“This is the worst kind of town,” Weaver stated. “Big enough that finding McGraw—or anything else—will take some time and effort, small enough that no part of that will yield anything interesting.”
“Aye, that’s great,” Billie said. “Speak up, ye haven’t managed t’piss off everyone in the station yet.”
“Nobody’s paying us any attention, you half-wit,” he snorted.
Indeed, hardly anyone was around at all. A few people moved lethargically through the street outside the shade of the Rail station’s overhanging roof. A man behind the ticket booth appeared to be half-asleep; the lone Tiraan soldier on duty gave them a single disinterested look before getting back to her busy schedule of lounging on her staff, looking bored.
Terminus Station was by far the most interesting thing to be seen. As the three of them stepped away from the caravan, it eased forward from its stopping point next to the platform and onto a question mark-shaped loop, slowly circling about to face back the way it had come. There was a small gap in the Rail between the end of this and the point where it straightened out again; the caravan shuddered slightly as it passed over that, but moments later was heading back to Tiraas, gathering speed, and was out of sight in just a few more seconds. The station itself was small and almost entirely outdoors, consisting of a roof supported by pillars, with no walls except around a small section which contained the ticket office and doubtless a few other facilities. It wasn’t very clean, being lightly seasoned with windblown dust and dirt, but at least everything was in good repair.
Unlike everything else within view.
Desolation, a small to middling town, stretched out to all sides, occupying about a square mile of land, if that. It may or may not have seen better days, but it surely deserved them. The buildings were of local stone with timber framing and slate roofs, almost universally. The street running alongside the Rail station was paved, but badly in need of repair, and every cross-street in view was simply dirt. Stone was cracked and pitted on nearly every structure, roof tiles were missing or broken, a few window had cracked panes and one just across the street was even boarded over. Between this and the apparent somnolence of the few people out on the street, the town was a very portrait of hard luck.
Beyond the buildings, though, the view was quite impressive; Desolation stood at the meeting place of three landscapes. The Stalrange formed an uneven gray wall rising skyward to the west, close enough to be undimmed by the haze of distance; to the southeast stretched out the prairie that became the Golden Sea not much farther beyond. In the north, though, were the Badlands, a rolling terrain of fancifully-shaped stone outcroppings, worn smooth by aeons of erosion and broken jagged in enough spots to keep it interesting. Hardy weeds sprouted from any gap that provided them a foothold, waving in the wind, and twisted, scrawny bushes clung to the sides and even the tops of rock formations, brown and almost leafless.
“Welp,” Joe said, tucking his thumbs into the pockets of his duster, “when in a new town and lookin’ for information, step one is to find the nearest watering hole.”
He nodded across the street at the building with the boarded-up window. The un-boarded ones were wide, and sheltered beneath an awning that shielded a few rickety-looking rocking chairs from the mid-morning sun. The establishment’s only sign simply said “Whiskey.” Whether or not that was the place’s name, it made effective advertizing.
“Ah, good,” Weaver said with a sigh. “It’s been ages since I last got tetanus from a shot glass in a disgusting frontier hellhole. One more thing to scratch off my list for this trip.”
“How ’bout you let us handle the talking?” Joe suggested.
Whiskey, if that as indeed its name, was nothing if not scenic, at least from the outside. It had the obligatory swinging double doors, and even an old man apparently sound asleep in a rocking chair out front, his hat pulled down over his face. Its interior was dim, lit only by sunlight from the windows and a few candle-sized fairy lamps spaced along the walls. There were larger ones not currently in use; half of their smaller cousins were apparently broken. A man with an ostentatious waxed mustache stood behind the bar reading a newspaper, while a skinny teenage girl in an apron lounged against the far wall. She straightened up as they entered. Around a table in one back corner sat six men, in varying states of filth and shabbiness, playing poker, several half-empty bottles of whiskey sitting among their cards and small piles of pennies. They, too, paused and turned around to give the new arrivals a cold, silent inspection.
The three crossed the room to a table near the front windows and seated themselves.
“Good choice,” Weaver muttered. “Lots of folks here to pump for intel.”
“Ashner’s knickers, y’great grump, it’s barely past ten in the morning,” Billie said, rolling her eyes. “How many d’ye think’ll be loiterin’ in a bar? Most folk have better to do with their time than the likes of us.”
