As promised, today sees the second entry in my new Free Fiction section.
I was admittedly a little surprised when I saw how well Greek myth and tragedy translated into non-Greek settings like science fiction. I wanted to try and experiment with other mixes, taking classic stories and putting them in different genres.
Norse myth and Westerns felt like the next logical attempt.
The Eddas are full of manliness, with epic tales of heroes facing down monsters and often paying a dear price for being who and what they are. And many Old West tales bring us images of stalwart, stoic men standing in dusty roads, eyes narrowed at an opponent, unwilling to back down even if it means a bullet for their trouble.
It felt, to me, like a match made in Asgard, and the result is The Drifter’s Hand.
You can read the text below, or download the PDF here. Either way, read, comment & enjoy.
For a good portion of the late 1800s, the Arizona boom-town Midgard was every bit as prosperous and populous as her sisters. She never quite grew to the proportions of Tombstone, though, and as the new century approached she began to shrink. There was talk of the railroad going through or near the town, but local lawlessness kept the Santa Fe people from really committing to any sort of construction.
The stranger approached Midgard on a strong but tired horse, his hat half-tipped over his eyes, his beard disheveled and lips cracked from the road. His boots were caked with mud and his duster had more than a couple holes in it, some natural wear and tear while others clearly indicated the paths of past bullets. He seemed heedless of the looks he was getting from Midgard’s locals as he rode into town, his horse unerringly heading for the nearest trough of fresh water.
As soon as his steed was positioned to wash away some of the dust from the road, the stranger swung down from the saddle, tying the horse to the nearby hitch. Removing one of his gloves, the man bent to the trough and drank some of the water himself. Flicking some droplets away from his beard, he turned and headed in the direction of the saloon.
His spurs tapped against the wooden floor. The mid-afternoon crowd in the saloon barely numbered a dozen, roughly half of them at or near the Faro table in the corner. The man behind the cards, a well-groomed gent with a dark waistcoat and thin mustache, glanced up at the stranger before declaring the player to his right the winner. The stranger removed his hat and approached the barkeep.
“I’d like a room, if one’s available.”
“Ain’t seen you ’round here before,” the barman observed as he placed a shot glass on the bar and produced a bottle whiskey. Seeing it, the stranger nodded. “You just passin’ through?”
“I’ve been on the road quite a while. Not sure if my last stop’ll be Tombstone or further west.”
The barman nodded, pouring the drink. “Well, there’s a room available for the night, if you want it. Ten dollars to occupy it, and that entitles you to breakfast in the mornin’.”
“Sounds like a good deal.” The stranger was rummaging under his duster for his money when the saloon doors swung open again, permitting a stocky man in a widebrimmed hat to enter. The sash around his waist, the band at his arm and the kerchief tied around his neck were all the same color, the red of blood pumping from a gaping wound.
“Oh, horseshit.” The color drained from the barman’s face.
“It’s Tuesday, Dwight,” the newcomer bellowed. “Fenris wants their money.”
“I don’t have it all.” The man behind the bar, his hand shaking, produced a modest iron box with a handle. He opened it and pulled out a small wad of bills. “The rooms ain’t been full all week and not many people been stoppin’ by…”
“Stuff it.” The newcomer snatched the money from the shaking hand offered to him, and quickly counted it. “This is all? What about that city slicker in the corner?”
At mention of the corner, the crowd around the Faro table scattered. The man who’d been dealing raised his eyebrows at them.
“Looks like he just lost most of his profit,” he observed, not looking at the newcomer. “I already paid Dwight for this week.”
The newcomer slammed a fist into the table in frustration and grabbed Dwight by the lapels. “I oughta break your face. You holdin’ out on Fenris? You know that ain’t smart.”
“I’m sorry! I’ll have it tomorrow!”
“Tomorrow is when Fenris comes through here and burns this stinkin’ waterin’ hole to the ground!”
The sound of a gun being cocked echoed through the saloon. The newcomer’s eyes slid to his right, towards the barrel pressed to his temple. The stranger set down the shot glass with his right hand, the left occupied with gripping the Colt Peacemaker.
“I think now’s a good time to leave,” he told the newcomer.
“You lost your marbles, stranger? This ain’t your concern.”
“I plan on sleeping here. If you and whomever this Fenris guy is plan on burning the place down while I’m sleeping in it, I’d say that damn well makes it my concern.”
“Fenris ain’t one guy. Fenris is a force of nature! It’ll sweep through this town like a plague outta the Bible!”
“Well, you can tell Lucifer all about it when I send you to meet him. Which’ll be in 5 seconds if you don’t haul ass.”
The newcomer’s face slackened, his eyes flicking between the hard countenance of the stranger and Dwight’s disbelieving expression. At the fourth second, he swallowed. “This ain’t over.” He backed away from the gun, and then shook a fist at Dwight. “This ain’t over!”
“It is for now,” the stranger said. “Disappear.”
He did. Dwight poured the stranger another whiskey.
