CLOSED SIGNUPS A Sin of No Name

Doctor Jax

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Na Zhao
Chinese herbalist and Fortuneteller

"I want to see my horse."

Na was not sure where the steel in her voice came from. She had always been a woman who kept her head down. She had never been one to stick up, fearing the hammer that would come down. But it seemed that this was her last straw. She had spent her life wandering, town to town. She had sweat hard and long for her money, kept her tongue still and dead when others spoke ill of her skin and its portents. Now, this man was to have her believe that the man at the stables was to be trusted so soon.

No, she could suffer it no longer. Between Eliza and her animal, there was an untapped wellspring of indignation and forthrightness. Perhaps the fact she was so little known in this town had an effect - she was showcasing even to the others she was not willing any longer to be trod upon.

"Please, allow me into the stables, and I wish to check upon my horse," Na stated.


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In the West, the quickest draw won - both of the gun and the mouth. The mayor and his surly deputy looked to want to speak first; surely, both their lips parted, no doubt a senseless or inane interjection bubbling up at their tongue.

They missed by half a second.

"Yes ma'am.”

Kindness was intrinsic to Angel. It shone in his eyes, even if the smile he flashed Na’s way was strained. While the man evidently took pride in his livelihood, the implication behind Na's request did not chafe at him. He took a few hesitant steps away, eyes darting between the group of onlookers and the stables behind him.

"Sure. Sure. I'll uh...let me just…?”

Whatever question he meant to convey was met with a begrudging nod from Briggs. Satisfied, the man darted away, crossing the dirt filled path in fast, long strides. The mayor and his men remained in place, a quiet conversation sparking between them.

“I didn’t mean any harm,” The cowboy was saying as he fiddled with the doors. He looked not unkindly at Na. “Just got a habit of looking after the animals, is all. After what happened with Father McCarthy’s horse -”

The tall, wooden doors creaked open then, and Angel cleared his throat as he pushed through.

“I just wanted to make sure they were looked after,” He finished softly.

It was a tidy stable. Six pens lined either side of the building and from within them came…

...the soft whinnying of horses. Five to be exact: three on the left, and two on the right. Three horses in particular would be immediately identifiable to Na, Henrietta, and Jorge. Their horses were penned in the same manner as the others, and their furs were clean and trimmed. The last pen at the end of the left side held another prisoner of a stock familiar to Jorge’s eyes only: the stallion. Docile and broken.

“See?”

Angel’s face was earnest.
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EL BANDITO GUAPO
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Jorge's face was indignant.

"Hijo de puta! They lock me up for stealing horses, and you do it with aprobación del sheriff!"

The bandit's brown face darkened to crimson, and his fingers flexed. He'd followed Angel and Na, ignoring as always his deputy escort, unless made to, and he now looked as if he might throttle the life from the old man's throat.

The heavy hand of Garrett on his shoulder stifled that inclination as rapidly as a thick quilt stifles a fire. Nostrils flaring, Jorge otherwise relaxed, and his fingers fell still. He twisted away, slinking to his mare's pen and giving her a critical eye. She was, truthfully, already in far better shape than he'd left her. Besides the trimmed coat, the fur was cleaned and brushed, with the knots in her mane and tail either cleaned or cut away. Even her eyes shone with a color of life he'd certainly never seen in her before.

Perhaps, for a moment, Jorge's face might have softened.

Or maybe it was a trick of the shadows. At any rate, with a muttered Perra, he stalked over to the stallion. He frowned deeply.

"Your sheriff arrested me yesterday before I could tame this beast," he called over his shoulder, ostensibly to Angel. "Or maybe not. Looks like you owe me a horse, cabròn, as soon as I do my time."

His lip curled up, exposing his yellowed teeth in a sneer.
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“It would seem to me cabròn, far more likely that Mr Taylor tamed that beast while you stunk up the Sheriff’s cell.”

Gliding past Jorge, Henrietta broke her pleasant facade just for a moment to flash a withering glare at the Mexican. The man was grating on her nerves with his seemingly unending desire to spit in the town’s face. If he continued unabated, the town might begin to tar all of the newcomers with the same brush as the fool. The threat of violence at the hands of men seemed to be doing too little to cool Jorge's temper. Perhaps the lash of her tongue might humiliate enough to do so. Perhaps not. Regardless it felt good to jab at such an exasperating fool. Either way, there were easier members of the group for her to shepherd away from hostility to their hosts.

“See my dear,”

A hand landed on Na’s shoulder as Henrietta surveyed the interior of the stable with the woman. She was no expert on horses, but Angel seemed to have worked wonders on the creatures. Her former husband’s half worn out old beast almost looked like a new creature.

“I said there would be an innocent explanation and here it is. All our horses are safe and being looked after better than in any stables I’ve seen from here to Kansas City.”

Turning back towards the stable doors, Henrietta let rip a smile that had melted hundreds of drunkards hearts across the west at Angel.

