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Sneaking ‘round the back parts of the corner store and find ourselves a spot near the window of the saloon, me and Willie was able to watch these strange riders settle their horses outside and come in for a drink.
I can’t say that I’ve ever had a worse instincts about a group of fellas as I did these few. They just didn’t look right. I wouldn’t trust a single one of them with the keys to a henhouse, much less have them come wandering through town they way they done. Me and Willie, we kept inching closer, hoping to get a better look at them. They sure did give me a rattler’s vibe, though.
The boy stayed outside while the other four man walked up to the bartender. The man with the eyepatch pulled a small satchel off of his hip and dumped some coin on the bar top. After blowing out a puff of smoke from his cigar, he brought his posse up to stand shoulder to shoulder with him, crowding everybody else who might have been sitting them before they entered.
All eyes were focused on the four men. Whatever it was that I was feeling in my gut, I could tell the other drunks in that spot could feel it too. They had the presence of a giant dust cloud rolling into town…coming to choke the life out of anybody who dared to stand still long enough for it to run them over. I couldn’t help but to think that it was a fascinating sight to see.
“Four glasses of your finest whiskey, barkeep.” The man with the eyepatch said, his voice gravely and rough, tainted with a baritone that you could feel rattling around in your ears long after he stopped talking.
The bartender looked them all over. He attempted to keep up appearances, but his eyes gave him away. My daddy always said that you could tell when a man is scared. Not a coward, so much…but fearful. There’s a ‘pause’ in him that you learn to look for. You can see it in the toughest of men. Under the surface. And once you lock on to it, you know you ain’t got nothing more to worry about than him kicking dust up on your boots while running in the other dirction.
The bartender said, “I can give you three glasses if you like…but that will be the end of it.”
The man said, “I’m asking you for four, barkeep. You trying to tell me your short on glasses? Hot day like this?”
Obviously intimidated, the bartender looked over at the man in the silky pajamas, and he said, “No offense to you and your partners here…but we don’t exactly serve his kind. Not in these parts. And not in my bar.” One of the other men chuckled softly to himself, and the man with the patch smiled wickedly at the bartender. “I’m not looking for trouble, Mister. We’ve got a water well out back by the horses’ trough if your friend here wants to satisfy his thirst. It’s the best I can do for ye.”
The man’s grin spread even wider, and he said, “Well…if that’s the case…you’re more than welcome to ask my riding partner here to leave. Although…I would suggest that you conjure up some help to do so. A lot of help.” He then turned to his friend, and said, “What do you think, Feng Li? You wanna go out back? Drink with them filthy horses like the barkeep says?” The man slowly shook his head, his facial expression remaining cold. Emotionless. You never know what to expect from a man like that. “I don’t know what to tell you, bartender. He doesn’t want to go. It might be better for your business to just…take my coin here and serve us with a smile. Like that sign you got hanging on the window out front. I reckon…things could get ‘rowdy’ in here otherwise. Real quick, like.”
They stared each other down from both sides of the bar. Me and Willie found ourselves holding our breaths as we watched to see what might happen if he didn’t give the man what he wanted. This crazy ‘hush’ fell over the whole saloon, with nobody willing to speak for or against what was going on. I doubt they wanted to miss anything. Heck, I didn’t either.
But it wasn’t long before the frightening stare of their leader wore the bartender down, and he chose to reach down and set up four glasses for them to drink from.
He poured whiskey in the first glass, then the second, and then the third…but when he got to this ‘Feng Li’ fella’s glass, the man quickly shot his hand out to grab the bartender by the wrist! Lord BLESS…I ain’t never seen a fella move so fast! Hands like that would, sure enough, make a cobra jealous! Blink your eye, and you’d miss it!
The bartender froze up right away, his heart beating so fast and hard that we could see his shirt shaking. And while still staring him in the eye with a wicked gaze…Feng Li scooted the bartender’s glass away, and then pulled a small tin cup of his own out of his pocket. Setting it on the bar top, and silently nodding his head to give him ‘permission’ to pour him a drink.
The bartender fearfully obliged him.
Feng Li bowed his head slightly, and turned the bartender’s hand loose once he had filled his personal cup. Then the whole posse lifted their glasses up and gave them a decent bump before swallowing them down. A moment of recoil from the sting of it…and then a few unruly hoots as they found an appreciation for the taste.
That’s when the main rider turned around to address the rest of the crowd. “Now then…which one of you friendly cowpokes wants to be the one to get me a meet up with the law man in this town? I’m thinking he might want to hear what I’ve got to say.” Nobody said anything at first. In fact, when he went peeking in their direction, most of them went looking in the opposite way. “Y’all don’t know the sheriff in this town? None of ya’s? Or maybe you ain’t got one. Which is it?”
