The Call (Volume One of The Book of West Marque)
by Richard Parkinson
Copyright © 2016 by Richard Parkinson
The Fifth Wheel — John Gray
The spring storm had harried John Gray for two days. It was a great ugly thing, a bank of boiling black clouds that rose high into the sky, scratching the belly of the heavens. The winds came with it, whipping the rain and hail into his face as forks of lightning stabbed the countryside and crashes of thunder rang in his ears.
It had only broken the day before, the heavy clouds scattering and disappearing, giving way to a clear blue sky. There was no sign that the weather had ever been anything other than perfect.
It was a hellish ride that matched his mood — dark and sour.
The storm had seemed to push him onward, toward his duty, to here.
The town was aptly named. In place of the vibrant forest that once surrounded it, centuries ago, were fields filled with petrified white trunks.
John Gray was not happy to be riding into this backwater. He had left Barres Beacon three days ago. Forty-nine people called that place home, the town consisting of a dusty saloon, a shed that served as both railway station and telegraph office, and a handful of shacks. All the same, it held vital clues as to the whereabouts of the Gambler and his wife.
Gray had pursued them up and down the frontier all winter. He had chased them into the burning desert of the Glaze and followed their tracks deep into the wilds of the Eastern Range. Every time Gray thought he was about to run down his quarry, they would elude him. The Gambler’s wife had nearly laid Gray low once, but the bullet meant for his head only put a hole in his hat. The Gambler, Gray conceded, was an exceptionally clever man and his wife a cunning and nasty she-devil.
Their crimes were many, but only one of their crimes really concerned Gray. Treason.
In Beacon he had obtained some vital intelligence from a nearly toothless farmer who had sold the Gambler a pair of solid horses. The Gambler and his wife, the farmer said, were heading south to book passage on a river runner. They were tucking up their tails and running home, which meant their work was done.
They only had a two-day head start and Gray knew he could ride them down.
But an urgent telegram came to Barres Beacon that road-blocked Gray’s pursuit. It wasn’t addressed to him directly, but rather to any Fifth Wheel in the region, and Gray was the only Fifth Wheel for leagues.
As a Fifth Wheel, Gray was bound to the realm. His Order was an ancient one that had existed for nine centuries. The Knights of the Realm, they were called, and there were many in his Order who took great pride in that. But when Gray thought of knights, he thought of fools riding in shining armor, with flowers on their helmets, out saving damsels. They carried swords and shields in the days of yore. Now they carried guns.
The telegram had contained orders directing him to this place, to Dead Tree.
THREE MURDERED IN DEAD TREE. SHERIFF REPORTS ALL FIFTH WHEELS. FRESHLY GUNNED. INVESTIGATE AND BRING THOSE RESPONSIBLE TO JUSTICE.
Gray cursed aloud when he read the words and he nearly struck the old, scrawny telegraph operator who was trembling, wide-eyed in his chair. The murder of three of his Order was no small thing. It was certainly not something he could ignore. Freshly gunned. The three were wet-behind-the-ears recruits — boys not necessarily new to the saddle, but certainly new to the trail. As much as Gray wanted to catch the Gambler and his wife, he would have to leave that work to others. It was more than likely the pair would pass unmolested and slip safely into Seawall, beyond the hands of justice. Gray cursed one more time, crushing the telegram in his hand as he did so, and left.
* * *
Dead Tree was not much to look at. Still, with a population of two hundred or more, it was a metropolis compared to Barres Beacon.
He put his heels into Horse’s sides, and the chestnut mare responded at once. He had given up naming his mounts years ago. It was tough to get attached to the animals only to have them die under him. Horse was the fifth mount of that name.
Gray was tall and broad of shoulder. His features were ordinary, but his blue eyes were bright. His face was weathered from years of hard riding, his wide jaw covered in stubble from lack of a sharp razor. His hair, which was still brown despite his forty years, hung long and limp about his shoulders. His riding clothes were well-made but worn, any color they once had faded to a dull grays and browns.
He wanted to make an entrance into town, so he urged Horse into a healthy trot. The stark white trunks of the trees disturbed him and the sour yellow grass that surrounded the trunks disturbed him even more. There was something queer about the countryside, which wasn’t unusual being so close to the Range.
