CLOSED SIGNUPS A Sin of No Name

Applo

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“Well don’t you just have excellent timing Reverend?”

Henrietta saw the redness of Eliza’s eyes, the puffiness of the skin around them and decided to carefully pretend that she hadn’t. She knew exactly what those were signs of. How many nights since that night in that room had her own face been stained similarly; probably most of them. She wouldn’t embarrass the poor girl who if she had to guess, took pride in being a good hostess, by pointing her upset out. At least not now. Not in front of an audience. Later on in a private room perhaps, but for now the girl could keep her dignity. Why add its loss to whatever woes were troubling the girl. Instead, Henrietta gently placed a hand on Father McCathy’s Elbow and gently started to push him towards the dining room. The stew was calling to her empty stomach.

“Seeing as you are joining us, perhaps I might trouble you to tell us all a little about your wonderful little town here. Moses here was just suggesting we should do some reconnoitering later on, perhaps you might know somewhere we should see; ooh and you must persuade Miss Na to come and see the Mayor with us.” ​

 

Red Thunder

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EL BANDITO GUAPO
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~ the jailhouse ~
"If it would stop your mouth the quicker," came the short reply, "I will take the rope."

'Bartholomew Briggs' eyed the criminal with interest, so Jorge met his gaze. He held it, as if willing the mayor the release him from this damnable iron box. Below his scraggly mustache, he grit his teeth with tensed jaw. This fool; it seemed there was one in ever town, and they usually carried authority of one kind or another. Another damn gringo, in a town full of gringos, who had no business restraining him.

His fist clenched. These people. He'd been asked to do a job, and he'd agreed. And what happened? He was attacked, and by surprise no less, by that Angel's boy. And when he tried to defend himself? Arrested. For a warrant they had no business trying to serve.

And there, sitting before him smugly in his chair, was the man who represented the whole affair. His jaw worked, eyes narrowed, fingers flexing. They could squeeze the breath from his overly talkative throat, stop the words within it. Destroy the man who-

His food tray still sat beside him on the bed: empty, save for the few bits of egg and sausage that he hadn't been able to free from the tray's tin surface. Empty, save for the fork and spoon. For a moment, the briefest second, he smiled in wicked satisfaction as he watched the fork bury itself in the mayor's delicate eye, taking some modicum of schadenfreude as the pompous fool fell screaming to the deck. Standing over the twitching form, he couldn't stop grinning, wide enough to split him at the ears, before Samuel pulled his pistol and-

"Fine. I will work for you, gringo. Y tal vez tenga la oportunidad de matarte a ti y al chico de Angel."

The vision was a fleeting wish, and the utensil remained in his hand. Carefully, he slipped the spoon into his sleeve before dropping the fork back onto the tray. With a grunt, he shoved it forward gently into the bars, where it came to rest with a small clink. Finally, he turned his scowl back to Mayor Briggs.

"Do not expect gratitude."

@Kuno
 

Doctor Jax

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Na Zhao
Chinese Herbalist and Fortune Teller


She was swiftly joined by Mr. Moses, saving her from further interaction alone with Miss Henrietta. While she appreciated the attempt at hospitality and keeping her in conversation, there was something to be said for wanting a bit of tact. Mr. Moses, perhaps due to the mixed company or otherwise some politeness, spoke at a far more normal speaking cadence and tone. Her eyes flickered nervously at the mention of exploring the town a bit more once they were 'good and settled'. The bags at her feet spoke to her intentions, though in her carpetbag there sat the waiting invitation to see the Mayor.

"Oh, no, I don't --"

A priest walked into the building as well, and upon inquiry, she glanced to the others. However, before she could answer, a raucous shout had her nearly jumping out of her skin. A hand flew to her chest as she bowed her head, realizing it was just the innkeeper, his daughter - presumably - coming out, with red-rimmed eyes and a strange look to her face. Na felt a pang, the question coursing through her mind of what must have happened. And then she locked eyes with her--

The understanding was immediate. Help me.

Seeing Henrietta immediately begin to ferry the Father towards the kitchen, Na lingered behind the rest, sidling beside Eliza.

"Miss... could you help me with my bags? I want to put them somewhere before breakfast..." she stated, with a kindly smile. "Is there a place where I can put them?"

Somewhere we may converse in private?
 
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Hamlowe

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A thunderous shout left no doubt as to the identity of the young woman who had so suddenly appeared or to the disposition of the codger checking on her service. A glimpse at her eyes could tell volumes, but the priest had barely a moment to notice something off before a woman was escorting him away by the elbow. "I've only been here a couple days myself," he replied to her, not out of modesty but in sincerity, not wishing to be treated as a resource on a town he considered as strange as Jonah had no doubt considered Nineveh, even after that whole business with the cetus. As they entered the other room, he spared a glance behind to notice the Chinese woman was troubling herself to speak with Eliza. Good. The fairer sex was more suited to minister in such a case as this might appear.

"However, I am willing to venture as well. The Mayor will be wanting to see everyone, though. He sees everyone to assign work. Even me, and I knew what my job here was to be when I left Baltimore." Father McCarthy had certainly doubted little in the time between embarking and arriving. It was upon arriving that his doubts had begun, nothing pertaining to dogma or anything so great as that, but rather an uncertainty in the face of strangeness and unfamiliarity. But some things remained sure here. Like the basic needs: to pray, to serve, and to eat. Though the first two were more important in general, right now the last one took priority.
 
