A Weird Western Saga
“What?” The girl across the corner of the bar looked up, as her inquisitor awkwardly pulled his head back up to eye level as quickly as he could.
“Well...” She noticed he was more than a little drunk as he began to explain. “..I initially noticed you due to your being a woman sitting alone at a bar, but now I’ve come to see that you’re wearing slacks, as well. Most bizarre, I should say.”
The young woman flipped a tendril of dark red hair back over her shoulder and rolled her emerald eyes. “Piss off, mister. I’m in no mood.”
“Oh my.” He was digging into his coat. “Britches and a fiery demeanor. I simply must interview you.” He pulled a small notebook and a stubby pencil from his coat. “Oh, please forgive me. I haven’t introduced myself. My name is-”
“I know who you are, Mr. Paige.” The girl pulled a sip from her beer. “Kind of my job to know.”
Suddenly sober, the bespeckled man lowered the notebook and pencil to the bar. “You get more intriguing by the word, my dear lady.” He cocked an eyebrow. “But you have me at a disadvantage. How did you-”
“Raven Clark. Founder, editor, and publisher of the Serenity Star.” She smiled at his hanging jaw. “You’re Nolan Paige, newspaper man from New York City. Here to write about life in a frontier town.”
“Pleased to make your acquaintance indeed, Miss Clark.” Paige smiled wide. “You have no idea how glad I am to finally meet someone, well . . . conscious in this town.”
A bubble of laughter escaped Raven before she could suppress it. “A town of unconscious people, huh? You have no idea how right you are. Who have you talked to so far?”
“Well, let me see here.” Paige opened the notebook and flipped through the pages. “I heard about different types of horseshoes from your stable master, Mr. Muggs. A Mr. Putnam gave me the full list of feed for sale in the general store, and your Mayor Brubaker spent an hour telling me how proud he is of the desk in his office.” He dropped the notebook on the bar and jabbed a finger on the cover. “Two days work.”
“No wonder you’re drinking.” Raven fixed Paige with a smirk before draining her mug in one long swallow. She slammed the empty glass on the bar. “Well, I wish I could help you, Mr. Paige, but you’ve already seen our best. You’ll excuse me.” She turned and slid off her barstool.
“No, wait!” Paige reached out and grabbed Raven’s arm before he knew what he was doing. A few nearby heads turned at the volume and urgency of his voice. Instantly embarrassed, Paige released his grip on Raven’s arm just as the girl wrenched it away from him. He leaned close to her. “I’m very sorry, Miss Clark. But I believe my article would greatly benefit from your participation.”
Raven folded her arms over her chest and shifted her weight to one hip. “Oh really? And why is that?”
“Because,” Paige gave a quick glance to either side, “you’re the only person I’ve talked to who hasn’t sung the praises of the town marshal within their first ten words.” He lowered his head and looked at her through his eyebrows. “I’d like to know why that is.”
Raven quickly took a look around the crowded saloon and hopped back up on her barstool. She signaled the bartender and spoke without looking at Paige. “You really want to know what this town is like?”
Paige turned toward the bar, mirroring Raven’s posture. “Yes I do. Very much.”
The bartender, a stout balding man with a warm face, arrived in front of them. “Refill, Miss Clark?”
Raven welcomed him with a smile. “Yeah, Art, and another gin for Mr. Paige here. Thanks.”
“You got it, Miss Clark.” The bartender went about pouring their drinks, but a man wearing a badge signaled for his attention from the other end of the bar.
Raven waved her hand dismissively. “It’s okay, Art. Go see to the deputies. Mr. Paige and I will be in back whenever you’re ready.” She pointed over her shoulder with her thumb.
“Sure thing, Miss Clark. Thanks.”
Raven turned to Paige and nodded to a corner table. “Let’s talk.”
Art Chaney hurried to the bar’s two new arrivals and greeted them with a broad smile. “Evening, deputies. The usual?”
Deputy Stu Lake tipped the brim of his hat to the saloonkeeper. “Evening, Art. Usual’d be fine, thanks.”
“Coming right up.” Chaney opened the spigot of a beer cask over a fresh mug with one hand while he poured a shot of whiskey with the other. The deputies glanced around the room at the crowd. The bartender slid the now frothing beer mug in front of Stu Lake while his partner, Deputy Bump Richter, got the whiskey. “There you are, gents. Everything quiet in town tonight?”
“Yep.” Lake pulled a long swallow from his mug. “Same as it always is. But I’ll be glad to have the marshal back anyway.”
“I heard that.” Chaney wiped at something on the bar that only he saw, then flipped the towel over his shoulder. “When’s he due back?”
Deputy Richter downed his whiskey, belched loudly, and slammed his shot glass on the bar. “Day after tomorruh.”
“Ah, it’ll be good to have him back.” Down the bar, Dr. Bullshank raised an empty mug. Chaney nodded his way and turned back to the deputies. “Excuse me, gents.”
Lake leaned on one elbow against the bar and scanned the crowd. The usual townsfolk were there, drinking their usual drinks and playing their usual games of cards. The music of Stick the piano player smoothed all conversations into a low buzz. Over Lake’s shoulder, Richter erupted in another belch. The deputy waved his hand in front of his nose. “Dang, Bump. Do you have to do that so close? If I’da wanted a shot a whiskey, I’d’ve ordered one.”
“Heh, sorry, Stu.” Richter turned away from his partner to shield him from the next gaseous release. Something in the corner of the saloon caught his eye, and he gave Lake’s arm a whack with the back of his hand. “Hey Stu. Lookit that there? That who I think it is?”
