St. Jacob, the Eighth—Verdis
“You are not welcome here,” the anxious man said, his pale face almost cadaverous in the gloom. “I got just enough business to feed my family. Repeat customers. People passing through. You would be in the way.” The overcast afternoon made the whole world dim, and rain sluiced down from the edge of the porch, spattering down to carve a trench in the mud by the boardwalk.
“I suppose you got friends in the highest places around,” drawled the newcomer, his muted sneer a compromise between irritation and amusement. He was tall and broad, his jaw a vague shovel of flesh under his wide hat brim.
“That’s what I’m saying,” the narrow man nodded vigorously. “I have been cutting the mayor’s hair since he was a boy. I cut his father’s hair. We don’t need you. When the lawmen come through, I’m like a landmark here. They won’t let just anybody cut their hair.” He gestured at the folding plank hung on the pillar of the porch, painted with the distinctive red and white stripes advertising a barber. “The town of Wharton likes it like it is, with me as their only barber. Now, get on along.”
“Between you and me,” the big man said, leaning towards the other barber to engulf him in a most alarming shadow, “you are not the first person ta tell me I’m not welcome in a place anymore.”
“Nobody wants trouble,” the barber sputtered. “You’ve come a long way from proper civilization, stranger. There’s a whole land of opportunity. Out there.” He deliberately pointed towards the hulk of the train station at the end of the street.
The big man seemed to hesitate, perhaps thinking. The smaller barber snapped his fingers, and lit up with a desperate grin. “Tell you what! I’ll even get you a ticket. How’s that for fair?”
“Fair has got to be the least interesting idea in the world,” the big man muttered, almost to himself. “Where’s that train headed?”
Relief was flooding the smaller man as he looked down towards the train station. “Oh, all kinds of places. You can get to Steelsmith, or Port Hyvo. Real nice towns. Lots of trading posts and smaller towns, too, whatever you like!”
“Someplace more friendly than Wharton even?” the big man said sardonically. “Huh. What could they offer that’s better than a town famous for its cheese and beer?”
“There’s a military post in Port Hyvo. Lots of soldiers. They are required to stay trim and looking nice,” the barber insisted. “They’ve got proper civil services and everything. Politicians. Artists. You know. It’s practically a Core town.”
“Practically,” the big man echoed, his voice little more then a sigh as he looked out over the dancing puddles in the street, the arrhythmic gusting of the rain. His eyes narrowed as he looked away opposite the train station, to a small trail leading up towards the befogged shadow of the mountains. “What’s up there?”
The barber followed his gaze, and frowned. “Oh. That’s Frostjack Pass. All that’s up there is some chod-squat towns. Pretty backwards. I hear tell one of them even has a skirt for a sheriff.” He shook his head. “Better stick to the rails.”
“That would be the civilized thing to do,” the big man agreed with a nod, almost reflective. For the first time that day, the traces of a smile touched at the corners of his hard mouth. “I’m gonna need a horse.”
St. Jacob, the Eleventh—Primdis
The horse swayed and juddered, its hooves occasionally skidding on the muddy stones. The big man picked his way down the narrow path, leading the horse, grip on the reins tight as the horse’s nostrils flared.
Perched on the horse’s saddle was an androgynous figure. A man’s gloves, coat, and hat hid her features. Pale, colorless tufts of hair were just visible under the hat, and her narrow shoulders and delicate bones had an indolence to their posture that was neither male nor female. Her chilling gray eyes were streaked with green. They flicked across the trail ahead, lazy. Midday sun winked from the iron collar bolted around her neck.
Padding along at the big man’s side was a child-sized creature with wispy cobwebbish hair, a narrow chin, and nut-brown skin. He moved with the grace of a cat. A bandana restrained most of his hair. He wore a bandoleer loaded with shotgun shells. His boots were leather, folded at the ankle. He too had an iron collar clamped around his neck.
“Figure that’s it,” the big man said through his teeth, nodding at the cluster of buildings in the valley. “That’s Frostbuckle.”
“Nice place,” the woman on the horse said, toneless.
“Looks like we can stop here for the night,” the slight figure agreed. His eyes were round, wide, slitted like a cat’s eyes. He smiled, revealing tiny pointed teeth.
“Or longer,” the big man shrugged.
“Or longer,” the cat-like creature agreed easily. “Before we keep going north.”
“I’ve about had it with you and north,” the big man growled. “One more ‘north’ outta you today and you’ll take the fast way down this hill.”
His catlike companion did not reply to that. Soon, the trio followed the trail off the slopes and down to the rolling grasslands in the valley, approaching the small town.
The road curved along the shoulder of the hill, past a run-down clapboard house with a doctor’s symbol hung out front. Then the road split, small houses and sheds cluttering one side, a church and a school on the other. They continued along the curve of what was obviously the main street, passing a brick building with “Town Hall” emblazoned over the front, and bars on some of the windows; across the road, “Pithwayte Hall” on a massive rectangular building designed to host large meetings.
Broad porches and weatherbeaten wood were main features that pulled the scraggling image of the town together. The travelers began to understand the town’s relative quiet as they heard a ruckus up ahead, past the public park and the big house that dominated the curve of the street.
“Looks like we’re just in time,” the woman noted with an aloof understatement. As they followed the main street, they heard cheers and yelling, and the unmistakable scuffing of a street brawl.
The big man just grinned.
At the end of the main street, a courtyard was flanked by a C-shaped building; dry goods store, at least. The building did not command attention as much as the one-sided fight that was wrapping up in the courtyard.
A worn, thin man with a flour-daubed apron staggered back, fresh streaks of crimson on his apron, his face staring and dazed. Confronting him was a heavily muscled, hard man; bald, wearing threadbare homespun, fists balled into heavy clubs, a frown livid on his features.
