Over the Broken Banks of Bannock Part 5
Tired from travel. Late in posting. Have some Bannock.
The interior of Mitchell Wood’s Swinging Hatchet was as modest as its exterior. The bar dominated the far side, manned by a squat keeper busy cleaning glasses for the anticipated customers once the trial and its sentencing were concluded. He had the look of a man who originally came to prospect the depths of the Mound but found that serving drinks was far less dangerous.
Savage relics of almost every imaginable type hung against the wood walls. Fractured mesquite and chert headed clubs dangled by their ends like drying bouquets of stone flowers. Tattered drums with stretched animal hides over cracked bones were dotted with bullet or knife holes and nailed to posts. Collars of beads, netted circles with adornments, torn pieces of their colourful clothes and even a massive headdress with a great plume of twisted and broken feathers had all been accumulated and used for decoration. It was like a new world museum to the savage man, seemingly extracted from his bloodied fingers.
There was even what appeared to be a knot of hair pinned above the door which Schroeder didn’t want to consider further.
At their entrance the barkeep stirred, setting down his glass and offering Felicity and Schroeder his service. But Felicity ignored him, stepping carefully into the room. As the barkeep watched her curiously, Schroeder made to his side.
“What’s the finest you’ve got on the shelf?”
“Whatever I can from both east and west,” the barkeep smiled while watching the captain step to the raised back of the saloon as she searched the darkened corners.
“The west? Truly? What have you from their fine fare?”
“Mostly some yellow wine,” the barkeep said, turning to the shelf. “Got some of their more local stuff, course. Cactus whiskey and Taos Lightning. Not much trickles down this way, you understand.”
“I say Yuanhongjiu. Not sweet but keeps healthy than others.”
Felicity drew the pistol though her finger stayed the trigger.
The intruder wore the simple garb of a frontiersman though even in the dim lighting of the saloon Felicity couldn’t help but feel it didn’t quite fit his frame. The man stood in the doorway to the back room, his bowler cap tilted slightly on his dark black hair. A simple vest clasped about a slightly stained linen shirt. Long pants were dusty from the trails and the buttons were simple and unassuming. There was nothing extraordinary about the attire and only noteworthy by how incredibly forgettable it was.
The most peculiar thing about the man was his origins. While he may dress in typical colonial garb, there was no easy way to hide the natural difference of his eyes. The upper eyelid was larger, covering the inner corner near the small bridge of his nose. It made the pair look smaller than they really were, a trait that often made foreigners uncomfortable around them.
But it wasn’t his eyes or yellowed skin that set Felicity and Schroeder on edge.
A distinct inking had been dyed on his flesh. It began at his right ear and wound down his jaw, unfurling about the nape of his neck. The design was simple but severe. By varying the density of the ink, the image carried tonality and shading creating an austere yet beautiful stylized image of a slowly thickening coil. To the uninformed, it may have appeared to be a detailed but elegant whip.
To Felicity and her crew, it meant something far sinister.
“Ni hao, rifle-lady,” he whispered. “I wonder how long it take you to visit.”
He waved his hand and the barkeep turned to fetch the Jader marked bottle and pour two glasses. The west coaster moved to the nearby table, waving an invitation to the others. Felicity held the pistol leveraged directly at the Jader’s chest and she wondered if the two shots would be enough. She never lowered it as they took to their chairs.
“Awful far from the porcelain streets of Zheng He Ho,” Felicity said. “What brings you here, wormer?”
She twisted the last word accusingly and Schroeder twitched at its abruptness.
The Jader, however, smiled.
“Business, captain. Of course.”
“Bannock don’t strike me as a great opportunity.”
“Glorious Bian desire speech with you again.”
“And how does Mr. Bian know where I am?”
The barkeep arrived with the glasses, setting them before Schroeder and Felicity. Schroeder reached immediately for his, but Felicity simply pushed her glass away.
“Glorious Bian have many friend. We good at finding thing. Especially good at finding you. You make impression and I happen have friend in Bannock myself.”
