The damned horse tosses its head, thrashing its tail as it skitters across the steep mountain path. Steve bites back a curse and grips the reins as he tries to get the infernal creature under control. It flattens its ears back, lowering its head and Steve digs his knees in, wrapping an arm around the horse’s neck. If it throws him off here, he’ll probably end up tumbling into a ravine.
Luis, the vaquero riding on the edges of the caravan, comes trotting over on his horse, a sweet tempered dappled grey mare that Steve may harbour the occasional moment of jealousy over.
Luis guides his horse between Steve and the mountain paths perilous edge, reaching over and grabbing the reins. He clucks his tongue and mutters soothingly in lilting Spanish until the horse settles down to an easy trot.
“Thank you,” Steve says awkwardly, sitting up straight in the saddle and taking back the reins when the damned horse seems less inclined to kill them both.
“No problem, hombre,” Luis says cheerfully. “She’s bonita, what’s her name?”
Luis reaches over to pat the horse, who whickers affectionately at him.
“Uh. Horse,” Steve offers.
Luis laughs, sitting back in his saddle. His horse keeps pace with Steve’s, as leisurely and easy going as her rider. “She’s a city horse though, yeah?”
“Yes, we’ve come from New York.”
Luis sucks air between his teeth. “That’s a long way, hombre. You been riding for, what? A month now?”
Steve nods. The horse had been a parting gift leaving New York. He had never had much luck with horses, and this one was no different. Every goddamned day that went by he got himself bitten or kicked by the blasted creature. He had hoped that time and travel would improve their relationship, but all it did was give him the creeping suspicion that the horse had stopped biting him out of resentment or anger and now did it for the sheer amusement of watching him yelp.
Luis gives him a surprisingly shrewd look. “Must be kind of a shock for her, going from a city to this.” He turns to look ahead, and Steve follows his gaze past the cluster of wagons and horses ahead of them, along the steep, narrow track that winds its way through the dense forests of the Black Hills and skirting around the edge of the mountain. In the distance, the well worn path zigzags down the mountainside and disappears in a cluster of tents and wooden buildings, their destination.
Steve takes a deep breath of thickly scented pine air. Safety in numbers, Sam had written. Find a caravan in Sioux Falls and stick with them, or you’ll pitch your dumb ass into a gulch and I’ll have to come deal with your sorry carcass.
For all the frustrations of life on the road, of sticking with the shambling little wagon train of merchants and migrants travelling east, there had also been peace. The endless swathes of spruce and pine, the campfires sending sparks and embers into the velvet dark. He had spent his evenings in the gathering dusk hunched over his journal, sketching clusters of sharp-scented juniper and distant glimpses of Pronghorn seen from the road, and had felt something like peace. Now with the town squatting in the distant valley, he feels tension twisting in his gut.
“First time here?” Luis breaks the silence.
Steve nods, but doesn’t elaborate. Luis takes no offense, chattering about his youth spent herding cattle until the war ended, and suddenly everyone wanted to be a ‘cowboy’. He talks about the courier service he operates, pointing out his partner Scott behind them, a pleasant faced man wrapped in a red poncho, steering a tattered looking little covered wagon. Luis describes their business travelling from town to town, delivering mail and supplies and watching out for bandits and ‘Road agents’, highwaymen looking out for unprotected wagons or lonely travellers to kill and steal from.
Steve asks is Luis misses his old way of living.
Luis shrugs. “Can’t run cattle all your life.”
Steve had read about cowboys before travelling west, ‘Wild Bill’ Hickok and Buffalo Bill, and half expected to feel disappointment at the reality. But Luis was relentlessly good humoured and filled with stories, and Steve hardly noticed the time passing as they made their way down the hillside until Luis flashed a bright smile and pointed ahead.
“Parasapa,” he calls out, pointing to the canvas tents clustered around the road ahead.
The wagon train makes its meandering way into camp, following the path of a fast flowing river. The dirt track at their feet becomes wider, the muddy ground churned up with horse's hooves and wagon wheels
Steve keeps close to Luis’ side, trying not to stare as they pass through a cluster of dirty canvas tents. As they get closer to the town itself stalls start appearing either side of the road, rough structures made of lashed together posts and a flimsy piece of board as a tabletop, selling shots of whiskey and mining equipment, games of Find the Lady and Cup and Ball all jostled together. A cacophony of voices fill his ears, hawkers and traders, arguments and fistfights between drunks and merchants.
