A mashup of fantasy and western in 7 parts.
Amos Bryant slowed as he approached the storefront of the Fenton Cattle Company. Two men stood on either side of the door, neither particularly welcoming. He stood at the steps leading to the short porch and the two men, his hat in his hands.
“What do you want, sodbuster?” the man named Clement asked. The other, Jorgensen, moved towards Bryant.
“I… I need to talk to Mr. Fenton. Got some things to say, s’all.” Bryant’s knees were shaking. Jorgensen had roughed him up in the past, something Bryant didn’t want repeated.
Clement grinned at Bryant. “Sure.” He opened the door and motioned for Bryant to step up.
“Let me help ya, Bryant.” Jorgensen reached for Bryant, who flinched and nearly fell. The two men laughed. Bryant quickly stepped between them and entered the office. Clement and Jorgensen followed close behind.
The front of the office held a small desk, behind which was a large man with a graying handlebar mustache and sharp eyes, all set under a wide brimmed black hat with silver buckles along the hatband. Brace Cannon was his name and, as Fenton’s man, he was feared throughout the valley. His eyes took in Bryant with contempt. His feet were resting atop the desk, a lit cigar tight between his thin lips.
Bryant continued to shake.
The grinning Clement spoke for him. “Sodbuster says he needs to talk to the boss.”
“Bout what?” Cannon’s eyes tightened along with his jaw.
“A stranger, he… he’s… in the tower, opened the gate and all, so I…” Bryant took the rag from his britches and wiped the sweat from his forehead. “I came to tell Mr. Fenton s’all.”
Cannon moved his feet to the floor and leaned forward on the desk. “I ain’t in the mood for sass or nonsense coming from some halfwit plowboy,” he said.
“Ain’t no sass, Mr. Cannon, honest, I seen it straight away with my own two eyes… even went in a ways.” Bryant’s hands were now shaking along with his knees.
Cannon looked at the two grinning idiots behind Bryant. “An honest man doesn’t shake like that. Makes me wonder…” The idiots kept grinning. All cast from the same lot Cannon thought.
“I ain’t lyin’, I just…” Bryant turned to Clement and Jorgensen, “I just wanted to tell Mr. Fenton s’all.”
Cannon continued to bore in on him. “This man there now, Bryant?”
“Yes, sir. Said his name’s Mathias.” Bryant clutched at the rag in his shaking hands.
“Mathias what?” Cannon blew a lung full of cigar smoke at the trembling sodbuster.
“Didn’t give no last name.” Bryant, suddenly conscious of the rag in his hands, stuffed it back in his britches.
Cannon sat back in his chair. “Anything else?”
Cannon stared at the sodbuster for a few moments, looking him up and down. He stood up. “I’ll let Mr. Fenton know.” He moved quietly around the desk to the frightened man in the straw hat. “If I find you lied to me, Bryant, I’ll have you whipped till there’s little left of your worthless hide, understand?”
Cannon glanced at the door. “Show him out, boys.”
Clement and Jorgensen grabbed Bryant by the arms and threw him out of the office. Laughing, they returned to their post by the front door.
Harcourt Fenton was in the back office, grousing behind a large desk. He stared at what had once been hard lean hands, toughened by years of riding and ranching. They were soft now, like the rest of him, from still more years running the company that bore his name. Unlike his hands, his manner remained hard and demanding. The government man, Barton James, sat across from him.
“I don’t need some goddamned territorial governor telling me what to do with my land, goddammit,” Fenton snorted as Cannon came into the room.
Fenton and James turned and looked at him.
“What now, goddammit?” Fenton had a fondness for the term.
“Amos Bryant says there’s someone out at the tower.” Cannon looked down on James. “Says he opened the gate.”
“Who?” Fenton couldn’t place the name.
“Sodbuster. Works the western edge with Tad Maples and that bunch of rabble,” Cannon answered.
“You believe ‘im?”
“He knows better than to lie to me,” Cannon said.
Fenton tugged at his shirt, thinking. The tower had vexed him from the day he first saw it standing, some thirty-years before. It was a prize he wanted. The tower, a place no one had entered as far back as anyone could remember. Everyday it stood there, looming in the distance. He turned in his chair. There it was through the window. He stood up and moved to the window, his eyes fixed on the tower.
Fenton rubbed his chin, his eyes bright. “Get the boys together. I want to see this for myself.” He looked at James, who was still sitting in his chair. “You coming?”
Barton James nodded.
Mathias stood above the main gate, along the parapet, watching as the men on horseback approached. They appeared less a formidable threat than a band of thieves. He leaned on his staff as Fenton, followed by Cannon, James, and eight others rode up. The riders came to a stop at the base of the gate, their heads tilted in Mathias’ direction.
Fenton pushed back on the brim of his hat, wiping away the sweat with the back of his hand. “Open this gate,” he demanded.
“And who might you be?” Mathias demanded in return.
“My name’s Fenton, and this here’s my land. I order you to let us in!” Fenton squinted, the sun in his eyes.
Mathias spread his arms. “The Tower of the West is open to all, provided one is known to the tower as friend. If this is indeed your land, then how is it the tower does not know you and does not grant you entry?”