“Had enough?” the big man barked at the reeling baker. With an inarticulate cry, the baker rallied, and flung himself at his surprised foe. The two men clamped in a furious grapple, staggering.
“Tubbuk!” hollered a woman’s voice from behind the travelers. They turned to see a young woman racing down the street towards the fight, clutching her hat to her head with one hand and a shotgun with the other as she pounded along. “Tubbuk!”
Behind her, the door to the public hall banged open, and a mass of flesh piled out. The huge chod was easily five hundred pounds; his canvas pants and shirt were cinched in place with bulging straps. His queasy green flesh wobbled and swayed as he breathlessly jogged after the woman. His belly hung far over his belt, wagging as he waddled. His broad gash of a mouth sported two tusks, and his tiny beady eyes glittered with his exertion as his rank greasy hair gently waved over his jiggling hurry.
The woman reached the fight first, just as the stronger man toppled the fight to the mud of the street. “Dammit, I’m gonna pound you good!” he roared, slamming a fist home, banging a gurgle out of his small foe.
“Get off him!” the woman squealed, leveling her shotgun at the combatants. “I said get off him now, Angus!” Her voice broke.
Just then, the baker slapped a handful of mud and manure into Angus’s face, and the big man flinched back; the baker squirmed loose, toppling him, and they scrambled to rise.
“Knock it off!” the woman hollered. She tilted the shotgun up, and it boomed, startling a jump out of the crowd. Angus and the baker both staggered, Angus clawing at his face and the baker trying to focus past the swelling around his eyes.
“That wee daft man started it,” Angus growled, flinging an angry gesture at the baker. “I came into town to have a quiet conversation, and—”
“You give her back!” the baker howled, flinging himself at the big man, again catching Angus by surprise.
The travelers watched dispassionately as the huge chod joggled past them, closing in on the fight. The big creature paused, leaning forward, hands on knees, gasping for air. It seemed Tubbuk could not quite reach the fracas in one sprint.
“I—said—knock—dammit, you stop it right now!” she demanded, her voice plaintive as she struggled to separate them with the butt of her shotgun. Ignoring her, they tore at each other. Angus pivoted, slinging the baker down to the ground to tumble into the front of the porch with a smack.
The big man casually surveyed those watching the fight. The strong man with black sideburns and a grocer’s apron, grinning from the porch. The huge fat woman, powerful arms bare and crossed, streaked with blood, gold hair up in a bun. A handful of trappers. A row of old men in rocking chairs, some maimed, cheering and cackling. A woman in a tight, cheap dress, with fishnet gloves. No one seemed disposed to intervene.
The slim blonde lost her hat in the fracas, trying to separate the men; now, she stood between the baker and Angus. “I will shoot you,” she lied, hands trembling on the gun, her blue eyes wide.
Choking on his rage, the baker sprang up at her from behind, snatching the shotgun; she reflexively tightened on it, but he was behind her, and he swung her around, the shotgun still in her grip but leveled at Angus—
Tubbuk slammed into both the baker and the woman, flopping down on top of them in the mud, squelching the shotgun down as Angus recoiled, wincing—but not shot.
Scattered applause, and unabashed hooting from the old men in rocking chairs. The big chod stirred, then ponderously rolled aside.
The woman and the baker were both thoroughly pressed down into the muddy street. The woman struggled to squelch free of her impression, and the baker lay half senseless, focused on trying to breathe again. The woman pulled her shotgun up, free of the sucking mud; some plugged each barrel.
“You two—are under—arrest,” the woman gasped through her teeth, glaring at Angus and the baker. “Tubbuk. Get Sly on his feet.” The chod began the laborious process of pulling himself to his feet, rolling to the side and gaining all fours before trying to rebalance.
“What?” Angus exploded. “Why me? This flimsy twit attacked me, by the Christ!”
She paused to pull a deep breath in, then shouted at him. “I told you to stop and you didn’t!”
“Oh, this is too much,” Angus growled. “We’ve got bigger problems. I’m tryin ta find my son, Alf. I think he eloped with Sly’s tart, his daughter Jenny. I thought maybe Sly could tell me where they may have gone.” He spat to the side, his saliva laced with blood and filth.
Tubbuk stood over the flattened baker, uneasy at the idea of having to bend over his enormous paunch to pick him up. Sly stirred in the mud, blinking. “Kidnapped,” he wheezed. “Bastard—”
Angus rolled his eyes. “He’s no use,” he said. “But we must find my boy, lest trouble find him first.” He glowered at the fallen baker. “And the tart.”
“Yeah, well I’m the sheriff,” the blonde said, her voice too loud. “You go to jail. I’ll sort this out in the meantime.” She frowned. “Assault and battery,” she said. “Disturbing the peace.”
“You are serious?” Angus said, blinking, startled. “My son is missing, and you want to lock me up?”
“Yeah. So march,” the woman said, trembling slightly, staring at Angus.
“You know,” the grocer said from the porch, his white smile framed by sideburns, “you could deputize me, and I could take care of all this real nice and tidy.” He did not move from where he leaned on the porch post, arms crossed. For a moment, relief crossed Angus’s features as the grocer nodded at him.
“Not today, Jack,” she said through her teeth, not looking at him. “Come on, Angus. March.” She glanced at the chod. “Tubbuk. Bring Sly.”
“Ya,” the big chod said. “You giddup, liddle guy.” He nudged him with a squarish boot tip. The baker stirred weakly, still struggling to get his wind back.
“And if I refuse?” Angus said, eyes widening, mouth tightening, fists balling.
“Tubbuk,” the sheriff said, “take Angus to the jail. I’ll bring Sly.”
