#1 in a pentalogy of stories:
Word count: 1,055
Scott Preston Lancer walked awkwardly into the saloon. His left shoulder flared with pain as he accidentally jarred it against the swinging door. From his fevered perception, the dilapidated bar seemed to waver and flow, but he gritted his teeth and continued towards its actual solidity. When the barkeep walked past the blond young man, once and then again, the smooth eastern voice took on a flinty hardness, not unknown in his native New England. “Mister, I asked if there was a doctor in this town?”
The balding saloon keeper, who sported a handlebar moustache and sideburns that Ambrose Burnside would have envied, carefully perused the slender figure standing before him. “No, there ain’t no doctor here—just an undertaker. If’n you need him, he’s just down the street.”
With sweat streaming down his face, Scott found it difficult to keep his blue eyes open. Finally, he resorted to using his bandana to wipe away the moisture.
“Say, Mister, you ain’t sick, are ya?”
“No, I was shot by a would-be robber just outside town.”
“Wasn’t too smart of ya ta be out riding this time o’ day!”
“It’s 4:00 PM and I have a right to ride whenever I want to!” the young man remonstrated.
The shaggy man muttered contemptuously, “Everbody knows that’s the worst time to be out in these parts.”
“I am not from these parts! Could you tell me if there is a vet in town?”
“Sure lots of ’em, some from the North and even a few from the South.”
Now, Scott was truly becoming annoyed. “I didn’t mean a veteran. I meant a veterinarian, an animal doctor.”
“Did your horse get shot too?”
Feeling his strength beginning to ebb, Scott made one last effort. “I want the vet to take care of my arm. Do you have one in town?”
“No. All’s we got is the undertaker. He’ll give you a good rate. Business has been kinda slow.”
As pain flooded his whole body, the Lancer scion desperately made the effort to hold onto consciousness. “Do you. . .do you have a room where I could lie down?”
“Nosiree, we don’t even have a hotel. People just stay home where they belong and frankly strangers ain’t much welcome. So if’n you don’t buy some whiskey or somethin’ I’m gonna have to ask you to move on.”
Too exhausted to make another effort to get help from the irritating man, the blond stumbled back out the door and crossed the street. He had to lie down, even if was in the livery stable where he had left his horse. Upon entering the stable, the earthy smells assailed his nostrils as he frantically tried to keep his stomach from revolting. Swaying from pain and loss of blood, he managed to lower himself on to a mound of hay. The scratchiness made no impression as he finally let himself slip into a dark oblivion.
“Mister, mister, you gotta git up!”
Blue eyes opened to see a small ferret-faced man staring down at him. Scott’s stomach lurched against as the man’s sour breath hit him square in the face. “What? Did you. . .did you say something?”
“I said you gotta get up and get outta here. The townspeople are up in arms. They don’t cotton to no strangers sneaking inta town, not with the way the smallpox is atakin’ folks right and left.”
“Smallpox? I don’t have smallpox. I was vaccinated during the war.”
“So you say, but people are mighty scared what with people dyin’ all over this part of California. A whole ranch was wiped out down Morro Coyo way—ever last man, woman and child.”
“Morro Coyo? I live near there. At a ranch called Lancer.”
The weasly man’s countenance underwent a transformation. Unrelenting sorrow covered the lined face. “Then, Mister you ain’t got nobody to go back to.”
Struggling to stand, despite the pain that overwhelmed him, the former cavalryman whispered, “It’s not. . .it’s not possible. Everyone was fine when I left just five days ago.”
“The good Lord works in mysterious ways. Now you gotta get out of Nameless or some of the townspeople just might take a notion to shoot you and bury the disease.”
“I don’t have smallpox. I was shot. Doesn’t anyone listen in this town?”
“Here now, no need ta git insultin’. Just ’cause the founders of this here town couldn’t agree on a name, don’t mean we ain’t got civic pride.”
“I don’t give a damn about your town. I’ve got to get back to Lancer. You’re wrong. They couldn’t all be dead.”
The ferrety man grinned hugely, showing the only three teeth he still possessed. “Oh, they’re dead all right and I’ll bet it’s a gruesome sight too. ‘Course since you wuz in the war you seen lots of dead fellers.”
“Please, you’ve got to help me. I need someone to get this bullet out and then I can go home. Please.”
“Oh, is that all youra wantin’? I kin take that bullet out of ya. Lemme go get my tools.”
Scott Lancer sat there in disbelief. He had only left his family a few days before and all had been in the peak of health.
Before he could continue to puzzle out the man’s horrible news, the small creature returned, holding a pair of pliers and a white-hot rod.
“What’s that for?”
“Your shoulder! What’d ya think I was gonna pull some teeth? This bar’ll sear it so it don’t bleed too much. Now just hold still!”
Even as Scott began to struggle, he felt strong arms hold him down tight as the huge pliers moved closer and closer. “Now, I’ll jest tell you a little story about our town ta keep yur mind offa what I’ma doin’. You see the founders of the town couldn’t decide on a name. Some wanted one and some wanted another and then finally one day, I said to ’em, “Hell, what difference does it make what the name is? Some people are always gonna like one and some another! They all saw the wisdom of my genius and so Nameless, California, was located right here on this spot! What do ya say ta that?” he chortled with glee.
A scream flooded the stable as the smell of burning flesh filled the air.
To Hurdles —->
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