(Or, Why You Should Never Leave Home)
"Ayah, u'nah'hu! Wanna buy some blankets for your horse?"
I looked the source of the voice and saw an old Ano woman sitting in the middle of several piles of woven blankets. They were a riotous mix of red, blue, green, and yellow, and folded just as crazy. Each one was probably a week's worth of work for this woman, and I would feel bad if I passed her with out buying something. I grabbed a half crown and handed it over to her, motioning vaguely towards a red one; she jumped up like she had been set on fire and happily handed it to me with a wide grin on her face. I smiled in response, nodded, and made my way towards town, placing the red blanket over my horse's shoulders. Ignatius was being nice for a change and I wanted to take advantage of it as much as I could, so I clicked my tongue to get him moving and soon we were entering Big River.
I beg pardon for my rudeness in not introduced myself immediately, but I had to set the scene for my story, and the editors at the paper assure me this is how it is done. The name's Henry Ursari, formerly of the 93rd Auxiliary, otherwise known as "Gunderson's Mavericks". We were a darned good team before Gunderson got himself booted for carousing too much and killing a man in a saloon. We didn't care much for his replacement so most of us just got ourselves out, but I digress.
The only reason I was here was due to wanderlust, which is the curse of me and my people. I know many of you kind readers recognised my name as Maro, and I would be lying if I said I was a sterling example of that fine race, but there is one thing we cannot stop: the urge to travel. I don't know if it's in my blood or if my experiences in the military made me restless, but I have to leave my home in Estoga every so often before I go stir-crazy. It is the main reason why I have always been a single gentleman, but once again, I digress from the facts.
For those of you who haven't been to Big River before, let me tell you: It is just as bad and good as people say. There are lots of nice places in town, but only on the east side; otherwise, you are smack in the middle of the port, and that is no place for anyone except maybe a sailor, 'slinger, or brawler. Anyway, the city is lively and full of things to do, whether you are a sailor fresh off the steamboat or a man of letters looking to retire for the evening. There are good, bad, and dirty places to eat or drink, and the women aren't half bad if you know where to look. In short, it is a good place to visit but you might not want to live there. I had heard all of this and more from somewhat dependable sources, which is why I was going there instead of, say, Three Rivers or Fort Potter. I needed work, but not so bad that I had to fight off the natives or sleep with my guns loaded.
Anyway, the locals were (and are) nice folks, the men tipping their hats as I rode past and the ladies doing their little walking curtsey they do. I would have done more sightseeing as I had never been here before, but Ignatius was starting to snort and twitch his ears, so I knew he was getting irritable again. I stopped at the first drinking establishment I saw and tied him up nice and tight, as Ignatius has a bad habit of slipping from the hitching post and wandering around without a care in the world. The only problem is he does care if someone other than me tries to take him, like the last time he slipped from the post. I was nearly arrested because he almost brained an idiot who saw a wandering horse and thought he had won the lottery. Anyway, I made my way into the saloon and sidled up to the well-worn bar, casually glancing over the patrons. Mostly middle-class folks, with a few roughs to balance things out, and most of them were looking me over at the same time, sizing me up and gauging whether I was a threat or not.
"Whaddya have?" the bartender barked, his eyes riveted on a poker game on a neighboring table.
"Snakeskin Rum, if you got it." It had been a while since I had had Snakeskin because it is difficult to drink it down without losing control of one's stomach. The taste is usually on par with turpentine if you're lucky, as it is usually compared to creosote. The only reason I chose it is because I was in the mood for a drink, it is cheap, and my purse was a little light. Otherwise, I avoid the stuff, or use it to start a campfire when the wood is damp.
The bartender regretfully tore his eyes away from the game and tried to fill a glass while watching the men at the same time. He ended up spilling the rum and impatiently slapped it on the bar in front of me (which spilled even more). "Six bits."
I grudgingly placed six copper coins into his hand and drank the rum in one gulp, which led to my subsequent misfortune. I blacked out for a brief moment as liquid fire, tinged with an unpleasant aftertaste of creosote, slid down my gullet and started a slow burn in my guts. While I recall gasping for air, I do not recall throwing the glass across the bar; however, the bartender was adamant I had done so, and several men graciously stepped forward to perform their civic duty to attest that yes, I had thrown the glass and yes, I owed the bartender ten additional bits to cover the cost. I handed over the bits without a word, mainly because I was highly perturbed at the turn of events, but also because I was robbed of speech as a result of the horrific concoction. I plunked down a gold Crown (I told you it was cheap) and pointed towards the bottle of Snakeskin; he gave it to me without a second thought and I went back outside. While it was pretty bad, it was alcohol, and that's all that mattered to me; plus, if the hotels were too expensive I'd have to sleep under the stars with a campfire, and I had no fuel.
Ignatius was still tied up at the post, thank the Fates. Sometimes I don't know if he will be there or if he managed to slip his halter yet again. It's a little game of ours. Anyway, I put the bottle in the saddlebag, untied him from the post, swung up onto the saddle and gratefully moved further into town, the alcohol continuing the slow burn through my innards. Ignatius seemed to be in a good mood, as evidenced by his spritely trot and head held high.
I meandered through the town, taking in the atmosphere and scouting the place. It was a nice city, with lots of different stores, shops, smithies, and the like. If I were less observant, I would have missed the seamier side of the city. Thieves, thugs, prostitutes, cutthroats, and pickpockets stared from alleys and dark corners, scanning the crowd for an easy mark. Only the prostitutes made any sort of venture into the stream of people, proclaiming their abilities and showing their wares as much as was legal to do so, but from the looks and mutterings of the people the girls were not entirely welcome in this section of town. Occasionally a Legionnaire's deputy would trot over and take them aside, most likely to chase them back to the port side.