The stalls become larger, more sturdily built, as they travel further into camp, a shanty town of butchers and grocers and gun merchants, men selling bars of soap and newspapers and hot pies wander between the stalls, shouting their wares. The clumsy wooden stalls give way to timber framed buildings, still under construction, men desperately panning for gold around the foundations as the workman build around them.
The road forks ahead and Luis clicks his tongue at his horse as she comes to a halt. He points to the left where a strange looking building stands just off the road. The walls are built with stacked stones in a complex, interlocking pattern, the pieces slotted so tightly together that it doesn’t seem to matter that no mortar has been used to affix them. The roof is a patchwork of corrugated galvanised steel, the misshapen pieces overlapping. There is a wooden porch built onto the front of the building, a low bench to one side of the wooden door. To the left side of the building is a cleared area leading down to a fenced off paddock behind the property occupied by a handful of horses .
“This is our stop,” Luis tells him.
Steve takes a moment to admire the building, it’s rough hewn but well made. It looks like a home.
“Is this yours?” Steve asks, and Luis bursts out laughing.
“Nah, hombre. This is the Blacksmith.” He looks over at his partner steering their wagon into the clearing. “Barnes. He’s mi amigo.” Luis gives Steve an odd look, concerned and hopeful. “He’s good. Don't believe any of the shit people say about him, sí?”
Steve nods. “I won’t,” he says somberly.
Luis grins at him proudly. “Where you heading?”
Luis points to the left hand fork. “That way, on your right. Can’t miss it.”
Steve holds his hand out. “Pleasure to meet you, Luis.”
“Pleasure’s all mine, hombre,” Luis tells him, giving his hand an enthusiastic shake before clicking to his horse and leading her down to the paddock.
Steve steers the damned horse toward the left turn, heading south of the river, and follows the line of timber buildings. Up ahead, sitting between the fork in the road in a manner that almost seems suggestive, is a red-painted two storey building. From the women positioned outside and their provocative clothing, he assumes it’s a whorehouse. Sam had warned him that such things were commonplace in frontier towns, but it was still unsettling to witness first hand.
Wood framed two- and three-storey buildings cluster together on either side of the road, traders and prospectors milling around in front of them, the last few carts and wagons ahead hampered by slow moving pedestrians.
He finally sees the sign for Wilson's Hardware, a large, well-built two storey building with a handsomely painted wooden sign, well situated in the island of businesses between the forked roads. Sam had written at great length about the corner location, as well as the convenience of having it right next to an alleyway connecting up the two roads. Steve would have to take his word for it, having no head for commerce, but Sam was happy, and had established himself as a competent and trustworthy businessman in town.
Steve manages to steer the damned horse to the storefront and dismounts, his boots sinking into the mud and spattering the cuffs of his Hendersons. The horse nips at his arm when he bends down to brush away the dirt and Steve lets out a yelp, straightening up and glaring, and getting a tail swish in response.
Steve takes a step away from the damned creature, still keeping a tight grip on its reins and looks around the busy street outside the store until he can see a familiar charcoal grey porkpie hat.
He calls out and the crowds part, and he sees his old friend.
“Steve!” Sam calls out in delight, striding across the mud to grasp him by the forearms. “Damn, it’s good to see you.”
Steve adjusts his hat, flinching away when Sam snatches at the wide brim.
“Still a dandy, eh?” Sam teases.
Steve snorts at him. “Speak for yourself,” he counters, plucking at the lapel on Sams coat.
“Spruce up nicely, don’t I?” Sam gives him a quick turn, showing off his suit, a dark charcoal that looks almost black over a red waistcoat.
Steve gives him an unconvinced look before chuckling. “Yeah, you’ll do.”
“Yeah, you wish you looked this fine,” Sam mutters. “C’mon, I’ll give you the tour.”
Sam leaves the shop to his two employees, twin brother and sister with thick, European accents. The girl, pale faced with long, flaming red hair, is quiet and solemn. The boy is fast and sharp tongued, with a shock of grey hair. Sam introduces them as Wanda and Peter. He stows Steve’s saddlebags behind the counter and checks that the twins are okay without him before leading Steve back out onto the street, waving away his concerns. “They’re good kids, been with me a couple of months now. I trust them more than most other people around these parts.” Sam claps him on the shoulder. “C’mon, let’s get your horse stabled.”