Stu Lake turned from the crowd and looked in the direction his partner was pointing. In the back corner of the saloon, at a table all to themselves, were Raven Clark and the writer from New York City. Hunched over with their heads close together, the two were deep in conversation. Lake was instantly uncomfortable with both the pairing and their postures. “Aw shit, there’s something we don’t need. Lord only knows what the hell she’s telling him.”
Richter laid a hand on the butt of his gun, a gleam already in his eye. “You wanna go over there and break them up?”
Lake shook his head. “Nah. Box wouldn’t want us to do that. Let’s hang back and see how long they talk. Tomorrow, we’ll ask around town and find out who else he’s been talking to, that way we can give the marshal a full report when he gets back.”
“Yeah, awlright.” Richter slumped back onto his barstool and ordered another whiskey.
The next night, the street was empty, but Nolan Paige stuck close to the buildings, nonetheless, as he stalked his way toward the town church. If Raven Clark’s information was correct, he’d finally have something to write about. Paige reached the last building on Main Street, took one last look around and, seeing no one, dashed across the square to the church.
Paige slid to a halt in the dirt alongside the church’s side wall and pressed his back to the rotting wood. Raven Clark had been right about one thing, already; even in the dark of night, Paige could tell the church was falling apart. If what he hoped to see inside were there, it’d go a long way toward explaining the building’s failing state. Paige looked up to see a dim light coming from an overhead window. He carefully rolled a nearby barrel on its rim, positioned it under the window, boosted himself up onto it, and peered inside.
Sure enough, there they were.
The town reverend and Mayor Brubaker were seated at a table in the front of the church. The collection box lay open and empty on one end of the table, and its contents were spread between the two men. They were meticulously dividing the money between themselves, taking turns stuffing bills and coins into various places in their clothing.
Raven Clark was right again; the townspeople were lining the pockets of these men with their donations to the church.
He’d seen enough. Paige went to step down off the barrel when, with a loud creak, it collapsed underneath him and dropped him in the dirt below. Disregarding stealth, which had gotten him to the church, Paige scrambled to his feet and ran back across the square as quickly as he could.
“Is someone there? Can you see?” Reverend Vaughn McCallum threw his body over the money on the table, as Mayor Brubaker stared out the window, straining to get a look at the figure retreating into the darkness.
Brubaker’s piggy eyes narrowed to slits. “There’s someone running away. Looks like…oh Jesus.” He wheeled to face McCallum. “It might be that feller from New York!”
The reverend’s eyes were saucers. “The newspaper man? Oh, we’re fucked if it was him.”
Brubaker waddled back to the table, a ten-dollar bill slipping from inside his sleeve. “We better tell the deputies.”
Nolan Paige spent the next day locked in his rented room above Chaney’s Saloon. He detailed everything about his meeting with Raven Clark and the scene inside the church in his notebook. When the sun set without anyone kicking in his door, demanding to know what he was doing skulking around the church the night before, Paige dressed and went downstairs to the saloon proper. He immediately spotted Raven Clark at the bar. She met his gaze and motioned with her head toward their corner table from two nights before. Paige nodded and worked his way through the crowd, headed for the back of the saloon.
At the bar, Deputies Lake and Richter watched the silent exchange between Paige and Raven Clark. The lawmen waited until the two had taken position in the back of the saloon and, slowly, made their way around the bar.
At their corner table, Paige and Raven Clark hunched over their drinks. “It was just like you said, they were squeezing that collection box for the last penny. Why don’t you run the story?”
She favored him with a wink and a smile. “Helps me stay in business. Besides, they’re small potatoes, the real power in this town is the marshal. There are things I know about him that no one-”
“Nolan Paige, you’re under arrest.”
All activity in the saloon stopped in its tracks as Raven and Paige looked up to see the deputies standing over them. Richter pumped the shotgun he held at chest level and spat a thick strand of tobacco juice to the floor. Lake’s gaze bore a hole into Paige. “You’ll kindly get up and come with us, sir.”
Paige eased his way to his feet, but Raven was up and around the table in an instant. She stepped in front of Paige and into Deputy Lake’s face. “Arrested on what charge? He hasn’t done anything.”
“That’s none of the newspaper’s business, Miss Clark.” Lake moved Raven gently aside with one arm. “This is between Mr. Paige, here, and the marshal.”
Lake reached for Paige to take him into custody, but Raven stepped between them again. “The marshal’s not even here. I won’t let you arrest this man for no reason. Now, what is he charged with?”
“Aw hell!” Richter pushed past his partner and, without a word of warning, delivered the stock of his shotgun to Raven Clark’s belly. There was a gasp from the crowd as she doubled over at the waist and collapsed to the floorboards with a breathless grunt.
“Goddammit Bump!” Deputy Lake seized the shotgun from his partner, as Nolan Paige knelt next to Raven Clark. The writer from New York looked up at Lake with fire in his eyes. “What kind of town is this?”
The answer came from the saloon door. All eyes turned to see Serenity’s town marshal, Aloysius Boxer. The crowd parted to allow the tall, broad, lantern-jawed lawman passage. Boxer ambled casually to the rear of the saloon and settled in front of the kneeling Nolan Paige.
“This is my kind of town, Mr. Paige, and you’re under arrest.”
Next - Chapter 2: Questions
Serenity is copyright by Jason Chirevas. It may not be copied without permission of the author except for purposes of reviews. (Though you can print it out to read it, natch.)