The bright call of buzzards could be heard from one mountain to the next, idly circling the clear blue sky that soared across dusty fields and sunbaked hillsides. It was a dry summer heat, but mercifully, not one without breeze. A slight sway to the grasses that kept one from stagnating in the shade for what could have been an otherwise unobtainable respite. Still, the roads were quiet, the drone of insects drowning out any evidence for human activity.
The sound of hooves approached a paced, methodical trot of someone who had somewhere to be but not in any hurry. A young chestnut mare ridden by a lanky figure in black, the wide brim of his hat obscured his face in shadow but the wear of his hands suggested, experience, if not age, and kept a loose control on the reins. The rider adjusted his stetson, wiping a bead of sweat from his brow. Of course the discomfort of being hot was second to the satisfaction of looking cool, his uniform addressed his profession, he felt, gave an air of intrigue and power. Clothes maketh the man or something of the ilk. They were traveling light, just a bedroll and satchel at the mare’s side, and of course, his pistols, their spark easily spotted from afar, a flash of white, all the warning he needs. But again, the roads were quiet today.
It was a sharp contrast from the siege and turmoil of the past year, and while it seemed things had quieted down, a marked tension still hung in the air, making itself known like a storm cloud on a sunny day. There were the fields that had ran to fallow, homes, to ruin. The train tracks that had been recently abandoned, piles of wood left to rot, twisting metal askew, an effort in vain it seemed. Where north and south clashed, that shifting middle ground laid in waste; it was no wonder so many had turned to violence when their past lives were ripped away from them. Still, there were those who remained, who dutifully tried to continue what remained of their lives for indeed, the world had not ended, and that world still had a job for them to do.
Men worked the soil, sweat gleaning off their backs like polished bronze. Women bowed beside them, tearing the weeds from the company of their crops for the weeds had not heard that the farms of their neighbors had been burned and the granaries plundered, that the hands taking them had suffered enough. It was not considered, it was simply life, and then it was not. As farms gradually overtook the scrub and small houses cropped up coupled with spindly pines, a town welled up from the valley. The man on horseback searched his long shadow and he drove to the center and whatever might await.
The rider passed a number of small houses, dust hanging in the air as he did so, guarded, piecemeal little residences, each pockmarked with bits of one’s identity. Owning little kept one saying much. In middle of the town was an inn, populated in early evening. One might center it around the church or the austere town hall, but economically and socially if not geographically, it was the inn. Posters plastered on the board outside by the posts where he tied his horse gave a suggestion of the fauna in this place. One his eyes lingered over a little longer than the others disappeared into his pocket jostling the gun in its holster. In a place like this, one could make a good living hunting criminals if not as a criminal- It must be said though, the people were very poor, and whatever they could offer in return, a bed, food, water, you left soon after, on the tail of your next bounty.
“-THIS IS HIGHWAY ROBBERY, I said 20 eggs, and you give me 10!? What do you think I cannot count, that I’m one of your mutton-headed farmgirls?” A woman bristled shaking an egg at another who sheepishly fought to explain.
“Well you know how Marco’s cattle keep disappearing? The same thieves have been stealing my chickens!”
“Now you think I am foolish enough to believe these excuses! Bring me 20 eggs Lucinda or bring back that lettuce you were content to judge leaf by leaf.”
The weathered wooden floorboards creaked under a pair of heavy boots, the groaning pitch of practice rather than neglect. This obstreperous entry was met with little notice over the commotion of end of day business and carousing for those who didn’t have a family to rush home to- or weren’t terribly concerned of such matters. None would question one’s presence anyways, as long as you didn’t make a nuisance of oneself, glancing around, everyone seemed pretty preoccupied anyways, many huddled together discussing current events: a cattle rustler here, some infidelity there, the army from the north, and the thieves of course. Of all kinds.
Approaching the bar, the rider separated from the crowd alone in manner. He leaned forward on a crooked elbow looking to catch the eye of the barkeep busy toweling glasses. “Say pardner, he began in a loud voice.
“Where can a feller an’ his hoss get some nokum stiff to sluice hism gob?”
There were several long seconds where you could hear one another’s breathing, in a hushed befuddlement as if an alien had landed and started speaking another language at them. A few of the bar patrons glanced from the stranger to each other whispering. “Di che diavolo sta parlando questo yankee?”
“I said, ken I ah get a strong drink... por favore?” He spoke again a little sharper, a smirk playing at the corner of his mouth.
The barkeep’s eyes flicked up, still cleaning a cup, and neatly set it aside. Taking some pity on him, he offered a glass and sympathy as he spoke, “You’re not from around here, are you.”
“What gave it away?”
“I don’t know, I had a feeling. What can I get you?” The man smiled, creasing the corners of his eyes from behind a pair of spectacles, a gentle welcomeness to him and his gestures. It was his inn afterall, and this strange man was his guest, it paid to be kind, if just in kindness returned.
“I wouldn’t mind a finger of tequila rotgut.”
The man’s expression suggested a lack of familiarity. “We have a plenty good vinos.”
“Ah, right, shoot well I’ll take a glass of your house favorite if you don’t mind filling the ol’ canteen while you’re at it. Grazi.”