White dust puffed off his shoulders with each step of his horse. He had ridden through a storm to get here, but it had refused to rain in these parts for weeks. On the horizon, though, storm clouds were gathering again. Dead Tree would have rain soon enough, and lots of it.
It was a two-day gallop from Barres Beacon to Dead Tree. Gray had made the journey in three. Foul weather be damned. He was bitter about being thrown off the Gambler’s trail, and he saw no reason to blow Horse. Horse had been with him for a while. It was a stubborn mount, but loyal. Tough to get going, but good on the trail when he finally did. Whether Gray made the journey in two days or three, it made little difference. The bodies of the young men he was sent to examine would still be there. Men? In truth, they were only boys. They had yet to earn their spurs. Nonetheless, they were of Gray’s kind, Fifth Wheels. It took some nerve to kill one Fifth Wheel, let alone three, even if they were just boys.
The first house he came to on the edge of town was a leaning structure with a sagging roof. There was an old man sitting on the porch and a large brown dog was curled around his feet. The man had the same hard look that most landed folk wore this close to the Range. Gray tipped his hat to him and he nodded in return. The dog didn’t even lift its head. The old codger’s expression was sour, as sour as the yellow grass on his doorstep. At least he had the good grace to nod, Gray thought. It was a better welcome than he received in many a frontier town.
Gray would make no detours. Now that he was here, he would get right down to business. His first stop would be the sheriff’s office. It was the sheriff’s appeal that had ultimately summoned him here, so Gray was determined to rattle his cage first.
The town was crowded in on itself, the buildings square boxes made of wood. It was mostly bland and brown with a rare splash of faded red or blue paint on some of the windowsills and walls. There were a few dogs lolling around and some people going about their business. An old woman gave Gray a quick glance, but the rest kept their eyes to the ground. The only living thing that seemed to have any spirit in it was a ginger cat. The tom was sitting on a fencepost and seemed to wink at Gray until he realized the critter was missing an eye. The cat had a leg cocked high, lazily licking its genitals, pausing only briefly to watch horse and rider pass with an arrogant look before getting back to its grooming.
The sheriff’s office was small and dusty, built up against the wall of the livery, looking almost like an afterthought. The smell of horse and manure was thick in the air and so were the flies. Gray swatted the flies aside as he hitched Horse to the post in front of the building. He stepped up and rattled on the door. No answer. He knocked again, louder. Never hurts to knock with your guts, rather than your knuckles, he thought. Still, his second knock met with the same silence as the first. He turned and looked around. A few townsfolk were eyeing him from a safe distance, old men, loitering on the steps of the saloon.
"Where’s the sheriff?" he shouted, more forcefully than he intended, angry about the summons that had turned him from the Gambler’s trail.
One of the men proved braver than the rest. He gestured with a thumb toward the saloon door behind him. Gray left Horse hitched to the post in front of the sheriff’s office and strode across the square, kicking up dust as he went, until he stepped in a pile of dung. Angrily, he shook it off his boot and then went up the saloon steps, the old men quickly getting out of his way. A scrawny cat hissed at him before scurrying away on black paws.
The saloonkeeper had yet to close the outer doors against the approaching storm, so Gray banged open the flimsy batwings. The taproom was almost empty. Four men were playing cards at a table in the corner next to a window and a long, lean man tended the bar. The card players didn’t look up when Gray entered and the barkeep barely gave him a glance.
Gray walked to the bar, spurs rattling, and threw back his coat to reveal his badge of office and guns. That got the barkeep’s attention. He straightened up and moved to greet Gray with the worried look all common folk had when there was real authority about. "W-wanna d-d-drink...?" he stammered.
"No," Gray replied. "I want the sheriff. Where is he?" The barkeep’s beady brown eyes flashed over to the table in the corner and he pointed at the card players. Gray tipped his hat and surveyed the quartet. The sheriff sat closest to the window like a dope. Anyone outside could shoot him, Gray thought. He had a soft, fleshy face and was thick around the middle. He was licking his lips, staring hard at the cards in his hand. They must have been good. His three friends were middle-aged, well-dressed, and probably well-to-do. They were, however, still commoners. Gray knew there were no true gentry in Dead Tree. Only pretenders. He walked up to their table with purpose. It was covered with stained and faded green cloth to indicate it was the gaming table.
The sheriff did not even avert his gaze from his cards. He had a bent cigar stuffed in the corner of his mouth, which he removed to say, "No room for another. Table’s full," before shoving it back into his maw.
