The bustling cattle town of Dead Wood Creek was even busier than usual. The annual cattle drives were taking place this week, and cowboys from all over the state were bringing their beasts here to be loaded up on trains and shipped East. Men swirled through the town, visiting its many businesses and lining the pockets of their owners. Everyone was happy about this influx – except for the tall, broad-shouldered blonde man sitting on the porch of the Sheriff’s Office. The star he wore pinned to his shirt gleamed in the afternoon sunlight as he lovingly cleaned a gun both close to his heart and which also had the same name as he did – a Winchester. Claude Winchester, Sheriff of Dead Wood Creek, was not a happy man. Whenever the cattle drives came through, his job quadrupled and then some.
The cowboys would get their pay for the completed drives soon, and would immediately go and spend most of it at the whorehouse and the saloon. They’d get thoroughly drunk and most likely belligerent as well. They’d start shooting their guns into the air, getting into fistfights, you name it. And it would be his job to try and keep them corralled, which was just about impossible when there were so many of them in town at once. He scowled at this thought, running a soft cloth along the barrel of his gun. If he could have his way, every one of those yahoos would be herded out of Dead Wood Creek the moment their business was done here. But of course they couldn’t have that, since so much money poured into the town once the cowhands started spending their pay. He would just have to deal with it - that was why he’d been hired as Sheriff in the first place…
Claude’s lip lifted in a silent snarl as he imagined the cool voice of the town’s wealthiest man and primary landowner in his head. He despised Tohma Seguchi, who owned the bank and several other businesses in town (including the wildly successful whorehouse, not that that was common knowledge. He was an upstanding Christian, after all). Winchester itched to shoot Seguchi somewhere vital, and if he could have gotten away with it he would have. There were several reasons for his loathing, not the least of which the fact that the slick bastard didn’t like him either and showed his dislike at every opportunity. And here came another reason now, emerging out of the bank and beginning to walk toward the restaurant across the street.
The Sheriff watched as the slender, middling height man in the broadcloth suit made his way tentatively across the street. The pointed face behind the gold wire glasses was pale from sitting in an office out of the sun all day. Tohma Seguchi’s personal slave, Mr. Sakano, was an anxious-looking man who jumped at the drop of a hat (although if he’d had to work closely with someone like Seguchi, Winchester knew that he’d be like that too). The Sheriff had felt sorry for Sakano ever since he’d been hired as chief law keeper for this town. His dark-blue eyes watched the assistant until he disappeared through the door of the restaurant, then slewed back to warily watch the street once more.
His eyes finally came to rest on the Black Cat saloon, the source of all of his woes on a day like this. Here was where all of the cowhands would get liquored up tonight before starting on their drunken rampages through the town. As he watched, the door of the saloon opened and the ‘dancing girls’ emerged from within. They stood on the porch and waved coquettishly to the passing cowboys, their smiles come-hither ones. The men responded enthusiastically, although they might not have if they knew the truth about those ‘ladies’. The owner of the saloon had tried to import real dancing girls from San Francisco, but no woman in her right mind wanted to come and live in the dusty back end of nowhere if she didn't have to. So in desperation, Hank Barrows had hired on a group of young men who could dance, and paid them well to dress and act like young women. And since no one was allowed to touch the dancers or go up to their rooms above the saloon(on pain of being beaten severely by the saloon’s bouncer, an enormous man with a wooden club and a bad attitude), no outsider had discovered Hank’s little secret so far. Claude only knew it because he was friends with the saloon owner.
He had to admit that the dancers looked just like young women, not the males they actually were. All of them were wearing hair pieces to augment their short hair and make them look more feminine, except for the redhead. His coil of braids was all natural. The little pink-haired one was waving a slim hand in the air, his huge violet eyes shining. He preened at the wolf whistles he received, clearly loving the attention. His mouth, which had been painted a soft pink, smiled widely. Just behind him, the taller redhead was waving as well but didn’t look very excited about the attention he was attracting. To his left, a lovely creature with glowing sapphire eyes was bouncing up and down, while the fourth dancer flipped his hand at the crowd in a bored, irritated manner as he tried for a smile (and failed). The dark eyes under the green hair were moody. The Sheriff couldn’t blame him for being surly about having to make cow’s eyes at a bunch of rough cowboys, especially since he wasn’t actually a woman. If these men ever found out about what was under that frilly green skirt, they wouldn’t be kind at all.
