’s a train coming into town, a week from today.”
“There’s a train coming into town every day,” the Sheriff said, too-casually.
“This train, though, this train is transporting Heavenlies,” the Gunslinger said. “Three of them. I’m in town because I’m going to rob that train and take those Heavenlies.”
It was a different kind of silence now, one that started with the saloon patrons that had heard him more clearly and rippled out among the rest. The piano quieted slowly, and the whole saloon shifted into a quiet of actual tension, not just the showmanship. A few patrons started slowly shuffling in the direction of the door.
“Takes a special kind of stupid sumbitch to tell the Sheriff of your impending train heist, Gunslinger,” the Sheriff said. “You think a kid my age got to be Sheriff of a town this size by letting people walk all over him?”
“Not in the slightest,” the Gunslinger shrugged, “but you did ask. I told you, I’m too honest for my own good.”
The Sheriff knocked back his drink with gusto, then slipped off the stool. Now that the Gunslinger was watching for it, he did see the draw, but that didn’t make it any less a work of art. The Remington went from holster to jammed up in his ribs in the space of an eyeblink, even though the kid had to raise his arm to reach that high.
“Two views I can take on this, Gunslinger,” the Sheriff said. “First view is that you’re trying to make a name for yourself, be one of them legendary villains. Someone like Silver Dollar Six-Shot or Dead Lead Jones, the big bad gunslinger who blows into town and pulls of a train heist that he warned everyone about in advance. Second view is that you’ve got the wrong impression of just who I am, and think you can pick on the kid without repercussion. I’m gonna be charitable and assume it’s the second, but I have to tell you, my initial enjoyment of your company is fast waning. Git up and git moving.”
“‘Course, Sheriff,” the Gunslinger stood up, careful not to stagger. He didn’t doubt that the child could and would send at least one hunk of lead right through him, and he wasn’t about to give him cause. “Where are we going?”
“You just told me you were planning a robbery, idiot,” the Sheriff pushed, and the Gunslinger moved without further prodding, “now I’m going to give you the briefest tour of Angeltomb in the world, starting and ending with the closest jail.”
The sun was just starting to set as they stepped out into the open air, and the wood and dust was lit up with reds and oranges and yellows. On one side, the wide open plain looked like it was on fire, and on the other the tall buildings of Angeltomb stretched out as far as the eye could see. The Gunslinger breathed deep and drank in the sight of both.
“What will you do if it turns out it’s the first view, Sheriff?” he asked conversationally. “What if I’m trying to blow into town and pull of a Heavenly train heist just to make a name for myself?”
“If that’s the case, Gunslinger,” the Sheriff said, “then you get an even shorter tour of Angeltomb. It starts in the middle of the city with a rope around your neck, and it ends just a few feet lower.”
The Sheriff pushed a little, and the Gunslinger started walking in the direction he indicated. There was something dark in the child’s voice, something sharp, and he wasn’t quite sure where a kid that young had found a sharpness like that. Wherever he had, the Gunslinger had no doubt in his mind; if he did wound up hanged here in Angeltomb, he knew just who would be pulling the lever.
It’s an easy thing to miss a drunk. Most people looked past him most days, and when he stayed quiet and out of the way, it was easier still to miss him. If he had been more calculating about it, he supposed he could hear secrets or learn things, but that kind of calculating wasn’t exactly in his wheelhouse.
He scratched his head now, though, staring at the ground with a thoughtful expression on his face rather than his normal vacant one.
“Well now,” he muttered under his breath. “A Heavenly train heist? Don’t that sound like an interesting experience…”