#FridayFlash: A Double Month of Dust in Whiskey Gulch

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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  1. Ooooh, I like this one Tony. Are you going to continue it or is this the end? It works either way. I love the language, the characters were authentic and very real. Love the stranger. Interesting guy. First paragraph was great, it really hooked me in to the story.

  2. love the fact that they have no water, but whisky & all that it brings in its wake, is still in plenty supply.

    A very good story, well told. Is he the devil in some way? He seems to be demanding a sacrifice...

    marc nash

  3. Another gripping story, Tony. I love the way you keep us guessing at the end.

  4. I love the fact that you don't tell us what he asks for in payment. We get to fill in the gaps. Great atmosphere.

  5. Very nice and as Rachel mentioned the characters and language are pretty authentic. Whiskey would have been in supply even in those conditions, so that rings true. I really liked how you had no mention of his horse or him riding in, just walking in with the dust, then to end with the great description of the rain hitting the dry ground, just awesome.

  6. Whoa. I can guess ... a soul? The pound of flesh nearest your heart? Or somewhere somewhat lower on the anatomy? Your firstborn? What a chilling ending ... good story. Like Stephen King's "Gunslinger" universe!

  7. I was enthralled. The story kept me in it until the end. And yes, a definite Stephen King feel to this one.

  8. This was a great cinematic read; the descriptions were spot on and the onomatopoeia of the run was perfect.
    Adam B #revhappiness

  9. Thanks, everyone. As I said on Twitter and elsewhere, I basically never write westerns, so even coming close is a win.

    As it happens, I've never read Stephen King's Gunslinger series. If this little effort of mine puts you in mind of his work, I'll count that as a double win.

  10. The old mysterious stranger walks into a bar story, eh? Very well done. I was thinking Burt Lancaster in Elmer Gantry, but this stranger is a lot more scary. Good job, Tony!

  11. You did a good job on the western feel of this, and I appreciated the subtle supernatural context. This was an entertaining read from start to finish.

  12. I love a good saloon story and this didn't disappoint. The stranger and the price he demanded left me guessing. I agree with Eric, entertaining. I think this could be a longer story as well.

  13. Not only is that one of the best titles ever, but you have nailed the atmosphere here Tony, as well as the characters, voice, all of it. You need to do western more often!

    Love this line: "Silence filled the still air, and stretched on like a scream."

  14. Glad you kept this title. I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop, and boy did it ever. Reminds me of the Gunslinger series, too. Nice work.

  15. I'm glad this working, guys. In my first foray into a genre, I worry about how clumsy I am with it.

    Dusty saloon, stranger walking into a bar, blowhard rancher... did I miss any tropes with this?

    Oh, the disillusioned sheriff and the hooker with a heart of gold. maybe for the sequel.


  16. Oh, you simply cannot let this end. It's too good. I want to know what the price is!

  17. Another classic from you Tony. You may not have done the genre before, but you've got atmosphere to a T every time you attempt one.

  18. I'm always a sucker for a western tale of terror, Tony...

  19. LOVE Westerns. Stories all the more. Thank you for this gift Tony. It was two minutes worth spending on something so fine.

  20. A great piece of writing.

    I loved the sarcastic comments from the Matteson character.

  21. Nice job, Tony. I grew up watching Westerns and as a New Mexico native I know more about Billy the Kid than is quite necessary. I enjoyed the read and I love that you don't tell us the price. The whisper and the reaction of Long Bill is more exciting than actually giving us the answer.

  22. This is my favorite tone of yours in a while. Yes, it does draw on Western tropes, but the attitude is in both narration and dialogue (like the "Well, goddamn, you must be some kinda fortune teller, son" response to whiskey). Besides, I like Westerns. Want to go see True Grit with me?

  23. Great story, really enjoyed it, and I liked the way you left it open for us to guess what the price of rain is.

  24. Love the story and great dialogue! The final line is fantastic and the mystery price certainly asks for a sequel.

    I'm guessing the stranger is the devil, and his price is a willing sacrifice. Since no one volunteered, he'll chose who'll die/serve him/become something. I'm curious! heh

    Since you usually appreciate feedback, I thought I'd share some impressions. I hope you won't mind.

    I'd suggest you tighten up the 2nd paragraph a bit. It seems that you dedicated too much space to showing that he came in mostly unnoticed. You could have reached the same result with a sentence or two.

    Matterson's face turned red twice, on the 21th paragraph and on the 23th, and you don't show him going back to his natural color in between. It felt a bit awkward for me. But then, it could be just me. ;)

  25. I liked this alot. The mysterious stranger. I like that you kept his price and reason for needing volunteers a mystery too.

  26. Very entertaining yarn. It was nice of him to ask for volunteers even though some would pay the price either way. The Matteson character really came alive (before he died?)

  27. I like the ending, the supernatural feel of it. I guess the stranger picked his two or three... eh, volunteers. Some genres, westerns among them, are ripe for mixing. The end result is a pleasant cocktail. Good read.

  28. very cool stuff! Excellent scene setting. I would have liked a bit more of a hint as to the nature of the volunteering though :-)

  29. To be honest, guys, I don't know what the stranger wants as payment. I never got that specific when I was picturing it.

  30. That was GREAT!! I just loved the tension in this, Tony. The last sentence was eerie and foreboding and just yummy.

  31. Great tension throughout this! I want more though! Are you going to write a sequel?

  32. Amazing. Excellent use of dialogue and diction to set the tone, and just the right amount of mystery at the end. Loved it.


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