A Double Month of Dust in Whiskey Gulch
by Tony Noland
In the hot, slanting sunlight, the stranger came through the swinging doors of the saloon in a cloud of dust. Neither he nor the dust were remarkable. Him, because he looked like every other drifter working his way out into the territories. The dust, because there was always dust blowing in, at least of late.
Heads turned as he approached the bar, then looked away again. No one paid him much attention, not even the whores at the corner table. Indolent in the afternoon heat, they made the judgment in less than five seconds that this one wasn't worth extending an offer to. Maybe later, when business picked up in the evening, but not now.
He put his foot on the rail and called for a whiskey. It was when he asked for a tall glass of water on the side that a few folks turned back to him. Conversation in the bar dropped a fraction, then rose again, mixed with low snorts and chuckles.
"Sorry, friend," said the bartender, "our well's gone mostly dry. Come morning, I might be able to get a bucket or two up." He set a glass on the bar in front of the stranger, then picked it up again. He blew into it, wiped it with a cloth, then set it down again. "I don't reckon you'd mind a bit of dust in your whiskey, but I'll try to keep it to a minimum." He smiled widely at the stranger, inviting him to share the joke. Deep set, gray eyes looked back at him from a creased face, heavy with trail grime. The bartender's smile died away.
"Looks like you folks could use some rain."
The bar quieted, then fell silent as the stranger turned from the bar, whiskey in hand.
"Well, goddamn, you must be some kinda fortune teller, son." It was Long Bill Matteson, the rancher with the biggest spread, biggest herds and biggest mouth in the slope. "Or maybe you're half Indian? Must be something, cause that weather sense of yours is downright spooky! Damn, boys, the man says we need rain! Now how come we never noticed that?"
"Aw, leave him alone, Bill. He's just making conversation."
"Bullshit. He ought to know better'n to make light conversation about a serious subject." Matteson looked around the bar for support. Weary, dusty faces looked back. Matteson said, "Could use some rain... bullshit!", and sat down again.
The stranger, still holding his glass, watched him sit, then said, "How long's it been? Six weeks? Seven?"
"Forty seven days since the last rain," said a farmer. He spoke quickly, obviously to cut off Matteson. "It clouded over and cooled off a couple of weeks ago, but no rain. Now, even if it does rain, I can't see as what kind of crop I'll bring in. Never seen such a summer."
One of the ranchers sitting with Matteson said, "My watering holes have been dry for thirty days at least. I could get by with the wells, but they mostly dried up ten days ago."
"Lost mine last week."
"I've still got water in mine, but it's foul and brackish. Thirty head died after drinking it."
Around the saloon, men began to speak at once, comparing notes on how long they had gone without water, and speculating on how long they might be able to continue without it. They talked as though they hadn't already been talking this and nothing else for weeks and weeks. Matteson, who was losing more money each passing week than many of these men were worth, drank back his whiskey and said nothing.
"I can make it rain."
The room noise went on for a while, riding over the stranger's words. Those nearest to him stared, then turned to repeat what he'd said to their companions. After a few minutes, the mood in the room was bad and turning worse. Sixty-two men were angry and scared; every one of them had been living on the rough edge for weeks, been face to face with utter ruin. A few hands moved to pistol butts and knife handles. Matteson stood.
"So you not only got a keen weather sense, you can do a rain dance, too, huh, Indian-man?" Matteson's voice was high and brittle. "You gonna get out your beads and your feathers, dance around the fire for us, summon the Great Spirit? Shit, you're 'bout to get whipped if'n you don't get your stupid ass outta here, and do it right quick!" A growl of agreement swept the room, mixed with the scrape of chairs pulled back. Half the room was ready to do something ugly, the other half ready to help them.
The stranger didn't move, not so's you'd notice. Just shifted his stance, adjusted his heel on the bar rail. But there was something in it, some... power that made the room go quiet again. He drained his glass and set it on the bar.
"You need rain. I can make it rain."
Matteson's face turned red, and he breathed hard through his nose like a bee-stung bull. "Yeah?" For a moment, the word hung, waiting to be followed by more. No one had ever heard Long Bill say just one word. And no one had ever heard such a mixture of anger and derision laced with a thin trace of desperation and pathetic hope.
"Yep. For a price."
Matteson took a step towards the stranger. "Oh, here it comes, boys! For a price, the man says. And how did we know that was comin', I ask you! A price! What's it gonna be, you goddamn half-breed Indian charlatan? You gonna charge us five dollars a head to watch you do your rain dance, then watch you skip out of town before dawn?" Another step closer, Matteson's face turning red with rage. "Or were you hopin' we'd stake you to a night with a couple of Miss Betty's girls and all the whiskey you can drink? Come on, what is it? I got more to lose than any man here if this drought don't break, so come on, tell me, what's your price for making it rain?"
The stranger moved faster than a horse's kick, faster than a rattler's strike, faster than anything. In less than an eyeblink, he was in front of Matteson, gripping the rancher's shirt in two huge fists, pulling him in close to whisper in his ear. In an instant, it was over; the stranger let go and stepped away.
Matteson put a hand to his mouth and whispered, "No." He fell back, stumbling over his own feet. His head wobbled, then shook back and forth so hard his neck cracked. "No, that's too much. I won't pay that. No, you can't make me. No sir, no sir, not me." He bumped into his table, grabbed at the chair behind him. The terror on his face made him look as old as a sagebush.
Back at the bar, the stranger picked up the bottle of whiskey. He blew the dust off it and poured himself another glass. "I came in here looking for a volunteer." Hard gray eyes scanned around the room. "However, as you folks appear to be even more needy than I realized, perhaps it'll take two or three of you." Silence filled the still air, and stretched on like a scream.
"No volunteers?" The stranger drank, refilled the glass again. "Then I guess I'll have to choose among you myself."
A cold wind blew through the doorway, and brought in the rut-put-put sound of the first heavy raindrops falling into the dust.
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