Authors: Eric Barkett
By Eric Barkett
Darkness had always seemed to hold terrors for man, grasping fingers that clutched at humankind in the black. But there once was a time when the shadows were empty. A time long since passed. Perhaps it ended when Eve bit the apple, or when Pandora opened her box. Maybe cruel gods in the north created foul monsters to punish man. Whatever the case, these horrors traveled alongside man as time rolled on. As man waged his petty wars, lived short lives, and time rolled onward terrible beasts crept to the edges of history. Slaying the innocent and preying on the weak, the darkest nightmares thrived.
No matter how cruel nor vicious, vampires, trolls, werewolves, and each terrible beast hungry for flesh became, a group rose to fight the relentless creatures of night. Monster slayers, hunters, knights, or mercenaries. Whatever their reasons: money, fame, or righteous fury. In whatever time or place: the stones of ancient Rome, black forests of Germany, or the dark edges of civilization they battled the foul. And in a new world, molded from the scarred remnants of a long civil war, men now seeking a paycheck received another term as they became willing to hunt the predators stalking in the night for money: gunslinger.
The sun was high in the cloudless sky, when the rider rode from the east. Its harsh gaze had traveled from his back to his brown hat. Opposite direction of the perspiration rolling down his back. Both the man and the horse were damp from sweat. Neither had the energy to run through the desert wasteland around them to escape and find sanctuary. It was too hot. Shriveled shrubs around gave testimony to the scorching truth. The horse continued to plod forward, urged wearily on by its rider. There was little indication to show which way lay asylum from the desert, besides the rail tracks he had been following for two days. The parallel tracks ran off into the horizon. It was bound to end one day.
The rider spat the piece of jerky from his mouth. It was too dry to chew the tough, salted meat. In its place he took a deep sip from his canteen. Tugging on his reins he stopped his horse. The animal deserved water more than he did. He had led his horse west, into the frontier. The horse gratefully accepted the water, whinnying in pleasure. Patting its neck, he held a hand to the sun and estimated the time. It looked around to be noon. Plenty of time still left to grow hotter.
“Well, Jed,” he said to himself, “you have dealt with hotter weather.”
Of course that was not true. Jed had spent his entire life east. Most of the time living east of Appalachia and all of the time east of the Mississippi. This heat in Arizona territory was completely different and savage. He had, however, survived worse situations. That was true. Jed climbed back onto his horse. The chestnut gelding plodded forward after he gave it a light kick with his heel, harder than most would. He did not wear spurs. Not in his line of work.
Another twenty minutes passed in the saddle before he thought he saw something. Ahead there looked to be a track change. Jed changed sides of the track, approaching the diverging paths. A train would have two choices. It could continue heading west, before Jed, or head south. His choices were the same. Keep going west or move south a little. South in the distance appeared mountains and hills, a welcome change in scenery. West was a constant of flat open ground. Then he glanced at the sun again. Several hours from now it would in his eyes, below the brim of his hat, if he kept the course steady. He chose south. Dragging on the reins he rode away from the setting sun, hoping that the track did not lead him all the way down to Mexico before he found something.
Hours and miles later Jed spotted a train station. It was the most ragged and desolate place he had ever seen. There was a worn wooden platform and a sad looking building. It was large, big enough to have room for more than its one window to look onto the platform. Nothing else was around to justify the purpose of a second story, one completely without windows. Stepping off his horse he tried to see through the window. The glass was to dirty and he could merely hope someone was inside. Thankfully there was. It was a morose man staring at his pocket watch. Thin and wobbly he had a pronounced Adam’s apple that bobbled as he talked.
“Oh my,” he said seeing Jed walk through the door. “Uh, can I help you?”
Jed ignored his bulging eyes and throat, taking in the room. A chair, a desk, a ledger book, stairs, and a door to other rooms. “Strange place to have a station,” he responded.
The station master paused a moment, his eyes darting to Jed’s. “Why is that, sir?”
“There is nothing here.”
“Well, sir, there is a town, two miles back.” The station master pointed behind and past the wall. “You can see a road from out back.” His eyes went back to the guns at Jed’s hips.
Jed had one last question. “Why is the station so far away from the town?”
