*Please note: This story deals with the american western frontier, and western expansion. It shows some of the good and not so good aspects of this era. I don't condone the attitudes of all of the characters in this story in regards to race, homosexuality, and our relationship with the natural world. I did a great deal of historical research, but I probably got some things wrong. Feel free to let me know in the comments.These are just the first five chapters, and I'll post more soon.
*Also: These chapters do not contain any sex scenes, but are meant to introduce the characters, the setting, and the romance budding between them. This actually has a somewhat complicated plot by my standards, and there will be more erotic parts of the story in later chapters. I've gotten some hate for posting stories like these in the past because lots of people here would rather just jump right to the fucking without much character development. so if this isn't your cup of tea, leave now. These are the kinds of stories I enjoy writing, and I hope it resonates with at least a few people. If you don't like it, read something else. So without further ado:
The mayor was puffed up and pompous, and had it not been for the circumstances it might even have been funny. He cleared his throat importantly and read their names, as it was customary. This formality was hardly needed and their names were surely no secret. Still he made and impressive ceremony of unfolding his spectacles and holding the parchment in front of him.
“Leander and Eleanor Blythe.” His voice droned on like an engine but Eleanor could scarcely hear him.
Eleanor felt her husband’s hand in hers. She gripped it and numbly realized that the crowd was cheering. She could remember a time when she used to listen to their innermost secrets but she accepted that those days were long gone.
They were cheering.
She looked into the crowd and could see the faces of some of her regulars.
These were once her friends and she had known their sorrows. They had once entrusted to her, their most intimate dreams and sufferings. She listened. Now they cheered.
It didn’t matter anymore, really. She looked over to Leander; resolved and ready to die. She was ready too. They’d had a good run.
The last sound that Eleanor heard was the clatter of stools being kicked. In unison their necks snapped.
The saloon was closed until further notice. There were three men inside. Two solemnly gazed at a third whose head rested on the counter. Sheriff Blake scrutinized him while Sheriff Arnold focused his efforts into looking clinical and stoic. Hard as the young man tried, Arnold was finding it difficult to keep his composure. The man on the counter lay quite still, and with summer in its prime, he was beginning to smell.
“This,” said Blake, not lifting his eyes “is Charles Walter.”
Arnold had to look away. He was out of his element. He’d never seen this before. His mind hadn’t yet even worked out what was an appropriate reaction. In shock, he remembered something else just then. His eyes drifted to a sign hanging above the bar. It read, “Dead man’s Pearl Saloon.” Dead Man’s Pearl … Dead man’s pearl… Of all the places to die!
He laughed. It happened before he or could stop himself or even realized it, and he immediately wished he could take it back. Why had he laughed? He’d surprised himself.
Blake was not amused.
“Most people called him Chuck. He was shot in he back of the head and found around 11 o’clock pm last night. Our primary suspect is Blythe. Leander Blythe, the bar owner. His wife probably played a hand. We can’t seem to turn her up either. ”
“Was there a clear motive?” Asked the young man, keeping his voice even. He needed to redeem himself from his recent blunder. Up until then he hadn’t dealt with anything worse than a drunken brawl and felt an overwhelming urgency, to prove himself up to the task.
“Well…” said Blake finally meeting his colleague’s eyes. “As it turns out… Leander might have been…” he looked over his shoulder conspiratorially as if someone might be listening. “….Queer.” That explained everything. Arnold raised an eyebrow. He’d never encountered anything like this in his career as sheriff. He couldn’t help but recoil.
“And to think I sat right here every night after work and drank a mule-skinner and cactus wine poured by the likes of him.” He and Blake shook their heads. “I guess you never really know a guy.”
“And that’s not even the strangest part. He was caught by Chuck here.”
Blake paused for dramatic effect. “With the nigger.”
Arnold had definitely never seen anything like this. “You mean Ely?”
“Yeah, Ely. The ferrier. Lived in a shack in the bushes, and seemed to prefer horses and mules to people. I couldn’t gather much information on Him. Nobody seems to know where he came from. I would guess that he was either once a runaway slave or a buffalo soldier who deserted. Anyways, Chuck caught the two of them…” Suddenly his voice broke, as though about to say something too disgusting for words. “-Kissing…” he finally managed. “So Chuck and some of the church-folk beat the ever-loving tar out of those two. Chuck said that they both ran off, and he tried to kill Leander but he missed.” Arnold looked taken aback.
“Chuck never missed. Everybody knows that. He used to shoot pigeons through the eye and could shoot the tail right off a buffalo in full gall-”
“Everyone misses,” Blake interjected, uninterested. “He said he shot Ely dead, but his body was snatched up by Indians.”