I found myself in the town square soon enough; a majestic (and entirely ostentatious) building stood at one end, obviously the city hall. The flags of Madora and New Madora snapped in the cool breeze while the low buzz of conversation echoed through the empty plaza. While I felt the urge to salute the former out of sheer habit, I didn't want to advertise my presence just yet, as I did not know the sympathies of the townsfolk. The various wars fought in Madora for whatever reason had soured many a conscience and enflamed many a temper here in New Madora, and most folks were of two minds when it came to soldiers from the former. While most people didn't seem to care, there would be no need to give cause to those soured consciences and enflamed tempers before I had a chance to establish myself. The obligatory statue of the founding father stood quietly, gazing towards a point in the distance, while birds covered his head and shoulders, leaving the usual indication of their presence. The rum was now pleasantly filtering through my system and gave me a nice buzzing in my head, making the trip a lot nicer. At least my behind didn't hurt as much.
A noise caught my ear and I turned to look; it came from an alleyway choked with weeds and detritus. I saw a group of men doing what appeared to be a beat-down: They were in a circle, legs pumping in and out with the occasional fist raised and brought down with a savage grunt on a shapeless form in the middle. I winced and offered a prayer for the poor soul caught within that circle of pain. I had no idea why he was being subjected to the punishment, but it wasn't my affair so I clicked my tongue and urged Ignatius to move.
"That's what you get, you uppity brownie!"
That sentence caused me to yank back heavily on the reins (which made Ignatius madder than hell). It had been uttered by one of the men in the alley; therefore, they had to be hog-piling on an Ano or a N'Bokkan. I turned Ignatius around with a growl and dismounted, tying him tightly to a porch post. As I got closer I heard the men uttering worse epithets towards the person they were beating while a hot rage filled my soul.
Before I continue my narration, allow me to let you in on my feelings towards the Ano (and, by extension, anyone who isn't Madoran). Being in New Madora means you will eventually meet the Ano, no matter what you do or where you go. Once you get here, they seem to be all over the place except in the cities, which most of them apparently don't care for. The Ano don't bother me and I don't bother them, so we let each other pass by with a nod and nary a word. However, a lot of people are not nearly as forgiving as I am, as they find the Ano to be offensive for some reason and feel inclined to show that dislike with physical violence. What makes it worse is the laws that seem disinclined to protect the Ano (or anyone else not Madoran). I have no idea why they do this, but people will do some strange things. Being Maro, I have a soft spot for any group that is hounded out of prejudice, as my people are despised by just about everyone because they think we're little more than thieves and scoundrels (a characterisation that is wholly without merit and prejudicial on a vast scale).
Anyhow, I approached the group of men cautiously and watching their every move, since a group of men who are angry about something are liable to do something rash. The bitter curses and derogatory words told me an Ano was the unfortunate target, and I loosed my Montags in their holsters. One of them eventually noticed my presence and barked out a challenge, which stopped the other men and caused them to focus on me.
"Whaddya want, stranger?"
"I want to know why you're hog-piling on that kid."
The leader sneered at me, revealing rotten teeth behind blubbery lips, and his clothing wasn't too clean, either. "Ain't none o' yer business, stranger. Jes' move on."
"Sorry, but I can't do that. You need to let that Ano go. No matter what he's done, you've taught him a lesson by now." A groan from the center of the circle indicated he had indeed learned his lesson, whatever it might have been.
Rotten Teeth shoved through his men, carelessly (or intentionally) stepping on the Ano in the circle and eliciting a yelp from same. He snorted his way into my face, smelling like he chewed on dead carcasses as a hobby. "Are you gonna make me, stranger?" I have met many men like him: all bluster and brawn, but little brain. This was going to be too easy.
I simply smiled as I brought up my Montag revolvers to his chin, hammers cocked and ready, in the blink of an eye. The Snakeskin hadn't affected my speed any; that, or I hadn't had enough to affect it. "Actually, yes, I am going to make you and your boys let him go." A group like this depends on their leader, and if the leader folds the rest of them do as well.
Sure enough, he got that wild, trapped-like-a-rat look in his eyes as he licked his thick lips. "Sorry, stranger…we didn't realize you was friends with the brownie."
"He isn't a brownie, mister." I made sure to put a distinct edge in the 'mister' part.
His throat bobbed as he gulped in fear. "Sorry…we didn't realize the Ano was a friend o'yers."
"That's better. Now you take your boys out of here and go play with dynamite or something." They scattered as if blown by the wind, leaving the poor kid on the ground.
Actually, he wasn't a kid; then again, he didn't seem like an Ano either at first blush. He was dressed in a nice suit (wrinkled, dirty, torn, and bloody, by now) but his braided black hair and dark skin gave him away as an Ano. I had seen some of them dressed like this, and for some reason the other Ano don't care too much for their kind who dressed like Madorans. Not knowing the culture real well I couldn't tell you at the time why, but I did find out later. I holstered my revolvers and gently helped him stand. He winced as every little kick made itself known. "Thank you, stranger. Most people" – cough – "wouldn't have stopped them." He sat down on an empty barrel, taking in short breaths.
"Yeah, well, I'm not like most people. I don't like seeing anyone get hogpiled like that, no matter what they've done." Of course, I didn't mention the fact that I was originally going to pass the whole thing because it wasn't my business, but only because those small details can get in the way of a reassuring gesture. I crouched to be eye level with him, examining his wounds. "They definitely did a number on you. You should get that cheek and lip checked out because you're bleeding like a stuck pig."
He laughed bitterly as he winced. "They're likely to kick me out as they would cut me open. No thanks."
I knew things were bad for the Ano, but I didn't realize it was that bad. I reached down and grabbed him under his armpit, slowly helping him up and putting his arm around my shoulder. "Come on, now…we'd better get out of here before those guys become brave through a bottle." I helped him to Ignatius and hoisted him up on the saddle; Ignatius, to his credit, cast a bored look towards the newcomer but did not buck him off. I would have a lot of explaining to do if that happened, not to mention additional pain on the part of the (formerly) well-dressed Ano. I mounted up, told him to hold on, and made my way to the seedier side of town.