His eyes only briefly darted to the barkeep who quietly made his way to the front door, opening it to retrieve his sign before turning the latch and closing the shutters on the windows. In moments the room was bathed in darkness and the three sat in still silence before a flame was struck and the evening lanterns gently dimmed.
“Is he one of them?” Felicity asked, her voice heavy with suspicion. “One of them poor souls you press those disgusting things into so they can eat them from the inside out?”
“If only he so blessed.”
In the wavering light, it felt like they had been transported from the quaint mining town to some deep nothingness where only the Jader, their table and the glasses existed. The wormer leaned forward, drawing the nape of his shirt lower so the light clutched at the dark stain upon his skin.
“I wait for time I receive Glorious Bian’s favour. Flesh cheap for muo li. Flesh cheap for devotion. Pretty bird get cage. Bloody bird get sky. One day, I have sky. Perhaps you see when skin crawl and you no look away.”
Schroeder took another sip.
“So what does Bian want with me?”
“Glorious Bian impressed, very impressed with action concerning shattered crane.”
“Glorious Bian,” Felicity spat the title, “was just happy I got him the sacred relics before the Bodhtan seekers tracked them. No doubt he sold them right back to the monks for a tidy sum while pretending he was as clueless as a summer gosling about the affair.”
“Politic from homeland so difficult, very difficult. Hard to say who own what in all matter. Especially lost, ancient treasure. What important is you impress Glorious Bian so much he have further proposition.”
“What if I ain’t got an aim to work with Mr. Bian again? Seems like an awful waste of both our time.”
The Jademan shrugged.
“You say no, you say no. I not change mind. Though very poor business decision. Very poor. You run ship and ship expensive. Glorious Bian run many ship because he have many friend. You should have many friend too. Even if you not like.”
“Working with Mr. Bian more apt to garner me enemies than not. I don’t see any reason I should meet with him.”
The Jademan nodded.
“He say you say that.”
He reached into his vest pocket and withdrew a bright pouch that he tossed across the table. The sound of heavy Jader coin rang in their ears. Felicity looked at it with disdain before picking it up. It felt luxurious in her fingers; likely imported silk as its embroidered design was a beautiful, hand sewn pattern of great white and pink lilies in a sapphire pond. The bottom had a golden carp – a symbol of wealth and prosperity – swimming about its edges. She tossed it to Schroeder.
The fop drew the strings apart, unrolling the long line of coins inside. The Jader custom was to carry money tied together through the square holes in their currency. Even something as simple as storing coins was seen as an art with the various colours and shapes forming a pleasing, if not expensive, line of shimmering shades and textures. It also made counting easier and Schroeder called out half Hopkin’s bounty when he was done.
“I ain’t agreed to work for him.”
“Li wu,” the man replied. “Gift.”
“A gift? Mr. Bian ain’t so easily parted from his money.”
“Apology, then. Show of goodwill.”
“My trust ain’t so easily bought. And I ain’t trust a gift from Bian comes without strings attached.”
Felicity plucked the line from Schroeder’s reticent fingers and tossed the heap before the Jader.
“No string, no string!” the Jademan exclaimed. He picked the coins from the table, separating two large, green twins and snapping the line between them. He let the train tumble against the wood top, each strike of a coin’s landing drawing Schroeder’s eager eyes.
“Only pouch,” he said, pushing the pile towards the two. “You take and if you not see Glorious Bian, you never see Glorious Bian.”
Felicity didn’t make a move nor did she say anything as Schroeder opened the pouch and began shuffling the coins inside.
“Captain, I’m not one to question your choices but coin gets us further than scrip and promissory notes.”
“Your man, he see,” the Jademan said. “Much better, much better. And coin not… what you say… dirty from unclean hand?”
Felicity narrowed her eyes.
“What do you mean?”
The Jademan shrugged, taking Felicity’s untouched glass and sipped as he leaned back against his chair.
“Small town offer big reward. Seem queer.”
“Not particularly,” Felicity said. “Bannock’s been struggling for some time from coordinated strikes against its shipments. Been cutting into their profits and supplies. Hopkins is more than a vandal and thief. He nearly ruined the town.”
“If you say, then said,” the Jademan said. “But if bandit stole rock where are rock?”
