*/ Author's note
I missed a day in the posting schedule. Rolling blackouts here made it hard to write, but I should be able to keep to the schedule now. Please enjoy this chapter!
Charles stumbled into his office, grabbing onto the doorjamb to steady himself. He pinched the bridge of his nose and let out a long breath. He could already feel the hangover he would have the following day. After recovering their stolen goods from the Rogues, Pat had insisted they celebrate with a drink. Aside from the Newman girls, the whole town was still completely in the dark about the events that had transpired the previous day. Charles was more than happy to keep it that way. He didn’t want to sow panic among the townsfolk. The gratitude shown to him by Lana’s sisters was more than enough. Unfortunately for him, Pat carried a different sentiment.
“Let’s get a cheer for our Sheriff!” He had shouted, after loudly telling the story as he knew it, making Charles come across much more heroically than he felt. Pat, usually a skittish and recluse man, hyped Charles up all through the night. It was amazing what alcohol could bring out in a man, especially the new concoction Old Man Richards had developed. It went down far too easy for how strong it was.
The night was spent with drinks and praise being shoved at Charles in nearly equal measure. He wasn’t so dense that he didn’t realize how much his town admired him, but even so, it seemed a little excessive. He kept telling his fellow citizens that he just did what anyone would do. The one who should have been getting praise was Lana, who showed a lot of bravery in the face of danger. Charles didn’t have to bring this up, though. As one of the town darlings, she had been fussed over since the moment they arrived back into town, first by her sisters, and then anyone who wasn’t busy slapping Charles on the shoulder.
The bright spot of the evening was seeing Anne again. Even though he had only left her in the saloon a few hours ago, she already seemed like a part of the town. She took to her new job like a fish to water, weaving her way through the crowded saloon delivering drinks and talking with the patrons as if they were all old friends. She seemed to have a knack for socialization, and everyone who met her instantly liked her. To Charles’ relief, no one tried anything underhanded with her either. He didn’t think that anyone in his town would try anything truly dastardly, everyone was too decent for that, but when men and alcohol met all preconceptions flew right out the window.
Anne’s arrival had caused a fair amount of uproar in the saloon as well, but it seemed the excitement wore off while Charles was speeding across the sands. Everyone seemed so charmed by Anne that the nervousness and discomfort that usually accompanies meeting a new person never even got a chance to manifest. Even the married women, whose husbands were staring just a little too much, couldn’t find it in them to dislike her. From what Charles could see, and what he heard from the other townfolk, Anne was a perfect person, and that made him extremely suspicious of her.
With all these thoughts swimming through the sea of alcohol in his mind, Charles stepped deeper into his office and closed the door behind him. He gathered his courage, then released the doorknob he was steadying himself on and began to make his way across the vast expanse of his small office, heading to another door at the far corner of the room. Through it was his chambers, and salvation. Like many of the residents of Dustridge Charles lived where he worked. The only people who had homes that only served as places to live were the farmers, but since they lived fair distances out of town and had to commute everything balanced out.
As Charles stumbled into his room and collapsed onto his bed, he couldn’t help but think about how eventful his day had been. In the past twenty-four hours, he had heard that his town was one bad crop yield away from starving to death, received Dustridge’s first immigrant, had the seeds that the aforementioned crops had to be grown from stolen, had one of the town’s most beloved residents be kidnapped, engaged in a high-speed chase, survived a death-defying drop, and drank more alcohol than he had in the previous two months combined. The day felt neverending, a far shot from his normally slow and boring routine.
The next morning the small alarm clock chirped a gentle but annoying tone at an hour Charles couldn’t help but feel was unholy. For a moment he considered shooting the damn thing, but his rational mind kicked in before he could follow through. Instead of committing alarm clock murder, he sat up straight in his bed. He immediately regretted the motion as the room began to spin and his head throbbed with pain. He could already feel that this was going to be an all-day ordeal. He shuffled into the small en-suite bathroom and dug around in his medicine cabinet for some pain killers. He downed two with a large glass of water and began mentally running through his itinerary for the day.
It was, as usual, nearly empty. His first order of business was to go check on Pat. Luckily that was a relatively easy task. Charles trudged out of his office, resisting the urge to wince at the noise his footfalls were making. Outside the town was quiet, and there wasn’t a soul in sight. This wasn’t strange. Charles was usually one of the first residents of Dustridge to be out and about. Normally he wasn’t alone for long. Within thirty minutes of Charles stepping from his office, the town was usually alive, or at least as alive as a town that size could be. Today would be no exception.
Charles turned left out of his office, setting his sights on the saloon. He knew it was still a little too early to bother Pat, or anyone else, with one exception. The one resident in Dustridge who had always beaten Charles to rise. Charles tried his best to open the saloon doors with minimal squeaking, and caught sight of his old friend behind the bar, polishing glasses. To his surprise, Anne was also there, wiping down tables.
“Morning,” Charles called, taking off his hat and waving. His face twisted as his own voice sent a shock of pain through his head.
“Good morning, Charlie,” John greeted back, doing his best to keep his voice as low as possible. “Looks like the hangover has got you good, huh?”
“Like I owed it money,” Charles replied, making his way to the bar. He took a seat, placing his hat on the bartop. “You two don’t seem too worse for wear.”
“That’s because we were on the clock,” Anne said, taking a seat next to Charlie. “And it’s always a bad idea to drink on the job.”
“You seem to have taken to the job well, Ma’am,” Jack said, turning so he could see both Anne and John.
“Please, drop those formalities Sheriff,” Anne said. “Just call me Anne. It’s what everyone else in town is doing. And yes, I did take to this job well. We never had such lively parties back at the Citadel. Everyone seemed so joyful and free. It was really refreshing.”