“Worth talkin’ to the waitress, at least,” Joe murmured. “They know more’n most about the comings and goings of any town.”
He fell silent as the young lady in question approached. She was no more than seventeen, and lean both in frame and with the slightly hollow-cheeked look of someone who didn’t eat well. Blonde hair was yanked back from her skull in an indifferent ponytail; her expression was, at best, wary, and at worst pondering whether it had an excuse to be hostile.
“What’ll it be?” she asked tersely.
“Shot o’ whiskey!” Billie chirped. “Like the sign says, aye?”
“Wasn’t someone just saying it’s barely past ten?” Weaver said, giving the gnome a scathing look. “Water.”
“And water for me,” Joe added politely, tipping his hat to the girl.
He got a very cold look in return. “Big spenders,” she said with a scowl, then turned and flounced off back to the bar.
“Seriously,” Weaver said to Billie, “pace yourself. I am not hauling your drunk ass all over this podunk town.”
“You are such a pain in the bum, Damian. If I get meself drunk on one shot o’ whiskey, I’ll ‘ave ta return ta the old country in disgrace.”
“You’re pocket-sized! A shot is like a bucket to you!”
“Oh, is that how it works? Damn, I’ve been doin’ it wrong this whole time.”
Joe sighed heavily. “Guys. Just be nice to the girl, please? That means no sexual harassment, Billie. And you.” He pointed accusingly at Weaver. “Just don’t talk to her at all.”
“Oh, mustn’t I?” the man deadpanned. “But how ever will I get over the loss of the scintillating conversation I’m sure that unwashed guttersnipe—”
“Shut,” Joe growled, “up.” Weaver grinned at him, but subsided.
The girl returned, bearing a tray and a disgruntled look.
“Thank you kindly, miss,” Joe said warmly before she could speak, placing a doubloon on her tray. Her eyes widened and the latent hostility in her expression diminished considerably. That was a great deal more than their drinks were worth.
It turned out she was honest. “That, uh, I… I’ll have to go back to the bar to get change for this, s-sir,” she said with an awkward attempt at formal courtesy.
“Don’t worry about that,” Joe said with a smile. “I’m sure you can find a use for the extra. My name’s Joe. What’s yours?”
“April,” she said warily, finally setting their glasses in front of them one by one. Billie immediately grabbed her shot and tossed it back in one go, under Weaver’s disapproving stare.
“April! That’s pretty. Maybe it comes from knowing a few elves back home, but I’ve always been partial to names that mean something,” Joe said. April’s smile was growing steadily more sincere, relaxed, and pleased; at the compliment, she actually blushed slightly, ducking her head. “Listen, I hate to pester you, but we’re lookin’ for a friend of ours who’s supposed to meet us in town. Older fellow, a Westerner, goes by McGraw. You wouldn’t happen to have seen him around?”
April’s eyes widened and she looked them over more carefully. “You know Longshot McGraw?”
“I gather that’s a yes, then?” Joe said with a grin.
She nodded, still staring at him. “Yeah, he’s in town. Came through here jus’ yesterday, askin’ fer the news. Used to be a reg’lar sight in Desolation, I hear tell, though he ain’t been through in a couple years. Not since I was too young to pay attention, I mean.”
“You wouldn’t happen to know where he’s holed up?”
April emitted a short, disbelieving laugh. “Not here. I ain’t heard, sorry. Not many boarding houses in town; we don’t get much in the way of travelers since the mining dried up. They even took us off the regular Rail stop roster,” she added bitterly.
“Sorry to hear that,” Joe said gravely. “Well, I’m sure we’ll run across him sooner or later. I gather Desolation’s had a bit o’ trouble lately?”
The girl’s expression had grown dour again, but this time she didn’t seem to direct the sentiment at him—at least, she continued talking animatedly. “Desolation ain’t had nothin’ but trouble the last ten years. You folks from Tiraas?”
“Oh, all over,” Joe said vaguely. “Sarasio, myself, over on the other side of the Golden Sea. Actually,” he added thoughtfully, glancing over at his companions, “it suddenly occurs to me I don’t actually know where you guys hail from.”
“Can’t think of a single reason you might need to,” Weaver said sardonically.