“Mr Taylor, or may I call you Angel? We are in your debt for taking such fine care of our horses. If there anything we can do to repay you for such a kindness you must say”

Brilliant green eyes lingered seemingly longingly on the stable hand for a few moments before their owner recollected herself and turned her attention towards the Mayor.

“And thank-you sir for putting our troubled minds at ease. If you are not too busy still, perhaps we might continue seeing your fine town?”​

 
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Doctor Jax

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Na Zhao
Chinese Herbalist and Fortune Teller

The fire seemed to leave Na as she walked behind Angel towards the stables. Her step sped towards the door as he opened them and revealed to them... their horses. They even seemed to be in better shape than what she had left them. Abruptly, it seemed her ire was ill-deserved, and she felt a sudden shame in her demands. Upon the immediate discovery of her horse having been taken, she had felt an indignant self-righteousness, and here she found that instead it had been a kindness to put the horse up in the stable, better than even she could have afforded.

Her eyes fell, falling into introspection, hardly hearing whatever it was that Jorge said to the men in the stable as she walked towards her horse. She pet him between the eyes, softly speaking to him in her native tongue, inquiring if he was okay -- as if he could even answer. No, but his eyes were kind, an older gelding she had bought when he had been destined for little more than the butcher's block to start.

Henrietta's words finally snapped her from her reverie, and she nodded to her with an absent-mindedness, once more placid and withdrawn.

"Yes. I would like to see the rest as well. You have my apology - I was merely worried my livelihood was taken," she stated, bowing her head minutely to Angel - though pointedly, not at the Mayor. "Thank you for taking such fine care of my horse."
 

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EL BANDITO GUAPO Screenshot_20191214-141453~2.png


"'Fine care', si." The comment was laced with renewed bitterness. The bastards had stolen his horse. His. And the open and obvious injustice of it all infuriated the man. It was different when it happened to him! The term karma was not in Jorge's vocabulary. "Hard to sell a stolen horse in mala condición, eh, Angel?"

The emphasis on the name showed just how much Jorge considered the stable hand to be worthy of the namesake. His face was tight, and the vein on his forehead pulsed. A cold look was in his eyes: smoldering embers. He scanned the crowd. No; he was the only one thus indignant at their treatment. Though only one had apparently thought themselves enough the moral compass to attempt to correct his own observations.

"Si, señorita?" He gestured to the stallion with his thumb as he turned to address Henrietta. "Forgive me; I did not know you were educated on everything that goes on here. Even for things you didn't see.

"Señor Taylor? Tame this horse? Why do you think he sought my services? No, señorita. The only horses he could tame are mares." Jorge sneered cruelly as he leaned against the corral fence. "Though even he might have trouble with taming you."

He snickered, but for the briefest moment, his eyes flashed to and fro, wide in anticipation of a threat unspecified but clearly experienced.
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For a few moments, Henrietta’s hands twitched towards where her ornate little deringer was stashed out of sight. The slight movement was the only sign of the dark thoughts passing behind her carefully composed expression of sincere congeniality.

The moment of murderous rage passed for Henrietta and her whole body seemed to relax a little before she turned to look Jorge in the eyes.

“Who ever told you mares were easy to break, Senior, was either a fool or taking you for a fool. Mares will fight all of their lives if they need to. Stallions, on the other hand, can be broken in half an hour without fail.”

The corners of the red-head’s mouth turned upwards in something more akin to an evil smirk than a friendly smile.

“You see, my father was a trapper, not a horseman. He didn’t have use for stallions, too wild and stupid to know when they were beaten or be of any use he always said. So whenever he or one of his friends caught a wild stallion, the first thing they would do was to take it to the blacksmiths. They’d tie it up good and tight in a pen so the stupid creature couldn’t move; then smith would get a pair of shears he had heated up in the fire and…”

Lowering her right hand to just below hip height, Henrietta snapped her index and middle finger together like scissors so the Mexican would get the idea.

“After they had done that, the poor dumb creature couldn’t be bred from, but daddy could put a harness on it and work it hard till the day it dropped dead. I’m sure nice Mr Taylor could find the appropriate tools if you need a demonstration Senior. Or perhaps we could move along?"​

 
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DIAMOND IN THE ROUGH

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





Amidst Jorge’s increasingly aggressive accusations, Angel’s expression had become not one of anger, or even righteous indignation but instead confusion. The word “stolen” was brandished like a gun, and he blinked rapidly in response, his brows furrowing together.

The sharp exchange of words between Jorge and Henrietta met an anticlimactic end with the sudden clap of Mayor Briggs' hands.

“That is quite enough of that.”

It was the closest the mayor had ever sounded to true, palpable irritation. And yet, somehow, someway, the increasingly preposterous posturer maintained a genuine and amicable smile. His moustache remained cheerfully lifted at the tips. Only his eyes had twitched somewhat at Jorge’s continued impudence, and Henrietta’s thinly veiled contempt had caused mixed reactions among his lackymen.