“Nobody’s stood up to a Fenris man for months. You must really not be from around here.”
The stranger knocked back the shot. “Mind telling me who or what Fenris is?”
“Wolves of Arizona.” The voice came from the man behind the Faro table, who stood and walked over to join the stranger at the bar. “Thieves, bank robbers, kidnappers and murders. Just the worst sort of cowboy. Most of ’em just wear the red sashes. Fenris folk go the extra mile with those red kerchiefs and armbands of theirs.”
“Heard most of the cowboys were down near Tombstone.”
“So they are, stranger, so they are. One for me too, Dwight.”
“Right away, Mr. Frey.” Dwight produced a second glass, cleaning it quickly to pour the dealer his whiskey.
“Needless to say,” Frey went on, “you’ve made yourself an enemy, and one that won’t easily be placated, Mister…”
“Tyr. Jim Tyr.”
“Pleased, Mr. Tyr. Arthur Frey, at your service.”
“You can just call me Jim. Mr. Tyr’s my father.”
“In that case, Jim, why don’t you call me Art?”
“So why are we playing poker now, instead of Faro?”
Art shrugged. “I like changing the game. I call.”
Jim rubbed his trimmed beard and considered his hand. Three threes wasn’t a strong one but it wasn’t bad, either. He didn’t fold. The locals at the table did. Art turned his cards over, showing a straight. Jim leaned back and gestured to the pot.
Art smiled a bit and raked in the winnings as Jim turned back to his supper. Dwight had waived the fee for his room earlier, and after coming back from a bath and shave, Jim had found a plate of warm food waiting for him, also courtesy of the barkeep.
“I hear you ran off one of the Fenris boys.”
Jim stopped in the middle of slicing a bit of chicken with a dull knife.
“He was hassling Dwight and threatening to burn the place down. I’m sleeping here tonight. Didn’t want to wake up on fire.”
“An understandable concern, stranger, but most folk around here don’t want to piss off the Wolf.”
Jim looked up. The man standing over him wore a dark patch over his left eye and the star of a United States Marshall.
“They aren’t afraid of you, I take it?”
“They know I can’t be everywhere at once. And when I’m gone they think it’s fun to shoot my deputies. Always have plenty of witnesses to say it was self-defense or some such, though. Everybody’s afraid of ’em. They, on the other hand, don’t seem to be afraid of anything.”
“They should be. Every man’s got the same blood, same skin, same tendency to die when shot or stabbed.”
“Now there’s a pitch-black observation.” The Marshall leaned on the bar. “Where are you from anyhow, Mr. Tyr?”
Jim bristled. “Back East. Grew up around Arlington.”
“You fight in the war?”
He looked at the Marshall. “Yeah. Did you?”
Before the Marshall could answer, the doors of the saloon burst open. Three men walked in, all wearing the red of Fenris. Dwight ducked behind the bar and the music stopped.
“Odin! Where is he?”
The Marshall turned. “Right here next to me, Luke Hundr. And you ain’t taking him tonight.”
Luke stalked towards the table, his two cronies in tow. Art made a move to stand, but Jim shook his head. He stepped away from the others and hooked his thumbs in his gun belt.
“You looking for me?”
Luke scowled. “Hear you pulled a gun on my man Butch.”
“Butch was shaking down Dwight for money he didn’t have. He threatened to burn the place down. Since I’m sleeping here, I asked him not to.”
“You’ve got it wrong, stranger. Butch wasn’t going to do a thing on his own. WE will burn this place down. We put up the money for Dwight to open this little establishment, and if we want to burn it down since he can’t pay us, we’ll do just that.”
“Not in city limits,” Odin said. “You got a permit for this land, Luke? if so, you’ll want to evict Dwight and foreclose.”
Luke waved a hand dismissively. “That takes too long. I want my money or my land. If I can’t have one I’ll take the other.” He smirked at Odin. “And I know you got a hangin’ to be at tomorrow, Marshall. Got that nasty murderer Surtur locked up an’ ready to swing. Wouldn’t want to miss that, would you? Been chasing him, what, ten years?”
Odin’s eye narrowed and his mustache curled around his face in a frown. Luke looked past the Marshall at Jim.
“Tomorrow, you meet me out in the street or I burn this place down with you in it. Got it?”
Jim crossed his arms. “So you and all of your boys can shoot me at once? I didn’t fall off the stage yesterday.”
“It’ll just be you an’ me. We’ll settle this.” Luke smiled unpleasantly and tipped his hat to Odin. “Have a nice trip, Marshall.”
The Fenris men left in short order. Jim rubbed the bridge of his nose.
“Regretting pulling that gun on Butch?”
“I don’t do regret, Marshall. I take it he’s met men in the street before?”
“Many a time. Like I said, always plenty of witnesses saying the deputy or other poor sod drew down first. They say Luke’s got a sense for traps. Any time more than a couple of my men have been waiting for him to show, he doesn’t.”
