Creed stomped through the bat-wing doors, into Bankleyville’s ‘Woody’s Rustbucket Saloon and Boarding House.’ His upper lip was curled back, exposing teeth. It was not a smile. The odds he’d gotten any news from the local law did not bode well.
Nika thought she heard him utter a curse. Of course, she never knew if he was swearing or not – his people had such colorful panoply of slang.
“Any luck…?” she started, but he interrupted her.
“These louts didn’t mistreat you, did they?” he asked, glaring at both Knife and Roose, each in turn.
She smiled. “No, silly. They were perfect gentlemen.”
Knife bristled at the accusation, but Roose didn’t seem to have heard. He had his eye on the lithe and lusty bartender, who’d taken every chance to flirt with him.
“We good?” Roose asked, and when Creed gave him leave, he made a bee-line for the bar, and resumed bawdy conversation with the woman.
This place, the Rustbucket, could easily have been a black-paper-duplicate of the saloon and boarding house from Burning Bush, Reingold’s. It had the same slick and filthy floor, the same stench, bat-wing doors, and a long bar peopled with hard-looking men. Even the boarding rooms upstairs were identical. The only thing this place lacked was a giant negro slobbering all over her. For that, Nika was eternally grateful.
When they’d first arrived, well after dark – to Creed’s vocalized displeasure – Nika was hesitant to remain inside. It took her quite some time for the hot shivers deep inside her to subside. When Creed told her that he was leaving to track down the sheriff, she about jumped out of her skin.
“I don’t want you coming with,” Creed had said. “It’s better if you stay here with the boys.”
“Kes…” she admonished, “We just met them today.”
“You can trust us,” Roosevelt said. “I won’t let nothing happen to you.”
Knife spoke up as well. “You have my word Señor Creed. Any man who so much as looks at Miss Nika will lose his…” He was giving Roosevelt the stink-eye with the threat, but Creed interrupted him.
“Nobody’s losing anything, hear me? I’ll be gone a half hour, no more. Anything happens to Nika and you will both answer to me.”
He meant it too. Creed took such good care of her, and Nika admired him greatly for it.
Of course, the half hour turned into an hour and a half – enough time for Knife to knock back four of his Black & Whites, and seven tap beers for Roosevelt. Any excuse to run over to the bar and flirt with the lovely-looking bartender. Of course, she fawned to his flattery. She knew how to work the male patrons and earn a generous gratuity from each and every one of them.
“Mister Adams,” she asked at one point, to eliminate her boredom if for no other reason, “you seem quite experienced at the fine art of gentile conversation for such a young man.”
He scoffed, a foot already deep into his cups. “Not as young as I look, I assure you. The good lord blessed me with a wide-eyed mug. And I use it to my advantage at every turn that gets presented to me.” He flashed Nika a knowing wink, downed his beer in three gulps, and strode over to the bar for another chance to flirt.
Presently, Creed took the chair where Roosevelt had been seated, and rifled through his shoulder satchel.
“The copper wasn’t around,” he told them. “The hoosegow was shut up and dark. So was the place they told me he lived. I suppose, perhaps being a diligent man of the law, he’s out making the rounds, keeping everyone safe.”
“Oh,” Nika quipped, “I’ll take my safety with an extra helping of sarcasm.”
He flashed her a conceding grin and, from the satchel, pulled a weathered and dust encrusted tome, his log book. Nika rarely saw Creed when he didn’t have that satchel slung over his shoulder. The journal was always close at hand, and Creed would pull it out at random times, scribbling in it, making drawings of people, architecture, relics… whatever took his fancy. He unwrapped the enclosure string from around the button sewn onto its face, unfolded it and thumbed through the pages. Every so many pages there was stuffed some other bit of paper: notes, sketches, the occasional wanted poster neatly quarter-folded so as to fit neatly inside.
He tugged out, then unfolded a single sheaf. Nika recognized it at once. It was a drawing he’d made of the felon. He had started the drawing by candlelight, that terrible morning up in the Towler’s hayloft. He drew it entirely from memory, a sketch of the man Creed had seen when he’d taken wing as a falcon. It still baffled Nika how all of that was possible, but she’d seen enough of the uncanny to believe most everything Creed told her. She trusted him, and he’d never lied to her.
Creed laid the sketch on the table as he returned his journal inside the satchel. Then he snatched it up and stood, calling out to the general populace of Woody’s Rustbucket.
“I need your attention, mates. My name is Creed, and I am hunting a bounty. I have a drawing here of the felon, and I’m going to pass it around. Let me know if any of you recognize him, if you’ve seen him about in the last day or two.”
Nary a patron so much as turned to him. Backs were all they gave to Creed. It dawned on Nika that this crowd had been sullen the whole time she’d been there. She’d attributed it to the heat of the day, and perhaps this was also the general tenor of the townsfolk. She and Creed had been to so many places, towns where the locals were jovial and inviting, others where they were downright rude, and pretty much everything in between.
But the folk in this saloon, now that she gave it closer consideration, were sullen and withdrawn. Almost like they’d held a funeral earlier in the day.
“C’mon mates. Surely you can spare a moment or three to at least take a look.” Creed stepped up to the bar and held out the drawing, but the two men on either side of him just turned aside.
“I’ll take a gander, fella.” Nika rolled her eyes. It was Roosevelt. He snatched up the drawing and eyed it, making a production of the whole affair.