Samuel stood still, ever infuriatingly neutral. Garrett gave a smile of his own, though it lacked the cleanliness of the mayor’s pearly whites. And Angel just...stared. He stared unabashedly at the fiery-tongued young woman in his midst; perhaps a star or two lay in those pretty blue eyes of his. At the mayor’s rebuke, he started some, hurriedly tearing his eyes away from Henrietta to a more neutral subject: the ground.

“Do not portend and debase yourself to the low tenets of this gentleman, young woman.”

Garrett scoffed. “Gentleman.” And in a very ungentlemanlike fashion, he spat to the side.

“Yes. Gentleman,” The mayor repeated, “Who I would be remiss to remind voluntarily left his horse here in Angel’s care, did he not?”

It was a rhetorical question, despite the enthusiastic nod of Angel’s head. Mayor Briggs turned away, straightening his spotless clothes vehemently.

“Come, friends.” The salesman's smile had returned, in all its perfectly manufactured glory. “Let us commence with our promenade.”

-----------

There was a name for places like Highland. Remote towns that sprang from the red earth over the span of a fortnight, hardy pioneers flocking from all corners of America to fill its hastily built stores and saloons. Boomtowns, as they were: one minute the action was booming, and in the next...nothing. The gold dried up, and the 49ers moved, leaving nothing but a dried husk of civilization. All the signs and symptoms were there for Highland. But its small cluster of citizens held on somehow, desperately clinging to the once bustling town’s remains. Twenty buildings hardly constituted a town, and they were a far cry from the bustling East Coast and Midwest cities. But Mayor Briggs was endearingly proud of his small, remote society, and it showed. The pride bristled from the crown of his end to the flared tips of his mustache.

“No doubt you are already familiar with the stables and stable boys,” The mayor began, “as well as the West Inn, run by sprightly Mr. Worth. Allow me to elucidate on the finer, cultured things of Highland. Trade and such - Come. Follow me.”

Highland had been purposefully designed to form a curved, oblong shape, each store or home in full or partial view of the other. The bell tower that stood in the center was where the mayor found his means of a podium, and he gathered the newcomers there, urging them to turn with him to point out every building, first starting west of the Stables. It was a small, squat building, rough in body and frankly, an ugly sight. But the mayor’s eyes sparked upon seeing it.

“We are blessed to share a public laundry here. Sadly our resident laundress has since transcended to her next course of life, but the facility remains open for use from morning until curfew. I would encourage you ladies and gents to avail yourselves of its services whenever convenient.”

He turned ever so slightly, pointing at the even smaller building abutting it.

“There’s our newspaper outlet. Clevinger gets by writing it - the postman, by the by - in his off-hours. He tries to get a paper out every odd day or so, highlighting the variable changes of the day and such to our townsfolk. Now let’s see, his post office is…”

Much of the mayor’s words were inconsequential. Rather, they were carrying a running theme, one the newcomers were sure to notice immediately.

It was a ghost town. Touches of modern day facilities were there: the bakery, the barbershop, the bank. But each introduction was quickly marred by the following details. That the stores were unstaffed, and so produced nothing. There were bakers in the bakery. There were no barbers in the barbershop. The bank held no money, and so sat as an useless decoy for whoever was foolish enough to “rob” it. Even the General goods store appeared lifeless, its owner having suddenly vanished from his cheerful cleaning of the front. In fact, none of the townsfolk could be seen anywhere about town, and the streets hummed with their silence.

The strangest of all was the weapons store. Large and prominently robust in color, the store appeared the newest building of the pop-up town. Through the window, its inventory appeared full, most of the merchandise on candid display beneath crystal-clear glass.

And yet -

“Sadly, it is closed for business today. Pray tell, it will be open sooner or later this week.”

And the tour moved on without a bat of an eye.

Despite his enthusiastic presentation, Mayor Briggs could not hide the decay. Building after building, house after house, it became evident: Highland had long been derelict. Neglect seeped through even the freshest layer of paint-covered siding. Wind played and rolled through the empty yards of vacant homes, and Briggs held onto his cowboy hat, squinting against the sun.

“I am cognizant of the befuddled thoughts and inquiries one such as you ladies and gents might possess.”

An easily enough debunked statement should one of the newcomers feel compelled to say so. But Briggs was a smart man, and no sooner had he paused than he was then speaking again.

“It is true. We have lost a significant portion of our town to the winds of change and such. But Highland can be revitalized. First, in no small effort from new townsfolk such as yourselves. But secondly, from our mines. I endeavor strongly to reopen such a venture, for there I tell you blessed riches await us. Why, we have proof of such -”

He had apparently been waiting for that moment. With a flourish, Mayor Briggs produced a small pouch from his red satin pocket. Slowly, he upturned the pouch and dumped its contents onto his hand.

“This is the future that lies ahead for Highland. And I implore each and everyone of you to be a part of it.”

It was impossible for one’s eyes to not be drawn to it.

They were gold pieces. Nuggets, to be precise, but numerous and large enough in size to be of considerable worth combined. Their edges were more jagged, as if they had been sliced from the mine walls themselves. And there was something else about them: in the sun they shone, but not only gold. Lines of iridescence ran over the ore’s surface, glittering rainbow hues under one’s eyes.