“Right,” Tubbuk grunted, waddling at Angus. “So, walk or fight?” A new gleam entered the beady eyes, and the huge chod’s fists balled in anticipation. After a moment, Tubbuk reached out and snatched Angus’s arm, grip closing like a vise. “Okay, sokay, go to the poke.” He lumbered towards the town hall, dragging his furious prisoner along. They passed the travelers without sparing them a second glance.
The sheriff hauled Sly up out of the mud with an unseemly squelch. The narrow baker wavered, hardly able to stand. The sheriff hauled his arm over her shoulders, and supported him towards the jail. “Show’s over,” she growled. “Everybody get back to your own business.” She struggled down the muddy street.
The big man shrugged as if to settle himself, then led the horse towards the store. “I’m new here,” he muttered. “Where’s a good place to get a room for the night?”
Jack looked him over, considering. He straightened his grocer’s apron. “I figure the only place you can get a room is Sadie’s. Follow that road,” he said, pointing to an intersection between the store and the park. “Past the blacksmith’s. Can’t miss it.” He smiled, not bothering to warm the expression with any kindness or welcome.
“Much obliged,” the traveler nodded, turning with the horse.
“What’s your name, stranger?” Jack asked, almost sharp.
The man hesitated slightly, his eyes a glint in the shadow of the hat brim. “Redgrave,” he said. “Be seein you around.” He looked away, leading the horse to the intersection, and away.
“Redgrave?” wheezed one of the old men on the porch, the one missing a leg. “Sounds like some kinda gunfighter poser!”
“Sure never heard a nobody with a name like that didn’t give it to theyself,” nodded the blind man next to him. “Sure never did hear a that. Like that one fella, Darksighter. Or that Hellfan bandit.” He shook his head. “Hope he’s just passin through. We got enough lawlessness here.”
“No, no, folks,” Jack drawled, half smiling. “Didn’t you see our fearless sheriff protecting us against rogue elements, like Sly?” He chuckled, and they all laughed along.
Still, Jack watched the stranger retreat. Measured the breadth of his shoulders. Considered the big boxes strapped behind the saddle.
Redgrave immediately understood Sadie’s Saloon and House of Comfort before he saw the red curtains in the upper windows, and the currently deserted balcony over the porch. The big drafty house was set just the proper passive aggressive distance from the main street, back away from everything but still visible from the main road. Only place to rent rooms, indeed. He smiled to himself as he tied the horse’s reins to the hitching post. The woman in the saddle dropped off effortlessly, and Redgrave led his entourage up the wooden stairs, across the boardwalk, and through the swinging doors into the saloon.
A man looked up from his work at the bar, expressionless. “Hey there, stranger,” he said. “Welcome to Sadie’s. What can I get you?”
“Whisky. Bottle. Leave it,” Redgrave muttered as he crossed the room and settled on a barstool. “You the manager?”
“Hell no,” the bartender said with half a grin as he planted an amber bottle in front of Redgrave. “I’m Bromly. I tend bar and handle the bouncers. You’re looking for Townsend. What do you need? If you want some relaxation,” he said with a subtle inclination of the head towards the stairs, balcony, and rooms, “I can sort that out for you.”
“Oh, I’m relaxed,” Redgrave said with a friendly growl. “Here’s the thing. I’m a barber. I figured you all might not mind if I set up shop on the porch. Ten percent is standard.”
Bromly regarded him, unmoving, for a long second. “Sure, a barber,” he said, forcing a smile. “Let me get Townsend. Check it out.” He headed around to the office, glancing back at the big hulk of a man hunched over the bar.
“You two see any other barber signs?” Redgrave asked his people.
“No,” the woman replied with a shrug. “Chodsquat sums this town up. Not much of anything worthwhile.”
“We really should keep moving,” the little one agreed.
“That’s really not what I asked,” Redgrave sighed. He watched the office door for a moment, then shrugged, opened the whisky, and took a long draw from the bottle.
“Me next,” the woman said softly.
“Like hell,” Redgrave growled, and he took another draw.
Bromly headed out of the office and behind the bar, followed by a round man with his hair slicked over the shining baldness of his scalp, ruddy, buttoned into a tightly protesting suit.
“Well well, hello there, I’m Sam Townsend. Sadie’s happens to be my concern. I hear you have a business deal,” the round man beamed.
“Ten percent, if I can cut hair on your porch,” Redgrave nodded. “It’s a nice perk. Help drum up some business for you.” He nodded at the catlike manling. “My klee does shoeshines. The varak,” he said, nodding at the woman, “does female styling. I do the rest.” He tried on a smile.
“Sure, sure, a barber,” Townsend said as his eyes lingered on Redgrave’s scarred knuckles, callouses, the leathery toughness of his face, suspicious stains on his duster. “Of course you’d be willing to demonstrate. Make sure I won’t have any complaints.” His face had shone with perspiration before, but now he was freely sweating. He mopped at his face with a handkerchief.
“Seems reasonable,” Redgrave agreed. “I’ll give you all a free one.”
“Bromly,” Townsend said, turning to the startled barkeep. “You’re all raggedy.” He turned to Redgrave as Bromly blinked, struggling to frame a protest. “Start with Bromly.” He smiled, all goodwill.
“Right this way,” Redgrave said with a smile. He hefted a chair on his way out. His klee scampered to the horse and pulled a big flat box down from behind the saddle, as his varak snagged a broom and quickly swept off a section of the front porch. Redgrave smacked the chair down, and as he rounded it and stood behind the seat, his klee hopped up on the railing and hung a folding wooden sign from a nail. A red and white striped symbol. Barber. Open for business.
Redgrave opened the case. Inside, there was a leather strop, straight razors, scissors of various sizes, whisks, brushes, shaving cream, scents, mirrors. Redgrave efficiently tugged scissors, a brush, and a comb out as Townsend hustled Bromly into the seat. The bartender did not look any less alarmed as the apron was tied around his neck.