“I heard stories about Sarasio,” April said, nodding. “Almost as bad as here, I hear tell.”
“What happened to Desolation?” he asked quickly to avert a digression into that subject.
She twisted her lips into a sour little moue. “Elves happened, that’s what.”
Joe stared, taken aback. “Elves? What’d they do?”
“First it was the darklings,” she said, clutching her tray to her chest and scowling as she continued to chatter on. “Them an’ their damn treaty. Oh, I’m sure a load a’ free ore every year’s great for all them factories down in Tiraas an’ Calderaas, but this here’s mining country. You know what happens to mining country when some idjit drow suddenly floods the market with cheap metal? Prices crash, everything crashes, mines close, good folks are out o’ work… And then, then, as if that weren’t bad enough, the goddamn Cobalt Dawn come pourin’ outta the Golden Sea, raidin’ an’ killin’ an’ tryin’ to take over the whole damn province. Least the Army crushed those bastards like they deserved,” she added fiercely. “Only damn knife-ear I ever wanna see again’s one swingin’ from the gallows. Turquoise an’ coal are the only things keepin’ Upper Stalwar Province afloat anymore, an’ they ain’t enough to float everybody.”
“Turquoise and coal, huh,” he prompted, when she showed signs of trailing off.
“Yeah,” April continued, nodding again. “Apparently they don’t have turquoise down in Tar’naris, an’ the dwarves buy a lot o’ coal. They need it fer their machines. That’s not a real big trade, though—they used ta sell metals to the Empire, too, an’ they were hit almost as bad as us by the Narisian Treaty. Maybe worse—least we can grow food up here, an’ hunt some. Dunno what the dwarves eat, ‘less they buy it from us. Them hills’re lousy with good silver, copper, lead, even a few gold lodes closer to the mountains, an’ it all just sits in the ground, cos o’ them damn elves.”
“Well,” Joe said slowly, “now I feel bad for makin’ you recite all that. Sorry, miss, I hadn’t realized things were so rough ’round here.”
“Yeah, well, if you find your friend, you’d hear it all anyway,” she said. “He asked for the news, too. That’s all history, just what it’s like in Desolation these days. Now we got trouble with dwarves an’ Mister K, too, like we need any more damn trouble…”
Joe had to will himself not to stiffen or do anything abrupt to alarm her. Billie and Weaver both straightened up in their seats (she was standing on hers), staring at the waitress. “Mister K?” he asked in a deliberately mild tone. “And dwarves? Sorry, I thought it sounded like you got along pretty well with dwarves in these parts.”
“Till very recently, we did,” said said, bobbing her head again in that distinctive way she had. It was actually kind of cute. “It’s just insult on top of injury, is what it is. A new investor showed up from the capital, real secretive fellow, don’t like folks askin’ after his business. But he’s digging! Startin’ up a whole venture, up north. Makes his headquarters in Risk, bout thirty miles from here into the Badlands.”
“What’s he digging for?” Weaver demanded.
“Nobody knows!” April said in exasperation. “Cos big fancy Mister K don’t hire the hardworking folk who live here an’ desperately need the work. Oh, no, he contracts a whole company a’ dwarves to do his digging! There was like to’ve been a lynching, ‘cept it turns out he’s got this posse—”
Abruptly, she broke off, going pale and looking over their heads and across the table. Clutching the tray closer to her chest, April backed rapidly away, turning once she was out of reach to skitter back over to the bar, which she ducked behind.
Moving slowly and very deliberately, the three of them turned to face in the other direction.
The card players had abandoned their game, and now approached, coming to a stop less than six feet away. They arranged themselves in a rough line, faces coldly blank, some folding their arms, others keeping hands pointedly near holstered wands. In the center, a broad-shouldered man who stood half a head taller than any of his companions studied them slowly, each in turn, slowly chewing at something with a rolling motion of his jaw that made his greasy mustache undulate. After a long, silent moment, he turned his head to the side and spat a wad of tobacco onto the floor.
“You’re in our spot,” he said flatly.
“Didn’t see any names on it,” Joe replied, noting details. The smell of whiskey, reddened eyes and noses, a slight sway in a couple of them, even standing still. That was both good and bad. Drunk men tended to be more aggressive than they otherwise might, but they couldn’t shoot a wand or throw a punch nearly as straight as sober men.