"I’m not here to play any games, sheriff." The sheriff’s head snapped up, angrily. His hand dropped to his gun, a gun that looked too oiled and new to be used. Gray pushed back his coat, so all could see his badge. The color drained from the sheriff’s face and his hands went to the table.
"I’m s-s-sorry, sir," he stammered.
"We’ve got business, I think," Gray replied, nodding toward to the door.
The man on the sheriff’s right, an old gent with a long bent nose, droopy eyes, and skin like old brown paper, had the audacity to whine, "But we’re in the middle of a game."
Gray quickly looked at each man’s hand in turn, shoved the money — a tidy pile of the smallest of copper coins — toward the sheriff, and declared, "You all lose." To the sheriff, he said, "Let’s go." The lawman gathered the coins from the table with a shrug and followed Gray out of the saloon.
"I didn’t think you’d be here so soon," he said, as soon as they were outside. He tossed away the stub of his cigar and quickened his pace to keep up with Gray. "I just sent the telegram a few days ago. I never realized. If I knew you were coming this quickly, I would have been waiting for you on the edge of town."
"I didn’t need a welcoming party," Gray snapped, looking hard at the man trotting beside him. He was a damn prattler, a talking sheriff. The Fifth Wheel was well acquainted with his type. Every backwater had a lazy lawman in it. They were good at breaking up fistfights, coaxing drunks into jail cells so they could sleep it off, and scolding boys for flinging night soil onto doorsteps, but they were good for little else. Gray had no time for wasted words and headed straight to the sheriff’s office. "Inside."
The man pulled a heavy key from his pocket and fumbled it around the lock. Gray was close to snatching the key from the sheriff’s hand when it slid in.
The sheriff’s office, such as it was, smelled of sweat, manure, and something rotten. A pot-bellied stove, older than the sheriff, was against the back wall. Dust was everywhere. The only desk looked unused. A wall was covered in wanted posters, most of them yellow with age. "Any of these men still alive or have they all died old men?" Gray asked, waving a hand at the posters as the sheriff waddled to his desk.
"A few," the sheriff said. It was hard to tell whether he meant they were alive or had died old geezers. The sheriff opened the desk drawer and produced a bottle of whiskey and two greasy glasses. "Drink?"
Gray was thirsty. "Sure."
The sheriff uncorked the bottle and poured with a shaky hand. Gray watched as a few drops hit the desktop. A shame. He took the closest glass, raised it in salute, and gulped the contents down in a single swig. The sheriff sipped at his.
"So, where are they?" Gray asked. The man looked puzzled for a moment and then there was a flash of realization. "Oh, the bodies." He let out a nervous chuckle. "In one of the cells." That was a fair enough place for them. Gray doubted the jail cells got much use.
The sheriff took another sip of his drink and then wandered over to a small iron door. Gray followed. The door clanked loudly when he turned the handle, but before opening it, he said, "I want to warn you about the smell."
"I have smelled dead men before," Gray replied impatiently, "Many more ripe than these three." The sheriff shrugged, opened the door, and gestured for Gray to take the lead.
Gray stepped in and the smell hit hard. The sheriff wasn’t kidding; these boys stank. The sheriff’s face blanched and his nostrils flared. He hauled forth a snot-encrusted handkerchief and held it to his nose. "Why do they stink so bad?" Gray asked, as they headed down a narrow hall. He glanced over his shoulder at the sheriff.
The sheriff shrugged to indicate his ignorance. "They were only dead a day or so when we got them." That was enough. The area had not seen rain in a long time and it was uncomfortably warm in the back of the building.
They passed a strong room and came to two jail cells. The boys were tucked in the one closest to the back. Gray looked through the bars and saw that they were packed in tarred canvas. "To keep the flies off," the sheriff said.
Gray nodded. "Obviously." He gestured at the door. "Open it up."
The sheriff pulled out a key and unlocked the cell door. The iron hinges screamed as the bars swung open. That sound was music to Gray’s ears. It was a song he lived by. He stepped in and crouched next to the nearest canvas bundle. He pulled out his skinning knife and slit the canvas open. The stench slammed into him and he almost gagged. The sheriff did gag, and scurried off. As the sheriff’s retching resounded down the hall, Gray pushed back the canvas with his blade.
