(A/N: This is my first Western story, and I've never read a Western novel - I've only seen films. I've done as much research as I can, so be kind and review!)
Over a hill of fire formed by heat-soaked winds he stumbled aimlessly in torn and blood-soaked clothing. The sun pulsed down in time with his dying heart, and as his blackened tongue crawled across the cavernous splits that segmented his lips he tried in an earnest vanity to remember what saliva tasted like.
Then—salvation. He trudged through the apex of the hill and stopped. Ahead of him upon the dirt, maybe a two-hour walk, a town had been nervously laid between a farm and a coalmine. A sound—the crack of a gunshot—carried on the winds travelling from the settlement. Smells came with it; wondrous and nostalgic of a time when he remembered the simple comfort of food, making him instantly double over with cramp. Fire, manure, coal and the distinct odour brought about by death and decay all ploughed through his senses, but none more so than the one that made him so sure he was salivating: the thick smell of flesh.
Onwards he stumbled. This was the town that would satisfy his stomach and take away the burning that pounded against his brain. With each step he took the town filled more and more of his mind until it was all he could think of; until it was all he could ever remember seeing. The town was his life, his purpose—his sole motivation for surviving. Nothing else concerned him anymore; not the heat, not the myriad of scorpions and snakes that he could step on, not even the woman whose picture dangled from his neck in a simple locket of bare silver. But then she would not concern him, for he could not recollect his wife at all.
An old, scratched shot glass scraped its way across a worn wooden counter, gliding over a gouge some knife-happy drunk etched into it the previous night—he had paid for it, however it wasn't in money. A grubby hand lifted it to a filthier beard and emptied the dirty-brown liquid into a toothless gullet. The glass slammed down and slid back to the bartender, tipping as it hit the gouge once again. He picked it up and poured another glass for the old man, who drank it as if it were water. A voice rose from somewhere in the room. The bartender, upon hearing his name barked scowled down the bar at a young man in a tan jacket who grinned yellow teeth at him and waved an empty bottle of whiskey, a dancehall girl named Mary under his arm.
'Sweet,' he slurred as the barman approached, 'let's have s'more of that coffin varnish!'
Jerome Sweet frowned and snatched the empty bottle from the drunk's grasp. 'Ain't none of that here, boy. Then again if you were more than a few days old you'd recognise decent whiskey when you waste it by the bottle.'
'I ain't wastin' it. I'm drinkin' it, ain't I?'
Jerome opened a fresh bottle. 'Yeah, you are: to get drunk. Whiskey ain't for guzzling. Not the way you suck it down.'
The young man tossed his winnings into a stale puddle of beer and took the bottle off Jerome. 'Yeah well, I'm payin' so I can drink it however I want.' He left to go back to his card game, laughing along with some joke Mary giggled to him. Jerome went back to the old man, who had helped himself to more whiskey.
'It's no use lyin' about what your sellin', Jerome,' the man scoffed. 'People can always tell.'
'No, Abe; people assume. There's a difference. They assume that just 'cause there ain't no paint on the walls and the thin tables are nailed down that what I sell is as cheap as how the place looks. They don't know.'
'Yeah, but I keep you quiet with the real stuff.'
Abraham grinned toothlessly, raised a fresh glass of whiskey and chuckled 'damn straight.'
As the old man continued to help himself, Jerome wiped glasses and swept the floor behind the bar for the thirtieth time that slow April morning. With that done he sighed, stuck for something to do, and watched the men behind Abe play cards; the man in the tan jacket seemed to be winning a lot and the three older men, who clearly worked in the coalmine nearby, raucously lamented losing their salary. The jacket laughed, his arm around Mary's waist, and taunted the miners into playing another hand—which they also lost. One of the men, who had a scar on his left forearm, cursed loudly and kicked his chair across the room. At full height he was massive, about six and a half feet, and he dwarfed the whole table with his rage as well as his size. The youngster coolly glanced up at him and raised an eyebrow. He leaned forward on the table and said something that enraged the miner even more. A vicious fight would have broken out if Jerome hadn't caught the tall man's eye and he hadn't seen the consequences the landlord's glare prophesised. The miners left, the large one giving the tanned jacket a last glance; mentally clicking back the hammer of his revolver. After they'd gone the young man staggered back to the bar, still with a third of his whiskey left, and put an arm around Abe.
'How about a game, old timer? You could be lucky.'
Abe didn't eve give him a second's glance. 'You don't have enough to make it interestin'.'
The stranger blinked. 'You don't even know how much I got.'