“Just a little off the top,” he said, his voice strangled.
“Hold still,” Redgrave said in a voice meant to be soothing. “This will just take a minute. I’m a professional.” He quickly brushed Bromly’s hair, parted it neatly with the comb, then combed out a length and began to snip, intent on his work.
Bromly sat with his eyes squeezed shut, holding his breath.
“Shoeshine?” the klee asked helpfully.
“Go ahead,” Townsend said, condescending.
As the klee opened the box and whipped out the cloth and the polish, Redgrave combed and snipped very carefully. By now an audience was gathering. Several scantily-clad women looked through the windows or stepped out on the porch, and gossip was buzzing as they watched the big man neatly trimming Bromly’s hair.
A woman bustled out to stand next to Bromly. Her bosoms were barely restrained by a green filigree corset, and she fanned herself with a large palm-printed paper fan. “So what’s the amusement?” she asked Townsend in a throaty, sensual voice.
“Well, Ms. Gorly, this here barber wants to set up shop here,” Townsend explained with a meaningful look.
“He’s doin a good job,” Gorly noted, expertly assessing the barber’s work. “He might be making Bromly more presentable than we could.”
Redgrave lathered Bromly up, his chin and his neck, and expertly slid the straight razor over the rasp of his stubble. Bromly’s heart pounded, and he trembled. Redgrave’s work was swift, and he did not draw a single drop of blood.
After a few minutes, Redgrave stepped back after toweling Bromly off. “There you go,” he said roughly. “That’d normally be two bits. And you’d get ten percent. Plus the nickel for the shoeshine.”
Bromly stood, unsteady, touching his face and hair gingerly. “How does it look?” he winced.
“Damn fine,” Gorly replied, shaking her head. “Okay. So he’s a barber,” she shrugged. “Takes all kinds.”
“The varak does women’s hair,” Redgrave said, nodding at his assistant, who stared at them impassively. “So does the klee, if it comes down to it.”
“Hot damn, son, hang your shingle out there,” Townsend beamed. “You got the spot.”
“I’ll also need a room,” Redgrave said as he lifted the chair out of the way, his varak sweeping the porch off.
“How long?” Gorly asked, regarding him down her eyelashes.
“We’ll see,” Redgrave said, noncommittal. He frowned, looking over to where his klee was deep in conversation with a local pair of klee. Their quiet conversation was made of whistles, clicks, gestures; it was too rapid and abstract to understand.
“Don’t mind them,” Townsend said, following his gaze. “That’s Pin and Bobbin, Sadie’s owns them. They help out around the place,” he shrugged. Redgrave looked at their collars, and slowly nodded.
“Mine’s called Trip,” he said. “The varak is Karis.”
“Well, looks like we’ll all get along fine,” Townsend nodded. “Back to work, everybody.” He beamed a grin around, and headed back inside, not even pausing as he affectionately smacked one of the ladies on the rump.
“So,” Gorly said, approaching Redgrave as she studied him. “You and I have a similar arrangement with Sadie’s now. How about that.”
“Want a haircut?” Redgrave growled through a grin.
“Love one,” she nodded, and she settled in the chair. Redgrave leaned against the wall as Karis heaved a small sigh, shrugged off her duster, and plucked off her hat. The varak woman had upswept ears that came to a point. Her slender arms were defined with muscle. She reached into the case, and came up with scissors, brush, comb, towel, scented water, all laid out on the windowsill by the chair.
“She does good work,” Redgrave assured Gorly.
“Why am I not surprised you’d think so?” Gorly asked, speculation in her eyes.
Redgrave watched the road as a lone figure approached. “Here comes the sheriff,” he noted. “She give you all much trouble here?”
“Oh no,” Gorly said with an indolent shrug. “No, she doesn’t care about us. The only people that would rather we were gone would be the good Reverend and the Society of Communal Betterment. They don’t have the juice to get rid of us.”
“Good girl,” Redgrave growled through a grin as the sheriff got closer. “Who is this sheriff, anyway?”
“Her name is Alexia Finsweller, but people mostly call her Fins. Her daddy was sheriff, before he headed off to the war,” Gorly sighed. “So sad.”
“Right,” Redgrave nodded as the sheriff got within speaking range.
“I need to talk to Townsend,” Fins said grimly.
“Well honey, go on in,” Gorly said as Karis snipped at the back of her head.
“Here I am,” Townsend said, quickly stepping out on the porch. “Sheriff, what a pleasant surprise,” he lied.
“Nice weather we’re having,” Fins said impatiently.
“This is a beautiful time of year,” Townsend agreed.
“So I’m going up to the picnic ground to look for those kids. I want you to be my deputy.” Fins looked directly at Townsend, deliberately avoiding Redgrave.
“You know I’d love to,” Townsend lied, “but it’s my knees. This wet weather. No good,” he shook his head. “What about Tubbuk?”
“He’s guarding the jail,” Fins explained. “So I need someone I can trust. Someone to watch my back.”
“Well, honey, you could have Tubbuk if you just fine those two hotheads and let them go. Maybe take Angus with you,” Townsend said soothingly. “You got all the help you need already.”
“I don’t want to encourage people to smack each other and grab my gun in the street in broad daylight,” Fins said through her teeth. “I’d think you’d want a peaceful town here.” She paused. Nothing happened. “I’ll go alone,” she warned him.
“Good luck, sweetie,” Townsend said, all charm.
Fins hesitated for one more moment, then turned her back on them, marching back the way she came. “Take care of those knees,” she flung back over her shoulder.
