The sun sank languidly beneath the velvet sky as the stranger gently slipped from his saddle to land on the dusty hardpan below, a battered tumbleweed crossing the street before him. With a deft, deliberate motion he cast the reins over the weathered hitching post, brushed the trail dust from his breeches, and headed toward the batwing doors of what appeared to be a combination saloon/brothel. These institutions he knew to be the center of small town business, and it was here he reckoned he'd find some business of his own.
The building looked much the same on the outside as the countless others he had encountered over the long years. Its carved beams and rough planks possessed no particularly defining quality that would distinguish it from the other such institutions scattered about the countryside. The doors groaned slightly on tired hinges as he gently but firmly swung them inward and stepped inside, pausing once more to reflect that the inside, too, had no memorable characteristics. The patrons of the saloon peered at the newcomer over worn playing cards and half-empty bottles, and quickly decided that the man in the doorway bore the look of one who cares little about life . . . theirs, or his own. He appeared to be an outlaw, or at least a hired gun, as the reflected light from the gas lamps drew attention to the blued steel of the beautiful rosewood -handled revolvers he wore tied securely to each hip. At any rate, he carried himself as a man who knows his body well, with lithe, fluid motions, and great confidence, yet the hat he wore obscured his face from view. Since that implied that he wished to be left alone, the townsfolk more than willingly acquiesced, and returned to their business, allowing the stranger a wide berth.
As soon as everyone resumed their prior activities, the stranger silently crossed the sawdust-strewn floor, and occupied a stool at the far end of the bar, mutely accepting both the corked whiskey bottle and the dirty shot glass placed immediately before him. With hands as steady as a surgeon, he seized the bottle by the neck, and expertly measured out a shot into the glass, which he promptly dispatched down his gullet. As he poured another shot, the stranger glanced about the room to better take in his surroundings. Off to his left, a smiling young man in a white silk shirt, suspenders, and dark slacks, caressed the not-quite-ivory keys of an ancient brown piano. Occasionally, a rather inebriated patron would cry out "Hey Callie, play that fast one again," and the young man would smile, nod his head, and then feverishly begin pounding life out of the worn, yellowing keys. To his right, just opposite the batwing doors, a set of red-carpeted steps led up to an open landing, which offered entrance to several rooms where he periodically noticed dingy, drunken cowboys lead scantily clad painted lady, for a hopefully pleasurable business transaction, after which the two would soon return . . . one to the bar, the other to seduction.
Turning his gaze to the ramshackle stage near the piano player, the stranger took note of the singer trying to ensnare the local patrons with her voice, and perhaps earn herself a full-time position attracting customers. She had a familiar look about her, but he could not quite understand why, until the image of his daughter resurfaced in his mind. She had been a singer as well, killed accidentally in a shoot-out some 23 years before. After losing her, he had begun his wanderings, which tonight led him here. Downing yet another shot, the stranger turned his emotionless countenance once more to the crowd around him.
A group of gamblers at a nearby table eventually drew his interest, and he began to pay close attention to their game. A burly, unshaven man with long dark locks of unwashed hair hanging down onto an incongruously clean white, open-throated shirt which was tucked neatly into pressed black pants seemed to draw his attention in particular. On that man's hips, too, rested a pair of rather impressive revolvers, which closely resembled a cheap version of the ones strapped to his own. From his loud, slurred speech, and altogether arrogant manner, the stranger deemed the man a potential threat, promptly registered the fact, and resumed his observations of the others. The dry click of a hammer being cocked, accompanied by the words "You, sir, are a lying cheat, and I'll be taking my money back, thank you," briefly attracted the stranger's attention. One of the men at the table he watched earlier began apologizing profusely, and then passed all his winnings over to the owner of the voice--the gambler. The man then beat a quick retreat through the double doors, and the stranger never saw him again. The gambler then smiled, gently released the hammer of his revolver, and re-holstered it, as if the entire incident never occurred. Still smiling, the gambler then made his way to a strikingly beautiful young lady in a long red velvet gown, with a low-cut top, and a gaudy imitation pearl necklace with a crucifix pendant dangling at her bosom. After a few mumbled words, and the exchange of two crumpled bills, the lady nodded her head, and allowed herself to be led upstairs to one of the brothel's empty rooms. As he grasped her arm and led her away, the look on her face all but screamed the pain she felt at his grip, yet she forced a smile, and went along with him. The stranger cared little about such dealings as this, as he had witnessed them a thousand times before, and returned once more to his bottle.
Moments later a loud crash issued from the upstairs landing, and the young lady burst from the door, and ran down the stairs, crying and pulling garments around her mostly naked figure. Tears created valleys in the thick layers of make-up plastered on her face, as she pleaded for someone to help her, protect her, from the man upstairs. The gambler, meanwhile, stepped purposefully from the room, and stormed down the stairs after the defenseless young woman. She cowered, alone, in the corner of the bar and screamed, " Leave me alone, you filthy beast, get away!" but he just grinned and came on. " I want what I paid for darlin' ," he said, " and I fully intend to get it." A loud CRACK broke the sudden stillness, and a fresh hand-print suddenly appeared on the prostitute's left cheek, causing her to again cry for help while the gambler roughly pushed her back up the stairs.
At this point, the stranger, in a voice with the power of rolling thunder calmly ordered "Let her go." Conversations ceased, as did the piano, and dead silence filled the room as all eyes turned to view the next events to occur. At this, the gambler turned, briefly startled, and gazed for a moment at the stranger's back, sizing him up. "Excuse me," he asked, "would you care to repeat that?" The stranger sat aside his bottle, stood up, and turned toward the man, eyes never leaving the floor, however, and said "I said, let the girl go. Find what you are looking for elsewhere, but let her alone." The gambler let out a raucous laugh, which was slow to die away, shaking the amber beads of whiskey still clinging to his facial hair to the floor. He then announced, "My business is my own to conduct, and you'd do well to keep that in mind, friend, if you want to keep on enjoying the contents of yonder bottle."
With that, he turned once more and resumed pushing the girl up the stairs. The stranger, undaunted, shook his head, and loudly called out to the gambler. " Sir. I don't believe I've made myself clear, so I'll speak slower this time to help you understand . . . Let . . . her . . . go . . .." and with that, he looked slowly up at the man, until their eyes locked in a penetrating gaze, baring to each the contents of the other's soul. The gambler had only to look at that emotionless, granite-like countenance, with its blank eyes, cold and dead as a winter wind, before he realized that a confrontation was imminent. In one swift motion, the gambler easily pushed the girl down with one strong arm, and drew his revolver with the other at the exact same time. " He's quick, " thought the stranger, "but not as quick as I," and in a blur of movement he, too, unholstered his pistol, took aim, and fired. The dry click of a misfire rang in the stranger's ears just a fraction of a second before the deafening echo of the gambler's pistol filled his ears. Looking down, that blank, emotionless face expressed a look of wonder, as he noted the gaping hole in his chest, and calmly observed the dark blood issuing from within him. An instant later he collapsed in a heap on the sawdust-scattered floor, his face lying in an unabsorbed puddle of freshly spilled beer.
As the gambler re-holstered his pistol, once more seizing the shocked girl
and forcing her upstairs, Callie resumed playing his piano once more, this
time a lively version of "Sagebrush Memories". Mere seconds later gamblers
picked up their cards, drunks picked up their bottles, and before the undertaker
could even drag the corpse from their midst, the incident had already been
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