Saturday, August 11, 2012

Town with a request

Dawn had just cracked over the town.

There were a smattering of men and women in utilitarian clothes, already dusty from the morning's labours, faces set in neutral diligence as they strode briskly along the town's single dusty road to their various purposes. They acknowledged each other with brief nods as they passed, the same nods they had given each day before stretching out into time immemorial.

As the sun peeked between the valley of two distant mountains, the townsfolk became gradually aware of a dusty, weathered man atop a dusty, weathered horse. They gave him a longer consideration, though without deviating from their courses. Their chores would not be doing themselves, after all.

In this fashion the hardy, ragged horse and its occupant were able to walk almost completely through the town, eyelids drooping and heads forward, returning only the slightest nods, turning only as little as possible around obstacles, as if the mere fact of a town was of little consequence to the pair.

A man in his nightshirt and loose cotton trousers emerged from a second story balcony at the half point of the town. He emerged visibly agitated, a burst of formless motion wholly unsuitable for his advanced age. Upon noticing that the visitor and his horse had already passed, he began waving gestures which clearly meant something in his mind, and just as clearly meant nothing to any onlooker.

A far more composed figure stepped out of the main doors at the first floor of the Saloon, a little ways up from the wanderer. He wore a tan leather vest over his white shirt and was clean by the standards of the town even if a little bit of dust had found a home on him. He looked over at the wanderer and then up at the mayor upon the balcony. He watched the old man for a moment and, showing neither comprehension nor bafflement, returned a firm gaze to the dusty, weathered man. When he spoke, his voice was clear, a warm baritone that placed itself at the forefront of a listener's thoughts.

"Hail, traveller." He called.

"Hail", the wanderer replied, matching the man's volume but in a flat, emphatically neutral tone.

The wanderer looked back forward towards the western horizon, but his horse had stopped at the well-dressed man's call. The breeze blew around him with a steady whistle embellished by the broken hiss of dust flowing down the street. The man on the porch stood perfectly still, watching the interloper expressionlessly. The wanderer sat atop his horse, eyes fixed on the western horizon.

A door slammed shut, the man on the balcony having gone back inside to dress. The wanderer slumped slightly and slid off the left side of his horse. His feet hit the dusty road and he straightened back up. He led his horse to the hitching post and stepped up to the Saloon porch. The well dressed man, evidently the proprietor of the establishment, inclined his head slightly and gave a small gesture towards the door with one hand. The wanderer ignored the nod, but walked in regardless.

The Saloon was poorly lit, the only sources of light being the direct sunlight that stole in through the many cracks in the wooden walls and the reflected sunlight that came up off ground and made its way through the many cracks in the wooden walls. Both sources were equally bright, but without lighting the small lamps that hung off the utilitarian supporting beams the room could not be described as anything lighter than dim. A courtesan was just visible from the first floor sleeping in a couch in an upstairs lounge, but the building was otherwise empty.

The proprietor followed him in and pointed with his eyes towards a large round table, one of many rough-hewn tables clustered around the main floor. The wanderer walked over and took a chair as the proprietor walked behind the bar and calmly poured three drinks. The wanderer stared off into the distance, keeping the door, the stairway, and the proprietor in his field of vision, though he did this more out of habit than from any sense of threat. In any case, nothing moved but the proprietor, the glassware, and the amber fluid. Even the thin layer of dust lay still, holding a fine tracery of boot-prints stamped atop each other.

When the proprietor rounded the bar, the wanderer's eyes jerked over, focusing intently on the sharp-dressed man as he brought the three large mugs of beer over. The glass mugs were placed on the table with a solid thump and slid to their positions in front of the two unoccupied chairs and the wanderer. The proprietor sat down.

The wanderer held his pose for a moment, watching the proprietor. When he decided there was no obvious threat he put one arm out for the mug and dug one hand into a pouch sewn into the inside of his tan leather jacket. The proprietor stiffened briefly until the wanderer pulled out a pair of tiny silver coins, which he tossed on the table as he pulled the mug to his lips.

"No." Said the proprietor as he pushed the coins back towards his guest. When the wanderer made no move to recover the money, the proprietor looked away at the door expectantly.

Whatever expectations he held were disappointed, and when he conceded this he turned back towards his guest.

"Staying?" he asked.

"No."

"Where you headed?"

"West."

"What's out west?"

"Not much."

"You from there?"

"Nope."

"You from the east?"

The wanderer narrowed his eyes. "Not that far east, not what you're thinkin'. But far enough to want to get away from it".

"You got the trouble on you?"

"Not enough that it rubs off."

"From what I hear, it always rubs off."

The wanderer gave a grunt. "Perhaps I scraped some off last town over. Be clean for a bit, I reckon."

At this the doors burst open, streaming sunlight, direct and reflected, into the room. The mayor, the meaty, nervous bundle from the second story balcony, was now dressed in a dark but airy silk jacket and matching pants. He moved continuously as he walked, as if constantly changing his mind about where he was going.

"You have news from another town?" He asked. The doors had closed behind him and both the wanderer and his host were watching, one wary, the other resigned, leaving the mayor the only moving thing in the building. Even when he sat he continued gesticulating.

"No"

"Oh, but I thought you said you-"

"But I have no news from that town."

"Oh", But the mayor's bounding positivity would not be deterred, "What of further east, then?"

