“Afternoon Ma’am,” Charles greeted, removing his hat. “Welcome to Dustridge. What brings you around these parts?”
“I’m going to stay here for a while,” the woman said, looking around with a confused look on her face.
“Ma’am, I think you might be at the wrong stop. Where are you heading?” Charles asked, trying his best to be helpful. Dustridge very rarely got visitors, and he wasn’t used to dealing with strangers, especially not ones from the social standing the woman in front of him seemed to hold.
“This is the right stop,” she said, finally looking at Charles. “This town is in the middle of the continent, so it’s the farthest I can get from the Citadel cities and the coast.” Charles pondered her answer for a moment. She was trying to put as much distance between herself and the Citadel as she could. He could only think of one reason why she would want to do that. She was running away from something.
“Excuse my rudeness, Ma’am,” he said, opting to change his approach slightly. He plastered on his kindest smile and extended his hand. “I’m Charles, and I’m the sheriff of this here town.”
“I’m Annabelle,” the woman replied, smiling back and shaking his hand. “But please, just call me Anne. It’s a pleasure to meet you.”
“The pleasure’s mine,” Charles said, digging deep into his memories to find the proper formalities when greeting someone new. He was severely out of practice. Anne was the first stranger in Dustridge who he had an extended conversation with in many years. “Now, if you don’t mind, could you tell me what you’re trying to get away from? Are you in trouble back at the Citadel?”
“Nothing that dramatic, I’m afraid,” Anne said, a small laugh escaping her. “I’m just tired of it. The fancy dinners, the high-and-mighty attitudes, the constant contests of one-upmanship. I don’t want to spend the rest of my life fighting for something as superficial as status, so I left and came out here to make a simple and honest living.”
“Well, colour me impressed,” Charles said. He took a small step back and studied Anne again. She still looked frail and inexperienced, but beneath that he could determination shining through. Looking her up and down he also noticed no seams or metallic glints on her skin. For a moment he was tempted to probe into this fact, but it was considered rude to ask someone else about their implants, and he wanted to avoid offending her. “I admire your reasons Ma’am, but there ain’t much to do here in Dustridge. We're barely gettin’ by as it is.”
“I’ll do any job available,” Anne said, the determination Charles saw lurking inside her peeking through the expression on her face. “I don’t mind any work, even if it’s hard. I just don’t want to go back.”
Charles frowned slightly. He did truly admire her for her desire to live for herself, but this was no place for her to do that. Dustridge was dying. When this train left they would have one more shot to grow their seeds. If they didn’t take to the soil the town would be dead long before the next train came through, and if Anne stayed she’d die with them, choking on dust.
More than that, though, Charles didn’t fully trust this woman. It was clear to him that she was hiding something from him, and he was loathed to bring someone into the town who might upset the fragile balance of happiness they had found. For a moment he considered forcing her back onto the train, but by now a few of the townsfolk had gathered to watch the train. He didn’t want them to see him manhandling a woman back onto the train.
“Alright, I’ll see what we can do for you,” Charles said, putting his hat back on. “But I can’t make you any promises. Whatever work you do find here will be hard, and the pay won’t be much. We all work to help each other, rather than to build our own riches. It won’t be easy for you, and as soon as that train leaves you’ll be stuck here till the next one comes, which won’t be for a few months. Are you sure this is what you want to do?”
“I am,” Anne said, her resolve set stronger than steel. “Thank you, Sheriff, I appreciate the help.”
“It’s my pleasure, Ma’am,” Charles said, tipping his hat. He turned back to see the carts just about fully loaded. “We’re almost done here. I’ll show you around town once these supplies are safely delivered to the bank. You can wait on that bench over there in the meantime.” Anne nodded and took a seat on the bench while Charles walked over to the carts. He carefully inspected the cargo, looking for any obvious signs of anything amiss. He couldn’t see anything, and a few minutes later the carts began moving. Charles walked with them the short distance to the bank. Once there he knew Pat, the town's banker, could oversee the unloading, so he quickly went back to the station.
“Sorry to keep you waiting, Ma’am,” he said in a gentle tone of voice, trying to avoid startling Anne. She rose at his words, greeting him with a perfectly symmetrical smile. Something in Charles’ mind twinged, a slight sense of unease coming over him. He quickly dismissed it, chalking it up to stress. “Ready for a tour of the town?”
“Lead the way,” Anne replied, stepping forward to beside Charles. He began walking, and she kept pace beside him.
“We don’t have much here, but what we’re very proud of the little we do have,” Charles said. “We got the stables where we keep all our machinery. That’s our tractors, hoverbikes, and anything that’s too big to be inside one of the other buildings. We have a clinic down the road some ways. The Doc also cuts most of our hair since he’s got the sharpest scissors. Around that corner over there we got our workshops where we handle our wood and metal. A small ways out of town we got our very own scientist, Old Man Richards. He’s completely off his rocker, but a genius nonetheless. And here…” Charles trailed off, standing in front of one of the nicer buildings in Dustridge. “This is our town’s pride and joy. The Weary Man’s Saloon. John runs it, and on top of fixing all of our drinks he also fixes the rips in our clothes.”