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Kuno

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Eczar

HIGHLAND JAIL

NPCS | SAMUEL & MAYOR BRIGGS


The stars had aligned in such a manner that the devilish vagabond known as Jorge had stumbled on a stroke of good luck.

In the latest series of fortunate events for the scruffy bandit, neither Samuel nor the verbose mayor knew a lick of Spanish. The former was evidently too distracted and lazy to pick up on the venom in Jorge’s words. What was said in English was pleasing enough to the latter’s ears, and Mayor Briggs grinned, nodding his head enthusiastically.

“Sure. Whether you show gratitude or not is inconsequential. Much akin to the stallion procured out by the plateaus, you are sure to be-”

Briggs paused. In his mind, the mental thesaurus turned a page, then another, yet yielded no pretentiousness worth spewing onto his hapless victim. He settled instead for a rueful shake of the head and a short laugh.

“You comprehend my intended meaning. Criminals and wild beasts of burdens are inevitably and irrevocably brought to heel in Highland. You’ll see. All in good time, com-pa-dre.”

For now, I’ll placate you in a manner unbefitting the stallion. Samuel?”

“Here.”

Samuel drew near. Never did he quite look so large as he did looming over the seated mayor and Jorge. He struck a distinctly imposing figure; a hard, wide set build could not be obscured by his simple shirt and black vest, and it was not difficult to see why comparisons were drawn between him and the infamously surly Mr. Wicks. Besides the obvious differences, one thing was evident: where Wicks’ features had seemed trapped in a constant scowl, Samuel’s face remained pleasantly congenial.

None of that bore anything in mind over the most distracting feature: a silver sheriff’s badge pinned to the man’s left breast pocket.

From the man’s left palm, he revealed a key. As he set to opening up the cell door, the mayor rose and stepped aside, speaking as he did.

“I would be remiss to expound on the items we’ve procured from you. I’ll be keeping the gun until you’ve redeemed yourself. The horse too. And you’ll be generously assisted in your...probationary period here in Highland. I’ve assigned the boys to take shifts keeping an eye on you.”

“Here we go,” Samuel grunted.

The cell door swung open, and both men stepped back. In a lazy manner, Samuel rested his hand on the pistol on his side.

The mayor continued to smile.

“What say we rendezvous with the remnants of our newly arrived citizens for a nice town tour?”

There was no room for argument.

@Red Thunder



Eczar

THE INN

NPCS | OLD MAN WORTH & ELIZA


“Ah! Yes, that’s a fine idea. The mayor’s been expecting you, friends. Fine, fine idea.”

Old Man Worth, who had not been invited to either the conversation or the day’s plans, interjected himself into the matter with the keen attention ordinarily absent from one as deaf as he supposedly was. Cloudy eyes trailed the movement of the odd trio into the lobby’s hall, and he followed along as far as he was able to within the confines of his office.

“Try the grits!” He called after them before leaning aside and coughing into his sleeve.

The smell of a fresh, hot meal seeped into the hallways from the kitchen. They found the small dining area much like it was before: the same meal that Jorge enjoyed in his cell was laid out in a more appropriate manner along the counter, though true to the innkeeper’s word, a pot of grits hung over the fire as a small bonus. Unlike last night, the heat remained within the small room.

That was only the beginnings of the differences from the meal they shared last night.

To start, the large makeshift barricade that obstructed the right corner of the room had vanished entirely. In its place, an unexplored space remained along with a previously hidden door. The door hung ajar to air out the heat, and a chair was propped under the knob to keep it open. Where and when the structure had been removed was unknown. There were no scratch marks on the wooden floors or other evidence to indicate movement save the stranger’s memories; in fact, the same barrels that had been used to block the door had been shifted to the opposite wall. Someone had gone to the trouble of throwing rough-spun quilted tablecloths across the round dining tables.

There was the chance much of these changes would be ignored in lieu of getting breakfast instead. But even in that regard, someone had beaten them to the punch.

Father McCarthy would recognize the lanky, dark-haired man scooping grits into his bowl. He was as much a fixture of the town as the mayor himself. It was his face that greeted most as curfew drew near, and to those who wronged him, his pistol proved an inhumanly fast accompaniment.

It was better not to know him. Stories circulated well throughout the years, and even a man like him couldn’t erase the horrors of his past. What little had filtered through to the priest’s ear were nothing compared to the awful reality. In truth, there were only two things to know about him.

His name was Garrett Jones, and he was considered the Devil.

“Mornin.’”

Garrett gave a short nod. The deputy sheriff’s star shone with authority at his left breast, and he regarded the trio with a cool gaze. The dark, prominent rings beneath his eyes belied the sharpness of his look. While not harsh in appearance, the man displayed an unfriendly demeanor in spite of his greeting. The deputy sheriff did not look open to conversation as he found a table in the back and sat down with his meal. Every once in a while, his eyes would cut to the strangers, and the frown remained.

------------

Eliza did not spend much time hanging around in the lobby. There was nothing short of relief in her eyes at Na’s request. Surely, the painful smile that continued to pull taut her cheeks widened, if just for a moment.

“Yes ma’am. Here, I’ll take a-holda this-”

Plucking up one of Na’s bags herself, Eliza hurried away out of the lobby, inclining with her head for Na to follow. Where Father McCarthy, Henrietta, and Moses had turned left down the hall, Eliza made a sharp right, where a lone door awaited on the left side of the hall.