“Well, I’m tellin’ you now,” the big man retorted, fixing his eyes on Joe’s. “Move it.”
“Let’s not do this, gentlemen,” Joe said calmly. “C’mon, let us buy you a round.”
“You hard of hearin’, boy?” the man thundered, sneering down at him. “Get yer fancy-dressed ass up outta my seat, an’ get the fuck outta my bar!”
“Watch your language,” Joe said coldly. “There are ladies present.”
“The fuck you just say to me?!”
“Omnu’s balls,” Weaver said dryly, “are you shambling inbreds drunk? As I was just mentioning to this degenerate little trouser goblin, it’s not even noon.”
“You asked for it, asshole,” the ringleader declared, taking a slightly unsteady step forward and raising his fists.
Two seconds later, he was stumbling backward with pinpoint holes burned through both his feet, his wands falling to the floor from his severed belt, and Joe was upright, weapons raised.
“Now then,” Joe said reasonably, as the burly man’s compatriots caught him. He sagged in their arms, looking stupefied and apparently uncertain why his feet weren’t working properly. “As I said, boys, let’s not go through this. It’s cliché an’ of no profit to anybody. Y’all just go back to your game, an’ your next round’s on me. Fair?”
The big man gaped at him, remarkably like an unwashed fish with an unflattering mustache. He finally got a semblance of balance, leaning against one of his friends. For just a moment, Joe dared to hope that would be the end of it.
“Get ’em!” another man roared, and the rest surged forward, fists upraised. Quite incidentally, they dropped their erstwhile leader to the ground in their rush to storm the table.
There were a few very uncertain seconds in which Joe was tested to his limits; he was out of his element at close range, especially with a bunch of larger individuals rushing him. The sound that Weaver produced from his flute threw all of them way off balance, however, allies and enemies alike, but while the five remaining local boys were sent reeling away, Joe managed to keep his feet. His innate sense of balance was giving him flawed information, so he ignored it, extrapolating from the numbers his eyes were feeding him. Not perfect, but it kept him upright and shooting despite the dizziness. It helped a great deal that, unlike his assailants, he was sober.
Weaver only held that note a few beats, blessedly, by which time Billie had managed to dig something out of her pockets.
Whatever it was sure made a lot of noise.
Two minutes later, they were the only ones still standing.
The brawl had moved into the street without observing such niceties as the door. When the last of the local drunks were laid out on the cracked pavement, it was among the fragments of stone and smoldering wood that had been the front wall of the saloon. One of the swinging doors had been flung clear across the road and now rested on the roof of the Rail station.
“Billie,” Joe said in exasperation, “that was an indoor, close quarters fight. What the h—what were you thinking, throwing explosives?”
“Says the kid who was shooting wands,” Weaver commented.
“Oi, how did I ever end up crewing with such complainers?” the gnome said cheerily. “It’s not like I didn’t throw shielding charms over all of us. C’mon, Joe, don’t argue with results, aye?”
“All the places I’ve been, all the things I’ve done,” Weaver said, “and I think that might just have been the dumbest fight I have ever been in. I mean, c’mon, I’ve been roughed up in nearly every town I visited, but this is the first one where I didn’t do anything to deserve it. If you morons wanted your asses kicked that badly, you could’ve just gone to the nearest Silver Legion barracks and ordered a sandwich.”
“I would advise against that,” Joe cautioned a semi-prone man who was reaching for a holstered wand. At the warning, the fellow cowered back from him, raising his hands in defeat.
“Look alive, chaps,” Billie said more quietly. “We seem to’ve put a dent in our popularity.”
More figures had come out to investigate the noise. An awful lot of them were carrying wands and staves, and at the sight of three out-of-towners standing over six felled locals and the ruins of the central watering hole, many were beginning to scowl and level weapons at the trio.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” Joe said, raising his voice, “this is a mite awkward, but it ain’t exactly what it looks like.”
“Be honest, now,” Billie said merrily. “It’s pretty much what it looks like, innit?”
A sharp buzz rose near them, followed by a flicker of blue light that was scarcely visible under the bright morning sun, and McGraw abruptly materialized.
