CHAPTER ONE — FRIENDLY GHOSTS
There was a time when Harlan couldn't sit at the bar with his back to the saloon doors, but the sun had set on the days where enemies were always hot on his tail. They were either all dead, locked up, or moved on. Harlan, being a washed-up, old outlaw, didn't have to worry about much of anything anymore. He had been pretty successful in his youth and managed to squirrel away enough money to keep him clothed, fed, and drunk. Others in his line of work were quick to spend their money on girls and booze right away, but all the years of being a sober, lonely fool paid off in the end for ol' Harlan Nail.
A group of young men occupied the corner table by the door, nervous hands resting on the grips of their pistols tucked away in holsters at their sides. Harlan was at a stool on the short end of the L-shaped bar, the bat-wing doors in his peripherals because old habits die hard. His whiskey tasted a little watered down, but times were tough and everyone was trying to stretch what they had, especially the saloons.
The doors swung open as a new patron pushed past and heads turned to assess the man. He was wearing a black, broad-brimmed hat tipped low over his eyes which cast a dark shadow over his sharply angled face. The stranger was lean, tall, and thick cords of vein bulged in his forearms exposed by rolled sleeves of a dirty white button-up shirt. Harlan had also taken notice of the man but had been around long enough to do so subtly.
As the man approached the bar just to Harlan's left, he could make out the salt and pepper-colored stubble that covered the man's razor sharp jaw. When he ordered himself a whiskey, the words came out slow but deep. Commanding. A smile broke out across Harlan's face.
"Thought you'd be buried in the desert by now," Harlan said as he finished off the contents of his glass.
The man raised his chin to peer out from under his brim with eyes as dark as coal. A smile of his own appeared, flashing a mouth of smaller teeth with sharp canines like a coyote pup.
"I'll be damned," the man said as he wrapped his fingers around his glass.
"If ya ain't already," Harlan quipped.
Meanwhile, the rest of the saloon had mostly gone on as normal after determining that the new man wasn't going to cause any trouble, but some of the tougher looking ol' boys kept their eyes fastened to the two old outlaws as their itchy trigger fingers trembled.
The man knocked back his whiskey and narrowed his eyes at the empty glass as if he suspected that the alcohol was watered down as well.
"It's been awhile," he said after setting the glass aside.
"Too long, brother."
"Bah," he shrugged, "you were always sentimental one."
Back in the day, Harlan Nail was a hustler. He was damn good at it, too, but often found himself in jams. He had a quick tongue and sharp wit which got him out of a lot of those jams, but he was slow on the draw leaving him with plenty of scars and bad memories of narrow escapes. One day, Harlan found himself in quite the bind. There was nowhere to run. The man he'd tricked pulled his gun and Harlan heard a shot. Harlan watched as a red stain formed on the big man's chest and spread until he dropped to the floor. A drifter by the name of Ward Chesney had saved his life. The two men became fast friends. The rest, well, you won't find it in any History textbooks.
Ward didn't have Harlan's wit, and he had a more aggressive approach when it came to making a living. He traveled around the West robbing at gunpoint. Saloons were an occasional target, but traveling traders proved to have more cash on them and were easy to overtake. Ward had one of the quickest hands around, and others in the same profession would sooner pack up and move on to another town than try to compete with him.
They drank the night away, and they were still going when the bartender came over and announced that it was last call.
"Just gimme the damn bottle, huh?" Ward said. He was a naturally quiet man when he was sober, but when he was thoroughly soused his deep voice was amplified and doubly threatening.
The bartender handed over the whiskey bottle with just under a third left. Ward grabbed it by the neck and made his way for the stairs at the far left of the saloon.
"Are you staying here? Which is yours?" He ascended the steps without waiting for Harlan's word.
"I am. Room 205."
Harlan watched Ward dance up the stairs with a boozy smile on his lips. What a night, he thought, I am reunited with a ghost. Ward nearly blew through the door to the room; his feet carried him faster than his hand could turn the knob. It was a tad homier than the rest of the rooms. Harlan had been staying there for nearly three months. For a discounted boarding price, he broke up the occasional bar fight and kicked out the riff-raff for the bartender.
"Gosh," Ward grunted upon dropping down onto the end of the bed.
"I bet you never had the time to do one'a these rooms up, huh?"