He reached forward, his palm flattening out into the sun.

“Come,” He urged, “A piece for all of you. A reminder of our encroaching prosperity.”

 
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EL BANDITO GUAPO​

He shuffled along with the others, not precisely pushed forward by any force of personality that Garrett projected, but nevertheless cognizant of the lead death that he carried. The others might be free to shift and deviate, but Jorge was certainly not.

The Mayor's correction still stung, truthful though it was, Jorge was loathe to admit even to himself. As was his way, his temper had gotten the better of him. Indignation at the treatment had shifted dramatically to embittered blame for crimes uncommitted. Two quick blinks, and a glance between. Angel still accompanied them, apparently nonplussed. Pinche gringo. Still holding that stallion that ought to be his. Or maybe keeping it safe. At this point, who could tell what was really going on?

For his bluster, Briggs didn't seem to know. Jorge followed the Mayor's gestures and indications, taking in such sights as there were. It was, sadly, an all too common sight. People on the east coast of the country would load onto trains or drive wagons hundreds of miles to follow the promise of economic betterment. It was, nearly without fail, an empty promise. Fool's gold. When the mines emptied, or the land was defended by the Indians, or the weather too wild to tame, the people fled back to the safety of civilization, leaving dilapidated debris dissolving to dust in the desert. Highland might not be there precisely, as yet. But the death throes were obvious.

Particularly when the only store showing any signs of growth refused to take advantage of the newcomers to whom to pawn off some shill shotgun.

Even to Jorge, it seemed- odd.

But then, ah. Then Mayor Briggs revealed his trump card.

"Gold!" Jorge muttered in surprise. And no small amount, if Briggs was to be believed. He reached forward and lifted a piece himself, careful to do so slowly and deliberately. Though no miner or geologist, he examined it closely before bouncing it in his hand. It- seemed real enough. And there was more? If true, this could pay off any fine or debt he owed back west.

Then his train of thought reached its destination.

"Where are the, eh- excavadoras, the diggers?" He held up the yellow rock in presentation as his brow furrowed with the effort of cognitive consideration. "If this is real, or everywhere, there should be a lot of them."
 
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Finally. At last - civility from the Mexican bandit. Even if it was borne from the ecstasy of gold, the mayor’s face still filled with that same smug satisfaction, his head dipping appreciatively as Jorge took his proffered offering.

It was a start. A baited start, perhaps, but a start.

“Yes. The diggers.” Mayor Briggs nodded sagely. His hand remained open, beckoning still for the others to take their own share.

“Once upon a time out here in the west, a hundred men strong inhabited this provincial town. But after an accident in the mines, sadly our predecessor in leadership opted to close the mines. As you can see, most were rather exacerbated by this safeguard and exited Highland. But!” A pinkie soared into the air. “After some concerted efforts, we were able to consequently reopen the mines. Unfortunately our work force stands as such: our townsfolk. And you. And whomever else deigns to join our efforts in the mines besides.

“Outside of Highland, I would be remiss to add that no one has the knowledge that this gold exists. Perhaps I can serve as guide once more and show the mines to those with acute interest, hm?”

 

Doctor Jax

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Na Zhao
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Na kept silent for the majority of the tour that ensued. As ever, the reality behind the mayor's honeyed words could not be hid. This was a town that was swiftly decaying, swiftly coming apart, a thread at a time. The laundry had no laundress. The barbershop, with no barber. Even the General store had been bare when she'd seen the interior, their selection poor and their offerings meager. This was a town that was gasping for air, the death rattle only moments away.

She remembered the I-Ching reading she did earlier that night.

Standstill.

This place was - stagnant. It did seem to have a few inhabitants at the least - though they seemed almost entirely to be the mayor's men. Mr. Worth, Eliza, a few others. And to find that Eliza had lost her parents and was trying to find a way to keep her place in this decaying town... No wonder. Where else was she to go? She could not afford a horse. She could not afford a home. She was alone, and they needed working hands. Her resolve deepened, listening quietly from her place behind the group, ever part of the backdrop, demure and unassuming. No, she would find some way to remove them both - if possible - within the next few weeks. She did not plan to try and plant seeds in rocky ground.

"...And I implore each and everyone of you to be a part of it.”

Her eyes tightened as he offered something to them. Her suspicions grew.

Gold.

For many, it would inflame a lust for wealth. The chunks in his hand she almost knew by heart would go for at least fifty American dollars in San Francisco. It drove men mad, to grasp such a good with both hands and hang on to it, to a future, with their every last ounce of energy. She was far less eager. She remembered all too well how easy it was to put trust in a white man's word and come back empty-handed, especially in a matter such as this, with so much purported money on the line. Ages spent on a stake, with a pan in hand under the hot sun, with a legal document stating it was hers - only to find all this time, she was trespassing and the gold she had found, forfeit to the original owner who had sold her a scrap of useless paper and then called the law.

