William Carstairs didn't like trouble. He'd had more than his share of it already, and he wasn't much interested in more. Which was problematic, as he didn't have the patience to be a farmer, the humility to be a worker, and the two things he was best at was drinking whiskey and shooting things. It had served him well in the service, but with the war over, there wasn't much need for that. It left him with only a couple of options: some cushy gig as someone important's bodyguard (which was a good way to get shot), sign up to join the new pinkertons (which was a great way to get shot) or sign on as an escort for someone else too nervous to own a gun, but not so broke as they'd be better off buying one anyway. Still a chance of being shot, but also maybe they listened to him and they avoided trouble.
Carstairs also had the boon of being able to read, which was uncommon this far west. He had a spirited and unpopularly clever mother to thank for that, even if he hadn't been blessed with her smarts. Unless her immaculate embroidery translated to his marksmanship, in which case he would thank her kindly. Instead he took after his father, who didn't mind hard work provided it was for a thing he cared about. And who liked his drink quite a bit.
There was a newspaper page in his pocket as he marched into town. It was pretty busy, far as most places went. There was a main street lined in buildings with hand painted signs - tailor, cobbler, cooper, carpenter, bank, and of course, the Sheriff's office...
Sheriff was a man in his late thirties, maybe mid-forties, depending on how many of his lines were from the job or the sun. He was slouched on a chair on the front porch, a gun at his hip, and his posture was relaxed. His eyes were anything but, sharp as a hawk's, watching the stranger as he chewed on a piece of straw. Carstairs made no move to hide his guns, nor to attract attention.
And there was a saloon, the tinkling of honkytonk muisc floating over the swinging doors, conversation warm and pleasant inside. A pair of drunk cowpokes stepped out, their lips attempting a jest or two, slurring and swaying visibly. Carstairs steps to one side to avoid their wide steps, but he didn't let them stop him.
There's a cathouse, too. A trio of doves fanning themselves on the porch in their silks and finery. They gossiped amongst themselves, and made curious sounds as the stranger swept by.
"Afternoon, stranger," one of them cooed. She was thick and busty, corkscrews of crimson hair spilling over her shoulders while emerald eyes watched him. The girl next to her had the brown skin of Mexico, her dress in scarlet roses and black lace, and she blew a kiss. Beside her was a yellow girl, eyes slits like almonds, her eyes like chocolates, her silk dress tucked tight around her.
"Afternoon, ladies," he answered, tipping his hat. "Y'all look lovely today."
"Gracias," the latina replied.
"Won't you join us?" the jade asked.
"I would love to," he answered. "Alas. I have business to attend to. Maybe later."
"We will be waiting," the latina assured me.
They got some nice girls here, he thought with a smile. I'm half expecting they got a red inside too.
But he did have business to attend to.
He found the doctor's office nestled between a general store and a blacksmith, the ringing of his hammer on metal audible halfway down the street. He could have saved his last penny for the barber, but there was always the chance this didn't work out, and he would need that penny for something else. Still, he'd done his best to shave and pull his hair back in something like sensible. He took his hat from his head, and opened the door.
Dr. Hammond's Medical Practise was a clean place, an achievement out here in the wilderness. Signs advertised veterinarian services (horses, sheep, dogs, that kind of thing), plus bloodletting, dental work and the usual surgical necessities. It was an open room of a building, a desk tucked to one side, with (presumably) Dr. Hammond sitting behind it. The wall was lined in licenses and degrees framed and hung with pride. Behind him was a bed, covered in white linen and a table covered in instruments. A bookshelf of thick tomes and notebooks and more metal pieces that Carstairs couldn't fathom the purpose for. The good Doctor looked up with a smile, and looked every bit like you would expect from a well-to-do frontierland doctor: a crisp cotton shirt, handsome waistcoat, a pocket watch tucked into one pocket with a slip of silver chain clutching to a button. He had circular glasses on his nose and a tarnished wedding ring on one hand. He was clean shave, muttonchops on his cheeks, and kind, crinkled eyes that did their best to be reassuring. Carstairs had known enough medics to know that was a lie Doctors told themselves as much as their patients.
"Ah! Mr. Carstairs, I take it?"
"That's my name." He eyed the instruments behind... Knowing what a few of them did, and they made his skin crawl.
The Doctor gestured to the wooden chair opposite him. "Sit, please."