Ward took a sloppy drink from the bottle. Thin trails of the amber alcohol slipped from the corners of his mouth and down his chin.
"Look at that," he said, ignoring Harlan's question.
There was a vanity on the wall across from the bed. Harlan had stuck one of his knives into the wood a few weeks ago for a reason he couldn't remember. Wedged into the space between the mirror and its frame were a line of postcards from various places. One of them had a bullet hole in it and was painted in dried blood that had caused the paper to wrinkle. Ward touched the curled edges of the hole and laughed.
"I can't believe you still have these."
Harlan stepped closer and admired his collection.
"Like you said earlier, I am the sentimental one."
Ward took a deep breath. His eyes moved from the postcards to their image in the mirror. Harlan had his thumbs hooked into the belt loops of his tweed pants. Ward set the bottle onto the vanity table and slung his arm across Harlan's shoulders as he stuck his other hand into his pocket.
"Look at us," Ward said, his voice back to its normal, low tone, "a couple'a ugly, old dogs."
"Hey, speak for yourself," Harlan said as he lightly knocked Ward in the ribs with his elbow.
The reason they made such a great pair in the past was that they contrasted each other perfectly. Where one was lacking, the other excelled. Ward couldn't talk his way out of a wet paper bag and Harlan couldn't shoot his way out of one, but Harlan, with his quick wit, had saved their asses on multiple accounts. There were also plenty of times where Ward had saved Harlan from catching bullets.
Harlan also had a couple of deadly fists on him. Because of his poor gun skills, he became an exceptional fighter out of necessity. When he got himself into a duel he'd steer it away from guns to fists just so he could live another day. Harlan had broad shoulders and a solid chest, an absolute brick shithouse of a man.
"I wish we had a camera," Ward said.
Harlan laughed as he smoothed his dirty blonde mustache. He'd skipped a day of shaving and was now growing stubble across his face as well. For a guy who'd finally taken a break, he looked awful rough. He needed a haircut, too, come to think of it. The triangular-shaped patch of hair he'd been growing under his lower lip to conceal a scar he had there wasn't doing a good enough job. He had bags under his eyes and—
"Stop it," Ward said as he dropped his arm from Harlan's shoulder and stuck the whiskey bottle into his chest.
Harlan took the bottle and peeled his eyes from the mirror. "Stop what?"
"You're in your head too much."
"I've no idea what you're getting at."
Ward huffed out a short chuckle as he looked at the rest of Harlan's belongings that were on the vanity. Harlan took a long drink and moved to sit on the end of the bed.
"Poet," Ward muttered.
When Ward turned he was holding a beaten-up book and was going through its pages.
"You're a poet now."
Harlan's head tilted to one side as he leaned back on the bed, propping himself up on his elbows.
"Is that a question?" He asked.
Ward just shook his head. A curious grin crept across his face as he read the words.
Some time back, Harlan had stolen some books from a man claiming to be a poet himself but he hadn't written anything. He just carried around these old books filled with the words of famous, dead poets. Harlan didn't think the man appreciated the books enough, so he took them before leaving that particular town.
"They're just books," Harlan said, "I don't write any of my own, but I like to read 'em."
"I never could understand you, Mr. Nail."
Harlan didn't say anything in response.
"You're an interesting one."
"Where've you been the past five years?"
Ward's eyes widened for a moment as he snapped the book shut like he'd been pulled from some trance.
"Around," he answered mischievously.
"I thought you were dead when I lost you after that bank job."
"I went to the South for a time, but I spent most of my days out here working for a train guy."
"A train guy."
"He transported vegetables from the East… and Lementin."
"Now I'm really surprised you didn't end up dead in the desert."
"No, sir, just filthy rich."
Ward sat next to Harlan on the bed and leaned back with his hands clasped behind his head.
"I may have acquired a few more enemies that I'd originally had, but that's just a formality."
Harlan snorted. He let his head fall to the mattress as he watched a moth flutter in from the open window and knock itself against the light on the ceiling. A mix of emotions rushed through him upon Ward's appearance. Most of them were good, but Harlan wasn't born yesterday. There was a nagging feeling deep in his gut that he had learned long ago not to ignore; it told him to expect trouble and a postponement of his retirement plans.