The fifth part of my adult sci-fi/western novel The Wulf and the Tiger. This follows directly on from the last part. Please bear in mind it’s a first draft work in progress (I’ve got much further than this part, though!).
The town came up first as a mirage. Only when Jay crawled closer did the clutter of shacks that occupied the long stretch of dry valley prove their firmness, their intent to stay.
His mind was screaming at him, but he wasn’t listening to it. He wasn’t listening to it because his throat was screaming louder. On hands and knees he shuffled through sand and along dusty rocks. The temperature was a little cooler now, but his head swam and he was starting to see dots that looked like a swarm of winged black demons coming down at him from far off in the sky.
He squinted and made out a few people in the street. There was a main thoroughfare that led along structures with signs like GUNSHOP and BAR – NO TROUBLE. The buildings were all made of a black wood that shined in the calming sun. A dog barked and raced from one side of the street to another.
Jay got to his feet slowly, groaning and shutting his eyes for a few seconds until the demons floated off. He looked behind him. The tiger was asleep. It had been noticeably impatient with him, and on this last crawling stretch it had simply laid down and shut its eyes.
Turning back his eye caught the promise of water. There was a trough where a few horses were tied, right at the edge of town. They took turns to gulp it gratefully – taller horses than he’d seen before, and slightly . . . pointier. There was a white mare with these big lazy pools for eyes, an imperious red with dark socks, and an exotic looking stallion as black as pitch, with flaming scarlet hair that burst all about him. He looked at Jay as he approached and seemed to nod. His hooves stamped the ground.
Jay was in no sense to avoid the horses, nor to play nice. He budged up beside the mare at the end, which whinnied at him, water dripping from its mouth. Then he sank to his knees and plunged his head into the trough. He barely noticed the taste of horse, only half-cared that the water was warm and had likely been sat out all day. Flies that sounded like fizzing soda hopped and skipped over his neck, and shoulders, and he let them. Under the water his gullet moved as he swallowed.
Just before he was ready to come up and drink with his hands he was pulled back and away by tough hands. He fell back, the hair that lay long about his forehead streaming little trails of trough water to the parched ground.
‘What in the name of fuck are you tryin’ to do?’ said a shadow over him.
Jay blinked. A man with a fat moustache and a bent hat was dragging him up to his feet.
‘I was thirsty,’ Jay said.
‘A lot of people get thirsty,’ said the man. ‘You know what they do? They go to the bar. They don’t try’n drown themselves in horse spit.’
‘Was desperate.’ Jay tried to brush his wet hair away from his face, and he wiped away the droplets that clung to his nose and chin.
‘Come in from the Wastes huh? Didn’t plan the journey? Look at the state of you. Tough but stupid, that’s it.’
‘I don’t know this place. At all.’
‘Yeah, well. This place is called Nohaven.’
‘It doesn’t sound too welcoming.’
‘That’s because it ain’t.’ The man stared at him with small eyes. ‘Go on, get. To the bar, to a bed, to the gunshop to blow your brains out, or right back the way you came, I don’t give one single golden fuck. Just get away from my horse and away from that trough. I ain’t havin’ to fish you out again when you’ve drowned and befouled the water for my ride.’ The man put a hand on its soft white coat.
‘I’ve already got a gun.’ Jay said. He pointed at his holster.
The small-eyed man snorted. ‘Call that a gun? I bet you could lay that piece of crap right against my forehead and pull the trigger and two seconds later we’d both be still standing wonderin’ where the bullet went.’
Jay’s hand played about his side, and the man opened his jacket slightly. ‘I dare ya,’ he said, as Jay glimpsed a bulging hunk of steel: an obese firearm strapped to his chest. Jay moved his hand from his holster to his waist and untied his shirt, walking off with feigned nonchalance as he wriggled back into it. He could feel the man’s eyes on the back of his neck.
The people were a motley scuffery of beaten jackets and shirts, plain half-cut dresses and makeshift skirts. Farmer shifts and fighting suits. Every outfit, every look seemed a hodgepodge, a DIY of appearance. They were everyone, it seemed, blacks and browns and reds, half-and-halves and the quartered, those whose pink or grey complexions were tinted or mottled a nearly seaweed green. There were the tattooed and there were the disfigured. There were even a couple of chalk-like figures – god knows how they didn’t tan under this sun.