I've been to quite a few places in my time, and all of them have a bad side of town. I inevitably gravitate towards that side because they don't ask too many questions if you're hurt, drunk, or foreign to the locale. Of course, it costs quite a bit more, and they can do some damage if you chose the wrong person to talk to, but if you know who to go to, what to say, and have the money to pay for it, doors open for you all over the place. I assumed Big River was the same way, which is why I was heading for it. I was glad to see I was not mistaken in this case.
Sailors and prostitutes chatted amiably on the corners and sidewalks, groups of men and boys rolling dice or playing cards in alleyways, and flea-bitten nags tied to half-rotten posts moped about while munching on the occasional tough grass. Even Ignatius ignored them with a haughty snort and turned his attention elsewhere, which was decidedly unusual for him. The buildings were in various stages of disrepair, showing the bare, bleached ribs of wood, or bits of plaster hanging here and there like dead flesh, and some of them were almost completely collapsed. This must have been the old center of town at one point, forgotten when everything else started springing up, which was a common factor in many big towns. It's like the future outstripped the town's ability to adapt and gave unspoken notice to the original town that its time had come and gone.
I saw a faded board swinging above a dilapidated storefront, a shingle showing the welcome symbol of a scalpel and scissors in the form of an X. At least it wasn't a barber, as those fellows were true mavericks, willing to do anything for a coin here and there, even if it meant removing half the patient's teeth in the process.
I dismounted, tying Ignatius up and helping the Ano down, virtually carrying him into the building. A few people were sitting there, all exhibiting signs of distress: A scraped face here, a bandaged arm there…the usual stuff seen in a doctor's waiting room. They all looked in my direction when I entered and noted with alarm the Ano at my side, but quickly turned back to whatever they were doing and minded their own business. I sat down with a grunt, allowing the Ano to slough off my shoulder as I relaxed. I wasn't as young as I used to be and such exertions took it out of me.
The doctor came into the waiting room, leading a patient out (who looked great or terrible, depending on how much pain he was feeling when he entered) and leading another patient back in. The occasional yelp or scream barked from the back of the office, which didn't bother me none, but we all tried to ignore it knowing it was the price to pay for a slightly better chance at survival. Some of the waiting people jumped slightly, though, so it was apparent they hadn't been here before. The patients were led out (some of whom definitely looked worse than when they went in) and the next poor sod taken to the back.
The crowd thinned out and soon we were next, much to my relief. This doctor was a quick one, which meant he was either good at what he did or took lots of short cuts. Eventually, he showed out the last patient and looked at me, then the Ano, and then me again, his blue eyes peering over splotchy gold-rimmed glasses. "Come on back," he muttered as he turned on his heel and strode into the back rooms with me and the Ano in tow. His white hair had apparently decided to depart from the pate and settle for better pastures around the sides and back, giving him a grandfatherly appearance, but I knew that paternal look wouldn't survive once he started practicing his craft on the poor kid.
The examination room was a decidedly modest affair, and he at least had the decency to keep the more horrific tools of his trade out of sight. Being a former member of the army I was well acquainted with the arsenal of our Auxiliary surgeon Grant Henderson; in fact, we would often joke that if the Mavericks needed help Henderson could wave his tools around and scare the life out of the enemy, but once again, I digress. I helped the Ano to the leather chair (which had been perfunctorily wiped with a cloth) and sat down on a side chair. The floor was covered in sawdust to make cleaning easier, but from the looks of it, he hadn't changed it in some time. The doctor glanced in my direction while wiping his hands on a bloody rag. "Your man seems to be beaten up pretty badly."
"He isn't my manservant. Some fellows were roughing him up."
The doctor looked mildly impressed. "I wasn't implying he was your servant. Charity in a military man; I am surprised."
"Former military, actually."
"My apologies…something you'd rather not say?" He gathered the usual tools and inspected them in a casual manner.
"Nah. Got out while the gettin' was good; honorable discharge with the option, of course."
"Of course." He smiled as he moved his tools to a side table and drew up a chair next to the Ano. "Former military myself, but hardly honorable…I mutilated my captain whilst removing shrapnel from his leg and that little stunt put me in irons for a few years."
I arched my eyebrows at that. "Well, I could see a captain being a mite ticked about his leg being mutilated, but being dishonorably discharged and with irons to show for it seems a bit excessive."
"I never said I mutilated his leg. I personally found it to be poetically justified, considering his repeated ungentlemanly comments regarding my bedroom activities. The captain's wife, on the other hand, found the mutilation to be quite upsetting." He glanced at the Ano and sized him up. "Take off the shirt and pants, son, so I can see what they've done to you."
The Ano, of course, had been conscious and listening during the previous exchange, and the comment about mutilation had him a bit scared. The doctor chuckled, waving a hand. "Have no fear, son; it was an act driven by madness in a moment of weakness. I do not make it a habit to mutilate my patients…not intentionally, anyway." The Ano looked at me with something akin to desperation, a plea for help in his dark eyes.
"Go ahead, kid…do as he says. I'll make sure he doesn't do anything."
The Ano reflected on this and decided I was good for my word, disrobing after a moment's hesitation. His skin was uniformly brown all over, but those bruises stuck out like candles on a moonless night.
The doctor looked mildly surprised as he examined each spot. "Fates love a lonely man! Did they also do a four-square on you, son?"
"It's a dance…I'm sure you've seen them." He took a rag from a wash bin, squeezing out the excess water, and began to wipe off the dirt, sweat, and blood.