The man in black took a long drink of water from the skin and took off his hat to fan himself, an unruly shock of white hair falling across his face. “It’s a hot one today.”
His companion grinned in acceptance, “It always is. If you do not mind me asking, where are you traveling to?”
“Wherever the road takes me, I’m a wandering lawman of sorts, when I come cross some folks having a spot of trouble, I try to step in ‘n help ‘em.”
“You do this out of duty, or altruism? That is awfully generous of you.”
“Wellll not exactly. I still gotta eat and sleep somewhere, but I never charge more for my services than a customer can afford.”
“I see… I know of a farmer in town who might be in need of assistance if that is your kind of work, Marco, to the west past the church. -But given his troubles I doubt your kind of assistance he could afford. I however would be willing to give you somewhere to stay if you extended yourself to him.”
The rider raised an eyebrow at exactly what this entailed before he decided to uncross his arms to shake on it. “And you are?”
“Vittorio. Casa di Cosma, it is my business and home and I offer it to you in thanks for defending the defenseless. These are my services, a bed and bread for the traveler, whatever that distance may be.”
“It’s appreciated I promise, I’ll pay ‘em a visit in the morning.” He tipped his hat placing it back on his head as rose from the bar.
Vittorio rapped the glass against the top twice to get his attention, staring expectantly as he twisted around. “I too do not charge any more than my customers can afford.”
He stared for a second caught off guard by the innkeeper using his words in kind, “...Ah.”
Somewhat begrudgingly, he reached into his sturdy jeans and produced a coin.
“And the vino?”
...Two more coins.
“Enjoy your stay Signore.”
It was nice sleeping in a proper bed for once, for once not waking up with the sunrise but the polite knock of Vittorio at the door wondering when his nester was going to join the living. “Jus’ just give me a second,” he fumbled with the sheets should his host decide to permit him a little privacy. Rolling up the sleeves of his black linen shirt, worn green bandana peeking out from under the collar, the rider adjusted his hat in the dusty mirror once more and made his way towards what trouble awaited him.
“Whoa there Castagnette, whoa girl,” he tugged at the reins bringing them to a halt as someone waved him down from up the road. Eying the figure ahead he called out, “Are you Marco?”
“No,” they replied coming closer, “But I was told you’d be coming, the farm isn’t much further from here.”
The man beamed up at him on his horse extending a hand, “Adrian.”
He shook it firmly. “A pleasure. Come va?”
Adrian shrugged. You couldn’t simply say good with everything that had been happening but he’d hesitate before repining to a total stranger. “We can talk about it when we get there.”
A red-faced man with wispy hair stood by the gate, six or so animals milling about the pasture, speaking circumspect with a handful of other workers. As Adrian and his guest approached they turned their heads quickly cutting off their conversation. One broke off from the others stepping forward arms crossed as he surveyed just what they’d sent to ‘fix their problem’. “Hmph. So you’re the desperado selling himself as law for hire?”
“That I am.”
There was a smattering of snickers from the crowd which he made effort to ignore. “Not to offend signore but why should we trust you? If you’re not just another brigante then prove it, who are you anyways?”
There was a moment of silence amongst the men, as Vittorio had not introduced him nor had the drifter offered when they met. To Adrian’s knowledge, he had simply shown up in town the evening before and proclaimed himself a traveling vigilante, man of mystery. The others’ skepticism was not unfounded, to this point the stranger didn’t even have a name to trust in.
Raising his sharp chin he squinted wistfully onto the horizon, “They call me, il Cavaliere Solitario.”
“... ...No they don’t,” one of the farmhands interrupted.
“You’re just un poliziotto a cavallo with a big ego if that,” another gave an an unimpressed scowl motioning to the others to not waste any more time with this uppity foreigner.
He merely threw back his head and laughed, “Potrei sembrare un contadino, ma sono un amante. Non puoi giudicare un libro solo guardando la fronte.”
While most of the crew had lost interest in him already, this impromptu little number managed to bring a nearly imperceptible smirk to the first man’s face. Finally, the older buttero, Marco, spoke, “I do appreciate the offer, but I don’t know how much help you can give after last night.”
Il Cavaliere cocked his head. “-They struck again, these cows you see right here, this is all I have left,” he admitted gravely, “I cannot afford to lose any more, but I cannot afford to pay yet another man little better than those he claims to fight. So maybe you are smarter than the others, you profess a moral compass, but at the end of the day both prey on the purses of decent men who do the honest work this land is built upon.”
“There is no justice when it comes at a price,” the farmer shook his head, holding steadfast onto the lock.
Adrian, sensing the growing tension coiling up inside Cavaliere, sprung to Marco’s defense, “He’s been through a lot- please understand, he doesn’t mean to insult you.”
He dismounted and strode up to the farmer pointing at his chest confrontationally. “Forget about the payment. I’m not looking to be paid to watch cattle, I’m going to catch the bandits that did this and everything they took. I can promise you that.”
The remaining cowhand shot Marco a look. He merely sighed and looked up at the man boasting this wager. One only had their life to lose. “Alright,” he shook his hand, “I hope for your soul’s sake you do.”
“Like hell I will, I’m the hero in this story.”