“This is our supply closet,” the girl explained, yanking open the door, “For all our extra packages and supplies and whatnot.”

It looked to be a converted coat closet. An additional shelf had been added two feet above the floor to rest shoes or boxes on, and here is where Eliza gestured for Na to place her items. When it came to the bag in her own hands, she hesitated. Her grip tightened.

“Um, miss…”

Eliza and her smile faltered. For a moment, her bottom lip moved tremulously, and her eyes darted frantically away.

“Is it...is it true?” She asked in a low voice. “Are you really leaving town?”

@Hamlowe @Applo @Doctor Jax @Mobley Eats
 
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Red Thunder

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EL BANDITO GUAPO
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~ the jailhouse ~​

"Bueno, jefe."

Jorge was no fool, not entirely. As Samuel opened the cell door, he'd remained seated, leaning back in a position of relaxation against the wall. The last thing he needed was to give the lawman any reason to get twitchy. Not that it looked like he could be; Samuel didn't look like he'd shed a tear for his own mother at her funeral. Damn smile. Condescending bitch. The cold metal of the spoon still rested against the bandit's wrist within his sleeve. What he'd give to scoop that infuriating smile away with it.

Jorge gave Samuel and the mayor time to move back before standing himself. One prolonged stretch later, he slouched out. He wore resignation like a blanket, determined to at least suggest complete compliance. But his eyes. Oh, his eyes examined Samuel carefully, particularly noting the manner in which he assured himself of his weapon. So, then: they believed him worth some suspicion of violence.

Slowly, Jorge pressed his wrists together and raised them.

"Best take no chance, hm?"

The question was directed to Samuel; the mayor went completely ignored, save that his statements were answered. He was a fool, was Briggs, and short of fantasizing about enacting violence upon his person, was not worth spit.


@Kuno
 
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Applo

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The warmth of the room, the smell of the food, they were like a long absent lovers embrace as they rolled over Henrietta. Releasing Father McCathy’s elbow with a half curtsy as was appropriate for a man of the cloth, she drifted towards the table of food. Led by her stomach, the changes in the room were not unnoticed but they were un-regarded; at least until the lanky man by the fire turned around and presented the silver star on his chest.

For the merest of moments surprise and just a hint of fear were all that could be seen in Henrietta’s emerald eyes. As suddenly as they had arrived though, the feelings were carefully and skillfully pushed down and an easy, unremarkable smile claimed the red-headed woman’s face for its own. Barely missing a step, Henrietta changed her path away from lawman and towards a nearby window, trying to look for all intents and purposes as if she had meant to head there the whole time.

Law men were people she wanted as little to do with as possible. Highland was an out of the way sort of place, but bounty posters had a nasty habit of traveling. Henrietta didn’t actually know if there were any bounty posters of her, but she had shot her husband and a pox ridden whore. That whole inn would haveknown about it and known that she had done it so there could be one. It was just good sense to avoid law men where she could just in case; besides, something about this deputy just screamed trouble. Plenty of bad men had featured in the widow Summer’s life and she had learned to trust her feelings about them when she saw them.

Hands on the window sill and with her appetite having all but disappeared, Henrietta glanced back over her shoulder. There was no escape from where she had come; at least not without inviting questions. Perhaps she could wait till the others were eating but there was no guarantee food would provide the distraction she hoped it might. Nor was staring out of the window the whole time a viable option lest they wonder if she wasn’t a little peculiar. As far as the red-head could tell there was only one way to escape her current predicament and that was the second door that sat held ajar by a chair.

Henrietta moved like an emerald ghost, the swagger gone from her step as she tried to make as little noise as possible. She had no idea what was on the other side of the doorway, she was just hoping it wasn’t a dead end.​

 

Doctor Jax

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Two's Company
collab with @Kuno

Na was quick to follow the young girl to the other hallway, glad to leave the other group and their uncomfortable offers of exploring the region, of staying in the town that had begun to discomfit her so. She obediently put her bag in the converted closet, and Eliza’s words struck her as she turned about. The Chinese “fortuneteller” paused, glancing quickly to see who else may be listening.

“Yes, I do plan to leave. This town… was not what I had thought it was,” Na said. “Miss Eliza… there is a strangeness to this place. Am I correct?”

A youthful smile could not dispel the lingering redness of the girl's eyes. Nor could the faux confidence infusing her following words make for a convincing show of a bravado.

"I mean, I don't know. Just about every town's strange in its own ways, right?"

Eliza didn't look at Na. She stared, instead, slightly off to her right side.

"Nothing's wrong with Highland. Just give it a chance, and you'll see." She nodded once, twice, as if to steel herself. "You'll see…"

Na’s expression was of uncharacteristic, open worry, softly taking hold of the bag in Eliza’s hands.

“I… am not so sure. Do you wish to stay here? You seem… upset, at the moment,” she asked. She turned to place the bag in the closet.

Eliza started.

"Do I? That's not right, I can't-"

The nature in which the teen moved next was abruptly vicious. Taking the heels of her hands, she brought them to rub frantically at her eyes.

"I thought they were dry, my eyes." Her voice was muffled by her arms. "I can't be crying at work, you see. Pa said I can't. I'll be punished."