They cross the road, boots sinking into the mud, to the livery across the way, Steve leading the damned horse by the reins.
“I take it you still have a hard time with horses?” Sam needles gently. Steve doesn’t dignify the comment with a response, tugging on the reins as the horse tries to pull him down into to mire.
The ostler who runs the livery, a huge, barrel chested blond with the kind of relentless good cheer that wears on Steve after a while, is delighted to take the damned horse for a moderate fee. The blasted creature nuzzles up against the man as he leads it away.
Sam guides Steve along the edges of the road where it’s easier to walk, past the jailhouse sitting alongside the livery, and pointing out the three storey building opposite.
“That’s the Main St Hotel, run by a fellow named Coulson. Also the place for food least likely to kill you,” Sam raises his eyebrows. “Or make you wish you were dead, y’know what I’m saying?”
Steve chuckles and nods as they walk back down the road, passing the hardware store.
“Next plot down from mine is the Doc,” Sam points out a single story building the other side of the alleyway that runs alongside the hardware store. “Dr Banner. Decent enough fellow, bit too fond of a drink.”
Sam tips his hat at two elderly ladies walking past, dressed in New York fashion, one in rich bottle green, the other in a vibrant red gown that matches her lipstick, their grey hair pinned up in artful curls. “Ladies,” Sam offers in a flirtatious tone.
The lady in green silk gives him a reproachful look. “Sam Wilson, behave yourself.”
Sam holds up his hands placatingly. “I’d like you to meet my friend. Steve Rogers. Steve, this is Miss Angie Martinelli,” he gestures to the lady in green, who bobs a quick curtsey. “And this is Peggy Carter.” Peggy nods at him, her eyes sparkling. “Don’t trust either of them.”
They laugh, and Peggy leans forward. “So you’re the new Sheriff?” she asks in a stage whisper.
Steve flushes and make a noncommittal sound. “Nothing’s been decided yet,” he says quietly.
Sam grins at him, knowing full well that Steve wouldn’t have made the journey if he wasn’t going to follow through with it. Steve touches the brim of his hat with a fingertip. “Ladies,” he says with a small smile. Peggy and Angie wish them a good evening and continue walking. He can just make out Angie snapping at Peggy to put her tongue back in her mouth, and pointedly ignores Sam sniggering.
They walk past the shabby two storey building opposite the Doc. “That’s Maria’s. Cards and dice,” Sam notices the furrow in Steve’s brow. “She runs a tight operation, not too much trouble. At least if there is, she doesn’t let it spill onto the street.”
They walk to the fork in the road, and Sam points out the drystone building ahead that had drawn Steve’s interest on the way into town. “That’s the Smithy,” he glances around, hesitating before speaking. “He’s… grouchy.”
Steve remembers what Luis said to him earlier, about not listening to what others had to say about the Blacksmith. “And?” he asks after the silence has dragged on too long.
Sam shrugs. “The man’s got secrets, you can see it in his eyes. I don’t much trust a man with secrets.”
Steve nods, but makes no comment. Sam points to the red painted building sat in the fork of the road.
“The Red Room,” he announces with a sweep of his arm. “Owned and operated by Natasha Romanov.”
“Romanov?” Steve remarks. He doesn’t comment on it being a woman owning and running the whorehouse, which seems unusual.
Sam nods. “Yeah, Russian. She’s a firecracker, you’ll like her.”
Steve flushes bright red and tugs the brim of his hat down. “Now, Sam..”
They’d had this argument before. Sam pushing him to utilise the services certain women offer in exchange for a handful of dollars, and maybe loosen up a bit. The thought makes Steve’s blood run cold.
Sam laughs and shakes his head. “I don’t mean like that,” Sam gives him a reassuring look. “You made yourself clear on that subject, and I know better than to push,” he shrugs. “You’re a stubborn son of a bitch, anyway. Nat’s smart, she takes good care of her girls.”
A sly smirk tugs at the corner of Steve’s mouth. “You like her,” he says quietly.
Sam nods, open and without shame. “It’s hard not to like her, you’ll see.” He gives Steve a clap on the back. “C’mon.”
They take the right hand fork, and Sam points to a cluster of tents between the road and the river, packed close together. “That’s Chinatown.”
Steve lets out a quiet sound of surprise. “Chinatown?”
“Yeah. They mostly keep to themselves. There’s a laundry I think a few of the businesses in town use, a few butchers. Most of them are prospectors or miners, making money to send home. They keep to themselves.”
