Dust and Sand – Chapter 1- By Sean P. Wallace
Dust was drinking. Alone. Again.
The Broken Bottle, that’s where he was. A little place in Texas, out of the way and unknown, it was the drinking hole of Low Tracks. Its low ceiling and sand-encrusted windows gave it a gloom that Dust could appreciate. Especially when you looked out over the empty gambling tables and other solitary drinkers; locals mostly, older than sin and uglier too.
But then, anyone could end up like them if they had to live in Low Tracks, the kind of small ramshackle collection of buildings that people only see when they’re going somewhere better. The homesteads had become decrepit in only a few short decades, just like their owners, and what little money Low Tracks earned went right to the Broken Bottle.
Mostly it was poor because it was right, smack in the middle of nothing. Maybe the town planners had expected a railroad to come through. Who knew? But whatever it was meant nothing happened here and so Low Tracks was isolated and shunned. And that was why Dust liked the place.
Dust had taken to drinking at the Broken Bottle because life up at The Solution was pretty dull for someone like him. The geniuses ran their experiments on him and he showed them how damn good he was at most things. All day, every day. Shooting, fighting, cheating at cards; he was a genius in his own right at all those things.
Becoming… what he’d become… it had left him with a hell of a lot of ability and absolutely no freedom.
At least, that was what the guys at The Solution liked to think. They locked him up every night to keep him from getting out, not really thinking through who and what he was. Most nights, he let them get away with it; there was no point riling them for no good reason. But not tonight. He needed a drink tonight.
Behind him, some little wretch started playing the piano. A walking rake with a moustache even thinner than his belly, he somehow eked a decent tune out of the white keys. Dust smiled to himself when he recognised it as a damn hymn. Of course it was.
“Something caught your humour Dust?” Elaine asked. The barmaid, she was made up like a whore and overweight in all the wrong places. Most of the profits she took from this place, if there are any at all, must go right onto the paint on her jowly cheeks.
Somehow, that thought struck him as funny too. “Yes,” he said through his smile.
Elaine gave him a worried grin. “Anything you’d want to share?”
Worry suited Elaine’s face. He decided not to take what precious little beauty the woman can garner. “No.”
She stared at him for a moment longer. Dust looked back with a blank expression and finished his whiskey.
“Another slug,” he said.
Dust reached into his jeans, new things The Solution gave him that hadn’t quite worn in, and pulled another note from his pocket. Silently, he slipped it across the greasy bar and let Elaine’s chubby fingers take it.
As she always did, Elaine eyed it suspiciously and then eyed him. “You’re not giving me no duds, are you?”
“No.” Dust tapped his empty glass meaningfully.
Pocketing the money, she gave him more whiskey. The good stuff, not the watered down mess most others drank; Elaine had learned on his first visit not to stiff him when it came to whiskey. Her finest whiskey tasted like amber or sap from those trees the Yankees are always harping on about. He sniffed it first then took a small sip.
Elaine was watching him still. Normally she’d look away the first chance she could get.
“Yes?” he asked,
“Don’t let there be no trouble, you hear?” she whispered.
Dust frowned. Turning, he saw three tall men enter the tavern. Travel-worn as the leather they wore, each had the look of someone who’d shoot before drinking and drink before thinking. Big irons hung from their hips. The desert’s pale powder covered their jeans. And they looked around like people itching for a fight.
Dust turned away. He was only there to drink.
“What a shit hole,” one said. The youngest, maybe twenty two. A Texan.
“Say that a little louder, dipshit,” another replied. Then there was a dull thump, meat on meat. His voice was too deep to give up an accent, which made sense; he’d had a scar across his neck, one that doesn’t come from a shaving accident “Where’d you learn your manners from?”
“Fuck you, that’s where,” said the Texan.
“Ma’am, three whiskeys,” the last one said. Soft-voiced, measured, his voice gave him away as being from the Mid-West. Dust didn’t know the area enough to narrow it down.
Elaine nodded and smiled. Then she poured three shots from the bottle Dust enjoyed; you don’t own a place like this as long as Elaine if you can’t figure out who to serve the good stuff to. Then she brought the drinks down the other end of the bar, away from Dust, laid them out like a king’s banquet.
“Here you go fellas,” she said, a bright tone masking her fear.
Three sets of spurs rattled as they collect their drinks. Dust looked straight ahead but could see them from the corner of his eye; three outlaws, if he was not mistaken. There couldn’t be too high a price on the Texan but Cut Throat and Mid-West look like they’d fetch a good amount.
Not that Dust hunted bounties any more. He sipped his whiskey instead.
The Texan breathed out loudly and slammed his glass against the bar. “Damn but that is some damn fine whiskey.”
“Thank you sir,” Elaine said.
“Your own recipe?” asked Mid-West. His eyes crinkled in suspicion.
Elaine shook her head. “A gift.”
Cut Throat laughed and shook his head. The long, black hair surrounding his face swished with the movement. “Bullshit. I know whiskey and that’s a hundred dollar bottle. It fell off a wagon, didn’t it?”
“Stolen property?” the Texan said with mock surprise.
“Something this good? Here? It’d have to be. Clever to have it in a plain bottle though,” Cut Throat said.
Dust had always suspected that Elaine wasn’t serving from the right bottle. The cheap drinks were in more fancy holdings than they ought to be and the good stuff was, as Cut Throat had noted, in plain, unmarked bottles. These outlaws had good eyes, were perceptive. That worried him a little.