The door to the sheriff’s office slammed closed. Nika leaned out the window of the Ford as Creed approached.
“What’s got your knickers in a bunch?” she asked. She couldn’t keep from smiling as she poked at him. Turnabout and all.
The town of Chloride, named after the high-grade silver ore found there, held no luster for Nika. The crudely painted, and poorly spelled sign boasted of the little town, “popyalation 1,000 to 2,000” and declared it was “a centor of mining – fer many miles ‘round.” Nika had laughed aloud as she read.
Creed clapped his hands on the car door’s window slot, his fingers clenching. “They know about him,” he ranted. “Word’s been wired all through the territory.”
“They know about… the fellow we are following?”
“Yer. Seems the Towler’s yesterday wasn’t the only ones this felon has killed. Three days ago, he fired a homestead. Burnt it to the ground. Neighbors witnessed part of it, enough to give a fair report to the local coppers. They sent out the word. Now even the likes of this homely bump fifty miles south of woop-woop knows about him.”
“But that’s good, isn’t it? They know about him, so its more likely they’ll capture him, do the job for us.”
He scowled at her with the shake of his head. “No. They won’t. What it means is that the lawmen will be on the lookout, and if they try to catch him, they’re gonna die. Worse, his description has spread: short and stocky, dirty, sooty clothes, filthy brown hair, thick square jaw, angry look on his mug, with a fiery demeanor.” Creed scoffed.
“Every bloody bounty hunter in the territory’ll be hot to catch this one. Two hundred dollars hot!” he growled.
Nika whistled at that sum. “Wow, thats quite a bounty.”
“It is indeed. The last thing we need are more hunters after him, getting in our way.”
“We’ve always had to deal with competition. Why is this so different?”
“Because, Button, these dolts will arse it all up. At best they’ll just piss him off, maybe get their damn selves burnt up worse than a t-bone what’s been left on the barbie overnight.”
“Um… if that’s the best that can happen, do I really want to know about what might be worse than that?”
“Think, kid,” he uttered cooly through clenched teeth. “They get the bastard spewing, send him into a fury and what will he do? He’ll more’n likely kill more innocents. I still don’t know what sets him off, and why he’d want to burn and kill his way north, but he is, and those other hunters’ll only make things worse.”
“You have a good point.” He usually did.
For want of a subject change, Nika asked, “Did you find your native, Mister… Knife?”
“Sheriff hadn’t seen him of late.”
“But he knew who you were asking about? The native who looks like a knife?”
Creed croaked, “Turns out he doesn’t look like a knife, he carries one. A big’un, and the folks hereabout call him by that name. Knife.”
“Well how convenient,” Nika said.
Her mentor simply smirked, and added, “I’m presently off to the saloon, see if he’s there.”
“Which one?” Nika asked. “I counted eight.”
The main way into town was a flat, dusty stretch of land, miles and miles between any type of civilization. Nika saw at best a hundred odd homes, but on the main thoroughfare (which to her accounting was the only street), she’d counted no fewer than eight saloons, along with three general stores, two restaurants, two butcher shops, a candy store, a lawyer’s office, a doctor, several boarding houses, a Chinese laundry, and a hotel. And, of course, the sheriff’s office, which doubled duty as the assay office, telegraph, and ticket office for the stage line.
“Get up me!” he swore. “Eight? Shows me right for training your smart eyes!”
“We can split them up, four and four,” she offered.
“Hell we will. I’ll not let you inside another saloon, mate. Remember what happened in the last one? And crikey, I’d been there and you still had trouble.”
“I have my Colt…”
“You had it the last time, for all the good it did ya. No, Button, you stay here in the car. I’ll go fishing for this native on my own.”
‘Overprotective, are you?’ she wanted to say, but held her tongue. He was right. If another brute like that black Kule fellow were to take a shining to her, without Creed around, she’d be hard pressed to protect herself, Colt or no.
Their attention was diverted by a loud bang, which sounded like the report of a cannon. Creed spun, Smitty in hand, ready for all comers. But in actuality, the noise turned out to be the backfire of an ancient car – a turn of the century Ford Runabout – Nika thought. She watched the antique rattle by, sputtering and popping the whole while. The pilot was an elderly man in a faded, red diamond twill jacket that matched the equally faded and chipped paint on his car. As he passed the Ford, he tipped his cap to Nika, favoring her with a near-toothless smile. The dust in his wake was particularly choking, forcing Nika to hastily crank up her window.
When she was done coughing, having rolled it back down, all she saw of Creed was the back of him, pushing his way through the doors of the nearest saloon.