“Rich misers, that’s why. This railroad was here before the town. The people who own the town are to stringy to pay for closer tracks,” he said ruefully. “That means I have to travel two miles every time a train comes by. If the train comes late I have to spend the night on one of the beds upstairs. No sympathy from the rich, though.”
Jed tipped his hat to stop the babbling, “Thank you for the information.”
After he left the station master whispered once more, “Oh my.”
Leaving the station master to his boredom Jed exited to the dry, hot air outside. Patting the horse Jed said, “Just a little way further.”
The station master lied. There was no road behind the station. It was a trail, outlined by wagon wheels. The man and horse moved out again. Gradually through the haze the town came into view. There was a sign post by the trail. It read, ‘Hickory.’ A strange name considering there were no trees in sight. Perhaps it was wishful thinking. Surprisingly, the size of the town appeared fit for a couple hundred people. He passed by several houses on the outskirts. Even in the middle of nowhere, some people wanted more space. The town had two streets, the center one leading from the train station and another one that intersected, running horizontal. Shops, stores, and houses lined the streets with little room in between, common for the frontier area.
The town’s saloon was located at the intersection. The Lucky Strike was a new building. Its red doors were still bright, the paint unfaded. Jed wrapped his horse’s reins on a wooden post. Wiping sweat from his brow, Jed pushed the bright doors open and stepped in. Inside was mercifully cooler.
He was not the only one to think so. Dozens of men occupied the tables and bar. The wood creaked as Jed walked to the bar.
Every saloon had patrons who always looked at who entered. When they stared long enough the other patrons glanced the same way. In short order almost every eye was looking at Jed. Jed was not a large man, he stood average height. Wide shouldered, his posture and straight back gave him the appearance of standing taller. Under his hat he had dirty blond hair, wet with sweat, and eyes more colorless than green. Over his shirt was a black vest, faded like most his clothes. None of those features drew the eyes of the patrons. Like the station master, they stared at the two guns at his hip. The right gun was a Colt Peacemaker, nothing strange there. Cowboys, bandits, and sheriffs drew the Colt. The West was filled with them. The left one was noticeably larger than its partner. It held a much larger caliber, not favored among the men civilizing this frontier, The Kruger ‘72. Together they represented a profession. Gunslinger, a new name for an old job.
The stares did not bother Jed. He was used to the attention he drew. Gunslingers were not very common. Not many tried to become one. Or lasted. Whereas gunslingers were not common, their reputation was.
He strode to the bar. The bartender was huge. Little other way to put it. Legs thicker than men and a broad, barrel chest. And if his chest was a barrel then his arms were the artillery shells. Bald on top, his mustache drooped to his chin. His voice was deep and booming.
“What can I do for you?” He asked, a slight Nordic accent to his words, definitely not the most common accent one found.
“I’d like a drink to cool my tongue.” Jed replied. “It’s hot enough to make the devil himself sweat.”
The bartender poured whiskey into a shot glass. Jed took it and drained it in a gulp. “I’d like a room too.”
The bartender shook his head. “Sorry mister…”
“Jedediah Ethan. Call me Jed.”
“My name is Bjorn. Unfortunately, my rooms are all sold out. But, Ms. Jan has plenty down the road at her boarding house.”
Jed tipped his hat. “Much obliged.”
He strode out. The eyes once again watching him walk. Outside the sun was still scorching the land. Daring anything to brave the heat. Only Jed and his horse took the dare. The boarding house was close by. Several stories high, it could hold many rooms. Again Jed walked into the shade. The door knocked a bell as he entered, signaling his arrival.
A woman stood behind the desk. She had a harsh matronly face. Jed could tell immediately she tolerated no nonsense. Ms. Jan’s hair was a mix of red and gray wrapped in a bun.
“May I help you?” She asked sternly.
“I’d like a room, ma’am.”
Ms. Jan opened a large book and drew a pen. Dipping the pen in ink she asked, “Name.”
“Well, Mr. Ethan the room is ten dollars a night. I accept neither gold nor late payments. If you cannot pay, then you cannot stay. I will provide breakfast at 7:30 and dinner at 6 every day.”
“People pay with gold much?” He asked.
“Yes,” she said swiftly.
Jed winced at the price. Ten dollars was steep for a room. He doubted he had much choice. Giving her the money, he said, “You wouldn’t happen to have a stable? I got a horse out front.”
Ms. Jan shouted, “Roy!”
