Somewhere in the middle of the Western frontier, 1878
The saloon wasn’t very crowded that evening. In the far corner of the room, lively piano music was being played by a skittish Yankee that was new to town while a small gang of rugged cattle rustlers were talking quietly over their mugs of stale beer. A lone girl sat on the other side of the room from them, poring over a tanned and weathered map laying flat on the wooden table top. Her expression was twisted with worry and hopelessness. The bartender was busying himself with cleaning out shot glasses, pondering over his own private thoughts.
A tall shadow crept across the floor as a figure stepped in front of the swinging doors to the saloon. As soon as the man pushed his way through the entrance, a certain atmosphere enveloped the room that made everyone’s heads turn to look upon the stranger. The Yankee’s fingers stuttered to a clumsy halt on the ivory keys, the bartender paused in his attentive cleaning, the rustlers glared at the man and the young woman’s heart filled with a new kind of fear as he strode across the floor to the bar.
His heavy boots made a soft tapping with every step. He wore tattered brown pants and shirt covered by a long heavy duster. A black bandana was tied around his neck and upon his head sat a typical wide brimmed hat that matched that of the cattle rustlers’. He kept his chin down, concealing his eyes and most of his facial features from the spectators in the room. What skin they could see was covered in a thin layer of dust, as were his clothes.
The stranger approached the bar, propped on of his feet up onto the brass bar and leaned his elbows against the counter. The bartender cautiously made his way to the man.
“What’ll it be?” the bartender asked.
“Whiskey,” the stranger replied, his voice deep and hoarse from the days spent in the dry desert. The bartender recognized his accent as being characteristic of southern Georgia people. It was a sophisticated drawl that he had heard commonly over the last few years. Those fleeing west after the Civil War were often from Georgia. They were seeking a new life, new opportunities, after the fall of their would-be independent confederacy. What this man was seeking, however, the bartender had no idea.
The bartender pulled out the bottle of murky brown liquid and a shot glass from the shelves.
“Bigger glass,” the stranger demanded without even looking up to see the glass the bartender had brought down. He placed the shot glass back and pulled out a taller glass and set it before the stranger, pouring the whiskey for him.
With every eye trained upon the stranger, he did something unexpected. He pulled out a small canister from the pack that he had concealed under his duster, unscrewed the lid and proceeded to pour a substantial amount of black powder into his glass.
The bartender’s eyes went wide with amazement as the stranger then began to guzzle down the concoction without so much as a wince or grimace at the bitter taste. The cattle rustlers all whistled their disbelief while the other two in the saloon let their jaws drop.
When the stranger lowered the empty glass from his lips, he made the mistake of looking to the stunned bartender. When the owner of the saloon met the stranger’s gaze he stumbled back in shock, almost knocking over the bottles of liquor on the shelves behind him.
“Thank you,” the stranger said, his eyes glowing a unnatural, bright, golden color.
The piano playing Yankee saw the stranger’s eyes and bolted for the door with a cry of alarm. The man turned and watched the man run out the swinging doors, shouting for the sheriff and sighed. The rustlers then discovered what the commotion was about and sat back, disturbed by the stranger’s eyes. The young lady covered her mouth to keep herself from screeching in horror. Never had any of them seen such eyes on a human being.
One of the rustlers put on a brave face and approached the stranger as he requested to the bartender to pour him some more whiskey. The rustler leaned over and looked long and hard into the stranger’s face.
“You some kind of freak?” the rustler asked.
The stranger shot him a cold glare. “Something like that,” he muttered before pouring more powder into his glass.
Just as he was about to throw back the liquor again, the Yankee arrived back to the saloon with the sheriff in tow. The official already had a pistol out and trained on the stranger’s back.
“Hey, buddy,” he called out to the stranger, his voice echoing against the wooden walls. The stranger stood up straight and turned to face the sheriff fully. “I suggest you get yourself out of this town. We don’t want none of your kind here.” Try as the sheriff might, he couldn’t keep his pistol from trembling in his grip.
The stranger took a deep breath and finished off his drink before setting the glass down heavily upon the counter. “I don’t want any trouble here,” he said gently, then pulled out a couple of gold coins from his satchel to pay the bartender for his drinks and their trouble.
