There were four dead bodies in a room above Ernie’s saloon. Big guys wearing spurred boots and solid gun belts. Two looked to have been shot. One’s head had been smashed in against the doorpost. The fourth had his neck bent like a neck just wasn’t meant to bend.
From the doorway, Ernie looked at the room’s two living inhabitants. Lizzie Wayne, the woman he’d rented the room to, looked defiant, her arms folded across her chest. Laughing Wolf was emerging sheepishly from under the bed, clutching some fancy stick covered in ribbons and feathers.
“Didn’t figure you for the sort to make a mess,” Ernie said, making no effort to hide his resentment.
“Sorry,” Laughing Wolf said. “They started it.”
“It’s always the dead ones who did.” Ernie pushed over one of the bodies and peered at the wall behind him. “Clearing up costs extra. Double for gunfights.”
“She’s paying,” Laughing Wolf said.
Miss Wayne glared at him, then back at Ernie.
“I’m not paying extra because they brought guns,” she said.
Ernie pointed at a hole in the wall.
“Blood washes out,” he said. “Bullets don’t. Pay extra or fix up the room yourself.”
“Fine,” Miss Wayne said. “Add it to my bill.”
Ernie would have made most customers pay up front, but Wayne wore big city dresses and tipped at meals, so he didn’t have to worry whether she was good for it. Besides, it wasn’t like anyone could leave this town. That was the curse his business was built on.
He went to fetch old blankets to wrap the bodies in. By the time he returned, the killers were deep in conversation.
“No, this makes it even less my problem,” Miss Wayne said as she dragged one of the bodies onto the landing. “Now I can just wait it out.”
“You’re saying no other trouble could come your way?” Laughing Wolf said, piling pistols and ammo belts on the bed.
Ernie kept quiet and tried to ignore them. It didn’t do any good to get drawn into your customers’ problems.
“Somebody’s got to take down King,” Laughing Wolf said. “We’re the only two in town with the power to try.”
Ernie slowed his work, making a show of labouring over carrying the body, buying himself time to listen. Mister King would pay well to hear about this conversation.
“It won’t just be him,” Wayne said. “Alfonse has a gift for finding wretches to do his dirty work.”
Ernie glanced up. His heart was in his throat. Were they looking at him? Had that been an implication, the beginnings of a threat?
Hurrying to get out of the room, he tripped on the doorframe and dropped the body with a thump. Now they were definitely looking at him. His face glowed like dawn across the plains.
“It’s not just us, either,” Laughing Wolf said. “As long as no-one can leave town, people’s pasts will keep catching up with them. What happened today, what you felt meeting King again, do you want to force that on others?”
“Fine,” Wayne said, rolling her eyes. “If – and only if – you have a plan.”
“Got to get soap and a bucket,” Ernie blurted out, bolting from the room.
He hurried down the stairs and around behind his bar. The breakfast crowd had fled at the sound of gunshots, leaving the place deserted.
It was strange to hear other folks talk about their pasts catching up. That was what had brought Ernie out west. It was the reason he’d accepted Mister King’s deal – service for protection.
He crouched behind the bar, opened a small cupboard, and peered inside. The thing inside could have been a chequers board, except that Mister King used it for more complicated business. Instead of nice simple disks it had chess pieces, odd figures whose names Ernie struggled to recall.
Which one had King said to move in an emergency? The one meant to summon his men…
“What you got there, Ernie?”
Ernie jumped so hard he slammed his head against the bar. Laughing Wolf stood barefoot beside him, that crazy stick in his hand and a stern look on his face. There were footsteps as Lizzie descended the stairs, a pack of cards in one hand and a six-shooter in the other.
“Nothing,” Ernie said.
He tried to slam the cupboard shut but Laughing Wolf thrust his stick in the way. The indian peered inside.
“Games, huh?” he said. “I should have noticed the smell of magic was strong here.”
“I’ve got friends,” Ernie said, backing away from the furious native. “Powerful friends.”
“See this?” Laughing Wolf said, raising his stick. “This is my game. This is my magic. We play coup and I can take control of you. You want that, Ernie?”
Ernie shook his head frantically, backing toward the shotgun stashed beneath the cash box.
“Mine’s a war game,” Laughing Wolf said. “The minute you pull that thing, that’s when it starts. You think you can shoot faster than I can steal your soul?”
Ernie froze. He was shaking so bad his muscles ached.
“Leave him,” Wayne said, heading for the door. “He’s nothing.”
“No I ain’t,” Ernie snapped, finding a surprise store of courage buried inside him. “I own this bar. I’m my own man.”
“Of course you are,” Wayne said.
She probably thought Ernie didn’t know sarcasm, but he heard it. It stung.
“Get out of my saloon,” Ernie yelled. “And don’t never come back.”
The other two exchanged a look.
“Fine,” Laughing Wolf said, heading for the door. “But think about this. Did you name this bar of yours?”
Ernie followed them out, telling himself it was to make sure they were gone. But when he looked up at the sign above the door he knew why he was really there.
“Pawn Sacrifice,” the sign said. Ernie had never understood what that meant, just that it was part of Mister King’s deal. Now the sign mocked him, a reminder that his life wasn’t his own.
He’d never been much for games, but he’d hated the idea of being someone else’s playing piece.
He went back inside to fetch a ladder and a saw. Five minutes later he was hacking the sign down. Next he’d deal with the bodies. And then…
Then he didn’t know.
“Hey, Ernie,” a familiar voice said.
Laughing Wolf was looking up at him.
“What?” Ernie asked, leaning on the sign.
“Can we come back in?” Laughing Wolf asked. “We’ve could use your help.”
“Fine,” Ernie said. It wasn’t like he wanted to turn down custom anyway. “But you’re mopping up that blood first.”
He heaved on the sign. With a crack, the image of the Pawn Sacrifice fell into the street.
* * *
This is the latest in a series of short stories I’m writing set in a fantasy western town. You can find the previous episodes, and about a hundred other free to read stories, over here. And if you’d like to receive stories straight to your inbox every week then just sign up to my mailing list for more like this.