Welcome one and all to the arrival of our serial. We will post a chapter every two weeks, and if you happen to fall behind, feel free to check out the entire collection under CONJURING MISERY. If you manage to miss it here, you can also view it at the blog spots of Camille Douglass and Dave Benneman.
For now, may I present…CONJURING MISERY
Slow footsteps echoed off the boards until they reached the door of Tillie’s Saloon and Emporium. At the rickety poker table the dealer stopped mid shuffle. My hand hovered over my winnings as my gaze lifted to the swinging doors. The snick and hiss of a match flaring cut through the sudden quiet and smoke floated over the doors. The saloon held its breath, waiting for those dusty snakeskin boots to push through. With squeal, the doors parted.
The stranger strode in through a cloud of smoke, hat pulled down low over a hard stare. I followed the lean figure that seemed to be carrying the weight of the world. The polished ironwood handles of her matched shooting irons were the only things that weren’t dusty. I tipped my straw hat to the stranger and gave Charlie a signal.
“Whiskey,” the stranger said.
Charlie wiped out a glass and poured. “Compliments of the gentleman.” He pointed me out.
She held her glass up in a toast with a gloved hand, cigarillo safely tucked between fingers, and tossed the contents down her throat. The rotgut Charlie served seemed to give her pause until she banged the glass down on the bar. “Again.”
I looked to the dealer who had yet to deal the next hand. “I’m cashing out.”
“You can’t just up and quit,” said the man to my left.
“I just did.”
“Maybe you did and you didn’t.” The cowpuncher to my right slipped a hand off the table.
From the bar the stranger said, “I wouldn’t do that if I were you.” One of her six shooters was pointed right at the cowboy. The other fanned the rest of the crowd in Tillie’s, her still burning cigarillo resting on the scarred bar-top next to her glass.
I gathered my money and walked to the bar where my benefactor stood watching the crowd. “They’ll be all right. Mostly bark, no bite.” I could see she was uneasy. My timepiece clicked open. “They’ll be high tailing back to the ranch soon.” The watch, slipped back into my vest pocket and I adjusted the chain. “Charlie, another glass please and leave the bottle.”
“Name’s Samuel Connor.” I extended my hand. “Call me Sam.”
She held my gaze as she shook my hand, hers remained gloved. “Snake.”
“Interesting. Snake what?”
Letting Sam’s hand go, I did a quick scan of the crowd before slipping Ruby into her holster and reclaiming my half smoked cigarillo from the bar. No telling who’d be dumb enough to make the first move. Not that it mattered, I’d make the last move, because, well, that’s just smart business. And I was all about business.
One more cold glare at the watching crowd, a few more dropped gazes, and I was good with tucking Pearl back in her well-worn home, leaving a gentling hand on her, just in case. I leaned back against the heavy wood, taking time to enjoy another inhale of the spicy tobacco and waited. Not that I had long to wait.
The bartender set a half full bottle and empty glass between me and my newest friend on the scarred bar. Reaching for the bottle of whiskey, I splashed a bit more into my glass, then did the same for Sam’s, before nudging it his way in silent invitation.
I twisted the cigarillo’s tip against the hard wood surface before tucking it safely away, and studied Sam. He had all the accouterments of a dapper gent, but something didn’t ring true. Tailored jacket and matching vest was relatively clean as was the tan duster cradled on his arm, but he wore a vivid scarlet scarf in place of the typical tie you found in these parts. Among the sweat-encrusted crowd gathered around us, Sam stood out.
He picked up his drink, brought it to his lips, paused, and tilted his head. Light glinted off his spectacles, hiding his eyes behind a disquieting glimmer. “So, Snake, passing through?”
“Not sure yet.” I threw back the second shot, refusing to shudder as warmth chased away the chill embedded in my bones. My eyes burned. Not from the whiskey, but from the lack of sleep. Three days with no sleep was just one too damn many, but I didn’t dare close my eyes. Not yet. Wasn’t quite ready to face what would come out of that darkness.