* * *
The native called Knife sat alone, crouched over a small collection of shot glasses, sitting at a short dark bar in the fourth establishment Creed visited: The Deep Silver Saloon. As far as saloons went, this one was typical for a town so old and isolated. Local wood, pine from the rich paleness, was evident in structure and furnishings. It stank of beer, accentuated by the heady aroma of miner, and other even less palatable fragrances. In other words, a venue in which Creed felt entirely at home.
Knife was the only patron in the place, and oblivious to Creed’s entrance. Other than the barman, they were alone. The lack of patronage was not surprising, given that it wasn’t even close to arvo yet. Most of the town’d be at work still.
They’d made right good time getting here this morning, they did.
The native was considerably smaller than Creed, but tight and rangy, and he wore a fancy tan suit jacket and slacks. Neat white and brown oxfords hooked the rungs of his barstool. Creed chuckled. Knife was a show pony. That was unexpected.
His outfit wasn’t exactly tidy. In fact, it looked like he’d slept in it, and more than once. Still, it amused Creed to find his guide all gussied up in big city clothes. A long braid of dark hair ran the length of the man’s back, three strands of colorful Apache beads tethered it in place.
He wore no sidearm, nor any other weapons that Creed could see under that fancy bag of fruit. He might yet keep a holdout up his sleeve, or have a slug-thrower slung under his arm. Of the forewarned blade, the man’s namesake, none was readily apparent. Still, no taking chances with the Apache, Creed warned himself; not on his life.
“Mister,” Creed said in his most amiable tone, “you the bloke they call Knife?”
Nothing. No response whatsoever. No shift in his posture, or any other sign that the man had even heard him. What, was he asleep? Creed pondered.
“Tudie,” called the barman, “man’s talking to you.” The typically beefy apron sidled down behind the bar and gave the dapper Apache a gentle nudge.
“Huh…?” the native mumbled. Obviously he had been asleep.
Or passed out.
The native shook out cobwebs, his focus landing on the barman, head tilted. He still sat with back to both Creed and the saloon entry. Creed wasn’t so sure he’d found the right man.
The barman pointed to Creed with the shot glass he’d been polishing. “Fella here to see you Tudie.”
It took this Tudie fellow a moment or three to comprehend what he’d been told, but eventually he scooted around on his stool to face Creed. His face was hard, chiseled, dark. He gazed up at Creed, confusion and perturbation battling for dominance on his weathered chivvy. Dull, glassy eyes squinted and scrutinized back at Creed.
Wonderful. The bugger was on the turps. That’d be just right and dandy. Not because of the tired stereotype of the drunken indian, Creed reasoned, but because it was just like Murrobo to play his luck like that, and send him after a sinker.
“You the Apache they call Knife, mate?” Creed asked again, even though he wanted nothing more than to turn on his heels and check the other four saloons for another, more appropriately attired, not to mention sober, guide.
The indian hawked up something from deep in his chest, and spat it out. Creed was amazed that the lung butter actually made it into the spittoon, a full meter away down the bar.
“What is it you want, hombre?” asked the indian in a sober sounding voice.
“You’re gonna make me ask a third time?”
The man’s response was a blank stare. He scratched at his temple, then ran a hand along his sleek black braid.
Creed closed his eyes briefly. He pushed away his present urge to wallop the wally. He inhaled deeply, smiled, and for the third time, repeated, “Are you the gent what goes by the name of Knife? I’m in need of a tracker, and I’ve been… told… an Apache by that name could be found hereabouts.”
Mouth still fastened in a grim scowl, the indian slowly nodded. “By whom to you was I referred?” he then asked.
Creed blinked. “Well I’ll be gobsmacked! If you ain’t a humdinger of literacy.”
In response to Knife’s own blinking, Creed responded, “Never mind,” and then, “I heard about you, and the sheriff mentioned you could be found in the saloon.” No sense trying to explain that his source of information was the spirit of an Australian aboriginal medicine man on the other side of the globe. Easier to blame it on the sheriff.
Knife straightened on the barstool, and his hands smoothed down the wrinkles of his fancy jacket, tugged it down. He had that same, stony frown on his dark face as he next adjusted his flop-eared polka dot bow tie. His eyes cut to Creed’s, an altogether mean expression.
“Forgive my impudent manor, señor,” he said, maintaining his oaken expression, “and please make allowances for my earlier stupor. I had been dozing, and am not at my best upon initial arousal.
“My name” he continued, “is Tudeevio Greyknife. Knife, for short. It appears I am the Apache tracker you are looking for.” As he grimly uttered the monicker ‘Knife,’ his hand slid to his hip, which brushed opened his jacket enough to reveal a long blade – a machete – thrust into a dark leather sheath under his left arm. There may be hope for him yet, Creed thought.