“…Ely seemed like a nice enough fellow. Seems a shame.” Blake had not heard (or pretended not to hear) his colleague.
“I figure that Leander didn’t take too kindly to being run off. Came back for a bit of revenge and bed him down, poor bastard. Eleanor Probably played a hand, but we can’t be certain how much of a hand. They’re both on the run and they’re wanted for murder. And robbery. They went to his house and took off with most of his earnings and all of his silver. When the law finally catches up with those two it’ll be the old three legged mare, I suspect.” The gallows. “Tit for tat.”
Blake looked from Chuck back to Arnold and suddenly regarded him with grave intensity.
“There’s something else.”
Blake fell silent, and seemed to have great difficulty figuring out what to say. The longer Blake stayed silent the more it bewildered Arnold. ‘What on God’s green Earth,’ he wondered ‘could be terrible enough to have Sherriff Blake tongue-tied?’
“And kidnapping. They took his wife. And I hope to God we find her before it’s too late.”
“Good lord. After what they did to Chuck… Christ only knows what’ll happen to her…”
Arnold was slowly gaining confidence. He knew what he had to do. There was no room to for squeamishness. He would need to look at the body at some point. He was the law after all.
He lowered himself shakily towards the counter and gazed into the face of the corpse. He could tell immediately what Chuck felt the instant he died. Fear.
His eyes were wild and fixed eternally into the distance. It was odd, considering he’s been shot close range in the back of the head and most likely, never knew what hit him. Behind his swollen lips, his mouth gaped wide. Arnold wondered what he’d been looking at, but couldn’t ask him.
Suddenly his insides gave a lurch. He saw movement. Something made a leap towards his face.
“Why it’s a locust,” said Blake. He looked down at his young colleague, his expression severe. Sheriff Arnold realized dejectedly that he was on the floor. He had fallen to his ass. And he had yelped like small dog. He’d screamed like a woman. He could sense scorn from miles away. He saw no option but to try and laugh it off. He couldn’t let Blake think that he was faint-hearted or affected by the sight of the corpse. He quickly caught the locust in his hand.
“Well! How did you get in here? You just about scared the everlasting piss out of me!” He grinned, and hoped that he could downplay it. Just chalk it up to being spooked. He was caught off guard, that was all.
Leander Blythe had finished polishing the tables and now stopped to admire his work. He was just like any proud father. He and Eleanor had built The Dead Man’s Pearl from the prairie, up.
He had once come across a man’s body lying out in the prairie. There wasn’t much left of him but his clothes and his bones. He was wearing a coat so maybe he’d frozen to death. Maybe He and some Indians, or even his companions had had some disagreement and settled it the hard way. Leander didn’t know. He’d hoped to find some way to identify the man, or contact his family, but instead he found only a small envelope. He ripped it open and to his astonishment, a single pearl rolled out to rest in the palm of his hand; probably a keepsake from some girl back east.
The Dead Man’s Pearl.
Leander could not think of a more beautiful name for his legacy. Never in his life had Leander laid eyes on a sight so haunting. He had somberly closed the pearl back in its envelope and put it back where he’d found it; in a pocket next to where his heart had been. That moment would stay with Leander for the rest of his life. For some reason he just couldn’t shake that pearl from his memory no matter how hard he tried. The Dead Man’s Pearl was a small ray of hope in the middle of the wilderness. It brought comfort to the man in his loneliness. It was all the beauty in the world married to all that was dangerous; like the prairie itself.
Other saloons sold rotgut liquor cut with gunpowder, ammonia and turpentine; often referred to as coffin-varnish, for good reason. He only sold the best tequila, ale, and even whiskeys from back east. The glasses were spotless, the floor was always swept, and the counter was wiped to a polish.
There were some establishments that didn’t allow women. The Dead Man’s Pearl welcomed women to drink at the bar stools as well as saloon girls who were paid handsomely. As far as he was concerned they ran the finest establishment in the entire west. He would often think of the dead man and wonder if anyone back east still missed him. He even caught himself wondering at times; if the pearl had been his heart.
He and Eleanor worked in the noblest profession in the world.
Eleanor. His eyes drifted back to the counter to discover that no one was there. Where on earth was Eleanor? Then he saw her. There was a young woman at her side and they were headed into the brewing room.
He didn’t need to be told. He knew Eleanor too well, and knew some things would never change. He was going to have to tend the bar for a while.
The girl was pretty. As he stepped behind the counter he found that he was smiling in spite of his annoyance. His wife had such a way with women.