Despite her best efforts, the body retained its natural biological functions: the violent assault on her eyes only fostered further inflammation and tears, and when Eliza drew her hands, her face was contorted in panic.

"You got a handkerchief?" She sniffed.

Na was taken aback by the suddenness of her horror at realizing she looked as if she had been crying, and quickly, she took her carpetbag and dug around inside it. She procured a handkerchief obviously cut out of an old dress. She handed it over, her look dubious. Something here was not right, that she would be so upended over appearing distraught.

“Perhaps it will calm you to talk about what has made you upset. Take a moment, take a deep breath,” she suggested in as soothing a tone as she could manage. “What troubles you?”

"I'm n-not upset-"

Her own lie was debunked by the sob breaking up her words. The tears came quicker than she could dab them away, and finally, with a defeated huff, her head drooped.

"You're a nice lady," She finally replied, reddened eyes lifting to meet Na's. Eliza couldn't have been more than fourteen. Her head and pigtails swung slowly together. "They're gonna like you here. But me? I'm not nice, the town-"

A halting, shuddering breath cut her sentence in two.

"I ain't got a place here no more. I just know it."

Na nodded along, listening intently. It was a technique she had perfected, especially where the art of ‘fortunetelling’ was concerned. The young girl was obviously in distress, berated for something, some transgression. It brought back… memories, herself. It was difficult, to just come into adulthood, and yet feel so much like you were still at the whim of the adults around you.

“I believe you are a kind young lady, and if your father is a good man, he will see this,” Na said gently. “If they will like me, I shall say how good you are to me. Then you do not have to fear.”

A gentle hand rested on her arm, along with a cautious smile. It hurt her to see such a young child in fear of being thrown from her home, and it was a feeling she could empathize with.

Eliza’s head had yet to stop swinging, slow and steady like a clock's pendulum. At Na's touch, she shrank in on herself but did not pull away. Her tears continued to roll unbidden down her freckled cheeks.

"You don't understand. It's 'cause of Pa that my place here is gone. He was- he…"

If there was any hope of Na retrieving her handmade handkerchief back, it was rudely dissuaded as Eliza blew noisily into the cloth. Not looking in the least apologetic, she took a moment to gather herself, balling the fabric into her fist.

"You don't understand," Eliza repeated. "I gotta find a place again. And I can't do that without Pa."

The Chinese woman chewed her bottom lip, drumming her fingers against the wooden handle of her bag. She wasn’t sure what else to do… Though… No, she was dedicated to leaving. Was that not what she set out to do today? However, the crying girl made her reconsider.

“Perhaps… I can stay a time. Help you to find your… place. But I do not plan to stay too long,” Na offered, brushing her hair out of her face.

She prayed this was not a terrible decision on her part.

Na was not given the opportunity neither to regret nor retract her loosely-worded promise. No sooner had the words left her mouth that she felt a crushing force about her person as Eliza hugged her tightly.

“Thank you,” She breathed into Na’s shoulder. “Thank you so much.”

Early adolescence gone unmarred by traumatic forces left room for a naive, trusting nature. Though Eliza barely knew Na, hope swelled and clung to the woman’s promise with unfounded trust. It was written all over her face: happiness, satisfaction, and most disheartening of all, an intense relief written in the tired lines of her skin.

The girl did not linger long. Releasing the Chinese woman as abruptly as she’d grabbed her, Eliza took a step back, then another, wiping at her eyes once more with Na’s handkerchief. She attempted a smile, and this time it was genuine.

“Come. The old man will be wondering what’s taking so long. Let’s get to breakfast and then I’ll...we can talk later, maybe?”
 

Hamlowe

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Normally, courtesy would demand the priest wait for others before taking his own food, but it took no gift of understanding to notice the subtle change Jones had effected upon the lady. He seemed a fearsome figure, to be sure, but that a lawman should so affect anyone struck him as queer enough to investigate. As she moved for the exit, McCarthy glanced at her, then back at the expectant deputy. "Good morning to you, too," he replied, but he was following the woman now. "Come now, miss," he said, "Did you not wish to break fast?"

When he was close to her, and could see the deputy was absorbed in his own meal, he added in an undertone, "Be not afraid. Not even a cutthroat would molest a lady in front of a priest." Hopefully he might get a little of her trust, enough to prevent Jones from growing more suspicious than his general habit. For now, it would be best to avoid trouble. Then they could unravel the mysterious substantia of this town, one mystery at a time. One challenge at a time.

@Applo
 

Kuno

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Alfa
Eczar
Waiting for the Sunrise

TOWN HALL

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Pale as fair, pallid skin. Lean, wispy clouds hung sparsely across the brightening canopy above, and further down, imitation clouds rose from home and chimney, the darkened grey of cigar smoke joining the airy display of Highland’s awakening.

It came in waves. The people, the animals stirring to slow, habitual activity. The humble clock tower marked each passing moment with a dulled, metal tick, much like the mechanical beating of the town’s heart. The breeze came and went with no hindrance, playing with a bit of grass here and tossing a few loose pages of newspaper there. Though morning had come upon them and settled, little life filled the streets. In the scant seconds it took for the three men within the town jail to leave, naught but a faint, shrill whistle pierced the gray-blue sky. All else was still.