“Bye bye, now,” Townsend called after her, waving his pocket handkerchief. He shook his head. “I tell you, the Second War surely will lead us to some awful casualties,” he sighed.
“True,” Redgrave muttered through his teeth, looking out at nothing in particular.
“Well,” Gorly said philosophically, “she’ll learn, or she won’t. What’s she on about, anyway?”
“Oh, I know,” said one of the onlooking girls. Redgrave recognized her fishnet gloves, remembered she had watched the fight. “Jenny and Alf disappeared, they haven’t been seen since the picnic yesterday afternoon. Angus thinks his boy eloped with Jenny. Sly thinks Jenny was kidnapped by Alf. So their parents don’t know where they are,” she said, smirking.
Gorly blinked as Karis continued snipping at her hair. “So Fins thinks she’ll find something up at the picnic ground? Those crazy kids could be halfway to Smoit by now.”
“Good luck to her, I say,” Townsend smiled. “Well, back to work for me.” He headed inside.
Trip caught Redgrave’s eye, solemn and unblinking.
“None of my business,” Redgrave murmured, his jaw set in the shape of stubbornness.
“Hell of a thing,” Bromly said with a bemused smile, lit up by the sunset. He nodded at the curling pile of hair off the end of the porch. “You really do a good job with the ladies,” he said to Karis.
She ignored him, continuing to oil her blades and combs. Trip was repacking his shoeshine kit, and Redgrave settled on a chair, holding a bowl of stew, absently chewing as he looked out over the rolling hills. Bromly took another swig from his bottle, and sighed. “Welcome to Sadie’s,” he said.
“Not sure how long we’ll be here,” Redgrave replied around a mouthful of potato. He watched a klee jogging up the road, past the park and the blacksmith.
Bobbin trotted out to meet him. They conversed for a handful of seconds, and Bobbin trotted back. “There is a meeting at the Hall. The sheriff wants everybody to come.”
“Told you I heard gunfire,” Karis said quietly.
“I know you heard gunfire, I heard it too,” Redgrave replied irritably.
Bobbin trotted past them, rapidly conversing with Pin. The two of them separated to tell everyone, guests and staff alike. Redgrave drained off the rest of the soup, shook out the bowl, and tossed it at Trip, who neatly caught it and trotted inside.
“You must have been a wealthy son of a bitch at some point,” Bromly noted, watching the klee go. “Two slaves. That’s a lot of tax and upkeep.”
“Worth every penny,” Redgrave sighed, and he leaned forward, rising. “Look here, this afternoon I got room and board for watching them work for me.” His smile was crooked, and not wholly sincere.
“I don’t know what I’d do without Pin and Bobbin,” Bromly agreed. “Like now. They are going to look after the place while we go find out what the hubbub is about.”
“Yeah,” Redgrave said softly. “Yeah. I’ll be along after I pack up my stuff.” He turned to see Trip nearly done reassembling the kit, Karis halfheartedly sweeping at the porch. He frowned at Trip, who gazed at him as guileless as an animal. Redgrave deliberately crossed to the pillar, and took his time pulling the wooden barber sign down and folding it. He tossed it at Trip, somewhat ungently.
“Well let’s go.”
“Look, it is not okay to shoot at the sheriff!” Fins insisted, her voice shrill. The meeting hall was bustling with gossip and whispering, and even with the windows open, it was close inside. Oil lamps pushed against the shadows as the sun sank outside. About fifty people were in the hall, it was almost half full. Fins stood at the lectern, red-faced, her hair wild. “I was up there at the picnic site, and a chod took a shot at me. So I need a posse, and we need to get up there before we lose the last of the light!” Her volume rose to a brittle shout.
“Honey, it’s already dark, by the time you get back,” Jack Casey soothed. “We’ll have to go up there tomorrow at the earliest.”
“The absolute earliest!” chimed in a man in overalls with a dirt-smeared face and a grin.
“Plus, we gotta iron out fees,” chimed in a sweating, heavily muscled man. “How much do we get per bullet expended in the line of duty?”
“Let’s not forget fodder for the horses, that’s state provided,” chimed in a wag in dusty canvas pants. “What about lost wages? I mean, every hour I’m gone, that’s a handyman I gotta pay! For much less dangerous work,” he said with a condescending nod.
“Now, are you accepting men?” Jack asked, the model of concern. “Maybe the little miss sheriff needs a matching little miss posse. I recommend Martha Hollaman,” he said, tilting his head at the gray-haired matron observing the process with marked distaste. She recoiled from the idea, glaring at Jack, and then at Fins. Muffled laughter rippled through the hall.
“We’ll go,” simpered a couple of the women from Sadie’s, sporting their newly coiffed hair, blowing kisses to chuckling men.
“Yeah, this is all pretty funny,” Fins said with a cold voice. “If a chod is out there taking shots at me, then the two missing people may already be dead.” She paused, allowing a moment of discomfort in the hall. “Nobody wants that,” she said through her teeth. “I want to find Jenny and Alf and get them back here safe and sound.” Her knuckles were white as she gripped the lectern. “Now. Who will go back up there tonight and do whatever we can to find them?”
“Look, they’re gone, Ms. Finsweller,” Jack said, frowning. “Don’t go alarming people. I’m sure Alf and Jenny will write when they’ve got where they are going. Or at least by the time the first grandbaby is on the way,” he said, shifting to a disarming smile, a sidelong glance taking in the relieved nods of his supporters.
“You were pretty eager to be deputized earlier today,” Fins shot back. “Now you won’t do it?”
Jack hesitated only a moment. “Of course I will,” he said, patronizing. “I’ll go with you and make sure they aren’t up there hiding somewhere.”
“Good,” Fins said. “I need another volunteer. Somebody to watch the jail, so I can take Tubbuk.” She looked over the uneasy room. “Bromly,” she said, her voice somewhere between an order and a plea.