Suddenly his attention sharpened, and Winchester turned swiftly to look down the street. His instincts were clamoring a warning, and he saw why instantly. A man on a dark roan horse was riding down the street slowly because of the traffic, his face mostly lost under a wide-brimmed black hat. He was dressed all in black, in point of fact, and there were only two kinds of people who tended to wear clothes that were all that particular color. Preachers and gunslingers. And this man did not look like a Man of God, not in any way shape or form. The Sheriff rose to his feet and walked to the edge of the porch, his gun in his hand, warily watching the stranger’s slow progress down the street.
He caught sight of the man’s rig under his coat. The guns weren’t fancy at all; in fact, they looked worn and well-used. That made the hackles rise on the back of Claude’s neck. If they’d been silver-plated or had scrollwork on them, the sight of those guns would have been more reassuring to him. But if they were well-used, then this gunslinger was a professional. And if he’d kept alive long enough for them to look so well-used, he had to be very, very good. What was a man like this doing in Dead Wood Creek?
The dancers on the porch of the Black Cat found the crowd’s attention being drawn away from them. The pink-haired little dancer, Shuichi Shindou, craned his neck to see what everyone was staring at. After a moment, a tall roan horse came into his line of sight. And sitting atop it – a mysterious stranger in black. He felt his breath falter in his chest when he saw the coldly-handsome profile under the hat, and for a moment the man’s head turned his way, as a pair of emotionless-looking golden eyes stared right into his violet ones, and Shuichi wondered distantly if he was going to faint from lack of air after holding his breath for so long. Then the rider moved on, leaving him feeling light-headed. He felt a hand catch at his elbow, and looked up into his friend Hiro’s worried dark eyes. “Are you all right, Shu?” the redhead asked softly.
“Yeah,” the dancer assured him, taking deep breaths while he recovered his equilibrium. “I’m fine, Hiro.”
“Are you sure?” the other dancer studied his face worriedly. “Maybe we should go back inside. The sun might be getting to you.”
“I’m sure that’s it,” the pink-haired man replied, not wanting to get into his reaction to the dangerous-looking stranger who’d just ridden by the saloon.
“Come on then,” Hiro began to draw Shuichi back into the saloon, and Ryuichi came out of his excited daze and turned to look at them.
“Hey, wait for me!” he cried, scurrying after them. “Shu, Hiro! Where are you going?” The last dancer, Suguru Fujisaki, shrugged and trailed after his brethren with a scowl on his pointed face.
The black-clad stranger reached the hotel and dismounted from his horse. He entered the hotel, walking up to the desk. “I need a room,” he said in a deep, cool voice to the clerk.
The clerk looked nervous. “I’m sorry, sir, but we’re full up because of the cattle drives…”
A pair of golden eyes lifted to his, and the clerk visibly gulped. Terror raced over his face, but he stood his ground. The hotel was full, and there was nothing he could do about it. But before the tense situation could get any worse, a light, cool voice spoke from near the door. “It’s all right, Martin,” it said. “You have my permission to evict someone to make room for this gentleman. Get help from the Sheriff if you’re worried about someone being angry.”
Both clerk and black-clad stranger turned to look at the dandified man standing just inside the doorway. The clerk instantly turned obsequious. “Of course, Mr. Seguchi,” he cried, “I’ll do that right away!”
“Thank you, Martin,” Tohma Seguchi replied with exquisite good manners. He and the stranger were sizing each other up, a pair of light-blue eyes meeting the golden ones and not wavering in the least.
The gunslinger saw a slim man dressed in a fine cranberry-colored broadcloth suit with dark grey embroidery at the lapels. His waistcoat was picked out in gold thread, and a solid-gold watch chain was tucked into the pocket of it. He carried a cane with a carved ivory handle and bands of gold around the dark-wood handle. He was pulling fine kid gloves off of hands finer and better taken care of than most women’s. His blonde hair was artlessly brushed. On first sight, many people might have confused Tohma Seguchi with a vain, useless peacock. The ones who couldn’t see the cold light in the blue eyes, or the cruel set to the man’s lips. The fancy clothes were like camouflage, hiding the dangerous creature from the attention of other people until it was too late.