Jorge could rightly complain of being treated like a beast of burden. Mayor Briggs had indignantly turned down the suggestion of handcuffing the man, though his alternative was no less dignified: his lackey Samuel Pike kept a visor-like grip on his shoulder, encouraging him along like a cattle prod. Something about that seemed to amuse the big man greatly, and a faint smile hung on his lips.

The Inn was no distance away. As they approached the stolid, drab building, some ways down, the general goods store owner could be seen sweeping his porch and whistling. At seeing them approach, Samuel James smiled and waved.

“Next you’ll come do my porch, eh Sammy?” The other Samuel called, and the mayor laughed.

Mr. James smiled once more before resuming his cheerful whistle and sweeping.

“That’s ol’ Sam for ya. Quite the prolific, outspoken town crier, that one,” Briggs chuckled in an explanation Jorge hadn’t asked for. In the slight moment, his infuriatingly cheerful veneer cracked, and something else foreign to the man’s features so far swirled beneath. But as they were so oft to do, the moment passed in the blur of a second, and the mayor was back to smiling blithely.

‘Come, onwards! To the Inn we go.”

The cattle prod at Jorge’s shoulder tightened incessantly.

----------------

“My, my, my! Quite the turn-out, eh, Samuel?”

They sure made an odd, mixed company.

Shortly after Henrietta was coaxed to return to her seat, Na and her young associate joined the dining room party. No more than ten minutes had been allowed for this interlude, and then the mayor and his two hapless quarries were upon them in all the manner and bluster befitting a trio of their making.

“Ho! There you are, Garrett. How do you do?” The mayor called. The dour deputy - who had yet to stir from his seat in the corner - gave a tip of the hat in return. Briggs smiled faintly before turning away.

“I sorely do detest to interrupt breakfast,” The mayor began, echoing his earlier words to Jorge, “But you see, I am a man of enterprise and verve and ambition. Best we set ourselves to this task now, while the day is young, yes?”

Without allowing for any commentary or rebuttals, the mayor positioned himself at the forefront of the small dining area. Besides him, Samuel settled into a seat, his eyes carefully lingering on Jorge. A resigned boredom was etched into his face.

“A preamble: First, I would like to formally welcome everyone here to Highland. My name is Bartholomew Briggs, and I’m the mayor. I have extended an invitation to all you ladies and gents today to take part in an initiative true and dear to my heart: proliferation. That is, town proliferation. You see...”

He paused, looking down at the floor. Samuel and Garrett gave each other a sidelong glance.

“Friends, this is no facile admission. There was a time that even I thought the town to be irrevocably and irreparably lost, I- well, while I today I can not fathom such a weakness of will, back then - yes friends, back then - even I had to submit defeat in the face of sudden and- and economic straits. They were dark times indeed.

“But!” He abruptly exclaimed, examining his audience again. “The winds of change are here. For what was once barren can flourish again, with your help. With all help that is soon to come. Good, strong, God-fearing creatures to come and help revitalize our beautiful town. And!” The mayor’s pitch rose and along with it the raise of a jabbing finger. “A promise. To each and every individual here. Forty acres of your own land if you decide to stay as a bedrock of Highland. And good, strong, fulfilling work for those who are able and seeking fortune. There’s plenty to be made here in Highland. Plenty.

“Ah, Sheriff? Did you want to say anything?”

Samuel, who up until that moment had appeared mentally far, far away, suddenly snapped to, his eyes alighting on the overexcited mayor. He blinked a few times, coming to.

“...No, think you covered it,” He finally drawled.

“Then that covers it!” The mayor boomed over him, clapping his hands together. He grinned. “So! What say we go and take a tour of Highland? Hm?”


 

Applo

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Henrietta had allowed the priest to lead her back to her seat because it was one thing to flit from a room she had just entered, and quite another to walk away from a man of the cloth. The former, well many a thickheaded man would think it an entirely womanly thing to do; the latter would draw attention. So it was that when the Mayor and his entourage, including the lank haired man who had ridden into town with the rest of them just yesterday, entered the room, she had been nibbling demurely at the provided breakfast and very carefully not looking at the surly deputy in the corner. The fact that the stranger accompanying the man bore the badge of a sheriff was not a welcome development but hardly one Henrietta could do anything about. If running from a priest would have drawn attention to her, running from the town’s civic leader of who she was a guest definitely would. The only option was to silently pray these men were unobservant fools, force herself to smile and listen politely.

The rambling proposition that fell from Mayors Brigg’s mouth was far from the worst that had ever graced the redhead’s ears. Granted, the fact alone that the mayor wasn't drunk and trying to get his hands up her skirt or down her bodice was a significant contributor to this. Still the promise of forty acres was not one to be sniffed at. If this bombastic snake oil salesman’s vision came good, well, a parcel of forty acres would be quite the nest egg. Of course, that was a big if, but, it wasn’t one to be dismissed lightly; at not least before hearing a little more of what the vision’s architect had to say. Besides a tour of the town would at least spread the attention of the room’s two law men and that was reason enough to oblige Brigg's request.

“You have quite a vision for this town Mr Mayor.” An encouraging and entirely proper smile flashed towards the civic leader. “And I think a tour of the town would be an excellent idea. Why just before breakfast we were discussing such a jaunt ourselves.​

 

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EL BANDITO GUAPO
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~ the inn ~​

It was a lot to take in. To consider. And too many options.

