"'He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end.'"
The preacher in the pulpit gazed at the people in the pews sternly. "And what does this mean?" he asked them. "It means that we instinctively know we are eternal beings encased in flesh. In our world today, we desire eternity—to live forever—as if we are completely infinite in body and soul, yet many of us do no realize that eternity begins now. Only this life on earth is finite, but our spirits live forever."
Several people in the congregation nodded. In the unusual heat of the early summer morning, the ladies, somberly dressed in their Sunday best, waved fans to stave off the stifling warmth that clung to every living body in the room. The men with them endured the swelter with heroic stoicism, wearing black suits tightly collared around the neck.
Only one person in the room didn't conform to the standard of dress, wearing his shirt's collar unbuttoned. He leaned forward in his pew in the far back near the door, listening intently. His graying hair was neatly cropped, and his face was clean-shaven. Many people in the congregation would've scoffed at how casually he dressed for church that morning, but this particular man wasn't concerned about that. He cared nothing about what others thought of him.
As the preacher came to a close with a hymn, the man stood up and departed the church before the first line of the song had finished. He stepped out into the dusty street, adjusting his jacket and gazing around with narrowed eyes. The people of the town were taking the day off, it being Sunday and all, so the streets were almost deserted. He quickly strode across the street and toward the nearest saloon.
Normally a saloon would be closed on Sunday as well, but this part of the region had become particularly lawless and wicked, so many saloons remained open almost every day of the year, even if everyone else was closed. When the man stepped in through the double-doors, however, their creaking hinges easily echoed in the nearly empty saloon. Perhaps it was too early in the morning for reveling and debauchery.
Heading over to the slick bar, the man sat down and looked over at the bartender. Without a word, the bartender reached for a bottle and briskly poured the man a drink. When he handed it to him, the man looked up at the bartender with intent.
"Has he come yet?" the man asked in a low voice tinged with an English accent.
"No, sir," replied the bartender quietly, "but I'm sure he'll be here soon. He said he would."
The man at the bar folded his hands in front of him and seemed to concentrate on the bar. He hadn't touched his drink yet. "I cannot wait any longer," he muttered. "Either he comes today or I won't hire him."
"For as much as you're offering him, I'm sure he will." The bartender tried to sound assuring. "Mr. Barton, I'm betting you're the richest man around here."
"But people here don't seem to trust foreigners," Barton said as he finally picked up his drink. When he downed it, he cringed. "I don't know how you Americans can drink this, but it's better than that swill I had in Australia."
"Sorry about that, sir," the bartender said, ashamed. "There are a lot of tough men around here who don't care as long as it calms their nerves."
"I see," Barton grumbled. "I suppose it can't be helped." Standing up, he placed his money on the bar and turned to leave. "If he comes by here, tell him I'm at the North Star Inn. I'm not in the mood to wait here."
The hotel Barton was staying at was small and plain. Even though he was rich as the bartender had stated, he didn't wish to draw attention to himself. He knew this transaction had to be kept a secret, or else it could ruin his plans.
He barely acknowledged the clerk at the front desk as he walked in, and headed straight up the stairs to his room, but when he went to insert the key into the lock he stopped. Barton stared at the door's handle for a few moments before trying it. It was unlocked.
As he pushed the door slowly open, his hand simultaneously went for a small pistol in his jacket and pulled it out. When the door swung open completely, he had his gun aimed and ready. Confidently sitting in the room's single chair was a man with wild blond hair and a wide-brimmed hat, smiling. The chair seemed tiny under his large frame, and he looked at Barton with amusement. Barton noted the mocking glint in the man's eyes as they gazed back at him from behind a strange pair of tinted sunglasses.
"I know this wasn't our planned rendezvous," the other man said, almost laughing, "but I figured it'd be best if we weren't seen together in public."
Lowering his gun, Barton exhaled wearily. "I would advise you not to try this on me again," he said seriously. "I don't like games, especially these days. If you expect me to pay you the full sum, you'll do as I tell you, and that means meeting where I say we'll meet."
The blond man shrugged and grinned. "Eh, whatever. So, how much you offerin'?" His feet began to bounce eagerly on the floor as he leaned forward.
"Right down to business it is then," said Barton. He closed the door behind him and locked it, and proceeded to also close the curtains in the room's only window. Turning back to the blond man, Barton eyed him. "You said you wanted a down payment."
"I'll decide that later. How much you offerin'?"
"Fifty-thousand in American dollars."
The blond man whistled, impressed. "That's more than you said in the letter."
"That's for the down payment," the Englishman said. "You'll get another fifty-thousand if you bring the live cargo as well."
Stunned, the blond man nearly fell off his chair. "I-Is it really worth that much to you?"
"If I told you everything, you'd understand, but also keep in mind that I'm paying you to keep your mouth shut." The edge in Barton's tone made the blond man stiffen. "If you tell anyone of this transaction—or of the item—I'll see to it that you're silenced."
The blond man smirked boldly. "So, then, what am I looking for exactly?"
"A very unique piece of jewelry being carried by a young woman. This woman along with a few of her friends arrived in the port of a small seaside town in the Northwest about two weeks ago, and they've been on the run—from me, I'm presume. Though I've managed to arrive here ahead of them, I somehow lost their trail."
"Then why hire me?" The blond man scratched his hairy chin with interest. "Sounds like she's just a girl. Shouldn't be that hard to catch."
"It's more complicated than that," Barton replied. He removed a handkerchief from his coat pocket and daubed his sweating forehead. The heat of the day was beginning to spike. "The people she's with have proven to be very dangerous, and have outsmarted even the best of my men. I have heard that you're quick with the gun, and know this region. You were also recommended to me for being clever and ruthless. You're just the kind of man I need in this situation."
The blond man gave him broad and devious smile. "Then you've come to the right guy."
"Good to hear. Then it's settled. Tomorrow I will send you a telegraph further detailing your end the bargain. I have other business I must tend to this evening, so I must part with you now…" Barton then cocked his head curiously. "What did they say your name was again?"
Standing up from his chair, the blond man snorted. "You mean to tell me you don't remember? How can anyone around here forget the great name of Blush?"