Steve nods. “The rest of town take offense to their not spreading money around?”
“Now and again. No one’s ever felt the urge to do something about it.” Sam gives Steve a look. “You leave them be, Steve.”
“Sam…” Steve mutters, annoyed that his friend can read him so well.
“You got any problems, you ask for May. Not that it’ll do much good.”
“She doesn’t speak English?”
Sam shrugs. “Do you speak Cantonese?”
Steve gives an apologetic shake of his head and Sam waves it away, walking on.
The right fork road is more sparsely populated than on the left fork, lacking the street stalls and roaming traders of the high street. There are still two and three storey buildings either side of the road, though a little more spaced out. The central island between the fork is still busy with people walking to and fro, and Sam points out a large building butted up against the alley that leads to the Doc’s. The property is recently built and freshly painted, an ornate sign in red and blue reading ‘The Union’.
“That’s Alexander Pierce’s place. Gambling, whiskey and women.”
There is a man stood in the entrance of the saloon, the large red and gold doors thrown open wide. He’s dressed in a black and gold brocade waistcoat, and a burgundy velvet frock coat. He raises the cigar in his hand and calls out to Sam, who gives Steve a long-suffering look before leading the way over.
“Sam, good to see you,” the man says, clamping his cigar between his teeth. “You’ve brought company.”
“Mr Pierce, this is my good friend Steve Rogers,” Sam passes his hand in the air between the two. “Steve, this is Alexander Pierce.”
Alexander holds out his hand. “Owner and proprietor of The Union.”
“Good to meet you,” Steve says politely, shaking his hand.
Alexander gives him a once over, and Steve feels an unpleasant urge to wipe his hand on his trouser leg.
“So, you’re the new Sheriff, I hear.”
Steve shrugs. “Still haven’t made up my mind.”
Alexander grins at him, predatory and sharp. “Still, let us hope you hold out longer than the last one.”
Steve gives him an innocent look. “The last one?” he questions.
Alexander looks between him and Sam. “Didn’t your friend tell you? In the, what has it been, a year?” Sam nods, his mouth set in a grim line. “In the year that the town has existed no Sheriff has lasted more than, what? Three months?”
“What happened to them?” Steve asks, wide eyed.
Alexander shrugs, pulling his cigar from between his teeth and waving it airily. “Who can say? They just…” he puffs out a cloud of smoke. “Vanished.”
Steve grits his teeth. “Well, isn’t that a mystery,” he says tightly.
Alexander smiles at him, sharp like a blade. “Isn’t it.”
Sam takes a step between them before Steve does something stupid, wishing Alexander a pleasant evening as he gives Steve a firm push, nudging him back down to the road.
“Pleasure to meet you,” Alexander calls after them. “Come by any time.”
They walk along in silence, Steve quietly seething. “It was him,” he growls.
Sam shakes his head. “There’s no proof, Steve. Nothing to say they didn’t just pack up their things and take off in the night.”
“But it was him?” Steve pushes.
Sam hesitates, then grudgingly shakes his head. “There’s nothing either way, Steve. No body, no witnesses. Nothing.” Sam glances back at The Union. “A man like that isn’t gonna get his hands dirty. Maybe he’d offer money to a guy to do the dirty work for him, and that guy ends up dead in a river, and they call it a mining accident.”
Steve shakes his head, looking disgusted.
“Why did you ask me to come here, Sam?” he mutters, frustrated.
Sam grins at him. “Because the entire Confederate Army couldn’t kill you, I don’t see one creepy saloon owner finishing the job.”
Steve jerks to a halt. He stares at Sam, who raises his eyebrows, and Steve can’t help but laugh; a sharp, breathless bark. He shakes his head, rubbing his hand over his eyes.
“Fair point,” he mutters.
They walk a little further to where the fork is connected by a short track, one headed southwest, the other heading east.
Sam points to the southwest road, a heavy wooden bridge spanning the river and disappearing into the tree line. “The bridge road will take you further into the Black Hills, mostly used by prospectors headed out to their claims. The other road will get you to Fort Dakota.” He points back to the road behind them. “You took the long way from Sioux Falls on a wagon train, yeah?”
“Yeah, I’d have been here a lot sooner if you’d let me take the back road.”
Sam frowns at him. “You wouldn’t have got here at all, dumbass. You came via Belle Fourche, yeah?”