“I, uh,” he began. He looked around uneasily. “Sure,” he shrugged.
“Bromly, get us some lanterns together. Jack, get us horses. I’ll get a couple stretchers for Tubbuk to carry, just in case. Let’s go.”
Redgrave was already gone.
“Dammit,” Redgrave muttered, hefting the second bulky case up onto the table in the small wooden room. “I mean damn it.” He slammed the case down, snapped it open. Pulled out a gunbelt, strapped it on. Tied the stabilizer at the barrel end of the holster around his upper leg, slung low. Reached back into the case, pulling out two handfuls of pistol; one heavy and black, with a red silhouette of a black widow emblazoned on the grip. That dropped into the low holster on his right. The other pistol sheathed snugly at the small of his back. With quick practiced motions, he put a large sheathed knife in his boot. He shrugged on his coat, ducked into his hat, and turned to unroll his blanket on the bed. In the center, a sawed-off shotgun. He hefted it, and turned to glare at Karis and Trip, who watched expressionless.
“Details,” he demanded.
“The picnic ground is three miles east, overlooking the lake and the road to Smoit,” Trip said, his mincing enunciation oddly clear.
Redgrave waited a few seconds. “Anything else I should know?” he asked, eyes narrowing.
“You know what I know,” Trip said earnestly.
Redgrave waited a few more seconds. Then he shook his head. “Alright. Dammit. Let’s go.” He pulled a leash out of the case, and snapped it on the ring on Trip’s neck. “Quiet-like.”
Quietly, the trio slipped through the window onto the balcony over Sadie’s porch. They headed to the side. Karis and Trip swarmed down the columns, dropping soundlessly to the earth. Redgrave made surprisingly little noise clambering down the heavily secured drainpipe, landing like a cat. Trip handed the big man the end of the leash, guiding him through the post-sunset darkness before moonrise with the ease of one who could see in the dark.
Somewhere in the town behind them, the posse prepared to ride out. Redgrave, Karis, and Trip moved with speed and quietness, easily navigating the slightly muddy slope until they reached the road to the picnic ground.
They covered miles with ease, skilled travelers used to night raids. The moon was rising by the time they reached the picnic ground, and a surreal glow drifted across the scene.
“Karis,” Redgrave said as he hunched behind a rock. She nodded, and ghosted out into the darkness. Trip and Redgrave waited soundlessly, listening, resting.
Minutes later, Karis returned. “Four chod,” she murmured. “One on this side of the hill, three on the other. One guards a cave mouth, the other three are pickets.”
“How close to the cave?” Redgrave growled.
Karis shrugged. “Maybe a couple dozen yards,” she whispered. “Neutralize the one by the cave mouth, the others are bored and not paying attention.”
“What’s in the cave?” Redgrave asked as he leaned his head back, closing his eyes, visualizing.
“Humans,” Karis murmured. “Probably chod. I didn’t get close.”
“How many, do you think?” Redgrave asked.
“I’ll look,” Trip volunteered. “Check the tracks.” Redgrave nodded, and the klee ducked around the brush and out of sight.
Redgrave waited, watching the rising moon. Karis settled back, effortlessly alert, incapable of boredom. More minutes drifted past, then Trip returned.
“Total, I think three men and two prisoners, with five chod,” the klee said. “The sheriff was right.”
Redgrave thought for another minute. “We don’t have a lot of time,” he growled. “Karis, I don’t want to worry about the chod guarding the cave mouth. I don’t want him dead, either. Can you fix that for me?”
“Yes,” she replied emotionlessly.
“Trip, be ready to back me up,” Redgrave said, “in case this works, or in case it doesn’t. You got it?”
Redgrave took a deep breath, then let it out. “Karis. You have a three minute head start.”
“More than I need. Two,” she replied.
“Two,” Redgrave nodded. “Get out there and impress me.”
She vanished into the dim moonlight, her colorless hair and pale skin blending with the moon tones painted across the surfaces that blocked light to the impenetrable shadows around them.
Two minutes. Then Redgrave followed.
Past the bored chod picket, who settled halfway down the slope drowsing. Over the ridge. Past the chod on his back with his coat stuffed in his huge maw, Karis crouched beside him with a knife dug some way into his throat flesh and next to things he could not live without. Down to the mouth of the cave, where it leaked a little light out into the dimness, ruddy against the moonlight.
Redgrave closed his eyes, focused, then crept forward.
“I’m just saying we should figure this out,” the sallow young man said, toying with his knife. “Come on, Cameron. The stage passes through here tomorrow. We can hit it and be gone before they know what happened. But we don’t want to start thinking about our hostages once we’ve got the loot.”
“I’ve told you again and again! We don’t do anything with the hostages until we have the loot,” Cameron replied, tall and dashing in the close confines of the cave. “Anything can happen in the heat of the moment. Still, I expect the heist will go smoothly. We’ve prepared, and we’ve got our chod ready to go. Right, Henry?”
“Naturally,” said the pudgy man slumped by the small fire. “Especially because we figure it will go right, I have to say I agree with Joe. You want to keep the hostages in reserve in case we need them to guarantee our safety. Fine and good. Once we pass that point, we have options.” He leaned forward, the firelight glowing on his greasy face. “I say we pay the chod with them, instead of a share of the money. The chod can use them as playthings, and when they’re bored, eat them.” He grinned, a ghastly expression. “More money for us.”
At the back of the cave, a chod lay by the prisoners, watching them with glittering eyes, motionless, slowly drooling. Guarding them. Waiting.
“No need to make this worse for ourselves than it has to be,” Joe replied, trying not to sound nervous. “This goes right, nobody dies. We could ransom the kids back to the town, add a little something on top of the stagecoach payroll.”