He checked his pocket watch and remembered that soon he and Ely would be galloping through the cactus and sage. This cheered him up, and he gave his wife a knowing smile and a nod.
He reached under the counter and removed a leather-bound book with a silk ribbon. It had finally arrived. The edges were new and crisp, and gilt with gold leaf.
“Shakespeare’s complete poems and sonnets.” He hoped Ely liked it.
It was he who had taught Ely to read, and Ely who had taught him to ride properly. Before he had met Ely he had sat in his saddle like a lump concrete, and from Ely, he learned how move with the horse; how to feel the horse. Horses had become wholly new to him.
Eleanor looked across the saloon in plain disgust. She hated every single thing about Chuck Walter. He had just gotten back from marrying some blue-blooded Yankee girl back East, and she had gotten to enjoy a few weeks of peace and quiet. She had expected that his wife would be every bit as foul as him, because she assumed that a man like Chuck surely had awful taste in women. But instead she found herself intrigued by this timid young woman who sat at a table all by herself looking miserable.
Eleanor guessed that this girl had never set foot in a saloon in her life. She definitely looked out of place. She looked no older than twenty and was probably just a little over half Eleanor’s age. She was much too young. When Eleanor sat down in front of her, she regarded her timidly.
“Having a rough night, are we?” For a while neither of the women spoke, and the girl simply looked miserably back towards her husband. His arm was linked with one of the saloon girls and they spun with the music.
“What kind of a man brings his wife to a place like this?” she said at last. “This is no kind of place for women!”’
“Actually, it’s the best place in the world.”
“Look at him prancing around with that little harlot!”
“She’s not so bad. Just doing her job. Margaret’s a pretty nice girl once you know her.” The girl had seemed almost to be talking to herself, and looked at Eleanor as though noticing her for the first time, and looked embarrassed.
“Oh s-sorry. Please don’t take it personally! I-I have nothing against people in your profession!”
“It’s just-“ Her eyes fell back on Chuck. “What do you think they’re going to… do?”
“Just dance. Listen to me, sweetie.” Eleanor leaned forward and gently turned the girls chin towards her, commanding her attention. She briefly noted to her satisfaction, the girl didn’t shy away from her touch. “Margaret is not a whore. She is a saloon girl. And I am not in Margaret’s profession, so I have no reason to take it personally. I,” She gestured towards herself. “Am the Matron of the house.”
The girl looked back at the saloon girls, obviously not understanding. “I’m sorry I offended you. I didn’t mean to.” It wasn’t that Eleanor was offended by this faux pas. She felt a sense of duty to educate her. It was her moral obligation to make sure that no one entered a saloon without being versed on proper etiquette.
“I know you’re not from here. East of the Mississippi they have taverns.” She explained almost distastefully. “Taverns only allow men, but it just so happens that you’ve entered the very cornerstone of the West. This is a Saloon. And everyone is welcome. And A Saloon Girl’s job is serve drinks, dance with patrons, talk to them if they need cheering up, deal cards, and generally just look pretty. They get paid handsomely, and it’s a completely respectable line of work. Saloon girls, like Margaret, do not get paid for those kinds of services. Not that there’s anything with that either. Probably some of the wealthiest women in the whole west.” The girl continued to gaze dumbly in the direction of the saloon girls, clearly at sea. Eleanor waited patiently.
“But- doesn’t she want to get out of here? Those men are practically pouring liquor down her throat. Probably wanting to take advantage of her.” They watched as Margaret’s glass was filled and Chuck handed her a handful of crumpled bills.
“No. I’d never allow it. No self-respecting bartender would; at least not here in the west. Men buy drinks for the saloon girls all the time, and unless the girl asks for something different we pour tea into her shot glass. The men think they’re buying her whiskey and she charges them a little over full price. She gets to pocket the tip money. Margaret is not going to be made to do anything she does not want to do, and she is not the one being taken advantage of.”
“Oh.” She looked back towards the saloon girls seeming to get little joy out of the idea of her husband being taken for a ride. Eleanor took the opportunity to scoot her stool closer to the girl, trying to gauge how close she would let her get.
“And Chuck wouldn’t dream of taking advantage of her.”
“No. Every western man knows that if he doesn’t treat saloon girls with the utmost respect, the bartender will kick him to the curb faster than he can say ‘coffin varnish.’ Chuck at least knows what’s good for him. Believe you me. He will act like a proper gentleman, and he will treat Margaret like a lady.”
“So.” Eleanor scooted closer and the girl didn’t seem to notice. “Got a name do ya, honey?”