“The town seems really nice,” Anne said, looking around at the buildings Charles indicated. “Why do John and the Doctor have multiple jobs? From what you told me the town’s got more people than it does work.”
“We got plenty of work to go around,” Charles replied. “It’s the skilled work that’s not as evenly spread. Most people who came to Dustridge are farmers. Those of us who aren’t have to pull our weight in different ways, so most of us have two professions. I’m the resident mechanic, along with being the Sheriff.”
“Dustridge seems like a wonderful place,” Anne commented.
“It’s a real shithole,” Charles said, opening the doors to the saloon. He paused for a moment, then quickly added. “Please pardon my French.” This elicited a giggle from Anne.
“Your French is fine, Sheriff,” she said, stepping through the open door. “So where’s a girl supposed to go if she needs the law?”
“My office is at the end of the road, right next to the bank,” Charles said. “Most of us live where we work, or live out on farmhouses. We’ll talk to John to get you a room.”
“Thank you, Sheriff,” Anne said. Charles stepped into the saloon and made his way to the bar, Anne following closely behind. He could instantly notice the subdued atmosphere in the room. Muffled whispers and a low whistle were all the noise that greeted him. He had to suppress the urge to frown at the patrons of the saloon.
“Barkeep!” Charles called out.
“Are you ever going to call me by my name, Charlie?” John asked, turning away from polishing his glassware to face them.
“I’ll call you by your name when you drop that childish nickname for me,” Charles replied. His expression was stern, but he had a glint in his eye.
“Fair enough,” John said, shrugging. He turned his attention to Anne. “And please excuse dear old Charlie’s terrible manners, Ma’am. I’m John, and I run this here saloon. It’s a pleasure to meet you.”
“The only thing you run is your mouth,” Charles said, taking a seat on one of the barstools. He and John stared each other down for a few seconds. Both had serious expressions, and the tension between them only rose. John was the first to crack, leaning on the bar as a sudden burst of laughter stole some of the strength from his legs. Charles wasn’t far behind, and they shared some raucous laughter.
“So what’s the story here?” John asked after he recovered from his laughing fit.
This is Annabelle,” Charles said, gesturing to Anne.
“Please, call me Anne. It’s a pleasure to meet you,” Anne said, extending her hand. John took it and gave her a firm handshake.
“I said it before, but the pleasure is mine,” he said. He turned back to Charles, prompting him to keep explaining
“Miss Annabelle is a guest here in our town,” Charles continued. “I was hoping you could sort her a bed and three square meals a day, as well as something to keep busy with?” Charles raised his voice to make sure that everyone in the saloon heard him.” She had a long and tiring trip and came all this way to experience some of our kind hospitality. If anyone were to give her trouble I would certainly take it as a personal insult and deal with them accordingly.”
Charles looked over his shoulder at the patrons of the Weary Man’s Saloon, daring anyone to raise an objection to what he had said. A collective sigh swept through all the gathered men, while the women just shook their heads. Within a few moments, the mood lifted again, and the room’s atmosphere returned to its usual livelihood. Charles smiled to himself, then turned his attention back to John.
“I don’t like you threatening my patrons, Charlie,” John said, eyeing Charles with a disappointed shake of his head.
“I’m just protecting Miss Annabelle here from the wild animals you call patrons,” Charles shot back, challenging John’s mock disappointment with a cocksure grin. They were pulled from their second impromptu staring contest by Anne’s gentle laughter.
“You two seem very close,” she said. “And the people of the town seem lovely. I can’t wait to meet all of them.”
“We are quite proud of our little town,” John said. “Now, down to business. If you don’t mind living in a saloon, I have an empty room upstairs. It’s in the far corner, so the noise shouldn’t be much of a bother. As for something to do, I wouldn’t mind having a waitress as pretty as yourself helping out around here if you’re up for it.”
“That’s very kind of you,” Anne replied. “I’ll gladly accept your offer.”
“Good to hear!” John said, straightening his back and deftly pouring three drinks. He placed them on the bar. “On the house for you Ma’am. You pay full price, Charlie.”
“After all I’ve done,” Charles grumbled. He took the drink nonetheless.
“All you’ve done is badmouth the fine patrons of my establishment,” John shot back. He turned to Anne. “Don’t believe a word he said. My clientele will treat you with the utmost kindness and respect.” He said this loud enough so that everyone could hear him. It was worded more subtly, but the threat was just as clear as Charles’ was.
“Well then, I’ll leave you two to it,” Charles said, quickly slamming down the rest of his drink. He stood and addressed Anne. “If you need anything, don’t hesitate to knock on my door.”
“I will, thank you,” Anne said. Charles nodded his approval, then turned and exited the saloon. Once outside he looked to the horizon. He could just barely see the last glimpses of the train as it sped out of view. A sinking feeling came to his chest. As the train disappeared over the horizon, it took hope with it. All they had left were the seeds in the bank. Charles knew it wasn’t healthy to think this way, but he couldn’t help but wonder what he would do if these seeds didn’t take. He tortured himself with these thoughts while he made his way to the bank.