Whatever expression had passed across the Mayor's face had gone unnoticed by the Sheriff's prisoner; Samuel's death grip had encouraged that. All Jorge cared about, walking across town as much as staring at the pendejos gathered with him, was his freedom. But that would not come immediately without the consent of his captors, nor was it safe to make a break for it; apart from whatever enemies he had made in his remarkably short time in this town, Jorge had neither means of escape nor supplies to sustain him should he get away. It was, in short, time for patience.

Jorge Esteban Villacruz del Rios was not a patient man. His eye flitted first to the Sheriff, then to the Sheriff's gun, before examining the Deputy in the same fashion.

No, Jorge was not patient. Fortunately, he was also not an idiot.

"Pah! A lot of words to say nothing at all." Spittle hit the wooden floor, and he clicked his teeth. "Tour? 'Jaunt?' ¿Por que? Give us the work, that we can finish it and be done, tu estupido cara de culo."

As if to emphasize his disgust, he leaned to the side, placed a finger on one nostril, and cleared the other. The product landed just shy of Samuel's boots, and the Mexicano gave him a crooked grin.

"Or perhaps you gringos do not like getting dirty."
 
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Na Zhao
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The poor Chinese woman was ferried into the dining room, where she likewise helped Eliza take her own seat. Subtly, she fetched the girl a plate of food as well, rather than allow her to grab anything herself. quietly assertive. The Chinese woman carefully watched as the person she assumed was the Sheriff and the Mayor walked into the dining room to speak. Attentively, she listened, the hair on the back of her neck raising as she likewise eyed a sour-looking Hispanic man held by a Deputy who... looked less than friendly.

Already in trouble. Sad.


Her attention swiftly turned to the Mayor's speech, and what she heard...

The temptation was so cloyingly present. Forty acres. A farm of her own, a place where no longer should she have to hide or run. A place to live the rest of her days, alone, in the West. Yet, she remembered the sense of unease, her reading of her I-Ching. This place stank of disease, in a way that was hard to put into words.

And it seemed that in a way, she was not the only one who thought this. Immediately the Mexican in the deputy's grip showed his distaste, and she had to grip her hands in her lap and keep her thoughts to herself. Regardless of how she felt, the Mayor was the authority in the town...

"It would help you to show respect to our host," Na said softly, possessed at the moment of a more assertive spirit. "You disgrace yourself."

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The mayor's words permeated the room like incense, but the sweetness of their smell was cloying. The way he glossed over the past troubles suggested worse than if he'd explained it outright. Not to mention the questionable promise. Forty acres of this dry turf? Forty acres to till alone? Neither of those sounded promising, but the priest, as a servant of God, would be content with a smaller and easier portion.

The Mexican, meanwhile, made his contempt nasally apparent. Apparently the Negro had failed to wrangle sense into him, but such things rarely happened overnight anyway. "Breaking fast and taking a walk might do wonders for your disposition," he said icily, echoing the Chinese woman's sentiment. To the mayor he added, "I think a walk sounds wonderful—though not at the expense of a good breakfast." Again he eyed the Mexican as he spoke, hoping that the ruffian might be grudgingly amenable in the face of civilized opposition. One could hope.
 
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Eczar

THE INN

NPCS | MAYOR BRIGGS, SAMUEL PIKE, GARRETT, & ELIZA


A pin drop could be heard.

The walls breathed. Air whistled between the loose floorboards, gently playing at corners of loose fabric and paper. Eliza, who had slipped into the room at some point during the mayor’s speech, held up the wall with her deadened figure. Puffy eyes lingered on the floor by Samuel’s boots, boots which now hung slightly suspended in the air. Shifted, rather violently, away from the projectile of spit that had landed its way. All else was still.

Mayor Briggs and his men were alien in their congruency. The mayor still held the same insufferably cheerful disposition, though the facade held a crack in its varnished surface: the barest quirk of the brow, raised just as spittle had hit the ground. Dour was Garrett’s disposition upon introduction, and dour did the deputy’s face remain. From beneath the shadow of his hat he glanced left, his eyes skipping from to the defiant bandit to Samuel wordlessly. The latter man’s face was blandly unreadable.

The seconds ticked by in purposeful silence. When the mayor felt content in its duration, he leaned forward, clasping his hands together in an initial bid to break the tension.

"No consternation necessary here. Pride is an inherent sin of all men...correct, Father?"

Owlish, the mayor's eyes flitted to the Irish pastor. He made a gesture in Jorge's direction, grinning still. His teeth were full and clean, as white as exposed bone.

"'Pride goeth before destruction.' Proverbs 16 or such, if memory serves me correctly. From the last sermon. It - Pride goes…before destruction. So sayeth the Lord. Something to keep in mind...right, gentlemen?” A pause. “And ladies. Pleasure to have you here in Highland, by the way. Excuse my manners.”

He tipped his hat first in Henrietta’s direction, then Na’s. With apparent delay, Samuel mimed the same action.

“How’s this? We will promenade about Highland subsequent to the meal to be had. In the interim, I will now vacate this establishment and see to the affairs of the townsfolk. To make sure everything is, uh...in order.” He frowned slightly; at what, one could only guess. Perhaps it was his disappointment in the simplistic word choice. In no time, the man sprung back in the form of a hearty clap of Jorge’s shoulder.

“Amigo! It is incumbent upon you to acquaint yourself with these other genteel souls. I will be relying on them to test if you are truly compatible with the way of Highland...and it’s laws. Unders- Oh! Samuel! What’s Spanish for ‘understand’?”