'I don't need to, boy. Just go with your winnin's to Miss Peggy's or whatever it is you bucks spend money on.'
'And what if I feel like spendin' it on a bottle of whiskey for you? If you play a game with me.'
This made Abe pause, his glass halfway between the surface of the bar and his mouth. For the first time that day he looked at the young man. 'All right then—but if I win, then you buy me my choice of whiskey. Deal?'
'Deal,' he said before venturing back to the table.
Abe finished his glass and set it down, giving Jerome a nod before joining his opponent. Jerome watched, his brow lightly furrowed, and swore that the old man's blue eyes had grinned at him; in all the ten years Abe had been frequenting the saloon he had never seen him do anything but drink and sing; always faring better in the former than the latter. Maybe in a life before Harlan's Trail—Jerome's hometown, and a moderately prosperous mining settlement—Abe had been the kind of guy who could earn his living playing cards, but even if that were the case Jerome didn't much like his friend's chances. He smiled to himself; thinking of Abe as a friend was a bit of a stretch, since they never spoke or even saw each other outside of the saloon doors, but inside they were what anyone else would call friends. At first Jerome was suspicious, thinking that Abe might be buttering him up in order to get a discount, but the old man was after no such thing, seeking only a friendly face to talk to, having none other anywhere else in town.
Jerome didn't know much about Abe, other than he came from Colorado; his last name was Vance; the only alcohol he would ever drink was whiskey; and that he had a son stationed a few days away in Fort Greene.
Ten years, Jerome sighed mentally, ten years and this is all I know about the old buzzard.
It was also very likely that Abe knew more about Jerome than Jerome knew about Abe.
While the two men played, and with all of five other patrons needing no drink, Jerome wiped the counter clean of beer and blots of chewing tobacco. The bar was his pride and joy; made of two solid pieces of dark wood and hand-carved it was the most impressive thing about the saloon, and caught everyone's eye as they entered. He took a less dirty rag and cleaned the small brass plate at the end of the counter that bore the name "Lawrence Sweet".
Lawrence was Jerome's younger brother, who bought the building and opened the Freewater Saloon soon afterwards. A kind but hot-tempered man, Lawrence was in some ways older than Jerome and he often acted the role of older brother despite the fact that he was a good three years younger. Jerome remembered him as being adept at everything he tried his hand at, but he couldn't compare to Jerome when it came to art. He was an artist like their family had never seen, able to wield a pencil or brush as skilfully as a swordsman his rapier, and although to the family it had no real use as a way of making money it still brought them pleasure whenever he'd drawn them a family portrait; portraits which he was never a subject of. Lawrence lauded his older sibling's talent, and often made impressive frames for the pictures. Carpentry was his specialty and was the career that earned him a lot of money, but also earned him a lot of problems; problems that Jerome had paid for on more than one occasion. But Jerome didn't dwell on that. The Freewater Saloon was his brother's legacy; the wooden bar his masterpiece and nothing could soil his memory. Not even the reminder of darker times that Jerome lived with every day when, even if only for a few seconds, he could swear he still felt his right index finger. He'd heard stories of that: men who had lost arms and legs claiming they could still feel their lost limbs years after they'd gone. Many people doubted their claims; even Jerome had in his younger days held his own scepticism about the subject, but a few weeks after he'd lost his finger he'd absent-mindedly tried putting out a candle between his forefinger and thumb. Of course the finger was no longer there. This propelled Jerome into an ocean of self-pity and remorse that lasted months, until his mother died. Lawrence always hated himself, and told Jerome so often, for being the catalyst that led to his brother losing his finger and, as a result, losing the only talent he had. For a while Jerome, too, hated him for this; but their brotherly bond pulled them back when their father died a few years after their mother. This was when Lawrence, now thirty-five, decided to open a saloon. Four years later he died from tuberculosis, and Jerome took over.
The Freewater Saloon, the largest saloon in Harlan's Trail, continually throbbed with life and music. It wasn't the most reputable tavern in Harlan's—it was, in fact, the least reputable—but the steady flow of cheap alcohol, drunken gamblers, easy women and any number of other undesirables ensured it was always the liveliest and busiest in a town where mining was the chief occupation from which a man could earn an honest dollar. There weren't a lot of honest men in Harlan's, and the few that there were would not for love nor money be seen anywhere near Freewater.