"Ah! Oh yeah…" the Ano started, wincing and yelping as sensitive areas on his ribs and back were cleaned up. "I know - ah! - what you are talk - ouch! - talking about. I've seen them-". His voice broke off in a hiss as he nearly folded over in pain.
The doctor arched an eyebrow and shook his head. "It looks to me like you may have a broken rib or two. Not surprising, as I can see the edges of their boots impressed in your skin. Lie down so I can find out what else is broken."
"So, where are you from, doc, if you don't mind me asking," I asked with a pleasant air. Things were about to get worse for the poor Ano, Fates knew, as I had been in his spot numerous times.
"I am originally from White Rock, on the East Coast. I was born and raised there," he paused as the Ano gasped in pain, "and was conscripted into the army during the first war with the Ano." A stream of light profanity blew forth from the Ano that had nothing to do with the pain, but the doctor patted him on the shoulder in a patronizing fashion. "There, there, son…I had little choice in the matter, which may be of small comfort to you. To my credit, I did not shoot any of your people, as I worked in the medical tents. Thankfully, I am not a soldier any longer and the war is over, so quit whining and let me work." Surprisingly, the Ano fell silent as the man began to wrap his torso.
Despite his terrible bedside manner (which confirmed him as an army surgeon), I found myself liking this fellow. "Name's Henry. Henry Ursari, formerly of Gunderson's Mavericks."
The doctor arched an eyebrow yet again. "Gunderson's Mavericks? I've heard of them, but I thought they worked overseas."
"They do; I'm a recent immigrant to the states."
"Ah…That might explain the accent. I am Thomas Crane, formerly of the 101st Infantry, former military prison inmate and now upstanding citizen of Big River." He paused to shake my hand and went right back to work. "So what brings you to a dirthole like this?"
"Business. Not sure how long I'll be staying."
"How wonderfully non-committal," he replied sarcastically as he reached for more bandages. "Do not worry about a deep, dark secret being exposed, as no one really talks to anyone around here, save perhaps the charwomen doing their work at the river."
"What about bounty hunters?"
Crane chuckled again as he wound the bandages around the Ano's arm and ribs. "They're something else entirely. Either way, if you're hiding something you are relatively safe here."
I had no reply and Crane was too busy focusing on the Ano, so we all fell silent (with the exception of the kid's occasional grunt) while the doctor finished his work. After a few moments, the Ano was fixed up as best as he could be, and Doctor Crane gave him a bottle filled with a liquid that most likely wouldn't work but would be remiss as a doctor if he didn't offer them. The Ano nodded slowly, but I saw his eyes betray a justified paranoia as he glanced at it.
"Well, that will be two dollars. Who's paying?"
I sighed as I reached into my lightened purse. "How about a gold dollar and I work for you?"
Thomas shrugged, looking vaguely apologetic. "Don't need anyone to work for me. The folks who come here know better than to start a mess; otherwise, I don't treat them if they do."
Darn and blast. I grumbled as I fished around for two gold coins, noting with some alarm I only had five dollars left before I paid him. I was definitely going to need some income, and fast. I handed over the money with a grunt and helped the Ano stand up from the chair.
"You know, I hate to see a former military man down on his luck," Crane muttered as he cleaned his hands. "Where are you staying?"
"Nowhere at the moment, as I just got into town."
He nodded. "That's better, actually. There is a hostel called the Fo'c'sle near the wharf that takes in hard cases; the beds aren't the cleanest and I wouldn't trust the food there, but it's better than sleeping in the wild. If you don't have any money, you work it out in trade around the place. If not there, there are a few places that do the same thing, but I don't know them very well."
"Thanks," I grunted as I helped the Ano out of the office. A few people had gathered in the front room during our session and appeared startled as we made our way to the front door, perhaps because my friend was still in one piece and appeared to have been actually helped.
"Let's sit on the bench, my friend," the Ano muttered softly as we exited into the warm afternoon air. I obliged his request and helped him onto the worn bench, sitting down as well, keeping an eye on the constant flow of people in the street and sidewalks. "I never thanked you for saving me in that alley," he said after a bit of time.
I shrugged, waving a hand. "Don't mention it."
"I also have not thanked you for paying the doctor on my behalf." He fished through his battered suit, looking for something. With a small cry of relief, he fished out a pair of silver rimmed spectacles and hooked them around his ears, blinking with his new-found sight. "Ayah! That is much better." He smiled as he looked at me, finally able to see my face. "I am George, George Two Feathers." He extended his hand to me, which I accepted and shook with sincerity. "I am sorry I am unable to repay you in any meaningful financial way, as I am just as poor as you are."
I shrugged, slightly startled by his formal mode of speech. He almost sounded like one of the profs at the Academy. "It doesn't matter. Just stay out of town for a while, as those boys will try again if I'm not around, and they'll try to be quicker next time."
He laughed softly. "I will simply avoid this side of town."
"That may not be enough. I embarrassed them plenty and they'll be looking to regain face." Desperate to shift the conversation, I quickly thought of a question. "How long have you lived here?"
"About a year or so; why?"
"I need to find an arms store. I'm running out of ammunition for my Montag and I suspect I'll be needing it more as time goes on."
George's eyes lit up as his face blossomed into one of pure joy. "You actually have a Montag? I've been trying to locate one for quite some time now, since their import into New Madora is strictly limited." His words came out in a rush, tumbling over themselves in haste. "Is it the Montag Special? Montag Signature Edition? Or is it the Montag Thunderhawk?" He started to look at my holsters with keen interest, trying to see the guns shouldered within.
I was floored. Few people in New Madora knew about the Thunderhawk, mainly because it was only available to the military and not sold outside Madora proper. They are usually sold by retired soldiers who need the money; plus, I'm sure there were a lot of black market stooges shipping them over the ocean. Anyway, the only people who are really in the know about Thunderhawks are collectors and technicians, neither of which George struck me as being. "How do you know about the Thunderhawk?" I pulled one out of the holster and handed it to him in a benevolent show of generosity, and he took it with reverence.