“Naw,” he said, “I ain’t never seen him before. But then again, I am new to town. Hey sugar,” he said to the barmaid, thrusting it a few inches from her nose, “You don’t recognize him do you?”
She giggled and looked the drawing over. “Sorry sweetie, I see a lot of folks come into the Rustbucket. I’d remember a square-jawed, sorry looking mug like that.”
“Aww shucks,” Roosevelt crowed. “Anybody else wanna give it a once-over?”
He frowned at the lack of response, but then his face lit up. Nika cringed. He’d gotten an idea.
“Hey mister,” he said to Creed, like he’d never seen him before coming into The Rustbucket, “I think you should buy me a drink… for taking a look at your pencil picture there. Yeah, I did you a favor, I believe you should return it… three fingers of whisky’ll do the trick just fine.”
Creed looked to Nika. She shrugged. He laid a hard smile on his face and turned to Roosevelt.
“What in the seven hells?” muttered Tudeevio.
“No idea,” she whispered in response.
“Sure,” Creed said at last, the word taking several seconds to make its way out. “But I don’t think three fingers is quite fair. Hmm? I think one finger is enough. Sure you took a gander at the sketch, but you didn’t come up with anything.”
To the room, Creed announced, “Barman… er… woman… give anyone here a finger outta that bottle of whiskey what agrees to run his eyes over the drawing of my fugitive. I’ll give a generous three fingers,” and he sneered at Roosevelt with that, “for any man here – providin’ they give me the low down I find useful.”
“Right-O,” the lady bartender returned.
“By golly,” Nika whispered to Tudeevio, “it looks like it’s working.”
And it was. Several of the formerly sullen, taciturn patrons responded. Creed handed the paper to a tall, hardy farmer-looking fellow. After looking at the picture, his corner of his mouth cocked up in disappointment and he shook his head.
The next man, a portly dapper man, likewise didn’t recognize the subject of the drawing, but tossed back the whiskey nonetheless.
A group of men at a table were next. They all four had the hard look of ranch-hand about them. Two of them were twins, Nika noted.
A grey-templed man, the chief of the bunch, took the drawing first. When his eyes hit the collection of little leaden lines, his eyes went wide with recognition, his face paled then went cold.
He pulled the paper to his breast, a move Nika was sure had been intended to hide the sketch from his fellows. He shook his head, and his cheeks and neck wobbled as he said, “Nay. This ain’t nobody none of us know. I don’t want yer whiskey, and I am sure we’d all be obliged if you pocketed your little portrait and rejoined your friends over there.”
“No need to be rude to the fellow.” Of course, it was Roosevelt again. “He’s just doing his job, looking for this bad, bad man. Hell, he’s a hero, protecting your sorry heinies from vicious criminals like the one in that sketch there.”
All four of the men rose at the same time. Nika shook her head and looked for cover, in case things came to blows, or worse. She noticed, not surprised in the least, that Tudeevio had loosened the leather restraint on his underarm blade.
Many of the saloon’s patrons had vamoosed out the doors. Those that remained sought the safety behind the bar, or up the stairs, wide eyes peering at the potential fracas from cover.
Wonderful. It was Burning Bush all over again, just this time there were four regular sized men instead of one giant.
Creed stepped between Roosevelt and the agitated quartet of townsmen. “Don’t let this loudmouth rile you, friends,” he said.
The replies came both at the same moment. The chief of the men said, “We ain’t yer friends,” while Roosevelt chided, “Who you callin’ a loudmouth?”
Faster than a tommy gun, Creed turned and shot Roosevelt a withering glare, then spun around, hands forward, palms out, and calmly said, “Look, I’m not here for trouble. I’m just looking for that fellow,” indicating the paper clutched to the man’s chest, “so he don’t hurt nobody else.”
Creed, direct to leader of the bunch, said, “My name’s Creed. I don’t want trouble. Lets take a few steps back and all start over, shall we?”
The men bristled still, but their leader softened some, and replied. “Overholser’s the name. This here’s Tommy Baker,” he indicated a lanky fellow with a scruffy face. “Them two are the Beaver twins, Jed and Jared. Jed’s the one with the mustachio.”
Each of the men, as if the mere mention of their names in introduction gave them reason to relax, eased noticeably, each in turn. The mustachioed twin, Jed, even favored Creed with a smile and a head bob.
Creed looked over at the bar, heads sticking up from behind like so many hedgehogs. “Lady barman,” he called, “Bring five glasses out this table, and a bottle of your best hooch.”
“Six,” Roose called. “Make that six glasses.”
“Five,” Creed retorted, to which Roose bristled with rancor.
Slowly, the folks behind the bar rose up, looking chagrinned, and returned to their former stations while the barmaiden proffered the requested alcohol.
Nika walked over and tugged on Roosevelt’s braces, and they both returned to their table and sat back down beside Tuveedio, who hadn’t budged an inch. She would have clapped Roose upside the head were it not for his injury.
At the table, handshakes were exchanged, followed by the tossing back of the liquid peace offering. From their expressions, the whiskey was of excellent quality. They huddled together, conspiring over the drawing, speaking in hushed, solemn tones. Nika couldn’t make out what they were saying, but one thing was clear. She’d seen spooked deer that looked more composed than these fellows.