She had no doubt that this Mayor Briggs would sell her share up the river as soon as it seemed she sweat and bled to produce enough. Nevertheless, she walked forward as well to take a piece and inspect it alongside the bandito who had, of course, been first allured by its golden lustre.

"I shall see the mine," she stated softly, turning the piece over in her hand. She was familiar with gold, but this had a strange sheen to it she had never seen. She knew that there were minerals that could mimic gold and perhaps fool a naive man. Was this the same? There was likewise the issue of the mine's construction - if it was even safe to mine there. She had not done underground digging, but her father had.

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Taking her nugget of gold rather more demurely than Jorge, Henrietta studies the heavy lump of metal with her eyes, and her eyes alone. She wasn’t gauche enough to bite into. Partly, because there were better tests she could do later in the privacy of her room, but mostly because after her outburst in the stables, it was probably a good idea to reinforce the image of quiet dignified class she was hoping to build. That didn’t mean she was going to be silent. The mayor’s revelation had brought a pressing question to the front of Henrietta’s mind.

“I agree with Miss Na, it would be good to see the place that produced such a bounty. First though, Mr Mayor, if I may be so bold as to ask a question of you.

Pausing, Henrietta waited just long enough for there to be sufficient doubt about weather the Mayor would allow her to ask her question while not actually giving the man time to rebuff

What exactly is it that you envisage all of us doing if we join you on this no doubt lucrative venture? I like to think I am a woman of ability, but I think it would be hard to convince even the dullest fool that I or Miss Na here would be well suited to mining.”

Resting a hand lightly on the shoulder of the china-woman, the red-head let a smile that had the warmth and allure of a roaring fire in the middle of a mid-west winter spread across her face.

“I feel ever so silly for asking, but I think it is best for all of us if we know your expectations before frittering away too much of your valuable time.”​
 
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HAPPY TRAILS

NPCS | MAYOR BRIGGS & GARRETT

The gold grew warm in one’s palm and pocket. Like a coal, the heat from the sun lingered, and the iridescent shine of its surface was hypnotizing, drawing even the most frugal eye to it consistently. The thought came soon enough, innocuous enough in nature - a sudden need, desire to have more of it.

A reply came shortly for Henrietta,

“Well now. That is an astute assessment.”

It was quite possible that the idea had never crossed the mayor’s mind. So few women journeyed west on their own, and accommodations for single women looking for work was a predicament that the mayor could have certainly overlooked. Was the large smile on his face one borne from his manufactured genteel spirit or simply a tool of deflection to show false bravado?

His answer would be damning. The rusted cogs in his head turned and turned and turned...

The pied paper gestured for the others to follow him, and the gold disappeared within the folds of his duster.

“Allow me to ruminate on that for a day or so. For now: I recall, Samuel, that Ms. Whitacur has requested aid in the form of a barmaid, and Mr. Samuel - Scottish Samuel, of course - has mentioned some, uh, veritable assistance for his wife in the store. What, with business booming and the demands peaking -”

The sunlight bore through the dusted General store windows, illuminating the still, naked shelves.

“-and perhaps there hands of feminine stock can find solace. Unless the stables required assistance?”

There was the cue for Angel to interject. But the fair-haired man had been drawn away; detached from the group, the cowboy and the priest stood deep in conversation, the Irishman’s gesticulations indicating a passionate discussion.

“Or the post office,” Briggs continued, his eyes lingering on the pair. “The man is in dire need of some assistance around the office. Rather, to eschew hard labor, one can also attend to Miss Eliza…”

But where were they? The streets were bare. The entirety of their tour had been filled with listless noise streaming from the mayor’s mouth. Name after name of various townsfolk dropped from the older man’s lips, and yet the queer emptiness of Highland persisted.

It followed them to the mines. Just north of town, the wooden slabs barring the entryway remained nestled at the base of a red rocky crag.

“We brought all the equipment and our smelter inside after a bout of fisticuffs with bandits,” Briggs explained , perhaps anticipating questions about the lifelessness that shrouded the entrance. “We had to bar it up - they were relentless in their nefarious efforts to attain our riches.”

He pointed out a disturbing series of marks on the bars: jagged slashes, as if made with a skinny blade. Or the rake of a dog’s claws. They encompassed the entirety of the upper half of the makeshift door, and the mayor pulled a face as he ran a finger over the marks.

“But pay no heed to this, friends. Rest assured - you will be safe under Highland’s care.”

From within the slabs, a faint noise came. The soft thudding of a pickaxe against stone. And the distinct scrape of metal against stone.

 
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EL BANDITO GUAPO​

Jorge was uniquely quiet during the exchange.

His mind was apparently preoccupied; he kept weighing the nugget in his palm, rolling it into his other hand, and weighing it again. It was solid, yes. Solid as lead. Solid as- as gold. His fingers tweezers, he lifted the rock to examine it more closely. In and out, like a jeweler carefully considering the condition of his craft. Yes, this, maybe, was better than horse-thieving. It was honest, so the law wouldn't follow him, and it was probably far more profitable. Probably.