Steve gives an affirming nod. The caravan had travelled from Sioux Falls to Belle Fourche, mostly fur trappers and tanners, it had smelt revolting. Then the rest of the caravan along with some newcomers, including Scott and Luis, had headed south past Spearfish to Parasapa.
“If you gotta go anywhere, take someone with you, someone you trust. There’s road agents all round these parts, plus the Sioux ain’t too happy about us being here and might take a liking to your shiny blond scalp.” Sam swipes at his hat and Steve skips out of reach.
“Gee, Sam. You’re really selling the place.” Steve grins.
Sam tilts his head. “You need selling to?” he points to a two storey property across the way, its back porch overlooking the river. “That’s the Sheriff’s house.”
Steve falters, staring across at the building. It has a decent sized yard with a front porch and a bench set under the eaves. The kind of building that should be filled with a family, a few chickens in the yard, a dog running around playing with the kids. Steve swallows, his throat suddenly dry.
“It’s furnished already,” Sam adds. “Not much, but it’s got the basics.”
Steve shakes his head. “I can’t,” he whispers.
Sam gives him a worried look. “You don’t have to, but it’s yours if you want it.”
He gives Steve a gentle pat on the shoulder. “C’mon, I need to introduce you to someone.”
Sam leads Steve into a bar opposite the road to the Black Hills. It’s a roughly built, single story building, unmarked by signs or billboards. Inside is an open space cluttered with tables and chairs. A man in the far corner plays piano while prospectors and traders drink whiskey and play cards. Sam walks up to the long wooden counter where a menacing looking, tall black man with a patch over one eye pours whiskey and growls at his patrons.
“Nick,” he says by way of greeting. The man nods to him, pouring a shot of whiskey, which Sam accepts. “This here is Steve Rogers,” Sam nods over at Steve.
“The man you were telling me about?”
Sam nods and Nick holds up an amber glass bottle, giving it a shake. The contents slosh around, oily and viscous. “Drink?”
Steve shakes his head. “I’ll take coffee, if you have it.”
Nick snorts at him, but fetches a coffeepot from behind the counter and pours thick, tarry coffee into a tin mug before shoving it across the table. “Sorry if it’s not up to your usual standards,” he mutters, sarcasm in every word.
Steve picks up the cup, aware of Nick's eyes on him. He swallows a mouthful, warm and bitter, and suppresses a shudder. “Thank you,” he manages to keep from coughing.
“Sam tells me you were a Captain?” Nick comments.
Steve nods. “Army of the Potomac.”
“D’you see Bull Run?”
Steve swallows another mouthful of coffee, bitter and sour. “Wish I hadn’t.”
Nick hums to himself, and Steve can't shake the notion that he’s passed some kind of test.
“So you’re looking to be the new Sheriff,” Nick says, pouring coffee into his own mug and taking a sip.
Steve doesn’t answer, instead he tilts his head and fixes a stare on Nick. “They say there’s no law in Parasapa. Is that true?”
Nick picks up the coffeepot and refills Steve’s cup. “In the Treaty of Fort Laramie a few years back, the Black Hills were signed over to the Lakota. But,” he shrugs, “There’s gold in the Black Hills.”
“It’s an illegal settlement,” Steve realises.
“No jurisdiction, so no Marshals, no trials, no due process.”
Steve nods and takes a sip of coffee. “And you’re looking to change all that.”
Nick pours himself more coffee. “We didn’t need a Sheriff at first. People just rubbed along and got on with their business. As the town grew, so did its problems.”
Nick fixes Steve with a hard stare. “If you’re taking the job, you need both eyes open. Not one Sheriff so far has lasted more than a few months. Now maybe Sam here is right about you, maybe you’ll make it to the winter. Or maybe one morning you’ll have just up and disappeared like the rest of them.”
Steve grits his teeth. “I don’t need the lecture, I know the risks.”
Nick shrugs. “Most folks out here came for a reason, lawlessness is just one of them.” He shrugs, “Not everybody is evading the law. Some folks are just looking for a fresh start.” He gives Steve a knowing look. “I reckon present company included.”
Steve wraps both hands around his cup. “You wouldn’t be wrong,” he confirms quietly.
Nick refills Sams empty shot glass.
“So, you taking the job?” Sam asks.
Steve swallow's the last, bitter dregs of his coffee. “Yeah. Yeah, I’ll take the job.”