“I’m Kes Creed. You can call me Creed. I’m following a bounty, and looking to hire me a guide on account of being unfamiliar with this country” Creed pulled out a stool. “Let me buy you some snake juice and we can gab some about making arrangements.”
He nodded to the barman and held up two fingers, then double tapped the slick and polished bar with them. Big Apron complied, producing a pair of stout mismatched glasses, subsequently splashing them with dark amber liquor.
“It will take considerably more than a shot of whiskey, señor,” Knife said, “to prompt an impetus to renounce my retirement.”
Creed scoffed, “The fella I’m after has post on him, and there’ll be a share of that.”
Knife stiffened, his eyes went black and beady. “How much?” he asked.
“Total bounty is a two hundred. They say he’s a raper, murderer, and arsonist. He needs to be stopped before he can do any more harm.”
“Split fifty fifty?” the native asked, his visage unchanged. Crikey but this bloke had an unexpressive mug, pretty much the topsy-turvey of Nika and her thousand and one ‘looks.’
“I can’t promise an even split, not yet,” Creed told him. “Might be we’ll need to hire some brunos and posse up against the bastard.”
The Apache stood then. He cocked his head and regarded Creed like one examines the coat on a horse. “Hombre,” he asked, “I can not discern from whence you acquired your unique accent. What is your origin?”
Creed’s bemused smirk didn’t seem to bother Knife. He was just too funny, this dapper, fine-talking native. “I could ask the same of you, mate,” he countered. “As for me, I’m Aussie born and bred, from Down Under, as it were.”
Knife remained unfazed. All he needed was a handful of cigars… that and the savage getup.
“You, your’e an Apache,” Creed continued, “but you’re right educated, or at least you come off that way.”
“Indeed,” was his only reply. A tough nut, this one.
“What say you, Tudeevio? Can you help me track down this felon? Willya come out of… retirement?”
The black eyes that returned Creed’s stare were clear and sober.
“Fifty dollars now,” Knife said, “and a full share of the bounty when the felon is apprehended and delivered into the custody of the law.”
“A tidy sum, mate.” But not excessive, considering the native’s reputed expertise. Nonetheless, it was a pretty steep request.
“I know the land,” Knife added, “you do not. You need me more than I need your greenbacks.”
“In case you hadn’t heard, there is a depression going on,” Creed negotiated. “I can’t just hand over that kind of dough, not without a couple of days of seeing how good you do.”
Knife put his back to Creed, and his arse back onto the stool. He slid the whiskey aside and said, “I’d like another Black and White, please,” to the barman.
“What?” Creed hissed, “Are we just bumping gums? We’re not going to dicker?”
Over his shoulder, Knife stated, “I do not haggle, señor. I have apprised you of the fee for my services. Should you wish to hire me, that is my remuneration.”
Creed hooked an finger under his collar and absently tugged at it. “Listen, pal,” he said, “a little earlier, you apologized all civil-like for sleights I took no offense of, but now you turn your back on me and insult me. If you think you can lair it up with me and get away with… Well, I’m thinking perhaps you wasn’t too sincere then, and you’re just downright rude now!”
The Apache cocked a one-shouldered shrug, the tossed back his Black and White.
“That does it, you gussied-up wacker!” Creed slapped a grab the on the jerk, intent to spin him around and show him what for. Nika’s voice stopped him.
“Kes,” she called out as she entered the saloon, “there you are. How long are you going to make me wait in that hot car? And it’s not like we have all day for you to find your… Oh, I see you found him.”
At the explosion of feminine protestation, all three men turned their full attention on Nika. Creed’s chest went tight, as it usually did when Nika caught him losing his head. She had a way of sobering his moods. Not a bad thing, he’d often reflected.
Taking in her seemingly naive demeanor, a transparent air if he was not mistaken, Creed’s agitation all but subsided.
Nika strode over to the group at the bar. Was she intentionally sashaying?, he wondered.
“Well Mister Creed,” she asked, “aren’t you going to introduce me to your new associate?”
Knife sat there, empty drink loose between his fingers, staring at Nika. His dark eyes were wide, and a small smile inched up the corners of his mouth.
“Tudeevio Greyknife, this is my protégé, Miss Annika Silbersichel. Nika, Tudeevio, also called Knife.”
“Charmed, I’m sure,” she said in her sweetest voice. Clever girl. She must have been listening from outside. “I so look forward to working with you, Mister Knife.”
“Tudie,” stammered the Apache. “Please… call me Tudie.”