I’ve been working on a weird western story for about a year now. It’s a different genre than I’m used to, but I’m having a lot of fun and am getting great feedback from my writing group. Here’s the opening chapter, just to whet your whistle.
The batwing doors birthed the peacebringer into the shebeen. He opened his mouth with a thirsty sigh, a newborn looking for whiskey’s teat. He was dressed in blacks, though the sheen and opacity didn’t match. A white stone was set into his belt, evenly paired with the steel casings in his bandolier. These flashed in contrast, for even his leathers were worked dark with oil and greased.
He was a work in ink, and young.
The peacebringer lifted off his narrow brimmed hat with one hand. He held it in front of him. Wiping his eyes with the cord of his arm he registered the shebeen through an afternoon haze. He noted the tables were all lavishly unsimilar and oil lamps slung from the rafters, each one a work of blown glass in oranges and carnelian. They were like fire-cupped flowers, and they colluded with the long, high windows to make the place warm.
“We need the government,” said a newsman from his perch upon a square table. His billed cap and bicep bands constrained his appearance to stereotype as he argued with the man behind the thirty-foot bar.
“We don’t,” replied the barman. He was two parts dandy and one part vagrant. His shirt was dirty and of a poor cut, but his pocket watch looked to have been made by a master.
“We do,” the newsman persisted. He was predictably irritating. “There will always be a requirement for law to maintain order. Wise rule is integral for a civilization committed to the common good.”
The peacebringer ignored the conversation and kept walking toward the bar. That wonder of carpentry stood four feet high, all of a piece, with a copper rail banded to the front. How the barkeep kept that rail so shiny was a mystery, but it threw lamplight around like dancing girls.
A woman sat shoved into the corner at a triangle table. It was lacquered and imprinted with the scrawls and twists of the desert, and the woman looked up to smile mischievously when the peacebringer passed. He couldn’t help but smile back, such was her charism, but her too-tight bustier and laced-knee boots betrayed the real motivation for her attentiveness.
She was missing a tooth, but wouldn’t miss a trick.
The long feasting table in the middle of the room served as a manger for two drooling fools, their liquor and stamina tested too far. They also ignored the verbal sparring.
“Any civilization where you get to talk is one I don’t want,” said the barman, his bowler’s hat tipping forward as he spoke. It was worked in with the markings of celestials, as was his open vest.
The newsman scrunched up his cheeks, adjusting his spectacles. “What do you mean?”
The barman thumped his fist on the bar. “You and your government can hump rocks,” he said. “The rest of us are just fine without you.”
“There are criminals—” the newsman began, but the bartender interrupted.
“—In the government! You want to stop the crooks? Get rid of the guys in charge. You want to keep from being robbed? Quit giving your money to the man collecting taxes.”
The newsman looked like he might say more but decided against it. He stared at the peacebringer as the figure in black sat sideways at the bar, hands in his lap and shoulder to the rail. Then the newsman looked back at the bartender, silently cautioning him not to say more.
“What’ll it be?” asked the barman, turning his attention to the newcomer. He was washing glasses with spit and a rag, leaving curly hairs stuck to edges he could not wholly rub off. They were from his red mustachios, whose tendrils curled like the arms of a strongman, and he loved how they made people uncomfortable.
The peacebringer was not discomfited, but he was tired. His ebony-handled dragoons were heavy and pulled him nearer to the floor. The stock of his Sharps rifle poked over his shoulder, looking like a lever that might force him to his knees.
“I’ll have coffee,” said the man in black.
“Don’t have coffee,” the barman replied. His mustachios made it hard to tell if he was moving his lips. With the low light, he could have been a ventriloquist. “Fingers or Fizz.”
“Is that whisky?”
The barman nodded. “Fingers.” He gestured one, two, and three fingers to demonstrate. “This is for the fizz,” he said, pulling up a large beer stein fired in clay and elaborately detailed.
The peacebringer licked his lips. “Not in the mood,” he said, but he looked like he was lying. He was thirsty and sidled closer to the bar, so much that his soot-on-malt pinstripe pants swept brown dust from the seat.