The big man shrugged.

“I reckon I’ll ask Mr. Wicks later. Well.” He stepped away, glancing about the room. “If it’s agreeable to all, please meet me outside after your meal. Or better yet, I’ll return to the lobby. If you're finished, you are more than welcome to accompany me. Sheriff?”

As he left, Samuel rose slowly to his feet. He looked carefully at Garrett. No words were spoken, but the deputy gave a short nod of affirmation, and, satisfied, the other man turned away, stepping over the spittle as he followed the mayor out of the room.

 

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The herbalist bit her lip as she realized she had spoken before being spoken to. And this was a man who may soon be her neighbor, if they would so allow. That was yet another black mark upon the town, that they would still consider accepting a man who was so soon in the brig. She eyed him nervously nevertheless, eyes flitting over him once, twice. Slovenly, dour-faced, and with an ugly attitude.

However, even the speech the Mayor gave couldn't quite keep her attention as she looked at the men arrayed around her. They all seemed cut of the same cloth. Though, something seemed off here as well. Her eyes scanned each face, landing upon the sheriff's--

No, that wasn't the sheriff whom they had seen when they first arrived. This was a different man, but he had the same badge. She swallowed. As far as she was aware, no town sported two sheriffs, and definitely no town the size of Highland. Why would they have so soon changed the man who would lay down the law of the land? Ever more this place gave her a sense of unease, from the barricade in the kitchen, Eliza's fears and worry, the reading she had done in her room-- there was an uncomfortable air of this place.

She wondered if anyone else had noticed? Dark eyes alighted between Miss Henrietta, the Father of the church. They were supposed to be going on a tour today, if she remembered. If she was to stay here for Eliza's sake, it would be best if she knew the lay of the land.

The meeting ended, and they were disbanded. After a kind touch to Eliza's elbow, a reassurance she was still there, Na left the building with her bags to see if she could at least stow them in her carr--

Almond eyes widened, fear pouring into her veins. Her horse. It was gone. Her carriage, yes, was still here, but where was the horse that had pulled it. Abruptly, without warning, a rage built in her. Had someone stolen it in the night? Then why the crates? Na dropped her baggage in front of the carriage, and she turned to walk back towards the lobby.

"I am in need of your lawman," Na stated in a voice stronger than she expected, walking towards the Mayor. "My horse has been stolen. Mr. Briggs, if I am to stay in Highland, I am concerned that of my safety, if in this first night my animal has been taken so soon."

It was the lit match finally falling on the fuse. Her voice rose.

"How am I to be assured my business and livelihood is to be protected in your town, if in so little time my animal is stolen from beneath the nose of your people?" she asked pointedly. And how do you not take care of the children in your town? Why am I compelled to do what you should be alraedy?


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EL BANDITO GUAPO
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~the street~

"'Comprende', cabrón."

Jorge's answer to the Mayor's question went unacknowledged. The bandit's mouth salivated as he fought the urge to spit again. But there was no point: neither Mayor Briggs nor Deputy Garrett nor Sheriff Samuel had-

'Even a blind hog will find the occasional acorn'. It was certainly not an expression Jorge had ever heard before. Nevertheless, things fell into place for the man finally, and he 'comprende'd' himself. The Sheriff was an old man yesterday, with Samuel his deputy. Somehow, there'd been a promotion. And given the lack of announcement and the particularly blasé manner with which the locals treated this change of events, which was to say, not at all, it was likely the townsfolk were used to it.

Urgency grew in his stomach, and Jorge decided he absolutely did not want to remain in Highland any longer than necessary. After all, nothing frightens a criminal more than being in the middle of a crime that he's not a part of.

Eyes wide with a growing unease scanned the room for possible allies. But no: it was full of la aduladora, sycophants. Henrietta had suggested a 'jaunt', which maybe meant she was fine with proceedings. The Irish- no. Jorge may have been raised in the Church, and he would try to not disrespect someone associated with it, but he would not turn to them for help.

Which meant la señora de amarillo. Who had very much vanished during the protracted moment in which Jorge had spent piercing all this together. Brain aching with all the effort, he followed her, not much caring whether Garrett kept up.

"Likely with my perra," he interjected breathlessly from running up. "Stolen. By these pendejos. La ley en los estados unidos leaves much to be desired. Cannot even keep out a single bandito guapo, eh, cabrón?"

Jorge cast a smug grin over his shoulder toward Garrett, emphasizing it with an obscene gesture.

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About twenty words was enough for the priest to conclude he no longer trusted this mayor. His preoccupation with eloquence was no longer a charm, particularly in such mixed company. Did he speak this way to everyone? It would be nauseating to hear, not to mention exhausting for him to maintain. But that was all aside. There were things to do, like contemplate the meaning of sheriff.

The diversity of American terms never failed to confuse Father McCarthy. Even after as many years in the States, still he learned new terms and new concepts. There was obviously some import to the word, some swagger that it gave the man Pike beyond that of a deputy. What had happened to the old man Cotting?

As the woman from China spoke, the priest found himself in agreement with her, and at once emboldened and ashamed. "I would echo their concerns," he said. "Her horse has vanished, as has his. Mine was found dead, her throat slashed as by the claws of some terrible beast. Angel will testify to it. Mister Pike." He addressed the lawman directly, now, not even the mayor. "You are now aware of these things, yes?" Unspoken was the further question: What do you intend to do? No matter Cotting's status, Pike would answer now.
 