“Or we could just leave them here,” Cameron said. “Let fate sort it out. I mean, we picked this perfect hiding place to raid the stagecoach, and fate brought a church picnic and a couple amorous twits to our doorstep. Maybe we hit the stagecoach, and see if fate will bring them out safely.” He turned to the two bound teenagers at the back of the cave. “How does that sound?” he asked mildly.
“Please,” Alf quavered. “We won’t tell anybody. Just—just let us go.”
“That’s not very heroic,” Henry noted mildly. “You should threaten us. Tell us we’ll never get away with it. That sort of thing. Don’t you read dime novels?” His smile was positively nasty.
“It does seem unmanly when a boy begs for his life,” Cameron admitted, eyes lingering on the slightly bloodied young woman who lay very still, eyes large and tormented, watching him. “But a lady? Hm.” He crossed his arms, taking her in with his eyes. “She wisely has elected not to call attention to herself.”
“No touching the hostages until afterwards,” Joe reminded Cameron, something almost gleeful in his tone.
“I don’t want to tempt fate,” Cameron agreed. Almost reluctantly, he turned away. “Random chance threatens us far more than the best laid plans of our targets.” He shook his head. “We wait.”
Everyone in the cave flinched—“Aren’t we all glad you waited.” The harsh voice grated in the confines of the stone cave, and they all whirled to see the hulking man entirely blocking the exit, shotgun loosely held in one hand.
Everything froze for an impossibly long split second.
With a snarl, Henry snatched at his gun; Redgrave’s arm snapped forward, his knife deflecting a shard of light from the fire as it whipped across the intervening space and slammed into Henry’s arm, knocking it to the side, banging off the rock—Henry let out a strangled gasp, going white, clutching his arm.
“Sawed off, buckshot, I can’t miss,” Redgrave said, his rough voice pounding at those he faced, the shotgun dipping to point at the space between Cameron and Joe. “Hell of a mess. Now, this is where we have story time. How about I go first?”
Cameron was mesmerized by something absolutely fearless in Redgrave’s eyes, and Joe trembled. The chod shifted, uneasy, all guns out of reach.
“Good,” Redgrave nodded. “Here’s a story. There once was a very scary man who was famous for his skills with a long rifle, and his generally cussed refusal ta die. He busted chod, mashed up bandit armies, robbed stagecoaches, whatever. He eventually settled down as a lawman, got tired a that, then retired to some innocent little job in the middle of nowhere.” He paused, not looking at Cameron’s gun, or Joe’s knife, or the rifle off to the side. “He wouldn’t sweat a single drop faced with a handful of punks and their little chod gang. He wouldn’t lose a wink a sleep if they all were blown away. But one night he found some cute little criminals, just like you all.” Redgrave paused. “I like that you weren’t gonna kill anybody. I like that you understand the power of fate. So you all get to live tonight.” His eyes narrowed. “Drop yer guns.”
Trip stepped out of Redgrave’s shadow, and picked up the knives, pistols, and rifle. He piled them beside Redgrave, not sparing Henry a glance as Henry softly whined, clutching at his seeping arm, the knife still thrust through it.
“Free ‘em,” Redgrave growled, and Trip carefully stepped between Cameron and Joe, past the chod, slipping his knife loose and cutting the bonds on Alf and Jenny. The teens struggled to move, their circulation just beginning to tingle pain into their numb limbs.
“Now you all get some story time,” Redgrave said, his smile utterly mirthless.
The rocking chair quietly squeaked, then creaked. Squeak, creak. Redgrave looked out into the breathing humidity of the night past Sadie’s porch, lit by squares of light falling out the windows from the saloon.
Trip squatted on a stool next to the chair, his eyes reflecting light cat-like as he watched the small crowd heading back to Sadie’s from the meeting hall, babbling with excitement.
Townsend bustled out of the saloon, meeting them on the porch. “Well what happened?” he demanded.
“Bromly is a terrible deputy,” tittered one of the ladies. “He let Sly and Angus out!”
“I did,” Bromly protested. “I heard they found Jenny and Alf, so what the hell. Fins can fine me, or lock me up too,” he grinned. “But it was amazing! Fins got out there, and found that Alf and Jenny heard about the sheriff looking for them, got loose, grabbed the bandit guns, and held them prisoner until the sheriff could arrive!”
“Anybody hurt?” Townsend asked, shocked.
“Just one of the bandits, got a knife in the arm. Fell on it, I guess,” Bromly shrugged, “that part wasn’t clear. Anyway, Alf and Jenny are back, Sly and Angus are friends again, and Fins kind of rescued the hostages, who captured the bandits. Tomorrow, the stagecoach comes through. Maybe there will be a marshal or a judge on it, and we can sort those bastards out.”
“Drinks on the house!” Townsend cried, delighted. “Details, people, I need details!”
The chattering crowd swept into the saloon, with steady reinforcements from the direction of the hall; the town was in a celebratory mood, even though it was only hours until midnight.
Karis slipped over the railing and crouched by Redgrave.
“Sounds like it went real smooth,” Redgrave murmured, almost sounding bemused.
“The bit about the long rifle sealed the deal,” Karis shrugged. “They felt your sights itching on them all the way back to town. Even in your absence.”
“Guess I made an impression,” Redgrave growled, pleased.
They watched from the half-shadowed porch as a chattering group surrounding Jenny, Alf, Sly, and Angus (along with their considerable families) pressed through the doorway of the saloon, delirious with relief. For a fraction of a second, Alf made eye contact with Redgrave, then he was swept past. The saloon’s piano was pounding away with some lighthearted tune that was fashionable in the Core a decade ago.