The boy’s face was chalky white, with touches of green and grey. Gray noted that he might have been handsome in life, but death is the great equalizer. Everybody is ugly in death. As he gazed down on the face, all the dead faces of his past paraded through his mind.
Gray’s first acquaintance with the great equalizer came when he was a young boy. He was five or six, and — his cousin, Lily, who was only a few months older than he was, had died of the Black Kiss. Her face was a rigid white mask, her lips black as midnight. His mother would not let him near the corpse in fear he would also catch the Kiss.
"But, Mother," he whined. "I never kissed Lily." Gray’s father had boxed his ears for what he perceived as insolence. So Gray stared at his dead cousin from the far side of his uncle’s parlor. She was on display as was the custom. Gray cried and his father scolded, "Buck up and be a man. Tears are for women and small babes. If you are ever to take the gun, then you must do so with dry eyes."
Gray flipped the canvas back over the boy’s face and sheathed his knife. "Why the hell am I here?" he muttered. He was so damn close to the gambler.
He got up and went to the office. The sheriff was there, pale-faced, chewing his lip and nursing a drink. There was a bit of vomit on the man’s collar. Gray went and poured himself another. "Well?" the sheriff asked.
Gray took a deep swallow of whiskey. "They’re dead alright. Let’s head to the saloon. I’m hungry and my horse needs a stable. You can tell me the particulars over dinner."
"Yes, sir," was all the sheriff had to say as Gray drained his glass. Gray looked at the man, scowled at his softness, and left.
* * *
The Greenberry Saloon & Hotel served decent fare. Over a meal of roasted hare, swimming in gravy, with fresh veggies and a small loaf of warm bread, Gray found out the sheriff’s name was Dan Croft. While Croft picked half-heartedly at his meal, Gray wolfed his down. He had been eating jerky, dried peas, and hard bread for several months, washing it down with lime beer. Before that he had eaten roasted lizard and snake on the Glaze, and fiery dishes in Far Reach so laden with spices that they were almost inedible for anyone with a civilized palate. One of Croft’s card player friends joined them as they finished their meal. He was introduced as the mayor. "Ron Brook," he said, extending a hand. Gray stood and shook. The m ayor’s hand was as soft as a maiden’s and as moist as a steamed clam. "John Gray."
The Mayor was short and thin. His pinched-lined face had the blemishes of an older man and his trimmed moustache and beard were so black they had to be dyed. This one is vain, Gray thought. His vanity extended to his attire. He wore a burgundy coat, which Gray noted was worn in places, gray breeches, poorly polished riding boots, and a black felt top hat that the fool didn’t even have the grace to take off indoors. The sheriff quickly moved to pull out a chair for Brook. This one is a somebody here, Gray thought, but he’d be a nobody anywhere else.
After they were seated, Gray ordered a flagon of beer. He would reserve whiskey for later in the evening. He took a sip and the mayor cleared his throat. Gray cocked his eyebrow. "Yes?"
"There is — uh — the matter of your credentials," Brook said. "I mean, that is not to say that you aren’t who you say you are … it’s that this is a delicate matter and … and living this close to the Range, we…" He trailed off.
Gray ignored the mayor for a moment. He’d need something stronger than beer to wash down Brook’s words. "Whiskey," he shouted to one of the saloon’s doxies, a pretty wench for such an ugly town. The sheriff had been winking and smiling at her since they had entered. She nodded and scurried off to the bar. A few moments later she brought a whiskey bottle and three glasses balanced on a wooden serving tray. She set down the tray and Gray paid her.
Gray noticed the place was filling up and that the customers were thirsty. Many of the patrons were watching Gray and his companions out of the corners of their eyes. Is the killer, or killers, of those boys in this room? He reached into an inner pocket of his coat, pulled out an oilskin pouch, and thrust it at Brook.
The mayor opened the envelope and pulled out Gray’s letter of marque. As he read it, Gray ignored his beer and poured some whiskey for himself and his companions. Croft nodded his thanks. When Brook finished reading, he returned the paper to its pouch and handed the packet to Gray. "My apologies and my thanks. I hope you understand." He lifted his glass in salute to Gray and the sheriff hesitantly followed suit. Gray lifted his glass in return. "So now the formalities are over," he said, "is someone going to tell me what the hell is going on here?"
Croft’s face reddened. Words had abandoned him. Brook took a sip of his drink, cleared his throat, and said, "We don’t get much crime here in Dead Tree."