Willie gave me a poke in the side, and I swatted his hand away. I don’t know who these men are or what they might want with my daddy. I ain’t talkin’ up. I hope nobody else is, either.
Suddenly, I seen Old Man Creedy walk in the saloon with my daddy right behind him. Where in blazes did HE come from??? He musta gone and got the sheriff before anything even hit the ground, runnin’. Creedy’s such a coward. Always feeeling so dang threatened by anything and everything he ain’t used to. Makes mesick, sometimes!
My daddy walked into that saloon and approached the four men at the bar. He kept himself calm, but he wasn’t about to get too close without letting them know that he wasn’t about to put up with no foolishness. I sure hope these fellas ain’t come to cause no problems. We’ve got enough trouble.
“I hear you fellas is looking for the law.” My daddy said. “I pray you ain’t run into any troubles during your unexpected arrival.”
The man with the eyepatched smiled, and he extended his hand. “Mighty fine of you to show up so swiftly, sheriff. I hope I’m not disturbing your daily function ‘round here.”
“My daily function is keeping things quiet in this town, gentlemen. You seem pretty quiet to me, so far. So, I reckon everything is as it should be.” He said, reaching out to shake the man’s hand. “You got a name, fella?”
The man with the eyepatch said, “The name’s Gideon Priest, Sherriff. My partners and I are happy to tell you that we’ve only been in your little town here for a brief spell…and we already feel mighty welcome. Like you said…it’s quiet. My boys and I…we like ‘quiet’, same as you.”
Willie and were trying to stay hidden outside that window, but we couldn’t help but to lean in a touch closer so’s we could hear everybody proper.
My dady asked, “So…I reckon y’all are just passing through, then?”
The ‘Priest’ man took another sip of his whiskey, and said, “Well…I don’t know about that, Sheriff. We may feel a hankerin’ to cool our heels for a few days. With your permission, of course.”
Old Man Creedy was about seven paces back from the rest of them, practically shaking from the threat of a possible confrontation. But my daddy played it straight. Just as he always did. “Permission granted.” He said. “My office ain’t but a short ride around the corner. If you need anything, you come see me. I’ll see to it you get a fair shake ‘round here. You have my word.”
“Good to know, my friend.” Priest told him. But despite his smile, I couldn’t shake the feeling that he was simply up to no good. Coyotes smile too, you know?
Daddy looked at his friend, Feng Li, and he made sure to add, “Listen…I ain’t got no conflicts with your friend here, but some of the folks in these parts ain’t quite as keen on moving forward as the rest of us. Especially when it comes to the gambling tables. If they give you any trouble with your riding partner here…you come find me. I’ll rush in and help you get it worked out.”
Priest laughed to himself. “Hey, Ford…Buck…you hear what he said? Sheriff says he’ll rush in and help if Feng Li gets an awkward eye at the gambling table. Hahaha!” Then, he finished his glass of whiskey and placed it back on the bar top for a refill. “With all do respect, Sheriff…if Feng or his boy, Xiodan, out front get into any trouble with your townsfolk…? The only thing we’re gonna need from you is a way to clean up the chaos they leave behind. You might want to put your best docs and undertakers on notice…just in case. ‘Cause that’s a fight that’s gonna be over before it begins.”
What was that supposed to mean? I certainly hope they wasn’t looking to cause any craziness. Folks like Priest and his gang need to keep moving. I can’t right picture them finding a stable home much of anywhere. Riders like that need to keep on moving. If for no other reason than to keep the rest of us from fretting ‘bout it.
My daddy looked at the bartender, and he nodded. “Get these fellas another round. I’m good for it. Make sure they have themselves a good time during their short stay here.” He then asked, “It is a short stay. Am I right?”
“All depends on what we find while we’re here, Sheriff. That makes all the difference in the world.” Priest told him.
Immediately, that got my daddy’s attention. “You wanna explain that a little deeper, friend?”
The men got all of their glasses filled, and took another healthy sip before Priest answered him. “Don’t mind if I do.” He said, that wicked smile grabbing the attention of everyone in the salooon. “My boys here, myself included…we’ve been on a mission of sorts. Been about two or three Summers now, I reckon. Been riding from one town to the next…figuring things out as best as we can manage.”
“You looking for something?” My daddy asked.
“Chasing something, actually.” Priest said. “We know the signs. We’ve seen the damage. And whenever we get a few whispers on the wind, here and there…we pack up and come looking. We follow the trail that the good Lord set us upon, and we see where it leads.” Another sip of liquor. “This time…it seems to have led us to your quiet little town here, Sheriff. I thought…maybe me and my boys here might be of some assistance to you and yours.”
“Assistance? How do you mean?”
“Well, let’s look at the facts, Sheriff. It seems to me…you’ve been having quite a number of unexplained incidents in your area lately. Am I gettin’ this wrong?”
Daddy gave him a sideways look. “Not quite sure I know what you’re talking about, Mr. Priest.”
