Author's Note: This work is currently in short story form although consideration is being given to it becoming the first chapter of a book called Rocky Point.
I saw the eyes first, a refection of a thousand deaths.
His hat was black and dusty. His boots were worn and dirty. He was old and dark. If he had any kind of smell the whiskey and sweat of the other men in the saloon absorbed it. But I sensed it would be the smell of a wearied warrior who'd traveled the valleys of hell indifferent to the flames - the smell of being charred on the way to nowhere.
I edged away from the bar toward an empty table near the front door, slowly brushing the back of my right hand across the butt of my Colt Peacemaker as I turned away. I needed reassurance it was still there, settled firmly in the confines of my Spanish leather holster. To live life in fear is natural for some people. I don't live life in fear. I see it as a heightened sense of awareness of danger, although some folks might call it an affliction of paranoia or some other brain disorder. Either way, it's a requirement if you want to stay alive in Rocky Point.
The stranger glanced in my direction. There was no swagger in his amble as he casually moved toward the bar where I had been standing. He almost seemed to glide across the fatigued wooden floor as he approached me. His steps were so soft and smooth that not even the thin layer of dirt was disturbed. The moment his eyes met mine I felt a sudden thrust of his annoyance at me having looked at him as we passed one another. I continued to my table without turning around even though I felt he was still thrusting his annoyance at my back. When it comes to death, I figure you only get one chance at making it permanent. I didn't want to be the example.
I took a seat with my back facing the front wall. I'd heard about Hickok getting blasted from behind while seated at a poker table up in Deadwood just a few months earlier so, I added that wise tidbit to my library of heightened awareness. Anyway, I…
"Ehh, Jakey … know that fellar?" said a familiar grizzled voice over the background chatter of two dozen drunken men.
I glimpsed the table to my right where Jim "Sandy" Sulley was slouched alone over his empty glass studying me and nodding toward the dusty stranger who was now a pillar at the bar. I turned my attention back to the stranger. "Nah, never seen him before. How 'bout you there Sandy, you know him?"
Old "Sandy" Sulley had been around since the very first days of Rocky Point's boom, mostly slouched over an empty whiskey glass waiting for someone to fill it again. He'd lost his left arm during the war with the South, but he had earned his nickname for routinely bringing in his meager pouch of gold dust mixed with an abundant amount of black sand. Although he still panned the surrounding rivers and streams during sober times, he preferred to occupy a chair and trade talk for drink. "Can't say for sure, Jakey boy. Buy me a whiskey, ehh?"
I turned back toward Sandy and stared at his dirty weatherworn face and tried to assess whether or not I was about to buy an empty promise. I couldn't tell. "Well gee, I don't know there, Sandy. I can't say for sure, either." I pushed out the chair next to me. "Why don't you come on over here and we'll figure it out together?"
For being around sixty-years-old, half drunk, and crippled, Sandy moved like the Colorado River after a storm. He was seated at my table with his empty glass before I could rise up to fetch a bottle. When I returned he was standing over his glass and wiping it out with his dirty shirttail and trying to whistle some kind of tune without success. We both sat down while he quickly patted me on my back. "That's my boy, Jakey. That's my boy."
I began pouring. "Alright now, what do you know there, Sandy?" He emptied his glass and was sliding it back to me while I was still pouring mine. I took his glass and slid it to the far side of the table. "Not yet," I said and put the cork back in the bottle. I emptied my glass and slowly returned it to the table in front of me. "Well, let's have it."
Sandy cleared his phlegm-filled throat and wiped the back of his hand across his purple lips. He focussed his bloodshot eyes on the stranger across the room and studied him for a few moments before returning his gaze to the empty whiskey glass across the table. "I'd say he was in the cavalry at one time or another." Then he laid his arm across the table and cupped his hand as the same size and shape as his banished glass and waited for the calculated reward. "Well?"
I have to admit curiosity had hooked me and he knew it. Now I was going to be slowly reeled in, one drink at a time. I poured him another shot and slid it over. Sandy usually had some kind of information on most people – man, woman, or child – it didn't matter. Sometime he'd have only a little bit and other times he'd have a lot. Lesser times it was nothing but lies and gibberish. "Why would you say he'd been in the cavalry?"
"Cavalry boots, Jakey! He's wearing old cavalry boots!" Then, with a smile he gulped down his whiskey and held the empty glass close to his chest. "That is unless he took'em off some dead soldier." He returned his glass to the table but didn't release it. "Do you think he took'em from some fine dead soldier, Jakey?" A sarcastic chuckle followed.
I stole a quick look at the stranger and his boots. No, I couldn't see him taking boots from a dead man. "Look Sandy, I'm buying the drinks here. What else you got?" I topped off his glass again.
"Well sir, I'd also say he's not a ranch hand, outlaw, or marshal man. You see, his fine wool frock coat under that there duster is a bit too expensive for any old ranch hand, and an outlaw can't pull his guns out fast enough when he's wearing one." He emptied his glass again and smacked his purple lips together. I felt sorry for his rotting internal organs.
I was beginning to get a little irritated with Sandy but that's how he liked to play his cards: nice and slow while milking you for every minute of chatter. "Okay, so how do you know he's not a marshal? And this one here is the last drink until…"
"Cause he ain't wearin' no star, Jakey my boy!" Sandy pulled the glass to his lips and sipped real slow this time. He looked at me with knowing eyes under a furrowed brow and finished his whiskey. He knew my next question before I asked it. "And it ain't hidden under that fine frock coat, either. I'm tellin' ya."
I was tired of this fishing game. I had things to do and money to make. "Enough of the babble, Sulley. You've told me everything he isn't except the tooth fairy. Now, do you know who he is, or don't you?"
"Yessiree!" That was all he said as he held out his glass for final payment. I was relieved he was ready to conclude this game and play his ace-in-the-hole. If he passed out before the game was over I'd have to start all over again the next day. Don't get me wrong, I've always liked Sandy and I mostly trusted him. He's been very helpful to me over the past six or seven years. And more times than not I can sift out a small scoop of information from his jabbering. Besides, we were what folks called blood. I filled his glass once more.
Sandy lifted his drink with his filthy hand firmly wrapped around the glass. He held it snugly against his chest as if some bandit had threatened to take it from him. He gazed off into empty space and didn't drink until after a full thirty seconds had past. Then he casually said, "He's a bounty hunter out of Kansas – up somewhere near a place called Salina…" He stopped and stared at the ceiling for a moment longer and then rubbed his dingy gray whiskers. "Yeah, that's it. Salina. Anyway, I talked with him yesterday. He bought me a drink."
The flickering of all the gas lamps suddenly gave off an almost eerie appearance to the dusty-bounty-hunter-with-cavalry-boots-and-no-star-from-Kansas standing at the bar speaking with the keeper. No one took notice of the omen but me. "Who's he looking for?" I asked. Did my voice seem shaky? Maybe it was only in my mind.
Sandy released a long whiskey-smelling belch and grinned with yellow-tooth pride. "He's been lookin' for Earl Straffers from Missouri," he said. "But he don't got no picture, though. Stupid fool. How's he think he's gonna find a man with no picture?"
I poured myself a shot and slid the bottle over to Sandy. I didn't look at him and I didn't say anything. My thoughts were of Earl Straffers of Missouri, the very same man as me.