“I’m glad you liked it,” John said. He had moved on from polishing his glasses to filling one with some dark concoction. “The people of this town jump at any opportunity to go wild in here, since we don’t get much else in the way of entertainment. A party like last night happens at least once a week, though it’s been slowing down recently as our alcohol supplies lessened.” John held the glass he was mixing up to the light, and gave a satisfied nod, before placing it down in front of Charles. Charles looked up at John, wearily.
“What is this?” Charles asked.
“My patented hangover cure,” John said, leaning onto the bar. “Guaranteed to blow that hangover right out of you.”
“What’s in it?” Charles asked, eyeing the drink as if it might attack him. He leaned forward and smelled the contents, and violently recoiled when the odor hit his nose.
“Trade secret, I’m afraid,” John said. “Come on, Charlie, you know what they say. The worse medicine tastes the better it is for you. So drink up, we can’t have our Sheriff be walking around with a splitting hangover, now can we? Especially if you’ll be the only one suffering.”
“I hate you,” Charles said, glaring at John. Still, he picked up the glass, and without breaking eye contact he threw back the elixir John had mixed up. When the last drop disappeared down his throat he slammed the glass back down onto the bartop, grimacing heavily.
“Is it really that bad?” Anne asked, looking mildly concerned.
“It’s worse,” Charles croaked, the effort of keeping the mixture down straining his voice. “If I didn’t know any better I’d be sure the bastard was trying to poison me.”
“Don’t be so dramatic,” John said, rolling his eyes. “Now get, I’m sure you have work to do, and we have to prepare for our first customers.”
Charles obliged, raising to his feet and affixing his hat back onto his head. He was surprised to find that his headache didn’t seem as bad. He wasn’t sure whether John’s potion had actually helped, or whether the experience of drinking it was just so unpleasant that it made his headache seem better in comparison. Either way, he no longer felt like a walking corpse, and with renewed vigor, he waved goodbye to Anne and John and stepped out of the saloon. Already he could see the first signs of life in the town. A few people were milling about, and those that spotted him waved kindly. He made sure to return the gesture with a smile.
On his relatively short walk to the bank, Charles managed to relax a little. He had been wound up tight since he heard the news from the Mayor, and the events of the previous day had only wound him up even tighter. He felt like he was one small inconvenience away from snapping. Seeing his town safe and the people happy helped set him at ease. He knew the danger was far from over, but for now, everyone was alright. As Charles entered the bank, his relief evaporated. All of the seeds were gone.
“What?” He whispered, his eyes wide in disbelief.
“Ah, Sheriff, good morning,” Pat called, stepping out from his living quarters. “I thought you might come by.”
“Pat, what happened?” Charles demanded, frantically scanning the room for any clues.
“What do you mean, Sheriff?” Pat asked, a look of concern crossing his face.
“The seeds, man!” Charles said, nearly yelling. He grabbed Pat by the shoulders. “What the hell happened to the seeds?”
“You don’t remember?” Pat asked, shrinking back a little at Charles’ aggressive approach. “The farmers took them all back with them last night.”
Charles closed his eyes, trying to calm down and think. After a moment the memory came back to him. The party in the saloon had gotten so lively that even the farmers got wind of it and decided to join. As the party wound down Pat made sure to send each of the farmers home with seeds in hand.
“Yeah, I remember now,” Charles said, letting go of Pat and taking a step back. “Sorry about that, Pat.”
“No, I’m sorry,” Pat said. “I forgot that alcohol still gave you memory issues. I’m so used to everyone having, you know…” he motioned to his temple.
Charles knew exactly what he was referring to. In order to interface with cybernetic parts, and with computers in general, people needed to get a small chip implanted into their brains. This chip had thin wires that spread like tendrils throughout the brain, with those wires it could essentially read a person’s mind, and it could also write to the mind. That was how people could experience the sensation of touch with synthetic limbs, see with synthetic eyes, or resist having their ability to form memories altered by substances like alcohol.
“Well, if that’s all sorted, then I’m going to get on with my day,” Charles said, trying to brush off the awkward silence that was forming.
‘Sure thing, Sheriff,” Pat said. “Let me know if you need my help with anything.”
“Will do, Pat,” Charles said, turning to leave. He quickly made his way back to his office. He sank into his chair and tried his best to regain the sense of peace he had felt before his false alarm at the bank. He was almost immediately interrupted by a knock on the door. He had to fight the urge to sigh loudly as he beckoned whoever was knocking inside. Lana meekly stepped through the door.
“Good morning, Sheriff,” she said, awkwardly standing in front of his desk.
“Morning, Lana,” Charles greeted, standing and removing his hat. “Please, sit. What can I help you with.” Lana remained standing, seemingly struggling to find her words.
“Yesterday, I was…” She began, but then she trailed off. She fidgeted for a minute. “I thought they were going to kill me,” she finally continued. “The Rogues, I mean. I was so scared, but then you showed up and saved me. I wanted to thank you for that.”
“Lana, I appreciate it, but you don’t have to thank me,” Charles said, sitting down again. “Anyone else would have done the same.”
“No, they wouldn’t,” Lana said, her voice firmer. “You protect people, and you make them feel safe. You’re a great Sheriff, and I’m thankful that the town has you.”
“Thank you, Lana,” Charles said. He had expected something else from this conversation, but it seemed like this was just a show of gratitude. “That’s very kind of you to say.”
“There’s more,” Lana said. Charles tensed. “I want to make people feel the way you made me feel yesterday. I want them to feel like everything’s going to be ok. Sheriff, I want to be Dustridge’s deputy.”