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“I’m sure there is a perfectly innocent explanation as to where your horse is my dear.”

Coming up besides Na, Henrietta rested a hand on the Chinese woman’s shoulder and smiled reassuringly. Her words were a barefaced lie. Horses didn’t just disappear. If there was one thing anyone in the west knew, it was not to touch another person’s horse. At best, in a hole of a town like this one, a mountain lion might have scared the beasts off. The words she had said were not really for Na though. They had been for the Mayor and the Sheriff. If even the priest was going to be a troublemaker, there was no better time than now to get in the men’s good books; to become an ally. She just had to hope that neither man was as astute as Ms. Whitacur. The Mayor was certainly a shyster. That was fine as long as he was also a fool. She could deal with idiot con men. She had married one after all.​

 
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DUDE, WHERE'S MY HORSE?

NPCS | MAYOR BRIGGS, SAMUEL PIKE, GARRETT, & ANGEL


The assault came from all sides. The mayor, to his credit, weathered it all without interruption. With his tanned features holding just the right amount of surprise and confusion, he held his hands up in a defensive stance, listening to first Na, then Jorge, and surprisingly enough, the Father McCarthy air their grievances. His eyes widened in particular at the priest’s mention of his slain horse. A throat slashed? A beast?

This was news to him.

“Ladies, gentlemen, please! Let us deliberate,” Briggs protested, “Now see here-”

He was clearly unprepared for this foray. But like any competent leader, he quickly recovered. The older man shot a bewildered look at Samuel first, then somewhere beyond the newcomers.

“Boys? Are you cognizant of these accusations?”

The stalwart sheriff at his side remained still as his bulwark. Silent, and appearing largely disconnected. But his other associate was not so.

“Ask yer pet bandit here,” came an immediate sneer from the hall. Garrett had slunk into the lobby mere moments after Jorge, and he hung up against the back wall like one great big stain. He scowled at the assembled group.

The mayor’s brow furrowed. “Why, I don’t believe so. Samuel and Wicks had him pinned up not long after entering town.”

“Yeah? Sure he ain’t rally up some friends to come through town?”

“Come now, be a reasonable man.”

“Tuh,” The deputy spat. “Reasonable. Hmph. Why don’t ya ask Sam what he thinks? Sam?”

Samuel Pike roused from his waking slumber at last, and he heaved a sigh, perhaps annoyed at the interruption.

“Check the stables. Angel thought it best...He thought on it and I...heard him saying the animals were best pent up in the stables.” Like a cow chewing cud. The man’s cadence was just as slow, and he inspected his sleeves as he went on, “No idea if he went and did it. I assume so.”

“Why don’t we see for ourselves?” Briggs quickly interjected. He turned to look at the assembled party and smiled broadly. “Come. This will illuminate the dilemma without delay. You’ll see that there’s a simple and concise explanation for this entire mishap. We are not a town to entertain crime and, uh, certainly not horse thievery. Highland is…

Well. There’s certainly no town as perfect as this one.”

---------------------------------------​

The mustang was gone.

It had featured so prominently in the palisade prior that the enclosure appeared lacking without it. Foreign, too, was the new look of the wooden planks rimming it. Someone - Angel or Wicks, likely - had shaved the tops of the fence down to be vertically linear. Fresh planks were nailed over the gaps unevenly. Within the palisade, the ground was smooth and undisturbed. There was no sign a horse had ever been kept there.

They found Angel in the midst of an unlikely activity: painting the northwest side of the palisade. He was intently focused on his work. It took calling his name to grab his attention, and he spun about, eyes widening at the sight.

“Mr. May- Samuel, oh! Well.” He gave a startled laugh, taking in his sudden audience. “Well now. Good morning to you all.”

“Morning,” Briggs instantly replied, and Angel, noticing the company of women, quickly tucked his shirt into his pants and began wiping his hands off with a rag. The mayor grinned, pointing at him rudely.

“Ladies, gentleman: this gentleman here is Mr. Taylor or ‘Angel’, as the folks sometimes call him. He officiates over the stables and at times assumes the mantle of deputy, though as of late he shows no predilection for such. A very kind soul, this one; should you ever need a helping hand, he is swift to provide aid.”

“When I can,” Angel joked lightly. His eyes danced lightly over the group, sparking somewhat at spying Henrietta.

Before he could speak again, the mayor butt in, “So Angel. We have on our hands a most unwelcome debacle. Horses have gone missing, and these fine citizens are inquiring after their location. Would you have any information to provide regarding this?” He clapped a hand on the man’s shoulder, squeezing lightly.

“Missing?” Angel echoed. “I don’t rem -”

Suddenly he stopped. He turned on his heel, blue eyes blinking slowly as surveyed the nearby stable walls. The tall, wide wooden doors to the stables were pulled shut. Angel studied them wordlessly, his expression clouded over.

“I...brought them to the stables. Last night,” He said, “In the pens. To keep safe -”

“There you have it!” Briggs boomed, shaking the man’s captive shoulder, and Angel startled, life filling his face once more. “Right there in the stables safe and sound. Now then.”

He clasped his hands together.

“What say we promenade further to the post office? You must meet the postman. Truly a vivacious man.”

 
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