A gangly youth came running. “Yes, Ms. Jan?”
“Stable this man’s horse.” She ordered. The boy ran off. “I will show you your room.” Ms. Jan walked up the stairs.
Jed’s room had a window facing the street. He could see the saloon and many other buildings, including a barbershop. The room itself was bare. There was a bed and a table. The table was just large enough to justify having a chair. A blanket was used as a curtain for the window. It may have been the worst ten dollars spent in his life. At least there was a roof and the possibility for a passable meal.
Thanking Ms. Jan he followed her out to explore the town. Jed went to the barbershop he saw from his window. He past a general store and many houses. Many were unfinished, their wooden beams showing and the frames standing alone. Most definitely the town was growing.
Jed went back to the boarding house. Cursorily, he checked his horse. The young boy was diligently wiping it down. Jed gave him a dollar for his trouble. The boy’s face lit up in astonishment. Exhausted by the heat, the gunslinger went to bed early.
Jed woke the next morning and began his day taking a long stretch. Yawning he stood and checked his things. The guns came first. Both were fully loaded, six shots. Some men liked to keep the first cylinder empty, in case they shot when they did not mean to. He preferred having every available bullet he could ready to fire. Next, he inspected the little box in his vest. The bullets in the case rattled. The knife in his boot was still there, a slim blade.
Satisfied, he went to breakfast. The extravagant meal was composed of bread and beans. The staple of every diet when supplies were high and low. Not nearly as many men were at the saloon at this early hour. Though if the heat continued like yesterday, they would be back soon. Jed did see the station master at the bar getting a drink. Sitting by himself for privacy he had Bjorn pour him a drink.
“You staying in Hickory for a little longer?” Bjorn asked.
Jed shook his head. “Maybe. I may take a couple of days to recuperate.”
Bjorn chuckled, “I understand. Not many men dare to ride out here. Not with trains.”
Getting up, he tapped the station master. “When does the train come in?”
The station master answered, “They come in at all times. Today the only train was at six in the morning. Tomorrow won’t have one, but the day after it comes in around noon. By the way I am Ron Hudson.” He held out a skinny arm.
Jed shook it. “Jed.” The prospect of riding in the heat again was unimaginable.
The red saloon doors swooshed as someone entered. “Jedediah Ethan?”
The gunslinger turned around, unconsciously brushing his fingers on the Colt. The man calling his name wore a sheriff’s star. His peppered gray mustache matched the strands of hair dripping from his hat. He looked seasoned and experienced. Probably not a new at hand at law enforcement. By his side was a younger man. The deputy appeared new. He had a cocky arrogant face, a nose sharp and hooked like a hawk. One that Jed couldn’t help but dislike. A rifle hung in his grip.
“I’m Jed,” the gunslinger replied, leaning back on the bar.
The sheriff walked up. “I am Sheriff Carter and this is my deputy Ross.”
“Pleased to meet you both. How can I help, gentlemen?” Ross glared at Jed. If he hadn't been a lawman they might have been shooting in the street right now.
Sheriff Carter gestured to the door. “I need you to come with us.”
Jed was not interested in going anywhere without information. Bad experience in the past. “What is this about?”
Ross snarled, “You will do what the sheriff says.” Jed raised his eyebrows, not budging an inch.
Sighing the sheriff explained, “Don’t worry you are not in trouble. It is more like a job proposal.”
Jed still remained motionless. “I’m retired, sorry to say sheriff.”
“It’s less of a job and more of a consultation. Just some advice really. I’d be much appreciated if you would help me out,” Carter persuaded.
Jed clicked his tongue. If it was only advice then it shouldn’t take to long or be much trouble. Besides pissing off the sheriff if he planned on staying for a couple of days would not be wise. “I’ll take a look,” Jed said, leaning off the bar.
Ross blocked his path, staring in Jed’s eyes. Carter grabbed his deputy’s shoulder. “Come on, Ross.”
Reluctantly Ross turned away. Jed could only shake his head as they stepped outside. Despite the early hour the sun was blazing away. Feeling they would not explain anything yet, Jed kept silent. A light wind was blowing dust around. Thankfully, a wooden walkway kept them from walking in the dust.
Wagons started down the street moving further into town. It was filled with the rough men who stayed at the boarding house. Occasionally, it would stop before one of the houses and a man would climb onto it.