“Olive… I’m Eleanor. How bout some whiskey, Olive? It’s on the house.”
“What? N-no!” Eleanor poured the drink regardless and held it out to her, smiling. “I don’t drink- Whiskey!” she sputtered. As if the word alone was sinful.
Eleanor winked and continued to offer Olive the same glass, until she finally took it from her. “Will it get me drunk?”
Eleanor had to smile. “It’s ok, little one. I promise not to take advantage of you. Bartender’s honor.” She chuckled. “It’s not enough to get you drunk.” Olive brought it to her mouth. It was horrible. She felt like her throat was being eaten raw. If Eleanor hadn’t encouraged her to drink it, she would have wretched it out, swearing that humans simply weren’t meant to drink this stuff.
“There you go, sweetie. Warms you up, doesn’t it?” Once her insides had stopped smoldering, she found that it faded into an agreeable warmth that was not at all, unpleasant.
“So, Olive-” Eleanor had deliberately intensified her gaze, making eye contact with Olive, unflinching and forceful. She lowered her voice slightly and it had the effect of compelling Olive to lean closer into it rather than away. Eleanor’s unyielding stare had its desired effect. Olive seemed to shrink slightly, and tried not to fidget. She lowered her eyes demurely to her hands, seeming incapable of raising them to meet Eleanor’s. Eleanor immediately softened, satisfied with this small sign of submission, which had been brief enough that Olive couldn’t be sure that it had been on purpose.
It wasn’t that Eleanor wanted to demean the young woman. Eleanor demanded respect from everyone. It needed be understood that Olive knew she would not be tolerated to act like Eleanor or the saloon women were beneath her ever again. She would have absolutely no patience for it. Eleanor was satisfied when she saw that Olive was taken down a peg, that she wouldn’t make the mistake of insulting their hospitality again.
“What makes a sweet girl like you marry a man like Chuck Walter?” Her tone was quite serious with a trace of coyness, insinuating that Eleanor might be teasing her just slightly. She lowered her voice to a mischievous whisper. “You marry him for his money?” Again the young woman couldn’t meet her eyes and Eleanor clucked her tongue in mock disapproval. “You did, didn’t you? And what makes a smart girl go and do a thing like that?”
And to Eleanor’s slight amusement, Olive hadn’t seemed to catch on that Eleanor had been toying with her. “M-my mother.” Olive looked absolutely beside herself. “I-I tried! I wanted to make it work! I-I thought- I could learn to fall in love with him, and that I could make him love me! I-I just can’t seem to make him love me! I don’t know what I’m doing wrong…”
“Nothing, honey. You’re not doing anything wrong.” Eleanor quickly put her hand over Olive’s protectively.
“But I-it’s just no good… Chuck… H-he’s just… no good.
“No?” Eleanor raised an eyebrow, feigning surprise.
“He’s… An adulterer!”
Eleanor brought her hand to her mouth in exaggerated pretend shock. “No!” She gasped, and Olive nodded vigorously. Such a helpless little creature.
Eleanor realized with a pang of remorse that she was enjoying herself way too much. It wasn’t that she wanted to belittle the poor girl, nor was she amused by the idea of any woman having the misfortune of calling herself Chuck’s wife. It wasn’t really about her. She just found the idea of someone crying over Chuck way too funny to even try and act serious about it. There was no way she could listen to anyone talk about Chuck Walter falling in love - or falling in love with Chuck Walter –and keep a straight face. There was simply no way.
She had to remind herself that to Olive was absolutely for real. She wasn’t kidding about this. She actually believed that she had been tied for better or for worse, with Chuck Walter. Until death do them part. And they had to live happily ever after. Olive looked down, determined to keep her composure, but her lip was beginning to tremble. “I-I don’t know what to do.” Western girls weren’t this innocent. Eleanor needed to remind herself that Olive wasn’t from here, and that she would need to be especially gentle with her. Tears began to fall from her eyes, and the effect was immediate. Eleanor hated seeing women cry. She quickly put an arm around Olive, and pulled her to her feet.
“Come on, honey. Let’s go get some water.” She cast a backwards glance at Chuck; still dancing without a god damn care in the world. It would be a couple hours before he even notice that his wife was gone. She kept her arm around Olive wishing she could protect her.
Some men hunted. They hunted for sport, food, or to make their living. Chuck Walter didn’t hunt. He killed. Whenever a newcomer sat down at a bar stool, Chuck would reach into his pocket and produce a tuft of shaggy hair.