"We get a lot of foreigners through here and some of them happen to be Ardenian technicians. They've mentioned the Montag Thunderhawk, among other things." He turned the Montag this way and that in his hands, examining every nook and cranny.
This day was chock full of surprises. "Wait a minute…you have technical knowledge?"
George laughed, managing to blush a bit and wince all at the same time. "Sort of. I've learned a great deal from the Ardenian technicians. They don't pay attention to me when they talk, so I just listen."
"But Ardenians don't speak anything other than Ardenne when they're not at home." I guess I'd better explain something to the New Madorans who don't know the Ardenians. Those folks are the premier technicians when it comes to steam technology. A squad without an Ardenian technician is usually in poor shape within a few months, since no one will be around to fix their stuff. Since very few people can speak Ardenne, they pretty much have the monopoly on any steam technology. Thankfully, some folks have learned how to manage without the Ardenians, which pisses them off to no end, but even something as complex as steam technology will be cracked by other people, and those people will usually be – what's the word? – savants. Those are folks that aren't quite right in the head but have some sort of knack with steam technology. Anyway, I guess that's what George was: a tech savant. He just listened to Ardenians and knew what they were talking about. Of course, that still didn't answer how he knew the language. "So how do you know Ardenne?"
"I just pick up languages. I know four or five languages so far. I am trying to learn Cyrlian, but we get so few of those people here I'm sort of struggling with it." He handed my revolver back and I took it gratefully.
To say I was impressed would be an understatement. How did the Fates come up with someone like George? Furthermore, who can say what they do and why they do it? I was going to inquire further but I saw Rotten Teeth and his men coming up the street in our direction. Luckily, they hadn't seen us yet, so I quickly stood up. "We'd better go, George. Your friends in the alley are coming up the street and I'm not particularly looking for a shoot-out yet," I muttered softly. "At least, not until I know what the law thinks about it."
George stood up with a quick glance around, turning away from the gang. "I agree. Follow me; I know where we can go." He started walking in the opposite direction and quickly turned right into an alley. I nonchalantly followed him and realized he had ducked behind a large stack of dirty wooden crates, so I followed suit and waited, peering through the slats until we saw the gang moving on. "They aren't going to forget what you did, will they?"
I grimaced. "No. I've met people like them before, and they don't let bygones be bygones." Inside I was cursing because I misjudged Rotten Teeth and his desire for revenge. I'm usually pretty good at figuring people out, but I missed this one entirely, and to my disadvantage.
"Darn. Well, that means we will have to go to the nice side of town." He made a crooked smirk and cautiously walked back to the street with me in tow. We circled around to retrieve Ignatius and cautiously made our way to what George called the nice side of town.
We eventually made our way to a large, two-story whitewall house encircled by a low adobe wall. Horses were tied off to a sturdy fence post by heavy iron rings, which meant Ignatius would have a difficult time pulling away from them, although he might get fussy with the other horses. I tied him up with strict instructions to behave and George led me through the wooden gate. "Welcome to the Wa'hoa'doca compound," George announced grandly, sweeping an arm across the courtyard. The ground was heavily compacted dirt, complete with the occasional desert shrub and bush, large rust colored rocks, and two large saguaros providing little shade against the wall. The place was well kept and tidy, with hardly a plant or rock out of place. I saw movement within the house, with the occasional curious Ano peering through weathered curtains to see who had entered their domain.
"Not much of a place."
"It's home, and that's what's important," George retorted as he opened the door and waved me inside, following me as he shut the door.
It was rather nice in here, if a little warm for my tastes. The floor was your typical treated planks while the walls were slats and plaster. A massive bearskin rug glared menacingly at me from the floor while tribal art decorated the walls and corners. Nice leather furniture was established here and there in the main room, complete with brass rivets and wooden legs. Books were ensconced within shelves through the entryway, and I could see more books in the other rooms beyond. George muttered something in Ano as he passed through the entryway and smiled at the few Ano sitting in the chairs (who didn't appear too happy with my presence). He said what I took to be Ano for 'Hello' (and they responded in what I took to be Ano for 'Good to see you') and walked towards a room located on the corner of the house. As I entered, I saw it was filled with books and all sorts of desks and stuff one would see in a library, so I assumed it was in fact the library. George motioned to a chair as he moved to a sideboard, withdrawing a tantalus clinking with bottles full of amber liquid. "You seem surprised."
I figured lying wouldn't go over well with my host, especially considering he held what appeared to be bourbon in those bottles. "Well, yes, I am. I'm still a bit green when it comes to New Madora and the Ano are made out to be…uh…."
George smiled slyly as he filled two small glasses. "Primitive? Cannibalistic? Bloodthirsty?"
"Well, yeah," I muttered, gratefully accepting the offered glass and took a nice round swig. My eyes had not deceived me; it was true Antaro bourbon, the best kind there was.
George merely sipped his as he continued. "Well, in every generic stereotype there is a kernel of truth; in this case, the Tehacote are the reason for most of the hatred against our people. If the Innuato had met the Madorans first things might have been different, but that is how the coyote behaves."
George laughed warmly. The more time I spent with him, I realized he really wasn't that different from anyone else, except for his skin. My brain made a few changes regarding the Ano at that moment and for the better, I am glad to say. "It is an Ano saying. 'That is how the coyote behaves' means that is how things are in life. The coyote behaves in certain ways; for example, he steals our chickens, fools those who would hunt him, and laughs at us when we do stupid things. We cannot change the coyote's ways, so it is folly to attempt it."