A woman with lashes that curled out far from her face like spikes watched him, amber eyes flecked with crimson. As he drew closer he saw her carelessly tickling the two dozen knives that ringed her belt. A younger girl sat in the shadow of an overhang with an old man grinding blades. She looked about fifteen, with exceptionally pale blue eyes. Her hair hung white in four pigtails, and she stroked a gun that rested its butt on the ground and could well be nearly as tall as her standing. The old man glanced up, spat and went back to his work. His hair was tangled all the way down his back, and his mouth had been cut into a permanent scowl.
They watched him from all about, from windows and porch chairs, passing him in ones and twos on the thoroughfare; he was the outsider.
He walked into the bar. It was only slightly cooler in the shade; in here there was a kind of dank, heavy gloom, and a permeating odour of sweat and hard spirits. Jay’s eyes adjusted slowly. He imagined he had just walked into a saloon; that there might be a tinkling rag-time piano that suddenly stopped, and the faces of a dozen plus rogues turned to him in silence.
It wasn’t like that. They looked at him, but only for a second. There had been no music, only a constant hubbub of chatter running at different levels: the low murmurs and clandestine mumblings right up to raucous shouts and cat-calls. Just like outside, they were not cowboys, not exactly. There was the bandit in a number of them, there was no doubt about that and other tropes he could recognise – two prostitutes in the corner, or my name’s not (JAY WULF) – but nobody’s style he could easily label; he was reminded clearly of things from Earth and its history, and nothing here seemed particularly absurd or otherworldly in that regard, but there was nevertheless the unmistakeable feeling of something other; naturally developed and stained with the dust and labour of this land’s own history, and yet wholly new.
He sidled up to the bar in the most unobtrusive way he could manage, and found himself elbow-to-elbow with a middle-aged man with a square-ish bowler hat and a loosened tie, and all the demeanour of a merchant banker with more love for the drink than the job. Jay nodded at him and grinned – even my smile feels different, it feels more . . . wolfish – and the man shook his head, not making eye contact. Jay tried to look sympathetic, but the banker only shook his head again, raising his eyes only to stare wistfully into the faded bottle in front of him.
‘Well?’ The bartender was drumming her fingers; a motion of irritability not heard against the background noise.
‘Erm, whiskey,’ Jay said. ‘Please,’ he added, then regretting it as the barrel-bodied woman gave him a funny look.
He watched her pour it in front of him, a chest like two diving bells resting on the bar-top. He knew the word that had actually come out of his mouth wasn’t “whiskey”. The glass of muddy gold before him was only the nearest translation. He hoped it was nicer than neat whiskey; he’d only asked for the stuff to fit in, and could really have done with more water.
‘Three kings,’ she said.
‘That’ll be three kings you owe.’ She affixed a tried-and-true don’t-fuck-with-me expression and puffed herself up, not that any more notice could have been given to that full-buttocked chest. She may have been shorter than most of the patrons there, but she sure as sin was wider – and deeper – and even presuming no weapons with slugs the size of sword hilts lay within easy reach of those big, clasping hands, she could no doubt barrel most trouble out the door. A scar on her cheek stood testimony to at least one altercation she’d survived.
Jay dug into his pants pocket and found the red poker-chip coins he’d stolen off the dead men. It seemed that a few had gone missing, no doubt lost in his scrabbles. Now he could see that they were of three different sizes and abrasions; each textured uniquely to the touch.
‘Which one are the kings?’ he said.
The bar woman raised an unimpressed eyebrow. ‘The big ones.’
He plucked out three of them and deposited them in her outstretched hand. She closed her fist and quickly snapped it back, looked him up and down and turned away to serve another further down. Jay sipped his drink. He grimaced. Yep, that was as bad as whiskey. A dirty, warm whiskey carrying a flavour reminiscent of slightly off berry . . . one of the berries, one of the ones nobody remembered . . .
He picked up his glass and gave the liquid a swirl. There were waves of a darker colour, that glided phantasmal and elfin. He caught the reflection, and turned to his right, where she was sitting.