The bandito tossed the nugget into the air, caught it, pocketed it, and strolled after Mayor Briggs as though he were his ticket to fortune. Which, apparently, he was.

A new spring in his step, Jorge followed along with the mayor, smug grin pulling at his cheeks and a swagger to his jaunt that hadn't been there in years. Highland's obvious and undeniable destitution had not been missed on the man before, but now he seemed to not have a care in the world about it. At Briggs' claims about booming business, he nodded sagely, unconcerned about the increasing population of tumbleweeds in place of townsfolk. Nor did he drag his feet on the short hike to the mine, and he was very nearly the first one there. With a careful hand, he rapped on the wooden planks before once again nodding confidently.

"And what is our, mm, cut, gringo?" Jorge smirked, gesturing flippantly to the effigies of empty buildings behind them. "The town gets most of the- gold? How much do I- we keep?"

The word slipped out, unintentionally, and his eyes shone with greed.
 
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Na Zhao
Herbalist and Fortune-Teller

The longer the gold weighed in her pocket, the heavier the greed sank in her mind. No - perhaps not greed. At least, not in her mind, not from her perspective. No, if this was true, if this gold was truly theirs - even a small portion of it, with the rest given as tithe to the municipal finances - it might buy her a way out of here, along with Eliza. A plan was slowly starting to come together as the town's mayor prattled on about this person, that person, these people. The gold was turned about in her pocket.

With enough gold, she could start a truly lucrative business. With enough gold, she could stand wholly on her own two feet, without need to grovel before white men and women in the hopes that they would deign to look upon her with pity, have their 'fortune' read, buy her herbal remedies and tinctures. With enough gold, she could finally live comfortably, never to worry again that she was to be run out of the town, or sneered at, or spit upon. It was a heady prospect. Yes, it was a heady, heady prospect.

Her wandering fantasies were shattered upon hearing the sound of a thudding pickaxe. Her eyes went to the clawing marks at the top beam of the mine entrance, her eyes following their contour. A strange air seemed to permeate here.

The reality of the situation did fall upon her. All the gold in the world wouldn't matter if she was crushed by the mine collapsing.

"Yes... how much do we keep?"

She stepped up beside Jorge. It seemed the bandito could not cap his own greed, either, but he was a more foolish sort, she pegged. He would grab the illusion of a pile of gold with both hands if he could, only to drop what little he had and losing it.

@Kuno
 

Kuno

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Eczar

HAPPY TRAILS PT. 2

NPCS |ALL OF HIGHLAND



The mayor had been waiting for that question all along. A heady light filled Briggs’ animated eyes, and beside him, Garrett’s sunken gaze rolled skyward, beseeching God Almighty to come down and take him from what was coming.

A western sermon on the mount was upon them.

“Ladies. Gentleman. We intend to saturate those seeking to upbuild the proliferation of Highland prosperity with priceless treasures of their own. Why, the original bargain will remain upheld, naturally: forty acres and a beast of burden. Tools to plough with, seed to nurture and grow. We will reap what God’s western, ochre soil has to proffer to willing hands.”

The deputy, who in so far had maintained the brunt of his scowled attentions on the strangers - specifically Jorge - now glared with no small amount of irritation at the back of the mayor’s head.

“But the gold is an added bounty, and for this,” Briggs went on, oblivious, “we have not found ourselves in any sort of quandary, rest assured. Compensation stands as such: pound for pound. Nugget for nugget. Half of what gleams returns to better aid Highland, and it is matched, in equal parts, to rest within your own private coffers. But to those who do not work the mines, pay will be rendered for services provided elsewhere. Perhaps -”

His eyes alighted suddenly on Na and Henrietta.

“Now there’s a fine idea. One of you could be a clerk for the bank.” A pause. “We’ll have to clear the place out first.”

He never specified what needed to be cleared out.

Soon after returning to town, Briggs claimed a need to attend to business outside of town. Something or the other about a cattle herd for sale at the next town over, and the men wanted to take a look. He grabbed Samuel and Angel to come along for the ride, the latter looking far less eager to go along than the former. The cowboy tipped his hat shyly at Henrietta before riding off.

The rest of the tour was picked up by the surly deputy, and Garrett, for all his sour-breathed, grouchy ministrations, proved to be a remarkably far better man to guide them through Highland. He managed to condense the rest of Briggs’ superfluous introduction of Highland into three key points: free room and board at the Inn until their own homes were built. Work could be had in the morning. Curfew was strictly at darkfall.

He left them at the Inn. Supper was drawing near, and the meal was similar to the night before: a beef stew and hot water cornbread, the biscuits slightly burnt at the edges. Old Man Worth hung about like a buzzing gnat.

“Did you see the circus in town?” He kept asking, over and over.

Eliza’s measured impatience had apparently returned, and she was quick to usher him away. “He don’t mean no harm,” She explained. But her brows were knitted together, pensive.