“Ohhhh, I’m sure you do, Sheriff.” He replied. “Townsfolk disappearing into the darkness. School teachers being left drained and empty…in the middle of your roads or hidden back behind your fine establishments here. I’m talking about the evil that men do, Sheriff. Evil deeds that take place in secret, but was never meant to go unpunished. Deeds that…my partners and I get word of eventually throughout our travels.” Priest stepped closer to my father, and he lowered his voice to say, “I like to think that I’ve got a pretty goood instinct about this sort of thing. An instinct that I’ve been following for long enough to know when I see it happening again somewhere else. I’ve lost people too. Good people. Hell, we all have. Buck, here, lost his daughters a few years back. Ford lost a wife and his sister. Little Xiodan out front used to have twin sisters to look after before losing them too. And me? I’ve lost more family than you can count on two hands. Believe you me…ain’t nothing like what I’ve suffered, trying to figure out why God above would take our most precious souls away from us. I spent a lot of time trying to wrap my head ‘round it. I did.” Priest suddenly turned his glass up and finished the rest of his whole drink in three swallows without flinching. “But…that’s when I got clued in to the truth. Almighty God ain’t had nothing to do with it. Nothing at all.” My daddy seemed a bit confused, but Priest put the glass down and said, “We’ve gotmonsters walking among us, Sheriff. Devils, made of flesh. The kinda meat that the vultures won’t feed on. I had to search far and wide to find them. Thinking they was all fairy tales and spook stories. But I seen ‘em, Sheriff. I seen ‘em with my own eyes. We all have. And we know how to turn them face down in the dust once we figure out where they’re hiding.”
“Not quite sure what you’re getting at there.” Daddy said.
But Priest just grinned and said, “The same affliction that touched our lives in the past? We have every reason to believe that it’s come here to your town. It’s here. Burrowed deep, where your average man is afraid to look. But we see the omens when they present themselves. We see the monsters for what they are. And if you’re willing to put aside some coin for us while we’re here…we might just end up being good friends, you and me.”
“Are you suggesting that you can clear up this nasty business of ours? Are you saying that you think these monsters are real?”
“Monsters ARE real. Don’t you go believing nothing different.” Priest answered. “We’ve been chasing them for a while now. We know their habits. We know their hiding spots. And, if you’re willing to give us enough grace to search through the activities of your little town here…we might just be able to help you out with your little problem here.”
“Our little problem…” Daddy said. “I’m gonna assume you’re looking for favors once you start your business?”
“Just enough coin to live comfortable. A place to lay our heads at night, and the chance to do the Lord’s good work while we’re here.” He answered. “We’ve got a stake in this that goes beyond any reward. We’re here to help the world right a wrong that the devil, himself, done thrust upon us. Monsters that take pleasure in drainin’ good folks for no good cause at all. If you say yes…we go out beyond the boundaries of your town and we see if we can find the folks responsible for bringing such misery to you fine people.” Then he added, “And if you say no…we finish our whiskey, we pack up…and we chase the evil to the next spot. I’m sure the law man in the next town will want our help, even if you reckon we’re leading you down the wrong rabbit hole. Makes no difference to us, one way or another. But…without us being allies…your people are liable to catch more of the same in the days to come. These things ain’t got no reason to stop taking y’all down, one after another, until the whole town is sucked dry.” Priest then leaned in close to as my Daddy, “How long will it be…’til you lose somebody you wasn’t ready to lose yet? Huh? Somebody you care about. These things don’t stop until you find yourself working for a ghost town, Sheriff. I reckon you want to avoid being the next dot to be swiped off the map. Am I right?”
It was at that moment that my father looked up and casually caught sight of me and Willie peeking in that window! Dangit! How does he always find me when I’m trying to lay low?
Willie and I were quick to drop down beneath the wndow, but I know my daddy saw us. There’s no way that he didn’t.
it was then that I heard my daddy say, “How about you fellas rest for the night? Enjoy your drinks, keep out of trouble…and maybe you come by my office on the morrow and we can talk somemore about these…’monsters’ of yours. You steady with that?”
Priest grinned, “I most definitely am. Expect a visit. We’ve got a lot to chatter about, you and me.”
As things settled down, I got this odd sensation running through me. I can’t quite place any reason on it, but Colby’s smile and bright glowing eyes suddenly flashed through my head…and it made me wonder if this Priest and his posse of strangers might mistake him for some sort of devil. Although they shouldn’t. Colby ain’t no devil. He’s as sweet as the ripest apple on the tree. Still…this Priest fella is making it seem like anybody he don’t know to be 100 percent Holy and in line with the rest…must be some kind of monster. Ain’t no such a thing true. Is there?
I can’t see it, personally. Hopefully…my daddy won’t be able to see it either.
At least, that’s what I’m counting on.