“Goddammit, I’m not here to argue nonsense. This is my land and everything on it belongs to me, so open the goddamned gate and let us in,” Fenton shouted.
“And by that you believe the tower is your possession?” Mathias asked.
“Of course, it is. Everyone in this valley knows that.”
“Then call to the tower,” Mathias advised, “and if such is true, the tower will let you in. However, it must be said that the tower, if it belongs or is owned by anyone, is the property of no man or being of this earth.”
Barton James, less interested in Fenton’s claims, called to Mathias, “Then who does the tower belong to?”
“The Tower of the West is not meant to be possessed,” Mathias informed him. “Nor is it meant to belong to any one man or any clan or tribe.”
“Are you going to open this gate or are we going to have to shoot our way in?” Fenton motioned at Cannon.
Cannon withdrew his revolver and pointed it at Mathias, who raised his staff to his chest.
“Well?” Fenton turned to the other riders, who, save for James, pulled their rifles from their saddles and pointed them at Mathias.
“Before you have your men kill me, I have a simple question.” Mathias pointed his staff at the men.
“What question would that be?” James moved forward on his horse and put his hand out at Fenton.
“How exactly will killing me gain you entry? Have you not tried before? Unsuccessfully? Or was Amos Bryant in error when he told me that?” Mathias set his staff down on the ledge of the parapet.
James backed his horse to Fenton’s. In a quiet voice, he spoke. “He’s right, you know. Other than climbing the wall and wandering the grounds, we’ve had no success in entering the tower itself. Maybe it would be better if I had a talk with this man, alone—”
“Alone?” Fenton’s eyes narrowed. “What are you trying to pull, Barton? Sneak around me? Get it for yourself?”
James laughed. “For what, Harry? Besides, you know the Army would take it the minute they found out you’d gotten inside it. It can’t hurt to see if he’ll talk. Threatening to shoot him is pointless.”
Fenton shifted in his saddle. “Why you and not Cannon?”
“Because I’m the only one not pointing a gun at him.”
Cannon returned his revolver to its holster. “Maybe he’s on to something, boss. Can’t hurt, and if Mr. James here tries anything funny, he’ll answer to me.”
James pulled lightly on his horse’s reins. “See Harry, and it might be to our mutual benefit if I do.”
Harcourt Fenton frowned. “Maybe, but I don’t like it.”
“Yes, but we don’t have the advantage,” James said, moving forward.
Fenton signaled to his men. “Put your weapons down, boys.” He stared at the wizard and pulled his hat back over his face. “Let’s go.”
The men lowered their guns and followed Fenton and Cannon back to town.
James waited, looking periodically between the wizard, whose eyes were fixed on him, and the trail of dust from the riders. Once the men were out of sight, James faced the wizard. “I offer a formal petition to council with you, Mathias.”
“Do you now?”
James nodded. “I do. Will you allow me entry?”
Mathias waved his staff over the gate. Barton James watched as it silently opened and he rode through. He felt a sudden unease as he watched the gate close behind him. Mathias came down from the parapet, his staff in his hand.
James slowly got off his horse and draped the reins along the horn of the saddle. Cyrus whinnied and James’ horse trotted over to the great warhorse. James took off his hat as Mathias came to his side. The wizard was taller than he first supposed and more formidable a figure close up.
Mathias did not smile as he appraised the man. Millennia had not changed his opinion of men. Useful perhaps, but they had the unfortunate habits of self-absorption and self-pity, two traits he did not care for.
“This way,” he said, walking past James.
James followed in silence, trying as best he could to take in the grounds and the tower looming before them. It reminded him of the stories his father would tell from the old country, of kings and castles, knights and honor. Of glorious wars, where men went to the kind of deaths people venerated. He stopped for a moment at the statue of King Theotus, staring at the stone face, resolute in its bearing. It was, in some ways, like that of the statues of the generals at the academy where he learned the business of soldiery, but in others it bore no resemblance. The generals were smaller and their wars less certain.
Mathias stood on the steps of the tower, cleared his throat, and entered.
James, suddenly self-aware of his dawdling, picked up his step and followed Mathias into the tower and up the stairs, through the upper floors, to the lookout. He was not used to so many stairs and found the last fifty to be nearly more than he could muster.
The wizard was bemused at his efforts to keep up. “For such a young man, I would think your stamina would be more commensurate to the men I knew in the past, but perhaps men these days are not quite the standard of their forebears.” A wry smile crossed the wizard’s face as he waited for James to catch his breath.
“My apologies,” James said, his hands on his hips. “There are few stairs like these here in the west. Even the finest buildings are not more than two or three stories, nothing such as this.” He extended his hand. “My name is Barton James. I’m the territorial governor’s adjutant. It’s my job to keep him informed of what passes for news, and to act as his agent to people such as Harcourt Fenton.”
“And people such as me?” The wizard extended his hand.
James winced as the wizard squeezed. “Yes.”
Mathias released James’ hand and turned to the view of the valley expanding out before them. “And what council do you seek, Barton James? And for whom do you speak? The territorial governor?” They watched the riders in the distance. “Fenton?” Mathias pointed his staff at James. “Or yourself?”
©2020 David William Pearce