Gray looked at the bumpkins who crowded the Greenberry’s common room. "No, I reckon you don’t. Still, you have three dead Fivers in one of your jail cells and I assume they didn’t drop dead through natural circumstances."
Croft found his tongue. "No, no. They were murdered."
"And there’s the other one, as well," Brook chipped in.
"The other one? What other one?" Gray said loudly. There was a lull in the conversation around him. Someone coughed. Gray fixed the two men with a withering stare. "What — other — one?"
"The dead man the Fivers found," Brook replied, as a cool as a cucumber. "He was murdered, too."
Gray shook his head and took a swallow of whiskey. "Hold on. Let’s start from the beginning." Brook and Croft looked at one another. There was some silent debate as to which would do the talking. Gray made the decision for them. "Sheriff, start talking." He reckoned the sheriff would give a more honest account than the mayor.
Croft licked his lips, took a fortifying sip of whiskey, and began. "Two of the boys rode into town ahead of the other boy eight days ago. They rode in from Jersey’s Spit, a small town about twenty miles from here. They came in at an easy canter and made their way straight for this saloon.
"I didn’t see them come in myself," the Sheriff noted. His plump cheeks reddened and his eyes flashed to the pretty doxy. He gave a little cough. "But it was early, about eight o’clock or so. From what I hear they were full of themselves, talking a lot about this being their first time out and all the great things they were gonna do. Ed, the barkeep, would be able to give you an account of what they said." Croft turned and pointed at a squat fellow with a bushy beard and bald head who was tending the bar.
"It doesn’t surprise me they were full of themselves," Gray remarked. "I was the same when I first got my guns, a real swaggerer. I thought the world was my oyster and I had dreams of glory in my head."
Gray reflected on when he rode with company rather than alone. His partners those many years ago were Luke, Dan, and a boy they called Fatty. Luke and Dan were big youths and the chips on their shoulders were bigger than his own. Fatty was big, too, but in a different way. Like all newly gunned Fifth Wheels, the quartet was sent to patrol the Range. "Baptism by fire" they called it. Gray was unsure whether he agreed.
Luke, Dan, and Gray had fared well in those first months of Range riding, but Fatty suffered. When the elements weren’t plaguing the beefy boy, Gray, Dan, and especially Luke, hammered him with insults. It was, Gray decided, the way of mean youths. There was many a night when Gray heard Fatty crying himself to sleep. Pangs of guilt had stung Gray at times, but his desire to be accepted by Luke and Dan proved greater.
That was years ago, Gray reflected. Luke was killed in a place called Turkey Run, shot through the hip and side by a two-bit dirt rider named Stan McAusley who was hanged for his crime and was long deceased. Dan was thrown from his horse while jousting in a tournament. He shattered both his legs and became a cripple and a drunk. As for Fatty, Gray couldn’t say. Fatty was recalled to Posting House only a few months in and he never saw him again. I can’t even remember his real name.
"Sir?" Brook shook Gray’s arm gently. Gray gave the mayor a sad smile and turned his attention to Croft. "Sorry. Go on. The two boys were in town, but the third had yet to arrive."
"That’s right," Croft nodded. "The third boy came into town a few hours later. However, unlike the first two, he rode in hard by way of Short Cut Pass. I suspect he was straggling behind the others and took the pass to make up for lost time. Still, his horse was just about blown by the time he got into town."
There was a clatter by the doors as a man stumbled into the saloon. He was dressed in farmer’s clothes, and manure was thick on his boots and the bottom of his canvas pants. It was clear the man was well into his cups. He swayed a bit and then steadied himself on the back of a chair. His eyes darted about the room and settled on Croft, Brook, and Gray. He took a step back and then several quick steps forward, working his way over to the table. When he arrived, he gave Croft a mock salute, "Sheriff." He bowed to the mayor and grinned at Gray.
"Irwin," Croft sniffed. "Pickled as usual, I see."
"Just a bit," Irwin drawled. A dribble of spit ran down his chin. He lurched, bobbed, and turned to face Gray. "Hah! I see you brought a real lawman in. I reckon you’re here ‘cause of the murders."
"That I am," Gray gave him a steady stare.
"Irwin," Brook snapped. "Don’t you have some other business? Or, at least, some manners?"