"Nice and quaint. I –" I would have said more, but another Ano, much older than the others in the house, entered the room, looking at George with a stern glare. He quietly barked at George and I did not need to know Ano to know the kid was going to get a tongue lashing worthy of the grizzliest drill sergeant. Since I was being ignored, I simply waited while the older Ano continued his litany of whatever grievances, disappointments, or lectures he had stored up while sipping the excellent bourbon. George, to his credit, stood there quietly and patiently, occasionally nodding or murmuring agreement with his elder, who finally finished with a rousing finale that faintly resembled a 21-gun salute.
"Henry, this is my father, Harry Tall Eagle," George said in a curiously subdued tone. It was curious because any normal fellow would be tight around the collar after a verbal beating like that, and in public, no less. "Father, this is Henry Ursari. He rescued me from the men." I surmised then that his father had admonished his son for leaving. I suppose most parents, after feeling relief their child was spared an early death, would digress into chastisement after the brief moment of joy. I cannot say for certain, not having children myself, but I had received such speeches of relief and ensuing verbal punishment as a child, so I imagine it is still the same way of things.
His father cast the towering gaze look upon my ugly mug with a look that said I wasn't worth two bits. "Thank you for rescuing my errant son, Mr. Ursari. He was not supposed to leave the compound at all, much to my surprise and displeasure." I started a bit when Mr. Tall Eagle spoke because he sounded exactly like my thrice-darned tactics professor back in Madora. Nonetheless, I quickly recovered and nodded nonchalantly. "No thanks are necessary, Mr. Tall Eagle; I was only doing my part to help a fellow man out." Once again, I felt the sour tang of the lie, but it was mercifully dulled by the bourbon, of which I discovered I was in need.
George had noticed and smiled apologetically, and I immediately got the impression he wasn't supposed to be doling the good stuff to white men such as myself (or doling it out to anyone at all). I simply smiled and placed the glass on a side table, rising and stretching my muscles. "My father held similar views as you, sir, and I daresay he gave me much more than a talking-to. I spent many painful nights trying to sleep on my stomach as punishment for my youthful indiscretions, and I am somewhat glad to see it is the same no matter where you're from."
I'd always heard people say 'I saw them laugh with their eyes', but I never believed it until just then. Mr. Tall Eagle's face didn't change one iota, but his eyes were definitely amused. The Ano were apparently a tough crowd. "Do you have children of your own, Mr. Ursari?"
"No sir. I am glad to say I am most definitely single and unattached, and I prefer it that way. Life for someone like myself is too complicated to have emotional attachments." I carefully left out all the times I spent in the arms of the nice ladies, like the ones found at the famous Tall Rider Saloon in Neelap, even though most men understand one another when I bring it up. I didn't know Mr. Tall Eagle's thoughts on the matter, and I didn't want him to think I would lead his son down the path of dissolution, no matter how pleasurable it might be.
Mr. Tall Eagle nodded, although I couldn't say if he understood what I was talking about or knew what I wasn't saying. "Well, if you ever have children you will understand the pain a parent goes through when their child does not obey them," he said, managing to put a sharp edge to his words. The effect was not lost on George, who managed to look abashed. "My son appears to have been treated for his wounds…are you a doctor?"
"Oh no, sir…just a gunslinger." I spoke without thinking and immediately regretted my choice of words as Mr. Tall Eagle's eyes narrowed in a dangerous manner. Quite a few 'slingers made a living as bounty hunters, but most of the ones in New Madora got their start during the first Ano War. Of course, once the war was over and peace reigned over the land the 'slingers were thankfully out of the rampant killing business, but the damage to our good and noble profession had been done.
"I see," Mr. Tall Eagle grunted as George suddenly took a surprisingly different tack. "Father, he has a Montag Thunderhawk."
That's all he said, but it was enough for Mr. Tall Eagle to pause and, I swear upon my sainted mother's grave, looked like a kid who found himself locked in the candy store. "A Thunderhawk? A Montag Thunderhawk? We never see those here; of course, we see the imitations, but that is all." He almost looked like a street beggar when he looked me directly in the eyes and asked, "Mr. Ursari, would you be willing to let us examine them?"
I was stunned. It wasn't just George that liked technology; it was his family! (This was before I really got to know them, so I think my ignorance can be forgiven in this case.) I shook my head in disbelief as I withdrew my guns and presented them handle first. "Actually, they're Montag Thunderhawk Long Shots. Rifling's been modified for better accuracy and range while the cylinder's got a different mechanism for faster firing. Only five hundred of these are around. I got one for 'valor in the face of overwhelming danger', which is army talk for 'I was dumb enough to nearly get myself killed', and the other was a gift from an old army buddy."
Mr. Tall Eagle gingerly plucked the gun from my hand, holding it as if it were a child of the Fates. "I will return in time, Mr. Ursari; in the meantime, please make yourself at home. Son, please see to him." And with that he departed, although I would have sworn he was resisting a mighty urge to leap into the air and kick his heels.
George smiled as he poured me another glass of the delicious bourbon, handing it to me and settling down into chair facing mine. "I'm sorry about that, Mr. Ursari. If there is one thing that can distract my father it is new technology."
I took a thankful swig and waved my hand. "No need to apologize, George; hopefully he'll forget to pick up where he left off with you. And it's Henry, please."
George shook his head mournfully. "No, Father won't forget, and as soon as you are gone he will resume. Thankfully, it will be blunted considerably by your generosity."
"So, I don't get it…is your entire family fascinated by guns? If so, why?"
"The entire Wa'hoa'doca tribe is fascinated by modern technology and employ it whenever we can, but I am the only one that takes it much further. At least," he added, "me and my father, that is. As to why we are fascinated by it, I cannot say; all I know is that my forefathers have been equally interested in scientific advancement."
I nodded. "Gotcha. Well, once they return my gun I'll go ahead and make my way out. Thank you for this wonderful bourbon, by the way."
George laughed, waving his hand. "To waho ne."