The young woman’s eyes followed the stranger as he steadily walked out of the saloon and out into the street. Any normal man who drank even half that much whiskey wouldn’t even be able to crawl their way out of the saloon and this stranger seemed to act like he had drank two tall glasses of something as harmless as water. Upon his leaving, the sheriff slid his gun back safely into his holster and the whole saloon seemed to breathe a sigh of relief. The rustlers began exclaiming to each other about the stranger’s peculiar behavior and queer eyes. The Yankee asked for a shot of something strong to settle his rattling nerves. But, the young woman did the unexpected.
She gathered up her map and belongings and ran out of the saloon. When she stepped out on the wooden porch the saloon, she was half blinded by the bright glaring sun that reflected off of the dirt road. She looked up and down the covered walkway and across the way to the lonely general store, but she couldn’t see the stranger anywhere.
As she squinted and wandered a few more steps, she spotted him walking his way out of town.
“Wait up!” she called out to him as she hurried down the road, lifting her calico skirts high so she wouldn’t trip over her hem.
The stranger stopped and looked over his shoulder, confused by the sight he saw. Instead of a person running from him, he saw a girl running to him. He turned and watched with interest as the woman stood in front of him, panting and her eyes filled with a mixture of fear and hope. The lady couldn’t have been more than twenty or so with wheat colored hair that was braided back behind her and sky blue eyes. Youthful freckles were speckled over her cheeks and her lips were full and candy apple red.
“I need your help, sir,” she said breathlessly in a thick country accent. The stranger peered down curiously at the girl, wondering if she was touched in the head. He
“What?” he asked incredulously. No one had ever needed his help before, except when they asked the favor that he leave. That’s all anyone ever wanted him to do was leave.
“I need your help. No one else will give me the time of day.” The girl took a moment to catch her breath and then continued. “My family was killed last week and I’m looking for the one who did it.”
“That’s what they have sheriffs for.”
“He’s hardly lifting a finger to find him. I know who did it. It was a man named Clarence. He’s an outlaw around these parts and no one knows where to find him, so the sheriff won’t even try.”
The stranger shrugged. “I don’t know who that is.”
The girl sighed, hoping against hope that he would have. “But can you help me find him?”
“What makes you think that I can?”
The young lady paused and let herself look up into the stranger’s golden eyes. His stare was firm and yet casual. She felt hypnotized by their luster, yet frightened by the color. She also couldn’t help but inwardly remark how roguishly handsome he was, despite his terrifying eyes. “I… I thought you could.” She stuttered for a moment and had to cast her eyes down so she could finish. “You don’t seem like the regular kind of person. I mean, I think you would be able to help a lot better than the sheriff would.”
The stranger was perplexed by this girl’s keen intuition. “And what makes you think I’d help you at all.”
“I don’t know if you would. I’m at the end of my rope here and I’m desperate.”
The stranger stared down at her, smelling the thick aroma of fear and anxiety that she emitted so strongly. There was something about her desperate plea and the honesty in her voice that struck a chord in him. Her innocence was something he longed for. Perhaps if he helped her, she would return the favor.
“Well, since I don’t seem to have anything better to do, I will.”
The girl lifted her head and beamed with relief and gladness at his words. “Thank you so much! I much appreciate it.”
“I know of a town not too far from here that is a frequent stop for some of the rougher crowd. Perhaps one of them would know where Clarence is.” The stranger turned his face to the north and nodded in that direction.
“Wonderful! I’ll go get my horse!” she exclaimed as she went running off again back to the saloon to retrieve her horse that was tied up at the hitching post. When she came back astride her buckskin mare, she noticed that the stranger was still standing in the same spot she had left him at.
Upon their approach, Sarah’s horse grunted and whinnied in protest, wanting to turn tail and run from Ben. She shushed the animal and soothingly petted her thick neck.
“It’s alright, girl. He won’t hurt you,” she cooed. The mare intuitively sensed that Sarah wasn’t so sure about that either and refused to be still.
Ben took a few cautious steps back, knowing the horse felt frightened and threatened by the predator nearby.
After much work, Sarah was finally able to calm down her horse enough to stay still, if not to edge closer.
“Don’t you have a horse?” she asked.
The stranger shook his head and gave her a faint grin. “No, never liked the animals. I’ll run.”
“Ok. I’ll try to go slow, but I’m really in a hurry for this.”
“Don’t worry about slowing down. I’ll keep up.”
“We never properly introduced ourselves. My name is Sarah.”
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Ben,” Sarah said, more out of habit than truly meaning it and Ben knew it.
“Don’t say that just yet,” he muttered.