The drunk cranked himself around to face the mayor, "My apologies, your Worship. I was –"
Croft had had enough. "The Giver has patience to deal with you, Irwin, but I don’t. Public intoxication is a crime. Must I run you in, again?"
As drunk as he was Irwin saw the point. "No, sir. My pardons." He stumbled to the bar to argue with the bartender about his sobriety or lack thereof.
"We’re sorry for the interruption," Brook said to Gray. He turned to Croft. "Do continue."
The sheriff took a sip of whiskey and continued. "So, the third boy came into town excited. He asked around to find the whereabouts of his friends and was directed here. By all accounts the boy was worked up when he came in and he spoke to his friends quickly. No one heard much of what they said, but a number of people say there was talk of a dead body. The boys paid their bill and came to my office at once."
He paused at this point, cleared his throat, and took another sip of his drink. "The boys discovered I was not at my office quite yet, as I was delayed. But they found me soon enough." His eyes flashed once again to the saloon doxy. It required little intelligence to figure out that the sheriff had been cavorting with her. Gray let it pass. A man’s bed business was his business. "The boy who rode in last told me he stumbled upon a body in Short Cut Pass.
"That wasn’t particularly peculiar as people do die on the trail, whether they get thrown from a horse or have some other mishap. I inquired into the nature of the person’s demise. The boy said that the man was definitely murdered, shot through the head and neck at close range."
Croft stopped at this point as if that was all there was to tell. There was a moment of awkward silence. "That’s it?" Gray said. "How did the boys die?"
Brook opened his mouth to speak, but Gray stopped him with a sharp gesture. "I’m asking him." Gray pointed at the sheriff.
Croft looked about nervously, from Gray to Brook and back again to Gray. "I’d asked the boys if they’d mind collecting the body and bringing it back to town," he admitted.
Gray snorted and took a long look at this supposed sheriff, this supposed lawman who sat across from him. "You sent three boys out on their own, to their demise?"
"No, no," Croft protested. "It wasn’t like that."
"Then just how was it?"
"At first, I said we’d ride out together, but they were all heated and eager and insisted that they would do it themselves. I agreed. That’s all."
Gray nodded. Croft was bending the truth, telling a lean tale that could only get thicker in the telling, but he saw no reason to pursue the issue. "Go on."
"They rode out of town to the Pass. A day passed. I got concerned and I approached Mayor Brook." Croft glanced at his friend. "After a bit of deliberation it was decided that I would ride out with some men to see what happened to the boys.
"My thought," he continued, "was they had taken it upon themselves to do some investigating, to have a little adventure."
Gray swirled the contents in his glass. "But it wasn’t like that."
"No." Croft slowly shook his head. "It wasn’t. We found the boys dead on the trail with the body I presume they went to gather up. They were shot down, robbed of their guns and horses and whatever wealth they might have had."
"Where is the body they went to fetch," Gray asked. "Was it a man, woman, child?"
Brook answered. "It was a man. Someone thought he might have been a farmhand from Jersey’s Spit, named Rufus, but they couldn’t be sure. Whoever he was, he wasn’t a local, and he was too ripe to have lingering around. We buried him promptly." Gray could understand that.
Croft chimed in. "When I got back to the town with the boys’ bodies, I immediately sent a telegraph to the marshal’s office."
"And he sent a message to my commanding officer who sent a message to me in turn and here I am," Gray concluded. The three men sat and nursed their drinks in silence, each wrestling with his thoughts. Gray looked suddenly at the sheriff. "You said the boys were lying with the man’s body?"
"Thereabouts," Croft nodded. "They were all in the same area, I mean."
"What about tracks? Horse hooves? Footprints?"
"There were many about, but none that I could say weren’t caused by the boys or the horses."
"Spent cartridges or anything of the like?"
Croft shook his head.
Gray finished his drink. "Peculiar." And it was. "Well, a phantom couldn’t have killed those boys."
"It was a demon." The words startled Gray. The drunk, Irwin, had been eavesdropping from the bar. He looked hard at Gray and repeated, "It was a demon, I tell you."
"Irwin! Enough of your poppycock," Brook barked, as he slapped his hand on the table. Croft was about to reinforce Brook’s message, but Gray interrupted. "Let him speak." He gestured for Irwin to come over.