“Afternoon, Pat,” Charles said, tipping his hat as he walked into the bank. He was careful not to startle the lone inhabitant.
“Ah, Sheriff, good to see you,” Pat said. He was a skittish man. His impressive height and lanky frame gave the impression that he was constantly about to fall over. His ever-nervous demeanor made it seem like he’d bounce like a rubber ball if he ever actually hit the ground. “Everything seems to be in order. We can distribute three bags to each farm around us, with one set aside for Richards. He asked us to send his first, so he can do some tests on the seeds before we try to plant, so I sent one of the Newman girls to give him his bag as soon as I finished counting.” Pat finally stopped scampering around the neatly stacked bags of seeds. He sighed and patted the wrinkles out of his crisp button-up shirt. “I really hope these seeds take. If they don’t, then I’m not sure if the food supplies we got can last until the next shipment arrives.”
Charles frowned. Pat had always been perceptive, but he didn’t expect him to pick up on their predicament. The Mayor had demanded the situation stay between the two of them, and Charles agreed with him. There was no need to make the townspeople panic just yet.
“Yeah,” Charles said, testing the water. He wanted to get Pat’s thoughts, but he couldn’t tip his hand. “We might not make it.”
“Agh, it won’t help us none if we think like that,” Pat said, waving his hands dismissively. His posture straightened a bit as a smile lit up his face. “For now we have to get these into the safe. The farmers’ll come pick ‘em up tomorrow.”
“Or we can just take them right now.”
The gravely voice came from the entrance to the bank, and instantly froze the blood in Charles’ veins. He slowly turned to confirm what he suspected. In the door stood a man who was almost as well known in town as Charles, but for a very different reason. He was well dressed, but his clothes seemed old and worn. His right arm glinted in the light, a bare metallic skeleton eschewed of any cosmetics to make it appear more normal. His right eye glinted red, and parts of the right half of his seemed darker than the other as the metal showed through the low-quality synthetic skin. In his metallic hand, he held a revolver. The barrel emitted a dull glow and was aimed squarely at Pat.
“Vince,” Charles spat. “How did you get into town without anyone noticin’?”
“Everyone was so busy with the train and celebratin’ that crazy old man’s new drink,” Vince said, leisurely striding into the bank. “Me and the boys just rode right in, and after we get what we came for we’re going to ride right out. Now, I suggest you play along, or else we’re gonna have ourselves a problem.” He motioned with his gun at Pat, making his intentions clear.
“You can’t take this from us, Vince,” Charles said. “If you do, you’ll be killing the town and everyone in it. I know we rarely see eye to eye, but there is a man in there somewhere.”
“I haven’t been a man in a long time, Sheriff,” Vince said, laughing slightly. “Sure, I’m still mostly flesh and blood, but I lost my humanity a long time ago. You of all people should know that. I don’t care about this town, and I don’t care about the people in it. Soon as we get all we can from Dustridge me and my boys will ride the tracks to the next town, and do it all again. Now get on your knees and let my boys tie you up, or I put a bullet between Pat’s eyes.”
Charles glared at Vince, and at the two compatriots who joined them halfway through his small speech. Charles frantically tried to think of some way out of the situation. He had to do something, but with Pat in danger, any move he made would be too risky. With a tremendous amount of effort and willpower, he lowered himself to his knees and put his hands behind his back. Vince’s cronies quickly came and tied his arms and legs together, immobilizing him. After that they made short work of the stockpile of seeds, hauling it outside.
“Vince, I hope you know-” Charles began, but he was quickly cut off.
“You know better than to try to appeal to my better nature, Sheriff. I told you, I ain’t a man no more,” Vince said. He quickly threw the last bag of seeds over his shoulder. “Now, if you’ll excuse me.”
Charles watched with anger as Vince sauntered out of the bank. He listened carefully and could hear the soft but distinct sound of hovercycles idling outside. A moment later the pitch of the noise changed, then rapidly got quieter.
“Pat, untie me!” Charles barked. Pat jumped at the sudden noise but quickly complied. Within moments Charles was freed. He rushed to the door and let out an earsplitting whistle in three tones.
“Sheriff, I’m sorry,” Pat said, his head hung low, and his body seemingly crumpling into itself.
“It ain’t your fault Pat,” Charles said. “Don’t worry, I’ll get those seeds back. Those damned bastards won’t get the best of us.” With that, he bolted out of the door. Outside his own hovercycle had just come to a stop, called to him by his shrill whistle. He took a short moment to admire the work of his own hands. It was, in his opinion, the finest hovercycle this side of the Citadel, built and customized to fit him perfectly. In one smooth motion, he leaped onto the back of the hovercycle.
“Alright, let’s go rope us up some Rogues,” he said, before rocketing out of town on the trail of the Rogues, leaving a faint cloud of dust behind him.