The building, made of old unpainted wood, sat at the axis of the crossroads that sectioned the town into four districts. Anyone who didn't live in the town or frequent it often would think it abandoned, such was its state of disrepair—and the inside didn't fare much better. Unpainted and mostly undecorated walls; rough, cracked floorboards stained with beer and blood and old battered oil lamps which barely worked at all greeted the patrons who for the most part looked like they dressed to match the surroundings and behaved much worse.
Fights were a regular occurrence, but they didn't last long before the perpetrators were tossed into the street to deal with their grievances. Despite its reputation for being a place where those with objectionable morals and even more questionable pasts could win or lose money, rob others or interfere with the dancehall girls all while getting drunk off their asses. Generally their bad behaviour was tolerated because of the money they freely threw around on girls and drink, but there were two rules: No fighting, and never abuse the women. If one of those rules was broken, and invariably they were, Jerome Sweet would emerge from the back room and put an end to it. Nobody was ever banned from Freewater, but rule breakers were given a severe reminder not to do it again. This deterrent worked, and it worked well.
Noon struck; Abe was still playing cards with the young stranger, whose name Jerome had yet to discover, and nobody else had come inside until the doors swung open and a small, shapely girl dressed in a dirty, scuffed outfit that seemed too long at the skirt and too low at the chest stepped in. She wore a shoal on her left shoulder that covered most of her arm, and her long dark hair hung loose over her face. The girl sat at the far end of the bar, away from everyone who wasn't the owner, who approached her with a bottle of Cactus Wine. She brushed some her hair behind her right ear and smiled weakly as Jerome poured her a glass.
'How's things today?' Asked Jerome.
The girl sighed and said, with a faint Spanish inflection, 'same shit, same day. Ever feel like you're livin' the same day over and over?'
Jerome smiled bitterly and set the bottle down. 'Yeah,' he said, 'I think I know what you mean.'
The girl sipped her drink, and was halfway through the glass and a conversation with Jerome, who cleaned while he spoke, when the stranger rose from his card game and stumbled to the bar for another bottle. His eye fell on the girl, and he could not help introducing himself.
'Hello there,' he slurred, 'can I buy you a drink?'
The girl didn't even glance at him. 'I've got one.'
Undeterred, he continued, 'my name's Jake Forest,' he said as he toyed with her shoal, which seemed to agitate her greatly. Ignoring it he carried on; 'what's yours?'
'Her name ain't any business of yours.' Jerome intervened sharply, earning a quiet sigh of relief from the girl.
Forest let go of her shoal and frowned at him. 'Pretty rude to cut in on someone's conversation.'
Jerome set a fresh bottle of whiskey on the bar and leaned over, glowering darkly, his voice little more than a growl. 'As long as it's an unwanted conversation with one of my best customers, and so long as you're lookin' to stay here, I'll cut in whenever I damn well like. Leave the lady alone.'
Forest, muttering under his breath, snatched the bottle and dumped the money in its place and went back to his game. The girl shuddered and gulped the second half of her glass. 'Can't even have a God-damn drink without bein' harassed. Damn pigs.'
'Must be 'cause you're so beautiful.'
The girl glared at him, a look so dark and full of spleen that it made Jerome's scowl pale in comparison. He immediately regretted opening his mouth, raised his hands in silent apology and went back to cleaning. He had known her for nearly two years now, and her moods were as sporadically interchangeable now as they were back when they first met. Jerome began sweeping once more; there was more life in the sand and dust blowing in from the ruinous desert than in any of the downcasts in the saloon that day, and he couldn't help but stare at the young girl who drank her wine so frugally, yet gripped the glass as though she would fall into an abyss should she loosen her grip even slightly. Despite her hair covering most of her face he knew what look she had in her dark eyes, a look of shallow indignation of the world around her, yet cowed with resentment, always burned in them. Every look she gave him tore at his mind and flesh, such pity he felt for this poor girl who now only worked so she could drink and forget. But she couldn't, not ever, forget the cruelty that had blighted her short life—he knew that, and wondered whether she did as well. He had offered her work at the saloon, but she turned it down, stating: 'you're a good man Jerome, but I'm dirty. There ain't no man in the world, patron or owner, who would want me as their saloon girl. A soiled, flightless dove stays in the dirt—and there ain't none more soiled than me.'
Despite his pleads and promises she would hear nothing of it. It drove him mad sometimes that she would choose that crib over his saloon, that she refused his hospitality, his apologies, and his money. The guilt he felt was crippling and he was sure she was aware of the effect her refusals had on him, but he tried not to let his feelings surface, though as much as he tried he could stop himself from reliving the memory, visiting again and again, each time he saw her, the day that ruined this sweet, beautiful girl.