Irwin came over and took a seat. "Drink?" Gray offered. "Much obliged," Irwin said, as Gray tipped the bottle, filled his glass, and slid it over to the man. Brook and Croft sat uncomfortably as Irwin gulped down half his drink. He was a worn old coot, with a scraggly gray beard and unwashed hair. As he swallowed the whiskey, his protruding Adam’s apple did a little dance.
"So tell me about this demon," Gray said. "And don’t mix any manure in with the dirt. Just the truth."
The old man nodded. He took another pull of whiskey, forcing it down with a hard swallow. "I’d bet a whole gold crown, if I had one, that it had something to do with the death of those boys and probably the other one, too. I don’t know how long it’s been lurking around these parts or how it got here, but it’s here now. I know that because I saw it myself."
"Anyone else see it?" Gray asked.
"None that’ll admit it." Irwin drained the glass and burped. Why is it always a drunk who sees the unbelievable, Gray thought. Why for once couldn’t it be a sane and sober man? "And what’s this demon of yours look like?"
Irwin squinted his eyes and furrowed his brow. "That I couldn’t accurately say. I saw it from a distance. It was big."
"How big?" Gray poured more whiskey into Irwin’s glass. Irwin ignored the drink for a moment and said, "I reckon about eight feet, nine feet, ten feet tops."
Gray sat back in his chair and folded his hands in his lap. "If you saw it, how is that you avoided ending up like the other four?"
"It had its back to me."
Brook guffawed and Croft smirked. "Honest," Irwin snapped. "Upon my soul and as the Giver is my witness, I saw it."
Gray sat for a moment in silence, his face expressionless. He leaned forward. "And where did you see it?"
"In Short Cut Pass. It was just a day or two before those boys showed up, and the weather was foul. No rain, but high winds and ominous skies. I was bringing up a team of horses from the Spit and was running late. With the wind kicking up dust and the color of the sky I couldn’t say how close to dusk it was." Irwin seemed to sober up as he told his tale. "The horses started getting skittish and there was a hell of a racket in the hills. I thought it might have been coyotes, but a closer listen assured me it was not. It was something … strange."
A shiver ran through Irwin. He grabbed his glass, but then released it. "With the horses worked up I began to fear that it was a pack of Range wolves, venturing into the interior. I put my spurs in and started riding hard." Irwin gulped, his Adam’s apple bobbing in the process. "It was only by chance I glanced up the eastern slope and saw it against the skyline, something big and ugly. Loping along. Like it was a man, but it weren’t."
"Maybe it was a man and a trick of the light," Gray suggested.
"If it was, it was the most awful man ever formed by nature," Irwin replied.
Gray rubbed his chin, looking hard at Irwin. He leaned back on his chair and was silent for a long while. Then he said, "Well, I reckon I’ll have to head down Short Cut Pass and take a look myself." Irwin nodded in fierce approval.
Croft blanched and Brook piped in, "What’s this, sir? You actually believe him, this tale of a … a … demon," he snorted in disgust.
Irwin gave Brook a dirty look and then turned his attention back to Gray. "Others have heard the cries of this creature at night, too. Not just me. You just go and ask them." He looked around at all the people in the Greenberry’s common room. If anyone was eavesdropping, however, and Gray suspected more than a few were, no one acknowledged Irwin’s words. Gray said to Croft, "You and I will head out early tomorrow morning."
Brook was incredulous. "You’re actually going to chase this man’s phantom?"
Gray responded. "Well, Your Worship, I am. Unless, of course, you have a better idea. I have four dead bodies, lots of questions, and no damn answers." He glared at the mayor and his face bore an expression that discouraged any argument. "This talk of a demon is all I have to go on. Maybe it isn’t a demon and it’s only a man or pack of men. No matter. Man or no, this killer, or killers, must be dealt with." He turned his attention to Croft. "Tomorrow we ride out."
"But who’ll w-watch the t-town?" Croft stuttered. "Who’ll m-mind the law here?"
Gray pointed at Brook. "He will, until we return."
"I’m coming with you," Irwin volunteered. Gray saw a man of courage there, rather than a drunk. Sheriff Croft he realized was so white he made snow look black. Gray nodded his assent to Irwin. "Good."
Over Irwin’s shoulder Gray saw some men pitching cards at the gaming table, four bumpkins betting nothing but the smallest bits of copper. It made him think about the Gambler. How close I was. He sighed. The Gambler would have to wait.