Old Man Worth chuckled as she pulled him along.

“It’s coming…”

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

A few hours into the night, just shy of the bloom of morning and still shrouded by darkness, a hellish noise woke everyone.

“Oh God! Oh God!” Someone, a woman, was screaming and crying.

Lights lit the windows across scattered buildings. Curtains parted, doors opened, and coats were hastily thrown on as the townspeople hurried into the streets, eager to find the source of the disruption. They stood, a dozen or so figures, in a tight circle around something on the ground. The mayor, sheriff, and deputy were nowhere in sight.

“Jesus, Mary, and Joseph,” someone muttered.

 

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EL BANDITO GUAPO​


Jorge stared at the ceiling, shifting by minor degrees in his bed. Rest, and indeed sleep, was utterly evasive; his mind was too busy weighing the prospect of riches in his mind.


Gold! Such an opportunity! And here he had thought that his life of freedom and hedonism might be at an end. When the handcuffs had gone on, Jorge had expected to be shipped back West to serve time. But now! Ah, now! There was gold to be had! What matter was it to him if Highland's politicians and lawmen chose to circumvent proper justice from the proper channels. He could gladly slave away for riches. And a full half-take! Perhaps even more, were he clever as he considered himself to be.


Never once did it occur to him that Highland was, after all, an odd place to find gold, in an ostensibly abandoned mine.


Dinner had been for him a quiet affair. He heard little of the conversation, and participated less; talk of a circus carried no attraction to him. It was entertainment for children, and there were riches to be had! Circus? Pah! Homestead? Worthless! Tools to work the ground? Let the fools who sought such nonsense, such humility, take it all. His reward was far better! Far-


A wail like the piercing cry of La Llorona split the air, interrupting his greedy considerations. His heart seized in his chest, and he sat up, sweat gathering on his brow like the morning dew. He'd been set on parole by Garrett before dinner, the deputy having given him concise but direct details on the conditions of it. Gun, horse, and all equipment save his clothes would remain seized until Jorge had peaceably served his term. So he'd holed himself in an available room at the Inn, once in which he now sat shivering.


Through the nearby window, he could see the midnight ambience streaming through: the gentle white of moon and star. But terror gripped his heart, and he had no inclination to see whatever had caused such a sound.


Yet curiosity is often the bane of humanity, and just as the townsfolk of Highland could not resist it, so too did Jorge peer cautiously out his window. But the view was bad, and too many people were on the street. So down he went, moving through the Inn's corridors before emerging onto the dirt road. His eyes darted hither and yon, seeking sign of sheriff or deputy. When neither appeared to enforce their mandate, he slipped into the small crowd, pushing forward to see what had gathered such attention.
 
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Na Zhao
Chinese Herbalist and Fortune Teller

She sat in her room, staring at her I-Ching. Dinner sat cold inside her belly, like the curdled fat of a dead fish. In her mind, she justified - a superstition, of superstitious people. It was a practice to bring her close to her homeland, when it is far away. It was a practice meant to comfort her.

It did not comfort her now.

The coins lay on the floor, the hexagram scribbled on paper - three broken lines, an unbroken line, a broken line, an unbroken line. The I-Ching sat open, the hexagram interpretation sitting in front of her. Her question was written in Chinese on the paper just above the reading.

She had needed to know, What will happen if I stay? The I-Ching only worked for questions to which 'yes' and 'no' are not the only answers. In that way, it was both frustrating and liberating, to get a detailed answer that went beyond a simple affirmative. After hearing the Mayor give his sermon, promise them half their total take, that they would receive their land and the possibility of a job in the bank... Her mind had so immediately filled in that moment with a future, that tempting and nebulous Tomorrow. Yet, her more cautious nature begged her to reconsider, to look at the facts, to look at Today -- a dying town, with dying people, full of oddities and uncomfortable secrets.

The I-Ching lay open to Hexagram 36: Darkening of the Light.

Judgment:
Darkening of the Light. In adversity
It furthers one to be persevering.


The top line was 'marked', an old yin that was to be read simultaneous to the general reading.

Not light, but darkness.
First, he climbed to heaven.
Then he plunged into the depths of the earth.


The reading was not a good one. It spoke of great difficulty, that she would climb to a height - and then be plunged even beneath the ground. Her mind went to the mind, to the curfew, to the darkness that was falling upon the town as with shaking hands, she took the three coins and put them back in their pouch. At a candle, she burned the hexagram and its damning question.

No sooner had she put her I Ching set away did the scream tear through the night like the rent of cloth, as if someone had pierced the very night. She raced to the window, looking outside. But it was curfew... who was there to scream? And where were the Sheriff, the Deputy? Yet, there was a crowd outside, gathered around some unidentified thing. The one who screamed was nowhere to be seen, only the muffled sounds of shock and fear. Her sides prickled with sweat, her heart catching in her throat as she quickly took a shawl and covered herself, still in a nightgown, hair loose. She grabbed her black herbalist bag. Perhaps someone was injured... and she would have someone in her debt here, if she helped.