"By the way, am I even allowed to drink this?"
George was about to answer when a scruffy young ragamuffin ran into the room, and from the looks of things the kid was barely 12 and dirtier than a pig in fresh mud. He started spouting a rapid staccato of Ano to George, and while I didn't understand a word of it, I knew from the tone it wasn't to announce a dance night. He and George went back and forth briefly, ending only when George dismissed him and rose from his chair. "We need to get to the front area, Mr. Ursari; apparently, our friends from the alley chose the route less taken."
I regretfully finished the rest of the bourbon in one gulp and stood up as well. "What?"
"The men brought the local Legionnaire and are calling for your arrest."
I must admit I exploded a bit when I replied and several 'Doca passing in the hall stopped to make sure I wasn't going loco. "What in the Twelve Hells are they calling in the law for?"
"I do not know…all I know is they're at the front gate and won't leave until you appear."
"Why not lie?"
George looked shocked. "We do not lie to the lawmen, Mr. Ursari. That simply isn't done here."
I grunted out of sheer peevishness. "Well, let's go see what they want. And it's Henry."
We made our way to the front and would have walked outside if Mr. Tall Eagle hadn't stopped us. "Mr. Ursari, Jumping Fox told us the Legionnaires are here for you, so here is your revolver," he said with a pained expression as he held out my gun.
I waved him off. "Keep it here, sir, as it's liable to 'disappear' in their hands. I know you'll make sure it's safe."
Mr. Tall Eagle looked mighty regal and 'Old Country' (if you know what I mean) as he cradled my gun. "We will make sure it is safe, Mr. Ursari. You have my word."
Of that I had no doubt as me and George made our way to the front door, but first I peered through the curtains to see exactly what I was up against. Rotten Teeth was there with his buddies, talking to a fellow dressed much like a Legionnaire and what appeared to be a Western Arms revolver strapped to his hip. He had the lanky, stringy look most men have when they've been out in the frontier for longer than what was necessary or sane. His hair was a yellowed-white and his skin told of many patrols in the desert, so I knew I was coming up against a veteran of sorts. I took a deep breath and opened the door, making sure both hands were very visible while George followed behind me.
The Legionnaire stopped talking to Rotten Teeth to scan my person and then look me directly in the eye, his face a combination of wariness and boredom. "Is that him?"
Rotten Teeth nodded vigorously. "Yep, that's tha' man that threatened me."
The Legionnaire glanced at him through the corner of his eyes with a look of disgust. He was obviously not buying any of it, but he had to respond to the accusation regardless. "What's your name, stranger?"
I stopped about ten feet from the gate and managed to put on my best smile. "I am Henry Ursari, formerly of Madora and newcomer to this town."
"Tolliver says you threatened him with a gun. What do you have to say to that?"
"It is true, sir. I did threaten him." The Legionnaire looked mildly surprised as I continued. "He and his buddies were beating up on this Ano here," jabbing a thumb behind me, "and I stepped in to stop it."
"The brownie stole sum money from me!" Tolliver exploded. Now that he had the law temporarily on his side he could dive into the insults, and I added this to the growing list of reasons why I should've shot him in the beginning.
The Legionnaire, however, wasn't having any of it. "Shut up, Tolly, and let me handle this," he growled. He glanced past my shoulder at George. "Come here, boy."
George moved past me and stood in front of the Legionnaire, looking rather calm. The officer glanced at George's wounds and arched an eyebrow, shrugging. "Did you take money from Mr. Tolliver, boy?"
The Legionnaire sighed in irritation. "Imagine that." I couldn't tell if he believed George or not, but it didn't matter much because Tolly was getting mighty worked up.
"It don' matter, Willy; you cain't take tha' word of a brownie anyhow."
The formerly unknown Legionnaire now known as Willy rolled his eyes and sighed. "Mr. Ursari, why don't you come with me so we can iron out this problem. Go back inside, son," he said to George, "and I'd advise you stay there until I send for you." George nodded and quickly departed with a worried glance in my direction.
Tolliver glanced at my hip. "Hey…Where's yer' gun?"
I was unprepared for Tolliver being that observant, but Willy didn't seem to be interested in it. "He's unarmed, Tolly. I figure you'd prefer that since he threatened you with it."
Tolliver glared at me as I walked through the gate and followed Legionnaire Willy. "Mebbe he has it hidden somewhar' on his person," he muttered sulkily.
"By the Fates, Tolly…Shut the hell up and go home. I'll send for you if I need you."
I really liked Legionnaire Willy after that.
"Here's the problem, Mr. Ursari," Willy started as we both sat down in his office. I say office but it was really a jail with a small room in the back with a stove, desk, two chairs, and a table covered with papers. Either he didn't put much stock in frippery, or the Legionnaire budget was a little low when they built the place. "I'm sure Tolly unlawfully did a number on that boy and you were in the wrong place at the right time, but Big River has some peculiar laws, one of which forbids any testimony from an Ano. In essence, all that's left is Tolly's accusation, which is piss-poor to begin with, as he rarely has any money on hand." He squirmed around in his chair as he reached for a coffee pot and poured himself a cup. "Coffee?" I nodded, even though it would definitely be a very poor chaser to the bourbon; however, I needed to clear my head real quick.
He poured the black stuff into a tin cup and set the pot back on the stove, pushing the cup towards me when he was done. "Anyhow, Tolly's going to push this as far as he can. Out of all the people you could've encountered, you had to find him." He snorted in derision as he took a sip of his coffee.
"I'm guessing he's got a bit of rabbit in him?"