“And I gather Luke won’t be showing up alone.”
“Probably not.” Odin patted him on the arm. “Nobody’ll think the less of you if you’re gone before dawn.”
“And leave them to burn Dwight’s place down? No way, Marshall. I’m not letting a mongrel like that run me out of town, and Dwight’s place is better standing and unscorched.”
“I have to agree.” Art Frey had resumed shuffling the cards, but wasn’t paying much attention to them. His eyes were on the men discussing the showdown. Music was playing again and people were going about their business. “This is our town, Marshall. It doesn’t belong to Fenris.”
“Art Frey, you ought to be ashamed of yourself.” Odin looked the gambler over with his good eye. “Siting here behind your cards for months not doing a damn thing about these hooligans. Why now?”
“They never threatened Dwight like this before. It’s be a very lean time. He hasn’t had lodgers, nor I many punters. Dwight and I got a good partnership going. I don’t want to see it end in flames.”
“Do you even own a gun?”
“Matter of fact, I do. Damn peculiar Henry rifle. Most people find it’s too heavy in the barrel or the stock, but if you know her balance and how to use it, the damn thing very nearly aims itself.”
Odin looked back to Tyr, who shrugged. The marshall then ordered three whiskeys, drank with the men and replaced his hat.
“I need to see to Surtur’s transportation. We’ll be gone before dawn. I wish I could delay but the judge is eager to put this on in the books. Good luck, gentlemen. You’re gonna need it.”
Odin left the saloon. Art turned to Jim.
“I hear you served in the war?”
“51st Virginia. You?”
“I’m a Massachusetts man, myself.”
They drank their next shot of whiskey in silence.
The horse at the hitching post turned to Jim, as if to ask a question. The drifter saw the look, knowing what it meant.
“I don’t know what I’m doin’ out here, either.”
The dawn broke over Midgard, painting the town and the surrounding parched lands in pinkish reds. The stagecoach with Marshall Odin, his prisoner and deputies had already rattled out of town. The sound of hooves brought Jim’s attention back to the street ahead of him. Around him, the signs of the shops swung in the morning breeze. The large sign for the livery stayed in place, dominating the second floor of the barn on the north end of town and sheltered from the wind.
Jim stepped away from his horse, hands held at shoulder height. He didn’t want to get shot before Luke Hundr had a chance to get off his ride. Eight men on horses came around the corner and down the street. Jim frowned.
“I’m here like we agreed, Luke Hundr.” He waved his right hand. “My gun hand’s empty. I thought you said it’d be just you and me.”
Luke smirked as he swung down from his horse. The other Fenris men stayed mounted, and Jim saw one of them was Butch, the beefy face under the wide-brimmed hat leering at him. Nobody else was out in the street or even near windows Jim could see. That was probably a safe bet on their part.
Without a word, Luke drew his pistol and shot Jim. The impact of the bullet half-spun the drifter to his right and sent him to the dirt. Jim had been shot before, which didn’t make it sting any less, but helped him fight down the sense of panic that always came with it. He saw his right hand, ruined, pumping blood into the dust.
“I told my first lie when I was six years old,” Luke told Jim as the hooting from his men died down. “I ain’t quit since then.”
“Yeah, well. I may not have the experience you do, but I ain’t always a hundred percent truthful either.”
Luke cocked his head to one side, leveling his pistol. “Really? Do tell.”
“For one, I ain’t alone either.”
From behind the livery sign came a loud crack. Butch was taken right off the back of his horse, a hole opened up in his chest. The others’ mouths opened in shock and Luke turned to see what’d happened. That was his mistake. In a flash, Tyr grabbed the pearl handle of his Colt with his left hand, drew the gun and fired. His shot caught Luke in the shoulder, spinning him fully towards his men. Jim rose behind him, the wide eyes of the mounted Fenris men on every move he made.
“For another, I’m a southpaw.”
The second bullet shoved Luke to the ground, his skull shattered from the impact. Tyr, his right hand at his side and streaming blood down his leg, aimed his gun at the next Fenris man. When another tried to draw down on him, the Henry rifle made itself heard again, dropping the offender. The remaining Fenris wheeled their horses, and two more were shot down as they rode for their lives.
Jim sank to his knees. He holstered his gun and raised his right arm with his left hand, trying to slow the bleeding by elevating the wound. Art Frey appeared beside him minutes later, the Henry rifle slung over his shoulder. His clothing was still somehow immaculate, despite having to climb into the trestle of a stable in the dark.
“Here, Jim.” Art handed him a flask, which Art discovered was full of single malt scotch. He nearly coughed when it hit the back of his throat. The gambler helped him to his feet. “Let’s get that hand looked at.”
“Whatever hand I’m holding next, Frey, it’s going to beat yours. I’m feeling pretty damn lucky today.”
Art chuckled. “I’ll take that bet, Tyr. Now, let’s make sure you don’t bleed to death before I take the rest of your money, too.”
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