“Yup,” he said fatalistically. “Never fails. When I can’t find you three, all I gotta do is listen for explosions.”
“That’s not entirely fair,” Joe protested.
“It’s pretty fair,” Weaver disagreed.
“You!” the big man from earlier bellowed. He had limped out of the remains of the saloon and was clutching one of the support posts out front, which was currently listing slightly and no longer supporting anything. With his free hand, he pointed unsteadily at McGraw. “I shoulda known these assholes were with you!”
“You probably should’ve, yes,” McGraw commented. He subtly raised his voice, turning to address the gathering (and increasingly angry) crowd as much as the man. “Congratulations, Coulter. You managed to pick a fight with Gravestone Weaver, Tinker Billie and the Sarasio Kid. I’m pretty sure that makes you the dumbest son of a bitch on the frontier. The bards will sing of your legend for years to come.”
“Oh, I will make damn certain they do,” Weaver said, grinning unpleasantly.
At the introductions, the crowd’s tone changed; they began to pull back uncertainly, and most of the weapons present were suddenly pointed skyward or at the ground. Coulter, gaping at his erstwhile opponents, forgot to keep himself braced upright and tumbled face-first into the street. With a defeated groan, the post toppled onto his back.
Hoofbeats pounded the pavement and the crowd drew back further as a pair of riders approached at a quick canter, coming to a stop close enough that Joe and Weaver reflexively backed away from the horses. The man in the lead, astride a black mare, had a wand in his hand and a silver gryphon badge pinned to his vest.
“Damn it, McGraw,” he shouted, “what did I clearly tell you? Did I stutter? Do I need to put it in writing? What part of ‘don’t cause trouble’ was so goddamn difficult to understand?”
“Now, Sheriff, let’s not go jumpin’ to conclusions,” McGraw said reasonably. “I only just got here myself. These folk are friends o’ mine, and it ain’t in their nature to go pickin’ fights.”
“Ain’t that Coulter ass-up in the street, there?” the fellow behind the Sheriff said, lifting the brim of his hat to get a better look.
“Coulter started it!” April said shrilly from the gap where the front of the saloon had been. “Jus’ walked up an plumb took a swing, outta nowhere! When’re you gonna send him off to real prison, Sheriff? Every time you toss ‘im in that jail, he just comes back out meaner and dumber, an’ I don’t see you gettin’ yer butt pinched every day over it!”
“Well, that’s a story I’ve no trouble believing,” the sheriff growled. “You got anything to say for yourself, Coulter?”
The big fellow groaned, twitching feebly under the fallen post.
“He okay?” the younger man asked, glancing at Weaver. “Mebbe I oughta fetch Bones…”
“You do that, Slim,” the sheriff said grimly. “Have him meet us at the jail, because that is exactly where these idjits are goin’.”
“Great,” said Weaver. “We all done here, then? Can we go?”
“You just hold your horses,” the lawman ordered. “I’m perfectly willin’ to believe Coulter an’ his boys started this hoedown, especially with Miss Moseley there backin’ you up. But I also know these boys brawl with fists, not wands, and they ain’t even packin’ whatever ordnance did this. So unless someone comes forward to testify that wall drew on you first, you’re all comin’ down to the office for a chat.”
“Pardon me, Sheriff,” Joe said politely. “My name’s—”
“I know damn well who you are, boy, I got ears,” the sheriff retorted, staring down at him. “An’ I also know I’m not about to haul the four o’ you off anywhere you don’t choose to go. However, I think you are gonna choose to come along politely. Not because Saul Decker’s askin’ you to, but because of this.” He tapped his badge with the tip of his wand; Joe just barely suppressed a spontaneous lecture about wand safety. “This means if you refuse to respect the law in my town, you are instigatin’ a long-term shootin’ match with powers against which you will not prevail, an’ I think you all know it. Honestly, you morons, look around you.” He jerked his head in the direction of the smashed storefront. “Does this look like a town where folks can afford to fix shit like this? Are you proud of yourselves?”
Weaver just raised an eyebrow sardonically, but Joe had to gulp down a physical surge of guilt, and even Billie looked abashed.
Decker sighed and shook his head. “Sam, grab a couple volunteers and help the boys get safe to the jail. The rest of you, follow me. Now.”