He did so, watching the doctor scribble in lined notebook, feeling like a bit of a fake, like he usually did when he pretended he was a gentleman around people who really were gentle folk. Some of them didn't take kindly to being lied to, but that was the only way to make a living. Or maybe it's because he had always been really bad at lying, preferring to stick to the ugly truth. He tugged at his own shirt, rumpled as it was and not fully buttoned. The waistcoat was aged and torn in a couple of places. The denim had been a darker color once, as was the black duster that was more dust than black. His guns were cradled in his coat, a weight of their own, and the nearly empty pouch of ammunition at his hip. He gently set down the large, dusty seabag that had seen better days since he'd been given it in the service. He set his hands on his hat as he waited, spurs singing as he tucked his boots below him.
The Doctor finished his note, and transitioned to another. The familiar, unexpecting professional politeness of an employer who didn't want to give away excitement or, more likely, disappointment. "So. Mr. Carstairs. Why would you be interested in escorting myself and my charming daughter to Chicago, hmm?"
"Well... I could use the money. And as it so happens, I have business to attend to out that way."
He always felt like he was giving stupid, plain answers to carefully crafted questions. His eyes wandered to the licences and degrees... most of them marked with Boston and Philadelphia, places so far away he'd never been to them. And scarcely heard of people who had, outside of the service.
The Doctor scribble a note that even Carstairs couldn't decipher. "May I inquire as to what kind of business?" He looked up at the gunman with that same empty smile over his round spectacles. "If that's not too much to ask, that is."
Carstairs tore his eye away from the handsome clock that was ticking away like it wasn't a novelty at all. "Actually, it's rather personal business." And then he hesitated, as if he wasn't sure... "Sir."
The Doctor raised a hand. "Of course. You are quite right. My apologies."
He made a note, and Carstairs chewed on his cheek, unsure of how well he was doing so far...
"If you did get the contract," the Doctor asked, "how soon could you be read to depart?"
Carstairs cleared his throat. "Well, I could leave first thing in the morning, if I had to. But... A couple days to close my accounts." Another hesitation. "Sir."
The Doctor's eyes sparkled, and the smile felt a little more genuine. "Excellent." He scribbled something else, and circled it for emphasis. "And the salary was acceptable?"
"It's fine with me," he said. Any salary would be fine with me. "But I expect I'll get some of that upfront.
"Of course. And I will cover expenses as well." Another note. "How long do you suppose it might take us to get there?"
Carstairs blew out of his cheeks, considering it... "I can make it in a little under three weeks myself. Maybe two on horse back. Depends on the pace you want. And on trouble."
The Doctor's smile dropped. "Trouble?"
"Well, sure," he said, tugging on his guns. "The reds and the bandits. Sheltering in towns is best safety-wise, but if you want to save time, you march straight. You can get lost in the wilderness, and not like who you find.
For a long moment, the Doctor stared at him, and Carstairs couldn't quite... make out what it meant. Then finally, he said, "That's refreshingly honest, Mr. Carstairs." He set down his pen and crossed his fingers, leaning forwards across the desk. "I take it you've made a trek like this before?"
He nodded. "I have, sir. It's a very long walk, if you don't mind my saying."
The Doctor smiled, but this time it was a sad one. "That it is, Mr. Carstairs. That it is." Then he took off his spectacles, his eyes twinkling with amusement. "How would you feel if I tripled the salary, and asked you to accompany us via train to New York?"
The gunman's heart near stopped, eyes wide. "Sir?"
The Doctor leaned back in his chair and closed the book before him. "It's not often men are honest with me, Mr. Carstairs. As a doctor, I appreciate better than most the ease of a pretty lie to cover a cruel truth. I have had many would-be rangers knock on my door for a chance at this ride, and none have ever been honest with me." He rested his hand on the ledger, as if it were a Holy Bible. "Trust is very important to me. Especially considering that I am going to be entrusting my life, and that of my only daughter, into your hands." Cold blue eyes, like a winter's pond searched into his, a fierce and jealous love burning in them. "I want a man unafraid to tell me my horse needs rest, that we need more water, that our rations are low. I need a ranger who knows the land, knows the perils. Someone I can depend on." And then he blinked, and he smiled, and the fire cooled, fanned by professionalism. "Can you be that man for me, Mr. Carstairs?"
He swallowed hard. And made a note that the Good Doctor was not someone he wanted to ever have on his bad side. "I can do my damnedest, sir."
The Doctor's smile turned... predatory. "Excellent."
Then the Doctor put his spectacles on again, and returned to his previous, idle politeness. The difference was unnerving. Carstairs watched as he rifled through the drawer and pulled out a leather bill fold, and held up his pen again. "How much do you need for your accounts?"
Carstairs wished he knew how to lie.