Sam made a quiet humming sound, laid his duster on the stool between us, took a polite sip, and settled an elbow as he watched me. “An ambiguous answer. You must be here on business then.” His jacket fell open, revealing an intricate scabbard lying along his hip, the dull gleam of a polished hilt flashing before the material resettled. Curious to find a swordsman this far outside of town.
My lips quirked at his polite fishing expedition. “Of a sort.” I considered another shot of whiskey, and decided it might not be in my best interest just yet. I let my gaze wander over the room. Now that a gunfight was no longer imminent the patrons had turned back to their endeavors and the low rumble of voices had returned.
Next to me, Sam continued to watch me with a small smile. It wasn’t his perusal or his grin that worried me, it was that niggling sense of something being just a tad bit off about my new acquaintance that kept me on edge. Still, as I was in need of some information, perhaps it was time to cast my own bait. “You seem rather comfortable here, been around long?”
He tipped his glass towards me, the small smile growing under the neatly trimmed beard. “Long enough to be entertained by local stories and enjoy meeting the characters sharing in them.”
Good enough. “I’m looking for someone.”
He gave a soft chuckle. “Aren’t we all?” He took another sip, set the glass aside, and hitched a hip on a stool. “Your someone have a name?”
“The Traveler.” Truth be told, she had quite a few names, but I gave the one I figured she’d be using here.
Even in the dusky light of the bar, I could see Sam pale and his jaw clench just before he nabbed his glass and downed the remaining contents.
My lips curled back in a feral grin. Yep. The Traveler was here.
Smoke aka Traveler
When I stepped into the worn down saloon a stillness blanketed the room. Looking to my left, one of the gentleman callers who dared to pay me a late night visit shortly after my arrival, was studiously staring at the floor while cradling his broken arm in a haphazard sling. Normally when I worked, I preferred a low profile but the only thing the people of this godforsaken town seemed to respect was a theatrical nature or a willingness to follow through on a threat. The night I arrived, wearing all black, which matched my hair and equally dark eyes, I took the room at the top of the rickety stairs, where I was forced to follow through on the threat my appearance made. Hence the idiot currently cradling his arm.
It was a shame that a town like this was too rough for most of the lily livered weaklings practicing the trade. Blood wouldn’t be the issue, that was the butter for their biscuits. Issues arose when the occasional visitor held you at gunpoint insisting you stitch up their stab wound for free. I shrugged, it’s not like I ever needed doctoring. While I had been pondering the lack of medical assistance in this little piece of hell people called a town, I missed the tiny feeling of knowing. A grin twisted the corners of my mouth before I could stop myself. A glass dropped. The yahoos apparently weren’t expecting anything other than the hard ambivalent look I always regarded them with, but I didn’t care. My sister was here.
I strode quickly to where she was straddling a barstool, sharing a drink with a man that I hadn’t laid eyes on before. Normally, I’d have paid more attention to a stranger, but if Snake thought he was okay, then I needn’t worry. Appearances needing to be maintained; I stopped myself from enveloping her in a hug.
She winked at me before leaning in to whisper in my ear, “Hey Smoke.”
I gave her a quick grin.
She held up her hand to catch the barkeep’s attention and then gestured to her glass, indicating he should bring another so I could have a drink of whatever putrid concoction they had poured in the bottle and mislabeled as whiskey.
While the barkeep hurried over with my glass, Snake turned back to her companion. “Sam this is The Traveler, Traveler this is Sam.”
I nodded, and took the offered hand. When I grasped it, a gripping pain coursed through my body. I simultaneously wanted to vomit and black out. I managed to lock my knees and keep myself upright, all the while gritting my teeth and urging the pin pricks of light to exit my vision.
The pain left as soon as he let go of my hand. It felt like ages but must, in fact, have only been seconds, because the look in Snake’s eyes was one of mild concern and not the murderous rage that would have been there if she’d realized what happened. Sam eyes held only a twinkle of amusement. What game was he playing?
Chapter 2 riding in on April 21st!