She bustled out the door, wearing her boots, quickly taking steps down the stairs and out into the street. Another of the newcomers - the bandit - was there as well, and she glanced at him only the once, quickly averting her eyes as she approached the crowd.

"What is the matter? I have herbs. Perhaps I can help," Na stated, mustering the courage to speak.

@Kuno @Red Thunder
 

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In her room, Henrietta stared at the ceiling from the confines of her bed. She was tired now, exhausted even, but her mind was too abuzz for sleep to claim her for the night. Something wasn’t right. All day, through the mayor’s tour of the town and beyond she had smiled. Played the part of the smiling floozy. The mask had slipped for a moment with the Mexican, but for the whole she had played her role well. Smiling while offering someone the world came almost naturally to Henrietta after so many years moving town to town with her husband's gang. And that was what had the red-head’s mind spinning.

The offer was too good. Land, gold, the chance to become fabulously rich for working in a bank or laundrette. A certain part of her admired the Mayor. He had smiled and seemed sincere throughout the whole walk through town. He was no backstreet snake oil salesman that was for sure even if he had been rather too keen to sell his dream. The lumps of gold for goodness sake, they had been the final nail in the man’s coffin as far as Henrietta was concerned. What she couldn't work out was what the man’s angle was. It wasn’t as if he had drawn the upper crusts of society to this forlorn place. What was it the man was hoping to gain from a mismatched group of strangers?

If that mystery could be solved, well then, Henrietta would know exactly how to con the con man and walk away with the shirt off his back as payment for trying to hustle her. The mayor had given out today had to have come from somewhere. She just needed to act like a clueless victim until she fou-

“Oh God! Oh God!”

The scream tore through the inn's flimsy clapboard like the winter winds through an old tent. For a moment Henrietta was uncertain that she had really heard it. It took slipping from her bed and a glance out the window to bring certainty to her mind. Up and down the street, lights were appearing in windows and doorways. People were using precious fuel to fight against the night’s inky tendrils at a time when they had no business doing so except for the scream having been real. Something had happened and folk wanted to know what. Henrietta wanted to know what too.

There was no time to dress properly; people would be back in their beds before the red-head had slipped into appropriate clothes. Instead, Henrietta wrapped a blanket from her bed around herself before padding barefoot across the room to the dresser that held both her derringer and her husband's six-shooter. The latter stayed where it lay while the derringer was smuggled inside Henrietta’s makeshift cloak. Someone had cried out in abject terror already tonight. She would not.

By the time the red-head made it to the door of the inn, the Mexican and china girl, the latter, dressed much as Henrietta herself was, were already moving towards the crowd that had formed in the street. The dash across the street brought winces of pain to her face as stones dug into Henrietta’s soles but compulsive curiosity drove her onwards.

“What happened and where is the Sheriff?”​
 
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NIGHT CRIER

NPCS |ALL OF HIGHLAND



They were all there. Carmela Whitacur, the saloon owner. Mr. Taylor and Mr. Wicks, side by side. Old Man Worth. Father McCarthy. Perry, the town drunk, looking remarkably sober. Mr. and Mrs. James. And two unfamiliar faces to the three newcomers: an older gentleman with black, thinning hair and a thick beard, his spectacles hanging from a chain about his neck. A young boy stood to his right, and from the strong grip on his left shoulder, it looked like the bespectacled man was holding him in place.

The townsfolk were oddly quiet. They stood stock-still as silent spectators, hardly turning as Jorge, Na, and Henrietta pressed further within the circle. Naught but the crying of the woman sounded, rending the ear with sounds of anguish.

Eliza, the innkeeper’s assistant, knelt on the ground. Her face had gone red from crying; hot, angry tears rolled down her cheeks furiously, and she had all but bent over against the dirt as the sobs wracked her body.

But strangely enough, no one made a move towards her. All eyes were on the thing besides her.

There was no other way to describe it. The “thing” was laid out in a large, murky shape next to Eliza. It’s body was long, perhaps bearing seven feet in length. Four bony limbs protruded from the still mass, lean and ape-like with bony fingers protruding from its hands. Matted brown fur stippled the ash-colored, mummy-like skin all over, and the body was curled in on itself like a dead insect. Its large skull lolled to the side. The skin on the face was pulled taut over the bones, and sunken eyes stared deadened into space above its tiny nose and massive, fanged maw.

Whatever the thing was, it was dead. It’s fur was laid flat with blood, and Eliza’s fingers were red from pressing against it, trying in vain to stop the bleeding.

“I warned them,” A voice said very tiredly. It was the bearded man. The boy at his side looked up at him, eyes fearful, but the man said nothing else, falling into the deep silence that everyone else had succumbed to. If Na and Henrietta’s words were heard, they were not verbally acknowledged. However, at Na’s left arm, there was a slight movement. Teresa James reached forward, lightly touching her sleeve before her husband jerked her arm back, shaking his head at her subtly.

The rest of them continued their silent vigil, nearly trance-like.

 
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