Willy laughed. "Hell, son…he's all rabbit. Cut him and he'll bleed yellow. He usually targets strangers because they're not known, but he'll come running to me to save his cowardly hide when the stranger turns out to be a bigger fish. I can't do anything about it because he knows not to make the first move and no one in town wants to cross him; in spite of his stupidity and cowardice, he's as cunning as a fox. Most of his victims don't have a whole lot to their name or don't want the attention, so they're reluctant to come to me. I can't stand the sight of him and he knows it, but he's going to milk this one for all it's worth. My hands are tied…" He started and then drifted into silence. He paused, his eyes looking at nothing in particular. "I'll be darned…I just thought of something. Were you planning to stay in Big River? I mean, you don't have much choice at this point, but did you have some place to be?"
"Nah. I was just going through town, looking for work. Things have been difficult as of late and I need the coin. I own a place in Estoga, but sometimes I need to get out every once in a while."
Willy looked astonished. "Estoga? Darn, son, but you're far from home. What in blazes forced you to come this far north?"
I just laughed, albeit grimly. "Nothing in particular…I just felt like moving around a bit. I do miss it, though; in fact, I really want to be back now."
"Understandable, and I would too. I hear the women in Estoga are pretty little things…is it true?" Most men, regardless of their path in life, were always interested in the women of Estoga or Kashari, and for good reason.
"Oh yeah, they are indeed. Got a bit of a temper, though, so you have to put the knives away when one comes over to knock boots with you. Or, rather, that's what people say. They are just like most women all over the world: Confusing, pretty as hell, and each of them are different." Now, for the benefit of those ladies reading this story I will confess something: I will swear upon my sainted mother's grave that I do not think that way at all. I find the gentler sex to be a nice addition to our roughshod procession through life, and I would rather cut off my right hand than disparage them. However, for some reason we men like to say those things when out of earshot of the womenfolk. It gives us something to do, I guess.
Willy chuckled as he rose from his chair. "Don't I know it. My wife was a beauty, but her sisters would scare the milk out of a cow just by talkin'. I never did find out if they were related by blood. Anyhow, just stay put and stay out of Tolly's way, 'cause he isn't gonna be happy when I tell him what I plan to do."
I rose as well. "And that is…?"
"I'll have to get a tribal leader to come in and go over the evidence of the Ano's involvement." He chuckled, apparently impressed with his own cleverness. "Ano can't testify in a Madoran court, but they can testify in an Ano court, and the latter has been recognized as a genuine judicial body by the High Court. This means the evidence from the latter can be admitted into the former based on a legal precedent called "judicial equivalency". It was originally created for Madoran courtrooms and I'm fairly certain it was never meant to be used in this fashion, but I really want to put a spoke in Tolly's wagon. The laws here may be slanted towards New Madorans, but they can't argue with the decision of the High Court."
"Wait a moment…There are Ano courts?"
Willy nodded, retrieving his sidearm and strapping it around his waist. "Yep. Any time an Ano is involved a crime the tribal court is supposed to be used to prosecute them, not Madorans. Supposedly it's to keep them from being lynched before receiving a proper trial."
"But wouldn't the Ano tribunal have just as much reason to be biased?"
Willy shrugged, smiling broadly. "No, because Ano don't lie to each other; it has something to do with their ancestors punishing them or something of that nature. Anyhow, do you wanna argue Madoran law, or let me get that tribal leader?"
I grimaced, knowing I was stuck with only one option. "Get the tribal leader."
"I figured you would. Anyway, go to the Three Mares Saloon, as it's cheap and the food isn't too bad. Tell Molly I sent you and she'll get you settled; also, she can't stand Tolly and he knows it, so he'll give it a wide berth."
"Thanks. What about the Fo'c'sle? Someone I met earlier told me about it."
Willy snorted in derision. "It's not for the faint of heart, I can tell you that. I end up going over there once a month to break up a fight or pull a body out."
"Noted. Can I look for work while I'm waiting for this elder?"
"Yes, but I hope you like manual labor, because it's all there is to get around here. By the way, what did you do with your gun?" He paused for a brief second and then waved his hand in dismissal. "Don't answer that. Best keep it wherever it is and don't provoke Tolly any more than you need to." He moved towards the door, shooing me outside in the process.
"What if he comes after me?"
Willy looked me directly in the eye as he followed me outside and shut the door to the jail. "If he comes after you I won't protect him, and I'll make sure he knows that. You're free to respond up to the limit the law allows," he said as he locked the door, "which means you can respond with equal force. He comes a-swinging you use fists, but if he brings a gun…." He just looked at me briefly and shrugged.
I really liked Legionnaire Willy after that. I went to the Three Mares and introduced myself to Molly, a woman of sizable proportions with a stained apron and long hair tied up into that bun many working women seem to favor. She took one look at me with an arched eyebrow and vaguely waved a hand upstairs, telling me of a room that was free and warning me not to step on the drunks in the hallway. I politely thanked her and made my way upstairs, taking care not to step on the drunks sleeping off their latest binge on dirty mats. It appeared Molly was the sort of person that took in hard cases, which was admirable up to a point. My room was not much better, as the window was dirty and cracked, while the bed appeared to be a foot too short and draped with a threadbare sheet. A small dingy mirror stood atop a bureau that had seen better days with a grimy piss pot beside it. It wasn't much, but it was home until I could get my bearings, get work, and locate finer dwellings. I sighed and passed the time writing letters to some friends of mine at Fort Hastings until it got dark, at which point Molly informed me dinner was on the table. My stomach had been growling and grumbling in my torso for a while, so I went to dinner with some expectation of fulfillment. Thankfully Molly was a good cook (or had a good cook hidden away somewhere) and the meat wasn't too dry or the bread too brittle. I finally finished my supper, washed my dishes (payment for staying there, according to Molly), and went back upstairs to finally collapse on the floor with the threadbare sheet to cover me. Being a military man had prepared me for sleeping in some mighty uncomfortable locations, so before I knew it I was asleep.
The only thought that flickered through my mind before darkness overcame me was that I completely forgot to warn George about Ignatius.