Trip squatted in front of Redgrave’s boots. “Shoe shine?” he asked, innocently enough.
“Always,” Redgrave sighed, looking out at the moonlit dimness.
Trip started with the rag, whipping the drying mud off the big man’s boots. “Well, that was fun,” he observed. “Looking to be sheriff again so soon?”
“Nope,” Redgrave said.
“Hm,” Trip murmured. “We should keep going,” he added, attention absorbed on the left boot.
“North, huh,” Redgrave echoed. Trip just nodded. Redgrave took a deep sigh, then settled his jaw.
“No,” he said. “I just decided. I think I’m going to stay here for a while.” He grinned to himself.
“It will be boring,” Trip pointed out in a small voice.
“I’m due some boredom,” Redgrave agreed. He pulled his left boot back, and grinned as he thrust his right boot out.
A teenager stepped out of the saloon, swinging the door shut behind himself and stepping off to the side. He squinted at Redgrave. “I knew it,” he said, almost to himself. “It was you.”
“Remember storytime?” Redgrave muttered. “Keep it to yerself. You owe me that.”
“I do, I know, sure,” the teenager agreed, nodding fast. “I’m Alf.”
“Good ta meetcha,” Redgrave muttered, watching the moonlight. “Don’t you have a party to go to?”
“Right, but this—I mean, wow!” Alf exclaimed. “Why did you do it? You don’t even know me! You could have been killed!”
“Don’t you worry about that,” Redgrave muttered. “I genuinely hope you never do understand. I’m a barber,” he said, with a sharp look. “And that’s all. You owe me your life. So shut up.”
“Right, I know, right,” Alf nodded. “I don’t understand, but you got it.” He hesitated. “I mean… I always wanted to get out of this chodsquat town. Do something, you know? Something exciting.” He paused, unsure what he wanted to say.
“And I could, and I did, and now here I am, so to speak. Right?” Redgrave finished for him.
“Well… yeah,” Alf said, puzzled.
“Ssh,” Redgrave murmured, touching his finger to his lips. Alf blinked a couple times, slowly nodded, pursing his lips. Then he turned, and pushed his way back into the saloon.
The party got lubricated in the room behind them, but Redgrave, Karis, and Trip stayed on the porch, watching the steady moon, wordless.
The last of the revelers from the Hall approached the saloon, with Jack and Tubbuk.
“Sorry, end of the line,” Jack said, pointing up at the board hanging over the door. A stylized chod hand was carved in the board. “We’ll toss you out a bottle,” he said, condescending. Happy, Tubbuk nodded, setting his chin-flesh and breasts to wobbling.
Jack headed in, and moments later, a bottle whizzed out the door, bouncing off Tubbuk. The chod bent over, picked it up, and gleefully trotted back towards main street.
Fresh hoots and laughter, then a drinking song picked up momentum inside. Moments later, Jack stepped out, looking around. He spotted Redgrave, and his eyes narrowed. He stepped over to the rocking chair where the barber contemplated the night.
“Not celebrating?” he said.
“Oh, I’m celebrating,” Redgrave muttered with a crooked grin.
“You’re new here,” Jack pointed out. “I think there’s a better than even chance you were involved with those bandits somehow. A recruit, or a spy. I haven’t figured it out yet.”
“Surprise, surprise,” Redgrave drawled, one eyebrow lazily cocked.
Jack’s expression closed to a glower. “I think it’s time you moved on, stranger.”
“But I’m liking it here more and more,” Redgrave explained slowly, as to a child, eyes open and mocking.
Jack’s expression cleared to disdain. “Alright, that’s how you want it. Know this. I don’t like you.” He paused for dramatic effect, and leaned closer. “I’ll be watching you, mister.”
“He doesn’t do tricks,” Karis said, her voice flat. Startled, Jack glanced at her, and saw the klee’s flat eyes soullessly reflecting the light from the window. He looked back at Redgrave. At the insolent challenge in his eyes.
“Worried about shoplifting, Mr. Grocer?” Redgrave said deliberately.
Jack’s disdain got ragged around the edges. Rather than reply, he pushed back into the saloon.
“Oh, that’s too fun,” Redgrave grinned like a little boy. “We’ll get you somethin nice,” he assured Karis, who smiled demurely.
“What about me?” Trip said plaintively.
“What about you, little norther?” Redgrave growled. “By the Christ, with the ‘north’ all the time.”
“Sheriff coming,” Karis said as Trip pouted. Redgrave leaned back. Trip glanced at the window, saw Townsend watching the approach.
Fins reached the steps before Townsend stepped out on the porch. “Well, Ms. Finsweller, I’m so glad to hear how it turned out,” he said with a wide smile.
“You are easy enough to find now that it’s over,” Fins replied, something rough in her abused voice. “Turns out we didn’t need you anyway.” Her eyes were hard.
“Keep up that good work,” Townsend replied, with a ‘good on ya’ gesture with his fist. “Drinks are on me tonight, just for you.” He offered her another winning smile, then headed back inside.
“People might be surprised,” Redgrave said, startling Fins. “How lucky they are ta have you.”
“Scuse me?” she retorted, anger quick behind her tone. She glared at the half-shadowed man.
“You got guts, sheriff,” Redgrave growled. “Enough to make a stand, no matter what. I mean, you are green as grass. But you got guts.”
She stared at him for a few seconds. “Yeah. I gotta go.” She turned, dropping off the porch and heading back to main street, glancing back over her shoulder at the man on the porch once she was a half dozen yards away.
Trip and Karis stared at Redgrave.
“What?” he protested playfully. “I don’t want to be sheriff. I got some boredom coming to me, remember?” He examined his boot. “Trip. You missed a spot.”
With a soundless sigh, the klee pulled his cloth from his pocket, and got to work.