“Not my concern,” Felicity said. “My work in Bannock is concluded. I ain’t got nothing more to do with them.”
Felicity stood, her chair scrapping against the wood as she lowered the pistol and slid it into her pocket. Schroeder looked between her and the Jader, still holding the pouch clearly wondering if this meant they were keeping the money.
But before he could ask, the Jader laughed.
“Wise, very wise. Not blind man who see business done behind wall of stone.”
Felicity was already stepping down into the darkened saloon when his words reached her. She paused before turning and giving the Jademan a glaring look.
“What do you know of their business?”
The Jademan shrugged again, affecting an air of detached interest.
“You hunt small man with small crime. Yet Mu gift you far more than in stone house safe. Far more than Mu write on wall. Seem queer.”
“You seem mighty informed of a small town’s dealings.”
“My job to know. My job to find. I find how much you paid and offer you more. Only small string in pouch. Glorious Bian pay two string if you speak. And you not hang innocent man for it, either.”
“Dirty Hopkins ain’t innocent. He’s a murderer.”
“Life cheap. We all not innocent. And yet, you not watch trial and see crime. See little man not hang for selling death. Mu angry about fall of Glorious Belt. But is best. No one like see lie naked before eye. Sad town think missing rock will end.”
“If Hopkins was planning on fleeing across the Belt, shouldn’t he have had the stolen ore with him?” Schroeder asked Felicity.
She looked at him as if he were part of some greater conspiracy. Schroeder turned quickly to his glass, finding distraction in the wine.
The Jader shrugged.
“Perhaps he put rock back in ground. Or perhaps rock hidden on ship. But still missing, Glorious Belt still broken and star still fancy.”
It was the Jader’s turn to stand, tipping his hat as he turned and left the two with more questions than answers in the dark.
“But what I know of business? I only work for Glorious Bian. And he not send you to hunt man. Only thing,” the Jader’s voice echoed back. They could hear his footsteps retreat down the hall before the shutters over the windows were banged open and Felicity and Schroeder winced at the sudden flood of light.
The barkeep unlocked the front door, set out his sign and walked over to blow out their lantern. He then wordlessly scooped up their glasses and carried them back to the bar where he resumed his cleaning as if the meeting had never happened.
Schroeder turned to Felicity, the pouch held aloft in his hand.
“So… this means we’re keeping it, right?”
“Come on,” Felicity grumbled as she stomped towards the door. She didn’t even return the barkeep’s farewell as she burst outside. Schroeder hurried after her.
But as they emerged blinking into the morning’s sun, they found Laure waiting anxiously on the porch.
“Thought you were heading to the trial,” Felicity said.
The woman looked at her hands as if she were a child caught with pie stains down her shirt.
“Saw you two step in, reckon I’d wait for your return. But then the place got locked up tighter than a gauge change from a garrison’s visit and… well… this was all I got on me.”
She turned a heavy wrench slowly in her fingers.
“Didn’t know what I should do.”
Felicity laughed and beckoned for Laure to follow.
“You aren’t actually considering it, are you!” Schroeder called.
“Thought crossed my mind.”
“I thought you said we weren’t ever to deal with the wormers again.”
“There were wormers inside?”
Felicity scrunched her lips as she looked at Schroeder and Laure.
“I ain’t reckon we’d seen the last of him. Best meet on congenial terms than otherwise.”
“What if he tries to kill you and steal Laure! Or me!”
“Didn’t Bian lie to you?” Laure asked.
“Not lied: misled. Men like him keep to their word. Problem is you got to watch that word as it’s as slippery as a milksnake in morning grass. Apt to slither right on by if you ain’t paying attention.”
“How can you be so certain?”
Felicity looked to the sun hanging high in the sky before the Mound.
“Would be bad for business.”
Schroeder turned to follow her gaze, trying to read where her thoughts were wandering among the clouds. Laure looked between the outlaws, still trying to comprehend what she missed. But Felicity simply marched on without another word and her crew were left to catch up. It took them a few moments to realize they weren’t headed towards the town hall, however, but the constabulary.