“You can’t come in my bar and not drink nothing,” said the barman, leaning forward. He hadn’t yet figured the other man. The peacebringer was nobler—and stranger—than most of the locals. He had bearing, but wasn’t putting on airs—a prince in rags.
The peacebringer eyed the man on the other side of the counter, sizing him up. He looked like he could handle himself. Raw knuckles. Strong jaw. Wide shoulders. Stout. And every bit a pisser. “Coffee then,” repeated the man in black.
The barman didn’t blink. He looked at the peacebringer doing some adjudication of his own. “Comin’ right up,” he said. The barman reached beneath the bar into a basin of dirty dishwater and filled a stein to the top with thick sledge. It was the color of sick, and reeked like an animal rotting in the sun. When he smacked it onto the bar, a skein of fur slipped over the edge and stuck to the side of the mug like some old thing crawling from the swamp for the first time.
The peacebringer ignored the stein and the hairs wisping on its edge. He stared at the barman. Those ridiculous mustachios, curled at either end, twirled up to meet the man’s eyes. “We got off on the wrong foot,” said the peacebringer. He gently pushed the mug back across the bar.
The barman didn’t look at the mug. He shook his head firmly. “Nope,” he said, though the man in black couldn’t tell if he was agreeing with him or still picking a fight.
It was moments like this that made the peacebringer long for the Greater Peace. He was sad to have left, and even more sad to be back here of all places. It had been years since he had been home. So long, few likely remembered who he was or why he’d left. Pyre was a hole, a nest of greed. Here people did what they felt whenever they felt it, with little regard for their future or another’s present. The peacebringer hated feeling like it was every man for himself. He hated that there was no peace, no order, no justice except what you could make another man do with the iron on your hip.
“I’m Tom Cole,” he said finally.
The barman did not reply.
Everyone in the shebeen felt the tension rise. The drunks at the feasting table were stirring and the upstairs girl was looking across the room. Cole thought he could feel her getting twitchy, ready for trouble. Everyone was breathing tenderly, with exaggerated calmness, and Cole knew this for the moment preceding violence.
The newsman decided to intervene. “Don’t let our little political discussion fool you, sir,” he said, rising up and walking to the bar. “All are welcome at Ford’s shebeen.” Cole wasn’t sure, but he thought the newsman might have bowed slightly while he talked. “Isn’t that right Mister Ford?”
Ford squinted at the newsman, clicking his teeth shut with force. It was like he was threatening to bite.
“I’m not really here for drinking,” said Cole, half over his shoulder so the newsman would feel included.
“Then leave,” said the barman. He stopped wiping glasses.
“I’m looking for Kate,” said the peacebringer.
“Kate?” the newsman echoed and, standing with interest, began to move to the bar.
Ford ignored the maneuver. “Don’t know if I remember her,” he said.
Tom Cole rolled his shoulders forward, wanting to show the barman that he was loose. “Katherine Consonance Claret.” He said each of her names distinctly, individually, so there could be no misunderstanding. “She works here,” he said. “Or she did.”
“She still does, sir!” said the newsman enthusiastically.
The barman thumped the bar with the heel of his hand. “Teetotaler shut yer damn mouth!”
The newsman was cowed and sat down again, though only halfway. He looked like he might stand up again at a moment’s provocation. He loved stories, and this one was just beginning.
“Kate’s not around,” said Ford.
“When will she be back?” Cole pressed.
Ford swiped the mug off the bar and plopped it back into the same dishwater he had used to fill it. “They’ve got rooms at the Grande down the street,” he said. “She’ll call you.”
“We’re friends,” said Cole.
In an instant, Ford’s demeanor changed. He straightened and clapped his hands together joyously. “Why didn’t you say so?” he said with a veritable spark and twinkle in his eyes. “She’s in the back. I’ll go get her right now.” The barman moved swiftly through the double-hinged doors leading back to the kitchen.
“Mister,” came a reedy voice from deeper in the bar. It was the upstairs girl. “I’d make yourself scarce.”
Teetotaller nodded. “Ford is not known for his congeniality.”
“Who? Him?” the peacebringer asked, teasing.