“Say, partner d’ya know what this is? It’s the very tip of a buffalo’s tail. You know how I got it, friend? Do ya? Shot it right off the beast in full gallop. Then the next shot hit him right dead in the heart and he was beefed before he even hit the ground. Then the whole rest of the herd bit the ground in a flat five minutes. Buzzard food.”
“It’s true,” would say his companions. “He’s an ace-high shot. And he can make the pigeons fall thicker than rain. Gets em right through the eye every time.”
Eleanor didn’t believe that flack for one second.
Most of all Chuck was fond of proclaiming himself fearless. “Chuck Walter ain’t a’feard a’ nothing!” he reminded everyone that would listen. She hated liars. She had nothing personal against cowards, so long as they were up front about it. She was a bartender and she could read people. Every so often, she would see it on his face: Fear. Well-hidden but it was there.
Every time a cloud blew in front of the sun his eyes scurried towards the sky in mute panic. Everyone heading from the east had heard of the infamous passenger pigeon. The flocks were so thick they often could turn the whole sky black. She’d seen easterners leap and duck for cover, because rarely in their lives did nature ever make them feel so inconsequential. She’d seen it in Chuck’s eyes too; he was afraid of the flocks. Locusts and horses, as well; they had a way of making chuck freeze in an icy sweat, Discernible only to Eleanor. She saw it on his face surprisingly often and could only guess at what else he was afraid of, but she suspected there was a lot.
“And if you think I’ve killed lots of pigeons,” he bragged much to her disgust “you should see how many Indians I’ve killed!” She would glower at his scalp of ruddy blonde hair and bitterly hope that some day he might be found lying in the prairie without it.
“You jus’ wait! In a couple years there won’t be a single buffalo on the prairie or a goddamn pigeon in the sky! And not one Indian left in the world.”
On this last remark, Eleanor had would have to admit cynically that he might be telling the truth. It made her hate him even more.
She watched in revulsion as Chuck sat down to her counter and ordered another drink. She hoped Olive hadn’t been forced to sit through that tirade of his, but Eleanor suspected that she had. Many times.
Olive followed obediently as Eleanor lead her into the brewing room and through another door into where she and Leander slept.
If Chuck had done her the kindness to drop dead that very second she would pour shots of their finest tequila to everyone in The Dead Man’s Pearl. If he would just drop to the counter and suck in his last breath of air. She would raise her glass and make everyone toast.
When Chuck Walter was as small boy, his father noticed with scorn that his only son was terrified of locusts. So Calvin Walter thrust a handful of insects down the collar of the boy’s shirt as Chuck writhed and screamed, and he’d never been quite the same since. How he hated the insects.
He hated birds. Still to this day he had to stifle the impulse to cower and cover his eyes as at the very idea of a flock. A murder.
After all these years he could hear the voice of his grandfather clear as day in his mind.
“Fly from the cinders”
Fly from the ash.
The chimney’s where the blackbirds hatch
Cinder makes tail
And ash makes beak
A flock on the gable and a flock in the wheat
Fly from the ember
Fly from the blaze
The crows are hatched from the fireplace
Ember makes wing
And flame makes feather
A murder in the trees and a murder in the heather.
Coins that shine
And buttons that shimmer
They fly off with the pins and silver
So Far away
Should children play
Or they’ll also snatch your eyes away.”
A murder, he explained to his wide-eyed grand son, is a flock of crows. His grandfather had learned the rhyme when he was Chuck’s age and had probably just meant to entertain him. “I-is it t-true?” he asked.
“Sure. How do you think I lost old leftie?” His grandfather pulled back his eye-patch and Chuck instinctively turned away. He’d seen the empty eye socket only once in his life and it had been enough. It knotted his insides and the very thought sent tremors down the length of his spine. He remembered, also being told about an old man who “went to bed and bumped his head and didn’t wake up in the morning.”
“Why didn’t he wake up?” he asked, and his grandfather looked perplexed.
“I don’t know. I guess I never thought about it.” He stroked his beard thoughtfully. “I s’pose he must of died!”
Not long after that his father caught him huddled on the ground with his hands over his eyes, whimpering something about murder as a flock of passenger pigeons flew overhead. His father had beaten him for it.
“Get up! What are you, yellow of pigeons? By James, I’d jus’ die of shame if anybody caught wind that I had a son scared a’ birds! Is it that tarnal stupid old rhyme? It’s just a hare-brained old nursery rhyme to keep kids from playing too close to the fireplace! Your grand-daddy got himself throwed from a horse and poked his goddamn eye out on a stick!” Now Chuck found himself in a new predicament. He didn’t whether he should be more afraid of birds or horses.