The gunslinger didn’t make that mistake. He could clearly see what Tohma Seguchi was. He inclined his head just the slightest bit in acknowledgement from one dangerous creature to another. “Welcome to Dead Wood Creek, Mr. Yuki,” the light voice went on. “I hope that your stay will be both pleasant…and profitable.”
A shrug of the black-clad shoulders. “That depends,” the gunslinger Eiri Yuki drawled. “On just what it is that you want me to do, Mr. Seguchi. Your cable didn’t give any details of why you wanted to hire me.”
The other blonde shook his head. “We should go somewhere more private to discuss this,” he said, looking around the public lobby of the hotel ostentatiously.
“We can go up to my room,” Yuki said. “I want to get unpacked and have a bath.” And indeed, his dark clothes were liberally covered with trail dust.
Seguchi sighed. “Very well. Martin, is his room ready?” he asked the clerk, who was returning hurriedly just at that moment.
The clerk nodded. “Yes, Sir, Mr. Seguchi.” He pulled a key out of his pocket and handed it to the gunslinger. “You’re in number 5, Sir.”
The blonde took the key without saying thank you, picking up his travel bag and turning toward the stairs. Seguchi followed him, a look of annoyance on his face, but there was nothing he could do or say. He didn’t own this gunslinger, and he couldn’t make the man jump by waving money at him. Eiri Yuki went where he wanted, hired on only when he felt like it, and took no shit from anyone. So he’d have to be pleasant and conciliatory in hopes that the famous gunslinger would take the job that Seguchi had for him.
Arriving at the door with the 5 on it, Yuki inserted the key and opened it. He pushed it open to walk into the room beyond, which was airy and had a pretty quilt draped over the brass bed. He’d slept in a lot worse places, and he carried his bag over to the bed and set it on the quilt before he reached up to remove his hat. Seguchi stood just inside the door and watched while he hung the hat on a hook, then pulled off his coat to reveal a plain black waistcoat over a white linen shirt. “Come in and shut the door,” he said to the other blonde. “Tell me why you had me come all the way here.”
Seguchi closed the door, then walked over to the single chair and sat down on it. He crossed one leg over the other and set one hand on his knee. “Your reputation precedes you, Mr. Yuki,” he began calmly. “And I find that I have a problem. There is a gang of men who roam these parts, stealing and pillaging indiscriminately. Their leader is a man known only as The Monk, since it is said that he lives an austere life of celibacy and deprivation for some reason. No one knows what he looks like, since he and his gang all wear bandanas over their faces and keep their hats pulled down. I want you to find this miscreant and put him out of my misery. He’s already stolen several gold shipments meant for my bank, as well as a fine saddle horse that was being delivered to my house. I don’t know if he has something against me personally, nor do I care. I simply want him put down before he can make off with any more of my goods.”
“I see,” the gunslinger began to pull clothing from the bag so that he could put it in the small dresser beside the bed.
“Your fee will be exorbitant, of course,” Seguchi went on. “And if you can get the job done quickly I would be willing to pay you a bonus as well. I know you are not often motivated by money, Mr. Yuki, but I will definitely make it worth your while if you will do this thing for me.”
The gunslinger frowned a bit, although since his back was turned to Seguchi the other man couldn’t see it. This wasn’t his normal type of job at all, and frankly he wasn’t that interested. He might have turned the man down completely, except…unbidden, a memory of the pink-haired dancing girl rose up in his mind. He remembered those enormous violet eyes staring up at him, and something in their depths called to him. If he took this job, he’d be able to stay around and find out more about that lovely little creature. He was greatly tempted, so he finally sighed almost silently and replied coolly: “Very well. I will take your job, Mr. Seguchi.”
“Excellent!” Seguchi sounded very pleased, which irritated the gunslinger greatly. He didn’t like his new employer at all.
“I’ll start looking for this Monk tomorrow,” Yuki continued abruptly. “For tonight, I wish to get some rest.”
“Of course,” the other blonde replied, getting to his feet. “Sleep well, Mr. Yuki, and you have my thanks in advance.”
“That fact makes me very happy,” Yuki replied acerbically. He stared coldly at Seguchi until the other man became uncomfortable and made his excuses to leave the hotel room. Once he was gone, the gunslinger finished unpacking and then lay down on top of the quilt in his shirt sleeves. He stared up at the ceiling, still frowning to himself. His strange urge to find out more about that saloon girl was annoying. It wasn’t like him. But he couldn’t seem to help himself – and that irritated him most of all.
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