The wanderer simply stared at the ridiculous man. Under the weight of his gaze, the mayor's range of movement shrank and its frequency increased until he was not far removed from mere quivering.

The Saloon proprietor, evidently a man possessing some authority in this town, gave a little cough and said, "Mister Mayor, the request."

The mayor let his arms wave a little bit further out as he began to speak, "We would like for you to-".

"No." said the wanderer.

"Hear him out." the proprietor replied, voice carefully neutral.

The wanderer gave a displeased grunt and scanned the table. He looked at the half consumed beer and considered. He then took the coins he had offered in payment. "I will listen", he said, "and then I will be leaving."

No response to this declaration came. The mayor stuttered a bit, attempting to get his mind and mouth synchronized back up. When the words came coherently, he said "...for you to help us with a problem we have. We have been seeing strange things to the north, lights and such. Now, of course there have been stories for as long as there have been stories, you follow, but the women-folk are scared, and even some other people are starting to, you follow, get sort of concerned about what, exactly, is up there. Not me, of course, I know what's up there-"

"You do?" interrupted the wanderer with a sharply mocking tone.

The mayor stuttered at this for nearly a full minute before he was able to continue, "Well, of course I don't know, as in know, but I am sure it isn't anything we have to worry about. But we are a quiet community, and none of us know what it is like out there in the waste. We aren't criminals, we are a fine, upstanding town, so of course none of us have ever stepped foot past the town border. Not that you are a criminal," he began to flail a bit more at this, "but you are from Somewhere Else, and you know these wastes. I am sure we could reward you handsomely if you just rode out past the northern hills and told us what you saw."

"Let me understand you."

"Yes, yes, go ahead."

"You want me to head north."

"Yes, yes, I am sure you could get the the hills by nightfall, peek over, and return tomorrow. Would be scarcely out of your way."

"But it would be."

The mayor blinked, "It would be what?"

"Out of the way."

"Oh, yes. But not very."

"And it is north."

"But not very far north."

"A day there and back." It was probably less than that, but the wanderer did not want to encourage either of his petitioners.

"Surely that is nothing to one such as you. It must be much farther between towns"

"It is not the distance, but the direction. I am headed away from the east."

"Going north would not take you any closer to the east."

"And it would not take me any farther. I have listened. The answer is no."

"Then how will we know what is out there?"

"You won't. Life is full of mystery."

The Saloon proprietor was scowling deeply, but said nothing as the wanderer stood up and walked out the door.

On the broad dirt roadway in front of the saloon walked four young children and a young mother all carrying water. As the wanderer emerged from the saloon the children put down their buckets and ran up to him, filled with the excitement and energy that most people lose at maturity. "Are you a real person?" asked the younger of the two girls. The wanderer gave a tone of assent, into which a slight hint of amusement crept.

"Are you going to help us?" asked the older of the two boys.

"No"

"But what if it is monsters?" asked the younger boy. The young mother had caught up with them and put her arms around the young boy's shoulders. "There are no monsters." she said softly, petting him reassuringly.

"Of course there are." said the wanderer. The two girls and younger boy looked startled at this confirmation while the older boy scowled.

"Then what do we do if they attack?" he asked the wanderer. The wanderer appraised him briefly, looking at the children for the first time.

"Probably die."

"Don't say such things" gasped the mother.

"I won't! I will protect everyone." said the older boy.

"Then I am not needed." the wanderer took the steps down from the saloon porch.

"You are afraid of the monsters." taunted the older girl.

"Isn't that the point of monsters?" mused the wanderer, "to provide the brave with a reason for fear?"

He turned in front of the small group towards his horse, but the older boy stepped into the wanderers path. The wanderer stopped.

"You are a coward!" the older boy launched an accusing finger at the wanderer. By the time it poked the wanderer on the left side of his tan leather jacket, the wanderer had drawn his pistol, cocked back the lever, and inserted it into the boy's mouth, finger on the trigger.

"You are in my path."

The boy was frozen with terror, finger locked, jaw locked, spine locked. Only his bladder was loose, and it was this shame that curled him into a ball small enough that the wanderer could walk past without yielding to the child's body. The wanderer unhitched his horse and mounted up. He headed west, trailed by the sound of frightened, crying children.

The mayor came out of the saloon and ran down the dirt path out of town, rumpling his light, dark suit. "Wait!" he cried out as he tripped over a rock and knocked himself flat on his face. The wanderer went on without a glance at the spectacle.

The children were still crying as he passed the last of the ramshackle wooden buildings, though the sound had grown faint. Those few who were outside in the midday heat gave him disapproving looks to which he paid no heed.

When he had walked out past the town limits where the east-west road was no longer a trail as much as it was a theory he saw an impossibly bright flash to the north. He stopped his horse for a moment to see if anything novel was forthcoming. A minute passed in silence, even the breeze held its breath. After a minute, though, the wanderer lost interest. It was only after another minute of walking that the sound came, a noise so loud it bore physical force, staggering the horse, shattering windows, ripping rotten planks off buildings in the town.

Behind the noise came a powerful wind bearing a layer of dust so thick it created resistance for those walking through it. Soon the cloud of golden local dust gave way to a flow of pure white sand, and when that blew through it left its trace in shining white deposits in every tiny bump and crevasse of the flat expanse.

The wanderer gave the horse a moment to recover and resumed his journey.

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