“Look out!” Teetotaller pointed and dove for cover. Ford kicked open the doors and emerged with a blunderbuss, as though he were storming the high gates of an ancient foe. Cole hit the floor behind the bar just as that godkiller canon came round to point at his head. “I’ll count to five before I redecorate my floor with your brains,” said the barman. “Course, if you’re still here when I’m done counting, I guess it won’t be much of a renovation.”
Cole didn’t wait for him to finish, but rolled forward behind the bar. He dove for the gun and grabbed it by the barrel. It went off and the shebeen cleared, customers cluttering the exit like roaches caught in new light.
“Someone get the Sheriff,” cried the newsman. Cole smashed the barman in the nose with the stock and Ford’s grip momentarily loosened as Cole yanked the gun from his hands. But Ford used that moment to kick him in the danglers and the peacebringer went down, squirming, while Ford set to him with snub-nosed boots.
Cole scrambled to pull the shorter man down with him, beating his face with knuckles and elbows. He had the size advantage, and once Ford was on the floor, the barman’s nose became a continent of mess and blood.
Cole got to his feet, Ford moaning beneath him, and spat blood to the side. He didn’t even see the Sheriff until he caught movement in the mirror beyond the bar.
The Sheriff was a large man, full on fifteen stone. His head looked cut off at the top in the mirror. His coat would have been a cape on anyone else. The Sheriff leaned across from the other side and cracked Cole across the base of his skull with the grip of his pistol. Cole collapsed, unconscious, and hit his head on the way down.
“Evening Ford,” said the Sheriff. His authority came as much from his tonality as his giantess. His voice was boulders rolling.
“Get outta my bar,” spat Ford.
The Sheriff didn’t move. “You could show a little gratitude,” he said, offering to help the bartender return to his feet.
“You robbed me,” Ford replied, holding out a short knife concealed in his left hand. “I was about to convince the man in black to donate some toes.”
The Sheriff shook his head, refusing to make eye contact. Instead he walked about back of the bar and grabbed Cole by the back of his shirt and belt. He pulled him like a sack of wet meal across the floor and left him in the aisle.
“I’m still waiting for you to leave,” said Ford. He was trying to get comfortable on the ground.
“Do me a favor?” asked the Sheriff.
“Just give me the gun. I’ll put you out of your misery.”
The Sheriff ignored him. He was immune to charm. “Don’t tell Kate about this one.”
“Why?” Ford asked.
“Not a word,” said the Sheriff, wagging a finger.
The law’s giant bent down and hoisted Cole over his shoulder. He looked more like a father with a tired child than a lawman bringing a bruised brawler to jail. Maybe the Sheriff is good, Ford thought, but he’s still rules and I hate being told.
Teetotaller had slunk back into the room once the Sheriff had arrived. He had been off in the corner, hiding, but now came up to the bar, hoping for a scoop.
“Did you see the stone?” asked the newsman, still looking after the Sheriff and his parcel.
Ford was looking after them too, rubbing his head and wishing he owned a coffee pot. “Eh?” he asked, wondering why the newsman had returned.
“The white stone,” said the newsman. He was nodding vehemently, his hands urging Ford to recall some detail. “His belt buckle?” he prodded.
“What’s that?” asked Ford, not able to tell what the other man was after.
“They all have one,” said Teetotaller. He was relaxing now. He would get to tell a story. “The Peers,” he intoned.
“One of the Governor’s men,” Ford said simply. He had always wondered about them, about their worth compared against their reputation. He chewed his lip while making up his mind about Tom Cole.
“Yes,” said Teetotaller. He raised his head like a herald, recited the old words. “King of the Coast and the Midlands and of the Air,” he began. “Lord over the Waters and Governor of the Earth; First, Last, and Only of his Name; the Source and Destination of Human Being. God.”
The barman snorted. “If he’s God, then why is he losing?”
“The Mayor can’t hold out forever,” said the newsman, hovering like he might be of some use. Finally he offered his assistance.
Ford accepted, “Yeah,” he sighed. “You can help.”
Teetotaller nodded eagerly. “Anything!”
“Go get Kate.”